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Newsline - April 9, 2008

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Ekho Moskvy radio on April 8 that Moscow wants a permanent military presence at planned U.S. missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Lavrov argued that "in all the many proposals [on missile defense], we are interested only in two things: the permanent presence of our officers and reliable technological means of monitoring" the sites. During his recent summit with U.S. President George W. Bush in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin referred to a possible permanent presence at those sites if "a global missile-defense [system] with equal democratic-style access to managing such a system" does not come to pass. Russia does not appear to have publicly stressed the issue of a permanent presence before, but Lavrov said on April 8 that it is a sticking point in negotiations over Washington's plans to station a radar base in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland. He argued that it is important for Moscow to see "second-by-second" where the radar is directed and what is happening at the interceptor base. In an apparent effort to split Washington from Prague just days after a U.S.-Czech agreement on the radar site was announced, Lavrov warned that Czech or Polish resistance to the Russian demand would "devalue" recent assurances given to Russia by the United States on missile defense. He complained that officials of the two countries, which were occupied by Soviet forces for decades, "don't even want to hear" about a permanent Russian presence at the sites (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, March 7 and 20, and April 4, 2008). Lavrov mocked the U.S. offer of "reciprocity" in arranging occasional inspections of the sites by Russian officials based in Warsaw and Prague, saying that Russia has no intention of establishing its own bases in those countries or near the United States. Asked if Russia might set up military sites of its own in Cuba or Venezuela in response to the U.S. plans, Lavrov replied that Russia would rely on unspecified "military-technical measures" instead. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov's demand on April 8 for a permanent Russian presence at planned U.S. missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic came after the latest round of Russian-Polish consultations in Moscow failed to bridge differences, news agencies reported. Witold Waszczykowski, who heads the Polish negotiating team, told Poland's PAP news agency that Lavrov's demands are "too far-fetched." Referring to a possible permanent Russian military presence in Poland, Waszczykowski said that "we had that here already [in tsarist and Soviet times]. Such a solution will not be repeated." He added that the proposed missile-defense "installation could be accessible to visitors or inspectors, but we don't think there is any need for a permanent presence of Russian monitors there.... In addition to that, we have to establish a sort of mutual regime, with Polish inspectors having the right to inspect some Russian installations." Czech officials have repeatedly rejected the idea of any permanent Russian presence at the radar site, although they, too, would be willing to consider occasional visits by Russian officials. Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra told the daily "Hospodarske noviny" recently that "we are willing to negotiate about Russian inspections, but definitely not in the form of a permanent presence of Russian soldiers in the Czech Republic." Some European observers suggested that Russia is keen to keep up its political momentum after the April 2-4 Bucharest NATO summit. Russia was widely seen to have used energy and political leverage over Germany, France, and some other Western European states to ensure their opposition to U.S. and Eastern European support for granting Membership Action Plans (MAP), an important step on the road to full NATO membership, to Georgia and Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 4, 7, and 8, 2008). PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov told Ekho Moskvy radio on April 8 that Moscow will do all it can to prevent NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia in order "to avoid an inevitable serious exacerbation of our relations with both the alliance and our neighbors." He repeated Moscow's long-standing arguments that NATO enlargement is rooted in "Cold War logic," that much of the Ukrainian public is opposed to NATO membership, and that the pro-Moscow leaderships of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions oppose Georgian membership. Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin wrote in the April 7 issue of the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" that "all countries seeking to join NATO have to hold a referendum first. The decision has to be made by all Ukrainian citizens. Would they be prepared to send their boys to certain death in Iraq or Afghanistan for the sake of Atlantic solidarity?" "The Moscow Times" commented on April 9, however, that "Russia's main argument against NATO enlargement is that it would threaten its security. That is nonsense, and Russia knows it." The paper added that "the Kremlin has found that behaving like a spoiled child gets results: the right to influence developments in former Soviet countries. In other words, Russia is being allowed to reassert its sphere of influence -- a concept that should have been superceded by that of 'Europe Whole and Free,' which the entire European Union appeared to have embraced when communism collapsed." The daily stressed that "the crux of the matter is Europe's lack of political will to forge a unified stand toward Russia. This has led the Kremlin to pursue a classic 'divide-and-rule' strategy by tempting some big European countries into bilateral agreements -- particularly on energy issues -- that preclude a common EU position" (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Alluding to the Western European objections to MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine, Polish President Lech Kaczynski commented on the eve of the NATO summit that West Germany was allowed to join NATO in 1955 even though it claimed to represent, but did not control, all of Germany. The Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" pointed out recently that Germany did not hold a referendum in 1990 on NATO membership for the former East Germany, where strong pacifist and anti-American sentiments might have led to a rejection of NATO accession. PM

Colonel General Viktor Zavarzin, the head of the State Duma's Defense Committee, said in Beijing on April 8 that military cooperation plays an important role in Russian-Chinese relations, Interfax reported. He noted that "the total number of events at which key subjects in Russian-Chinese military cooperation are discussed is 30 to 35 a year. Chinese specialists are trained at Russian Defense Ministry academies. Direct ties between the respective military services [and] military academies...are improving." Zavarzin added that joint exercises and inspections take place along and near the two countries' common border. His remarks follow recent reports that Russian arms sales to China dropped by 62 percent in 2007 because China's industrial capabilities are beginning to approach those of its neighbor, and because it seeks more sophisticated technology than Russia is willing or able to offer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007, and March 12, 2008). PM

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev met in the Kremlin on April 8 with 23 representatives of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP), which represents the country's largest businesses, Russian media reported. Deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov, presidential aide Igor Shuvalov, Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina, and Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov also attended the meeting. posted a complete list of the RSPP attendees at Medvedev told business leaders that more must be done to improve productivity, while business leaders emphasized that the government must do more to reduce bureaucratic obstacles and corruption. Business leaders also asked Medvedev to make sure that Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) does not sacrifice Russia's "interests." "We must enter under normal, equal conditions," Severstal head Aleksei Mordashov said. RC

Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev told a meeting of the National Counterterrorism Committee (which he heads) on April 8 that some Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been assisting terrorists,, RFE/RL's Russian Service, and other Russian media reported. Patrushev said he has evidence NGOs in the Southern Federal District, which includes the volatile North Caucasus, have been helping "bandits" indoctrinate and recruit young people. He said the terrorists and the Russian NGOs are being helped by unspecified "foreign nongovernmental organizations." Counterterrorism Committee member and Federation Council member Aleksandr Torshin later said 59 organizations are accused of abetting terrorism. cited numerous NGO activists as challenging Patrushev to produce the evidence he claims to have. "If [Patrushev] had said For Human Rights was connected with terrorists," For Human Rights Director Lev Ponomaryov told the website, "I would have filed a lawsuit." He added that he believes Patrushev and other siloviki are trying to shore up their position before the reputedly "liberal" Medvedev ascends to the presidency. Activist Irina Yasina, who formerly headed the Yukos-funded Open Russia NGO, told RFE/RL: "The people who work with Patrushev -- they are supposed to believe that we are surrounded by enemies, surrounded by spies. And so they believe this. That is their education." RC

Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov on April 8 said his Duma faction will not vote to confirm Vladimir Putin as prime minister if, as widely expected, he is nominated after Dmitry Medvedev becomes president, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported. Zyuganov said that his party does not support the socioeconomic course the government has pursued under Putin and "therefore cannot support the continuation of that course." The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party controls enough votes in the Duma to confirm Putin even if all the other three factions oppose him. "Vremya novostei" reported on April 9 that Unified Russia deputy faction head Vladimir Pekhtin said the previous day his party hopes Putin will become its official leader (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8, 2008) and that the combination of party leadership and the premiership will lead to a system under which the party that controls the Duma forms the government. Pekhtin added that he thinks such a system would improve "coordination" between the executive and legislative branches. Zyuganov endorsed this idea as well, telling journalists "let one party form the government and then they alone will be responsible for the results of its work." A Just Russia faction head Nikolai Levichev said his party does not support this idea, saying, "Russia is not yet ready for such a form of distributing democratic procedures." RC

A Moscow district court on April 8 extended the term of pretrial detention for Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak for another three months, until July 9, Russian media reported. Storchak, who is a close ally of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, was arrested in November 2007 on suspicion of embezzling some $43 million in a move that has widely been interpreted as part of a power struggle among Kremlin clans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). Investigator Valery Khomitsky told Interfax that his colleagues expect to be able to complete the necessary analytical work by June and only then begin formulating the final charges against Storchak. Kudrin on April 8 expressed his continued support for Storchak and said his ministry has cooperated completely with the investigation. RC

All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) Deputy General Director Vladimir Troyepolsky, who for the last seven years has been in charge of programming at Rossia television, is expected to become the new head of St. Petersburg-based Channel 5, "Kommersant" reported on April 8. Channel 5 is part of the National Media Group that was recently created by banker Yury Kovalchuk, who is a close ally of President Putin (see "Russia: NTV's Past Points Toward REN-TV's Future,", March 1, 2008). Troyepolsky earlier headed the international channel RTR-Planeta and, in the late 1990s, headed Vladimir Gusinsky's NTV-Plus project. RC

A car bomb detonated on April 7 in the city of Malgobek in southern Russia's Republic of Ingushetia, destroying a car belonging to Magomed Bekbuzarov, a senior police inspector, reported. No one was injured by the explosion, as the police inspector had reportedly just entered his home before the car bomb was detonated. Local police launched an investigation and said that they believed that the bomb was triggered either remotely or by a timer. RG

An unspecified Chechen rebel force completed on April 6 an extensive four-day operation targeting local pro-Russian Chechen officials in several villages in Chechnya, Kavkaz-Tsentr reported on April 8. The attacks, carried out in late-night operations, targeted local officials in several villages in the Nozhay-Yurtovsky, Vedensky, and Achkhoi-Martanovsky districts of Chechnya. The militant force, calling itself a unit of the "Caucasus Emirate" led by Doku Umarov, also distributed leaflets warning local residents against cooperating with the pro-Moscow Chechen administration. The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office Investigation Board for Chechnya recently launched a criminal case against Umarov, charging him inciting hatred in statements posted on the Internet last year in which he allegedly called for the killing of "unbelievers," including the leaders of the various North Caucasus republics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2008). RG

In an announcement in Yerevan, Armenian President-elect Serzh Sarkisian officially confirmed on April 8 his plan to appoint Armenian Central Bank Chairman Tigran Sarkisian (no relation) as the country's next prime minister, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The candidacy of the prospective prime minister was approved earlier the same day by the governing council of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), according to party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov, who added that the vote was unanimous, Arminfo reported. The 48-year-old Sarkisian has served as the head of the Central Bank since 1998 and is widely seen as a strong proponent of free-market policies, lending credence to his reputation as a favorite of the West and international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. According to the terms of recent amendments to the Armenian Constitution, the prime minister is presidentially appointed but must be confirmed by the parliament. The confirmation comes a day after Gagik Tsarukian, the leader of the pro-government Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), disclosed the planned nomination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8, 2008). RG

Speaking in a nationally televised address, Armenian President Robert Kocharian bid farewell on April 8, the last day of his second and final term as president, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Kocharian hailed the last several years of double-digit economic growth, asserting that "progress in the country's modernization is obvious, and the life of citizens has improved considerably." He claimed that "few countries in the world" could match Armenia's "pace of development," but went to "apologize to those whose life has not improved during these years" and to "those whose expectations have not been lived up to, whose dreams have not been realized." In a reference to President-elect and outgoing Prime Minister Sarkisian, the 53-year-old president said he trusts in his successor's "ability to govern the country effectively." Earlier in the day, presidential spokesman Victor Soghomonian revealed that the country's April 9 presidential inauguration will open with a special official ceremony before the Armenia parliament before moving to a public ceremony. RG

A group of several dozen opposition supporters clashed on April 8 with police in the central Armenian town of Hrazdan following the disappearance of nine supporters of a local parliamentarian arrested as part of the continuing government crackdown targeting opposition figures, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The incident was triggered by the disappearance of the nine men after they joined a hunger strike on April 7 demanding the release of their former commander and local parliamentarian Sasun Mikaelian. Heated clashes broke out with police when the mostly female protesters tried to prevent two police vehicles, which they said carried the detainees, from leaving the police headquarters in the town. For two days late last month, local residents protested the continued detention of Mikaelian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008). RG

Coinciding with the celebration of the Day of Beauty and Motherhood, a group of about 250 Armenian women on April 7 staged a public protest in Yerevan demanding the release of opposition activists and leaders arrested during the postelection crisis that culminated in violent clashes on March 1 between riot police and protesters, Arminfo reported. The protesters, gathering in front of the Yerevan headquarters of the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office, held signs and placards calling on the Armenian authorities to "free political prisoners" and included several relatives and wives of detained opposition leaders, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. RG

In an announcement in Baku, Azerbaijani opposition journalist Agil Xalil announced on April 8 that he filed lawsuits against four pro-government television stations for defamation, Turan reported. The lawsuit stems from a broadcast carried by the state-run AzTV-1 station and by the pro-government Lider, Space, and ATV stations that alleged that recent assaults targeting Xalil were carried out by his "homosexual partner" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8, 2008). A prominent journalist with the opposition "Azadliq" newspaper, Xalil charged that "these channels aired a report fabricated by the investigation which I assess as an insult to my honor and dignity." His boss at the newspaper, Azer Ahmedov, recently claimed that security personnel sought to coerce Xalil into signing an affidavit accusing "his colleagues or homosexuals" of assaulting him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2008). The attacks on Xalil involved a stabbing by unknown assailants in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2008) and an assault in late February by unknown assailants in Baku (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Xalil has consistently accused security officers of complicity in the attacks. RG

On the second day of an official visit to Baku, the OSCE representative on the freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, met on April 8 with a group of several prominent opposition Azerbaijani journalists currently jailed in Azerbaijan, APA news agency and Turan reported. During a press conference the day before, Harazti demanded an end to the criminalization of defamation in the country, and urged the Azerbaijani authorities to take immediate steps to prevent the violation of media rights in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8, 2008). U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse recently echoed those concerns about the poor state of media freedom in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2008), leading presidential-administration official Ali Hasanov to counter that the "media situation in Azerbaijan is not bad." RG

In a patriotic address to graduating officers at Georgia's Sachkhere mountain training school, President Mikheil Saakashvili hailed on April 8 the country's role as a contributor to global security and praised the ongoing development of the Georgian armed forces, Georgian Public Television reported. In his address, which was televised live, President Saakashvili praised Georgia's military ties with the United States and Israel, which he said have provided a model for Georgia based on "the best military experience of America and Israel." But he went on to claim that "we Georgians have military talent in our blood and in our genetic code," adding that the Georgian military had "achieved much more than the Soviet Army ever did" and stressing that his government's "mission" was to ensure the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity. Closing with a pledge that "Georgia's fight for freedom is continuing," he announced that "we are soldiers of a democratic country, we are defenders of democracy, and we are defenders of freedom." RG

In a televised press conference in Tbilisi, Georgian Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze condemned on April 8 recent Russian moves to "legitimize" the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia as "provocative and dangerous steps," Rustavi-2 TV reported. Foreign Minister Bakradze was referring to a series of recent Russian threats to expand its support for breakaway Abkhazia, a process that began most recently on March 21, when the Russian State Duma passed a resolution calling on the Kremlin to consider recognizing the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if Georgia joined NATO (see "Russia: Moscow Eases Sanctions On Georgia, But Rattles Sabers Over NATO,", March 25, 2008). RG

Kazakh Industry and Trade Minister Vladimir Shkolnik announced on April 8 that Kazakhstan plans to introduce a duty of roughly $110 per ton on crude-oil exports, ITAR-TASS reported. Shkolnik said the decision was adopted at a cabinet meeting earlier that day, and defended the move as a calculation based on world oil prices. He added that the new tariff "will make it possible to earn $1 billion for the state budget by the end of the year." The customs duty is to come into force in 30 days. The cabinet meeting on April 8 also approved the appointment of Deputy Agriculture Minister Akylbek Kurishbaev as the new minister of agriculture, Kazakhstan Today reported. The position has been vacant since the outgoing minister, Akhmetzhan Yesimov, was appointed the mayor of Almaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2008). RG

Alik Orozov, the former deputy secretary of the Kyrgyz National Security Committee, on April 8 announced the formation of a new opposition bloc, AKIpress reported. According to Orozov, the new opposition grouping, known as the Democratic Consolidated Union, will "fight for democratic ideas." He said the grouping represents a "democratic way of development built upon the freedom of expression, freedom of choice, and rule of law," and was formed to provide a "way out" of the country's political and economic crisis. He also claimed that "the number of supporters of this group is growing every year, as the group defends values other than those adhered to by our country." Orozov was dismissed from his National Security Committee post in December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2006). RG

The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry announced on April 7 that it will impose a new visa regime, effective July 1, for travelers from several European countries, including Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia, AKIpress reported. The Foreign Ministry defended the visa requirement as a "simplification of the visa-issuance procedure." RG

On an official visit to Tajikistan on April 8, European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner pledged the EU's continued support for Tajikistan, according to ITAR-TASS. Ferrero-Waldner said the EU supports the Tajik government's economic and social reforms, and noted that the bloc is ready to assist Tajikistan within the framework of the new EU strategy on Central Asia, including through the provision of 66 million euros ($104 million) in aid through 2010. During her one-day visit, Ferrero-Waldner met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and stressed the need to maintain the momentum of the country's reform program. She noted that she and other EU officials plan to meet the foreign ministers of Central Asian countries in Ashgabat later this week to further develop relations between the EU and Central Asia, Asia-Plus reported. The EU has provided Tajikistan with over 500 million euros in aid since 1992. RG

Judge Alena Marozava of the City Court in Polatsk, northern Belarus, on April 8 found 20-year-old youth activist Katsyaryna Salauyova guilty of acting on behalf of an unregistered organization, the Youth Front, and fined her 1.75 million rubles ($820), RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Salauyova told the court that she joined the Youth Front because she wants to revive national culture and the Belarusian language, which she said may become a dead language under the present government. Asked whether she felt afraid of being charged with an offense that carries a penalty of up to two years in prison, Salauyova told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that "if you love Belarus, there should be no fear [of prosecution]. If you are sure you're on the right path, there cannot be any fear or anxiety." Police forcefully dispersed several dozen protesters who gathered outside the court building to support Salauyova, and eventually detained two of them, Alyaksey Yanusheuski and Lyudmila Atakulova. They are due to stand trial on April 9 on charges of participating in an unsanctioned demonstration. JM

Under a directive issued by the Council of Ministers, 28 companies, mainly subsidiaries of the Belarusian State Light Industry Concern and the Belarusian State Food Industry Concern, are to hand over part of their stocks to the government in exchange for Minsk's use of public coffers to pay the interest on some of the companies' loans, Belapan reported on April 8. The loans, obtained in 2007, went mainly toward modernizing the companies' production facilities. JM

The European Council and the European Commission have called for the "unconditional release of all political prisoners" in Belarus, adding that such a move might prompt a review of sanctions against Belarus's officials, Belapan reported on April 8. The release of political prisoners "would provide for a possibility to review the restrictive measures in place against certain officials of Belarus, and to enable the EU to progressively re-engage with Belarus, in connection with further steps by Belarus in that direction," the EU bodies said in a joint statement. The statement simultaneously welcomes the release in recent months of "five of the six internationally recognized political prisoners in Belarus." There are currently 41 people on the EU's list of Belarusian officials subject to travel bans and frozen assets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8, 2008). JM

Addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in Brussels on April 8, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said NATO rejected Ukraine's application for a Membership Action Plan during the annual alliance summit last week because the country's political system is not sufficiently mature, RFE/RL reported. "Ukraine does not have a political system which is at the level of the aspirations of some [of its] leaders to be part of international organizations," Solana said. "That has been the response that, in a way, has been given by NATO." Solana also noted that Ukraine's economic growth, while robust, does not fully meet the country's potential. He attributed this to a "lack of political solidarity [or] political solidity of the leadership." JM

The Verkhovna Rada on April 8 failed to endorse President Viktor Yushchenko's bill to establish a National Guard of Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The bill garnered 208 votes, while 226 were necessary for approval. The bill called for the creation of a Ukrainian National Guard that would be composed of Interior Ministry troops and be subordinate to the president. The same day, Yushchenko submitted to parliament a bill on foreign troops' participation in multinational military exercises in Ukraine in 2008. In particular, the bill calls for U.S., Belgian, Moldovan, Belarusian, Slovak, Polish, Canadian, Lithuanian, and Romanian servicemen to receive clearance to take part in military exercises this year. JM

EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana said in Brussels on April 8 that the bloc should sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia before its May 11 election in an effort to bolster pro-EU forces there, news agencies reported. He stressed that "all efforts should be made to see if we can finalize [the agreement] before May 10 and 11. We have to make all the efforts to extend our hand to the Serbian people." He added that Serbia "is a country that has a tendency to look back, but really you have to help them look forward." The government led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica fell in March over his insistence that Belgrade not hold any talks with the EU unless Brussels accepts that Kosova is part of Serbia, which is not likely (see "RFE/RL Newsline," and March 5, 7, 10, 11, and 28, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report, February 13, 2008). Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said recently that his country remains opposed to signing an SAA with any government in Belgrade that does not fully cooperate with The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Reuters reported on April 8 that the Netherlands has now agreed to be "creative" on Serbia's relations with the EU, following "strong pressure" by other EU member states on Holland and Belgium to lift their SAA vetoes. AP noted that "France and Sweden are pushing for quick steps to draw [Serbia] closer to the EU." In Belgrade on April 8, Kostunica accused his pro-EU opponents in the May election, who are led by President Boris Tadic, of having "suspicious intentions" by "ruthlessly scaring voters that the whole world will collapse if they are not in power." RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Belgrade on April 8 that Education Minister Zoran Loncar and several other pro-Kostunica politicians accused Solana of meddling in the Serbian elections. In addition, Milorad Mircic, who is a leader of the Serbian Radical Party, said that Solana's remarks amounted to blatant interference in Serbian politics. PM

The U.S. liaison office in Prishtina reopened on April 8 as the U.S. Embassy, news agencies reported. Chief of Mission Tina Kaidanow will continue as charge d'affaires until an ambassador is named. Kosova's President Fatmir Sejdiu said at the ceremony that "Kosova has a special relation with the United States of America which has been forged through the stormy times of our existence.... By opening the U.S. Embassy in Prishtina, one part of our full diplomatic relationship is being completed." Britain, Germany, Albania, and Switzerland already have embassies in the Kosovar capital. According to the website, Norway was the 36th and latest country to recognize the new state. The first was Costa Rica on February 17, the day that Kosova declared independence, followed on February 18 by the United States, France, Afghanistan, Albania, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. PM

They call their group the "Free Karakalpakstan National Revival Party." And they accuse Uzbekistan of genocide against "Karakalpaks as an ethnicity."

Supporters of the group have been vocal on Internet chat boards. One person identifying himself as Yernazar Konyratov wrote on March 5 that "devastation, chaos, poverty, [and] environmental disaster" have gripped Karakalpakstan. He went on to call for a referendum on the autonomous republic's independence from Tashkent.

"We need to unite and not be afraid," Konyratov wrote.

Solijon Abdurahmanov, a human-rights activist in Karakalpakstan's capital, Nukus, and an advocate of independence, tells RFE/RL that many young ethnic Karakalpaks are likely to support separatist sentiments.

"The young men and women born in the 1980s are now nearly 30 years old -- they have traveled abroad extensively," he says, adding that they understand the difficult realities in their homeland.

Abdurahmanov claims those Karakalpaks who have left their beleaguered republic to work in Russia and Kazakhstan have seen the higher living standards in neighboring countries and support independence as a result. They blame the Uzbek government for the lack of development in Karakalpakstan, he says.

But other Karakalpaks interviewed by RFE/RL say they are pro-Tashkent and do not share the views of "Free Karakalpakstan."

One of those with no desire for independence is Qubei Ortiqov, a farmer who lives near Nukus. He has harsh words for those who he says are seeking a scapegoat in Tashkent.

"This organization called the 'National Revival Party' is the work of the scum of our society," he says. "Karakalpaks do not suffer from being a part of Uzbekistan; Karakalpaks live freely everywhere in Uzbekistan. I think this is nothing but a movement aimed at dividing [Uzbekistan]."

Soviet leader Josef Stalin -- who created the Soviet republics of Central Asia in the 1920s -- also drew up the map for Karakalpakstan. Founded as an autonomous region in 1925, its status was changed in 1932 to an autonomous republic. A few years later, in 1936, it became part of Uzbekistan, constituting 37 percent of its territory.

In December 1990, the Supreme Council of the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), which was a part of the Uzbek SSR, adopted a "Declaration on State Sovereignty." It included the prospect of independence from the Uzbek SSR and even the Soviet Union if such a move was approved by Karakalpak's citizens in a referendum.

The first constitution of Karakalpakstan was adopted in April 1993 and stipulated a similar possibility. But officials in Tashkent generally prevented Karakalpaks from organizing or holding a referendum.

Since then, Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government has been deliberate in its appointment of official leaders for Karakalpakstan, which is headed by a president. Karakalpakstan leaders have been carefully selected, with all of them either loyal friends or conspicuous supporters of Karimov.

The CIA "World Factbook" lists Karakalpaks as the fifth-largest ethnic group in the country, representing roughly 2.5 percent of Uzbekistan's 28 million people.

Within the autonomous republic itself, official Uzbek statistics indicate that ethnic Karakalpaks make up less than one-third of the total population of 1.2 million people. Ethnic Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and some Turkmen compose the other two-thirds.

Karakalpaks are closer ethnically and linguistically to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks, and some claim that the Karakalpak ethnic group was a Soviet invention aimed at dividing up the Kazakh population.

In recent years, some Karakalpakstan residents have moved from Uzbekistan to neighboring Kazakhstan as part of Astana's "Oralman" policy -- which is meant to return people to their ethnic homeland. Kazakhstan is the eighth-largest country in the world but has a relatively small population of some 15 million, and officials there support the immigration of ethnic Kazakhs. Most "Oralmans" are ethnic Kazakhs from Mongolia, China, or Karakalpakstan.

Some sources suggest that 200,000 people have left Karakalpakstan in recent years.

Separatist sentiments were first voiced in Karakalpakstan in the mid-1980s, as calls for sovereignty and independence spread throughout the Soviet republics.

Human-rights activist Abdurahmanov says that a Nukus-based economist, Marat Aralbaev, is seen as the founding father of the first Karakalpak separatist movement.

"At the time, a nationalist movement called 'Halk Mapi,' or 'People's Interests,' led by Marat Aralbaev started this [separatist movement]," he says. "But environmental disaster -- caused by the Aral Sea problem in Karakalpakstan -- to a certain extent overshadowed talks about independence."

The problems are severe. The remote republic has high rates of tuberculosis and other diseases whose outbreaks are ascribed at least in part to environmental problems related to the disappearance of the Aral Sea -- which has shrunk by two-thirds in the last 60 years as agriculture and other projects divert the precious Amu Darya River. The sea was also used for biological-weapons testing during the Soviet era. A nearly fivefold increase in salinity has killed most of the region's natural flora and fauna.

As poverty and unemployment have risen across Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan's people have been badly affected.

But there have also been discoveries of fossil-fuel reserves. The independent website reported on February 20 that recent estimates suggest Karakalpakstan has some 1.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 1.7 million tons of liquid hydrocarbon resources. The report also suggested that officials in Tashkent were unlikely to share the revenues from sales of Karakalpakstan's gas and oil.

Abdurahmanov says such developments are behind a recent revival of separatist sentiments among Karakalpaks. Abdurahmanov insists that Karakalpakstan could survive as a sovereign state on the strength of its natural-resources wealth.

Karakalpakstan's independence nevertheless appears unlikely, since the Uzbek parliament must consent to the holding of any referendum. The legislature, under the tight control of President Karimov, is unlikely to give a green light to any secessionist aspirations in Uzbekistan -- which is a patchwork of regions with separatist sentiments that cite deep historical roots.

Before the 1920s, Uzbekistan did not exist. Prior to Bolshevik/Communist rule, ethnic Uzbeks identified themselves as Muslims and with the khans (kings) who ruled them. Neither Uzbek ethnic identity nor the term "Uzbeks" was in wide use.

Even now, Uzbeks often identify themselves based on regional origin. Those from the Ferghana Valley in the east tend to distinguish themselves from those in the southern Surkhandaryo and Qashqadaryo regions or from those in the western Khorazm area.

Toshpulat Yuldoshev, a Tashkent-based independent political analyst, says officials in the capital are well aware of the risks that any separatist sentiments, if unleashed, may create.

He says separatists in Karakalpakstan are unlikely to succeed because they will always face strong opposition in Tashkent and lack full support inside Karakalpakstan.

"I don't think those [separatist] forces are strong enough, and they don't have the means to achieve their goal," Yuldoshev says. "But they are definitely able to contribute to the destabilization of the situation in the country."

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Sadriddin Ashurov contributed to this report.)

Militants ambushed a crew of road workers in the southern Zabul Province on April 8 and killed 18 of the guards accompanying them, "The News York Times" reported the same day. According to the construction company, none of the construction workers were wounded in the attack in the Shinkay district. Responding to the ambush, Afghan and NATO forces killed seven militants and injured 12. Elsewhere on April 8, a Polish soldier was killed and another wounded when a NATO patrol hit a roadside bomb in Ghazni Province, according to the Polish Defense Ministry. AT

India ruled out any military involvement in Afghanistan, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony said after meeting his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahim Wardak, the "Calcutta News" reported on April 8. "India has been helping in rebuilding and rehabilitation in Afghanistan and will continue doing so. However, there will not be any military involvement there," Antony said. "We are seeking Indian cooperation against threats of terrorism and extremism. I am told you [India] have good counterinsurgency-training institutes. We will share our experience," Wardak told reporters after the meeting in New Delhi. AT

The war is spreading across Afghanistan, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes this year, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said on April 8, AP reported the same day. "There is growing insecurity and a clear intensification of the armed conflict, which is no longer limited to the south but has spread to the east and west," ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement during a visit to Kabul. According to the ICRC, at least 13,000 people have fled their homes since January 2008, though it is difficult to say where the people have gone because of limited access to dangerous regions. "Their growing humanitarian needs and those of other vulnerable people must be met as a matter of urgency," Kellenberger said. AT

According to the Afghan Child Action Protection Network, over 2,200 children are working long hours in brick-making factories in the eastern Nangarhar Province, IRIN reported on April 8. The children are working in factories in Sorkhrod district to help pay off their families' debt and do not go to school, or to any other means of education. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other NGOs say efforts are being made to establish community-based schools and facilitate vocational training for children in the community. Officials at the Labor and Socials Affairs Ministry in Kabul said the government will encourage NGOs and aid agencies to help indebted families pay off their debts. AT

On April 8, the date designated as Iran's Nuclear Technology Day, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran is installing 6,000 centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, in defiance of Western calls for Tehran to stop nuclear fuel production, agencies reported. Ahmadinejad made the announcement while touring the Natanz plant, AP reported, citing an Iranian state television report. Some 3,000 centrifuges have already been installed at Natanz, and Iran says it plans to install 54,000 in total to produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale. Western powers reacted negatively to the announcement. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Paris the same day that more UN sanctions might follow unless Iran explains its actions, AP reported. The UN Security Council has already imposed three sets of sanctions intended to force Iran to halt its fuel-making activities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, supporting offering incentives for Iran rather than sanctions in his comments to a Moscow radio station. In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she cannot "substantiate the claims" made by Ahmadinejad, but added that Iran continues to be isolated for not accepting a "reasonable offer from the international community." AP reported that it is unclear whether Iran is now using more traditional P-1 centrifuges or the advanced IR-2 centrifuges, which Iranians claim to have developed, and which produce enriched uranium at a much higher rate than the P-1. VS

President Ahmadinejad said on April 8 that tests on "new centrifuges" will be completed in the next three months, and that Iran's "nuclear achievements will soon enter into and transform the country's industry," Fars reported. He said Iran has nuclear technology of "the highest level," and that this "technology is not imported and nobody can take it from us." AP quoted Ahmadinejad as stating that the latest centrifuges are smaller but five times more efficient than the P-1 centrifuges currently in use. VS

Iran's former nuclear negotiator, Hossein Musavian, has been given a two-year suspended jail sentence for keeping "sensitive documents," but an earlier charge that he passed on confidential nuclear material to foreign powers was overturned, Radio Farda reported on April 8, citing Iranian news agency reports. Musavian's lawyer, Hushang Purbabai, told ISNA that he was convicted of keeping documents intended to "disrupt" state security, Radio Farda reported. The Fars news agency reported on April 8 that Musavian's suspended sentence was handed down for his alleged secondary role in a security-related offense, but it was not immediately clear who the main suspect might be. The agency added that a light sentence was given out of regard for his past services to the state and for his not having a previous criminal record. Musavian's legal battles in recent months have taken on a political character. Some media suspect that right-wingers and officials of the Ahmadinejad government are seeking to discredit centrist opponents by convicting Musavian, who is considered a political ally of former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28 and 30 and December 11, 2007). Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad have in the past three years traded criticism and accusations relating to their differing policies. VS

Workers laid off from a firm in Bushehr, southern Iran, scuffled with police during a protest outside the Bushehr provincial governor's offices, apparently on April 7, "Kayhan" reported on April 8. The former employees of Bushehr Marine Industries (Sanaye'i daryayi Bushehr) lost their jobs about 20 days ago and were demonstrating for the right to return to work. The report did not specify why they had been dismissed, and "Kayhan" stated that the provincial governorate had sought in vain to avoid the dismissals. The newspaper reported that the firm began to dismiss workers in 2006-07, and laid off 400 workers toward the end of the Persian year that ended March 20, 2008. VS

Iranian police shot dead 24 suspected drug traffickers in the northeastern province of Khorasan-i Razavi, near the border with Afghanistan, on April 6, "Iran" reported on April 8, citing a deputy head of Iran's police force, Eskandar Momeni. Momeni said the traffickers were shot down during clashes and pursuit operations throughout the day, mainly in two hilly areas in or near the Taibad district. Momeni said police confiscated rifles, ammunition, and about 100 kilograms of various drugs. He added that police confiscated more than 22 tons of drugs between March 20 and early April, the period of Iran's New Year festivities, which he said was 166 percent more than during the same period the previous year, "Iran" reported. VS

The Iraqi government said on April 8 that April 9 will be a holiday for all government institutions, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. The day marks the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. The government also ordered a vehicular curfew, saying no cars would be allowed on the road from 5 a.m. to midnight local time. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had planned a million-man demonstration against the so-called occupation for April 9 but called off the demonstration in an April 8 statement (see next item). The government said in an April 8 statement that it will provide security if demonstrations are held, and asked that citizens keep their protests peaceful. KR

Muqtada al-Sadr said in a statement released by his office on April 8 that a million-man demonstration planned for the following day has been "postponed," according to the text of the statement posted to pro-Sadr websites. "I appeal to the beloved Iraqi people who want to demonstrate against the occupation to postpone their demonstrations, because I fear for them and because I want to spare their blood," al-Sadr said. He said recent security operations targeting militias "prove that the government is still under abhorrent U.S. pressure...and the U.S. oppressive authority." Al-Sadr added, "The government is trying to prevent the annual demonstration by millions against the occupation, preventing the believers from participating in the elections, and trying hard to entrench the pillars of the U.S. project to divide Iraq on sectarian and ethnic foundations." He called on the government, "if there is one," to protect the Iraqi people and stop shedding Iraqi blood. "Let it protect [the people] from the despicable sectarianism and partisan affiliations that has become rife in the government's departments and within its ranks.... Let it ask the occupiers to leave or draw up a timetable" for their withdrawal. Al-Sadr spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi claimed that Iraqi security forces are preventing demonstrators in Al-Hillah, Al-Kut, and Karbala from passing security checkpoints on the road to Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 8. KR

Al-Sadr said in his April 8 statement that he may call off a cease-fire for his militia if the government continues to target its fighters and followers of the cleric. The Imam Al-Mahdi Army is ready to "stand hand-in-hand with the Iraqi people to provide the security, stability, independence, and liberation...that they need and will end the freeze [on the militia's activities] if interests so require, in order to implement our aims, creed, religion, constant principles, and patriotism," al-Sadr said in the statement. Al-Sadr spokesman al-Ubaydi told a press conference in Baghdad on April 8 that if the freeze on the militia becomes an obstacle or if the parties opposing the so-called Al-Sadr Trend abuse the freeze and use it against al-Sadr followers, then the cease-fire will be called off, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Ubaydi also claimed that senior Shi'ite ayatollahs, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have refused to disband the Al-Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr asked senior clergy a day earlier to issue a fatwa on whether or not his militia should exist in light of the government's efforts to eliminate it. KR

Baghdad security operations spokesman Major General Qasim Ata told reporters at an April 8 press briefing in Baghdad that the government has cleared the holy cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala and will now begin clearing Al-Kadhimiyah, another center of Shi'ite worship, of all weapons, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. The operation will begin on April 9 and last for three days. Those found possessing weapons after the three-day period will face arrest. Weapons will also be collected in all other areas of Baghdad, Ata said. The government listed the following weapons as banned: all types of mortars, Katyusha and Grad rockets, local and smart bombs and antiarmor mines, rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles, substances used in explosions like TNT, detonators, C4, and other chemical substances, and military communication devices and equipment. Ata also announced that between March 16 and April 7, 82 terrorists were killed, 415 wanted persons detained, and 464 suspected insurgents arrested. Fifteen kidnapped persons were freed by security forces, four car bombs dismantled, 101 bombs were defused, and 39,550 pieces of heavy and medium ammunition and 838 weapons were confiscated. Thirty-six civilians and 37 military personnel were killed during the period, while 119 civilians and 174 security troops were injured, Ata added. KR

The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, testified before Congress on April 8 that significant strides have been made in the security arena in Iraq, but cautioned that the progress made since last year is "fragile and reversible." Petraeus's testimony on the security situation in Iraq was a scheduled update of the September 2007 testimony he gave to Congress alongside U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. "Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially, Al-Qaeda-Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows, the capabilities of Iraqi security forces have grown, and there has been noteworthy involvement of local Iraqis in local security. Nonetheless, the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory and innumerable challenges remain," Petraeus said. He credited the surge of U.S. forces, as well as the addition of more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and police to the ranks security forces, as contributing to the increased security. The cease-fire declared by Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr for his militia also contributed to the overall reduction in violence, he added. Regarding the status of U.S. forces committed under the surge, Petraeus said: "I recommended to my chain of command that we continue the drawdown of the surge combat forces and that, upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground, and over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further [troop] reductions." KR

General Petraeus told Congress that Iraq's neighbors, particularly Syria and Iran, continue to contribute to terrorism in Iraq. He said that Syria has taken some steps to reduce the flow of foreign fighters across its borders with Iraq, "but not enough to shut down the key network that supports" Al-Qaeda. Petraeus added that Iran "has fueled the violence in a particularly damaging way, through its lethal support to the Special Groups" and the Qods Force, which target coalition forces and Iraqi citizens from inside Iraq. He said insufficient government capacity, sectarian mistrust, and corruption contribute to Iraq's problems. "We should all watch Iranian actions closely in the weeks and months ahead, as they will show the kind of relationship Iran wishes to have with its neighbor and the character of future Iranian involvement in Iraq," Petraeus advised. KR