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Newsline - March 17, 2006

President Vladimir Putin told energy ministers of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries in Moscow on March 16 that he favors setting up universal business standards for energy companies operating in countries linked by the flow of energy supplies, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and March 16, 2006). On March 17, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is expected to tell Putin that the EU wants Russia to ensure the reliability of energy supplies in the wake of the Ukrainian gas crisis, London's "The Independent" reported. Barroso reportedly will also ask Putin to ratify the Energy Charter that deals with issues like third-party pipeline access and transit obligations. Brussels is particularly interested in ending Gazprom's monopoly on the Russian pipeline system. Barroso is also expected to warn Putin that Russia risks losing Western investment and technological assistance if it does not observe the charter, which offers "security and predictability for both sides, paving the way for necessary long-term investments in new capacity," as Barroso wrote recently. Speaking on March 16, Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said that $17 trillion must be invested in the energy sector before 2030 to ensure security of supply. PM

The Russian authorities did not accept Western proposals regarding loosening the government's control over the energy sector at the G-8 Moscow gathering on March 16, "The Wall Street Journal Europe" reported. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce David Sampson told the daily that the Russian authorities regard "their energy sector as a critical national-security asset." U. S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman said that only "time will tell" whether Moscow has learned the importance of observing the same business standards as to its G-8 partners. The secretary added that he does not put much store by Putin's verbal assurances of improved cooperation in the energy sector, adding: "I don't place a particular value in commitments, I place a value in reality." Russia is the world's chief producer of natural gas and the second largest exporter of crude oil. It is the member of the G-8 with the largest energy resources. PM

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said in New Delhi on March 16 that his government's recent decision to sell nuclear fuel to India does not violate any international agreement to which Russia adheres, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2006). Washington has indicated that India should first meet its obligations under the new U.S.-Indian agreement on nuclear issues before the sale goes ahead. Details of the Russian deal with India are expected to be announced shortly. PM

A court in Stockholm ruled on March 16 that the authorities have sufficient grounds to continue detaining Russian research scientist Andrei Zamyatnin, held on suspicion of spying for an unnamed foreign power, Reuters reported. Russia has demanded the man's release (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2006). PM

The "National Security Strategy" issued by the White House on March 16 said that Washington wants Moscow to observe the values of freedom and democracy at home and not to impede implementation of those values in the Middle East or in South, Central, and East Asia, reported. "Strengthening our relationship will depend on the policies, foreign, and domestic, that Russia adopts. Recent trends regrettably point toward a diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions. We will work to try and persuade the Russian government to move forward, not backward, along freedom's path," the document added. The study also warned Moscow against unspecified attempts at "perverting democratic development at home and abroad." The U.S. State Department and the influential Council on Foreign Relations have both issued studies in recent weeks critical of political trends in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, and March 6 and 10, 2006). PM

President Putin told the Federation Council in Moscow on March 16 that regional legislation must not be allowed to contradict federal laws, Interfax reported. He also warned that corrupt practices in land allocation are endangering his plans to improve housing, which is one of his four "national projects," or priorities, which also include health, agriculture, and education, the Moscow daily "Kommersant" and "The Moscow Times" reported. Putin called on the regional deputies to monitor illegal practices on the part of local officials and suggested that unnamed regional authorities are dragging their feet on realizing his domestic development goals. The Federal Anti-Monopoly Service said recently that as much as 90 percent of all land allocated for residential construction was not distributed through open auctions. Western financial experts have also criticized the land distribution process as fostering corruption and called for greater transparency. Some Russian experts noted that two reasons that regional authorities might not be meeting Putin's goals are a lack of money and an absence of clarity regarding the national projects. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told ministerial officials dealing with the national projects on March 17 that any high-ranking federal officials who do not help the interdepartmental working on the national projects will be punished, Interfax reported. "The work of the interdepartmental working groups should be improved drastically," Medvedev said. He added that "some high-ranking officials appointed by the president miss meetings without reasonable excuses" but did not elaborate. He called for the sacking of officials who do not help implement Putin's goals, adding that "we do not need dead souls." PM

Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), fired Stanislav Antipov as head of the nuclear power consortium, Rosenergoatom, on March 16, "The Moscow Times" reported. Antipov's deputy, Sergei Obozov, will replace his former boss. The consortium manages Russia's 10 nuclear reactors. President Putin has plans to greatly expand the role of nuclear power in the Russian economy in the coming decades (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, February 2, and March 15, 2006). Obozov formerly headed a department that pioneered the development of seaborne nuclear reactors. Antipov, who has held his post for about one year, will become an adviser to Kiriyenko. The daily suggested that Kiriyenko regards Obozov as an ally who can get a job done. Obozov is also a former presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District. PM

Armenian President Robert Kocharian met in Yerevan on March 16 with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried and Ambassador Steven Mann, the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Yerkir reported. The U.S. diplomats discussed the ongoing mediation effort aimed at reaching a negotiated resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and discussed issues related to Armenian energy security. The arrival of the diplomats in Yerevan marks the last of a regional tour, following similar meetings in Azerbaijan and Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15 and 16, 2006). RG

Speaking in Yerevan following a meeting with the Armenian president on March 16, Fried stressed that an opportunity for Armenia and Azerbaijan to make progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks remains, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Mediamax reported. Fried noted that despite the apparent lack of tangible success in the recent meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in France, "both governments express their countries' interests and take the Karabakh settlement process seriously," (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 24, 2006). The senior U.S. diplomat also met on March 16 in Yerevan with Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian before leaving for Istanbul to prepare for an upcoming meeting of the OSCE Minsk Group. In a separate meeting with Fried, Armenian Defense Minister Sarkisian suggested that the monitoring of the cease-fire in effect along the "line of contact" between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces be carried out more often and that the results be made public, Mediamax reported. RG

Artashes Tumanian, a former senior aide to Armenian President Robert Kocharian, confirmed on March 16 that he has ended his planned move to lead a new political party, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Tumanian resigned in late February, ending his six-year tenure as presidential adviser with a pledge to form a new political party in anticipation of the upcoming 2007 parliamentary elections. The announcement came just prior to a planned March 18 founding meeting of the new Nor Yerkir (New Country) party. In his place, Robert Poladian assumed leadership of the party, which is believed to advocate a pro-Western platform of seeking deeper Armenian integration with the European Union. Poladian stated that the party leadership will meet on March 17 to discuss its future activities, but has canceled its planned founding congress. RG

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev warned Armenia on March 16 not to delay seeking a negotiated resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani Services. In a speech to a "world congress of Azeris" in Baku, President Aliyev threatened to pull out of peace talks with Armenia unless there is progress in the mediation effort. The president added that "we have been holding peace talks for the last 12 years" but warned that "this process cannot last forever and the patience of the Azerbaijani people and of the Azerbaijani government is running out." Aliyev further added that Azerbaijan's roughly $600 million military budget is "increasing year by year" and stated that "I consider it my duty to make our military expenditure equal [to] Armenia's entire budget" so that "Armenia will never be able to compete with us." The strong statement is only the latest in a series of threats by the Azerbaijani president over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and follows a recent warning by visiting U.S. diplomats in Baku that a resumption of hostilities would be "catastrophe" for the entire region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2006). RG

Several hundred Georgian drivers staged a demonstration on March 16 in Tbilisi protesting police violence, RFE/RL and Imedi-TV reported. The demonstration, lasting less than an hour, was comprised of automobile drivers honking their horns as they drove along Rustaveli Avenue and other main streets of the city. A series of smaller protests were also staged on March 16 in Batumi and Kutaisi. The demonstrations were organized by the country's main opposition parties in an attempt to galvanize public outrage over the death of a 27-year old bank employee who was beaten to death in late January after a dispute that involved a number of high-ranking Interior Ministry officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 7 and 8, 2006). Four of the Interior Ministry officers have been subsequently dismissed and another two suspended pending the completion of an official investigation. Despite widespread calls for the dismissal of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili over the incident, President Mikheil Saakashvili said that he would not dismiss Merabishvili, whom he described as a "great minister," Rustavi-2 TV reported. RG

Nino Burjanadze dismissed on March 16 rumors of a planned sale of the country's natural gas pipeline, RFE/RL and Civil Georgia reported. Burjanadze vowed that neither the Georgian president nor the parliament had any intention of selling the pipeline, which she defined as a "strategically important asset." The gas pipeline supplies both Georgia and Armenia with natural gas from Russia. The statement by the speaker follows comments last week by Energy Minister Niki Gilauri suggesting that it would be possible to sell the pipeline to the Russian energy giant Gazprom if "the price was right." In turn, Burjanadze also issued a warning to ministers to stop making statements on the subject without first clearing them with the president and the prime minister. RG

Unnamed officials from the Georgian Defense Ministry announced on March 16 that a 90-day conscription effort has been completed successfully, Prime News reported. Of roughly 2,500 volunteers, 1,031 were accepted for military service, with the remainder disqualified for inadequate fitness or poor health. The draftees, largely from the Kakheti, Mtskheta-Mtianeti, Shida Kartli, and Samegrelo districts, are slated to join the 3rd Brigade. Following a six-month training period, they will then be offered a contract in the army. A subsequent spring call up is set to begin sometime next week. RG

Onalsyn Zhumabekov, head of Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission (CEC), announced on March 16 in Astana that the CEC will work together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to develop "amendments and changes" to Kazakhstan's election law, the news agency Kazakhstan Today reported. Zhumabekov made his comment during a visit by Christian Strohal, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The purpose of Strohal's visit was to discuss the implementation of recommendations in the OSCE's report on Kazakhstan's December 2005 presidential election, Kazinform reported. Strohal also met with Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev, who proposed conducting an analysis of electoral legislation in all OSCE member-states in order to develop exact criteria to determine whether elections conform to international standards. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov told a cabinet meeting on March 16 that "foolish" individuals should not be allowed to work as government employees, Turkmen Television First Channel reported. "Do not allow foolish persons to work in our offices among us," Niyazov said. "Replace them with clever ones, otherwise sooner or later we may face a misfortune. Even one stupid person can shake the foundations of our well-organized state management." DK

The World Bank will not offer new loans to the government of Uzbekistan, although it will continue to service existing programs and provide technical assistance, the BBC's Uzbek Service reported on March 16. Martin Raiser, the World Bank's country manager for Uzbekistan, told the BBC that the decision was not based on political considerations. "Everyone is aware that the World Bank does not get involved in politics and that it makes its decisions for economic reasons," Raiser said. "We are continuing to work in Uzbekistan. While we will not make new loans, we continue to provide technical assistance and advice." Raiser added that "this is one part of the new strategy, but I'd like to stress that this process isn't over, since the process is at an intermediate stage." DK

A Russian parliamentary delegation headed by Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the State Duma's CIS Affairs Committee, discussed Uzbek anti-terror measures during a visit to the country's Andijon Province, the news agency RIA Novosti reported on March 16. In the course of a meeting with provincial officials, Kokoshin commented that "the recent events [mass disturbances in May 2005] in Andijon have not been forgotten yet, when a group of Islamic extremists attempted to seize power but was defeated," Regnum reported. Kokoshin added: "We have closely familiarized ourselves with how the events developed and discussed the question of joining forces to fight extremism and terrorism." Kokoshin stressed that "a lot is currently being done in Andijon Province in terms of social and economic development and in terms of ideological resistance to terrorism and extremism." He also noted a high level of interest in Russian language and culture in Andijon Province. DK

Nine Georgian legislators who planned to join an international monitoring mission in Belarus were detained at Minsk airport on March 16, international news agencies reported the next day. According to AP, Belarusian officials said the group would be deported back to Georgia. Vasily Kiptenko, a spokesman for the Belarusian border guards, said the nine were detained because "they were not desirable on our territory." He declined to elaborate. The Georgian group was part of a team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent to monitor the March 19 presidential election. Andreas Baker, a spokesman for the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, said assembly officials had been in touch with the Belarusian Foreign Ministry over the detentions, AP reported. The Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the detention "lays bare again the Belarus government's undisguised decision to act in defiance of the universally recognized principles of democracy and transparency in elections." BW

Past and present democratic leaders from Eastern Europe called on the European Union (EU) on March 17 to take action to challenge Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Reuters reported the same day. Writing in the "International Herald Tribune," Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili called for new sanctions against Minsk. In a joint letter, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former Polish President Lech Walesa said the liberals' struggle in Belarus was similar to what they had encountered under communism. "Just like in our countries in those times, the reality in Belarus might seem unchangeable and chances for a political transformation slim," they wrote in a letter published in the Polish and Czech media. "If the EU is able to truly support civil society, the last undemocratic regime at its borders will collapse," the letter continued. "This may happen as quickly as communist regimes once collapsed. The stronger the opposition is, the less painful the transition to democracy and social transformation will be." BW

Security police in Minsk on March 16 seized hundreds of thousands of copies of the opposition newspaper "Tovarishch" ("Comrade"), AP reported the next day citing the newspaper's Editor In Chief Sergei Vaznyak. "There is general hysteria in the country. The people are being prevented from making a conscious choice," said Vaznyak, who also is press secretary for Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate. Also on March 16, the head of the Belarusian KGB Chairman Stsyapan Sukharenka accused a Georgian lawmaker and employees of the Georgian embassies in neighboring Lithuania and Ukraine of plotting subversive action against Lukashenka, AP reported the same day. In a video shown at the news conference, a man Sukharenka claimed was involved in the plot said he had been at a camp in Georgia where terrorist training was provided by members of the former Soviet Army and four Arabs, and that two U.S. instructors once visited. U.S. Ambassador George Krol said it was "absurd and baseless." BW

During a meeting with the Belarusian central bank chief on March 16, President Lukashenka said he planned to stay in office until the country has 100 tons of gold reserves, Reuters and Interfax reported the same day. "You and I are going to be in office until we get 100 tons in gold reserves," Interfax news agency quoted Lukashenka as telling Belarus's central bank chief Pyotr Prokopovich during a visit to the bank's main vault. "Once we accumulate $10 billion in reserves, including 100 tons of gold, we can confidently hand over to someone else." Belarus's reserves currently stand at $1.5 billion, including 25 tons of gold. Prokopovich has said he wants to bring the reserves up to $3 billion by 2010. BW

Approximately 1,000 people lined up to view the coffin of the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on March 16, international news agencies reported the same day. The crowds were smaller than the organizers had anticipated. Officials from Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) put the closed coffin on display to the public at the Museum of Yugoslav History, in the upscale Belgrade suburb of Dedinje. The museum -- formerly called the Museum of the Revolution -- is a few hundred meters from the grave of the former Yugoslav leader Josip Tito and next door to Milosevic's former residence. The coffin is due to remain at the museum until a farewell ceremony on March 18. It will then be moved for burial at Milosevic's hometown, Pozarevac, 80 kilometers east of Belgrade. SPS officials said Milosevic's widow Mirjana Markovic, who is facing corruption charges, will come from Moscow to attend the funeral. BW

Rasim Ljajic, the president of Serbia and Montenegro's National Hague Tribunal Cooperation Council, said on March 16 that Milosevic's death has put greater pressure on Belgrade to apprehend war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, B92 and Beta reported the same day. Ljajic added that the international community has set April 5 as the deadline for his capture, and that the deadline will not be extended. "I do not expect any lessening of pressure or additional understanding from the international community as far as the deadline in concerned," he added. "I will not talk about Ratko Mladic until April 5," said Ljajic, who is also Serbia and Montenegro's Minority and Human Rights Minister. April 5 marks the start of the next round of talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union (EU). BW

A Serbian teenager from a part of the country stricken with bird flu has been placed in isolation after developing symptoms consistent with the human form of the disease, Reuters reported on March 16. "The boy is from the family where we found a rooster with clinical symptoms of bird flu," said Predrag Kon, Serbia's chief epidemiologist. "We put him in medical isolation after he reported a high fever on March 14. He will spend the next 72 hours in isolation, or until the possibility of bird flu is excluded. Right now he has no fever," Kon added. Kon said a total of 16 people from the same area were under medical supervision. So far, Serbia has detected the deadly H5N1 strain in wild fowl, and is waiting for results of a suspected case in a rooster. BW

On the eve of the resumption of talks on Kosova's final status, both U.S. and United Nations officials urged the province's ethnic Albanian leaders to compromise on minority rights and decentralization, Beta and B92 reported on March 16. Soren Jessen-Petersen, the head of the United Nations Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), urged Prishtina to heed the international community's call to assure respect for minority rights. "We know what you want, but you have to show us what you can offer to the minorities in order for them to be in a good situation while living in Kosova," Petersen said. Likewise, Frank Wisner, the U.S. special envoy to the final-status talks, said he expects that the Kosovar side to begin implementing some aspects of decentralization already agreed upon before there is any decision on the Serbian province's final status. The talks resume in Vienna on March 17 and are scheduled to focus on local-government issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2006). BW

The Serbian government plans to issue a formal letter to UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari protesting the presence of former guerilla leader Hasim Thaci at Kosova's final-status talks, B92 and Beta reported on March 16. Thaci, the leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and a former commander with the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), was named head of Kosova's negotiating team on March 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2006). Thaci is reviled as a terrorist in Serbia, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. Serbian presidential advisor Aleksandar Simic said that the appointment of Thaci was an act of provocation by Prishtina, and was "even stranger given the fact that he is not an expert on the topic of decentralization." BW

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said on March 15 that he believes that between 55 and 57 percent of the country's voters will support independence in a referendum, B92 and Beta reported the next day. To pass, 55 percent of votes casts must be in favor of independence. "I will do everything I can for that 55 percent and even more than that, and I am absolutely sure that we can do this," Djukanovic said at a press conference in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica. Djukanovic added that he did not want to consider whether his government will accept failure if the vote in favor amounts to just 54.9 percent. The referendum is scheduled for May 21. BW

A former Bosnian Serb paramilitary leader pleaded not guilty on March 16 to nine counts of crimes against humanity, Reuters reported the same day. Gojko Jankovic is the second war crimes suspect transferred from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to be tried by Bosnia's new war crimes court. He is charged with the murder, rape, detention, and beating of Muslims during Bosnia's 1992-95 war. "The Hague indictment against me as well as this expanded indictment is shameful, framed, invented and false." Jankovic said. "I said in The Hague and I say here, I am not guilty." Jankovic, a wartime police sub-commander in the eastern town of Foca, is accused of attacking Muslim villages in the area and detaining civilians, some of whom were summarily executed. He is also accused of multiple cases of rape involving Muslim women and girls as young as 12. BW

For almost two years, Adygeya's Slavs, who currently constitute some 70 percent of that republic's population of 445,000, have been lobbying to subsume the Republic of Adygeya into Krasnodar Krai, within which it currently constitutes an enclave.

Adygeya's Adygei and Cherkess minority for its part has campaigned with equal single-mindedness against that proposed merger. In April 2005, some 10,000 people took to the streets of Maikop, Adygeya's capital, to protest the anticipated abolition of Adygeya's status as a republic. And last month, the lower chamber of Adygeya's parliament voted down a draft law on referenda that would, if enacted, have constituted the legal basis for a republic-wide vote on such a merger in which the Slav majority could have carried the day.

The idea of subsuming Adygeya into Krasnodar Krai first emerged in 2004 in the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans to streamline the Russian Federation by reducing the number of federation subjects by means of territorial mergers, an approach that self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky denounced in a February 28 interview with as a pretext for resurrecting "the Soviet model."

The rationale adduced by Russian officials for doing so is first and foremost economic: thanks largely to Black Sea coast tourism and the legendary fertility of its soil, Krasnodar is regarded as an economic success story, even though levels of economic development vary widely within the krai, and some districts are dirt poor and plagued with high unemployment. Adygeya, by contrast, relies heavily on subsidies from Moscow to balance its budget.

Adygeya's Slavs, however, cite political factors, including alleged discrimination, to substantiate their arguments in favor of merging the two regions. Union of Slavs of Adygeya (SSA) chairwoman Nina Konovalova recently told "Caucasus Times" that the titular nationality has "taken control of everything: personnel policy, the economy, culture." She accused the Cherkess of consistently interpreting any criticism of the leadership's policies as ethnically motivated, and she implied that the Cherkess should content themselves simply with those measures foreseen by Russian legislation to safeguard their language and culture.

(That line of argument overlooks the fact that in many small national republics, for example Mari El, such legislation is routinely violated or at best ignored.)

But an anonymous commentator who posted on February 14 on the website an essay summarizing the pros and cons of the proposed territorial merger rejected claims by Konovalova and others that Slavs in Adygeya are excluded from positions of power. That commentator referred to the ratio of Slav surnames on any list of members of the republic's government. He did not, however, cite statistical data to substantiate his rebuttal.

The Slavs further argue that, in a democracy, the preferences of the (Slav) majority should take precedence over those of the (Adygei/Cherkess) minority, even though the latter constitute the titular nationality in the Republic of Adygeya. The Adygeis and Cherkess point out that Adygeya is the only place on earth that they can call their homeland.

As a result of forced outmigration to escape extermination at the hands of tsarist Russian troops in the 19th century, there are currently an estimated 3-4 million Cherkess scattered across the face of the planet, far more than live in Russia. (In July 2005, Adygei and Cherkess organizations in Adygeya addressed a written appeal to the Russian State Duma to issue a formal condemnation of tsarist policies as "genocide." After a six-month silence, that request was finally rejected, according to on January 27.) Almir Abregov, director of Adygeya's National Museum, explained last month to that the creation first of an Adygey Autonomous Oblast and then of a national republic served to promote a sense of national identity.

Both Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev and deputy presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Aleksandr Pochinok went on record last year as disavowing the reported merger plans. But despite those denials, discussion of the planned merger has gained momentum in the run-up to the elections, scheduled for March 12, to a new republican parliament.

The SSA announced in December its intention of concluding an election alliance with the United Industrial Party of Russia in the hope of winning a majority in the new legislature and pushing through legislation that would expedite a merger. Two Cherkess organizations -- the Cherkess Congress and Adyge Khase -- immediately addressed appeals to the international community, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's High Commission on National Minorities, condemning the SSA's election manifesto as chauvinistic and xenophobic.

The two organizations have since appealed to Republic of Adygeya Central Election Commission Chairman Yury Khut to bar the SSA from the parliamentary ballot, "Kavkazsky uzel" reported. They argued that "people and parties with such ideas should not participate in elections to the highest legislative organ of the republic, on whose work stability and calm in Adygeya depends to a large degree."

But even if the SSA wins a majority of seats in the March 12 election, its chances of spearheading the desired abolition of Adygeya's status as a republic now look far remoter than they did a few months ago. Speaking on February 28 after a meeting of the heads of North Caucasus branches of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, Tkachev and Adygeya's President Khasret Sovmen jointly declared that the proposed merger is no longer on the agenda.

Shortly before that meeting, during a nationwide television broadcast on February 21, the pro-Kremlin political commentator Gleb Pavlovsky excoriated Tkachev, implicitly blaming him personally for serious political and socioeconomic shortcomings, including frequent reprisals against Armenians, Meskhetians and other non-Slavs living in Krasnodar, reported. Tkachev was first elected governor in January 2001 and reelected in 2004 with almost 84 percent of the vote.

Some Slavs, however, have already formulated a fallback position. Aleksandr Dorofeyev, a parliamentary candidate for the Rodina (Motherland) party, was quoted on February 28 by as saying Rodina has already formed an initiative group to lobby for a referendum on changing Adygeya's status. But instead of subsuming Adygeya into Krasnodar, Dorofeyev advocated creating an Adygo-Kuban Republic, by analogy with the Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia republics, with Maikop as its capital. That variant would have the advantage of not lowering Adygeya's status and in addition elevating Krasnodar from the level of a krai to that of a republic.

Whether the Cherkess would find that solution acceptable is unclear. At a meeting in Maikop on February 25, representatives of the Adygei and Cherkess communities from Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Krasnodar adopted a declaration addressed to President Putin, the Federation Council, and the leaders of their respective federation subjects, reported on February 27. That appeal stressed the need to preserve Adygeya's current status as a separate federation subject. It further warned that in the event that measures are not taken to preclude any further lobbying for Adygeya's merger with Krasnodar Krai, they reserve the right to proclaim an Adygei Republic within the Russian Federation that would encompass not just the present-day Republic of Adygeya but all those territories to which the Cherkess lay a historic claim: Adygeya, Kabardia, Cherkessia, and the historic homeland of the tiny Shapsug minority on Krasnodar's Black Sea coast. The Adygeis, of whom the Shapsugs are a subgroup, the Cherkess, and the Kabardians are ethnically close, and their respective languages belong to the same northwest Caucasian language family, along with Abkhaz and Abazin.

The Kremlin may have shown exemplary (and uncharacteristic) political acumen in proclaiming that the controversial plan to abolish Adygeya's status as a republic is at least on hold, if not off the agenda for good. But the Adygeya authorities' heavy-handed approach to a second explosive issue may prove just as potentially destabilizing.

An article posted in February on claims that Adygeya police have adopted as a sort of handbook a recent publication denouncing Wahhabism, which the author alleges is being spread by Cherkess from the Middle East who have come to settle in Adygeya in recent years. The author of that handbook lists superficial and misleading criteria by which he claims it is possible to differentiate between those Cherkess who continue to espouse the traditional synthesis of Islam with folk and pagan tradition, and those who practice the allegedly more dangerous "pure" Islam that the recently arrived repatriants are said to be preaching.

The author points out, for example, that "Wahhabis" oppose the wearing of the felt trilbies (familiar from Soviet-era photographs of the Politburo) that Muslim men in Adygeya traditionally wear at funerals as a mark of respect for the deceased, and that they likewise eschew the baking for funeral repasts of traditional maize-meal cakes. Therefore, the author infers, any male who appears at a funeral not wearing a trilby is clearly an Islamic radical. However simplistic that argument may appear, the book in question has reportedly been published in a huge edition and distributed to all government officials, and its author continues to lecture the republic's law-enforcement personnel on the dangers of Islamic radicalism.

In response to that perceived threat, immediately after the multiple attacks by militants on police targets in Nalchik last October, police in Adygeya began checking the identity of young men who regularly attend prayers at several Adygeya mosques.

A statement attributed to fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar on March 14 said large numbers of Afghan insurgents are signing up for suicide missions, AP reported on March 17. The statement, phoned into to AP reporters in Kandahar and the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, was delivered by purported neo-Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif. The statement was also sent to reporters by e-mail from an unknown sender. "Young Afghans are coming to mujahedin camps in large numbers to enroll their names for suicide attacks," the statement said. "This year, with the beginning of summer, Afghan soil will turn red for the crusaders and their puppets, and the occupiers will face an unpredictable wave of Afghan resistance." Statements attributed to Omar have aired repeatedly, and they usually carry warnings of increased violence in Afghanistan. Interior Ministry spokesman Yousuf Stanezai brushed off the statement, saying neo-Taliban insurgents lacked the strength to launch a major new offensive. MR

Authorities in eastern Afghanistan on March 16 arrested two suspected neo-Taliban members carrying letters from fugitive neo-Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the No. 2 official in Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, AFP reported the same day. Border security forces provincial deputy chief Mohammad Ibrar said the two supposed carriers, whose names were not given, were arrested separately near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Ibrar said one of the arrested carriers held letters written by Omar and al-Zawahiri. The other was carrying so-called night letters, missives aimed at intimidating locals into cooperating with insurgents. "The second man was arrested with some 500 'night' letters, which asked people not to cooperate with the 'illegitimate government' and to obey the orders of Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri." MR

Fearing an outbreak of bird flu, health officials in Afghanistan on March 16 ordered the killing of suspect chickens in affected areas, AFP reported. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization's laboratories in Italy said the H5N1 strainof bird flu was present in six samples from domestic chickens from Kabul and eastern Nangarhar Province. "Thus far in Afghanistan, avian influenza remains confined to the bird population, with no human cases reported. Nonetheless, it is imperative that the human population is protected," a statement by the organization said. H5N1 has led to the deaths of nearly 100 people in seven countries since 2003 and continues to spread. The statement said birds from affected areas would be slaughtered, with compensation paid to the farmers. "Markets selling poultry and poultry products will be closed and disinfected." MR

Locals in southern Afghanistan found the bodies of four foreigners kidnapped recently, the Afghan Pajhwok news agency reported. Reports about the discovery of the bodies came on March 16, though it remained unclear what day the bodies were actually found or when the three Albanians and four Germans might have been killed by the neo-Taliban guerillas who claimed to have kidnapped them. Locals reportedly found the bodies in the Engeniran Mountains of Maiwand district in southern Kandahar Province. The district chief of Greshk, Haji Saifullah Khan, said area residents told him that the bodies had been left in the region. An unidentified Afghan Interior Ministry official said land mines were laid on the sides of the graves. All four men, whose identies remain unknown, worked for a German military contractor called Ecolog. The group initially disappeared in southern Afghanistan on March 11 along with four Afghans working with them. The neo-Taliban had said they released the Afghans but killed the foreigners. MR

A strategy document released by the White House on 16 March said the Iranian people endure tyranny, which it identified as "the combination of brutality, poverty, instability, corruption, and suffering, forged under the rule of despots and despotic systems" ( The document continues, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." The document discusses the regime's lack of cooperation with international nuclear inspectors and its lack of transparency, as well as the "aggressive" anti-Israel statements of its president. The strategy document says the U.S. will continue to emphasize diplomacy in trying to resolve the nuclear issue. There are other areas of concern: "The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism; threatens Israel; seeks to thwart Middle East peace; disrupts democracy in Iraq; and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom." U.S. policy's "ultimate goal" is to have Tehran make "the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people." The strategy makes a distinction between the Iranian regime and the country's people and emphasizes its desire to expand "our engagement and outreach to the people the regime is oppressing." BS

The Guardians Council on 16 March approved the budget for the year starting on 21 March, Fars News Agency reported. The legislature had approved the budget earlier in the week, and all legislative measures must win Guardians Council approval on constitutional and Islamic grounds before becoming law. The council began its examination of the budget on March 15, IRNA reported, and Management and Planning Organization official Mohammad Kurdbacheh predicted there would be disagreements over regulations affecting contracts with foreign entities. Indeed, the council approval only came after the legislature addressed 15 specific "issues of concern" and clarified five "ambiguities." BS

Nawab Muhammad Akbar Khan Bugti, a prominent Baluchi leader in Pakistan who is wanted for his alleged sponsorship of attacks against government forces and gas and rail facilities, has fled to Iran, reported on March 17. He reportedly headed for Zahedan in Sistan va Baluchistan Province. Amanullah Qamberani, spokesman for the Jamhoori Watan Party that Bugti heads, denied that Bugti has left the country and described this as wishful thinking on the part of his enemies and the government's handiwork. Senator Shahid Bugti said Nawab Bugti is in Dera Bugti. Raziq Bugti, adviser to the chief minister of Baluchistan, also said Nawab Bugti is in Dera Bugti. BS

Representatives from India, Pakistan, and Iran ended talks in Tehran on March 16 on a natural-gas pipeline connecting the three countries, Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported. The next round will take place in Islamabad on April 30. Among the topics that await resolution is the gas price set by Tehran. Discussions on building the pipeline began in the mid-1990s. BS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told reporters in Tehran on 16 March that Iran is willing to hold talks with the U.S. on Iraq, Radio Farda reported. He went on to say that Tehran is very skeptical about Washington's previously stated desire to hold such talks, and he portrayed the issue in terms of Washington's perceived inability to resolve Iraqi affairs. "The Americans have made this demand [for talks] for some time," he said. "The U.S. ambassador [to Iraq] has also announced several times that they would like to [hold talks] since they cannot solve the problems there and need to have discussions with Iran. But, we don't trust these U.S. words." Larijani said Iran will act so it can help the Iraqi government. "We will [appoint] some people to hold these discussions on Iraq so that they can help put Iraq's future government in a better position to deal with problems," he said. Larijani said Tehran's decision is based on a request from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the United Iraqi Alliance. BS

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the United Iraqi Alliance, called for the dialogue between Iran and the United States in a March 15 speech in Baghdad's Shi'ite-populated Al-Sadr City district, KUNA reported on March 16. Al-Hakim said neighboring countries help Iraq by controlling their borders and exchanging information with the Iraqi government on terrorists. Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr criticized the proposal, calling al-Hakim's statements "inappropriate," Al-Jazeera television reported on March 16. Al-Sadr representative Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji told the satellite news channel: "Such statements [by al-Hakim] might give a clear indication that there is real Iranian interference in Iraq, or that Iran might interfere in Iraq in the future. While respecting our neighbor Iran...we reject any interference in Iraqi affairs by neighboring countries." He contended that al-Hakim's statements either reflect current Iranian interference in Iraq or a desire on the part of Iran to interfere in Iraq in the future. "The fate of the political process [in Iraq] should only be determined by the Iraqi people, not by an Arab or Islamic country," al-Darraji added. KR

U.S. and Iraqi forces launched what the U.S. military say is the operation is the largest air assault carried out in Iraq since April 2003 on March 16, international media reported on the same day. Operation Swarmer is targeting villages northwest of the city of Samarra. Samarra is located about 100 kilometers north of Baghdad and is the site of the February 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). In recent months it has increasingly become known as a terrorist stronghold. More than 1,500 Iraqi soldiers and troops from the international coalition, 200 tactical vehicles, and 50 aircraft are taking part in the operation, which is expected to last for several days. Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman General Salih Sarhan cautioned on March 17 that media reports about the operation have been blown out of proportion. "This operation is not an invasion...The operation aims to search and control the area and launch raids against some suspected places," said Sarhan, Reuters reported. KR

Presidential Adviser Staff General Wafiq al-Samarra'i told Al-Jazeera television on March 16 that terrorists based around Samarra have killed some 400 residents in recent months, prompting residents to seek government help in driving out the terrorists. "The area's residents and tribes, along with the residents of Samarra, are being tormented by a number of villains who have killed hundreds of the city's residents and closed off the Samarra-Al-Dur Highway, which leads to Tikrit Governorate and to the north, to the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul," said al-Samarra'i. Asked to identify the terrorists in Samarra, he said: "They are a mix of foreigners and Iraqi nationals, but, unfortunately, the majority are not foreigners." He speculated that the majority of terrorists are affiliated with the international terrorist network Al-Qaeda. Al-Samarra'i also claimed that the city of Samarra is generally clear of terrorists but some "villains sneak in and out from time to time." KR

Outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari told reporters at a March 16 press briefing in Baghdad that he cannot be forced by political parties to cede his nomination to head the government for the next four years, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on the same day. "If my people ask me to step aside I will," al-Ja'fari told reporters. The prime minister added that he believed that the government could be formed within a month. "If the Iraqi parties meet seriously to deliberate points of view, overcome obstacles, and adopt the constitution, in addition to focusing on the approach required by the next government in accordance with the constitution in the law; in my estimation, we do not need more than one month to finalize the government," said al-Ja'fari. KR