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Newsline - June 18, 2007

Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer wrote in the June 14-18 issue of "Novaya gazeta" that President Vladimir Putin's recent offer to the United States to share use of a radar base in Qabala (Gabala), Azerbaijan, in connection with the proposed U.S. missile-defense system is not a "viable proposal" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5 and 13, 14, and 15, 2007). Felgengauer argued that "in political terms, 'exchanging' the Qabala radar for the missile-defense elements in Europe looks attractive. But from the military technology standpoint, Putin's proposals are naive, since the Qabala radar cannot serve as an organizational center for a missile-defense system." He noted that "the idea of sharing Qabala with the United States is nothing new. Vasily Istratov, the Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan, mentioned it at a press conference on May 15. And back in 2000, [U.S. President George W.] Bush and Putin signed [an unimplemented] memorandum of understanding on establishing a joint data exchange center for missile launches, which was to include joint use of information from early warning radars like the one at Qabala." Felgengauer added that Russia will deploy modern radar equipment "near Armavir [Armenia] in 2008, completely replacing the Qabala site. And now we see Moscow attempting to foist the obsolete radar on the Americans." He also suggested that "the Russian military has told Putin a tall story about the Americans intending to use the missiles based in Poland to intercept Russian ICBMs straight after launch, and Putin believed this," even though a professional would see through such arguments as a "joke." Felgengauer noted that at the recent Group of Eight (G8) summit, "the Americans nodded soothingly at Putin, treating him like a fussy infant, so that he wouldn't start threatening to retarget nuclear missiles again." PM

The emergency conference in Vienna convened at Russia's insistence to discuss the future of the 1990 Treaty of Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) ended after four days on June 15 without reaching a consensus, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on June 16. The paper quoted Russian delegation head Anatoly Antonov, who is the Russian Foreign Ministry's point man for disarmament, as saying "the current treaty has for all intents and purposes become meaningless. It is no longer viable." Antonov left open the possibility that Moscow will, as President Putin threatened in his annual address to the Federation Council in late April, impose a moratorium on compliance with the treaty unless new NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia accede to it, and NATO's remaining members ratify it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, May 25 and 29, and June 11, 2007). LF

About 60 Russian aerospace companies or plants offering over 400 military products and an undisclosed number of civilian items are present at the 47th International Air Show, which opened in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget on June 18, Interfax and reported. Among the military aircraft on display are the MiG-29 M multifunctional fighter jet with thrust vector control and the new Sukhoi Su-35 fighter. Sukhoi Holding will also present the "leading Russian civilian project," the Sukhoi Superjet 100, the news agency added. Russian promoters are hoping to conclude an unspecified number of deals on the sidelines of the air show. PM

Officials of the state-run airline Aeroflot reportedly decided on June 16 to withdraw from the competition to acquire at least 39.9 percent of the shares in Alitalia, Italy's largest airline, reported on June 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007). An unnamed Aeroflot source told Interfax that the Italian government is not "interested in developing [Alitalia] but only in wanting to get as much money as possible" from the deal. Aeroflot has not confirmed the report. wrote on June 18 that the report is not true, but did not elaborate. If the report is true, Aeroflot's withdrawal would open the way for Italy's Air One, the country's second-largest carrier, to acquire Alitalia. Aeroflot and other Russian firms have show a keen interest in acquiring businesses across Europe. PM

The governing body of the liberal Yabloko opposition party decided on June 16 that it will recommend that its longtime leader Grigory Yavlinsky be nominated to run for president in the March 2008 elections, news agencies reported. The party is due to formally nominate a candidate at its convention in the fall. Yavlinsky's nomination would dampen hopes of fielding a single opposition candidate to confront the ruling pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. The party led by another prominent opposition leader, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, recently selected him as its candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). The opposition is fragmented and suffers from low popularity ratings, lack of access to the media, and various forms of harassment by the authorities. Many observers say that its only hope of making a respectable showing in the 2008 vote is to unite behind a single candidate, if a sufficiently attractive one can be found. PM

Netzwerk Recherche, which is a German journalists' organization that promotes investigative journalism, has awarded its 2007 Closed Oyster negative prize for obstructing free journalism to President Putin, the first time that a non-German was selected for the dubious honor, the daily "Kommersant" reported on June 18. In a statement released recently in Hamburg, the organization singled out Putin for "hampering the development of free media" and achieving a "lack of results in the investigation into the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya," reported. In a play on former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's description of Putin as an "impeccable democrat," the organization also called him an "impeccable opponent of speech and press freedoms." A spokesman pointed out that 14 journalists have been reported killed in Russia since Putin became president just over seven years ago. In December 2006, the Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders called attention to the extent to which the Russian state and state-run corporations have taken over virtually all of the most important electronic media and much of the print media as well, greatly limiting the amount of independent news and information available to the public (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14 and 19, 2006). PM

Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and All Russia said at a meeting of Orthodox young people in Vologda on June 17 that they should develop "strong resistance to negative things that enter our lives" through television, the Internet, and other mass media, Interfax reported. He argued that television is full of "action movies, in which it is shown that the life of a person means nothing. Blood flows like water. However, life is the most valuable treasure which God gave us." He warned against media that "do not bring things that young people need, that will strengthen their spirit, and prepare them for a responsible life journey." PM

Moscow remains the world's most expensive city for expatriates, with London close behind, Reuters reported on June 17. A survey of 143 cities carried out by the American Mercer consultancy placed Seoul third, followed by Tokyo, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, Geneva, Osaka, Zurich, and Oslo. Moscow has become increasingly expensive for Russians as well as for foreigners in recent years. The influx of millions of petrodollars has led to a real estate boom there, sending prices soaring and leading to the massive demolition of old buildings and the construction of new structures. PM

The People's Khural (Council) of the Republic of Buryatia approved on June 15 Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, President Putin's proposed candidate to succeed Leonid Potapov as the republic's president, and the daily "Kommersant" reported on June 15 and 18, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). A total of 57 deputies representing all parliament factions voted in favor of Nagovitsyn; only four voted against. Nagovitsyn said he will not bring with him former colleagues from Tomsk Oblast, where he served until now as deputy governor. He also announced that he has already begun to study the Buryat language, which is related to Mongolian, but he pointed out that the requirement of the republic's constitution stipulating that the president should have a knowledge of the Buryat language contravenes federal legislation. LF

Yevgeny Savchenko was formally approved and then inaugurated on June 16 for a fifth consecutive term as governor of Belgorod Oblast, and the daily "Kommersant" reported. Savchenko, who is 57, was first appointed to the post in 1993 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and has since been reelected three times, most recently in May 2003. Of the 32 deputies present, 29 endorsed Savchenko's reappointment, but the Communist faction protested it and raised with presidential envoy to the Central Federal District Georgy Poltavchenko the question of reversing President Putin's 2004 abolition of elections of federation subject heads. LF

FSB forces surrounded and then opened fire on a house in the village of Surkhakhi in Ingushetia's Nazran Raion on June 17, killing a man aged between 20-25 later identified as Ruslan Aushev (not to be confused with the former Ingushetian president of the same name), Russian media reported. Security personnel quoted by Russian media, including the daily "Kommersant" on June 18, claimed Aushev was the commander of a group of militant fighters and that he participated in the June 2004 multiple attacks on police facilities in Nazran in which 79 people were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22 and 23, 2004). But quoted a local Interior Ministry official as denying that Aushev was a militant or on the federal "wanted" list. LF

The Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) Election Commission issued a ruling on June 15 affirming that it is impossible to complete the tabulation of the results of the March 11 mayoral election in Karachayevsk, the republic's second-largest town, reported quoting Interfax-Yug. The commission said it is unable to comply with the Supreme Court's April 20 demand to do so as the prosecutor's office has commandeered the ballot papers from one of the town's polling stations in connection with a criminal case of alleged election fraud. It thus remains unclear whether opposition mayoral candidate Magomed Botashev indeed defeated incumbent Sapar Lapanov by a few hundred votes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, April 24, 25, and 30, and May 15 and 16, 2007). Meanwhile, KChR Supreme Court Chairman Islam Burlakov, one of President Mustafa Batdyev's rivals in the 2003 presidential ballot, and who supported Botashev, has not been renominated for a second term in that post, according to Caucasus Times on May 23. LF

Lawyers for Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian, who were arrested in December 2006 on charges of plotting the violent overthrow of the Armenian leadership, said on June 15 that the two men should have been released after their second three-month term of pretrial detention expired on June 10, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The two men, both veterans of the Karabakh war and founding members of a political organization named Alliance of Armenian Volunteers, deny the charges, which they say are politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 12, 2006; and January 3 and 25, February 8, March 7, and April 10, 2007). No date has yet been set for their trial. LF

Peter Semneby, the EU's special envoy for the South Caucasus, met in Yerevan on June 15 with top Armenian officials, including Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, and parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, Noyan Tapan reported. Semneby stressed the need for Armenia and Azerbaijan to take "qualitative steps" and lay the foundation for the peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict. He said the EU was disappointed that at their talks in St. Petersburg on June 9, the presidents of the two countries failed to make further progress toward such a solution. Semneby also said that the opinion of the disputed region's population should be taken into account. Sarkisian for his part criticized Azerbaijan's steadily increasing defense spending and the "lack of positive impulses" from Baku, which he contrasted with Armenia's "constructive" approach to resolving the conflict. He ruled out unilateral concessions on the part of Armenia, saying a solution should be based on mutual compromise. LF

In a June 11 statement summarized by Caucasus Press on June 15, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the amendments signed into law by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on May 27 lowering from 14 to 12 the minimum age at which a child can be held legally responsible for specific crimes, including premeditated murder, intentional bodily injury, and most types of robbery and assault. The HRW statement said that in enacting the amendments, "Georgia has gone against international and European standards," and it predicted that, far from solving the problem of juvenile delinquency, lowering the age of criminal responsibility may exacerbate it. LF

Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, called on Georgia on June 15 to return to the negotiating table with a view to signing a formal memorandum on the nonresumption of hostilities, Caucasus Press reported. He further warned that South Ossetia will take "appropriate measures" if Georgia does not withdraw its forces form the conflict zone. Speaking at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on June 11, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said Georgia would sign a memorandum on nonresumption of hostilities only as part of a broader set of agreements that would protect the rights of ethnic Georgians in the conflict zone. Also on June 15, Boris Chochiyev, the top South Ossetian negotiator for resolving the conflict with Georgia, called for the convening in Tskhinvali of a session of the Joint Control Commission, which comprises representatives from Georgia, Russia, North and South Ossetia, to discuss the "tensions" resulting from the construction by Tbilisi of a new highway and fortifications in the conflict zone. Chochiyev also invited Western ambassadors in Tbilisi to visit the conflict zone to assess for themselves the situation there, Caucasus Press reported. But Dmitry Sanakoyev, who heads the pro-Tbilisi provisional administration in South Ossetia, told Alania Television on June 16 the new highway is essential in light of what he termed unauthorized checkpoints established by the South Ossetian authorities that hamper the movement of inhabitants of the Georgian villages of Avnevi, Didmukha, and Muguti, Caucasus Press reported. Sanakoyev further appealed to the OSCE to assume a more proactive position and to condemn the measures taken by the South Ossetian leadership, Caucasus Press reported. LF

In an interview published in Kazakhstan's "Vremya" newspaper on June 16, Rakhat Aliev, the former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, said he is "prepared to answer personally to the president" for his recent "political statements," and offered "apologies" to Nazarbaev, Interfax reported. Aliev, who until recently was married to Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, said he regretted a May 26 speech in which he decried the "curtailment of democratic processes in Kazakhstan," adding that the speech "was made in a fit of passion." He also stressed that he has not spoken out against the recently adopted constitutional amendment allowing Nazarbaev to run for the presidency an unlimited number of times. A former Kazakh ambassador to Austria, Aliev is now facing extradition to Kazakhstan on criminal charges relating to the abduction and assault of two senior officials of Nurbank, a bank Aliev controls. The officials' abduction was allegedly intended to force them to sell their interests in a building in Almaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, and 13, 2007). Meanwhile, in comments during a visit to the northern city of Ostkamensk, President Nazarbaev said on June 15 that he opposes a constitutional amendment that lifted the limit on the number of terms he can serve as president, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The Kazakh parliament voted last month to remove the term limits for Kazakhstan's first president, allowing Nazarbaev, whose current term runs through 2012, to run as many times as he likes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). Nazarbaev added that he "did not propose this amendment" and noted that he actually "reduced the presidential term from seven to five years and proposed that a president should be elected for a maximum of two successive terms," according to Interfax. He did, however, sign the constitutional amendment into law after parliament approved it. RG

Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Aslan Musin announced on June 15 that the government has submitted a revised budget to parliament, Khabar TV reported. The newly amended 2007 state budget includes expenditures totaling 2.35 trillion tenge (about $19 billion), reflecting an increase of 202.6 billion tenge (about $1.6 billion dollars), due to a significant increase in revenue. Citing the country's 7 percent annual GDP growth, Musin said the additional money will be used to finance the formation of a Kazakh-Chinese investment fund, the development of the agricultural sector, and projects in the health-care and education sectors. The submission of the amended budget follows a report from Finance Minister Natalya Korzhova and Audit Committee Chairman Omarkhan Oksikbayev on June 13 that found serious "violations" in the government's 2006 state budget. The audit report found that 54 billion tenge ($450 million) was "misused or not used at all last year," according to Kazakh TV. RG

Addressing a session of the Kazakh Council of Foreign Investors in the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, President Nazarbaev on June 15 announced plans to build a 700-kilometer oil pipeline from Atasu in central Kazakhstan to the Caspian Sea coast, Interfax reported. The new pipeline will connect to the existing Atasu-Alshankou oil pipeline to China, and may be bolstered by a joint Kazakh-Chinese project to build "a direct railway line from western China to the Caspian Sea." In May, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan agreed on the construction of a new pipeline along the Caspian Sea coast to transport Turkmen and Kazakh natural gas to European markets through Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). RG

An explosion on June 16 struck the Tajik Supreme Court building in the capital Dushanbe, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. No one was hurt in the explosion, although windows were shattered and a part of the structure was damaged. Dushanbe's chief prosecutor, Kurbonali Mukhabbatov, contended that "terrorists" may have been behind the attack, which he said was "aimed at intimidation," according to Avesta. The incident appears to be linked to a series of explosions in January and June 2005 that Tajik authorities have attributed to a banned group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The bombing also coincides with the first anniversary of three smaller explosions in different places in Dushanbe, which also did not result in any injuries. RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov returned to Ashgabat on June 16 after a two-day state visit to Iran, where he met with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Turkmen TV reported. In a meeting in Tehran with the Iranian president and senior officials, Berdymukhammedov signed several bilateral agreements, including new accords to expand railway links between the two countries, ITAR-TASS reported. Trade between the two countries surpassed $1.3 billion in 2006 and is expected to further increase as the level of Turkmen gas exports to Iran is projected to double this year. Berdymukhammedov also formally invited the Iranian president to visit Turkmenistan in the "near future." RG

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson on June 15 said the EU will withdraw its preferential trade tariffs for Belarus as of June 21 because of the country's failure to reform labor rights, Reuters and AP reported. "Europe attaches great importance to work and labor conditions, and increasingly to environmental safeguards also. In this case Belarus is clearly flouting ILO [International Labor Organization] standards," Mandelson noted in a statement. Earlier the same day, the Geneva-based ILO issued a statement saying that Belarus has not made progress on giving workers the right to join trade unions. Belarusian exports will now be subject to the EU's standard import tariffs, which are three percentage points higher than preferential rates. The move will affect some 10 percent of Belarus's exports to the EU, mostly farm machinery and chemicals. JM

The Constitutional Court on June 15 received a request from 55 lawmakers of the ruling coalition to examine the constitutionality of President Viktor Yushchenko's June 5 decree calling for early elections on September 30, Ukrainian news agencies reported. It was Yushchenko's third decree scheduling snap elections; the two previous decrees of April 2 and April 26 set pre-term polls for May 27 and June 24, respectively. Opponents of the third decree on early elections argue that Yushchenko issued it too early, without waiting for the formal dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada. Meanwhile, parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz on June 18 reiterated his stance that the Verkhovna Rada remains legitimate "in all respects" until the Central Election Commission rules that there are no remaining candidates on the 2006 election lists of Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc to replace those deputies who gave up their parliamentary seats. Moroz predicted that parliament will end its current session by July 5, when an annual session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is scheduled to open in Kyiv. JM

One of the five remaining ethnic-Serbian war crimes suspects indicted by the UN, Vlastimir Djordjevic, was arrested in Montenegro on June 17, local and international media reported. He was immediately transferred to The Hague, where he will stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Djordjevic was arrested in the coastal town of Budva after an operation that, according to officials, involved the cooperation of Serbian authorities and the ICTY. Djordjevic had previously been thought to be in Russia, and a visit to Podgorica by the head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Lebedev, in the days before Djordjevic's arrest prompted some in Montenegro to speculate that Moscow may also have been involved, Radio-Television Serbia reported on June 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, March 1, May 18, and June 6, 2007). This is the second arrest of a key fugitive in the month since a new Serbian government came to power pledging cooperation with the EU and the ICTY. The previous arrest -- of Zdravko Tolimir, the third most senior fugitive on the ICTY's wanted list -- was accompanied by speculation as to whether Tolimir was arrested in Serbia rather than in Bosnia-Herzegovina as officially stated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1 and 4, 5, 6, and 7, 2007). A police commander and deputy interior minister in the government of Slobodan Milosevic during the 1998-99 conflict in Kosova, Djordjevic is one of four Serbian generals accused of ordering atrocities in the Serbian province. The Serbian news agency Beta claimed on June 17 that Djordjevic had been working for several months as a construction worker in Budva, while B92 cited unnamed sources as saying Djordjevic lived under a false name in Budva for the past three years. AG

Two days before the arrest of Vlastimir Djordjevic, forces in western Serbia were searching for Ratko Mladic, one of the two top war crimes suspects wanted by the ICTY. The Serbian broadcaster B92 said on June 15 that Serbian forces searched for Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander, in the mountainous region around Mount Cer, roughly 100 kilometers west of Belgrade. The report was confirmed on June 16 by Rasim Ljajic, who heads the Serbian team charged with cooperating with the ICTY. Ljajic said he could give no details of the operation "except that the search came after a tip-off," B92 quoted him as saying. Serbian media reported that helicopters flew over but did not land at two monasteries in the area. There have been persistent reports that Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime political leader, has found refuge in monasteries, but Mladic has usually been reported to be enjoying the protection of members of the military. The ICTY's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said on June 6 that she believes Mladic is hiding in the suburbs of Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16 and June 7, 2007). On the same day as the search, June 15, police in Bosnia's Serb-dominated Republika Srpska region searched the homes of two relatives of Stojan Zupljanin, whom the ICTY accuses of crimes against both Muslims and Croats in western Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, March 8, and June 1, 2007). The two other men wanted by the ICTY are Karadzic and Goran Hadzic, a Croatian Serb. The ICTY said in May it believes both are in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2007). AG

Milorad Dodik, the leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska region, hailed Vlastimir Djordjevic's arrest and reiterated to journalists that authorities in the Bosnian Serb-dominated area will arrest any remaining war crimes suspects found on its territory. "I would like to see all war crime suspects at the Hague tribunal so this item can be taken off the agenda once and for all," Dodik said in comments carried on June 17 by the news agency SRNA. Dodik has previously called for the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leaders Karadzic and Mladic to give themselves up to the UN court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). In Serbia, reactions followed party lines. B92 quoted the secretary-general of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Aleksandar Vucic, as saying the government has shown its "definitive obey in full orders issued by the occupiers," an apparent reference to the UN, which founded the ICTY and administers the contested Serbian province of Kosova. Ivica Dacic, who heads the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) founded by Slobodan Milosevic, condemned the arrest, but also urged indictees to surrender themselves so that they may face trial in Serbia rather than The Hague. Parties in the government and other EU-oriented groups welcomed the arrest. B92 quoted the small League of Vojvodina Social Democrats (LSV) as saying the arrests confirmed that war crimes suspects could have been captured earlier, and that Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica kept "Serbia hostage to Hague indictees" between 2004 and 2007. Kostunica, a noted critic of the ICTY, retained his position as prime minister in May, but agreed to allow the Democrat Party of President Boris Tadic to assume responsibility for cooperation with the ICTY. AG

A meeting of Bosnian party leaders, convened by the outgoing international high representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, took place on June 16 to restart stalled talks on constitutional reform, but failed to produce any results, local media reported the same day. The current constitution, part of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, is widely seen as too unwieldy to meet the demands of closer ties with the European Union. A first attempt to revise it failed in April 2006, when parliament could not muster the two-thirds majority needed for passage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2006). Two of the country's most important parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Bosnian Muslim Party for Democratic Action (SDA), boycotted the June 16 meeting. The leader of the multiethnic Social Democratic Party (SDP), Zlatko Lagumdzija, stormed out of the talks early on, telling waiting TV reporters that the meeting was "a big farce." The day before, SDA chairman Sulejman Tihic told Bosnian state broadcaster BHT-1 that the meeting could be "a pompous ceremony or a parade that would have the big name of a constitutional reform agreement and contain one big nothing or ten small nothings." Tihic added, "I do not wish to be involved in that type of agreement." Tihic and Lagumdzija claim that the international community is placing more emphasis on the reform process than the results, after the first attempt at constitutional reform failed ahead of last year's general election. They point out that the current plan anticipates talks being completed in 2009, again ahead of a general election. Bosnia's international overseers on the Peace Implementation Council, the steering board of which will meet on June 18-19, are considering setting up a secretariat with international advisers to support the work of a parliamentary commission that would be tasked with drafting an amended constitution. TV

Douglas McElhaney, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, told Bosnian state TV BHT-1 on June 14 that the Peace Implementation Council will decide in its meeting on June 18-19 whether incoming international high representative Miroslav Lajcak will exercise the powers of his office more resolutely than his predecessor. The Peace Implementation Council oversees the work of the high representative and sets international policy in Bosnia. Current high representative Schwarz-Schilling is widely seen as an ineffectual envoy, on whose watch the political climate in Bosnia has deteriorated sharply. According to McElhaney, key reforms are stalled because of the extreme rhetoric employed by Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the autonomous Republika Srpska, and the Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Haris Silajdzic. Schwarz-Schilling told Bosnia's parliament last week that its top politicians are playing dangerous games. Silajdzic has not reacted to the criticism, while Dodik told reporters, "I did not listen to what Schwarz-Schilling was saying. I was traveling." Bosnian Prime Minister Nikola Spiric, a member of Dodik's Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), told BHT-1, "Here, people actually become national heroes if they reject dialogue... This is a pure formula for the failure of the country." The two most important measures on which Silajdzic and Dodik sharply disagree are constitutional reform and the reorganization of Bosnia's police forces to remove them from political control, a key precondition for closer ties with the European Union. TV

Over 5,000 people attended a funeral ceremony on June 16 in the northern town of Brcko for 80 people killed at the start of Bosnia's 1992-1995 war, international news agencies reported. The 80 people, including three Bosnian Croats, were victims of a wave of "ethnic cleansing" that swept through Brcko after the town was overrun by Bosnian Serb troops. Hundreds of non-Serb civilians were killed in and around Brcko, a strategic town whose status was so contentious that it was only decided years after the Dayton peace accords, when international arbitration turned it into a special district. A mass grave was found near Brcko last year containing the remains of some 277 people, many of them shot in the head (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 8 and 13, 2006). The remains of the 80 people buried on June 16 were identified through DNA analysis; the other nearly 200 bodies have not yet gone through the identification process. TV

A court in Skopje on June 15 ruled in favor of 17 journalists who accused the Interior Ministry and the national telecoms operator, Macedonian Telecommunications (MT), of illegally tapping their phones in 2000, local and international media reported on June 15-16. The court ordered the state to pay the 17 journalists a total of $133,000 in damages and MT to pay each journalist around $7,600, AP reported on June 15. A lawyer representing the journalists said the sum is too low and has threatened to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, where the journalists in 2006 lodged a protest against the length of the proceedings in Macedonia. AP reported that the journalists demanded nearly $239,500 each in compensation. The scandal, which Macedonian media dubbed the "Big Ear," erupted in late 2000 when Branko Crvenkovski, an opposition leader at the time and now Macedonia's president, sent leaked police transcripts of wiretapped conversations to the government, ultimately releasing them to the public in January 2001. The wiretapping operation extended far beyond journalists, affecting 190 public figures. The president at the time, Boris Trajkovski, caused an uproar and threats of impeachment in April 2003 when he decided to pardon and therefore end the prosecution of Dosta Dimovska, who was interior minister at the time the wiretaps were ordered. Trajkovski, who died in a plane crash in February 2004, said the case was "misused for political aims" and that further proceedings "would harm the state security system." Dimovska herself in April 2003 accused prosecutors in her case of being "selective" and the opposition of trying to discredit her because of information she had linking Crvenkovski's party with the Zemun clan, a gang in the Serbian underworld that gained particular notoriety for its role in the March 2003 assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). AG

The remains of 160 Serbs killed during the 1991-95 war in Croatia have been exhumed in the central Croatian town of Petrinja, SRNA reported on June 15. Croatian and Serbian forensic teams spent three days exhuming the bodies, which were buried in a church cemetery. DNA tests are due to be conducted in Croatia. All the victims are thought to have been killed in Operation Storm in 1995, one of two decisive campaigns carried out by Croatian forces in the later stages of the war. The official Serbian and Croatian commissions charged with locating and identifying missing people agreed in mid-March to cooperate on exhumations at two sites in Croatia -- Petrinja and Banovina -- and at four sites in Serbia, at Apatin, Kovin, Pancevo, and Smederevo. Serbia is currently looking for about 1,100 missing people, and Croatia roughly the same number. The exhumation was also attended by representatives of the ICTY and Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb-dominated region, the Republika Srpska. AG

Iranian politicians have responded disapprovingly to a Russian proposal that the United States deploy components of a proposed antiballistic-missile shield in Azerbaijan instead of Central Europe. Those comments appear to expose distrust among Iranian politicians of Moscow, an ostensible ally often perceived as prepared to make deals with Washington over Iran's interests.

Reactions also suggest dissatisfaction with neighboring Azerbaijan -- of which Iran is wary, given its potential influence, and at times suspected mischief making, with Iran's population of Azeri Turks.

Comments on Russia have shown the perception of Russia as wily -- even cryptic in its intentions -- and Machiavellian in the pursuit of its interests.

One legislator said Russian President Vladimir Putin's missile-shield offer was akin to calling Washington's bluff: If the missile shield is aimed at a hypothetical threat from "rogue" states like Iran or North Korea -- and not Russia -- then why not place it nearer to those threats?

One member of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, on June 12 called Putin's proposal "a joke against [U.S. President George W.] Bush's policies" and "entirely unrealistic and unfeasible." Haji-Babai claimed "Russia knows that America's missile shield in Europe is not for Iran," and that the proposal is a bid to reveal what the legislator called a new round of U.S.-propelled global "militarization." But like many commentators, Haji-Babai was not entirely convinced the proposal was not also a jab at Iranian interests.

The same committee's deputy chairman, Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, said the same day that the proposal could be intended to avoid U.S. installations in Poland or the Czech Republic. But Rudaki said it could also indicate an agreement between Russia and the United States to "contain" Iran, ISNA reported. He said Russia should neither "degrade" itself before the United States nor "stand with the forceful powers."

A third member of the committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said Russia's perspective on Iran "has always been based on deal making," according to ISNA on June 12. Falahatpisheh accused the Russians of having "sold Iran" in "grand agreements" in the past, referring perhaps to Russia's tendency to accommodate Western powers in voting against Iran's nuclear program at the United Nations. But Falahatpisheh said Iran "is beyond" the type of states over which Russia can make deals. He said Iran's "interaction" with Europe shows that it poses no threat to EU states.

Another member of the parliamentary National Security Committee, Reza Talai-Nik, said Russia may well be concerned over its security, but alleged that Putin's proposal on using a radar base in Azerbaijan followed "past tactics" and a Russian tendency to extract concessions from both Iran and the West, Fars News Agency reported on June 12. He said Tehran should respond firmly and sensibly to any new intelligence and military installation near its border. He also urged unspecified diplomatic initiatives with neighboring countries to prevent the realization of the proposal.

Parliamentarians have also voiced suspicions about Baku and expressed irritation with a perceived enthusiasm in Azerbaijan for hosting U.S. installations or equipment. Lawmaker Rudaki said Iran's relations with Azerbaijan have progressed in recent years, but he said Baku's welcoming of the Russian proposal was "effectively disrespectful" to regional peoples and would "certainly affect" Iranian-Azerbaijani political and economic ties, "Iran" reported on June 12.

National Security Committee member Ali Ahmadi said the "political regime" of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev lacks popular support. He accused Aliyev of seeking support from "superior powers," adding that "even the Israelis have begun some activities in that country in recent years," "Iran" reported on June 11. Ahmadi said Iran should not be silent over the proposal and "Aliyev's positive response."

Another legislator, Hasan Abbasi, said he cannot understand why Azerbaijan has embraced a proposal that does not benefit the region, according to "Iran." Abbasi suggested that Iran has what he described as an "unkind" neighbor.

Discussion of the shield seems to have coincided with -- or perhaps enhanced -- intermittent tensions over Azeris and ethnicity. On June 12, the representative for the northwestern Ardebil constituency, identified in one report just as Noi-Aqdam, warned in parliament that Azerbaijani legislators should stop uttering "baseless and irrelevant" statements that he said were "cooked up by American and Israeli spy organizations," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 13. "Aftab-i Yazd" suggested that the offensive statements were about Iranian Azeris or related to separatism.

There was a note of relief in the comments of some lawmakers, whose remarks suggested they do not think the United States or NATO will accept the Russian proposal to relocate the missile shield out of Central Europe.

The pro-government daily "Iran" presented the Putin proposal in a June 13 report as a last-ditch attempt to prevent the installation of a shield near Russia's western border. It observed that the proposal met with "polite indifference" from the United States and noted a purported list of technical difficulties cited by U.S. officials that could make the proposal impractical.

The missile-defense issue has underlined some of the ongoing concerns of Iranian politicians: Iran's isolation, a fear that the great powers are perpetually inclined to strike "deals" over its head, and an essentially unreliable relationship with Russia. It is a partner -- by default, it seems -- but arguably it is hardly a friend. Add to this the irritant of Azerbaijan -- a new state with suspected claims or pretensions over the territory of its far more ancient neighbor, and which likes from time to time to flaunt its profitable and cordial relations with the West.

A suicide bomber destroyed a bus full of police officers in Kabul on June 17, killing 35 people, including 13 civilians, and wounding 52, AP reported. The attack was the deadliest in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Initial reports said a suicide bomber boarded the bus at approximately 8:10 A.M. as it picked up police instructors at a busy bus station in central Kabul, according to Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Muqbal. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told AP that the attacker was a Taliban suicide bomber, Mullah Asim Abdul Rahman, but the claim of responsibility could not be verified. President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, and said the "enemies of Afghanistan" are trying to stop the development of Afghan security forces. The explosion was the fifth suicide attack in three days in Afghanistan, and at least the fourth attack against Afghan police or soldiers in Kabul in the last year. JC

Three coalition soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were killed on June 17 in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported. Coalition spokesman Sergeant Dean Welch said the blast outside the main southern city of Kandahar in Kandahar Province was caused by an improvised explosive device (IED). The names and nationalities of the soldiers were not revealed, and Welch did not say who may have been behind the attack. Similar attacks in the past have been attributed to Taliban militants, who have been waging a violent insurgency against coalition and Afghan forces since the group's removal from power in 2001. The attack brought the number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 87, the majority in combat. Approximately half were U.S. service members. JC

President Karzai on June 16 met with the families of two girls who were shot dead last week by unidentified men outside their school, Pajhwok Afghan News (PAN) reported. Armed men on motorcycles opened fire on a group of girls as they headed home from Bibi Fatima High School in Logar Province on June 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). Four others were wounded in the attack. A statement released by Karzai's office said the president ordered the construction of two schools in Logar Province to be named after the two victims. Karzai also praised the courage demonstrated by the residents, who have said that such acts of terrorism would not deter them from sending their children to school, the statement continued. Karzai offered 200,000 Afghanis (approximately $4,000) to the families of the deceased and 50,000 Afghanis (approximately $1,000) to those injured in the attack, PAN reported. JC

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on June 17 that chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani will "possibly" meet with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in the coming days, and that the two sides are in touch over the time and venue for their meeting, ISNA reported. Hosseini said "differences of opinion" have arisen between EU and U.S. officials, which he said indicates a "weakening" of the parties wishing to punish Iran for its alleged violation of nonproliferation norms, while proponents of dialogue are gaining strength. Separately, Mohammad Saidi, the deputy head for international affairs of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, on June 17 gave parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee a report on the negotiation process and the recent meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) governing board in Vienna, ISNA quoted committee spokesman Kazem Jalali as saying. Saidi told the committee that recent talks between Iranian and EU, Chinese, and Russian diplomats showed a "serious and rational resolve" among all parties to avoid referring Iran to the UN Security Council, Jalali told the press in Tehran. Jalali said Western countries "must not allow radicals to damage the rational course of the Larijani-Solana talks." VS

Four convicted drug traffickers have been hanged in the southern port of Bandar Abbas, the "Iran" newspaper reported on June 17, without giving the date of the executions. One of the executed was a 30-year-old man caught trying to sell around a kilogram of heroin. Another was 23, caught with almost 30 kilograms of opium and an unspecified weapon, and the two others were caught with 154 kilograms of opium and unspecified arms, "Iran" reported, quoting the judiciary of southern Hormozgan Province. The daily separately reported that a Tehran court sentenced a former judge to death for killing his wife in 2005. The judge, from Salmas in northwestern Iran, claimed during investigations that the victim, his third wife, had committed suicide, "Iran" reported, without stating when the sentence was handed down. VS

The Islamic Students' Association of Amir Kabir University in Tehran has expressed concern in a statement over the condition of eight students imprisoned in Tehran, Radio Farda reported on June 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12 and 13, 2007). The detainees -- Abbas Hakimzadeh, Ali Saberi, Ehsan Mansuri, Ahmad Qassaban, Meqdad Khalilpur, Puyan Mahmudian, Majid Sheikhpur, and Majid Tavakkoli -- were all arrested in the past 50 days, apparently in connection with the April publication of purportedly sacrilegious journals at the university, Radio Farda reported. It added that four of the detainees are editors of the student publications, and claim that the offensive issues were forgeries. This was the fourth statement the student association has issued on the arrests, Radio Farda quoted member Ismail Soleimanpur as saying. He said the arrests were planned far in advance, and are part of a larger trend of pressure exerted on students by the government in recent months in a bid to suppress dissent and criticism at universities. VS

Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel-Lankarani, one of Iran's prominent Shi'ite clerics, died in Qom on June 16 at the age of 76, apparently of a heart condition, Iranian papers reported on June 17. He was a leading religious authority who provided guidelines to followers on how to practice Islam, "Iran" reported. Fazel-Lankarani, born in 1931, was the son of Ayatollah Abdullah Fazel-Lankarani, a cleric who migrated to Iran from the Caucasus, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. "Iran" noted his extensive religious education, his friendship from seminary days with Mustafa Khomeini, the elder son of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his purported devotion to the Islamic revolutionary cause before the 1979 revolution. Iranian officials declared three days of public mourning, and five in Qom Province in northcentral Iran, where the ayatollah lived and taught theology, "Iran" reported on June 17. Offices were closed in the city of Qom on June 17, it added. VS

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, blamed "terrorist groups, Takfiris, Al-Qaeda criminals and supporters of Saddam" Hussein for continued violence in Iraq, "Iran" reported on June 16. In an undated interview with the daily in Tehran, al-Hakim said the Sunni tribes of central Iraq have declared an "all-out" war on Al-Qaeda because "these tribes have concluded that Al-Qaeda is not here to expel the multinational forces," but to dominate Iraq, "then move on to other states in the region." He accused members of the Ba'ath party of planning a coup against the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, but thought it unlikely they could restore a government in the style of Saddam Hussein, as that would provoke a civil war. He said "the decisive majority of political groups in Iraq, including the United Iraqi Alliance," back the continuation of talks between U.S. and Iranian officials to help bring security to Iraq. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said in Tehran on June 17 that Iran is assessing the first such set of talks, held in Baghdad on May 28, and will decide on a possible next round on the basis of its conclusions, ISNA reported. VS

House-to-house raids in the southern city of Al-Amarah led to a fierce battle between coalition-backed Iraqi security forces and militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on June 18, international media reported. A doctor at a local hospital told AP that 36 people were killed in the fighting and more than 100 wounded. The U.S. military said in a statement that at least 20 insurgents were killed in the fighting and six wounded. The military said the raids targeted "secret cells" in the city that allegedly smuggle weapons and explosively formed penetrators from Iran to Iraq. The cells are also believed to facilitate the movement of Iraqis to Iran for terrorism training, the U.S. statement claimed. A U.K. Defense Ministry spokesperson said details of the incident were sketchy, but confirmed there were no U.K. casualties in the Iraqi-led raid. Meanwhile, a spokesman for al-Sadr told Reuters that 17 militiamen were killed in the fighting and 45 wounded. KR

Al-Sadr called on his followers to participate in a march to Samarra on July 5, Iraqi media reported on June 16. Al-Sadr has told his followers in a statement: "Your sect and Hawzah [a Shi'ite seminary] are calling to you, and your conscience is calling on you to carry out your duty of marching to Samarra to visit the shrine of the two al-Askari imams." He added that he hopes Sunnis in Samarra will open their homes and arms to the Shi'ite pilgrims. Al-Sadr blamed the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel for the destruction of the Al-Askari Mosque on June 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). KR

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) has denied reports that its leader, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, has died, international media reported on June 17. A Jordan-based news website claimed on June 16 to have information that al-Hakim, who left for Tehran last week to resume cancer treatment, passed away. Meanwhile, al-Hakim's son, Muhsin, told Al-Jazeera television that his father's condition is good, adding that the elder al-Hakim will not resign his position as head of the SIIC. Al-Hakim's son, Ammar, told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on June 14 there is "no political vacuum" in the leadership of the party. "There is a central leadership Shura Council [within the party] that includes 15 people," he said. "They are the leaders of the Supreme Council. They were elected in the ninth session of the council.... They are in constant touch and follow up political files.... They meet and discuss matters and adopt joint decisions." He added that the party's bylaws have a mechanism for choosing a chairman through the Shura Council. "There is no crisis in choosing leaders," he said. Ammar al-Hakim has been identified by the media as a possible successor to his father as head of the party. KR

Insurgents blew up the Talhah bin Ubaydallah shrine in Al-Basrah on June 15, Iraqi media reported the same day. Fourteen pickup trucks carrying armed men drove up to the shrine in the early morning hours, packed it with explosives, and then detonated them, according to media reports. Major General Ali Hamadi al-Musawi, head of the Al-Basrah Emergency Security Committee told Al-Sharqiyah television the gunmen who attacked the shrine were wearing Interior Ministry commando uniforms and claimed they wanted to enter the shrine to photograph it. They placed explosives around its pillars, and after several explosive charges went off, the shrine collapsed completely. Al-Musawi told Reuters that all members of an Interior Ministry security detail assigned to protect the mosque were arrested. Interior Ministry forces were similarly present when the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra was attacked on June 13. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told "Newsweek" magazine in a June 15 interview that the United States should be cautious when arming tribes, MSNBC reported on June 16. Al-Maliki said field commanders "make mistakes since they do not know the facts about the people they are dealing with." "They make mistakes by arming tribes sometimes, and this is dangerous because this will create new militias," he said. Al-Maliki said the Iraqi government wants to arm "some tribes that want to side with us, but on the condition that we should be well aware of the tribe's background and sure that it is not connected with terror." He added that any armed tribe should fall under the control of the state "and we should have guarantees that it will not turn into a militia." He warned that coalition forces in Iraq "do not know the backgrounds of the tribes." "It is a job of the government" to arm them, he said. KR