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Newsline - May 18, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso met on May 18 at the Volzhsky Utyos resort, located between the Russian cities of Tolyatti and Samara, for a summit whose agenda has been significantly downgraded due to friction between Russia and some new EU member states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16 and 17, 2007). No documents are expected to be signed at the end of the summit. Ways to expand relations between Russia and the EU, the formation of their four common spaces, and a possible switch to visa-free travel top the agenda, Interfax reported. The summit may also give the go-ahead for the drafting of a comprehensive agreement on Russia-EU cooperation in science and technology. Opening the summit, Putin said that he wants "to discuss everything openly and sincerely, without any 'taboos,'" ITAR-TASS reported. Merkel, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, said the EU delegation "would like to use this meeting to continue cooperation, especially in the energy sector." Putin, Merkel, and Barroso met on May 17 for informal talks over dinner. Among the issues the Russian delegation is expected to raise are the relocation of the Soviet Bronze Soldier monument in Estonia, Poland's veto on the start of Russia-EU talks on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, U.S. plans to deploy elements of its missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, problems facing the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and the status of Kosova, Interfax reported, quoting Russian officials. Some 3,000 Interior Ministry troops are maintaining security near Samara, Russian news agencies reported. The Russian Defense Ministry said security also includes divers from the naval unit, combat aviation, helicopters, air defense, radio electronic reconnaissance, communication and several other special units. FF

As the Russia-EU summit continued near Samara, Russian politicians on May 18 discussed whether such summits are the most effective way to uphold Russia's national interests in its relations with EU member states. The deputy head of the Federation Council's Committee for International Affairs, Vasily Likhachyov, said that Russian diplomacy should adopt a differentiated approach to contacts with EU members. Interfax quoted Likhachyov as saying that Russia "should be working more actively with those EU countries that are interested in cooperation with us and want to see Russia as their strategic partner and integrate with Russia." At the same time, Russia should restrict itself to limited interaction and curtail certain bilateral programs with those EU states "that don't heed the voice of reason," Likhachyov added in an apparent allusion to some new Central and East European members of the EU. That view point, which is widely shared among Russian politicians, is also the subject of comments in the Russian media on May 18. "Moskovskiye novosti" said Russia is "unperturbed" by the problems with the EU. "Hysterical Poland is the EU's problem," it said. "As it puts up insurmountable barriers in the way of framework documents between Russia and the EU, Warsaw is doing a disservice to the EU itself first and foremost." Meanwhile, Jonathan Eyal, director of international security at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in London, wrote in a comment published in the "Financial Times" on May 18 that the argument that the EU has no alternative to engagement with Russia and even that a "substance-free summit is preferable to no talks and a possible confrontation" is "misconceived" because "Europe is not facing a new Cold War. Instead, it is being targeted by a Russian policy that seeks to undermine the very foundations of stability in Central Europe. Until the EU reaches a consensus on how to respond to this challenge, holding summits with Mr. Putin can only deepen the current security predicament." FF

Russian opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, together with other opposition figures and human rights activists, were prevented on May 18 from boarding flights from Moscow to the city of Samara, Reuters reported. They had hoped to take part in an antigovernment protest march in the regional capital of Samara, but were told on arrival at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport that the computer system was unable to issue them tickets. Asked about Kasparov's problems boarding the flight, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied government involvement, Reuters reported. On May 17, police detained Aleksandr Petrov, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow branch, and several opposition activists as they were leaving Moscow for Samara by plane and train, "The Moscow Times" reported. Leaders of the opposition coalition Other Russia, which organized the March of Dissent to be held in Samara on May 18, have criticized what they called unprecedented police repression ahead of the action, for which the municipal authorities have granted permission. At least 13 people connected with the march have been detained in the last few days. HRW's Petrov said three police officers -- one in plainclothes and two in uniform -- approached him at the airport and accused him of having false tickets and a false passport. The officers took him to a police station in the Sheremetyevo-1 terminal, where they questioned him for two hours about the march. The questioning ended when Petrov received a call on his cell phone from Ella Pamfilova, head of President Putin's Human Rights Council, he said. Petrov told "The Moscow Times" that "they all ran away. So I grabbed my passport and left of my own volition." FF

Russia's Federal Customs Service said on May 17 that it is suing the Bank of New York Corporation and seeking $22.5 billion in damages related to alleged money laundering in the late 1990s, Western and Russian news agencies reported. Maksim Smal, a lawyer for the Federal Customs Service, told Reuters that from 1996-99 bank employees helped create a "system through which conditions were made for companies and Russian banks to not make the proper payments, thus inflicting a loss against the Russian Federation." Andrei Strukov, head of the service's legal department, said in an e-mail to Reuters that the Federal Customs Service has filed the lawsuit against the bank for damages against the Russian Federation. A U.S. investigation into the bank's involvement in the scandal ended in 2005 after the bank admitted criminal conduct and reached a $14 million settlement with federal prosecutors. Its shares fell almost 5 percent on May 17 following reports of the suit, but quickly recovered after the bank issued a strongly worded statement saying it has recently been "approached by lawyers purporting to represent this agency who claimed to be able to dispose of the matter for a tiny fraction of the amount now claimed," the "Financial Times" reported. One Wall Street lawyer pointed out that even if the bank loses in a Russian court, the judgment is unlikely to be enforced elsewhere and the bank has only a small business in Russia that could be seized, the "Financial Times" reported. Russian political analysts have said that the Kremlin's willingness to revisit a case that was an embarrassment to both Russia and the United States may signal the start of an investigation into official corruption under former President Boris Yeltsin, who died last month. FF

If a referendum were held on merging Russia and Ukraine to form a single state, 48 percent of Russians would vote in favor, according to a recent poll of 1,600 people in 46 Russian regions conducted by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), the findings of which were summarized by on May 16. Twenty-nine percent would vote against such a unified state, 13 percent would not vote at all, and 11 percent were undecided. Support for a merger was far higher -- 63 percent -- among respondents over the age of 60 than in younger age groups, and marginally more residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg opposed such a merger (41 percent) than approved it (40 percent). LF

The military prosecutor's office has reached the conclusion that the military helicopter crash in Chechnya's southern Shatoi district on April 27 in which up to 20 people died was the result of pilot error, reported on May 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). Chechen resistance fighters claim to have shot it down, but military prosecutor's office staff said the remnants of the helicopter did not show any trace of it being hit by a missile. LF

Human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev called on May 16 for prolonging the term in office of the Russian president, and those of the Chechen Republic head and parliament, to seven or eight years, reported on May 17. Nukhadjiyev argued that "we should not copy the West," but instead proceed from the "pan-national problems facing such a huge federal state as Russia." He said a poll of some 2,000 Chechens indicated overwhelming support for extending the term of the republic head, given that otherwise, in two years time, the limited powers the republic head enjoys under the present constitution could "serve as a brake on the rebuilding and development of our society." It is not clear how Nukhadjiyev's proposal can be squared with Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's argument two months ago that the Chechen Constitution needs to be revised to bring it into accordance with that of the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). LF

Aram Karapetian, chairman of the radical opposition Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party, told a press conference in Yerevan on May 17 that he will appeal to the Constitutional Court the official results of the May 12 parliamentary elections, which gave his party only 3.5 percent of the votes cast under the proportional system, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Karapetian said he will demand a country-wide recount, and produced a vote protocol from the town of Charentsavan showing Nor Zhamanakner polled 111 votes there; the figure cited by the Central Election Commission was only 10. The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on May 17 quoted Karapetian as saying that even if he had won election, he would "probably" have turned down his parliament mandate as the opposition representation in the new parliament is so negligible as to preclude any real influence on the legislative process. Also on May 17, police were deployed from Yerevan to the town of Talin, where residents took to the streets late the previous day to protest apparent fraud that contributed to the defeat of independent candidate and former Mayor Mnatsakan Mnatsakanian by 162 votes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Mnatsakanian withdrew on May 17 under circumstances that remain unclear his formal demand for a recount. LF

The family of former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian released a statement in Yerevan on May 17 deploring as "absurd" and politically motivated his arrest on May 7 on charges of money-laundering, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 9, and 11, 2007). They dubbed the arrest of Arzoumanian, who last year launched an opposition movement called Civil Disobedience (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006), part of "an ongoing campaign by the current leadership...aimed at suppressing true democracy and human rights in Armenia" and appealed for help in securing his release. Several dozen former Armenian government officials, including former Foreign Ministry staff, released a similar statement in support of Arzoumanian on May 9 ( LF

Baku's Sabayil District Court handed down on May 18 a two-year suspended prison sentence to independent parliament deputy Huseyn Abdullayev, reported. Fellow parliamentarians voted on March 19 to lift Abdullayev's parliamentary immunity, shortly after he was taken into custody and charged with assaulting Fazail Agamali, head of the small pro-government Ana Vaten party, during a March 16 parliament debate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and 20 and April 10 and 12, 2007). LF

Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze met in Tbilisi on May 17 with Yury Popov, the Russian Foreign Ministry's pointman for the South Ossetian conflict, who briefed Antadze on his six-hour talks in Tskhinvali the previous day with Eduard Kokoity, de facto president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on May 17 and 18 respectively. Antadze said Popov informed him that Kokoity expressed readiness to resume talks within the framework of the Joint Control Commission that comprises Georgian, Russian, and South and North Ossetian representatives; Antadze said Tbilisi too is prepared to resume talks in that format. At the same time, he called on Russia to stop supplying arms and ammunition to the South Ossetian leadership, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. Antadze also said the South Ossetian side agreed to lift the blockade of Georgian-populated villages in the conflict zone on condition that Tbilisi relaxes the restrictions currently in force at its own checkpoints. Kokoity earlier said the South Ossetian blockade would remain in force until Dmitry Sanakoyev, recently named to head a pro-Georgian temporary administration in South Ossetia, leaves the conflict zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). Also on May 17, quoted South Ossetian Interior Ministry sources as saying that members of the Joint Peacekeeping Force deployed in the conflict zone have inspected together with OSCE observers what appear to be fortifications the Georgians are building in the village of Ergneti on the southeastern outskirts of Tskhinvali. LF

Khibratulla Doskaliev, head of the Interior Ministry section for the South Kazakhstan Region, told a press conference in Shymkent on May 17 that police have broken up a cell, affiliated with the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, that was planning to carry out terrorist attacks, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Doskaliev said, "Not long ago in Zhambyl District, we unmasked and detained an entire group that was planning to carry out explosions. They belong to Hizb ut-Tahrir. This group was liquidated in time. Of course, 10 or 12 guys are still running around somewhere." DK

The Tax Committee of Kazakhstan's Finance Ministry announced on May 17 that Mittal Steel Temirtau, a subsidiary of Arcelor Metal, has evaded paying taxes in Kazakhstan, Reuters reported. According to the Tax Committee, an audit revealed that Mittal "had not declared a profit and failed to submit a significant amount of tax to the budget." The committee did not provide specifics on the amounts involved, saying that an audit of the company's activities in 2001-05 is continuing. Mittal Steel, which plans to produce 4.4 million tons of liquid steel in Kazakhstan in 2007, had no comment on the tax charges. DK

Meeting in Bishkek with a Pakistani parliamentary delegation headed by member of parliament Attiya Inayatullah, Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev said on May 17 that Kyrgyzstan plans "to build several hydroelectric power stations and wants to cooperate with Pakistan in this field," the news agency reported. Atambaev also urged Pakistan to work actively with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which comprises China, Russia, and four Central Asian states. Pakistan holds observer status in the SCO, along with India and Mongolia. Atambaev said, "We hope Pakistan will be represented at the highest level at the SCO summit, which will be held in Bishkek on August 16, 2007." DK

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe on May 17 and voiced Kyrgyz support for Rahmon's recent initiative to create a Central Asian water consortium (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007), Avesta and RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Karabaev told journalists after their meeting, "I proposed setting up an international water and energy academy and holding an international water and energy summit to develop Emomali Rahmon's initiative." DK

Russia's "Vremya novostei," citing "informed sources in Ashgabat," reported on May 18 that Turkmen National Security Minister Geldimuhammed Ashirmuhammedov has been arrested. The opposition online newspaper "Turkmenskaya iskra" recently reported that Ashirmuhammedov had been relieved of his post as head of the National Security Service and arrested in the course of an ongoing purge of holdovers from the regime of former President Saparmurat Niyazov. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). DK

The UN General Assembly on May 17 elected Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the UN Human Rights Council, thus blocking Belarus's bid to obtain a seat on the 47-member body, international media reported. International human rights groups campaigned for weeks to prevent the choice of Belarus after the Eastern European group submitted only Belarus and Slovenia for the two seats from that region. "Belarus has an appalling human rights record," Urmi Shah, a spokeswoman for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL. "In January of this year, the [UN's] special rapporteur on Belarus, Adrian Severin, noted that the government had failed absolutely to cooperate with the UN's human rights mechanisms," Shah said. Western countries persuaded Bosnia to enter the campaign earlier this week. "We were particularly concerned about Belarus. Some have called it the last dictatorship in Europe," U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad told journalists after Belarus lost the seat to Bosnia in the second round of voting. JM

Belarusian authorities have annulled a residence permit for Jaroslaw Lukasik, a Polish national who has lived with his Belarusian wife and three children in Myadzel Raion, Minsk Oblast, since 1999, Belapan reported on May 17. Lukasik must now leave Belarus by June 7. Lukasik is a member of the United Church of Christians of Evangelical Faiths in Belarus. The official reason for his expulsion is "activities aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus in the sphere of relations between faiths." "My husband has not committed any offenses against national security or in the sphere of relations between faiths. He has not been charged with a single related offense," Lukasik's wife told Belapan. Earlier this week Belarus expelled a U.S. Protestant minister, also charging him with "harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). JM

Constitutional Court head Ivan Dombrovskyy has resigned and his duties have been entrusted to Judge Valeriy Pshenychnyy, Ukrainian media reported on May 17, quoting the court's press service. Pshenychnyy was appointed to the Constitutional Court in January 2003 by former President Leonid Kuchma, and dismissed by President Viktor Yushchenko on April 30, 2007. Earlier in May, Yushchenko sacked two other judges of the Constitutional Court, Syuzanna Stanik and Volodymyr Ivashchenko. Ukrainian media reported that earlier this week, a district court in Donetsk ruled to suspend Yushchenko's decrees dismissing Pshenychnyy and Stanik. The presidential administration subsequently challenged this ruling in a higher court and had it annulled. But then another district court, in Luhansk Oblast, reportedly passed a ruling suspending Yushchenko's decrees on the dismissal of Pshenychnyy, Stanik, and Ivashchenko, thus apparently reinstating them as judges of the Constitutional Court. "As any other Ukrainian citizen I understand that Pshenychnyy, fired by a decree of [President Yuschenko], can be neither the chairman nor the acting chairman of the Constitutional Court," Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, leader of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc, told Interfax-Ukraine. Meanwhile, Pshenychnyy told journalists that next week the Constitutional Court will continue its deliberations on President Yushchenko's decrees of April 2 and April 26 dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and calling for early elections. JM

President Yushchenko said at a forum of investors in Kyiv on May 18 that pre-term parliamentary elections will be staged earlier than in October, UNIAN reported. The Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has suggested October as the most probable period for early polls. Yushchenko's decree of April 26 scheduled snap elections for June 24. "The elections will not be held in October, we should not play with this [idea]. We need a rapid and democratic reaction to the crisis," Yushchenko said. "[Ukraine] will surprise Europe and the world by how wisely and correctly, with respect to the political realities and without even a hint of a forcible scenario, it can hold fair pre-term parliamentary elections," the Ukrainian president added. Meanwhile, parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz said at a conference of legal experts in Kyiv the same day that early elections in Ukraine can be staged no sooner than in November, and only after the introduction of amendments to the constitution. JM

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on May 16 said information available to it suggests that the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are both in Serbia, the daily "Danas" and the broadcaster B92 reported on May 17. ICTY spokeswoman Olga Kavran said that a May 15 operation to capture Mladic in Belgrade was triggered by information provided by the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). Kavran added that Serbia has not cooperated with the UN tribunal for more than a year. This report is the first for some time to indicate that Karadzic is in Serbia. Recent raids have targeted his suspected supporters have been in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007). The EU has made Serbia's progress in the preaccession process conditional on Mladic's capture and transfer to the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). Serbian President Boris Tadic on May 16 told Serbian media that "if Mladic is in Serbia, he will be arrested. If he is not, we will offer solid evidence of that." Tadic underlined that Serbia's new government is determined to meet what he described as a "legal obligation" to cooperate with the ICTY, which was established by the UN, and he also said that Serbia hopes to become a candidate for EU membership by the end of 2008. The issue of cooperation with the ICTY was reportedly a major reason why the government's birth pangs were so painful, but Tadic's assumption of personal responsibility for the search for Mladic is seen as a clear signal of intent directed toward the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7 and 16, 2007). Kavran also said that three other indictees -- Zdravko Tolimir, Goran Hadzic, and Stojan Zupljanin -- are in Serbia. In all, only six of the 161 people indicted by the ICTY remain at large. The ICTY continues to believe the sixth, Vlastimir Djordjevic, is in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2 and 9, and March 1, 2007). AG

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on May 17 passed a resolution backing independence for Kosova, Kosovar Albanian media reported the same day. The 57-member grouping includes three members of the UN Security Council, which is preparing to vote on the final status of the UN-administered region: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Qatar. Kosovar officials have previously stated that both Malaysia and Qatar back independence for Kosova, but up to this point Indonesia's position has been unclear. The Kosovar daily "Express" reported on May 17 that Indonesia's concerns were reflected in its insistence on a clause adding that independence for Kosova should not be a precedent for other regions. Radio-Television Kosova quoted an unnamed European diplomat as saying that 12 of the Security Council's 15 members now support a resolution based on the proposal drawn up Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president. He did not provide a breakdown, but the three most probable exceptions are China, Russia, and South Africa, whose foreign minister, Nkosazana Zuma, told journalists on May 14 that her country "is very close to making up its mind." The German newspaper "Frankfurter Rundschau" on May 3 quoted South Africa's UN Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo as saying that what he saw and heard during a fact-finding mission to Kosova in late April was "grossly" different from reports submitted by the UN's officials in the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30 and May 4, 2007). The unnamed diplomat quoted by Radio-Television Kosova also suggested that the resolution will not be put forward this month, as the U.S. ambassador to the UN hopes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). AG

Macedonia's prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, said on May 16 that he believes Kosova and Macedonia will start talks to settle their border dispute immediately after the UN decides on Kosova's final status, the Kosovar daily "Koha ditore" reported on May 17. In April, a former UN envoy to Kosova, Kai Eide, called for Macedonia and Kosova to reach agreement over the disputed section of their border before Kosova's status is resolved. Eide said he made the same recommendation in a report for the UN in October 2005, in which he also recommended that the UN begin talks to determine Kosova's final status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). The dispute dates back to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Serbia and Macedonia reached a partial agreement on their border, including the Kosova section, in 2001, but Kosova was by then already under UN administration. During his daylong visit to Prishtina, Gruevski reiterated Macedonia's support for the proposal made by Eide's successor, Martti Ahtisaari, which calls for independence for Kosova, albeit under temporary supervision by the international community. In public, Gruevski and Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku dwelt on the strength of bilateral relations, their shared ambitions to join NATO and the EU, and independence for Kosova, rather than outstanding issues between them. AG

Greek and Macedonian representatives met in New York on May 16 to agree to start a new round of UN-mediated talks to resolve Greece's dispute over Macedonia's official name, the Macedonian news agency Makfax reported the same day. Greece insists Macedonia should be known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia since there is a Greek province of the same name. The two countries in 1995 agreed to take part in UN efforts to resolve the issue, but there has been little sign in the past 12 years or recent months of any breakthrough. The continuing difficulties were highlighted when Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis in April accused Macedonia of inflexibility and when Macedonia reacted angrily in March to a video showing Greek soldiers chanting xenophobic songs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 16, 2007). With Macedonia pushing to join NATO and the EU, the need to resolve the issue is becoming increasingly pressing. Greece has been careful to leave open the possibility of vetoing Macedonia's applications, and has resisted U.S. pressure. "In the final analysis, it is not the United States that shares a common border with Skopje but Greece," Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni said on April 19, the Greek newspaper "Ta Nea" reported the next day. Greece also has thorny relations with Albania. Albanian newspapers in early May talked of a "crisis" after Bakoyianni failed to arrive for a planned visit to Tirana; Athens subsequently denied a visit was planned. Albanian commentators in late April also took umbrage at what they perceived to be the Greek ambassador's failure to reject the claim by an ethnic Greek mayor in Albania that Kosova should be a precedent for Greeks in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). Subsequently, in late April, a group of ethnic Albanians who lay claim to Greek territory released a video showing its members wearing balaclavas and carrying arms. AG

Branko Crvenkovski on May 17 called for the government and the country's largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), to put an end the "agony" of their political impasse by reaching an agreement that will bring the BDI back into parliament, the news agency MIA reported the same day. This is the latest in a series of recent signs of renewed pressure on the BDI to end its boycott of parliament, which it began in late January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and April 24, 2007). Macedonian media reported on May 16 and 17 that a BDI delegation in Brussels on May 16 was urged in strong terms by EU and NATO officials to return to parliament. Similarly, in a statement on the Council of Europe's website, monitors for the continent's top human rights organization urged Macedonia's political parties to reach a consensus and to press ahead with reforms faster. Macedonia hopes that in 2008 it will both be invited to join NATO and to start EU accession talks. AG

The Macedonian parliament on May 15 approved a law intended to bolster local government and to promote more balanced development across the country, the news agency MIA reported the same day. The law obliges the government to invest at least 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) into efforts to distribute development evenly, and divides the country into eight new regions. The move is part of a broader government commitment to decentralize power, a fundamental issue in a country riven by conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and central government in 2001. Ethnic Albanians make up roughly 30 percent of Macedonia's population. AG

In an interview published by the daily "Dnevni avaz" on May 17, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Douglas Davidson, called for the appointment of a state-level ombudsman to protect human rights. Bosnia already has ombudsmen in its two autonomous regions, the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. Davidson had positive words for the performance of the two ombudsmen, but argued that a state ombudsman would be a better guarantor of human rights for all. AG

The parliaments of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro on May 16 agreed to bolster their ties, Montenegrin media reported the same day. The visit to Podgorica by Bosnian parliamentarians, many of whom sit on the Security Committee, is the latest sign that the two countries are forging a closer and deeper relationship. In April, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's three-member Presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, said after meeting with Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic that "there is not a single problem between the two states," and that Bosnia is set to open an embassy in Podgorica. Roughly 32 percent of Montenegro's population are Serbs, and 8 percent are Bosnian Muslims. AG

The May 12 Armenian parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and the eclipse of two opposition parties represented in the outgoing parliament. But the division of mandates raises questions about the composition of a new coalition government, which may hinge on the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, a junior coalition partner since 2003.

The May 12 vote was hailed by international election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a "clear improvement" demonstrating "progress" compared with earlier ballots, and as largely meeting international standards for democratic elections. That evaluation both conveys a heightened degree of legitimacy on the new legislature and suggests a break with Armenia's dubious legacy of tainted elections.

The election results largely confirmed general expectations, with Prime Minister Sarkisian's HHK the overall winner, followed by the new Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) party and the HHD. Yet the election was not without some surprises. First, the scale of the HHK victory surpassed nearly all preelection estimates, while votes for Prosperous Armenia were surprisingly fewer than expected. The HHK garnered nearly one-third of the party-list vote, which together with the seats it won in single-mandate constituencies will ensure it 64 or 65 seats in the new 131-seat parliament, endowing the party with an outright majority. Bolstered by its strong position, the HHK now offers Prime Minister Sarkisian both a firm platform for dominating the legislative agenda of the new parliament and a strong position for his candidacy in the February 2008 presidential election.

Coming in a distant second, Prosperous Armenia polled a mere 14.7 percent of the vote, less than half that cast for the HHK, and which will translate into 25 or 26 parliamentary seats. That modest showing surprised many, as the party steadily acquired political standing and seeming popularity in the preelection period thanks primarily to the mass-scale distribution of "charity" and "benevolent aid" throughout the rural areas of Armenia by party founder and wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian. The party's poor showing underscores the extent of political apathy and cynicism in Armenia, marked by the ordinary voter's inclination to accept both bribes and promises prior to an election, but to ignore both once in the voting booth.

Prosperous Armenia was established primarily to provide President Kocharian with the political power base he has never had before, rather than from any ideology or political platform. Yet even despite garnering fewer votes than it hoped for, and in stark contrast to its preelection boast of over 400,000 members nationwide, the election outcome does not necessarily mark Prosperous Armenia's premature eclipse.

On the contrary, the results actually fulfill the party's stated primary goals -- simply to emerge as a new political force and to enter parliament. Tasked with a novel political role as more a pro-presidential than a pro-government party, the future of Prosperous Armenia will be closely aligned with that of Kocharian, whether he opts for a Boris Yeltsin model of secure presidential retirement or some Vladimir Putin-style political future.

The third pro-establishment party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), the long-serving junior partner in the ruling coalition government, improved its position by securing 16 seats (compared with 11 in the outgoing parliament) and slightly more than 13 percent of the vote. But reflecting the intricacies of true parliamentary politics, the HHD has simultaneously emerged as a potential kingmaker in the new parliament, and as a broker in the formation of a new pro-government coalition in light of Sarkisian's stated preference for the broadest possible coalition, rather than relying on his parliamentary majority for a HHK-only government. Sarkisian's rationale is presumably that a broader coalition would expand support for his presidential bid next year, while at the same time preventing any potential alliance between the HHD and Prosperous Armenia that could pose a challenge to the HHK.

The election also resulted in significant shifts within the parliamentary opposition, notably the weakening of the opposition Orinats Yerkir party of former parliament Chairman Artur Baghdasarian. With less than 7 percent of the vote, the onetime member of the pro-government coalition will have only 10 deputies in the new parliament, but Baghdasarian has nonetheless made it clear that he intends to discard the opposition's traditional tactics of boycott and abstention, vowing to embark instead on a bold strategy of legislative confrontation.

Second, if the sidelining of Orinats Yerkir was generally expected, the failure of longtime opposition leader Stepan Demirchian and his People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) to surmount the 5 percent threshold for returning to parliament was not. The failure of both Demirchian -- whom Kocharian defeated in presidential runoffs in 1998 and 2003 -- and his opposition party to win reelection, and the HZhK's dismal 1.7 percent of the party-list vote, may reflect his erstwhile supporters' unhappiness at his refusal to sacrifice his personal ambition for the sake of creating a unified opposition bloc.

The third significant development was the emergence of a new dynamic political actor in the form of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian. Official election results gave the party only 6 percent of the vote and a total of six parliament mandates, although many Armenians believe that the popular Hovannisian received a far greater number of votes, especially in Yerevan. The well-liked Hovannisian is hailed as a new opposition force, capable of injecting a new sense of optimism and integrity into Armenian politics.

As the country's uncrowned new opposition leader, Hovannisian will most likely eclipse Baghdasarian in terms of both political prowess and popular appeal, thanks largely to his personal record. He is seen as untainted by corruption and, unlike Baghdasarian, free from the constraints of past association with the ruling elite. Most importantly, Hovannisian, who first moved to Armenia 16 years ago and served as its foreign minister in 1992, offers something new for Armenian politics, while still maintaining an established record of principled opposition and standing. He has waged a long battle with the Armenian authorities, beginning with the controversial rejection of his candidacy in the 2003 presidential election and culminating in the eviction of his party last year from the building housing its Yerevan headquarters. This dual record of political persecution and opposition has only endeared him to ordinary Armenians.

In this reconfigured political landscape, the main players now face the task of forming first a new coalition, and then a cabinet. Here too, the HHD will exert its newfound political power, demanding not only the retention of its existing ministerial portfolios (agriculture, education and social welfare), but also seeking the defense minister position for one of its members, former Deputy Defense Minister General Artur Aghabekian. Aghabekian, a leading reformer within the Armenian military who served as deputy to Prime Minister Sarkisian during the latter's tenure as defense minister, may also bring a new vitality to the post now held by the retirement-aged Colonel General Mikheil Harutiunian.

Still unclear is whether and how the reconfigured political landscape will impact the relationship -- and the rumored rivalry -- between Sarkisian and Kocharian. Over the medium term, politics will be driven by Sarkisian's clearly stated aspiration to succeed the outgoing president. But will Kocharian readily accept a passive role as a lame-duck president? Crucially, will Kocharian choose to ease Sarkisian's path to the presidency or to hinder it, possibly by backing a rival candidate?

A blast caused by a remote-controlled device destroyed a truck in Kandahar city on May 17, leaving four private security guards dead, international news agencies reported. Half an hour later, when police officers were investigating the blast site, a second explosion, also detonated by remote control, killed 10 policemen. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- claimed responsibility for both attacks in a May 17 posting. A police officer at the blast site also indicated that 10 policemen were killed, AP reported on May 17, but the news agency gave the number killed in the second blast as three. Later the same day, a suicide attacker in a vehicle targeted a convoy carrying Afghan Minister of Information and Culture Abdul Karim Khurram. Three civilians were killed in the attack and the minister sustained minor facial injuries. No one has claimed responsibility for the third blast. AT

At a news conference in Kabul on May 17, Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni insisted that the no-confidence vote against Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta is final, adding that as of May 12, Spanta "is deemed impeached," Pajhwak News Agency reported. The Wolesi Jirga voted to remove Spanta from his position on the grounds that he did not do enough to persuade Iran not to expel tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in a drive that began in mid-April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Afghan President Hamid Karzai decided to keep Spanta in his post while referring the issue of the no-confidence vote to the Afghan Supreme Court for clarification. Qanuni said that Karzai's decree referring Spanta's impeachment to the Supreme Court was illegal. Countering Qanuni's remark, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin said that Spanta's impeachment "is a legal issue and that is why it has been referred" to the high court. Some 2,000 people gathered peacefully in Herat on May 17 to voice their support for Spanta, who was born in the western Afghan province, Herat-based Radio Sahar reported. The protesters signed a statement in which they accused unnamed neighboring countries of being behind Spanta's impeachment. Mohammad Rafiq Shahir, the head of the Council of Professionals and a professor at Herat University, told Radio Sahar that Spanta's impeachment was unconstitutional. According to Shahir, the Constitution gives the Wolesi Jirga the right to impeach cabinet ministers "only when there are clear and logical reasons" for doing so. Regarding Spanta's case, Shahir said that while the foreign minister is "accused of negligence on the issue of Afghan refugees," there was nothing that Spanta could have done, as the repatriation was carried out by Iran. The Wolesi Jirga approved Spanta as foreign minister in April 2006. A Karzai loyalist and a newcomer to Afghan politics, Spanta replaced Abdullah Abdullah, who along with Qanuni was part of the Shura-ye Nezar political grouping (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 28, 2006). By impeaching Spanta, the Wolesi Jirga has showed its power to sabotage Karzai's policies, which include the disfranchisement of groups such as Shura-ye Nezar. AT

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Kabul on May 17 and met with President Karzai, Copenhagen daily "Politiken" reported. Rasmussen, whose country has around 400 troops in Afghanistan, said that solving Afghanistan's persistent opium problem is not the job of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). While there has been growing concern about the links between terrorism, corruption, and the drug trade in Afghanistan, most states contributing troops to ISAF have tried to sidestep the issue of counternarcotics strategy (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," September 12, 2006). AT

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran on May 17 that Iran is willing to help the United States bring security to Iraq -- if Washington changes its policies "regarding the occupation of Iraq," Radio Farda reported, citing agencies. Larijani was speaking at a joint press conference with Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi. He said that because Iran is a powerful country, it is "natural" that it should be asked to help with security in Iraq. He said Iran may be the only country in the region that has helped so far with the political process and stabilization of Iraq, adding that "present conditions in Iraq are very difficult." He vowed that Iran will help its neighbor achieve security and economic development, ISNA reported. Iranian and U.S. ambassadors are to discuss Iraq at a meeting in Baghdad on May 28, Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki confirmed in Islamabad on May 17. Larijani said no specific ambassador has been chosen yet to represent Iran, ISNA reported. VS

Larijani said on May 17 that another Israeli attack on Lebanon is possible, and said such an attack could be motivated by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's efforts to reduce domestic political pressure on himself. But Larijani warned this would not be an "intelligent" course, and could provoke "a much worse crisis," and "great damage" in Israel -- worse than "what they suffered last summer," ISNA and IRNA reported. Israel launched a month of air strikes on Lebanon on July 2006, in an ostensible bid to destroy Hizballah, the Shi'ite militia supported by Iran. It was largely perceived as having failed in its objective. Larijani said Israel is rebuilding its forces, but is "at the same time somehow giving legitimacy to its unsuitable internal situation." He described Olmert as being in a very "fragile situation," with what he said was the support of only 2 percent of Israelis, which has driven Olmert's government to "focus on freeing themselves from the political impasse." VS

Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, the speaker of Iran's parliament, on May 17 backed plans to raise gasoline prices in Iran and restrict the use of cheap, highly subsidized gasoline to save the state billions of dollars in gasoline imports, ISNA reported. A new pricing plan due to take effect from May 22 will limit the amount of subsidized gasoline Iranians can use, and will set a much higher, and as yet undetermined, price for amounts consumed above the limit. Drivers currently pay just under $0.09 per liter; under the new plan, they will pay about $0.11 per liter for a set amount of gasoline every month, and more for amounts above the limit. Haddad-Adel said that since Iran can only produce 45 million liters of gasoline daily, "there is no sense in consuming 80 million liters daily. This is neither politically nor economically reasonable." Is it reasonable, he asked, "for us to import several billion dollars' worth of gasoline every year and sell it more cheaply than water, and fill our streets with cars and make ourselves dependent on foreign countries?" A member of the parliamentary Energy Committee, Naser Musavi, said in Tehran on May 16 that he doubts the new plan will take effect from May 22, as he said the government is not ready, ISNA reported. Musavi said only half the country's gasoline stations are ready to implement the plan, which requires the use of smart cards to measure every car or driver's consumption. VS

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and two other Iranian human rights lawyers are to serve as the defense team of Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar detained in Iran since early May and accused of subversion, Radio Farda reported on May 17, quoting Ebadi. The lawyers were chosen by the Center for Human Rights Defenders, a group co-founded by Ebadi. The two other lawyers are Mohammad Seifzadeh and Abdolfattah Soltani, who have been involved in previous human rights cases. Soltani himself has spent months in prison in Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," October 30, 2006, and "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). Meanwhile, the state prosecutor dealing with Esfandiari's case said that Esfandiari told him she does not want a lawyer, Radio Farda reported. But Ebadi said Esfandiari's mother said Esfandiari had phoned home to ask her family to find her lawyers from the Center for Human Rights Defenders. Ebadi told Radio Farda that her two colleagues were prevented from visiting Esfandiari when they went to the interrogator's office in Tehran. Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, was taken to Tehran's Evin prison on May 8 and is under investigation for "acting against national security," RFE/RL reported on May 15. VS

The British think tank the Royal Institue of International Affairs issued a report on May 17 warning that Iraq is on the "verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation," international media reported the same day. "The coming year will be pivotal for Iraq. The internecine fighting and continual struggle for power threatens the nation's very existence in its current form," the report said. The 12-page report, titled "Accepting Realities in Iraq" and written by Middle East expert Gareth Stansfield, said the Iraqi government is losing control of much of the country to powerful local factions. "Within this warring society, the Iraqi government is only one among many 'state-like' actors, and is largely irrelevant in terms of ordering social, economic, and political life," it said. The report also stressed that Iraq's continued instability is not necessarily contrary to the interests of some of Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran. Iraq "is now a theater in which Iran can 'fight' the U.S. without doing so openly," the report said, adding that Tehran is the "most capable foreign power" in Iraq in terms of influencing future events, even more so than the United States. Despite the bleak assessment, the report noted that legislation that would distribute the country's oil wealth equitably would be "the key to ensuring Iraq's survival." SS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has allegedly given priority to several Iranian firms to build four oil refineries in southern Iraq, the "Al-Zaman" newspaper reported on May 17. In addition, Oil Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said the two countries are considering a deal to build a pipeline to carry Iraqi crude to refineries in the southern Iranian city of Abadan. "They have agreed that the technical committees should begin mutual visits within days to discuss costs and the time they need to build the pipeline," Jihad told Reuters on May 17. "The Iranians will buy the crude based on the market price," he added. Southern Iraq is the location of the country's largest oil fields, as well as the scene of recent clashes between Shi'ite militias and U.S. and Iraqi government forces. SS

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on May 16 rejected a proposal by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to send a Muslim peacekeeping force to Iraq to help stabilize the country, Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper reported the same day. "We have reservations on this proposal," Zebari said, adding that his government has objected to similar proposals in the past. "My government's position is not for welcoming any more troops. We want our troops, the Iraqi troops, to rise up and stand, let's say to stabilize the situation," he said. During a meeting of foreign ministers from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Islamabad on May 15, Musharraf proposed sending "a Muslim peacekeeping force under the United Nations umbrella" to help bring peace to Iraq. SS

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) convened a three-day conference in Amman, Jordan, on May 15 to assist the Iraqi government in developing a comprehensive water management strategy, the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on May 17. In "a country rich in resources that has two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, yet bedeviled by years of conflict and war, the water sector in Iraq has faced a major deterioration in recent years," the organization said in a statement. Iraq's water infrastructure fell into disrepair during the years of UN sanctions against the regime of late dictator Saddam Hussein, and the situation grew worse as the country's main water-treatment and pumping stations were stripped of crucial equipment by looters after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Four years after the U.S.-led invasion, violence and sabotage have prevented an overhaul of the water-treatment system. As a result, untreated sewage has been discharged into rivers. "That has caused many diseases like gastroenteritis, brucellosis, hepatitis, and typhoid fever, now common among children due to bad drinking water," said Ahmad Khalid al-Ubaydi, a Health Ministry official. SS

Iraqi police reportedly regained control of the southern city of Al-Nasiriyah on May 17, a day after radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, clashed with Iraqi security forces there, KUNA reported. Fighting began on May 16 after local police arrested two members of al-Sadr's militia, accusing them of targeting U.S.-led and Iraqi forces with improvised explosives and mortars. The ensuing fighting killed 10 people and wounded 45, according to local hospital officials. Several buildings and power facilities were also damaged, causing power outages in areas across Dhi Qar Governorate. SS

Masked gunmen kidnapped Muhammad Mashhadani, the brother of Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud Mashhadani, in Baghdad on May 16, KUNA reported on May 17. The speaker's political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, issued a statement confirming the abduction and said the gunmen are currently holding the speaker's brother at an undisclosed location. There are no indications as to who was behind the abduction. The Iraqi Accordance Front is the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, with 44 seats. SS