Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - April 10, 2008

President Lech Kaczynski told Reuters in Warsaw on April 9 that he wants Poland to maintain its veto over EU talks with Russia regarding a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement unless major West European EU states agree to put Ukraine and Georgia on a clear path to NATO membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and April 3, 4, 7, 8, and 9, 2008). Poland originally imposed the veto in 2006 because of Russian restrictions on Polish agricultural exports, which Warsaw regarded as politically inspired. Germany and France led some older NATO member states at the recent Bucharest summit in opposing moves by the United States and some newer member countries to grant Ukraine and Georgia each a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is an important step toward NATO membership. Kaczynski said on April 9 that only people who "are not sufficiently politically informed would think that what happened with the MAP had nothing to do with Russia's opposition." Kaczynski argued that the issue of NATO membership for former Soviet republics is linked to the EU's strategic partnership with Russia because most EU member states also belong to NATO. "I must tie these two issues together, even though I would prefer not to," he added. Kaczynski said Poland will continue to press Ukraine's and Georgia's cases with Germany and France. French President Nicolas Sarkozy will hold talks with him and Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Warsaw on April 23 in the run-up to the French EU presidency, which begins on July 1. Kaczynski noted that the Bucharest summit gave Kyiv and Tbilisi a clear promise that they will eventually be admitted to NATO. Alluding to Russia's opposition to NATO enlargement, Kaczynski argued that Russia has nothing to fear from countries where it already has huge business interests. He noted that "Europe certainly wants to cooperate with Russia, but this cooperation must be symmetric. We cannot accept that Russia protects its energy market successfully, while the EU does not. Russia should not use its clout based on oil and gas" for political purposes. Foreign policy has frequently been a matter of dispute between Kaczynski and Tusk, who maintains that it is his prerogative. on April 10 quoted State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov as saying that other EU countries will not back Kaczynski's "senseless" proposal. PM

Diplomats from all 27 EU member states signed a letter to the Russian authorities recently calling on them to change recent legislation that significantly complicates the procedures that EU nationals face to obtain Russian visas, news agencies reported on April 9 and the daily "Vremya novostei" reported on April 10. AP quoted an unnamed Moscow-based EU diplomat who spoke of "three recurring complaints indicated in the letter, namely that...employers are not sure what is legally required of them to retain their staff long-term, the Federal Migration Service demands too many documents, and the employer is restricted to a quota of foreign employees." The Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP recently sent 148 BP staff home from Russia because of visa issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008). PM

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Moscow on April 9 to meet with Russian leaders on a three-day visit, the first he has made there since assuming office in January 2007, Russian and international media reported. He has visited the capitals of all other countries that have vetoes on the Security Council except Beijing. Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev told Ban on April 9 that "we think there is no basis for any talk of a crisis or problems at the United Nations. On the contrary, unified nations should do everything possible to support and develop this universal platform for coordinating their interests. Any attempts to resolve international problems in violation of UN resolutions -- in particular on Kosovo or other current problems -- are counterproductive and unfortunately do not contribute to reaching peace and stability." Ban told Medvedev that "you are right that no nation, however powerful and resourceful it is, can resolve all problems." Ban said to President Vladimir Putin that he is "very much grateful for all the support and cooperation you have given to the activities of the United Nations. You have enhanced the role, visibility, and profile of Russia in the international community." The daily "Kommersant" noted on April 9 that Ban wants Russia to significantly increase its contribution to the UN budget in view of its greatly increased oil and gas revenues. In 2006, the United States contributed $423 million and Russia $21.2 million to the UN. Ban told state-run Vesti-24 television on April 10 that he hopes Medvedev will provide greater political and financial support to the UN. Ban added that the backs Russia's plans for hosting a new Middle East conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, March 20 and 26, and April 1, 2008). PM

Inflation in Russia continues to run higher than government analysts have forecast, Russian media reported on April 9. On April 8, reported that the government officially raised its 2008 inflation projection to 14 percent, the highest inflation rate in Russia since 2002. The next day, the website reported that inflation was 0.5 percent in the first week of April, with the greatest increases affecting common foodstuffs like bread, cooking oil, and sugar. Inflation was 1.2 percent in March. "Kommersant" wrote on April 10 that the price of bread has risen 10-20 percent in some regions. Maria Kataranova, an analyst with the Economic Experts Group, told that part of the reason for the inflation is "the increase in state spending toward the end of 2007, which, as we expected, is beginning to be felt in the first and second quarters of 2008." "Vedomosti" reported on April 10 that some regions have introduced extraordinary measures to control prices of some staples, but that these efforts are uncoordinated and unlikely to affect the overall inflation rate. RC

Ivan Bolshakov, the leader of the Moscow branch of the Yabloko youth organization, was arrested on April 8, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on April 9. Bolshakov is accused of injuring a police officer during a demonstration in the Moscow Oblast town of Butovo in May 2007, as well as of falsifying signatures gathered in March to support his candidacy for the local town council. Bolshakov denies the accusations and says he has a videotape of the Butovo demonstration that shows the purportedly injured police officer was not even on the scene. Deputy Yabloko head Sergei Mitrokhin told RFE/RL the party views the incident as part of the "coordinated persecution of the party." He said he believes the assault is "a political order," but did not specify from whom. RC

The three informal "political clubs" formed within the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party last week have all initialed an agreement that would boost their status within the party and give them a formal position within its structure, "Kommersant" wrote on April 10. The clubs are currently called the Center for Social-Conservative Politics, the November 4 Liberal-Conservative Political Action Club, and the State-Patriotic Club. The move could be the beginning of a bid to create something like a multiparty structure within the framework of a single party. The clubs are expected to present the document at the party's April 14-15 congress. Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) political council member Boris Nadezhdin told the daily that the creation of factions within Unified Russia is "irreversible" and that other political parties "will be stamped out." RC

The Public Chamber has asked the Federal Registration Service to simplify the process under which nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register themselves with the government, "Gazeta" reported on April 10. Under the current law, NGOs must present a raft of documents by April 15 or possibly face closure. The Public Chamber urged the government to simplify and clarify the procedure for presenting financial information. The chamber also noted that regional employees of the Federal Registration Service themselves often do not understand the regulations and apply them haphazardly. The chamber also said that a section of the NGO law that requires organizations working in more than one region to register as "federal organizations" could be abused; under it, the chamber argued, officials could close down a regional NGO for sending a representative to a conference out of the region. Earlier, Federal Registration Service head Dmitry Yermak presented the results of his agency's work in 2007, saying that only about 100 official complaints were received while some 11,000 organizations were denied registration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8, 2008). RC

Rail Sarbayev was confirmed by Bashkortostan's legislature as the republic's prime minister on April 10, Interfax and other Russian media reported. Sarbayev, a former republican property relations minister, replaces Rafael Baidavletov, who was recently named one of the republic's representatives in the Federation Council. Sarbayev is a longtime ally of Bashkortostan's President Murtaz Rakhimov. Rakhimov will be 74 when his current term of office expires in 2011 and removing Baidavletov is being interpreted as a move to boost Rakhimov's position in the republic. Analyst Oksana Goncharenko told "Kommersant" on April 10 that she believes Sarbayev is a "compromise figure" designed to keep political interests in Bashkortostan balanced so that Rakhimov's son, Ural Rakhimov, can succeed his father as president. RC

In a formal inauguration ceremony held amid tight security in Yerevan, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was on April 9 formally sworn in as the new Armenian president, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In his inaugural address, Sarkisian vowed to strengthen democracy "where everyone is equal before the law" and called for national reconciliation and unity, referring to the "wounds" from a postelection crisis that culminated in a violent March 1 clash between opposition demonstrators and riot police in Yerevan. As part of his appeal for national reconciliation, Sarkisian reached out to all citizens by saying that "a part of our people supported other candidates, and I now appeal to them: it was your right to vote for someone other than me, but I do not have the right not to be your president," adding that "even if a wall of misunderstanding stands between us, I urge you to join us in eliminating that wall." Immediately following the ceremony, the authorities opened a large military parade as several thousand baton-wielding police blocked major streets to prevent opposition supporters from staging demonstrations. Instead, a group of nearly 1,000 protesters skirted police units and held a spontaneous demonstration about a kilometer from the city center and voiced demands for a rerun of the February 19 presidential election controversially won by Sarkisian, Arminfo reported. RG

Tigran Sarkisian, the longtime chairman of the Central Bank, was appointed on April 9 as the new prime minister, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Newly installed President Serzh Sarkisian (no relation to Tigran) signed a relevant decree immediately after his inauguration, after accepting the formal resignation of the current government which he has headed since April 2007. The ministers will continue to perform their duties until the formation of a new cabinet. The decree was a formality after Tigran Sarkisian's candidacy was unanimously backed by the leadership of the ruling Republican Party (HHK) the day before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 9, 2008). According to his official biography, the 48-year-old Sarkisian studied economics at both the Yerevan Economics Institute and at an institute in St. Petersburg before spending three years doing graduate studies in Washington, D.C. After teaching economics at Yerevan State University, Sarkisian was elected to the Armenian parliament, rising to head the committee for finance, loan, and budget issues. He then served as the head of the Armenian Bank Association from 1995-98 before being appointed the head of the Central Bank, a post he has held since March 1998. RG

In comments to reporters after his arrival in Yerevan to attend the presidential inauguration, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said on April 9 that the United States expects new President Sarkisian to restore civil liberties and take other "dramatically positive steps" to resolve Armenia's postelection crisis, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Bryza suggested that the Armenian government has to date fallen short of addressing U.S. concerns over its crackdown on the opposition that followed the February 19 presidential election, and he added that Washington has revised its initial, largely positive, assessment of the conduct of the vote. The Armenian authorities have been under pressure from the United States and the European Union to end the crackdown and release more than 100 supporters of opposition figures arrested in the wake of March 1 clash between riot police and opposition demonstrators that led to the imposition of a 40-day state of emergency. Bryza stressed that "more needs to happen to restore the confidence of the Armenian people that the country is moving in the right direction" but noted that "there is some momentum in the development of democracy." He then warned that "first of all, healing has to take place," and noted that "beyond healing, dramatic steps are needed to restore a sense of confidence that the country is moving in the right direction," including a dialogue with the opposition, the release of detained opposition activists, and the "full restoration" of the freedoms of speech and assembly. He then warned that failure to take such steps would cause further damage to U.S.-Armenian ties and, in particular, call into question continued U.S. economic assistance to Armenia. RG

At a press conference in Tbilisi on April 9, State Department of Tourism and Resorts official Beka Jakeli released a highly positive report on the Georgian tourism sector, with projections forecasting an influx of 1.3 million tourists by the end of the year, Caucasus Press reported. Jakeli said that Georgian officials plan on launching a public relations and advertising campaign to further boost tourism and noted that "every year, Georgia takes part in about 15 international tourist exhibitions," which he also cited as confirmation of the country's "tourist potential." He also reported that majority of tourists were attracted to Georgia from a fondness for "cultural and adventurous tourism," and noted that foreign tourists were mainly attracted to the Bakuriani, Gudauri, and Ajara regions. He said that last year, Georgia was visited by 1.05 million tourists, but stressed that the 2007 level would be surpassed by another almost 300,000 tourists for 2008. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Almaty, Robert Simmons, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, said on April 9 that NATO appreciates the level of cooperation from Kazakh authorities and praised Kazakhstan for successfully implementing the first stage of its Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with the alliance, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Simmons said that following "an evaluation of everything the Kazakh government did over the recent years regarding the individual partnership plan," t has "fulfilled very successfully" its commitment to the reforms called for in the IPAP, a framework guiding conformity with NATO political and military standards. He also pointed to the success of the "political dialogue and successful military cooperation" between NATO and Kazakhstan, adding that the dialogue promotes "discussions on a number of important issues, particularly in ensuring security at the regional level," ITAR-TASS reported. He then cited the development of Kazakhstan's peacekeeping capabilities as an example of "successful military cooperation," and said that "now a field is opening for wider cooperation." RG

Prime Minister Karim Masimov arrived on April 9 in Beijing and met with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao to discuss the expansion of trade, economic, and commercial cooperation, AKIpress reported. Masimov began a state visit to China and plans to attend a business forum organized jointly by the Kazakh Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Although the volume of bilateral trade reached only $13.8 million last year, both sides identified the mining, energy, and tourism sectors as specific areas for greater trade and investment, ITAR-TASS reported. Masimov signed on April 9 a set of new bilateral agreements, including a "program of cooperation" focusing on economic ties beyond the energy sector, Kazinform reported. RG

Arriving in Ashgabat following a one-day official visit to Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 9, 2008), EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner opened on April 9 a summit meeting of Central Asian leaders in the Turkmen capital, AKIpress reported. The two-day talks, which include officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, focus on the development of a new "strategy of a new partnership" to guide the European Union's regional relationship with Central Asia. The agenda of the meeting focuses on "expanding the dialogue" between the EU and the Central Asian states in the areas of education, law, economy, trade, and energy, as well as border security and drug trafficking. RG

The city court in Polatsk on April 9 fined Lyudmila Atakulava 1.2 million rubles ($570) and Alyaksey Yanusheuski 100,000 rubles ($50) for violating regulations governing demonstrations, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Atakulava and Yanusheuski were among several dozen protesters who gathered outside the court building to support their colleague Katsyaryna Salauyova from the Youth Front, who was fined 1.75 million rubles ($820) the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 9, 2008). JM

With an overwhelming support of 411 votes, the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada on April 10 ratified Ukraine's protocol of accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was agreed by both sides in February, Ukrainian media reported. "I think that we are fully prepared to join the WTO, while those laws that still need to be adopted are cosmetic laws [and] constituting norms," Deputy Economy Minister Valeriy Pyatnytskyy told lawmakers before the vote. Ukraine's negotiations with the WTO have lasted for over 14 years. It is expected that Ukraine will become a full-fledged member of the WTO in August. JM

Polish President Lech Kaczynski suggested in an interview with Reuters on April 9 that Poland may persist in keeping its veto on the EU's partnership talks with Russia if EU powers fail to put Ukraine and Georgia on a clear path to join NATO. Last week, a NATO summit declared that both countries can join the alliance one day but refused to offer them a road map for entry, the Membership Action Plan (MAP). "Only not fully politically informed people would think that what happened with the MAP [for Ukraine and Georgia] had nothing to do with Russia's opposition," Kaczynski told Reuters. "I must tie these two issues together even though I would prefer not to.... We certainly should talk, we certainly should build an atmosphere in which mistrust is reduced. But whether the strategic [EU-Russia] talks can be unblocked in the near future is another matter. I would first like to know how the issue of MAP for Ukraine and Georgia is going to be resolved." Poland blocked EU-Russia talks in 2006 due to a trade dispute with Russia, since resolved. JM

The 107 members of Kosova's legislature present on April 9 voted unanimously to approve the new constitution, which is based on the plan drafted by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 8, 2008). Serbian deputies, for whom 10 seats of the 120-seat parliament are reserved, did not attend the vote. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told the legislators that "we have decided to follow the path of free and democratic countries. The constitution of the Republic of Kosova is our will and [it asserts] the legitimacy of the state of Kosova." President Fatmir Sejdiu said that the constitution's "guarantees for the minorities express...the commitment of majority citizens and the institutions to building an independent and sovereign Kosova, home to all citizens, regardless of their ethnicity." The document establishes a secular and indivisible parliamentary republic, with both Albanian and Serbian as official languages, although ethnic Albanians make up about 90 percent and ethnic Serbs about 5 percent of the population. Joachim Ruecker, who heads the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said that "if the new...constitution, as expected, enters into force on June 15, then [UNMIK] will have to face new realities...and should adapt to these new realities." PM

UNMIK spokesman Aleksandar Ivanko said in Prishtina on April 9 that it would be illegal for the Serbian authorities to organize local elections among members of Kosova's Serbian minority on May 11, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and April 1, 2008). Such elections would be "in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1244...and will have no legal validity." As has been the case in the past, the UN says it "will neither support nor hinder" Belgrade's organizing Serbian parliamentary elections on May 11 in Kosova. But the UN views Serbia's attempt at managing the local vote as yet another move toward partitioning Kosova along ethnic lines, which the United Nations, European Union, and Kosova's government firmly oppose. PM

A high-profile European Union delegation is meeting with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. The two-day talks will focus on the implementation of the EU-Central Asia strategy adopted nearly a year ago, but will also discuss important energy issues and human rights.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has expressed confidence that the talks with the foreign ministers of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will boost cooperation between the EU and Central Asia countries. "There is a huge scope for cooperation, and our relations are growing rapidly now," she said. "We will take concrete and practical steps to develop initiatives in the area of education but also the rule of law."

Speaking to RFE/RL from Ashgabat, Ferrero-Waldner insisted that Central Asia is becoming an increasingly important energy partner for the European bloc. "Central Asia is a key partner in the energy market and has a huge potential here," she said on April 9. "But we are also stepping up our cooperation on the renewable energies, which is another important topic between us. And, of course, [we are talking] about diversifying our supply routes and the diversification of export routes."

The region is key to Europe's ambitions to diversify its energy supplies, which are now dependent on Russia. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are home to some of the world's biggest oil and gas reserves. But human rights groups are urging the EU to seize the opportunity to press Central Asian governments on human rights.

Anna Matveeva, a researcher with the Crisis States Research Center at the London School of Economics, believes this week's talks are "significant." "First, this is the first [such] meeting in [Turkmenistan], which has been an isolated country under the previous president, [Saparmurat] Niyazov," Matveeva says. "This signifies an opening of a new country to the international community in general and to the European Union in particular. Secondly, the level of representation of the Central Asian [governments] at that kind of meetings is growing. So that also shows a growing importance of the European game in the region."

The EU troika is headed by Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel and includes Ferrero-Waldner and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who is representing the EU's next rotating presidency. Pierre Morel, the EU's special representative for Central Asia, is also attending. The talks will focus on the implementation of the EU Strategy Paper for assistance to Central Asia, adopted in June 2007.

The strategy advances goals for deepening EU engagement in a number of policy areas in Central Asia, including economy and trade, energy, education, environmental protection, and security, but also human rights and the rule of law.

Ahead of the Ashgabat meeting, Ferrero-Waldner was in Dushanbe for talks with President Emomali Rahmon and other Tajik officials. At an April 7 press conference following her meetings, she called on Tajikistan to implement reforms so the country can fully benefit from the EU's assistance -- a recommendation that could apply to all five Central Asian states. "It is crucial that the necessary political and economic reforms are pursued and also are being implemented in order to ensure sufficient impact on the economic development and also on the poverty alleviation throughout the whole country of Tajikistan," she said.

The European Commission says its assistance to Central Asian nations will total 750 million euros ($1.18 billion) between 2007 and 2013, a 90 percent increase over the previous period.

Matveeva says it is difficult to predict to what extent the EU strategy will bear fruit, but she noted that dialogue has already been developing over the past year. "It is quite positive that the European Union came up with a strategy at all," she says. "Before that, there was very little political thinking on the region. It is too early to really expect there will be major results, but there are some things which have been already developing. One thing is that there is more intense dialogue with Uzbekistan, and there have been some measures taken since the strategy has been adopted."

In October 2007, EU member states lifted for six months a visa ban on a number of top Uzbek officials accused of complicity in the mass killings in Andijon in 2005. The decision, which is to be reviewed later this month, was conditional on improvement in the human rights situation in the country. EU officials cited a number of positive steps taken by Tashkent -- among them three rounds of talks with the EU on the Andijon violence and human rights, the conditional release of some political prisoners, and the abolition of the death penalty.

Ferrero-Waldner told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that those moves were encouraging and noted that Uzbekistan is the first Central Asian country with which the EU has formalized such a human rights dialogue. "Human rights are, indeed, a very important part for us [in] our external relations, and therefore we really want to see an even better commitment," she said. "Of course, we are aware of different historical and cultural contexts in Central Asia when compared to the European Union and that reforms in the area of democratization, rule of law, and human rights will take a certain time."

In a statement issued on April 9, however, Amnesty International urged the EU and the Central Asian governments to start honoring their commitment to implement the human rights component of the strategy. The London-based group said both sides must clearly demonstrate that human rights "are an integral part of these interactions -- and not a fig leaf behind which either side is free to privilege economic cooperation over the promotion and protection of fundamental rights."

In a 15-page briefing paper released on April 8, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the EU to establish human rights benchmarks for Central Asian governments and to clearly link progress on the goals with possible future benefits. Speaking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service from Dushanbe, HRW Central Asia researcher Andrea Berg also urged the EU to consult on a regular basis with civil society as it goes forward with the strategy. "Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to have regular consultations with civil society about the goals and the implementation of this strategy, and also to report in a more transparent way about the implementation of this strategy," Berg said.

The New York-based group said the past year has seen some improvements, such as the release of several political prisoners in Turkmenistan. But it also said serious shortcomings continue to mar the human rights records of the five Central Asian states.

According to the HRW paper, Turkmenistan remains "one of the most repressive" countries in the world. In Uzbekistan, government repression and harassment have made it "nearly impossible" for most local nongovernmental organizations to function. Kazakhstan has not held a single national election in accordance with Western election norms, while pluralism and freedom of assembly are at risk in Kyrgyzstan. In Tajikistan, the government continues to violate fundamental civic rights and torture is "rife" in the criminal justice system.

Ferrero-Waldner said the April 10 opening of a Europe House in Ashgabat will give the EU a chance to work with Turkmen civil society on issues such as education, health, and access to the Internet. Ashyrguly Bayriev, an RFE/RL correspondent in Ashgabat, said the new information center will help improve human rights in Turkmenistan, which has signaled that it is seeking closer ties with the West and plans to introduce more reforms.

Matveeva insists, however, that the EU has limited leverage on Central Asian governments. "Of course, diplomatic resources [can have] some impact, but we cannot really expect miracles," she says. "These countries are not really dependent on the European Union politically, or economically, or in terms of security. And they have other players to turn to in case the relationship with the EU comes to a low point -- like China or Russia."

(Antoine Blua is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. RFE/RL's Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)

A suicide car bombing on April 10 killed at least eight civilians and injured many others in Kandahar Province, AFP reported. AFP quoted provincial police chief Sayed Agha Saqeb as saying 24 people were injured in the attack on the road to the Kandahar airport, which apparently targeted a passing convoy of international troops. Elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, three Taliban fighters traveling by motorcycle were killed in an air strike in Zabul Province late on April 8, according to Deputy Governor Gulab Shah Alikhail. NATO-led forces have not yet confirmed the bombing. In Helmand Province, a police officer and four Taliban militants died in a clash after the insurgents attacked a security patrol late on April 8, according to provincial police commander Mohammad Hussein Andiwal. AT

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced on April 9 that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held separately during the next two years, despite the high cost of holding the votes, news agencies reported. The Independent Election Commission earlier suggested that the elections should be combined in order to save money, but commission head Azizullah Ludin said that President Hamid Karzai, members of the Supreme Court, and members of parliament decided that separate elections should be held as planned. A definite date has not yet been set for the presidential election, but Ludin said it will be held in the middle of 2009, while a parliamentary vote is planned for 2010. "How much the election itself will cost, we don't know, and we don't know who will provide the money," Ludin said. He added that Afghanistan still owes some $18 million from the last round of elections, which were largely supported by international donors, the Canadian Press news agency reported. AT

The newly appointed special UN envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said on April 9 that he hopes governments will take more decisive action in aiding Afghanistan, Reuters reported. Speaking at his first news conference in Kabul, Eide said, "What I want to do is to create a new sense of momentum and a new sense of urgency." He continued: "We have to get away from the situation where the Afghan government administration, which is still in need of capacity-building, is faced with a too-fragmented international community. That simply is not going to work." The UN Security Council voted last month to extend the mandate of its mission in Afghanistan for another year, and called for what UN officials described as a "sharpened" role for Eide, Reuters reported.

Abu Obaidah al-Masri, believed to have been a senior planner of Al-Qaeda attacks in Afghanistan and abroad, has died of natural causes, news agencies reported on April 9. Intelligence officials said al-Masri, who had been living in Pakistan's tribal region, was thought to have died of hepatitis in December, although the date of his death has not been confirmed. Al-Masri is believed to have masterminded attacks including the London transport bombings in July 2005 and a foiled plot to blow up commercial airplanes in 2006. He was an anti-Soviet mujahedin fighter in the 1980s before relocating to Germany and building a network of extremist contacts in Europe. The BBC reported that the Egyptian-born militant was the head of external operations for Al-Qaeda's core leadership, and that no replacement has yet been appointed. AT

Iranian government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham confirmed rumors of a cabinet reshuffle in Tehran on April 9, and that Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari and Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi will be leaving their posts, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Only days before, Elham rejected similar rumors as sensationalist press reporting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2008). President Mahmud Ahmadinejad confirmed the changes in a personal web log entry on April 8 and said that the changes are in line with policy goals, Radio Farda reported. An unidentified legislator told Aftab news agency in Tehran on April 9 that Mohammad Hasan Abutorabifar, currently a deputy speaker of parliament, is a likely candidate to become interior minister. The lawmaker said Ahmadinejad has in recent weeks consulted with Abutorabifar over the appointment, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 10. Another conservative lawmaker and member of the parliamentary Economy Committee, Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moqaddam, said in Tehran on April 9 that he did not understand the logic of another reshuffle in the cabinet, and wondered aloud if Ahmadinejad has anyone better than Danesh-Jafari for the Finance Ministry. He said Purmohammadi has been a good minister, as has Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, whom he cited as another rumored candidate for dismissal. VS

Mostafa Samareh-Hashemi, a senior adviser to President Ahmadinejad, said in Tehran on April 9 that unspecified changes will be made to the cabinet and the matter will be clarified in "three or four days," ISNA reported. Interior Minister Purmohammadi has also been instructed to replace four provincial governors, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 10, citing an unnamed source and without naming the governors. The changes are to take place after second-round runoffs on April 25 of the March 14 parliamentary elections. VS

Ali Larijani, the supreme leader's representative on Iran's Supreme National Security Council who was elected on March 14 to be a member of the next parliament for Qom, said in Mashhad on April 9 that changes in government must have "reasonable stability," so people can plan their lives, ISNA reported. "If there are changes in the process of government every day, people will become cautious because repetitive policy changes will mean time is wasted." He said in a speech in the library of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad that not all Iran's problems are due to UN sanctions imposed on it because of its nuclear program. He said Iranians have a right to expect officials to resolve their problems, when he said they have supported the regime at various junctures. "Problems of inflation, unemployment...exist and are serious," he said, urging new members of parliament to attend to essential problems in the country. He observed that sanctions have had a "slight" effect on Iran's economy. He also dismissed the idea that Iran is trying to expand its regional influence. "Iran is not looking for an empire," but seeks a convergence of Islamic and regional states "without the stupid rivalries of certain regional rulers," ISNA quoted him as saying. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini rejected in Tehran charges made by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, that Iran is helping to finance and arm some insurgents in Iraq, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. In testimony before Congress on April 8, Petraeus said that Iraq's neighbors, especially Syria and Iran, are supporting insurgency violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 9, 2008). Hosseini said a surge in troops in Iraq has not enabled the United States to attain its goals. "The Americans cannot attribute their problems to other people by shifting the blame and playing with words," Hosseini said, and he called for a timetable for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq. VS

Visitors have noted the smell of damp around the mausoleum of the ancient Persian emperor Cyrus in the southern Fars Province, which they have attributed to the construction and filling of a controversial dam nearby, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 10. The construction of the Sivand Dam over and around important archeological sites provoked vigorous objections last year from activist. They warned the dam would destroy important archaeological sites through flooding or by increasing the humidity of the local climate. The government dismissed the claims and said the dam is needed in an area with scant rainfall (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 17 and 20 and August 30, 2007). The dam began to be filled on April 19, 2007. Visitors in recent weeks have smelled damp around the Cyrus mausoleum in Pasargadae -- which is apparently unprecedented given the area's dry climate -- and noticed moss growing on the northern, shadier side of the tomb, built in the late sixth century B.C. The daily added that the authorities built a small weather station near the tomb to gauge humidity levels around the dam, but that it has not issued any reports yet. Local heritage authorities have also been told not to talk to the press about the dam, which now contains "a considerable level" of water, the daily reported. "Aftab-i Yazd" reported that the construction led to the uprooting and burning of trees hundreds or possibly thousands of years old, and to the flooding of remains of settlements dating back over 2,000 years. VS

Major General Muhammad al-Askari, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry, told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on April 9 that security operations in Al-Basrah are proceeding well, and that most neighborhoods, roads, and state institutions are under control. Al-Askari said the military was surprised at the level of citizen cooperation. "We have been engaged in military operations for five years, but we have never seen such cooperation as in Al-Basrah." He added that the government is working hard to stimulate Al-Basrah's economy, and that more than 80 economic projects have begun across the governorate. Responding to Iraqi media reports that weapons searches were launched in Al-Basrah on April 9, al-Askari said such operations will begin soon. He urged citizens to turn over weapons to police or tribal leaders, saying that those who hand over weapons will be not be prosecuted, and that the government will pay citizens for handing over weapons of all sizes. For handing in a Kalashnikov, for example, a citizen would receive 125,000 Iraqi dinars ($104); 350,000 dinars ($291) for RBK machine guns or Iranian-made bombs; 750,000 dinars ($623) for medium BK and other machine guns; 500,000 dinars ($416) for 81- and 82-millimeter mortars; 700,000 dinars ($582) for 125-millimeter Katyusha rockets; 50,000 dinars ($41) for hand grenades; and 200,000 dinars ($166) for homemade bombs. The highest payment, 1 million dinars ($831), will be for heavy 14.5-millimeter Dimitrov machine guns. KR

Ahmad Sa'id al-Hamid, a spokesman for the Sunni insurgent group Hamas-Iraq, told Al-Jazeera in an interview broadcast on April 9 that his group is working to resist the so-called occupation and to defend the interests of the Iraqi people. Asked if he believes armed action is the only way for his group to achieve its goals, al-Hamid said: "There is no doubt that resistance against any occupier should be based on the use of armed force. The occupier entered my land and country by force. Therefore, he will not leave except by force." Al-Hamid added that Hamas-Iraq has a political program as well, saying: "The resistance established a political council from the largest [insurgent] factions in Iraq. This means politics backs up armed jihad and serves as an element of strength away from the political process undertaken by the occupier." He denied that the group has any ties to the awakening councils formed by Sunni tribal leaders to fight Al-Qaeda. Al-Hamid did not say he was opposed to the awakening councils, but did advise the councils to "side with the resistance" and not to take the side of the "enemy." "We in Hamas-Iraq have presented a full political plan that can lead Iraq and the Iraqis to the shore of safety and enable them to live a dignified life. We are resisting and carrying out jihad for the sake of the Iraqi citizen," al-Hamid said. He asserted that his group does not target civilians or innocent people, and that groups that do should be considered terrorists. KR

A committee of four judges has dismissed terrorism-related charges against AP photographer Bilal Hussein and ordered his immediate release, nearly two years after he was arrested by U.S. forces, AP reported on April 10. In a ruling dated April 7, the review panel ordered Iraqi courts to "cease legal proceedings" against Hussein. However, Hussein is apparently still in custody, and it is not clear when he will be released. Hussein was detained on April 12, 2006, in Al-Ramadi while working for AP. The military claimed he possessed bomb-making materials, and alleged that he was conspiring with insurgents to carry out a bombing. He was also accused of offering to secure a forged ID for a terrorist seeking to evade capture by the military. Hussein maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration. KR

The U.S. government wants European and Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, to increase their donations to help support more than 2 million Iraqi refugees living outside the country, international media reported on April 10. James Foley, the State Department's senior coordinator for Iraqi refugee issues, said European donors are not convinced that UN statistics showing a dramatic decline in refugees' living standards are accurate, AP reported. The UN and other bodies have sought some $900 million for 2008 to aid Iraqi refugees. The United States plans to contribute one-third of the requested aid, but says its contribution and those of other countries will only reach a total of $500 million. Foley, who has just completed a seven-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East, said he is hopeful the European Union and individual European states will offer an additional $160 million to $180 million in aid. The Iraqi government, which has carried a budget surplus in recent years due to projects that weren't implemented because of the security situation, is also being asked to contribute more to refugee support. The Iraqi government pledged $25 million last year, but only $17 million of that has been spent. KR