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Newsline - May 31, 2007

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Potsdam, Germany, on May 30 that the planned U.S. missile-defense system is a threat to his country, adding that "the arms race is starting again," Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22, 23, 24, 25, and 30, 2007). U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice replied that Washington has explained repeatedly to Moscow that the system is not directed against it, and will continue to do so. She noted that President Vladimir Putin said that Russian missile forces could easily overpower the system and added that "we quite agree." Lavrov replied, "I hope that nobody has to actually prove that Condi [Rice] is right about that." On May 30, the Moscow daily "Kommersant" noted that Russia's successful test of the RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) the previous day means that "deploying these missiles, each of which can carry several warheads, could enable Russia to maintain strategic parity with the United States." The paper quoted Moscow-based analyst Ivan Safranchuk as saying that "if Russia can manage to produce about 20 of these missiles a year, it will have around 2,000 warheads again by 2015." The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on May 30 that the missile tests on May 29 constituted a "milestone" in the history of the Russian military. The test of the RS-24, the daily noted, "was Russia's direct response to U.S. plans for deploying missile-defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland. That missile defense is aimed specifically against ICBMs. The new ICBM can carry multiple independently guided warheads." It was a favorite Soviet propaganda or negotiating tactic to take the role of the injured victim before announcing a long-planned political or military move, which was then presented as a response to a Western "provocation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22 and April 11, 2007). PM

President Putin will discuss a range of outstanding issues with U.S. President George W. Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, on July 1-2, Russian and international media reported on May 30. The two men will meet on the sidelines of the June 6-8 summit of the Group of Eight (G8) countries in Heiligendamm, Germany, but the Kennebunkport session is expected to involve more substantive talks. White House spokesman Tony Snow said on May 30 that the Kennebunkport meeting will be an " continue candid and very honest conversations about things that matter." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that "the agenda is so extensive that there is more than enough for two meetings. Every new meeting of the two presidents is an opportunity to eliminate misunderstanding and create an atmosphere of mutual confidence." Relations have been frosty since Putin delivered an aggressive speech in Munich on February 10, which many commentators described as the start of a new Cold War. Russian officials deny that they want a return to the confrontation of that era but have not toned down harsh anti-American rhetoric, despite an informal pledge in May to do so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and May 16, 2007). Some analysts have linked Russia's aggressive behavior toward some of its immediate neighbors and Washington, as well as its attempts to split NATO and the EU, to domestic political considerations in the run-up to the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections. PM

Andrei Lugovoi, the Russian businessman and former KGB agent whom British authorities want to put on trial for the 2006 poisoning death of Aleksandr Litvinenko, said at a televised Moscow press conference on May 31 that Litvinenko was a British spy and that his death occurred under the "control" of British special services, reported. Lugovoi said that he has evidence to support his claim, but did not elaborate. He also accused self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky of working for Britain's MI6 intelligence agency. Lugovoi said he himself was "recruited" by London to provide intelligence on Russian President Putin and his family. He reiterated that he was not involved in Litvinenko's murder with the lethal polonium-210 isotope, adding that traces of the substance linking him to the murder were deliberately planted to incriminate him. Lugovoi argued that Litvinenko was murdered either by Berezovsky, the Russian mafia, or by MI6. He said, "I don't consider myself an unwavering supporter of President Putin, and I have my personal reasons for that, about which there has been a lot of speculation. But I was taught to defend my country and not to betray it." In response, a British Foreign Office spokesman said that the Litvinenko case "is a criminal matter, not about intelligence," news agencies reported. The spokesman repeated London's demand that Moscow extradite Lugovoi. The Russian authorities refuse to do so on the grounds that the constitution forbids the extradition of Russian citizens and allows only for their trial by a Russian court with evidence supplied from abroad. PM

On May 30, the weekly "Novaya gazeta" launched the sale of a 980-page book entitled "For What?" news agencies reported. It contains articles and commentary by investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote for the paper prior to her still unresolved murder in October 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who is one of the newspaper's owners, said that "there is a great need for such people [as Politkovskaya].... Maybe now the need is even greater than before." He said of the book that "it is bitter, but it is medicine." PM

Sergei Mironov, who is the speaker of the Federation Council and a leader of the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party, said at the recent opening of a two-day St. Petersburg conference on the Kyoto Protocol and global warming that "the scientific basis for the protocol is fairly weak," "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on May 29. He added that "in the opinion of many experts, the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere does not have any effect on the climate." According to the paper, Mironov argued that a "process of 'global cooling' is now taking place, citing several obscure Russian studies to prove it. At one point, he referred to the warmly colored paintings of 16th-century Dutch masters as evidence that temperatures were indeed higher then. The remark drew as many frowns as chuckles from the crowd." The paper also noted that although Russia received generous terms under Kyoto and ratified it in 2004, "the government now looks to be reneging on its commitments. Mironov's speech made that clear." Moscow has experienced record temperatures in recent days. PM

Speaking in Moscow on May 30 at the founding conference of a Union of Supporters of his political party, A Just Russia, Mironov announced his intention to create a "powerful socialist party" that would unite "all left-wing forces," the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 31. Mironov argued that if such a party can be created soon, it will easily defeat the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia in the Duma elections due in December. Commentators questioned that claim, however, saying that the two main left-wing opposition parties, A Just Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), are likely to poll more votes than Unified Russia only if they compete separately in the December ballot. And KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov categorically ruled out any such alignment, saying Mironov is only out to capture part of the Communist vote. The acronym of Mironov's new movement, SSSR, is identical to the Russian acronym of the former Soviet Union. LF

Twenty-eight Ingush displaced persons from North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion who traveled to Moscow two weeks ago to lobby for the right to return to the homes they fled to escape violent reprisals by Ossetians in October-November 1992 have begun a hunger strike outside the Federation Council building, and Ekho Moskvy reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21 and 29, 2007). Delegation head Amir Bekbuzarov said the hunger strikers want a meeting with President Putin, and that the protest will continue until the federal authorities take measures to alleviate the displaced persons' "desperate situation." LF

Relatives of the man shot dead by police during a demonstration in April 2006 in Dokuzpar Raion, which is located on Daghestan's southern border with Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2006), staged a demonstration in Makhachkala on May 30 that was also attended by the heads of local chapters of several political parties and by Moscow-based human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, reported. Participants expressed concern that the authorities have not investigated the police reaction to the initial protest or determined why they then went from house to house, shooting and injuring at least one man who had not participated in the demonstration. Nor has anyone been held responsible for the summary detention of some 70 villagers and students from a local school who were released only three days later after agreeing to sign a "confession" that they provoked the violence by throwing stones at the police. The participants in the May 30 Makhachkala protest adopted an appeal to President Putin to dismiss immediately the republic's interior minister and prosecutor; to determine who was responsible for opening fire on the demonstrators; and to arrange for compensation to be paid to the victims and their families. LF

The mothers of some of the 180 children killed during the September 2004 hostage taking at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, will appeal the May 29 acquittal by a court in Vladikavkaz of three police officers accused of dereliction of duty that led to the deaths of many of the 1,000 hostages, Russian media reported on May 30. The court ruled that the three men were eligible for amnesty under the terms of the amnesty adopted by the State Duma in September 2006 for participants in the so-called "antiterrorism operation" in the North Caucasus. LF

Addressing a May 30 session of the Atomic Energy Security Council, Robert Kocharian said that plans to build a new nuclear power station to replace the Soviet-era facility at Medzamor are "justified both in terms of energy security and economically," Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian predicted that the Energy Ministry will present to the government within two months a program for decommissioning Medzamor, to be followed by a second program on disposal of radioactive waste. He said that "active work" on the new plant could begin in 2012-13. The EU insists that Medzamor be decommissioned by 2016, but environmentalists in the Turkish town of Igdir, 16 kilometers from the Armenian-Turkish border, have begun collecting signatures to a petition demanding its immediate closure, according to Noyan Tapan on May 26. The cost of the new nuclear plant is estimated at $1 billion, which the Armenian government hopes foreign investors will provide. Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's Federal Agency for Atomic Energy (Rosatom), signed an intergovernmental agreement with Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian during a visit to Yerevan in late April on the joint exploitation of extensive uranium reserves in southern Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on April 23. Kiriyenko said Armenia could then become one of the few countries with a full uranium production cycle, from extraction to enrichment for use in generating nuclear power. But Kocharian said on May 30 that "we will not enrich uranium in Armenia," Noyan Tapan reported. He said that Armenia will join international programs monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and that an agreement on enrichment has already been signed with Russia. LF

Three journalists from the independent daily "Azadliq" and one from the Sumgait paper "Yukselish namine" (For the Sake of Progress) have announced that they hope to gain political asylum abroad, reported on May 30. Fourteen journalists from the newspapers "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gundelik Azerbaycan," both of which have suspended publication indefinitely in the wake of government pressure, have already done so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2007). Also on May 30, Aydin Quliyev announced that the newspaper "Baky heber" of which he is editor in chief will suspend publication indefinitely following a May 18 court ruling freezing its bank account. LF

Sergei Bagapsh, de facto president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, on May 30 gave his annual address to parliament, which was subsequently posted on his website ( Bagapsh noted "modest" economic progress over the past two years, but admitted that the economic blockade to which the region has been subject for the past decade and its unresolved political status act as a brake on economic development, as does what he termed the ineffective and frequently incompetent government apparatus. Bagapsh hailed the result of the March 2007 parliamentary elections, but argued that a new election law is needed to introduce a mixed majoritarian-proportional system of representation. He also said that sociopolitical organizations should be transformed into genuine political parties, and he called for sweeping constitutional reforms that would balance the powers of the president and those of the legislature. Bagapsh stressed Abkhazia's commitment to a peaceful solution of its long-standing conflict with Georgia and condemned what he termed efforts by Georgia over the past year to begin new hostilities, and to squeeze Russia out of the negotiating process and reduce the role of the UN. He repeated that Abkhazia will resume negotiations with Georgia only after Georgia complies with the agreements it has previously signed. LF

For the third time in less than two weeks, Kazakh police on May 30 detained demonstrators in Almaty, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The three demonstrators were protesting against recently adopted constitutional amendments that grant President Nursultan Nazarbaev the right to be reelected for an unlimited number of terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). The incident follows similar protests by Kazakh journalists, two of whom have been arrested in separate incidents for holding "unsanctioned demonstrations" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29 and 30, 2007). RG

The Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office announced on May 30 that it has formally submitted an extradition request to the Austrian government for Rakhat Aliev, Kazakhstan's former ambassador to Austria and the son-in-law of President Nazarbaev, Asia-Plus and Interfax reported. Aliev, who is married to the president's eldest daughter, Darigha, faces criminal charges stemming form his alleged involvement in the kidnapping of two bank executives in Kazakhstan in January 2007 and for alleged links to organized crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 12, and 20, and May 14 and 24, 2007). The government dismissed him from his post as ambassador and stripped him of his diplomatic immunity on May 26. Aliev has denied the charges, which he dismissed as politically motivated and stemming from his intention to run for the presidency. He is reportedly considering whether to seek political asylum in Austria. RG

An explosion in the early morning of May 30 damaged the offices of several independent newspapers in a five-story office building in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Kyrgyz television. Local police questioned one woman in connection with the unexplained blast after she was reportedly seen "acting suspiciously." RG

An international counterterrorism exercise involving special forces from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan concluded on May 30 at the Kyrgyz military's Edelveys training ground near Issyk-Kul Lake in northeastern Kyrgyzstan, Kabar reported. The exercises, known as "Issyk-Kul Antiterror 2007," were organized by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and aimed at simulating multinational, cross-border counterterror operations. Representatives from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and SCO observer states India, Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia monitored the exercises as observers, Kyrgyz television reported. Kyrgyzstan is also scheduled to host an SCO summit on August 16 in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. RG

A Russian military delegation arrived in Dushanbe on May 30 to inspect a Russian military base in Tajikistan, Asia-Plus and Avesta reported. The delegation, led by army General Vladimir Boldyrev, the commander of the Volga-Ural Military District, is to inspect the readiness of the units stationed at the Russian base in preparation for a series of summer exercises scheduled to begin on June 1. Russia maintains a primary base outside of Dushanbe, but also has smaller units deployed in Kulob and Qurghon Teppa. Meanwhile, forces from the Tajik Interior and Defense ministries, border-guard units, and emergency-response personnel on May 29 wrapped up a five-day exercise at the Tem training grounds near the southeastern city of Khorog, according to Asia-Plus. The exercise, called "Protection 2007," consisted of live-fire operations and simulated war games aimed at improving the forces' coordinated response to terrorist incidents. The training exercise, which also included disaster management operations, was supervised by Tajik First Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Ramil Nadyrov. RG

Belarus's State Security Committee (KGB) on May 29 arrested Alyaksandr Barouski, the chairman of the Belarusian State Petrochemical Industry Concern (Belnaftakhim), on suspicion of corruption, along with several other heads of state-run and private companies, Belarusian media reported on May 30, quoting Prosecutor-General Pyotr Miklashevich. Barouski is reportedly also suspected of abuse of authority. Miklashevich told journalists that large amounts of cash, valuables, and documents related to the investigation were seized from the suspects, who were taken to a KGB pretrial detention center. Barouski, the former director of the Palimir synthetic-fiber factory in Navapolatsk, was appointed chairman of Belnaftakhim in December 2005. The petrochemical company accounts for more than one-fourth of Belarus's exports. KGB spokesman Valery Nadtachayeu told Belapan that the names of people arrested along with Barouski will not be disclosed for the time being, adding that secrecy is in the "interests of the investigation." JM

The Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces on May 30 assigned an area of responsibility to each of its four co-chairmen, who were elected at the opposition congress on May 26-27, Belapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka will be responsible for information and mobilization work as well as foreign relations; Anatol Lyabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party, for "the development of a positive alternative"; Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the Belarusian Party of Communists, for working with the provinces; and Anatol Lyaukovich, acting chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), for election campaigns. JM

At an afternoon sitting on May 30, the Verkhovna Rada failed to move ahead with legislation necessary to hold early parliamentary elections on September 30 (see End Note), as agreed by President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz on May 27, Ukrainian media reported. "There are certain forces that do not want to see early elections take place, for various reasons. Some are afraid of new corruption [allegations], others are afraid [that early elections will bring about their] political death. That is why, unfortunately, we see a lot of destructive developments today," Yushchenko told journalists in Kyiv the same day, after meeting twice with Yanukovych. Yushchenko suspended his April 26 decree on the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada for May 29-30 to give lawmakers two days to pass laws necessary for the early polls. On May 31, he prolonged the suspension of his decree for one more day. JM

Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko has suffered a heart attack and been hospitalized, Ukrainian media reported on May 30, quoting Interior Ministry spokesman Kostyantyn Stohniy. Lawyer Tetyana Montyan said on ICTV television later the same day that Tsushko was poisoned. "He knows who poisoned him and why, and I will make this theory public if he doesn't survive. He was half-dead on Monday [May 28]. I saw him with my own eyes," Montyan noted. Meanwhile, Stohniy said on May 31 that the allegations of Tsushko's poisoning are nothing more than rumors for the time being. "Medical workers are focusing all their efforts on helping Vasyl Tsushko recover and return to normal life," Stohniy added. Tsushko found himself in the epicenter of the ongoing political crisis last week when he broke into the Prosecutor-General's Office with a group of riot police, shortly after President Yushchenko sacked Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun and sent guards to lock the office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25. 2007). Following this incident, Yushchenko resubordinated the Interior Ministry's riot police to himself. JM

In a series of blunt comments reported by international media, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated on May 30 that Russia and the United States are no closer to an agreement on the future of Kosova, and he appeared to increase the chances that Russia will exercise its veto in the UN Security Council. The United States originally hoped the UN Security Council would vote in May on a proposal for the UN-administered region, but after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 30, Lavrov told journalists that "our positions are diametrically opposed and I don't see any chances of the positions moving any closer together." The news conference, held after foreign ministers met in Potsdam, Germany, to prepare for a summit of leaders from the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized states, was characterized by tough statements on a range of issues, including Kosova. Lavrov said he hopes a veto "will not be necessary," but said, "I cannot imagine a situation where the Security Council would adopt a resolution that would be unacceptable to either of the parties. There will be no such situation." Lavrov reiterated his demand for a solution negotiated by Belgrade and Prishtina rather than one imposed by the UN. "The fate of Serbia, the fate of Kosovo, should not be decided in New York, not in Potsdam and not in other formats, but rather in direct negotiations between the two sides," Lavrov said, continuing: "it is absolutely unacceptable to pose this question as if the fate of Kosovo, the fate of Serbia, the fate of any country could depend on Russia, the United States, or France. I think this mentality will only cause additional problems in the world instead of resolving them." The host of the talks, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, reiterated the EU and U.S. view that a resolution is needed now, saying that "we need to make it clear to our Russian partners that without a decision by the Security Council we simply won't make any progress on the western Balkans and Kosovo." An unnamed European diplomat quoted by the "International Herald Tribune" on May 30 said Lavrov compared Kosova to Palestine, asking his Western counterparts why they are hurrying to grant independence to Kosova while for 40 years they had failed to support independence for Palestine. A similar parallel was made publicly on May 20 by Russia's ambassador to Macedonia, Vladimir Solotsinsky, who said that the best example of an imposed solution is in the Middle East, "where a resolution was also imposed by the same countries that now want to impose a solution in Kosovo" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). AG

Montenegro's largest ethnic-Serbian party, the Democratic Serbian Party (DSS), on May 30 praised comments by President Filip Vujanovic in which he called for Belgrade and Prishtina to reach an agreement on the future of Kosova, the Mina news agency reported the same day. The DSS viewed Vujanovic's comments, made on May 30, as a welcome change in Montenegro's official policy. Mina reported that Vujanovic merely expressed a "preference" for a negotiated rather than imposed solution, and the comments suggest the Montenegrin president believes the UN Security Council should remain the key forum. "We consider that a solution should be reached between Belgrade and Prishtina with the participation of the international community, now within the framework of the UN Security Council," Vujanovic said, adding that Montenegro has not proposed a solution to the Kosova issue. Montenegro has previously limited itself to calling for a "viable" solution in Kosova, while granting international forces the right to pass through Montenegro if there is a crisis in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, March 12 and 26, April 26, and May 1 and 10, 2007). Western supporters of a UN plan proposing independence for Kosova contend that the status quo is no longer tenable, while Serbia and its chief ally, Russia, believe the question of Kosova's future should be taken back from the UN Security Council and returned to the bilateral level with UN mediation. According to a May 26 report by the news agency Hina, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic called for an agreement acceptable to both Belgrade and Prishtina during a regional summit in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Macedonia, Albania, and Slovenia fully support the UN proposal, with Skopje and Tirana particularly pressing for a swift solution. Bosnia's political leaders have adopted varying positions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2007). AG

The daily "Dan" reported on May 30 that two imams recently removed from their posts in Montenegro's Islamic Community were sacked because of their sympathy for radical Islamist teachings. The governing body of Montenegro's Muslims gave few details of its decision, but "Dan" quoted its secretary, Bajro Agovic, as saying the two "display certain sympathies for this sect, the Wahhabis and Wahhabism." Wahhabism is a severe interpretation of Islam most widely observed in Saudi Arabia, but in the Balkans it is generically applied to believers with a radical political agenda. "Dan" said other sources indicated the main reason for their sacking was their alleged "Wahhabism." Anxiety about Islamism has grown since March when Serbian police broke up an alleged terrorist camp in the border region of Sandzak, where Bosnian Muslims make up the largest section of the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). That was followed by reports that dozens of "Wahhabis" fled across the border into Montenegro after a crackdown by Serbian security services (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20 and 24, 2007). Concerns have also been rising in neighboring Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 11, and 24, and May 2 and 22, 2007). In an interview with the daily "Vijesti" on April 23, the head of the Democratic Association of Bosnian Muslims in Montenegro, Rifat Veskovic, warned that "there are many reasons to be alarmed" by Islamism in the region and argued that the Wahhabi movement has entered a "radical stage." AG

The Bosnian Serbs' most powerful politician, Milorad Dodik, said in a televised interview on May 28 that "certain Sarajevo circles" are trying to force him and the Bosnian Muslim leader Haris Silajdzic out of office at the same time. Dodik, who is the prime minister of the autonomous Republika Srpska region, said the leaders of a number of Bosnian Muslim parties "have realized that it would be best to have both Silajdzic and Dodik leave together. So they began creating an atmosphere, saying that the two of us are like two rams at each other's throats, who are not allowing anything to happen, and now they are beginning to wrap things up." Dodik was speaking after the failure of U.S.-brokered attempts to achieve a breakthrough in talks on reform of the police and a revision of the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24 and 25, 2007). Subsequent talks held on May 29 with EU ambassadors in Sarajevo failed to yield results, local media reported the same day. Silajdzic, who represents Muslims in Bosnia's three-member Presidency, has blamed Dodik for their failure, saying Dodik rejected all concessions relating to constitutional reform. Dodik, who said he himself is being depicted as a "monster," said that Silajdzic, "who has failed to unite all the elements of Bosnian Muslim politics, is in a way taking most of the blame for the failure of the constitutional changes." Dodik said he is "against removing Haris Silajdzic. He is entitled to his political views, just as I am." Dodik himself won political support on May 28, with the dailies "Nezavisne novine" and "Dnevni avaz" reporting on May 29 that a number of Bosnian Muslim and ethnic Croatian politicians said the international community should respect Dodik's status as the elected leader of the Republika Srpska. AG

The international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, on May 30 froze the funds of the four largest parties in one of the country's two autonomous regions, the Muslim-Croat Federation. In a statement issued by his office, Schwarz-Schilling said he was imposing "a series of fines," because "it is time they took some responsibility for their inaction" in failing to agree on the composition of a new government in the Herzegovina-Neretva canton (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). Elections were held in October 2006. The fines are phased: the parties will stop receiving funds on June 1 and the parties' share of the local budget for political parties will be cut by 20-40 percent; and from June 7, the parties' funds from the cantonal budget will be cut by 20 percent a week until a government is formed. If no government is in place by June 28, Schwarz-Schilling indicated that funding from regional and state-level sources could be ended. Schwarz-Schilling, who leaves office at the end of June, has generally been reluctant to use his extensive powers. AG

Macedonia's largest ethnic-Albanian party announced on May 29 an end to its four-month boycott of parliament after the government agreed to a set of major political demands, local and international media reported on May 29 and 30. The Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) began its boycott on January 27, along with another ethnic-Albanian party, the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD). The PPD returned to parliament on May 20 and also joined the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). The BDI will remain in opposition, but the major commitment made by the government -- that certain bills can become law only if supported by ethnic Albanians -- effectively guarantees the BDI a decisive voice in a wide range of issues. The news website Balkan Insight and the MIA news agency reported on May 30 that 46 laws will be subject to this double-majority system. Local media reported on May 29 that the agreement was welcomed both by Brussels and Washington, who have been particularly anxious to see ethnic tensions ease at a time when the future of neighboring Kosova is being decided. However, reports of the concessions made to the BDI triggered a crisis with another Albanian party, the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), which said on May 26 that it is leaving the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Talks aimed at encouraging the PDSh to return to the ruling coalition continue. Reports in the local media suggest the PDSh will remain in the cabinet. The deal with the BDI is seen as effectively undercutting the PDSh, a point made clearly to Balkan Insight by an unnamed BDI official. "We showed that the opposition can deliver much more than the PDSh can, sitting in the government," he said. "Now we are no longer interested in joining the government; there is no point." AG

Serbia on May 28 arrested seven people suspected of killing non-Serbian civilians at the start of the war in Croatia, local and international media reported on May 29. Details are limited, but witnesses of the crime say that ethnic-Serbian paramilitaries forced 50 civilians from the Croatian village of Lovas to walk into a minefield after capturing the village in October 1991. More than 20 died. Croatia has arrested one person for his involvement in the crime and charged another 16 in absentia. It is not clear whether the seven arrested on May 28 feature on that list, though the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported on May 30 that one of suspected masterminds, Petronije Stevanovic, is among those taken into custody. Details of the operation are limited, but, when they opened the case in October 2005, Serbian prosecutors said they were working with counterparts in Croatia. AG

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader stated on May 27 that Zagreb will "do everything to help" three generals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and denied that new charges have been brought against them, Hina reported. On May 28, Croatian media reported that the indictment against the three generals -- Ivan Cermak, Ante Gotovina, and Mladen Markac -- has been expanded and that seven new names appear in the indictment. Croatian national television reported on May 28 that the seven are two former ministers and a deputy minister, two generals, a local military commander, and a former head of the military police. Sanader told journalists on May 29 that the people newly named in ICTY papers will only appear as witnesses at the ICTY. The UN tribunal itself has yet to corroborate or comment on the reports. The three generals were key figures in Operation Storm, a campaign in 1995 that ended ethnic-Serbian resistance in central Croatia and prompted ethnic Serbs to flee Croatia en masse (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, April 16 and 30, and May 2, 2007). The Croatian government "persists in its assessment that Operation Storm was a legitimate defense operation aimed at liberating occupied areas" of Croatia, Hina quoted Sanader as saying on May 29. AG

The political standoff between Ukraine's president and parliament appears to be subsiding -- but not without problems. Ukrainian lawmakers from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine returned on May 29 to the Verkhovna Rada after a nearly two-month hiatus to vote on legislation needed to hold early parliamentary elections.

The lawmakers had avoided the Rada since President Viktor Yushchenko's April 2 decree dissolving parliament. But a May 27 deal between Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz paved the way for their return.The political crisis apparently reached its peak on May 26.

That was when President Yushchenko reportedly summoned to Kyiv some units of the Interior Ministry riot police, after issuing a decree the previous day placing them under his control. Police troops loyal to Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko then blocked local highways to prevent the Yushchenko-led riot units from entering the capital.

With bloodshed a possible outcome of the standoff, Yushchenko called for urgent talks with not only Prime Minister Yanukovych -- with whom he has met regularly during the troubled past two months -- but also parliament speaker Moroz, whom he had publicly ignored since the impasse began.

In the early hours of May 27, Ukrainian television showed Yushchenko shaking hands with Yanukovych and Moroz and announcing that "the crisis is over." The three officials signed a deal setting preterm polls for September 30. This means that Yushchenko will have to issue a third decree on early elections, thus nullifying his April 27 decree that scheduled them for June 24.

According to the May 27 deal, parliament will be legally dissolved after the voluntary resignation of the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (YTB). The two groups jointly control some 170 seats in the 450-seat Rada; their withdrawal would take parliament below the 300-seat minimum it needs to legally function.

This differs from Yushchenko's two April decrees, which based the disbanding of parliament on accusations the ruling coalition (the Party of Regions, the Socialists, and the Communists) had illegally poached opposition deputies to expand the ruling majority to 300 votes.

The coalition does not want to take the blame for the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada. Asking the opposition to resign instead seems to be the most significant concession Yushchenko had to make in order to strike a deal on new elections.

It remains to be seen, however, if Our Ukraine and YTB leaders can persuade their lawmakers to give up their parliamentary mandates -- something that is meant to happen as soon as the Verkhovna Rada adopts all the legislation necessary to hold the September 30 snap elections.

On the morning of May 29, Yushchenko suspended his April 26 decree dissolving parliament. The suspension was for two days -- just long enough to give legislators time to vote on early-election legislation.

Deputies -- including those from the opposition who have steadfastly avoided parliamentary debates during the past two months -- gathered for a session that afternoon. They made some swift and promising steps toward fulfilling the election deal between Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz.

First, in a conciliatory move, the Verkhovna Rada rescinded previous resolutions by the ruling coalition lambasting Yushchenko for his dissolution decrees. Second, lawmakers held fresh votes on the more than 50 bills the Rada had passed during the oppositions' two-month absence.

In the third and most important move of the day, lawmakers adopted a bill on reforming the Central Election Commission. This was a major concern for politicians on both sides of the conflict. The bill allows the Verkhovna Rada to change the composition of the election commission following a formal request by the president.

Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz reportedly agreed that the commission will comprise 15 members. Seven will be proposed by the ruling coalition, seven by the opposition, and one -- most likely, the head of the commission, will be proposed jointly by the president and the prime minister.

It was a constructive day's work -- but one that appeared to exhaust the goodwill and readiness of both sides to continue moving forward. Opposition lawmakers failed to gather for the morning parliamentary session on May 30, presumably because points of agreement between the coalition and the opposition on any further legislation were in short supply.

This legislation was prepared by the anticrisis working group that Yushchenko and Yanukovych set up in early May in an attempt to defuse the crisis. The anticrisis group has reportedly coordinated "90 percent" of the legal foundation for the new polls, but is bogged down in arguments over several important issues.

In particular, the sides reportedly disagree on introducing the so-called "imperative mandate" provision into the law on people's deputies. This would prevent lawmakers from defecting from their caucuses in the Verkhovna Rada, precluding a repeat of the apparent poaching that sparked the crisis two months ago.

There is also no agreement on how to compile a voter registry that could replace the voter lists held by regional administrations. The May 27 deal stipulates that the Cabinet of Ministers and the Central Election Commission are obliged to produce such a list before the September 30 polls, but lawmakers reportedly differ on ways of identifying eligible Ukrainian voters.

Yanukovych's Party of Regions is afraid that regional governors -- all of whom were appointed by Yushchenko -- may manipulate the voter lists to the party's disadvantage. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine had similar apprehensions during the 2004 presidential ballot, when the regional governors controlling the voter rolls were allied with Yanukovych.

Another possible stumbling block to reaching a final agreement on the early polls is the fate of Svyatoslav Piskun, whom Yushchenko fired from the post of prosecutor-general on May 24. The ruling coalition wants Piskun reinstated, while Yushchenko, who simultaneously appointed a replacement for him, is not inclined to back off.

To make these elections happen, Yushchenko will need to issue a relevant decree no later than August 2. So there are still two months for Ukrainian politicians to solve the current conflict without setting yet another election date.

If Yushchenko succeeds in holding early elections in the fall, some in Ukraine will surely see this development as a personal victory for him. But even so, it is unlikely to bring him any further political dividend.

The problem is that, according to sociological surveys, the future alignment of forces in the Verkhovna Rada may be very much like the current one. Indeed, given the fully proportional party-list electoral system in Ukraine, it is very likely that the legislature will be predominantly filled with the same faces as now.

For that reason, one should expect not so much a shift in Ukrainian politics in the fall as a continuation of the current state of affairs. And the current state of affairs resembles a permanent institutional crisis, rather than the way to the prosperous and democratic Ukraine that Yushchenko promised during his inauguration in January 2005.

CIVIC, an advocacy group which promotes the rights of civilians injured in conflicts, issued a statement on May 30 calling the Taliban leadership "hypocritical" for its statement proposing an independent investigation into civilian casualties in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2007). According to the Washington-based group, the Taliban uses civilians as human shields, hides among civilians, and does not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants in armed engagements. "Afghans are rightly angered by every innocent life lost, and independent investigations into these losses are essential," CIVIC executive director Sarah Holewinski said, but she added that "the Taliban should practice what they preach." According to Holewinski, if the Taliban truly cares about civilians, they "should immediately stop using them as human shields and their homes as hideouts." AT

General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the chief of staff of Afghanistan's armed forces and the founder of the Junbesh-e Melli party, issued a statement on May 30 responding to recent violent protests involving his supporters in Sheberghan, the capital of Jowzjan Province, Sheberghan-based Aina Television reported. In his statement, flashed on Aina against a black background, Dostum said, "I would like to inform national and international societies, the institutions advocating democracy and freedom of expression, and human rights organizations that I myself watched my sons [referring to pro-Dostum protestors] being killed mercilessly." He added that he "will never accept" this act. According to Dostum's statement, nine protestors were killed and 43 were injured in the May 28 protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29 and 30, 2007). He said that the people were "presenting their legitimate and legal demands in a peaceful demonstration," but encountered a reaction contrary to human rights from the security forces of Joma Khan Hamdard, the appointed governor of Jowzjan. Dostum ended his statement by calling for an impartial investigation of the "crime by the governor of Jowzjan," and threatened that "otherwise we will not remain indifferent towards such crimes." Dostum has held the nominal title of the chief of staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces of Afghanistan since March 2005, but he has also been involved in a struggle with other rival local commanders and government officials for control of several provinces in northern Afghanistan from his base in Jowzjan. His supporters accuse Hamdard of corruption and are calling for his replacement as governor of Jowzjan. The two leaders are reportedly embroiled in a political conflict. AT

Journalists boycotted a session of the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) on May 30 in protest against the alleged beating of Shakib Dost, a reporter for privately-owned Ariana Television, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. A secretary for Wolesi Jirga deputy speaker Mohammad Aref Nurzai "slapped me in his office and went on to threaten me with dire consequences if I continue to characterize the session [of the Wolesi Jirga] as a messy affair," Dost told the news agency. Afterwards, five people in the secretary's office "showered blows" on Dost, he claimed. The secretary in question has not been identified. "However phrased, it is a very sad incident, but certainly not the first" time a journalist has been physically or verbally abused in the National Assembly, BBC reporter Mahmud Kuchi told Pajhwak. Rahimullah Samandar, the president of Afghanistan's Independent Journalists Association, said that in most cases the Wolesi Jirga's sessions are "unruly and stormy," and the media cover them accordingly. The second deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga, Saleh Mohammad Saljuqi, assured journalists of an independent probe into the alleged beating. AT

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced on May 30 that it has launched Operation Hoover in Zheray district of Kandahar Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. In a joint press conference with Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zmaray Bahsari, ISAF spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Angela Billings said that around 500 ISAF and Afghan forces are participating in the new military operation. AT

Seven members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and five unidentified gunmen were killed in a shootout on May 28 in the mountains near the town of Salmas, in Iran's northwestern West Azerbaijan province, Radio Farda reported on May 30, citing IRNA. The fighting near the Turkish border took place late on May 28 when IRGC troops came under fire from suspected guerrillas as they searched the area for traffickers. Radio Farda reported that the suspected guerrillas have not been identified, though IRNA called them "armed terrorists." Iranian troops have in the past clashed with members of PJAK, a Kurdish militant group, in the western border areas. The group is thought in Iran to have links with the PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla group that has intermittently battled the Turkish government, Radio Farda stated. VS

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a defense industry conference in Tehran on May 30 that Iran's armed forces are prepared to defend "the independence, territorial integrity, and interests of the Iranian nation" using domestic equipment and technology, IRNA reported. He said Iranian defense-sector manufacturers have designed up-to-date equipment and armaments to meet Iran's defense needs, though he said these exclude "antihumanitarian" arms, in a possible reference to nonconventional weapons. Ahmadinejad said defense industry innovations could contribute to overall technological and economic progress in Iran, and cited the "decisive role" of the defense industry in converting vehicles from running on gasoline to liquefied gas. He said Iranian "youngsters" will turn international sanctions on Iran into an opportunity, and "will swiftly manufacture the sanctioned products at a higher quality," IRNA reported. VS

Foreign ministers of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial countries issued a statement on May 30 in Potsdam, Germany, expressing readiness to take "further appropriate measures" if Iran fails to comply with UN demands that it halt nuclear fuel-making activities, including uranium enrichment, Reuters reported. The statement came as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, on the same day reiterated Iran's stance that it will not give up its nuclear activities. "If Iran continues to ignore the demands of the Security Council, we will support further appropriate measures as agreed in Resolution 1747" of March 2007, the G8 ministers stated. Western states fear Iran may use its uranium enrichment program to make bombs, but Iran says international laws allow it to utilize the nuclear fuel-making cycle to generate electricity. Iran's envoy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said in Vienna on May 30 that there is "no legal basis" for UN resolutions against Iran, and that the UN Security Council has overstepped the principles of the UN Charter by imposing sanctions on Iran, IRNA reported. Soltanieh said the world must now accept Iran's ability to enrich uranium. However, he also stressed that Iran has cooperated with the IAEA, and said there is no evidence proving any "deviation" from international rules. VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on May 30 that Iraq has a dual problem of terrorism and the occupation by U.S. troops, with the terrorists and occupying forces each citing the other's existence to justify their activities, ISNA reported. He told a gathering of public prosecutors from Islamic states that Iranian officials are reviewing the talks held in Baghdad on May 28 between Iranian and U.S. envoys. Mottaki said "these talks can continue" if Iran concludes that the United States showed the "necessary resolve" to solve Iraq's problems, and a willingness to reconsider its polices in Iraq. He said separately that the security situation in Afghanistan is worse this year than in previous years, and cited UN figures showing a 45 percent increase in drug "production and trafficking," noting that "Great Britain is responsible for fighting drugs in that country." VS

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi said in Tehran on May 30 that the Iran-U.S. talks in Baghdad were a test of U.S. "sincerity" in its stated aim to restore security to Iraq. "The Americans have to answer now. We made very clear and rational proposals, practical proposals that can restore security to Iraq and especially Baghdad," ISNA quoted him as saying. He said Iran believes that an end to the occupation would help resolve "the main part" of Iraq's insecurity, continuing, "given the proposal and plan that was presented, the ball is now in the Americans' court." He said the talks were not negotiations aimed at reaching a compromise, and that Iran merely informed the Americans of the causes of insecurity in Iraq and "factors that can bring about security." Mohammadi said Iran cannot discuss its other differences with the United States while the latter continues what he described as its "domineering conduct." "We have no shared interests with America," he said. Mohammadi said Iran and the United States merely have a "common opinion" that U.S. forces should withdraw from "this bog," and leave a strong and democratic government in Iraq. VS

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq denied in a May 30 Internet statement that it had any role in the May 28 bombing of the Al-Kilani Mosque (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). The group said the "timing of the blast [coinciding] with the meeting of the two ambassadors of infidelity -- the Shi'ite [Iran] and the Crusader [U.S.] -- makes clear that those who were behind the explosion are the rejectionist Iranian militias that are supported by Iran. At the top of these militias are the [Imam Al-Mahdi] Army and the treacherous [Badr] Corps, in addition to the Iranian intelligence agency." The group reminded Sunnis that 300 years ago the Iranians desecrated the graves of Sunnis in Baghdad, including Imam Abu Hanifah al-Nu'man, whose grave it said was turned into a stable. "Now they are repeating the same deeds motivated by their historical hatred of Sunnis in this country," the Islamic State claimed. It added that Sunni mosques in the Al-Bayya and Al-Amil districts of Baghdad continue to be targeted by Shi'ite militias. Referring to the United States, the group called on God to "bring down their planes from the sky, crush their forces on the ground, make them booty for the Muslims, and sink their ships in the sea." KR

Thousands of supporters of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi demonstrated in the cities of Baghdad, Al-Basrah, Mosul, and Karbala on May 29 to protest allegations that Allawi is plotting to overthrow the Iraqi government, the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on May 30. Critics of Allawi alleged that his foreign and regional tour was aimed at drumming up support for his return to power. The demonstrators reportedly called on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to resign. A statement released by Allawi's office said the government's "conspiracy theory paranoia" has prevented it from effecting change on the ground, the daily reported. Meanwhile, Iraqis List parliamentarian Mahdi al-Hafiz said on May 29 that he will withdraw from the list, led by Allawi, citing a lack of transparency in the list's political work, "Al-Mashriq" reported on May 30. Ayham al-Samarra'i, who served as electricity minister in Allawi's interim government, told Al-Jazeera on May 27 that Allawi has won Arab states' support for his political vision, adding that while Iraq's neighbors "do not want a coup in Iraq, they want to see Iraq succeed." KR

Nuri al-Maliki met with tribal leaders from the southern Dhi Qar Governorate on May 30, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Maliki discussed security in Iraq, saying, "Due to the rule of the Ba'ath-controlled government [of Saddam Hussein], the Iraqi people, who should have enjoyed life, welfare, sovereignty, and prosperity, are still suffering severe shortages in services" and insecurity. Al-Maliki called on tribal leaders to create civilian policing bodies that he suggested be called "support councils" or "care and monitoring councils." Al-Maliki appeared to comment on rumors of a coup by Allawi supporters, telling tribal leaders that some countries are attempting to interfere in Iraqi affairs through their support of political blocs. The tribal leaders, meanwhile, expressed their support for al-Maliki's national-unity government, the news channel reported. KR

The Iraqi government assumed formal control over security in the Kurdish governorates of Irbil, Dahuk, and Al-Sulaymaniyah at a ceremony in the regional capital, Irbil, on May 30, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Kurdistan region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani accepted the transfer on behalf of Prime Minister al-Maliki. Calling the security handover "an important day in our people's history," Barzani said it signified an "additional step toward building the new Iraq." National security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i also attended the event. KR

U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested the Hit police chief and 15 others on May 29 following an investigation into alleged charges of corruption, murder, and crimes against the Iraqi people, the U.S. military announced on May 30. Colonel Hamid Ibrahim al-Jaza, his brother, and 14 bodyguards "are currently being held in coalition force custody," the statement said, adding that the arrests were coordinated with city officials. "We cannot tolerate criminal behavior and this complete disregard for the rule of law, particularly by those who are charged with the responsibility of upholding the law," U.S. Major General W.E. Gaskin said. AP reported on May 30 that al-Jaza was praised by the U.S. military for his leadership in fighting insurgents in Hit during Operation Police Victory in February. KR

A correspondent working for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) was gunned down outside a hotel in Al-Amarah on May 30. Nazar Abd al-Wahid al-Radhi was the second RFI correspondent killed in Iraq in as many months. According to witnesses, al-Radhi was killed when armed men in a pickup truck opened fire on him and four other journalists, who had just left a workshop at the hotel. Al-Radhi was the only journalist killed in the attack. He was 37 years old and the father of three children. RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin said that RFE/RL "mourns his loss and honors his memory." Al-Radhi was a well-known journalist in Iraq, working for the Internet news agency Aswat al-Iraq and the daily "Al-Sabah al-Jadid." Meanwhile, an Al-Fallujah-based journalist was shot dead along with seven of his relatives on May 30, AP reported on May 31. Abd al-Rahman al-Isawi was killed in his home along with his wife, son, parents, and three other relatives. Relatives told AP that al-Isawi was working for the online NINA news agency. He was also the media representative of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, a gathering of Sunni Arab tribal leaders from the governorate who have committed to fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq. KR