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Newsline - May 6, 2008

President Vladimir Putin marked the last day of his second term as president on May 6, Russian media reported. On May 7, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev will take the oath of office; on May 8, Putin is expected to be confirmed by the Duma as prime minister; and on May 9 a major military parade will be held in Red Square to mark the 63rd anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2008). Putin held his last meeting with the cabinet on May 5, at which he thanked ministers, past and present, for their work over the last eight years, reported. RC

The government of outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on May 6 authorized rate increases for many basic services that will affect virtually every Russian citizen and could further spur already high inflation, "Vremya novostei" reported the same day. According to the report, the cabinet was urged to make the unpopular move before President Putin takes over as head of government. The rate hikes came at the request of Gazprom, Unified Energy Systems (EES), and Russian Railways. The cost of electricity to residential consumers will be increased 14 percent this year and 25 percent annually in 2009-11. The cost of natural gas, railway tickets, and telephone services will also be increased significantly. RC

The opposition Other Russia coalition on May 6 cancelled a planned March of Dissent rally in Moscow, "Vremya novostei" reported the same day. The group expected some 2,000 people to march in opposition to the transfer of power to President-elect Medvedev, but the demonstration was cancelled after police issued a statement saying they would not allow any "provocations." Activists said talks with the authorities are continuing. A police spokesman told that 13 demonstrations have been approved in the capital for May 6, occupying all the main downtown squares. He did not elaborate, but it is likely the approved demonstrations were organized by pro-Kremlin groups such as Nashi and Young Guard. RC

Reporters working in the main government building, the White House, face strict new limitations on their access to government officials, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2008). The restrictions have been put into place on the eve of President Putin's expected appointment as prime minister. According to the report, journalists are now restricted to the fifth-floor press room and they are monitored by a Federal Security Service officer. "These are the rules that Putin is used to in the Kremlin," a press spokeswoman, who took the uncharacteristic step of requesting anonymity, told the daily. "All this was done to control information rather than disseminate it," "Vremya novostei" journalist Vera Kuznetsova was quoted as saying. Reporters must now get permission from the government press service to speak to ministers or their staffers. Former Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who will become chief press spokesman for Putin when he becomes prime minister, told the daily: "Putin during his term as president demonstrated unprecedented openness with the press. This dialogue and transparency will be continued." RC

The Russian authorities have given British soccer fans permission to travel to Russia without a visa between May 17-25 to attend the Champions League Final game between Chelsea and Manchester United in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2008). According to a statement on the website of the Russian Embassy in London,, fans must have a valid passport, the ticket to the Moscow match (which they must keep after the match until they cross the border on their way back to Britain) and a completed Russian migration card. British soccer fans who intend to stay in Russia for less than three days will not need to register their stay with the Russian authorities, while those staying in hotels for a longer period will have this done automatically by the hotels, the statement said. Manchester United will play Chelsea at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium on May 21, and at least 42,000 supporters of the two clubs are expected for the game, Bloomberg reported on May 5. The news agency quoted Michael Platini, president of the Union of European Football Associations, as calling Russia's decision to waive visa requirements for visiting fans "an exceptional and unprecedented gesture." JB

The chairman of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, Mikhail Margelov, stated in an article published in the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on May 6 that Russia needs to increase its influence in the "Greater Middle East." "In its policy for the Greater Middle East, Russia is switching from tactics to strategy," Margelov wrote. "It is returning to the region, in the political, economic, and humanitarian senses. We have an enviable historical experience of relations with the countries of the Greater Middle East. And we can create a conception of our goals and tasks in the region worthy of [this experience]. A presence also means the economic expansion of Russian companies in the region -- above all, all energy [companies]. Russia needs to strengthen its influence in the Greater Middle East: this is in the country's national interests. And this means participating in all of the international institutions created to resolve the problems of the Greater Middle East." JB

In a statement posted on May 3 to the website, the combined Kabarda, Balkar, and Karachai jamaat denied any connection with threatening letters that a pro-government publication claims were mailed, together with a live cartridge, to Larisa Dorogova, the lawyer representing several of the 58 young men on trial for their alleged role in the October 2005 multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR). The statement characterized Dorogova as a devout Muslim who, despite threats and pressure, is doing all in her power to "defend Muslims being held captive by the unbelievers." The KBR prosecutor's office is seeking to strip Dorogova of her right to practice law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26 and April 22, 2008). LF

A spokesman for former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on May 5 that not only have the Armenian authorities failed to release more than 100 opposition leaders and activists taken into custody following the March 1-2 clashes in Yerevan between police and security forces and Ter-Petrossian's supporters, but that arrests and detentions are continuing across the country. According to the Prosecutor-General's Office, 89 people are currently under arrest, most of them on charges stemming from the violence. The authorities insist that none of them was arrested for political reasons. Also on May 5, investigators formally requested a further two-month extension of former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian's pretrial detention, Noyan Tapan reported quoting Arzumanian's U.S.-born wife Melissa Brown, and the Court of Appeals upheld the decision by a lower-level Yerevan court to extend by a further month the pretrial detention of Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party leader Aram Karapetian, whose application to register as a candidate in the February 19 presidential ballot was rejected in December. Karapetian subsequently threw his support behind Ter-Petrossian, and was arrested on February 24 on charges of bearing false witness. Arzumanian was arrested on March 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). LF

President Serzh Sarkisian on May 6 formally named Artur Baghdasarian, leader of the Orinats Yerkir party that is a member of the four-party government coalition, as National Security Council secretary, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sarkisian had publicly pledged to do so on February 29 when he and Baghdasarian signed an agreement on political cooperation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). LF

Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev has formally nominated incumbent Ilham Aliyev as a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for October 15, "Vedomosti" reported on May 6, quoting Interfax. The ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party plans to endorse Aliyev's candidacy at an upcoming congress, while the Communist, Vahdat, Civic Solidarity, and Ana Vatan parties have all indicated that they too are likely to support his candidacy. Also on May 5, In the Name of Azerbaijan head Eldar Namazov, who served as an advisor to Aliyev's father and predecessor Heydar Aliyev, and who has been identified as symbolizing a new generation of opposition activists (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 2, 2004, and December 22, 2006), also announced his intention to run in the October 15 ballot, Azerbaijani media reported. Meanwhile, opposition party activists continue to take issue with the authorities' proposed intention to cut the duration of the election campaign from four months to two. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili on May 5 named Prosecutor-General Eka Tkeshelashvili to succeed David Bakradze as foreign minister, Georgian media reported. Bakradze submitted his resignation last month and heads the party list of candidates from the ruling United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 21. Tkeshelashvili, who is 32, has a degree in international law and previously served as Appeals Court chair and, from late September 2007 until late January 2008, as justice minister. Both Bakradze and Tkeshelashvili were named to their most recent posts following Saakashvili's inauguration for a second presidential term. LF

Standard and Poor's has lowered from positive to stable its credit rating outlook for Georgia, reported on May 5, quoting Reuters. The ratings agency explained that decision in terms of the further deterioration of Georgia's relations with Russia, which it predicted will escalate regional tensions and further complicate Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership. The rating was similarly downgraded from positive to stable in November 2006, also due to rising tensions with Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22, 2006), but upgraded again to positive 11 months later, according to Caucasus Press on October 9, 2007. LF

Sergei Shamba argued in an interview published in "Izvestia" on May 6 that recent moves by Russia -- the unilateral lifting of the sanctions imposed by the CIS in 1996 and outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin's directive on upgrading economic and other cooperation with the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008) -- constitute de facto recognition by Russia of Abkhazia as an independent state, and thus herald "the start of a process of building interstate ties between our countries." Shamba said that while some 90 percent of the current population of Abkhazia hold Russian passports, there is "no need" for Abkhazia to become a Russian Federation subject, and he touted as the future model for Russian-Abkhaz relations U.S. relations with Taiwan. On April 28, quoted Shamba as saying Abkhazia is ready to sign a military cooperation agreement with Russia. Shamba claimed on May 6 in Sukhum(i) that all four Georgian spy drones allegedly downed over Abkhazia in recent months (on March 18, April 20 and May 4) were hit by Buk ground-to-air missiles. Georgian video footage purported to be of the interception of the drone destroyed on April 20 showed it being hit by a missile fired from what Georgia claims was a Russian MiG. Russia claims the jet was an export version of a Russian MiG not used in the Russian armed forces, and that the video was taken over a body of water the Russian Foreign Ministry says was demonstrably not the Black Sea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 29, 2008). Abkhaz air defense spotted a fifth drone overflying Ochamchira Raion early in the morning of May 5 but refrained from destroying it, RIA Novosti reported, quoting de facto Defense Minister Merab Kishmaria. The Georgian Foreign Ministry on May 5 summoned a senior Russian diplomat to inform him of Georgia's withdrawal from an agreement concluded in April 1995 between the Defense Ministries of the two countries on cooperation in the sphere of antiaircraft defense, Caucasus Press reported. LF

At a ceremony in Bishkek on May 5 marking the 15th anniversary of the Kyrgyz Constitution, President Kurmanbek Bakiev praised the implementation of recent constitutional reforms, saying that the "results are visible" and pointing to "the stabilization of the political situation" in Kyrgyzstan, AKIpress reported. Bakiev said that the recent amendments to the 1993 constitution introduced important new improvements, including "additions concerning human rights, local self-government, and elections." He also noted the importance of the rule of law and said that the reform effort will continue with an added emphasis on the three "main problems" of "democracy, human rights, and freedoms," according to Kabar. He closed by adding praise for the country's civil society and stressed his "deep respect" for the activities of human rights activists, whom he described as "courageous people who help all of us in achieving the consolidation of the rule of law." RG

In Dushanbe, senior World Bank official Chiara Bronchi said on May 5 that Tajikistan will receive a new $6.5 million aid package designed to address its energy crisis, ITAR-TASS reported. After its approval by the World Bank executive board in Washington, the new assistance will focus on bolstering Tajikistan's energy-production capability by prioritizing the need for expanding electrical supplies. The announcement followed a meeting between Tajik Finance Minister Safarali Najmuddinov and Bronchi during which the longer-term strategic details of the World Bank agreement were worked out, according to the Khovar website. In March, the International Monetary Fund reprimanded Tajikistan for violating the terms of its poverty-reduction agreement and demanded the repayment of some $48 million in aid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). In a demonstration of the severity of the Tajik energy crisis, the Shuroobod, Muminobod, Baljuvon, and Khovaling districts of the southern Khatlon region have been totally without electricity since May 3, Asia-Plus reported. RG

After a series of meetings with senior Turkmen leaders, the head of a delegation of International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials, Peter Winglee, announced that the IMF welcomes the "important progress" Turkmenistan has made in economic reforms over the past year and a half, AKIpress reported on May 5. Winglee added that the Turkmen government seemed well prepared for the planned adoption of a unified exchange rate for the national currency, the manat. He said that the IMF mission will continue to support the country's reform program, including the redenomination of the manat, as well as to bolster Turkmenistan's successful integration in the world economy. RG

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey on May 5 flatly rejected repeated accusations by Belarus's State Security Committee (KGB) that the U.S. Embassy runs a spy ring in the country, AP reported. "Other than laughter, I really don't have much reaction to it," Casey told journalists in Washington. "It's completely unfounded and untrue. They can come up with whatever excuses they like for their totally unjustified and unwarranted [expulsion] of our [embassy] staff, but I'm sorry, this is just ridiculous." Speaking on Belarusian television on May 4, Belarusian KGB spokesman Valery Nadtachayeu essentially repeated statements he made in March about a spy ring of 10 Belarusian citizens who were purportedly recruited by two employees of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk to take photographs of police officials, airports, and villages near the state border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). The two countries are embroiled in a row in which the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, following demands from the Belarusian side, has cut its diplomatic staff from 35 to four since the beginning of 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2008). JM

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on May 5 handed a note of protest to an official at the Russian Embassy in Kyiv over the Russian Black Sea Fleet's unauthorized tests of an airborne antisubmarine torpedo in Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The torpedo was found near the village of Pryvitne, Alushta Raion, in Crimea on April 27. "It has emerged that on April 15, 2008, a Russian Black Sea Fleet research vessel lost the torpedo during tests at the P-34 testing site.... It is remarkable that the tests were held without the permission of the Ukrainian authorities," the Foreign Ministry said in its note of protest. "The 1997 agreement concerning the status and conditions regulating the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, and in particular Article 8(2), stipulates that any combat and operational training cannot be held without the consent of the competent Ukrainian authorities." JM

The Crimean branch of the Communist Party of Ukraine on May 5 began gathering signatures for a "People's Plebiscite" to grant the Russian Black Sea Fleet the right to be based permanently in Sevastopol, Interfax-Ukraine reported. In a specifically adopted document, the Crimean Communists accused the Ukrainian government of allowing "the NATO war dogs" to hold maneuvers in Crimea this year. "The violation of the constitutional rights and autonomy of Crimean citizens to participate in drawing up the foreign policy course of the state, provided by the law and rulings of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, shows the aspirations of the pro-American top leadership of Ukraine to drag Ukraine into NATO in 2008 and organize military bases on its territory, and turn Ukraine into an outpost of American combat operations against the sister nation of Russia," the document says. According to a 1997 Russian-Ukrainian agreement, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is to remain in Sevastopol until 2017. JM

Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN's undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, on a visit to Kosova urged the people of the newly independent country to resolve their differences peacefully and to respect law and order, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on May 4. Guehenno held talks with Kosova's leadership on May 3 and traveled to the ethnic-Serbian areas in northern Kosova the following day. Guehenno also met with the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, to discuss the future of the international presence there. UNMIK cannot hand over to the EU's planned rule-of-law mission, EULEX, without authorization from the UN's secretary-general, which is not forthcoming because of objections by Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. UN and EU diplomats are now trying to find a formula that would allow a smooth transition. Guehenno later traveled to Belgrade, where he held talks with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. TV

Bosnia-Herzegovina's prime minister, Nikola Spiric, has initiated the procedure to remove Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj and two deputy ministers over irregularities highlighted in a report by the country's Central Election Commission, local media reported on May 5. The commission last month accused the three of conflicts of interest and barred them from seeking elected office for four years, though it left open whether they would also be removed from their positions. The dismissals still need to be approved by Bosnia's parliament. Alkalaj rejected the accusation that his service on the board of a local insurance company constituted a conflict of interest and said the commission's report was politically motivated. The other two accused are Deputy Civil Affairs Minister Senad Sepic and Deputy Defense Minister Igor Crnadak. The three officials, who were appointed to their positions when the current government was first formed in January 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007), failed a vetting process by the Central Election Commission after Spiric briefly resigned in November 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2, 2007) and his entire government had to go through a new confirmation process. All three are reportedly appealing the commission's findings in the courts. TV

Vladimir Voronin traveled on May 4 to his native village of Corjova in Transdniester to visit his mother's grave, reported the following day. It was Voronin's first visit to the breakaway republic since 2001. The meeting one month ago in Bendery between Voronin and Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov -- likewise the first in seven years -- raised hopes of progress in the deadlocked search for a solution to the Transdniester conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 14, 2008). LF

The official line on the transfer of power in Russia is continuity. Outgoing President Vladimir Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, have stressed that they are like-minded leaders who are ready to work together under the existing structures to continue the policies of the last eight years.

"The Constitution of the Russian Federation distinctly, clearly, and unambiguously enumerates the powers of the president and of the head of the government," Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov told "Vremya novostei" this week. "I have nothing to add to that. There is no dual power and there will be none. There is a team of like-minded people with a shared vision of the future of the country."

But Mironov's sanguine posture notwithstanding, most analysts see the Russian Constitution as an extremely loose framework. In fact, during the run-up to the national elections in December and March, pro-Kremlin analysts who were urging a third term for Putin or other mechanisms under which he could remain in power openly argued that the constitution needed to be rewritten because it has been systematically violated so many times that it no longer corresponded to the political situation in Russia.

"Our constitution in reality allows the most extreme variants: either a super-presidential or a semi-presidential republic," political analyst Aleksei Makarkin says. "And if the latter variant is chosen, then we shouldn't talk of a presidential-parliamentary republic, but of a presidential-prime ministerial one."

Throughout the reorganization of the power structure over the last four years, Putin has deftly manipulated the vagaries of the constitution to his political advantage while publicly presenting himself as the reliable protector of the country's fundamental law. The clearest example of this was his elimination in 2004 of the direct election of the heads of federation subjects, a move that legal scholars said violated numerous provisions of the constitution. Not changing the ambiguous constitution could also prove advantageous in the event of the still-not-unlikely scenario of Putin returning to the presidency, either after a Medvedev term or as a result of an early presidential election.

Preparing to move into the prime minister's chair, Putin has continued this approach -- preparing major power-structure shifts at the level of the law on the government and presidential decree. Last month, Duma Deputy Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the Constitutional Law and State Structure Committee, told journalists that he is preparing major legislative changes that will affect at least 150 current laws. Under the revisions, some 500 of the cabinet's currently enumerated 2,894 responsibilities will be delegated downward. Giving an idea of the scope of the changes under way, Pligin said his committee is discussing a further 200 bills aimed at "improving the quality of Russian governance." He emphasized, however, that no changes to the constitution are envisioned.

The changes being implemented so far are clearly intended to give the prime minister a major political role. Throughout the post-Soviet period, the key function of the prime minister has been to provide political cover for the president, serving as a technical implementer until a crisis (political, economic, social) erupted and the president needed a scapegoat. Therefore, the law gave responsibility for vast areas of governance directly to the cabinet. Now those responsibilities are being pushed downward to the ministerial level. The next time there is a crisis, you will see Putin on television firing a minister, rather than Medvedev on television firing Putin.

At the same time, media reports suggest Putin will have a vastly expanded number of deputies -- as many as 11, according to "Gazeta" this week. Currently, Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov gets by with just two first deputy prime ministers and three deputies, although in the past he has had even fewer. Previous government restructurings under Putin have been justified with arguments that fewer deputies and fewer ministries would lead to greater efficiency. These arguments are now being turned on their head. (It remains unclear whether the current number of ministers, 15, will be adjusted.)

Tellingly, Putin's first clear move in restructuring the prime minister's office was a decree issued last month that created three new posts responsible for the premier's public image. Putin will be the first Russian prime minister with a personal press secretary and a speechwriting staff. In addition, the prime minister's office will have a protocol director, a move that seems to indicate Putin will play a prominent role in international affairs.

"Prime Minister Putin, naturally, will concentrate in his own hands all power, except a few 'status items,' while comrade Medvedev at first will have about as much authority as Princess Anna in 'Roman Holiday' had," political analyst Aleksei Mukhin summarized in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Inevitably, a key result of this system will be a qualitative increase in the opacity of Russia's ruling system. If, as all signs currently indicate, the Kremlin becomes a hollow power center, that fact will, of course, have to be concealed. Hopes that the purportedly liberal Medvedev will bring sunshine into the Kremlin are likely to be dashed.

Furthermore, Putin clearly seems to be bringing his natural preference for opacity with him into the government. Already journalists have been barred from moving freely about the White House and from speaking informally with ministers and other officials. Moving government responsibilities down from the cabinet level to the ministerial level will also do much to further conceal decision-making. This environment will make it more difficult than ever for Putin to pursue his stated goal of combating corruption; the practice of selective prosecutions and secretive redistributions of property that has emerged under President Putin will, in all likelihood, thrive under Prime Minister Putin.

Russia's "managed democracy" is entering a new phase of even stricter management and even less democracy.

Three accidental explosions killed nine people and wounded more than 20 on May 5 in Kabul, AP reported. Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari said a rocket-propelled grenade exploded when a police officer dropped it as his unit left Kabul on an poppy-eradication mission. Three policemen died in the explosion and at least eight others were injured, according to hospital officials. A police source, however, said that more than 15 were injured. The same day, four children died and one was injured when an old artillery shell exploded, Bashari said. A police official, Sayed Ekramudin, reported that two civilians were killed and 13 wounded when a truck hit a buried explosive on May 4 at a dump on Kabul's outskirts. Afghanistan remains littered with unexploded weapons after decades of war. In Oruzgan Province on May 4, NATO-led troops killed two insurgents and arrested four during a clash in the provincial capital of Tarin Kot. The troops also discovered a bomb-making factory during a patrol, according to a NATO statement. AT

The Afghan Defense Ministry said on May 5 that Singapore is sending two teams of military construction engineers to Afghanistan, AFP reported. The 12 engineers will be deployed to central Bamiyan Province for about six months. They will supervise the construction of a regional health-training center and will be part of the provincial reconstruction team of the New Zealand Defense Force. "This deployment is part of Singapore's overall contribution to the international humanitarian assistance and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan," the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The ministry noted that Singapore sent a five-person medical team to Bamiyan last year, and a Singaporean refueling aircraft left last month for the Persian Gulf, where it will support multinational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. AT

The BBC on May 5 quoted NATO-led troops and local organizations as saying that Taliban attacks this year have resulted in a higher civilian death toll than in 2007. According to senior officials in the NATO-led force, 240 civilians were killed in Taliban attacks from January to mid-April this year, representing a sixfold increase over the same period in 2007. The BBC quoted officials as saying most of the civilian deaths were from suicide bomb attacks aimed at international forces. The officials also noted a dramatic reduction in the number of civilians killed by NATO troops this year, from 31 to four, but those figures were disputed by local organizations. One group which monitors security and advises aid workers said that at least 60 civilians have died as a result of international troops' operations this year. Civilian casualties caused by international military operations in Afghanistan have sparked a severe backlash among the Afghan public. AT

Prince Harry received his first army campaign medal as his regiment was decorated for its service in Afghanistan in a ceremony on May 5, AFP reported. Prince Harry, who is third in line to the British throne, was among 170 members of the Household Cavalry who received medals for their service. Harry's four-month tour serving in Garmsir and Musa Qala in the southern province of Helmand was cut short after 10 weeks when news of his deployment reached the international public. AT

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told a Tehran press conference on May 5 that Iran will not engage in a fourth round of talks with U.S. diplomats on Iraqi security at this juncture, as it would be useless given the current violence there, news agencies reported. He said there will be no talks while "occupying forces" are engaged in a "massacre of the Iraqi people," Reuters reported. Hosseini may have been referring to fighting in past weeks by Iraqi and U.S. forces with the militia led by the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, though he did not elaborate. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has also told CNN that talks should continue "when conditions are right and conducive," Reuters reported. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said Iran has not yet formally received the latest package of proposals from the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany intended to encourage it to curb its contested nuclear program, ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2008). He said Western officials have said they will not reveal the contents of the proposals until they are presented to Iran, and comments on them now are only "speculation." An unnamed U.S. official told Reuters in Washington on May 5 that the Western proposals will be presented to Iran soon, but he or she doubted this would represent "a major step forward." The official said the new proposals are a "refreshed" version of a package presented in June 2006, and include more outside cooperation with a civilian nuclear program in Iran. The official said the response by the United States to continued rejections of such offers by Iran and its determination to pursue fuel-making activities -- which could potentially be used later to produce weapons -- would be "upping the pressure, and we have been fairly successful at upping the pressure." The official said the United States is "always looking at tougher sanctions on Iran," Reuters reported. VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a crowd of "tens of thousands" in the district of Kazerun in the southern Fars Province on May 5 that anyone sowing discord between Iranian officials and the public is acting against national interests, IRNA reported. He said Iranian officials and the public should work together for Iran's progress and to make it "an Islamic model." "I absolutely will not accept the litanies of despair some keep reciting" in Iran, Khamenei said, and he urged Iranians to remain vigilant of enemy efforts to thwart its progress, in spite of the failure of past enemy "plots" against Iran. He said Iran's enemies are trying to distract young people from "the main course of the [Iranian] revolutionary life," toward a life of fun and distractions. He cited what he said are the United States' failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and growing domestic opposition to U.S. policies. "This opposition and hatred has become so much that to win...votes, the Republican [presidential] stating the same reality we did from the start, [that] America's main goal in occupying Iraq was to control [its] oil and the region," he said. Khamenei said Iran is "not frightened by" the "language of threats" used against it by Western powers "in spite of their failures," and "all enemies will wait in vain for the Islamic republic's decline." VS

Iranian authorities could hang a young man on May 7 who killed another in a fight three years ago, when he was 17, Radio Farda reported on May 5. Behnud Shojai has been in jail since being convicted of killing a man in a brawl in a Tehran park. The EU has reportedly expressed concern and called for the sentence not to be carried out. The defense lawyer in the case, Mohammad Mostafai, has told Radio Farda there were some discrepancies in the case that undermine the conviction. He said it has not been proven beyond doubt that Behnud was the only person who stabbed the victim, as many people were involved in the brawl. Mostafai added that Shojai has not yet been allowed to exercise his right to appeal against the death sentence. He said that at the time of his initial prosecution, Shojai had no defense lawyer and requested an appeal while in prison, but that the process has not been implemented, though he did not explain why. Mostafai said the only person who could stop the sentence being carried out now is the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, who has already signed the death sentence, or the victim's immediate relatives. The relatives have so far refused to allow a pardon or lighter sentence for Shojai, Mostafai told Radio Farda. VS

Tehran-based journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told ISNA on May 5 that the 1979 revolution in Iran was intended to bring about political independence for the country, freedom, and a republican government, but that there are "differences of opinion" on whether or not the latter two have been achieved. He said that "we have made some progress" on liberty compared to the time of the monarchy in the 1970s, as shown "by the circulation of power, elections, and respect for the constitution." These, he said, "indicate we have started the transition to democracy and are moving toward freedom, even if in some cases our standards in defining democracy differ from the global definition." He said some in Iran "redefine democracy" when they seek to explain why Iranians have "not attained democracy," which he said provoked debates and tensions among Iranians. Shamsolvaezin said Iranian society will move toward greater harmony if the government works to ensure all Iranians have the same opportunities in life, ISNA reported. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki opened the Coordination Conference in Baghdad on May 5, bringing together governors from Iraq's 18 governorates and representatives of the central government to discuss how to coordinate reconstruction and development, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Maliki said he hopes the conference will "establish the bases of national unity and sovereignty through communication between the governors and local governments on the one hand and the regions and the federal government on the other." It should also "eliminate any points of disagreement that might arise in the process of interpreting and running the country's affairs according to the new constitution." Al-Maliki urged the governors to assume their responsibility and "expedite the process of reconstruction and development." He added that they should take their duties seriously, because they will be accountable to the people for the large sums of money under their control. Al-Maliki also called on governorate leaders to help establish security across the country, saying the unstable security situation is preventing otherwise willing investors from investing in Iraq. KR

Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) leader Adnan al-Dulaymi said on May 5 that it is within the government's constitutional rights to express reservations over the front's nominations to fill vacant ministerial positions, the "Aswat al-Iraq" website reported the same day. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters on May 4 that some of the front's nominees are not qualified to head the ministries in question. He added that the government's reservations are "not personal." Al-Dulaymi told the website that Al-Tawafuq has not been officially notified of the problem. "We only heard about this from the mass media," he said. The front withdrew its ministers from the cabinet in August, but announced last month that it is ready to rejoin the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007, and April 16, 2008). KR

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces carried out a large-scale raid in Baghdad's Al-Shu'lah district on May 5, Iraqi media reported. The security operation reportedly targeted fighters from Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Security forces raided the Martyr Al-Sadr office in Shu'lah during the operation and detained several people there. Al-Sadr Trend legislator Hasan al-Rubay'i told Al-Sharqiyah television that the raid was "unjust." "During the campaign, there were several human rights violations.... The government forces do not pay heed to the rights of the sons of the Iraqi people and do not respect the constitution...[which] does not allow the use of military troops or the army to crush the people." Another Al-Sadr Trend lawmaker, Salih al-Ukayli, told the news channel on May 5 that the Sadrists in parliament will seek legal action against Prime Minister al-Maliki and Baghdad operations commander Abbud Qanbar for attacks al-Ukayli alleged targeted civilians. KR

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told reporters in the United Arab Emirates on May 5 that Turkey is eager to continue dialogue with both Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government on a number of issues. Relations between Turkey and Iraq soured in recent months because of Turkish claims that Iraq was not doing enough to drive out elements of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Iraqi territory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2008). "Closer dialogue will continue with both the central government of Iraq and the regional administration in the north of Iraq on the fight against terrorism, energy, and trade issues in the future," Babacan was quoted by the Anatolia news agency as saying. "The level and the frequency of this dialogue will be closely related to concrete action, especially in the fight against terrorism." Anatolia reported on May 5 that the European Union, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria have agreed to connect the Arab Gas Pipeline to Turkey, Iraq, and the EU through the Nabucco and other pipelines. The Arab Gas Pipeline currently extends from Egypt through Jordan to Syria and has a capacity of 10 billion cubic meters per year. KR