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Newsline - May 22, 2007

U.S. President George W. Bush said in an interview with Reuters in Washington on May 21 that his "message to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is there's a better way forward" toward democracy than what Russia is currently doing. Bush added that Putin "thinks they've got a democracy emerging there in Russia. Obviously there's a lot of suspicion [abroad] about that, and I look forward to continuing to talk to him as to why he thinks his country is on the path to democracy. It looks like at times it's not to me." Bush said that he would also tell Putin that "your interests lie in the West, and we ought to be working together in a collaborative way." Bush noted that "people in [the Russian] government harbor suspicions about our intention [regarding missile defense], and I was trying to allay those suspicions [by sending several top U.S. officials to Moscow recently]. But there is a lot of tension with Russia, particularly with Europe now, that Russia is using her energy and denying market access to different countries, for example, [to] Polish meat [exports]" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, and May 15 and 21, 2007). Bush added that he still is close to Putin personally but described U.S.-Russian relations as "complex." Speaking at the May 9 Victory Day ceremonies, Putin compared the United States to Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Russian state-run television subsequently commented that "the victory once again will be ours." Britain's "The Economist" noted on May 18 that Russian "hatred of America gives cover for growing authoritarianism, nationalism, and concentration of money and power in the hands of former and present members of the security services." PM

President Bush said in Crawford, Texas, on May 21 after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that he intends to convince President Putin and other Russian leaders that the planned U.S. missile-defense system "is not directed against them," "The Washington Times" reported on May 22. He added that "NATO allies and other nations recognize the threat we face from ballistic missiles launched by a rogue state," such as Iran or North Korea. "Of course, I will continue to reach out to Russia," Bush said, noting that "the secretary-general agrees that U.S. missile-defense plans complement NATO efforts to keep all nations safe from attack." Bush added that he appreciates "the fact that the NATO-Russian Council is an integral part of the secretary-general's plans to make sure that Russia fully understands our intentions." De Hoop Scheffer said, "It will be now up to NATO -- and I'll try to lead NATO into that direction.... There will be a NATO system which complements, which will be bolted in the U.S. system, so that everybody and everything will be covered for the long-range threats, the medium-range threats, and the short-range threats." PM

Sir Ken Macdonald, the head of the U.K. Crown Prosecution Service, announced in London on May 22 that he has "concluded that the evidence sent to us by the police is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the [2006] murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning," news agencies reported. Macdonald added that he has "further concluded that the prosecution of this case would clearly be in the public interest." He said he has "instructed [Crown Prosecution Service] lawyers to take immediate steps to seek the early extradition of...Lugovoi from Russia to the United Kingdom, so that he may be charged here with murder and brought swiftly before a court in London to be prosecuted for this extraordinarily grave crime." But an unnamed "source" at the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office then told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency that "under the constitution of the Russian Federation, Russian citizens cannot be handed over to foreign countries for prosecution, and Lugovoi appears to be a Russian citizen." On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused President Putin of being behind his killing. The Kremlin denies the allegation. Lugovoi is a veteran of the KGB and its successor, the Federal Security Service. He also worked as a bodyguard for self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Lugovoi denies killing Litvinenko and has criticized the British media for "demonizing" him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and 8, 2007, and "Russia: Berezovsky Breaks Silence On Litvinenko,", February 7, 2007). PM

Arkady Dvorkovich, who is a top economic adviser to President Putin, said in Moscow on May 21 that Russia hopes to increase its 5 percent stake in the European aircraft manufacturer EADS, the parent company of Airbus, if it can reach a deal to make some Airbus parts in Russia, news agencies reported. Dvorkovich asked rhetorically, "How can you entice new shareholders to invest [in EADS] with a shareholder pact that gives new shareholders the obligation to pay but not the right to vote?" French President Nicholas Sarkozy has appealed to EADS to attract new investors by changing its relationship to shareholders. In the fall of 2006, Russia's state-owned Vneshtorgbank confirmed it holds a stake of just over 5 percent in EADS. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the management of EADS, which seeks lucrative U.S. defense contracts, subsequently thwarted Russian plans to acquire blocking rights and a seat on the board (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10, 2006, and March 5, 16, and 23, and April 3, 2007). PM

The government endorsed plans on May 21 to build a new branch oil pipeline from Unecha near the Belarusian border via Velikie Luki to Primorsk near the Finnish border, bypassing Belarus, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on May 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and April 3 and 12, 2007). The pipeline could then be extended to Germany and beyond via the Baltic seabed as part of the Baltic Pipeline System. PM

Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said in London on May 21 that Russia is seeking to divide EU member states by concluding bilateral energy deals with individual countries rather than ratify the EU's Energy Charter, the "Financial Times" reported on May 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2007). He suggested that the "big question [is], which is the center of power [in Russia], the Kremlin or Gazprom?" He argued that the EU should promote "gas and electricity interconnections between the Baltic states and Western Europe, as well as a liquefied gas terminal in the Baltic." On May 21, the Gazprom-owned Moscow daily "Izvestia" wrote that the older members of the EU need to take the lead in reining in the newer ones where relations with Russia are concerned. The paper argued that "our leading partners in Europe need to realize that threats to the EU's energy security emanate not from Russia, but from all kinds of "partisans" along the Moscow-Brussels highway." Also on May 21, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted that "the new EU members do not yet possess the wisdom of the older members. They place their own national interests ahead of EU interests." But "Vremya novostei" warned on May 21 that "if we want a mutually beneficial relationship with the EU, we need to reconsider our tactics. It's time we gave up relying on splits within the EU. The major European countries are no longer led by politicians with a personal stake in developing contacts with Russia." PM

About 50 members of the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi began an open-ended protest on May 21 outside the EU's offices in Moscow to call attention to the recent detention by Estonian police of an 18-year-old Russian speaker, Mark Siryka, for allegedly organizing recent riots in Tallinn, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on May 22. The Moscow protest includes ringing a bell next to a portrait of Siryka every 15 minutes. In April, the German weekly "Focus" described Nashi and some similar organizations as President "Putin's toughs." The magazine suggested that these groups have support from the Kremlin and members who join for opportunistic reasons. In recent months, Nashi members have repeatedly harassed British, U.S., and Estonian diplomats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and 27, and May 2, 3, 4, 7, and 21, 2007). PM

The daily "Kommersant" reported on May 21 that the Kremlin canceled an interview between President Putin and reporters of Austria's public broadcaster ORF because of the Austrian station's recent "unfriendly coverage" of the "position of Chechens in Russia." Putin is slated to visit Austria on May 23-24. The daily noted that Russia has hopes of influencing Austria, which belongs to the EU but has never been an ally of the United States, to support Moscow in its various current disputes with Brussels and over the U.S. missile-defense project. The paper suggested that the Kremlin's behavior will only serve to call attention in Austria to criticism there of Russian media policy. PM

Oleg Mitvol, who is deputy head of the Natural Resources Ministry's Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources Use (Rosprirodnadzor), announced on May 21 that BP's Russian venture TNK-BP will probably lose "within days" its license to develop the vast East Siberian Kovykta gas field, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on May 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 22, 2006, and February 12 and March 13, 2007). The daily noted that the long-expected move is part of Kremlin efforts to increase state control over the energy sector by pressuring Russian shareholders to sell their stakes in joint ventures to Russian state-run firms. The Kremlin has also sought to repudiate and rewrite existing agreements with foreign energy companies. Alleged environmental concerns have been used against other Western firms to pressure them into selling at least part of their shares to state-run Russian companies. Russian firms are not known for scrupulous compliance with environmental legislation. PM

Official commemorations took place on May 21 in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), and Cherkessk, capital of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic to mark the 143rd anniversary of the end of the war of conquest waged by Tsarist Russia in the North Caucasus, reported. Speakers at the ceremony in Cherkessk stressed that it would be wrong to blame the Russian people for the deaths and involuntary exile in that colonial war of hundreds of thousands of Adygs and Cherkess. At the same time, the Cherkess public organization Adyghe Khase proposed to the republican parliament marking every year the Day of Rebirth of the Cherkess People, reported. The Day of Rebirth of the Balkar People, who were deported en masse during World War II on orders from Josef Stalin, is marked annually on May 3. In Kabardino-Balkaria, some 200 young Kabardians staged an alternative commemoration after the official ceremony ended, the "Caucasus Times" reported on May 22. Addressing that gathering, Ruslan Keshev, chairman of the KBR Cherkess Congress, warned that the congress will stage "peaceful protests" if plans to mark in September the alleged voluntary incorporation of the Kabardian princedom into the Russian Empire go ahead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2006). LF

Rumors that one of the reactors at the Volgodonsk nuclear power plant in Rostov Oblast was damaged in an explosion caused panic across the North Caucasus on May 19-20, reported. The emergency services in Stavropol, 500 kilometers away from Volgodonsk, received at least 1,500 telephone calls within 24 hours from distraught residents, reported on May 21. The agency quoted a local Emergency Situations Ministry official, Boris Skripka, as explaining that the Ukrainian Emergency Situations Ministry conducted a training exercise at Volgodonsk on May 18 which some people interpreted as a real emergency. Skripka affirmed that "we shall not allow a second Chornobyl," and that in the event of a major emergency, citizens will be informed in good time. Also on May 21, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said a fire broke out at a scrap metal dump at the Atommash plant in Volgodonsk and spread to the roof and wall of the main building, Interfax reported. Firefighters succeeded in extinguishing the blaze. A spokesman for Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) told Interfax later on May 21 that despite its name, Atommash no longer manufactures components for the atomic energy industry. LF

The Chechen Republic Public Chamber expressed support on May 21 for the argument advanced on May 16 by human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev that republican prosecutor Valery Kuznetsov should be held criminally responsible for his agency's failure to solve "thousands" of abductions in recent years, even when the identity of the perpetrators is known, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). Russian human rights activists rejected Nukhadjiyev's criticism of Kuznetsov; they also believe that the majority of the abductions reported in Chechnya in recent years were the work of security forces personally subordinate to Ramzan Kadyrov, who was inaugurated in April as republic head. One year ago, Dmitry Grushkin of the human rights group Memorial estimated the number of abductions in Chechnya since 2002 as 1,893, of whom 653 were found alive and 1,023 were still missing, according to Interfax on May 12, 2006. LF

Police in Kaspiisk killed two "suspicious" armed men in a shoot-out during the evening of May 21 shortly after the two arrived by minibus taxi from Makhachkala. Russian media reported. A policeman and three passersby, including a six-year-old child, were injured. The two dead men were identified as residents of Daghestan; one was said to have belonged to a militant group that fought in Chechnya, while the other was wanted by police on charges of inflicting grievous bodily harm. A search of their apartment in Makhachkala reportedly yielded weapons and explosives, reported. LF

Two men, one of them a passerby, were injured late on May 20 in a street shoot-out in the northern town of Giumri, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 21. Local police declined to confirm reports that the groups were led, respectively, by Spartak Ghukasian, the son of city Mayor and ruling Republican Party of Armenia member Vartan Ghukasian, and Rustam Sargsian, the son of a prominent local businessman and member of the rival pro-presidential Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) party. Vartan Ghukasian was seriously injured when unknown gunmen opened fire on his motorcade last month, killing his deputy, driver, and two bodyguards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). LF

Sergei Lavrov held talks in Baku on May 21 with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov and with President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijani media reported. Speaking at a subsequent press conference, Mammadyarov said that Russia should play "a greater, if not the key role" in mediating a solution of the Karabakh conflict, given that "Russia was, is, and will remain a Caucasus state. Russia will always have a presence in the Caucasus," reported on May 22. Lavrov for his part said their talks also focused on European security, including a planned U.S. missile-defense shield, the possibility that Russia and the U.S. might jointly use the Gabala radar station in northern Azerbaijan, the future of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, and also Iran's nuclear program. Lavrov told journalists that he believes that given the requisite "political will on all sides," it will prove possible to reach a mutually acceptable solution to the Karabakh conflict. He criticized as "unacceptable for Russia" the UN Security Council draft resolution advocating independence for Kosova. Any "unilateral" decision on Kosova's future would create a precedent that could undermine stability in various regions, Lavrov argued. President Aliyev in his talks with Lavrov characterized bilateral relations as "good" and "strategic," reported. LF

Mirza Sakit and Faramaz Novruzoglu, who are serving prison terms respectively for illegal possession of drugs and libel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006), have proposed to fellow journalists and human-rights organizations the merger of all bodies representing journalists to create a single organization to lobby for the rights of imprisoned journalists and defend media freedom, Ilham Tumas, the founder of the newspaper "Nota bene" for which Novruzoglu wrote, told journalists in Baku on May 21, reported the following day. Representatives of two small opposition parties -- Mirmahmud Miralioglu (Classical Popular Front Party) and Iskander Hamidov (National Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, aka Boz Gurd or the "Gray Wolves") -- expressed support for that proposal; Hamidov argued that "in a situation where the opposition has become timid and two-faced and has surrendered to the authorities, only journalists still defend the truth." But several bodies, including the committee formed to protect the rights of journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who was sentenced last month to 2 1/2 years' imprisonment for libel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007), did not send representatives to Tumas's press conference. On May 22, Aflatun Amashov, head of Azerbaijan's independent Press Council, expressed skepticism at the stated rationale for the eviction from their editorial offices of the newspapers "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gyundelik Azerbaijan," which have the highest print runs in the country, reported. Azerbaijan's Emergency Situations Ministry ordered the eviction on the grounds that the building in question is unsafe, but other occupants have not been required to leave (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). LF

Parliament deputies adopted a resolution on May 21 registering their concern at demographic trends in the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, reported. The region's total population is estimated at 220,000. The resolution blamed political instability and the unsatisfactory level of health care for the low birthrate in Abkhazia, which the parliamentarians fear could in the long term undermine the region's defense capacity. They called on de facto President Sergei Bagapsh to form a special committee to study the situation and draft proposals to support young families with children. The public movement Aytayra registered concern three years ago at the high abortion rate in Abkhazia, which it identified, together with war deaths and the high number of fatalities in traffic accidents, as contributing to the low birthrate, Caucasus Press reported on August 16, 2004. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has signed into law amendments to the country's constitution that expand the powers of parliament and remove term limits for independent Kazakhstan's first president -- Nazarbaev himself, RIA Novosti reported on May 22. Nazarbaev last week presented the amendments to parliament, which quickly passed them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 17, and 21, 2007). The amendment removing term limits for the country's first president was proposed by members of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). DK

Kazakh state oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz posted a net profit of 72.151 billion tenges ($598 million) in the first quarter of 2007, an 8.5 percent year-on-year rise over the first quarter of 2006, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The data came from an unaudited consolidated financial report. DK

Marat Sultanov, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, told a press conference in Bishkek on May 21 that the U.S. military base in Manas is "only for missions to Afghanistan," and that Kyrgyzstan will shut down the base if "we have any suspicions that it might be used for other purposes," reported. Sultanov was responding to a question about the possibility of a U.S. strike on Iran from the base in Kyrgyzstan. But Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev responded to a similar question by saying that speculation about a U.S. strike launched from Kyrgyzstan is "exaggerated," Kyrgyz Television reported. Aleksandr Tiperov, the head of a movement seeking to close down the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan, told a news conference in Bishkek on May 21 that the movement plans to hold a protest on June 2 under the name "Yankees out of Kyrgyzstan," reported. "The presence of the air base is posing a threat to the citizens of Kyrgyzstan and it is inflicting a great loss on the country's environment. There is only one solution to this situation: the withdrawal of the air base," Tiperov said. The planned protest will take place outside the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek. On the issue of the Russian air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, Sultanov said that the Russian air base "is still a Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO] air base," even though Russia is the "principal tenant," and so it cannot be called "foreign," Interfax reported. Kyrgyzstan is a CSTO member. Sultanov said that Kyrgyzstan has proposed strengthening the Kant base. But Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the CSTO, said in Bishkek on May 21 that no expansion of the Kant base is planned, reported. DK

Marina Ivanova, the widow of a Kyrgyz citizen shot dead by a U.S. serviceman at a checkpoint at the U.S. base outside Bishkek in December 2006, called the $55,000 compensation payment she received "humiliating," AP reported on May 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006). Ivanova told the news agency she plans to ask for $1 million in damages. The U.S. serviceman involved has returned to the United States, where he remains under investigation. Kyrgyzstan recently asked the United States to expedite the investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). DK

Christian Strohal, head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat on May 21, Interfax reported. Berdymukhammedov thanked ODIHR for its assistance with Turkmenistan's February presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). Strohal told reporters after their meeting, "We discussed many issues, including future cooperation between Turkmenistan and the OSCE, and agreed to pass from words to practical realization of the existing proposals." DK

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Minsk on May 21 for a two-day official visit, Belarusian media reported. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka thanked Ahmadinejad for his "constructive approach to the development of cooperation in the oil and gas industry." "You have granted Belarus's wish and allocated the [oil] deposit we wanted. Our experts have already explored it and are ready to extract oil on Iranian territory today," Lukashenka added. Ahmadinejad noted that the two countries have similar stances on international issues. "It is necessary to create a balance in the world. We are against a unipolar world and pressure on other countries," the Iranian president said. "We are friends and are full of determination to develop cooperation. We do not have boundaries for cooperation with Belarus," Ahmadinejad added. The two sides signed a number of documents, including agreements on cooperation in banking and between their education ministries. Trade turnover between Belarus and Iran in 2006 amounted to some $35 million. JM

A district court in Minsk on May 21 imposed fines on Belarusian Popular Front deputy head Alyaksey Yanukevich and United Civic Party activist Valyantsina Palevikova for their roles in organizing an opposition march in Minsk on April 26 to commemorate the 1986 explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, Belapan reported. Yanukevich and Palevikova received fines of 930,000 rubles ($435) and 755,000 rubles ($353) respectively. The court found them guilty of obstructing traffic during the march. The authorities "have simply started raising money from every source, including from our pockets," Palevikova commented on her punishment. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on May 21 talked for more than five hours behind closed doors but failed to set a date for early parliamentary elections, Ukrainian media reported. No statement was issued following their talks. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court announced the same day that it has stopped assessing the validity of Yushchenko's April 2 decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and setting snap elections for May 27, and began considering his decree of April 26, which invalidated the first one and rescheduled early polls for June 24. Last week, presidential chief of staff Viktor Baloha said Yushchenko will ignore any Constitutional Court ruling on his decrees. JM

Montenegro on May 21 celebrated the first anniversary of its referendum on independence with fireworks, an array of events, and pledges from political leaders to take the country into the EU and NATO, local and international media reported the same day. "We are proud to have realized the dream of our forefathers," AP quoted President Filip Vujanovic as saying. "We remain committed to the rule of law, [a] liberal economy...and maintain[ing] good cooperation with our neighbors" and the world's leading powers, Vujanovic continued. Montenegro joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program in December and signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). There were some less-than-celebratory reflections, with AFP quoting a member of the Socialist People's Party, Predrag Bulatovic, as saying that "time has shown that the citizens have not gained what was promised -- an improvement in their poor economic and social standards." Montenegro has yet to agree on a constitution, with the principal objections coming from ethnic Serbian parties. Among their chief arguments is that Montenegro should be recognized as a state of nations rather than as a civic state, a decision that would strengthen Serbs' political position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, and March 12 and 15, 2007). According to a 2003 census, 43 percent of the population call themselves Montenegrins, 32 percent Serbs, 7 percent Bosnian Muslims, and 6 percent Albanians. In his Independence Day speech, given on May 20 and reported on Radio Montenegro on May 21, Vujanovic called Montenegro's ethnic groups "pillars of the modern, newly established, civil Montenegro. This is the only kind of Montenegro the world needs." Discussions on a constitution have been extended by several months, but public debate is now due to end on May 28. The parliament on May 17 made May 21 a public holiday, calling it Independence Day although Montenegro only formally declared its independence from Serbia on June 3. AG

The prime minister of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, on May 21 said that the Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous region needs its own police force in order to counter the threat posed by radical Islamists, Bosnia-Herzegovina's national radio reported the same day. "In conditions in which a movement called Wahhabism is growing steadily, in conditions in which people trained for terrorist actions in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been seen very frequently in foreign countries, we cannot give up the police, nor are we willing to do so," Dodik said. The term "Wahhabis" is generically applied in the Balkans to radical Muslims despite its specific association with an austere Saudi Arabian branch of Sunni Islam. In an interview published by the daily "Oslobodjenje" on 15 May, the head of EU forces in Bosnia, Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer, reiterated an earlier statement that while nothing leads him to conclude there is a direct danger of terrorism in the country, Bosnia is potentially fertile ground for terrorists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). A U.S. government report issued in May concluded that Bosnia is a "weak state...vulnerable to exploitation as a terrorist safe haven or as a potential staging ground for terrorist operations in Europe" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 3, 2007). That claim has been angrily dismissed on several occasions by Bosnian politicians, who argue that the two terrorism-related incidents mentioned by the report do not justify Washington's conclusion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2007). AG

Prime Minister Dodik also ruled out changing the name of the Republika Srpska, which in translation means the Serbian Republic, and said he would not accept centralization of the state or the use by the international community's representative of his right to fire officials and push through legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). Police reform is a key demand made by the EU, which also sees a change to the constitution as "essential" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). Political figures in the country's three major ethnic communities -- Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats -- have all put forward divergent ideas about how to reconstitute the country, with Bosnian Muslims calling for unification of the country and some in both the Serbian and Croatian communities calling for the same or additional administrative divisions along ethnic lines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). "I believe it is a mistake on behalf of Europe and the United States to insist on creating a country with strong central institutions," AP quoted Dodik as saying. "It is obvious that this doesn't work and it won't work in the future." Dodik said "we like the Dayton agreement," which ended the 1992-95 war, and continued: "If centralization continues to be pursued, then we will ask for something that is called confederation or union." Both Dodik and the most senior Bosnian Muslim politician, Haris Silajdzic, are due in the coming days to visit Washington to meet with senior U.S. State Department officials. AG

Macedonia's third-largest ethnic Albanian party, the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), on May 20 agreed to join the governing coalition, local media reported the same day. The decision also ends a boycott of parliament that the PPD began in late January. The largest Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), has also hinted it may be ready to end its boycott (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). The PPD's leader, Abdullah Vejseli, and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski agreed on May 19 that the PPD will occupy the Local Government Ministry, a senior position in the Interior Ministry, and the chairs of several public companies. AG

The Macedonian parliament on May 21 voted to allow foreign banks to set up branches in the country, local media reported the same day. The bill, which went before parliament in April and now needs just the president's signature, is an element of reforms required by the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). Macedonia hopes to start association talks with the EU in 2008. This is one element of a new banking law that also requires banks to be better capitalized and introduces measures intended to improve corporate governance. AG

A commentary in the Albanian newspaper "Gazeta Shqiptare" on May 18 described Albania's attendance of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as "the worst decision that Albanian diplomacy could ever make." At the May 14-17 meeting of the 57-member organization, the Albanian government's main contribution was to sponsor a resolution supporting independence for Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2007). "Gazeta Shqiptare" wrote that presenting the Kosova question "to the international community as 'Islamic' only harms the cause of Kosova's final status," and that the government "is providing fodder to those who are trying to present it as an 'Islamic problem,' even though everyone knows that Kosova is in no way a religious issue; rather it is an ethnic one." The paper also reported on May 19 that some right-wing deputies are set to raise the question of Albania's relationship with the OIC in parliament and that the Albanian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee will ask the government to explain its decision to attend. Albania, which is a secular state, joined the OIC in 1993 at the instigation of Sali Berisha, who was then president and is now prime minister. "Gazeta Shqiptare" highlighted tensions in the EU about the possibility of enlargement to include Turkey, a secular state but Muslim nation. AG

In an interview published by the daily "Shekulli" on May 18, the head of the Albanian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Iannoulatos, said that Albania "is no longer a typically Muslim nation." He said that its position as "a multireligious society" is useful for Albania in its bid for EU membership, and he described as "naive" the idea supposedly held by many Albanians in the early 1990s that the Albanians must have an identity "different from that of their neighbors." "Albania is not in Saudi Arabia or in Africa. It is in the Balkans, and the Orthodox Church is a bridge linking it with its neighbors," he said. "That is not a threat; it is a blessing." Iannoulatos, who praised the "excellent relations" between Albania's religious communities, spent much of the interview defending his position as a Greek at the head of an Albanian church, saying he was asked to stay by Albanians. Iannoulatos was instrumental in the revival of Albania's Orthodox community after the aggressively atheist rule of communist leader Enver Hoxha, which he said left "left little or nothing" of the Orthodox Church. He dismissed charges that the Orthodox Church is being Hellenized, pointing out that just three of the 136 Orthodox priests in the country are Greeks and attacking a "propensity to spread lies, utter lies." The percentage of Albanians who are Orthodox Christians is unclear. Iannoulatos said the church has "no statistics" and that the last official figures predate World War II. "Italian sources of this period give the following figures: 68 percent Sunni and Bektashi Muslim, 22 percent Christian Orthodox, and 10 or 11 percent Roman Catholic," the archbishop said, adding that Hoxha once put the number of Orthodox at 30 percent. Estimates typically put the percentage at between 20 and 25 percent. AG

A deputy leader of Albania's fifth-largest party, the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), attacked Archbishop Iannoulatos's views and, in a May 19 interview with the daily "Shekulli," called for an ethnic Albanian to head the Orthodox Church. Pellumb Xhufi said the archbishop's claim that Albania is not "a typically Muslim nation" was an "expression of ignorance," and he argued that, whatever their religion, "Albanians have the same language, culture, tradition, and customs, and a common history" and that "to identify their nationality based on their religious allegiances is a mistake." Xhufi raised the possibility that the Greek government had a hand in the archbishop's appointment, saying the truth will emerge only when archives are opened, but adding that Iannoulatos's "ties to Greek political circles are rather clear." Xhufi called Albanians' sensitivity about the presence of Greek clergy "historically justified," and contrasted the role of foreign clergy in the Orthodox Church with their role in the Catholic Church. He argued that the Catholic Church is "different because it has preserved its universal character and is not financially, morally, or politically sponsored by a particular state, as is the case with the Greek church and the Greek clergy." Xhufi called Iannoulatos "enlightened and learned," but said that "the fact that he is not an Albanian automatically estranges him from what we could call the Albanian spirit." AG

A report issued on May 16 by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that Romany children in Southeastern Europe are substantially poorer, less healthy, and less educated than their non-Romany counterparts. "The environment of a [Romany] child is one of marginalization, poverty and exclusion," Svetlana Marojevic of UNICEF's Belgrade office said, according to the broadcaster B92. "They are in fact invisible, living on the margins of societies that do not care." The UNICEF report found that in five of the eight countries and regions surveyed, more than 40 percent of the Romany population live in poverty, with the lowest figure being in Bosnia-Herzegovina (27 percent) and the highest in Kosova (59 percent). Two-thirds of Romany households have too little to eat, which was reflected in the discovery that Romany children are six times more likely to be underweight and nearly three times as likely to be unhealthy (20 percent) as non-Romany children. Literacy rates in the 15-24 age group range from 65 percent in Albania and Kosova to 90 percent in Serbia. Relatively high literacy rates do not necessarily indicate the level of education achieved: in Serbia only 13 percent of Romany children complete primary education, less than half the percentage in Macedonia. In February, UNICEF issued a report that found that 300,000 children in Serbia live near or close to the poverty line, with Romany children particularly vulnerable and excluded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2007). UNICEF puts the number of Roma in the eight regions surveyed -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia -- at 3.7 million, of whom 1.7 million are younger than 19. The ratio of children in Romany communities, 46 percent, compares with averages of 22-29 percent in the general population in the areas covered. AG


The Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) of the Afghan National Assembly voted on May 21 to suspend Malalai Joya, a representative from Farah Province in western Afghanistan, on charges of insulting the parliament, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Wolesi Jirga speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni told the lower house that because of Joya's "irresponsible comments and insults to the National Assembly and government officials, by a vote of the majority of Wolesi Jirga, her membership will be suspended until the end of her current term" in 2010. According to a May 20 report broadcast on state-run Afghanistan National Television, Joya "ignored the principles of freedom of speech and parliamentary ethics" during an interview she gave to Kabul-based Tolo Television. In that interview, Joya reportedly said that the members of the Meshrano Jirga (Elders' Council) are "worse than donkeys and cows," adding that cows provide milk and donkeys carry loads, but some of the parliamentarians are like "dragons," AFP reported on May 21. Joya has been suspended under the vague internal rules of the National Assembly. AT

Lawmaker Joya called her suspension by the Wolesi Jirga "a completely illegal act," Tolo reported. Speaking at a news conference in Kabul on May 21, Joya added that she came to the Wolesi Jirga "through the people's votes," and claimed to have the support not only of her constituency in Farah Province, but "of people throughout Afghanistan." She vowed to continue her "struggle." Joya gained international attention when she criticized the participation of former mujahedin leaders in the Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003, and was later expelled from the forum. After her election to the Wolesi Jirga in 2005, Joya offered her condolences to the Afghan people for the presence of "warlords, drug lords, and criminals" in the parliament. In 2006, Joya was verbally attacked and threatened by some of her colleagues inside the lower house's assembly hall, while some members threw empty water bottles at her (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2003; December 20, 2005; and May 9, 2006). AT

A spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Adrian Edward, on May 21 voiced support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decision to keep Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta in his position after his impeachment by the Wolesi Jirga, pending a ruling by the Supreme Court. UNAMA's "view is that the constitution provides for votes of censure of confidence in ministers, but does not expressly give parliament the right to dismiss ministers," Pajhwak Afghan News quoted Edward as saying in Kabul. "The power to dismiss ministers rests with the president," he said. Edward added that securing the rule of law in Afghanistan is UNAMA's priority; he said his agency watches "closely to see how laws and procedures are being handled," and will make its "views clear" when it believes "matters are going in the wrong direction." The Wolesi Jirga voted to remove Spanta 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. Refugees Minister Mohammad Akbar was also dismissed for failing to provide adequate assistance to the returning refugees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11 and 14, 2007). Karzai decided to keep Spanta in his post while referring the no-confidence vote to the Supreme Court for clarification. Edward's comments are likely to add further fuel to charges by some members of the Wolesi Jirga that Spanta and several other ministers in Karzai's cabinet are backed by foreign governments. AT

Unidentified assailants destroyed 10 fuel tankers in a rocket attack in Torkham, Pakistan, on May 21, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The tankers were carrying fuel to the U.S.-led coalition forces operating in Afghanistan. The tankers were stopped at the border for routine procedures when the attack occurred. There were no reports of casualties. AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on May 21 said that Iran has become "the command center for the awareness and resistance of nations" against "America's domineering system," ISNA reported. Khamenei was addressing a gathering of "thousands" of student members of the Basij militia, a nationwide force affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. ISNA didn't specify where the gathering took place. Khamenei described international relations as "the complex arena of a vast war of wills and initiatives" in which Iran plays a "decisive role." The Islamic republic, he said, "has exploded a potent bomb in the world of politics thousands of times more powerful than the bomb the Americans used in Hiroshima." He said Iran, unlike the European Union, has questioned all the United States' "principles," inspiring awe among the world's nations, which he compared to a gallery of spectators watching "this great political dispute." Khamenei also told his audience that anyone in Iran willing to serve the needs of "the revolution" is effectively a Basiji. "I am proud to be a Basiji," he said. VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on May 21 said Iran is "entirely flexible within the framework of regulations" to reach a "comprehensive" agreement on Iran's nuclear program. "The only thing we cannot accept is to overlook the Iranian nation's right to have peaceful nuclear technology. In fact...the government has been given no such authority by the people" to stop pursuing nuclear technology, the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" quoted Mottaki as saying in its issue the following day. It did not specify if he was speaking in Tehran or Amman, where he attended the World Economic Forum. Western powers want Iran to stop its uranium-enrichment work, fearing it could be used to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has refused, saying the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) allows it to manufacture fuel for a peaceful nuclear program. Separately, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said in remarks published by the daily "Etemad-i Melli" on May 21 that Iran might consider the suspension of uranium enrichment and related activities if Western powers approve the creation of a multinational fuel-making consortium in Iran. This has been one of Iran's past proposals to resolve Western concerns over supervision of nuclear fuel production. If "they accept a consortium working in Iran and recognize Iran's right to enrichment, a short-term [enrichment] suspension can be discussed," Rezai told the daily. VS

Iran's Intelligence Ministry issued a statement on May 21 accusing a detained Iranian-American scholar of subversive activities, Radio Farda and ISNA reported. The statement accused Haleh Esfandiari of being the "link" between Iranians and "American organizations and bodies" tasked with mobilizing unspecified groups in Iran to serve the "goals of foreign powers," Radio Farda reported. Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, has been detained in Tehran's Evin prison since May 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2007). The statement added that nongovernmental organizations or rights bodies in Iran are doing what Western intelligence agencies used to do. The ministry statement focused on the Soros Foundation, which it said is financing the Woodrow Wilson Center and Esfandiari's academic activities, and accused it of forming a network of people in Iran effectively seeking to subvert Iran's governing system. Esfandiari apparently confessed that the Soros Foundation is "pursuing its subversive aims" in Iran, and the ministry statement suggested she may have given information helping authorities track down an unnamed "director and representative" of the foundation in Tehran. VS

Jafar Tofiqi, the last higher education minister in the reformist government of former President Mohammad Khatami, has expressed concern over what he described as declining political consciousness and activism at Iranian universities, which he attributed to officials' increasing intolerance of criticism, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 22. Speaking in Tehran on May 21, Tofiqi said "we all claim to follow freedom of...expression and thought, [and we] have to correctly interpret these slogans. Unfortunately some people think freedom of speech is whatever they like." He said officials should no longer claim to support freedom of speech unless they are willing to "stand by the consequences of their slogans." Separately, an unspecified number of students in Tehran's Amir Kabir University went on hunger strike on May 21, and left their cafeteria trays outside some of university officials' offices, ILNA reported. They were protesting the continued detention of seven university students, presumably the students arrested following recent unrest over the contents of four student publications (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 3, and 10, 2007). A student activist named Mostafavi told ILNA on May 21 that Amir Kabir University authorities have sought to keep a lid on simmering discontent among students in recent days or weeks, with measures including the expulsion of 15 students from campus and suspension from studies and other punishments for 10 others. VS

Insurgent attacks on the national power grid have plunged large areas of Iraq into darkness, Iraqi media has reported in recent days. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent in Al-Basrah reported on May 21 that areas of southern Iraq have gone for several days without electricity in recent weeks. Al-Basrah has on average two to three hours of electricity per day, the correspondent said. The "Al-Zaman" newspaper reported on May 21 that four high-voltage pylons linking the Al-Radhwaniyah power plant to Baghdad were blown up in one day. Officials said outages of up to 20 hours per day are expected to continue in Baghdad for the foreseeable future. KR

Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan region government (KRG), told reporters in Baghdad on May 21 that the KRG supports Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Barzani was in Baghdad for talks with al-Maliki on outstanding issues between the federal and regional governments. Barzani told reporters that the KRG stands "alongside" al-Maliki, adding, "We would like to affirm to him that we stand with him on the difficult path. We will cooperate with him in each and every step he takes." Barzani added that al-Maliki has done a good job despite the difficulties he faces in Iraq. KR

Five Iraqis held hostage in the town of Karmah in Al-Anbar Governorate were freed by coalition forces during a raid targeting Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, according to a May 21 coalition press release. Soldiers searching a safe house used by insurgents discovered the five -- four men and a boy -- hidden in a padlocked room. The victims reported being tortured and beaten with chains, cables, and hoses. The boy told soldiers that his captors had attached electrical wires to his tongue and shocked him. The hostages said their captors were foreign fighters who spoke with different accents, although it was unclear from the press release whether "different" refers to multiple foreign accents. A separate press release issued on May 21 said that during the same raid, soldiers obtained intelligence that indicated the existence of another location being used for kidnappings and murders. Coalition forces engaged insurgents at the second site and called in air support, killing nine insurgents in ground combat and air strikes. Upon inspection of the building, soldiers found 12 Iraqis held in a locked room. Three of the captives had been beaten. They also seized a weapons cache and detained three suspected terrorists in a second building at the same location. All of the freed captives will be turned over to their tribal leaders, the statements noted. KR

Residents in eastern Baghdad have turned over some of their weapons, dropping them off in an "amnesty box " left by U.S. forces, according to a May 21 coalition press release. The soldiers left what was described as a large container in the area and returned later to find it filled with weapons including two antitank mines, an antipersonnel mine, five rocket-propelled grenades, three 120-millimeter mortar rounds, three 82-millimeter mortar rounds, six 60-millimeter mortar rounds, one 57-millimeter rocket, one rifle grenade, one improvised explosive device, and various artillery rounds and ammunition. KR

The majority of Iraqi insurgents convicted in recent trials by Iraq's central criminal court appear to be in their early to mid-twenties, according to a May 21 coalition press release on court convictions between May 6 and May 12. Six Iraqis, four of whom were under the age of 24, were given life sentences for violating an order banning the possession of certain weapons. The six were part of a 20-person Al-Qaeda-affiliated group that attacked coalition forces in February. Another Iraqi was given life in prison for possessing illegal weapons after coalition forces discovered a weapons stash in his dump truck, including 28 107-millimeter Katyusha rockets, 82 antipersonnel land mines, 43 rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), an RPG launcher, two complete mortar systems, and improvised explosive device (IED) components. A 19-year-old was also given a life sentence after he was caught near Al-Ramadi adjusting the position of an IED near a mosque. A 26-year-old was given a 30-year sentence after soldiers found two AK-47 rifles, hundreds of AK-47 rounds, two grenades, and 400 Dragonov sniper-rifle rounds, and a mortar firing tube in a search of his home. The court has held 2,143 trials and convicted 1,858 suspects since its establishment in April 2004. KR