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Newsline - April 4, 2008

Several West European countries led by Germany and France succeeded at the NATO Bucharest summit on April 3 in blocking moves by the United States and some of the alliance's newer members to offer Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is an important stage on the road to full membership, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 31, and April 1, 2, and 3, 2008, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). German and other opponents of the MAPs made it clear that they were guided at least in part by a reluctance to offend Russia, which firmly opposes NATO expansion. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said nonetheless that "NATO welcomes Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO." Alliance members proved less sympathetic to Moscow's concerns over the proposed U.S. missile-defense system, components of which are scheduled to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic. De Hoop Scheffer said that the "allies agreed...that there is a threat and that allied security must be indivisible in the face of it. They recognized the substantial contribution that the planned United States [missile-defense] system will provide and have decided to task NATO to develop options for a comprehensive missile-defense architecture to extend coverage to all allied territory and population not otherwise covered by the U.S. system." U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the decision a "breakthrough agreement" for NATO. She said the alliance "also asked Russia to stop its criticism" of the project. U.S. and Czech officials said on April 3 they reached an agreement on stationing a U.S. radar site in the Czech Republic. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said that "it's an agreement with us and entirely up to us to agree if Russian, or other officers, or Americans come onto Czech soil" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, and March 7 and 20, 2008). Russian President Vladimir Putin is attending a closed meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on April 4. Earlier, he and de Hoop Scheffer signed an "exchange of letters on the ground transit of supplies for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan through Russian territory," Interfax reported. Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush will meet in Sochi on April 6. PM

"The Moscow Times" reported on April 4 that the "public reaction from Russian officials [to the NATO summit decisions the previous day] was relatively reserved, with Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko reiterating earlier statements that membership for Georgia and Ukraine would be 'a huge strategic mistake, which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security.'" The daily noted that "Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, said the decision demonstrated a 'responsible attitude.' Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said the decision to wait on Ukraine and Georgia was expected, and that Kyiv and Tbilisi will experience delays on the path ahead." He told "Kommersant" of April 4 that Russian officials "accepted calmly" the Bucharest decisions, adding that in Moscow "there were no cheers or uncorked champagne bottles, nor will there be." He noted that there is a possibility there will be no final statement after the NATO-Russia Council meeting, but added that "there is no need to dramatize" the matter. Rogozin said that "we have to dramatize only when they do not listen to us or understand us." He criticized NATO's decision not to have President Putin make a formal speech to the council as an effort to "gag him.... But Putin is a creative person. He will always find a way to have his say" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2008). on April 4 noted that NATO indeed appeared to be "gagging" Putin, but quoted unnamed Kremlin sources as saying that Putin's remarks will be "restrained." Also on April 4, ITAR-TASS quoted an unnamed "high-ranking Kremlin official" as saying that "whatever we say, the role of NATO as a stabilizing organization objectively exists, as does the striving of some states to join this organization. We proceed from the fact that more close, open, and equal cooperation with NATO is in keeping with Russia's interests. The question is how our interests are taken into account in this cooperation." But Sergei Ryabkov, who heads the Foreign Ministry's department for European cooperation, said in Moscow on April 4 that "we have new concerns about plans to integrate U.S. missile-defense plans with NATO system.... We can't sit by and watch how they...[change] the security situation for Russia," news agencies reported. PM

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is negotiating with Russia for a $800 million loan to buy four Kilo-class diesel submarines as part of a deal concluded earlier this year, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 4. Chavez has emerged in recent years as a well-publicized customer for the Russian arms industry, seeking products ranging from Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles to submarines and jet aircraft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28 and 29, July 2, August 16 and 21, October 30, and December 6, 2007). In its unconfirmed report, "Kommersant" speculated on April 4 that Russia's Vneshekonombank is the most likely source of a possible loan to Chavez, who has presumably overstretched himself through foreign and domestic spending projects and economic mismanagement. The daily suggested that he will sign the deal when he attends the inauguration of President-elect Dmitry Medvedev in May. "Kommersant" added that "observers say the loan is a risky one. Chavez has active opposition in Venezuela that has tried to overthrow him repeatedly and come close to succeeding. He is not expected to go to war with anyone. As one Russian official commented, 'he simply likes saber-rattling.'" PM

Self-exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky on March 3 denied allegations made by Dmitry Dovgy, a senior Investigative Committee official under investigation for possible corruption, that Berezovsky ordered the October 2006 killing of "Novaya gazeta" correspondent Anna Politkovskaya "through" Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, a former Chechen field commander and reputed crime boss (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, and April 2, and 3, 2008). "The Moscow Times" on April 4 quoted Berezovsky as denying Dovgy's allegations, made during an interview with "Izvestia," and saying that he could not remember ever meeting Nukhayev, whom prosecutors say ordered the 2004 slaying of U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov in Moscow. "The person who ordered [Politkovskaya's] murder is in the Kremlin," the English-language daily quoted Berezovsky as saying by telephone from London. In an April 3 interview with Ekho Moskvy, Berezovsky called Dovgy's charges "absolutely unfounded" and said Dovgy made them on the instructions of the Russian authorities. "It's another attempt to lead the investigation away from a search for the persons who really ordered the crime," Berezovsky told the radio station. on April 3 quoted Ekho Moskvy commentator Yulia Latynina as saying that Dovgy gave the interview to get public opinion on his side and that Berezovsky was not involved in Politkovskaya's killing. JB

Several of the late Anna Politkovskaya's former colleagues from "Novaya gazeta" denounced Dovgy's claims that Boris Berezovsky and Nukhayev were behind her death. "The Moscow Times" on April 4 quoted Sergei Sokolov, a deputy editor at "Novaya gazeta," which is conducting its own investigation into the murder, as chastising Dovgy for "using [Politkovskaya] in the battle for high-level positions within the law enforcement agencies." Sokolov called Dovgy's allegations "pure beastliness." The editor in chief of "Novaya gazeta," Dmitry Muratov, told Ekho Moskvy on April 3 that in naming those who allegedly ordered Politkovskaya's killing before the case went to trial, Dovgy has committed an "official crime." Muratov said that Dovgy and other law enforcement officials are using Politkovskaya to enhance their careers. "By mentioning the names of Berezovsky [and] Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, they are presenting the authorities with proof of their loyalty," Muratov said. He added, "In the next issues of the newspaper we will...expose the mutual relations between the Politkovskaya's potential killers and the law enforcement organs and special services that became known to us as a result of our investigation." JB

Moscow city police have denied a newspaper report that tax-evasion charges have been filed against Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder and the fund's general manager, Ivan Cherkasov, "The Moscow Times" reported on April 4. "Kommersant" reported on April 3 that the investigative unit of the Interior Ministry's main directorate for the Central Federal District had charged Browder and Cherkasov with large-scale tax evasion and quoted police as saying they would ask a court for an arrest warrant for the two men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2008). However, "The Moscow Times" quoted Moscow city police spokeswoman Anzhela Katuyeva as saying, "The Moscow police issued no arrest warrant for Browder and no tax-evasion case is pending against him as far as we know." "The Daily Telegraph" reported on April 4 that Russia's Interior Ministry has issued a "firm denial" of the "Kommersant" story, saying, "The investigative unit of the Interior Ministry brought no charges against William Browder." The British newspaper also reported that according to Hermitage, "a senior Russian police officer at the Interior Ministry aided by other law enforcement officials -- all suspected to be connected to the Russian mafia," had tried to steal at least $360 million from the company. According to "The Moscow Times," Hermitage responded to the "Kommersant" story by circulating a 61-page dossier rebutting the allegations and accusing some Interior Ministry officials of a "campaign of harassment" against the company. The dossier called the tax case against Browder, who was barred from entering Russia in November 2005, "a personal attack" on him for "fighting against corrupt officials in Russia." It also said that Browder asked First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev at the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos for his personal help in restoring Browder's visa and that Medvedev offered Browder his support. "The Moscow Times" quoted an unnamed Hermitage representative as saying the company decided to release the dossier following a tip from a "Kommersant" reporter that unnamed Interior Ministry officials were leaking information. JB

The State Duma on April 4 approved in the third and final reading amendments to the constitutional law on referendums imposing new restrictions on holding national referendums. The Duma voted 363-8 in favor of the amendments, which, AP reported, effectively bar referendums on issues such as the national budget, taxation, or treaties. quoted State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who heads the Duma's dominant Unified Russia faction, as telling journalists he was against certain "political forces" using the idea of a referendum to "destabilize the political situation." According to the website, the changes mean the Central Election Commission will have the authority to determine whether a proposed referendum complies with the constitution. If the commission rules that a referendum does not comply with the constitution, then the Russian Supreme Court will ask the Constitutional Court for a ruling, and the Constitutional Court's decision on whether or not the referendum should be held will be final. The amendments were strongly opposed by Communist Party legislators, who, according to AP, walked out before the vote in protest, saying it deprived Russians of a voice in deciding issues of national importance. In response to the Communist walkout, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested the Communist Party should be banned. JB

An unsigned Russian Interior Ministry statement announced on April 2 that Russian security forces seized an arms cache in the village of Ulus-Kert in Chechnya's Shatoysky district, Regnum reported. The arms cache included small arms and explosives. In cooperation with Russian forces, local Chechen police also arrested a suspected Chechen militant in the Shelkovsk region the same day. The 24-year-old suspect is believed to be a former member of a Chechen band of fighters commanded by Uvais Akhmadov. A second man, a 51-year-old resident of the village of Ishchersk in the Naursk region, was also arrested for allegedly providing aid to Chechen militant forces. RG

In a joint statement, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the OSCE's Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) criticized on April 2 the Armenian parliament's recent passage of new restrictions on public rallies and demonstrations, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. According to the statement, experts from the two groups submitted a detailed analysis of the legislation to the Armenian authorities last week, which noted that, "on the basis of a preliminary assessment, the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR Expert Panel on Freedom of Assembly do not consider the proposed amendments to be acceptable, to the extent that they restrict further the right of assembly in a significant fashion." The Armenian parliament hastily enacted the controversial amendments on March 17, four days before the end of a state of emergency imposed by President Robert Kocharian in the wake of the disputed February 19 presidential election. The Venice Commission and ODIHR are planning on sending officials to Yerevan to review their findings with the Armenian authorities in talks set for April 15-16. But Rafik Petrosian, the chairman of the parliament's Legal Affairs Committee, said on April 3 that the newly amended law "will not be repealed in the near future because they are important for the security of our state and people and for public order." The new law granted the authorities the power to ban rallies and demonstrations determined to seek a "violent overthrow of constitutional order" or that pose a threat to "state security, public order, public health, and morality." RG

President-elect and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian reaffirmed on April 3 his personal commitment and support for the peace process seeking to reach a negotiated resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Sarkisian's comments came during a meeting with the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Bucharest. A follow-up statement issued in Yerevan by the government's press service added that Sarkisian "reaffirmed Armenia's readiness to resolve the conflict by peaceful means, within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group and on the basis of the document currently on the table." That document, which formulates the latest version of the basic principles and parameters of a settlement to the conflict, was formally submitted to Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in November 2007. It proposes a staged or phased approach that would defer the issue of the eventual status of Nagorno-Karabakh to the last stage of the peace process. The OSCE co-chairs held a separate meeting during the NATO summit on April 2 with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, later characterized by Aliyev's foreign-policy chief, Novruz Mammadov, as "quite tense." For his part, the U.S. co-chair, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, optimistically asserted that "the process is moving forward" and expressed hope that Aliyev will meet the incoming Armenian leader after Sarkisian's inauguration, which is set for April 9. RG

President Mikheil Saakashvili said on April 3 that Georgia received "more than we had hoped for" at the NATO summit when the alliance decided that day not to extend Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP), but pledged eventual membership, Georgian Television reported. Saakashvili explained that even without the MAP, NATO had committed itself to "direct obligations" that Georgia would at some later become a full NATO member. He also said that there was a strong chance that Georgia would be granted a MAP at the NATO foreign-ministerial summit set for December 2008. For his part, Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze added that Georgia has, nonetheless, reached a "new stage" in relations with NATO and asserted that NATO has provided Georgia with "a direct political commitment" for eventual NATO membership. Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze further vowed that Georgia "will continue following the Western path and implementing reforms." RG

At a meeting with Kyrgyz Education and Science Minister Ishengul Boljurova in Bishkek, President Kurmanbek Bakiev said on April 3 that he has decided to reject plans to switch from the Cyrillic script to a new Latin-based one, ITAR-TASS reported. Bakiev explained that his decision stems from the financial costs of such a switch, but added that he was also concerned that such a move would pose "a risk that the quality of education will worsen sharply in our country." Several prominent politicians, including the head of the state commission on developing the Kyrgyz language, Tashboo Jumagulova, have strongly advocated switching the Kyrgyz language to the Latin script, noting that Kyrgyzstan is in danger of becoming the only Turkic country in the world that uses Cyrillic. According to preliminary estimates by the Education and Science Ministry, the initial cost of a language switch would be about 5 billion soms ($140 million). The ministry also argued that Kyrgyzstan "must switch over" from Cyrillic to Latin "gradually," however. RG

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon convened an emergency cabinet meeting in Dushanbe on April 3 to review new measures to combat a serious locust infestation that has spread to over 50,000 hectares over the past few days, ITAR-TASS reported. The infestation has been attributed to a disruption of the insects' usual seasonal migration pattern by the unusually early onset of hot weather. Rahmon issued instructions to use airplanes to spray toxic chemicals and insecticides and to seek technical assistance from international organizations to combat the locusts. RG

Speaking on April 3 at the NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov stressed Turkmenistan's deepening ties with NATO, Turkmen Television reported. He also highlighted his country's "neutral role" but noted its "partnership" with NATO, pointing to cooperation in the areas of civil defense, counterterrorism, border security, and combating drug trafficking. Berdymukhammedov also hailed Turkmenistan's contributions to establishing "peace and security" in Afghanistan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov also addressed the NATO summit on April 3, praising "NATO's progressive transformation into a political structure," which he said provided an "impetus to the further development and strengthening of Euro-Atlantic partnership," the Uzbek state-owned National News Agency reported. Karimov also noted that Uzbekistan is increasingly engaged in several "promising areas of constructive cooperation with NATO" and called for bolstering efforts to help stabilize Afghanistan, which he identified as "still a locus of threat to the world community." Uzbekistan has been working with NATO since 1994 within the framework of the Partnership for Peace program. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a conference with senior military officials in Minsk on April 3 that Belarus must boost its defense capabilities in order to defend the union state with Russia, Belarusian state-run media reported. "In defending Belarus, we are defending the western border of the union state. The treaty with Russia is sacred," Lukashenka noted. He also expressed his concern at the possible expansion of NATO into the post-Soviet area. "We cannot simply sit back and say that everything around us is peaceful, that there are no problems around Belarus," Lukashenka said. "The NATO bloc has set its sights on former Soviet republics. I believe it is a matter of time before Ukraine and Georgia join NATO. No one is taking any heed of the position of Russia, Belarus, and other post-Soviet republics." JM

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou told journalists in Minsk on April 3 that the government's recommendation that the Unites States further reduce the staff of its embassy in Minsk remains in force, Belapan reported. Papou stressed that Minsk demands that the U.S. sanctions against Belarusian economic entities be lifted, which he added will be the "basis for the development of Belarusian-American relations." Commenting on Minsk's recent demand that both sides cut their embassies' personnel to 17 people, Papou said it was of a "retaliatory nature," but added that the move was in full accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The previous day, Belarus called on the United States to reduce its diplomatic personnel even more. "We consider it expedient to use the formula of one plus six, under which one ambassador and six diplomats will work at the Belarusian Embassy in the United States. We expect the U.S. to adhere to the principle of parity," Deputy Foreign Minister Viktar Haysyonak said on April 2. JM

The Berlin-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation is to close its office in Belarus in the near future, Belapan reported on April 3, citing the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh). The BAZh quoted Stefan Chrobot, the fund's regional director for Ukraine and Belarus, as saying that the move was caused by "conditions that have changed in Belarus and steps by the authorities." German Ambassador to Belarus Gebhardt Weiss told Belapan that the closure of the foundation's office in Minsk should not be regarded as a German move to curtail relations with Belarus. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation is a political nonprofit organization that carries out various projects in some 100 countries. In Belarus, the foundation has been working since 1997 for the declared purpose of assistance in establishing democratic civil society in the country. JM

NATO leaders meeting in Bucharest on April 3 rejected a proposal to grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans (MAP) to put them on a fast track to NATO membership, but unanimously pledged that both countries will eventually join the alliance, international news agencies reported. "NATO welcomes Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on April 3, promising that NATO foreign ministers may consider offering the MAPs in December. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko hailed the Bucharest summit's decision as a "victory" for Ukraine. "Today Ukraine has essentially broken the sound barrier. A decision has been made about Ukraine's historic prospect for NATO membership. Secondly, all [NATO member] states without exception have positively assessed Ukraine's application for the MAP," Yushchenko noted in Bucharest on April 3. At a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission in Bucharest on April 4, Yushchenko said he is confident that Ukraine will be offered a MAP in December. JM

Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the opposition Party of Regions, told a 5,000-strong anti-NATO rally in Kyiv on April 3 that Ukraine should not "become hostage to political games," Ukrainian media reported. "Today, we should not allow the policy of cooperation to be replaced by the idea of joining a military-political bloc against the will of the Ukrainian people," Yanukovych said. "[The government's] policy poses a threat of destabilization not only in Ukraine, but also in Europe. The balance that has been established on the European continent should not be broken. There is no room in Europe for new dividing lines or military blocs hostile to each other," he added. Some 6,000 people gathered for a similar rally in Donetsk, Yanukovych's political stronghold. JM

In an article published in "Izvestiya" on April 4, Russian writer and Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn condemned the attempts by contemporary Ukrainian politicians to convince the international community that the famine of the 1930s in the Soviet Union, which in Ukraine is called Holodomor, was genocide of the Ukrainian nation orchestrated by the Bolshevik leadership. "This provocative outcry about 'genocide' started to germinate decades later -- first secretly, in the musty chauvinistic minds fiercely predisposed against the Moskals [Ukrainian pejorative term for Russians] and now it has been elevated to the top government level in contemporary Ukraine -- does this mean that they have outdone even the Bolshevik propaganda mongers with their rakish juggling?" Solzhenitsyn wrote. JM

NATO leaders agreed on April 3 at their Bucharest summit to offer membership invitations to Albania and Croatia, RFE/RL South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said that "we value this task above all as a great responsibility of my nation toward your nations to carry out every reform, and adopt and implement any decision [or] law to attain and consolidate the political, social, economic, and military standards of NATO member states." Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said that "NATO is once again making history by taking the lead in bringing Southeast Europe into Euro-Atlantic structures.... It is also an additional incentive to assist and support our neighboring region in its aspirations toward NATO and the European Union." Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki and his delegation walked out of the meeting after being told that Greece succeeded in vetoing Macedonia's application because of the perennial name dispute between the two states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4 and 28, and April 3, 2008). He told reporters that "Greece's irrelevant argument from ancient times won over the serious needs of the [western Balkan] region.... We sincerely appreciate and we're very grateful for all the efforts the U.S. administration and President [George W.] Bush personally have made for the application of Macedonia for NATO membership. And that's our greatest capital in the strategic relations between Macedonia and the United States." Bush said that "Albania and Croatia...have demonstrated the ability and the willingness to provide strong, enduring contributions to NATO. Both have undertaken challenging political, economic, and defense reforms. Both have deployed their forces on NATO missions." He added that "we regret that we were not able to reach consensus today to invite Macedonia to join the alliance. Macedonia has made difficult reforms at home. It is making major contributions to NATO missions abroad. The name issue needs to be resolved quickly so that Macedonia can be welcomed into NATO as soon as possible." NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer expressed similar views. He added that "there is agreement to invite Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro to begin an Intensified Dialogue on the full range of political, military, financial, and security issues relating to their aspirations.... And it goes without saying that the allies are open to deepening our cooperation with Serbia as well." PM

Judge Alphons Orie at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague announced on April 3 that the court found Kosova's former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and his associate Idriz Balaj not guilty of war crimes in 1998 against Serbs, Roma, and alleged ethnic-Albanian collaborators with the Serbian authorities of President Slobodan Milosevic, regional and international media reported. The tribunal found that the two men's Black Eagles unit of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) committed crimes but that the "murders and attacks were not on a scale or of a frequency to conclude that there was an attack on the civilian population." The court similarly dismissed major charges against Haradinaj's uncle, Lahi Brahimaj, but nonetheless sentenced him to six years for personally taking part in the cruel treatment of individual prisoners. Haradinaj said in a statement that "this is a verdict that strengthens Kosova. We endured a difficult liberation struggle that cost many lives. Today we are a free and sovereign nation." In Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said that the ICTY's "dark decision" proves that it is "not interested in justice." PM

On April 3, ministers loyal to President Boris Tadic blocked moves in the Serbian caretaker cabinet of Prime Minister Kostunica to start ratification procedures on an energy deal with Russia, which the two leaders signed in Moscow earlier this year, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). A new vote will be held once a cabinet is formed after the May 11 general elections. Critics say that the agreement sells off Serbia's state oil monopoly NIS for a fraction of its market value to pay back a political debt to Russia for its political support over Kosova. In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that he hopes that the hold-up is purely "technical" in nature. PM

France says it will send an additional battalion of troops to eastern Afghanistan in a move that will allow the United States to shift forces from the east to the south and meet Canada's demand for help in the fight against the Taliban in the volatile southern provinces.

The arrangement was announced in Bucharest, where NATO heads of state are discussing how to revamp and bolster the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. NATO leaders met behind closed doors on April 3 to discuss details of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to send additional French troops to Afghanistan.

France already has about 1,500 soldiers in Afghanistan. Since 2006, most have been deployed in or around Kabul, where the threat of Taliban violence is significantly lower than in southern provinces like Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, and Zabul. Sarkozy, under pressure from the United States and Canada, confirmed that France will send an additional battalion to eastern Afghanistan. (A battalion typically numbers about 700 or 800 soldiers.) French officials have mentioned various numbers as to the exact quantity of reinforcements they would send.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters late on April 2 that France will send "a substantial military contribution" to Afghanistan. "I can confirm that the French government has offered a substantial military contribution to the operation in Afghanistan; they have made that offer for the east of the country," he said. "The United States has, building on that offer, agreed to offer troops to the south. These troops will meet Canada's requirement for a partner in the south that will allow Canada, with the necessary contributions also in terms of equipment -- to extend its mission in Afghanistan until 2011."

Canada currently has about 2,500 soldiers in the southern province of Kandahar -- the scene of some of the fiercest fighting against Taliban militants during the past two years. But Canada's parliament has threatened to withdraw those troops next year unless other NATO countries send at least 1,000 additional combat troops to help with the fight in Kandahar.

The Pentagon has sent 3,500 U.S. Marines for a seven-month deployment to Kandahar in an attempt to placate those demands. But the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, has said those troops are not scheduled to be replaced when their tour expires. Mullen also has suggested that the United States will be hard-pressed to maintain surge operations in Iraq while it also increases troop commitments in Afghanistan.

U.S. President George W. Bush has been urging leaders of other countries at NATO's Bucharest summit to contribute more combat forces to keep pressure on the Taliban. "Afghanistan still faces many challenges. The enemy has been driven from its strongholds and no longer controls a single Afghan city," Bush said. "But as this enemy has been defeated on the battlefield, they have turned increasingly to terrorist tactics such as suicide attacks and roadside bombs. And if we were to let up the pressure the extremists would reestablish safe havens across the country and use them to terrorize the people of Afghanistan and threaten our own. And that is why we'll stay on the offense."

With about 15,000 soldiers on the ground, mostly in eastern Afghanistan, the United States is the largest troop contributor to the 47,000-strong ISAF mission. The United Kingdom follows with about 7,800 combat troops that are deployed mostly in Helmand Province.

Bush said other NATO countries need to share the burden of deploying troops capable of engaging in combat against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. "Clearly, some nations are more capable than others in sending troops into combat -- into harm's way," Bush said. "We fully understand the politics that prohibit some nations from contributing. But nations need to take this mission seriously because it is in our mutual interests."

Indeed, Sarkozy's offer is highly controversial in France. Opinion polls suggest 68 percent of French voters oppose the idea of sending any additional troops to Afghanistan. That mood has been seized upon by legislators from France's opposition Socialist Party, such as Pierre Moscovici, who criticizes the move as an attempt to please the Bush administration.

"There is an Anglo-Saxon turn in French diplomacy and in France's approach to defense; this occurred as soon as Nicolas Sarkozy came to power," Moscovici says. "All positions that have been taken on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, returning to NATO's fold, and even [Sarkozy's] visit to London [in February] with his desire of alliance, of strong relations between the two countries while neglecting the Germans -- all this shows an Anglo-Saxon turn."

Moscovici also says France risks becoming bogged down in an endless military campaign in Afghanistan under U.S. command. "I believe that today we are experiencing an additional step in this return to NATO's fold -- a gesture that is being made to please the Bush administration without being useful on the ground," he says. "One thousand [soldiers] can't change [anything] -- it only risks getting France stuck in the same mess in Afghanistan [as the Americans] and put us indefinitely under U.S. command. For all these reasons, I think it is a mistake."

The French Constitution allows presidents to send soldiers into combat zones without parliamentary approval, but the Socialists say the move is so unpopular in France that they will submit a motion of no confidence against the government for refusing to hold a vote on the issue in the lower house of parliament.

Sarkozy's offer to send an additional battalion to Afghanistan was made during intense negotiations at the Bucharest summit. Reports suggest Sarkozy has been seeking U.S. acquiescence on a European Union defense initiative as well as France's eventual reintegration -- perhaps within the next year -- into NATO's military command.

Those issues cut to the core of NATO's historic organizational structure. Although France was a founding member of the NATO alliance, Paris and NATO experienced a crisis in relations during the late 1950s and early 1960s when Charles de Gaulle was French president. De Gaulle objected to the strong role of the United States within NATO and what he saw as a special relationship between the United States and Britain.

De Gaulle argued that NATO should, instead, create a tripartite directorate that would put France on equal footing with the United States and the United Kingdom. When the response he received was unsatisfactory, de Gaulle began to build an independent defense for his country.

By 1966, all French armed forces were removed from NATO's integrated military command, and all non-French NATO troops were asked to leave France. That forced NATO to relocate its Supreme Headquarters for Allied Powers in Europe from Paris to Brussels in 1967.

France remained a NATO member throughout the Cold War, but it wasn't until 1995 that France rejoined NATO's Military Committee. Paris still has not rejoined NATO's integrated military command.

Germany also has come under criticism within NATO for restricting its troop contributions to relatively calm areas of northern Afghanistan. But with more than 3,000 German soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan -- making Germany the third-largest contributor of troops to the NATO-led force -- Berlin argues that it is bearing its share of the military burden in Afghanistan.

"We may have failed in our communication process during the last couple of months when it comes to the question of what does Germany do in Afghanistan," says Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a conservative member of the German parliament and an important voice on Berlin's foreign policies. "We clearly have to state that Germany is already helping out in the south whenever there is an emergency or a necessity to do so. We are sending two more airplanes to the south this year. We will help out when it comes to certain other things. We have taken over the responsibility for the [Rapid] Reaction Force mainly in the north -- but also with the possibility of going to the south."

The Czech Defense Ministry says it is ready to deploy an additional 120 elite troops to eastern Afghanistan, where they would serve in Operation Enduring Freedom -- the separate U.S.-led counterterrorism effort. Those troops would be in addition to about 400 soldiers that the Czech Republic already has offered to send to Afghanistan this year. Poland and Romania also reportedly have made offers to send hundreds of additional troops to Afghanistan.

(Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. RFE/RL correspondents Brian Whitmore in Bucharest and Claire Bigg in Prague contributed to this report.)

The new UN envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said that the United Nations should take a bigger role in Afghanistan and work harder with NATO to overcome "fragmentation" in international efforts to stabilize the country, AP reported on April 3. "There is a desire for a stronger UN and for more UN, and we will certainly try to live up to that," Eide said. He acknowledged the criticism that the United Nations has not cooperated with the international aid efforts in the last seven years since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Speaking on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Bucharest, Eide said his first priority will be to build a close working relationship with the Afghan government. "More money will certainly be required, but it is also important to focus on how we spend the money," Eide insisted. "We cannot accept the situation where a significant part of the resources are spent in the donor countries or come back to the donor countries." AT

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is planning to have direct talks between the alliance in Afghanistan and the new government of Pakistan, AFP reported on April 3. With disputes about troop numbers and deployments in Afghanistan and uncertainties about the state of the Afghan-Pakistan border, de Hoop Scheffer hinted that he is planning to go to Islamabad soon. Speaking before the official opening of the summit in Bucharest, de Hoop Scheffer pleaded for more contact between the 47,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the newly elected government of Pakistan. "Military-to-military contacts are good. We must complement a military dialogue with a political one. NATO/ISAF need a political dialogue with Pakistan because instability there breeds instability in Afghanistan," he told foreign-policy experts on April 2. NATO's attention is shifting to northwestern Pakistan, from where the Taliban is directing its Afghan insurgency across the border. But, de Hoop Scheffer insisted, "We are not failing, we are prevailing in Afghanistan." AT

Afghan private television stations have been told by the government to stop broadcasting Indian soap operas, the BBC reported on April 3. The Culture and Information Ministry has given stations until April 15 to stop broadcasting the shows. According to a ministry spokesman, the decision is the result of a meeting with lawmakers and clerics. The decision is seen as a sign of the growing influence of conservative Islamists in Afghanistan. The Indian soap operas are popular, but conservatives have attacked them as "immoral." AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared the new Persian year a year of innovation and of "flourishing" conditions or prosperity, and called on officials in his new-year's message to Iranians to work toward these goals, Radio Farda reported on April 2, citing Iranian media. Iran began 1387 in its solar calendar on March 21, and Iranian officials have already echoed Khamenei's remarks with their own calls or promises to make it a year of achievements. Radio Farda observed that the calls coincided with less-than-encouraging observations about the economy by economists. It cited official figures as indicating an 18 percent inflation rate for the year to late March 2008, up from 13 percent in the previous year, with an economic growth rate of about one-tenth of the 18 percent rate. Iran-based observers have blamed increased government spending as contributing to the inflationary trends. Alireza Ahmadi has told Radio Farda from Tehran that innovation needs preconditions including government by technocrats and experts, not just regime loyalists. He said technocrats are generally not given a role in state decision-making. He also questioned the state's privatization drive -- touted in Iran as a bid to attract investment and increase productivity -- saying it has so far consisted mainly of the sale of large state-sector firms to "pseudo-state organizations." Meanwhile, Hushang Amirahmadi, a lecturer at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said that economic improvements will require more widespread public participation in economic and political activities, Radio Farda reported on April 2. Innovation and prosperity as goals are positive, he said, but firm measures have to be taken to implement them. Another analyst told Radio Farda this is not the first time Iranian leaders have given years a name without any concrete results. Mehrdad Mashayekhi, a sociology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said Iran's political system would have to open up to allow more participation as a precondition for innovation. "About 60 percent of [Iranians] are not involved in political and social decision-making" and are subject to various forms of discrimination by the state, he said. VS

Mahmud Ahmadinejad said at a meeting in Tehran on April 3 with provincial governors that state agencies must improve their services to the public and implement set programs "with the maximum speed" in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, Fars news agency reported. He said government departments must work especially on controlling inflation. Ahmadinejad described the year to late March 2008 as a year filled with hard work and "very great advances," and one in which the great powers failed to stop Iran's nuclear technology advances. "They even lost the support of world public opinion and today most nations support the Iranian nation. They thought they could do something by imposing restrictions, but with measures taken the volume of investments in the country increased," he said. VS

Media in Iran have carried unconfirmed reports of a possible cabinet reshuffle in Iran in the coming weeks, citing the website "Alef," described as close to conservatives. The website recently reported that President Ahmadinejad may dismiss Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari, Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi, and Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 3. The daily described this move, if it happens, as the most important cabinet reshuffle since Ahmadinejad changed his oil and industry minister in mid-2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). Reports did not name any possible successors, and observed that any cabinet changes will likely come after April 25, when Purmohammadi is to oversee a second round of voting for some parliamentary seats, following parliamentary elections on March 14, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. VS

Iranian police shot dead 12 "armed bandits" and suspected drug traffickers in the Taibad district in the northeastern Khorasan-i Razavi Province near the frontier with Afghanistan on April 1 and 2, the state broadcaster reported. Police also confiscated some 500 kilograms of drugs including 12 kilograms of crack, 262 kilograms of "crystal" or methamphetamine, and 211 kilograms of opium, the state broadcaster reported, citing a police official. VS

The office of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement on April 3 calling for millions to take part in a massive anti-U.S. demonstration in the holy city of Al-Najaf on April 9, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The statement called on Iraqis of all ethnicities and sects to descend on the holy city on the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to protest the continued U.S.-occupation of the country. "The time has come to express your rejections and raise your voices loud against the unjust occupier and enemy of nations and humanity, and against the horrible massacres committed by the occupier against our honorable people," it said. In response, the Iraqi government announced that it will not oppose the demonstration as long as it is peaceful. Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abd al-Karim Khalaf told Reuters, "The right to hold a peaceful demonstration and express opinions is guaranteed by the constitution, and we don't mind as long as the demonstration is peaceful." Violence during the protest is a distinct possibility. Iraq remains tense after more than a week of clashes between al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq and Baghdad left nearly 500 people dead and 900 wounded. SS

A U.S. air strike in the southern city of Al-Basrah on April 3 allegedly killed several members of a family and wounded three others, international media reported. The attack took place in the city's Al-Qibla neighborhood and destroyed a two-story house. AFP reported that three members of a family were killed and local hospital officials said the bodies of two men and an elderly woman were brought in. Two other women are being treated for injuries. Al-Jazeera satellite television reported that up to nine people, including six members of one family, were killed. The U.S. military confirmed the attack, but insisted that it targeted "enemy forces" in the region. The military said in a statement that "an F/A-18 carried out a precision air strike on the house, and coalition forces on site confirmed that two enemy were killed." The statement added that "coalition forces were unaware of any civilians killed in the strike but are currently looking into the matter." SS

The United Nations issued a statement to mark the International Day for Mine Awareness on April 3 urging the international community to help rid Iraq of land mines, which threaten the local population, international media reported. "In addition to insecurity, Iraqis live amidst one of the greatest concentrations of land mines, unexploded ordnance, and other explosive remnants of war in the world," said a joint statement by the UN Development Program and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Explosive remnants of war contamination" are so widespread in Iraq that "several development programs are being hampered," it added. The statement also warned that children are particularly vulnerable to land mines and other unexploded ordnances, because they mistake them for toys and harmless objects. UNICEF representative for Iraq Roger Wright said: "The damage they inflict extends beyond the physical, restricting children's ability to go to school safely and enjoy a normal childhood. Comprehensive awareness and risk education is essential as their best defense." SS

The Turkish military announced on April 2 that its forces have killed seven Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters near the Iraqi border, international media reported the same day. The Turkish General Staff said in a statement that clashes between its forces and PKK rebels erupted in the southeastern Turkish province of Sirnak, along the Turkish-Iraqi border. The military also said that three Turkish soldiers were killed and five wounded in the clashes. Ankara has repeatedly claimed that PKK rebels are using positions in northern Iraq as a base to carry out cross-border attacks inside Turkey. Within the last few months, Turkey has launched several air strikes and at least one major ground incursion into Iraq as part of its campaign against the PKK. On March 29, it said that it killed approximately 15 PKK fighters in northern Iraq during a two-day operation, which included artillery bombardments and air strikes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). SS

The Swedish government released a statement on April 3 announcing that it will host an international conference on Iraq at the end of May, international media reported. "Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt met today with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and agreed that Sweden will host the first follow-up meeting of the International Compact with Iraq," a government statement said. The conference is "aimed at clarifying the international community's support for Iraq's development", the statement added. The International Compact with Iraq is an Iraqi government initiative announced in July 2006 that brings together the international community to assist Iraq in achieving a "national vision." According to the compact's website, it "aims to consolidate peace and pursue political, economic, and social development over the next five years." SS

In a statement issued on April 1 and posted on its website, the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) said that Austrian Airlines has resumed flights to Irbil in northern Iraq. The airline will now conduct three flights per week from Vienna to Irbil. Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the KRG's Foreign Relations Department, said the decision by Austrian Airlines is an indication of increased development and enhanced ties to the international community. "We are pleased to see the return of Austrian Airlines. Over the past three years we have seen an upsurge in international business interest in the Kurdistan region and this is a testament to [KRG] Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani's vision and the development programs instituted by the KRG," Bakir said. Austrian Airlines suspended service in August 2007. SS