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Newsline - June 8, 2007

President Vladimir Putin proposed to U.S. President George W. Bush in Heiligendamm, Germany, on June 7 the joint use of a missile radar base in Qabala (Gabala), Azerbaijan, in connection with the proposed U.S. missile-defense system, international media reported. Putin, who used increasingly aggressive rhetoric about the system in recent weeks, made the surprise announcement at a joint news conference with Bush after talks on the sidelines of a summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7, 2007). Putin said that "we have looked carefully at the U.S. suggestions. We have our own ideas, and I outlined these in detail. The first proposal is to use the Gabala radar station that we [Russia] lease in Azerbaijan." Putin added that he "spoke to the president of Azerbaijan [Ilham Aliyev] about this yesterday, and the existing agreement [which is valid until 2012] allows us to do that. Azerbaijan's president stressed that he will be more than happy if his country can make a contribution toward fostering international security." Putin said a radar system in Azerbaijan would cover not only part, but the whole of Europe. He added that a joint base in Qabala "will make it unnecessary for us to place our offensive complexes along the border with Europe," which is a reference to his recent threat to target Europe with missiles if the U.S. plans went ahead. PM

President Bush said at his joint press conference with President Putin in Heiligendamm on June 7 that Putin presented some "interesting suggestions," and that they will pursue the issue during two days of talks starting July 1 in Kennebunkport, Maine, international media reported. "As a result of our discussions, we both agreed to have a strategic dialogue, an opportunity to share ideas and concerns between our State Department, Defense Department, and military people," Bush said. He added that "this will be a serious set of strategic discussions. This is a serious issue, and we want to make sure that we all understand each other's positions very clearly. As a result of these conversations, I expect there to be better understanding of the technologies involved and the opportunities to work together." Bush made no commitment regarding accepting or rejecting Putin's proposal. PM

Many Western commentators said that President Putin's June 7 proposal in Heiligendamm was a surprise offer aimed at defusing recent Moscow-Washington tensions, which were largely of Russia's own making, international media reported. Some analysts noted that the Kremlin sought to extract itself from a war of words that it realized has damaged its image in Western Europe. Vafa Quluzade, a former national security adviser to former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, told RFE/RL by telephone that Putin knew when he made the offer "that the United States is not interested in establishing this kind of radar system in Azerbaijan." Speaking in Brussels on June 8, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer argued that "it's a bit early to [determine whether] an Azeri radar...could be the answer to the threats. I think it's a bit close to the 'rogue states'" that the defense shield is directed against. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country is slated to host a radar station under the current U.S. plan, said in Prague on June 7 that Putin's offer is an attempt by Russia to put Central Europe back under the Russian sphere of influence, Czech media reported. Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanova called Putin's suggestion a "bolt out of the blue." But she added, "However, I welcome the possibility of broader cooperation in this project." The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" noted on June 8 that Putin's proposal signified a departure from the harsh rhetoric that dates from at least his February 10 Munich speech. The paper stressed that Putin "was the one who proposed a solution that might really interest Washington and relieve the tension in Russian-American relations." The daily suggested that "the sensational proposal sounded spontaneous, but the Kremlin must have planned it thoroughly." On June 8, State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov said that China should be consulted on Putin's proposal because the Qabala site can monitor "the whole of Eurasia," Interfax reported. He added, however, that "China has no veto right on this issue." PM

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Heiligendamm on June 7 that his talks with President Putin were "frank, since we discussed all the issues: Chechnya, the woman journalist [i.e. the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya], human rights, [and] homosexuals' rights. We did so calmly, without any aggression involved," international media reported. Sarkozy added: "I can understand the positions of Poland and the Czech Republic. I can also understand the Russians' position and the position of the United States. I see the misunderstandings, but let's try to move forward." Sarkozy stressed that "the international community has not come all this way to return to the Cold War. It makes no sense. I don't think that...Putin, in his heart of hearts, wants that." He said that the problem between Washington and Moscow is more political than military, adding: "let's not let things get out of hand. Let's find a solution." PM

On the sidelines of the G8 meetings in Heiligendamm on June 7, Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak dismissed British Prime Minister Tony Blair's recent warnings to businesspeople about Russia, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). Storchak expressed doubts that "business will react emotionally to what I believe are the emotional words of a person who is, in effect, the ex-prime minister." But on June 8, the Russian daily "Novye izvestia" noted that "Russia fails to understand that Western consumers of Russian energy aren't thinking of energy resources and prices only; they are also thinking about the domestic order and rules in the country that sells those resources. Since it neither understands nor accepts the concerns of Western public opinion, Russia has no right to expect an accurate evaluation of its own concerns." PM

Russian opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov said on June 8 that President Bush is in "a state of denial" about Russia's problems, news agencies reported. Kasparov said he hailed Bush's recent criticism of Russian reforms as "derailed" when the two men met in Prague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2007). But Kasparov added that when he subsequently described Russia as a "police state...Bush was in a state of denial and repeated the same stories about [Russia's] growing middle class and prosperity and elections." Kasparov added that he wants Western "leaders to state the obvious: Russia and Putin don't belong in the G8 because [Russia is] not a democracy and it's not an industrial power." March of Dissent demonstrations are planned to take place in St. Petersburg on June 9 and in Moscow on June 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21 and 30, 2007). PM

President Putin's office announced a decree on June 7 naming Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin as the president's special representative for cooperation with CIS member states, reported. Putin named Naryshkin deputy prime minister in February, with CIS affairs as part of his portfolio. Naryshkin began his career in the economics section of the Soviet Embassy in Belgium in the 1980s. Most of his subsequent jobs have involved economic administration. PM

Police in Stavropol arrested a man on June 6 in connection with the killing during the night of June 2-3 of two students at a local university, reported on June 7. On June 8, named the suspect as Andrei Ruslanovich Keylin, who is reportedly from Cherkessk in the neighboring Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic. The killings triggered a storm of protest from members of Stavropol's Slav community who have called for the expulsion from the city of all Chechens on the apparently mistaken assumption that the killings were committed by Chechens in revenge for the death of a Chechen student during a mass brawl on May 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2007). LF

The parliament elected on May 12 convened on June 7 in Yerevan for its first session in the presence of President Robert Kocharian and of Catholicos Karekin II, who pronounced his blessing on the assembled deputies, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The eight deputies representing the opposition Orinats Yerkir party headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and the seven representing the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian boycotted the opening session to protest the Constitutional Court's failure to respond to formal requests by four separate opposition parties to probe allegations of vote rigging during the May 12 ballot. Tigran Torosian, a member of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) that has the largest parliament faction, was again elected parliament speaker, having held that post in the outgoing parliament after Baghdasarian resigned in May 2006. Vahan Hovannisian (no relation to Raffi) of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun was similarly reelected a deputy parliament speaker; the second deputy speaker's post went to Ishkhan Zakarian of the pro-presidential Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) party. Prosperous Armenia has the second-largest parliament faction (25 deputies) and on June 6 signed a formal memorandum with the HHK on creating a coalition government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). LF

President Kocharian signed decrees on June 7 dismissing the outgoing government, which will nonetheless continue to function until a new cabinet is selected, and naming outgoing Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian to head the new government, Noyan Tapan reported. On June 6, Kocharian accepted the resignation of three ministers, including Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who won election to parliament and intend to take up their respective mandates. LF

Russian President Vladimir Putin's June 7 proposal to his U.S. counterpart George Bush that instead of locating the planned new U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, the two countries should jointly make use of the Qabala over-the-horizon radar that Russia leases from Azerbaijan (see "Russia" above) has engendered mixed reactions in Baku. Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said that possibility was discussed during the visit to Azerbaijan last month by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). Mammadyarov said Azerbaijan is ready to discuss the proposal with Washington and Moscow in either a bilateral or trilateral format. Aydin Mirzazade, deputy head of the parliamentary commission on defense and security, said that if implemented, Putin's proposal would reduce worldwide tensions and enhance Azerbaijan's position in the global security system. Political analyst Rasim Musabekov said the proposal serves to underscore Azerbaijan's strategic importance. But opposition parliament deputy Nasib Nasibli argued that the Qabala facility should be closed in light of the ecological damage it inflicts in the surrounding region; he also suggested that its continued use poses a threat to Azerbaijan's national security, and that its technology encompasses the ability to eavesdrop on all telephone conversations throughout Azerbaijan. LF

Georgia's Minister for Conflict Resolution released a statement on June 7 accusing Russia of deliberately distorting the situation with regard to water supplies to Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. Minister Merab Antadze said later on June 7 that the water shortage in Tskhinvali has ended following repairs to the Kekhvi-Tamarasheni watermain carried out the previous day under the supervision of Dmitry Sanakoyev, who heads the pro-Tbilisi South Ossetian administration. The South Ossetian authorities claimed, however, on June 7 that although the Georgian engineers soldered a crack in the watermain, the pipe is so badly crushed that water cannot be pumped through it, and that as a result Tskhinvali remains without water supplies, reported. LF

Austrian officials on June 7 formally filed criminal charges of money laundering against Rakhat Aliev, the son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Kazakhstan continues to demand Aliev's extradition to face criminal charges of kidnapping and corruption. Aliev was recently dismissed as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria and was arrested in Vienna on June 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2007). The new charges against Aliev in Austria stem from information recently submitted by Kazakh officials to the Austrian office of Interpol, Interfax reported. Nazarbaev said the case clearly demonstrates that "the law applies to everybody," and stressed that "there will not be any special treatment for anyone." RG

President Nazarbaev held an online news conference on June 7, responding to live questions submitted by the public via the Internet, according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. During the nearly three-hour interview, Nazarbaev praised ongoing efforts toward "political and economic integration...within a union of Central Asian states" as a guarantee for "a secure and stable future for the region," according to RIA Novosti. Nazarbaev also noted in the interview that Kazakhstan "regards Russia as a partner, not a rival" in the export of energy from the region, and stressed that "cooperation between Kazakhstan and Russia in the oil and gas sectors is of a strategic nature." RG

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher met on June 7 in Bishkek with representatives from several leading Kyrgyz nongovernmental organizations, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. During the meeting at the U.S. Embassy, Boucher discussed the course of political reform and changes to the constitution in Kyrgyzstan, and reviewed the state of media freedom there. He also told local civil society representatives that the United States will provide $20 million in assistance for reforms to the country's judicial system. Boucher is also set to meet with senior Kyrgyz leaders for two days of talks on bilateral relations and regional security during his visit to Kyrgyzstan, which follows a stop in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, about 20 people demonstrated in Bishkek calling for the closure of a U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, AKIpress reported. The demonstrators gathered near the building of American University in Central Asia, where protesters mistakenly thought Boucher would deliver a speech. Shortly before Boucher's visit, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Kyrgyzstan on June 5 to address military cooperation between the two countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2007). The U.S. military base, located at the Manas air base, serves as the primary support hub for operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Several key Kyrgyz parliamentary committees recently called on the government to "review" the U.S. military presence in the country, and the parliament speaker demanded that U.S. personnel be stripped of their diplomatic immunity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24 and 25, and June 5, 2007). RG

Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF), said on June 7 that Belarusian opposition forces intend to organize at least 20,000 participants in late October for an event in Minsk called the European March for Freedom, Belapan reported. "We plan to organize a large-scale preparatory campaign, which will include information campaigns for the public, sociological surveys, and round-table conferences. Apart from this, we plan to stage a rally and a concert on July 27, Belarus's Independence Day. This will also be one of the stages of preparations for the European March," Ivashkevich said. Opposition activists also plan to attend mass events on July 3, Belarus's officially recognized Independence Day, to promote the European Union's new strategy toward Belarus. "We seek to ensure that at least half of the population of large Belarusian cities are aware of the EU's conditions and support them. And the [intended] result will be the implementation by Belarus of at least some of the EU's 12 conditions, if not all," Ivashkevich added. AM

The Our Ukraine People's Union, the People's Self-Defense movement led by former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, and the Ukrainian Right Wing (Ukrayinska Pravytsya) have formed an electoral bloc for early parliamentary elections scheduled for September 30, Interfax reported on June 7. "The union, whose preliminary name is the Union of Democratic Forces, is a new, ambitious project of the united democrats seeking at least second place in the elections," Lutsenko said. He said the agreement between bloc members forbids creating a coalition with representatives of the current parliamentary majority. "The people want the democratic forces to work together and the decision to form the bloc meets their justified expectations," Our Ukraine leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko said. AM

The Socialist Party and the Communist Party on June 7 released a statement accusing Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko of blocking a peaceful solution to the ongoing political crisis, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. According to the authors of the statement, Yushchenko's presidential decree scheduling early parliamentary elections for September 30 is based on the "statements of several pro-presidential parties," rather than on legal grounds. The joint statement questions in particular the legality of the resignations submitted by lawmakers of the Our Ukraine party. Yushchenko argues that those resignations render the Verkhovna Rada illegitimate. The statement argues that Our Ukraine comprises representatives of many political parties, and that all those parties must adopt a joint decision on members' resignations. The statement also accused Yushchenko of "exerting pressure on the Constitutional Court" and "usurping power," and stressed the need for international mediators to help resolve the political crisis. AM

The Verkhovna Rada on June 7 issued a statement to foreign diplomatic missions accredited in Ukraine, informing them that the current parliament is legitimate and continues to function, Interfax reported. President Yushchenko earlier argued that the Verkhovna Rada no longer has the authority to operate and maintain foreign relations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). "Parliament is working. Some [lawmakers] are not taking part in the session, but it does not mean that parliament cannot function in accordance with the constitution," Verkhovna Rada speaker Oleksandr Moroz said when opening the session. Moroz referred to the Constitutional Court requirement that at least 226 deputies must be registered at any parliamentary session in order to hold debates on legislation. A total of 264 lawmakers were present at the latest session, Moroz said. AM

France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has proposed that the UN Security Council should delay a decision on the future of Kosova for six months, Reuters and Kosovar Albanian media reported on June 7-8. According to Reuters, Sarkozy said the proposal he presented to other leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) featured three points: firstly, that Russia -- Serbia's chief ally -- should recognize "the inevitable prospect of independence for Kosovo"; secondly, that there should be a six-month review to determine the mandate for international forces in Kosova; and, thirdly, that Belgrade and Prishtina should resume face-to-face talks for six months after which, if they fail to reach an agreement, the plan presented by the UN's envoy to the region, Martti Ahtisaari, would be adopted. Sarkozy said his proposal was not "perfect," but is a "middle way" that enables the international community to avoid "the drama of a division" and to avoid the uncertainty about the legal status of international troops that would arise if some countries were to recognize Kosova's independence and others were not to. Reuters cited a claim from "a source close to one of the delegations" that the G8 leaders accepted the proposal. Kosova did not feature in statements made by other leaders during the day. Russia has previously called for Belgrade and Prishtina to resume talks without a deadline and has underlined that no solution can be imposed. Serbia is determined to retain sovereignty over Kosova but has offered substantial autonomy. Sarkozy argued that his proposal gives Russia "a little time" and obliges Belgrade and Prishtina to discuss the future. France has previously insisted that there is no reason to delay a decision. However, Britain's "Financial Times" on June 8 quoted a French diplomat as saying: "This is not giving in to Russia. It's about setting a precise time frame after which the Ahtisaari plan would automatically apply." AG

The Kosovar daily "Koha ditore" on June 8 quoted sources who believe Sarkozy's proposal, if accepted, could lead to a greater role for French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a former head of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The paper claimed, however, that the proposal has yet to be fleshed out into a plan. "Zeri" indicated otherwise, quoting a senior Western official as saying that the proposal would allow UNMIK to begin withdrawing and the EU, as envisaged in the Ahtisaari plan, to begin establishing a mission in the region. Kosovar media also quoted predictions about the timeline for a solution made by two senior European diplomats intimately involved in Kosova, though it is not clear whether their comments preceded Sarkozy's statement. Kosovar broadcasters on June 7 quoted Ahtisaari as saying he expects an agreement to be reached at the G8 summit, while the June 8 edition of the daily "Express" carries an interview with Soren Jessen-Petersen in which the former UNMIK chief said U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin could reach agreement when they meet in early July. AG

A call for Serbia's largely ethnic-Albanian-populated Presevo Valley to form a union with Kosova has split the community's politicians, local media reported on June 7. The Movement for Democratic Progress (PDP), a political offspring of a separatist movement that fought with Serbian forces until late 2001, on June 5 called for Albanian parties in the region to form a joint council to urge secession from Serbia to Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15 and April 24, 2007). The PDP's leader, Jonuz Musliu, said that over the past six years "nothing has changed in the political and economic sense, except that a multiethnic police was formed," Serbian media reported on June 7. The head of the Democratic Union for the Valley (DUD), Skender Destani, dismissed the suggestion on June 6, saying, according to the news agency FoNet, that it "is not worth my commenting on." The head of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) also rejected the call, though in less forthright terms. The call for secession by Musliu, a former political leader of the region's now-disbanded separatist militia, and subsequent demands for a tough response by Serbian nationalist parties add to the concerns about security in the region ahead of a decision on Kosova's future. There are already seemingly unrelated security concerns in one of the region's three towns, Bujanovac, where Musliu is deputy mayor. The town's mayor, Nagip Arifi, told FoNet on June 6 that he felt unable to leave the town after an explosive device was thrown into the courtyard of his brother's house on June 1, raising doubts that he will meet, as planned, with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Serbia on June 8. FoNet reported that parties in the town plan to demand the dismissal of the town's police chief. AG

Police in the southern Serbian city of Novi Pazar on June 7 arrested three terrorist suspects. A police statement carried by the Bosnian news agency Fena said that all three belonged to a group that police already targeted in operations "in March, April, and May" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and April 20 and 24, 2007). Novi Pazar is the capital of Sandzak, an ethnically mixed region that straddles Serbia and Montenegro and is principally populated by Bosnian Muslims. AG

The EU's peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR) on June 4 dismissed claims that, with its consent, army weapons earmarked for destruction have been sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, the daily "Oslobodjenje" reported on June 5. EUFOR spokesman Neil Mathieson said that "there are no indications whatsoever that anything has been done illegally." He also said that the implication in the Austrian daily "Kurier," which first made the allegations, "that an Austrian officer is allegedly in charge of supervising arms exports on behalf of EUFOR is untrue, because we are not authorized to control imports and exports. All exports are organized and supervised by the Bosnian government." Mathieson said EUFOR is only responsible for monitoring movements of weapons within the country. The UN Development Program found in March that 16 percent of Bosnians own illegal guns, while another 3 percent are registered owners. The UNDP found that, in all, Bosnian households own nearly 500,000 weapons. AG

A delegation of ethnic Croats from Montenegro on June 5 told the Croatian parliament that their community is in an "unenviable position," the Montenegrin daily "Vijesti" reported on June 6. In a public statement, the group of political leaders and civil-society representatives listed legal difficulties exercising their minority rights and property-related difficulties alongside pressures such as assimilation and unemployment as "key obstacles preventing the Croats in Montenegro from realizing their justified interests concerning national identity, political, and cultural issues." They voiced anger at the government's failure to deliver on an alleged promise to give the Croatian Civic Initiative (HGI), a member of the governing coalition and the country's only ethnic-Croatian party, political posts in local government and, at the national level, in three ministries and the diplomatic corps. Montenegro has made relations with Croatia a priority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 16, and March 12, 2007). The concerns of the country's native Croatian population have been relatively little heard in discussions about a draft constitution, with Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians making more vociferous objections. A 2003 census found just 6,811 Croats in Montenegro, or 1.1 percent of the population while Serbs make up 32.0 percent and Bosnian Muslims 7.8 percent of the population. AG

Montenegro's largest ethnic-Albanian party, the Democratic Union of Albanians (DSCG), has called for the country's draft constitution to reserve a seat in the National Security Council for a representative of the Albanian community. In comments reported by the daily "Dan" on June 4, the DSCG also argued that ethnic minorities should have a role in the State Auditing Office. Other demands that the party has called to be considered for inclusion in the new constitution are the right to use minority languages in court and ethnic quotas in the judiciary. Albanians account for 5 percent of the population, with most of them living in the south of the country, near the border with Albania. Security concerns in the majority population about the perceived restiveness of the Albanian community have been stoked over the past half-year by the discovery of an alleged terrorist plot by Albanian separatists and, among ethnic Serbs, by the prospect of an independent Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15 and June 7, 2007). AG

A court in Zenica on June 5 cleared six Bosnian Muslims of charges that they committed war crimes against ethnic-Croatian prisoners of war in late 1993 and early 1994, local media reported the same day. The six are all former members of the Bosnian Muslim army. Judges said there was too little evidence to prove that the men -- Mirsad Siljak, Sabahudin Operta, Muhamed Frljak, Mensudin Operta, Muris Ajanovic, and Alija Cizma -- were guilty of crimes in the town of Vares. A small metal-processing town about 30 kilometers north of Sarajevo, Vares maintained a precarious equilibrium between its various communities until an influx of Bosnian Muslim refugees in October 1993 prompted the ethnic-Croatian army to take control. Within a month, though, they and thousands of ethnic-Croatian civilians abandoned the town in the face of an assault by Bosnian Muslim troops. The capture of the town was followed destruction and looting. AG

Croatian police on June 5 announced the capture of six ethnic-Serbian Croats for war crimes committed against Croatian soldiers and citizens, Croatian and Serbian media reported the same day. The men were reportedly members of an ethnic-Serbian paramilitary group suspected of crimes in Luzac, a community close to Vukovar, the scene of arguably the heaviest fighting and worst atrocities of the Serbian-Croatian conflict. On June 4, a court jailed two ethnic Serbs for war crimes. Milan Atlija was sentenced to 12 years and Djordje Jaramaz to 10 years. The two were found guilty of murdering a civilian and abusing prisoners of war, the Javno news service reported on June 5. Atlija was, however, acquitted of charges of intimidating and expelling Croats from the region of Knin. AG

Full figures from the June 3 local elections show that support for Moldova's Western-leaning Communist Party is waning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4 and 5, 2007). While all votes cast have now been counted, the results are not yet official. The Central Election Commission said on June 7 that the Communist Party polled 29.9 percent in mayoral elections, 14 percent ahead of its nearest rival, the Our Moldova Alliance (15.8 percent), but also well down on the 41 percent it garnered in local elections in 2003. It suffered an even greater fall in elections for local councils, from 50 percent to 33.5 percent. The Our Moldova Alliance also saw its share of the vote drop in both sets of elections. Instead, the gains were spread across a range of small parties: the third-placed party, the Moldovan Democratic Party (PDM), saw its share rise from 8.1 percent to only a little over 10 percent. AG

Many Iranian politicians are unhappy with the date recently set for Iran's next parliamentary elections, saying they are being planned at a time that would lower voter turnout and make it difficult to complain about the process or challenge the vote-counting procedures.

The parliamentary elections -- to choose the eighth parliament since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 -- are set for March 14. That is just a few days before the Iranian New Year holidays that begin on March 19-20 and continue for several weeks. It is a time when the majority of Iranians stop working, with many traveling to visit friends and relatives.

Reformist politicians, in particular, have warned that holding elections this close to the New Year holiday would affect public participation. They also suggest that it might curb the ability of candidates to complain about possible discrepancies in pre-electoral vetting or postelection counting -- the usually controversial parts of Iranian elections. Moreover, a good part of Iran's state bureaucracy and media winds down for the holidays at that time.

The complaints reveal a latent suspicion -- particularly among reformists wishing to regain their parliamentary seats -- that state authorities want to hold the elections while the public is distracted, giving election officers and supervisors a freer hand to respond to "undesirable" aspirants or even results. The Interior Ministry has dismissed those concerns and said this is the best date available.

Aspiring candidates to elected offices in Iran are vetted by the Guardians Council, a body of senior jurists that closely examines candidates' backgrounds to check their Islamic credentials and loyalty to the system. The council also confirms the results of the elections.

The Guardians Council is dominated by clerics and headed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, one of Iran's prominent conservatives and an outspoken supporter of the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Jannati is often seen by reformist politicians as biased against reformist, independent, or unknown aspirants, and as favoring conservatives. Reformists essentially suspect -- though they rarely make outright accusations, as that could lead to calumny-type charges against them -- that the now-conservative Interior Ministry and Guardians Council wants to restrict the number of reform candidates in these elections, as they have in previous elections. Both of those bodies, however, state that they merely implement electoral laws.

Disqualified candidates can appeal against the Guardians Council's decision, and they do, though their complaints rarely lead to their reinstatement. Such complaints would, it is thought, become even more difficult during a holiday period.

Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, Iran's last interior minister in the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, said on June 5 that "the most important challenges" in elections in past years have been about the "peripheral" aspects of elections, which he cited as the vetting process and the vote-counting stage that may lead to the cancellation of results in some constituencies by Guardians Council-appointed supervisors.

He stated, perhaps politely, that Interior Ministry and Guardians Council officials might -- "from an optimistic perspective" -- have been "careless" in choosing the election date. Results, he said, would thus be announced when people are on vacation, and he suggested "the gentlemen" are worried about politicians' scrutiny and complaints about results.

Musavi-Lari said people might wonder, with fewer people to watch over ballots, if votes have been counted scrupulously or if some candidates' rights might have been violated. He also observed that such concerns might discourage people from voting.

Ismail Gerami-Moqaddam, a legislator and member of the reformist National Trust Party, concurred with this argument, saying that the media would be partially closed and unable to draw the public's attention to the elections, and "objectors will not have the means of safeguarding their rights," the daily "Etemad" reported on June 6.

The daily also quoted Mohsen Mirdamadi, the secretary-general of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, as saying that the date is not suitable as "elections must be held when all the country's affairs are up and running."

Another reformist daily, "Aftab-i Yazd" stated in its editorial on June 3 that the timing of the polls could make election officials the "targets of suspicions" and create public tensions and recriminations.

The Interior Ministry, which is charged with overseeing the election process, has dismissed the complaints. Mujtaba Samareh-Hashemi, the deputy interior minister for political affairs, said on June 5 that it is now normal for political parties to doubt the integrity of elections before they have even taken place. "We expect them to shout and make their accusations," he said.

Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi also explained on June 6 that the timing was effectively dictated by objective constraints. He said the Guardians Council pointed out in meetings that time was needed in 2008 for a possible second round of elections, while a 40-day period of mourning before March for Imam Hussein -- the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and revered by Shi'a -- made polling difficult during that time. Many mosques and prayer halls, where voting takes place, are used for religious gatherings then. Pur-Mohammadi said that "those who are concerned should know [that] we do not intend to permit any violation and hope to precisely implement all regulations, as with the municipal elections." He added that "if there are any violations, [the authorities] will be at work all the time and will deal with complaints."

Local elections were held in December, and some politicians objected strongly to the secretive vote-counting process and to alleged, but unproven, irregularities. Pur-Mohammadi said that while newspapers might be closed for four or five days around March 21 -- the first day of the Persian year -- websites would continue to report news and there would be no information blackout. He requested that newspapers remain open for that period.

The concerns expressed by reformists over the date of the elections indicates their persistent fear that a variety of suspected efforts and mechanisms may be used to keep them out of power: their candidates may be disqualified; and now, there may well be nobody watching vote counters and supervisors regarded by many as beholden to the right wing.

Further, reformists believe that the last local-council elections showed the public's renewed favor for reformists or moderate candidates and conveyed a general disenchantment with the Ahmadinejad government. And this may lead them to fear that his government will do whatever it can to limit the entry of moderates or reformists into the next parliament. Of course, any statements made in this regard must be cautious, as nobody could, without proof, accuse government officials of planning an electoral hijack or of fiddling with the votes.

Anyone who does make such charges can expect to face one of the various calumny-related charges thrown at outspoken journalists and politicians, such as "making false allegations to incite public opinion." But while vote counting may be a concern to reformists, it is perceived as the conservatives' second line of defense against "undesirable" candidates -- the first one being the rigorous vetting and subsequent rejection of prospective candidates. In a recent statement, the Guardians Council effectively declared that its conduct so far has been perfectly legitimate, and it will continue as before.

A purported Taliban spokesman said on June 7 that Afghan officials have handed over the body of former Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah to his family in exchange for the release of four hostages, the BBC reported. Afghan officials confirmed that Taliban militants released the four health-care workers who were kidnapped on March 27. Taliban militants beheaded a fifth hostage earlier this week after an alleged government deal to hand over Dadullah's body fell through. Afghan President Hamid Karzai denies ordering such an exchange (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2007). The unidentified Taliban spokesman said that Dadullah's relatives received his body in the city of Kandahar and reburied it in a local graveyard. A spokesman for the Health Ministry, Dr. Abdullah Fahim, later confirmed that the four hostages have arrived at the regional health directorate in Kandahar Province. JC

Afghan police have arrested six people in connection with the killing of Zakia Zaki, the owner and manager of Peace Radio in Parwan Province, who was fatally shot in her home on June 5, AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). All six suspects are supporters of the militant group Hizb-e-Islami, and two of them confessed to Zaki's murder, according to the Interior Ministry's counterterrorism chief, General Abdul Manan Farahi. The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, Rahimullah Samandar, told AP that Zaki criticized local warlords, who warned her to change the station's programming. Samandar said Zaki had reported receiving death threats. Meanwhile, in the latest insurgent fighting, a battle in the Garmser district of Helmand Province on June 5 left 30 suspected Taliban dead or wounded, AP reported, quoting Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi. JC

Afghan President Karzai is under pressure from the U.S. government to spray chemicals on Afghanistan's poppy fields, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on June 7. In an interview with IRIN, Afghan Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qadiri said the United States is pressuring Kabul to use chemical herbicides to eradicate its poppy crops in accordance with a controversial 2006 U.S. government plan to stop opium production. Karzai rejected the plan, citing health risks from the use of herbicides to residents in rural areas where stream water is used for drinking and washing. A U.S. delegation is expected to present a new proposal for a safer spray with fewer side effects in the near future, IRIN quoted an unnamed diplomat as saying. Qadiri conceded that Afghanistan will use chemical sprays if officials find that the current counternarcotics strategy has failed to curb the profits reaped by Taliban insurgents and terrorists from narcotics sales. JC

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on June 7 granting $6.4 billion in aid to Afghanistan for development and security, AFP reported the same day. The Afghanistan Freedom and Security Support Act provides aid for the fiscal years 2008 to 2010, with approximately $2 billion available in 2008. The act, which passed by 406 votes to 10, calls for the appointment of a U.S. government coordinator to work specifically on countering Afghanistan's growing narcotics problem. The bill stipulates that the United States will cut off aid to provincial governments that are found to be involved in the narcotics trade or terrorism, two security issues in Afghanistan which many U.S. officials see as inextricably linked to international security. It is unclear when the bill will go to the president for approval, as it has yet to be taken up in the U.S. Senate. JC

Prince Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, denounced the Iranian regime's "totalitarian" nature on June 6, and told Radio Farda in Prague that many of the world's security challenges effectively stem from Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. He said a planned U.S. missile shield in Europe, designed in part to defend against possible missile strikes from Iran, is justified. Iran's putative ballistic capabilities, he said, are not as important as the "totalitarian nature of the Islamic Republic system," which, he said, is seeking to establish a caliphate, or unified Islamic government reminiscent of the early Islamic empire. Pahlavi was attending the Democracy and Security Conference held in Prague on June 5-6, where he advocated a lawful and secular government in Iran. He said Iran's government funds radical groups in the Middle East, and that most Iranians have ceased to support the regime, and would act in some way to change it. The world, he added, must support Iranians in this endeavor. "Investing" in the Iranian people, he said, is the least costly method of regime change in Iran. VS

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Energy Minister Parviz Fattah on June 7 opened a new section of the Parand electricity plant, south of Tehran, ISNA reported. The leaders oversaw the opening of a new gas-powered unit at the power plant, which is also powered partly by diesel oil. Fattah said during the ceremony that Iran's electricity-generation capacity increased by 5,000 megawatts in the Persian year to March 20, 2007, and is expected to increase by another 6,000 megawatts this year to reach 36,000 megawatts. He vowed that every town or village with more than 20 households will have electricity by the end of the year. Fattah said eight power plants will be privatized this year, in keeping with the country's current privatization drive, and announced measures to charge users in line with consumption: the installation of new electricity meters in homes to measure consumers' use, and a pricing scheme to charge more at peak hours. Also on June 7, Ahmadinejad opened the first completed section of a 2,000-megawatt power plant in Rudshahr, in Iran's central Markazi Province. VS

Some 5,000 workers of the Haft Tapeh sugar cane factory in the southwestern province of Khuzestan ended their strike late on June 3, after a reported promise by management to pay them two months of back wages, Radio Farda reported on June 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). Local journalist Mojtaba Gahestuni told Radio Farda that management discussed the strike with the Khuzestan provincial administration, which agreed to provide money for the back wages. Workers have reportedly giving management a 10-day period to pay the wages. Gahestuni earlier told Radio Farda that along with unpaid wages, workers were also protesting against imports of sugar into Iran and its sale at rates below domestic prices, which they have said is putting Iranian sugar manufacturers out of business. They are also concerned about the company's planned privatization. Gahestuni told Radio Farda on June 6 that workers have threatened to protest outside the Khuzestan governor's office and provincial Labor Ministry office if their demands are not met, and if necessary to take their protest to the parliament or Industries and Mines Ministry in Tehran. VS

Iran's ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Reza Sheibani, met with Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut on June 7 and discussed current tensions in Lebanon and regional politics, IRNA reported. Berri is a Shi'ite Muslim allied to Lebanese political forces associated with Iran and Syria, including the militant organization Hizballah. Sheibani later told IRNA that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and France are currently working to resolve the crisis in Lebanon, but he said an "internal" solution is needed. He did not indicate whether he was referring to recent gun battles between Lebanese troops and radical Sunni militiamen, or tensions between the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Hizballah. VS

Iran on June 6 released three Finns arrested on June 2 in Persian Gulf waters near the island of Abu Musa, AFP reported. Iranian authorities arrested the three for allegedly entering Iran's waters illegally. The Finns, Dubai-based employees of Nokia Siemens Systems, were apparently on a fishing trip, AFP reported. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on June 7 that Iran accepted that they had entered its waters by mistake, and released them as a goodwill gesture. Finnish Foreign Minister Ilka Kanerva expressed satisfaction on June 6 over the "smooth cooperation" in the matter between Iranian and Finnish authorities, AFP reported. VS

Iyad Allawi has responded to criticism of his party's attempts to form a new national nonsectarian front in Iraq in a press statement obtained by "Ilaf," the news website reported on June 5. Several Iraqi leaders have accused Allawi of trying to secretly organize a front, with the support of regional states, to overthrow the Iraqi government. In his statement, Allawi denied media reports that a front was formed in Cairo in April, saying the groups that met in the Egyptian capital met openly, not in secret. He said his actions were "not against the democratic process and not against the Kurds," adding, "Quite the opposite; the key decision of the meeting was to maintain contacts and dialogue with the two main Kurdish parties as a fundamental, nonsectarian Iraqi national force, in addition to talking to Shi'ite Islamic parties in the government in order to approximate views." KR

Addressing allegations that his efforts are supported by regional intelligence agencies, Allawi said: "It is strange that the Iraqi government does not condemn Iran's intelligence agencies, which conduct operations and have relations inside Iraq, Yet, Arab countries are condemned. Arab allegiance now amounts to an act of infidelity in Iraq. However, no Arab countries have interfered in such meetings, which were held based on Iraqi" initiatives. He added that his party will remain "faithful to everything that it has committed itself to.... It will always support our people and their unity, sovereignty, and dignity." KR

During a visit to Sudan, Tariq al-Hashimi said that those who believe a military solution can solve Iraq's problems are taking a deficient view of the security situation in the country, Arab media reported on June 7. "The military effort is one of the efforts that can be relied upon to normalize and stabilize conditions. But Iraq's problem is complex and [multifaceted] that in fact requires a package of solutions, some political, some economic, some related to media, and some perhaps security and military solutions," the vice president said. KR

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television in a June 7 interview that Iraqi is "repulsing a vicious Western assault on Islam." The assault, he claimed, is aimed at promoting sectarianism and fomenting disunity among Iraqis. Asked about the internal displacement crisis, al-Sadr contended that Sunni Arab Iraqis are now seeking shelter in Shi'ite communities, adding: "The main reason is that car bombs and acts of violence come from outside the country under a U.S. cover and upon a U.S. agreement and silence. This makes the residents of Sunni, Shi'ite, and Christian areas leave [their homes for] other areas. This displacement will continue so long as the occupation troops stay." Al-Sadr has taken steps in recent days to reach out to the Christian and Sunni communities in Iraq in an effort to portray his movement as nationalist and nonsectarian (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," May 24, 2007). KR