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Newsline - March 16, 2005

State-owned oil company Rosneft has filed an $11 billion lawsuit against oil major Yukos, "The Moscow Times" reported on 16 March. Rosneft alleges that Yukos used internal offshore zones and transfer pricing in 1999-2003 to steal profits from its then oil-production subsidiary Yuganskneftegaz. Rosneft now controls Yuganskneftegaz following its forced sale in December 2004 in partial payment of Yukos's tax arrears. A Yukos spokesman told the daily that the company does not recognize the sale of Yuganskneftegaz and that therefore Rosneft's suit is "ludicrous." Rosneft's debt soared to $20 billion following the Byzantine acquisition of Yuganskneftegaz, including an estimated $5.1 billion tax-arrears claim against Yuganskneftegaz that Rosneft believes should be paid by Yukos. "Vedomosti" reported on 15 March that Rosneft is also seeking the transfer of some vital Yuganskneftegaz infrastructure from Yukos. A spokesman for the Moscow Arbitration Court said that processing of the Rosneft suit has not begun because Rosneft has so far failed to pay the $200,000 filing fee. RC

Russian Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina Aleksandr Grishchenko said on 15 March that it is possible that former Bosnian Serb military police commander Gojko Jankovic might have been hiding in Russia before he surrendered to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague on 14 March, Serbia's BETA news agency reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2005). Grishchenko said Russia is "a vast country in which it is difficult to locate one single man." According to the report, Jankovic's wife has said that Jankovic was in Russia, had been granted Russian citizenship, and was under the protection of the Russian secret services. Some analysts in the region suspect that other indictees, including generals Vinko Pandurevic, Vujadin Popovic, and Vlastimir Djordjevic, are also hiding in Russia. RC

The Central Election Commission (TsIK) on 15 March said that it will oppose efforts in the State Duma to remove spending limits for Duma election campaigns, ITAR-TASS reported, citing TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov. Currently, the law limits party spending on such campaigns to 250 million rubles ($8.3 million), while some deputies have proposed eliminating the restriction or raising the ceiling to 400 million rubles. "We cannot let it happen that money, including money of dubious origin, is a decisive factor in elections to Russia's government bodies," Veshnyakov said. He said that in the December 2003 elections, only Unified Russia and the Union of Rightist Forces reached the spending ceiling, according to official figures. Most other parties spent about 100 million rubles, he said. The TsIK will also oppose a proposed amendment to the election law that will allow candidates to refuse to file income and property statements, and an amendment that will remove the "against all" candidates option from ballots. The Duma is expected to vote on the second reading of the bill on 15 April, the news agency reported. RC

The TsIK on 15 March transferred the mandate of former State Duma Deputy Kirill Ragozin (Unified Russia) to Bashkir State Pedagogical University rector Eduard Khamitov, Interfax reported. Ragozin died in January when his snowmobile fell through the ice of the Gulf of Finland near St. Petersburg. Ragozin was a party-list deputy, so his mandate passed on to the first list candidate who did not make the Duma in the December 2003 elections. RC

President Putin on 15 March toured the complex of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater and promised to take the completion of the construction and renovation project under his personal control, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. Putin also pledged to make sure that the theater and St. Petersburg's Mariinskii Theater have adequate state funding. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, presidential aide Yurii Laptev, Mariinskii Theater Artistic Director Valerii Gergiev, and Bolshoi Theater General Director Anatolii Iksanov participated in the discussions. Putin said the theaters "are symbols of Russia, very important and necessary for us." He added that they must be renovated to meet the highest international standards. The main theater of the Bolshoi was closed for the renovation on 1 July 2004. The Mariinskii has also begun a major renovation project, as well as the construction of a new theater building (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 2003). RC

Justice Minister Yurii Chaika on 15 March gave an overview of the work of the Federal Registration Service, which is subordinated to his ministry and is responsible for registering political parties, public associations, and other legal entities, Interfax reported. He said the agency has registered about 150,000 public associations, including 44 political parties and 1,640 national nongovernmental organizations. At the same time, he said the agency has filed 4,000 cases to liquidate unregistered public associations and has issued more than 10,000 warnings of allegedly illegal activities by NGOs and political parties. He added that the agency will step up its activity monitoring the implementation of the new law on political parties, which, among other things, raises the minimum number of party members from 10,000 to 50,000. RC

President Putin on 15 March submitted to Tatarstan's legislature the candidacy of Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev for another term of office, the Kremlin's press service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005). The legislature now has 14 days to approve the nomination, a move that is widely expected. Shaimiev, who has headed the republic since 1991, had said previously that he did not want to seek an additional term after his current one, which had been due to expire in March 2006, but explained that he changed his mind after Putin asked him to reconsider. He is currently serving his third term in office. RC

Former Koryak Autonomous Okrug Deputy Governor Mikhail Sokolovskii was sentenced on 16 March to 18 months in prison for abuse of office in connection with the Far Northern region's heating-fuel crisis this winter, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. President Putin on 9 March dismissed okrug Governor Vladimir Loginov because of the crisis, which the government declared to be under control on 12 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 14 March 2005). The court ruled that Sokolovskii's actions in the summer of 2004 led to a massive shortfall in the okrug's winter fuel supply. Presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Konstantin Pulikovskii said on 12 March that more trials can be expected in connection with the crisis, RIA-Novosti reported. RC

...AS WEBSITE SPECULATES THAT KREMLIN MANUFACTURED CRISIS... on 10 March speculated that the "crisis" in Koryak Autonomous Okrug was artificially created as part of a Kremlin-inspired plot to remove Governor Loginov, in part to demonstrate the usefulness of the new law on appointing governors and to bolster President Putin's popularity. The website noted that although the region did experience a significant shortfall in fuel supplies, the easing of the crisis began in the weeks before Loginov was fired, as helicopters began ferrying in fuel to the hardest-hit settlements. The report added that the state-controlled federal television channels showed numerous reports on the situation in the okrug in the days before Putin's televised speech firing Loginov. The website added that acting Governor Oleg Kozhemyako, who was appointed by Putin on 9 March, has close ties with disgraced former Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko. said that local officials have wondered how Kozhemyako, who finished third in the okrug's last gubernatorial race running against Loginov, managed to be appointed deputy governor. Petropavlosk-Kamchatskii Mayor Vladislav Skvortsov told the website that everyone in the okrug has long been convinced that Kozhemyako would become governor sooner or later. The website predicted that the federal government will help Kozhemyako to normalize the situation and that he will be the likely candidate to head a new federation subject that will be formed by the merger of the okrug and Kamchatka Oblast. RC

In the same report, noted that Putin's decree dismissing Governor Loginov cited a provision of the new law on appointing governors that allows the president to dismiss governors who "have lost the president's confidence." However, Loginov was not appointed under the new system, but was directly elected in December 2004, leading some experts to conclude that the new law cannot be extended to cover him and that Putin's move was illegal. The constitution, the website noted, does not give the president the authority to remove elected officials, except for the power to disband the State Duma under certain circumstances. The website speculated that the extension of the new law to an elected official was the main purpose of the Koryak "operation" and that Loginov was chosen because he can be threatened with prosecution and therefore would not resist removal. On 9 March, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov commented that Loginov's dismissal should be taken as a warning by other regional leaders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2005). RC

St. Petersburg's Charter Court on 15 March invalidated a city government decree on the formation of the St. Petersburg's governor's administration, "Kommersant-Daily" and other Russian media reported. The ruling deprived St. Petersburg Deputy Governor Viktor Lobko, who is often described as Governor Valentina Matvienko's right-hand man and the second most powerful figure in the city, of his official post. Following Matvienko's 2003 election, the city government issued a decree on the governor's administration that transferred to it numerous powers and set it up as a de facto autonomous executive-branch organ separate from the city government. The administration handled the government's budget; served as the official employer of all municipal officials; and monitored the work of raion administrations, state unitary enterprises, and other state agencies. The Charter Court's ruling took effect immediately and is not subject to appeal, the daily reported. Although Unified Russia controls a majority in the city legislature, opposition deputies have said they will oppose any effort to re-appoint Lobko to a senior position. RC

The website quoted Akhmed Zakaev, slain President Aslan Maskshadov's envoy in the United Kingdom, as saying on 15 March he is unable to confirm reports circulated earlier that day that in January 2005 Maskhadov reappointed radical field commander Shamil Basaev to the State Defense Council. Maskhadov expelled Basaev from that body in the wake of the October 2002 Moscow hostage taking, and Basaev himself announced his resignation from all official structures. LF

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov told journalists in Grozny on 15 March that the Federal Security Service (FSB) has paid the promised sum of 300 million rubles ($10 million) to "several persons" who provided federal forces with the information that enabled them to locate and kill Maskhadov last week, Russian media reported. Alkhanov did not identify the persons concerned, but he added that he believes the reward paid for Maskhadov's death will encourage the population to betray Basaev, for whom the FSB offered a similar 300 million-ruble bounty in the wake of the Beslan hostage taking last September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2004). Alkhanov further rejected as untrue rumors that Maskhadov was killed elsewhere, before 8 March, possibly by First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov's so-called presidential security service, and his body subsequently brought to the village of Tolstoi-Yurt (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2005). LF

Two Azerbaijani servicemen were killed by Armenian fire late on 14 March in Agdam Raion, Interfax reported on 15 March quoting the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. That fatality raises to three the number of confirmed deaths in a series of exchanges of fire that began one week ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 14 March 2005). Masis Mailian, deputy foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, has suggested broadening the "buffer zone" between Karabakh Armenian and Azerbaijani forces to reduce the likelihood of further cease-fire violations, according to Arminfo on 12 March as cited by Groong. Mailian said that in recent years the Azerbaijani side has progressively advanced its positions, bringing them closer to the Line of Contact between the two sides. The OSCE plans to monitor the situation on the Terter sector of the Line of Contact on 17 March. LF

Malcolm Bruce, who is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's rapporteur on political prisoners, met in Baku on 14 and 15 March with human rights activists, parliamentarians, and political prisoners and members of their families, Turan and reported. Bruce also discussed the issue of political prisoners with President Ilham Aliyev who, Bruce told journalists on 16 March, rejected Bruce's arguments that the seven leading oppositionists sentenced for their role in the postelection clashes in October 2003 did not receive a fair trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 October 2004). Bruce said that the Council of Europe is seriously concerned over Azerbaijan's failure during the past six months to release its remaining 180 political prisoners, and expressed the hope that they will be freed in the anticipated presidential pardon to mark Norouz. In related news, reported on 16 March that the Supreme Court is to consider on 25 March the seven oppositionists' appeal against their prison sentences. On 12 March, Ombudsman Elvira Suleimanova said she has asked the presidential pardons commission to pardon them, Turan reported. LF

Azerbaijan's parliament confirmed on 15 March the nine members of the board that is to oversee Azerbaijan's new public television, Turan and reported on 15 and 16 March respectively. Both sources commented that the choice of candidates, all of whom are known for their loyalty to the country's leadership and only one of whom has any media-related expertise, makes it highly unlikely that the new broadcaster will demonstrate any objectivity in its reporting (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 8 March 2005). LF

Mikheil Saakashvili convened a meeting late on 15 March of regional governors at which he warned them and lower level district administrators not to try to defraud the government in connection with the imminent distribution to farmers of humanitarian consignments of diesel fuel, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili noted that in some regions the number of people eligible to receive the statutory 20 liters of diesel has been overstated by 25 percent, and he demanded that revised, accurate lists be submitted without delay. City residents with rural dachas are not eligible to receive free diesel. Saakashvili also announced a crackdown on touts who sell tickets for soccer matches at inflated prices. LF

Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh told journalists in Moscow on 15 March that his unrecognized republic is prepared for any eventuality in relations with Georgia, but hopes that relations will develop "normally" and peacefully, Caucasus Press reported. He said he hopes it will be possible to reach agreement on economic cooperation during talks next month in Geneva under the aegis of the UN, a proposal that Georgian parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Kote Gabashvili hailed on 16 March, Caucasus Press reported. Bagapsh said the Abkhaz authorities will not permit the replacement of the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the conflict zone with peacekeepers from NATO or Ukraine. LF

Kazakhstan has officially outlawed seven groups, including the Taliban, as international terrorists, ITAR-TASS reported on 15 March citing the Kazakh Supreme Court's press service. According to a law signed in February by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, foreign or international organizations operating in Kazakhstan and other countries can be declared to be extremist by a Kazakh court or prosecutors. The law bans the creation and functioning of religious organizations that seek the supremacy of one religion, try to provoke discord among faiths, propagate religious extremism, or use religious differences for political purposes. Kazakhstan will make public a list of the groups that have been outlawed as extremist. BW

Protests over Kyrgyzstan's 27 February parliamentary elections and 13 March runoff spread on 15 March as voters seized a government building in northern Talas Oblast and held oblast Governor Iskender Aidaraliev and another local official captive, international news agencies reported. The two officials were released on 16 March, AP and dpa reported. According to dpa, approximately 3,000 supporters of opposition candidate Ravshan Jeenbekov seized the two men to demand that voting results be reviewed in court. Opposition leaders in Bishkek denied any link to the Talas protesters and warned the situation there could slip out of control. "We do not control Talas," said opposition activist Narynbek Kasymov. "Talas is not manageable." BW

Askar Akaev accused Kyrgyzstan's opposition of trying to drag the country into civil war as election protests widened, Reuters reported on 15 March. The opposition has accused the authorities of rigging the elections, which gave Akaev a loyal majority in parliament, with opposition candidates winning just a few seats. "Those guilty of organizing disorder and destabilizing the situation in certain regions will without fail be punished," Akaev said in a televised address. "We are hearing inflammatory appeals designed to draw us all into lawlessness and into the depths of civil war and ethnic confrontation," Interfax quoted Akaev as saying. "Such actions are not acceptable and are extremely dangerous for the country.... We will not allow this to happen." BW

U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Stephen Young criticized the country's government on 16 March for failing to ensure free parliamentary elections, AP reported. Young said the 13 March runoff and the 27 February first round were marred by media harassment, government interference in the campaign process, media bias in favor of pro-government candidates, and the disqualification of opposition candidates. "These negative tendencies have damaged Kyrgyzstan's reputation for promoting democracy," Young said, adding that there was "rampant vote buying by candidates on both sides." The ambassador also said that mounting demonstrations show the public's disappointment with the vote. "The fact that demonstrations have occurred in several corners of the country is a sign that many Kyrgyz citizens felt disappointed by their government's failure to run a truly free, fair, and transparent process," Young said, although he urged both the authorities and protesters to "do nothing to raise the prospect of violence or conflict as a result of those demonstrations." BW

The U.S. State Department on 15 March criticized the parliamentary elections and called on the Kyrgyz government to use peaceful means to quell protests, international media reported. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States shares the assessment of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that Kyrgyzstan's elections did not meet international standards. "It certainly appears that there will be a solid pro-government majority in the parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's preliminary assessment is that the second vote was marred by serious flaws. We share that assessment," Ereli said. LA

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka greeted the nation on Constitution Day on 15 March, saying the country's constitution "safely protects people's rights and liberties and creates conditions for realizing the potential of each person in full," Belapan reported. "The constitution is of a truly popular nature, as it was adopted through a general vote," he stressed. The constitution of independent Belarus was adopted by the Supreme Soviet on 15 March 1994. In November 1996 Belarus held a constitutional referendum, which was decried by the opposition as heavily rigged, and adopted a rewritten version of the 1994 basic law that gave Lukashenka nearly dictatorial powers. In October 2004, an even more controversial referendum lifted the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency, thus opening the way for Lukashenka's stay in power beyond 2006. Two activists of the opposition youth movement Zubr, Zmitser Dashkevich and Artur Finkevich, were arrested on 15 March for an aborted attempt to stage an anti-Lukashenka performance named "The Burial of the Basic Law" on October Square in Minsk, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. JM

The Cabinet of Ministers has resolved to conduct financial audits of 27 major state-run enterprises within the next month, Interfax reported on 16 March. The audit list includes such oil and gas companies as Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukrtranshnafta, Ukrnafta, and Uktranshaz, as well as electricity-distributing and -producing companies Ukrenerho and Enerhoatom. Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko announced the audits in early March when she said that each company will specifically be checked for using state money in "shadow schemes." JM

Socialist Party head Oleksandr Moroz has demanded that the Verkhovna Rada hear a report next week by Hryhoriy Omelchenko, head of the ad hoc parliamentary commission for investigating the killing of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported on 16 March. "What is taking place now is immoral," Moroz said. "The murder should not be considered solved as long as the Melnychenko tapes have not been attached to the [Gongadze] case, the Omelchenko commission's report has not been heard, and no case has been sent to court." Moroz threatened that the Socialists will refuse to vote in parliament if Omelchenko is not allowed to report on his commission's findings. Meanwhile, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn told journalists on 14 March that President Viktor Yushchenko has asked him not to put Omelchenko's report on the parliamentary agenda. "The president's position is that today there is a need not to engage in politics but to give professionals the possibility to conclude the [Gongadze] investigation," Lytvyn said. Yushchenko and Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun recently announced that the Gongadze murder case was solved (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 6 March 2005). JM

The Ukrainian People's Party (UNP) led by Yuriy Kostenko has left the parliamentary pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc and created its own caucus of 19 deputies, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported on 16 March. Kostenko said the UNP will continue supporting Yushchenko's electoral program oriented toward European integration and the creation of civil society in Ukraine. Earlier this month, Yushchenko's supporters created the Our Ukraine People's Party (NSNU) and Yushchenko suggested that the UNP may either be absorbed into the new party or go its own way (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 11 March 2004). Meanwhile, NSNU parliamentarians on 15 March created their own parliamentary caucus consisting of 40 deputies, Interfax reported, citing NSNU Executive Committee head Yuriy Yekhanurov. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 15 March voted overwhelmingly to hold a "parade of victory" in Kyiv on 9 May to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II, UNIAN reported. President Yushchenko originally proposed that the celebration would be limited to a ceremonial dinner of war veterans with government officials at tables set along Khreshchatyk, Kyiv's main boulevard (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005). JM

The first group of 137 soldiers from the 1,600-strong Ukrainian contingent in Iraq returned home on 15 March, Interfax reported. The government intends to withdraw 550 more soldiers from Iraq by 15 May and the remainder of the contingent by the end of 2005. JM

Soren Jessen-Petersen, the head of the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), on 15 March strongly condemned the bomb attack that damaged the car of Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova, UNMIK's official website ( reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005). "Such acts do not have the support of the larger population in Kosovo and they will not succeed in derailing Kosovo's steady progress towards implementation of standards and towards the final-status talks later this year," Jessen-Petersen said. EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said in Prishtina on 15 March that these kinds of actions cannot and will not be tolerated. Solana also said a new Kosovar government should be formed as soon as possible following the resignation of Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj on 8 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 9, 10, and 14 March 2005). UB

In response to the bomb blast, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on its website ( on 15 March saying, "This incident confirms that extremists remaining in Kosovo are trying to provoke yet another spiral of violence, thus scuttling the process of settlement and depriving the province's population of the prospect for building a secure and prosperous society on the basis of the principles of multiethnicity and democracy." The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that the situation demands that the international military and civilian presences "ensure security and law and order and to prevent a repetition of similar events to those that took place last March." About 20 people were killed in March 2004 during three days of violent demonstrations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 18, and 19 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 and 26 March 2005). UB

Nebojsa Covic, who is Belgrade's point man for southern Serbia and Kosova, told journalists in Belgrade on 15 March that the Serbian government will adopt a joint strategy for the talks on the future status of Kosova within the next 20 to 30 days, Tanjug reported. Covic said the Serbian leadership agreed during a meeting on 14 March that the most Belgrade could accept in the upcoming talks on the status of Kosova will be "something more than autonomy, but less than independence." In early March, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in an interview that Kosova could be granted a high degree of autonomy; Kostunica's proposal was rejected by the Kosovar Albanians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2005). UB

In a statement on the 13 March local elections in Macedonia, Julian Peel Yates, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission, said in Skopje on 14 March that significant shortcomings were evident in the process, according to the official website of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights ( "Whilst the generally orderly conduct of the elections in most places is very welcome, the serious and persistent irregularities in a significant number of municipalities undermine the process as a whole," Peel Yates said. "The behavior of the persistent offenders must change before the second round." U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States agrees with that assessment. "We call on Macedonian authorities to investigate and prosecute any breaches of law during the polling and before the second round of polling is held on 27 March," Boucher said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 15 March 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 February 2005). Irregularities included group voting, ballot-box stuffing, and signatures missing on voters lists, according to the OSCE. UB

The campaign staff of Skopje mayoral candidate Trifun Kostovski, who was supported by the conservative opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), has accused the governing coalition of the Social Democratic Union, the Liberal Democrats (LDP), and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration of having rigged the vote in Skopje, "Utrinski vesnik" and other Macedonian media reported on 15 March. Independent observers and Kostovski's staff initially claimed victory for Kostovski already in the first round, while the supporters of incumbent Mayor Risto Penov (LDP) said Kostovski failed to win an absolute majority of the vote. On 15 March, the Skopje election commission announced that Kostovski garnered 48.6 percent, while Penov won 28.05 percent. This means that Kostovski and Penov will face each other in a runoff on 27 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2005). UB

Romania's government said on 15 March that it will cease using a system of selective state advertising to exert control over the media, Reuters reported the same day. "I'm committed to boosting press freedom. The current government has the political will not to control the media. Romania needs a transparent, accountable system for state advertising," Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu said in a speech to parliament. He added that the new system of managing state advertising is being drafted with the assistance of media watchdogs. The European Union and advocacy groups criticized Romania's former government for awarding state advertising mainly to friendly media that avoided critical coverage. BW

The arrest of former Moldovan Defense Minister and Information and Security Service Director Valeriu Pasat is just the beginning of an intensive probe into fraud stemming from the sale of MiG-29 jets to the United States in 1992, RIA-Novosti reported on 15 March, citing unidentified Moldovan law-enforcement officials. "The investigation of the MiG-29 case, in which Valeriu Pasat, adviser to the head of [Russia's Unified Energy Systems], is involved, will be carried to completion," RIA-Novosti quoted an unidentified Moldovan official as saying. "Mr. Pasat is only one of many persons involved in thefts of Moldovan state property," the official continued. "I think in the near future many other people known in Moldova and outside it will take place beside him.... The MiG-29 case is only the tip of an iceberg in the criminal activities of Moldovan officials who sold arms when Mr. Pasat was Moldovan defense minister and director of the Moldovan Information and Security Service." BW

Pasat, meanwhile, has gone on a hunger strike to protest what he claims is a political case against him, Reuters reported on 16 March. "My client has been on hunger strike since [12 March]. He sees the case against him as being political," Reuters quoted Pasat's lawyer Gheorghe Amihalachioaie as saying. Moldovan First Deputy Prosecutor-General Valeriu Gorbulia denied any political motives in the case, ITAR-TASS reported on 15 March. Gorbulia added that Pasat will be indicted in the next several days, and could face from five to 12 years in prison if convicted. BW

Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov said he wants to resume talks over the breakaway region's status, ITAR-TASS reported on 16 March. "It's necessary to resume talks to normalize relations with neighboring Moldova," Smirnov said. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin also expressed hope for renewed negotiations. "The recent political events in the Black Sea region give Moldova new opportunities for restoring its territorial integrity peacefully," ITAR-TASS quoted him as saying. "We intend to take an active and productive position for using this opportunity." Settlement talks stalled last summer after authorities in Tiraspol closed the Moldovan schools that refused to comply with the self-proclaimed republic's legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 19, and 23 August 2004). BW

President Voronin called for the United States, the European Union, and Romania to join in negotiations to reach a negotiated settlement to the Transdniester dispute, RIA-Novosti reported on 14 March. Previously the talks include Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Transdniester, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "Moldova is calling the European Union, the U.S., Ukraine, Romania, and Russia to sign the declaration and join the negotiations," Voronin said. Voronin also asked the OSCE to set up a commission to monitor Russia's military property in Transdniester, claiming that the regional authorities have been blocking inspectors' access to depots. BW

The OSCE is prepared to support steps leading to the resumption of talks to settle the dispute over the breakaway Transdniester region, OSCE Chairman in Office Dimitrij Rupel said on 15 March, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The OSCE seeks to find ways of "assisting in organizing the negotiations on a political settlement" and "is ready to support such negotiations in any way," RIA-Novosti reported, citing a statement released by the OSCE. Rupel also said he hopes that Transdniestrian leader Smirnov will take a constructive position in the negotiating process. BW

The death on 8 March of Chechen President and resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov has not resulted in the split within the ranks of the resistance that some Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials predicted. On the contrary, within 36 hours Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov's envoy in London, announced in a statement posted on, that Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev (or Saidullaev), chairman of the Sharia Supreme Court, will serve as president and military commander until such time as free elections can be held in Chechnya. Senior field commander Shamil Basaev pledged his support for Sadulaev on 10 March.

In announcing that the presidential powers now devolve on to Sadulaev, both Zakaev and Basaev referred to an extended session of the State Defense Council that allegedly took place between late July and late August 2002. That session, according to Zakaev, was attended by representatives of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) government and parliament and by all field commanders of senior rank. They adopted a resolution according to which in the event of Maskhadov's death or capture, Sadulaev as chairman of the Supreme Sharia Court should succeed him.

No details of such an extended State Defense Council session were made public at the time, however. reported one Defense Council meeting that summer on 5 May, at which an alim named Abdul-Khalim read the appropriate verses from the Koran to mark the death of field commanders Khattab and Aidamir Abalaev; and a second between 27 June and 3 July, at which Basaev was readmitted to membership of the Defense Council.

Maskhadov's son, Anzor, was quoted by the Azerbaijani online daily on 11 March as saying his father informed him one year ago that Sadulaev, in his capacity as "vice president," would succeed him in the event of his death. But neither Zakaev nor Basaev referred to Sadulaev in that capacity. In addition, the twin announcements on 10 March identifying Sadulaev as the new acting president contradict statements made the previous day by the State Defense Committee and the government of the ChRI. The former statement said that, in accordance with the constitution of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, the State Defense Council assumes supreme executive powers following Maskhadov's death and then elects a new president. The 9 March statement by the government of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, posted on, similarly said that in accordance with the constitution of the ChRI, executive power now lies with the State Defense Committee, "which should elect a new president in the very near future." And "Kommersant-Daily" on 9 March quoted Zakaev as saying that the State Defense Committee would elect a chairman to replace Maskhadov in his capacity as chairman of that body; but Zakaev did not mention electing a replacement for Maskhadov in his capacity as president.

The most probable explanation for those seeming contradictions is that the Chechen resistance forces considered it imperative to present Sadulaev as a legitimate leader, and as enjoying both the approval of his slain predecessor and the support of those bodies, both military and civilian, that are subordinate to him. Doing so would counter arguments, such as that advanced by Timur Aliev in "Izvestiya" on 11 March, that "whoever succeeds Maskhadov as leader of the moderate wing of the guerrillas is bound to have less status, simply because this person will be an appointee rather than a popularly elected president like Maskhadov." In addition, it may well have been deemed prudent at the time of the State Defense Council meeting in the summer of 2002 not to reveal publicly that Sadulaev had been chosen as Maskhadov's successor, given that doing so would have exposed him to unnecessary risk.

On 13 March, posted a biography of Sadulaev intended to refute Russian media portrayals of him as either a native of Saudi Arabia or a militant Wahhabi, or both. ("Kommersant-Daily," for example, alleged on 10 March that "Abdul-Khalim is from Saudi Arabia. According to media reports, he trained suicide bombers and led the Wahhabi network in Chechnya.") According to the biography posted on, Sadulaev was born in 1967, took part in hostilities during the 1994-96 war, and "studied with well-known Chechen theologians." He continued his religious activities between 1997-99, when Maskhadov named him a member of the State Committee tasked with bringing the Chechen constitution into line with Islamic law at the insistence of Basaev and his supporters, who in early 1999 began their concerted effort to undermine Maskhadov's authority. During the current war, Sadulaev has headed a detachment of fighters from Argun. The biography further notes Sadulaev's appointment as Sharia Court chairman at the State Defense Council session in 2002, as a result of which he became "the legitimate head of the Chechen state from the moment of Maskhadov's death."

On 14 March, six days after Maskhadov's death and five days after the official announcement that he is Maskhadov's legitimate successor, posted Sadulaev's first appeal to the Chechen people, in which he praised Maskhadov's role as president and military commander and condemned his killing. Subsequent paragraphs of that appeal combine threats against Russia with qualified rejections of the use of terrorism and warnings that the international community should not expect the Chechens to adhere to those universal democratic values that contradict Chechen spiritual values. He warned, for example, that "not a single crime by Russia against the Chechen people will remain without the appropriate punishment," and that "the Chechen people are capable of demolishing the pride of its foe in the person of Russian imperialism." He said the Chechens do not condone "every conceivable form of violence against innocent people," but went on to qualify that statement by adding that "we have the right to act against the enemy using the methods that are acceptable to God."

That ambivalence is likely to play into the hands of those Russian commentators who remain convinced that it is Basaev, whether alone or, as claimed on 13 March by "The Sunday Times," in tandem with Jordanian-born Abu Havs, who from now on will determine and coordinate military operations both within Chechnya and, it is feared, elsewhere in Russia. It may also fuel speculation that some key field commanders, including Doku Umarov, may refuse to acknowledge Sadulaev's authority. But Zakaev, in an interview published in "Kommersant-Vlast," No. 10, denied that there is any place for Basaev in the new Chechen leadership, adding that Basaev currently sees himself as leading a pan-North-Caucasus war against Russia. In that context, Zakaev also denied the existence of the slightest discord among the upper echelons of the Chechen resistance.

Zakaev too differentiated between Basaev's espousal of terrorism and Sadulaev's more moderate and considerate approach; he affirmed that "violence and terror against noncombatants are unacceptable to Sadulaev." But elsewhere in the same interview, Zakaev contrasted Maskhadov -- whom he was quoted as describing as "an idealist" and as "more of a human rights activist than a military man" -- with Sadulaev, whom Zakaev said is "more of a pragmatist" and "will be guided by his perceptions of politics as it is." Zakaev further described Sadulaev as commanding "colossal and unconditional respect" among both the Chechen population and the resistance.

Besmellah Besmel, who heads Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, said the government may put off parliamentary elections until September, AP reported on 15 March. "We are discussing a proposal to delay the elections," he said, "and a final decision about it will be made soon." Currently, the elections are scheduled to be held by 20 May, but logistical problems have raised doubts about the government's ability to stage the vote. Some critics of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was elected in October 2004, say a delay in parliamentary elections would leave him with too much power. But most political factions have reacted calmly to persistent rumors of a postponement. MR

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi has denied rumors that the United States has set up additional military bases in recent months, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 15 March. "No military base has been set up by U.S. officials in Afghanistan in the last two months," Azimi said. "The bases that were set up in the past still exist and we feel these bases are needed to fight terrorism and narcotics [trafficking] in the country." Azimi added: "A few months ago, there were rumors that the United States is setting up a military base in Ghowrian District of Herat Province in northwestern Afghanistan. I do not deny this. However, it was only a plan. In fact, the U.S. officials pledged to construct a military base for the [Afghan] National Army troops in the mentioned area. The primary assessments have been carried out on a site but no practical step has been taken yet." MR

The Afghan government's budget for 2005 rose 15 percent to $678 million, AFP reported on 15 March. "The budget is balanced," Finance Minister Anwar al-Haq Ahadi told reporters in Kabul. Ahadi vowed to maintain "strict financial discipline." Domestic taxes are expected to bring in $333 million for the 2005 fiscal year, while international donations, chiefly from the United States and the European Union, will make up the shortfall, Ahadi said. According to the Finance Ministry, the country's gross domestic product grew 7.5 percent in 2004. A drought last year slowed economic growth in Afghanistan, which saw peak growth of 29 percent in 2002 and then 18 percent in 2003. The government's statistics do not include figures for the massive Afghan opium trade, which remains the largest economic sector and a major force behind officially recorded growth. MR

Afghan counternarcotics forces captured and destroyed 15 kilograms of heroin and more than 2 tons of opium during recent raids along the Pakistani border, AFP reported on 15 March. The Interior Ministry said its forces had seized 15 kilograms of heroin, 2,200 kilograms of dry opium, 1,750 liters of liquid that contained opium, and nearly 2,000 liters of other chemicals. Targeting Nangarhar Province, U.S.-trained antidrug officers raided drug labs in the districts of Achin, Shinwar, and Dar-e Noor. "The National Interdiction Unit used helicopters to travel to a landing zone near the suspected labs," an Interior Ministry statement said. "They then hiked several kilometers to the drug labs, which were located in the village of Gul Baghak in three separate compounds." Afghan officials said at least four men were arrested in connection with the raids but no one was hurt. MR

Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh and Omani Oil and Gas Minister Muhammad bin Hamad bin Sayf al-Rumhi on 15 March signed an agreement on the export to Oman of 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, beginning in 2006, IRNA reported. The same day, Zanganeh and Kuwaiti Energy and Oil Minister Ahmad Fahd al-Ahmad al-Sabah signed a deal for the export to Kuwait of 10 million cubic meters of natural gas a day, beginning in late 2007, IRNA reported. Zanganeh said the deal with Kuwait is worth more than $7 billion over 25 years. He went on to say that the legal documents relating to the deal will be drawn up in a few months. Both signings took place on the sidelines of the 135th meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Isfahan. This is the first OPEC meeting held in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. BS

OPEC announced on 16 March that it has raised its oil-production quota from 27 million barrels per day (bpd) to 27.5 million bpd, Reuters reported. If necessary, it will increase this by another 500,000 bpd. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi explained that his country wants to keep the price in the $40-$50 range. The Iranian government did not want the production ceiling to change. Petroleum Minister Namdar-Zanganeh explained on 15 March that there is an excess supply, prices are relatively high, and "we should not make a decision that gives the wrong signal to the oil market and further overheats the market and harms OPEC in the long run," state television reported. Namdar-Zanganeh explained that those who want to increase production believe that real production is 600,000-700,000 bpd more than the official figure, state radio reported. He went on to say nobody is talking about reducing production. According to the "Financial Times" on 8 March, Iran is already pumping at full capacity and cannot produce more oil. Only Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have the capacity to produce more oil, Reuters reported on 16 March. BS

Iran's economy depends on oil-export revenues (around 80 percent of total export earnings, 40-50 percent of the government budget, and 10-20 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Energy Information Administration), and every $1 increase in the price of oil increases Iranian revenues by approximately $900 million per year. The current price for a barrel of oil is about $50, but the Iranian budget for 2005-06 is based on a $28 price and the price for 2004-05 was around $19.90. Mahshahr parliamentary representative Kamal Daneshyari, who heads the legislature's Energy Committee, said in the 6 February "Mardom-Salari" that the proposed budget calls for increased oil and gas production over the next five years. BS

Islamic Iran Solidarity Party Deputy Chairman Mohammad-Reza Khabbaz said on 13 March that his organization has proposed creating a five-member committee to select the reformist presidential candidate, Mehr News Agency reported. Khabbaz said the selectors would be President Mohammad Khatami, former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Musavi, Militant Clerics Association members Hojatoleslam Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha and Hojatoleslam Mohammad Musavi-Bojnurdi, and Qom seminarian Ayatollah Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi. BS

Prospective presidential candidate Mustafa Kavakebian, the secretary-general of the reformist Mardom Salari Party, said in a 10 March speech in the northeastern city of Khalkhal, "I, as a little man among the nation's children, intend to propound the new discourse, meaning that the elite have been kept outside the bounds of power for 26 years and feel compassion for the system [and] should find their place within the ranks of those in power," "Mardom Salari" reported on 12 March. He said 12,000 people in the country have doctoral degrees, but ministers, ambassadors, and the country's senior leaders come from a group of only 2,700 people. He noted that some officials have seven or eight different positions. Kavakebian said the government is inefficient and this is because many of those in positions of power get there through "nepotism, cliques, and windfall-seeking." He said Iran has not fully realized "all aspects of religious government and Islamic values." BS

The transitional National Assembly held its inaugural session in Baghdad on 16 March, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. A number of political leaders spoke at the session, including Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. SCIRI is part of the United Iraqi Alliance list that won 140 seats in the 275-member parliament. "We thank [God] that he has chosen us among those who realize the wishes of this people and the dreams that they have dreamt for eight decades to see their real representatives assembled here under the pillar of the parliament so that they lay the solid bricks in building a secure, federal, constitutional, free Iraq that will be stable and independent," al-Hakim told the opening session. KR

Presidential contender and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) head Jalal Talabani also addressed the session, noting the violence perpetrated against Shi'a and Kurds by the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein, RFI reported. "Dear brothers, we assemble today on the anniversary of Halabjah and on the anniversary of the days of glorious [1991 Shi'ite] Sha'ban uprising. The anniversary of Halabjah is a remembrance of a human tragedy and of the crime that has been committed by Saddam's dictatorship. The anniversary of the Sha'ban uprising is a remembrance of a glorious popular uprising that has been suppressed by a brutality scarcely ever seen in the world. The martyrs of Halabjah and the martyrs of the uprising are those to whom belongs the honor and the praise. We ask magnificent God to open the gates of heaven to them." Talabani also noted the enormous tasks facing the transitional National Assembly, telling parliamentarians: "I wish you success in your sublime tasks in choosing the parliament speaker and the president of the republic, the prime minister, and then choosing a competent body that would be worthy to draft the constitution of the country as well as in fulfilling other tasks required from you." KR

The Kurdish town of Halabjah marked the 17th anniversary of the Halabjah massacre when Hussein's forces attacked the town with chemical weapons, including mustard gas, on 16 March, RFI reported. Fattah Zakhoyi, culture minister for PUK-controlled Kurdistan, told RFI that the Kurdish parliament has declared the day a "day of martyrs." Zakhoyi said the ceremony was presided over by Al-Sulaymaniyah regional government Prime Minister Umar Fattah and other ministers, adding, "The ceremony included a procession through the city with the laying of a wreath at the monument of martyrs and with the burning of candles at the monument." Asked about the symbolic importance of the National Assembly's commencement the same day, Zakhoyi said, "The choice of this day is very important for us as first it is a kind of recognition of the tragedy that happened on that day in Halabjah, a kind of paying respect to this town, and of accepting the responsibility by the members of the Iraqi National Assembly to this town and to the inhabitants of Halabjah and to their sacrifices." KR

Major General Ghalib al-Jaza'iri, police commander in the Al-Najaf Governorate, announced on 14 March that a Mosul resident has been arrested in connection with the 29 August 2003 assassination of Shi'ite Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, Iraqi media reported on the same day (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 5 September 2003). The alleged assassin, who has been alternately identified as "Fawwaz" and "Hashim" in the media, was reportedly arrested in Mosul on 5 March, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 15 March. The suspect was planning new attacks against Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Imam Ali Shrine in Al-Najaf at the time of his arrest, al-Jaza'iri said. Further details on the identity of the suspect have not been released, according to media reports. KR

Trade Minister Muhammad al-Juburi said this week that insurgent attacks and government bureaucracy are hampering efforts to supply Iraqi citizens with their monthly food rations, reported on 14 March. Al-Juburi said in a statement that corruption and bureaucracy have resulted in breaks in the supply chain and the delivery of low-quality food. Some 6.5 million Iraqis, 25 percent of the population, are considered highly dependent on food rations, according to the World Food Program. Registered Iraqis receive monthly rations of rice, flour, tea, legumes, purified butter, powdered milk, and detergents. Al-Juburi said that he has instructed the government to build up a stockpile to sustain recipients for "several months," the website reported. The delivery of food rations has been seriously hampered by the near-closure of the Iraq-Syria border, IRIN reported on 7 March. Fresh food loaded on trucks at the border rotted as trucks waited in lines several kilometers long to cross into Iraq. Broken-down truck-scanning equipment also contributed to the delays. KR

Iraqis searching for the kidnappers of freed Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena have said that Italian intelligence agents who negotiated her release have refused to share information with investigators, reported on 16 March. Colonel Jabbar Anwar, head of the major crimes unit leading the investigation in Baghdad, said the kidnappers appear to be members of a crime ring. Investigators said they received highly specific tips as to the location of Sgrena during her one-month captivity, but when they raided the houses, she had slipped through their fingers. They hypothesized that Sgrena was regularly moved by her captors, the website reported. Anwar said that information from the Italians could have made all the difference in locating the journalist. Instead, the lines of communication closed once Italian intelligence began negotiations with the kidnappers. Italian media reported that an $8 million ransom was paid for Sgrena's release. Police have made only one arrest in the case -- an Iraqi police major and resident of one of the houses informants said Sgrena was kept in. The officer was found in possession of fake identification cards, including one for the U.S. Embassy. KR