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Newsline - June 29, 2007

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Minsk on June 28 that Iran will not be able for the next 15 years to develop missiles "that could threaten Europe and that require the creation of missile-defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter them," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21 and 28, 2007). He stressed that Iran is not a threat and "does not have and is not planning to develop missiles that can constitute a threat to Europe, to say nothing of the United States." As for the tensions among the Palestinians, Lavrov said that Moscow "categorically condemns actions by the radicals in Gaza and cannot agree to a split of Palestine," ITAR-TASS reported. He stressed that "the Palestinian National Authority should be assisted in achieving unity on the platform of the Middle East Quartet," which consists of the United States, the EU, the UN, and Russia. He nonetheless added that "it would be a mistake to criticize those Palestinians who voted [in 2006] for Hamas." Lavrov recently ended a visit to the Middle East without a planned meeting with Hamas officials. Also in Minsk on June 28, Lavrov denied media reports that Russia opposed the selection of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to be the Quartet's envoy for the Middle East, Interfax reported. Lavrov said that "any doubts were in other capital cities" and not in Moscow, which said all along it would back the appointment if the other members of the Quartet agreed. He stressed that Blair has "enormous experience." Some German media suggested on June 28 that Germany opposed Blair's selection on the grounds that he is too closely associated with U.S. President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq to be an effective international diplomat in Arab capitals. PM

Oleg Ozerov, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, said on June 28 that "Russia, which is working for a resolution of the Palestinian crisis, will certainly maintain contact with all sides," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and June 25, 2007). He added that "we do not think that contacts with Hamas were a mistake." Moscow has received Hamas delegations twice since the group won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006. President Putin noted on January 31, 2006, that "the Russian Foreign Ministry has never recognized Hamas as a terrorist organization, but that does not mean we support and accept everything Hamas does and all the statements it has...made." PM

President Hugo Chavez met Russian President Vladimir Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow on June 28, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28, 2007). Putin noted in his brief public statement that their agenda focused on economic and military topic. The more effusive Chavez at one point called Putin "brother" and said that "since we [first] met in 2001, so much in the world has favor of our ideas and in the interest of our peoples." Earlier, at the formal opening of the Bolivar Center in Moscow, Chavez said that "we should remember...Lenin and come back to his ideas, especially when it comes to anti-imperialism." The daily "Kommersant" reported on June 28 that the reception for Chavez was deliberately low-key. His host at the dedication of the cultural center was Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and Chavez was not invited to address the State Duma, as some other foreign leaders have been. The paper added that, in any event, "Chavez will leave Russia armed to the teeth." The daily "Vedomosti" noted on June 28 that Russia is making political use of its ties to Chavez, whose passionate anti-Americanism is his trademark, on the eve of Putin's July 1-2 summit with President Bush in the United States. The paper also argued that Putin appeared with Chavez to bolster his own image, because "when compared to Chavez, Putin does indeed seem like a 100 percent pure democrat." The daily noted that "compared to Chavez's anti-Americanism (he claims that Venezuela needs weapons to defend itself from American imperialists), Putin's anti-Americanism (such as his [February 10] speech in Munich) seems like a model of political independence and common sense. Russia's state capitalism is nothing in comparison to the socialist policy course Chavez has proclaimed in Venezuela." PM

Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said in Moscow on June 28 that a Bulava sea-based ballistic missile has been successfully launched from the submarine "Dmitry Donskoi" in the White Sea and hit its target on the Kamchatka Peninsula, news agencies reported. At least three previous Bulava tests ended in failure. The Bulava has a range of 10,000 kilometers and can carry six individually targeted nuclear warheads. PM

President Putin said to leaders of the Unified Russia party at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence on June 28 that the December 2 elections to the State Duma are "the most important event of the year," news agencies reported. He noted that "for the first time, they will be held under a proportional system. This is a serious step toward strengthening democratic institutions and increasing the influence of political parties. And of course, [the elections] will determine the continuity of the pursued course and the fulfillment of the state's commitments to the people." Putin said that "the local election campaigns this year showed that Unified Russia, which won more than 45 percent of the vote, is prepared for competition and rivalry. The party's definite advantage is its resolute rejection of populism and empty promises. I want to stress once again, I am very grateful to you for that." He stressed that he sees "the real picture of what is happening. The more idle talk, the more problems there are in the country. And the less [talk], the more responsibility lies on those people who approach the resolution of problems seriously -- yes, it is true -- and the better the results." Unified Russia tops the polls and would receive 52 percent of the popular vote if elections were held now, according to a survey conducted by the Yury Levada Analytical Center on June 15-18, Russian media reported. That poll suggests that the Communists would finish second with 17 percent, the Liberal Democrats third with 9 percent, and A Just Russia fourth with 7 percent. All other parties would poll less than 5 percent. PM

The Russian Federation Supreme Court ruled on June 28 that legislation stipulating that the bodies of "terrorists" should be buried in an unmarked grave rather than handed over to their families does not violate the constitution, the "Kommersant" daily reported on June 29. But the court also ruled that the bodies should not be buried until an investigation has proven that the participation of the dead in terrorist acts, and that the burial should be undertaken in accordance with the customs and religious traditions of the dead person. The former conclusion highlights a legal discrepancy insofar as such investigations are automatically closed on the suspected person's death. The court ruling was handed down in response to a formal appeal by the mothers of two men killed during the October 2005 multiple attacks by militants on police and security facilities in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. Tatyana Psomiadi, a lawyer representing the families of some of the approximately 80 men killed, was quoted by as saying that the Supreme Court's ruling is tantamount to an admission that the cremation in June 2006 of the bodies was illegal. Relatives learned of the cremation only a few weeks ago from a response the European Court for Human Rights received from the Russian authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). LF

Some 400 people took part in a protest in Grozny on June 28 jointly organized by human rights activists and the Public Council, reported. The participants expressed their anger over the ongoing search being conducted by security forces for three Russian Spetznaz officers who disappeared in April while on trial for the killing of six Chechen civilians in southern Chechnya's Vedeno Raion in January 2000, and who the prosecutor's office has suggested may have been either killed or abducted by relatives of their victims (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev has criticized the searches as "an attempt to exert psychological pressure on those persons who are campaigning for an objective investigation" of the killings, reported on June 22. He predicted the ongoing searches could trigger "mass actions of protest." LF

The Armenian parliament began on June 28 debating a draft bill presented by the government two days earlier that would ban the retransmission of foreign broadcasts, including those of RFE/RL, by Armenian Public Television and Radio, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 27 and 28. Private radio stations would be required to pay a hefty fee to the state budget for retransmitting those broadcasts. Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian suggested on June 28 that the draft bill is not directed against RFE/RL, but only against broadcasters that have an official license to air radio or television broadcasts on their own frequencies. But Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian told lawmakers that if the bill is passed, RFE/RL would no longer be permitted to use the frequencies of Public Radio on a contractual basis. The OSCE's high representative for media freedom, Miklos Haraszti, criticized the amendments on June 28 as tantamount to a ban on broadcasting by RFE/RL, and in a statement released in Vienna he called for the withdrawal of the draft bill. U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian said on June 27 his Zharangutiun (Heritage) parliament faction will vote against the bill, which he described as "a blow to the interests of the Republic of Armenia and the rights of our citizens." Former Prime Minister and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian and a second former premier, Aram Sargsian, both described RFE/RL on June 27 as "the only free broadcaster operating in Armenia." Manukian argued that "shutting it down the greatest disgrace of recent years." LF

The ambassadors to Russia of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armen Smbatian and Polad Byulbyulogly, together with a group of cultural figures and academics from both countries, traveled on June 28 to the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and thence to Yerevan, Azerbaijani media reported. In Stepanakert, the group met with Karabakh President Arkady Ghukasian, who was quoted as saying that all disputed issues should be resolved at the negotiating table, and nothing can be resolved by a new war. The group then traveled to Yerevan where they met with Armenian President Robert Kocharian who, like Ghukasian, welcomed the initiative as contributing to an "atmosphere of mutual trust" between the conflict sides. Then in Baku, the group met with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, who reaffirmed that any solution to the Karabakh conflict must respect Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, reported. Nizami Bakhmanov, head of Karabakh's small Azerbaijani community that fled the enclave in the late 1980s, hailed the group's visit to the town of Shusha (Armenian Shushi), where many Azerbaijanis lived, reported. But Akif Nagi, chairman of the radical Karabakh Liberation Organization, denounced the trip as an insult to the Azerbaijani people and argued that by meeting with the leadership of the unrecognized republic, the Azerbaijanis recognized their legitimacy, reported. Nagi called for Byulbyulogly to be stripped of the post of ambassador. LF

The Georgian-populated village of Tamarasheni near Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, was subjected to artillery fire from neighboring Ossetian-populated villages on June 28 and again on June 29, according to Georgian media reports. De facto South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity left Tskhinvali on June 28 for talks in Moscow with Russian officials. On June 29, South Ossetian Interior Minister Mikheil Mindzayev said that Georgia is moving tanks and armored personnel carriers to the border with the breakaway republic in readiness to invade, reported. Dmitry Sanakoyev, who heads the pro-Tbilisi provisional South Ossetian administration, said on June 28 the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the conflict zone have "lost control" of the situation there, Caucasus Press reported. On June 27, the Russian peacekeepers sought unsuccessfully to stop construction of a road linking two Georgian populated villages. LF

Information and Culture Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev on June 28 suggested that amendments to Kazakhstan's media law be adopted before the Senate goes into summer recess on July 11, Kazakhstan Today and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Addressing a roundtable discussion in Astana, Yertysbaev said the government wants "to introduce the most liberal possible changes" to the media law and should not further delay their adoption. Tamara Kaleeva, the president of the Adil Soz media watchdog, in turn warned against hastily modifying the existing legislation. She said any proposed amendment should be thoroughly debated before being adopted. Other representatives of the media community expressed similar caution, saying they fear the Senate might approve restrictive amendments proposed by the government. Following President Nursultan Nazarbaev's June 20 decision to dissolve the Mazihlis and call early elections in August, the functions of the elected lower chamber of parliament have been temporarily transferred to the Senate. JCP

Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court on June 28 backed a petition filed by the Prosecutor-General's Office requesting that a new probe be conducted into the killing of six peaceful opposition demonstrators in the southern Jalal-Abad region on March 17, 2002. According to AKIpress and, the judicial panel also annulled previous court decisions acquitting police officers accused of shooting at the protesters. Relatives of the victims met the ruling with applause. JCP

Tajikistan's Majlisi Namoyandagon, or lower chamber of parliament, on June 28 approved a government plan intended to reduce poverty by 2009, Avesta and reported the same day. Lawmaker Safarali Gulov said the plan meets the UN Millennium Development Goals, which aim to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less that $1 a day and of people suffering from hunger. The Tajik plan envisages GDP growth of $490 per capita within the next two years from the current $1,200. It also aims to achieve economic growth at an annual rate of 7 percent, and reduce both child and maternal mortality. JCP

Turkmenistan's official TDH news agency on June 28 reported that the U.S. oil major Chevron has decided to open an office in Ashgabat. TDH said the announcement was made the same day at a meeting between Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov; Jay Prior, Chevron's vice president for business development; and Ian MacDonald, the head of Chevron's operations in Russia. Early last month, Berdymukhammedov invited Chevron to prospect and develop oil fields in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea shelf. The invitation was seen as a sign of Berdymukhammedov's willingness to open Turkmenistan to Western investment. Also on June 28, Berdymukhammedov authorized the government to sign a $42 million drilling contract with the state-controlled China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) and another deal for the construction of a $53 million polypropylene-film plant with France's Darlet Marchante Technologies, TDH and Russia's Interfax news agency reported. JCP

Airbus Industrie on June 28 signed with Uzbekiston Havo Yullari, Uzbekistan's national air carrier, a firm order for the delivery of six European-made Airbus A320 jetliners, the company said in a statement posted on its website ( Addressing reporters after the signing ceremony in Tashkent, Uzbekiston Havo Yullari's General Director Valery Tyan said four aircraft will be delivered in 2011 and the remainder in 2012, Interfax reported. The financial details of the deal were not disclosed. Uzbekiston Havo Yullari already has a fleet of three Airbus A310 aircraft. The company last month purchased two U.S.-made Boeing 787-8 "Dreamliner" aircraft to be delivered in 2014. JCP

Alyaksandr Lukashenka told visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Minsk on June 28 that Belarus "does not keep and will not keep any secrets whatsoever from Russia," Belapan reported, quoting official sources. Lukashenka also stressed that the integration of Belarus and Russia should be continued on an equal footing. "Integration should be based on equality and mutual respect so that the interests of neither of the nations will be damaged," Lukashenka said. Lavrov reportedly visited Minsk to mark the 15th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. "When we talk about bilateral relations between Belarus and Russia, calling them diplomatic is at least insufficient," Lavrov told Lukashenka. JM

Yulia Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous opposition bloc, told journalists on June 29 that she deems it necessary to hold a referendum on a new version of the constitution on September 30, when President Viktor Yushchenko scheduled preterm parliamentary elections, UNIAN reported. "It is necessary to ask people in an all-Ukrainian referendum which form of governance they prefer -- presidential or parliamentary. It would be good if people were asked about this during these preterm elections.... We support such a step," Tymoshenko said. Yushchenko said on June 27 that he would like to stage a referendum "in the near future" in order to approve an amended constitution. Presidential aide Roman Zvarych said on Channel 5 on June 28 that he does not rule out the possibility that Yushchenko may propose a new constitution draft for a referendum to be held simultaneously with early polls on September 30. JM

Fears that the anniversary on June 28 of one of the key dates in Serbian history could be marred by violence proved unfounded, with local and international media reporting no clashes between ethnic Serbs and Albanians on theanniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, which in 1389 led to the destruction of the medieval Serbian state and ended Serbian rule over Kosova for roughly five centuries. Local and international media reported on June 28 that UN police, international troops, and Kosova's police force took extensive security measures after a Serbian paramilitary group, the Guard of St. Tsar Lazar, said that up to 150 of its members would attend a commemorative ceremony (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, May 7, and June 28, 2007). A shadowy Kosovar-Albanian paramilitary group, the Albanian National Army (AKSh), and the association of veterans of the separatist conflict had warned of violent repercussions should the Guard attend the ceremony (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28, 2007). In the event, the news service KosovaLive reported that police arrested one Serb and confiscated nationalist banners and placards with photos of the leading ethnic-Serbian figures in the Balkan wars, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. The Serbian broadcaster B92 said two people were arrested. AG

Kosovar and international media reported that, in all, about 300 Serbs, including two Serbian ministers and Crown Prince Aleksandar II, and church dignitaries, on June 28 attended a religious ceremony at the monument to the Battle of Kosovo Polje, at Gazimestan, just kilometers from the Kosovar capital, Prishtina. B92 put the number at more than 1,000. The 93-year-old head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriach Pavle, was unable to attend but sent a message in which he said that Kosova will always remain "the central land of our national and religious life" and in which, according to the Serbian daily "Politika," he declared: "Better to perish as a people than to survive as dishonored ones. There is no other choice for us." One of the church leaders who led the service, Bishop Amfilohije, said that "those who wish to cut the heart from this people want to wipe them from this Earth," Reuters reported, while, according to B92, Crown Prince Aleksandar said, "this is where our past and our present is, this is where we must build the future." On June 27, 200-250 Serbs gathered in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica to unveil a memorial to Serbian victims of NATO's intervention in 1999. AG

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica marked the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje by declaring that a new "battle" is being waged over the contested Serbian province, this time by the United States and Serbia. In a statement published in the daily "Politika," Kostunica predicted that Serbia's determination to retain sovereignty will prevail in the battle between Serbia's "right" and the United States' "might." "Kosovo cannot be independent," Kostunica said, asserting that "might can do nothing against right." "Serbia knows that only justice can prevail in Kosovo, and that policies of force remain impotent and fruitless," he continued, adding that "there is no force that can change the fact that Kosovo has always been and always will be an integral part of Serbia." The news agency Beta and Radio-Television Serbia reported that Serbia's minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, expressed similar views on June 28 during a ceremony in Kosova to award medals to Serbian mothers of four or more children. Radio-Television Serbia reported that Samardzic said that "Serbia, as a civilized state, will fight with all means at its disposal to prevent the secession of Kosovo." Serbian officials have in the past ruled out the use of force. AG

The daily "Vecernje novosti" reported on June 24 that political and military leaders are concerned at the burden being imposed by pension payments to 807 retired generals living in Serbia. The large number of retired generals -- a term that embraces army generals, lieutenant generals, admirals, and air-force commanders -- in part reflects the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, as many military leaders from the country's constituent republics chose to settle in Serbia. Citing Defense Ministry and army chiefs, the daily reported that 70 percent of the military's budget goes on personnel expenses, including pensions. The army's chief of staff, Zdravko Ponos, reportedly wants to reduce pensions from 85 percent to 55 percent of the salaries of active officers. Ponos told the daily "Danas" on June 13 that he would like to see the link broken between the pensions of retired military commanders and the salaries of the 15 active generals, with pensions instead being paid from a special fund. A retired general can receive a pension of up to 60,000 dinars ($1,000) a month and some enjoy the use of large apartments in Belgrade's most prestigious districts. Serbia in 2006 increased its defense budget from 1.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 2.4 percent in order to fund reform, which Serbian President Boris Tadic on May 30 called a priority of the new government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 19, and May 2, 2007). Serbia has 75,000 men in uniform, most of them conscripts. AG

The chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, said on June 28 that she now expects to step down at the end of the year rather than in September, as she had planned, AP reported the same day. "I have been asked to stay on, which, of course, I would be happy to do," Del Ponte told reporters in Strasbourg. Del Ponte's spokeswoman, Olga Kavran, said the UN Security Council must first approve the extension of Del Ponte's term. The Swiss prosecutor has occupied the post for eight years. No decision has yet been made about who will succeed Del Ponte. "The New York Times" reported on June 28 that unnamed UN officials expect the post to be filled by Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor currently heading a UN investigation into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Brammertz is due to leave that role at the end of December. AG

Ramiz Delalic, a prominent Sarajevo underworld figure better-known as "Celo," was shot and killed in the courtyard of his house in Sarajevo on June 27, local media reported the following day. Delalic was the main suspect in the killing of a Bosnian Serb wedding guest in Sarajevo in March 1992, an event seen by many Serbs as the trigger for the 1992-95 war and as confirmation of their rejection of an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina. A trial in relation to the wedding shooting is currently under way before a Sarajevo court. Delalic went on to command one of the units defending Sarajevo against Bosnian Serb attacks; in the early phase of the war, several well-known criminal figures played a decisive role in defending the city, though many of them were later killed or arrested in government purges. TV

Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has threatened to block Bosnia-Herzegovina's budget unless a law on the management of a memorial center for victims of the genocide at Srebrenica is amended, Bosnian public radio reported on June 28. The center at Potocari outside Srebrenica has been run by a private organization, but on June 25, outgoing High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, in one of his last acts as international top envoy, imposed a law that gives the Bosnian central government the power to appoint a steering board for the site (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2007), which includes a sprawling cemetery containing the remains of people killed in the July 1995 massacres around Srebrenica. The government and parliament of the Republika Srpska, on whose territory Srebrenica is located, reacted with emergency sessions to the imposed law, and parliament decided to break off relations with Schwarz-Schilling. Dodik is now asking to amend the law with provisions that would explicitly confirm the memorial center as part of the territory of Republika Srpska and give the Bosnian Serb entity's police authority to operate there, or else the Bosnian Serbs will not vote for the central-level state budget, thereby blocking its passage. The budget "is our best opportunity to say our bit," Dodik said. The disagreement over who should run the memorial center adds to tensions that are already high ahead of a July 11 event there to mark the anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica. TV

The Albanian parliament on June 27 failed for the second time to hold a vote to elect a successor to President Alfred Moisiu, local media reported on June 27-28. No party presented a candidate, reflecting the failure of ongoing talks to reach a consensus on a candidate. Government and opposition parties traded accusations about the lack of progress. Prime Minister Sali Berisha, the leader of the Democrat Party, was highly critical of the opposition's refusal to contemplate the candidacy of the Democrats' deputy leader, Bamir Topi, while the leader of the Socialist Party, Edi Rama, said the opposition would not propose any candidate until Topi withdraws his candidacy and would then insist on an agreement on the qualities desired of a president before discussing individual candidates. Two small right-wing parties, the Republican Party (PR) and the New Democrat Party (PDr), on June 27 said they would push for constitutional changes to enable the direct election of future presidents if the impasse persists, the daily "Tirana rilindja demokratike" reported on June 28. The parties have five rounds in which to elect a president. Failure to make a choice by July 24 would trigger a parliamentary election. AG

A UN report on the explosion in the world's urban population has found that, while the world's population is just months away from becomingly predominantly urban, three European states remain largely rural: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Moldova. In all three countries, 47 percent of the population live in towns and cities. In all three countries, the rate of urbanization is creeping up, but Moldova's slower predicted increase -- 0.3 percent between 2005 and 2010 -- suggests it will soon clearly be Europe's most rural state. On a related note, the Moldovan news agency IPN on June 27 quoted Ghenadie Ivascenco, the head of the Habitat-Moldova Center, a joint project between the UN and the Moldovan government, as saying that migration and, to a lesser degree, reruralization have caused a substantial fall in the population of some cities: over the past 15 years, the populations of Orhei and Soroca have plunged by one-third, Ungheni and Cahul have seen theirs shrink by almost a quarter, while Balti's population has dropped by roughly 20 percent. Moldova's birthrate is also falling. Emigration and a falling birthrate resulted in a 0.5 percent annual decline in Moldova's population between 1989 and 2004. The UN report expects Moldova's population to fall by 0.2 percent a year between 2005 and 2010. AG

Nationwide local elections in Moldova involved a little of everything: meter-long ballots, dirty politics, and surprise results. While the Communist Party received the most votes and seats in local polls, their popularity dropped substantially, and analysts have begun to wonder if an electoral shift is beginning before the 2009 parliamentary elections.

On June 17, residents of Moldova's capital city, Chisinau, lined up to vote in the second round of elections for the city's mayor. On four previous occasions, the city has attempted to elect a mayor to replace Serafim Urechean, who left office to become a member of parliament, and all four times turnout was too low for the elections to be valid.

This year there were no such problems, as the turnout of nearly 36 percent was well above the 25 percent threshold for the elections to be valid.

Not only did Chisinau's citizens elect their first full-term mayor in over two years, but they also delivered the ruling Communist Party its biggest defeat. The Communist candidate, Veaceslav Iordan, was defeated by the 29-year-old candidate from the Liberal Party, Dorin Chirtoaca. Iordan received 38.83 percent of second-round votes, while Chirtoaca received 61.17 percent.

The victory of a young liberal in the most competitive of the local elections was only one of many highlights in an exciting election. Many now are asking what these results mean for future elections.

Public-opinion polls consistently show that the Communist Party and its leaders are the most trusted in Moldovan politics. Their performance in the polls has been bolstered by relatively strong economic growth since they first gained control of parliament in 2001. Their support base, however, has waned in the face of economic problems caused largely by a Russian ban on wine and food exports from Moldova.

In the first round of elections, held June 3, the Communist Party won about 35 percent of all local council seats and 36 percent of all municipal seats. This compares to 45 percent and 48 percent respectively in 2003. In both rounds of mayoral elections, the Communists won a total of 328 races, or about 37 percent. In 2003, they won 41 percent.

Arcadie Barbarosie, director of the Public Policy Institute of Moldova, suggested that these results represent a more general trend of declining support for the Communist Party. This is driven by several factors, including: tiredness of the old leadership, rising unemployment and poverty, and several unpopular policies. Barbarosie said that the 2009 parliamentary elections may see the Communist Party returning to the opposition.

The decline in the Communist Party's vote share, however, failed to produce a definitive winner from the various opposition parties. The second largest party in these elections was the Our Moldova alliance (MNA), which won 155, or about 17 percent, of the mayoral races, and about the same proportion of the total vote.

Although it turned in the best national performance of the opposition parties, the results were varied. In the Chisinau municipal council race, MNA lost half of its seats, mostly to the Liberal Party.

Other significant parties were the Democrat Party, with 78 mayors, the Christian Democrats, with 62, and the Social Democracy Party, with 25. In total, 16 parties won at least one of the mayoral races and 135 of the seats were filled by independents, reflecting the continued fragmentation of Moldova's political scene.

While the Liberal Party claimed arguably the largest prize of the election with Chirtoaca's election in Chisinau, the party won only 11 other races, reflecting its limited organizational reach outside of the capital.

That so many opposition parties continue to compete in the local races may pose a problem for parliamentary elections, since these are decided by party-list proportional representation.

Some of these results reflect more on the individual candidates fielded by the parties than on support for the parties themselves. Barbarosie pointed to polls showing that the most likely reason for Moldovans to change their political opinion is if they do not like the candidate their party nominates. He suggests that this played a key role in the Chisinau elections, as a number of the traditional Communist electorate simply did not show up to support Iordan.

While the competitiveness of local elections may have increased since 2003, the fairness of the elections is still being criticized by international observers. The most commonly cited shortcomings have been the intimidation of election candidates and media bias.

Dieter Boden, head of the OSCE's election observer mission, said on June 4 that there were a number of cases throughout the country where candidates were threatened with dismissal or suspension from their jobs because of their political activities.

Monitors also noted substantial inequality in media access for candidates. In particular, Boden highlighted the limited coverage received by some candidates, while the activities of state authorities were covered extensively, favoring pro-government candidates.

Susan Bolam, the head of the delegation of the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, said at a June 4 news conference that, while the elections were generally well-administered, observers noted some problems in ballot secrecy and improper administration of polling stations.

(Ryan Kennedy is a Ph.D. candidate and a Fulbright researcher from Ohio State University who recently returned to the United States after living in Moldova.)

Taliban insurgents are reimposing their harsh interpretation of Shari'a law in the Musa Qala district of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported on June 28. The militant group recaptured the district in February after the failed efforts by then-Helmand Governor Mohammad Daud to keep the Taliban out in exchange for a NATO withdrawal. The Taliban has set up a special tribunal in the district that sentences to death or amputation persons deemed enemies of the Taliban, a source told IRIN under the condition of anonymity. On June 26, four men were publicly hanged for allegedly spying for the United States and the Afghan government. The rebels have also closed schools in Musa Qala and women must wear a burqa and be accompanied by a male relative when they leave their homes. Approximately 14,000 people live in the Musa Qala district. JC

Two suicide-bomb attacks targeting security vehicles in Afghanistan on June 27 left four dead and some 16 wounded, AFP reported. A suicide bomber in Kabul detonated his vehicle near the armored vehicle of a private security firm involved in training Afghan police, killing one American and one Afghan woman. Five foreigners and three Afghan civilians were also wounded, Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which is the third such blast to hit the Afghan capital this month. In the second attack, an attacker drove his bomb-laden vehicle into a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) vehicle in Paktika Province, killing at least one Afghan civilian and wounding several others. ISAF spokesman Major John Thomas said that some ISAF troops were injured but none were killed. There have been approximately 60 suicide blasts in Afghanistan this year, an increase from last year when 25 were recorded, AFP reported. JC

International aid group Oxfam said in a report on June 28 that Afghanistan's rush to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) jeopardizes development efforts to rebuild its struggling economy, Reuters reported. In the report "Getting the Fundamentals Right -- the Early Stages of Afghanistan's Accession Process," Oxfam asserts that if Afghanistan opens its domestic markets to low or tariff-free imports from countries like Pakistan or Iran, it could stifle efforts to create jobs in the manufacturing sector. Foreign direct investment may also be useless unless Afghanistan is capable of fully exploiting its resources, the report warns. "Liberalizing the Afghan economy too soon could undermine vital efforts to reduce poverty and suffering," said Matt Waldman, Oxfam's policy and advocacy adviser in the country. Afghanistan has been an observer at the WTO since 2004 and seeks to become a full member by 2010. JC

Taliban insurgents have freed 18 Afghan mine clearers captured on June 23, AFP reported on June 28. Mohammad Shohab Hakimi, head of the Mine Detection and Dogs Center, told AFP that nine of the men were released on June 27 and the remaining nine early on June 28. The militants kept the men's equipment and three sniffer dogs. The group was captured in the Andar district of Ghazni Province as they were traveling to a minefield. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said that the Taliban's "leading council" decided to release the men because they have been operating in Afghanistan for years. Initially, Taliban commander Mullah Safiullah had threatened to kill the hostages if it was discovered they were working for U.S.-led forces, Reuters reported on June 24. Taliban insurgents conducted a series of kidnappings in recent months, including that of two French aid workers in April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007). JC

Police have reportedly been deployed around Iranian gasoline stations to prevent any more violence or damage after public anger and vandalism followed the start of a gasoline-rationing plan on June 26, Radio Farda reported on June 28. Iranians rushed to fill their cars late on June 26, as Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh suddenly announced the start of a long-discussed rationing plan from midnight. Iranians are now allowed to consume 100 liters of gasoline a month per vehicle, at $0.11 a liter. The plan originally envisaged the state allowing consumers to buy liters above the quota at a higher price, but that was not the case. The initiative is intended to cut Iran's massive gasoline consumption. Tehran-based journalist Fariborz Sorush told Radio Farda on June 28 that antiriot police and plainclothes security officials have been posted at fuel stations and major intersections. He said more than one-third of all gas stations have been "destroyed" in violence that began late on June 26, though it was not immediately clear if this was in Tehran or across Iran. "Streets in Tehran are most evidently empty" of traffic, he said, as many formal and informal taxis have stopped working. Sorush said four-fifths of Tehran's downtown traffic earlier consisted of such taxis. VS

Iranian government spokesman and Justice Minister Gholamhussein Elham took the subway to the Justice Ministry in downtown Tehran on June 27, Fars reported. He told people on the train or platform that he was using public transport at a time of gasoline rationing, and wanted to hear people's problems "close up," Fars reported. Parliament reportedly had an animated session on June 27, in which members were distracted from their set agenda by informal discussions about the new rationing plan and how the public has reacted, the daily "Etemad-i Melli" reported on June 28. Parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said at a press conference separately that rationing is necessary for the country's independence, especially given reports, he said, that the United States is planning to use gasoline as a means to pressure Iran -- presumably by somehow restricting its importation -- the daily reported. "The less vulnerable the country, the greater its independence. We have become used to using cheap and plentiful gasoline, and now we want to change that habit," he said. Oil Minister Vaziri-Hamaneh and Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi also attended a closed parliamentary session on June 27 to discuss the plan. VS

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of justice officials in Tehran on June 28 that the judiciary has a duty to assure social, moral, and economic security in Iran, ISNA reported. He said economic security will come by fighting "the economically corrupt," but he said people's dignity and reputations should not become "playthings," presumably through publicity surrounding unproven, false, or flimsy charges. He cited planning, the use of modern technology, and outside supervision of judicial activities as the means needed to ensure the effectiveness of the judiciary, ISNA reported. VS

Syrian Ambassador to Iran Hamed Hassan said in Tehran on June 27 that Iran and Syria are resolved to expand their ties "in all areas," stating that this would be good for the two states and the region, ISNA reported, citing SANA. Hassan was speaking at an anniversary reception in the Syrian Embassy held for the Syrian-Iranian Friendship Association. Iran's envoy in Damascus, Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, attended and spoke of an upcoming Iranian exhibition to be held in Syria. VS

Iran's outgoing ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was given a farewell at the UN in New York City on June 27, ISNA reported. ISNA termed Zarif's tenure at the UN, where he has been since 2002, as very "active." Zarif will be replaced by Mohammad Khazai, a deputy finance minister, in the coming days. Zarif plans to teach international law and relations at Tehran University when he returns, ISNA reported. The agency quoted an unnamed official as saying that U.S. media have paid particular attention to Zarif, "and American journals do not pay such attention to many people." VS

In an interview with Al-Sharqiyah television on June 28, Sunni politician Mithal al-Alusi accused the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad of sheltering Iraqi Culture Minister As'ad Kamal al-Hashimi, who is wanted in connection with the killing of al-Alusi's two sons in 2005. "He [al-Hashimi] is now in the Green Zone," al-Alusi said. "The Iraqi police want to implement the order of the Iraqi judge by holding him accountable, but there is a checkpoint under U.S. control banning us from going to that area," he added. In response to the allegations, the U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying that it has "not been involved or intervened in the situation." "The United States has not taken a position on the matter. This issue is for the government of Iraq to resolve in accordance with the rule of law," the statement said. Al-Hashimi went into hiding after Iraqi police raided his home on June 26 and arrested several of his bodyguards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, 2007). SS

A spokesman for radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said on June 29 that a "million-man march" on the city of Samarra on July 5 has been canceled, following warnings by the Iraqi government that it might provoke attacks by Sunni insurgents, international media reported. Al-Sadr previously said that the march, to mark the birth of the Prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatima, would be a demonstration of national unity after an attack destroyed the Al-Askari Mosque's minarets on June 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). "We want Iraqis, tribes, community leaders, and officials to show goodwill and cooperation to make this visit successful and a turning point in broken relations, because those criminals who destroyed the shrine will not be pleased [by this march]," a statement from al-Sadr's office in Al-Najaf said. However, the Iraqi government indicated that it has intelligence that Sunni insurgents plan to attack marchers along the route from Baghdad to Samarra. The government issued a statement calling for more time to secure the road to Samarra. "While we take into account the emotions of people who want to march peacefully to Samarra, we say that the task of securing the road is still incomplete, according to reports from field leaders on the ground," the statement said. SS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned on June 28 that Al-Qaeda in Iraq is aggressively planning to destabilize neighboring countries, international media reported. He said Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters who were caught and interrogated have confessed to wide-ranging plans to trigger armed conflicts in states that already suffer from religious and sectarian tensions. "Al-Qaeda is surrounded and is suffering heavy blows in Iraq, and so elements from it are fleeing to other countries where it is easier to infiltrate, and opening new battles to conceal its losses," al-Maliki said. He did not say which countries Al-Qaeda in Iraq is allegedly targeting. His remarks came during a visit to Iraq's counterterrorism directorate, where al-Maliki praised Iraq's security forces for combating the Sunni extremists. SS

A car bomb in the Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Bayya on June 28 killed at least 21 people and wounded more than 40, international media reported. Local police sources said the attack occurred near a bus terminal in the predominately Shi'ite district, and warned that the death toll is likely to rise due to the severity of the blast. Meanwhile, in the Salman Pak region south of Baghdad, a police source said that 20 decapitated bodies have been found along the banks of the Tigris River, the independent Voices of Iraq news agency reported on June 28. "The unidentified bodies, all men in civilian clothes, had their hands and legs bound, and some of the heads were found next to the bodies," the source said. He also indicated that heavy fighting in Salman Pak has been going on for several days between Iraqi forces and unknown gunmen. SS

South Korea's Defense Ministry announced on June 28 that it has delayed a decision to withdraw its 1,200 troops from Iraq, international media reported. A ministry official said on condition of anonymity that a "mission termination plan" was submitted to the National Assembly, but it did not specify when the withdrawal would take place. The official added that the ministry is taking several factors into consideration, including the situation in Iraq and moves by other members of the U.S.-led coalition. He said a decision concerning the withdrawal will be made around September. The delay has raised the possibility that the mission could be extended for another year. In early June, Iraqi Deputy Defense Minister Sabah Ajil asked Seoul to extend its mission and to "continue to play a role in the development of Iraq." SS