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Newsline - March 9, 2006

Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said in Brussels on March 8 that the EU needs a "new partnership with Russia" to deal with energy supplies, international media reported. He stressed that the EU and Russia "are interdependent. If we need a flow of energy from Russia, namely gas, I believe that it is also in the interest of Russia to have a stable market and a stable relationship with such an important customer as the European Union." At present, all agreements between Gazprom and EU member states are concluded on a bilateral basis. On March 9, the Kremlin announced that Barroso will meet with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 17. On March 15-16, Russia is due to host a meeting in the Russian capital of the energy ministers from the Group of Eight major industrialized countries. PM

Polish President Lech Kaczynski said in Berlin on March 8 that he wants the EU and NATO to conclude a joint energy pact aimed at easing many European countries' dependence on Russian gas supplies and providing security if Russia's Gazprom again withholds deliveries as a form of political or economic pressure, as it recently did in the case of Ukraine, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 20 and February 10, 2006). The daily also noted that Kaczynski found few takers for his idea in the German capital. Chancellor Angela Merkel remains firmly committed to the controversial North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) project, which would transport Russian gas under the waters of the Baltic Sea from Vyborg to the German coast. Merkel's support comes despite opposition from Poland and the Baltic states and the Ukrainian gas crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005 and January 4, 2006). Reflecting the views of many in the German policy community, historian Thomas Urban wrote in Munich's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" that the new Polish government's attitude towards its neighbors is uniquely "provincial" among EU states and rooted in the past. PM

The U.S. State Department said on March 8 in its annual report on human rights worldwide that the continued centralization of power under President Putin in 2005 resulted in the erosion of the accountability of government leaders to the people. The study added that Moscow's human rights record in the continuing conflicts in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus remained poor. The report noted what it described as "credible reports" that federal armed forces engaged in unlawful killings in Chechnya, as well as in politically motivated disappearances in Chechnya and Ingushetia. The study said federal and pro-Moscow Chechen forces, as well as Chechen resistance forces, violated the human rights of civilians, inflicting widespread civilian casualties, abductions, and other abuses. On the positive side, the report noted that the judiciary demonstrated greater independence in a number of cases, producing improvements in the criminal justice system. It said Russia also made progress in combating human trafficking. PM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the United Nations headquarters in New York on March 8 that Moscow remains opposed to sanctions against Iran following the decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to forward its report on Iran's nuclear program to the Security Council, news agencies reported (see Part Three, below). He argued that the international community "should act in a way that would not risk losing the IAEA capacity and possibility to continue to work in Iran, [and] to continue to clarify those questions which relate to the past Iranian nuclear program. It is very important for the international community and for the [nuclear] nonproliferation regime to get answers to these questions." He repeated Russia's position that "that there is no military solution to this crisis," and added the same is true of the position of the United Kingdom and Germany, "as [has been] publicly stated by their ministers. I don't think sanctions, as a means to solve a crisis, have ever achieved a goal in the recent history" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10 and March 8, 2006). PM

The Kremlin announced on March 9 that President Putin will make a planned visit to China on March 21-22, RIA Novosti reported. PM

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told the cabinet on March 9 that the competence of some ministers will be called into question if inflation continues to creep upwards, reported. "Get to work," he said, adding that "failure to meet the target [for limits to inflation], will be viewed as professional incompetence." The website suggested that he probably had in mind Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, and German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade. The planned annual target for inflation is 8-9 percent. President Putin also recently criticized the growth of inflation. PM

Russian-born U.S. businessman Alexander Kogan has bought $70 million of the debts of the Swiss trading firm Noga from two French banks and one Swiss bank, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 9. The move reportedly took place with the knowledge of the Russian Finance Ministry and other officials and aims at removing the support of major international financial institutions from Noga, which claims $800 million in unpaid debts from Russia. The Moscow daily "Kommersant" wrote that Kogan has business ties to Gazprom and to the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. The daily "Vedomosti" quoted Kogan as saying that he acted "in Russia's interest." Noga has been battling the Russian government for 14 years and recently had Swiss customs officials briefly impound 54 paintings belonging to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 18, 2005). PM

About 5,000 people demonstrated on March 8 in Perm, the capital of Perm Krai, to protest the conduct of the March 12 mayoral election and the disqualification of some candidates, reported. Several speakers at the rally noted that this was one of the largest demonstrations held in Perm in some time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10, 2006). PM

President Putin hosted a reception in the Kremlin on March 6 to honor Russia's Olympic champions who took part in the recent Turin (Torino) winter games, the Moscow daily "Kommersant" reported. He gave each male medal winner a Toyota Land Cruiser and each woman champion a Lexus. A prize of $25,000 went to each coach. Among the top leaders in attendance were Prime Minister Fradkov, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential staff Sergei Sobyanin, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Deputy Prime Minister Aleksander Zhukov. PM

Arsen Kanokov, president of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, released a statement on March 7, the eve of the anniversary of the deportation of the entire Balkar nation to Central Asia in 1944, a move that Kanokov equated with genocide, reported. Kanokov lauded the Balkars' collective steadfastness, courage, humaneness and capacity for hard work, qualities which, he said, helped them to survive in "inhuman conditions" and to preserve their national identity, language and culture. It is not clear whether Kanokov returned to Nalchik from Moscow to participate in a meeting to mark the anniversary, as reported on March 7 he promised to do. Also on March 7, quoted retired General Supyan Beppaev, who in the early 1990s headed the campaign to split Kabardino-Balkaria and establish a separate Balkar republic, as praising Kanokov's administration for its efforts to solve the Balkars' grievances connected with the planned redrawing of boundaries between municipalities, according to LF

The Chechen parliament formally approved on March 6 pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov's proposed candidate to succeed Ramzan Kadyrov as first deputy prime minister, reported on March 7. He is economist Odes Baisultanov, who was named last year as charge d'affaires with the rank of minister within Alkhanov's administration. Parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov praised Baisultanov's contribution to the reconstruction of Grozny and the building of schools and mosques elsewhere in Chechnya. LF

In its annual report on human rights worldwide, released on March 8, the U.S. State Department noted some improvements in Armenia and Georgia, but added that serious problems remain in both countries, and also in Azerbaijan. The report noted specifically limitations on press and religious freedom in Armenia, together with police abuse against detainees, restrictions on citizens' rights to change their government, and flaws in the conduct of the November 27 referendum on constitutional amendments. Those amendments were, however, in themselves deemed a positive step. In Azerbaijan, the report criticized police violence against detainees and participants in opposition demonstrations, and it characterized the November 6 parliamentary elections as failing to meet a number of international standards, albeit an improvement over earlier ballots. As for Georgia, the report noted continued cases of torture by police, abysmal prison conditions, the absence of an independent judiciary, and harassment of religious minorities. LF

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry accused Armenia on March 7 of opening fire on Azerbaijani positions in Fizuli, south of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the previous day, reported. The ministry said one Azerbaijani serviceman was killed in that attack and a second wounded. On March 8, military commanders in Armenia's northeastern Tavush district that borders on Azerbaijan told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the Azerbaijani military has subjected Armenian positions in Tavush to daily fire from automatic weapons for over one week. The Armenian officers denied that Armenian forces have violated the ceasefire or returned fire. On March 7, Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian downplayed last week's incident in which one Armenian serviceman was killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2006), Noyan Tapan reported. Sarkisian said not a week has passed during the last 12 years in which no violations of the ceasefire were reported. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry claimed that Armenian forces opened fire on March 8 on Azerbaijani positions in three separate locations in the Gazakh district, and again early in the morning of March 9, reported on March 9. LF

The Sukhum (Sukhumi) City Court has handed down three-month prison terms to three Georgians arrested in Abkhazia's Ochamchira district on March 1, Caucasus Press reported on March 8. The three, who were reportedly filming a documentary about religious buildings, were found guilty of espionage and of having entered the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia illegally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). Abkhaz government spokesman Kristian Bzhania told journalists on March 7 that human rights activists, UN representatives, and a lawyer met with the three detainees, Interfax reported, but Caucasus Press on March 8 quoted a local Georgian official who claimed that they were not permitted to consult a lawyer. LF

Four civilians, including a seven-year-old girl, were killed on March 8 when gunmen opened fire with a mortar and automatic rifles on their car in the village of Saberio in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, Georgian and Russian agencies reported. blamed the attack on a Georgian terrorist group, and Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh accused the Georgian authorities of encouraging "extremism." The Georgian Foreign Ministry released a statement on March 8 that expressed outrage at the killings which, it argued, show that the Abkhaz police and the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone are incapable of preventing crimes against the district's population, reported. The ministry said the killings demonstrate once again the need to open a UN Human Rights office in Gali. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly urged the Abkhaz leadership to permit the opening of such an office, but to no avail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 27, 2005). LF

Ex-Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on March 8 that the current government, which came to power after the ouster of President Askar Akaev, "has not been able to get anything done." Otunbaeva, who played an important role in the protests that finally toppled Akaev on March 24, 2005, set the upcoming anniversary as a time for taking stock. "If [the Kyrgyz government] doesn't do anything [by March 24], then we will appeal to the people: 'We're sorry this is the way things are. The current government is not serving the people's interests. That's why we are going to be in opposition to them.'" But Otunbaeva stressed that she and Azimbek Beknazarov, who leads the Asaba Party, are not "preparing any kind of revolution." She dismissed rumors of an uprising planned for March 24. In summation, she urged the government to move quickly to fight corruption and change personnel policy. DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov addressed women's issues in an address to more than 1,000 women in Dushanbe on March 7, the day before International Women's Day, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Khovar reported on March 8. Rakhmonov said that more than 15 percent of state officials are women and that women occupy 24 percent of civil-service posts. Rakhmonov said plans to construct luxury hotels and a textile plant in Dushanbe will create more than 10,000 jobs for women. But Rakhmonov also noted that more women are becoming involved in the drug trade, Varorud reported. He said that 329 Tajik women have been convicted on drug offences over the past three years. DK

Said Jurakhonov, deputy head of the Interior Ministry section in Sughd Province, told Varorud on March 7 that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) might have helped an extremist in a recent prison break. Jurakhonov said that Fathullo Rahimov, who escaped from prison on January 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2006), was a suspected member of the Bayat extremist group. Referring to suspected links between Bayat and the IMU, Jurakhonov added, "We do not rule out the possibility of IMU involvement in Rahimov's escape." Jurakhonov said that police believe that Rahimov is still at large in the region and have put his name on an international wanted list. DK

Rolf Ekeus, the OSCE's high commissioner on national minorities, has completed his third visit to Turkmenistan in the last two years, reported on March 8. Ekeus met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in the course of the visit. "The president has discussed very important issues of energy, [and] of security, and we have discussed issues of significance also concerning the minority situation, and education and language issues," RFE/RL quoted Ekeus as saying. Farid Tuhbatullin, head of the Turkmenistan section of the International Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, told RFE/RL that Ekeus faced a difficult mission in Turkmenistan. "Unfortunately, he has been in Turkmenistan several times, but our information [suggests] that they practically haven't let him meet freely with representatives of ethnic minorities," Tuhbatullin said. Tuhbatullin noted that, under Niyazov, minorities such as Uzbeks and Kazakhs have seen their schools in Turkmenistan closed. DK/BP

Jeff Erlich, director of Eurasia Foundation's Tashkent office, told Regnum on March 8 that the Uzbek Justice Ministry has made unfounded charges against that U.S.-based NGO. Erlich said the Eurasia Foundation provided the Justice Ministry with "several hundred requested documents." "In our response, we also disputed every accusation against us," he said. "And since the court has not yet given its final verdict, the statement that the Foundation violated the law is premature." Erlich also noted that his foundation has fully documented its activities with Uzbek tax authorities over the past 12 years, "and not once in that time have the tax authorities found a single error in our accounting." The Eurasian Foundation recently announced that it is closing its office in Tashkent as a result of pressure from Uzbek authorities, who have charged that the foundation violated Uzbek legislation on NGOs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). DK

Belarusian police on March 8 detained Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka, deputy manager of opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich's presidential campaign, and an unspecified number of other activists from Milinkevich's election staff, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The arrests took place following presidential campaign meetings that Milinkevich held in Minsk on that day. Vyachorka and other arrested activists are expected to stand trial on March 9 on as yet unspecified charges. "[The authorities'] task is to intimidate us, to make us stop meeting with people," Viktar Ivashkevich, a campaigner for Milinkevich, told RFE/RL. On March 7 a court in Mahilyou slapped a fine of $750 on another opposition leader and Milinkevich ally, United Civic Party head Anatol Lyabedzka, after he was detained by police and charged with organizing an unsanctioned meeting with voters in that city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2006). JM

The U.S. State Department said on March 8 in its annual report on human rights worldwide that Belarus's record remains very poor and worsened in 2005. The report says the Belarusian authorities continue to undermine democratic institutions and concentrate power through manipulating elections, and by undemocratic laws and regulations. The report stresses that parliamentary elections and a referendum that removed term limits on the presidency in October 2004 failed to meet international standards. The report also points to arbitrary arrests, government failure to account for the disappearance of opposition politicians, abuse, and torture of prisoners. VM/JM

The U.S. House of Representatives on March 8 passed a bill permanently exempting Ukraine from trade restrictions imposed under the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which ties trade status to the rights of Jews to emigrate, RFE/RL's Washington correspondent reported. "President [Viktor] Yuschenko has continuously called for this action that we take today and certainly the timing is appropriate because in several weeks Ukraine will elect a new [Verkhovna] Rada. This sends a signal that Ukraine now has the full and equal respect of the government and of the people of the United States," Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania) noted on the floor of the House. Ukraine has benefited from a series of annual waivers of Jackson-Vanik, but its permanent graduation from the trade restrictions will make it possible for the U.S.-Ukraine bilateral agreement on mutual access to goods and services markets of March 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2006) to take effect. The bill will still need to pass the Senate and be signed by U.S. President George W. Bush in order to become law. JM

The U.S. State Department said on March 8 in its annual report on human rights worldwide that while Ukraine's human rights performance significantly improved in important areas in 2005, in a number of respects it remained poor. The report says that the improvements followed the Orange Revolution. Accountability by police officers and prison conditions have become better after the change of power. The mass media became much more independent, and restrictions on freedom of assembly largely ceased. There are no reports of political prisoners in Ukraine. However, the report points to arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life, politically motivated disappearances, and hazing in the Ukrainian army. The report also notes that corruption remained a serious problem in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government, including the armed services. VM/JM

Montenegrin opposition leader Predrag Bulatovic on March 8 accused the government of using intimidation tactics to force voters to support independence, Beta and B92 reported the same day. According to Bulatovic, who is leader of the Socialist Party, the government is falsifying employment information and identification papers and using the police to intimidate potential voters. He added that anti-independence forces will inform the European Union of the alleged abuses. Parliamentary speaker Ranko Krivokapic, who supports independence, denied the allegations. Montenegro's parliament has scheduled a referendum on independence for May 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 3, 2006). BW

Slobodan Backovic pledged on March 8 to protect the rights of Montenegrin students studying in Serbia in the event of independence, FoNet and B92 reported the same day. Backovic said that there are currently 950 Montenegrin students studying in Serbia who are being financed by Podgorica. "Regardless of the change in status, international laws guarantee that the rights that were awarded do not change, so therefore Serbia should not treat the students any differently than it does now," Backovic said. Serbian Education Minister Slobodan Vuksanovic said the topic is largely moot because he believes the union of Serbia and Montenegro will be preserved. "Even if this was not the case, we are still a part of the European academic space," Vuksanovic said, adding that Serbia has adopted the Bologna principles that guarantee the mobility of all students and faculty across 45 countries. BW

Lawyers for Serbia and Montenegro on March 8 challenged the Hague-based International Court of Justice's right to hear a lawsuit from Bosnia-Herzegovina accusing Belgrade of genocide, AP reported the same day. Tibor Varady, an attorney for Serbia and Montenegro, argued that the war in Bosnia was waged by ethnic groups, not states. "This dispute is between two sovereign states, neither of which existed when the conflict began," Varady said. "It was an ethnic conflict, and the dividing lines between the warring parties were ethnic lines" that did not coincide with the states carved in the aftermath, he added. Serbian lawyers also said they found themselves in an uncomfortable position defending the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, which they opposed. "I find myself in a paradox. I must defend a regime to which I was opposed," said Radoslav Stojanovic, the head of the legal team, repeatedly referring to his country as "democratic Serbia." BW

A United Nations appeals court on March 8 cut seven years from the 27-year sentence of Momir Nikolic, a Bosnian Serb army officer convicted in the Srebrenica massacre, AP reported the same day. Nikolic, who served as a security and intelligence officer at Srebrenica in July 1995, pleaded guilty in 2003 to one count of persecution as part of a plea bargain. In exchange, prosecutors dropped four other charges, including genocide. In reducing the sentence, the appeals court took into consideration Nikolic's cooperation with UN prosecutors, including testimony against his former commanders Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic. Nikolic is widely seen as a potentially valuable witness in any future trial of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, should he be apprehended. BW

Prime Minister designate Agim Ceku said on March 8 that Kosova's ruling coalition partners have agreed on the composition of a new government, dpa reported the same day. The Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) and the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) have agreed on ministerial portfolios and the Kosova assembly is scheduled to vote on the new Cabinet on March 10. Ceku, a former commander in the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), was nominated to replace former Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi, who resigned on March 1. The appointment drew harsh criticism from Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8, 2006). BW

Albania ordered the culling of poultry in the southern part of the country on March 8 following the discovery of the H5N1 strain of avian flu, dpa reported. Speaking the same day, President Alfred Moisiu called on citizens not to panic. "All precautionary measures shall be taken to isolate the infected zone...Everybody should remain calm," Moisiu said. Albania's Agriculture Ministry confirmed earlier the same day that tests conducted in a British laboratory on samples from 60 dead chickens found in Cuka showed they were infected with the H5N1 strain of bird flu. BW

On March 3, Ukraine introduced new customs rules along the Transdniestrian stretch of its border with Moldova. The new rules make illegal the shipment of any goods from the Russian-speaking separatist Transdniester region that have not been cleared by Moldovan customs. The Ukrainian move has effectively imposed a ban on exports by Tiraspol to Russia, its main trade partner.

Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov said the move is tantamount to an economic blockade and threatened to withdraw from multilateral talks on the settlement of Transdniester's conflict with Moldova. Will the tightened Ukrainian-Moldovan border controls make the unrecognized Transdniestrian Republic more pliant in reunification talks with Moldova or just bring more chill to the "frozen conflict"?

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov declared in Kyiv on March 6 that Ukrainian customs officers will now grant free passage across Ukraine only to those Transdniestrian shipments that have a stamp from Moldovan customs.

The rules had been enacted three days earlier, and Yekhanurov noted that Ukraine had given Transdniester notice of the change in February. Still, he acknowledged with some surprise and disappointment, Tiraspol's response to date had been "illadvised."

Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev has likewise commented on the new customs rules. Speaking on March 6 in Chisinau, Tarlev said the regulations are intended to make Transdniestrian business entities register according to Moldovan law and legalize their external trade activities.

At the same time, Tarlev denied Tiraspol's assertion that the Ukrainian move is an economic blockade of Transdniester that was planned in collusion with Moldova.

"There was no economic blockade of the Transdniester region. There was not, is not, and will not be [a blockade]," Tarlev said. "The Moldovan government is not interested in an economic blockade of its citizens, and we want to live in peace and prosperity together with our brothers and fellow citizens from this region."

Moscow -- whose political and economic support is critical to Transdniester's survival -- seems to take a similar view to Tiraspol with regard to the situation on the Ukrainian-Transdniestrian border.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested as much on March 6, during his official visit to Canada, saying: "What is taking place there, according to our information, looks like an economic blockade. If this really is the case, urgent measures are needed, of course, to stop this blockade."

Moscow has, however, apparently not yet made any decision regarding Transdniester. On March 7 it sent an expert group to Tiraspol to study the situation.

The European Union, by contrast, welcomed the new customs rules. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana praised the move on March 6, an endorsement that was echoed by Adrian Jakobovits de Szeged, the EU representative for Moldova, in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova Service.

"We think that the implementation of the declaration of [the Ukrainian and Moldovan] prime ministers is very important for introducing order on the border, and we fully support putting this declaration into practice," de Szeged said.

Last October, following a request from Kyiv and Chisinau, the EU launched a two-year border assistance mission in Ukraine, sending some 50 experts to monitor the comings and goings on the Ukrainian-Moldovan frontier. It cannot be ruled out that Kyiv's new customs rules for Transdniester are a direct result of the mission's findings.

The international community has long been worried by speculation about weapons and drugs smuggling across the porous Ukrainian-Transdniestrian border. While such rumors have never been confirmed, there is ample evidence that smuggling of other commodities and transit-related swindles are rife there.

These practices apparently benefit not only Transdniester, but also people on the other side of the border as well. Transdniester leader Smirnov suggested as much on March 6, when he called on Kyiv to reconsider its new customs controls.

"We urge Ukraine to assess the political consequences of this decision and prevent a large-scale social and economic catastrophe, which will also affect hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens," Smirnov said.

It is not clear what exactly Smirnov had in mind, but it is likely that he was referring to a trade scheme in which shipments of Ukrainian goods in the port of Odesa are declared as being bound for Transdniester and not taxed in Ukraine. Transdniestrian authorities then confirm receipt, but then often reroute the goods back to Ukraine -- a strategy that earns big profits for Ukrainian trade operators and their Transdniestrian partners.

So why has Kyiv decided to put a stop to illegal transit from Transdniester?

One of the reasons seems to be Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's ambition for his country to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) as soon as this year. On March 6, his government made a significant step forward in this regard by signing a protocol on mutual access to commodity and services markets with the United States.

On March 8, Kyiv scored an additional victory when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill permanently exempting Ukraine from trade restrictions imposed under the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which ties trade status to the rights of Jews to emigrate.

Moldova has been a WTO member since 2001. Chisinau may have suggested to Kyiv that Moldova would give a final "yes" to Ukrainian accession to the WTO only once Yushchenko took steps to halt Transdniestrian transit to Russia.

The second reason may be the upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine on March 26, in which forces backing Yushchenko are facing not only his old pro-Russian rival, former Premier Viktor Yanukovych, but also his erstwhile ally, former Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko has repeatedly slammed Yushchenko for yielding to pressure from Moscow and accepting a higher price for gas supplies in 2006. It is not unlikely that, by taking a tough stance on the Russia-backed Transdniestrian regime, Yushchenko is trying to reclaim his reputation as a firm leader and win back as many nationalist-minded voters from Tymoshenko as possible.

Whatever the real motives behind Kyiv's latest move regarding Transdniester, the new customs controls have obviously hit Tiraspol hard and taken the secessionist regime by surprise. Transdniestrian leader Smirnov could apparently find no strong threats to level in response to the move other than to announce that Transdniester will withdraw from the internationally mediated talks on the settlement of its conflict with Moldova.

"Under these conditions, all negotiations are called off," Smirnov said. "Besides, Ukraine is becoming the main tool in helping Moldova reach its political [aims]."

But as with many times in the past, it seems that it is Moscow -- and not Tiraspol or anyone else -- that will eventually decide whether Transdniester is to continue talks, and with whom.

Pervez Musharraf has suggested that the Afghan authorities should share intelligence on militants in their common border area more quickly, AP reported on March 8, citing a statement from the Pakistani army's Inter-Services press department. The statement says Musharraf called on Kabul to offer "actionable intelligence in real time" to track down militants in the tribal areas. Musharraf's purported comments are the latest in a heated series of exchanges between Pakistan and Afghanistan over efforts to combat militants active along the border. The statement followed a visit to Islamabad by U.S. Central Command chief General John Abizaid, who commands military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The statement said Musharraf told Abizaid that Pakistan has stopped militants from crossing into Afghanistan and destroyed several of their gathering points. MR

President Hamid Karzai on March 8 called for an end to the practice of forced marriages, AFP reported. "Girls are still being married off to pay for the crimes of others; they are married off to settle enmity; they are forced to marry at a young age," Karzai told attendees at an event to mark International Women's Day. Women in Afghanistan "are forced to marry against their will, [and] in many cases they are forced to marry for cash their parents receive," Karzai said. An estimated 60-80 percent of all marriages in Afghanistan are imposed under such circumstances, and more than half of all girls are married before the age of 16, the statutory minimum for marriage in Afghanistan. Karzai appealed to "tribal chiefs, ulemas [mullahs], the influential -- anyone who has a voice in the communities -- to speak against the violence against women, against the marriages of women to settle enmities, against forced marriages in villages, in provinces, in cities." MR

The Afghan Ministry for Women's Affairs has created a database to record acts of violence against women in the country, Xinhua news agency reported on March 8. The ministry announced the project in a statement released in conjunction with International Women's Day. It said it plans to work with the United Nations Development Fund for Women to train field workers to conduct interviews with victims to help authorities prosecute abusers. More than 100 women have committed self-immolation in Afghanistan since 2005 in acts thought to have stemmed from domestic violence or despondency connected with forced marriages, the ministry announced. MR

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Dorud in the western Lorestan Province on March 8 that Iran is determined to pursue its nuclear program and that "countries currently pressuring [Iran] cannot do a thing," IRNA and ISNA reported. He said Iran has followed nonproliferation rules and "now we want to safeguard our rights," while adding that there is "no evidence [of] Iran's deviation from peaceful nuclear activities," ISNA reported. Western states "are telling us to submit to forceful demands" and break "international treaties," he said. Some states, Ahmadinejad added, "are not members of the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and make atomic bombs, but these supposedly international bodies pay no attention to them," ISNA reported. He was presumably referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has voted to report Iran's nuclear case to the UN Security Council. The IAEA has said it cannot confirm that Iran's program is strictly peaceful, as Tehran claims. "You may not want to be certain for another 100 years. Is the Iranian nation to fall behind 100 years?" Ahmadinejad asked. He said the same day in Khorramabad, another Lorestan town, that Iran will respect "the security and peace" of all states, "especially neighboring and regional states," but Iranians "will not be satisfied" with anything less than the "full use of peaceful nuclear-fuel-production technology," IRNA reported. VS

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, and Deputy-Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi attended a special session of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on March 8 to brief legislators on the state of Iran's nuclear dossier, IRNA reported. They reportedly informed the committee that in the present IAEA session, "the dossier may be sent to the [UN Security] Council in the form of a statement," committee member Kazem Jalali told IRNA. The officials, Jalali said, told legislators that Iran wants to pursue nuclear research but that "some European states and America have tried to give the world the impression that [Iran] is engaged in [uranium] enrichment to make nuclear weapons, when Iran stresses nuclear research," IRNA reported. Separately, a "senior member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team" told ISNA on March 8 that senior Iranian diplomats will go to New York when the Security Council is expected to consider Iran's dossier next week. He said the Security Council might address Iran's dossier by issuing a statement that urges Iran to comply with past IAEA requests within a set time frame, ISNA reported. VS

Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in Tehran on March 8 that the United States' stated plan to bring democracy to the Middle East seeks to undermine Islam and safeguard U.S. interests "in coming decades," ISNA reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the Assembly of Experts, a body of senior clerics, that "freedom and human development, women's rights, democracy...are some of the slogans they state to attain their" regional goals. He called the U.S. plan, "by changing the culture of the peoples of Islamic countries" in conformity with "Western standards," an effort to "separate people from Islam." Fortunately, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said, "the Americans have failed in Iraq and their situation is different from what they thought...[Iraqis] want the Americans to leave that country and have shown what they want in elections." In Afghanistan, too, he said, the constitution has not turned out to be "what the Americans intended," ISNA reported. Washington, he said, is working to "encircle" Iran and "through the nuclear dossier, human rights, Palestine and terrorism to...pressure Iran." Before such pressures, he added, unity among Iranians is "not an order" but a "duty." Whatever the decision with Iran's dossier, he said, "we must do our work." VS

Iranian police forcibly dispersed a gathering to mark International Women's Day in Tehran on March 8, while a similar planned rally was banned in Tabriz in northwestern Iran, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. A crowd outside the City Theater in downtown Tehran was broken up when "police attacked and started beating the women," a participant told Radio Farda. "They dispersed everyone, and the gentlemen attending the gathering were severely beaten, and some people were arrested," the source said. One of those beaten was Simin Behbahani, an elderly female writer, the witness said. Behbahani was a prominent female writer in pre-1979 secular Iran but now enjoys little official favor. University authorities separately rejected a request by students at Tabriz's Sahand Industrial University to hold a similar rally. That event was to include film screenings and be attended by female journalists and former legislators, Radio Farda reported. Tabriz-based journalist Peiman Pakmehr told Radio Farda that the ceremony had been allowed in previous years. VS

A roadside bomb killed six Iraqis and wounded eight others in Baghdad on March 9, international media reported. The bomb was apparently directed against an Iraqi Army patrol in the Sunni Al-Amiriyah district of the city, but no military personnel were hurt in the explosion, Reuters reported. A small child was among those wounded, a hospital official told the news agency. KR

An unidentified Health Ministry official quoted by said the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest party to the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), ordered the ministry to stop tabulating execution-style deaths, the website reported on March 9. The SCIRI official reportedly told hospitals and morgues to limit their death counts to victims of bombings or clashes with insurgents. reported that three sources outside the Baghdad morgue have confirmed that some 1,000 Iraqis were killed in violence in the capital between February 22 and 28. The website quoted a morgue official on February 28 as saying that more than 1,300 had been killed in the six days after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, while Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari contended that the number was around 380. Now, the UN Human Rights office in Baghdad has said it received information that the acting director of the morgue is under pressure from the Interior Ministry not to reveal body counts and "to minimize the number of casualties," reported. Iraqi officials have denied the allegation. KR

Gunmen dressed in uniforms resembling those of Interior Ministry commandos raided a Baghdad security firm and abducted some 50 employees on March 8, international media reported. Witnesses said the gunmen arrived at the Al-Rawafid Security company in the Zayuna district and seized weapons, computers, cash, and documents before taking the employees away in white pickup trucks, reported. The company is owned by a relative of Sunni Arab Vice President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir and employs a number of al-Yawir's relatives and former high-ranking officers in Saddam Hussein's army, according to Interior Ministry officials gave conflicting accounts of whether the employees were detained or abducted, but three of the most senior ministry officials told Reuters that no raid had been authorized on the company. "The Interior Ministry is not involved in any way in this arrest," said Major General Muhammad al-Hassan, the ministry's head of operations. The raid on the firm came just hours after the discovery of the bodies of 18 men in another area of Baghdad who had been blindfolded, tortured, and strangled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2006). The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party accused the government of systematically assassinating Sunnis in Baghdad in a March 7 statement. KR

The U.S. State Department's 2005 "Country Reports on Human Rights" issued on March 8 accuses paramilitary, sectarian, criminal, and insurgent groups of misappropriating official authority in Iraq, leading to serious crimes and abuses against the public. The report says two Shi'ite groups -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army -- have come to dominate the police in some parts of the country. Meanwhile, insurgents and terrorists have killed "thousands of citizens," the report states. "Corruption was widely perceived to be a severe problem within the police. There were many allegations of police abuse involving unlawful arrests, beatings, and theft from the homes of detainees," it added. The Interior Ministry's inspector-general investigated 650 cases of police corruption and more than 40 allegations of human-rights abuses during the year but the results of those investigations had not been released by yearend, the report notes. The report also details religious freedom, saying non-Muslim minorities and secular Arabs in some parts of the country have faced pressure and threats of violence if they do not adhere to conservative Islamic practices. KR