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Newsline - May 11, 2007

The Moscow headquarters of Yukos will be put on sale on May 11, "The Moscow Times" and "Vedomosti" reported, in a move that symbolizes the annihilation of what was once Russia's largest oil company. The state-controlled oil major Rosneft completed its takeover of Yukos on May 10 when a Rosneft subsidiary, Neft-Aktiv, beat the only other bidder, a mystery company called Versar, with a bid worth just over the starting price of $6 billion in a bankruptcy auction that lasted 10 minutes, the "Financial Times" reported. Rosneft scooped a lot that included Yukos' last remaining oil-production unit, Samaraneftegaz, and three large refineries. As a result of the takeover, Rosneft, which is chaired by Kremlin deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin, has risen from Russia's eighth-biggest oil major worth about $6 billion in 2004 to become the country's biggest producer, with a market capitalization of more than $90 billion. The sale of Samaraneftegaz marks the end of jailed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky's dismembered Yukos oil empire. Yukos was declared bankrupt in August 2006, under the weight of $33 billion in back-tax charges. The "Financial Times" quoted Tim Osborne, managing director of Yukos majority shareholder GML (formerly known as Menatep), as saying that the Kremlin has controlled a bankruptcy process that should not have happened. Osborne said that based on Rosneft's valuation, Yukos's remaining units and refineries should have been put on sale for $40 billion. Eduard Rebgun, the court-appointed bankruptcy receiver, is expected to be offered a place on Rosneft's board, the daily reported. FF

Pavel Sedakov, a local correspondent for the daily "Kommersant," and two journalists of the federal network REN-TV were released on May 11 after being detained for questioning by the police in the city of Samara, Ekho Moskvy reported., quoting the opposition website, reported that Sedakov and the two REN-TV journalists were preparing reportages on the organization of a March of Dissent in the city center to coincide with the May 17-18 summit of Russian and European Union leaders. The Samara authorities have banned that march. The May 10 issue of "Kommersant" reported that 11 activists from the opposition coalition The Other Russia have been detained by police officials in Samara in the last two days. quoted one of the march organizers, Mikhail Gangan, as saying that the journalists were with him when he arrived home at 9 p.m., but found the entrance to his apartment building blocked. Gangan was detained by police on May 9 and a court ruled that he should be in his apartment after 10 p.m. Gangan told the journalists that he believes the building entrance was blocked in order to prevent him from complying with the court ruling and to provoke more restrictive measures. Gangan said the situation was clarified after the arrival on the scene of a police officer in charge of controlling his presence on the premises. At this point the journalists left, he said. Ten minutes later, however, Sedakov called him to say that he and his colleagues had been detained. FF

Russian Air Force chief Vladimir Mikhailov and one of his deputies, Colonel General Boris Cheltsov, head of the Air Force Main Staff, have been dismissed from their posts, Interfax reported on May 10. The news agency quoted an unidentified Defense Ministry source as saying that Mikhailov has been replaced by another of his deputies, Colonel General Aleksandr Zelin. In Russia, 60 is the maximum age for active-duty senior commanders and Mikhailov, who is 63, had been reconfirmed in his post by President Vladimir Putin. Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov, formerly the commander of long-range aviation -- the airborne component of the military's strategic nuclear triad -- has assumed the post of head of the Main Staff. Russian media have interpreted the shake-up as an attempt by recently appointed Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to remove the military's old guard. Mikhailov has been in charge of the Air Force since 2002. Defense Ministry spokeswoman Olga Detyuchenko declined to comment on the Interfax report. FF

Oleg Vyugin, head of the financial markets watchdog (FSFR), announced on May 10 that he has resigned to take up a job in the private sector, RIA Novosti reported, and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov the same day appointed one of his aides, Vladimir Milovidov, to head the agency. Vyugin has headed the FSFR since March 2004. Milovidov worked from 2000-03 as deputy head of the Federal Securities Commission, the forerunner to the FSFR, overseeing mutual fund development. Vyugin said that the investor-friendly reforms he introduced over the past three years will continue under his successor. Milovidov has kept a low public profile during his three-year stint in the government. The FSFR supervises two main stock exchanges, the dollar-denominated RTS and the ruble-denominated MICEX, issues brokerage licenses, and approves share and bond issues. "The Moscow Times" quoted Vyugin as saying that he has been considering leaving since last year and that Milovidov was selected from a long list of possible replacements he gave the government. Vyugin said he encountered problems in implementing some of the "radical ideas" he had when he joined the agency in 2004, such as cracking down on insider trading. Interfax quoted Aleksandr Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, as saying that Vyugin might have left because he ran into a brick wall with his efforts to transform his agency into a central financial regulator along the lines of the British Financial Services Authority. FF

The office of the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District has responded to an appeal to President Putin to recognize as genocide the mass killing of Circassians in the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, reported on May 10 quoting Zaur Dzeukozhev, deputy chairman of the Adygeya branch of the NGO Cherkess Congress that submitted that appeal (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 10, 2006 and "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2007). Dzeukozhev said the response was that there is no basis in Russian legislation on which any such evaluation could be made. The regional branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose expertise the presidential envoy's office solicited, has ruled that the killing of Circassians during the Russian war of conquest in the North Caucasus cannot be qualified as genocide as defined in the 1949 UN convention. LF

The monthlong election campaign for a new Armenian parliament ended at midnight on May 10, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. President Robert Kocharian predicted that none of the 24 parties (and one bloc) registered for the May 12 ballot will achieve an absolute majority in the new parliament, but he expressed the hope that the Republican Party of Armenia, which since 1999 has had the largest parliament faction and served as senior partner in successive coalition governments, will win a "weighty presence" in the new legislature that would enable it to continue reforms. Meanwhile, two opposition party leaders, Stepan Demirchian of the People's Party of Armenia and former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian of Orinats Yerkir, echoed the warning issued on May 9 by the leaders of three radical opposition parties that they will mobilize voters on May 13 in a mass protest if the ballot is rigged (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 11, 2007). LF

Alexander Arzoumanian, who served as foreign minister from late 1996-early 1998, was formally charged on May 10 with money laundering and remanded in pretrial custody for two months, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Arzoumanian's lawyer Hovik Arsenian told RFE/RL that Arzoumanian pleaded not guilty to the charges, which he considers politically motivated. Also on May 10, an initiative group created to defend the interests of Arzoumanian, Karabakh war veterans Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian, and Armen Babadjanian, editor of the independent bi-weekly "Zhamanak Yerevan" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2006), released a statement condemning the Armenian authorities' alleged recourse to KGB methods to stamp out political dissent, Noyan Tapan reported on May 10. The statement said all four men were arrested for political reasons, in retaliation for their social and political activities. LF

Before departing on May 10 on a visit to Poland, Mikheil Saakashvili named Dmitry Sanakoyev to head the temporary government in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported on May 11. Saakashvili proposed in late March establishing such a provisional administration, and the Georgian parliament passed the relevant legislation in the first reading last month and in the second reading on May 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007 and April 10, 2007 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 30, 2007). Sanakoyev, whom the Georgian minority in South Ossetia elected their leader in November in a ballot that neither the Georgian authorities nor the international community recognized as legal and valid, is to address the Georgian parliament on May 11. In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, de facto President Eduard Kokoity announced on May 11 that police will blockade villages under Tbilisi's control and close all roads until Georgia withdraws its troops from South Ossetia and Sanakoyev and his entourage leave their provisional headquarters in the village of Kurta in the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined on May 10 to comment on Sanakoyev's appointment, but stressed that it is in the interest of all parties to seek to resolve their differences by political means, Caucasus Press reported. LF

The opposition Labor party, Kartuli dasi (Georgian Group), Tavisupleba (Liberty), the People's Forum, Chven Tviton (We Ourselves) and other opposition groups organized protest demonstrations on May 10 in Tbilisi and several other Georgian town to demand Saakashvili's resignation and the dissolution of the parliament, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. Up to 1,000 people attended the protest outside the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi, according to Caucasus Press. People's Forum leader Koba Davitashvili told participants that the Georgian leadership has forgotten all its preelection promises and has done nothing to improve living conditions for the population at large. Therefore, he added, popular demands for its resignation are justified. LF

Following a meeting with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Astana, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on May 10 announced a commitment to use the Russian-controlled oil pipeline running from the Caspian Sea to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. Nazarbaev also said that Kazakhstan "is grateful to Russia for providing an opportunity" to utilize the proposed Russian-controlled, 175-mile pipeline connecting the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to the Greek port of Alexandroupolis on the Aegean Sea. Construction of that pipeline has not yet begun, and the earliest anticipated completion date is 2010. Nazarbaev explained that Kazakhstan's cooperation with Russia in transporting energy is strategic in nature, and added that "Kazakhstan is absolutely committed to shipping most of its oil, if not all of it, through Russian territory," AKIpress reported. The Russian and Kazakh presidents left Astana later on May 10 to attend a tripartite summit with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat, Asia-Plus and Interfax reported. Russia is seeking to promote a planned gas pipeline, running from Turkmenistan along the Russian and Kazakh Caspian Sea coasts, that is intended to rival a U.S.-backed alternative pipeline under the Caspian Sea to deliver gas to southern Europe via Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. Meanwhile in Tashkent, Uzbek President Islam Karimov on May 10 met with visiting Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. The leaders discussed plans to expand energy cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan. Khristenko's visit to Tashkent coincides with Putin's visits to neighboring Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. RG

A court in the northern Tajik city of Khujand on May 10 imposed lengthy prison sentences on two local residents convicted of belonging to the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Asia-Plus reported. The Khujand court sentenced 30-year-old Furqat Dadaboyev and 28-year-old Hasan Ikromov to prison terms of 13 and 12 years, respectively. The two men were arrested in October 2006 and were formally convicted of a range of criminal charges, including "incitement of religious and national enmity" and "public calls for overthrowing the country's constitutional system," as well as membership in the outlawed extremist group. A Tajik Interior Ministry official, Iskandar Rozykov, said in December that Tajik security forces detained nearly 90 suspected HT members and another 30 suspected members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006). RG

The Tajik Supreme Court ruled on May 10 to uphold a 15-year prison sentence for former United Tajik Opposition (UTO) militant Hokmatullo Ibrohimov, according to Asia-Plus. Ibrohimov was arrested in January 2007 and was convicted of committing a number of serious crimes in Tajikistan in 1992-93, during Tajikistan's civil war. Tajik Supreme Court Justice Salim Khojayev noted that the former rebel was involved in the killing of two UTO militants under the command of Rezvon Sodirov, and "participated in numerous robberies in Dushanbe and nearby districts." A June 1997 peace agreement signed by the Tajik government and the UTO effectively ended the country's five-year civil war. Under five presidential amnesties issued since the end of the war, more than 20,000 combatants have been released from prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). RG

An Uzbek court issued a ruling on May 10 effectively doubling the prison sentence for local human rights activist Gulbahor Turaeva to a 12-year term, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Turaeva was an eyewitness to the events in Andijon in May 2005, when the Uzbek government violently suppressed a demonstration there. She was initially sentenced to a six-year prison term in April after being convicted on charges including "anticonstitutional activities," "threatening public order," and slander (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25 and May 2, 2007). The conviction was strongly criticized by the German-held presidency of the European Union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). RG

Prosecutors in Mahilyou, eastern Belarus, have refused to open a criminal investigation into the detention of opposition activist Krystsina Shatsikava in March, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on May 11. On March 23, police officers forced Shatsikava into a car in downtown Mahilyou and took her to a mental hospital where she was held until March 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). Earlier this month Shatsikava received an official answer from prosecutors to her complaint about the incident. The prosecutors responded that both the police officers who detained her and the administration of the mental clinic in which she was kept acted within the framework of powers vested in them by laws on police and on psychiatric assistance. The reason for Shatsikava's forced hospitalization, the prosecutors said, was a "collective complaint" by residents of the house in which Shatsikava lives. JM

Viktor Yushchenko on May 10 met with the working group that was created by him and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych last week to settle between all interested parties the contentious issue of early parliamentary elections, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko emphasized during the meeting that setting the date of early elections should result from a political decision of key political forces, not from a formal decision of parliament. Yushchenko apparently referred to demands from the Socialist Party and the Communist Party to amend the constitution in order to give the Verkhovna Rada the right to dissolve itself and thus inaugurate an early election campaign. The president once again stressed that there can be no debate over whether to hold snap elections or not. The only outstanding question, he noted, is the date of preterm polls. Yushchenko urged the working group to come up, within the next 10-15 days, with a package of documents needed to launch the election campaign. "If I continue to feel such fruitlessness of your dialogue [as now], I will be forced to call an extraordinary meeting of the National Security and Defense Council in order to endorse decisions there," Yushchenko added. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has urged Russia and the leaders of neighboring EU countries to play the role of mediators in the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported on May 10, quoting Yanukovych's press service. "The continuing neutrality of our strategic partners does not promote the settlement of the political conflict, but only adds confidence to the president in his illegal actions. If the situation continues to develop in the same way as now, it will aggravate the social confrontation and increase the threat of a split of the country," Yanukovych said. Yanukovych, who underwent knee surgery in Spain earlier this week, is expected to return to Ukraine on May 11. Also on May 10, European External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner reiterated her stance that Brussels sees the crisis in Ukraine as the country's internal affair. JM

Verkhovna Rada head Oleksandr Moroz has called on the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party to suspend talks about early elections with President Yushchenko until he restores "the status-quo of the Constitutional Court," Ukrainian news agencies reported on May 11, quoting the parliamentary press service. Moroz wants Yushchenko to reinstate the three Constitutional Court judges the president dismissed within the past 10 days. "President Viktor Yushchenko illegally dismissed one more judge of the Constitutional Court," Moroz said, referring to the sacking of Judge Volodymyr Ivashchenko on May 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007). "The president's words about seeking a compromise are a bluff.... It is already evident for everybody that only a decision of the Constitutional Court can become the starting point for a compromise and put the situation back into the legal framework," Moroz added. JM

Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner and one of the EU's key points of contact with Serbia, on May 10 warned that "on the basis of statements by Mr. [Tomislav] Nikolic," Serbia's new parliamentary speaker, "Serbia is in danger of going back two decades in just two days," AP reported the same day. Rehn, who was speaking at a gathering in Zagreb of ministers from across Southeastern Europe, said that watching Nikolic is like stepping back into "a very surreal, but very dangerous time machine" that poses a threat to the stability of the Balkans. "Serbia is truly at a crossroads," Rehn said, adding that it is "regrettable" that Nikolic was elected with the backing of Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister and a man instrumental in the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The election of Nikolic, an extreme nationalist and former minister during the presidency of the late Slobodan Milosevic, has caused alarm across the region and elicited criticism from the EU and the United States, but Rehn's comments are the sharpest yet by an EU official (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9 and 10, 2007). Since his election on May 8, Nikolic has attacked the EU, embraced Russia, and raised the possibility of imposing a state of emergency to ensure that new elections, which will become mandatory at midnight May 14, are postponed while the fate of Kosova is decided. Nikolic sought to downplay the possibility of a state of emergency on May 10, telling Serbian media he raised it as a "theoretical and constitutional possibility," and adding that "in this situation, it is not needed." Assuming the May 14 deadline is not met, the Serbian Constitution requires new elections to be held by July 13, a new parliament to be installed by August 12, and a new government in place by November 10. A state of emergency can be imposed for 90 days, with further extensions possible. AG

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns stated on May 9 that the United States is set to present to the UN Security Council "a resolution in the coming days that will lead, we hope, to a vote this month and to the independence of Kosovo." Burns said the resolution would allow Kosovo "to proclaim [its] independence," continuing: "Those of us who support it will then recognize that bilaterally. That's the legal way forward." Burns' comments, which were carried in a U.S. State Department transcript, were made to journalists at a gathering in Berlin of senior officials from the world's leading industrialized countries, the Group of Eight (G8). The United States will occupy the chair of the Security Council until the end of May. Any slippage in this timeline would ensure that Kosova's status would be raised at a G8 summit to be held on June 6-8. Burns reiterated his view that independence for Kosova is "inevitable." He has in the past said the United States would support a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova if the Security Council rejects independence for the province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on May 10 that the UN resolution has the backing of 10 or 11 members, more than the nine votes needed to pass in the 15-member council. He added that Washington and its European allies will present the draft resolution on May 11, AP reported. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Burns on May 9 said the draft has garnered "very strong support." Khalilzad indicated, however, that it is still uncertain whether Russia will use its veto. Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, on May 11 told journalists that a veto requires "very serious consideration" if "strong views need to be protected." He also said there are several points in the Russian and U.S. proposals "which I don't think can be reconciled." Media reports from May 10 say that Panama is suggesting that Belgrade and Prishtina be given another six months to continue negotiations, which Churkin said "does go in the direction of understanding the Russian position that further negotiations need to continue." Churkin added that "of course we do not impose any time limit on the continuation of the negotiations." AG

The author of the UN proposal to grant supervised independence to Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari, has recommended that Dutch diplomat Peter Feith should oversee Kosova's first few months as a state, the Kosovar Albanian daily "Zeri" reported on May 10. "Zeri" quoted Ahtisaari as saying that Feith is "the ideal person" as "he has NATO experience and EU experience." Feith was involved in brokering peace deals between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian and Serbian authorities in 2001; led an EU mission that replaced NATO peacekeepers in neighboring Macedonia in 2003; and headed an EU mission to Indonesia's Aceh province in 2006 to monitor a peace deal that Ahtisaari brokered in 2005. Feith had already been tipped as a candidate by unnamed diplomats in mid-March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). At present, Kosova is administered by the UN, with a German, Joachim Ruecker, as the head of the mission. Ahtisaari's plan envisages that power would pass to the Kosovar government and local institutions, but that a European official selected by the EU, Russia, the United States, and NATO would have the power to veto any legislation and fire officials perceived to have violated the terms of the UN plan. A similar system has been used in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1995. AG

Serbian police on May 9 announced the arrest of eight former members of a paramilitary group for an attack in April on one of the country's leading journalists, local media reported the same day. The suspects were all members of the "Scorpions," one of the most prominent paramilitary groups to operate during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Four of its members were sentenced in April to a combined total of 58 years for massacring Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. Their conviction was based on a videotape whose broadcast in June 2005 is credited with convincing many Serbs that reports of a massacre at Srebrenica were true (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2007). The targeted journalist, Dejan Anastasijevic, has said he believes the grenade attack on his home may have been linked to his criticism of the sentences passed down in those cases, which he thought were too lenient (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). No one was hurt in the April 13 attack. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) warned on May 3 that freedom of expression in Serbia is being jeopardized by recent cases of intimidation, saying they could "lead to self-censorship by journalists who fear the state is not able to protect them" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2007). AG

Serbian authorities said on May 9 that the judge presiding over the trial of 13 men accused of assassinating Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has received death threats, local and international media reported the same day. Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic said a threatening letter was sent from Chicago by a group of American Serbs who call themselves "the Organization for the Protection of Serbs." Prosecutors and defense lawyers wound up their cases in late April and a ruling is expected on May 23. Judge Nata Mesarevic took over the case in 2004 after her predecessor, Marko Kljajevic, resigned unexpectedly following alleged threats against him. Prosecutors believe Djindjic was killed by members of a mafia gang, some of whom also served in the Red Berets, a special armed unit created by former President Slobodan Milosevic from paramilitary groups that fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Members of the Red Berets have been found guilty of the killing of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and of two unsuccessful assassination attempts on another leading opposition figure of the time, current Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). On a related note, local media reported that lawyers representing Draskovic on May 10 appealed to the Supreme Court to increase sentences passed down in the case of one assassination attempt, in 1999. The leader of the Red Berets, Milorad "Legija" Ulemek, was given a 15-year sentence in that case, and is also among those accused of assassinating Djindjic. AG

The second-most senior international official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Raffi Gregorian, on May 10 said that the prospect of Sarajevo signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU this year "is virtually gone," BH Radio 1 reported the same day. Gregorian, who is the international community's deputy high representative in the country, pinpointed a failure to agree on police reform as the key problem. "What is happening right now is that we are stuck in the status quo," he said. "If they [Bosnia's political parties] are happy with the status quo, then nothing more should be done. But if they want to reform the police and join the EU, then they need to get on with it." Bosnia has repeatedly been criticized in recent months for a perceived slowdown in its efforts to undertake reforms that would enable it to sign an SAA, viewed as an initial step toward membership in the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). Gregorian gave faint praise to a proposal presented in early May by the head of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), describing it "as basically a summary of outstanding issues," though he added that "listing all these things comprehensively allows you to think about things in a broader context." AG

EU enlargement commissioner Rehn on May 9 said that "Albania has impressed us with the implementation of the interim agreement of the Stabilization and Association Agreement," the Albanian news agency ATA reported the same day. In comments addressed to the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Rehn cited Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia as positive examples of progress toward integration. Rehn was critical, however, of the "strong political tensions" in Albania, and expressed hope that "the next presidential elections will take place in a more consensual climate." The Albanian parliament is due to choose a new president in June, but there is currently little sign that the ruling coalition and opposition parties will reach the needed consensus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, and May 4 and 7, 2007). AG

Early Elections In Ukraine Still Not A Certainty
Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has announced that he has reached an agreement with President Viktor Yushchenko to hold early elections in order to overcome the current political standoff in Ukraine. The president and the prime minister have created an anticrisis group to do all necessary paperwork for that purpose and have pledged to set the date of early polls within days. But the anticrisis group seems to be bogged down in arguments about how to start the election campaign, thus casting doubts on whether Yushchenko and Yanukovych understood each other properly.

On May 4, Yushchenko and Yanukovych astonished journalists in Kyiv by stating that they had reached a compromise on the bitterly disputed issue of early parliamentary polls, which were ordered by two presidential decrees disbanding the Verkhovna Rada. The April 2 decree scheduled the elections for May 27, while the April 26 decree rescheduled them for June 24.

The ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party refused to dissolve and appealed against both of Yushchenko's decrees to the Constitutional Court. Deputies from the opposition Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc refused to participate in parliamentary sittings after April 2 and began preparations for preterm polls.

Yanukovych said on May 4 that the immediate task following his deal with Yushchenko earlier the same day was to find "an algorithm of actions" for parliamentarians.

"The main goal of our joint decision is to hold fair and democratic elections," he said. "What should be done for that? We will now give instructions to the working group, which will work out an algorithm of actions for members of parliament, actions that will help stabilize the situation in the country."

But Yanukovych had apparent difficulties in explaining the reasons for his compromise with Yushchenko in a televised address to the nation on May 4, when he spoke primarily to thousands of his supporters who had came to Kyiv from the east and the south of Ukraine to support him and protest the dissolution of parliament.

Yanukovych said he agreed to early polls to prevent a split of the country and economic ruin. And he alleged that the work of the Constitutional Court had been blocked, which made it impossible for the ruling coalition to overcome the crisis on the basis of jurisprudence. Yanukovych apparently was referring to the dismissal of two Constitutional Court judges, Syuzanna Stanik and Valeriy Pshenichnyy, by Yushchenko several days earlier.

However, the sacking of Stanik and Pshenichnyy did not block the work of the Constitutional Court. In order to hold legitimate sessions, the 18-member panel needs a quorum of 12 judges, and there were still 16 judges available. What the dismissal of the two judges may have blocked was the ability of the Constitutional Court to pass a decision favorable for Yanukovych.

Ukrainian political commentator Viktor Chyvokunya wrote on the "Ukrayinska pravda" website earlier this week that before the sacking of Stanik and Pshenichnyy, 11 judges were inclined to declare Yushchenko's decrees dissolving the Verkhovna Rada illegitimate. After the sacking, this number reportedly dropped to nine.

Since the Constitutional Court's decisions are legally binding only if they are endorsed by at least 10 judges, Chyvokunya argues that Yanukovych realized that early parliamentary polls could not be prevented by the Constitutional Court, and therefore he agreed to cooperate with Yushchenko in organizing them in order not to give up political initiative entirely to his rival.

It is still not clear what the main components of the political compromise between Yushchenko and Yanukovych were.

Yanukovych's people in the anticrisis working group, who continue to believe that Yushchenko's decrees of April 2 and April 26 are illegal, assert that Yushchenko promised Yanukovych to return to the "legal framework" in dealing with the crisis, which means that the decision to dissolve the parliament should be made by deputies themselves. Party of Regions lawmaker Taras Chornovil reiterated this belief to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on May 8.

"The self-dissolution [of parliament] was agreed upon by the president and the prime minister," he said. "The decision was final. But for some reason [opposition politicians] are now going back on their words by arguing that the agreement was not quite to that effect. They consider for some reason that when the president spoke about suspending the Verkhovna Rada and calling for new elections on the basis of a political decision, [he wanted that] to be done on the basis of the presidential decree that disbands us."

But on the same day, Yushchenko made a statement that appears to contradict Chornovil's words.

"It is not the parliament that makes decisions on preterm parliamentary elections in Ukraine," he said. "It is an exclusive power of the president. But in this case I would welcome [the situation] if political forces in parliament reached a consensus on the date of preterm parliamentary elections."

The working group, which was initially expected to finish its work by May 8-9 and come up with a package of bills that were to be approved during a one-day parliamentary sitting to start an early election campaign, seems to be bogged down in mutual accusations of disrupting the compromise reached by Yushchenko and Yanukovych.

In particular, the Socialists and the Communists, who reacted to the Yushchenko-Yanukovych deal with visible discontent, argue that parliament needs to amend the constitution in order to give lawmakers the right to dissolve the legislature. According to these parties, only the Verkhovna Rada's self-dissolution could overcome the current crisis in a strictly legal way.

Since endorsing amendments to the constitution requires two parliamentary sittings within two different sessions, the Verkhovna Rada could dissolve itself no sooner than in September or October, while potential preterm elections could be held no sooner than 60 days after that move. It is no surprise that the opposition accuses the ruling coalition of torpedoing the Yushchenko-Yanukovych deal.

Is there any other way out of the current political stalemate in Ukraine? Our Ukraine leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on May 8 that he has not lost hope.

"We continue to believe that the working group is capable of producing a positive result, that in the coming days the Verkhovna Rada will convene a session with the participation of opposition deputies, and that we will approve five bills that will launch the electoral process for every participant without exception," he said. "These [bills include] changes to the law on elections and the law on the status of a people's deputy as regards the introduction of imperative mandate, a resolution on holding early elections, and a number of other documents."

But even the biggest optimists in this regard acknowledge that any further progress toward early elections in Ukraine is impossible without another meeting between Yushchenko and Yanukovych, at which they will need to delineate more clearly the "algorithm of actions" they had in mind on May 4. (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

The Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) on May 10 voted to remove Refugees Ministers Mohammad Akbar over the refugee crisis stemming from Iran's forced repatriation of Afghans, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Mohammad Akbar lost the no-confidence vote by a 136 to 54 margin in the 249-seat body. The minister was criticized for being unprepared to assist thousands of Afghans who have been expelled from Iran since mid-April, when the Iranian government stepped up its forced repatriation of what it claims are illegal refugees, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on May 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9 and 10, 2007). This is the first time that the National Assembly has removed a confirmed minister of President Hamid Karzai's cabinet. The president can choose an immediate replacement for Mohammad Akbar or keep him in the job in a caretaker role until a new appointment is made. AT

The Wolesi Jirga on May 10 also tried to remove Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta over his handling of the refugee crisis. AIP reported that an initial count showed 123 votes in the minister's favor and 67 against, leaving him two votes short of the 125 needed to pass a vote of confidence. But closer inspection found that two ballots were marked incorrectly, allowing Spanta to remain in office, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on May 10. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin told Radio Free Afghanistan that while the ministry respects the decisions of the National Assembly, the voting irregularities mean that Spanta can "continue his work." The Wolesi Jirga will take up the matter during its next session, slated for May 12. Spanta's critics in the Wolesi Jirga charge that he did not do enough to persuade Tehran not to expel the Afghan refugees. Iran's ambassador to Afghanistan, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, said on May 9 that his country has received a proposal from Kabul to slow down the expulsion process, the Kabul-based "Cheragh" daily reported. Bahrami told the daily that he will approach the Afghan proposal "with a positive vision," but added that "no measures have yet been taken in this regard." According to Bahrami, Iran informed Afghanistan, the UNHCR, and the refugees themselves in 2006 that the process of repatriating illegal refugees would begin on April 21 this year. AT

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced on May 9 in Kabul that it seized Iranian-made weapons during recent counterinsurgency operations, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. An ISAF spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Maria Carl, said the weapons included RPG-7 launchers, light assault rifles, and explosive devices. However, ISAF indicated that it would not accuse Iran of supplying arms to the insurgents without solid proof. In April, the United States alleged that Iranians might be aiding Afghan insurgents, a charge Tehran denied (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 27, 2007). AT

Pakistan has erected the first section of a fence along its border with Afghanistan in an effort to prevent cross-border movements by militants and terrorists, AFP reported on May 10. Pakistan's chief military spokesman, General Wahid Arshad, told the news agency that a 20-kilometer stretch of the border along Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region has been fenced off, adding that the section "is that difficult part where most militants reportedly were crossing" into Afghanistan. Kabul has accused Islamabad of aiding Taliban militants in the border region, but Afghanistan is also against any formal demarcation of the border between the two countries since it does not formally accept the boundary (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," August 7, 2003, and "RFE/RL Newsline," December 29, 2006). Pakistan has maintained that the fence is being built on its own territory and is an internal Pakistani affair. Indirectly responding to Afghan concerns that the fence would divide tribes living on both sides of the border, Arshad told AFP that "ordinary tribesmen are not supposed to use unauthorized routes to cross the border," adding that "there are designated routes for them" to cross. AT

Senior officials of the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, agreed in Berlin on May 10 to resume talks with Iran over its nuclear program, news agencies reported. Western powers fear Iran's program might one day enable to construct an atomic bomb, and the UN Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran to curb its fuel-making activities, which are potentially of use in bomb making. The "International Herald Tribune" quoted U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns as saying on May 10 that Washington is prepared to talk to Iran if it suspends uranium enrichment and related activities. "We are offering to negotiate. We are waiting for a response from Iran," he said. Burns was quoted as saying that if Iran rejects the negotiations offer before the June 6-8 summit of the Group of Eight principal industrialized states, Security Council powers will then consider more sanctions. The daily quoted an unnamed German official as saying in Berlin the same day that the 5+1 powers will inform EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana -- who has been Iran's interlocutor -- that he can meet with Iran's ranking nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, next week. Political directors of the G8 powers met in Berlin on May 10 to prepare for the G-8 summit. Iranian officials have repeatedly said that Iran has a right to manufacture fuel for a peaceful nuclear program. VS

Abdulreza Rahmani-Fazli, a deputy head of the Supreme National Security Council, said in Tehran on May 10 that Iran has so far cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and clarified its atomic program, but "we cannot cooperate" in the face of what he said was the politicization of Iran's dossier, ISNA reported. He stressed that no IAEA "report has indicated any deviation by Iran from the path of peaceful nuclear activities." He told a gathering of university officials that "the last thing they told us after accepting the additional protocol" to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was, "we just don't want you to have a nuclear program, so pack your nuclear equipment onto a ship like Libya and send it to us." Libya voluntarily shut down its atomic and chemical weapons programs in 2003. He said Iran is now in the industrial stage of fuel production and "we simply will not accept [uranium-enrichment] suspension." VS

Rahmani-Fazli blamed "the occupying country" for "Iraq's problems," adding that domestic pressures and a desire to leave Iraq are forcing the United States to seek a "suitable approach" to dealing with Iran, a country he said is "swiftly" moving toward "progress and empowerment," ISNA reported. He said Western powers are considering various options against Iran, including "a possible military attack, economic encirclement, internal regime change, a grand deal and various combined methods." The "grand deal," he said, includes offers of negotiations, and "we say that wherever Iran's rights are assured and there are real...talks, and America proves its goodwill just as we have proved ours, we [would] make use of talks concerning the region, then our problem." He said Saudi Arabia could exert a peaceable influence on Sunnis in Iraq, but its "opinions in the Sharm el-Sheikh summit were not much in support of Iraq's government. They spoke in such a way as to exacerbate Iraq's internal divisions." The Sharm el-Sheikh summit discussed Iraq's security on May 3-4. He separately expressed Iran's dissatisfaction with Pakistan's contribution to security on the Iran-Pakistan frontier: "When bandits enter our country, create insecurity, and then go to Pakistan, we consider it our right to take the necessary measures." VS

Police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, Iran's police chief and head of the Antinarcotics Headquarters, told an antidrug seminar in Tehran on May 10 that the "new approach" in Iran's fight against drug abuse and trafficking will target users and highlight rehabilitation, IRNA reported. "We believe that if there are no users, there will be no suppliers," he said. He said Iran will seek to block the import of drugs into Iran but also reduce addiction and "cut the communications" between users and sellers. Drugs mainly flow into Iran from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said officials will seek to persuade families to care for their drug-abusing members, not reject them, "because the police assures their families they can be saved." He said Iranians are disappointed with the antidrug fight because they believe it consists simply of police arresting and jailing addicts. "There are more than a million addicts in our society and not as many prisons, so the public's expectations cannot be met," he said. He urged employers not to sack staff for using drugs, as this would further push them to do "the wrong things," IRNA reported. VS

Mohammad Khatami has met with Italian politicians and religious dignitaries as part of a tour of Italy that began on May 1, Radio Farda and news agencies have reported. The tour is part of his ongoing personal project to promote dialogue between Eastern and Western civilizations. Khatami met with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on May 4 and the devoutly Catholic regional president of Lombardy, Roberto Formigoni, in Milan on May 9, Radio Farda reported on May 10, citing Italian press and media. Formigoni, a member of the conservative Forza Italia alliance, told ANSA that Khatami admitted in their meeting that Islam has some way to go before it reconciles religion with democracy and separates religion from institutional politics, Radio Farda reported. Khatami's meeting with the pope was intended also to reduce tensions caused in September when the pontiff quoted some disparaging historical remarks about Islam in a speech (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," September 26, 2006), AP reported on May 4. VS

Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the Kurdish regional government's representative to the United States, said in a May 9 interview with UPI that the current draft oil law is of great concern to the Kurds and may eventually force them to rethink their relationship with the Baghdad government. The Iraqi cabinet sent the draft oil law to parliament for ratification on May 2, but Kurdish leaders have indicated that because of recent revisions, they will probably reject it. At the heart of the dispute are annexes to the draft that would grant the state-run Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC) control over almost 93 percent of the country's proven reserves, while not opening up any oil fields to foreign investment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). Talabani warned that if these issues are not resolved, then the Kurds may seek to break away from Iraq. "If a centralized oil regime is imposed on us, we will not participate in the state of Iraq," Talabani said. "And we have to make it absolutely clear to our friends in Washington, to our brothers in Baghdad, this is a make-or-break deal for Iraq." SS

The majority of Iraqi lawmakers have endorsed a draft bill in parliament calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, as well as demanding a freeze on the number of foreign forces already in the country, international media reported on May 10. The proposed legislation, drafted by the political bloc of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has so far been signed by 144 members of the 275-member parliament, although it has not yet been presented for an official vote in parliament. The bill would also require the Iraqi government to seek approval from parliament before it requests an extension of the UN mandate for foreign forces to be in Iraq. The UN Security Council voted unanimously in November to extend the mandate of U.S.-led forces in Iraq until the end of 2007, but the resolution stipulates that the Security Council "will terminate this mandate earlier if requested by the government of Iraq." Ali al-Adib, a Shi'ite lawmaker and aide to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said the government should ask U.S. forces to leave only when Iraqi forces are ready to take over security responsibilities. "Their withdrawal will not benefit anyone if our forces are not ready," al-Adib said. He added, "There must be a commitment from foreign parties to train our forces." SS

The May 10 session of parliament was abruptly canceled after a heated argument erupted between lawmakers over a government report analyzing the security situation in Diyala Governorate, Voices of Iraq reported the same day. The report was commissioned after Diyala residents staged a sit-in in Karbala to protest the deteriorating security conditions in their governorate. The report revealed that during a one-year period in Diyala, 11,200 people were killed, 9,500 families displaced, 8,250 women widowed, 16,500 children orphaned, 66 Shi'ite tombs destroyed, 350 fields or orchards set on fire and an equal number looted. The report also blamed U.S. forces for the worsening security conditions. During discussions of the report, Shi'ite legislator Shatha al-Musawi of the United Iraqi Alliance criticized the government's inability to provide security and called it "weak." She demanded that Prime Minister al-Maliki attend the session to address the issue personally. Parliamentary Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani then abruptly canceled the session, fearing that emotions were running high. He called for parliament to reconvene on May 12. SS

During an interview with KUNA on May 10, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said the next three months will be "very crucial" for the future and security of Iraq. He said results of the U.S. security surge, progress in national reconciliation efforts, and the implementation of economic and political reforms will be among the key factors to shape Iraq's future. He expressed optimism over the outcome of the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings earlier this month, saying the talks produced an "ambitious plan" that would help Iraqi leaders achieve political and economic reforms and improve security. Salih also said it is vital for Iraq's neighbors to do all they can to fight terrorism and help the country become secure. "Al-Qaeda is a threat not only to Iraq, but to the entire international community. A stable democratic Iraq should be [the goal of] not only the Iraqi people, but also Iraq's neighbors," Salih said. "Continued instability would have profound repercussions in the region. Those who think instability would remain inside Iraq's borders are wrong." SS

A video posted on the Internet allegedly by the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq shows the execution of nine Iraqi security officers, international media reported on May 10. The group issued a threat on May 8 that it would kill the men unless the Iraqi government released all Sunni Muslim women from government-run prisons within 72 hours. They also demanded the handover "of those who raped the Iraqi woman and killed our brethren in Tal Afar," an apparent reference to the alleged rape of a local woman, Sabrin al-Janabi, by four Iraqi security officers in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). "As the deadline given by the Islamic State of Iraq passed, the jurisdiction court decided to execute God's verdict against those apostates," the group said in a statement posted with the video. SS

The U.S. military announced on May 10 that coalition forces killed four suspected terrorists and uncovered five weapons caches during operations in Al-Anbar Governorate between May 4 and 7. Among the weapons were 450 hand grenades, 28 rockets, two antiarmor weapons, mortar fuses, ammunition, and laboratory equipment for making explosives. Coalition forces destroyed the weapons on the site. In addition, 13 suspected terrorists were arrested in the four-day operation for possessing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other illegal weapons, planting explosive devices, and killing local civilians, crimes to which they reportedly confessed. "Over the four-day operation, coalition forces successfully pushed Al-Qaeda in Iraq away from the homes and families of these Iraqis, allowing them to return to a safe and normal life," a U.S. military spokesman said. SS