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Newsline - March 21, 2006

President Vladimir Putin launched a two-day visit and "the year of Russia in China" on March 21 by opening a Russian information center in Beijing and meeting with his counterpart Hu Jintao, Russian media reported. Putin said that a new gas-pipeline system, called the Altai, could be built to deliver gas from western Siberia to China. Another system would deliver gas from eastern Siberia. Obtaining supplies of Russian oil and gas is a top priority for China. Putin also referred in his public remarks to oil pipelines but did not elaborate. He is accompanied by an entourage of about 800 people on a trip that is expected to witness public pledges to expand trade and promote ever-closer relations in a much-touted "strategic partnership." PM

In the days before President Putin's visit to China began on March 21, official media in both countries described the state of bilateral relations in rosy terms, but their respective expectations of Putin's trip appear different, international media reported. Moscow wants to use the public display to reaffirm its role as a major player in a dynamic region of the world, which at least coincides with China's interest in promoting "multipolarity" there to offset U.S. dominance. Beijing, however, is primarily interested in getting a firm commitment from the Russians about extending to its frontier a branch of the planned oil pipeline from eastern Siberia to the Pacific. Russian oil exports to China currently are limited by the capacities of the two countries' rail systems and stood at about 7.7 million tons of crude in 2005. The Russian decision in 2004 to build an oil pipeline across Siberia to the Pacific was largely seen as a victory for Japanese interests over those of China. Beijing has since sought to persuade Moscow to build a "spur" line to bring oil to China. Russia's value to that country is primarily as a supplier of energy and arms and as a fellow supporter of stability in Central Asia (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005). PM

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 20 rejecting criticisms of trends in Russian democracy made in the White House's recent "National Security Strategy" paper, Russian news agencies reported. The statement said that the United States is trying to impose its concept of democracy on other countries, "which might even discredit the main idea" of democracy. The ministry also argued that Washington is placing an "increasing emphasis on ideology" in its security strategy, adding that Moscow will not accept lectures from the United States. The ministry argued that "no one has or can have any exclusive right to interpret what democracy means." The statement also pointed out that the White House document contains "not a single word" about cooperation between the two countries. The U.S. State Department and the influential Council on Foreign Relations have also both issued studies in recent weeks critical of political trends in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, and March 6, 10, and 17, 2006). PM

President Putin sent a message of congratulations to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on March 20, hailing his "reelection" to that post in the previous day's election, Russia's official presidential site ( reported. "The results of the elections point to voters' trust in your policies and to the further growth of the prosperity of the Belarusian people," Putin said. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on that the Belarusian presidential vote "reflected high civic awareness and people's wish for stability and more socially oriented policies," Interfax reported. "Belarusians clearly expressed their will, and it must be respected," the text added. The ministry argued that "the elections offered an alternative, so the ballot results mirrored the opinion of Belarusian citizens. This is an indicator of the public's wish for further democratic progress." Moscow also believes that "the elections complied with universally recognized standards. There are no doubts about their legitimacy. This is the opinion of a large group of election observers from Russia and the CIS" (see also Belarus items in Part II, below). PM

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced in Chita on March 21 that a new state Military-Industrial Commission (VPK) will make it easier to exercise real control over the military industry, RIA Novosti reported. President Putin established the commission the previous day in a decree that aims at placing existing temporary structures on a permanent basis, reported. "We are not creating a new bureaucracy and [hiring] new officials, but creating a new mechanism of administration," Ivanov said. He added that "the commission should quickly prepare governmental drafts or presidential decrees, if necessary." Putin's decree named Ivanov as head of the new body, His deputy in charge of day-to-day operations is Vladislav Putilin, who is a former deputy chief of staff for the Strategic Missile Forces and a former official of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, whose brief included some defense matters. The new body "will help us to exercise effective control over the military-industrial complex and concrete programs for its development, and strictly to monitor their implementation," Ivanov said. The website wrote that Ivanov's new appointment gives him control of a $25 billion annual budget and strengthens his position in the presumed battle to succeed Putin, whose term expires in 2008. PM

Defense Minister Ivanov presented medals to an unspecified number of veterans of the former Soviet Union's 1979-89 conflict in Afghanistan in Novosibirsk on March 20, RIA Novosti reported. The certificates awarding the "forgotten" medals were endorsed by the USSR Supreme Soviet, which ceased to exist in 1991. Ivanov stressed, however, that the presentation of each medal is a "duty" that the government is obliged to carry out. He estimates that a total of 4,000 such medals will be presented by the end of 2006. In a lengthy interview published in "Russkaya gazeta" on February 12, 2004, former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, who as a general in the Soviet Army fought in Afghanistan and now heads a committee to protect the rights of Russia's war veterans, estimated the number of decorations awarded for bravery during the Afghan campaign and not yet formally handed to servicemen or their families at more than 6,000. PM/LF

Public prosecutor Kira Gudim said in Moscow on March 20 that she wants a 16-year prison sentence for Aleksandr Koptsev, who is charged with attempted murder, causing premeditated bodily harm, and inciting racial or religious discord in conjunction with his stabbing of eight people at a Moscow synagogue on 11 January, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12 and 13, and February 28, 2006). Although Koptsev could face up to life in prison, Gudim called for a cumulative 16-year sentence in a maximum security facility and with compulsory medical treatment. Doctors have diagnosed Koptsev as suffering from schizophrenia. He has pleaded not guilty and cited anti-Semitic theories in his defense. PM

Seventeen people were injured and up to 55 detained on March 20 during a clash in the village of Korkmaskala in Daghestan's Kumtorkala district, Russian media reported. Several hundred villagers from Korkmaskala and the neighboring village of Tarki gathered outside the local council building to submit competing claims on land formerly in the possession of a collective farm. Police were brought in after the two contingents resorted to violence and then tried to storm the council building. Daghestani Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov and Sergei Solodovnikov, who is first deputy head of the Russian Interior Ministry department for the Southern Federal District, traveled to Korkmaskala to meet with the protesters, and police forcibly dispersed them when they refused to leave, RIA Novosti reported. LF

Speaking on March 20 in Grozny at a ceremony to mark the third anniversary of the adoption of the current Chechen Constitution, Ramzan Kadyrov argued that following the election of a new parliament, Chechnya now needs a free economic zone, Interfax reported. "The ability to manage our own resources and feel that everything we produce belongs to us would allow us to realize our responsibility for the development of the republic," Kadyrov reasoned. Two months after the Russian State Duma passed legislation on free economic zones in July 2005, Kadyrov's predecessor as prime minister, Sergei Abramov, told journalists that he intended to raise with the Russian leadership "within weeks" the issue of creating a free economic zone in Chechnya's lowland region, Interfax and reported. But Chechnya was not on the list of six regions selected to host such zones that Russian Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref announced in late November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25 and November 29, 2005). LF

Nikolai Shepel told a March 20 meeting of law enforcement personnel and representatives to the Federation Council from the Southern Federal District that the number of crimes committed in that district last year rose by 14.4 percent compared to 2004 to exceed 333,000, of which over 126,000 have not been solved, reported. At the same time, Shepel noted that the crime rate in the North Caucasus remains lower than for the Russian Federation as a whole. He listed as the most typical crimes for the region acts of terrorism and the killing of government and law enforcement officials. Shepel said the incidence of abductions in Chechnya and Ingushetia remains high, while the percentage of such crimes that are resolved remains low, at 17 percent in 2005. Other speakers at the session noted that not a single jury trial in the Southern Federal District has resulted in a guilty verdict, even in cases of murder. They attributed that trend to jury members' collective fear of retribution. LF

Parliament deputies from the three parties represented in the ruling coalition thwarted on March 20 a minority initiative to include on the agenda for this week their proposal to establish an interim commission to investigate alleged violations during the November 27 referendum on a package of constitutional amendments, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The pro-government deputies either failed to vote on that proposal or formally abstained; consequently only 20 deputies, all from the opposition, supported it. Viktor Dallakian, secretary of the Artarutiun opposition faction, argued that the majority rejection of the proposal only substantiates suspicions that the government was responsible for falsifying the referendum outcome. LF

Swedish diplomat Peter Semneby met in Baku on March 17 with senior officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev, parliament speaker Oktai Asadov, and Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, reported on March 18. Semneby also held separate talks with prominent opposition party leaders. Semneby singled out as one of his main priorities in his new post seeking a solution to "frozen" conflicts in the Caucasus, reported. He added that he would not have accepted the position of EU special envoy if he did not believe in the possibility of resolving the Karabakh conflict. At the same time, he noted the failure of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to make any progress during their summit in France last month, and he declined to comment on the likelihood of finding a solution to the conflict by the end of 2006. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili has named Irakli Alasania, head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile, as his adviser on conflict resolution, presidential spokesman Gela Charkviani told journalists in Tbilisi on March 20, Georgian media reported. Alasania, who is 32, served earlier in the Defense Ministry and National Security Council, and was named in February 2005 as Saakashvili's special representative for Abkhazia. Although Alasania has consistently taken a tough line when addressing the UN Security Council, he has won the respect of Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba during informal talks: Shamba on March 20 hailed Alasania's new appointment, describing him as "the one man within the Georgian government" with whom he believes it possible to hold "a constructive dialogue," Caucasus Press reported. Shamba explained that such a dialogue was not possible as long as Alasania headed the government in exile, a position which Charkviani said he will now relinquish. The government in exile will nominate finance minister Malkhaz Akishbaya to succeed Alasania as chairman of that body, Caucasus Press reported on March 21. LF

Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava on March 18 accused Valeri Gelashvili, a deputy from the opposition Republican party, of instigating the fire that destroyed a school in Tbilisi's Avlabar district earlier that day, Caucasus Press reported. Ugulava noted that Gelashvili tried repeatedly to persuade the Education Ministry to demolish the school and sell him the site for redevelopment. The Georgian parliament majority called on March 20 for an investigation into Gelashvili's business interests, noting that legislators are barred from simultaneously engaging in commercial activities. Gelashvili, who was seriously injured in an assault in Tbilisi last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 15, 2005), has vowed to sue Ugulava for slander; opposition parliament deputies have closed ranks in his support, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Koba Davitashvili, head of the opposition Conservative Party, called on March 20 for the arrest of ex-President Eduard Shevardnadze on charges of treason, reported. Davitashvili showed journalists video footage of a telephone conversation in which Shevardnadze apparently proposed to then-Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze in November 2003 that demonstrators in Batumi propose, purportedly at the behest of the Georgian opposition, that the region secede from Georgia, in order to provide Shevardnadze with a pretext to discredit opposition leaders. Abashidze sided with Shevardnadze in November 2003 when the opposition launched its campaign for the annulment of the results of the November parliamentary election. On March 21, Shevardnadze denied having ever made such a suggestion to Abashidze, Caucasus Press reported. Shevardnadze added that unauthorized bugging of the presidential office is "a state crime, like murder or high treason." LF

Asylbek Kozhimuratov, head of the veterinary department in Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry, announced on March 20 that the death of a wild swan near Aktau has been attributed to the H5N1 avian flu virus, Khabar reported. Kozhimuratov called on local residents to observe hygiene rules but not to panic. He said the ministry has set aside 40,000 doses of vaccine to treat domestic fowl in Mangistau and Atyrau Provinces. DK

Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, told a news conference in Bishkek on March 20 that the organization is concerned about Ryspek Akmatbaev's decision to run for parliament, Kabar reported. Akmatbaev hopes to win the seat in parliament that his brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, held before he was killed during an attempt to end a prison riot in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 2005, and February 7, 2006). Baisalov said that Akmatbaev cannot run for parliament because of an ongoing criminal investigation and a previous amnesty that has been deemed unlawful. Baisalov criticized the Central Election Commission for failing to deliver a clear ruling on the case. He concluded, "We call on the [commission] to cancel Akmatbaev's registration [as a candidate] in view of the fact that on legal grounds he does not have the right to stand as a candidate in this electoral district." DK

Feliks Kulov said on March 20 that there is no risk of destabilization on the anniversary of unrest that toppled President Askar Akaev on March 24, 2005, Kabar reported. He said, "There are no grounds to say that the situation [in Kyrgyzstan] could deteriorate and produce a repetition of the events that took place on the night of March 24 of last year." Kulov said that pro-Akaev provocateurs were primarily responsible for the looting that occurred in Bishkek after Akaev's ouster. DK

Rahmatullo Zoirov, leader of Tajikistan's Social Democratic Party, has charged that some 1,000 people are currently imprisoned in Tajikistan because of their political beliefs, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on March 20. He said, "We are in the course of preparing a report on political prisoners in Tajikistan" that will be ready by April 8. As examples of political prisoners, Zoirov identified as political prisoners journalist Jumaboy Tolibov, Social Democratic Party activist Fayziniso Vohidova, Democratic Party leader Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, former Interior Minister Yoqob Salimov, and Rustam Fayziev, deputy head of the unregistered Taraqqiyot Party. DK

Turkmen Oil and Gas Minister Gurbanmurat Ataev stated on March 20 that Ukraine must arrange deliveries of Turkmen gas with Russia, which controls the transit route to Ukraine, News Central Asia reported. Ataev said that Ukraine must make "transportation arrangements" through Russia's Gazprom, adding that Ukraine "has been unable to make any arrangements with Gazprom." Ataev also noted that the maximum capacity of the Central Asia-Center pipeline is 40 billion cubic meters a year and that "the Russian party has notified Turkmenistan that it is buying Turkmen gas at the border of Uzbekistan and sells it to Ukraine through RosUkrEnergo." The report also stated: "In addition to 40 billion cubic meters for Ukraine, Turkmenistan has promised to sell 30 billion cubic meters, probably more, to Gazprom in 2006." It did not explain how these shipments could be made in light of the existing pipeline capacity. Ataev reaffirmed that Ukraine's debt to Turkmenistan stands at $158.9 million, noting that Ukraine has "agreed to make cash payments of $59.6 million and $28.7 million" and commodity shipments totaling $55.1 million. A Ukrainian delegation headed by Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov is expected to leave for Ashgabat on March 22 to continue talks. DK

Nursultan Nazarbaev met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on March 20 in Tashkent for talks on deepening bilateral cooperation, UzA reported. The two agreed to form an Interstate Council to develop an economic cooperation program for 2006-2010, Khabar reported. The visit also produced a joint communique and six agreements, including accords on cooperation on science and technology, intellectual property, and transport. UzA noted that bilateral trade totaled $425.9 million in 2004 and $516.4 million in 2005. DK

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced in a March 20 press release that the Uzbek government has given it one month to leave Uzbekistan. The UNHCR said it received a message from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry on March 17 stating, "[The] UNHCR has fully implemented its tasks and there are no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan. With this regard, the ministry requests UNHCR to close its office in Tashkent within one month." While stressing that all of its activities in Uzbekistan have been in accordance with a UN mandate, the UNHCR said that it will comply with the Uzbek government's request. In August 2005, the Uzbek government accused the UNHCR of aiding "terrorists" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2005). The UNHCR assisted in the airlift of 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania in July 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 29, 2005), an action the Uzbek government termed a violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention. DK

Some 7,000 demonstrators gathered on October Square in Minsk on March 20 to protest the officially announced results of the March 19 presidential vote and demand a repeat election, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The Central Election Commission announced earlier the same day that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was re-elected for a third term with nearly 83 percent of the vote, while united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich was backed by 6 percent of voters. Milinkevich alleged that the vote was fraudulent and illegitimate, saying that Lukashenka had no right to seek a third term. "We don't recognize the election results. In Belarus there was no election, but an unconstitutional seizure of power," Milinkevich told journalists. On March 19, shortly after the closure of presidential polls, more than 20,000 people rallied on October Square in support of Milinkevich (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). JM

Presidential challenger Milinkevich called on his supporters on October Square in Minsk on March 20 to remain on the square all night, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service and Belapan reported. Several hundred people stayed with Milinkevich and another opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, on the square until morning and erected 18 tents, in an apparent emulation of the tactic of the Ukrainian opposition, which erected a stage on Independence Square (Maydan Nezalezhnosti) and a tent city on Khreshchatyk Boulevard in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution in 2004. "We must remain on this square. This square is ours. It is Belarusian land. We were here last night and we started fighting for truth and freedom. For Truth! For Justice!" Milinkevich told the crowd on October Square. Police cordoned off the square but restrained from using force against people remaining there. RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that police arrested some 30 opposition activists in Minsk during the night, including opposition leaders Anatol Lyabedzka and Alyaksandr Dabravolski. JM

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington on March 20 that the Belarusian opposition has the right to call for a repeat presidential election, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. "We support [the opposition's] call for a new election. We will stand with the people of Belarus and back their aspirations to take their rightful place among the world's democracies," McCormack said. "The United States is preparing to take serious, appropriate measures against those officials responsible for election fraud and other human rights abuses and will be coordinating these steps with the European Union. We call on the regime in Belarus to release immediately those detained during the campaign." Meanwhile, Russian media reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 20 congratulated Lukashenka on his election victory. "The outcome of the elections demonstrates the confidence of voters in your course aimed at further raising the well-being of the Belarusian people," Putin said in a congratulatory telegram. JM

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) election-observation mission in Belarus said in preliminary findings released on March 20 that the March 19 presidential ballot in Belarus failed to meet OSCE standards for democratic elections. "Arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association, and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition," the mission concluded. "A statement by the security services, accusing the opposition and civil society of planning to seize power and associating them with terrorism, contributed significantly to a climate of intimidation and insecurity.... Opposition candidates faced difficulties in conveying their messages to the public, while the coverage of the president was extensive and favorable.... State employees and students were under pressure not to participate in the campaign of the opposition candidates and to vote for the incumbent president." JM

President Lukashenka held a news conference for domestic and foreign journalists in Minsk on March 20 in connection with his reelection the previous day, Belarusian Television reported. "First of all, I want to say that the revolution that was talked about so much and prepared for so much has failed," Lukashenka said. "Despite the open foreign pressure, the colossal pressure from outside, we managed to resist. This [pressure] has produced a completely opposite effect -- Belarus is a nation that could not be controlled and one could not pointlessly put pressure on it. The results of the vote showed that with absolute clarity.... The virus of color revolutions affects weakened countries in which [those in] power are stuck in corruption and are deaf to people's concerns. Belarus has strong immunity, which is based on effective power, a strong social policy, and a dynamic economy that does not serve individual oligarchs, but [serves] the welfare of all the people." JM

President Lukashenka also said during a news conference in Minsk on March 20 that some opposition activists themselves had asked authorities to put them in police custody during the country's presidential election, Belarusian Television reported. "I know that a few persons were detained, but they themselves asked us for this. They wanted to save their faces, they are not fools, and they realized that nothing would come out [of their efforts]," Lukashenka asserted. He also explained why police did not intervene during the opposition rally in Minsk on March 19. "There was no one there to fight with! No one! That's why we gave them the opportunity to show off even though that was illegal," Lukashenka said. "Why am I saying this? Because many of them asked us to give them some opportunity to show off before Westerners, ambassadors that gave them money.... We gave them the opportunity to show themselves in full in front of your cameras, microphones, recorders, and your eyes. You saw our opposition. If you are intelligent people, you found that it is worth nothing." JM

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told students at the Kyiv-based Wisconsin International University on March 20 that the parliamentary election campaign has thus far proved to be the most free in independent Ukraine, the Action Ukraine newsletter reported. Herbst also pointed to some shortcomings in the campaign, however. "There are credible reports that whole buildings or city blocks of voters do not appear on the lists for Donetsk and Zhytomyr," he said. "And there are credible reports about the problem created by the transliteration of voter names from Russian to Ukrainian. It is essential that the authorities do everything possible to address these and all other problems with the voter lists. It is likewise essential that all voting precincts be adequately staffed with commissioners." JM

Reporter Mykhaylo Shamanov and cameraman Serhiy Dakhin from the New Channel television were detained by Belarusian border guards while returning from Minsk to Kyiv on March 20, Interfax-Ukraine and the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. The guards confiscated four videocassettes containing footage of an opposition rally in Minsk and a news conference given by Belarusian presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. The tapes were reportedly taken for an examination to determine whether their content violates Belarusian laws. JM

Four Serbian children from Bajina Basta were released from the hospital on March 20 after it was determined that they had not contracted avian influenza, B92 reported the same day. "The kids who were hospitalized in the viral sector were released this morning after test results that were negative came in last night," Uzice Clinical Center Director Darko Marinkovic said. "They were released in generally good health and with confirmations that they do not have the virus. There were no new patients accepted since then." The children had been in quarantine since March 17 after showing some symptoms consistent with the virus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2006). In the community surrounding Bajina Basta, a dead rooster was found that was suspected of having been infected with the lethal H5N1 strain of the virus. BW

The body of Milan Babic, the former Serbian leader in Croatia, arrived in Belgrade on March 20, dpa reported the same day. Babic's coffin was met by a small group of relatives and friends at Belgrade airport. His funeral is scheduled for March 21. Babic, 50, was found dead on March 5 in his cell at a UN detention facility in Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). The former president of the self-declared Krajina Serb republic that broke away from Croatia after it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Babic was 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 also a key witness in the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was found dead in his cell on March 11. BW

Slobodan Samardzic, a member of Serbia's negotiating team in Kosova's final-status talks, said on March 21 that Belgrade is not seeking to partition the province, B92 reported. "Belgrade does not wish to divide Kosovo and there is no document where this is mentioned," Samardzic said. Instead, he said, Serbia seeks a "deeper decentralization for the Serbian municipalities in Kosovo" and "for Kosovo to have an essential autonomy within Serbia." Samardzic added that there is no talk "of changing the borders, dividing Kosovo, or any other solution." BW

Explosives were discovered in the parking lot of the Democratic Party of Kosova's (PDK) Prishtina office on March 20, international news agencies reported. A bomb squad performed a controlled explosion and police spokeswoman Violeta Elezaj said there was "no damage and no human casualties." Elezaj said the explosives were being analyzed, but unidentified police officials told dpa that it was C4. According to AP, the explosives comprised 800 grams of TNT. The PDK is led by Hashim Thaci, a former commander with the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). On March 14, Thaci was named the head of Kosova's negotiating team in UN-led final-status talks. The move drew sharp criticism from Serbia, which considers him a terrorist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 17, and 20, 2006). BW

The United States and the European Union on March 20 praised Bosnia-Herzegovina for reaching agreement on political reforms that will strengthen the central government, Reuters reported the same day. Bosnia's seven major parties, representing its Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian communities, reached an agreement on the constitutional reform on March 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). "The agreement constitutes a significant step forward to making Bosnia and Herzegovina's state institutions more functional and better able to meet European standards," EU foreign ministers said in a joint statement. The statement said that continuing talks on closer ties with the EU depended on Bosnia reforming its police and public-broadcasting sectors and cooperating fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the constitutional changes "significant first steps toward modernizing the structures established by the Dayton peace accords and toward creating a more functional state ready to take its place in Euro-Atlantic institutions." BW

Russian Ambassador to Moldova Nikolai Ryabov said on March 20 that new customs rules will destabilize the region, AP reported the same day. Ukraine and Moldova implemented the new rules on March 3, requiring that all exports from the breakaway Transdniester region clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, 8, and 16, 2006). Transdniestrian officials have called the move an economic blockade. "Ukraine has joined Moldovan attempts to annex Transdniester to its economic space," Ryabov said, and called the new customs rules an attempt to disrupt Transdniester's economy and stir protests against pro-Moscow leader Igor Smirnov, who has led the region since 1990. BW

While Western leaders have openly expressed their distaste for authoritarian Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently supported his regime, both politically and economically. Russia has been providing the country with cheap oil and gas, generous loans, and has cancelled customs duties for Belarusian exports to Russia.

According to official preliminary results, President Lukashenka won a landslide victory in the March 19 presidential election, garnering 82.6 percent of the vote. An official victory would enable Lukashenka, a former collective-farm manager who has ruled Belarus since 1994, to win a third term and remain in office for five more years.

Putin formally congratulated Lukashenka on his victory in a March 20 statement, saying that the "results of the elections point to voters' trust in your policies and to the further growth of the prosperity of the Belarusian people."

Opposition leaders are claiming the vote was rigged and have called for new elections. Several thousand people have massed in a central Minsk square to protest the results. But while the huge margin of victory granted to Lukashenka by the preliminary results has raised some eyebrows, it is widely believed that he does enjoy enough support at home to have won a majority and avoided a runoff.

Many political observers say Lukashenka owes his popularity not only to intense propaganda, but also to Russia's robust economic aid, which has allowed him to raise pensions and salaries. But why is Russia throwing its weight behind such a controversial figure as Lukashenka, who has been isolated by most Western leaders and branded a dictator by Washington?

Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation think tank in Moscow, said Russia's support reflects its fears of losing its closest ally in opposition to NATO's eastward expansion. "From the point of view of the Russian political mentality, Belarus is a very important stronghold of resistance to NATO's eastward expansion, a containment of this NATO expansion that is often discussed in Russian political circles," Volk said. "In the Cold War paradigm that is still very present in Russian politics, Belarus plays an important role as a stronghold against NATO."

While the European Union on March 20 expressed its disapproval of the way in which the presidential election was conducted and said it will likely impose sanctions, Russia hailed the vote as free and fair.

Strategic interests aside, Russia has a number of reasons to back Lukashenka. The Kremlin has been anxious to prevent a repetition of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which swept the Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko to power in 2005. Some observers also say that by allowing Lukashenka to step into the limelight, Putin's regime hopes to deflect criticism of its own rights violations.

Economically, Russia's warm ties with Belarus may have helped the state-controlled Russian gas giant Gazprom to wrest control of the Belarusian section of the Yamal-Europe pipeline from a reluctant Lukashenka last December. This pipeline carries 10 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe.

But Putin and Lukashenka have not always enjoyed a close relationship. While Russia and Belarus have long planned to join in a union state that would use the Russian ruble as its currency, Lukashenka was severely angered by a proposal Putin made in 2002 under which Belarus would virtually become a part of Russia.

Nevertheless, Heritage Foundation Director Volk said Moscow's support of Lukashenka is unlikely to falter in the future, provided the Belarusian president remains loyal to the Kremlin. "This [support] will take place until a person is found in Belarus who, firstly, will be at least as loyal to the Kremlin as Lukashenka, and secondly will enjoy as much support from the population," Volk said. "So far, not a single politician has satisfied the Kremlin by meeting these criteria. There are people who can be supported by the population, but the Kremlin strongly fears that they will turn to the West like the Ukrainian government."

Other observers, however, say Moscow's backing of Lukashenka could tarnish Russia's image abroad and harm its ties with Western countries, particularly in the aftermath of the March 19 election.

Claire Bigg is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Moscow.

Afghan Parliamentary Affairs Minister Faruq Wardak denied reports on March 20 that President Hamid Karzai has presented a revised cabinet list to the National Assembly, however he said a new list will be presented to the lawmakers "in the coming day," Pajhwak Afghan News reported. While Wardak refused to speculate about changes in Karzai's cabinet, one report said that Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah may lose his position. According to unofficial sources cited by RFE/RL, either Azam Dadfar Spanta, adviser on international affairs to Karzai, or Sayyed Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington, is slated to replace Abdullah. There are also reports that the Interior Ministry will be split into two entities, one dealing with security issues and the other with administrative matters. AT

Unidentified assailants shot dead four Afghan policemen in Musa Qala District of the restive Helmand Province on March 20, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Hajji Mohyuddin, spokesman for the Helmand governor, told Pajhwak that the police were attacked by gunmen on motorcycles. According to an anonymous police source, the dead officers included a senior commander, Qari Saber. AT

Tests results confirmed on March 20 a new outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu among chickens in Kabul and the neighboring Laghman and Nangarhar Provinces, AFP reported. Meanwhile, officials in the nearby Konar Province feared that the deadly strain of the virus has been detected in birds found dead there, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on March 20. Samples from Wardak Province have tested positive for the broader H5-type virus, but indications are that the presence of the deadlier version of the virus is suspected in all five provinces, AFP reported, quoting Azizullah Osmani, head of the Afghan Agriculture Ministry's veterinary department. No human cases of the disease have been reported in Afghanistan thus far (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2006). AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced on March 20 in Tehran, as his compatriots celebrated the Iranian new year (Norouz), that the coming year will be called the "Year of [the] Prophet Muhammad," IRNA reported. Khamenei said the Islamic community and the Iranian nation need the Prophet's guidance now more than ever. Among the Prophet's lessons, he said, are ethics, dignity, and resistance. Reviewing the past year, Khamenei hailed the presidential election. He also referred to the forthcoming Arba'in commemoration, which marks the 40th day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. BS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in his new year's message on March 20 that the Iranian nation will stand firm in pursuit of its nuclear rights, IRNA reported. This self-developed knowledge cannot be taken away, he said, and it is needed for electrical-power generation and other purposes. Ahmadinejad complained that Iran's enemies are engaged in a psychological war against it. Ahmadinejad said Iran should be compensated for the damage caused by 2 1/2 years of suspended nuclear activities. Ahmadinejad said his administration is committed to serving the people, and he urged the public to monitor the performance of the government. BS

The Students Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners has requested the release of all such detainees in Iran as the country celebrates the new year, Radio Farda reported on March 20. Group spokesman Hassan Zarehzadeh Ardeshir told Radio Farda that many of the prisoners' families have gone to the places of detention to collect their relatives for the traditional New Year's leave, but have not yet been able to do so. A number of political prisoners at Evin prison have warned that if they are not granted their New Year's leave they will begin a hunger strike. Leave for some 20 Evin prisoners has been approved by the prison authorities, Radio Farda reported, but the Tehran prosecutor and other officials blocked it. BS

Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei discussed regional developments during a March 20 meeting with Syrian Vice President Faruq Shara in Damascus, SANA reported. Iraq reportedly was a focus of the talks, and the officials also stressed the importance of continuing contacts. Also in attendance was Iran's ambassador to Damascus, Hassan Akhtari. BS

Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam satellite television reported on March 20 that Iranian security personnel have arrested an unspecified number of people suspected of planning assassinations in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The suspects reportedly were carrying "advanced weapons equipped with silencers and laser equipment normally used in assassinations, some of which are made in Britain." Unrest in southwestern Iran has been continuing for about a year, and Iranian officials have repeatedly claimed that Great Britain is involved with such incidents. BS

Insurgents attacked and took over an Iraqi police station in Al-Miqdadiyah on March 21, killing policemen and freeing prisoners, international media reported. Al-Arabiyah television reported that the gunmen killed 15 policemen and wounded five others before setting fire to several buildings. The gunmen withdrew upon the arrival of U.S. and Iraqi reinforcements. reported that 17 policemen and one attacker were killed in the attack. More than 20 prisoners were freed, including the son of Ba'athist fugitive Rashid Ta'm, said Ali Khayam, a spokesman for the Diyala joint operations center, according to KR

Jordan closed its borders on March 20 after two busloads of Palestinian refugees holding Iraqi travel documents attempted to enter from Iraq, international media reported. The 100 Palestinians are reportedly all refugees who fled to Iraq during or after the 1948 war. Many are among those who attempted to flee Iraq in 2003 after being targeted in revenge attacks by Iraqis angry over Saddam Hussein's support for the Palestinians, who lived comfortably under Hussein. Media reports in recent weeks indicate a resurgence of attacks targeting Palestinians. According to Al-Arabiyah television, the buses cleared the Iraqi side of the border but were refused entry into Jordan. When they turned back, they were not allowed reentry and thus remain in no-man's land. Jordanian government spokesman Nasir Judah said that his government is in contact with the Iraqi government to resolve the matter, reported on March 21. "This is not an open door. We can't just let people in because they are at the border," he said. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Jordan houses 1.7 million Palestinian refugees and another 800,000 internally displaced people from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. KR

The Sunni Arab Muslim Scholars Association said in a March 20 statement posted to its website on the third anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom that an integral national plan is needed in order to oust foreign forces from Iraq. "Iraqis should consider their interests carefully, realize the dangers threatening their country, work hard to overcome the crisis, and get rid of the occupation, through a coherent national-liberation program based on Iraqis' right to choose their political system and representatives through an independent political process and away from the influence of the occupation and other parties," the statement says. Referring to the current U.S.-Iraqi military operation in Samarra, the association says, "The weaker the occupation becomes, the more it harms the Iraqis by killing them, destroying their property, and violating their values and rights." Claiming that "the U.S. project failed in Iraq just as it has failed in the American street," the association demands the withdrawal of multinational forces and compensation for the "illegal invasion which disrupted our country, killed our sons, and destroyed everything." KR

The March 20 Muslim Scholars Association statement contains a clear warning to Iraqi security forces against carrying out joint operations with multinational forces. Addressing Iraqi forces, the association says, "Beware of being deceived into believing that you are fighting terrorists who have come from abroad." Claiming that military operations are leading to the deaths of Iraqi civilians, the group warns, "History will register each drop of blood you [security forces] shed in your homeland." Alluding to the possibility of revenge attacks against Iraqi security forces should multinational forces depart Iraq, the statement adds, "We would like you to remember that the occupation will come to an end sooner or later and that the people are the owners of the land." The association also claims that the sectarian violence now taking place in Iraq has nothing to do with religion but is rather a result of the occupation, saying multinational forces have launched a military campaign to ignite civil war in order to weaken the Iraqi resistance. "But God has disappointed them and made their plot backfire." KR