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Newsline - March 9, 2007

Kurt Beck, who heads Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition, told the "Frankfurter Rundschau" on March 9 that his party will not agree to setting up a proposed U.S. missile-defense project in Poland and the Czech Republic without Russia's approval. Beck said that he sees "no sense" in the project and "cannot imagine" that NATO will agree to it "unless a common position is worked out in a dialogue with Russia in advance." He added that the American plans have fostered a worsening of relations with Russia. The daily, which is close to the SPD, noted that Beck effectively distanced himself from remarks by Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in which he said that NATO should deal with the issue. Merkel has taken a position similar to that of Jung. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently pointed out in Berlin that Washington has held 10 rounds of talks with Russia on the defense system since spring 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 22, and 23, and March 6, 2007). She and Polish and Czech officials have stressed that ongoing missile defense talks are a matter between sovereign, independent states. The "Financial Times" of March 6 quoted Czech Prime Minister Miroslav Topolanek as saying that "as for the 18 EU member states who host U.S. military bases, it is not up to them to comment on the existence of a similar presence in the Czech Republic." The German Foreign Ministry is currently dominated by the SPD, which includes people who are sharply critical of Washington while being enthusiastic about close ties to Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006, and January 18 and 23, and February 20, 2007). After Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his February 10 anti-American speech in Munich, Beck praised it as "open and honest." PM

The Russian Foreign Ministry says the recent U.S. State Department human rights report, which is critical of Russia, is not objective, reported on March 8. Spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said the 2006 report, released on March 6, has a "biased, politicized, and confrontational character." The report criticized Russia for centralizing power in the executive branch and warned of an erosion of government accountability. Also on March 8, the ministry said that the conviction of a former Russian diplomat at the United Nations for money laundering is "suspicious" and "raises many questions." On March 7, a U.S. Federal District Court in New York found Vladimir Kuznetsov guilty of laundering over $300,000 to help companies win contracts related to the UN's former oil-for-food program in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007). Ever since President Putin's February 10 speech, Russian ministries or high-ranking officials have made statements critical of Washington. PM

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington on March 8 that his government wants the Russian authorities to quickly investigate the suspected poisoning in that country of two U.S. citizens of Russian origin, who have since returned to the United States for treatment, Reuters reported. Marina and Yana Kovalevsky, a mother and daughter, are believed to have been poisoned under unclear circumstances with thallium, a highly toxic metal that can cause a slow, painful death. McCormack said that "we want to ensure that our citizens have answers to the questions that obviously came up -- how did this happen? We will be checking...with Russia for progress" on the investigation. The two women are in a Los Angeles hospital, where they are in a "fair but stable condition." A hospital spokeswoman said that it is too early to say what caused their illness but added that "at this point there does not appear to be any radiation involved." PM

The State Duma voted on March 8 for a series of amendments that will lead to state budgets being drawn up by the cabinet for three years rather than on an annual basis, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 9. Supporters say that three-year budgets will remove the temptation for ministries to spend unused funds in a rush at the end of each year, which has stoked inflation. Critics argue the amendments will remove some transparency by leaving it to the government to make key decisions on spending currently monitored by the Duma. Parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov said that "too many decisions about budget spending are left to the government to make" under the new legislation. Independent Deputy Valery Zubov argued that "if the Duma voluntarily gives up its functions, what are we going to do in this hall?" The Duma must vote in April on the amendments in second and third readings. The cabinet is slated to submit its budget for 2008-10 on May 1. President Putin has sent the cabinet his budget message, which is expected to be posted on his website, Interfax reported on March 9. PM

The latest issue of "Forbes" magazine says Russia now has 53 dollar billionaires -- the third most in the world after the United States and Germany, and 16 more than in 2006, reported on March 9. The magazine noted that the cumulative worth of the Russian billionaires is $282 billion -- higher than the total of the German billionaires. It also says that the average age of Russia's billionaires is 46 -- 16 years younger than the 62 years average of other billionaires. The magazine reports that Russia's richest man continues to be Roman Abramovich, ranking 16th in the world with $18.7 billion. He is still far behind the world's richest man, who is Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates with wealth estimated at $56 billion. The Russian magazine "Finans" recently suggested that Oleg Deripaska has overtaken Abramovich as Russia's richest man. On March 5, Communist Party (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov raised the issue of the rich at a regional elections rally in Ramenskoye in Moscow Oblast, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 9. He asked the crowd rhetorically: "why did Abramovich steal your wealth? Why does [Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly] Chubais get paid $100,000 per month?" But in the end, Zyuganov made no policy proposals and simply called for "elementary justice." PM

The president of the Yerevan Press Club, Boris Navasardyan, announced on March 7 the results of a media-monitoring project that measured the level of television coverage of the country's political parties, Arminfo and A1+ reported. The monitoring, which focused on seven television stations during last month, found bias in coverage in favor of the country's three main pro-government parties, led by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and followed by the Prosperous Armenia and the Republican parties. Although Navasardyan noted that the country's major opposition parties enjoyed significant television coverage, three other opposition parties, the Republic, New Times, and Heritage parties, were targeted in "a coordinated discriminatory policy" that provided minimal news coverage. The monitoring project is planned to continue later this month in preparation for the country's May 12 parliamentary elections. RG

The inaugural meeting of the Azerbaijani and Turkish Diaspora forum opened in Baku on March 9, with some 450 delegates from 48 countries, ITAR-TASS reported. The forum opened in a ceremony led by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the self-declared president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), Mehmet Ali Talat. Organized by the Azerbaijani State Committee on Diaspora Affairs, the forum seeks to coordinate the Azerbaijani and Turkish diasporas to promote "the history, modern life, social-economic development, and culture of the Turkic people." RG

Seven Azerbaijani policemen were injured on March 8 in a clash with protestors in Baku's Yasamal district, ANS-TV reported. The clash, which involved stone throwing and damage to several police cars, followed an attempt by the police to disperse a demonstration by butchers from an unlicensed meat market, which was forcibly closed by the Baku municipal authorities on March 7. The Baku authorities are planning to demolish the popular market after repeated reports of health code violations. RG

After arriving in Baku from neighboring Armenia, Bernard Fassier, the French co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, met on March 8 with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov for over an hour to discuss preparations for the upcoming meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers set for March 14 in Geneva, ANS-TV reported. The OSCE official also met with the Armenian president and foreign minister the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007). Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Araz Azimov described the current stage of Azerbaijani-Armenian talks as a "continuation of the Prague Process" and noted that "Azerbaijan's position has not changed" from its demand that relevant UN resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh "be carried out." RG

In a rally timed with international women's day, a group of roughly 500 Georgian female teachers staged a demonstration on March 8 in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi to demand higher wages and increased pensions, Interfax and Prime News reported. The group of demonstrators, which included teachers from various regions of the country, explained that the Georgian "authorities do not pay sufficient attention to school teachers," adding that "we demand a rise in salaries for teachers and payment of pensions for services" and warning that "if our demands are not met, we shall resort to [further] demonstrations or a strike." The demonstrating teachers, who are members of the Free Professional Union of Teachers and Scientists of Georgia, held a similar rally on March 8 in Tbilisi seeking a doubling of their salary of about $50 a month. In response to reporters asking about the demonstration, Georgian Education Minister Kakha Lomaya argued that the Georgian government provides annual increases in funding for education and promised that "the government provides for a further increase in teachers' salaries and in funding of school infrastructure," according to ITAR-TASS. RG

During a visit to Tokyo, Mikheil Saakashvili met on March 8 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Prime News reported. The Georgian president is in Tokyo on an official three-day state visit aimed at expanding bilateral trade and economic relations. A new memorandum on economic cooperation was formally signed by President Saakashvili and Japanese Prime Minister Abe. Japan also announced plans to open an official embassy in Tbilisi within the coming year. Speaking to reporters in a press conference following a meeting with the Japanese premier, Saakashvili announced Georgia's support for the Japanese bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, according to the Caucasus Press. Accompanied by his wife, President Saakashvili is also scheduled to meet with Japanese Emperor Akihito and the empress in a special ceremony on March 9. The Georgian delegation arrived in Japan on March 7 following a similar visit to China. RG

Kairat Umarov, Kazakhstan's ambassador to India, told journalists in New Delhi on March 8 that Kazakhstan supports India's becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan), Indian news agency PTI reported. India is currently an observer in the SCO along with Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan. Umarov said that India's accession to full membership would "add more weight" to the SCO's international standing. Umarov also said, "The issue right now is to finalize the process of how the new members would join this organization. Once this is finalized, India's chances to become a member are best." DK

Leonid Melamed, president of Russian cellular operator Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), said that his company has a filed suit seeking $150 million from 11 companies involved in deals with the Kyrgyz cellular operator Bitel, reported on March 8. The suit alleges that the 11 companies participated in an illegal takeover of Bitel. The primary target of the lawsuit, which was filed in the Isle of Man offshore jurisdiction, is Altimo, which manages telecommunications assets for the Russian company Alfa Group. MTS paid $150 million for Bitel in 2005 only to lose control of the Kyrgyz cellular operator in a hostile takeover (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13 and 16, 2005). DK

Major General Wahid Arshad, a spokesman for Pakistan's army, told the BBC's Uzbek Service on March 8 that reports that Uzbek militant Tohir Yoldosh was captured in Afghanistan are "baseless." Yoldosh, who is believed to be based in Pakistan near the Afghan border, is the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Citing information from Pakistani television channels, RIA Novosti reported earlier in the day that Yoldosh may have been captured. Islamabad-based "The News" reported on March 8 that "militant sources" in North Waziristan also denied the reports of Yoldosh's capture, although they said that one of Yoldosh's assistants may have been seized. IMU militants are thought to have been involved in a shootout near Wana in South Waziristan on March 6 in which 12 Uzbeks with possible links to Al-Qaeda were killed, Reuters reported. DK

Belarus's State Customs Committee has eased control over the movement of shipments from the Kaliningrad exclave to the rest of Russia, Belapan reported on March 8, quoting a Belarusian customs official. In January, Belarusian customs officers started inspecting each truck originating from Kaliningrad Oblast and bound for Russia, with each shipment escorted from border to border. Minsk said it wanted in this way to prevent import-duty evasion schemes by haulers that in fact unloaded their cargoes in Belarus. Moscow subsequently retaliated by barring Belarusian trucking companies from carrying third-country shipments to or from Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2007). Now Minsk and Moscow reportedly agreed on a new procedure for monitoring the movement of shipments from Kaliningrad, under which Russian customs officers are obliged to provide additional information to Belarusian counterparts on cargoes carried from the exclave. However, commodities subject to excise tax as well as certain alcohol-containing products originating from Kaliningrad will continue to be escorted from border to border. JM

Viktor Yushchenko visited Brussels on March 8, where he met with European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, and European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Ukrainian and international media reported. Yushchenko's talks with these officials focused on the new cooperation agreement between Ukraine and the EU, talks on which were opened earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 8, 2007). After his meeting with Solana, Yushchenko acknowledged continuing domestic political problems but vowed that, "None of the political victories of the Orange Revolution will be lost." "I'm sure that the European Union's institutions can play an extremely important and large role today in the normalization of relations between Ukraine's institutions of power," Yushchenko added. "Today we are witnessing the beginning of Yushchenko's new European breakthrough," Oleksandr Chaly, deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat, told journalists in Brussels on March 8. Yushchenko agreed in Brussels that the EU and Ukraine will hold a summit in Kyiv on September 14. JM

NATO Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer said the "main message" of a March 8 meeting with Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic is that the Western military alliance continues to view the arrest of Ratko Mladic and other war crimes fugitives as "extremely important," international and local media reported the same day. The meeting came at a sensitive period for security in the period, ahead of a UN decision on the future of the contested region of Kosova. Concerns about the decision's potential impact on the region contributed to a recent decision to extend the mandate of the international community's representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and within Kosova there have been warnings of a renewed conflict from both ethnic Serbs and Albanians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 6, and 28, 2007). In other talks, de Hoop Scheffer discussed Kosova and military cooperation, but the NATO chief focused on international demands for the arrest of suspected war criminals. The continued failure to capture Mladic, who is thought to be in Serbia, has been thrown even more into the spotlight since February 26, when the UN's top court, the International Court of Justice, said Serbia must comply with its obligations under the Genocide Convention by handing over Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, and 28, 2007). This is raising fears in Serbia at the possibility of UN sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 7, 2007). However, at the same time, Serbian officials say the EU has been indicating that the future of accession talks may not depend on the capture of Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 13, 2007). EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on March 6 struck an optimistic note, saying Serbia could plausibly become a candidate for membership in 2008 and raising the possibility of the resumption of renewed trade talks depending on cooperation with the United Nations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). Formally, the capture of Mladic remains a precondition for talks, as it does for closer ties with NATO. Serbia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace Program in 2006. AG

A poll published on March 8 underlines a sharp fall in the Serbian public's support for cooperation with international efforts to bring war criminals to justice, as well as deep skepticism about the veracity of internationally recognized war crimes, AFP reported. While the poll shows that a declining percentage of Serbs support cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), they remain in the majority, with 69 percent. This is down from 84 percent in 2003 and 76 percent in 2006, according to AFP. The poll was conducted by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, the Strategic Marketing research agency, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The support for cooperation appears to be more a matter of calculation than conviction, with only 15 percent saying that cooperation with the ICTY is needed for justice to be done. Most argued that cooperation was required to improve Serbia's international position. There is also widespread disbelief about the single largest crime committed in the war, the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. The poll found that 50 percent believe the massacre did not take place and 43 percent do not believe that the killings, if they took place, qualify as a crime. The poll was taken in December, before the International Court of Justice concluded that the slaughter at Srebrenica was "an act of genocide" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, and 28, 2007). The Srebrenica massacre is central to the case against the fugitive Bosnian Serb leaders Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, and is a key point of division among Serbia's political parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 2 and 6, 2007). AG

The Kosovar minister responsible for overseeing the return of refugees and internally displaced people, Branislav Grbic, says the dissatisfaction of returnees is being "manipulated," the news service KosovaLive reported on March 7. Grbic was responding to a decision by a group of 74 ethnic Serbian families on March 6 to refuse to accept the keys to homes rebuilt for their use in northern Kosova. KosovaLive reported that the families believe the package fell short of promises, are demanding the payment of grants worth a promised 3,400 euros ($4,470) and are critical of the quality of the construction work. The project, in the village of Babus near Urosevac/Ferizaj, was overseen by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the Kosova Ministry for Return and Communities. In a letter to the Kosovar government publicized on March 6, they reportedly also called for the construction of a poultry farm and sought clarification about schooling and policing issues. Grbic said that it was clear from contracts that work on the housing and community project would continue after the Serbs took possession of their new homes. A 2005 estimate by Kosova's statistical office put the number of ethnic Serbs in Kosova at 126,000-140,000, or around 7 percent of the population. The last official census, in 1991, found 194,000 Serbs in Kosova, or roughly 10 percent of the population. There are fears in the Serbian community of a further exodus of Serbs should the UN Security Council approve a plan that would reduce the international role in the province and enhance the powers of local politicians. Fear of a further reduction in the population is a central consideration in a controversial attempt by ethnic-Serbian moderates to create a new political forum, the Serbian National Assembly of Kosovo (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). AG

Speaking on International Women's Day on March 8, ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said the need to provide women with greater protection is a central lesson of the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, AFP reported. Del Ponte said a "commitment to fully addressing violence against women must be enshrined in the governing documents of the courts that are charged with the task of achieving justice for women." Another lesson, she said, is the need to "reassess our traditional approach to witness protection to make the process less invasive for women." Rape is widely seen as having been a major weapon in the Balkan wars, and Del Ponte said that one of the key obstacles to rendering justice for women was the traumatic experience of cross-examination, which she called "a sort of torture, double suffering" for victims. Investigators, interpreters, lawyers, and judges all need training to improve how they deal with female victims of violence, she said. Del Ponte added that "while we must be committed to addressing crimes of sexual violence against women, we must not allow that goal to artificially obscure the many other harms women experience: the loss of their homes, possessions, and loved ones." Del Ponte is due to step down in September and the ICTY itself will make its final rulings in 2008, before closing its doors in 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007). AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's War Crimes Court on March 8 sentenced a Bosnian Serb to 10 years in prison for expelling Muslims from their villages and for using them as human shields, UPI reported the same day. Radislav Ljubinac was found guilty of taking part in the "forceful transfer" of villagers in eastern Bosnia between May and November 1992 and "other inhumane acts," including the use of 27 civilians from Rogatica as shields on the front line. Ljubinac was a member of a paramilitary unit established by the party of Radovan Karadzic. Prosecutors had called for Ljubinac to be imprisoned for 20 years. Ljubinac has been in police custody since December 2005. AG

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski met on March 7 with the leader of country's largest ethnic-Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), at the urging of members of the coalition government, local media reported the same day. While the meeting produced no major public agreements, the meeting itself is seen as an important bridge-building step following a decision in late January by the BDI and an another ethnic-Albanian party to boycott parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). BDI leader Ali Ahmeti said the boycott will continue until talks produce results, the MIA news agency reported. During the meeting, Ahmeti reportedly called for a new language law and a new law extending legal protections to former ethnic-Albanian guerrilla fighters. He also called for changes to rules governing the process of forming a government to protect ethnic minorities from being outvoted by the ethnic majority, a demand that Gruevski said is unconstitutional. On March 4, Gruevski moved to ease tensions within his own governing coalition, meeting with leaders of the New Social Democratic Party (NSP) and the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH). The Albanian-language daily "Lajm-Ekskluzive" wrote on March 5 that the parties had "settled" their public differences. The PDSH is calling for the BDI to be brought into government. Tensions between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians are a point of particular sensitivity at present amid concerns about the future of neighboring Kosova, while the European Union has repeatedly said that political divisions and their impact on reform efforts are slowing down Macedonia's bid for membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 9, 15, and 20, 2007). AG

Albania's largest party has officially chosen a senior party official and former head of parliament as its candidate to become the country's new president, local media reported. Bamir Topi's candidacy for the post, which becomes vacant in June, was confirmed by the Democratic Party on March 7. Topi is viewed as a moderate and therefore potentially acceptable to other parties. The Democrats control 56 seats in the 140-member parliament and would need another 38 votes to secure the two-thirds majority needed to gain the presidency. However, the Socialists, the second-largest party, made important gains in local elections held on February 18 and may be unwilling to allow both the country's presidency and premiership be occupied by the center-right. The Socialists are expected to field Fatos Nano, a former prime minister and long-time rival of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, leader of the Democrats. The two parties might find a compromise candidate, as they did in 2002 in the form of Alfred Moisiu. The Macedonian news agency Makfax reported on March 5 that Moisiu will seek a second term as president. It also says another candidate will be the internationally acclaimed writer Ismail Kadare. AG

Fourteen of Russia's federation subjects will hold elections for regional legislatures on March 11. In addition, regional by-elections and municipal elections will be held that day in a number of other regions, along with several referendums. Races are shaping up as two-horse contests in which the newest 'party of power' is challenging its more established, better funded counterpart.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the regional legislative election campaigns has been the further marginalization of post-Soviet Russia's two main liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS).

Meanwhile, some of the fiercest, and perhaps the only real, competition has been taking place between the two main pro-Kremlin parties -- Unified Russia, headed by State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov and A Just Russia, headed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. Both men are close allies and long-time associates of President Vladimir Putin.

The main "party of power," Unified Russia, appears to have benefited greatly from "administrative resources" -- in particular, decisions made by regional election commissions hindering rival parties.

Dmitry Oreshkin, who heads the Merkator research group, noted in the weekly magazine "Ogonyok" on March 5 that while only 4 percent of the party lists submitted in October's regional elections were rejected, 16 percent of the party lists submitted during this contest have been rejected.

However, none of the two Kremlin-backed parties' lists was rejected -- all of Unified Russia's and A Just Russia's candidate lists were registered in all 14 regions with no complications. Another reliably pro-Kremlin grouping, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), likewise was able to get its lists registered in all 14 regions.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was denied registration in the Republic of Daghestan and Tyumen Oblast, but its candidate lists were reinstated in both those federation subjects after the party challenged the rejections in court.

"Kommersant-Vlast" wrote on February 12 that the fact the KPRF was ultimately allowed to run candidates in Daghestan and Tyumen (according the weekly, the Communists themselves admitted it was made possible with "help from the top") "once more demonstrates that the Kremlin still needs [KPRF leader] Gennady Zyuganov's moderate opposition party -- if only because were it disqualified from elections, many of its supporters would either vote for more radical and less manageable parties, or join the ranks of the street opposition, in whose activities the Kremlin still sees the real threat of an 'Orange Revolution'."

Meanwhile, the SPS was refused registration in the Vologda, Pskov, and Tyumen oblasts. It was also banned from running in Daghestan, owing to a unique feature of that republic's election law that requires parties to field at least one candidate in each of Daghestan's 53 regions. However, the SPS managed to get a decision barring it from running candidates in Samara Oblast overturned.

Yabloko was refused registration in Orel Oblast and St. Petersburg. The election commission in Russia's second city said that the number of invalid signatures in the petitions that Yabloko submitted in support of its bid to run in the St. Petersburg's Legislative Assembly election exceeded the threshold of 10 percent.

Yabloko's appeal to the Central Election Commission (TsVK) was rejected -- a decision which, according to Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, turned the St. Petersburg contest into a "pseudo" election "no better than those we had back in the Soviet era."

As "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on February 16, Yavlinsky said his party believed that the TsVK was "following a political order from [St. Petersburg] Governor Valentina Matviyenko, with the full support of the presidential administration -- and perhaps even President Vladimir Putin personally."

Yabloko appealed to Russia's Supreme Court, but on March 6 it, too, rejected Yabloko's appeal. (The Supreme Court had ruled the previous day to keep the Socialist Unified Party of Russia, headed by State Duma Deputy Vasily Shestakov, out of the St. Petersburg race.)

As reported on March 6, the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko called on its voters to protest the ban by voting for all of the parties appearing on the ballot on March 11 and promised to hold a large protest in the city sometime after the vote.

In addition to alleged bias by the election authorities, Yabloko has experienced other problems. As reported on March 2, several party activists -- including a leader of Yabloko's youth wing, Ivan Bolshakov, and the press secretary of the party's Moscow chapter, Igor Yakovlev -- were beaten up in the Moscow Oblast town of Balashikha by a group of young men who demanded that they stop campaigning there, insisting that only Unified Russia was allowed to operate in Balashikha. According to the victims, the attackers did not conceal that they were Unified Russia members.

Such incidents notwithstanding, the only real competition in the race is between Unified Russia and the more recently created "party of power" -- A Just Russia. As "The Moscow Times" reported from Samara in an article published March 7, A Just Russia, which is headed in the region by Samara Mayor Viktor Tarkhov, has filed more complaints than any other party to the regional election commission. Most of them reportedly charge that Unified Russia, which is led there by Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov, has received preferential coverage in the local media.

A Just Russia has also put up billboards proclaiming itself as "the party of justice against a gang of embezzlers of public funds." According to the newspaper, another "typical billboard" features a picture of the governor on one side and the mayor on the other, with a caption under Titov's picture stating: "Fifteen years in power, and [Titov's] son is a dollar millionaire."

Whether or not such populist appeals will help the new "party of power" successfully challenge its more established counterpart remains to be seen. Merkator research group head Oreshkin, for one, thinks not. He predicted in the weekly "Ogonyok" on March 5 that Unified Russia will win in all 14 regions, averaging 40-45 percent of the vote, with A Just Russia coming in second, averaging 15-20 percent.

(Jonas Bernstein is a freelance Russia analyst in Washington, D.C.)

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the fugitive head of Hizb-e Islami and one-time prime minister of Afghanistan, said that if President Hamid Karzai's government stopped fighting militants and honored decisions that Kabul and the "resistance" would make in talks that didn't involve foreign countries, then talks with the Afghan government could "be fruitful," AP reported on March 8. In an interview with AP conducted at an undisclosed place, Hekmatyar said his party has severed the ties it had established with the Taliban in 2003 because "certain elements among the Taliban rejected the idea of a joint struggle against the aggressor" -- meaning the United States and its allies. "It was not a good move by the Taliban to disassociate themselves from the joint struggle," Hekmatyar said, adding that "Hizb-e Islami is the only party in Afghanistan which has the capability to form a strong, stable Islamic government in Afghanistan." According to Hekmatyar, his men helped Al-Qaeda terrorists "because they were the guests of the Afghan nation." However, he said his party has never had any organizational association with Al-Qaeda. Talk of an alliance between Hekmatyar -- who in December 2002 declared jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- and the Taliban first surfaced in late 2002 and gained momentum afterwards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20 and December 20, 2002). AT

In the March 8 interview, Hekmatyar said that Washington should recognize that U.S. military forces have not won the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people, nor have they been able to militarily defeat the opponents of the Afghan government. Addressing U.S. President George W. Bush, he added: "You must have realized that attacking Afghanistan and Iraq was a historical mistake. You do not have any other option but to take your forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan and give the Iraqis and Afghans the right to live their own way and select the system of their choice." During the resistance against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Hekmatyar's party received the loin's share of aid provided by the United States and countries such as Saudi Arabia. His Hizb-e Islami was the favorite group of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, which acted as the main conduit of funds to the Afghan resistance known as the mujahedin. After the fall of the communist regime in Kabul in 1992, Hekmatyar was at the center of the civil war, frequently shifting alliances to gain power. When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, Hekmatyar fled to Iran and found himself abandoned by Islamabad in favor of the Taliban. After the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, Hekmatyar resurfaced in Afghanistan, mainly concentrating his activities in the eastern part of the country. In February 2003, the United States designated Hekmatyar a terrorist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2003). AT

An Afghan National Army commander named Badar and three Afghan soldiers were killed in Helmand Province on March 8, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. ANA General Mohammad Isa Eftekhar confirmed the incident and told AIP that "insurgents ambushed" Badar and his soldiers. Qari Mohammad Yusof, speaking for the Taliban, also told AIP that the militia had ambushed an ANA commander, killing him and four of his bodyguards. AT

A German aid worker was killed when his convoy was attacked by gunmen in Sar-e Pol Province on March 8, Deutsche Welle reported. Another German was wounded in the attack. The Germans worked for Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (World Hunger Relief). This is the first time a German aid worker has been killed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary speculated that the killing was the work of bandits, not the Taliban. AT

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in Vienna on March 8 that the decision by the IAEA's governing board to cut technical aid to Iranian nuclear projects "undermined" that body's "standing for the first time in history," IRNA reported. The cut was approved on March 8 in line with the imposition of limited sanctions on Iran last December to punish Tehran for not ending sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities. Soltanieh said the IAEA is an impartial agency that should not be swayed by the "political motives" of the UN Security Council. He added that all cooperation projects between Iran and the IAEA have been studied, and "reviews in this respect merely harm the credibility and integrity of the agency." He charged the IAEA of violating its own charter by following the demands of December's Security Council Resolution 1737. "America and Great Britain, which are pressuring the Security Council to confront Iran's peaceful nuclear program, prevent any measure by that body regarding Israel's nuclear activities," he said. He added that the decision encourages Israel to furtively expand its purported nuclear arsenal even though it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has a "unique" record of ignoring UN resolutions, IRNA reported. VS

Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign-policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former foreign minister, told ISNA on March 8 that the IAEA governing-board decision will change nothing as "Iran's [nuclear activities] have taken place on the basis of self-reliance and the [IAEA] has never had a decisive role in this regard." He said "the agency has changed nothing by doing this." He described the move as a "political decision intended to complete the circle of psychological warfare being waged against our country by some countries with influence in the" IAEA. He said "one has to wait and see" how Iranian legislators will react to the vote, as he said parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel had predicted in an earlier press conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007). Separately, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told ISNA the same day that an Iranian delegation in Moscow was not discussing "a money problem" with Russia -- concerning differences that have arisen over payments in the construction of Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant -- but "the Russians have proposed that we should give them resources earlier than scheduled in the contract." He said "we are...negotiating with them about this." VS

Some 3,000 teachers protested again outside parliament in Tehran on March 8 over wages and working conditions as the Intelligence Ministry arrested several teaching union leaders on the night of March 7-8, Radio Farda and ILNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). The Iran Teachers' Guild Society (Kanun-i senfi-yi mo'alleman-i Iran) reported on March 7 the arrests of some 20 people, including Ali Akbar Baghani, the secretary-general of that society; Mahmud Beheshti-Langarudi, its spokesman; Alireza Hashemi, the secretary-general of the Iran Teachers Organization; and two members of that group, Mohammad Davari and Ali Pursoleiman, Radio Farda reported. It added that they were reportedly taken to unknown locations. Relatives of some of the detainees said agents did not show identity cards and used force and threatening actions in making the arrests, Radio Farda reported. Unnamed witnesses told Radio Farda that police beat protestors and cut off nearby streets in Tehran to prevent more teachers from joining the crowd. The broadcaster also cited IRNA as reporting that hundreds of teachers gathered that day outside the education authority in the central city of Khomein, to show their support for Tehran's demonstration. The broadcaster said similar demonstrations have taken place in recent days in the southwestern town of Kermanshah, and in Zanjan and Ardebil, in northwestern Iran. VS

Women's rights activists gathered outside parliament on March 8 to mark International Women's Day, prompting riot police to violently break up their protest, Radio Farda reported on March 8, citing Fatemeh Govarai, a member of the coordinating committee for the protest. According to, those who were beaten by police included rights activist Abdullah Momeni and women's rights activists Fatemeh Govarai and Marzieh Mortazi-Langarudi. Reports say the crowd ranged from 300 to about 700 people, while Radio Farda reported the arrests of four participants. It reported that earlier that day four women activists were released from prison following their recent arrests after an earlier Tehran protest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). Just three of the dozens of women who were arrested in that protest are still in jail -- Shadi Sadr, Mahbubeh Abbosqolizadeh, and Jila Bani-Yaqub -- AP reported on March 8. Meanwhile, security agents went to the homes of two other activists, Mansureh Shojai and Farnaz Seifi, and informed their families that they must present themselves to the Tehran Revolutionary Court, Radio Farda reported. Neither Shojai nor Seifi was at home. The security officials did not say why they had to report to the court. The two had been summoned to court on one previous occasion, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi will represent Tehran at the March 10 Iraq neighbors' meeting in Baghdad, IRNA reported on March 8. The gathering is expected to address Iraq's security concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2007). Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said he hopes the conference will send a clear message that regional states should stand alongside the Iraqi people in tackling the security problem plaguing the country. Meanwhile, Turkey has announced that it will be represented by a delegation headed by Turkish Special Representative to Iraq Oguz Celikkol. KR

Russian Ambassador to Iraq Vladimir Chamov will represent his government at the March 10 Iraq neighbors' meeting in Baghdad, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on March 9, according to Interfax. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council have been invited to attend the conference, along with Iraq's six neighbors and Egypt, and representatives from the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. KR

The United States will be represented at the Iraq neighbors' meeting by State Department Special Coordinator on Iraq David Satterfield and outgoing U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, according to Western media reports. Satterfield told reporters on March 8 that Washington will not rebuff Iran and Syria at the conference if the two states wish to talk about Iraq, Reuters reported the same day. "If we are approached over orange juice by the Syrians or the Iranians to discuss an Iraq-related issue that is germane to this topic -- stable, secure, peaceful, democratic Iraq -- we are not going to turn and walk away," Satterfield said. He suggested what Washington expects from Iran and Syria, saying: "No arms crossing its border, no contributions to violence, whether that violence is directed against coalition forces or innocent Iraqis, a halt for elements in Iraq who are engaged in fomenting or conducting acts of violence." KR

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told reporters on March 9 that he is prepared to increase the size of Georgia's contingent to Iraq, Interfax news reported. Saakashvili is currently in Japan. Georgia currently has 850 soldiers in Iraq. Saakashvili said the decision has been made to increase that number to 2,000 troops, who will serve a one-year term in Iraq. KR

Portugal will close its embassy in Iraq due to the ongoing violence there and the related costs of maintaining security, the Portuguese Foreign Ministry announced on March 7, international media reported on March 8. Foreign Minister Luis Amado reportedly informed Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of the decision, the statement noted, adding that the embassy will remain closed "as long as the security conditions do not change," AFP reported. Portugal's Ambassador to Iraq Francisco Falcao Machado has already returned to Lisbon and the 14 Portuguese police who guard the embassy are expected home by month's end, AFP reported. KR