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Newsline - March 31, 2006


U.S. DENIES RUSSIAN ACCUSATIONS ON WTO...
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said en route from Washington to Berlin on March 30 that she does not accept Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent allegations that Washington is trying to block or hinder Moscow's admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006). "We would like to see Russia a member of the WTO, but the agreement has to conform to WTO rules and it has to be something that will pass congressional scrutiny and conforms to international rules," she said. Rice noted U.S. concerns regarding financial services and poultry. She nonetheless added: "I don't think this is an issue of impeding. I think this is an issue of negotiation and trying to get to an outcome that I think [Presidents Putin and George W. Bush] would like to have, which is Russia having accession to the WTO." Rice was heading to Berlin for a conference of foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany to deal with the question of Iran's nuclear program (see Part Three, below). PM

...BUT PIRACY REMAINS A CONCERN
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said in Washington on March 30 that concerns over piracy and counterfeiting in China, which joined the WTO in 2001, are one reason Russia's bid to join that organization has taken so long, news agencies reported. He stressed that the United States wants to make sure Russia has strong anti-piracy controls before agreeing to its WTO membership. The International Intellectual Property Alliance says illegal copying in Russia cost American companies about $1.76 billion in lost sales in 2005. The estimates for China stand at $2.4 billion. PM

RUSSIA AGAIN DENIES SPYING FOR IRAQ...
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement on March 30 that his government has looked into allegations made in a recent Pentagon study that Russia supplied military intelligence to Iraq in 2003 and found them incorrect, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 28, 29, and 30, 2006, and "Russia: Washington, Moscow Spar Over Pentagon Report On Iraq Spying," rferl.org, March 28, 2006). He argued that this is not the first time "Russia is accused of something that it did not do and that it would not do wittingly. Such practices can only provoke disappointment. Behind this, whether one likes it or not, there can be seen a definite motive of distracting attention from the mounting real problems in postwar Iraq." In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said on March 30 he does not know of any official Russian communication to the United States denying the charges. He added that "the international community shares a common interest in helping Iraq to develop a stable and successful democracy.... Russia has been supportive of this." PM

...AND SENDS MIXED MESSAGES ON IRAN
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Berlin on March 30 that his country insists on a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13 and 29, 2006, and "Russian Political Weekly," January 19, 2006). He added that "there is no doubt that [the problem should be resolved] exclusively by political and diplomatic means, as many of our European colleagues and our Chinese friends have said many times. Any ideas of resolving the matter by compulsion and force are extremely counterproductive and cannot be supported." Lavrov argued that "the last report of the [International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA)] says that it cannot assert that there is a military aspect to the Iranian nuclear program. So, before we call any situation a threat, we need facts, especially in the region like the Middle East, where so many things are happening." But in Moscow, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling on Tehran to "heed with great attention the common opinion of the UN Security Council members." Teheran should "ensure full-fledged cooperation with the IAEA on all remaining issues," the statement added. PM

PUNDITS HAIL APPOINTMENT OF FORMER GERMAN LEADER TO PIPELINE BOARD...
Several Russian experts said in Moscow on March 30 that the election of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as head of the stockholders' oversight body for the planned North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) running from Vyborg to Greifswald is good for Russian interests, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 29, and 30, 2006, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2006). Vyacheslav Nikonov, who heads the pro-Kremlin Politika Foundation, said that Schroeder is "a man who can ensure good political cover for the [NEPG] project." Stanislav Belkovsky, who leads the National Strategy Institute, noted that Poland and the Baltic states oppose the NEGP and that "therefore a political heavyweight with a serious [profile] on the European scene is needed to combat this serious lobbyist pressure. Schroeder has confidential relations with the Russian authorities, and this will allow him to accomplish [his] tasks effectively." Political Forecasting Center Director Konstantin Simonov said that Schroeder's appointment means that Russians "are really capable of involving top [foreign] politicians in achieving our goals." Vladimir Likhachev, who is deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Energy Research, called Schroeder "a felicitous choice," adding that the NGEP could eventually "replace the Ukrainian pipeline" to move Russian gas to Europe. PM

...AS CONTROVERSY MOUNTS
Speaking to reporters in Moscow on March 30, former German Chancellor Schroeder again rejected criticism of his acceptance of the NEGP position, London's "The Times" reported. "I cannot understand this criticism. This is a project of three independent companies and is in Germany's interest. Any German government would support it. The decisions taken were commercial decisions, and at no time did I have any inside knowledge," he said. German criticism of Schroeder has centered on accusations of corruption. Guido Westerwelle, who heads the opposition Free Democratic Party, has called the appointment "problematic." Schroeder has obtained a temporary injunction threatening Westerwelle with a fine of up to $301,000 if he repeats the criticism, but Westerwelle is challenging that move. The U.S. on-line publication "Stratfor Commentary" noted on March 31 that "Schroeder subscribes to the idea that a strong European-Russian political bloc is necessary to counterbalance U.S. power. Linking Germany and Russia at the hip and weakening the Central European states that oppose such an alliance -- particularly an increasingly ambitious Poland -- is an excellent way to further that strategy." Chancellor Angela Merkel will host a top-level German government and business conference on April 3 to discuss energy diversification. PM

GAZPROM ANNOUNCES PRICE HIKES TO BELARUS
Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller said in Moscow on March 30 that he has informed Belarusian Energy Minister Alyaksandr Ageyev that Gazprom will raise its prices to Belarus to "European levels" in 2007, news agencies reported. Miller added that Minsk will respond by the end of April. Belarus currently receives gas at a subsidized price of $47 per 1,000 cubic meters -- far below prices paid by customers in Europe and Ukraine. PM

RUSSIA DEMANDS SWEDEN FREE SPYING SUSPECT
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kamynin said in Moscow on March 30 that his government demands the "immediate and unconditional release" of Andrei Zamyatnin, a Russian agricultural scientist being held in Sweden on suspicion of spying for an unnamed country, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16 and 17, 2006). PM

PUTIN STRESSES IMPORTANCE OF NUCLEAR DETERRENT
President Putin said in Novo-Ogaryovo in Moscow region on March 30 that "the nuclear deterrent [is] the main way to guarantee [Russia's] security," Interfax reported. Modernization of the nuclear industry will be aimed at ensuring that deterrent, he added. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov argued two months ago that greater priority should be given to high-tech conventional arms than to the nuclear deterrent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11 and 18, 2006). PM

RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH SAYS U.S. NOT 'OBJECTIVE' IN EVALUATING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN RUSSIA
The Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, said in Moscow on March 30 that a recent U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Russia "lacks impartiality," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2006). He asked: "is [this attitude] politically predetermined, or is it just an error?" PM

COURT HANDS DOWN SENTENCES FOR KILLING OF TAJIK GIRL
The Saint Petersburg City Court sentenced seven teenagers on March 30 to prison sentences ranging between 1 1/2 years and 5 1/2 years for the February 2004 murder of Khursheda Sultonova, a 9-year-old Tajik girl, news agencies reported. A jury ruled on March 22 that an unnamed teenage boy was not guilty of murder charges in the killing. The jury nonetheless declared seven of the eight defendants guilty of "hooliganism" in the beating and stabbing incident, in which Sultonova's father and his nephew were wounded. Tajikistan protested the killing, which has become a symbol of increasingly frequent hate crimes in Russian cities. The jury's ruling shocked the victim's family and led to protests by human rights campaigners. PM

REDUCTION IN DRAFT DEFERMENTS APPROVED
The government agreed on March 30 to a proposal from the Defense Ministry to reduce the number of categories for military deferments from 25 to 16 in a move to boost the number of conscripts, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). PM

INGUSH STUDENTS APPEAL TO PRESIDENT PUTIN
More than 100 students from Ingushetia studying in Moscow have signed an open letter to President Putin as their "sole and final hope" for an end to what they term the policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing implemented against ethnic Ingush in North Ossetia, ingushetiya.ru reported on March 31. Claiming that "since 1992 we are being systematically exterminated," the signatories appealed to Putin to put an end to the "arbitrary terror" inflicted on the Ingush by the North Ossetian authorities and to permit the 60,000 Ingush expelled from North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion to return to their abandoned homes. On March 29, Chief Federal Inspector for Ingushetia Vladimir Trubitsin announced that 20 Ingush families will return "very soon" to their homes in the Prigorodny village of Ir, ingushetiya.ru reported on March 30, quoting "Kavkazsky uzel." In a March 30 interview with regnum.ru, North Ossetian Nationality Minister Taymuraz Kasayev said the resettlement of Ingush families from the temporary settlement of Mayskoye to a new settlement built specially for them is purely voluntary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). He said the settlement has paved roads, running water, electricity, and public transport, but admitted that there are few, if any, jobs available there. Kasayev said the North Ossetian government has drafted a program to provide employment for the Ingush in Prigorodny Raion but will be unable to implement it without significant additional funding from Moscow. Federal subsidies already account for more than 88 percent of Ingushetia's budget, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on October 6, 2005. LF

CHECHEN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER SAYS FREE ECONOMIC ZONE ESSENTIAL...
Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov told journalists in Moscow on March 30 that the long-awaited power-sharing treaty between Chechnya and the federal government could be signed this summer, RIA Novosti and regnum.ru reported. Abdurakhmanov said that over the past three years that treaty has been revised "dozens of times," but it still does not contain provisions the Chechen leadership considers essential. The most important of those are designating the entire territory of Chechnya a free economic zone that would not pay any taxes to the federal center for a period of 10-15 years, and permitting Chechnya to keep and spend at its discretion all revenues from oil and other natural resources. Abdurakhmanov praised Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov for having accomplished more in three months to rebuild the republic's war-shattered infrastructure than the federal authorities have managed in years, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on March 31. Abdurakhmanov also said that Chechnya's bicameral legislature elected last November will be replaced by a one-chamber parliament after its mandate expires, RIA Novosti reported. LF

...AND ADVOCATES REUNIFICATION WITH INGUSHETIA
Abdurakhmanov also argued during his March 30 press conference that the Chechens and Ingush constitute a single nation -- the Vainakhs -- that was "separated by politicians" into separate republics, Interfax reported. "We do not recognize this purely bureaucratic division," he added. Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov has consistently rejected proposals to merge the republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, which split in June 1992, to form a single federal subject (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2002; October 15 and 23, November 3 and December 30, 2003; January 22, 2004; and January 31, 2006). LF

ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN EXCHANGE ACCUSATIONS OVER CEASE-FIRE VIOLATIONS
An Azerbaijani servicemen was killed on March 30 when Armenian forces opened fire near the village of Alibeyli in Tovuz district; he was the sixth serviceman to die from enemy fire this month, zerkalo.az reported on March 31 quoting the press service of the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. The Armenian and Azerbaijani defense ministries have each blamed the opposing side for opening fire on March 29 and preventing a routine monitoring by the OSCE of the Line of Contact separating the two sides, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The OSCE has not commented on that incident. Also on March 29, the Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic issued a statement criticizing as "inadmissible" international mediators' "attempts to lay equal responsibility on all parties of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for violations of the cease-fire regime," Noyan Tapan reported. That statement identified Azerbaijan as having instigated the cease-fire violations and argued that the international community's failure to acknowledge this risks further destabilizing the situation in the South Caucasus. LF

FURTHER BIRD FLU CASE SUSPECTED IN AZERBAIJAN
A 16-year-old girl has been hospitalized in Baku with suspected bird flu, Deputy Health Minister Abbas Velibekov told journalists on March 30, day.az reported. The girl is from the village of Daykend; three villagers have already died from the disease, as have two persons from elsewhere in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14 and 22, 2006). LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION CONVENES DEMONSTRATION
Some 5,000 people participated in a demonstration outside the parliament building in Tbilisi on March 30 convened by the opposition Conservative party, New Conservatives (aka New Rightists), Labor party, Popular Front, Tavisupleba, and Republican party, Georgian media reported. Participants criticized government policies, including the recent law on cash registers and the suppression of the alleged riot on March 27 at a Tbilisi prison, and they called for the government's resignation and preterm parliamentary and presidential elections, Caucasus Press reported. Activists from the Samartlianoba (Justice) party headed by former National Security chief Igor Giorgadze were prevented by police in Batumi from traveling to Tbilisi to participate in the protest, Caucasus Press reported. LF

PARLIAMENTARIAN WARNS OF ALLEGED PLOT TO KILL GEORGIAN PRESIDENT
Nodar Grigalashvili of the majority United National Movement faction claimed on March 30, citing what he described as "reliable sources," that unnamed criminal bosses are plotting the assassination of President Mikheil Saakashvili in retaliation for the law passed last December that aims to eradicate organized crime, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN JUSTICE MINISTRY DENIES EIGHTH INMATE KILLED IN JAIL DISTURBANCE
The Justice Ministry issued a statement on March 30 denying that in addition to the seven inmates of Tbilisi's Prison No. 1 whose deaths were announced earlier this week, an eighth man, Mamuka Ghviniashvili, died from injuries received during the March 27 disturbance, Caucasus Press reported. The ministry said Ghviniashvili died of natural causes on March 27 in the prison hospital, where he was taken six days earlier with self-inflicted injuries. Ghviniashvili's relatives who claim to have seen his body say he was tortured and shot in the head. LF

GEORGIAN LEADERS BLAST RUSSIAN BAN ON WINE IMPORTS
In separate statements on March 30, President Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, and Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili all criticized the recent ban Russia imposed on imports of Georgian wine, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2006). Saakashvili dubbed the ban "political" and "a mockery," while Noghadeli described it as "illegal and ill-advised." Bezhuashvili said his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov has assured him the ban is "technical." Much of the wine labeled as Georgian on sale in Russia is adulterated or faked, and not of Georgian provenance. Tbilisi recently pegged its support for Russia's bid for membership of the World Trade Organization to decisive measures to crack down on the production and sale of such counterfeit products (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2006). LF

KAZAKHSTAN TO PREPARE NEW MILITARY DOCTRINE
Kazakh Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev has said that a working group will draw up a new military doctrine for the country, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on March 29. Altynbaev said the new doctrine will contain "some changes," including "a professional army, re-equipment of the armed forces, and international cooperation both with NATO and Central Asian states." President Nursultan Nazarbaev stated in a March 1 address to the nation that Kazakhstan needs a new military doctrine with an emphasis on a professional army with rapid-deployment capabilities, Interfax noted. DK

RIGHTS GROUP BLASTS KAZAKHSTAN OVER REFUGEE RETURN TO UZBEKISTAN
Human Rights Watch (HRW) announced in a March 29 press release that it has written a six-page letter to Kazakh President Nazarbaev asking him to investigate the forced return of Uzbek nationals from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. The statement said that HRW has obtained new evidence linking Kazakh security forces to the seizure and return of four Uzbek nationals in November 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 5, 2005). In all, nine men "disappeared" from southern Kazakhstan in November and were later transferred to Uzbek custody, HRW alleged. Four of them had been registered as asylum-seekers by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. HRW expressed concern about the men's fate and stressed that their forced return is a violation of international law. "These men went to Kazakhstan seeking safety, but now face torture and imprisonment," said Holly Cartner, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director. She added: "It is a violation of international law to return people to a place where they will be persecuted and tortured. Kazakh officials had an obligation to know the risk these men faced if returned, but sent them back anyway." DK

INDEPENDENT COMMISSION ON KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER'S MURDER CHIDES INVESTIGATORS
An independent commission set up to investigate the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006) issued a statement on March 29 asking the Kazakh authorities to do more to investigate the killing, the online newspaper Navigator reported the next day. The commission said that investigators need to question not only Sarsenbaev's "longtime political opponents," but also a number of prominent persons. The commission noted that Darigha Nazarbaeva, the daughter of President Nazarbaev, has stated that the then head of the National Security Service, Nartai Dutbaev, initially reported to Nazarbaev that a member of the president's family was involved: "either Rakhat Aliev [husband of Darigha Nazarbaeva], Timur Kulibaev [Nazarbaev's son-in-law], or Kairat Satypaldy [Nazarbaev' nephew]." DK

KYRGYZ ELECTION COMMISSION REMOVES CONTROVERSIAL CANDIDATE, SPARKING PROTESTS
Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission (CEC) on March 30 annulled the candidacy of Rysbek Akmatbaev in a parliamentary by-election in the Balykchy District of Issyk-Kul Province, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The CEC argued that Akmatbaev failed to meet a five-year in-country residency requirement. The decision sparked a protest in Akmatbaev's native Issyk-Kul Province, where protestors blocked the highway between the capital, Bishkek, and Cholpon-Ata and 1,000 demonstrators gathered outside the mayor's office in Balykchy, akipress.org reported. Protestors later unblocked the highway after talks with officials, Kabar reported. Rysbek Akmatbaev, a controversial figure owing to numerous reports that he is an organized-crime boss, hoped to occupy the parliamentary seat left vacant when his brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was killed during a visit to a prison last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 2005). DK

KYRGYZ POLICE SAY IMU ACTIVISTS DETAINED IN SOUTH
Police in Osh arrested six alleged members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) on March 30, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported, citing law-enforcement sources. Osh Deputy Police Chief Suyun Omurzakov told RFE/RL that police conducted early-morning searches at three addresses. "At two of them we found the people we were looking for," he said. Akylbek Boyonov, deputy head of the Osh region's security department, told RFE/RL that police had acted on a tip-off from Uzbekistan's National Security Service. Interfax quoted an unidentified police official as saying that police arrested 12 people in Osh and Uzgen. "Six of the arrested are members of the IMU and the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir party. The six others are being interrogated," the official said. He added that "one of the IMU activists managed to escape after opening fire on policemen as they attempted to capture him in a private house in Uzgen. According to preliminary reports, he may be accompanied by another two IMU supporters." DK

HEAD OF KYRGYZ PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION WINS LIBEL CASE AGAINST EX-PRESIDENT'S WIFE
Usen Sydykov, head of the Kyrgyz presidential administration, on March 30 won a libel case against Mairam Akaeva, wife of former President Askar Akaev, and a Kyrgyz newspaper, akipress.org reported. A court in Bishkek ruled that Akaeva will have to pay Sydykov compensation of 50,000 soms ($1,200), while the newspaper "Bely parakhod" will have to pay 10,000 soms ($250). Sydykov sued after Akaeva claimed in an article that Sydykov was one of the main organizers of a campaign against the Akaev family. Sydykov had initially sought damages of $1 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2006). DK

OSCE CHAIRMAN MEETS WITH TAJIK PRESIDENT
The chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on March 30. Rakhmonov told De Gucht that Tajikistan "views the OSCE as the main instrument for implementing multi-level cooperation on issues of strengthening democratic institutions and building civil society," the state news agency Khovar reported. De Gucht noted that Rakhmonov agreed to host OSCE monitors for Tajikistan's November presidential election, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. De Gucht also received assurances from Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov that Tajikistan's "controversial law on nongovernmental organizations will not be passed before the presidential election due this November," the OSCE noted in a press release. The OSCE said that De Gucht "also received assurances from Foreign Minister Nazarov that the BBC will receive its license as soon as it submits the registration documents." Tajik authorities suspended the BBC's FM broadcasts in Tajikistan in January over what they said were procedural problems with the broadcaster's registration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 20, 2006). DK

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL SAYS 19 HIZB UT-TAHRIR ACTIVISTS EXTRADITED TO UZBEKISTAN IN 2006
Sergei Smirnov, first deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), announced in Tashkent on March 29 that Russia has detained and extradited to Uzbekistan 19 alleged members of the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2006, Interfax reported. Smirnov said that they had been engaged in illegal activities in Russia. He added that "Russian security forces will continue to help Uzbek security forces to preempt terrorist threats." DK

GAZPROM ANNOUNCES PLANS TO HIKE GAS PRICES FOR BELARUS IN 2007
The Russian gas monopoly Gazprom issued a press release on March 30 quoting CEO Aleksei Miller as telling visiting Belarusian Energy Minister Alyaksandr Ageyev that Belarus will have to pay European prices for gas deliveries in 2007, Interfax reported on March 30 (see Russia item in Part I). Belarus is to pay $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas in 2006 under the terms of a contract signed in December. Gazprom is currently charging Western European buyers approximately $230 per 1,000 cubic meters. Russia pays Belarus $.75 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers for transporting gas via the Belarus-owned Beltranshaz pipeline and $0.46 per 1,000 cubic meters/100 kilometers along the Yamal-Europe pipeline owned by Gazprom. In 2006, Russia will deliver 21 billion cubic meters of gas to Belarus. RK

OPPOSITION PROTESTOR REPORTEDLY DIES IN MINSK HOSPITAL
Opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich's headquarters announced on March 30 that it received a report that Syarhey Atroshchanka, a resident of Hrodna Oblast who was allegedly severely injured when police broke up opposition demonstrations on March 25, died in Minsk's Hospital No. 9 on March 29, Belapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006). The report could not be independently confirmed. Milinkevich's headquarters accused police and healthcare officials of refusing to provide information on Atroshchanka's condition and called on all those who know anything about the circumstances of his reported beating and what happened to him afterward to report their information to Milinkevich's office. RK

UKRAINE'S RICHEST MAN DENIES SEEKING PREMIERSHIP, VOWS TO STUDY UKRAINIAN...
Rynat Akhmetov, who participated in Ukraine's March 26 parliamentary elections on the Party of Regions' candidates list, told a press conference in Kyiv on March 30 that he is not seeking to become prime minister, Interfax reported. The Party of Regions won a plurality in the election and Akhmetov -- the party's main financial backer and Ukraine's richest man -- has frequently been named as a potential premier in the next government. Akhmetov also announced that his party wants to hold a national referendum on the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO. "As for NATO, we advocate a democratic approach -- as far as we know, 75 percent of the population of Ukraine is opposed to joining NATO." Commenting on the Party of Regions' intention of giving Russian the status of an official language in Ukraine, Akhmetov said that "society needs the Russian language and the authorities have to take this into account." He also promised to learn Ukrainian. RK

...AND DEFENDS HIMSELF, BUSINESS AGAINST ALLEGATIONS OF IMPROPRIETY
During his Kyiv press conference on March 30, Akhmetov denied allegations that he has a criminal past and described his business dealings as completely legal, Interfax reported. Akhmetov owns a 90 percent stake in the Donetsk-based System Capital Management Corporation (SCM), which he founded in 2000. SCM controls more than 90 companies concentrated in the iron ore, coal, steel, and energy generation sectors, as well as interests in insurance and banking, food and beverage services, and hotels and hospitality. He said that recent rumors that he plans to sell his business to Russian, American, or Indian businessmen are not true. "We only acquire" he told journalists. RK

UKRAINIAN OLIGARCH UNDER INVESTIGATION BY PROSECUTOR-GENERAL'S OFFICE
Viktor Pinchuk, a son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma and one of Ukraine's richest men, is under investigation by the Prosecutor-General's Office for possible fraud related to the Nikopol Ferrous Alloy Works he owns, "Kommersant Ukrayiny" reported on March 31. The newspaper reported that prosecutors are looking into $450 million that two companies Steelex and Travis -- both alleged to be owned by Pinchuk -- may have made from the sale of alloys produced by the Nikopol plant. In a related development, Ihor Kolomoyskyy, head of the Dnipropetrovsk-based Privat company, filed a suit in the U.S. state of Massachusetts against Pinchuk and his Nikopol partners Jerry Margolis, Viktor Vekselberg, and Oleksander Abramov. Kolomoyskyy alleges in the suit that Pinchuk and his partners paid a bribe of $50 million to unnamed Ukrainian officials to prevent the renationalization of Nikopol Ferrous Alloy Works, the Russian daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 31. RK

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO FOREIGN MINISTER SEEKS KOSOVA COMPROMISE...
Serbia and Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said on March 29 that Belgrade should make it clear that it does not wish to govern or have political control over Kosova, Beta and B92 reported the next day. "Serbia should clearly state that it does not govern Kosovo and that it will not govern Kosovo and that it is up to the Albanian majority to govern Kosovo, while respecting the rights of the Serbs," Draskovic said in a televised interview. "Serbia should state that we absolutely support an independent and parallel road for Kosovo toward Europe and that we have nothing against having Kosovo recognized as being independent by all international organizations, expect for the United Nations," he added. BW

...AND SAYS SECURITY SERVICES KNOW MLADIC'S LOCATION
Also on March 30, Foreign Minister Draskovic said he is certain that unidentified people inside Serbia's security services know the location of war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic, B92 reported the same day. "I believe the prime minister does not know where Mladic is, but I think he believes that these agencies and their web of people know where Mladic is located," Draskovic said. "How can we expect the people who went to war with Mladic to turn him in? All it takes is one person from that team to be in contact with Mladic in order for the arrest actions to fail," he added. BW

SERBIAN NATIONAL BANK CHIEF SAYS EU ECONOMIC ASSISTANCE DEPENDS ON COOPERATION WITH ICTY
Serbian National Bank Governor Radovan Jelasic said on March 29 that the European Union is prepared to provide support for economic reforms only after Serbia fulfills its obligations to the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Beta reported the same day. Speaking in Brussels, Jelasic said the European Commission agrees with the Serbian National Bank that large public companies need to be restructured. He added, however, that commission officials have said future financial support is dependent on "broader political events," specifically Belgrade's cooperation with the ICTY in arresting wanted war crimes suspects. BW

EU ENLARGEMENT COMMISSIONER SAYS BRUSSELS UNDECIDED ON CONTINUATION OF SERBIA TALKS...
European Union (EU) Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on March 30 that Brussels has still not decided whether to resume talks with Serbia next week, dpa reported the same day. Talks between Serbia and Montenegro and the EU on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) are scheduled to resume on April 5, but could be cancelled if Belgrade fails to arrest Mladic. "We have a reasonable assumption that Serbia could arrest Mladic if it had the political will," Rehn said. Rehn is scheduled to meet chief ICTY prosecutor Carla del Ponte this week. Del Ponte has said she will submit a report to the EU on Serbia's cooperation with ICTY on March 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006). BW

...AND SAYS NEITHER KARADZIC NOR MLADIC ARE IN BOSNIA
Rehn also said on March 30 that neither Mladic nor Bosnian Serb wartime President Radovan Karadzic are in Bosnia-Herzegovina, dpa reported the same day. Rehn made the comment after meeting Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic in Brussels. Rehn added, however, that Mladic and Karadzic still have "support networks" in the country. "The question of the arrest and transfer of Mladic and Karadzic is a responsibility for each and every country in the region," Rehn said at a joint news briefing with Terzic. Rehn urged Bosnia, and specifically its Republika Srpska entity, to fully cooperate with the ICTY. BW

MONTENEGRIN ACTIVIST FEARS 'DIRTY' REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN COULD LEAD TO CHAOS
Nebojsa Medojevic, the executive director of the NGO Group for Change, said on March 30 that both sides in the independence referendum campaign are employing increasingly dirty tactics that threaten to spin out of control, FoNet and B92 reported the same day. Medojevic appealed to the European Union to intervene. "I am afraid that the next two months in Montenegro will see an unbelievably dirty dimension of the campaign and that we will be focusing on police officers -- public and secret -- and their roles as promoters of both options," Medojevic said. "Because of this, I think it is time to end this, but I do not think that anyone in Montenegro is capable of doing so." He suggested that the EU intervene to prevent chaos. BW

MACEDONIA ADOPTS ELECTORAL REFORMS
Macedonia's parliament on March 29 approved a series of changes to its electoral law deemed crucial by the EU, Reuters reported the same day. The changes cleared the way for Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski to call a general election, possibly as early as July. Macedonia's government says the changes, which include having a member of the opposition head the electoral commission, will improve oversight and reduce the influence of government officials over elections. After European monitors cited widespread irregularities in Macedonia's local elections in March 2005, both the EU and NATO began pressuring Skopje to enact reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). Macedonia is seeking to join NATO in 2008 and the EU in 2012 at the earliest. BW

TALKS ON TRANSDNIESTER POSTPONED
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on March 30 that negotiations between Moldova and separatist Transdniester, which were scheduled to resume next week, have been postponed due to rising tensions, Reuters reported the same day. The talks were scheduled to take place on April 4 and 5 in Chisinau. "Due to the current...situation it has become absolutely clear to me that there is no agreement between all participants to hold the next round of talks next week," William Hill, the OSCE representative in Chisinau, said. "The talks are not blocked, they are delayed." Hill gave no indication when the negotiations would resume. Both Russia and the pro-Moscow Transdniester leadership have protested new customs rules designed to curb smuggling that require that goods passing between the breakaway region and Ukraine clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). BW

U.S. TALKS UNLIKELY TO END TEHRAN'S 'SOFT POWER' IN IRAQ
The much-heralded Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq, to which Tehran agreed in mid-March, may result in an end to direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs. But even if Iran ends its use of direct means -- such as the provision of arms and money to militias -- its use of indirect means, or "soft power," to influence Iraqi affairs seems likely to continue.

The Iran-U.S. talks have not begun yet but already they seem to be dead in the water. One reason for this is that the talks are not supported by all Iraqis. They were called for by the leader of one of the country's main Shi'ite parties -- Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the United Iraqi Alliance -- but another Shi'ite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has spoken out against them. In addition, Iraqi Sunnis oppose the talks because they resent marginalization in their country's affairs and fear that official Iranian involvement will contribute to this process.

"The Guardian" commented from London on March 27 that following complaints from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the talks must wait. The Iraqis are demanding that representatives from their government participate, and this cannot happen until a new Iraqi government is formed. It has been more than three months since Iraq's parliamentary elections, but the various factions have so far been unable to come up with a broadly acceptable government list. A particular sticking point is whether Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, a Shi'ite, should continue in office.

When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first called for U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq in October 2005, she made it clear that the objective was to discuss alleged Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. U.S. officials since then have charged repeatedly that this interference has not subsided.

"Iran seeks a Shi'a-dominated and unified Iraq but also wants the U.S. to experience continued setbacks in our efforts to promote democracy and stability," U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said in late February in Congressional testimony. "Accordingly, Iran provides guidance and training to select Iraqi Shi'ite political groups and weapons and training to Shi'ite militant groups to enable anti-coalition attacks."

The same day, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples said: "Money, weapons, and foreign fighters supporting terrorism move into Iraq, primarily through Syria and Iran. We believe Iran has provided lethal aid to Iraqi Shi'ite insurgents."

Tehran rejects such accusations and attributes violence in Iraq to U.S.-led coalition forces. After the late February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, for example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the occupation forces and "the Zionists deployed in Iraq" are responsible.

The next week, Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani delivered a sermon about the bombers' desires.

"Perhaps their most important aim is to weaken the solidarity that is gradually shaping in the world of Islam," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. "Because the Muslims feel that global arrogance, America in particular, intends to create problems for the Muslims by promoting a Greater Middle East plan.... The main objective of the Greater Middle East plan is to create a rift among Muslims, weaken the Islamic world, and force it to surrender."

Some outside observers disbelieve U.S. statements and doubt media reports of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Some Iraqis also reject claims of an Iranian hand in the violence. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, for example, told CNN on January 26 that such claims are unsubstantiated.

"They always accuse Iran of such things, and they told us about such things even from the first month that we've been here until now," he said. "And we were always asking for evidence, but nobody came with evidence."

It is difficult to verify most of the accusations, counteraccusations, and denials. However, one significant aspect of Iran's effort to influence Iraqi affairs is information operations using broadcast media, and this can be verified by anybody with satellite television reception. Two Iranian Arabic-language television stations can be viewed in Iraq terrestrially and by satellite -- Al-Alam and Al-Kawthar.

Al-Alam is an official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting channel that went on the air in March 2003. It portrays U.S.-led coalition forces and their activities in a negative light, comparing them to Israeli activities in Palestine. It is an important means by which Iranian views are conveyed to the Iraqi people. Al-Kawthar is the new name for Al-Sahar, another official Iranian station that went on the air in 1997. Al-Kawthar's news reporting is fairly neutral on Iraqi affairs, but it is as hostile to Israel as Al-Alam is, referring to Israel as "the usurping entity" and discussing "the Palestinians' usurped rights." Al-Kawthar's programming on the United States is negative, too, and it is supportive of Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

The Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq may eventually get under way, and there is a remote possibility that direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics will end. However, it is very unlikely that Iran will end its effort to influence Iraqi affairs through broadcasting and other applications of "soft power." Tehran's interest in shaping developments to its west and its desire to undermine the United States indirectly and at a relatively low cost to itself preclude it from adopting a disinterested approach to what happens in Iraq.

NEO-TALIBAN ATTACKS KILL SIX AFGHANS
Attacks by neo-Taliban insurgents on March 30 left seven dead, AP reported. One of the casualties was a suicide bomber; the others were members of the Afghan security forces. The deaths occurred in two separate incidents in eastern and southern Afghanistan. In one strike, insurgents attacked a government vehicle carrying the police commander of the Musa Qala district of Helmand Province and his brother. Both were killed, according to Helmand's deputy governor, Amir Mohammad Akhund. In the Dawlat Shah district of the eastern Laghman Province, insurgents opened fire with rockets and rifles at district chief Qadeer Khan and three of his staff as they drove home, said the province's deputy governor, Habib Rasool Memawal. And in Kandahar Province, a suicide bomber driving a car full of explosives blew himself up near a Canadian military convoy. Six Afghan bystanders were wounded in the attack. MR

AFGHAN POLICE ARREST TWO NEO-TALIBAN DISGUISED AS WOMEN
Afghan authorities on March 30 arrested two suspected neo-Taliban fighters wearing burqas in eastern Afghanistan, AFP reported. They were caught after police, acting on a tip-off, followed them to a house in Khost. Police said the men came from Pakistan and that the house contained four AK-47 rifles. MR

AFGHAN OFFICIALS PROBE CHILDREN'S DEATH FOR BIRD FLU
Afghan health officials are investigating the deaths of three children for signs of bird flu, AFP reported. The three children, all from the same family, died of suspected pneumonia earlier in March in Ghor Province, Afghan Health Ministry adviser Abdullah Fahim said. However, the discovery of the deadly H5N1 strain of the flu in the provinces of Laghman, Nangarhar and Kabul has prompted the authorities to reassess the children's deaths. Their bodies may be exhumed if initial tests justify concern. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said it has no evidence of bird-flu infections in Ghor Province, which does not border the provinces where the H5N1 strain has been found or two other provinces -- Wardak and Kunar -- where the less virulent H5 strain has appeared. The outbreak has so far resulted in the culling of thousands of chickens. MR

ADB GRANTS AFGHANISTAN $1 MILLION FOR PRIVATE-SECTOR DEVELOPMENT
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced on March 30 that it will make Afghanistan a $1 million grant aimed at boosting the country's fledging private sector. "While this in part reflects a lack of general awareness of potential business opportunities and limited business development skills, it also reflects the absence of incentives for the private sector to formalize its activities," said Eugene Zhukov, an economist with the bank. An ADB statement said Afghanistan's private sector is thought to control as much as 89 percent of the country's gross domestic product and employ about 1.7 million people. But private businesses contribute just 6 percent to the economy's gross domestic capital formation, while accounting for 92 percent of consumption, according to the bank. The ADB statement did not state clearly exactly how the grant money would be spent. MR

IRAN REITERATES CLAIM ITS NUCLEAR PROGRAM IS ONLY PEACEFUL
Iran's ranking nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told the French weekly "Le Point" on March 27 in Tehran that Iran is pursuing an "entirely clear" and peaceful nuclear program and has done nothing to deserve referral to the UN Security Council, IRNA reported on March 30. He said Iran wants two things: to pursue nuclear technology research, and to assure a supply of fuel for the power stations it intends to build. Larijani said Western powers have not honored commitments they made to Iran's pre-1979, pro-Western regime, which also had a nuclear program. Larijani suggested the formation of a multinational consortium in Iran to enrich uranium, with partners such as France, Germany, or Russia. He dismissed a suggestion that Iran would use its know-how to carry out secret enrichment work elsewhere in Iran, but also deplored as a breach of confidence reports -- apparently sent by sources close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- that Iran will soon operate a cascade of 164 centrifuges at its Natanz plant. These operate as part of the uranium-enrichment process, he said, and added: "We have done nothing against international norms and laws to deserve [referral to] the Security Council. In my opinion, the referral of Iran's dossier from the [IAEA] governing board to the Security Council is a professional embarrassment for the agency, showing how politics dominate [its] professional work," IRNA reported. VS

FOREIGN MINISTER CRITICIZES 'HASTY' MOVES ON IRAN DOSSIER
Manuchehr Mottaki said in Geneva on March 30 that "reporting Iran's dossier to the Security Council was a mistaken move," and he expressed the hope that the issue will be solved through "negotiation and dialogue" at the IAEA, IRNA reported. Giving Iran a 30-day deadline to suspend its enrichment activities indicates "hasty decisions," he said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30 2006), though unspecified parties "are seeking pretexts, and have openly said they are pursuing other aims." Mottaki said after the Conference on Disarmament that the situation will only become more complicated "if certain other people are pursuing other aims." He said he does not believe sanctions are a likely option "for now," and dismissed the possibility of Israeli strikes on Iranian installations, adding that Iran has readied itself for "different conditions." Iran prefers "finding an agreement, but we have in the past increased our potential and capabilities in various areas" as the country came to terms with "existing sanctions," IRNA reported. VS

IRAQI PRESIDENT MEETS WITH IRANIAN ENVOY
Jalal Talabani met on March 30 with Iran's charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Hasan Kazemi-Qomi, who asked for the release of hundreds of Iranian detainees in Iraq, IRNA reported. The two discussed bilateral ties, and Talabani thanked Iran for the support it has given to Iraq's political process. Kazemi said Iran is ready to participate in Iraq's reconstruction and general development, and respects Iraqi elections and their results, hoping they will help bring peace to Iraq. He asked for the release of "about 250 Iranian nationals who are mostly pilgrims" to Iraq's Muslim Shi'a shrines, "arrested for allegedly entering Iraq illegally." Talabani said he hopes they will be released after relevant coordination between Iraq's justice and interior ministries. Separately, Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki said in Geneva on March 30 that "we have accepted the proposal of Iraqi officials for talks" between Iran and the U.S. concerning Iraq, IRNA reported. "These talks will only be about Iraq," he said. VS

RIGHTS GROUP CONCERNED ABOUT IRANIANS FACING EXECUTION
Amnesty International (AI) has expressed concern over the imminent execution of 28-year-old Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi, currently in prison in Karaj, near Tehran, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on March 30. AI stated on its website on March 29 that prison authorities forced Mahdavi, reportedly a supporter of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, an armed opposition group based in Iraq, to sign a paper on March 24 stating May 16 as the date of his execution. Amnesty said Iran executed another man at that prison in February 2005 after informing him of his execution in a similar manner. Mahdavi was tried in a revolutionary court without a defense attorney, Amnesty stated. AI also reported on March 28 that Iran is to execute Fatemeh Haqiqat-Pajuh, who was convicted of murdering her husband, by April 1. The Supreme Court has cancelled a stay of execution granted her last October. VS

POWERFUL EARTHQUAKE HITS WESTERN IRAN
Three earthquakes rocked western Iran early on March 31, killing dozens and injuring more than 1,000 others, international media reported. The quake's epicenter was in Lorestan Province. The hardest hit areas are villages between the towns of Doroud and Boroujerd. Hospitals in those two towns are full to capacity with the wounded. Emergency officials have put out an urgent call for medical supplies and assistance.

FREED U.S. JOURNALIST RECOUNTS CAPTIVITY
Freed U.S. journalist Jill Carroll said she was treated well during her more-than-two-months in captivity in a statement broadcast on Baghdad Satellite Channel on March 30. "They put me in a well-furnished, small area and provided me with good food," Carroll said. "They allowed me to go to the bathroom whenever I wanted. They never hit me and never even threatened to hit me." Carroll said she did not have access to a television or radio, but did hear news once in a while. Asked if a ransom was paid for her release, she said: "I don't know what happened. They just came to me and said 'OK, we are going to let you go.' That is all." According to a March 31 washingtonpost.com report, Carroll's captors delivered her to an Iraqi Islamic Party office in Baghdad. While she was there, party officials asked her to write out and sign a statement saying she had not been harmed while in the custody of the party. They also had her record a question-and-answer session on camera for their records. That session was aired on the party's Baghdad Satellite Channel. KR

IRAQI PRIME MINISTER SAYS U.S. DID NOT CALL FOR HIS OUSTER
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari told reporters at a March 30 briefing in Baghdad that the U.S. government has not called for his ouster, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on March 31. "During my meeting with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad yesterday, he told me the reports that were attributed to him were untrue," al-Ja'fari said. "He said that he wanted to personally tell me that. I also learned that the White House also denied these reports." Al-Ja'fari added that he has not concerned himself with media reports. "I do not care so much about these things. I care about the Iraqi people and the democratically elected deputies," he said. KR

IRAQ'S AL-QAEDA-AFFILIATED COUNCIL CRITICIZES BA'ATH PARTY
The Mujahedin Shura Council, an organization that includes Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, criticized the Ba'ath Party in a March 30 Internet statement for trying to lay claim to the jihad. Referring to an earlier Internet statement attributed to Ba'athist fugitive Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2006), the Mujahedin Shura Council said: "Voices from time to time try to distort pictures, confuse matters, and describe jihad in ways that it is not. Among those voices is what was reported by the media about a leader and follower of the Ba'ath Party who had embraced much of the Christians and seculars' rubbish and governed over this land when Muslims were in a temporary lapse [not in power]." Calling al-Duri a "little tyrant" who has the blood of Muslims on his hands, the council said the Ba'athist "pictures jihad as if it were an extension to the apostate regime that he represented." The council said that those who carry the banner of jihad are loyal Muslims who denounce Ba'athist agendas. KR

BOMB-LADEN VEHICLE PENETRATES GREEN ZONE IN IRAQ
A car bomb was discovered inside Baghdad's Green Zone on March 30, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on the same day. According to the report, Iraqi security forces evacuated employees and journalists inside the conference palace and closed roads before bringing in experts to defuse the bomb. The satellite news channel also reported that a second car bomb exploded at one of the entrances to the Green Zone; no other details were given. KR

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