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Newsline - March 22, 2006

Russian and Chinese officials signed about 30 agreements in Beijing on March 21, almost all of which were economic, as part of President Vladimir Putin's two-day visit to China, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). In one agreement, Russia's Federal Financial Monitoring Service and the People's Bank of China signed an agreement on intelligence sharing to prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorist activities. Russia's Unified Energy Systems signed an electricity-export contact with China's State Grid Corporation, and the state oil company Rosneft and Gazprom signed agreements on supplies and joint ventures with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). An unnamed member of the Russian delegation told RIA Novosti that a projected $10 billion gas pipeline from Russia to China could go into service in 2011. He added that financing is unlikely to pose problems. He also noted that Gazprom and its Chinese counterparts have agreed on a price for deliveries, but he did not elaborate. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller told Interfax that deliveries could start in six years and that the prices were based on those of "hydrocarbons in Asia." PM

President Putin said in Beijing on March 22 that "the Russian Federation and China have taken the decision to construct an oil pipeline system from eastern Siberia to the Pacific coast. Transneft and CNPC signed a protocol [on March 21] to research the issue and construct a branch of the pipeline to...China. I have no doubt that this project will take place, and it will allow us to increase significantly the supply of oil from Russia to China," news agencies reported. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented that "the practical implementation of [the oil-pipeline] project will begin in the next few months. The Chinese side is aware of this. The related technical and economic feasibility study will be conducted jointly, as quickly as possible." Rosneft head Sergei Bogdanchikov said that he hopes that the pipeline will be completed "at the end of 2008." It appears that Russia has taken note of the Chinese impatience to ensure oil supplies of a magnitude that can only be delivered by a pipeline. It is not clear whether the Russian pledges will be sufficient for their partners. London's "Financial Times" wrote about Putin's visit that "there is a temporary coincidence of material interests between Russia and China, but it is superficial, and the results have yet to yield lasting benefits for either country or the world at large." PM

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Brussels on March 21 that Russia wants to show it can be a "credible, stable, and reliable" energy partner for the EU, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and 20, 2006). He added that President Putin gave him "firm" guarantees to that effect during their recent talks in Moscow. Barroso did not elaborate. He said Putin told him Russia is open to foreign investment from European energy companies. Barroso admitted, however, that he failed to persuade Russian officials to ratify the Energy Charter, an international agreement that would end Gazprom's monopoly over Russia's pipeline system. EU leaders will discuss energy issues at a March 24 summit. PM

Some 9,000 people have reportedly signed an open letter seeking Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's resignation over hazing practices in the army, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20 and 21, 2006). Organizers said they have submitted the open letter to President Putin's administration. Organizer Maria Smirnova said that the initiative was prompted by the especially brutal and well publicized incident involving Private Andrei Sychyov in Chelyabinsk at the beginning of 2006. On March 20, Putin named Ivanov to head a Military-Industrial Commission (VPK) with an annual budget of $25 billion. While touring military and other installations relating to his work with the VPK, Ivanov told RIA Novosti in Krasnoyarsk on March 22 that he is carrying out his duties and is not bothered by "a lot of talk" for him to resign. PM

Mongush Kenin-Lopsan, the supreme shaman of Russia's Tuva Republic, has demanded in a letter to Defense Minister Ivanov that he apologize for recent remarks in which he said that it is a shame that sometimes "good newspaper articles are published alongside advertisements for bordellos, shamans, and other sleazy operators," RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on March 22. Kenin-Lopsan wrote Ivanov that his remarks amount to "a disparagement of shamans in a way unknown in the history of the Russian Empire or the former USSR." Kenin-Lopsan argued that shamans have always represented "the most humane religious tendencies" and that shamanism is "the holy of holies" to many of Siberia's indigenous peoples. Deputy Lyudmila Narusova, who represents Tuva in the Federation Council, has demanded that Ivanov apologize, Tallinn-based analyst Paul Goble wrote in an electronic newsletter. She warned Ivanov that if he does not do so, shamans and their followers might react in the same way that millions of Muslims did to the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. But on March 22, Ivanov said that he has nothing to apologize for because he used the word "charlatans," not "shamans," reported. "I stand by what I said," he added. PM

Several hundred demonstrators marched in Tomsk and Novosibirsk on March 22 to demand a retrial of railway worker Oleg Shcherbinsky, whom an Altai Krai court recently sentenced to four years in a penal colony in connection with an August 2005 car accident that left the region's governor, Mikhail Yevdokimov, and two others dead, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 11, 2005, and February 3 and 13, 2006). Shcherbinsky's appeal is slated to be heard on March 23. Thousands of motorists took part in protests across Russia over the February 11-12 weekend on behalf of the railway worker, who had become a symbol of the plight of ordinary drivers when involved in accidents with officials. But the latest protests included representatives of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, who called for, among other things, clarification of traffic rules regarding the use of flashing lights on officials' cars. Hundreds of motorists also staged pro-Shcherbinsky protests in Barnaul and other cities across Russia, reported. PM

Wieslaw Jakubowiak, who heads the World Health Organization's tuberculosis program in Russia, told Interfax on March 21 that the disease kills some 26,000 people there each year, which is one of the 22 highest rates in the world. He noted that 110,000 people contract the disease in Russia annually. In 2004, 84 Russians per 100,000 of the population were infected, compared to 20 people in Europe. The prison population and people who are HIV-positive are particularly vulnerable to TB. The absolute number of those contracting and dying of the disease in Russia has been on the decline in recent years. PM

About 100 demonstrators silently picketed in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryatia Republic, on March 21 to protest the proposed unification of Irkutsk Oblast with Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug, which is totally surrounded by the Irkutsk Oblast, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2005). The demonstrators distributed a booklet arguing that unification will not improve the standard of living or help the cultural development of ethnic minorities. The booklet also suggested that it is difficult to find views opposing unification in the mass media. The unification project is part of a Kremlin-sponsored initiative to create larger administrative regions, which could presumably be more easily controlled. It contrasts sharply with the admonition to the regions of former President Boris Yeltsin to "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow." PM

Several dozen residents of the village of Korkmaskala in Daghestan's Kumtorkala district congregated outside the local government building on March 21 to continue their protest over the use of disputed land, and reported. On March 20, residents from Korkmaskala and the neighboring village of Tarki engaged in a fight that was halted only after the deployment of police and the advent of Daghestan's Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). LF

The heads of Russia's Vneshekonombank and the Chinese State Development Bank, Vladimir Dmitriyev and Chen Yuan, signed an agreement in Beijing on March 21 with pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov on setting up a system for financing investment in Chechnya, particularly in housing construction and infrastructure and in automobile construction and the oil industry, Interfax reported. Alkhanov said Chinese investment in his republic could lead to an influx of capital from other countries, and he stressed that investigating in Chechnya is no riskier than in other regions of Russia. He estimated the Chinese bank will invest around $100 million "at the initial stage," and said priority will be given to the construction and construction-materials industries, including a brick factory in Grozny and a woodworking enterprise in Urus Martan. LF

Adygeya's Cherkess Congress addressed an appeal on March 21 to the head of the Council of Europe's secretariat for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in connection with fears that the new Adygeya parliament will pass legislation on referendums that would make it possible for the republic's Slav majority to approve Adygeya's merger with surrounding Krasnodar Krai, reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 10, 2006). Organizations representing the Cherkess communities of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic and the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic also signed the appeal. Although the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia won the largest number of seats (12) in the March 12 parliamentary election in Adygeya, other Slav-dominated parties, including the Communist Party (KPRF), hope to create a broad coalition that could outvote Unified Russia, Grigory Senin, who heads the republican branch of the KPRF, told on March 20. LF

Deputy parliament speaker Vahan Hovannisian (Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun), who is a co-chairman of the Armenia-Russian interparliamentary commission, told journalists in Yerevan on March 21 that during a recent meeting of that commission the Armenian side warned Russia that the imminent doubling of the price Armenia pays for imports of natural gas from Russia is fuelling anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. As of April 1, the price Armenia will pay per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas will rise from $56 to $110 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17 and March 13 and 15, 2006). Hovannisian added that unnamed Russian officials replied that the Georgian leadership insisted that if Tbilisi were compelled to pay a higher price for Russian gas, Armenia should be required to do the same. Also on March 21, Armenian parliament deputy Manuk Gasparian (independent) accused the Public Services Regulatory Commission, which last week approved hikes in gas prices, of protecting the interests of the joint venture ArmRusGazprom rather than those of consumers, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Noting that Belarus is charged $46 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas, Gasparian argued that Armenia should pay no more than $85. LF

Speaking in Baku on March 21 during celebrations to mark Norouz (Muslim celebration of the first day of spring, and the Persian New Year), Ilham Aliyev once again affirmed that Azerbaijan's sovereignty and territorial integrity are non-negotiable, reported. Aliyev said any settlement of the Karabakh conflict must be based on international law. Meanwhile, presidential administration official Novruz Mammedov told on March 22 that the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that is seeking to mediate such a settlement did not release any statement following their working meting in Istanbul two days earlier. LF

A total of five people have died in Azerbaijan of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza, and the disease has been confirmed in two of a further six suspected cases, "The Independent" reported on March 22, quoting a World Health Organization (WHO) press release. The WHO reported last week that three people in Azerbaijan had died of the disease (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2006). LF

Peter Semneby, who recently succeeded Heikki Talvitie as the European Union's Special Representative for the South Caucasus (EUSR), met in Tbilisi on March 20 with Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze and Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli to discuss Georgia's European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan, controls on the Georgian border with Russia, and the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. On March 21, Semneby discussed with Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze and EU specialists the draft law on restitution for victims of the South Ossetia conflict that Tbilisi recently submitted to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which has provisionally approved it, according to Caucasus Press on March 20. Semneby told journalists in Tbilisi later on March 21 that the EU intends to participate more actively in efforts to resolve conflicts in Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. He advised the Georgian leadership to act "decisively but cautiously" to avoid exacerbating tensions in the conflict zones. LF

In a study unveiled on March 20 in Brussels (, the International Crisis Group (ICG) urged the EU to assume a more active role in efforts to resolve the Karabakh, Abkhaz, and South Ossetian conflicts. While acknowledging that Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia differ in their approaches to and expectations from increased cooperation with the EU within the parameters of the New Neighborhood Program, the ICG study advocates designating specific measures to resolve the three conflicts as essential components of their respective European Neighborhood Policy Action Plans. The study further calls for the EUSR to participate as an observer in the OSCE Minsk Group, and suggests he might either join the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring developments in the South Ossetian conflict zone, or "take the lead in creating a new format based on direct talks with Georgia, South Ossetia, and perhaps Russia." LF

Georgian human rights ombudsman Sozar Subar said in Tbilisi on March 21 that the clandestine recording, without the approval of the Supreme Court, of a November 2003 telephone conversation between then-Georgian President Edurard Shevardnadze and then-Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze was unacceptable and a violation of the Georgian Constitution, Caucasus Press reported. Opposition Conservative party leader Koba Davitashvili announced in Tbilisi on March 20 that he plans to submit that recording -- in which Shevardnadze allegedly proposed to Abashidze that demonstrators in Batumi call for the Adjar Republic to secede from Georgia -- to the prosecutor-general and demand that Shevardnadze be prosecuted for treason (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). But Subar argued that because the tape was made illegally, it does not constitute legal evidence that can submitted to a court. LF

As anticipated, the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile voted on March 21 to appoint as its chairman former Finance Minister Malkhaz Akishbaya, Caucasus Press reported. Akishbaya, who is 33 and a financier, was the only candidate nominated to succeed Irakli Alasania, whom Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has named his adviser for conflict resolution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). He told journalists that he intends to implement a serious reform of the government in exile. LF

In comments broadcast by Uzbekistan's Akhborot news on March 21, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who concluded an official visit to Uzbekistan on March 20, praised Uzbek President Islam Karimov's handling of unrest in Andijon in May 2005. Speaking on March 20 in Tashkent, Nazarbaev told Karimov: "I know that in Andijon you were protecting the peace of the 26 million people of Uzbekistan. Not only that of Uzbekistan's people, but also of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks living here. Today, it is known for certain through the intelligence services that groups of trained extremists had entered Uzbekistan with the aim of destabilizing not only you but also us. We are well aware of this." DK

Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry registered the opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Ak Zhol) on March 17, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on March 21. The registration took place after an appeals section of the Supreme Court overturned an earlier decision by an Astana court denying the party registration. Naghyz Ak Zhol was formed in 2005 after a split in the Ak Zhol opposition party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2005). One of the co-chairmen of Naghyz Ak Zhol, Altynbek Sarsenbaev, was recently killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006). DK

Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission (CEC) issued a statement on March 21 confirming that Ryspek Akmatbaev has the right to run for a seat in parliament in an upcoming by-election, Kabar reported. Responding to recent criticism of Akmatbaev's candidacy by NGOs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006), the CEC said that it received conflicting conclusions about Akmatbaev's criminal convictions from law-enforcement and judicial officials, and that it has been unable to obtain a definitive ruling on the matter from the Supreme Court or parliament. The statement concluded, "At present, the CEC, despite the negative attitude of the public, does not have legal grounds for canceling Akmatbaev's registration [as a candidate]." The CEC went on to rebuke legislator Iskhak Masaliev and Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, for their public criticism of the CEC over Akmatbaev's candidacy. DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev signed decrees on March 20 raising the wages for 26,000 employees in the education and research fields effective April 1, Kabar reported. Employees of higher educational institutions, scientific centers, and social workers will receive a 50 percent raise. Workers at the National Academy of Sciences and employees of retirement homes will get a 15 percent increase, and the employees of state-run cultural institutions will see their pay go up 35 percent. The state budget has set aside 118 million soms ($2.85 million) for the pay hikes. DK

Imomali Rakhmonov signed a decree on March 20 raising the minimum-salary and pension unit in Tajikistan by 66 percent to 20 somonis ($6) effective April 1, Avesta reported on March 21. The unit is used to calculate pensions and wages in various sectors. The report specified that workers in the education sector will get a 40 percent raise, while medical employees will receive pay hikes ranging from 40 to 60 percent. Pensions for single women and widows will go up 50 percent, and the new maximum pension will be 180 somonis ($56). DK

The U.S. State Department issued a statement on March 21 condemning the Uzbek government's decision to shut down the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). The State Department urged Uzbekistan to reconsider, saying, "We call on the government of Uzbekistan to rescind this order and allow UNHCR to continue protecting and assisting refugees and asylum seekers in Uzbekistan." The statement also expressed concern about the fate of 18 Uzbek asylum seekers forcibly returned to Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. DK

Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on March 21 also urging the Uzbek government to reconsider its decision. HRW said that the decision "will deprive refugees in Uzbekistan of international protection and set a terrible precedent." The statement quoted Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, as saying: "Uzbekistan is one of the few countries ever to kick out UNHCR. If a government can get away with expelling UNHCR every time it objects to the agency assisting its nationals abroad, the international refugee protection regime will fall apart." Roth added, "Closing down UNHCR in Uzbekistan looks very much like retaliation for its work to protect Uzbek refugees abroad, but those who will pay the price are refugees from other countries who have sought asylum in Uzbekistan." DK

UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks on March 21 that 2,000 Afghan refugees rely on UNHCR in Uzbekistan. "We have people to take care of -- 2,000 Afghans in Uzbekistan that depend on our assistance, education, and health care," she said. The UNHCR has said that it will comply with the Uzbek request that it close its offices in the country. DK

Some 6,000 people descended on October Square in Minsk on the evening of March 21 to demand that the official results of the March 19 presidential polls giving an overwhelming victory to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka be voided, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The opposition rally on October Square has been continuing since the evening of March 19, with several hundred demonstrators remaining on the square overnight. United opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich called on his supporters to keep vigil on the square at least until March 25, the 88th anniversary of the formation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, a short-lived independent Belarusian state. Another opposition presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, suggested that the protesters break off their vigil and return to the square on March 25, but the crowd reportedly did not heed him. JM

Some 50 people arrested on March 20 and 21 for their participation in the opposition rally on October Square have stood trial in four courts in Minsk, Belapan reported on March 21, quoting human rights defender Tatsyana Ravyaka. Most of them were reportedly given jail terms. In particular, Civil United Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka was jailed for 15 days, his deputy Anatol Dabravolski to nine days, and student activist Tatsyana Khoma for 10 days. "This is the trial of truth and justice. So long as we will have this regime, we will continue to have such trials. Shame on such courts, shame on such judges," Lyabedzka told reporters after leaving the courtroom. According to opposition sources, police apprehended some 110 people in Minsk by the evening of March 21. RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that police on March 22 apprehended and harshly beat Mikhal Audzeyeu, a participant in the vigil on October Square, while he was trying to get home to change his clothes. Audzeyeu managed to escape and return to the square. JM

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry has said in a statement that the March 19 presidential polls in Belarus were held in a climate of fear where there was no freedom of press and candidates did not enjoy equal conditions, and it slammed the vote as neither democratic nor free, Belapan reported on March 21. Vilnius said it supports the Belarusians who have taken to the streets to defend the path of democratic development they chose. The Latvian Foreign Ministry has expressed regret that the election did not met international democratic standards, and it accused the Belarusian authorities of creating obstacles to making a democratic choice. On March 21, the ambassadors of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic visited demonstrators on October Square in Minsk. "We ambassadors are here because we believe in human rights and the democratic process. This is part of the democratic process -- the right of people to express their views, which is very constrained in Belarus. It is very difficult for people to have a debate, to be able to say what they think and even to be able to vote. And so we are here to show that we are aware of that, and we are here to show that we support people of Belarus," British Ambassador to Belarus Brian Beckett was quoted as saying on the square. JM

Former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who is also leader of the eponymous political bloc, called on President Viktor Yushchenko on March 21 to give a "clear-cut and unambiguous" answer to the question whether he is going to create a coalition with his presidential rival Viktor Yanukovych after the March 26 parliamentary elections, Ukrainian media reported. According to Tymoshenko, the lack of an answer by March 26 will be seen as Yushchenko's tacit agreement to such a coalition. Tymoshenko also called on all other political forces to reveal their coalition plans in the new parliament. Some Ukrainian analysts have speculated that the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine bloc would prefer Yanukovych's Party of Regions to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc in forming a governing coalition in the new Verkhovna Rada. Meanwhile, Yanukovych said in a television interview on March 21 that he does not see a possibility for creating a postelection coalition with the Orange Revolution camp. "How is it possible to create a coalition with partners who are propagating evil?" Yanukovych asked. JM

The Democratic Initiatives Fund, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, and the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies will jointly conduct a nationwide exit poll during the March 26 legislative vote, Interfax-Ukraine reported on March 21. The pollsters are planning to question 18,000 respondents from throughout Ukraine. JM

A police officer on March 21 shot and severely wounded Oleksandr Hlobenko, a 17-year-old student distributing election materials for the Pora civic organization, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. The incident reportedly took place while the officer was trying to handcuff Hlobenko. The youth reportedly lost four liters of blood, underwent surgery, and remains hospitalized. Pora, which is participating in the parliamentary election in a bloc with the Reforms and Order Party, has demanded a thorough investigation of the incident. JM

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik urged Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku on March 21 to reach out to the Serbian minority in the province, dpa reported the same day. "The challenges for the new head of government are great, and the expectations of the international community in him accordingly high," Plassnik, representing Austria's EU presidency, told Ceku. She added that he has "a special responsibility to reach out his hand to the Serb community" and to assure that Kosovar Serbs can "lead a life in security and dignity." BW

Plassnik also stepped up pressure on Serbia and Montenegro on March 21 to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic and extradite him to the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), B92 reported the same day. Speaking for the EU presidency, the Austrian foreign minister said Brussels is serious about cutting off negotiations with Belgrade if Mladic isn't arrested. "We have made it clear that complete cooperation with the tribunal is expected and we have repeated that on several occasions," she said. "We have also clearly stated that if full cooperation is not achieved, the discussions will be suspended. This is the stance we had earlier and it has not changed since the last meeting." BW

Serbia's opposition Democratic Party (DS) said on March 21 that it has offered Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's minority government a deal in which DS would support key reform legislation in exchange for early elections, Beta, B92 and dpa reported the same day. "I see no way out of this situation other than through early elections," DS Vice President Dusan Petrovic said. An "agreement on early elections in the autumn would include an agreement on a series of questions the state has to resolve before the elections," he said. Kostunica's minority government depends on tacit support from Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in parliament. But B92 quoted SPS Vice President Milorad Vucelic as saying that since Milosevic's death, a faction has taken over the party that will not support Kostunica's government. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling said on March 21 that he will allow most officials sacked by his predecessors to return to public life, Reuters and dpa reported the same day. The officials, except those fired for supporting war crimes fugitives, will be allowed to apply for public positions beginning on April 3. A total of 161 officials have been removed from their posts by various high representatives since December 1997, including two members of the collective tripartite presidency. "The removal of these officials was and is an extraordinary measure taken in abnormal circumstances for the sole purpose of enabling the country to emerge from the devastating war," Schwarz-Schilling told a news conference. "It was and is a direct intervention into the political and legal processes of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But as Bosnia...moves towards Euro-Atlantic integration, there are compelling reasons why these bans should be lifted." BW

Montenegro's main opposition parties have agreed to unite to form a common front against independence, AFP reported on March 21. Montenegro is scheduled to vote on independence on May 21. The Socialist People's Party, the Serbian Popular Party, and the Serbian Democratic Party agreed late on March 20 to coordinate their campaigns in favor of maintaining the union of Serbia and Montenegro. "We are starting a common campaign for this referendum," Popular Party President Predrag Popovic was quoted as saying by the daily "Dan." "We are united on this question and we have the support of all political groups who want to maintain the common state," Popovic added. According to public opinion polls cited by AFP, 43 percent of Montenegrins support independence, 31 percent oppose it, and 24 percent are undecided. In order for the referendum to pass, 55 percent of those casting ballots must vote for independence and turnout must be at least 50 percent. BW

The European Commission recommended on March 21 that the EU sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Albania, AFP reported. An unidentified official told AFP that the agreement could be signed within months. "The commission this morning decided to make the formal proposal to the council [of EU ministers] for the signature of the SAA, and we hope that the signature can take place very soon," the official said. "The signature will be...during the spring." Albania began negotiating the SAA on January 31, 2003. "The negotiations have been concluded now and the signature and ratification are imminent," said Hans Winkler, a senior Foreign Ministry official in Austria, which holds the EU's rotating presidency until the end of June. Once the SAA is signed, it must be ratified by the European Parliament and the parliaments of the 25 member states. BW

Igor Smirnov, the leader of the breakaway region of Transdniester, asked Moscow on March 21 to send more troops to the region due to what he called rising tensions with the Moldovan government, AP reported the same day. "The entire region is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, with growing tensions that could lead to direct confrontations," Smirnov said in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Smirnov asked Russia, which already has 1,500 troops in Transdniester, to reinforce its military presence to prevent what he called a social and economic crisis. Smirnov's appeal to Moscow is the result of new customs regulations requiring goods crossing the Transdniestrian portion of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border to clear Moldovan customs, Moldova and Ukraine instituted the regulations, supported by the EU, in an effort to reduce smuggling. Smirnov and Moscow have called the new regulations an "economic blockade" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, 8, and 16, 2006). BW

Members of the Belarusian opposition rallied for a second consecutive day in downtown Minsk on March 20 to protest President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's election victory. The opposition is claiming that the March 19 presidential poll was flawed and are demanding that a repeat election be held in July. But while the demonstrators' chances of forcing a repeat election are virtually nil, the absence of the expected police crackdown could indicate that they could succeed in altering the country's political climate for the better.

The demonstration that took place shortly after polls closed on March 19 was the largest antigovernment rally in Belarus in nearly 10 years, and united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich was clearly pleased to see a crowd estimated at 20,000 people turn out on Minsk's October Square.

"We have won and it does not matter what they announce, they will announce a ridiculous percentage [for Lukashenka]," Milinkevich said. "We have won because people believe they can stand up for freedom, truth, justice and their own dignity. The authorities were threatening them, saying they were terrorists with plans, but despite this, people have come out. This is a victory over fear."

The next day, during a rally on October Square that attracted approximately 7,000 protestors, Milinkevich made explicit demands for repeat elections.

"We demand a repeat of the election in which the legislation of the country will be respected," Milinkevich said. "We demand that representatives of the [presidential] candidates, by all means, are included in the [election] commissions -- something that didn't exist this time. We demand that there are no arrests of people and that those in power abandon the regime of repression during elections."

Milinkevich called on the demonstrators to remain on the square all night, a tactic that proved to be successful during Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004. "We must remain on this square," Milinkevich said. "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!"

Several hundred demonstrators did remain, and signaled their intention of staying there for the long-term by erecting approximately 20 tents. Police cordoned off the square and controlled the movement of people between the square, preventing them from providing food and warm clothing to the demonstrators, but did not intervene otherwise.

In the days leading up to the election, President Lukashenka had repeatedly promised to crack down on the opposition, but in the end only about 30 activists outside of the downtown protest were arrested in Minsk.

What might have led Lukashenka to not carry out his promise? A huge number of police were reportedly deployed in Minsk for the election period, and they certainly had the opportunity to resort to force when the protestors numbered only in the hundreds overnight on October Square.

There are at least two plausible answers.

During his news conference for domestic and foreign media on March 20, Lukashenka claimed that the Belarusian opposition is "worth nothing," stating, "That's why we gave them the opportunity to show off, even though it [the rally] was illegal."

Perhaps the Belarusian president considered it unfitting to change his mind several hours later, when the opposition organized another illegal rally. The use of force by police would have shown that the opposition was, in fact, "worth something."

Another possibility is that Lukashenka has decided to employ a different tactic to quash the opposition protest on October Square. By confiscating food and clothing supplies intended for the demonstrators, the authorities may be betting on the elements to break the protesters' will.

Whatever the reason for doing so, Lukashenka's decision to not use force plays in his favor. Had a potential police intervention turned violent, it may have served merely to strengthen his opponents by radicalizing opposition sentiments.

As it turned out, Lukashenka was content enough in his victory to boast during his news conference on March 20 that he had managed to contain the "virus of colored revolutions" in Belarus.

"The virus of colored revolutions affects weakened countries in which [those in] power are stuck in corruption and are deaf to people's concerns," Lukashenka said. "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."

However, the two days of opposition protests seem to defy Lukashenka's self-congratulatory assertions.

While it is highly improbable that the protests could lead to a repeat presidential vote in Belarus, they may significantly contribute to what Milinkevich described during his election campaign as "getting rid of the humiliating fear" in Belarus.

If the opposition does not splinter and remains united around Milinkevich in the post-election period, President Lukashenka may find it very difficult or even impossible to run the country the way he did during his two previous terms.

Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul was quoted by the Hamburg daily "Bild" on March 21 as saying that the German government "will do everything possible to save the life of Abdul Rahman." Abdul Rahman is facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity in 1990 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). It is not clear under which code of law Abdul Rahman has been charged, but Article 130 of the Afghan Constitution stipulates that if there are no provisions in the document or "other laws regarding a ruling on an issue, the court's decisions shall accordance with the Hanafi [one of the four major Sunni branches] jurisprudence." Prior to his return to Afghanistan in 2002, Abdul Rahman lived in Germany. AT

The Catholic Church and the Islamic Council in Germany on March 21 concurrently asked for Abdul Rahman to be released, dpa reported. The head of the Greens political bloc in the Bundestag, Fritz Kuhn, called on Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to raise the case personally with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Cardinal Karl Lehmann, chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, called the case against Abdul Rahman an "alarming signal" and appealed to "those responsible in Afghanistan to respect freedom of religion." German Islamic Council Chairman Ali Kizilkaya also criticized the decision by the Kabul court to try Abdul Rahman for apostasy, saying that the case contradicts "the spirit of the Koran." Kuhn added that Kabul must observe and implement international human rights standards. Article 7 of the Afghan Constitution obligates the state to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience and religion; however, Article 3 of the document stipulates that in Afghanistan "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions" of Islam. The term "belief" is regarded by most observers as an arbitrary clause leaving the constitution at the mercy of the judiciary who currently are made up of the most conservative elements in the country. Karzai's office has indicated that he will not intervene in the case. AT

General Mohammad Daud Daud, the deputy interior minister in charge of counternarcotics, has filed a lawsuit against Abdul Kabir Marzban, a member of the House of Elders in the Afghan National Assembly from Takhar Province, Sheberghan-based Aina Television reported on March 20. Marzban allegedly has accused Daud of drug smuggling. Daud said that he has "officially filed for damages through legal channels" against Marzban's claims. According to Daud, his office has arrested three drug barons in Takhar who were allies of Marzban, prompting the member of the National Assembly to accuse him of misconduct. "I will be very happy if this accusation is investigated in the presence of national and international supervisors," Daud told Aina. AT

Unidentified persons blew up a dam in Nuristan Province on March 20, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on March 21. Provincial security commander Gholamullah Khan told AIP that "some people" destroyed a dam in Kamdesh District. The dam was generating 70 kilowatts of electricity serving around 3,000 families in the area. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast. AT

U.S. President George W. Bush at a March 21 news conference at the White House described the circumstances under which direct U.S.-Iran contacts will occur, Radio Farda reported. "I gave [Zalmay Khalilzad], our ambassador in Iraq, permission to explain to the Iranians what we didn't like about their involvement in Iraq," Bush said. "I thought it was important for them to hear firsthand, other than through press accounts. He asked whether or not it made sense for him to be able to talk to a [Iranian] representative in Baghdad. I said: 'Absolutely. You make it clear to them that attempts to spread sectarian violence or to maybe move parts that could be used for [improvised explosive devices] is unacceptable to the United States.'" BS

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said on March 21 that Al-Qaeda will be the subject of the pending Iran-U.S. talks, KUNA news agency reported. Jabr said he was involved in organizing these talks, and added that the son of Osama bin Laden and 25 Al-Qaeda commanders are imprisoned in Iran. Some U.S. intelligence officials believe Tehran is hosting senior Al-Qaeda personnel and allowing them to communicate and plan operations, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on March 21 (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 14, 2006). These officials fear that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is either creating an alliance with the Al-Qaeda members or at least turning a blind eye to their activities. Other intelligence officers and analysts cited by the "Los Angeles Times" doubt this and cite Shi'ite-Sunni tensions as a reason for Tehran to restrict Al-Qaeda activities. But this is all guesswork, because, an unidentified "U.S. counterterrorism official" admitted: "We don't have any intelligence going on in Iran. No people on the ground." He continued, "It blows me away the lack of intelligence that's out there." BS

The Iranians hope to address the nuclear issue in the meeting with U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad, according to Eurasia View on March 20, but U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the United States will not negotiate directly with Iran on this topic, "The Washington Post" reported on March 21. National security adviser Stephen Hadley said Tehran might be using the talks as a distraction from the nuclear controversy and to drive a wedge between the United States and other countries, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on March 18. BS

At the same March 21 White House news conference, President Bush also expressed concern about the possibility of Iran having a nuclear weapon, Radio Farda reported. "If the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could blackmail the world," he said. "If the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could proliferate. This is a country that is walking away from international accords." Unnamed Western diplomats said the same day that Iran is about to run a 164-centrifuge cascade of machines that enrich uranium, AFP reported. This development could have an impact on the UN Security Council meeting scheduled for March 27. BS

Great Britain is suggesting that Iran be offered more incentives to abandon its nuclear pursuits, the international edition of "The Wall Street Journal" reported on March 21, because two permanent members of the Security Council -- Russia and China -- will reject the imposition of sanctions against Iran. The British proposal adds that Moscow and Beijing would accept "more serious measures" against Iran if it rejects the incentives. U.S. Undersecretary of State Burns said Washington is not interested in offering incentives to Iran or reducing pressure, "The Wall Street Journal" reported. He said Washington is working toward a statement and, if necessary, a resolution demanding greater Iranian cooperation with international inspectors and an end to enrichment. "The Washington Post" reported on March 21 that the five permanent members of the Security Council have failed to agree on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear crisis. BS

Jundullah, an Iranian Baluchi group that held a number of Iranian security personnel hostage earlier this year, released on March 21 a video in which it claims responsibility for the ambush on a motorcade late last week in Sistan va Baluchistan Province, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported. Jundullah said it is holding seven people, whom it accuses of serving in the Iranian military and intelligence forces and with the country's Red Crescent Society. The captors are demanding the release of five of their comrades. BS

U.S. and Iraqi forces responding to calls for backup following an attack on a police station in Al-Mada'in, south of Baghdad, surrounded some 50 insurgents, including a Syrian national, AP reported on March 22. Some 60 insurgents were involved in the predawn assault on the police station. Interior Ministry Lieutenant Colonel Falah al-Muhammadawi said that the U.S. and Iraqi forces caught the insurgents in a crossfire, capturing 50 of them. An Iraqi police commander and five policemen were killed in the fighting; none of the attackers were killed, he said. A similar insurgent attack was carried out in the Diyala Governorate north of Baghdad on March 21, when about 100 armed gunmen freed more than 30 jailed prisoners. About 20 Iraqi security forces and 10 insurgents were killed in that fighting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). KR

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said for the second time this week that Iraq is currently engaged in a civil war, Al-Arabiyah television reported on March 21. "We are in the early stages of a civil war. We hope we don't get to the point of no return," Allawi told Reuters in an interview, adding that any further deterioration of security must be thwarted. "We mustn't get to that stage. We must strengthen the army, police, security and intelligence services. If we make them capable, then we can stop ourselves before reaching the fatal point. If not, the situation will be disastrous." Reuters reported that the former prime minister will be the likely head of Iraq's new National Security Council, and as such will have the authority to fight insurgents. The formation of the council is to serve as a quick fix, as it can be formed ahead of any national-unity government. "We are saying let's form a government until things are more stable. Then we could change the government. Because the tragedy -- of killing and terrorism -- must not go on," Allawi said. KR

George W. Bush told reporters at a March 21 press briefing in Washington that he expects U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past his term in office. Asked by a reporter if the day will come when there are no U.S. forces in Iraq, Bush said, "That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." Asked to clarify, Bush added: "You mean a complete withdrawal? That's a timetable. I can only tell you that I will make decisions on force levels based upon what commanders on the ground say." Bush also told reporters that should the U.S. exit Iraq prematurely, the departure would be a letdown to reformers throughout the Middle East who have been energized by the promise of democracy in the region. A premature pullout would also send the wrong signal to the enemy, Bush said. KR

Sunni cleric and Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari left for Russia on March 21, according to a same-day press release posted to the association's website. The statement said al-Dari received an official invitation to meet with members of the Russian Foreign Ministry and State Duma. Prior to his trip to Russia, al-Dari led a delegation to the United Arab Emirates. Al-Dari and his organization remain outside official Iraqi politics, having declared the government illegitimate. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed the convening of a national-reconciliation conference for Iraq in an interview with Arab media published on the ministry's website on March 21, Interfax reported. Lavrov said that such a conference was proposed in 2003, and had it been held, Iraq might be more stable today. "However, it is not yet too late to do so. Better late than never," Lavrov added. KR