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Newsline - June 22, 2007

General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, said in Moscow on June 21 that Washington will show whether its planned missile-defense system is directed against Russia or Iran by its decision on whether to accept President Vladimir Putin's offer on the joint use of a radar station in Qabala (Gabala), Azerbaijan, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13 and 19, 2007). "If we receive no response to our proposal...which we are ready to back up with technical support, then everything will be clear," he said. "In fact, the entire world will see the real purpose of [using sites] in Poland and the Czech Republic, and who [their] perceived targets are," by which he meant Russia. He suggested that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is "downplaying" the significance of the Russian offer and ignoring the site's potential as a prelude to formally rejecting it. Baluyevsky added that Washington has probably already made up its mind to use the Polish and Czech sites. Also on June 21, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak, who deals with arms issues, said the stationing of missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic "is not the end of the story, but the beginning of an anti-Russian component in U.S. [military] strategy," Interfax reported. He added that the Czech radar site is good only for spying on Russia, not on Iran. PM

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on June 21 that "we find President Putin's proposal intriguing and very interesting," news agencies reported (see "Russia: Is Putin's Azerbaijan Radar Proposal Serious?", June 8, 2007). Fried added that Washington has formally asked Moscow for talks to explore the details. He noted that "the point is [that with Putin's proposal] the Russians have now acknowledged there may be a need for some [defense] system, and that Iran or that region is a source of potential problems." Fried argued that the focus should be on "not just the one radar, but how it could be part of systems being considered, and how these things could be combined in a way that could enhance everyone's security." He also drew attention to the July1-2 talks between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, as a chance for them to "step back, consider how to avoid rhetorical escalation, and concentrate on a common agenda." U.S. officials will begin talks with Poland on June 25 regarding plans to station 10 interceptors in that country. On June 29, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is scheduled to arrive in Russia with an itinerary that includes, among other things, arms purchases (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2007). PM

U.S. and Russian lawmakers held a joint meeting in Washington on June 21 to discuss a range of foreign-policy issues, including the projected U.S. missile-defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19 and 21, 2007). It was the first time that a meeting of lawmakers from the foreign affairs committees of the House of Representatives and State Duma has been open to the public. Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat, California), who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said "the Kremlin...controls practically all of television, and most Russians obtain their news and news analyses via television, and this has become a tremendously significant retrograde move in recent years. [Moreover,] we are deeply disturbed by the assassination of courageous journalists." State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov defended Russian media freedom and said the government has demanded a thorough investigation into what he called the "monstrous" murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. On missile defense, Kosachyov said Putin's radar proposal was made in the spirit of cooperation. He added that Russian experts do not believe Iran is capable of hitting Europe with a missile. The sharpest disagreement of the meeting was over independence for Kosova. Lantos countered the Russian argument that independence would set a precedent for some regional conflicts in the former Soviet space by saying that Kosova's situation is very different from the others (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," October 24, 2006). PM

Addressing a meeting to mark the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on June 21 that "it would be sad if unnecessary haste in [dealing with] matters that could be [postponed] led to the alienation" of the two countries, Interfax and reported. He said he hopes the Kennebunkport meeting "will help reduce these risks and make use of partnership opportunities without damaging the two countries' dignity, whether on matters of missile defense or Kosovo or strategic offensive weapons or other matters on which global stability depends." Lavrov noted the current state of Russian-American relations "arouses concerns" both in those two countries and elsewhere. He warned against any idea of trying to "deter Russia," calling such an approach a throwback to the Cold War that has no basis 15 years after that conflict ended. He argued that Russia has given up the ideology of "imperial and other great ideas in favor of pragmatism and common sense," but feels the United States has developed an "ideology...of diplomacy to promote reform" that has led to "a serious gap between our foreign-policy aspirations." Lavrov stressed that the two countries must deal with each other as equal partners. He repeated Moscow's position that U.S. missile defense is a "strategic challenge" to Russia and pledged an unspecified response "on a strategic level." "We have no anti-American sentiments, unlike in some other countries," Lavrov added. "Nobody objects to the leadership of any country, provided it is prepared for this status and can cope with it. However, everybody should listen to each other, and such a leader must" understand teamwork. PM

Speaking to social-studies teachers in Moscow on June 21, President Putin said in reference to Soviet leader Josef Stalin's purges that "in other countries, even worse things happened," news agencies reported. "No one must be allowed to impose a feeling of guilt on us," Putin said in a televised address. "Let them think about themselves. But we must not and will not forget about the grim chapters in our history," including the purges, which reached their peak in 1937. Putin took swipes at the United States, saying that its use of the atomic bomb in 1945 and defoliants and bombing campaigns in the Vietnam War were worse than what Stalin did. He also argued that Russia never produced any system as vile as "Nazism." He said he "regrets" that some Russian history textbooks are published with grants from abroad, implying that they contain distortions directed against Russian interests. PM

Deputy Prosecutor-General Ivan Sydoruk told a meeting of police officials in Rostov-na-Donu on June 21 that "the Internet is often a place for circulating extremist-leaning information." "We need to work out an effective system to control the data released there in line with law," the daily "Kommersant" on June 22 quoted him as saying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the National Counterterrorism Committee, said on June 5 that "there are now around 5,000 websites used by extremist organizations and groups." PM

FSB officials recently arrested Mikhail Yanykin, who is a deputy department director for the Moscow criminal police, for allegedly bugging the phones of businesspeople and politicians in return for payments from their rivals, the daily "Kommersant" reported on June 22. Yanykin's department deals with wiretaps and shadowing in cases involving suspected criminals. The daily said that the FSB confiscated incriminating evidence and cash from Yanykin's office and that the offices of several other top police officials were searched. The paper indicated that Yanykin and his colleagues may have been involved in a "full-fledged business" in arranging illegal wiretaps upon request in exchange for money. Wire tapping is legal in Russia only with court approval. PM

The Chechen Constitutional Assembly approved on June 21 proposed changes to the republic's constitution proposed by pro-Moscow republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, and reported. Kadyrov announced when he was first approved as republic head in March that the constitution would be amended to bring it into line with Russian legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). Among the approximately 20 proposed amendments are the replacement of the current two-chamber legislature, which has a total of 61 deputies, with a unicameral parliament numbering 35 deputies; the removal from the constitution of any mention of three raions that do not in fact exist; the abolition of the article that provides for direct elections for the post of the republic head, who in future will, as in other federation subjects, be proposed by the Russian president and approved by the parliament; and, crucially, the extension from four to five years of the republic head's term in office. Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev said last month that the Chechen population is overwhelmingly in favor of extending to seven or eight years the term in office of both the Russian president and the republic head (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2007). The changes will be put to a republic-wide referendum on December 2. LF

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found Russia guilty on June 21 of the killing in May 2003 of Chechen antiwar activist Zita Bituyeva and her husband, brother, and son, reported. The Russian government was ordered to pay 93,000 euros ($124,702) in compensation to the surviving members of Bituyeva's family. Bituyeva herself had appealed to the Strasbourg court following her detention and torture in 2000. Kirill Koroteyev, a legal expert affiliated with the Russian human rights center Memorial, told the court verdict represents a decisive step toward destroying the climate of impunity in Chechnya. LF

The Armenian government formed in the wake of the May 12 parliamentary elections approved on June 21 a five-year program of "second-generation reforms" intended to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, ensure continue economic growth, and further reduce poverty, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian told RFE/RL the government will build on reforms implemented over the past seven years. Trade and Economic Development Minister Nerses Yeritsian told journalists after the cabinet session that the government expects annual economic growth of at least 8 percent for each of the next five years. Also on June 20, Sarkisian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that President Robert Kocharian will continue to play an active role in Armenian politics after his second term expires early next year. Kocharian is barred by the constitution from serving a third consecutive term. LF

Safa Mirzoyev, who heads the Azerbaijan parliament apparatus, told journalists in Baku on June 21 that independent parliamentarian Guseyn Abdullayev has been stripped of his parliament mandate as he failed to appeal its suspension, reported. Abdullayev's mandate was suspended after a Baku court handed him a two-year suspended sentence for assault in the wake of a fistfight in the parliament chamber in March between him and Fazail Agamali, who heads a small pro-presidential party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and 20, April 12 and 16, and May 18, 2007). LF

President Mikheil Saakashvili issued a decree on June 21 annulling the bilateral agreement signed in December 2000 with Russia on cooperating to restore the economy and infrastructure of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group on the South Ossetian conflict, neither side has taken any measures to implement the 2000 agreement, in contrast to an earlier comparable accord signed in 1993, and Russia has repeatedly complained that Georgia has failed to provide promised funds and obstructed Russian efforts to proceed unilaterally. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed on June 21 a decree formally changing the name of the northeastern city of Semipalatinsk, an area notorious for Soviet-era nuclear tests, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Nazarbaev said earlier this month that the name Semipalatinsk has negative associations that put off foreign investors. The Semipalatinsk district, now to be officially known as Semey, served as a major nuclear-testing ground for 50 years before its closure in 1991. It was also the symbolic site for the signing in September 2006 of a UN-sponsored treaty pledging a "nuclear-free zone" in Central Asia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2006). RG

Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov pledged on June 21 that Kazakhstan will become an "advanced military power" within five years, Kazakh TV's Channel 31 reported. He added that defense reforms are accelerating, with a tripling of the budget for military training and continued modernization of the military command and control systems. He also said that the ministry of defense has recently completed a new plan for the professional development of officers and the expansion of training for non-commissioned officers. Kazakh President Nazarbaev pledged last month to purchase "the world's best" weapons and further bolster the armed forces, as well as the formulation of a new military doctrine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24 and May 9, 2007). RG

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Iran, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin stated on June 20 that any decision on "routes for laying pipelines" in the Caspian Sea "should be defined" by agreement among all littoral states, Interfax reported. Tazhin's comments came during a foreign ministerial meeting of Caspian Sea littoral states in Tehran that is seeking to reach an agreement on the division of the Caspian Sea. He further added that "Kazakhstan is ready for a thorough consideration" of Iranian and Russian proposals calling for "an ecological examination" of energy projects in the Caspian. RG

The Kyrgyz National Security Committee issued a statement on June 21 announcing the arrests of two men on suspicion of espionage, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Interfax reported. The two men, a Kyrgyz citizen and an unspecified "foreign national," were detained in Bishkek by security forces on June 19 and reportedly caught in the act of exchanging classified information. The unnamed Kyrgyz suspect is allegedly a mid-level Kyrgyz government official, according to AKIpress. RG

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev called on June 21 for closer relations with the EU, noting the already extensive ties between Kyrgyzstan and the EU in the mining and energy sectors, AKIpress and Kabar reported. On June 20 Bakiev met in Bishkek with Eneko Landaburu, the director-general for external relations for the European Commision, who told reporters after a meeting the same day with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev that "Kyrgyzstan is a leader in Central Asia in terms of implementing democratic reforms." He noted that the EU "would like to establish a special dialogue" with the Kyrgyz government as part of the broader "EU strategy for cooperation with the Central Asian region." Karabaev said the visit affirms that cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and the EU "has entered the level of strategic partnership." RG

Timed with a state holiday, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon formally approved on June 21 an amnesty that was unanimously adopted by the Tajik parliament the day before, according to ITAR-TASS. The amnesty, which marks the 10th anniversary of the end of the civil war, is to be granted mainly to an unspecified number of female convicts, veterans, and minors, but will specifically exclude those convicted of capital crimes or "terrorism and extremism." The deputy chairman of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Valiev, responded to the amnesty on June 21 by calling for the release of his party's leader, Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, who is currently serving a 23-year prison term on charges of terrorism, embezzlement, and illegal weapons possession (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2005), according to Asia-Plus. RG

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on June 21 that it expects the EU to restore its trade privileges under the general system of preferences (GSP), Reuters and Belapan reported. The EU's decision to remove Belarus from the GSP, which will result in higher import duties on some 10 percent of Belarusian exports to the EU, took effect the same day. EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson announced the measure last week, saying Belarus is violating the standards of the International Labor Organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). "Belarus fails to understand the European Union's suspension from June 21 of trade privileges," Belarus's Foreign Ministry noted. "It sees the decision as temporary and assumes that objective reality will prompt the EU to reexamine and rescind it soon. This short-sighted step by the EU will, in the first instance, hurt ordinary Belarusian citizens." JM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said in Brussels on June 21 that he wants the EU to send observers to the early parliamentary elections he has scheduled for September 30, AP reported. Yushchenko told journalists at the EU headquarters that he has asked Ukraine's Foreign Ministry to invite EU observers. Yushchenko also said he does not expect any significant change in the makeup of the Verkhovna Rada after the preterm elections, but he stressed that the polls will encourage dialogue among conflicting political forces in Ukraine. "The main thing is that the principles will be different, the principles of interaction and inter-party relations," Reuters quoted him as saying. "Instead of a policy of political corruption, I am sure this will give birth to political dialogue between the factions and parties in parliament." JM

The EU's envoy to Kosova, Stefan Lehne, on June 21 warned Kosova not to make a unilateral declaration of independence, saying that such a step would be "irresponsible" and "a huge step backwards" that "would take away all the goodwill that you have received," local and international media reported the same day. Lehne, who was speaking after meeting Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu, said unilateral action would "not help you overcome the remaining obstacles, but build many, many more." Lehne said a decision on Kosovo "needs the best possible basis, the strongest legitimacy available -- and that is a [UN] Security Council resolution." A range of European countries have expressed concern at the possibility that Kosova might take matters into its own hands in the two months since a leading member of the U.S. administration indicated Washington would support a unilateral declaration by Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18 and 30, 2007). Since then, U.S. officials have focused on stressing the need for an international consensus, with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried saying on May 16 that "we see no advantages whatsoever of taking action outside of the [UN] Security Council, we see only disadvantages in every way" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). Lehne said he expects Kosova's status to be decided soon, but added that "historic processes do not follow schedules like Swiss railways." AG

Kosovar President Sejdiu reiterated after his meeting with EU envoy to Kosova Lehne that Kosova seeks international consensus on its future, but said there are alternatives to a UN resolution. "We are in favor of a joint resolution, but we do not agree that Kosova should remain hostage to those who can block the process and prevent a status solution that reflects the will of the people," Sejdiu said, in a clear reference to Russia, which has indicated it might veto a UN resolution that would formally separate Kosova from Serbia. "We would like to have a UN resolution, but if not, there are other alternatives." Sejdiu added that each day brings evidence that "the chances of a joint resolution are being exhausted" and that Kosova should not face "the dilemma of negotiating on other variants and solutions that would lead to indefinite negotiations." The latest setback was Russia's rejection on June 20 of a third Western-sponsored draft resolution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007). The leader of the opposition, Hashim Thaci, who was the Kosovar separatists' political leader during the 1998-99 conflict with Serbia, on June 21 reiterated his position that Kosova should "achieve independence working together with Washington and the European Union," Radio-Television Kosova reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). "We don't want to build an independent but isolated Kosovo, but an independent Kosovo that will be integrated into the EU and NATO tomorrow," Thaci said after meeting Lehne. However, Kosovar politicians are warning of mounting pressures to reach a resolution, with Prime Minister Agim Ceku warning on June 20 of a "crisis of trust" among Albanians. In recent days, veterans of the conflict and the radical Self-Determination movement have announced separate rallies to voice their opposition to the continuing delays in resolving Kosova's status. Self-Determination has called supporters onto the streets on June 30; the veterans have yet to announce a date. AG

The Kosovar parliament on June 21 rejected an attempt to transfer responsibility for discussion of Kosova's future from the current negotiating team to parliament, local media reported the same day. A parliamentary group comprising members of six ethnic-minority parties brought the motion on the grounds that the negotiators, generally referred to as the Unity Team, have become a "parallel organ" of parliament that "invalidates" parliament and is reducing the democratic credentials of Kosova's institutions. "The Kosovo Assembly cannot agree to be a form of judicial decoration during a phase that is crucial for the future," the chief sponsor of the motion, Ferid Agani, said in comments aired by Kosovar television stations on June 21. "Further fragmentation of Kosova's central political power must be ended because this could open the way for para-institutional actions and non-principle-based coalitions," Agani said. As well as representing Kosova in international talks, the Unity Team is leading efforts to decide on key elements of an independent state, such as the constitution, elections, and state symbols. The Unity Team has five members, all of them Kosovar Albanians: President Sejdiu; Prime Minister Ceku; the leaders of the two main opposition parties, Hasim Thaci and Veton Surroi; and the chairman of parliament, Kole Berisha. AG

A Serbian prosecutor whose investigations led in May to the sentencing of 12 men for the murder of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has promised to investigate possible political connections to the killing, AP reported on June 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). Prosecutor Slobodan Radovanovic described it as his "professional and human obligation" to explore the murder in a political context. According to AP, Djindjic's mother, Mila Djindjic, hailed the prosecutor's announcement, saying,"the real killers should be sitting in that courtroom." She did not elaborate. Two aides of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica were questioned during the course of investigations, but neither was charged (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8, 9, and 30, and June 20, 2003, and March 21, 2007). An appeal by the family for the court to take testimony from Kostunica was rejected. However, Radovanovic's new statement that he will look at public statements made by the politicians -- as "part of a wider context that needs to be investigated in order to determine what led to the prime minister's assassination" -- raises the prospect of renewed scrutiny of Kostunica's relationship with Djindjic. In the years after breaking with Djindjic's Democratic Party (DS) to form his own Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), Kostunica repeatedly clashed politically and personally with Djindjic, opposing, for example, Djindjic's decision to transfer former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to the UN war-crimes tribunal and suggesting that Djindjic's "interesting and unorthodox connections" indicated he was involved in the black market. Particular questions have been raised about Kostunica's relationship with the Red Berets, a police unit set up Milosevic. Some of its members were among those jailed for Djindjic's murder and were in contact with aides of Kostunica, fueling accusations by the Djindjic family attorney, Srdja Popovic, that there was "coordinated activity" between state agencies headed by Kostunica and a leader of the group that killed Djindjic. "I am not saying that Kostunica is an accomplice," Popovic said in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). AG

A spokesman for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Anton Nikiforov, has insisted that the war-crimes suspect Vlastimir Djordjevic was in Russia during his years on the run from justice, the Montenegrin daily "Vijesti" and the Serbian daily "Glas javnosti" reported on June 20. Djordjevic was arrested in Montenegro on June 17, and Russia stated that Djordjevic's arrest in Montenegro proved the ICTY's claims that Djordjevic had found shelter in Russia were unfounded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2007). Nikiforov acknowledged that The Hague does not know how Djordjevic came to be in Montenegro. Djordjevic appeared in court for the first time on June 19 and was granted a 30-day delay before entering a plea. Djordjevic, a senior figure in the Serbian police, is accused of playing a commanding role in atrocities committed in Kosova during the 1998-99 conflict. AG

The Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center (IDC) said on June 21 that its review of individual cases confirmed some 97,000 violent deaths during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, local and international media reported the same day. Independent experts quoted by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) stressed that the figure, which is considerably lower than the 200,000 war deaths commonly accepted, only includes named individuals whose deaths could be verified, and therefore constitutes the absolute minimum number of war-related deaths in the country. "Our intention is to stop talking about numbers and start talking about people," IDC director Mirsad Tokaca told BIRN. The final report of the IDC's Population Loss Project, which lasted close to four years, shows that around 60 percent of the victims were soldiers and 40 percent civilians, though the experts interviewed by BIRN pointed out that many civilian victims were registered as soldiers so their families would be eligible for social assistance. Some 66 percent were Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), 26 percent Serbs, and 8 percent Croats. The deaths among Bosniaks therefore vastly exceeded their share of the prewar population. Most civilians were killed in the very first months of the war, as the Bosnian Serb army established control over large parts of Bosnia. Another 6,886 were killed near Srebrenica after the town fell to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995, according to the IDC. Earlier research by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found that some 110,000 people perished during the war. The IDC's research has in the past provoked heated debate in Bosnia because of its sensitive nature. TV

In a long interview with the Belgrade daily "Vecernje novosti" published on June 20, Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said he would not accept putting the Republika Srpska police under central-government control. The unification of the country's divided police forces is the centerpiece of a stalled reform package that is a precondition for Bosnia signing a pre-accession agreement with the European Union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007). Asked how long he could keep blocking the police reform, Dodik replied "forever." "They can wait for 100 years, and still that will not happen," he said. Dodik also said that if the international high representative tried to remove him from office, he would not accept the decision. "They should leave me alone to do my job," Dodik said, referring to international officials. "I will not give them either the Republika Srpska or the police." Dodik reiterated earlier statements that any attempt to abolish the Republika Srpska would trigger an independence referendum there. Asked whether a Bosnian Serb referendum would also result from independence for Kosovo, he said: "People in Banja Luka follow what is happening in Kosovo more than in Sarajevo. We cannot accept that Serbia should be a loser, humiliated and defeated." He made it clear that he would instruct the Bosnian Serb representative on Bosnia's tripartite Presidency to veto the recognition of an independent Kosovo by Bosnia. TV

The authorities of Bosnia's Republika Srpska have frozen the assets of 33 individuals and firms associated with fugitive war-crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, local and international media reported on June 21. The accounts were frozen on May 2, following decisions by the high representative and the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to the Banja Luka daily "Nezavisne novine," but the list of names was only published this week. It includes former Republika Srpska President Mirko Sarovic; former Republika Srpska Defense Minister General Bogdan Subotic; former Republika Srpska Interior Minister Tomislav Kovac; former Republika Srpska Finance Minister Milenko Vracar; several former heads of local police, and several prominent businessmen. The 33 names are also on a blacklist of people banned from entering European Union member states and the United States. TV

The leaders of Macedonia's largest ruling and opposition parties agreed on June 20 to resume talks on judicial reform, Macedonian media reported on June 20-21. Speaking after five hours of discussions, Radmila Sekerinska of the opposition Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM) expressed confidence about the prospects for reform. The meeting was called at the insistence of the SDSM, which is concerned about delays in passing legislation and in bringing two new judicial bodies into operation. Reform is a condition of Macedonia's bid to join NATO. Macedonia hopes to be invited in April 2008 to become a member of the alliance, but a recent fine imposed by the European Court of Human Rights for delays in court proceedings has highlighted recurrent criticisms leveled by nongovernmental organizations. AG

Hardly any political party in Russia can afford ignoring the country's 38 million pensioners, especially during election campaigns. Not only are they the most numerous and disciplined voting group, the elderly are more likely to take at face value promises by rival parties of generous benefit hikes. But despite their numerical strength, Russia's pensioners remain economically insecure and politically weak.

With their retirement security entirely dependent on state benefits, pensioners have been hit the hardest by an economic transition that has relegated millions of them to the ranks of the very poor. In the early Yeltsin era, hyperinflation wiped out their savings, while subsequent incomplete and irregular indexation substantially eroded the real value of their pensions.

The state even dared to default on its financial commitments vis-a-vis the pensioners by permitting massive accumulations of six to nine months' arrears. True, those arrears were largely paid off by the second round of the 1996 presidential election, but started piling up again soon afterward. Yet, in the inflationary economic environment of the 1990s, delaying pension payments proved a politically safe tool to scale down state spending on social policy.

If during his second presidential term President Boris Yeltsin had to compete with the Communist-dominated Duma for the primacy of representing the elderly, his successor, Vladimir Putin, established a monopoly on representation by successfully co-opting organizations that represent pensioners' interests. The most prominent such body, the Union of Pensioners of Russia (SPR), is headed by Duma deputy and Unified Russia member Valentin Chaika. The SPR, along with the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), has signed cooperation agreements with Unified Russia to work with party members and government authorities to improve pensioners' welfare. Members of the two organizations are unlikely to engage in protests against the government and would discourage participation in similar activities organized by the Communist Party (KPRF).

The Kremlin then co-opted the Russian Party of Pensioners (RPP) and successfully used it in the 2003 Duma elections to lure away votes from communists. In fall of 2006, the RPP was incorporated into the Kremlin-manufactured center-left party A Just Russia to basically serve the same purpose during the upcoming December 2007 parliamentary elections.

The tight control under Putin over those political actors representing pensioners did not enhance their economic well being, however. Unlike spending on military or security services, spending on pensions slumped from 4.8 percent of GDP in 2002 to 4 percent in 2006. The gap between the average pension and the average wage has been growing. Whereas in 2000, the average pension was equal to one-third of the average monthly wage, by 2006, it had fallen to only one-fifth. A further decline of the replacement rate resulting from low official wages, negative demographic trends, and incomplete benefits indexation against inflation would defy the logic of state social insurance in Russia. Citizens would be compelled to sidestep the Pension Fund and tax officials in order to provide for a decent retirement.

Unlike the failed attempts of the French or Italian governments to contain spending on pensions by raising the retirement age, the Russian authorities refrained from undertaking frontal assaults on the social-security system. Instead, changes have been subtly camouflaged and technical in nature so as to conceal their benefit-reducing effects. For instance, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin used a reduced value of the average wage to implement a February 1998 law on transitioning to a wage-based indexation mechanism. That digression from the letter of the law triggered a massive wave of lawsuits across the country. Initial lower-court rulings favoring pensioners prompted the Supreme Court in 2000 to back the government's interpretation of the law. In 2005, a retiree from Novosibirsk, Lidya Provednaya, won her case against the Russian government at the European Court for Human Rights, which entitled her to a significant benefits recalculation.

Important savings generated by lower indexation rates played an important role in Putin's attempt while he was still prime minister to eliminate all pension arrears in the fall of 1999. Upon becoming president in 2000, Putin and his government followed with the tradition of obfuscated changes to the pension system and abstained from direct cuts. The Kremlin's 2002 pension reform excluded bonuses based on the so-called noncontributory periods -- time in college, years spent in the far northern districts, and so on -- when calculating the benefits level. Numerous attempts by members of the opposition in the Duma to reinstate these privileges have largely failed. It was only last year that the parliamentary majority passed a law allowing a double social pension to retirees over 80 years of age and early retirement for parents caring for disabled children.

Under the banner of higher pensions and increased investment resources, the Kremlin launched its most liberal reform in the area of social policy in 2002. Its liberal component provided for the introduction of mandatory savings plans for the middle-aged (30-50 years old) and younger (under 30 years old) cohorts, under which 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively, of their contributions to the Pension Fund are reserved for investment through either state or private investment companies, and not used to finance the benefits of the current retirees.

The main architect of that reform was the then head of the Pension Fund, Mikhail Zurabov, who is currently health and social-development minister. Zurabov and his associates did their utmost to prevent extensive private control of the billions of dollars in pension savings. Not only did they deliberately forego a much-needed public-information campaign, but pushed through a version of the reform proposal that clearly favored the investment company selected by the government, Vneshekonombank. For instance, individual contributors do not need a special request when entrusting their savings to Vneshekonombank and their contributions are not subjected to income tax, as is the case with private companies and nonstate pension funds.

Predictably, Vneshekonombank collected more than 95 percent of contributory savings during the first five years of the reform. But while initially it posted a rate of return much higher than most private companies, over the last three years it earned a cumulative interest rate of 24.4 percent, while inflation reached 34.5 percent. That fact that Vneshekonombank can invest only in safe but low-interest government bonds means that pension savings are nothing more than a cheap pool of credit for the government. These resources are simply shoveled from one state pocket to another with no impact on real economic growth or benefit increases in the future. The government's only goal has been to gain absolute control over pension insurance -- a striking parallel with the energy sector.

When the unified social tax -- which funds pensions and other social insurance benefits -- was reduced in 2005 from 36.6 percent to 26 percent, the government cancelled out the mandatory savings plans for the middle-aged cohort to cover Pension Fund's budgetary shortfall. Shifting the rules of the savings game between the government and its citizens further discredited the Kremlin's pension reform. The reduction of the unified social tax, coupled with the 2001 13 percent flat income-tax rate, did not significantly contribute to the legalization of wages as initially intended. Pensions in Russia remain meager because the official wages from which contributions are deducted remain low.

As a social group, pensioners managed to secure important concessions during street protests against the government's plan to replace in-kind benefits with cash payments in the winter of 2005. Significant pension hikes to appease protesters led to a temporary narrowing of the gap between the average pension and the average wage: 182 billion rubles ($7 billion) were disbursed from the Stabilization Fund for that purpose, six times more than in 2004. An ill-conceived and unpopular reform was thus implemented thanks to high profits from oil and gas exports.

In sum, Russian pensioners remain politically weak because of the defective system of interest representation and politicized courts. The Pension Fund suffers from an enormous democratic deficit, with the state managing social security without the involvement of social partners. Pension hikes are inherently political decisions taken at the discretion of the president. Controversial reforms, like the introduction of mandatory pension savings and in-kind benefits, were carried out early on in Putin's first and second terms, respectively, to be followed in the run up to elections by hefty promises of further increases in benefits.

Clearly, the greatest challenge both for Kremlin-backed parties in the December 2007 Duma election ballot and for Putin's successor, will be to explain to the elderly why their pensions remain so low in a country awash with petrodollars. As for the pensioners, their strategy is plainly clear: Only without political intermediaries can they secure a larger share of the energy profits' pie by voicing their dissatisfaction at the ballot box or even taking their demands to the streets yet again. Ilian Cashu is a doctoral candidate in political science at Syracuse University.

A land-mine blast killed one NATO soldier and wounded four others on June 21 in eastern Afghanistan, a day after NATO forces killed eight suspected militants during an operation in the south, AP reported on June 21. Two soldiers hit in the mine explosion were taken to a hospital, where one died, the alliance said. Three others suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene. NATO officials did not specify the nationalities of the soldiers. The soldier's death raises the number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan in 2006 to 90. Meanwhile, U.S.-led coalition forces together with the Afghan Army launched an operation against "an important group of enemies" in Paktika Province on June 20, killing eight suspected militants, said Paktika Governor Mohammad Ekram Akhpelwak. A police officer was also killed. Coalition forces detained seven rebels for questioning, according to an Interior Ministry statement. JC

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a statement released on June 20, strongly denounced the recent wave of deadly attacks in Afghanistan, the official Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) news agency reported the next day. In the statement, spokeswoman Michele Montas said Ban condemns the acts, "which reflect an inexcusable disregard for the value of human life," APP reported. Ban specifically condemned the June 17 suicide attack against a bus carrying Afghan police instructors that killed more than 35 people and wounded more than 50 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). The statement also expressed "deep sadness" over the deaths of seven boys killed in a coalition air strike on June 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2007) and reminded the military forces operating in Afghanistan that "the protection of civilian lives must remain the guiding principle." Ban called on the Afghan government and the international community to address the security situation. Meanwhile increased violence and looting in Afghanistan's volatile southern provinces has caused the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) to halt its aid deliveries, an official said on June 21, AP reported that day. In the past year, 85 WFP trucks were either attacked, set on fire, or looted by Taliban insurgents and thieves, Richard Corsino, WFP's director in Afghanistan, told AP during an interview in Kabul. Shipments are delivered in unmarked, contracted trucks, yet they are still targeted more frequently than commercial deliveries. The looters view the WFP provisions as "gifts to the country and not owned by anyone," said Corsino. The organization's is concerned it will be unable to meet its obligations to the "food-insecure" or vulnerable people the shipments are intended to reach. Corsino anticipates that WFP will run out of food for its programs within the next few weeks without new deliveries. JC

U.S.-led coalition forces freed two hostages from Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in eastern Afghanistan on June 21, the BBC reported the same day. According to a statement released by the coalition, U.S.-led forces raided two compounds in the Zaghun Shah district of Paktika Province after obtaining information that three local residents had been kidnapped by militants, Xinhua News Agency reported. The statement said one hostage was found inside one of the compounds, while coalition forces freed a second hostage as he was being moved to another location by his captors. The third hostage was killed by the militants a day earlier, according to one of the freed captives. An unidentified coalition spokesman said the militants in the compounds were keeping woman and children close by to use as human shields, BBC reported. After the rescue, the troops detained eight militants and also destroyed a large cache of weapons. JC

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on June 21 that Iran takes a positive view of recent remarks by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei, who Mottaki said has urged the Western world to accept some of the realities of Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. El-Baradei observed in May that Iran has mastered the uranium-enrichment know-how -- part of the fuel-making process with potential military uses -- and the West should focus on stopping Iran enriching uranium on an industrial scale. Mottaki said the "realities" el-Baradei referred to include the reality of enrichment by Iran. He said recognition of Iran's right to produce nuclear fuel, alongside regard for "the opposite party's concerns" over the "deviation" of enrichment activities, would provide a good basis for a agreement over Iran's contested program. Mottaki was speaking at a joint press conference with Azerbaijan's foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov. VS

France has refused to allow a 28-year-old Iranian engineering student to pursue his studies in the country -- apparently because of his suspected ties to Iran's nuclear program -- and put him on a plane to Tehran on June 20, Radio Farda and the daily "Le Parisien" reported on June 21. Police in the Antony district of Hauts-de-Seine near Paris reportedly detained Farhad Mobasherfard, a student at the Ecole des Mines, when he went to renew his residency permit on June 18. His presence in France was deemed to be a threat to "public order," though French authorities were reportedly also fulfilling a UN Security Council resolution asking states to watch individuals on their territory thought to have ties to Iran's nuclear program. The resolution asks states to prevent Iranian nationals from studying in fields useful to Iranian nuclear activities, reported. Iran is subject to two sets of UN sanctions intended to curb its nuclear program. Hugues Molet, one of Mobasherfard's supervisors at the Ecole des Mines, told "Le Parisien" the course was unrelated to nuclear technology. Lawyers are following up the case, the daily added. VS

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia, the Pacific, and Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs Mehdi Safari dismissed U.S. and British accusations that Iran has been providing help to Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, and said Iran is contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan, IRNA reported on June 21. "These claims are so baseless and lacking in rational evidence" as to be rejected by "independent" observers in Britain and the United States, Safari said. He added that the accusations are the result of the failure of Western powers to meet their commitments, fight terrorism, and assure security in Afghanistan. He said Iran believes Afghanistan's government is capable of assuring security now. The Taliban, he observed, are hostile to Iran, as shown by a recent attack on an Iranian consular building in Kandahar. "This terrorist act illustrates how our country has been a target of terrorism" and the "costs" it has had to pay for it, Safari said. VS

Hamas member and former Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmud al-Zahar said in comments published in the Madrid daily "ABC" on June 21 that the Hamas administration in Gaza City expects the Palestinian Authority to give financing for Gaza despite the expulsion of Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas. He added that money might come from elsewhere, including Tehran, if Abbas refuses. He said Abbas should send money if he does not want Gaza residents to go hungry. "If he does not, he will lose Gaza forever," al-Zahar said. He cited Iran, Lebanon's Hizballah, and Syria as other sources of money. He said Hamas has received money in the past from "Arab brothers," including $82 million from Kuwait. "I personally brought $20 million to Gaza from Iran, and then another $22 million in my suitcase," reported him as saying. VS

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced Iran in a June 20 statement as the leading country in terms of executing underage offenders, and urged Tehran to end the executions of convicts aged under 18 years, Radio Farda reported, citing the HRW website. Iran has reportedly executed at least 17 juveniles since 2004, "eight times more than any other country," and has "the deplorable distinction of leading the world in juvenile executions," Clarisa Bencomo, a HRW Middle East area researcher, said. The HRW website stated that the execution of offenders as young as 15 in Iran violated Iran's international commitments and its own domestic laws. The body observed that Iranian officials maintain Iran is working to end juvenile executions. VS

During a June 21 interview with "The Times" of London, General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the five U.K. nationals who were seized in Baghdad last month are being held by a secret cell of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army that is controlled directly by Iran. "They are not rank-and-file Jaish Al-Mahdi [Imam Al-Mahdi Army]," Petraeus said. "They are trained in Iran, equipped with Iranian [weapons], and advised by Iran. The Iranian involvement here we have found to be much, much more significant than we thought before." The five were abducted from the Iraqi Finance Ministry on May 29 by armed men dressed in police uniforms and then allegedly taken to Baghdad's Shi'ite district of Al-Sadr City (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2007). Petraeus added there have been several operations to try to rescue the hostages, but "we just have not had the right intelligence." SS

China and Iraq signed four agreements on June 21, including one to forgive most of Iraq's debt, Xinhua reported. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao, attended the signing ceremony after they held an hour-long talk in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. No information was given as to how much debt China would forgive or any details surrounding the debt-forgiveness agreement. The other three agreements involve cooperation between the two foreign ministries, economic and technical cooperation, and a human-resources training program. "China will continue to do what it can to help Iraqi reconstruction by encouraging firms to take part and to train professionals needed for reconstruction," Hu was quoted as telling Talabani during the talks. For his part, Talabani said China's development sets a great example for the rest of the world. "In Iraq we look on the achievements of China as an achievement for people seeking freedom and independence throughout the world," he said. Talabani's historic visit to China is the first by an Iraqi president since 1958. During his weeklong stay, he is expected meet with top Chinese legislator Wu Bangguo and Premier Wen Jiabao. SS

A suicide truck bombing on June 21 in the town of Sulayman Bek, south of the northern city of Kirkuk, killed at least 16 people and wounded more than 70, international media reported the same day. Police Captain Kudhai Muhammad said the bomber rammed a fuel truck into a cluster of government buildings, including the police command center, the municipal headquarters, and the City Council. A hospital official said some of the wounded included City Council members and police officers, including police chief Hassan Ali al-Bayati. Local police sources said the town, which has a mixed population of Arabs, ethnic Kurds, and Turkomen, has witnessed a steep increase in violence in recent months due to its strategic location. The town is located on the main road connecting Baghdad to the north, and military convoys traveling along the route have increasingly come under attack. SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on June 21 that it has launched a new operation against Al-Qaeda in Iraq elements in the town of Al-Mahmudiyah, southwest of Baghdad. Operation Commando Eagle, a combination of helicopter-borne assaults and ground operations, began targeting "a series of houses which local citizens indicated were being used by Al-Qaeda cells to intimidate them and launch attacks against Iraqi and Coalition Forces." The U.S. military said the early-morning operation resulted in the arrest of several terrorism suspects and the seizure of significant weapons caches. This is the third offensive against Al-Qaeda within a week. On June 16, Operation Marne Torch was launched south of Baghdad and Operation Arrowhead Ripper was launched on June 9 in the Diyala Governorate. SS

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association released a statement on its website on June 21 condemning the ongoing U.S.-led Operation Arrowhead Ripper in Diyala Governorate. "For three days now, occupation troops, supported by state troops, have targeted around 30 houses in the Al-Kazun area. The houses were damaged with their residents still inside. The bodies of the victims are still under the wreckage.... While the Muslim Scholars Association condemns the crimes of the occupation troops and the state troops against citizens, it warns these troops of going on with such barbaric, unjustifiable aggressions," the statement said. The group added that wanton destruction caused by operation is proof the U.S.-led occupation seeks to transform Iraq into a poor and desolate country after looting its riches and destroying its infrastructure. SS

Renowned Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika at the age of 85 at a Cairo hospital on June 20, international media reported June 21. She died of natural causes, but was known to have suffered from several ailments, including Parkinson's disease. She is most famous for being the first to compose poetry in free verse rather than classical rhyme. Born in the Iraqi capital in 1922 to a mother who was a poet and a father who was a teacher, al-Malaika graduated in 1944 from the College of Arts in Baghdad. She traveled to the United States in 1954 and subsequently received a master's degree in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin. She published four collections of poems between 1947 and 1968 and spent 40 years teaching Arabic and literature in Iraqi schools and universities. She also wrote literary criticism. She left Iraq in 1970, two years before Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party came to power. She resided in Kuwait until the Iraqi invasion in 1990, when she left for Cairo. Al-Malaika is survived by a son. Her husband, Abdil Hadi Mahbuba, died in 2005. SS