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Newsline - March 14, 2007

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on March 13 appointing five members to the Central Election Commission (TsIK) for a four-year term starting March 26 but did not include the current chairman, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, Russian and international media reported. The commission has 15 members, and the president, State Duma, and Federation Council each nominate five of them. Elections in 14 Russian regions on March 11 produced an almost clean sweep for two pro-Kremlin parties, Unified Russia and A Just Russia, in which Unified Russia won in 13 of the 14 regions outright. The new commission will oversee elections to the Duma in December and the 2008 presidential vote. Veshnyakov was first named to the TsIK in 1994 and served as its chairman since 1999. Even the state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of March 14 called the latest omission of Veshnyakov a "big surprise." But in July 2006, he broke with apparent Kremlin policy by calling for direct elections to the Federation Council. He also attracted attention by saying that regional governors should be elected and not appointed, and criticized legislation that expands "pretexts for [the authorities] to disqualify candidates they find inconvenient." In September, Veshnyakov warned that Russia is in danger of becoming a one-party state and drew explicit comparisons with the Soviet Union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 21 and September 20, 2006). He said earlier "it won't be a tragedy" to give up his post as TsIK chairman. It is not clear what his next job will be, although Russian news agencies said he is being considered for an unspecified "new senior post" elsewhere. Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies told RFE/RL's Russian Service on March 13 that the Kremlin probably wants a TsIK chairman who is less ambitious than Veshnyakov and more clearly dependent on Kremlin patronage in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential votes. PM

Air Force Commander in Chief Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov said on March 13 that Russia is developing a "fifth-generation air-defense missile system based on the existing S-300 and S-400 systems" in response to the proposed U.S. missile-defense project, Russian and international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, and March 2 and 12, 2007). "We are moving to the creation of a new system of antiaircraft defense that will significantly surpass the capabilities of the S-400. This is not an offensive but rather a defensive weapon," he added. Mikhailov said that the system could be expanded to cover "all former Soviet territory" and be developed within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The new system will include not only air-defense systems, but also antiballistic-missile and space-defense systems. Critics charge that the Kremlin and the military establishment are using the U.S. plans as an excuse to embark upon a costly arms program that will necessitate diverting funds away from domestic spending projects. PM

President Putin met on March 13 with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in Rome and Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Bari for talks that centered on energy issues, international media reported. The Russian "RBC Daily" noted on March 13 that Putin was expected to "promote Russia's global energy strategy" and to seek to interest the Italians in the planned extension of Russia's Blue Stream gas pipeline from Turkey to Hungary via Bulgaria and Romania. Most media attention centered, however, on Putin's 25-minute meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican, which was conducted in German with the assistance of translators. Vatican officials stressed that the meeting was part of an ongoing dialogue between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. Those officials added that the session was not expected to produce an invitation to the pope to visit Russia or to meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II in a third country, which, in any event, it did not. The Russian Orthodox Church's representative for European affairs, Bishop Hilarion, was quoted by Interfax as saying that unspecified "existing problems" must be solved before the pope and patriarch can meet. Putin aide Sergei Prikhodko noted that Putin favors improved relations between the two churches, but added that "there are no middlemen" between them. This was Putin's first visit to the Vatican since 2003 (see "Russia: Why Is Putin Going To The Vatican,", March 13, 2007). PM

The daily "Vremya novostei" reported on March 13 that a new poll of an unspecified number of respondents carried out by the respected All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) indicates that most Russians approve President Putin's recent tough line in foreign affairs. The survey also suggested that most Russians "welcome the readiness of the authorities to discuss energy matters with the neighbors from the position of strength." About 47 percent of respondents said that Russia was most secure in the Soviet era, followed by 34 percent arguing that the current period has witnessed the best foreign-policy security. The pollsters commented that approval for Soviet-era foreign policy cuts across generational boundaries, whereas nostalgia for the Soviet era is usually concentrated among the elderly. The daily noted that "this is why most Russians remain unconcerned about Russia's tougher foreign policy. They don't even fear another Cold War, because they believe that their lives were good enough during the last Cold War (or better than current living standards, at least), and they believe that the security situation was certainly better back then. About 40 percent of respondents believe that another Cold War is more or less possible, while 48 percent do not think so." About 61 percent of respondents consider Putin's present course to be "well-considered and well-balanced." Only 29 percent believe that the United States is the sole world power and that the world is unipolar. Thirty-eight percent of respondents believe that Russia is a part of Europe and will become closer to Europe in the 21st century, while 45 percent maintain that "Russia is not exactly Europe and will never become a part of Europe." About 77 percent of respondents have a positive attitude toward the term "Europe," and between 50 and 60 percent of respondents have similarly favorable attitudes toward the CIS, Asia, and the UN. About 50 percent have negative associations with "America," as do 57 percent with NATO. PM

On March 13, Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleyev said in a letter to the regional parliament, the Federation Council, and the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade that he opposes any administrative consolidation of the "northern regions," because such an amalgamation could result in Kemerovo Oblast losing some subsidies it currently receives, reported. Some media have recently reported that the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade favors a consolidation of unspecified northern regions. Kemerovo Oblast in western Siberia has a population of just under 3 million people, 70 percent of whom are urban. It is an important industrial region, particularly for coal and metallurgy. PM

Fourteen people in three different localities in Kemerovo Oblast resolved on March 13 to continue a hunger strike they began on February 26 to protest low benefits for people who have become invalids as a result of accidents suffered at their work place, reported. The hunger strikers, who are taking only water, have received medical assistance. Aleksandr Gartman, who leads a local organization of invalids, said in Kiselyovsk on March 13 that the authorities refuse to speak to them as long as the hunger strike continues. PM

The Council of Europe's Anti-Torture Committee released a public statement ( on March 13 deploring the continued "resort to torture and other forms of ill-treatment" and "unlawful detentions" of civilians by the law enforcement agencies operating in Chechnya, including the Operational-Search Bureau of the Main Department of the Russian Interior Ministry. The statement contained an expression of regret at the failure to improve the situation in Chechnya since the Committee's two previous such public statements of concern, in July 2001 and July 2003. Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg told journalists in Grozny late last month after meeting with detainees that the use of torture is not confined to "isolated cases" but constitutes "a complete system" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). Speaking in Moscow on March 13, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Ziyad Sabsabi said anyone who thinks detainees in Chechnya are tortured or ill-treated "is living in the past," Interfax reported. He said Council of Europe experts would be better occupied focusing on the plight of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states. LF

Gennady Zyuganov told journalists in Moscow on March 14 that his Communist Party (KPRF) will demand a recount of the ballots cast in the March 11 elections for a new parliament in Daghestan because the officially promulgated results do not reflect the real outcome of the ballot, reported. On March 13, with some 80 percent of ballot papers counted, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party was leading with 68.57 percent of the votes, A Just Russia had 9.22 percent, and the Agrarian Party of Russia 7.7 percent, while the KPRF, Patriots of Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia still lacked the 7 percent minimum of the vote required to win parliamentary representation. Patriots of Russia protested on March 13 at a meeting with Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev that the preliminary official returns understate by some 10 percent the percentage of the vote the party received, reported. Magomed Khalitov, who chairs Daghestan's Election Commission, advised the party to raise the discrepancy with the heads of territorial election commissions as it is they who provide information to the republic-level election body. LF

Mustafa Batdyev ordered Election Commission head Safar Geryukov and republican Prosecutor Vladimir Kuznetsov on March 13 to look into the numerous complaints he has received with regard to the March 11 mayoral election in Karachayevsk, the republic's second-largest town, reported. Initial reports suggested that Magomet Botashev, who is backed by Batdyev's rival, Constitutional Court Chairman Islam Burlakov, narrowly defeated incumbent mayor Sapar Laypanov, who is loyal to Batdyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007). LF

One suspected militant and a police officer were killed and a second police officer injured early on March 14 in a shoot-out in the town of Neftekumsk in Stavropol Krai, reported. Two other militants were apprehended. The dead fighter was identified as Rasul Ilyasov, a member of the so-called Nogai battalion, eight of whose fighters died in a gun battle with security forces in the village of Tukuy-Mekteb in February 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10 and 13, 2006). LF

Samvel Babayan, the former commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), was summoned for questioning on March 12 by Armenia's National Security Service, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported the following day citing media reports. Security officials declined to confirm or deny those media reports, and both Babayan and his aides refused to answer journalists' queries on March 13. Babayan was jailed in 2001 for his imputed role in a failed attempt in February 2000 to assassinate NKR President Arkady Ghukasian. He was released in September 2004 and established a political party, Dashink, which seeks to participate in the May 12 Armenian parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2001, and March 18 and July 8, 2005 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," November 14, 2005). Babayan personally seeks to run in the same single mandate constituency as Aleksandr Sarkisian, whose brother Serge is Armenian defense minister. On March 8, the Yerevan newspaper "168 zham" reported that the Armenian authorities are mulling the possibility of refusing Babayan registration as a parliamentary candidate on the grounds that he has not been resident in Armenia for the five years preceding the vote as required under Armenian election law. LF

Testifying on March 13 at his ongoing trial in Baku, former Azerbaijani Health Minister Ali Insanov claimed that the November 2005 parliamentary elections were falsified, and reported on March 13 and 14 respectively. The ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), of which Insanov was one of the founding members, retained the overwhelming majority of the 125 parliament mandates. Insanov further alleged that all government ministers are routinely required to finance infrastructure projects such as the construction of schools or highway repairs that are subsequently touted as having been paid for from the state budget. Insanov was arrested in late October 2005 and currently faces charges of embezzlement and abuse of his official position, to which he pleads not guilty. He will be tried separately on charges of conspiring, together with former senior officials, to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership. Since his trial opened last month, Insanov has made a series of damaging allegations against YAP, which senior members of the party have sought to downplay (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007). LF

Sardar Jalaloglu, who is engaged in a battle for control of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 8, 2007), announced on March 13 that he has written to President Ilham Aliyev to request that the latter pardon several DPA members currently serving prison sentences, together with four other persons considered political prisoners, reported on March 13. The four include Ruslan Bashirli, head of the youth organization Yeni Fikir, and one member each of the opposition Musavat party and the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. In a March 13 interview with, human rights campaigner Eldar Zeynalov said it is "probable" that Aliyev will pardon some prisoners on the eve of the Novruz spring holiday. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili has ordered the postponement of the trial of charges of treason of former Georgian security chief Irakli Batiashvili, Batiashvili's lawyer Gela Nikoleishvili told Caucasus Press on March 14, the day the trial was scheduled to open. The Georgian Constitution does not explicitly empower the president to issue such orders to the judiciary. The treason charges derive from a taped telephone conversation, which a second lawyer for Batiashvili told the "Georgian Times" on January 27 was faked, in which Batiashvili allegedly expressed "intellectual support" for renegade local governor Emzar Kvitsiani. Kvitsiani openly defied the Georgian leadership in July 2006, but troops deployed to the Kodori Gorge failed in their attempt to apprehend him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 26, and 31, 2006). The "Georgian Times" reported on March 8 that both Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department consider Batiashvili a political prisoner. LF

Gela Bezhuashvili told a cabinet session on March 13 that the normalization of Georgian-Russian relations is contingent on the reopening of the Verkhny Lars border crossing that Russia closed without prior warning last summer for reconstruction and the installation of new equipment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 11, and 12, 2006). Visiting Armenia last week, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin said Moscow does not plan to reopen that crossing in the near future, and on March 12 Caucasus Press reported that it will reopen only in 2008. LF

Egypt and Kazakhstan signed a trade agreement on March 13 as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev continued his visit to the country, Interfax-Kazakhstan and "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Nazarbaev said that grain shipments from Kazakhstan to Egypt will boost bilateral trade volume from $90 million to $150 million in 2007. Also on March 13, Nazarbaev met with Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque and educational institution, MENA reported. Nazarbaev praised Al-Azhar's efforts to spread moderate Islam. Tantawi called for the teaching of Arabic in Kazakh grade schools. DK

A source in the administration of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev told the Bishkek Press Club ( on March 12 that Bakiev is considering a compromise with the opposition, reported the next day. The source said, "It's entirely possible that the president will make certain concessions on constitutional reform, but one shouldn't expect a complete return to the November version [of the constitution]." The "November constitution" expanded parliament's powers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2006), but amendments passed in late 2006 broadened the president's authority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007). Opposition forces have planned a rally in Bishkek in April to force Bakiev to enact constitutional reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). The source in the presidential administration said that Bakiev will not step down and that public order will be maintained. DK

Muso Asozoda, the head of the central committee of the People's Democratic Party, told journalists on March 13 that it would be unfair to amnesty imprisoned former fighters from the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), reported. Asozoda said many former UTO fighters have been freed, and those still in prison have committed serious crimes. Haji Akbar Turajonzoda -- a former rebel leader and currently a member of parliament -- recently called on President Imomali Rakhmonov to issue a presidential pardon for all combatants in Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). DK

Officials from international energy companies are holding talks in Ashgabat on the possibility of delivering Turkmen natural gas to Europe, Regnum reported on March 13. The talks are focusing on a 1.7 million-euro ($2.24 million), 18-month study to examine the possibility of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea bed to transport gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Russia objects to any such pipeline on ecological grounds. The consortium of companies involved is working on a contract from the European Commission. It consists of Mott MacDonald (Great Britain), Kantor Management Consultants (Greece), KLC Law Firm (Greece), and ASPI Consulting Engineers (Azerbaijan). DK

Dragon Oil has opened the first foreign-owned refinery in Turkmenistan, RusEnergy reported on March 13. The refinery has a production capacity of 2.5 million tons a year and produces primarily diesel fuel. The report did not say where the refinery is located. Dragon Oil is registered in Ireland, although Dubai-registered Emirates National Oil Corporation owns a 52-percent stake in the company. reported that Dragon Oil is currently developing 32 oil wells on seven platforms in Turkmenistan. DK

The Uzbek Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement on March 13 condemning the U.S. State Department's 2006 human rights report on Uzbekistan, reported. The statement charged that the report, which highlighted rights violations in Uzbekistan, was notable for its "tendentiousness and lack of objectivity." The ministry expressed regret at the "continuing attempts by the U.S. State Department to disseminate outmoded facts and assertions that have been disproved in a concrete and well-grounded fashion on numerous occasions." The ministry termed the State Department's efforts "counterproductive." DK

Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka and another opposition activist, Vyachaslau Sivchyk, were arrested in Minsk on March 13, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Vyachorka was detained by a group of plainclothes police officers at the door of his apartment. Vyachorka's family links the arrest to the demonstration that opposition forces plan to stage in downtown Minsk on March 25 to mark the 89th anniversary of the creation of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic. Vyachorka is one of the organizers of the demonstration. Siuchyk was arrested by police in downtown Minsk. Like Vyachorka, Siuchyk attended a rally of small business owners in Minsk the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007), where he called on participants to join the March 25 demonstration. JM

United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka told journalists in Kyiv on March 13 that he would like Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to discuss the problem of political prisoners in Belarus with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka during an upcoming meeting of both politicians in Kyiv, Belapan reported. "It is impossible to meet today with the man whose opponent [Alyaksandr Kazulin] was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison only for being his challenger in the [presidential] election," Lyabedzka said. "We cannot welcome any political contacts [with Lukashenka] as long as we in Belarus continue to have simulated elections. Ukraine has real elections, while in Belarus Lukashenka at a news conference with Ukrainian journalists can say, 'Yes, we falsified the presidential-election results,'" Lyabedzka added. JM

Viktor Yanukovych has become indignant over President Viktor Yushchenko's support for the boycott of the Verkhovna Rada's ongoing session by the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported on March 14. "The president should be busy with the development of the country, not with dancing and singing with the opposition," Yanukovych told journalists on March 14. On March 13, lawmakers from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine walked out of the parliamentary session, saying that they will return only after the ruling coalition complies with the demands their representatives signed in Yushchenko's attendance the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). JM

Yushchenko said in an interview with the Russian television channel Vesti 24 on March 13 that the U.S. missile defense system planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic will shield the whole of Europe and help create a multipolar world, Interfax reported. "It will be in the interests of peaceful coexistence if each state is protected, if we possess means of defense," Yushchenko noted, adding that "the development of multilateral models is always better than the development of a bipolar system of confrontation." Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Ukraine has demanded that the country's Foreign and Defense ministries provide information regarding possible negotiations on the deployment of elements of the U.S. antimissile defense system in Ukraine. General Henry Obering, director of the U.S. Defense Secretary's Missile Defense Agency, is currently in Kyiv to discuss the planned deployment of the U.S. missile defense system in Europe with Ukrainian officials, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. JM

Details of a confidential EU plan obtained by AP indicate that the European Union would run a 72-strong mission in Kosova if, subject to UN approval, it takes over responsibility for the region from the UN. The plan would be put into effect if the UN Security Council backs a blueprint drawn up for the contested region's future by Martti Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and March 12, 2007). The UN Security Council is likely to discuss the plan in April, though it is not clear if Russia will wield its veto (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007). The plan anticipates that the EU would also employ 200 support staff and run offices in Prishtina, the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, and the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The cost in the first year is put at 18.8 million euros ($24.3 million). The size of the mission would be substantially smaller than the UN's current 3,000-strong presence. This reflects the envisaged reduction in the international community's role in the region. Under the plan, the EU-appointed international representative would not administer the region, including the police, but would retain the power to veto government decisions and fire officials deemed to be obstructing implementation of the Security Council resolution. The plan does not name the EU's representative to the region, but unnamed diplomats quoted by AP suggest it would be a Dutch diplomat, Peter Feith. Feith has similar experience: in 2003, he led an EU mission that replaced NATO peacekeepers in neighboring Macedonia, and subsequently, in 2006, he led an EU mission to help reestablish peace in the Indonesian province of Aceh. An adviser to Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu, Muhamet Hamiti, welcomed "the EU's prudent and expeditious planning for the future EU-led civilian mission," AP reported. Serbian officials refused to comment. European Commission officials and the EU's largest states have expressed support for Ahtisaari's blueprint, but there have been signs of division in the 27-member bloc from countries that include Greece, Romania, and Spain. AG

Serbia's chief prosecutor for organized crime, Slobodan Radovanovic, announced on March 13 that two former aides of deceased former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic have been charged with channeling millions of dollars of state money to foreign accounts during Milosevic's rule, local and international media reported the same day. The formal charges against the two -- Mihalj Kertes, who was the head of customs under Milosevic, and Jovan Zebic, a former deputy prime minister -- are abuse of power, embezzlement, and money laundering. The money was allegedly funneled into accounts in Cyprus and offshore financial centers. At the time, UN sanctions prohibited financial transactions with Serbia. Since the ouster of Milosevic in October 2000, the Serbian government has tried to no avail to locate the money. Radovanovic said the scheme was devised by Milosevic and his onetime deputy Nikola Sainovic. Milosevic died in March 2006 while on trial in The Hague for war crimes, where Sainovic is currently being tried on related charges. Kertes was in February found guilty of involvement in an assassination attempt in 1999 on Serbia's current foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). AG

Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), has been diagnosed with liver cancer, Serbian media reported on March 13. Seselj is currently on trial in The Hague, facing charges of war crimes committed in Croatia and Bosnia, including Vukovar (see below). The reports have not been corroborated by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The reports coincide with Seselj's first appearance, on March 13, in court since he ended a hunger strike in December. The Croatian news service reported on March 13 that Seselj told the court that the tumor is benign and would not influence the course of the trial. The reports named the tumor as a hemangioma, though medical literature describes hemangioma as "a congenital benign skin lesion." Despite his incarceration, Seselj remains the nominal leader of the SRS, which emerged from elections in January as the largest party in the Serbian parliament. AG

Sixteen ethnic Serbs pleaded not guilty on March 13 at the start of their retrial for their alleged roles in the massacre of several hundred prisoners during Croatia's war of secession in 1991, the Italian news agency AKI reported the same day. Fourteen of the 16 were already found guilty in 2005 by Serbia's war crimes tribunal, but Serbia's Supreme Court in December 2006 ordered their retrial on the grounds that procedural standards were not observed. The initial sentences totaled 219 years. Two men were acquitted. The massacre -- known as the Ovcara massacre after the site of the slaughter -- followed the capture of the city of Vukovar in November 1991. The ICTY says that more than 260 Croats and other non-Serbs were massacred. Serbia's Supreme Court on March 1 upheld a sentence on another man accused of participating in the massacre (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007). The retrial of the 16 starts just as the trial of three of the men's commanders -- Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin, and Miroslav Radic -- is coming to a close in the ICTY. The cases are being held in separate jurisdictions because the UN-founded ICTY is slowly closing down its operations and is therefore transferring cases to local courts in the former Yugoslavia. The ICTY will give its final rulings in 2008 and hear its final appeals in 2010. AG

Prime Minister Zeljko Sturanovic said on March 13 that Montenegro may sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in a matter of days, possibly as soon as March 15. In a press conference covered by the news agency Mina, Sturanovic said that the agreement might conceivably be signed when EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn visits Montenegro on March 15. The SAA is seen as the first step toward EU membership. Rehn on March 8 struck an upbeat note, saying that the SAA will be signed "very soon" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007). Since separating from Serbia in mid-2006, Montenegro has focused on boosting its case for EU membership, which it has coupled with efforts to forge closer relations with countries -- such as Croatia -- whose relations with Serbia-Montenegro were poor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 16 and March 5 and 12, 2007). AG

Police in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, have arrested a Bosnian whom they believe is connected with Al-Qaeda, media in the Balkans reported on March 13. The Bosnian Foreign Ministry on March 13 confirmed his identity as Nihad Cosic. Details of his arrest and the charges he faces are sparse. The head of EU military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR), Rear Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer, told the daily "Dnevni avaz" on March 8 that he believes "it is possible that there is very fertile soil here for terrorists to take advantage of." Witthauer added, "I would not be surprised if that were to happen." Witthauer further said that "extremism and organized crime are a very dangerous combination, and you can find both in this country. If to that you add the geographic position of this country, at the crossroads of various cultures, the magnificent natural resources where it is easy to hide, plus the economic and political situation, then all this combines well for terrorist activities." Witthauer said EUFOR is monitoring potential terrorist activities. Such concerns did not prevent the EU from deciding in February to slash its military presence in the country, to 2,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). "Simply put, there is not enough work in Bosnia-Herzegovina for 6,500 soldiers," Witthauer said. In early February, a Danish court acquitted a Bosnian accused of involvement in a terrorist plot uncovered by the Bosnian police (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007). AG

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha on March 12 announced a major reshuffle of his government, changing six portfolios, Albanian media reported. The three most important changes were the elevation of Gazmend Oketa to the post of deputy prime minister, the demotion of Ilir Rusmajli to the Justice Ministry, and the choice of Bujar Nishani as interior minister. The changes follow a poor showing in local elections in February by Berisha's Democratic Party, with its main rival, the Socialists, gaining control of many of the country's major urban centers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and March 13, 2007). Berisha indicated in late February that he would make changes. Media reports at the time centered on the possibility that Rusmajli would be moved from his position as deputy prime minister. The choice of Nishani as interior minister was widely expected after his prominent role in the government's investigation and subsequent sacking of the prosecutor-general, Theodhori Sollaku. The position of health minister was given to the leader of a coalition party, Nard Ndoka of the Christian Democrats. One man who was initially touted as a possible minister, Bamir Topi, leader of the Democrats' parliamentary faction, was instead nominated as the party's candidate in presidential elections to be held in mid-2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). AG

A close associate of the son of the leader of the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester has been slain, AP reported on March 13. Viktor Neumoyin was shot dead late on March 12 outside his home in the region's capital, Tiraspol. No other details are known. Neumoyin was the head of the Tiraspol branch of the Patriotic Party of Transdniester, which is led by Oleg Smirnov, son of Igor Smirnov, who has led the region since 1990. Smirnov's other son, Vladimir, heads the self-declared republic's customs service. AG

The Communist Party, the leading opposition party in the breakaway region of Transdniester, pressed ahead on March 13 with a protest rally despite the detention of its leaders, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported the same day. A group of 150 Communists reportedly attended, substantially fewer than originally hoped for. A party official quoted by RIA Novosti, Fotinia Kotelnikova, said the turnout was affected by the authorities' refusal to give them access to the planned site of the demonstration. Police on March 11 detained much of the party's leadership for disturbing the peace (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). They were urging people to attend the rally when they were arrested. Original reports suggested that five party leaders were arrested; a March 13 report in the English-language "Tiraspol Times" quoted the same official, Svetlana Antonova, as saying seven were detained and that five have been released. A Tiraspol court on an unspecified date ordered the other two -- the party's leader Oleg Khorzhan and its candidate in December's presidential election, Nadezhda Bondarenko -- to be remanded for 72 hours. AG

Armenia's parliamentary elections, set for May 12, constitute an important test of the country's commitment to participatory democracy and political reform. It assumes particular significance in light of Armenia's often troubled and tainted electoral record over the past decade.

But this election will also have broader implications, both for Armenia's relations with its neighbors, and for its wider foreign policy. To some extent, the election of a new Armenian parliament seems similar to previous ballots, with competition defined more by party rivalries among pro-government ruling elites than by any serious policy alternatives espoused by the country's fractured opposition.

But the May ballot differs significantly from previous elections in two key respects: scrutiny will be more intense, and expectations for a clean vote -- both within Armenia and abroad -- are far higher. Consequently, the impact of this election on the trajectory of Armenian foreign policy, and by extension on the future of the country, will derive not so much from the composition of the new parliament as from the extent to which the election meets, or fails to meet, desired standards of fairness.

If the ballot proves to be only the latest in a series of flawed or tainted elections, the international response is likely to be both serious and swift. And in that case, the election will go down in history not just as another lost opportunity for the development of real democracy in Armenia, but as a move toward further regional isolation.

Armenia already has to contend with closed borders, trade embargoes, and exclusion from nearly all regional-development projects, including the planned Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku rail link. Even with an impressive record of double-digit economic growth, Armenia still desperately needs greater connectivity and closer integration with the globalized marketplace.

The May 12 elections will be the first national ballot since Armenia signed its Action Plan with the European Union, thereby officially committing itself to the European "standards and values" inherent in the new European Neighborhood Policy. Visiting Armenia in early March, EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus Peter Semneby openly warned Armenian officials that any problems with the election would be a "lost opportunity" for a "firm relationship" between Yerevan and Brussels.

Such strong language suggests a seriously flawed election could result in a setback to the country's evolving relationship with the EU, thereby undermining Armenia's position within the framework of the new EU plans for engagement in the region.

Armenia would also be further outpaced in a region that already shows signs of division and disparity. Neighboring Georgia is already moving much faster and closer to Europe, while Azerbaijan by virtue of its Caspian hydrocarbon reserves is of increasing strategic interest to an EU that is seeking to reduce its dependence on Russian gas imports.

Armenia's status as a beneficiary of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a new U.S. foreign aid program that imposes important new prerequisites of democracy and electoral performance, could similarly be jeopardized if international observers rate the May 12 ballot as less than free, fair, transparent, and democratic. In that case, even Armenia's politically active diaspora would be hard-pressed to contain and overcome the ensuing damage to the country's relationship with the United States.

Those ties are long-standing but cautious. Armenia has sought to avoid any expansion in ties that could be perceived as upsetting or threatening its deeper and more prized strategic relationship with Russia. Because of this, any deterioration in U.S.-Armenian ties would only be exacerbated by the already limited scope of their bilateral relations.

The international community's higher expectations for a clean vote are defined both by the objective need for improvements in Armenia's tainted electoral record and by growing impatience over the far-too-gradual development of democracy in the country. The questionable constitutional referendum in late 2005, coming as it did after years of international assistance, has led to a new reassessment and questioning of the sincerity of the Armenian government's commitment to democracy. In this sense, the international community will no longer be as patient or passive in the face of yet another flawed election in Armenia.

At the same time, the international community itself also faces a degree of pressure and expectation. The international response to the Armenian election will be watched intently, as the Armenian contest is only the first in a cycle of both parliamentary and presidential elections in all three South Caucasus states in 2007-08.

Regardless of the outcome of the May 12 elections, there are likely to be few if any changes in current policies, including participation in the ongoing talks mediated by the OSCE over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Armenian political elite has become far too entrenched, and has too much of a vested interest in the status quo, to risk awaking the slumbering apathy of Armenian society.

The real pivot for the Karabakh peace process may lie with next year's Azerbaijani presidential election. Although many consider the reelection of incumbent President Ilham Aliyev a foregone conclusion, there is some degree of optimism that with such a newfound degree of legitimacy, Aliyev may come to see a breakthrough on this "frozen" conflict as an appealing way to overcome the overbearing shadow of his late father and predecessor. Yet that optimism should be qualified by the acknowledgement that neither side has adequately prepared its population for a Karabakh peace deal that would entail substantive concessions.

In President Hamid Karzai's first public reaction to a recent message from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- the fugitive head of Hizb-e Islami and former Afghan prime minister -- that he may be ready for conditional talks with Karzi's government, the president's office welcomed the offer on March 12, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the next day. Karzai's spokesman said: "Our doors are open to any group and individual who give[s] up violence and shows respect" for the Afghan Constitution. In a recorded message to AP on March 8, Hekmatyar said that if Karzai's government stopped fighting militants and pledged to honor decisions that Kabul and the "resistance" would make in talks that didn't involve foreign countries, then meeting with the Afghan government could "be fruitful," (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). In his message, Hekmatyar said that the United States and its allies have lost the war in Afghanistan and that foreign forces should leave the country. After the fall of the communist regime in Kabul in 1992, Hekmatyar played a key role in 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 terrorist 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

Members of the Afghan "peace jirga" visiting Islamabad to meet with their Pakistani counterparts agreed with their hosts on March 12 to stop the "blame game" between the two countries, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on March 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). The "peace jirga" -- officially known as the Jirga for Regional Peace and Prosperity -- hopes to enlist tribes from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border to fight against terrorism and militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two sides also discussed cross-border movement of terrorists and the repatriation of Afghan refugees. The Afghan and Pakistani delegations agreed that the discussions should begin on a governmental level before going to a tribal jirga. AT

In a press release on March 13, the Afghan Defense Ministry stated that erecting barbed-wire fences across the Afghan-Pakistani border will negatively impact on the "peace jirga," the state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported. According to the statement, there are reports that Pakistan is fencing part of the border in the Barmal district in Afghanistan's southeastern Paktika Province. The Afghan Defense Ministry, reiterating Kabul's longstanding policy, stated that fences and mines will not prevent terrorists from crossing the border, but will divide communities that have historical ties. Islamabad has discussed plans to install reinforcements at strategic points along its border with Afghanistan since 2005, receiving negative responses from Kabul mainly because Afghanistan does not recognize the border, which has divided Pashtun tribes since 1893 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," January 15, 2007). AT

A suicide bomber killed "at least" one police officer and injured several others on March 12 in Farah Province, Bakhtar News Agency reported on March 13. Farah Governor Mohayuddin Baluch said that the bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into a police convoy. In a separate suicide attack, three civilians were killed and eight were injured in the border town of Spin Boldak in Kandahar Province on March 13. The bomber -- driving in from Pakistan -- set off the explosives he was carrying when police became suspicious and attempted to search him, Xinhua News Agency reported on March 13. In the third incident, a suicide bomber injured two Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers in Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province, Bakhtar reported. Speaking for the Taliban, Qari Yusof Ahmadi claimed on March 13 that the Lashkargah blast took the lives of 10 ANA soldiers, Pajhwak News Agency reported. AT

Taliban leader Mullah Jamaluddin and several of his men were killed in "precision air strikes" in Helmand Province on March 7 by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), according to a March 13 ISAF press release. "Jamaluddin was a violent Taliban extremist commander," said Lieutenant Colonel Rory Bruce, the ISAF Task Force Helmand spokesman. After ISAF air strikes in Helmand on March 7, the Taliban claimed that women and children were killed. However, a "comprehensive assessment" of the attacks was "completed and ISAF can confirm that no women and children were killed" in the attack, the statement added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). AT

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran on March 13 that delays by Russia in delivering fuel to the nuclear power plant it has helped to build in the southern city of Bushehr are "regrettable," though "the situation shows there are no guarantees in the world on receiving fuel," ISNA reported. Western powers want Iran to halt work on producing its own nuclear fuel and import fuel for the power stations it plans to build. That would prevent Tehran from gaining the know-how to use nuclear fuel to produce bombs. "The reasons for Iran's wish to provide and produce fuel are [clearly shown] in this issue," Larijani said. He warned UN Security Council permanent members that are discussing new sanctions that "this type of radical conduct over the Iran nuclear issue...will make us more determined to pursue our nuclear position. Perhaps they think...they can create divisions inside Iran and make an impact. But I say this conduct will precisely create opposite conditions." Larijani said work in Bushehr has "progressed well" and on schedule, and Russia should have "precisely" told Iran about any problems over construction. "What I have been told is that the Russians have expressed greater expectations" over financial payments. Larijani was skeptical on the accuracy of reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Iran to accept UN demands on its program before the plant will be finished. "If the Russians wish to state an opinion in this regard, their Security Council Secretary [Igor Ivanov,] who came to Tehran, would have informed us of their opinions," he said. VS

Iran's Atomic Energy Organization issued a statement on March 13 to inform Iranians of the "numerous" delays on the completion of the Bushehr plant, ISNA reported. It stated that "the date of the termination of the project" was to be on July 8, 1999, in the initial agreements signed, though "so far with numerous negotiations" completion has been postponed five times. "Assuming the date of its operation to be September 2007, the project has a delay of eight years and three months," it stated. Iran, the body stated, has fulfilled "all its financial commitments up to March 1, 2007, within the framework of a joint agreement, and the relevant banking documents exist and can be published." The body said it has extended another $12.7 million as an advance to the Russian contractor, Atomstroieksport. The statement added that Iran expects fuel to be delivered by the end of March 2007 to the "place of construction" of the plant, "for which there are no technical or financial problems," ISNA reported. On March 14, Vladimir Pavlov, an Atomstroieksport director, said in Moscow that "delays in restarting the financing" of the project by Iran would have "irreversible consequences" for the power plant, AFP reported, citing RIA Novosti." VS

Kazem Jalali, a legislator and member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told IRNA on March 13 that the committee discussed the proceedings of the March 10 Baghdad security conference with Iran's envoy at the meeting, Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi. He said Araqchi told legislators he stressed the need for Iraqis to take over their security affairs and that the "internationalization" of the problem was a Western wish. Araqchi told the committee that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has confirmed that, contrary to U.S. claims, Iranians arrested by U.S. forces in Irbil last January are diplomats, IRNA quoted Jalali as saying. Araqchi also told the committee that he greeted and spoke to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad "out of courtesy," but rejected a request he claims Khalilzad made to discuss issues other than Iraq, Jalali said. Jalali told IRNA separately that if President Mahmud Ahmadinejad were to attend the UN Security Council to defend Iran's nuclear program, then the session would have to be at the level of foreign ministers. He said Ahmadinejad should make "specific" proposals and should try and prevent a consensual resolution against Iran. VS

A group of 201 Iranian legislators wrote to the body's presidium on March 12, asking for a reversal of an earlier decision to set two-tier pricing for gasoline as part of next year's budget, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on March 13. If the decision is not overturned, they threatened not to vote for the present draft of the budget. Members of an Iranian parliamentary committee approved the two-tier pricing for gasoline last week when examining the proposed budget for the Persian year that begins on March 21. The pricing scheme is being considered in a bid to discourage wasteful gasoline use by Iranians, Radio Farda reported on March 7, citing IRNA. In line with the decision, Iranians would use "smart cards" to fill their gas tanks with a set amount of gasoline costing 100 tumans (about $.11) a liter, Radio Farda reported. Parliamentarians then agreed to allow the government to determine by late April -- following recommendations by the Oil Ministry and the Management and Planning Organization -- how much gasoline Iranians could consume at this price, and what the price would be for liters purchased above the quota, Radio Farda reported. Opponents of the decision say the two-price system is complicated, unfeasible, and inflationary. Many legislators have asked for a return to the government's initial pricing proposals for gasoline, which were not immediately specified. VS

Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, said in an audio recording posted on the Internet on March 13 that the United States is trying to come between his group and other jihadist groups. The message appears to have been recorded on February 6, because al-Baghdadi refers to an insurgent raid on a Mosul prison as happening "today" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). Al-Baghdadi claimed that the current "media campaign against" his group is aimed at separating it from its "massive popular base" of support, and to distance the global jihad movement from the battlefield in favor of the nationalistic movements that are more moderate and more open. The statement referred to media reports that the United States may decide within six months to pull out of Iraq, calling U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney a "chicken" and saying the U.S. goal is now to return home with honor. "This brief period made the [United States] and his agents race to prepare the Iraqi arena for a new caliph and ally who would be more moderate and less dangerous than the Islamic State," the statement noted. KR

Islamic State of Iraq leader al-Baghdadi also listed some 19 beliefs of his group in the March 13 statement, saying it wants to respond to lies written about it in the media. Among the beliefs listed are: an obligation to rule according to God's law, and a belief that secularism in all its facets and variations, such as nationalism, communism, and Ba'athism, is a clear heresy. "Therefore, we consider everyone who was involved with the political process, like the parties of [Sunni leaders Salih] al-Mutlaq, [Adnan] al-Dulaymi, [Tariq] al-Hashimi, and others to be infidels.... We also consider the [Iraqi] Islamic Party's methodology to be one of infidelity and apostasy. Its creed and its path do not differ from those of the rest of the infidel and apostate methodology such as those of the parties of [Shi'ite leaders Ibrahim] al-Ja'fari and [Iyad] Allawi." Al-Baghdadi said his group considers it an obligation to fight the police and army and other security services "and to eliminate and destroy any building used" by the government. He added that the group considers non-Muslims enemies not protected under Islamic law. KR

President Jalal Talabani told the Amman-based "Al-Ra'y" in an interview published on March 13 that Iraq needs a reorganization of its political forces. "There are sectarian, nationalist, and ethnic camps in Iraq. This is not ideal. We need a national camp instead of having Sunni Arabs in a certain bloc and Shi'ite Arabs in another bloc. We need a national bloc that comprises all parties," he said. Talabani added that the Kurdistan Coalition attempted to form an "alliance of moderates" comprising the two main Kurdish parties, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Iraqi National Accord, "but we did not succeed." "If we manage to unite a group of forces to form a national Iraqi front away from sectarian and nationalist blocs...that will be a great victory for Iraq," Talabani said. Asked about the withdrawal of Al-Fadilah from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, Talabani said it would not lead to the dismantling of the alliance, because the "Shi'a are united," though they may change from a coalition to a front in the future. Talabani returned to Iraq on March 14 after several days in a hospital in Jordan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). KR

President Talabani told "Al-Ra'y" that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would result in Kurdish-Shi'ite military rule in Iraq. "The Kurds and the Shi'ites are prepared and they have hundreds of thousands of armed men and they can quickly control all of Iraq. I do not want to see Kurdish-Shi'ite despotism in the Iraqi military sphere," Talabani said. He noted that Kurds could "take control of Mosul and the Arab areas there within hours" if given the opportunity. "This, however, is not in the interest of Iraq. There must be an Iraqi force that is made up of the main entities of the Iraqi people," he added. Asked about the return of former army officers to the military, Talabani said 80,000 officers who were members of the Ba'ath Party but not Saddam Hussein supporters were returned to service. "The Saddamists do not believe in elections and ballot boxes but in coups. Therefore we should not give them a chance to carry out such coups," he said. KR

In a March 13 statement on its website, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) criticized a decision by the Turkish government to forcibly return a registered refugee to Iraq. The UNHCR said the refugee, who hailed from central Iraq, was granted refugee status by the agency on February 13. The UNHCR learned of a Turkish deportation order against the refugee on February 20. "UNHCR urged the government of Turkey to allow the refugee to remain in Turkey. Regretfully, the [Turkish] government did not respond to our letter or other attempts to communicate with them on this case," the statement noted. It added that the agency's position is that Iraqis from central and southern areas of the country should be considered as refugees under the 1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees. The UNHCR announced that as of January 1, Turkey registered 2,719 Iraqi refugees, most of whom are living in Istanbul and in provincial cities in central Anatolia, where the Turkish authorities house refugees and asylum seekers. The statement added that the UNHCR believes the actual number of Iraqis in Turkey may be much higher. KR

Iraq's parliament extended the state of emergency in all parts of the country south of the Kurdistan region for another month, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on March 13. The state-run channel said the decision was made to support the Baghdad security plan. KR