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Newsline - March 31, 2005

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 30 March that Russia is concerned about the political situation in the CIS, where several countries have seen "violent changes of government" in recent months, reported. "We consider it counterproductive to intervene in the internal processes of [neighboring] states," Lavrov said. He criticized the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for its role in the ongoing events in Kyrgyzstan, saying that OSCE assessments of the elections there were used "by those who destabilized the situation in the country" and that "Russia cannot ignore this fact." Ousted Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who has been allowed to settle in Russia, gave a lengthy interview to "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 30 March. Akaev said that he was overthrown by forces from outside his country "with the help of new techniques for the enforcement of democratic process that were used by a world revolutionary International." He added that his greatest mistake was not doing more to strengthen Kyrgyzstan's law-enforcement agencies. VY

Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the CIS Institute, said on 29 March that recent Russian "failures" in the CIS "are linked to the activity of Western centers of influence," RBK-TV reported on 29 March and reported on 30 March. Zharikhin said it would be an oversimplification to say the latest CIS events were the result of the activity of Western governments, but they did stem from various institutions, including philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Institute, whose activities can either support or contradict U.S. government policies. "We should be objective and admit that there was no direct intervention in Kyrgyzstan," he said. "And I am sure that neither Russia, the United States, NATO, Uzbekistan, nor China desired the destabilization of Kyrgyzstan." "Russia should clearly define its policy there, since it has the desire and the means to be there but it lacks the [political] will," Zharikhin concluded. VY

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in "Argumenty i fakty," No. 13, that "the temporary deployment of U.S. and NATO bases on CIS territory in support of the antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan is in Russia's national interests." "We do not always cooperate with them or share all of their objectives," Ivanov said, "but NATO no longer considers Russia its geopolitical enemy and we no longer view them as our likely adversary." CIS Institute Deputy Director Zharikhin told on 30 March that Russia's historical memory is too short and it forgets "what a difficult situation Russia was in Central Asia when [the West] began its Afghanistan operation. It was a time when the Taliban were about to being a massive incursion into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and Russia faced the prospect of defending them with very scarce resources." He added, however, that the status of NATO bases in the region must be clarified, as must be their term and functions. VY

In the same "Argumenty i fakty" interview, Defense Minister Ivanov said he wants to change the predominantly "peasant-worker" composition of the Russian military by drafting more students. Ivanov proposed cutting the number of military departments at institutions of higher education by half and drastically reducing the number of student deferments. "We have cut the size of the military by two-thirds, but the number of military departments has increased by 50 percent. Each year they produce 50,000 reserve officers, while we only call up about 10,000," Ivanov said. "This means that many of these departments were created simply to provide a mechanism for bribe taking. At the same time, poor people have no chance to get a good education in modern Russia. Since the military will move to volunteer service in 2008, we will help soldiers get an education after they finish their service. For many poor people, to be candid, this will be the only way to survive." VY

Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev said on 30 March that up to 60 percent of Russian males today are either underage, elderly, or handicapped, ITAR-TASS reported. Of an able-bodied male population of about 20 million, nearly 1 million are in prison; about 4 million are serving in the military, Interior Ministry, Emergency Situations Ministry, or Federal Security Service (FSB); some 4 million are alcoholics, and about 1 million are drug addicts. Moreover, mortality among men is about four times the rate it is for women. "In the very near future, we will simply have no labor force at all, as the losses among the male population are comparable to those the USSR suffered during World War II," Yakovlev said. VY

Deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov earlier this month held a closed-door meeting with leading Russian rock musicians, during which he asked them not to participate in events that could provoke "an orange revolution" in Russia, "The Moscow Times" reported on 31 March. Some participants in the meeting, which took place at a Moscow hotel, told the daily that Surkov, the Kremlin's chief ideologue, did not conceal his concern that Russia could see a repetition of recent events in Ukraine, where rock musicians played an important role in rallying Ukrainian youth in support of the Orange Revolution. Surkov said the authorities would like to be able to count on the support of the musicians, but added that they should at least remain neutral in the event of an uprising, "The Moscow Times" reported. Prominent rock stars Boris Grebenshchikov, Sergei Shnurov, Vyacheslav Butusov, and Zemphira attended the meeting, according to the daily. Meanwhile, on 29 March, Surkov told a meeting of the Unified Russia Duma faction that he "is categorically opposed to the introduction of a parliamentary system in Russia, as it could lead to the disintegration of the country," reported. VY

REN-TV reported on 29 March that it has obtained a copy of an Interior Ministry document that recommends that senior police officers identify journalists who file critical reports about the police for possible "countermeasures." Ella Pamfilova, chairwoman of the presidential Human Rights Council, said she has requested that the Prosecutor-General's Office investigate the memo. Interior Ministry spokesman Valerii Gribakin confirmed the existence of the memo, but said it "pursues the most benign purpose, which is getting to the bottom of various kinds of critical situations and critical publications and learning the truth." According to Gribakin, the memo was meant to facilitate "openness and close liaison" between the police and journalists. Ildar Isangulov, head of the For Human Rights movement in Bashkortostan, told REN-TV that human rights workers, whistle-blowers, and journalists are routinely shadowed, concluding that the memo in question simply suggests extending Bashkortostan's practices throughout Russia. JAC

In an interview in "Profil," No. 10, sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya discusses the contours of Russia's current political system. According to Kryshtanovskaya, Russia no longer has any separation of powers in the classical sense of the term, but it does have a system of checks and balances of sorts, which consists of competing clans and factions within the ruling elite. She said there are two main clans in the Kremlin -- the "siloviki" and the "liberals." However, the main difference between the two groups is not ideological. They both support a strong, monocentric state. "Their conflicts are over spheres of influence," she said. She argues that President Vladimir Putin has deliberately retained some "liberals" in the presidential administration and the cabinet because "it's more convenient for him to balance these two forces, rather than facing one faction on his own and perhaps becoming its hostage." JAC

Asked about changes in the elite from the Yeltsin era, Kryshtanovskaya noted that the style of the regime has changed, "Profil," No. 10 reported. "One of my acquaintances, a German journalist, has described today's Kremlin as 'Soviet lite' -- you know, like 'Coca-Cola Light,'" she said. "It's a fairly accurate description, I think. The present elite is slightly Soviet-like, but without any rigid orthodoxy. It's an elite in keeping with the monocentric state of Russian tradition." She concluded that preparations are under way for a transition to a parliamentary republic, in which Putin would become "a very strong prime minister." JAC

Following fisticuffs on the Duma floor earlier in the day, State Duma deputies voted on 30 March to deprive Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, LDPR) of his right to speak during Duma sessions for one month, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005). The vote was 373 in favor, with 35 against. Motherland faction leader Dmitrii Rogozin complained about Unified Russia's refusal to consider a proposal to deprive Zhirinovskii of his post as deputy speaker. "Unified Russia doesn't want to lose such a militant ally of the party of power," Rogozin said. Rogozin on 31 March told that he has refused to participate in a popular NTV television show with Zhirinovskii, saying, "I will not go into the bullring with pigs." JAC/VY

A new National Credit History Bureau held its founding meeting on 30 March, reported. The bureau has created a federal system for the exchange of information about debtors and their debts. The authors of the legislation establishing the bureau hope that a credit-history system will allow creditors to minimize the risk of lending and reduce the cost of borrowing for consumers. Founders of the bureau include the Association of Russian Banks, Vneshtorgbank, Alfa Bank, the United States' Trans Union International, and Italy's CRIF, along with dozens other lesser-known Russian commercial banks. JAC

Tula Oblast legislators voted on 30 March to confirm Vyacheslav Dudka as the new governor of that region, ITAR-TASS reported. The vote was 37 in favor, while one deputy did not participate in the vote. President Putin submitted Dudka's nomination on 25 March, according to Dudka, 44, is a native of Tula who most recently served as the chief engineer of the state enterprise Construction Bureau for the Instrument-Making Industry. He participated in the cleanup after the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear-plant disaster. "Novye izvestiya" noted that Tula is only the second region where a sitting governor was not nominated by Putin for another term. Former Communist Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev was elected to a second term in 2001 with more than 70 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 25 April 2001). JAC

Legislators in the city of Mirnyi in the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic voted on 30 March to erect a bust of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the city's Victory Square for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II on 9 May, RIA-Novosti reported. Mirnyi Mayor Anatolii Popov said: "We could not ignore the request of participants in the Great Patriotic War. It's no secret to anyone that our fighters went to battle [with the slogans] 'For the Fatherland' and 'For Stalin.'" In an interview with, Lev Ponomarev of For Human Rights commented that renewed veneration for Stalin is to be expected around the anniversary of the end of the war. "His apologists always emphasize Stalin's role in this victory," Ponomarev said. "These are basically elderly people who lived with this myth their whole lives and do not intend to give it up now." "It is possible to argue whether to let already existing monuments wear out or leave them where they are, but it [should be] forbidden to build new ones," he said. JAC

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov met in Moscow on 30 March with President Putin to brief him on the discussion of the situation in Chechnya convened in Strasbourg on 21 March by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Russian media reported. Alkhanov characterized the roundtable as "positive" and a dialogue in which the interlocutors understood one another and agreed that there is "no alternative to a constructive course," Interfax reported. Alkhanov estimated that between 7,000 and 10,000 former resistance fighters have now returned to civilian life. He said the Chechen people are ready to elect a new parliament, and that ballot could take place in the fall. Alkhanov singled out as a priority task reconstruction of destroyed housing, schools, and medical facilities in Grozny and elsewhere in Chechnya. LF

Alarmed at the growing popularity of the Youth Movement of Ingushetia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 April 2005), the Ingushetian authorities have created a rival movement, Youth Unity, to serve as a counterweight, reported on 30 March. Speaking on republican television on 30 March, Central Election Commission press secretary Yusup Kostoev, 42, identified himself as the new organization's leader and pledged support for embattled Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov. Meanwhile, Mukharbek Aushev (Unified Russia), who represents Ingushetia in the State Duma, is reportedly seeking to persuade Dmitrii Kozak, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, to propose him as a successor to Zyazikov, reported. Duma Security Committee member Gennadii Gudkov (Unified Russia) told that Zyazikov is "unsinkable," because he is a former FSB general. Gudkov added, however, that the people of Ingushetia are no longer prepared to tolerate Zyazikov's corrupt and inept administration, and that Zyazikov will be forcibly ousted if he does not resign voluntarily. LF

Arman Hakobian, head of the Armenian Foreign Ministry Disarmament and International Security Department, argued on 30 March at a roundtable discussion in Yerevan that the virtual absence of civilian officials within the Armenian Defense Ministry is "a big problem" and an obstacle to closer cooperation with NATO, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He advocated reforming the Soviet-style structure of the ministry to bring in more civilian personnel. LF

Armenia has submitted to Washington a revised request for funds under the Millennium Challenge Account program announced last year, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 30 March, quoting the Armenian Finance Ministry. The new request is for some $175 million, far less than the $900 million Armenia originally asked for. The funds will be used to rebuild highways and irrigation networks in rural areas. LF

Speaking on 30 March at the two-day parliamentary hearings on the Karabakh conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005), Serzh Sarkisian said that any settlement of the Karabakh conflict will entail "painful" concessions by both sides, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. One such concession, Sarkisian suggested, could be asking all persons resident in the then-Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast at the onset of the conflict in February 1988 to vote in a referendum to determine the disputed region's future status, Noyan Tapan reported. At that time, the oblast's population numbered approximately 160,000, of whom approximately 75 percent were Armenian. Armen Melikian, foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, agreed in principle to the concept of a referendum, but questioned whether Azerbaijan would accept the outcome as legally valid and binding, Noyan Tapan reported. The online Azerbaijani daily pointed out on 31 March that the constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic prohibits referendums on issues concerning the country's territorial integrity. LF

A Tbilisi district court sentenced David Mirtskhulava on 30 March to 10 years' imprisonment on charges of misappropriating some $6 million and abuse of office in connection with the import of electricity from Armenia in 1998-99, Georgian media reported. Mirtskhulava was arrested in December 2003 and hospitalized shortly thereafter with a heart attack that then-Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili accused him of simulating (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003 and 20 January 2004). Mirtskhulava's lawyer Eka Beselia appealed last summer to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, arguing that due to his poor health her client should be transferred from a solitary confinement cell to a prison hospital. LF

Maksudbek Rakhanov, chairman of Kazakhstan's State Property Committee, and Aleksandr Medvedev, director of Russia's Khrunichev Space Center, signed an agreement on 30 March in Astana to create a joint venture to build the Baiterek Kazakh-Russian launch facility, Kazinform reported. The launch facility, which will be located at Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome, will put payloads into space using the Angara rocket, which is currently under development at the Khrunichev Center. The Kazakh government will provide a credit of between $120 million and $150 million to construct Baiterek, Interfax-AVN reported. DK

Acting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev made a number of government appointments on 30 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. He issued decrees appointing Ishengul Boljurova, a member of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, as deputy prime minister for social services; banker Daniyar Usenov as deputy prime minister for economic issues; and Tashtemir Aitbaev, who headed the Interior Ministry in 2000-02, as minister of national security. DK

Feliks Kulov, who was named overseer of Kyrgyzstan's law enforcement agencies after the collapse of ousted President Askar Akaev's government on 24 March, told parliament on 30 March that he is stepping down from that post, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kulov, who heads the Ar-Namys party, said he achieved his primary task of restoring order after the 24 March looting, adding that he now plans to await the result of his appeal to the Supreme Court on a 2002 criminal conviction that he and his supporters have long argued was politically motivated. Kulov's supporters freed him on 24 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2005). Arkadii Dubnov, a longtime observer of Central Asian affairs, told Russia's Ekho Moskvy on 30 March that Kulov's decision to step down followed a disagreement with acting President Bakiev over the latter's appointment of Tashtemir Aitbaev to head the National Security Service. For his part, Bakiev promised on 30 March that, as head of state, he will not interfere in Kulov's appeal to the Supreme Court, Kabar reported. DK

Parliamentarian Adakhan Madumarov and businessman Nurbek Turdukulov announced on 30 March that they plan to seek the presidency when Kyrgyzstan holds elections on 26 June, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and reported. Madumarov might seek the presidency in tandem with newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, with the latter a prospective prime minister, RFE/RL reported. Madumarov noted that while Kyrgyzstan's new government came to power promising to revoke the mandate of the new parliament, elected in disputed 27 February and 13 March elections, and to bring about preterm presidential elections, only the second promise has been kept. Turdukulov warned against the danger of a police state taking shape in Kyrgyzstan, reported. He said the business community needs to unite in order to lessen the role of violence and intimidation in the country's economic life. Acting President Bakiev and former Emergency Situations Minister Temirbek Akmataliev previously announced that they plan to run for president. DK

In remarks reported by Kyrgyz Television 1 on 30 March, acting President Bakiev said he cannot yet guarantee ousted President Akaev's safety should the latter return to Kyrgyzstan. Bakiev spoke in favor of Akaev's proposal to hold talks with Omurbek Tekebaev, the speaker of parliament, but warned that "it would be wrong for the president to return here at the moment." Bakiev said that "it is very difficult to give a guarantee for his safety after the events that occurred a week ago." In an interview with Russia's ORT on 29 March, Akaev said he would be willing to consider resigning, but only if given "appropriate guarantees" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005). DK

Tajik Energy Minister Jurabek Nurmahmadov and Pakistani Water and Power Minister Liaqat Ali Jatoi signed a memorandum of understanding in Dushanbe on 30 March for the construction of a 700-kilometer power-transmission line linking Tajikistan and Pakistan, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Nurmahmadov said that the exact cost of the power line, which will transport electrical energy from Tajikistan's Roghun hydroelectric station to Pakistan, has not been determined, Avesta reported. The BBC's Persian Service reported that its likely cost is $280 million, however, with financing to be provided both by Pakistan and Tajikistan. The project is slated for completion in 2009, RFE/RL reported. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov has issued a decree removing Orazmurat Begmuradov from the post of minister of social security and replacing him with Bibitach Vekilova, Turkmen Television First Channel reported on 30 March. In connection with the move, Vekilova was removed from her posts as director of the State Statistics Institute and deputy economy minister. Begmuradov was dismissed for "shortcomings in his work." DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka told a government conference on 30 March on the development of the health-care system that the system does not need a "profound reform," but should rather be streamlined, Belapan reported, quoting official sources. Lukashenka tasked the government with reviewing and simplifying health-care management by July. He also urged tougher supervision of medical graduates assigned to jobs by the government. Lukashenka said that graduates of medical colleges and universities should be stripped of their qualifications if they do not practice as doctors upon graduation. JM

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told Reuters in Kyiv on 30 March that she is pleased with Ukraine's efforts to implement the recently signed three-year Action Plan intended to bring the country closer to the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). "It's good to see that things have started to move. The government has promised a reform agenda and we are glad to see progress is starting to be made," Ferrero-Waldner said, singling out the struggle of President Viktor Yushchenko's administration against endemic post-Soviet corruption. Ferrero-Waldner and several other EU officials held talks in Kyiv the same day with Yushchenko, Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, and State Secretary Oleksandr Zinchenko. JM

Socialist Party head Oleksandr Moroz said in Kyiv on 30 March that Ukraine cannot be regarded as a democratic country, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. Moroz was speaking with Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger of Germany, rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for the investigation of the murder of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. "There are declarations to move toward democracy in Ukraine, but actually no movement itself," Moroz said. "The assassination of Gongadze and the protest actions linked to it four years ago have led to the Orange Revolution. Today, after the victory of the revolution, its sources have been forgotten.... There is procrastination in [the investigation of] the Gongadze case in Ukraine, and PACE should monitor the case until it is passed to court." JM

President Yushchenko is to speak at a joint session of the U.S. Congress's two houses on 6 April, during his 3-7 April visit to the United States, Ukrainian media reported on 30 March, quoting State Secretary Zinchenko. "President Yushchenko's election is inspiring the spread of democracy throughout the world in spite of threats and intimidation. We welcome him to this cathedral of democracy and look forward to hearing from him," U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert said in a joint statement quoted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 31 March. JM

Niko Lozancic, who is a Croat and president of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Croat-Muslim federation, submitted his resignation to High Representative Paddy Ashdown on 30 March to protest Ashdown's recent sacking of Dragan Covic as the Croatian member of Bosnia's Presidency, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005). Using a mocking tone, Lozancic said Ashdown is arrogant and oblivious to the will of the voters. Elsewhere, Sulejman Tihic, who is Covic's Muslim colleague in the presidency, commented that Ashdown's decision was to be expected and is correct because it will enable the presidency function smoothly while Covic stands trial on corruption charges. In Mostar, Covic and his six co-defendants pleaded not guilty at the opening of their trial. In Porec, Croatian President Stipe Mesic said on 30 March that it is not his business to comment publicly on Ashdown's decision because it is a matter concerning a foreign country. In Zagreb, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader made a similar statement. Covic, who is a leader of the Bosnian branch of Sanader's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), maintains that the charges against him are part of an unspecified anti-Croat campaign. PM

Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski said after the second-round local elections on 28 March that the vote was a victory for democracy, "Utrinski vesnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2005 and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005). Buckovski called the irregularities registered by international and domestic observers in about 30 of the country's roughly 3,000 polling stations "isolated" incidents. In Ohrid, several hundred members and supporters of the conservative opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-People's Party (VMRO-NP) protested against alleged election fraud, calling for the mayoral run-off there to be repeated. On 29 March, some 1,000 members and followers of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) blocked the road between Prilep and Makedonski Brod to protest against the election results in the district of Dolneni, where the candidate of the opposition coalition led by the conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) won by a narrow margin, the private A1 TV reported. The ethnic Albanian opposition coalition of the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) said it recognizes neither the first nor the second round of the local elections, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. UB

Incumbent Skopje Mayor and Liberal Democratic Party Chairman Risto Penov announced on 30 March that he has withdrawn from the mayoral race, MIA news agency reported. Penov said it is clear that he cannot win the upcoming runoff against Trifun Kostovski, an independent candidate who is supported by the VMRO-DPMNE-led opposition coalition. In the first round held recently, Kostovski garnered 110,000 votes, while Penov won only 63,000. According to the State Election Commission, the second-round vote must nevertheless be held, since the electoral legislation does not allow a candidate to withdraw between the two rounds of the elections, A1 TV reported. UB

Serbian Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic said in Belgrade on 30 March that war crimes indictee and former General Nebojsa Pavkovic "mocked" Serbia's Special Court for war crimes recently by not answering its summons, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005). Stojkovic added that he expects that Pavkovic will soon be placed under temporary arrest, and that time is likewise running out for the former general to turn himself in voluntarily and go to The Hague, where the war crimes tribunal has indicted him. Pavkovic said through his lawyer that he will not appear in the Special Court because that would be a first step toward his being sent the Hague-based tribunal, which he considers to be anti-Serb. The Serbian court summoned Pavkovic in connection with the 2000 abduction and murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and an assassination attempt on Serbian politician Vuk Draskovic, while the Hague-based tribunal has indicted him in connection with alleged war crimes committed in Kosova in 1998-99. PM

Romanian President Traian Basescu said a crisis team is working to secure the release of three Romanian journalists, but he revealed no details of its activities, dpa reported on 31 March. Television reporter Marie-Jeanne Ion from Romanian broadcaster Prima TV, her cameraman Sorin Miscoci, and reporter Ovidiu Ohanesian of the daily "Romania Libera" were abducted in Baghdad's Al-Mansur district on 28 March while Basescu was visiting Romanian troops in Iraq. Ion, who had interviewed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi hours before her abduction, managed to contact her editors by telephone during the abduction. BW

A leading member of the opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) has rejected allegations that it is a tool of the Kremlin, BASA reported on 30 March. BMD co-Chairman Veaceslav Untila said the bloc asked Russian political strategists to work on its election campaign, but when they performed poorly they were dismissed and replaced by Romanian experts. He did not rule out the possibility of the BMD supporting one of the two candidates in the 4 April presidential elections, but said "there is still no decision" on doing so and that "things will clarify" in the next few days. Incumbent President Vladimir Voronin will face Gheorghe Duca, president of Moldova's Academy of Sciences, in the 4 April ballot. Both candidates were nominated by the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM). Both the BMD and the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) have said they will boycott the poll. BW

BMD leader Untila also said on 30 March that Dumitru Diacov, leader of the Democratic Party, which abandoned the BMD and formed its own parliamentary group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 25 March 2005) "does not deserve the place he obtained as a result of the parliamentary elections." Diacov responded to Untila's comments by saying his party "did not come mounted on anyone's back," and that "experts agreed that what we did was right." Diacov added that other parties in the BMD bloc knew the bloc would not last long. He said his party's estrangement was partially the result of being isolated from the BMD decision-making process. "In particular, we were not informed about the travels of BMD leaders," Diacov said. BW

Jailed Moldovan former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat will be able to eat food prepared by his mother, Infotag reported on 30 March, citing attorney Gheorghe Amihalachioaie. That arrangement was one of the Pasat's conditions for ending the hunger strike he began on 12 March to protest what he called a politically motivated case against him. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2005). On 18 March, Moldovan prosecutors filed abuse of office charges against Pasat over the 1997 sale of 21 MiG-29 fighter jets to the United States. The Prosecutor-General's Office has agreed to permit the food to be delivered to the prison once a day, and Pasat will eat his mother's meals in the presence of a doctor. One of Pasat's stated reasons for his hunger strike was fear that authorities would poison him. BW

Russia's natural-gas monopoly Gazprom is considering charging Moldova market prices similar to those it charges western European customers, RBC reported on 30 March, citing Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov. Moldova currently owes Gazprom $660 million for deliveries of natural gas, a figure that includes $542 million owed by the separatist Transdniester region. The move came as Russia is considering economic sanctions against Moldova for what Moscow calls unfriendly policies. "Experts say it is a first major sign of retaliation by Moscow against a pro-Western shift by [Moldova's] leader," wrote in its 30 March edition. BW

Iran's population of some 69 million people is ethnically and religiously diverse. But successive Iranian governments, whether theocratic or monarchic, have stressed the Persian nature of the state and tried to eliminate minority interests by emphasizing linguistic, religious, and cultural unity. It is noteworthy, therefore, that candidates campaigning before the 17 June presidential election are pandering to minority groups.

Conservative frontrunner Ali Larijani said during a 29 March gathering of Sunni Muslims in Aq Qala, Gulistan Province, that all of the country's ethnic groups are important, and he praised the country's Turkmen minority, Fars News Agency reported.

Mohsen Rezai, another conservative candidate, met with tribal leaders in Abadan on 24 March and said, "When I talk about justice I mean that there should be no difference between the provinces or tribes and we should not have first and second class citizens," Fars News Agency reported. "In order to realize this...we must treat all ethnic groups equally. In fact a change in our view towards ethnic groups is extremely important and the next government must courageously pursue this issue."

Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi visited Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province, in early March. He noted the economic importance of the oil-producing province and said it has been protected by brave young people, "particularly Arab, Lur, and the tribes of Khuzestan," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 13 March. Susangerd parliamentarian Jasem Jadari told Karrubi there is propaganda suggesting "various ethnic groups living in Khuzestan have excessive and unreasonable expectations." But local people only want their constitutionally guaranteed rights, he said.

The majority of Iranians are Persians who practice Shi'a Islam, but the population also includes Shi'a-practicing Azeris and Arabs, as well as Baluchi, Kurdish, and Turkmen minorities that practice Sunni Islam. Christian Armenians and Assyrians also live in Iran, as do practitioners of the Baha'i, Jewish, and Zoroastrian faiths. The Iranian Constitution states that Shi'ism is the state religion but other schools of Islam will be respected fully, and in regions where the minorities predominate, local regulations will respect their faith. Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian practices will be respected, too, according to the constitution. All Iranians, regardless of their ethnic group or tribe, are supposed to enjoy equal rights. Baha'is, however, are not recognized and face intense repression.

The Iranian government stresses national unity, and Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi frequently claims that foreign elements are trying to stir up sectarian differences. He most often makes this claim about the southeast, where many Baluchis live.

Furthermore, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati cautioned presidential candidates not to promote ethnic issues in his last two Friday prayer sermons in Tehran. On 23 February, Jannati said Iran's survival depends on the unity of all ethnic and religious groups, state radio reported. He advised candidates not to discuss issues "in certain areas" because "ethnic sensitivities will be provoked and this will result in discord."

In March, Jannati warned that the United States is determined to exploit rifts, and in Lebanon and Iraq it has "fanned the flames" of ethnic and religious differences, state radio reported on 18 March. "The same plots are hatched against Iran," he said. "Some of the prospective candidates are raising such problems in order to win votes."

As secretary of the Guardians Council, Jannati plays a major role in vetting prospective candidates for elected office. His warning to the candidates -- "The likelihood of them being qualified for such a post is very low indeed" -- and his advice to the judiciary to deal with these individuals could have an impact.

But it is likely that Jannati's comments are meant for the reformists, not the conservatives.

Executive-branch spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, a Kurd who previously served as governor of Kurdistan Province, made some very controversial statements at a 3 March reformist conference on Kurdish issues in the western city of Kermanshah, Fars News Agency reported the next day. "We, [the Kurds] will only take part in the elections and vote if we are guaranteed to have a share in the power."

Conservatives criticized Ramezanzadeh, pointing out that Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, Health Minister Masud Pezeshkian, and other prominent officials are Kurds. As a result of this outcry, President Mohammad Khatami reportedly barred Ramezanzadeh from participating in any more election meetings, Fars News Agency reported on 7 March.

Yet one conservative legislator, Alaedin Borujerdi, swam against the tide. He said the Kurds are supporters of the Islamic Republic, Fars News Agency reported on 4 March. But he also noted that "Kurdistan, like several other provinces, needs greater attention, the honorable government must pay greater heed to that province."

It is not immediately clear why the candidates are focusing on minorities right now. Khatami traveled the country to gather support and encourage voters during his 1997 campaign, and he included minority group members like Ramezanzadeh in his cabinet. The candidates' appeal to provincial groups is not without precedent, therefore. It is also possible that because candidates do not present very specific platforms during their campaigns, they must appeal to voters in other ways.

Laura Bush paid a five-hour, previously unannounced visit to Afghanistan on 30 March, RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Bush said that she has wanted to visit Afghanistan for the past two years, but security concerns prevented her from making the trip. Bush and her accompanying delegation met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. She also visited the Teachers Training Institute and the Ashiana Organization, which supports orphans and children without guardians, Afghanistan Television reported on 30 March. Afghanistan Television also reported that Bush met with Zinat Karzai, the wife of the Afghan president, who requested U.S. assistance in improving the health sector for Afghan women. The Afghan first lady is rarely seen in public, and never with her husband. Bush had lunch with U.S. troops based in Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, international news agencies reported. AT

In a 29 March press release (, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on President Karzai to "take a clear and definitive" stance in support of cable television and diversity in the broadcast media in Afghanistan. RSF warned that Afghanistan's Ulema Council, which is headed by Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari, is leading a campaign to ban television stations which are considered "anti-Islamic." "It is up to the [Afghan] public to decide about TV programs," RSF wrote to Karzai. According to the press release, a member of the council told an Afghan news agency that "telecasts which have dances" are "absolutely contrary" to Islamic jurisprudence, and are therefore banned under Article 3 of the Afghan Constitution, which prohibits anything which is against the tenets of Islam. AT

An apparent car bomb exploded on 30 March in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. The driver of the vehicle was killed in the blast, which occurred near the governor's office. Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, speaking on behalf of the neo-Taliban, claimed responsibility for the explosion, which he said killed eight troops, in a telephone call to Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on 30 March. Hakimi claimed that the driver of the vehicle was not killed, and he apologized "if any passerby was killed." No other source has confirmed Hakimi's claim. AT

President Karzai issued a decree on 30 March naming Mohammad Ishaq Nadery his senior adviser on economic affairs, Radio Afghanistan reported. Nadery, a longtime professor of economy at New York University, will be in charge of establishing a department to support of national economic programs. AT

Russian Federal Antinarcotics Service Deputy Director Aleksandr Fedorov said on 29 March that the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to lead to an increase in the outflow of illegal drugs from Afghanistan, ITAR-TASS reported. If the Kyrgyz government controls the country's territory and the work of law enforcement agencies continues to be effective, "an increase in the drug traffic should not be expected," he said, as Kyrgyzstan is a "country that consistently pursues an antidrug policy." One of the main Afghan drug routes leads through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Russia and Europe. AT

An anonymous source close to Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on 30 March that Ahmadinejad is close to deciding on a presidential bid, Fars News Agency reported. The source said Ahmadinejad has an outstanding record as the capital's mayor and as governor-general of Ardabil Province, and that thousands of people want him to run. BS

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Vice President for Atomic Energy Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, and approximately 30 Iranian and foreign journalists visited the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz on 30 March, Radio Farda reported. Khatami reportedly inspected the centrifuges, but reporters were not allowed near them. The reporters said the site was heavily defended by antiaircraft missiles. Radio Farda noted that Iran and the EU agreed last week to continue discussing the nuclear issue, and an Atomic Energy Organization official told reporters that the facility would already be finished if Iran had not suspended its nuclear activities. Iran has agreed to the suspension as long as discussions with the Europeans continue. Khatami and his entourage also visited a uranium-conversion facility near Isfahan, according to state television. It reported that uranium hexafluoride produced in Isfahan is enriched at Natanz, then it is returned to Isfahan where it is turned into fuel rods. BS

Mohammad Saidi, deputy chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told reporters on 30 March that all the uranium-enrichment equipment is made in Iran, state television reported. When a reporter asked if he could photograph the centrifuges, Saidi responded, "Where are you from?" When the reporter replied that he is Japanese, Saidi said, "The Japanese have never shown us the pictures of their centrifuge machinery. If they do, we will show you ours." BS

Khatami told reporters during the 30 March trip that Iran will resume nuclear activities soon, state television reported. He said the visit to Natanz and Isfahan "proves" that Iranian nuclear activities will not be diverted for military purposes. He made clear, as have many other Iranian officials, that Iran is intent on mastery of the complete nuclear fuel cycle: "We shall have the nuclear fuel cycle, but we also want to enjoy this legitimate right through talks and understanding and, God willing, we shall do so." BS

Sunni groups continued to discuss possible candidates from among the 17 Sunni members of the transitional National Assembly to hold the post of assembly speaker on 30 March, international media reported. Shi'ite parliamentarian Ali al-Dabbagh told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in a 30 March interview that the Shi'a and Kurds do not want to force a candidate on the Sunnis. "The Sunnis didn't have a candidate until now. We don't want to force them. We don't want to forward our candidate and to force them to accept it. We also are not allowing the others to have their candidates [forced on] the Sunnis. So, the Sunnis are asking [us] to give them a few more days to [present] their candidates, and then we don't have only to accept their demands. Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawir, [was nominated on 29 March] and then he said, 'I am not the president of the National Assembly.' We have to find somebody else. Another person is not easy to find because the Sunnis should approve it. The Sunnis should approve a name that will be accepted by the others," al-Dabbagh said. KR

Interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir told Al-Arabiyah television on 30 March that he turned down the speaker position because the speaker does not wield any power. "In view of the Sunnis' low level of representation and lack of a bloc in the National Assembly, the speaker will not enjoy any noticeable influence. Therefore, we believe that this post will not be useful for us and that we cannot give much to this country through the post. There are more important posts, such as those of the president and vice presidents who have the veto right and are more involved in decision making," he said. Meanwhile, Arab satellite channels reported on 30 March that Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc head Mish'an al-Juburi was nominated by some parliamentarians to the post. Sheikh Bunayyan al-Jarba told Al-Jazeera that al-Juburi did not receive unanimous support, however. He added that Sheikh Fawwaz al-Jarba might also be nominated as a candidate. KUNA reported on 30 March that al-Jarba is al-Yawir's cousin. He holds a military degree and fought in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, after which he fled to Saudi Arabia. KR

Al-Jazeera television broadcast on 30 March footage of three Romanian journalists kidnapped in Baghdad by an unknown group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005). The group said in the videotape that it is holding the journalists as well as a fourth person, later identified as Muhammad Munaf, an Iraqi-American who was working as the journalists' translator in Iraq. Syrian businessman and Romanian resident Omar Hayssam claimed on 29 March that he received two calls from an unknown person who requested $4 million ransom for the hostages, Mediafax reported on 30 March. Hayssam is reportedly the business partner of Munaf, who is under investigation in Romania for tax evasion and other offenses, Mediafax reported on 31 March. The news agency further reported that Munaf paid part of the cost of the journalists' travel to Iraq and facilitated their meetings with Iraqi officials before their abduction. Bucharest's Antena 1 television reported on 30 March that a Romanian negotiating team has arrived in Baghdad and is in contact with the abductors. KR

A U.S. soldier on trial for the 21 May 2004 killing of an Iraqi near Al-Kufah has pleaded not guilty to a charge of assault with intent to kill in a court martial in Wiesbaden, Germany, AP reported on 31 March (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 December 2004). Captain Rogelio Maynulet told the court that the Iraqi, unidentified in court papers but identified by relatives as Karim Hassan, was too seriously injured to survive his wounds after U.S. forces chased and fired on a car believed to be carrying a driver and militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "He was in a state that I didn't think was justified -- I had to put him out of his misery," Maynulet said, calling the killing, "the right thing to do, it was the honorable thing to do." Maynulet faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if found guilty. His attorneys have argued that his actions fall within the Geneva Conventions on the code of war. KR