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Newsline - May 15, 2007

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on May 15 to discuss a wide range of bilateral and international issues, including U.S. plans to deploy missile-defense elements in Europe, the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the situation in Kosova, ITAR-TASS reported. Rice met on May 14 with Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov to discuss bilateral and some international issues: Ivanov's secretariat described those talks as "informal." Arriving in Moscow on May 14, Rice told journalists it is not an easy time for U.S.-Russian relations, but she insisted that the tensions do not amount to a new Cold War. "I don't throw around terms like 'new Cold War,'" Rice was quoted as saying by Russian and international news agencies. "It is a big, complicated relationship, but it is not one that is anything like the implacable hostility that really did lead to zero-sum politics between the United States and the Soviet Union. If you look at the actual facts on the ground and you look at the level of cooperation that we have had on North Korea, on Iran, if you look at the WTO agreement that we've signed with just doesn't accord with some of the rhetoric that does sometimes come out," she added. Both Russian and U.S. officials have been unusually reluctant to give further details of the visit, "The Moscow Times" reported. FF

There has been intense speculation in Moscow with regard both to the issues that the Russian leadership will discuss with Rice and to the tone of the talks. Vasily Likhachyov, deputy head of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, said on May 14 that that he believes Rice came "not to criticize Russia" but to win support for the missile-shield plans and to urge the Kremlin to lift its recent moratorium on compliance with the CFE Treaty, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). Rice said on the plane to Moscow that she will try to allay Moscow's concerns about several issues, including U.S. plans to place 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic as part of a missile-defense shield for Europe, and the controversy surrounding the Serbian province of Kosova, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, the daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta," which is close to the Kremlin, quoted Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika think tank, as saying that Rice's assignment is possibly "to convince us that the missile-defense system is not [directed] against Russia, that it is not a threat to our national interests, while the real goal is to demonstrate to the U.S. Congress and to the Western public that the administration is trying to reach agreement with the Russian side on a common missile defense system, but the Russians are against it." FF

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the rotating European Union Presidency, was to hold last-minute talks with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov on May 15 on a growing list of disputes involving Russia and new EU members that were once part of the Soviet Union, ahead of what is expected to be a chilly EU-Russia summit in Samara on May 18, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Reuters quoted a German Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that Steinmeier "will appeal for a return to reason and a return to the understanding that both sides depend on each other in many respects." EU officials have in effect given up on the bloc's central aim for the summit, of starting wide-ranging talks with Russia to deepen relations, the "Financial Times" wrote on May 15. Russian officials' reactions suggest that they are not in a mood to compromise. Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev has reaffirmed Moscow's rationale for maintaining its 17-month ban on meat and other farm produce from Poland. Poland insists the ban is politically motivated and opposes talks to start a new partnership pact with Russia. Reports in the Russian media, meanwhile, have placed the blame for the crisis squarely on three new EU members: Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania. FF

Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, a leader of the heterogeneous opposition umbrella group Other Russia, and Eduard Limonov, founder of the banned National Bolshevik Party, will take part in the March of Dissent to be held in Samara on May 18, to coincide with a Russia-EU summit, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 15, quoting Kasparov's spokeswoman, Marina Litvinovich. City authorities in Samara have reversed a decision made last week and granted permission for the opposition march to be held. Litvinovich said the reversal was a "key factor" in the decision by Kasparov and Limonov to participate. She said that "more people will take notice if Kasparov and Limonov are there." Over the past week, security bodies have exerted pressure on march organizers and local journalists, detaining several people, but releasing them after questioning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11 and 14, 2007). FF

The Russian daily "Vedomosti" published on May 14 the findings of several opinion polls showing that Russian public opinion has started noticing the March of Dissent protests organized in several Russian cities during the last few months by a loose coalition in opposition to the Kremlin. "Vedomosti" cited an opinion survey carried out by VTsIOM, a polling agency close to the government, at the end of April, as establishing that 48 percent of Russians have heard something about the marches, while 49 percent have not heard anything, and 5 percent are closely following developments. Only 3 percent of the 1,600 respondents in 48 regions said they would take part in a protest march, 14 percent said they would passively support such activities, 17 percent said they do not approve of them, and 9 percent said dissenters' marches should be banned. Thirteen percent said the dissenters represent the interests of a large sector of the population, while 24 percent said they represent the interests of those whose rights have been infringed upon. Another 24 percent said the dissenters represent the political interests of the radical opposition, while 9 percent said they represent the interests of foreign states and security services. The independent Levada Center, meanwhile, said that according to its findings, 17 percent of respondents overall supported the marches in April, up from only 5 percent in December 2006, when the first such protests took place. Another 17 percent oppose the marches, Levada Center sociologists said, and 55 percent had not heard anything about them in April, while in December 70 percent were unaware of them. Levada Center Deputy Director Aleksei Grazhdankin told "Vedomosti" that the authorities' harsh reaction to the marches has attracted the public's attention. FF

Investigators in Moscow summoned Russneft head Mikheil Gutseriyev and three of the company's top managers for questioning earlier this month in connection with a probe into the illegal extraction and sale of oil in 2002-05 by Russneft subsidiaries Nafta-Ulyanovsk and Ulyanovskneft, the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 15. The four men face charges of illegal business activity that allegedly resulted in the nonpayment of a total of 2.7 billion rubles ($104.65 million) in taxes. The daily quoted an unnamed Russneft source as suggesting the investigation was triggered by a dispute between Gutseriyev and an unnamed powerful Kremlin official over Gutseriyev's political activities, in particular his support for the opposition in Ingushetia to President Murat Zyazikov, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) general. Gutseriyev, too, is an Ingush. On May 4, the Azerbaijani news agency reported that Russneft has opened an office in Baku that Gutseriyev personally will head. LF

North Caucasus Railways official Omar Alilov was seriously injured on May 14 when a bomb exploded in his car as he was driving to his office in Makhachkala, Russian media reported. Alilov, a Lak, was arrested in June 2005 on suspicion of being behind two unsuccessful attempts, in November 2004 and February 2005, to assassinate former Deputy Prime Minister Amuchi Amutinov, who currently heads Daghestan's pension fund. The Supreme Court in February 2006 acquitted Alilov and three other men accused of the failed assassination attempt for lack of evidence. In June 2006 the Russian Supreme Court overturned the acquittal, but on April 5 Daghestan's Supreme Court upheld the verdict of not guilty. Amutinov has not commented on the attempt to kill Alilov, but the daily "Kommersant" on May 15 quoted persons close to Amutinov as saying he believes the perpetrators hoped to incriminate him. LF

Sapar Laypanov, an ally of Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic President Mustafa Batdyev who claims victory in the March 11 mayoral election in Karachayevesk, the republic's second-largest town, announced on May 14 that he will begin discharging his duties as mayor the following day, reported. Supporters of rival candidate Magomed Botashev promptly occupied the mayoral office to prevent Laypanov from making good on his pledge, and declared a hunger strike. They argue that Laypanov has no right to take up the mayoral duties until the republic's Election Commission complies with a ruling by the Supreme Court to recalculate the number of ballots cast for each candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and April 24, 25, and 30, 2007). The commission claims it is unable to do so as the city prosecutor refuses to make available protocols from a number of polling stations. Supreme Court Chairman Islam Burlakov, who lost to Batdyev in the 2003 presidential ballot, supports Botashev. LF

In a statement released on May 14, Robert Kocharian congratulated the Armenian electorate on the positive assessment given by international observers to the May 12 parliamentary election, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian said international observers assessed the ballot as free, fair, and transparent, and that it constituted "a further step towards democracy." At the same time, Kocharian called for a swift and thorough investigation of all alleged procedural violations. Also on May 14, the Armenian NGO It's Your Choice, which deployed some 4,000 election observers, released its preliminary findings. Its chairman, Harutiun Hambartsumian, told RFE/RL that despite shortcomings and violations, the May 12 elections were "better and took place in a more civilized atmosphere" than previous ballots. But Stepan Demirchian, head of the opposition People's Party of Armenia that failed to win a single parliament mandate, accused Western observers on May 14 of turning a blind eye to egregious fraud in the name of unspecified geopolitical interests, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said the ballot was not free and fair, and accused the authorities of seeking to weaken him in the run-up to the presidential ballot due next spring. In the 2003 presidential election, Demirchian lost to Kocharian in a runoff, just as his father Karen had done in the 1998 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 1998 and March 12, 2003). LF

The family of Yerevan restaurant owner Levon Ghulian has asked Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian to intervene to clarify the circumstances of Ghulian's death in police custody on May 12, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 14. Ghulian was detained for questioning as a possible witness to a gun battle in the vicinity of his restaurant on May 9 in which one man was shot dead. Police say he died after falling from a window of a police precinct in Yerevan, but his family claims that his body shows signs of torture and a blow to the head that could not have been caused by such a fall. LF

Zviad Dzidziguri, a member of the opposition Democratic Front Georgian parliament faction, said on May 14 that he has asked the Georgian Foreign Ministry to clarify comments made by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during a May 12 visit to Tbilisi by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Caucasus Press and reported. Saakashvili was quoted as saying that a solution to the dispute over ownership of the David Gareja medieval cave monastery complex will be formalized "soon" under which the monastery complex will be designated Georgian territory, while Azerbaijan will retain the adjacent strategic heights. Dzidziguri claimed that Saakashvili's formulation is nonsense, given that the Resurrection monastery and some cells are located in the strategic heights. The ongoing process of delimiting the Georgian-Azerbaijani frontier has revived the latent dispute between scholars in the two countries over whether the monastery buildings are Georgian or Caucasian Albanian. In Baku too, politicians queried Saakashvili's comments, arguing that the entire monastery complex is Azerbaijani territory, the online daily reported on May 15. Both Umid (Hope) party chairman Iqbal Agazade and parliament deputy Ilyas Ismaylov pointed out that the Azerbaijan Republic Constitution requires a nationwide referendum to be held on ceding any part of the country's territory. LF

Zurab Noghaideli said at a May 14 briefing in Tbilisi that the Georgian authorities remain committed to dialogue with Eduard Kokoity, de facto president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, but that such a dialogue requires the participation of both sides, Caucasus Press reported. Noghaideli also said that persistent tensions in the conflict zone are delaying reconstruction work for which the international community has allocated some 10 million euros ($13.5 million). Also on May 14, President Saakashvili paid an unannounced visit to Gori, close to the border with South Ossetia, where he demanded that Kokoity lift the blockade of road communications he imposed several days earlier; Kokoity has complied with that demand, Caucasus Press reported on May 15. Dmitry Sanakoyev, the pro-Georgian South Ossetian leader whom Saakashvili named on May 10 to head a provisional South Ossetian administration, launched a similar appeal to Kokoity on May 13 to lift the "pointless" blockade. Meanwhile, the leadership of North Ossetia has appealed to the Russian government to reopen the Verkhny Lars border crossing with Georgia that was closed without prior notice in July 2006, reported on May 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 12, and 13, 2006). LF

The Kazakh mining company Kazakhmys, which is listed on the London stock exchange, announced on May 14 that it has reached an agreement to buy Canadian-registered Eurasia Gold for $260 million, Mineweb reported. The announcement said that Kumar Mukashev, who controls 79 percent of Eurasia Gold, has accepted the offer from Kazakhmys. Eurasia Gold operates gold mines in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with total reserves of nearly 2 million ounces, Delo reported. DK

Kazakh Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov told Kazakhstan's Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) on May 14 that companies with Chinese capital account for one third of Kazakhstan's oil production, Interfax reported. Izmukhambetov said that total production in 2007 will reach 60 million tons of crude, of which companies with Chinese capital will produce 20 million tons. Izmukhambetov also said that oil production in January-April 2007 increased 7.1 percent year-on-year to 18.2 million tons. DK

President Nursultan Nazarbaev said on May 14 in Astana that he plans to submit amendments to the Kazakh constitution to parliament for consideration later this week, Interfax reported. Nazarbaev said that the amendments deal with five issues: "Firstly, the transfer of powers from the president to the parliament and the system of parliamentary elections; secondly, the role of political parties; thirdly, the need to give a greater say to local governments; fourthly, further development of the law enforcement system; and, fifthly, the development of guarantees of human rights and freedoms." Igor Rogov, chairman of the Constitutional Council, said the amendments' primary purpose is to change the country's system of government by giving more power to the legislature. DK

Opposition deputy Melis Eshimkanov told parliament on May 14 that he plans to sell the Kyrgyz-language opposition newspaper "Agym," news agency reported. Eshimkanov said that his ownership of the newspaper has begun to create problems for him. As an example, Eshimkanov said that officers from the National Security Committee came to his office three days ago and seized financial documents dating from the beginning of an opposition rally on April 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). The Kyrgyz authorities confiscated the print run of "Agym" after police broke up an opposition demonstration in Bishkek on April 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). DK

Rolf Ekeus, the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities, met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe on May 14, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Ekeus said their talks focused on "such issues as regional cooperation, and paid a lot of attention to the education of ethnic minorities and their integration into the social and political life of the country," Interfax reported. Ekeus told journalists after the meeting that an OSCE-sponsored project to teach ethnic minorities the state language of the countries where they reside will include Afghanistan in addition to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. DK

Some 600 delegates have been selected at regional conventions during the past several weeks for the Second Congress of Pro-Democratic Forces, Belapan reported on May 14. The congress is scheduled to take place in Minsk on May 26-27, but its organizers have so far failed to rent a venue. One of the key issues at the congress will be determining whether the Political Council of the United Democratic Forces, the coordinating body of the Belarusian opposition, will be headed by one person or by a number of rotating co-chairs. The principle of rotating leadership in the Belarusian democratic camp is opposed by former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. Most delegates to the congress are reportedly in favor of having several leaders take turns running the Political Council. JM

The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has called on the UN General Assembly to deny Belarus membership in the UN Human Rights Council, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on May 14. "The presentation of Belarus as a candidate for the Human Rights Council -- alongside Slovenia from the Eastern European group -- is nothing less than scandalous, given Belarus's dismal human rights record," the PACE committee said in a statement. The election of new members to the UN Human Rights Council is to be held on May 17. Eastern Europe is entitled to two seats on the council; only Slovenia and Belarus have been proposed to fill these vacancies. JM

Raisa Bohatyryova, the lawmaker who coordinates the parties of Ukraine's ruling coalition in the Verkhovna Rada, pledged on May 14 that the anticrisis working group created earlier this month will do "as much as possible" within the next two days to prepare all documents needed to hold early parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Bohatyryova added that the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party will then propose roundtable talks with the participation of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to decide on a further course of action. Meanwhile, lawmaker Yosyp Vinskyy of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc said the same day that the working group is "unlikely" to reach a compromise on early polls on May 15 in time to set the date for elections on May 16, as agreed by Yushchenko and Yanukovych last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko was similarly skeptical, telling journalists on May 15 that it will be "difficult" for the working group to agree on snap elections, UNIAN reported. JM

Taras Chornovil, a lawmaker of the ruling Party of Regions, said in the Verkhovna Rada on May 15 that a "party of war around the president" has prepared "a number of actions to whip up tensions and initiate very severe provocations" in Ukraine in the hope that the current political crisis will turn violent, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. According to Chornovil, the "party of war" is led by Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha. Chornovil asserted that President Yushchenko dismissed National Security and Defense Council head Vitaliy Hayduk last week because Hayduk had refused to obey Yushchenko's "dirty orders" intended to further destabilize the situation in Ukraine. "According to our information, representatives of the party of war have already instructed one servile, ultraleftist, nonparliamentary provoke mass disorder so as to provide grounds for introducing a state of emergency, direct presidential rule, and other [measures]," Chornovil said. "I want to warn them against crossing that line." JM

The Serbian parliament is expected to approve on May 15 a new EU-oriented government, averting by a matter of hours the need for new elections to be held, Serbian media reported on May 14 and 15. For weeks, the Serbian media and politicians almost uniformly stated that May 14 was the deadline, but on May 12 the head of the Constitutional Court, Slobodan Vucetic, clarified that midnight May 15 is the cutoff point. Serbia held parliamentary elections on January 21. The debate in parliament on May 14 centered on changes to legislation relating to government ministries, as the coalition deal envisages the transfer of some responsibilities between ministries, the creation of a new ministry for Kosova, and the abolition of the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights. In all, the deal reportedly entails 90 changes. To save time, a debate on who should replace Tomislav Nikolic, an extreme nationalist, as the speaker of parliament was deferred (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). On May 15, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who would retain the premiership in the new government, is set to make a policy statement in the late afternoon, after which the new government should be formally approved. While the looming deadline theoretically raises the prospect of filibustering, Nikolic's Serbian Radical Party, the country's largest parliamentary and opposition party, told journalists on May 14 that "the constitutional deadline for forming the government will not be exceeded," and the universal expectation is that the government will be voted in before the deadline. That confidence was demonstrated when the Serbian winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, Marija Serifovic, appeared in the chamber, prompting a standing ovation and a 30-minute recess to allow members of parliament to have their picture taken with her. AG

In a decision that has appears to have split Kosova's ethnic Albanian leadership, Kosova will not send a representative to a summit of foreign ministers from the Organization of the Islamic Conference, local media reported on May 14 and 15. In an interview with Radio-Television Kosova on May 14, the head of the team negotiating on Kosova's final status, Veton Surroi, criticized the decision as a missed opportunity, "because there would be 54 Islamic countries at the conference, which would have had a huge impact at the UN." The summit began on May 15. In its May 15 edition, the daily "Koha ditore" quoted sources close to the negotiating team as saying Prishtina fears participation in the conference could be interpreted as showing a pro-Islamic orientation. Another daily, "Express," reported on May 15 that there has been a harsh exchange of words between Surroi and President Fatmir Sejdiu over the issue. In his May 14 television interview, Surroi indicated that he was originally scheduled to attend, but that decision was reversed at the last minute, while he was in Malaysia, which is one of the UN Security Council's 15 members. AG

Hashim Thaci, the leading figure in the Kosovar Albanian opposition, on May 10 stated his opposition to Kosova declaring its independence from Serbia without the support of the UN Security Council, the Kosovar Albanian daily "Koha ditore" reported on May 11. "We liberated Kosova together with the international community. We will gain independence for Kosova together with the United States, the EU, NATO, and all other partners," Thaci said. "Kosova will become independent in partnership with the international community, by respecting the procedures that we have, naturally together with the Contact Group and the Security Council," Thaci insisted. The Contact Group comprises six states that are leading diplomatic efforts to resolve Kosova's future status: France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Thaci said a unilateral move would be "very harmful," and said he would "not be party to any such one-sided action, but only to joint actions with Washington and Brussels." Thaci stated, however, that he believes independence is "a foregone conclusion." Thaci, a separatist military commander during the 1998-99 conflict, leads the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), the largest opposition party, and is a member of the team that negotiated with Serbia on the future of Kosova. AG

Hashim Thaci's current tour of Kosova to meet members of local communities took him on May 12 to the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, where, according to Radio-Television Kosova, he told local people that "not a single inch of Kosova territory will be divided." As the dispute over Kosova's final status has dragged on, the possibility of partitioning the region has increasingly been aired, though not by politicians in Belgrade or in Prishtina. In another recent tour of the province, Prime Minister Agim Ceku last week sought to convince ethnic Serbs that their future lies in Kosova. He emphasized the Kosovar Albanian view that Serbs' freedom of movement is not restricted, and assured them that a newly independent Kosova would meet international standards on the protection of minorities. He has also underlined the economic prospects. "There will be jobs for tens of thousands of people. There will be jobs for everyone," Ceku told young Serbs in Cagllavice (Caglavica), "Koha ditore" reported on May 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). AG

Eighteen ethnic Albanians, including three U.S. citizens, on May 14 appeared in a court in Podgorica to face charges that they conspired to mount terrorist attacks and an armed insurgency, local and international media reported. Their alleged aim was to win independence for a small area along the Albanian border that is heavily populated by ethnic Albanians. The alleged plot, commonly referred to in Montenegro as "the Eagle's Flight," was discovered on the eve of Montenegro's parliamentary elections in September 2006, when police found a cache of weapons in a cave in the eastern region of Malesija. According to AP, the alleged mastermind, a fourth U.S. citizen, Doda Ljucaj, is currently under arrest in Austria awaiting extradition. The prosecutor alleges that the conspirators were helped by groups in Kosova and funded by the Albanian diaspora in the United States. The case has been dogged by controversy, above all by allegations that the suspects were beaten in custody, a claim made once again in court on May 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). The prosecutor in charge of the case, Stojanka Radovic, has also been placed under special protection after receiving warnings that she might be a target for a Kosovar Albanian group. Estimates of the number of Albanians in Montenegro range from 5 to 7 percent of the 630,000-strong population. AG

Italy's deputy justice minister, Alberto Maritati, on May 11 said that at least 210 Albanian criminals wanted by the Italian police are currently at large in Albania, the Albanian newspaper "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on May 12. In a meeting with Albanian Justice Minister Ilir Rusmajli, Maritati asked Albania, as a first step, to arrest and extradite at least 70 of the suspects. All of them have reportedly already been sentenced by Italian courts. Maritati told journalists their arrest would be a "a test of the will" of Albania's authorities to cooperate with Italian authorities. He said the Albanian government had expressed its support and blamed delays in receiving documents from Italy and delays in the Prosecutor-General's Office. The Albanian government sacked one prosecutor-general, Theodhori Sollaku, in July 2006, although the slow speed of his office's investigations was not the main reason (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2006). Maritati indicated that institutional conflicts in Albania have reduced the level of cooperation with Italian authorities. The time period he cited -- the past two years -- suggests cooperation has not improved since Sollaku's removal. In an unrelated case, the Albanian newspaper "Shekulli" reported on May 12 that an appeals court on May 11 turned down a U.S. request for Albania to extradite a suspected drug dealer on the grounds that he is currently on trial in Albania. Armand Andoni jumped bail in the United States, where he was known as Brian Burke. AG

Edi Rama was on May 12 reelected leader of Albania's leading opposition party, the Socialists, local media reported the same day. He won 97.5 percent of the vote, a victory that belies tensions over planned changes to the party's statutes, the mooted presidential candidacy of one former Socialist prime minister, Fatos Nano, and the resignation of another former Socialist prime minister, Pandeli Majko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2006). In another sign of unity, the Socialists recently agreed to back President Alfred Moisiu for a second term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). The Socialist Party, which has 80,000 registered members, emerged as the strongest party in local elections in February. AG

Moldova's Trade and Economy Ministry on May 10 released a slew of economic figures, local media reported the same day, though not the most important data, gross domestic product. Worryingly, industrial output was down 11.5 percent on the year. That makes it the only country in the former Soviet Union to see production fall, the news agency Basa reported on May 5, citing figures from the Commonwealth of Independent States Statistics Committee. Exports to the EU surged 31.1 percent year-on-year in the first two months of 2007, but the increase in total exports was just 4.6 percent, in large part because Moldovan wine producers are finding it difficult to return to the Russian market after an eight-month ban imposed in March 2006. Exports are dwarfed by imports, both in size and in growth: imports were almost three times larger than exports, and grew by 42.9 percent year-on-year. In an encouraging sign, tax collection in the first three months was 37 percent higher than in the same period of 2006. Moldova's currency, the lei, has gained 3 percent on the dollar since the start of the year and 1.5 percent against the euro. President Vladimir Voronin recently introduced a range of measures flagged as liberalization and a stimulus for economic growth (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 24, 2007). In an interview with the news agency Basa on May 11, the head of the International Monetary Fund's mission in Moldova, Thomas Richardson, voiced some skepticism about Voronin's program. As well as stating his opposition to the tax amnesty offered, he said the measures will probably be effective only if they are complemented by other broader reforms, such as reform of the judiciary. He added that as long as the judiciary does not protect property rights effectively, "none of the president's economic reforms will really have any significant impact." AG

EU foreign ministers decided in Brussels on May 14 to scale back the bloc's punitive sanctions against Uzbekistan in an apparent concession to Germany, which pushed for a greater relaxing of sanctions.

The ministers' vote sends an encouraging signal to Uzbekistan, which has been under pressure since security forces opened fire on demonstrators in May 2005. The EU will drop four names from its original list of 12 senior officials banned from receiving travel visas to EU countries.

Speaking after the decision, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the decision represented a compromise within the EU. "I think it's important to keep up the sanctions on the one hand but, on the other hand, show that we also appreciate the first results that we have been having for the first time in the human rights [dialogue], for instance," Ferrero-Waldner said.

EU member states were deadlocked as late as earlier on May 14 over how to respond to recent attempts by Tashkent to restore ties. The result is a compromise, calculated by Germany, the current holder of the EU's rotating Presidency. EU diplomats told RFE/RL that efforts by Berlin to ease the sanctions ran into stiff opposition from most other EU member states.

The success of a first-ever EU strategy for Central Asia -- a stated German priority slated to be adopted by the bloc's June summit -- is seen in Brussels as dependant on Uzbekistan's willingness to cooperate.

The EU imposed limited sanctions on Tashkent in the wake of mass killings by Uzbek security forces in Andijon in May, 2005. They include the visa ban on officials involved in Andijon, a freeze on technical contacts, and an arms embargo. Initially, the sanctions were said by the EU to be conditional on an independent international inquiry into the Andijon events.

Rights groups say hundreds of people were killed at Andijon, although the government says 187 people died and that Islamic militants instigated the violence. Uzbek groups abroad marked the second anniversary of Andijon on May 12-13.

Technical contacts were resumed in late 2006. Uzbek and EU experts have twice met to discuss the Andijon events, without any tangible results, EU officials say. A human rights dialogue has also been launched, but it has been confined to a single, low-level annual meeting. Germany reportedly pressed fellow members for a greater easing of sanctions.

The cut in the number of officials affected by the visa ban is seen as significant because Tashkent reportedly regarded the ban as particularly irksome. EU officials were unable to immediately provide the names of the officials scratched off that list. All are said to have been removed from the offices they held at the time of the crackdown in Andijon.

Germany also managed to insert a sentence into the EU declaration indicating the bloc wants to drop the sanctions eventually. But resistance led by Sweden and Britain reportedly watered down that statement to say that the EU "stands ready to consider the lifting of restrictions" if the Uzbek government "engages constructively" in implementing international human rights obligations.

Critics of entrenched Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his administration say they have no confidence in Tashkent's willingness to reform. Skeptics have also been angered by comments attributed to Karimov suggesting that many in the EU are coming to the conclusion that accusations against Uzbek officials over Andijon are unfounded.

The May 14 EU statement also says the bloc views with "great concern" the recent arrests of human rights defenders Umida Niyazova and Gulbahor Turaeva. Brussels notes that Niyazova has been freed, but the EU also calls on Uzbekistan to quickly honor a promise to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons.

German officials have repeatedly said the EU should assume a more active role in energy-rich Central Asia, where Russia and China are seen as strategic competitors. Uzbekistan, as the region's most populous country, is key to German plans to develop a comprehensive EU strategy for the region.

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

A soldier attached to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was killed and four other ISAF troops were wounded near Teri Mangal in Pakistan on May 14, a statement on ISAF's website reported. A Pakistani soldier was also killed and three were injured in the attack. The soldiers were ambushed "by unknown assailants" after leaving a border meeting between ISAF, Afghan, and Pakistani representatives. While ISAF did not identify the soldiers' nationality, Pakistan armed forces spokesman Major General Wahid Arshad said the dead and injured ISAF troops were from the United States, Karachi-based Geo News TV reported on May 14. Arshad blamed unidentified "miscreants" for the attack. The meeting in Pakistan was organized in response to armed clashes between Afghan and Pakistani forces in the border region which began on May 13. Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimi said in Kabul on May 14 that "a Pakistani officer opened fire" on the joint Afghan-NATO delegation, killing two soldiers and wounding three, Kabul-based Tolo Television reported the same day. Azimi said one of the injured soldiers was Afghan, while the other four were "coalition soldiers," Tolo Television reported. According to Azimi, Afghan and U.S. forces returned fire, killing a "large number" of Pakistanis. However, Pakistani military spokesman Arshad rejected the Afghan Defense Ministry's claim that a Pakistani officer shot and killed U.S. soldiers, calling the charge totally incorrect, Geo reported on May 14. AT

The Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan was summoned to the Afghan Foreign Ministry on May 14 to receive Afghanistan's "strong protest" over "provocative" actions by Pakistan, a statement posted on the Afghan Foreign Ministry's website said. Additionally, Afghanistan has sent an "official complaint" letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regarding what it described as "flagrant interference and irresponsible actions by the Pakistani" military. Kabul claims that Pakistani forces entered Afghan territory and destroyed border posts, erecting their own posts in their place, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on May 14. According to the Afghan authorities, 13 Afghans, including six border policemen, have been killed in two days of clashes between Afghan and Pakistani forces. Defense Ministry spokesman Azimi said that in fighting on May 14, Afghan forces killed eight Pakistani soldiers and captured five. But Pakistani military spokesman Arshad said that no clashes occurred between Pakistani and Afghan forces on May 14, state-run PTV reported. The clashes have been taking place along a stretch of the Afghan-Pakistani border where Pakistan is erecting fences to stop militants and smugglers from moving illegally between the two countries. Kabul vehemently rejects the installation of fences or other barriers, because such measures would presumably lend legitimacy to a boundary that it is not properly demarcated and that Afghanistan does not officially recognize (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," August 7, 2003 and January 15, 2007). AT

A purported Taliban spokesman, Yusof Ahmadi, has confirmed the death of senior Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, following an initial denial , AFP reported on May 14. Dadullah was killed in a joint operation between Afghan troops and the U.S.-led coalition in southern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). According to Ahmadi, the Taliban leadership council has appointed Dadullah's younger brother, Mullah Bakht Mohammad, to replace him as the senior commander of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Dadullah's death "is not going to slow down the Taliban jihad," Ahmadi told AFP. Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the movement's leadership have expressed their condolences to Dadullah's family, his fighters, "the Muslims of Afghanistan, and the Muslims of the world," Ahmadi said, adding that there are "hundreds and thousands of mujahedin who are able to replace Mullah Dadullah very well." While Dadullah's death may be a blow to the Taliban movement's morale in the short term, in the long run his death may actually help the Taliban's image. Many in the Taliban ranks, while not openly opposing Dadullah, were reported to have disapproved of his avowed close association with Al-Qaeda and the beheadings Dadullah and his men carried out. Some more mainstream Taliban members are instead trying to portray themselves as an Afghan movement, and not a gang of kidnappers and executioners. AT

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad continued his Persian Gulf tour on May 14, leaving the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) for the Sultanate of Oman, agencies reported. Before leaving, he told a press conference in the U.A.E. capital, Abu Dhabi, that Iran would firmly respond to any U.S. military strikes against it, and that Iran is no longer threatened by the possibility of military attack, ISNA reported. He said Iran is serious in seeking defensive arrangements between Persian Gulf littoral states to assure that countries in the region can defend the gulf's security. He said there are no limits to the scope of bilateral relations between Iran and its Gulf neighbors. Ahmadinejad spoke of the formation of a joint Iran-U.A.E. committee, to be headed by the countries' foreign ministers, to discuss cooperation in trade, energy, and tourism, AP reported. He also affirmed Iran's readiness to upgrade relations with Egypt, with which Iran has had difficult relations since its 1979 revolution. He said he is ready to reopen Iran's embassy in Cairo "by the end of the working day today," if Egypt is interested, ISNA reported. VS

Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, met in Tehran on May 14 with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov to discuss bilateral cooperation, ISNA and IRNA reported. Borujerdi told Losyukov that the experience of building the Bushehr nuclear plant in southern Iran, a joint Iranian-Russian project, "was not a positive and good experience" of bilateral cooperation, and "has had negative effects on Iranian public opinion." Iran and Russia have had differences over payments, and Iran has several times complained about the slow pace of construction. "Relations between our two countries and especially...parliamentary relations need new movement," he said. Losyukov stressed the importance to bilateral ties of completing the Bushehr plant, and said Russia would like to participate in the future construction of power plants in Iran. He said Iran and Russia have close views on Middle East and Iraqi affairs, ISNA reported. Separately, Iran's northeastern Khorasan-i Razavi Province signed a cooperation agreement on May 14 with Saratov Oblast in Russia, IRNA reported. The agreement foresees cooperation between regional firms in heavy industry, manufacturing, and agriculture, and regular meetings between the trade chambers of their respective capitals, Mashhad and Saratov, IRNA reported. VS

The chief prosecutor of Mashhad, Gholamhussein Ismaili, said on May 13 or 14 that 15 people convicted of drug trafficking were hanged in the city in the previous ten days, Radio Farda reported, citing "Quds," a regional daily. The report said that this brought the number of executions this year to 72, presumably country-wide, though the report did not specify. Radio Farda cited Amnesty International as recording 177 executions in Iran in 2006, and 94 officially reported executions in 2005, though the rights group believes the actual number is higher. Separately, Iran arrested 10 suspected spies near its southeastern border with Pakistan, Radio Farda reported on May 14, citing Reuters and an Iranian television report from the previous day. The suspects were reportedly caught with $500,000, maps of sensitive sites in Iran, and powerful binoculars. VS

Amid ongoing moves to ensure that Iranians wear sober and decent clothing in public, in line with Iran's religious laws, officials have been telling women to tighten their head scarves at airports, and prevented some from boarding their flights because of their appearance, Radio Farda reported on May 14, citing Iranian media reports. Iranian police began a drive to enforce public decency on the streets in April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 19, 2007). Radio Farda quoted the police chief for national airports, Mahmud Botshekan, as saying that some 17,000 female passengers were told to mind their head scarves, and 50 prevented from boarding their flights at various airports. The report did not specify when the police initiative at airports began. Botshekan said police are training more female officers to deal with women breaking dress rules at airports. In other news, police have arrested some 4,000 people in Tehran Province in recent days for "bothering" family groups in public places, and 101 are to be prosecuted, Radio Farda reported on May 14, citing Tehran provincial police chief Reza Zarei. VS

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq warned the United States in a May 14 Internet statement against searching for three missing soldiers the group says it abducted in Al-Mahmudiyah on May 12. The group implied that it kidnapped the soldiers to get back at the United States for its supposed arrogance, citing U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell's alleged cockiness when he announced the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Muharib Abd al-Latif al-Juburi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2007). The statement claimed that Caldwell is now pale and speechless in the wake of the abductions. The group also reminded U.S. soldiers of what happened in Al-Mahmudiyah, referring to the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2006). "We say to you that your search for your soldiers will lead you nowhere except to exhaustion and annoyance. Your soldiers are in our hands, and if you want [to ensure] the safety of your soldiers, do not look for them," the statement said. "We are confident that you would rather have your entire army annihilated than to have even one Crusader captured." The statement ends by calling on God to make the "Crusaders'" weapons and equipment "easy booty for Muslims." KR

U.S.-led coalition forces have captured an alleged senior leader of the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army in Mosul, according to a May 15 press release. The suspect is accused of providing weapons, documentation, and financial support for Ansar insurgents in Iraq. A separate raid against Ansar insurgents in Al-Fallujah led to the detention of six suspected insurgents. Meanwhile, three Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents were detained in a raid northwest of Al-Taji, the press release added. KR

A statement attributed to "Al-Qaeda" has warned Kurds against converting to Christianity or Zoroastrianism, the Kurdish weekly "Chawder" reported on May 14. The newspaper did not say whether the statement was issued by the Islamic State of Iraq. No insurgent group operating in Iraq uses the name "Al-Qaeda." The statement, circulated in towns in Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate, said the group is "hunting down those who have converted" to the two religions "and destroying them." Local Christian leader Luqman Khadir Muhammad said the church "welcomes [Al-Qaeda's] decision if they decide to kill only us and not harm the people in markets and other places," the daily reported. KR

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on May 14 that the Arab states are ill-prepared to deal with the Iraq issue. Asked what role Arab states could play to help the Iraqi government, Musa said: "The Arab world is also in a dilemma, and any solution must be based on national accord among Iraqis.... Without such an accord there will not be a new Iraq." While stressing that the Arab League has pushed for national reconciliation in Iraq, Musa said that as secretary-general, he has no plans to hold an extraordinary Arab summit on Iraq, and that it would be up to Arab foreign ministers to propose such a meeting. Asked about criticisms by former Arab League representative to Iraq Mukhtar Lamani (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007), Musa said: "That matter is over now, and there is another representative. The mission's charge d'affaires left for Baghdad yesterday. A league representative has been appointed and he too will be leaving for Baghdad soon." Musa contended that Lamani was frustrated with the Arab states, rather than with the Arab League. KR

The Japanese parliament extended Japan's air-support mission to Iraq for another two years on May 15, international media reported. The current mission was due to expire in June. Japanese troops withdrew from Iraq last year, but the country continues to operate cargo and personnel missions using air support from a base in Kuwait. KR