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Newsline - March 6, 2006

Russian officials and leaders of the Palestinian movement Hamas held talks in Moscow on March 3, marking the militant group's highest-level foreign visit yet, RFE/RL and other media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). As expected, Russia called on Hamas, which swept to victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections on January 25, to lay down its arms and soften its policies, but Hamas did not show signs of willingness to revise its hard-line stance towards Israel. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appealed to Hamas to respect all previous agreements between Palestinian officials and Israel, adding, however, that he does not expect Hamas to "change itself overnight." For his part, Hamas politburo chief Khalid Mish'al said: "We are not going to recognize Israel." He told a news conference that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel "sat at the negotiating table for more than 10 years, The result was that Israel killed Arafat. Do you want Hamas to be killed too?" Mish'al added that Hamas considers Chechnya an internal affair of Russia. PM

President Vladimir Putin's office issued a statement on March 5, saying that he discussed the Hamas visit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by telephone and that Putin assured Olmert that "Russia [will] not take any step directed against Israeli interests," reported. Olmert called the decision to invite Hamas leaders to Moscow "a mistake," reported. Elsewhere, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii II said that he and Mish'al intend to continue "interfaith dialogue," RIA Novosti reported. PM

A new report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) says that the United States government should reconsider its definition of Russia as a so-called strategic partner, RFE/RL and other media reported on March 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19 and February 3 and 13, 2006). The study says that under President Putin, Russia has become an increasingly authoritarian state with a foreign policy that sometimes is at odds with the interests of the United States and its allies. The report recommends that Washington carefully choose issues on which to cooperate with Moscow and on which to oppose it. The study points out that Moscow has sought to oust U.S. forces from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to use its energy resources to bully pro-Western governments in Ukraine and Georgia, and to increase its role in the Middle East by hosting the leaders of Hamas, which the United States and most of its European allies consider a terrorist group. In addition, the report recommends greater assistance to Russia's civil society. The CFR released the document on the eve of a visit to the United States by Foreign Minister Lavrov, which is slated to start on March 6. In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry announced that U.S.-Russia trade rose by 30 percent in 2005 to reach $20 billion, ITAR-TASS reported. PM

Vladislav Surkov, who is an aide to President Putin, told a recent meeting of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party that three primary threats to Russian national sovereignty are "colored revolutions" like those in Ukraine and Georgia, international terrorism, and an inability to compete economically, RIA Novosti reported from Moscow on March 3. He argued that revolutions using modern "Orange methods" and involving a "soft takeover" take advantage of the local authorities' limited ability to respond and pose a "very real threat to sovereignty." The way to prevent more such "colored revolutions...[is to] form a nationally oriented leading stratum of society" in each country in question, he maintained. Surkov argued that Russia must develop its economic competitiveness, adding that "the idea of Russia as an energy superpower is...fully consistent with this approach." PM

Russian Transportation Minister Igor Levitin said in Moscow on March 6 that "the country has reached a point where the crisis in the air industry has become a threat to Russia's security," RIA Novosti reported. Aleksandr Yurchik, who heads the Federal Air Transportation Agency, said that only 46 percent of Russia's 5,500 aircraft are fit to fly. "Due to low rates of replenishment, Russian air companies own only 43 domestically produced new generation aircraft. This situation worries us," he added. President Putin recently signed a decree unifying the aircraft industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). PM

Thousands of people took to the streets across Russia over the weekend of March 3-5 to protest increased utility bills and housing costs, "The Moscow Times" reported. The largest demonstrations were led by parties from the left, although representatives of other parties took part in some places, such as St. Petersburg, where members of the liberal Yabloko party joined Communists and others. Anatoly Lokot, who is a Communist member of the State Duma, told 6,000 demonstrators in Novosibirsk on March 3 that the "housing reform has united all, the right and the left, the entire country." PM

President Putin ordered on March 6 that Moscow's Ostankino television center be placed on a list of "national strategic enterprises," RIA Novosti reported. The complex includes a 540-meter-high broadcasting tower, which is the largest in Europe. State majority control must be maintained over the enterprises on the list, which dates from August 2004, and the rights of foreign investors are restricted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006). PM

Moscow city prosecutors have identified a suspect in the recent murder of Ilya Zimin, an investigative reporter with the news channel NTV, who was found dead in his apartment amid signs of violence, "The Moscow Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). The suspect is identified as 21-year-old Igor Velchev, an ethnic Bulgarian and citizen of Moldova. The two men appear to have quarreled after drinking vodka. Only a mobile phone and a laptop computer were missing from Zimin's apartment. NTV has offered a reward of $35,000 for any information leading to Velchev's arrest. Prosecutors previously ruled out any link between Zimin's professional activities and the killing. PM

At a cabinet session on March 2, the Russian government approved the draft agreement concluded with Georgia last year on the time frame and logistics of closing Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia and allocated funds to finance that withdrawal, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported on March 3. Heavy weaponry that falls under the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe is to be removed from the Akhalkalaki base by the end of this year. That facility will be handed back to Georgia no later than October 1, 2007. The withdrawal agreement must now be submitted to President Putin for signing. LF

As widely anticipated, the Chechen parliament voted unanimously on March 4 to approve the nomination by pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov of First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov as prime minister, Russian media reported. Kadyrov succeeds Sergei Abramov, who asked on February 28 to be relieved of his duties due to ill-health (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006, and "End Note," March 3, 2006). Kadyrov publicly vowed on March 4 to step down from his new position if he fails to improve the work of the government within three months, reported. Kadyrov also vowed that friendship and family ties will no longer play any role in the functioning of the government. On March 3, Kadyrov met in Rostov-na-Donu with presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak to discuss Chechnya's socio-economic development, according to citing RIA Novosti. LF

General Vakhit Murdashev, one of four men apprehended one year ago following the killing of Chechen President and resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov, was taken by armed men on March 2 from the prison camp at Chernokozovo where he was serving a 15 year sentence to an unknown destination, reported on March 5 citing Murdashev's lawyer Bay-Ali Elmurzaev. Murdashev met last month with visiting Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Alvaro Gil-Robles, who was quoted as saying that Murdashev stands firmly by his principles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). LF

Ingushetia's National Assembly adopted on March 2 an appeal to the chairmen of both chambers of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, and the Federation Council, in response to an anticipated request by the parliament of North Ossetia to amend the 1991 Law on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples, reported on March 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21 and October 3 and 5, 2005). The amendment the North Ossetians plan to request would bar any revisions of the existing borders between federation subjects and thus preclude the return to Ingushetia of the disputed Prigorodnyi district that was part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR prior to the deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia in 1944. The Ingush parliamentarians stressed that Prigorodnyi district is "the cradle of the Ingush people," and that "there exists no sensible and moral alternative to the return of the Ingush to their traditional home." Thousands of Ingush who had returned spontaneously to Prigorodnyi district following passage of the 1991 law were expelled during fierce fighting between Ossetians and Ingush in October-November 1992; some of those fugitives have addressed a similar appeal against the North Ossetian initiative to President Putin and other senior Russian officials. Members of the Ingush intelligentsia adopted a third such appeal on March 4 to President Putin, the chairmen of the State Duma and Federation Council, Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Mironov, Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin, and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Kozak. Ingush school teachers have adopted a fourth such appeal, also addressed to Gryzlov, Mironov, Lukin, and Kozak, reported on March 5. LF

Armen Harutiunian, whom the Armenian parliament confirmed on February 17 as human rights ombudsman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2006), told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on March 3 that he has asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the demolition of dilapidated private homes in Yerevan's Byuzand Street to make way for new urban development (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 29, September 12, and October 13, 2005, and February 28 and March 3, 2006). Harutiunian said he believes that the government's ruling allocating land for the development scheme may violate the constitution, and that "there is...a need for a special law that would specify in which specific cases property can be appropriated." LF

The leaders of the three parties aligned in the Armenian coalition government expressed approval on March 3 of President Robert Kocharian's statement the previous day that Yerevan would de jure recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as an independent state in the event that Azerbaijan opts out of further peace talks or begins new hostilities, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). Levon Mkrtchian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) warned that "the outcome of another war would be a peace treaty or capitulation. Either Azerbaijan will capitulate or it will be constrained to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh's independence." LF

Several members of a single family that raises poultry in the Salyany district of Azerbaijan have been hospitalized with suspected bird flu after two daughters died, Interfax-Azerbaijan and reported on March 5 quoting Deputy Health Minister Abbas Velibekov. Bird flu has been registered in at least three locations in Azerbaijan: at broiler factories in Bilyusavar and Gilyaz, and at a farm in the village of Beyuk Bahmanly in Fizuli district. The Gilyaz outbreak has been confirmed as the H5N1 strain of avian influenza that is potentially deadly to humans, quoted Agriculture Minister Ismet Abbasov as telling journalists in Baku on March 3. LF

The Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case against Huseyn Arabul, president of the energy distributor Barmek-Azerbaijan, on charges of abuse of his official position and large-scale embezzlement, reported on March 4. Arabul is said to have reached an agreement with former Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev that enabled the company to avoid fulfilling its contractual obligations to invest in and modernize Azerbaijan's energy distribution network. Azerenergy head Etibar Pirverdiyev leveled similar accusations at Arabul last month; Arabul rejected those accusations at a press conference on March 2. Farkhad Aliyev was dismissed in October and charged with plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, 2005). He is being held in solitary pretrial confinement and is suffering from severe circulatory problems, reported on March 4. A second coup suspect, former Health Minister Ali Insanov, who has likewise suffered health problems while in pretrial detention, has asked President Ilham Aliyev to release him under house arrest to enable him to receive urgently needed medical treatment, reported on March 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 7, and 30, and February 8 and 28, 2006). LF

Responding on March 2 to a speech to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna by U.S. Charge d'Affaires Kyle Scott (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006), Russian Ambassador to the OSCE Aleksei Borodavkin affirmed that Russia has every right to take steps to defend its citizens in the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported on March 4. Scott expressed "deep concern" over earlier such statements adding that the distribution of Russian passports to inhabitants of South Ossetia calls into question Russia's stated support for Georgia's territorial integrity. Borodavkin also argued that the Russian peacekeepers stationed in the South Ossetian conflict zone, whose withdrawal the Georgian parliament is demanding (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 17, 2006), have for years succeeded in preventing a renewal of hostilities, and that their departure could prove disastrous, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, Boris Chochiev, who is South Ossetia's first deputy prime minister and its co-chairman on the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the conflict zone, met with two senior staffers from the OSCE Mission in Georgia and accused the OSCE of siding with Georgia by failing to condemn decisions by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili that Chochiev claimed violate agreements Georgia has signed, Caucasus Press reported on March 3. Responding to calls by Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava and by U.S. Charge d'Affaires Scott to convene a meeting of the JCC as soon as possible, Chochiev said South Ossetia will not attend any meeting of the JCC in Tbilisi until Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili apologizes for branding South Ossetian officials "criminals" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2005). LF

Zurab Noghaideli met in New York on March 3 with Kofi Annan to discuss the situation in the Abkhaz conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. Noghaideli reportedly asked Annan to expedite the opening in Abkhazia's Gali district of a UN Human Rights office, a move that Annan has repeatedly called for but that the Abkhaz leadership rejects as unnecessary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 27, 2005). Annan for his part is said to have advised the Georgian government to act cautiously on the Georgian parliament's demand last month that it take measures to expedite the replacement of the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia with an international force. LF

Georgian Finance Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili said on March 4 that the government will not relent in the face of the ongoing protests by market traders against the law that took effect on March 1 requiring them to install cash registers, Caucasus Press reported. Traders in towns across Georgia have staged protests over the past two weeks, arguing that they cannot afford to buy and install cash registers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006). LF

The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office has formally charged former Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze with the premeditated murder in April 1991 of his deputy, Nodar Imnadze, Caucasus Press reported on March 3. According to Imnadze's daughter Nato, who witnessed the killing, Abashidze shot Imnadze four times in the back following a heated disagreement. Interfax on March 3 quoted Abashidze's lawyer Shalva Shavgulidze as saying Abashidze fired in self-defense after Imnadze opened fire in his office, injuring then Georgian Prime Minister Murman Omanidze. Abashidze was forced to step down as leader in May 2004 and since then has lived in Moscow. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has appointed Mukhtar Ayubaev head of the presidential guard, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on March 3. Ayubaev, who had previously served as deputy head of the guard, replaces Amangeldy Shabdarbaev, whom Nazarbaev recently appointed to head the National Security Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced on March 3 that March 24, the anniversary of the unrest that ousted President Askar Akaev in 2005, will be a national holiday, reported. Bakiev said that he will soon sign a decree establishing the holiday. Bakiev also warned that he will take decisive measures against any attempt to foment unrest on March 24. "I have information that some people fear possible unrest on that day," Bakiev warned. "There will be no unrest. If anyone attempts to spoil the holiday, the harshest measures will be taken." DK

President Bakiev signed a decree on March 1 removing National Bank Chairman Ulan Sarbanov from his post for the duration of his trial, reported on March 3. Sarbanov faces charges that he illegally gave President Akaev $420,000 in 1999. A Bishkek court has already suspended Sarbanov from his post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2006). DK

Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov told the BBC's Kyrgyz Service on March 3 that the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan cannot be used for offensive action against Iran, reported the next day. "In accordance with existing agreements, the mandate of the Gansi air base extends only to the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan," Jekshenkulov said. "The Gansi air base should not present a threat to the countries of the Central Asian region, including Iran. Consequently, its capabilities cannot be used for military operations against third countries." DK

Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), met with Kyrgyz President Bakiev in Bishkek on March 3, the OSCE announced on its website ( "As the country approaches the anniversary of last year's March events, the people of Kyrgyzstan as well as international community are expecting vigorous Government action to achieve concrete and tangible results," the release quoted de Brichambaut as saying. De Brichambaut also met with Foreign Minister Jekshenkulov, the newly elected speaker of parliament, Marat Sultanov, and civil society representatives. In the course of his meetings, de Brichambaut touched on the issue of Uzbek asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan, where courts have recently denied the appeals of four Uzbek detainees to be recognized as refugees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17 and March 3, 2006), RFE/RL reported. DK

A Kyrgyz-Tajik commission meeting in Dushanbe on February 27-March 2 has begun the task of establishing the 911-kilometer border between the two countries, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on March 3. Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry described the intergovernmental commission's work as "the first tangible step toward resolving border problems," ITAR-TASS reported. But local observers reported that progress was slow during the talks and real results are not yet evident, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov harshly criticized the leadership of Turkmenistan's energy sector for continued corruption in the course of a cabinet meeting on March 3, reported. Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova presented evidence of corrupt activities by Amangeldy Pudakov, director of the Turkmenbashi refinery complex, and Sapar Yeldashov, former deputy chairman of state gas company Turkmengaz. Niyazov removed Pudakov from his post and replaced him with Tachberdy Tagiev, governor of Balkan Province. Meretguly Gubiev was appointed to replace Tagiev as governor. Both Pudakov and Yeldashov are the focus of corruption investigations. At the same cabinet meeting, Niyazov asked the National Security Ministry to monitor key industries to prevent abuses, ITAR-TASS reported. "You must create departments within your ministry for the oil and gas, textile, energy, and machine-building industries to control their work." Niyazov said, adding, "The creation of industry departments within the NSM does not mean that a separate file will be kept for each minister, but the ugly things that happened in the oil and gas sector must be prevented." DK

The Eurasian Foundation has decided to halt its operations in Uzbekistan, reported on March 4, citing a statement by Jeff Erlich, the Eurasia Foundation's regional director in Uzbekistan. Erlich told that Uzbek authorities initiated proceedings on February 28 to stop the Eurasia Foundation from working in Uzbekistan, and the organization decided to close its Tashkent office rather than waste energy and resources on what it felt was a doomed legal struggle. Erlich noted that Uzbekistan's Justice Ministry has severely hampered the organization's work over the past year. "We improved the lives of many Uzbek citizens," he told "I'm sure that if they'd given us a chance to work, the results of our collective efforts would have been more significant." Over the past two years, a large number of prominent international NGOs have been forced to leave Uzbekistan. DK

United opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich on March 4 held a meeting with some 2,000 voters in Hrodna, his native city, and with some 500 people in Vaukavysk later the same day, Belapan reported. On March 5 Milinkevich had campaign meetings in Slonim, Baranavichy, and Salihorsk. "Our view is very realistic, but we can see that the nation is awakening," Milinkevich told Belapan. "People have begun to think and they want change." Milinkevich stressed at the meetings that his supporters should be ready to defend their choice. Nonetheless, he emphasized that he is calling for peaceful protests, not a revolution. He explained that his suggestion that people should arrive at Minsk's central square once the voting process is completed on March 19 should by no means be regarded as a call for revolution. The other opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, held campaign meetings in Smarhon and Lida on March 4 and in Hrodna on March 5. JM

Belarusian police on March 3 seized a print run of 250,000 copies of the Minsk-based opposition-minded "Narodnaya volya" daily, which had been printed in Russia, Belapan reported. "Narodnaya volya" editor in chief Svyatlana Kalinkina told the agency that the police seized the entire print run for an alleged "violation of electoral regulations," but gave her no legal documents or official notice by which to record the seizure. The issue contained information about the beating of presidential candidate Kazulin, his supporters, and journalists by plainclothesmen in Minsk on March 2; an account of a meeting the same day between opposition candidate Milinkevich and voters; and the text of Kazulin's televised address to voters. JM

Presidential candidate Kazulin has filed a complaint with the Prosecutor-General's Office about his beating and arrest by "unknown men in black" in Minsk on March 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006), Belapan reported. Kazulin told journalists that he was beaten not only in the lobby of the cultural center where he tried to register for the All-Belarusian People's Assembly held in Minsk on the same day, but also in the minibus into which the "men in black" pushed him. "They loaded me like a ram, folded me double, and sat down on me in addition," Kazulin said. "Kazulin wanted that [beating] and he did not conceal that. And we received information from the mouth of Kazulin, who said that he would create an image [for the media] by every means and would stop at nothing," Belarusian Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau said on Russia's Channel One on March 5. "[These actions against Kazulin and his supporters in Minsk on March 2] reinforce our fears that a free election process will be compromised and we have called on and we will continue to press the authorities in Belarus to release the individuals detained and to conduct an impartial investigation into the beating of the leader of the opposition and to hold the perpetrators accountable," U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said on March 3. JM

Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 3 that he was offered a deal the previous night by an opponent in the presidential race, Belapan reported. "If you give 5 or 6 percent [of the vote] to Milinkevich and 32 percent and the post of prime minister to me, I will say after the election that Lukashenka has won," the Belarusian leader quoted his unnamed rival as allegedly saying. "I say, throw this bastard out of here so that there's no place for him inside Belarus," Lukashenka added in an apparent reference to presidential candidate Kazulin. "This is complete nonsense," Kazulin's campaign manager, Mechyslau Hryb, commented on Lukashenka's allegation. Syarhey Haydukevich, another presidential candidate, also denied that he made such an offer to Lukashenka. JM

President Lukashenka also told the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 3 that the newspaper "Zhoda," founded by the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) which is headed by Kazulin, will be closed and its managers will most likely go to prison, Belapan reported. Last month the Information Ministry issued an official warning to "Zhoda" for reprinting controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and the State Security Committee (KGB) instituted criminal proceedings under an article that penalizes the "incitement of racial, national or religious enmity or discord" with either a fine, a six-month jail term, a period of "restricted freedom" lasting up to five years, or a prison sentence of up to five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2006). "I guess the talk is about the paper of that thug, in which the cartoons were published," Lukashenka said. "Criminal proceedings have been instituted and, if there are grounds for this, everybody will go to prison." JM

Oleksandr Turchynov from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, who is a former head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), has filed a slander lawsuit against Interior Ministry Yuriy Lutsenko, Interfax-Ukraine reported on March 6. Lutsenko said in an interview with the March 4-10 issue of the Kyiv-based "Zerkalo nedeli" weekly that the Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case over the bugging of official telephone calls, including "interstate negotiations between the leaderships of Ukraine and Russia," by the SBU when Turchynov was its chief. Turchynov said Lutsenko's allegations are "rubbish" and a "brazen lie." "When I was in charge of the SBU, this agency abided by the law and constitution, and did not engage in bugging politicians and statesmen, or eavesdropping on interstate telephone conversations," Turchynov told journalists. JM

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, said at a party meeting in Kyiv on March 4 that the authorities are organizing mass falsifications of the March 26 parliamentary elections, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Yanukovych alleged that in southeastern Ukraine lists of voters were translated into Ukrainian with deliberate mistakes so that people could not vote. According to him, lists of voters in that part of the country omit not just families or houses but entire streets or even districts. "Another method used in the falsifications planned by the authorities is the principle by which district electoral commissions are formed of members of the so-called technical pro-government parties. These people have been instructed to suddenly get sick or find other pretexts not to work on election day. Along with elections commission members, stamps will also be disappearing and other tricks will be employed so as to make these commissions illegitimate. Consequently, the voting in those districts will be ruled invalid, too," Yanukovych said. JM

Milan Babic, the former Serbian rebel leader in Croatia, committed suicide while in detention near the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), international news agencies reported on March 6. Babic, the former president of the self-declared Krajina Serb republic that broke away from Croatia after it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, had been sentenced to 13 years in prison for war crimes. He was in The Hague to testify in the trial of Milan Martic, another Croatian Serb. He was found on March 5 dead in his cell at a United Nations detention facility in Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague, the ICTY announced the next day. "The Dutch authorities were called immediately. After conducting an investigation, they confirmed that the cause of death was suicide," an ICTY statement said. BW

Serbia on March 3 called on the head of the United Nations Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) to halt the election of Agim Ceku as the province's new prime minister, Reuters reported the same day. "The government of Serbia demands that the U.N. secretary general's special representative Soren Jessen-Petersen...prevents the election of Agim Ceku," the Serbian government said in a statement. Ceku, a former commander in the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), was nominated to replace former Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi, who resigned on March 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 3, 2006). Belgrade issued an arrest warrant for Ceku in 2002 for alleged war crimes against Serbs during the 1998-99 Kosova conflict. BW

Unidentified gunmen on March 4 shot and killed a Bosnian businessman who was believed to be associated with war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic, AFP reported the same day. According to a statement from the Republika Srpska Interior Ministry, Ratomir Spajic was killed when assailants opened fire through a window of a cafe where he was a customer. Three others, including two women, were wounded in the attack, which took place in the village of Toplik. Spajic, 49, was from Karadzic's wartime stronghold Pale. Since 2004 he has been on a blacklist of Bosnian citizens barred from traveling to the European Union for allegedly assisting war crimes fugitives Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Border Service (SBS) said on March 4 that one person was killed and two injured in a shoot-out with alleged drug smugglers, dpa reported the same day. The incident took place on March 3 in the northern town of Bileca when six people suspected of smuggling drugs between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro resisted SBS officers who attempted to search them. In an ensuing exchange of gunfire, one suspect, identified as Radenko Vujovic, was killed. A statement released by the SBS did not say whether any of the remaining five suspects were detained, dpa reported. BW

Police in Banja Luka said on March 4 that vandals have desecrated a 400-year-old Muslim cemetery, destroying more than 20 gravestones, AFP reported the same day. The government of Bosnia's Republika Srpska condemned the attack, as did Muslim religious leaders. "The attack on these tombstones, some of which date back 400 years, is an act of vandalism and represents an attack on every (Muslim) Bosnian," Muslim religious leader Muris Spahic said. BW

Igor Smirnov, the leader of Moldova's breakaway Transdniester republic, said on March 5 that Ukraine has abandoned its role as an honest broker between Transdniester and Moldova by taking sides in the conflict, Interfax reported the next day. Smirnov's comments came after Kyiv tightened customs and border controls in an effort to combat smuggling. According to the new rules, all cargo crossing the Transdniester portion of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border must clear Moldovan customs. "By declaring new customs rules for Transdniestrian commodities, Ukraine has deviated from the principles of objectivity and sided with a party to the conflict," Smirnov said. "We urge Ukraine to assess the political consequences of this step and prevent a large-scale social and economic catastrophe in the region, which will also affect hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens," he added. BW

Two diverging political trends have emerged over the past five years in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In the first group of countries, which comprises the Central Asian states and Belarus, incumbent presidents already serving their second term have instigated referenda with the express aim of extending their rule for one or several addition terms, making it theoretically possible for them to remain in power for a further decade, in the case of Tajikistan's Imomali Rakhmonov -- or even for life, as with Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov. Other CIS states, by contrast, have set about curbing presidential powers through constitutional reforms. Moldova (2000), Ukraine (2004), and Armenia (2005) have all adopted models of the parliamentary rule which altered the power balance in favor of legislative majorities and their cabinets. Proponents of parliamentarism emphasized its greater potential for democratization while highlighting the authoritarian character of presidentialism.

Yet whatever the official justification for these democratic reforms, basically they reflected bitter battles amongst political elites for influence and power control. In all three cases, the bulk of the bargaining was conducted behind the scenes with little or no effort made to explain the essence of such important constitutional changes to the public. The Armenian opposition launched a vocal campaign urging voters to boycott last November's referendum on constitutional changes, arguing that the amendments did not go far enough in curbing the president's powers, and they subsequently rejected as rigged official claims of 65 percent turnout, with 93 percent of participants endorsing the proposed changes. President Robert Kocharian's opponents fear (as did those of Ukraine's ex-President Leonid Kuchma) that he plans to use the reform as a means to remain at the peak of Armenian politics beyond 2008, when his second presidential term expires, by assuming the post of prime minister. It is speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin too may favor a transition to parliamentary rule in order to remain in power as the head of the cabinet after his second presidential term ends in 2008.

These constitutional changes determine the official rules of the political game, and, therefore, are vital to mitigating conflicts amongst the ruling elites. To that end, the implementation of the new rules counts more than the debates surrounding their design. With a parliamentary republic in place since March 2001, Moldova offers an indication of how things might develop in Armenia and Ukraine.

The Moldovan parliament approved the regime reform bill with an overwhelming majority (98 votes to 2) in July 2000. The reform aimed at dampening the political aspirations of then President Petru Lucinschi to introduce a superpresidentialist system along the model established by Boris Yeltsin in Russia. According to Lucinschi, such magnified presidential powers were a necessary precondition for successfully carrying out enduring economic reforms. By contrast, his most vocal opponents, like Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) leader Vladimir Voronin, insisted parliamentary rule would distinguish Moldova from the authoritarian regimes of Central Asian states and set it on a solid path of European-style democracy. In addition, the proposed reform abolished the direct elections of the president, thus significantly reducing the legitimacy of the future head of state.

But following a landslide victory in the February 2001 parliamentary elections, it was the PCM chief who obtained the leverage to both interpret and implement the constitutional reform. Voronin could have chosen either of the two most influential positions under the parliamentary republic -- the speaker or the prime minister. Instead, he preferred to serve as president, albeit with a much more powerful mandate than his constitutionally reserved ceremonial role.

Given the popular prestige of the presidency and a lingering Soviet legacy for strong executives, Voronin's choice was not unexpected. In addition, he managed to retain his position as PCM chairman by skillfully exploiting a gap in the reform design, namely the absence of a clear constitutional ban on the president simultaneously holding two positions. A proposal floated by PCM officials in the summer of 2001 to have Voronin take over the premiership on top of his presidential function never saw the light of the day. In fact, the dual executive system was established to use the cabinet as a scapegoat for potential policy failures.

The issue of a politicized presidency rose to the top of the country's political agenda in the wake of the parliamentary elections of March 6, 2005, when in exchange for voting in favor of Voronin's reelection as president, one month later several political parties agreed on depoliticizing the position of the head of state. Also, the PCM pledged to abandon its communist orthodoxy and join the mainstream of modern European leftist parties.

With a Communist majority government and a multiparty presidential coalition, Moldova's parliamentary republic continues to function as it did during the Communists' first term in power (2001-2005). And almost a year after the assurances given to the opposition, President Voronin is still PCM chairman. Nor are there any signs that the party's name will be changed in the near future. Voronin intends to control both the process of modernizing the PCM and the timing of his resignation as party chairman in order not to jeopardize the Communists' success at the ballot box in the local and parliamentary elections due in 2007 and 2009 respectively.

But while reform of the PCM might well be an internal party affair, the depolitization of the presidency is not. It deals with the constitutional rules of the political game and affects both the government and opposition players alike. In November 2005, the leaders of the Democratic Party (PD) and Social Liberal Party (PSL), Dumitru Diakov and Oleg Serebrian, who backed Voronin's reelection, publicly accused the president of reneging on his promise to step down as party chief. The PSL leader went even further, calling for the president's impeachment. Although the PSL lacks the institutional means to carry out this initiative (two-thirds out of a total 101 MPs are required to impeach the president, compared to a combined number of 11 PSL and PD deputies), in itself it constitutes an important symbolic move from a representative of the so-called "constructivist opposition." These developments show that depoliticizing the presidency could become the most explosive political issue during the Communists' second term in power.

Of course, only a relevant constitutional amendment could bridge this legal gap. Even if such a proposal is not currently on the table, Voronin's official relinquishing of his chairmanship post might strengthen, rather than weaken, the PCM. The Moldovan president could follow the example of his Romanian counterpart, Traian Basescu. Although Basescu gave up the leadership of the Democratic Party (PD) after winning the presidential elections in December 2004, he remains an influential behind-the-scene actor in PD affairs. Besides, the unofficial role of Voronin would perfectly conform to the Byzantine character of present-day Moldovan politics.

In addition, by abandoning the post of PCM chairman, Voronin would deprive his Transdniester critics from within the sultanistic regime of Igor Smirnov of any pretext to accuse him of authoritarianism. A consolidated democracy is not only a precondition for the reunification of the country with its rebellious Transdniester region, but also for Moldova's efforts to successfully integrate into the European Union.

Despite the fact that a similar reform has been in effect for two months now in Ukraine, its effects still remain inconclusive. The current standoff between the Verkhovna Rada and President Viktor Yushchenko will probably subside after next month's parliamentary elections only if the president manages to reassemble a strong Orange coalition capable of winning the majority of votes. But whatever the procedural irregularities associated with deciding upon the reform's design before the critical third round of voting in December 2004, Ukrainian democracy would be better served if it is implemented without significant revisions. That would make the Ukrainian political process more transparent and help make the democratic aspirations of millions of Ukrainians who unequivocally supported Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution a reality.

It is clear from the Moldovan experience that the transition to parliamentary rule is a very complicated political process. Because the rules of the political game remain fluid, politicians tailor them to promote their partisan agendas, and so at times democratic advancement is sacrificed in the name of political stability. However, curtailing the power of a strong executive is a decisive step in the right direction. Had this process been launched after the first wave of reforms in the mid-1990s, some CIS countries, including Moldova, would have been further down the path of democratic consolidation today.

(Ilian Cashu is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Syracuse University.)

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has criticized Afghan President Hamid Karzai personally in the ongoing war of words between their countries, accusing Karzai in a CNN interview from Rawalpindi on March 5 of being "totally oblivious of what is happening in his own country." Upset over the public disclosure to the media by Karzai of a list containing names of suspected Taliban insurgents who, according to Kabul, are living in Pakistan, Musharraf told CNN that there was "no need to release such sensitive information to the press" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February, 17 and 23 and March 1 and 3, 2006). Karzai and ministers in his government have spoken to the media about the list, which according to Musharraf contains useless intelligence. Musharraf said that within the Afghan Defense Ministry and the country's intelligence "setup," there is a "conspiracy going on against Pakistan." Pakistan has passed information to Karzai about this situation, Musharraf said, adding that the Afghan leader "better set that [situation] right." The Pakistani leader took credit for his country helping Afghanistan's election process in October 2004, when Karzai won the country's first-ever direct presidential election. Relations between Kabul and Islamabad have deteriorated as each side accuses the other of not doing enough to stop incursions across their common border. AT

A local intelligence chief and three members of his team were killed in Helmand Province by a remote-controlled explosive device on March 4, "The New York Times" reported on March 5. Asadullah Sherzad, the provincial intelligence chief, blamed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda for the attack. In a separate incident in neighboring Kandahar Province, a French special forces servicemen died of wounds he received in a clash with insurgents presumably linked to the neo-Taliban. The soldier was one of some 200 French soldiers who are part of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. AT

A Canadian civil-affairs officer attending a meeting with Afghan villagers in Kandahar was attacked by an ax-welding man on March 4, "The Toronto Star" reported on March 5. While trying to write down the needs of the village, with his helmet off, the Canadian was struck on the head but survived the attack. Other Canadian soldiers accompanying the team killed the assailant, who reportedly stood over his victim making no effort to escape. After the ax attack, Canadians and a unit of Afghan National Army soldiers accompanying them were reportedly ambushed by insurgents who fled after the arrival of air support. The ambush is the first publicly confirmed engagement between insurgents and the Canadians who recently took command of Kandahar airbase, "The Canadian Press" reported on March 5. The head of Canada's Task Force Afghanistan, Brigadier General David Fraser, said that the ax-attacker was "a Taliban." Describing the attack on the village meeting, Fraser said that this "is not about us anymore, this is about Taliban attacking their own people." AT

Gulab Shah Alikhayl, a spokesman for the governorate of Zabul Province, said on March 5 that fighting erupted between two rival neo-Taliban groups in Shah Joy district on March 3, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Alikhayl believed that the fighting began when militiamen loyal to Mullah Ahmad Khan refused orders by Mullah Shafiq to vacate his area of influence. The firefight left Mullah Shafiq injured, and he was taken to Pakistan for treatment. The incident suggests that splits might be forming between rival neo-Taliban groups, Alikhayl added. AT

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said during a March 5 news conference that not even the possibility of war would change Iranian nuclear policy, state television reported. Larijani asked why Iran should suspend its research and development activities, which he defined as a right, and the pursuit of knowledge. He added that Iran does not object to flexibility in discussions, but the interlocutors should be "reasonable" and "logical." "Why should we suspend?" Larijani asked. "If we open this road, they may say a few years later that we should not teach nuclear physics at our universities because the students may learn something and one day become nuclear scientists." A war would not eliminate the Iranian knowledge base, he said, adding that war would be counterproductive because there would be reduced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision afterward. BS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on March 5 that an agreement between Iran and Russia or Europe remains possible, IRNA reported. "The possibility of reaching an understanding on nuclear issues with Russia or the European states in the next few hours still exists," he said. "Everything is possible -- agreement or disagreement." Officials' shuttle diplomacy between Tehran, Moscow, and Vienna in recent weeks has failed to yield substantive results. BS

Khuzestan Province Deputy Governor General Mohsen Farokhinejad announced on March 4 that the persons responsible for a bombing at the Saman Bank in Ahvaz on January 24 have been arrested, Fars News Agency reported. He added that the persons responsible for explosions at governorate buildings in Abadan and Dezful have been arrested, too. "With the arrest of 15 others over the past week, all the perpetrators of the bombings in Ahvaz, Abadan and Dezful have been arrested," Farokhinejad said. During the course of the arrests, Khuzestan Province Governor General Amir Hayat-Moqaddam added, explosives, rifles, ammunition, mines, terrorism videos, and books on the Wahhabi faith were seized. Hayat-Moqaddam said not all the bombers have been arrested, and added that the United Kingdom, United States, and Israel are behind the bombings and insecurity in Khuzestan, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 5. Hayat-Moqaddam criticized the execution of just two of the bombers on March 2, saying all seven should have been executed. BS

Ahvaz Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Musavi-Jazayeri said on March 3 that the United States is behind the violence in the province, provincial television reported. Referring to the mid-February U.S. State Department request for funding for Iran-related activities, he said, "The allocation of more than $75 million for the so-called revival of democracy in Iran by criminal America means carrying out such terrorist actions, but America must understand that our people will repel their plots through their increased vigilance." BS

Nine Kurdish parliamentarians have protested to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad about the violent treatment of demonstrators in the town of Maku, ILNA reported on March 4. The legislators' letter said the Kurds were protesting peacefully against the treatment of co-ethnics in Turkey and also protesting against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. Men in plainclothes -- presumably vigilantes -- attacked the demonstrators, killing or injuring 35 of them. Many others were arrested and are imprisoned. Who is responsible for "these crimes," the letter asked, and what government agency authorized such actions? "Why must some people use government resources and equipment to settle ethnic scores and to subject the Kurdish inhabitants of the town to such a merciless killing?" The letter called on the president to identify these people publicly and punish them. BS

Although the legislature approved the general outlines of the government budget on March 2, questions over many aspects of the budget have not disappeared. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on March 5 in Tehran that the new budget is anti-inflationary and will create jobs, IRNA reported. He added that the budget complies with the requirements of the fourth five-year development plan and the supreme leader's 20-year outlook. Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Ahmad Musavi said on March 4 that legislators' changes to the budget should be minimal because the entire thing was formulated systematically, IRNA reported. He said the amount of credit allocated for development projects is "unprecedented," and he praised the budget's focus on less developed regions, decentralization, and the granting of more power to the provinces. BS

President Jalal Talabani announced on March 6 that parliament will convene next week, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraqi (RFI) reported. Talabani told reporters at a Baghdad press briefing that March 12 "is the last day that the constitution allows" for parliament to be open. The announcement comes amid continuing political turmoil. Shi'ite leaders from the United Iraqi Alliance rejected a call by other political groups to withdraw their nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to the premiership of the incoming permanent government on March 4. Once the parliament convenes, it will have 60 days to elect a president, approve a prime minister, and form a cabinet under the constitution, AP reported on March 6. KR

Barham Salih, Iraq's outgoing planning minister, led a delegation of Kurdish officials to a meeting with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Al-Najaf on March 5, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Salih told reporters at a press briefing following the meeting that the talks focused on current political developments. Salih said the delegation gave al-Sistani a detailed explanation of the Kurdistan Coalition's position regarding the nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to the premiership. "We hold al-Ja'fari in great respect. However, in our opinion and according to our understanding of the political situation...we need new faces that are able to lead the Iraqi people to confront terrorism, stifle sectarianism, and prevent civil war in Iraq," Salih told reporters. Al-Sistani expressed concern that the unity of the United Iraqi Alliance may be crumbling, Salih said. KR

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr told reporters at a March 4 press briefing in Baghdad that the government will now disband some militia and armed groups, RFI reported the same day. Jabr said that he has notified militias that are affected by the order, adding that some militias, which he did not name, will not fall under the order. The government will pension off militiamen over the age of 50; those under 50 possessing the professional skills required will be transferred to work in government institutions. As for younger militiamen, he said: "We are ready to integrate a limited number [of them] each year [into the government's security forces] and they will be distributed throughout Iraq to prevent having members of a specific militia centered in a specific location." Jabr added that special uniforms are being imported for Interior Ministry forces. These will replace old uniforms, which are freely available on the street and purportedly used by terrorist groups. The minister also announced that the intelligence directorate will now be known as the National Information and Investigation Agency. KR

Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa pledged on March 4 that the league will open an office in Iraq "in the immediate future," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Musa's comments came during the opening session of a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo. Musa called for unity among Iraqis during his speech, saying that Iraq is for all Iraqis, be they Arabs or Kurds, Sunnis or Shi'a. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari hailed the Arab League's decision to open an office in Iraq, calling it a courageous decision, MENA reported on March 5. Al-Zebari pledged that Iraq will take all necessary security measures to protect the Arab League's mission when it opens. Meanwhile, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tanatawi, grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the leading Sunni institution, said during a March 5 visit to Kuwait that he is prepared to travel to Iraq to help restore Muslim unity. KR