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Newsline - April 3, 2008

U.S. President George W. Bush said on April 2 at the Bucharest NATO summit that the alliance "must make clear that NATO welcomes the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine for their membership in NATO and offers them a clear path forward to meet that goal," news agencies reported. He reiterated that "my country's position is clear. NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan," which is an important step on the road to full membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 31, and April 1 and 2, 2008). Russia strongly opposes NATO membership for Kyiv and Tbilisi, a stance that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated in a speech to the State Duma in Moscow on April 2. He argued that possible NATO expansion "will not be left without a response, I assure you. But we will react pragmatically, not like a little boy in school who is offended by someone, slams the door, runs out of the classroom, and cries in the corner. We should focus on building up our economic might and defense capability, which is being done by the president and the government now, and I assure you that we are ready for any possible scenario." Lavrov added that "what is absolutely unacceptable is a possible attempt by Georgia to use force for conflict resolution and especially to use its accession to NATO for these purposes. This would radically change the circumstances of the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and most of them are citizens of the Russian Federation." The daily "Kommersant" wrote on April 3 that Bush "suffered a humiliating diplomatic failure" earlier the same day in Bucharest when Germany, France, and some other West European NATO member states succeeded in blocking an agreement to offer Membership Action Plans (MAP) to Ukraine and Georgia. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told the BBC on April 3 that a MAP is simply a form of "enhanced cooperation" and failure to grant one to the two countries would "send the wrong message" throughout the region. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves also argued that a MAP is not a final stage toward or guarantee of membership. He said that some older NATO members once agreed to granting MAPs to the Baltic states as a "delaying tactic" in deference to Moscow's wishes. PM

The office of President Bush said in a statement on April 2 that he will hold talks with Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev when the U.S. leader meets with outgoing President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on April 6, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27 and 28, and April 2, 2008). Bush and Medvedev met only once before, in 2004, when Medvedev was an aide to Putin, Reuters reported. On April 2, Aleksandr Kramarenko, who heads the Foreign Ministry's policy-planning department, wrote in the daily "Kommersant" that the "change of administration in the Kremlin gives the Americans a pretext and an opportunity to review their Russia policy in a positive tone, especially since [Medvedev] will inherit a Russia that is in a very different condition from the Russia inherited by his predecessor" in 2000. Kramarenko argued that Washington "truly needs a radically different approach to Russian-American relations. It needs to be prepared to deal with Russia as an equal, taking each other's interests into account, to the benefit of both sides. And this is the point where the entire American political elite -- Democrat and Republican alike (especially judging by the comments of presidential contenders) -- is simply incapable of overcoming old habits." Kramarenko believes that "the real reason behind [U.S.] displeasure at Moscow's 'bad behavior' may be that Putin's Russia is spoken of as a rising country, while the U.S. is said to be declining. Another discrepancy is that America wants a great deal from Russia, while Russia only wishes to cooperate on an equal basis across the whole range of common problems." PM

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has said that the armed forces still have excess weapons and military hardware left over from the Soviet era and will remove them from their arsenals, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on April 3. He said that Russia wants to reduce its arms inventories "down to a level sufficient for fulfilling possible real tasks, not for a global war.... We must not have excess military hardware, and the weapons available must be modern or upgraded." Serdyukov noted that the army has a surplus of tanks, "so about 4,000 tanks of obsolete models must be scrapped. Some of them will become scrap metal, others will be cannibalized for spares, and yet others will be sold to third countries." He said that the armed forces' troop strength will be "reduced" to 1 million by 2016. Serdyukov argued that it is unacceptable that 30 percent of the Russian Army consists of officers, whereas the comparable figure in other leading armies is no more than 15 percent. Also on April 3, Interfax reported that the Duma's Audit Chamber showed in its new report for 2006-07 that "the Defense Ministry accounts for over 70 percent of the budgetary resources used for purposes other than those officially confirmed." An unnamed Duma official told the news agency that "the Defense Ministry is the unchallenged leader in misusing federal budget money" but added that, in percentage terms, the share of misused federal money in the Defense Ministry's budget is nearly equal to those of other agencies in question. PM

"Kommersant" reported on April 3 that the investigative unit of the Interior Ministry's main directorate for the Central Federal District has charged the head of the Hermitage Capital Management investment fund, Bill Browder, and Ivan Cherkasov, head of Hermitage's local office, with large-scale tax evasion. Police told the newspaper they will ask a court for an arrest warrant for Browder and Cherkasov. As Reuters noted on April 3, Browder, a British citizen whose $4 billion investment fund has been a major investor in Russia since the 1990s, has been barred from Russia since November 2005 for unspecified reasons. According to Browder, the Russian government cited "national security" concerns for the ban. Cherkasov left Russia in the summer of 2007, "Kommersant" reported. According the newspaper, the Interior Ministry discovered Browder's alleged tax evasion in the course of an investigation into share deals by Kameya, a company connected to several Cyprus-based entities. Investigators claim all these companies were actually headed by Cherkasov. They also claim that Kameya bought shares in Russian energy firms, including Gazprom, Surgutneftegaz, and Rosneft, at a time when trade in Gazprom shares was restricted, and failed to pay the required taxes on money made from the deals. According to investigators, the same pattern was discovered in some 20 firms that Browder helped set up or acquired that were operating in Moscow, Kalmykia, Chita Oblast, Buryatia, and other regions of Russia. The investigators allege that Browder and Cherkasov evaded approximately 4 billion rubles (more than $160 million) in taxes. JB

"Kommersant" reported on April 3 that after the charges of tax evasion were filed against Browder and Cherkasov of Hermitage Capital Management, lawyers for the firm went to several Moscow courts with documents from previous tax audits showing that Hermitage had a clean bill of health, but that these appeals were rejected. According to the paper, the lawyers then went to the offices of the Moscow city prosecutor and the prosecutor-general, complaining that a search of Hermitage Capital's office in Moscow in which equipment and documents were seized was illegal because the company had nothing to do with Kameya, the company that was the original target of the investigation. This complaint, too, was rejected, after which the lawyers speculated that the case against Browder and Cherkasov may be connected to the recent political problems between Russia and Britain -- a claim that investigators deny, according to "Kommersant." As Reuters noted on April 3, Browder has a reputation as a champion of minority shareholders' rights, and advocates greater transparency and better corporate governance at Russian companies. News of the tax-evasion charges leveled against Browder and Cherkasov came on the heels of an April 2 raid by Interior Ministry officers armed with assault rifles on the Moscow head office of leading electronics retailer Eldorado. "The Moscow Times" reported on April 3 that the raid was connected to a criminal investigation into alleged nonpayment of about $300 million in taxes. The paper quoted a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee as saying that Eldorado's general director, Igor Demchenko, was the target of the investigation. JB

Dmitry Dovgy, the head of the Investigative Committee's main investigative unit who has been temporarily removed from his post for alleged corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31 and April 2, 2008), told "Izvestia" several days before he was removed from his post that the self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky ordered the killing of "Novaya gazeta" correspondent Anna Politkovskaya "through" the former Chechen field commander and reputed crime boss Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev. Politkovskaya was shot dead in Moscow in October 2006. Russian prosecutors have accused Nukhayev of ordering the killing of Paul Klebnikov, the Russia editor of "Forbes" who was shot dead outside the magazine's Moscow office in July 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 8, 2005). In the "Izvestia" interview with Dovgy, which was published on April 3, he said Politkovskaya's slaying was connected to her "professional activities," but a short time later, in an apparent contradiction, said her death "was connected not to her articles, but to her personally." He added, "Here you have such a brilliant [person], in opposition to the acting authorities, [and] she meets with Berezovsky and is killed." The killing was aimed at "both the elimination of Politkovskaya personally and undermining confidence in the law enforcement organs," Dovgy told "Izvestia," adding that those behind it "wanted to show that well-known people can be murdered here in broad daylight, that the law enforcement organs supposedly are unable to solve such cases." Dovgy said the person who actually shot Politkovskaya is at large but "will be caught in the shortest possible time." On March 28, prosecutor Vyacheslav Smirnov said the "direct murderer of Politkovskaya" has been identified and "Komsomolskaya pravda" on March 29 identified him as Rustam Makhmudov, a 30-year-old inhabitant of Chechnya. "Tvoi den" reported on April 2 that Politkovskaya's suspected murderer is hiding abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). RIA Novosti reported April 3 that Berezovsky has denied Dovgy's allegations that he ordered Politkovskaya's killing. Berezovsky made his comments from Britain, where he received political asylum and now lives. JB

In his interview with "Izvestia," suspended Investigative Committee official Dovgy also referred to his unit's probes of Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, who was arrested on attempted embezzlement charges in November 2007, and Federal Antinarcotics Committee Lieutenant General Aleksandr Bulbov, who was arrested in October 2007, citing these cases as evidence that the Investigative Committee is willing to investigate high-level corruption. He also said that the best way to prevent bribe taking by officials is to provide them with higher salaries and better benefits. Dovgy himself now stands accused of receiving millions of dollars in bribes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31 and April 2, 2008). Dovgy's allegations that Berezovsky ordered the killing of Anna Politkovskaya echo charges made by Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB employee and current businessman and State Duma deputy accused by British authorities of murdering former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. Some observers suggested that Dovgy's interview with "Izvestia" and the corruption charges against him are linked and are connected to an ongoing power struggle between Kremlin "siloviki." on April 2 called it "particularly mysterious" that "Izvestia" went ahead and published its interview with Dovgy even though, as it admitted in the introduction to the interview, it has been unable to check back with him for a "final agreement" on the interview's text. suggested on April 3 that Dovgy was removed from his post because "not everyone at the top of the current Kremlin 'vertical of power'" liked what he said in the "Izvestia" interview. "If the conflict connected to the transfer of presidential power from Vladimir Putin to Dmitry Medvedev is acquiring such sharp forms, then the country can expect an extremely hot April, and not only in terms air temperature," the website commented. JB

Gagik Minasian, a senior deputy from the ruling Republican Party (HHK), on April 2 criticized the implementation of the 2008 state budget, Arminfo reported. Minasian, the chairman of the parliamentary committee on finance, credit, and budget affairs, warned during a Yerevan press conference that the implementation of the budget is "on the verge of failure" for the first time in six or seven years and that he expects that a set of forthcoming economic indicators will "turn out to be much worse than expected." He linked the expected budget shortfall to the country's postelection crisis and stressed that the budget is essential for important social reforms and to "solve problems facing socially vulnerable strata of society." RG

Hrant Markarian, a senior leader of the pro-government Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, on April 2 demanded "more influential positions" in the next cabinet, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Markarian explained that the party expects to "play a larger role" in the government of President-elect and current Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, citing the party's alliance with Sarkisian and its partnership in the country's four-party coalition, which it recently joined despite offering its own presidential candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). The party currently holds three ministerial posts in the outgoing cabinet -- agriculture, education, and social affairs. Markarian specifically identified positions in charge of security and the military or other major government agencies dealing with finance and the economy as the party's main goals. Commenting on the postelection crisis in the wake of the disputed February 19 presidential contest, Markarian accused the opposition of being part of "a foreign plot" seeking to stage "a pro-Western revolution" in Armenia, adding that unspecified external forces seek to weaken the country, which he said offers "fertile ground for external interference." RG

Sona Truzian, a spokeswoman for the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office, on April 2 accused opposition hunger strikers of exerting "pressure" on the official investigation of postelection violence, Arminfo reported. Truzian was referring to the April 1 announcement of a collective hunger strike by 19 opposition detainees, including former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian and former National Security Service deputy head Gurgen Yeghiazarian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2008). The hunger strike began on April 2, with the opposition detainees demanding to be released from jail and calling for an end to what they said were government repression against supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The hunger strikers vowed to continue their protest action until April 9, the set day of the official inauguration of President-elect Sarkisian. RG

Five people on April 2 joined the ongoing hunger strike being conducted by six Azerbaijani opposition journalists, Turan reported. Joining on the eighth day of the hunger strike, the five people included deputy Panakh Huseyn; opposition "Yeni Musavat" newspaper editor Rauf Arifoglu; the deputy chairman of the opposition People's Front of Azerbaijan Party, Fuad Mustafayev; the acting chairman of the Liberal Party, Avaz Temirxan, and Aydin Badalov, a 73-year-old resident of Baku. The hunger strike was launched on March 26 by the jailed editor of the "Realny Azerbaijan" newspaper, Eynulla Fatullayev, who is currently serving an 8 1/2-year jail sentence for terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred, and tax evasion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2007). The hunger strikers are demanding the release of convicted journalists and political prisoners and call on the OSCE, Council of Europe, and other international organizations to protect the freedoms of speech and the press in Azerbaijan. RG

In comments to reporters during the opening of the NATO summit in Bucharest, alliance spokesman James Appathurai said on April 2 that he does not expect Georgia and Ukraine "to be set on the path to NATO membership" at the summit, international media reported. The U.S. delegation has strongly supported offering Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP) as the next step toward full membership in the NATO alliance. In addition to vehement opposition by non-NATO member Russia, members France and Germany are also opposed to the step, arguing that the two countries do not meet NATO's criteria, Caucasus Press reported. Appathurai confirmed that NATO member states agreed that Albania and Croatia should be offered invitations to join the alliance, but noted that a Greek veto appears to be blocking an invitation for Macedonia. In remarks just prior to his departure for the Bucharest NATO summit, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili admitted that it is still not clear whether Georgia and Ukraine will be offered MAPs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2008). RG

Kazakh police on April 1 launched an investigation into an incident in Almaty in which three shots were fired at the office of the independent "Taszharghan" (Stonebreaker) newspaper during the night of March 31, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Ermurat Bapi, the founder of the newspaper, asserted that the shooting was "a warning" to the newspaper's staff, because of the paper's extensive coverage of "corruption and sensitive cases within the government." But he refused to accuse the Kazakh authorities and noted that "we cannot say that this was an action organized by the state to frighten us, because currently Kazakhstan is trying to promote an image of being for democratic reforms and is changing its laws and regulations accordingly." Bapi then added that "we don't think those in power would be interested in doing something like this." Bapi is a prominent figure in the country and has served as a senior editor for several independent newspapers in Kazakhstan for over a decade. He was convicted for falsification of documents and tax evasion in 2003 and received a one-year suspended prison sentence that also banned him from working as either an editor or journalist until 2009 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2003). In an unrelated development, independent Kazakh websites also reported on April 1 that independent journalist Bakhytzhan Mukushev died after spending seven months in a coma after being injured in an automobile accident. He is one of more than a half-dozen independent journalists in Kazakhstan to be killed or injured in auto accidents. RG

A Kazakh border-guard unit on April 2 stopped a Russian boat in Kazakh territorial waters and detained four crew members on suspicion of poaching sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to a press release on the incident issued by the Astana headquarters of the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB), the border guards discovered and seized "about 120 kilos of sturgeon" from the Russian vessel. Local environmentalists and international experts have warned that the Caspian Sea sturgeon, a highly prized source of caviar, remains in danger of extinction and faces increasing threats from offshore energy development, pollution, and inadequate efforts at conservation (see "Central Asia: Scientists Sound Alarm Over Caspian Sturgeon," September 23, 2005, RG

The head of the Kazakh SKAT aviation company, Vladimir Denisov, announced on April 2 the launch of a new airline route from Shymkent, the administrative center of the South Kazakhstan Oblast, to Urumqi, the administrative center of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Denisov noted that prior to the opening of the new route, flights from Kazakhstan to China were limited to the Almaty and Astana airports, and that "both options were inconvenient" for residents of the country's south. The new route held its inaugural flight on April 1. RG

Speaking to reporters in Bishkek at a meeting marking his first 100 days in office, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov warned on April 2 of an impending increase in prices for flour and grain, stressing that the country will be unable to "avoid price hikes," AKIpress reported. He said that the government "will supply flour at fixed prices to 290,000 poor families" and seeks to "prevent shortages and panic buying of grain." He also noted that the government has provided diesel fuel at reduced prices to farmers to operate their tractors and harvesters and extended 100 million soms (about $2.8 million) in low-interest agricultural credits to farmers. The government has also purchased a stockpile of some 50,000 tons of grain to contribute to a 90,000-ton state reserve as a measure to prevent future grain shortages. Chudinov also announced that the authorities are currently formulating a new law on food security aimed at consolidating and bolstering emergency measures to ensure minimum food supplies during crises. RG

At a press conference in Dushanbe, Pamela Spratlen, the country director for Central Asia in the State Department's Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, said on April 2 that she is in the country because the United States "is interested in developing multivector relations with Tajikistan," Asia-Plus reported. She added that she met with two key presidential advisers, Matlubkhon Davlatov and Erkin Rahmatulloev, and Deputy Foreign Minister Erkin Qosimov, to discuss plans to deepen bilateral relations. She is also expected to meet with the chief of the General Staff of the armed forces, General Ramil Nodirov, as well as civil-society representatives. She also highlighted the fact that "the U.S. government is implementing a number of exchange programs" as a way to promote mutual dialogue between Tajik and American youth. RG

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou said in Minsk on April 2 that the so-called Polish Charter Law, which was passed by the Polish parliament in September and went into effect as of March 29, was adopted "without preceding consultations with the government of Belarus," RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Papou disclosed that Minsk suggested that Warsaw impose a moratorium on the law pending a legal assessment by international experts -- in particular, by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission -- but Warsaw paid no heed. "In the current situation, there is no other choice [for Belarus] than to reserve the right to take adequate measures [in response]," Papou added. The law provides people of Polish origin living in the countries of the former Soviet Union with the right to apply for the Polish Charter. The holders of this charter will enjoy extensive privileges, including a free multientry visa and the right to work, set up a company, and study in Poland. The charter will be valid for 10 years and extended for a further 10 years upon application. According to Polish media reports last year, approximately 900,000 people of Polish descent live in Belarus. JM

Belarusian Ambassador to Lithuania Uladzimir Drazhyn said in Minsk on April 2 that Lithuanian banks are refusing to deal with Belarus's petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim, Belapan reported. According to Drazhyn, "four of Lithuania's nine leading banks" declined to do business with Belnaftakhim, forcing the company to turn to a "very weak bank that does not have enough lending resources or financial settlements centers." Drazhyn appealed to Belarusian National Bank Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich for help. "Many countries or, actually, a majority of countries are U.S. satellites. The Baltic states sacredly obey all [U.S.] orders, even oral ones, even illegal ones. Therefore, we should have this in mind while resolving problems," Prakapovich reportedly responded to Drazhyn. In November, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped financial sanctions against Belnaftakhim, prohibiting Americans from doing business with the company and freezing any assets it has under U.S. jurisdiction. The move triggered a diplomatic spat between Minsk and Washington, in which Minsk recalled its ambassador from Washington, "recommended" that the U.S. ambassador leave Minsk, and demanded mutual cuts in diplomatic personnel. JM

Belarus TV, a satellite channel run by the Belarusian State Television and Radio Company (BTRK), has started its broadcasts to North America, Belapan reported on April 2, quoting channel director Valery Radutski. According to Radutski, since March 28, the channel has been available to viewers in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala. Under a contract with the BTRK, France Telecom transmits Belarus TV to those countries via Galaxy 25 satellite in a package together with Russian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, and other channels. JM

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Bucharest on April 2 that the April 2-4 NATO summit in the Romanian capital is unlikely to put Georgia and Ukraine on a track for membership of the alliance, international media reported (see Part 1). Appathurai spoke after a working dinner for NATO heads of state and government at the summit. "The general sense was that Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine is a matter not of 'whether' but of 'when.' That was a shared sense around the table. The discussion will now continue on that basis," he said. "I'll be happy to be proven wrong, but for the moment, I do not expect Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine here at Bucharest," Appathurai added. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on April 3 canceled a decree issued by former President Leonid Kuchma on the appointment of Syuzanna Stanik as a judge of the Constitutional Court, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Yushchenko reportedly found that Kuchma's decree on Stanik's appointment, issued on March 25, 2004, involved procedural violations. On April 2, Yushchenko signed a decree reinstating Stanik as a judge of the Constitutional Court. Stanik was reinstated in accordance with a ruling by the Supreme Court on March 25. In May 2007, Yushchenko dismissed Stanik as well as Valeriy Pshenichnyy and Valeriy Ivashchenko as judges of the Constitutional Court for violating their oath of office. Stanik successfully challenged her dismissal in court. JM

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said on April 2 at the alliance's summit in Bucharest that "two of the three countries [namely Croatia and Albania] to enter the alliance are to be offered invitations to begin accession talks starting tomorrow," news agencies reported. He added that "there is also a shared -- indeed, unanimous view -- within the alliance that the third country -- the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia -- should as soon as possible be offered the opportunity to begin accession talks. But...the Greek delegation made it very clear that until the name issue is resolved -- it has not yet been resolved -- that that will not be possible" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 2007, and March 4, 2008). The name issue has bedeviled relations between the two countries ever since Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. It was admitted to the United Nations in 1993 under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Greece maintains that the name "Macedonia" alone implies a claim on the Greek province of the same name. Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha told Reuters in Bucharest on April 2 that a delay in membership for Macedonia would be "a very serious problem" for the Balkans as a whole. He argued that "the stability of [Macedonia] is very crucial for Albania, Kosova, Greece, Bulgaria, and all its neighbors. My fear is that radicals from all ethnicities [in Macedonia] could be strengthened" unless a compromise is found to enable it to join NATO. He said that NATO membership "guarantees freedom" and is secondary to his country only to independence. PM

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner said in an open letter that Serbia must cooperate with the EU in Kosova and stop hindering its work if it hopes to join the EU eventually, Reuters reported. Slovenia currently holds the rotating EU chair, which France will take over on July 1. They wrote that "one cannot at the same time aspire to join the EU and refuse to talk to its missions. Good regional cooperation is one of the conditions for EU aspirant countries, and this goes as well for Serbia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 29, March 28, and April 1, 2008). They stressed that "we will...insist firmly that Serbia refrain from any inflammatory rhetoric or activities which might endanger the security situation in the region." Meanwhile in Prishtina on April 2, Pieter Feith, who is the EU's and international community's chief representative in Kosova, approved the new constitution based on the plan drafted by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari. Feith said that "Kosovo will have a modern constitution guaranteeing full respect of individual and community rights, including those of Kosovo Serbs," who make up about 5 percent of the population. Kosova's 120-member parliament, which includes 10 seats reserved for the Serbs and 10 for other minorities, must now approve the document. It is slated to come into force on June 15. PM

The Russian news agency Interfax on April 3 quoted an unnamed "Kremlin source" as saying that developments in Kosova have yet to reach their "hottest phase" and that NATO is aware of it. He did not elaborate but alluded to the recent "provoked, spontaneous riots [by Serbs] in Mitrovica," which NATO, the United Nations, and even some Serbian officials say were orchestrated. Referring to the recent U.S. decision authorizing military assistance to Kosova, the source said that Washington "won't supply missile-defense systems, and nothing else would surprise Belgrade" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, and April 1 and 2, 2008). PM

The Iraqi government's operation in Al-Basrah was billed as a decisive battle to regain control of the southern city from what it called armed gangs and criminals. But the real focus of the operation seems to have been radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

The intense response by al-Sadr's followers across southern Iraq and Baghdad seemed to catch the government off-guard. As the violence and instability spread, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government faced what appeared to be a widespread insurrection. At that point, a military option did not seem feasible.

On March 30, after nearly a week of fighting, al-Sadr issued a nine-point statement calling on his followers not to attack government forces. He urged the government to stop its random raids on Sadrists, called for an amnesty for fighters in the Al-Mahdi Army, and the release of all imprisoned members of the Sadrist movement who have not been convicted of any crimes.

Several days after al-Sadr's cease-fire call, it emerged that Iran helped broker the truce that ended the bloodshed that left nearly 500 dead and 900 wounded. In the aftermath of the Al-Basrah conflict, Iran clearly emerged as the big winner.

Reports indicated as early as March 28 that a representative of al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party, Ali Adib, and Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), traveled to the Iranian city of Qom to meet with Iranian officials.

According to McClatchy Newspapers, the aim of the trip was twofold: to press al-Sadr to restrain his militia and to call on Iran's Qods Force to stop supplying weapons to Shi'ite fighters in Iraq. It was also revealed that the two men went to Iran without consulting with the prime minister.

Haidar al-Abadi, a member of Al-Da'wah, said that the delegation was from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which is dominated by Al-Da'wah and the ISCI, "and the prime minister was only informed. It was a political maneuver by us."

The role of Iran in brokering the truce clearly demonstrates the Islamic republic's influence in Iraq, particularly in the Shi'ite community. Based on what was discussed in Qom, Iran was playing both sides of the fence, as peace brokers and instigators of the violence.

While the military confrontation ended essentially in a stalemate, al-Sadr came away with a political victory. His militia remains intact and he has demonstrated that it can withstand a major assault by the Iraqi military.

The aftermath of the clashes also showed that al-Sadr still has control over his militia. There was much speculation that al-Sadr had lost control of the Al-Mahdi Army and that some breakaway factions were not heeding his authority. The Al-Basrah clashes and subsequent cease-fire demonstrated that he was still in charge.

While his militia were clearly not a passive actor in the Al-Basrah violence, their armed struggle was framed in the context of self-defense. The Iraqi security forces were seen as the aggressors in launching the military campaign, which many Sadrists described as politically motivated.

As it became clear during the Al-Basrah operation that the Al-Mahdi Army was the main target, al-Sadr continued to adhere to the truce he declared for the militia. The truce was instituted in August 2007 after his forces clashed with police in the holy city of Al-Najaf. There were concerns recently that the increased pressure on the Al-Mahdi Army might push al-Sadr to end the truce.

Maintaining the truce gave the appearance that al-Sadr was willing to place Iraq's benefits above his own political ambitions, which he stressed in the nine-point statement that led to the current cease-fire. In it, he supported Iraq's unity by calling for an "end to armed appearances in Al-Basrah and all other provinces."

Considering his bravado when his militia took on the U.S. military twice in 2004, al-Sadr's actions during the latest confrontation suggested his growing maturity as a political leader.

For al-Maliki, the results of the "Battle for Al-Basrah" were certainly humiliating, given that he personally oversaw the military campaign. Al-Maliki hoped to erase the perception that he is a weak and ineffectual leader, particularly in dealing with al-Sadr and his militia. However, soon after the operation began, it was apparent that al-Maliki greatly overestimated the abilities of his forces and underestimated the tenacity of al-Sadr's militia.

Al-Maliki had vowed to crush the Shi'ite militias, armed gangs, and criminals that effectively controlled the city for three years. He initially gave all armed elements in Al-Basrah 72 hours to disarm, but after this was ignored, the deadline was extended to 10 days, coupled with an offer of cash in exchange for weapons.

In an operation that was planned to be completed quickly, Iraqi security forces were met with strong resistance from al-Sadr's militia, despite U.S. air support. Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Jasim admitted on March 28 that the government was "surprised" by the militia's resistance and the government's battle plan and tactics had to be altered.

More troubling for al-Maliki, "Al-Azzam" reported on March 31 that several thousand police officers refused to fight the militia and two Iraqi Army regiments reportedly defected to the Sadrists. If numerous acts of insubordination and desertion indeed took place during the operation, this would indicate the low level of morale among the security forces.

In the end, al-Maliki declared the operation a "success." However, his words may ring hollow since he failed to disarm and crush al-Sadr's militia, and this may have weakened him politically in the eyes of his ruling Shi'ite alliance.

The revelation that members of his own Shi'ite alliance, including from his own Al-Da'wah Party, went to Iran against his wishes to broker a truce further undercuts his authority and ultimately his credibility.

U.S. support for the Al-Basrah operation has become considerably more muted since it was first launched. On March 30, CIA Director Michael Hayden told NBC News that he had no prior knowledge that the Iraqi government planned to launch such a campaign. In fact, he even indicated that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus were also left in the dark about the operation.

This could be a sign of tacit disapproval of al-Maliki's handling of the operation as well as the administration distancing itself from it in order to offset any potential embarrassment before Crocker and Petraeus testify before Congress in June.

The failure of the operation also makes clear that the Iraqi military is far from prepared to take over responsibility for security. This does not bode well for the United States, since it is an indication that troop reductions maybe further delayed.

Al-Sadr's performance again shows that the young cleric is a major political force in Iraq who cannot be ignored. Many saw the Al-Basrah campaign as a means of weakening al-Sadr before the provincial elections now set for the fall. Now it seems that he may be a long-term political player and the United States may have to work with him, whether it likes it or not.

Finally, in terms of Iran, the United States can't be too pleased that Tehran was where Iraqi Shi'ite leaders turned to in a crisis -- yet another stark indication of the growing Iranian influence in Iraq.

At a press conference ahead of the NATO summit in Romania on April 2, President George W. Bush called on alliance members to send more troops to Afghanistan, Reuters reported the same day. "We expect our NATO allies to shoulder the burden necessary to succeed," Bush said. "The question nations have to ask is, is it worth it? My answer is absolutely it's worth it." NATO allies expect the summit to confirm that the alliance's 47,000-strong force will stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to defeat the Taliban insurgency. Although President Nicolas Sarkozy earlier indicated France could increase its forces there, it has since played down expectations that it will deploy an additional 1,000 soldiers to its 1,500-strong force. But French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on April 1 that Paris is planning to send several hundred more troops. It is not clear if that would be enough to satisfy a Canadian demand for reinforcements in the south. AT

On the sidelines of the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2, President Hamid Karzai blamed a British newspaper report for forcing him to block the appointment of British politician Paddy Ashdown as the UN's envoy in Afghanistan, "The Times" of London reported. Karzai said that he blocked the nomination "with a very heavy heart" and blamed "The Times" for his decision (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). When pressed about the decision, Karzai said: "I did not 'veto' the appointment of Ashdown. Unfortunately, stories appeared in the London 'Times,' in extremely 'ethnic' terms," and without explaining he added, "It was not true." "The Times" wrote in an editorial on January 16 that Ashdown's appointment would carry "echoes of a British colonial-style governor." It also described Karzai's position as "precarious" and that "ethnically, he is a lonely Pashtun in a government made up largely of Tajik veterans of the Northern Alliance." There was also speculation that Ashdown requested a wide-ranging mandate coordinating between NATO forces, relief groups, and the government in Kabul, which Karzai could have seen as threatening his authority as president. AT

A group of 70 women demonstrated in Kabul on April 2 against an Dutch film attacking the Koran and the reprinting of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, AP reported the same day. The women, most of whom were wearing burqas, chanted slogans against the two countries outside the Ministry of Information and Culture. They burned the Dutch and Danish flags, demanded that the government cut diplomatic ties with the two countries, and called on Danish and Dutch troops to leave Afghanistan. The 15-minute film by a Dutch lawmaker portrays Islam as targeting Western democracy with violence, and urges Muslims "to tear out the hateful verses from the Koran" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18 and 20, 2008). AT

According to a local newspaper on April 2, the Afghan government will consider putting three mines up for bidding for private-sector exploration, China's Xinhua news agency reported the same day. "The Ministry for Mines is going to hand over some oil and gas fields of northern Jauzjan and Sar-e Pul provinces and an iron mine of Hajjigak in central Bamiyan Province to the private sector this year," the daily "Rah-e-Nejat" quoted Mines Minister Ibrahim Adil as saying. Adil added that nearly 100,000 Afghans would find jobs if the project is implemented. AT

China recently gave the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) information on Iran's nuclear program, in spite of its apparently friendlier attitude toward Iran's nuclear activities, AP reported on April 2. China and Russia, two veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, have generally opposed harsh punitive sanctions on Iran for its continued nuclear fuel-making activities, which the West suspects could be used to produce weapons. AP observed that China's move suggests growing international concern with Iran's activities, and cited two unnamed diplomats following IAEA activities in Vienna as the sources revealing the Chinese initiative. According to the news agency, China is one of an increasing number of countries or sources that have since February given the IAEA information relevant to its investigations of past and ongoing Iranian nuclear activities. The IAEA has been investigating the information to check its veracity. The agency presented its 35-member governing board with a multimedia presentation in February of information received thus far on Iran's nuclear activities, which reportedly increased concerns about Iran among IAEA member states, AP reported. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on April 2 that he hopes the next 12 months constitute a year of "great changes in the world" and "great progress" in Iran, and he urged innovations in Iran to "remove obstacles" to a flourishing economy, IRNA reported. He predicted leaps in advanced technologies, agriculture, and industry in Iran. The head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, separately expressed hope that the Persian year to March 2009 will witness advances in the naval and ballistic-missile sectors, IRNA reported. He said Iran is secure, despite the presence of hostile foreign powers around it and "regional enemies." VS

The Guardians Council, the unelected 12-member body of jurists and clerics that must confirm all election results in Iran, has confirmed results for the March 14 parliamentary elections in 21 more constituencies across the Iran, IRNA reported on April 2. The council previously confirmed results in 136 constituencies, despite objections by reformists who expressed doubts about the regularity of vote counting in some constituencies. There are 207 constituencies and 290 parliamentary seats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). VS

Iranian specialists have recently discussed with Radio Farda the impact of UN sanctions on Iran's businessmen and its efforts to avoid diplomatic isolation. Geneva-based academic Mohammad Reza Jalili said Iranian trade and business are feeling the impact of reduced banking ties between Iran and the EU. Iran is currently under UN sanctions intended to force it to stop sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities, though it maintains working relations with the EU, Radio Farda reported on April 2. Researcher and former Berlin University lecturer Mehran Barati said that in addition to instructions given them by governments, European banks and financial institutions are themselves restricting transactions with Iranian parties to those worth less than $50 million. Mohammad Reza Jalili told Radio Farda that Iran-EU ties remain "an essential aspect of Iran's foreign policy, and are of importance to both sides" but that some states that formerly had "relatively suitable ties" have "taken their distance from Iran." He cited France after the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy as an example. Iran's southern neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, has also in recent months blocked Iran's attempts to use its banking facilities to offset Western restrictions, despite the impression of cordiality Persian Gulf states attempt to maintain in their ties with Iran, Radio Farda quoted London-based observer Mehrdad Khansari as saying. Iran's bid to expand ties with ostensibly nonaligned states in Africa and Latin America are meanwhile politically motivated and have proved more costly than beneficial, another analyst told Radio Farda. Shahin Fatemi, a lecturer at the American University in Paris, said Iran's expanded ties with states like Venezuela and Bolivia are "ideological" and "anti-American," and "have had and will have no benefits for Iran, except that some of the oil revenues that should have been spent on improving the lives of deprived classes [in Iran] are used" as "political bribes" to assure these countries' support for Iran internationally. But Fatemi said that "with these three resolutions...issued [by the UN Security Council] we have seen effectively that at the decision-making stage, Latin American and African countries...sided with America." VS

A roadside bomb struck a convoy carrying two Iraqi generals as they were traveling through the southern city of Al-Basrah on April 2, Iraqi and international media reported. The bomb exploded as Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Muhammad al-Askari, and the commander of Al-Basrah operations, Lieutenant General Muhan al-Firayji, were traveling through the city's Al-Hayyaniyah neighborhood. The area is known as a stronghold of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Both men were unhurt and no other injuries were reported. For nearly a week, Al-Basrah was the scene of intense clashes between the militia and Iraqi security forces. During an interview with Al-Arabiyah satellite television, al-Askari said his convoy was not specifically targeted, instead he believed that the bomb was old ordinance that was not previously detected. He added that the security situation in the city has stabilized and is returning to normal. "The situation has greatly improved and citizens are very cooperative. In addition, 80 to 90 percent of the armed manifestations have disappeared, but there are some exceptions here and there.... We are not saying that the security situation is perfect, but life is going back to normal," al-Askari said. SS

At an April 2 press conference, U.S. military spokesman General Kevin Bergner praised the Iraqi government's initiative to restore order in the southern city of Al-Basrah (see End Note), news agencies reported. "Iraq's security ultimately requires Iraqi solutions, and during the past 10 days the government of Iraq asserted the legitimate authority of the state against criminal gangs that threaten the peace and stability of the people of Al-Basrah," Bergner said. However, he stressed that the government still has much work to do in order to improve the strength and capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. "Overall the majority of Iraqi security forces performed well, though some were not up to the task and the government of Iraq is taking the necessary actions in those cases," Bergner added. On April 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki proclaimed the Al-Basrah operation a "success" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2008). During the more than weeklong campaign, there were reports that some Iraqi policemen and soldiers refused to engage fighters belonging to the Al-Mahdi Army, with some reportedly even defecting to the militia. SS

Defense Secretary Des Browne announced on April 1 that Britain has delayed plans to withdraw 1,500 troops from Iraq after the recent fighting between the Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militias in Al-Basrah, international media reported the same day. Last year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown outlined a plan to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq from 4,000 to 2,500. Browne said that given the current situation, it would be "prudent " to delay any troop withdrawals. "At this stage we intend to keep our forces at their current levels of around 4,000 as we work with our coalition partners and with the Iraqis to assess future requirements," Browne said. He gave no timetable for the reduction in British troops in the future, but said he will update Parliament later this month. SS

The Iraqi government formally made its case to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to be fast-tracked into the organization during a April 2 meeting at WTO headquarters in Geneva, international media reported. Trade Minister Abd al-Falah al-Sudani told several diplomats that Iraq's ascension to the WTO would help strengthen the its long-term stability. "Iraq has suffered a lot because of wars and blockades, and is in dire need [of] your support in accelerating its accession to the WTO," al-Sudani said. "Iraq will be an active and positive member of the world community and its integration in the international community will help in creating stability and faster development in the country," he added. He also stressed that Iraq's membership would "represent a significant addition to the world community's effort toward the expansion of trade and investment." For their part, WTO members requested more information on Iraqi pricing policy, investment rules, import licenses, customs law, state enterprises, tariff regulations, free zones, and telecommunications infrastructure. SS

The U.S. State Department announced on April 1 that the number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States rose dramatically in March, AP reported the same day. The State Department said 751 Iraqi refugees entered the country in March, up from 444 in February and 375 in January. The latest count puts the total number of Iraqi refugees admitted for the current budget year, which began on October 1, 2007, at 2,627. However, the number still fell short off the pace of the U.S. target of 12,000 refugees to be admitted by the end of September. Jacob Kurtzer of Refugees International said the increase was a welcome sign. "We were very pleased that there's such a substantial improvement. I think it highlights that the capacity exists to continue to improve the numbers," he said. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on April 2 that the government will allocate $100 million for the upcoming provincial elections, "Aswat al-Iraq" reported. "The Iraqi cabinet agreed to allocate $100 million to cover the expenses of the Independent Election Commission during the provincial-council elections of 2008," al-Dabbagh said. He added that the money will be taken from "emergency funds." On March 31, Prime Minister al-Maliki unveiled a security plan specifically for the provincial elections, set for October 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2008). The plan includes deploying a large contingent of Iraqi security forces in each governorate in order to maintain security and having each governorate hold elections on different days. SS