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Newsline - May 16, 2007

During an hour-long meeting at Russian President Vladimir Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence on May 15, Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed delicate issues in the difficult relationship between the two countries and agreed to soften the increasingly aggressive rhetoric between Moscow and Washington, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Speaking after the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Putin "supported the understanding by the American side that rhetoric in public exchanges should be toned down, and we should focus on concrete issues," Reuters reported. Interfax quoted Lavrov as stressing that Rice and Putin agreed that Russian-U.S. relations "should not become an hostage of electoral cycles, that are about to start in both countries." However, both Rice and Lavrov refused to give any ground over some of the most delicate issues, including Kosova and U.S. plans to build a missile-defense shield in Central Europe, "The Moscow Times" reported. Russian newspapers commented that no significant agreement was reached at the talks. The daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on May 16 said it was "a day of conflicts of interests," while "Kommersant" said it was a "day of good manners." Rice said she had an extremely interesting discussion of Russian domestic policy and the upcoming elections with Lavrov and Putin. NTV television showed Rice promising that the United States will not try to influence the outcome of parliamentary elections in December and the presidential vote next March. She also said the United States will continue supporting the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia. After the meeting with Putin, Rice also held talks with five NGO and business leaders. One of the participants, Irina Yasina, told Ekho Moskvy radio that she was the only critical voice at that meeting. FF

President Putin told visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on May 15 that there is no conflict of interests between his country and the European Union, but mainly differing viewpoints on how to reach solutions on various issues, Interfax reported. Moscow's disputes with the three EU new members states -- over a ban on Polish food imports, a bitter row over the removal of a Soviet war memorial from the center of the Estonian capital, and Lithuania's demands to restart oil supplies via a Soviet-era pipeline -- have overshadowed a summit scheduled for May 17-18 near the Russian city of Samara. Germany currently holds the EU Presidency. Steinmeier was in Moscow in a last-minute attempt to defuse the situation at talks with Putin. FF

Echoing President Putin, senior Russian officials on May 16 issued reassuring statements on Russia-EU relations, Russian news agencies reported. RIA Novosti quoted Putin's aide for relations with the EU, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, as saying that "like Mark Twain who said, 'the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,' we can say that reports of a crisis have been exaggerated to say the least." Yastrzhembsky reiterated Putin's words that Russia and the European Union are not experiencing a crisis in their relations. However, he said that a new strategic cooperation agreement with the EU will not be signed this year. The agreement was expected to be a central issue at the upcoming summit in Samara. Yastrzhembsky said the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which expires in December, will not be signed in 2007 after Poland extended its November 2006 veto on the talks, RIA Novosti reported. FF

Speaking at a news conference in Moscow on May 16, Yastrzhembsky also slammed new members of the EU for what he called their anti-Russian "complexes," Interfax reported. In a reference to Moscow's disputes with Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania, Yastrzhembsky said, "In some of the EU countries...young elites who have come into politics recently have brought complexes not only into local relations but also into politics as a whole." The news agency quoted him as adding that "one cannot speak of all countries that are new members of the EU as of a single, monolithic power that is building machinations to prevent a more extensive partnership between Russia and the EU." On May 15, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said, "It must not be permitted that relations between Russia and the EU, which are crucial for the future of Europe, become hostage to the attitude of some EU countries," Interfax reported. Kamynin was commenting on Poland's decision to maintain its veto on the beginning of talks on a new agreement between Russia and the EU. FF

Sergei Kiriyenko, who is the head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), and Myanmar's visiting science and technology minister, U Thaung, have agreed that Russia will help build a nuclear reactor in Myanmar, according to a May 16 report in "The Moscow Times." The daily quoted Rosatom as saying in a statement that the plan is to build a nuclear-power research center and light-water reactor, with a heat-generation capacity of 10 megawatts. The reactor will use 20 percent-enriched nuclear fuel, the statement said. Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov told "The Moscow Times" that "so far, a political decision has been taken that says yes, we can do this. This agreement simply opens the door so a contract can be concluded." He added that the project was first floated in 2000 and talks were nearly concluded before Russia pulled out in 2003. Myanmar's reluctance to pay cash up front has been cited as the reason for that deal falling apart. Also on May 16, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said Russia and the United States have agreed to preserve a U.S.-Russian initiative on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, while accepting the rights of certain states to peaceful nuclear energy. The report quoted Alexander Kliment, an analyst at Eurasia Group, as saying that "the commercial benefits of a deal with a country as small as Myanmar are not immediately evident." Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been under U.S. and international sanctions since 1990, when the military junta refused to accept the election victory of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. FF

The Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) Election Commission has formally appealed to the Russian Supreme Court to annul an April 20 decision by the KChR Supreme Court that the March 11 mayoral elections in the town of Karachayevsk were valid and that opposition candidate Magomet Botashev was the winner, reported on May 15. The election commission earlier annulled the outcome of the ballot, in which initial returns indicated that Botashev defeated rival candidate Sapar Laypanov by a few hundred votes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, April 24, 25, and 30, and May 15, 2007). Laypanov and Botashev enjoy the support respectively of KChR President Mustafa Batdyev and of KChR Supreme Court President Islam Burlakov. Burlakov was one of Batdyev's unsuccessful challengers in the 2003 KChR presidential election. LF

Addressing a session in Rostov-na-Donu on May 15 of several State Duma commissions that focus on security issues, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak advocated the passage of legislation that would introduce fundamental changes both in the way the effectiveness of law-enforcement agencies is assessed and in monitoring their funding and expenditure, according to RIA Novosti as cited by Specifically, Kozak suggested that all police employees should be required to inform their superior of every offer of a bribe they receive. "Today we have a situation in which a large number of people with extensive power receive low salaries," he reasoned. He further cited statistical data showing that there is no correlation between the amount of funding the police in a given republic receive and the effectiveness of their work. LF

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which according to preliminary returns won 16 seats in the 131-seat parliament elected on May 12, making it the third-largest faction, accepted on May 15 the outcome of the ballot but left open the question whether it will again form a coalition government with the majority Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The HHD has been a junior partner in government since 1999. Its May 15 statement wished the HHK success, and welcomed the almost 60 percent voter turnout. One of the party's leading members, Armen Rustamian, told journalists on May 15 that the HHD will continue to support President Robert Kocharian, but that it has not yet been invited to join the new government. Prior to the ballot, Rustamian and other leading HHD members said they would join a new government only if the party received the Defense Ministry portfolio, and that it would not join a coalition composed of the HHK and the Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) party headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian. HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov told RFE/RL on May 15 that his party, which will apparently have 65-66 parliament mandates, has not yet decided whether to try to form a government with BH, which will have some 25 parliament mandates, and the HHD. LF

The Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, which will have six seats in the new parliament, has not yet decided whether to join radical opposition parties in challenging the outcome of the ballot, its chairman, U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, said on May 15. The first vote results from Yerevan showed Zharangutiun in second place after the HHK, and a party official told Noyan Tapan on May 13 that there was a major discrepancy between the party's performance in Yerevan and outside the capital. Hovannisian on May 15 alleged that the number of votes cast outside Yerevan for Zharangutiun was arbitrarily revised downwards from 250,000 to 80,000. He nonetheless added that the party will probably not challenge the official results, nor will it boycott the work of the new parliament. LF

Senior Armenian Interior Ministry officials met on May 15 in Yerevan with relatives of restaurant owner Levon Ghulian and promised to conduct, and inform them of the findings of, an investigation into the circumstances of his death, Noyan Tapan reported. Police claim Ghulian jumped or fell from a window to his death while being questioned about a shooting death he witnessed on May 9; his relatives say the injuries on his body could not have been sustained that way (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). LF

The trial opened in Baku on May 15 of former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev, his brother Rafik, formerly head of the retailer Azpetrol, and 16 other people, Azerbaijani media reported. Farhad Aliyev is charged with embezzlement, tax evasion, smuggling, abuse of his official position, and accepting large bribes; Rafik Aliyev is charged with violating the right to ownership of land, illegal logging, and deceit. When the two men were arrested in October 2005, they were also accused of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership; they will face trial separately on those charges. Both men have pled not guilty. On the first day of the hearing, relatives of the accused, Western diplomats, and opposition journalists were barred from the courtroom, although there were 10 vacant seats not taken by displaced persons bussed to Baku to attend, the daily reported on May 16. LF

Police in Baku used force on May 15 to prevent some 30 journalists from staging a protest picket on one of the city squares, reported. The journalists planned to demand an end to police harassment and official reprisals against the media and the release of Eynulla Fatullayev, who was jailed last month for 2 and 1/2 years on libel charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and 30, 2007). LF

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili met in Brussels on May 15 with EU Foreign and Security Policy Commissioner Javier Solana to discuss the situation in South Ossetia following the appointment last week by President Mikheil Saakashvili of Dmitry Sanakoyev as head of a temporary pro-Georgian administration in the region, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). Meanwhile, Eduard Kokoity, de facto president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, complained at a meeting the same day with Bozhidar Dimitrov, who heads the OSCE office in South Ossetia, that Georgia has deployed large numbers of Interior Ministry troops to the conflict zone, according to Kokoity said the Kekhvi-Tamarasheni sector of the main Transcaucasus Highway will be reopened for traffic only after Sanakoyev's administration leaves the district. At the same time, Kokoity signaled his readiness to meet with President Saakashvili to sign an agreement on the nonresumption of hostilities, Caucasus Press reported. Speaking in Tbilisi on May 16 after talks with Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze, Yury Popov, who is the Russian Foreign Ministry's chief negotiator for the conflict, said he does not consider it expedient to meet with Sanakoyev as the latter is not a direct party to the conflict, Caucasus Press reported. Popov left Tbilisi later on May 16 for Tskhinvali, where he is to meet with Kokoity. LF

Up to 1,000 people participated in a demonstration in Tbilisi on May 15 organized by opposition parties and NGOs, Caucasus Press reported. Participants called for the dissolution of parliament and Saakashvili's resignation, and also protested the abolition of social benefits and increases in the price of gas and public transport. LF

Kazakhstan's Economy and Budget Planning Ministry has revised its 2007 GDP growth forecast from 8.6 percent to 9.7 percent, Interfax reported on May 15. The new figure would put the country's GDP at 12.464 trillion tenges ($103.8 billion). Economy Minister Marat Kusainov told a government meeting in Astana on May 15, "The trade surplus is expected to amount to $9.503 billion, compared with the previous forecast of $7.296 billion." Also on May 15, the press service of Prime Minister Karim Masimov said that the government plans to increase the country's 2007 budget deficit from 145.5 billion to 271.1 billion tenges, or 2.2 percent of forecasted GDP, Interfax reported. DK

President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a decree on May 15 removing Oralbai Abdykarimov as state secretary and appointing Kanat Saudbaev, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, to the post, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Abdykarimov was appointed an adviser to the president. DK

Deputy Melis Eshimkanov, a member of the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan, told Interfax on May 15 that the National Security Service (SNB) subpoenaed and questioned him in connection with clashes that broke out on April 19 at the end of several days of opposition demonstrations in Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). Eshimkanov said that opposition figures Omurbek Tekebaev, a former speaker of parliament, and Erkin Alymbekov, currently the deputy speaker of parliament, have also been questioned by the SNB. Opposition leaders Omurbek Suvanaliev and Omurbek Abdrakhmanov are already facing charges in connection with the violence that accompanied the end of the demonstration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007). DK

A court in Dushanbe ruled on May 14 to give the wing of the opposition Democratic Party headed by jailed leader Mahmadruzi Iskandarov one month to transfer its property to the wing of the party led by Masud Sobirov, Regnum reported. Iskandarov is currently serving a 23-year prison term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2005). The party split after Sobirov formed a separate faction in April 2006, which Tajikistan's Justice Ministry recognized as the official Democratic Party in October 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 6 and October 2, 2006). Rahmatullo Valiev, deputy chairman of the Iskandarov-led wing, described the latest verdict as unjust and said that Iskandarov's party will appeal. DK

Work on the construction of the Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric power plant is running four months behind schedule, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on May 15, quoting a "high-placed source" at the plant. The delay is imperiling the planned December launch date for the first section of the reconstructed power station. According to the source, low wages are making it difficult to attract a sufficient number of workers to complete the project. Sangtuda-1, a project with a total cost of nearly $600 million, is being constructed with financing from Russia's Unified Electrical Systems. According to the report, work on the hydroelectric power station is currently 40-50 percent complete. DK

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has issued a decree removing Akmurat Rejepov from his position as head of the presidential security service, transferring him to "other work," Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr TV reported on May 15. Rejepov had headed the presidential guard for nearly 17 years, and some reports suggested that he played a key role in Berdymukhammedov's ascent to the presidency after the death of long-ruling President Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). Rejepov's removal is the second change Berdymukhammedov has made in the leadership of Turkmenistan's security services. In early April, the president removed Interior Minister Akmamed Rakhmanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). In another resolution also issued on May 15, Berdymukhammedov removed First Deputy National Security Minister Agajan Pasiev, also in connection with a transfer to unspecified other work, Altyn Asyr reported. DK

Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry has issued a statement harshly criticizing the May 14 EU decision to extend sanctions against Uzbekistan, official news agency UzA reported. Calling the violence in Andijon in May 2005 a "carefully planned act of terror," the statement charged that European Parliament deputies received sufficient information about the events during an April 2007 visit to Uzbekistan. The statement concluded, "Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry believes that the EU's May 14 decision is unfounded and biased, and aims under the cover of rights rhetoric to continue to use the so-called EU sanctions as a means of exerting systematic pressure on Uzbekistan. It goes without saying that such a decision is counterproductive and cannot further the implementation of cooperation programs that are in the interests of both the EU and Uzbekistan." DK

The Minsk City Executive Committee has given permission to the opposition to hold its second Congress of Pro-Democratic Forces at the Culture Palace of the Minsk Automotive Factory (MAZ) on May 26 and 27, Belapan reported on May 15. The MAZ administration earlier refused to provide its premises for the congress, explaining that the building would be hosting a festival of art by disabled children and youth on May 26 and 27. "I guess the MAZ Palace of Culture will now be vacant, because the Presidential Administration appears to have given its consent [to the congress]," Ihar Shynkaryk, deputy head of the opposition United Civic Party, told the agency. JM

A U.S. Protestant minister has been expelled from Belarus after the authorities canceled his temporary residence permit, Belapan reported on May 15, quoting Christian activist Maria Savushkina. According to Savushkina, the authorities accused Decker Travis Todd of involvement in activities "aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus." Todd is a charity worker and attended a Protestant church in Minsk. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said at a cabinet meeting in Kyiv on May 16 that later the same day he is scheduled to meet with President Viktor Yushchenko to discuss "issues related to overcoming the political crisis," Ukrainian media reported. Yanukovych and Yushchenko are expected to view documents prepared by the anticrisis working group they created to prepare for early parliamentary elections. First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov suggested last week that Yanukovych and Yushchenko could even agree on the date of early polls at the May 16 meeting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). However, Yanukovych signaled at the cabinet meeting that his decision on early elections will depend on the Constitutional Court's ruling regarding Yushchenko's decrees of April 2 and April 26, in which the president dissolved the Verkhovna Rada and called for early elections. "We will wait for the decision of the Constitutional Court, but we have preliminarily agreed that, regardless of whether the elections will take place or not, we need to adopt all necessary documents to hold them, thus preparing the legislative groundwork for pre-term polls," Yanukovych said. He also confirmed media reports from May 15 saying that a district court in Donetsk ruled to suspend Yushchenko's decrees dismissing two Constitutional Court judges, Syuzanna Stanik and Valeriy Pshenichnyy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). Yanukovych said Stanik and Pshenichnyy have resumed their work in the Constitutional Court. JM

Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko told journalists on May 15 that the working group created by President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych to prepare proposals for early elections has completed its mission, Ukrainian media reported. According to Symonenko, the group failed to reach a compromise on some issues, and he noted a "serious divergence of positions" on several of them. In particular, Symonenko mentioned the lack of agreement on introducing amendments to the law on the rights and responsibilities of parliamentary deputies, and compiling a nationwide register of voters. Presidential Secretariat deputy head Ivan Vasyunyk on May 15 blamed the failure to reach agreement on early polls on the "destructive position" of the Communist Party, which, he said, intended "to disrupt the electoral process from the very beginning." Vasyunyk added that the draft bills proposed by the working group, "in the form of a coordinated resolution and a list of divergent positions," will be forwarded to Yushchenko and Yanukovych for examination. Vasyunyk did not rule out the possibility that the Party of Regions, Our Ukraine, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc could endorse the prepared legislation without approval from the Communists and the Socialists. JM

Serbia's parliament approved a new government late on May 15, just minutes before a constitutional deadline that, if crossed, would have required new elections to be held. The government brings together two blocs with clear pro-EU platforms -- the Democratic Party (DS) and the G17+ bloc -- and a third moderately nationalist bloc, a coalition between the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and New Serbia (NS). The ruling parties control a narrow majority in parliament, with 130 of the 250 seats. The DS, the largest parliamentary party, will enjoy a narrow majority in the government, with 12 ministers and a deputy prime minister in the 25-member cabinet. The prime minister will again be Vojislav Kostunica of the DSS-NS, but the last-minute coalition deal breaks the party's hold over the security services, transferring overall responsibility to the National Security Council headed by President Boris Tadic of the DS. Special responsibility for relations with the EU will be in the hands of the deputy prime minister, Bozidar Djelic, whom the DS nominated for the premiership early in the 16-week coalition talks. Another DS member, Vuk Jeremic, will head the Foreign Ministry. He will replace Vuk Draskovic, the most internationally familiar figure to be leaving the government. A new ministry devoted to Kosova affairs will be controlled by the DSS, whose rhetoric on the future of the UN-administered Serbian province has been particularly strong. Kostunica told the Serbian media on May 15 that keeping Kosova within Serbia will be the government's top priority. AG

Even before the new government was officially approved, Serbian media reported that police have embarked on a new search for Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander, whose continued evasion of justice has been one of the root causes of the tensions in Serbia's relations with the EU. The first report of the operation was announced in parliament by the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) during the debate on the formation of the new government, Serbian television reported. It was then confirmed by Rasim Ljajic, who heads the national committee liaising with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which has indicted Mladic for war crimes. Ljajic said several hotels and other sites have been searched as part of a "regular" operation, the news agency FoNet reported. When news emerged on May 11 that Serbia's nonauthoritarian parties had reached an agreement, the EU dropped its requirement that Mladic be handed over to the ICTY before resuming preaccession talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Serbia's failure to capture Mladic prompted the EU to halt talks in May 2006. However, the EU says that a Stabilization and Accession Agreement (SAA) cannot be signed before Mladic is sent to the ICTY. An SAA is only the first step toward EU membership, creating a framework for cooperation in which the EU offers assistance and preferential agreements in exchange for commitments to reform. AG

Cedomir Jovanovic, the leader of Serbia's small Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), on May 14 predicted that Serbia's new administration will not survive beyond 2008, the news agency Beta reported the same day. Jovanovic's comments highlight widespread skepticism about the new government's prospects. The depth of the divisions between the chief pro-democracy parties, the DS and the DSS-NS, were highlighted on May 8 when the DSS-NS provided the decisive votes in the election of an extreme nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic, to the position of speaker of parliament. The newspaper "Danas" on May 7 said there is "deep hatred" between the parties. Speaking of relations within the new government, President Tadic on May 14 told the broadcaster B92 that "we must learn to trust each other." The biggest immediate tests relate to the EU, which is calling for the capture of Bosnian Serb military commander Mladic and his transfer to the ICTY, a demand that has caused rifts between the DS and the DSS-NS. The EU also supports independence for Kosova, which all of Serbia's governing parties oppose. AG

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 15 said that Russia needs "to recognize that Kosova will no longer be a part of Serbia." Rice made her comments in an interview with Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio shortly after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for wide-ranging discussions intended in part to persuade Russia not to veto a pending UN resolution on Kosova's future. According to comments translated back into English from the Russian voiceover, Rice said the United States is "trying to reach a stage at which we can take into account the concerns of Russia, Serbia, and others in such a way that we can express that in the redrafting of the resolution." Rice said that while a draft resolution presented by Washington "does not say that Kosovo will be independent, it allows for Kosovo to be independent," adding later that "there is no chance whatsoever of Kosovo and Serbia living together." Russian and international media on May 15 quoted Lavrov as saying that "it was agreed to search for a solution on Kosovo that would be acceptable for all, but there is no such solution immediately in sight." In her interview with Ekho Moskvy, Rice said Washington will "most probably approach the Security Council for a vote very soon, in a few weeks." However, in an interview with the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS on May 15, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov said, "it is obvious that, given the principled differences, talk of a vote is premature." AG

Sweden's armed forces announced on May 15 that a female officer may have passed classified information about NATO'S peacekeeping operations in Kosova to an alleged Serbian spy, AP reported the same day. An investigation into the officer was halted in mid-2006, but the Swedish military says the emergence of new evidence has prompted it to reopen the case. The woman claims she did not realize the man she was dating was a spy, though she apparently referred to his "spy business'' in an e-mail. "I am not a spy. I am a doer of good," he replied. NATO questioned the alleged spy, an ethnic Serbian interpreter serving with the UN's mission in Kosova, in 2006. He subsequently disappeared. His computer held thousands of classified NATO and UN documents, AP said, citing the statement issued by the Swedish military. AG

Montenegro's Democratic Serbian Party (DSS) on May 15 submitted a motion to parliament seeking the impeachment of President Filip Vujanovic, TV Crna Gora reported the same day. The DSS's initiative reportedly has the backing of its two coalition partners, the Socialist People's Party (SNP) and the People's Party (NS), and also the support of the Movement for Change and the Serbian List, which is both the largest ethnic Serbian party in Montenegro and the country's second-largest party. Together, they hold 34 seats in the 76-member parliament. The DSS asserts that Vujanovic has violated the constitution in his handling of foreign policy, particularly international treaties. The DSS disagrees with the president's policies across the range of Montenegrin foreign affairs, from relations with Serbia, the EU, and the United States, to Podgorica's aloof position on independence for the nominally Serbian province of Kosova, and recent agreements with the United States on military cooperation and a pledge not to extradite U.S. nationals accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and 14, 2007). AG

The international community's incoming high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak, on May 14 told the Bosnian daily "Dnevni avaz" that he will use his power to veto legislation and fire obstructive officials "whenever necessary." His predecessor, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who leaves office on June 30, came to the post saying he would use those extensive powers only in exceptional circumstances. Lajcak did not elaborate, simply saying, "of course I do not intend to say that I will not use some of my powers." Lajcak also dismissed as "complete nonsense" and "ridiculous" claims that he was appointed as part of an EU deal to secure Slovakia's support for independence for Kosova. Slovakia is one of the 15 members of the Security Council, which is due to decide on the future status of Kosova, administered by the UN since 1999. Lajcak, a fluent speaker of Serbo-Croatian, oversaw Montenegro's referendum on independence on behalf of the EU in May 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2006 and May 7 and 14, 2007). "I did a good job in Montenegro," Lajcak said. "We reached an agreement that was honored by everyone and all sides played according to the rules. It turned out that in this region as well problems can be solved in a democratic manner." Asked whether he is afraid he will face the challenge of taking Bosnia apart as well, Lajcak said, "That's what I like about the Balkans -- it's a haven for all kinds of speculation!" AG

The ruling party in the Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous region of Republika Srpska, the Union of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), on May 14 said it will insist on the federalization of the country in any future talks on constitutional reform, Republika Srpska media reported the same day. The party's secretary-general, Rajko Vasic, said three federal regions should be created: the Republika Srpska, Bosnia, and Herzeg-Bosna. He claimed no territorial exchanges would be needed and Bosnia-Herzegovina's bid for EU membership would not be delayed. The daily "Dnevni avaz" reported on May 15 that the two largest Bosnian Muslim parties have rejected the idea, arguing it would lead to the country's disintegration. Debate about changing the constitution has been fueled by a ruling by the UN's top court in February that the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 was an "act of genocide." Ethnic Croats in late April began gathering signatures for a petition calling for an ethnic Croatian entity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2007). The EU also believes a new constitution is "essential" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). AG

Politicians and legislators in Iran reacted promptly to recent reports that Iranian and U.S. representatives will soon meet in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq. The tone of those responses highlights the allure of a prospective meeting with a near-constant protagonist in Iran's foreign policy discourse.

It will mark one of the very few formal diplomatic engagements between Tehran and Washington since Iran's 1979 revolution and the subsequent severance of mutual diplomatic ties.

No date for the U.S.-Iranian talks has been announced. But Iran's public stance is that -- as with an Iraqi security conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in early May -- it is willing to talk in order to help neighboring Iraq.

The head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, asserted that "talks between Iran and America in Baghdad are to help the Iraqi people and government," and "put a full stop to the present security crisis in Iraq," ISNA reported on May 14. Borujerdi added that Iran's Supreme National Security Council, a key foreign and security policy-making body, should determine who will represent Tehran. The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, is expected to represent Washington at the meeting.

Iranian legislators say the United States requested the talks. At the same time, they have reiterated Iran's persistent distrust of the United States and its motives. They also wonder aloud what Iran might get in return for helping bring stability to Iraq.

Iranian officials frequently claim that Tehran has helped Washington at sensitive junctures in recent years -- including in connection with the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan -- and received little in return. The editor of the conservative Iranian daily "Kayhan" on May 13 accused the United States of "want[ing] talks for [the sake of] talks, not to resolve mutual problems." Editor Hossein Shariatmadari described negotiations as a "great and strategic mistake" that would inflict "irreparable" harm on Iran, ISNA reported. Shariatmadari is widely associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But he is also one of Iran's more outspoken public figures, and his views need not always reflect state policy.

It goes without saying in Iran that there could be no talks with the United States without the tacit approval of key decision-makers headed by Supreme Leader Khamenei. But Shariatmadari argued that no change in U.S. conduct merits any verbal engagement. He said Iran and the United States have "essential" differences related to the nature of their systems, with tense relations an inevitable consequence.

Hossein Nejabat, a member of the parliamentary presidium, took a softer line on May 14. Nejabat said that "if America has asked [Iran] to help with stability in Iraq, and supposing it is sincere" -- which he described as doubtful -- then he said that Iran "will cooperate with it" and "all state institutions and factions confirm" such a position, ISNA reported. Nejabat said Iran and the United States must talk and back "anything that benefits" the Iraqis. But he stressed that Iranians "have to have [their] share in the matter."

Reza Talai-Nik, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, warned that talks yielding "weak" results could prompt the United States to launch a new round of accusations against Iran, ISNA reported. Talai-Nik argued that if "America fails" in the talks, it will "blame and intensify the psychological and political pressures against Iran." He counseled not allowing bilateral talks to become a "crux" of Iranian policy-making toward Iraq.

Some of those same parliamentary voices have hinted at cautious interest in such talks' potential for opening the path toward a tentative rapprochement or broader discussions.

The parliamentary presidium's Nejabat suggested on May 14 that "negotiations about the nuclear dossier are a separate chapter" that might be discussed "whenever the parties accept each other's conditions." He stressed Iran's "many issues" of divergence with the United States, but added that they require "transparent" discussions. Nejabat cited an ongoing dispute over frozen Iranian assets in the United States and what he described as an openly stated U.S. desire for regime change in Iran.

The Security and Foreign Policy Committee's Talai-Nik noted that Iranian officials arrested in the Iraqi city of Irbil in January are still being detained, and said there are "limited grounds" for using talks to benefit the nuclear dossier. Talai-Nik said some agreement and a slight rapprochement of Iranian and U.S. policies in Iraq could advance the "possibility of reducing other tensions and challenges," although he cited "strategic differences" between the "aims of America and Iran over Iraq" as an obstacle to agreement.

Other legislators from the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee have also commented on the talks' potential beyond Iraq-related matters. Suleiman Jafarzadeh claimed on May 13 that "the Baghdad talks are basically to open the door to formal and open talks between Iran and America." He also urged talks at the foreign ministers' level.

Lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said on May 13 that the prospective talks alone demonstrate that the two states can resolve "some issues" through dialogue, ISNA reported. He said Baghdad talks could yield positive results if Iran feels there is "good will" on the other side.

Mohammad Sadr, a deputy foreign minister under the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, said on May 14 that Tehran should make the talks "comprehensive" to ensure that Iran's needs -- notably in the nuclear area -- are also met. Sadr described Iraq as "Iran's winning card" and said Tehran "must use this winning card in comprehensive negotiations with America, to benefit from the negotiations," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 15.

Conservative commentator and journalist Amir Mohebbian argued that Iran must -- in these talks -- ask the United States to put aside "senseless projects" like regime change in Iran and to stop causing "problems" for Iran, Mehr news agency reported on May 14. He said there is no sense in talks wherein Iran would help Washington without reciprocity or reliable commitments on respecting Iranian interests.

Many of these comments suggest that -- whatever Iranian officials' expectations -- the prospect of direct talks with the United States is tantalizing. The subject of engagement does not appear to be the "taboo" that it once was in Iran -- particularly during the Khatami presidency. Indeed reformists -- now outside the halls of power -- have frequently claimed that conservatives would do everything in their power to ensure that they -- and not a reformist-led government -- would be the ones to initiate any dialogue with the United States. That tack reveals a belief among Iranian politicians that the political leadership could reap benefits -- and added public credibility -- that might be conferred by reduced tensions with the United States.

So even as it proves difficult to promote any relations with a global power frequently regarded as Iran's nemesis, it might be argued that the perspective on limited contacts is not inherently negative.

Perhaps no breakthroughs will occur at these Iranian-U.S. talks. But there is a chance that -- in time -- direct and public contacts between U.S. and Iranian officials will cease to be a rarity.

Seven Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) soldiers were killed and four were missing in action after a joint ANSF and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol came under attack in Nuristan Province on May 14, a statement posted on ISAF's website reported on May 15. In addition, three Afghan and five ISAF troops sustained injuries. The report identified the assailants only as "enemy" attackers. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- said in a May 14 posting that "mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate" attacked a convoy of Afghan and U.S. forces and fought a three-hour battle. The statement said the mujahedin destroyed two vehicles belonging to the "mercenary army" -- a term used by the Taliban to describe Afghan government forces -- and four vehicles belonging to foreign forces, killing all of their occupants. According to the website, the attack occurred in Kamdesh district of Nuristan. AT

Taliban militants released Habib Rahman, the director of the agriculture and irrigation department of southern Afghanistan's Zabul Province, on May 15, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Rahman was abducted about a month ago. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said that Rahman was released as a gesture of goodwill. Zabul provincial officials, however, suspect a secret deal behind the entire affair. Meanwhile, a Taliban commander identified as Mohammad Anas Sharif in Ghazni Province in south-central Afghanistan told the news agency the same day that his forces have captured three people. Ghazni police chief Alishah Ahmadzai said the three captives, two Afghans and a Pakistani, are employees of a private mobile-telephone company and were abducted in Andar district. AT

Hundreds of demonstrators have staged rallies in southeastern and southern Afghanistan in condemnation of alleged military aggression by Pakistan, Pajhwak reported on May 15. Protesters in Paktiya Province set fire to the Pakistani flag and chanted slogans against Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf. There were similar demonstrations in several districts of Paktika Province. Afghanistan has claimed that Pakistani forces crossed the disputed border between the two counties on May 13 and 14 and shelled Afghan territory, killing a number of security personnel and civilians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). AT

Visiting Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari said in Kabul on May 14 that Iran will continue to repatriate Afghan refugees, Kabul-based Ariana TV reported on May 15. Safari, who met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on May 14, indicated that Tehran is determined to expel Afghans who have no legal documents authorizing their stay in Iran, but will do so gradually and in a proper manner. Since April, Iran has expelled an estimated 50,000 Afghans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and 14, 2007). The refugee crisis has led to a political confrontation between Karzai and the Afghan National Assembly, which has impeached Refugees Minister Mohammad Akbar and Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta. Karzai has opted to keep Spanta in his post while waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the impeachment. AT

"RFE/RL Newsline" on May 15 in the item "ISAF Blames Pakistan For Serviceman's Death" incorrectly attributed the accusation to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), when the headline should have read "Afghanistan Blames Pakistan For U.S. Serviceman's Death."

Muhammad el-Baradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in Vienna on May 15 that it is no longer realistic for Western powers to demand an end to Iran's nuclear-fuel production, given its progress in the field, Reuters reported. Western states have demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment and related fuel-making activities, which have potential military applications. Iran has refused to comply. El-Baradei said that Iran is legally obligated to comply with the UN Security Council's demand that it stop uranium enrichment, but "from a proliferation perspective," the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining enrichment-related technology "has been overtaken by events," Reuters reported. He said the Iranians "pretty much" know "how to enrich. From now on, it is...a question of perfecting that knowledge." Reuters quoted unnamed diplomats as saying that Iran now has 1,600 centrifuges installed at the Natanz enrichment plant. The centrifuges turn uranium hexafluoride gas into enriched uranium, which can be used as fuel for power generation at one level of enrichment, and material for warheads at a higher level of enrichment. El-Baradei said the international community's focus should be on preventing Iran from expanding its enrichment program to an industrial scale, in which some 50,000 centrifuges might be used to produce much larger quantities of enriched uranium. IAEA inspectors are expected to publish a report by May 23 on Iran's compliance so far with two Security Council resolutions calling on it to halt enrichment, agencies reported on May 15. VS

Former IAEA inspector David Albright on May 15 described Iran's enrichment progress as "slow but steady," and warned it might have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb in 2009, but not earlier. In comments to AP in Vienna, he said Iran has made faster progress than the United States expected. Albright said Iran could have 3,000 centrifuges installed at the Natanz plant by late June. IAEA inspectors visiting Natanz on May 13 observed that Iran may have overcome certain earlier technical difficulties, and is expanding its enrichment activities, "The New York Times" reported on May 15. News agencies also reported that day that Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, is to meet on May 31 with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana -- representing the UN Security Council powers and Germany -- for more talks on Iran's nuclear program. VS

About 10 Iranian parliamentarians have signed a proposal to establish an Iranian-U.S. parliamentary friendship group, Radio Farda reported on May 15, citing news agencies. Signatory Dariush Qanbari, a reformist and a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told AP that legislators are trying to reduce tensions with the United States. Zanjan representative Jalal Husseini told reporters in parliament on May 15 that the group will seek to promote goodwill between Iranians and Americans, and thwart the "hostile policies of the White House." But the head of the committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, said on May 15 that the initiative is not "appropriate," given the present state of Iran-U.S. relations, ILNA reported. Separately, Bushehr representative Shokrollah Attarzadeh told the Mehr news agency on May 15 that planned talks between Iran and the United States over Iraq are a "victory" for the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and show the president's and his government's "daring and bravery" in clarifying Iran's policies and "communicating with...countries including America." Attarzadeh said Iran does not fear "dialogue and negotiations," and will firmly state its positions during the talks. VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on May 15 that the notion of progress or development must be closely examined in Iran, and stressed that the "Islamic-Iranian model" of progress is the only choice for the country, ISNA reported. He told students of the Ferdowsi University in Mashhad, in Iran's northeast, that Iran began moving forward with the start of the "Islamic movement," the movement led in the 1960s by the late revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He said "Westerners" promote the idea that progress means "Westernization," but this "spell" must be broken. He said the Western model of progress is not working in Iran, because of its overemphasis on material progress. "In the West's perspective, progress is material and its key element is material profit, so morals and spirituality can be sacrificed to progress in that perspective," he said. In Islam, he added, material progress "is not the aim but a means for human growth and enhancement." He said development based on "spiritual values" is the "desired model of progress," ISNA reported. VS

The government-affiliated Iran Statistics Center has compiled a report that puts the number of unemployed in Iran at just over 2,991,400 for the Persian year to March 20, 2007, ISNA reported on May 15, quoting the center's head, Mohammad Madad. The report put the working population at just over 20,474,600. The figures were among the results of a recent nationwide census. The daily "Aftab-i Yazd" on May 16 quoted President Ahmadinejad as declaring that 3.5 million Iranians were jobless when he took power in summer 2005, but he said his government has created 1.95 million jobs in the two years to March 2007. The statistical survey revealed that in the year to March 2007, 15.56 percent of Iran's population was under 9 years old, 21.89 percent was between 10 and 19, 23 percent between 20 and 29, and 33.34 percent between 30 and 64. Madad said Iran's population grew by an average 1.61 percent annually from 1995 to March 2007, ISNA reported. VS

President Jalal Talabani told reporters at a May 15 press briefing in Baghdad that noticeable progress is being made toward national reconciliation, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Talabani said that representatives of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front are finding common ground with other political parties on many issues. "Another positive sign is that [Iraqi List head] Iyad Allawi will return very soon...and will contribute, together with his natural and historical allies, to national and political action, as well as to addressing possible shortcomings through constitutional and parliamentary mechanisms," he added. Allawi has spent much of the past two years trying to engage opposition leaders, including former Ba'ath Party members, in an effort to bring them into the political process. Meanwhile, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi announced on May 15 that the Presidency Council will soon submit draft legislation to parliament calling for a reinstatement of former Ba'ath Party members to their government jobs, Reuters reported the same day. KR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a May 15 press release that it is "highly concerned" for the welfare of 942 Palestinian refugees living along the Iraq-Syria border. The UNHCR does not maintain a presence at the Al-Waleed camp, due to what it terms security reasons. The press release said staff only visit the camp infrequently and only during the day. "At least three people, including a six-month-old baby, have died from treatable illnesses since the camp opened last December," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said. UNHCR officials that visited the camp this week found it overcrowded, with several residents suffering from respiratory and other ailments. A mother of seven with leukemia and a teenage diabetic were among those listed as needing urgent medical attention. The aid agency said some 1,400 Palestinians are stranded along the border, unable to cross into Syria, which is overburdened with refugees. The nearest hospital inside Iraq is four hours away and the route passes through dangerous territory. The press release added that water is trucked in daily, but residents are limited to less than 1 liter each. Conditions will likely deteriorate further during the hot summer months. KR

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq announced in a May 14 Internet statement that it has formed special brigades to break through coalition fronts in Al-Anbar, Diyala, and other governorates. The brigades will also attack coalition "rear lines" and capture "wanted persons." The group also vowed to continue attacks on the parliament. A day earlier, the group announced the end of its campaign to avenge the honor of Muslim women, which began on March 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). It said it will continue with other campaigns against Iraqi and coalition forces. In a separate Internet statement posted on May 14, the Islamic State of Iraq criticized television channels for reporting on rifts between the group and more nationalist-leaning insurgent groups. It called on everyone having a problem to "avoid solving these problems on television or [Internet] forums," including the mujahedin. The Islamic Army in Iraq sparked a heated debate among the mujahedin and their supporters last month when it criticized the Islamic State of Iraq's tactics. KR

The London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on May 14 that Al-Qaeda gunmen have set up bases on Hamrin Mountain in Diyala Governorate. The mountain separates Diyala, Kirkuk, and Irbil from Tikrit, Bayji, and Mosul. According to the daily, Iraqi forces uncovered more than seven training and recruiting centers north of Ba'qubah. The daily also reported that armed groups have begun distributing leaflets in Diyala declaring their intention to turn the city into an Islamic emirate. To this end, the insurgents reportedly distributed face veils to elementary-school girls. One displaced resident of Tuz Khurmatu said travel in the areas adjacent to Hamrin Mountain is unsafe, because the insurgents are attacking vehicles on the main roads. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Iraqi Red Crescent told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that 700 families, comprising 3,500 people, have fled Diyala Governorate in the past week. A camp has been opened in the Muhammad Sakran area north of Baghdad to accommodate some of the families. KR