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Newsline - June 15, 2007

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on June 14 told his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, that Washington's plans to base parts of a missile-defense system in Central Europe will not be altered by a recent Russian proposal to use facilities in Azerbaijan instead, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 11, 12, 13, and 14, 2007). At a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, Gates said, "We [see] the Azeri radar as an additional capability [and intend] to proceed with the radar, the X-band radar, in the Czech Republic." NATO spokesman James Appathurai said NATO wants the U.S. missile-defense plans to be transparent to Russia. He added that all NATO ministers seek to avoid tensions and are doing everything possible to allay Russian concerns. The spokesman also praised Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal on the radar site in Azerbaijan as a "step forward" and an attempt to reduce tensions. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told journalists that because the proposed U.S. missile shield will not cover all of NATO's allies, the alliance will start studying the possibility of complementing it with its own defense systems. These will provide "short- and medium-range theater missile defense, a system which can be 'bolted onto' the general missile defense" to cover Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, which are not covered by the U.S. sites to be based in Central Europe. NATO's chief emphasized that the alliance is already cooperating with Russia on missile-defense issues, but did not elaborate on possible Russian participation in NATO's new plans. Appathurai noted that the NATO ministers also extensively discussed an Estonian request to step up the alliance's cyberdefense capabilities in the wake of massive online attacks on Estonia in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). Russia is widely suspected of being behind the attacks but denies any involvement. PM

An unnamed senior U.S. official told the "International Herald Tribune" in Brussels on June 14 that Russian Defense Minister Serdyukov "made no threats" regarding the U.S. missile-defense project. But the daily "Kommersant" on June 15 quoted Serdyukov as saying that "our partners ignore all arguments" regarding the possible negative consequences of the U.S. plans. He stressed that "the issue of creating a missile-defense system in Europe should be the subject of most thorough analysis and an impetus to discussion across Europe." PM

The daily "Kommersant" reported on June 14 that "Venezuela is looking to buy several submarines from Russia. Caracas intends to use Russian submarines to break through any potential American blockade of the Venezuelan coast." The deal could involve up to nine submarines, be worth up to $2 billion, and be finalized during President Hugo Chavez's visit to Russia starting on June 29, shortly before President Putin leaves for the United States. The paper quoted an unnamed source at Russia's state-run arms dealer Rosoboroneksport as saying that Venezuela has asked about purchasing "five Project 636 and four Project 677E Amur vessels." The daily added that "the point to note here is that the Russian Navy does not have any Project 677E submarines yet; the first is due to be delivered by the end of this year. So our defense-sector source predicts that the Venezuelans might only be allowed to buy five Project 636 subs. The last major export contract for these submarines was for China." Britain's "The Guardian" on June 15 quoted Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer as saying that the submarines "are the equivalent of a Lada. [They're] nonnuclear, run on diesel-electric, and have a snorkel. Russia simply doesn't have the technology to produce modern torpedoes." The British daily noted that the submarines are based on a German design from World War II. But Felgengauer pointed out that "there are clearly a lot of sweeteners involved in this. A lot of people get rich, including Mr. Chavez. And it annoys the U.S. It's a win-win situation" for Moscow and Caracas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007). PM

European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic in Brussels on June 13 that everyone wants good relations with Moscow, news agencies reported. He added, however, that "it is important to recall that one has to be careful that even when hugging a friendly big bear, one wouldn't [want to] be suffocated" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2007). Moscow has shown a keen interest in recent years in buying up Serbian firms, including in energy and communications, as well as other fields. Some Serbian politicians, such as Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, have hinted to the EU that Serbia might prefer a "Russian option" in its foreign policy if Brussels does not give Belgrade concrete prospects for membership. Russia has seemingly sought to amass political capital in Serbia by supporting its claims to Kosova at the UN Security Council and stressing historical and cultural ties. But Russia and the Soviet Union have always followed a policy of self-interest in the Balkans, often backing Serbia's rivals when it was in Russian or Soviet interest to do so. PM

Igor Shuvalov, who is a top Kremlin aide and was President Putin's chief planner for the 2006 Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg, told RIA Novosti in Washington on June 15 that "people keep talking about [First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev] as potential [2008 presidential] candidates, but my president may come out with one more surprise. Perhaps later this year you will learn about one more possible figure" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). The Russian media have been speculating for months about possible candidates. Putin has declined to identify his choice, saying only that the Russian people will choose his successor. PM

Britain's "Financial Times" reported from Moscow on June 15 that "Russia has opened a criminal investigation into alleged underpayment of taxes by a company linked to William Browder, the head of Russia's biggest foreign portfolio investment fund, say officials. The statement looked like a new attack on the shareholder rights activist barred by Russia" from entering the country. The paper quoted an unnamed "official at the Moscow division of the Interior Ministry [as saying that] law enforcers are investigating whether a firm it linked to Hermitage Capital Management, Browder's investment fund, underpaid [$44 million] in taxes last year." The daily also quoted the official as saying that "investigators are targeting Browder as being behind the scheme. 'This is a serious sum of money and it would destroy the business reputation of anyone in the West,' he said." The paper added that "the broadside looks likely to cancel any progress Browder had made with the Russian authorities in arguing his case for [being allowed to] return [to Russia] in a standoff which critics say has highlighted increasing arbitrary action by the government against investors that do not toe the Kremlin line" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). PM

The recently formed Armenian cabinet held on June 14 its first official meeting chaired by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. In an opening speech to the new ministers, Sarkisian urged the cabinet to "work as effectively as possible" and reminded them that they had only eight months to accomplish their goal before the government is to be formally disbanded when Armenia holds its presidential election in February 2008. The cabinet is now preparing its formal program to submit to parliament for consideration at the end of the month. RG

Several dozen protesters staged a demonstration on June 14 outside the Armenian government building in Yerevan as the new cabinet was holding its first official meeting, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The protesters, comprised of local residents forced to relocate from their historic neighborhood as part of a state redevelopment plan, criticized Prime Minister Sarkisian for failing to fulfill campaign promises of meeting with them. The leader of a nongovernmental organization representing the interests of the residents, Vachagan Hakobian, denounced the authorities for ignoring basic property rights and for inaction in addressing the evictions. A large number of the residents were forced to move as the municipal authorities ordered the demolition of their private homes to make way for large commercial construction projects. Many residents resisted the forced eviction by erecting primitive barricades before being physically removed by police during the state-ordered evictions and most have denounced the modest compensation awarded by the authorities. RG

Former Armenian Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian denounced the authorities on June 14 for "imitating democracy" and warned that a "new dictatorship was steadily emerging," according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Prime minister from 1993-96 and widely credited with carrying out successful economic reforms, Bagratian also stressed that the concentration of wealth among a small number of "families" and "oligarchs" threatens "to curb the development of democracy." He presented figures asserting that some 55 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) is controlled by 44 "families" and, from 1996 to 2006, the gap between rich and poor has widened by seven times, Mediamax reported. He also challenged the official record of double-digit economic growth, pointing to statistics revealing significant job losses, declining foreign investment, and low export figures. RG

The leader of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party, Ararat Zurabian, called on June 14 for opposition parties to unite ahead of the presidential election set for February 2008, Arminfo reported. Zurabian argued that the opposition "New Times party, the Republic party, and the Impeachment bloc that hold rallies every week should make a decision whether they plan to nominate a joint candidate in the forthcoming presidential election or not," and urged them to "consolidate" their forces rather than "holding joint rallies just to win over more people." He has consistently called for the return of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian to active politics, claiming that if the former president entered the 2008 presidential election, it would "completely change the existing situation in Armenia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006). RG

Over 200 Azerbaijani police and security forces forcibly dispersed on June 14 a demonstration in Baku by a group of 50 journalists protesting the government's pressure on the media and suppression of freedom of speech, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and Turan reported. Police initially arrested Rauf Arifoglu, the editor of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," and two others before releasing them later in the day. One unnamed protester required hospitalization after police used force to break up the demonstration. An earlier plan to stage a rally to protest restrictions on media freedom by the journalists' group the Union of Editors was recently postponed to June 23 after the Baku municipal authorities ordered that it must be confined to within an area where extensive road construction is under way (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2007). RG

Speaking to journalists in Tbilisi, the visiting head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce, Yevgeny Primakov, announced on June 14 that Russia will "gradually" lift economic sanctions imposed against Georgia, Interfax reported. The vice president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce, Boris Pastukhov, added that "we came to discuss all the problems" and noted that the "entire logic of Russian-Georgian relations shows that sanctions lead to nothing" and only encourage anti-Russian feeling in Georgia. Primakov and Pastukhov are participating in a meeting of officials from CIS chambers of commerce that opened in Tbilisi earlier on June 14. RG

Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze called on June 14 for Russia to take a "positive step" over the South Ossetia conflict, proposing that Russia agree to joint control over the Roki tunnel that connects South Ossetia with neighboring North Ossetia, Kavkaz Press and Civil Georgia reported. Burdjanadze added that Georgia is "disposed toward continuing dialogue and promoting positive aspects" in its relationship with Russia. She made the comments while accompanying President Mikheil Saakashvili and Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili on a state visit to France where they met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns in Paris (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2007). RG

In a speech before the OSCE Permanent Council meeting in Vienna, Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili noted on June 14 that the OSCE is "a key partner in creating stability in Georgia" and called on "the OSCE, the EU, and our international partners to deliver a firm, convincing message" to leaders in South Ossetia that "the only way forward is to engage in a constructive, results-oriented dialogue," according to a press release posted on the OSCE website. Bezhuashvili went on to say that "the only path we see to peace" in South Ossetia is "the same path that we see for all people of Georgia: we must deliver on the promise of individual liberty, economic opportunity, quality of life and human security." He further highlighted the creation of the Georgian-backed administration in South Ossetia, led by Dmitry Sanakoyev, as a "symbol of new reality" that is ready for a constructive dialogue "to reach a vital and long-standing settlement," according to the Kavkaz Press news agency. The Georgian parliament approved the creation of the provisional pro-Georgian government in the breakaway unrecognized republic of South Ossetia last April, which confirmed the position of Sanakoyev, whom the minority Georgian population of the region elected last November as an alternative leader to de facto South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 30, 2007 and "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007). RG

In comments during a state visit to France, Georgian parliament speaker Burdjanadze said on June 14 that she considers the draft law on repatriation of Meskhetian Turks to be "quite acceptable for Georgia" and urged the parliament to adopt the legislation, the Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported. Georgian opposition parties have criticized the controversial legislation, arguing that it poses a threat to Georgian national security and calling for limits on the number of repatriates. If adopted, the bill would initiate the repatriation of Meskhetians next year, in conformity with a Georgian commitment to the Council of Europe. The Meskhetian population was forcibly displaced from the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti in a mass deportation ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944 and were relocated to Central Asia. RG

In a statement released on June 14 in Astana, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced the creation of a bilateral Kazakh-Afghan intergovernmental commission to boost investment and trade ties, Interfax reported. The agreement to form the body was made in a meeting between Masimov and visiting Afghan First Vice President Ahmad Zia Mas'ud in Astana earlier the same day. Masimov also noted that the Kazakh government is currently considering a special program on cooperation with Afghanistan aimed at strengthening Kazakh investment, agricultural trade, and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is also seeking Kazakh assistance in developing the country's large but underdeveloped mining sector. RG

The Kyrgyz opposition movement United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan on June 14 formally submitted documents to the Justice Ministry requesting a national referendum to consider a proposal to form a union between Kyrgyzstan and Russia, AKIpress and ITAR-TASS reported. An unnamed official from the Bishkek headquarters of the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, which is a part of the United Front, said the documents meet all the legal requirements for a referendum, and added that "we hope that the Justice Ministry will officially register our campaign in the near future in line with the prescribed procedures." The opposition is also seeking Justice Ministry registration of an "initiative group" created specifically to advocate holding the referendum, and requested official state-issued "identification cards" to assist members in collecting signatures throughout the country. According to Kyrgyz law, any issue can be put forth in a referendum as long as at least 300,000 citizens sign a supporting petition. Earlier in June, former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, the leader of the United Front, explained that "a union with Russia will preserve the unity of Kyrgyzstan and its people," and threatened to seek the dissolution of parliament if the Kyrgyz authorities failed to consider his proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 2007). RG

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev is continuing to receive medical treatment in a Turkish hospital, but is reported to "feel well" and in stable condition, AKIpress reported, citing a statement released on June 14 by the state press office. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Atambaev on June 13 and discussed several issues in an hourlong meeting, including trade and economic relations and measures to promote Turkish investment in Kyrgyzstan. Atambaev is being treated for complications after being poisoned by an unknown toxin, which his doctors said caused "acute toxic hepatitis of indeterminate aetiology," or origin. Atambaev says that he became seriously ill from drinking water in his office on May 11, and that he was unconscious for two days after the incident. A round of medical tests confirmed that Atambaev was poisoned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23 and 30, 2007). RG

A group of three dozen hunger strikers demonstrating outside Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court ended their protest on June 14, citing the worsening condition of several of the protesters, AKIpress reported. The hunger strikers were demanding that the Supreme Court review an official investigation into events related to police officers' fatal shootings of six residents of the southern Aksy district during a demonstration in March 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 19 and 20, 2002). The Supreme Court was initially set to begin the review on June 14 but postponed it for unexplained reasons until later this month. The official investigation failed to identify anyone responsible for the deaths, and its findings were never completely disclosed. The prosecutor-general on June 13 opened a criminal case against four people in connection with the incident, including former Jalal-Abad Governor Sultan Urmanaev and Amanbek Karypkulov, who in 2002 headed the presidential administration and is now an independent opposition deputy in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). RG

U.S. President George W. Bush on June 14 extended by one year a national emergency declaration that permits the U.S. government to freeze any property in the United States owned by Belarus's president and other officials, AP and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Bush in June 2006 issued an executive order imposing the punitive measure for one year against Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and nine senior Belarusian officials in response to what Washington saw as a fraudulent presidential election on March 19, 2006. The nine officials are the justice minister, the interior minister, the KGB chief, the head of the Central Election Commission, the head of the State Radio and Television Company, the Security Council secretary, the head of the presidential bodyguards, a deputy head of the presidential administration, and the commander of a special rapid-reaction unit. JM

Verkhovna Rada deputy speaker Adam Martynyuk on June 15 announced the resignations of 46 parliamentarians from the opposition Our Ukraine party and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, bringing the number of formally confirmed resignations to 151, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. The resignation of more than 150 deputies was a key provision in the May 27 deal between President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz to stage early elections on September 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). According to the Ukrainian Constitution, the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada becomes illegitimate if it has fewer than 300 legislators. However, Moroz maintains that parliament remains legitimate until the Central Election Commission confirms that there are no candidates on the 2006 election lists of Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc to replace those lawmakers who gave up their seats. Meanwhile, the 15-member Central Election Commission, whose revised composition was approved by parliament on June 1, has so far failed to gather for a legitimate sitting, reportedly because of the lack of a quorum. JM

Prime Minister Yanukovych told journalists in Poltava on June 14 that Ukraine may lose some 10 million tons of grain this year because of severe drought in 10 regions, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Yanukovych said, however, that "there will be no tragedy," taking into account state reserves and harvests in the regions that didn't suffer from the drought. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister for Agricultural Issues Viktor Slauta said the same day that Ukraine may introduce restrictions on grain exports as of July 1. JM

Russia's Foreign Ministry on June 13 expressed anger that Russian delegates were not invited to attend a meeting with Western powers about Kosova, saying in a statement that these "secret discussions rather suggest that unilateral scenarios for Kosovo's independence are being prepared." The meeting in Paris on June 12 brought together diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States, all of whom are members of the international Contact Group leading efforts to find a solution to the crisis over Kosova's future. Russia is also a member of the Contact Group and the only one opposed to a UN resolution that would enable Kosova to gain independence from Serbia. "Russia was not invited to the meeting," the Russian Foreign Ministry stated. "This fact in no way matches partners' declarations on readiness to continue a search for compromise solutions." AG

Italy's foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, on June 14 said that time is not a crucial factor in deciding the future of Kosova, international media reported. D'Alema told journalists in Rome that the international community has "not abandoned" hope of a solution based on international law and sanctioned by the United Nations. "We're not worried by the fact that this might need some time," he said. "We are not in a particular hurry. It is something that should be done, above all, well. And if 'soon' and 'well' don't go together, 'well' should win out over 'soon.'" U.S. President George W. Bush on June 10 called for a decision "now" on Kosova's future, while French President Nicholas Sarkozy is proposing six more months of bilateral talks between Belgrade and Prishtina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 11, 2007). Like Bush and Sarkozy, D'Alema said the notion that Serbia might enjoy sovereignty over Kosova is "unthinkable." Kosova has been under UN administration since NATO troops intervened in 1999 to halt fighting between Serbian forces and Kosovar Albanian separatists. AG

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on June 13 welcomed the EU's decision, made the same day, to resume talks with Serbia on a Stabilization and Accession Agreement (SAA), but stated that "at the same time we strongly insist on the EU respecting our internationally recognized borders and the fact that Kosovo is an inalienable and integral part of Serbia's territory" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2007). The resumption of preaccession talks "offers a good opportunity for the EU to show clearly that it looks on Serbia as a partner, which means full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia," Kostunica said in a statement, international and local media reported. Kostunica did not indicate how Belgrade would react if the EU's members of the UN Security Council were to back independence for Kosova. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told journalists on June 13 that the EU views the accession process as unrelated to the status of Kosova. Rehn also warned Serbia against forging overly close ties with Russia, the chief champion of Serbia's opposition to independence for Kosova. Everyone wants good relations with Moscow, Rehn said, "but it is important to recall that one has to be careful that when hugging even a friendly big bear, one wouldn't be suffocated." The U.S. ambassador to Serbia, Michael Polt, on June 13 described recent comments by Serbia about Kosova as "truly disappointing, for we never used such rhetoric when it comes to Serbia," local media reported the same day. "We respect Serbia's stance over Kosovo, but we simply do not agree with it," Polt stated. AG

Kosovar Albanian leaders on June 13 launched a competition for a flag for an independent Kosova, local media reported the same day. Under the rules of the competition, which reflect stipulations made in a UN proposal that paves the way for Kosova's independence, proposals "should reflect a commitment to a common future in a spirit of respect and tolerance in Kosova." The terms of the competition state that proposals must not feature an eagle, or use only the colors of the Albanian flag (black and red) or the Serbian flag (red, white and blue). The rules therefore prohibit the adoption of a black double-headed eagle on a red background -- the flag of Albania and the flag under which Kosovar separatists fought in 1998-99. Since 1999, when the UN assumed responsibility for the region, the UN's flag has served as Kosova's flag. Proposals must be submitted within two weeks. The winner will receive 10,000 euros ($13,300). The process of deciding on the symbols, the constitution, and the passport of the putative state has so far been fitful and tense (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, April 23, and May 21 and 30, 2007). AG

Serbian authorities said on June 14 that they have extradited a Macedonian banker, Metodija Smilenski, accused of embezzling 50 million euros ($66.5 million), international and local media reported. The charges against Smilenski include fraud and money laundering. Smilenski was arrested in Belgrade on June 15, 2006, and has spent the past year staving off extradition through the courts. Smilenski has also sought Serbian citizenship, which, under Serbian law, would enable him to avoid extradition. Smilenski already holds an Austrian passport as well as a Macedonian one. He is thought to have embezzled 30 million euros through his Export-Import Bank, with other sums taking the total to 50 million euros. A former governor of the Macedonian National Bank, Ljube Trpevski, is also accused of involvement. AG

Bosnia's ethnic-Croatian political parties and other representatives of the community, including the Catholic Church, said on June 14 that the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into two separate autonomous regions is "no longer tenable," local media reported the same day. Delegates stated that reform of the constitution is inevitable and vital, but did not outline proposals. Constitutional reform is expected to be the subject of future meetings. However, the Croats' representative in the country's three-member presidency, Zejlko Komsic, said that there has been "no mention of a third entity," a proposal previously made by the most powerful Bosnian Serb party as well as some Croats anxious to see the creation of an ethnically based region for Croats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). Croats comprise about 14 percent of the population, and mostly live in the Muslim-Croat Federation. AG

Montenegro's chief prosecutor, Vesna Medenica, on June 13 criticized the country's courts for the slow pace at which they operate, the daily "Vijesti" reported on June 14. In an annual report submitted to parliament, Medenica said that some cases last as long as 12 years and that, at the end of 2006, the country's courts had managed to complete only 52.5 percent of all cases lodged. In another recent report, the country's ombudsman criticized Montenegro's human rights record, saying there were violations at every level and in most areas of life (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). AG

Ukrainian politics are becoming more and more impenetrable to logical analysis. Nearly three weeks after the president, the prime minister, and the parliament speaker solemnly agreed to end the political crisis and hold early elections in September, the confrontation between power branches in Ukraine continues to bubble.

Parliament, which is deemed inoperative by the president, keeps on adopting new legislation by votes of the ruling coalition. Some opposition lawmakers, who were expected to resign in order to pave the way for early polls, have apparently changed their minds and want to keep their seats.

President Viktor Yushchenko recently compared parliament to a group of demobilized soldiers who got drunk on a homebound train and missed their station.

On June 5, Yushchenko issued his third decree in just two months calling for early parliamentary elections in the country, this time on September 30. The decree followed the adoption on June 1 of a package of legislation necessary to hold fresh polls, including amendments to the election law and the 2007 budget to provide funds for the election campaign.

Yushchenko's decree is formally based on Article 82 of the Ukrainian Constitution, which stipulates that the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada becomes illegitimate if it shrinks to fewer than 300 deputies. To meet this precondition -- which was a key provision in the early-election deal struck by Yushchenko, parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on May 27 -- 169 opposition lawmakers reportedly submitted their resignations on June 1. The following day, these resignations were formally confirmed by conventions of Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.

Both opposition parties simultaneously adopted resolutions to invalidate their complete lists of candidates for the 2006 parliamentary elections, in order to prevent the replacement of those deputies who gave up their mandates with fresh people from lower positions on the lists.

Even as most observers of the Ukrainian political scene were beginning to assess how the major political parties would fare in the polls, Verkhovna Rada head Moroz put in doubt the lawfulness of Yushchenko's third decree on snap elections.

Moroz told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on June 12 that the Verkhovna Rada obtained just 79 reliable resignation statements from opposition lawmakers, meaning that Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc will still need to persuade at least 72 of their deputies to give up their seats in parliament.

Moroz declared that as long as he does not see 151 acceptable resignations, the current legislature remains legitimate and early elections are ruled out. He also stressed the role of the Central Election Commission (TsVK) in terminating the Verkhovna Rada. "I am interested [only] in the situation when the TsVK is unable to send us a single deputy to replace those who resigned, and when there are fewer than 300 deputies in the session hall," Moroz said. "Then we can say that there are preconditions for a presidential decree [on early polls]. So far there have been no such preconditions, and the presidential decree [of June 5] is unconstitutional."

According to the Ukrainian speaker, the conventions held by Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc to annul their 2006 election lists were not sufficient -- the invalidations need to be formally approved by the Central Election Commission. Additionally, Moroz argued that, according to the election law amended on June 1, the president has the right to decree early elections no sooner than 60 days before the election date, that is, on August 1.

Moroz also told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that he does not believe that early elections will improve the political climate in Ukraine. "Ukraine remains in an artificially created political conflict, which discredits all government institutions and poses a colossal threat to its statehood," he said. "If we look at the situation from this point of view, we will have to take adequate measures. Regrettably, the early elections will not neutralize this conflict; quite the opposite, they will deepen it."

Speaking at a news conference in Kyiv on June 13, Yushchenko reiterated his stance that the Verkhovna Rada ceased to be legitimate after the resignation of opposition deputies and the confirmation of this step by Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc. "The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine has legitimate authority if it has no less than two-thirds of the number of deputies determined by the constitution," Yushchenko said. "Today, it does not have the two-thirds required by the constitution because Paragraph 6 of Article 82 has come into effect, which says that in the event of a people's deputy leaving a [parliamentary] faction, his or her mandate expires before the end of his or her term in parliament, following a decision by the top governing body of his or her political party, effective upon the date that decision was made."

Yushchenko accused Moroz of "manipulation" in order to delay a resolution of the political crisis. Yushchenko also suggested that Moroz's reluctance to terminate the work of the Verkhovna Rada is dictated by the latter's fear that he may not be elected to the next legislature. All sociological surveys held in Ukraine in the past several months indicate that electoral support for Moroz's Socialist Party is well below the 3 percent voting threshold required for parliamentary representation.

Yushchenko assured journalists that early elections will take place on September 30, but he did not elaborate on measures he may take if the ruling coalition refuses to participate in them. He only stressed that resolving the current standoff is a question of honor for the Ukrainian political elite.

"Elections on September 30 are inevitable," he said. "The question is not about that today. The question is whether or not we already have a tradition among top politicians of resolving political crises with dignity, honor, and honesty."

The Ukrainian president is likely to succeed in enforcing his early-election decree. But it is quite apparent that the longer the current crisis lasts, the less political dignity and honor will be in its resolution.

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak on June 14 rejected claims by a top U.S. State Department official that Iran is providing weapons to the Taliban, AP reported. Wardak said that his country has had historically good relations with Iran. "We believe that the security and stability of Afghanistan are also in the interests of Iran," he said. Wardak made the remarks in response to U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns' recent comments that there is "irrefutable evidence" that arms shipments to insurgents in Afghanistan originate with Iran's government. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also suggested a link between Tehran and weapons supplies to Afghanistan while attending meetings in Brussels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2007). He said that Iran may be hedging its bets by playing "both sides of the street," a theory also backed earlier this week by NATO's top commander, U.S. Army General Dan McNeill (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2007). Tehran denies the claims. JC

A government official of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) confirmed on June 13 that a U.A.E. national working as a security guard in Afghanistan is missing, AFP reported. A U.A.E. Foreign Ministry spokesman told the WAM news agency that the man was working for a humanitarian organization involved in building hospitals and schools. He was reported missing on the evening of June 12. Reuters on June 14 reported that another U.A.E. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.A.E. citizen is in fact the missing soldier referred to by coalition forces in statements to reporters on June 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2007). According to AFP, the U.A.E. spokesman said the family of the missing man has been informed of his disappearance and added that the U.A.E. has launched an "immediate investigation into the incident." JC

U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan soldiers on June 13 killed 33 Taliban militants, including two commanders, in three separate operations across Afghanistan's volatile south, AP reported on June 14. Coalition forces killed 20 insurgents and wounded eight in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar Province, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry. U.S.-led coalition forces confirmed that fighting took place in Shah Wali Kot, saying in a statement that coalition and Afghan soldiers killed "several" enemy fighters there. It is unclear if it was the same operation referred to by the Interior Ministry. In Kandahar's Zhari district, six Taliban militants were killed, including one commander, the Interior Ministry said. Seven more Taliban were killed and four others detained by police in southern Ghazni Province the same day, according to provincial Deputy Governor Mohammad Kazim Alayar. Military operations and insurgent attacks have spiked in Afghanistan in recent weeks. JC

For the first time in 50 years, Afghanistan has banned vehicles coming from Pakistan from entering the country, AKIpress reported on June 13. The website of Pakistan's Geo TV first reported the ban, which will apply only to noncommercial vehicles and motorcycles. People traveling across the border on foot will be permitted to pass, as well as heavy vehicles transporting goods. Abdur Razzaq Khan Panjsheri, the commander of the Afghan border forces, told Geo TV that the ban was initiated for security reasons, as violence continues along the countries' shared border. Geo TV reported that approximately 20,000 to 30,000 people travel across the border everyday for trading, according to the Interior Ministry. The report quoted Pakistani border officials as expressing concern over the potentially adverse effects of the ban on commerce between the two countries. The ban went into effect on June 14. JC

Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on June 14 urged Iran to "adopt a self-imposed moratorium" on nuclear-fuel production activities, including uranium enrichment, in order to help resolve the international crisis over its nuclear program, news agencies reported. He was speaking at the end of a meeting in Vienna of the IAEA governing board, which discussed Iran's contested program. El-Baradei said it would be a "good confidence-building" measure for Iran to stop adding centrifuges at the Natanz plant outside Tehran, Iran's chief uranium-enrichment plant. El-Baradei said Iran's continuing nuclear activities might provoke confrontation, but it would be "an act of madness" to resort to war in a bid to stop Iran's program, Reuters reported. Iran's IAEA envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said on the sidelines of the meeting that Iran will further curtail its cooperation with IAEA inspectors if more UN sanctions are imposed on it, AFP reported. The UN Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran since December 2006, and the United States has threatened more sanctions if Iran does not respect the council's demands that it halt enrichment and related activities. VS

Iran executed five men by hanging on June 13, two for drug trafficking and three for murder, Iranian media reported. The two traffickers reportedly took drugs from the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province to Tehran, and also committed murder and acts of banditry, "Iran" reported on June 14, quoting the judge who sentenced them, Musa Asef al-Husseini, the head of the Revolutionary Court in Karaj, near Tehran. They were members of a gang of five, all of whom have been sentenced to death, "Iran" reported. "The three other accused will soon be executed in three other areas of Karaj," Asef al-Husseini told "Iran" after the public execution. Separately, three men convicted of murder were hanged in Tehran's Evin prison on June 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2007). A fourth convict, a 30-year-old named Ismail who was also sentenced to death for killing a man in 2001, was pardoned by the victim's family just before the execution, "Iran" reported on June 14. VS

Ayatollah Hasan Tabatabai-Qomi, a senior Shi'ite theologian who opposed Iran's system of clerical government, died at age 96 on June 11 and was buried the next day in Mashhad, northeastern Iran, Radio Farda reported on June 12. The broadcaster reported that Qomi had been under house arrest for several years for criticizing key state policies, notably the institution of the Vilayat-i Faqih, the system in which Iran's supreme office is held by a senior cleric and jurist, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Qomi criticized the numerous executions and property confiscations that followed the 1979 revolution, but he had also spent 15 years before the revolution in prison and in exile for his resolute opposition to the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Radio Farda reported. Hasan Shariatmadari, son of the late Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, told Radio Farda on June 12 that Qomi refused to sign a pledge presented to him in prison in the 1960s, which would have granted his release if he agreed to abandon political activities. Another cleric imprisoned with him for publicly opposing the shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, did sign and was released, Shariatmadari said. VS

Iranian officials on June 13-14 condemned the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, and denounced the attack as a bid to fan civil war in Iraq, Iranian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13 and 14, 2007). President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Semman, east of Tehran, on June 13 that the bombers are inhuman, Mehr reported. "Those who have committed this savage act believe in nothing, and merely want to foment plots and sow discord among Muslims," he said. Former President Mohammad Khatami condemned the bombing in letters to Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and to Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Mehr reported on June 14. Khatami said in the letters that the United States is responsible for protecting holy sites like the Al-Askari Mosque. Iranian Culture Minister Mohammad Hussein Saffar-Herandi also condemned the attack in a June 14 statement, in which he declared that the bombing showed that the "occupiers of Iraq and those who have attacked the Middle East" are determined to wage a "cultural war" and provoke "ethnic and religious" conflict, Mehr reported. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on June 14 that some of the guards who were entrusted with protecting the Al-Askari shrine may have been involved in the June 13 attack that destroyed the shrine's minarets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007), state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. "There are indications that some of those who were tasked with securing the shrines took part in this cowardly act," he said. "Therefore, we will take all deterrent and rigid measures against anyone who is proved to be responsible, showed negligence, or played any role in this heinous crime. From now on, there will be no opportunity for anyone who talks about or wants to interfere in securing the shrines." Furthermore, a government spokesman indicated that a crisis team under the chairmanship of the prime minister and including the interior and defense ministers would be assembled to investigate the attack. SS

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association released a statement on its website on June 14 condemning the attacks on at least five Sunni mosques in Al-Basrah Governorate. "While condemning these criminal attacks, the Muslim Scholars Association reiterates that such actions will not weaken the resolve of the Iraqi people, who are yearning for the day of liberation, which is close at hand, God willing," the statement said. The group said the attacks were carried out by sectarian militias in response to the attack on the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra on June 13. The attack on the shrine has been widely denounced by Iraqi political and religious leaders. SS

A Pentagon status report made to the U.S. Congress on June 13 concerning the situation in Iraq revealed that violence and casualty figures have increased despite the U.S.-led Baghdad security plan, international media reported on June 14. In its quarterly report covering the February-May period, the Pentagon said that while violence fell in the Iraqi capital and in the western Al-Anbar Governorate, it increased in other areas, particularly in the outlying areas of the Baghdad Governorate, as well as Diyala and Ninawa governorates. The report described the violence as mainly a result of illegally armed groups engaging in a "cycle of sectarian and politically motivated violence, using tactics that include indiscriminate bombing, murder, executions, and indirect fire (rocket and mortar attacks) to intimidate and to provoke sectarian conflict." In addition, the report indicated that although Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki pledged that there would be no political interference in the Baghdad security plan, political interference persisted. "To date, operations in Baghdad indicate that Iraqi government delivery on these commitments has been uneven," the report said. "For example, there have been reports of political involvement by some leaders in tactical and operational decisions that bypass the standard chain of (military) command." SS

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on June 14 accused Iraq of not doing enough to combat Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels that have taken refuge in northern Iraq, the Anatolia news agency reported. "According to the data we have, nearly 3,500-3,800 PKK terrorists have taken shelter in camps in the north of Iraq and provided logistical support, weapons, and ammunition from this region," Gul said. "The most distressing thing is that although Turkey tries everything in its power to contribute to the security, well-being, and stability of Iraq, Iraqi authorities simply do nothing to prevent PKK activities within their borders." Gul also indicated that Turkish authorities had recently seized two tons of plastic explosives originating from Iraq. Since 2004, Ankara has threatened unilateral military action against PKK rebels in northern Iraq. On June 6, reports surfaced that the Turkish military carried out "limited operations" against PKK elements in northern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). However, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan said on June 12 that Turkey should finish fighting PKK fighters on its soil before it launches attacks against the group in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). SS

The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on June14 that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani will make a state visit to Beijing on June 20-26, the Xinhua news agency reported the same day. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said during a press conference that Talabani will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and top legislator Wu Bangguo during his China tour. "The leaders are expected to exchange views on bilateral relations and international and regional issues of common concern," Qin said. The two sides are also expected to sign agreements on collaboration between their respective foreign ministries and on cooperation in such fields as education and health. The Iraqi president will also visit China's ancient northwestern city of Xi'an and Nanjing, the capital of the eastern Jiangsu Province. SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on June 13 that coalition forces have killed Kamal Jalil Bakr Uthman, aka Sa'id Hamza, Al-Qaeda in Iraq's military emir in Mosul. The U.S. military said that based on intelligence reports, Uthman planned and orchestrated several suicide bombings in Mosul and facilitated the movement of more than 100 foreign fighters through safe houses in the area. In addition, he is also accused of carrying out attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces. Coalition forces detained Uthman in August 2006, but he was released by the Iraqi judicial system in April 2007. Intelligence reports indicated he was planning a six-vehicle suicide bomb attack to avenge his detention. "We have taken another very dangerous terrorist off the streets of Iraq, and we will continue to deplete the senior leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said. SS