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Newsline - May 14, 2007

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Moscow on May 14 for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. RIA Novosti quoted Lavrov's deputy, Sergei Kislyak, as saying that "Russia and the United States have many issues that we either cooperate on, or need to review our positions on. These include economic, political, and humanitarian issues." He added that the Russian leadership is "expecting a serious discussion on serious problems, both from the perspective of our own security, and of European security." Issues that have recently soured bilateral relations include the proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe, independence for Serbia's Kosova province, and a clampdown on democracy in Russia. Rice is the most senior U.S. official to visit Moscow since Putin's speech in Munich in February, in which he slammed Washington's foreign policy. Russia strongly opposes U.S. plans to deploy a missile base in Poland and an early-warning radar in the Czech Republic. Moscow has repeatedly expressed concern over the U.S. initiative, saying that it could be a "destabilizing factor" in Europe and threaten Russia's national security. Putin has also suggested that Russia may suspend its implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) until all NATO members ratify it. Rice's agenda during her two-day visit is also expected to include talks on Russia's support of a draft UN Security Council resolution on Kosova. The draft resolution calling for the independence of Kosova was submitted by France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. Russia is categorically opposed to the independence plan. Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said on May 12 that it is "becoming more and more likely" his country will veto a draft Security Council resolution -- backed by Washington -- that gives the province effective independence, Reuters reported. FF

Samara authorities have granted permission for a March of Dissent to be held in the city center during the upcoming Russia-EU summit on May 17-18, but police on May 13 detained several journalists and march organizers, "The Moscow Times" and reported. Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev, editor of the Samara edition of "Novaya gazeta," was detained together with "Samarskaya gazeta" reporter Mikhail Kuteinikov when he went to the police office to clarify why his daughter Anastasia, one of the march's organizers, had been detained. Another march organizer, Yury Chervinchuk, was also detained, reported. The four were held for three hours and released without charge. Kurt-Adzhiyeva said she received written permission on May 11 from a senior city official, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, to hold the march. Also on May 11, police raided the Samara offices of "Novaya gazeta," confiscating two computers and preventing the release of its May 14 issue, "The Moscow Times" reported. Kurt-Adzhiyeva was distributing flyers advertising the march on May 13 when she was stopped by police officers, who said they had information that she was armed with grenades, reported. The march is timed to coincide with the Russia-EU summit in the Volga resort of Volzhsky Utyos near Samara later this week. President Putin will host the summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso are among the leaders expected to attend. The Federal Security Service has said that 1,700 officers have already been deployed in Samara in the run-up to the summit. An additional 3,500 border guards will provide security during the event, ITAR-TASS reported. FF

Tensions within the European Union over Russia are growing just days before the summit in Samara, the "Financial Times" reported on May 14, as new EU member states step up their campaign for a tougher line. At previous summits, the EU and Russia have used a joint declaration to underline areas of agreement, but there are no plans to issue such a declaration at the May 18 summit. The British daily quoted an unidentified EU official as saying of relations with Russia that "things are really bad. We should not try to disguise that fact by pretending to reach agreements -- it's better to have no results." Since joining the EU in May 2004, postcommunist countries such as Poland and Lithuania have sought to convince the EU to rethink its traditional policy of making warm relations with Moscow a priority. Recent acrimonious incidents included the dispute between Russia and Estonia over a war memorial. Lithuania for its part has complained that Russia has cut off oil supplies to a refinery for 10 months. Russia maintains that Estonia committed a "sacrilege" by moving a Soviet-era war memorial and that necessary repairs mean that an oil pipeline to Lithuania has had to be cut off. Another contentious issue concerns meat imports from Poland: Russia says Polish products do not meet sanitary norms and on May 11 informed the EU it will make no concessions toward ending a ban on meat imports from Poland, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana has urged Russia and the EU to work at improving their relations ahead of the summit. Solana was quoted on May 13 by Germany's "Welt am Sonntag" newspaper that he expects "the heated temperature between Russia and the EU to cool off a bit." FF

The State Duma on May 11 approved the creation by the end of the year of a semiautonomous agency aimed at improving the oversight of criminal investigations. Opposition deputies and a government official criticized the vote, "The Moscow Times" reported. The bill provides for the creation of an investigative committee within the Prosecutor-General's Office and the offices of the regional and municipal prosecutors. Communist deputies unanimously opposed the bill, saying it would destroy official oversight. One of the three coauthors of the bill, Aleksandr Moskalets of Unified Russia, was quoted as saying that it is important to place some kind of wall between the prosecutors who fight cases in court and the investigators who now work in the same offices, the daily "Gazeta" reported. Currently, if a supervising prosecutor needs to cancel what he sees as the illegal decision by an investigator -- such as the illegal seizure of evidence -- he can do so on his own and immediately, "The Moscow Times" explained. Following the bill's approval, prosecutors will need to obtain the consent of the heads of their local investigative committee first. Communist Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin, a former prosecutor, said the bill will create long delays in court. "The Moscow Times" quoted him as saying: "Every year prosecutors overturn about 3 million wrong decisions by investigators. Imagine that in half of the cases investigators will not cooperate. Our courts will be choked with cases." Ilyukhin said he will turn to the Constitutional Court if the bill is approved by the Federation Council and President Putin signs it into law. The government's representative to the Federation Council, lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky, also criticized the bill on May 11, calling it "vague and inconsistent." FF

Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, on May 13 urged law enforcement authorities to thoroughly investigate the killing of a Jewish school teacher in St. Petersburg, RIA Novosti reported. Dmitry Nikulinsky, a university student who was also a teacher in a Jewish school in St. Petersburg, was killed in what seemed to be a racially motivated attack near his home earlier that day. "The available information generates serious suspicions that the killing was ethnically motivated. The victim received numerous knife wounds but nothing was stolen," Lazar said. Russian and foreign human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns over growing xenophobic sentiments in the country in recent years. FF

Acting on the testimony of a detained militant, police and security forces backed with armor surrounded and then opened fire on a house on the outskirts of Khasavyurt on May 12 where they suspected two other members of the same militant group were hiding, Russian media reported. The house and two neighboring ones were destroyed. When police combed the ruins on May 13, they found the body of one militant, but his companion apparently escaped. Police believe the men had planned a terrorist attack in Khasavyurt on May 9 but were prevented from carrying out their plans after police located their headquarters and a stockpile of weapons and explosives. LF

According to preliminary results of the May 12 parliamentary election, released by the Central Election Commission on May 13, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) will have the largest faction in the new parliament, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The HHK polled 33.8 percent of the proportional vote, under which 90 of the 131 mandates are allocated, compared with 23.6 percent in the 2003 election; the Prosperous Armenia (Bargavach Hayastan) party headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian polled 15.1 percent, followed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), the junior partner in the ruling coalition government, with 13.1 percent. The opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian won 6.8 percent and the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian 6 percent. No other party garnered the 5 percent minimum of the vote required to win parliamentary election under the proportional system. Factoring in wins in the 41 single-mandate constituencies, in which many HHK candidates were seeking a second or even a third parliamentary term, the HHK is likely to have a minimum of 57 seats; Prosperous Armenia -- 24, including Tsarukian; the HHD -- 16; Orinats Yerkir -- 10; Zharangutiun seven; and the Dashink (Alliance) party headed by Samvel Babayan, the former head of the armed forces of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh -- one. The United Labor Party headed by pro-government businessman Gurgen Arsenian, which replaced Orinats Yerkir last year as the third member of the coalition government, failed to win representation in the new legislature; neither did the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) and the radical opposition Hanrapetutiun party headed by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian. LF

Western observers delivered a largely favorable assessment on May 13 of the previous day's voting, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Voter turnout was just under 60 percent. Tone Tingsgaard, vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, said the elections were an improvement over earlier ballots and "were conducted largely in accordance with international standards for democratic elections." She added that the actual voting "was assessed positively at most polling stations observed." Leo Platvoet, who headed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe observer team, similarly described the vote as "more white than black." But a 10-page initial assessment released on May 13 by the OSCE-led 400-person international observer mission affirmed that the Armenian authorities "were unable to fully deliver a performance consistent with their stated intention that the election would meet international standards." It noted that the ballot count was "bad or very bad" in about 20 percent of polling stations where observers witnessed the vote count. By contrast, the corresponding figure for the 2003 Armenian parliamentary election was over 30 percent of polling stations, and during the 2005 parliamentary election in Azerbaijan 43 percent. LF

Throughout the day on May 12, opposition representatives at polling stations across Armenia reported procedural irregularities, including open or multiple voting; the presence of unauthorized persons at or in the vicinity of polling stations; intimidation of voters or opposition representatives; vote buying on a massive scale by HHK or Prosperous Armenia representatives; and the use of private buses by those two parties to transport to polling stations elderly or infirm voters who were then instructed to cast their ballot for that party, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Opposition HZhK Chairman Demirchian told RFE/RL that "vote bribes are being distributed on a terrible scale." Officials at the Prosecutor-General's Office said that they received many complaints of voting irregularities, most of which subsequently proved unfounded, according to Noyan Tapan on May 13. Thousands of people attended a rally convened in Yerevan on May 13 by the opposition Hanrapetutiun and Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) parties and the Impeachment bloc at which the leaders of those groups delivered emotional speeches condemning what they termed massive vote rigging, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. They appealed to voters to gather again on May 18, but declined to specify whether they would call for mass protest actions. Demirchian too told RFE/RL his party "cannot accept the election results," which he described as "humiliating for the nation's dignity." Orinats Yerkir released a statement saying the party does not accept the officially promulgated results and plans to appeal them in court, Noyan Tapan reported on May 13. LF

Dmitry Sanakoyev, the former prime minister of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia whom Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili named last week to head a pro-Georgian temporary administration in the disputed region, delivered a formal address to the Georgian parliament on May 11, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). Speaking in Ossetian, Sanakoyev thanked the Georgian government for its support; denounced Russia's role in manipulating the decade-old conflict; and assured his listeners that the people of South Ossetia, both Georgians and Ossetians, yearn for a peaceful and prosperous future for themselves and their children. He advocated direct dialogue between the two ethnic groups with a view to granting the region "broad autonomy" within Georgia and "guaranteeing political representation and cultural identity to the Ossetian people." On May 12, one Georgian policeman and one civilian were injured in an exchange of rifle fire on the southern outskirts of Tskhinvali, Caucasus Press reported on May 14. Also on May 12, Russian and Georgian military observers and OSCE representatives investigated and rejected as unfounded media reports of the presence of a column of vehicles and unidentified armed men in the conflict zone, reported. LF

National Bank President Roman Gotsiridze delivered his annual report to the Georgian parliament on May 11, Caucasus Press reported, but legislators declined to endorse it and questioned Gotsiridze's analysis of factors contributing to the 9.2 percent annual inflation rate. Gotsiridze claimed that 5.6 percent of that annual inflation was the direct consequence of external influences, including the embargo on Georgian goods imposed by Russia in early 2006 and the increase in the price of natural gas. But Irakli Kovzanadze, who chairs the parliament's budget and finance committee, rejected Gotsiridze's figures, arguing that internal monetary trends were largely responsible. Kovzanadze further accused the National Bank of failing to anticipate risks and challenges, and he singled out the lari's appreciation vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar as "posing a threat." On May 11 2007, the lari traded at 1.6865 to the dollar compared to 1.8210 one year earlier. Some opposition deputies are inclined to believe that parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who concurred with the criticism of Gotsiridze, wants to engineer his dismissal and have Kovzanadze named to succeed him, Caucasus Press commented on May 11. LF

Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin told journalists in Astana on May 11 that the U.S. and Kazakh positions on Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009 are growing closer, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Tazhin, who spoke with reporters after visiting the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007), said that both Kazakhstan and the United States seek the "liberalization of the political system" in Kazakhstan. Tazhin added that he did not hear a "categorical 'yes' or 'no'" to the Kazakh OSCE bid from U.S. officials. He concluded, "I guess we have started to understand each other better, and this is what we actually want." In December 2006, the OSCE postponed a final decision on the Kazakh bid until 2007, with the United States and Britain reportedly voicing concerns about the need for democratic reforms in Kazakhstan. DK

Ivan Likhouzov, an employee of the commercial television channel KTK, has been hospitalized in serious condition on May 11 after a police interrogation in Almaty during an ongoing investigation into Nurbank, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on May 11-12. A police source told the news agency that police questioned Likhouzov in connection with the disappearance of Nurbank deputy chairman Zholdas Timraliev. Meanwhile, Erlan Sarsenbekov, the head of Nurbank's security service, has been missing since May 10, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on May 12. Critics have alleged that Rakhat Aliev, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria and the son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, is involved in pressure tactics against managers at Nurbank (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7 and 12, 2007). He has denied the allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). DK

Rashid Tagaev, the chairman of the Committee on Defense, Security, Law Enforcement, and Information Policy in Kyrgyzstan's parliament, told the news agency on May 11 that the committee will review the presence of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan before May 25, and discuss the "expediency" of the U.S. presence. Tagaev added: "The committee made the decision of its own accord. The last straw was the December 6, 2006, murder of Kyrgyz national Aleksandr Ivanov by a serviceman of the base, Zachary Hatfield, and the fact that he was sent home," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2007). DK

Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan signed a declaration in Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, on May 12 to build a new natural gas pipeline along the shore of the Caspian Sea, the website reported. The declaration was signed at a summit attended by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. A separate declaration, also signed by Uzbek President Islam Karimov on May 9, promised to expand the gas-transportation system linking the four countries. Putin told journalists that the reconstruction of existing facilities and construction of a new pipeline "would increase their throughput capacity by at least 12 billion cubic meters by 2012," Interfax reported. While noting that "it is too early to talk about specific parameters of this project," Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said that after 2010, "The further increase in the gas pipeline's capacity, in accordance with the exploration and development of new assets in Turkmenistan, may reach 30 billion cubic meters a year," Interfax reported. Khristenko also said that the sides plan to draft an intergovernmental agreement on the new pipeline project by September 1, 2007, ITAR-TASS reported. Khristenko also told journalists in Turkmenbashi on May 12 that a Western-backed trans-Caspian pipeline project "does not exist," RIA-Novosti reported. "It exists [only] as a certain intention." Khristenko added that the "technological, legal, and ecological risks [of the proposed trans-Caspian pipeline] are so big that it will be impossible to find an investor...unless it is a political investor who does not care how much gas there is to pump through," "The New York Times" reported. For his part, Berdymukhammedov said that a trans-Caspian pipeline "remains on the table," Interfax reported. Experts queried by news agencies suggested that a Russian-backed plan to build a new pipeline along the Caspian likely spells the end of hopes for a trans-Caspian pipeline. Roland Nash, a researcher at Moscow-based investment bank Renaissance Capital, told Bloomberg that while Turkmenistan could use the trans-Caspian pipeline as a "bargaining chip," "Russia will have first call on Turkmen gas." DK

President Putin told journalists in Turkmenbashi on May 12 that Russia is ready to invest in gas production in Turkmenistan, Interfax reported. Putin said, "Russia is prepared to invest not only in the transportation system itself, but also in gas production in Turkmenistan." Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov said his country will supply the needed volumes of gas for new agreements. "We guarantee supplies of Turkmen gas in the necessary amounts and for the time stipulated by these agreements," he said. DK

Demonstrations took place on May 12 in London, Brussels, Stockholm, Kyiv, and Moscow to mark the second anniversary of the violent suppression of unrest in Andijon, eastern Uzbekistan, in 2005, and reported. Protestors condemned the Uzbek government's actions and called on the international community to press for a full investigation into what they termed a "massacre." The Uzbek government puts the death toll from the Andijon events at 187 and maintains that it used necessary force to put down an outbreak of terrorist violence. Rights activists charge that government security forces carried out a massacre that killed several hundred people. DK

As the European Union prepared to discuss its sanctions against Uzbekistan on May 14, rights groups called for a continuation of the punitive measures. Dick Oosting, the head of Amnesty International's EU Office, said, "Faced with so many serious human rights problems, the EU simply cannot afford to send the wrong signal to Uzbekistan or indeed the whole Central Asian region. It must remain firm, committed to past appeals such as that of a proper Andijon investigation, and ready to make new calls on behalf of those unjustly detained," the organization reported in a May 13 press release. Lotte Leicht, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL, "The [Uzbek] government has not cooperated with an international inquiry as sought by the European Union, and it has launched an unprecedented crackdown on civil society, journalists, and human rights activists." Meanwhile, dpa reported on May 13 that diplomats in Brussels said that EU governments remain divided on whether to ease sanctions against Uzbekistan, with Britain and Sweden seeing no real improvement in the country, and Germany pointing to positive indications. The EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2005). DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on May 11 he is disturbed by a slowdown reported in certain economic sectors in the first quarter of 2007, Belapan reported, quoting official sources. Speaking at a government conference, Lukashenka said eight out of 19 key targets for the country's 2007 social and economic development were not met in the first three months of the year. He said there are some "unwelcome trends" in the Belarusian economy, such as declining profitability and decelerating growth of industrial output. On the whole, however, Lukashenka noted that the economy developed steadily in the first quarter, with gross domestic product increasing by 8.5 percent year-on-year. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych met in Kyiv on May 12 to discuss the progress made by the working group that they tasked earlier this month with preparing all necessary legislation for early parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007), Ukrainian media reported. Following the meeting, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Ivan Plyushch and First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told journalists that the Verkhovna Rada is expected to approve on May 16 a number of bills prepared by the working group to launch early polls. Asked about the chances of the election date being set on May 16, Azarov replied, "I believe it's 100 percent." Meanwhile, Raisa Bohatyryova, who coordinates the parliamentary majority of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, said in a statement on May 13 that Yushchenko is not looking for a compromise to end the political standoff, but seeking ways to denounce the 2004 constitutional reform and "usurp power in Ukraine." JM

President Yushchenko on May 12 relieved Vitaliy Hayduk of his duties as secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) and appointed Ivan Plyushch to the post, the presidential website ( reported. Hayduk, who headed the RNBO since October 2006, was dismissed after tendering his resignation. Hayduk is a leader of the Industrial Union of Donbas, an affluent and influential business group in Ukraine. According to the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (, Hayduk differed with Yushchenko over how to handle the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine. Plyushch is a veteran of Ukrainian politics. He was parliamentary speaker in 1991-94 and 2000-02. Plyushch predicted in an interview with "Kommersant-Ukraina" on May 14 that early parliamentary polls in Ukraine will be held on July 15. JM

Serbia's leaders ended 16 weeks of political deadlock on May 11 by agreeing to form a relatively pro-European government, averting the possibility of new elections and isolation from the EU. The breakthrough came three days after hopes of a government being formed appeared to have been dashed by the decision of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) to back an extreme nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic, as speaker of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). Kostunica had insisted that the DSS control the Interior Ministry, the police, and the secret services, a demand viewed as reducing the likelihood of Serbia handing over war crimes indictees, since Kostunica is critical of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Local and international media reported on May 12 that, under the new deal, President Boris Tadic will coordinate the operations of Serbia's security services as head of the National Security Council, giving him personal control of the search for the Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic and other indicted war criminals. The DSS will, however, control the Interior Ministry. Kostunica will retain the premiership, even though the DSS and its coalition partner, New Serbia (NS), won just 47 of 250 seats in January's general elections, compared with the 64 gained by the Tadic's Democratic Party (DS). The DS will control 12 portfolios and the DSS-NS seven. The other member of the coalition, the G17+ bloc, will head four ministries. The Serbian parliament is expected to approve the new government on May 14, just hours before the constitutional deadline for a government to be formed. AG

Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), preempted the new government by resigning as speaker of parliament on May 13, local and international media reported. One of the conditions of the government accord was the DSS-NS's agreement to support the removal of Nikolic. Faced with a petition presented at a special session on May 13 by a majority of lawmakers, Nikolic chose to step down, having held the post for just five days. Nikolic told journalists on May 11 that Prime Minister Kostunica "asked me to resign" immediately after the coalition partners reached an agreement on May 11. Nikolic should be replaced by a member of the DS, Oliver Dulic. In his parting speech, Nikolic warned the new government that the Radicals will not "sit calmly" if Serbia "peacefully accepts" independence for Kosova, and he predicted "another crisis soon" because "the only thing keeping [the new government] together is pressure and blackmail" from abroad. Nikolic on May 11 ruled out going to war over Kosova, saying, "Serbia, of course, cannot start wars nor does it want to," AP reported the same day. Nikolic, a militant nationalist who fought in eastern Croatia in the early 1990s, was jailed several times by Serbia's late President Slobodan Milosevic but went on to serve twice as a minister under Milosevic. In 2003, he emerged as the popular victor in presidential elections that were ultimately annulled. Nikolic had fueled public concerns within hours of his election by raising the possibility of declaring a state of emergency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007). AG

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn moved swiftly to reward Serbian politicians' decision to form a more moderate government by promising on May 11 to resume preaccession talks "immediately," local and international media reported the same day. Rehn said in a written statement that "once a new government is formed, Serbia's path to the EU will be revitalized immediately," adding that talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) -- a first step towards candidacy for EU membership -- could be resumed without delay. The EU broke off talks with Serbia in May 2006 after it failed to meet a deadline to hand over the indicted war criminal Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). However, Rehn said that the signing of an SAA would depend on "full cooperation with the ICTY." There had been signs before that the EU was willing to drop its condition that Mladic must be captured first (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31 and February 9 and 13, 2007). It has long been suspected that Mladic enjoys the protection of members of Serbia's army and police. A diplomatic source cited by the broadcaster B92 on May 11 said that the first tangible EU response to the deal will be the signing on May 15 of an agreement relaxing EU visa requirements; that move, the source said, would be a direct consequence of "positive developments in Serbia in regards to the imminent formation of a pro-European government." The EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, said the formation of a new government "comes at a crucial moment for the future of Serbia," adding, "it is now up to Serbia to make the vision of its European future a practical reality," AFP reported on May 12. The EU had warned that Serbia was returning to the dangerous, nationalist days of the Milosevic era. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns on May 11 welcomed the formation of a new government. Washington supports "any democratic government that doesn't include the Radicals," Reuters quoted him as saying. The Croatian news agency Hina reported on May 11 that Burns referred to the Radicals as a "party of criminals." According to the news agency FoNet, Russia's ambassador in Belgrade, Aleksandr Alekseyev, responded on May 11 to the deal by saying, "It is good for every state to have a government, and this is certainly good news." In comments immediately after his election on May 8, Nikolic rejected the EU and embraced Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007). AG

The Serbian National Council of Kosovo-Metohija, which represents some hard-line elements of Kosova's ethnic Serbian community, on May 12 issued a statement welcoming the new government in Belgrade, Serbian television reported. The council said only a coalition of democratic and pro-European parties is capable of defending Serbia's national interests on a democratic basis. There had been fears among Kosova's Serbs that the choice of a nationalist speaker and the prospect of new parliamentary elections would increase the likelihood of violence against them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007). The new government will include a special ministry for Kosova, with the minister being drawn from the ranks of the DSS-NS, which has adopted a more hard-line position on Kosova than its coalition partners. All of Serbia's major parties oppose independence for Kosova. The leader of the DSS-NS, Prime Minister Kostunica, told journalists on May 12 that the most important factor behind the last-minute decision to form a government was the need to have a legitimate government while the UN debates the future of Kosova. AG

Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, on May 12 told the Russian television channel Vesti 24 that it "is becoming more and more likely" that Moscow will veto a UN resolution that would open the way for Kosova to gain independence from Serbia. Churkin had already indicated, on May 11, that there are several points in Russian and U.S. proposals that "I don't think can be reconciled" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007). Reports in the international media on May 12-14 indicate no change in Russia's stance that new talks should be held with no deadline set. An alternative resolution drafted by Moscow also calls for the province's administrators and politicians to make greater efforts to meet UN-established standards on a range of issues, primarily the return of ethnic Serbs and the protection of minority rights. As proposed in a blueprint for the region drawn up by the UN envoy to Kosova in March, the U.S.-drafted resolution envisages an end to UN administration of the province within 120 days, with local politicians then assuming control of the area under EU supervision. U.S. Undersecretary of State Burns indicated on May 9 that the resolution would not grant Kosova independence, but provide it with a platform to declare independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). U.S. officials believe Washington's draft resolution has enough support to be endorsed, but that would be rendered irrelevant if Russia were to use its veto rights. China, another veto-holder, has also expressed reservations, but the U.S. ambassador to Serbia, Michael Polt, on May 11 told the Serbian broadcaster B92 that, of the two, "at this moment it is only Russia" that does not support the UN plan. AG

Montenegro on May 11 became the 47th country to join the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body. On the same day, Serbia assumed the council's rotating presidency amid controversy and anxiety over the election of extreme nationalist Tomislav Nikolic as speaker of Serbia's parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Rene van der Linden, on May 9 issued a statement expressing "consternation" at the choice of a "member of a political party run by an indicted war criminal," a reference to Vojislav Seselj, who is currently on trial at the ICTY. Van der Linden said that "cooperation with the [ICTY] is not optional, but a legally binding obligation and a commitment that Serbia undertook when joining the Council of Europe." His comment highlights one of the key challenges facing the Serbian government, the capture of the Bosnian Serb wartime commander Mladic, whose continued evasion of justice has damaged relations between Serbia and the EU and, reportedly, between Serbia's ruling parties. News of the last-minute formation of a pro-democracy government in Belgrade emerged as Serbia was assuming the council's presidency. That agreement and the ouster of Nikolic on May 13 remove a major source of embarrassment for the Council of Europe, though questions have been raised about the notion of such a fragile democracy heading an organization whose purpose is to defend and promote democratic principles, human rights, and individual freedoms. This is the most senior post that Serbia has held in 17 years. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic has stressed the importance of its presidency to the country, but the issue of independence for Kosova is likely to remain a source of tension (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). "The century-old dream of a Europe of peace, freedom and democracy are being realized in this generation," Draskovic wrote in an open letter to the Serbian people, Reuters reported on May 11. "But such a Europe, which equally respects each of its states and each citizen... must respect the existing, internationally recognized borders of Serbia." At a joint news conference on May 11, the Council of Europe's secretary-general, Terry Davis, joined Draskovic in rejecting the possibility of Kosova declaring independence without the UN's backing, the Serbian news agency Tanjug and state television reported the same day. AG

The EU's commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, on May 11 called on Montenegro to annul an agreement with Washington in which it promises not to extradite U.S. nationals to face charges of war crimes or genocide at the International Criminal Court (ICC), Montenegrin media reported the same day. The deal puts Montenegro directly at odds with almost every country in the EU, which has long been a leading champion of the ICC. The ICC was established in 2002 as a permanent tribunal to hear cases brought against individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The Montenegrin news agency Mina reported on May 11 that Podgorica reached the agreement with Washington on April 19, but news of the agreement emerged only when Montenegro and the United States signed a purely military agreement on May 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). "European integration is our strategic priority and this [agreement with the United States] does not in any way influence our overall position that Montenegro's EU integration is our strategic goal and commitment. Good relations with the United States only contribute and do not prevent the realization of this goal," Mina quoted Prime Minister Zeljko Sturanovic as saying on May 11. Earlier on May 11, President Filip Vujanovic told Radio Montenegro that "it is very improbable that a situation will ever arise in Montenegro in which an American soldier commits some kind of war crime, genocide, or crimes against the civilian population. I therefore do not expect a negative reaction from Brussels." AG

Starting July 1, the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina will be a Slovak diplomat, Miroslav Lajcak, local media reported on May 11. Lajcak was chosen on May 11 to replace German diplomat Christian Schwarz-Schilling by the steering committee of the Peace Implementation Council, which comprises 55 countries and oversees Bosnia's implementation of the 1995 Dayton peace accords. Lajcak, whose appointment had been leaked to the Bosnian media several days earlier, was the EU's envoy to Montenegro when it voted for independence from Serbia in May 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). Lajcak, who will have a one-year mandate, may be the last High Representative. Schwarz-Schilling was due to be the last, but the PIC decided in February that the role of international overseer should be retained for a year because of concerns about Bosnia's political stability and the possibility of violence in Bosnia should Kosova gain independence from Serbia. Lajcak's name was soon mentioned as a possibility, with "Slobodna Bosna" carrying a report as far back as March 22 claiming that he was the frontrunner. His nomination won the backing of Russia, the European Union, and the United States, the Slovak daily "Sme" reported on May 12. Lajcak's role in Montenegro, his knowledge of the language, and his Slavic origin are factors that may have played a role in his selection. "This is a major success for Slovak diplomacy and confirmation that we understand the Balkans," Eduard Kukan, a former foreign minister of Slovakia, told "Sme" on May 12, adding that the referendum in Montenegro "was the first successful project undertaken by the [European] Union in the Balkans." AG

Two days after their arrest, eight former members of a notorious wartime paramilitary group, the Scorpions, were released from police custody on May 11, the news agency Beta reported the same day. The men were arrested on May 9 by police investigating a grenade attack on a prominent journalist, Dejan Anastasijevic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). Anastasijevic had been critical of the sentence passed down on four other "Scorpions" for slaughtering Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 16, 2007). Police said there were no legal grounds for the eight suspects' continued detention, but added that they will continue to investigate their possible involvement, Beta reported. The news agency quoted an unnamed police source as saying police are questioning other people who may be connected with the case, but provided no other details. AG

A court in the district of Zenica on May 11 jailed a Bosnian Croat, Dominik "Como" Ilijasevic, for 15 years for atrocities committed against Bosnian Muslims in 1993, local media reported the same day. The charges against Ilijasevic included murder, rape, and pillage. A UN indictment against Iljasevic mentioned that he drove around with the severed ear of a Bosnian Muslim attached to the antenna of his car. On the same day a court in Sarajevo opened the trial of a Bosnian Muslim, Sefik Alic, accused of abusing and killing four ethnic-Serbian prisoners during the war, and resumed the case against an ethnic Croat, Pasko Ljubicic, who is charged with abusing and killing Bosnian Muslim prisoners in 1993. Ljubicic's case was transferred from the ICTY in The Hague in 2006. The UN court is increasingly sending cases to be heard in domestic courts as it is due to open its last cases in 2008 and to hear the last appeals in 2010. In other news, the remains of 93 Bosnian Muslim victims of the 1992-95 war were buried on May 12 in the town of Bratunac, Bosnian media reported the same day. The victims were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in 1992. AG

A Croatian politician facing trial for war crimes, Branimir Glavas, was on May 10 transferred to a prison hospital, 14 days after he began a hunger strike, the news agency Hina reported the same day. Glavas began refusing food after a court rejected his request to be released until his trial. Glavas was arrested on April 18 for ordering the murder of 10 ethnic Serbian civilians in 1991. In October 2006, Glavas was arrested on charges relating to another case but he was released in December after doctors ruled a hunger strike had put his life at risk. His renewed detention was ordered on the grounds that the new charges against him are too serious for him to remain free. After the war, Glavas became a parliament deputy for the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) before being pushed out in 2005, two years after the HDZ gained power. He then set up his own party. Glavas is the most senior figure to be arrested for war crimes by Croatian authorities. AG

Albania's three largest opposition parties have all endorsed President Alfred Moisiu for a second term, according to reports in the local media. The Social Democrats (PSS) on May 10 followed the example of the Socialists and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), who had indicated their support for Moisiu earlier in the week. The Albanian parliament is due to vote on a new president in June. Moisiu emerged as a compromise figure during the last elections, in 2002, but the ruling Democrats have nominated a senior member of the party, Bamir Topi, and on May 8 reportedly opposed the possibility of a second term for Moisiu (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). The Socialists' former leader, Fatos Nano, had expressed his interest in the post, but the choice of Nano, a critic of the party's current leader, Edi Rama, could have reopened potentially damaging rifts within the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2007). AG

In Afghanistan, more than 30 people announced in Kabul on March 13 the formation of a political grouping called the United Front of Afghanistan. The initial membership list includes representatives of about 15 political parties, as well as independents who include former communists and a grandson of the last Afghan monarch. Members have since talked about the group's agenda and intentions in general terms, but much of the coverage so far has ignored what unites the front -- beyond the well-worn slogans of "national unity."

The new United Front calls for amending Afghanistan's Islamic constitution to transform the political system from a presidential to a parliamentary model. It also wants provincial governors elected rather than selected by the president.

The United Front proposes changing the country's electoral system from the current system (a so-called single nontransferable voting system, or SNTV) to a proportional system, which would arguably strengthen the role of political parties. It has also outlined a series of social services that it vows to implement to improve the lives of the Afghan public.

In the area of foreign relations, the front seeks coordination of the activities of foreign forces present in Afghanistan, and official recognition of the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- known in Kabul as the Durand Line.

A member of the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) and spokesman for the United Front, Sayyed Mustafa Kazemi, spoke at a roundtable in Kabul organized by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in early April. Kazemi argued that there has been some progress in the state building -- or as he called it, "government building" -- that is envisaged in the Bonn agreement of late 2001, which served as a blueprint for post-Taliban Afghanistan. But he said no serious work has been done in a second area, that of nation building. Kazemi said the United Front essentially wants to redirect Afghanistan toward the ideals set forth in Bonn.

Kazemi dismissed suggestions that a campaign to transform the presidential system to a parliamentary one amounts to an effort to dismantle the constitution. He said that, in due time, the United Front hopes to test constitutional Articles 149 and 150, which allow amendments proposed by the president or legislative majority based on "new experiences and requirements of the time."

Once the proposal is forwarded, a presidential appointed commission would implement the proposal. It would then have to be approved by a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly), after which a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly would be required. The change would be finalized after signature by the presidential. Karzai vehemently opposes any effort to impose a parliamentary system on the country, and is unlikely to endorse any move to change the current presidential system.

Responding to fears that the United Front's proposal to elect provincial governors is a step toward federalism in Afghanistan, Kazemi said the group is not endorsing federalism. Instead, he said, it is advocating a strengthening of provincial government. He pointed to the current Provincial Councils, which are elected, and asked why governors should not undergo similar public scrutiny. Kazemi pointed to the U.S. model, in which state governors are directly elected, although he made no mention of the federal nature of the U.S. system.

Many Afghans, especially Pashtuns, view federalism -- an idea proposed in the past by some members of the United Front -- as tantamount to a de facto partition of the country. Or, at least, an imposition of Pashtun power in non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

Kazemi briefly addressed the issue of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Some have suggested that the United Front would seek to legalize the status of foreign forces in Afghanistan. He said only that the United Front would desire a "partnership," but provided no further details.

At the RFE/RL roundtable, the United Front's membership list came under particular scrutiny for two reasons.

First, a number of the members of the United Front hold senior government positions; if they are criticizing the performance of the Karzai administration, then they presumably share some of the blame. Similarly, despite claims by members of the United Front that they are not an "opposition" grouping, their stated policies reflect opposition and they arguably should resign from the current government. Members of the United Front include Afghan First Vice President Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Ismail Khan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces of Afghanistan General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who currently serves as a senior adviser.

On this government-cum-opposition issue, Kazemi asserted that the United Front aims to work under the Afghan Constitution and within the Karzai administration to bring about gradual reform. Kazemi insisted that the United Front is no opposition bloc, adding that its critical evaluation of the Karzai administration is an "exercise in democracy."

The second reason why the membership list came under fire relates to the inclusion within the United Front of former high-level officials involved in the security and military apparatus under the communist regimes of Afghanistan -- such as Sayyed Mohammad Gulabzoi and Nur al-Haq Olumi. Those officals served within the command structure of a system that left more than 1 million Afghans dead, through military actions or their treatment in detention centers.

On this second criticism, Kazemi explained that many former communists entered the new Afghan political system only after the first postcommunist government under President Sebghatullah Mojaddedi in 1992 issued a general amnesty (to former communists). Kazemi said that Gulabzoi and Olumi, for instance, have been granted legitimacy by the people, since both won election to the Wolesi Jirga. He added that Afghanistan must "close steel doors" in its effort to break decisively with its past.

The main elements of the United Front's platform -- particularly the transformation to a parliamentary system and eliminating the voting system (SNTV) -- were addressed by the current speaker of the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) in conversations with RFE/RL in 2005. Mohammad Yunos Qanuni -- as leader of the now-defunct umbrella group, the National Understanding Front -- vowed at the time that his group would behave as a "loyal opposition" that accepted the legitimacy of the Karzai administration. Qanuni, who has joined but has remained largely behind the scenes, in 2005 spoke about "rationalization and legalization of the struggle" -- words echoed by Kazemi two years later.

Does the United Front represent an effort to resurrect the United National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan -- popularly known as the Northern Alliance -- which united against the Taliban regime? Despite the inclusion of many prominent figures from the Northern Alliance -- including Qanuni, Fahim, Dostum, and Mas'ud -- United Front spokesman Kazemi insisted that the new grouping bears no relation to the Northern Alliance.

He emphasized that the name of the new grouping is not the "United National Front" -- as has been reported -- because the new grouping wants to avoid being confused with the United National Front, or Northern Alliance.

So what unites such a diverse grouping? The United Front seems united in opposing Karzai, despite the diplomatic niceties suggesting that it is not an opposition coalition. The strategy appears focused on gaining legitimacy by working within the Karzai administration while trying to weaken the political forces that President Karzai is trying to muster on his side. On the one hand, it marks a success for Afghanistan that the United Front talks of the "rationalization" of its political struggle rather than resorting to violence -- which has been the story of Afghanistan since the 1978 communist putsch. But some might also consider it unfortunate that the president's second in command and others within his ruling circle unite in opposing the head of state, rather than work with him to address the problems facing the current administration.

Unfortunately for its supporters, if the Karzai factor was removed from the equation today, the United Front might not stay very united. Nor would its more rational members be able to stop those who still command private militias.

The Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) on May 12 voted to remove Foreign Minister Dadfar Rangin Spanta over the refugee crisis stemming from Iran's forced repatriation of Afghans, international news agencies reported. The Wolesi Jirga removed Refugees Minister Mohammad Akbar on May 10, while the no-confidence vote against Spanta failed on a technicality (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). Spanta's critics in the Wolesi Jirga charge that he did not do enough to persuade Tehran not to expel thousands of Afghans since mid-April, when the Iranian government stepped up its forced repatriation of what it claims are illegal refugees. On May 10, Spanta told the Wolesi Jirga that the Iranian decision to exert pressure on Afghanistan by expelling refugees came in response to several political issues, including Kabul's relationship with NATO and the United States, and water rights and dam projects, AFP reported on May 12. "We are under direct pressure for signing a direct security partnership" with the United States and NATO, Spanta told the lawmakers. Pointing to Iran's nuclear program and a controversial dam project on the Harirod River in western Afghanistan, Spanta said that "for quite a long time, we have been under systematic pressure from our neighboring country," without overtly naming Iran, Kabul-based Tolo Television reported on May 10. Spanta said that his policy of defending Afghanistan's rights has provoked hostility from Iran. The Afghan government and ordinary Afghans are quick to say that most of the destabilizing factors in their country have a foreign origin -- and Pakistan is most likely to be blamed. But recently, more attention has been paid to the possibility that Iran, Afghanistan's western neighbor, may also be pursuing its own agenda in Afghanistan. While Pakistan is known to have contacts mainly with opposition groups fighting against the Kabul government, Iran has maintained close relations with different formal and informal centers of power in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," March 29, 2007). AT

President Hamid Karzai has nonetheless decided to keep Foreign Minister Spanta in his post while referring the issue of the no-confidence vote to the Afghan Supreme Court for clarification, the state-run National Afghanistan Television reported on May 12. Karzai has argued that Spanta's impeachment resulted from actions taken by Iran over which the minister had no control. Karzai also asked the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the Wolesi Jirga's having voted twice on Spanta's removal. Karzai is expected to make a final decision over Spanta's future after receiving the recommendations of the Supreme Court. Wolesi Jirga speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni said on May 13 that he will discuss Spanta's impeachment with Karzai, Tolo Television reported. "We should find a logical way out of the problem," Qanuni said, adding that he is certain that once Karzai is "put in the picture of the right story, he will be satisfied." Karzai is facing his first direct confrontation with the Wolesi Jirga, which is led by Qanuni, his main political rival. The Wolesi Jirga approved Spanta as foreign minister in April 2006. A Karzai loyalist and a newcomer in Afghan politics, Spanta replaced Abdullah Abdullah, who along with Qanuni was part of the Shura-ye Nezar (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 28, 2006). By trying to sack Spanta, the Wolesi Jirga is showing its power to sabotage Karzai's policies, which include the disfranchisement of groups such as Shura-ye Nezar. AT

Sayyed Ansari, a spokesman for Afghanistan's National Security Service, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Mullah Dadullah, considered the Taliban's leading military commander in southern Afghanistan, was killed in Helmand Province during an unplanned operation on May 12. A body, allegedly Dadullah's corpse, was shown to reporters in Kandahar. A statement posted on the website of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on May 13 said that Dadullah was killed in a U.S.-led coalition operation supported by ISAF. The operation was "enabled by the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan people," the statement added. According to ISAF, while Dadullah "most certainly [will] be replaced in time... the insurgency has received a serious blow." Qari Yusof Ahmadi, speaking for the Taliban, claimed Dadullah is alive, but provided no further detail, AP reported on May 13. AT

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on May 13 that Iran and the United States will "soon" hold talks in Baghdad on the situation in Iraq, Iranian news agencies reported. "This negotiation will be to reduce the pain and suffering of the Iraqi nation, strengthen [Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki's government and stabilize peace and security," Hosseini was quoted as saying. He said the United States has formally requested a meeting through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which has handled U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of formal diplomatic ties since 1979. Hosseini said the talks will be held in Iraq, and the time and diplomatic level of participants will be clarified "by the end of this week." Hosseini also said that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's visit to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) on May 13-14 was previously planned, and was unrelated to a regional tour by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. "Cheney's trip to the region shows some confusion among American statesmen," Hosseini said, adding that U.S. officials have been making "contradictory" statements on Iran. Hosseini said Ahmadinejad's trip to the U.A.E. was the first by an Iranian president since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and will have "positive effects" on bilateral cooperation. VS

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said on May 13 that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chester Crocker will meet with Iranian officials in a "few weeks" to discuss Iran's "productive role" in bringing security to Iraq, Reuters reported. Speaking at the Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, Johndroe said the talks will focus on Iraq, not other outstanding bilateral issues like Iran's nuclear program. This was confirmed the same day by a spokeswoman for U.S. Vice President Cheney, Lea Anne McBride. "We are willing to have that conversation limited to Iraq issues, at the ambassador level," AP quoted her as saying in Cairo, where Cheney met on May 13 with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. She said talking to Iran about security in Iraq is consistent with U.S. policies, and does not represent a new position toward Iran, AP reported. VS

President Ahmadinejad met in Abu Dhabi on May 13 with the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zaid al-Nuhayyan, for talks on bilateral economic and political ties and regional security, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad said Iran feels no sense of competition with its "brothers" from the U.A.E., and he suggested regarding the Persian Gulf as "the gulf of peace and friendship." He said, "we all wish" foreign forces would leave the Persian Gulf, to "give regional states the opportunity to impose security on the region by themselves." Ahmadinejad said Iran favors transferring gas from Turkmenistan to the U.A.E. "by any means," and proposed bilateral cooperation in the steel and petrochemical industries, hotel construction, water, and electricity. Al-Nuhayyan said his country wishes for the removal of "foreign fleets and armies from the region," adding that "these countries" have made the situation in Iraq their pretext for "their presence in the region," ISNA reported. He said he told Vice President Cheney at a May 12 meeting that the U.A.E. has "important and historical" relations and "shared interests" with Iran. "I am sure he did not like my comment, but we are not shy with anyone," he said. VS

Two previously banned reformist dailies, "Sharq" and "Ham-Mihan," are again being published in Iran, Radio Farda reported on May 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007). The broadcaster observed that this may be an unexpected development for some Iranians, given Iran's recent suppression or attempts to control feminists, teachers, trade unionists, and students. "Sharq" was expected to reappear on May 14, and "Ham-Mihan" was published on May 13, Reuters reported. Many former "Sharq" staff members are now working in "Ham-Mihan," Radio Farda reported, adding that "Sharq" will in the near future be run by an editorial board, without a chief editor. Radio Farda separately reported the arrest in Tehran on May 13 of Mehdi Butorabi, the director of the website and head of a related Internet-technology company, Ariagostar. He has not been formally charged, but the broadcaster cited informal reports that his arrest may be related to material his website published about Alireza Asgari, an Iranian Defense Ministry official who disappeared in Turkey, or perhaps defected, in February 2007. VS

The head of the Health Ministry's office on combatting HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases said in Tehran on May 13 that state agencies must coordinate efforts to inform Iranians of the dangers of the disease and the role of "risky sexual behavior" in spreading HIV, Mehr reported. The official, identified only as Sedaqat, said that "brochures, photos, and books" are not enough, and that the Health Ministry is studying HIV/AIDS as a social phenomenon. "AIDS is not just a health problem, so this ministry cannot implement its programs alone," the official said. Sedaqat said a ministry information campaign on preventing the spread of HIV through risky conduct will target "soldiers, secondary-school children, and students," among other groups. Sedaqat expressed concern over "the changing course of AIDS." Iranian officials have so far insisted that HIV/AIDS in Iran has mostly spread through shared needles between drug users, but the ministry official's comments suggest concerns that the virus is increasingly being spread through sex. Iran forbids sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage, but Sedaqat said the "existence of risky sexual behavior is an undeniable reality that threatens all countries, including Iran, for its youthful population," adding that sexual relations could "open the door" to HIV spreading to the "general population." VS

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) political party announced at a May 12 press briefing in Baghdad that it has changed its name to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. The decision came during a two-day meeting in Baghdad. SIIC member Rida Taqiy said the Shi'ite party's name was changed to reflect the new political phase in Iraq. The party also elected Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim as head of its Shura council and chairman of the party. Participants at the meeting also called for the establishment of a coordination center for Sunni and Shi'ite scholars that will address the spread of takfiri (declaring Muslims infidels) ideology by insurgent groups, and various mechanisms for supporting the Iraqi government. The party also has a new website, SCIRI was founded in Iran in 1982 as an opposition group to Saddam Hussein's government. KR

In a separate statement issued on May 12, the SIIC denied media reports claiming it is attempting to distance itself from Iran. Saying some media outlets "attributed false statements and analyses" to SIIC's motives, the statement added, "The sons of the Iraqi people will not forget the noble positions taken by some world states towards Iraq's issues, foremost of which is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which helped and hosted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for several years during Saddam [Hussein's] reign." KR

The Islamic Al-Da'wah Party elected Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as its secretary-general at a May 13 conference in Baghdad, party spokesman Haidar al-Abadi told a press conference, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. The conference focused on the need to speed up the transfer of the responsibility for security from coalition forces to the Iraqi government, which will, in turn, expedite the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, al-Abadi said. KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki has reiterated the need for national reconciliation with groups remaining outside the political process, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on May 13. Speaking to reporters in Baghdad, al-Maliki called political reconciliation the cornerstone for success in Iraq. "The more we prove that we seek to build national unity and defend the homeland, [the more] elements, sides, and figures [will] take part in the political process," he said. Referring to the groups outside the political process, he added, "We must open the door and create the environment and climate for them so that they can participate in the political process." KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki has begun to host meetings to discuss appointing new members to his cabinet, Iraqi media reported on May 12. Al-Maliki promised to reshuffle the cabinet months ago to replace unqualified or ineffective ministers. He will also replace six ministers aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who resigned their positions on April 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Iraqiyah television in a same-day interview that the final phase of the selection process is under way. He stressed that the new ministers will be competent, but added: "I cannot reveal the names before they are submitted to parliament.... These names are very likely to change in view of the talks held between the prime minister and various blocs," signaling that the appointments may still be based on sectarian quotas. Asked about possible amendments to the constitution, al-Dabbagh said: "There is an agreement among the political blocs on several principles [and] there are certain issues that need extra time and effort. In my opinion, the major amendments will be introduced on May 15." Other issues that require further discussion will be referred to parliament, he added. KR

Salih al-Mutlaq, the head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, criticized the proposed cabinet reshuffle, telling reporters in Amman on May 11 that the nominations reflect a rearrangement of sectarian quotas, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on May 12. He said the majority of the nominees hail from two parties known for promoting sectarian quotas in Iraq. The Amman-based "Al-Arab al-Yawm" reported that al-Mutlaq called Prime Minister al-Maliki's government "a failure," and said it should be replaced by a new political process that could save Iraq. According to the report, the two parties al-Mutlaq criticized were al-Maliki's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now known as Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. He called on the Iraqi Accordance Front to stand by its threat to withdraw from the government, and praised the decision by Shi'ite political figures aligned with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as well as by the Shi'ite Al-Fadilah Party to withdraw from the government. KR