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Newsline

Newsline - March 31, 2008

NATO CALLS ON RUSSIA TO RETURN TO CFE TREATY
On March 28 in Brussels, NATO issued an appeal to Russia to rejoin the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, compliance with which Russia "suspended" in December 2007, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 13, and 14, 2007, and January 3, 11, and 25, 2008). The alliance said in the statement that it has dealt with "all the concerns Russia has raised" regarding the treaty. The statement noted that NATO member states continue to observe CFE "in good faith" but warned that "this situation cannot be sustained indefinitely." NATO pointed out that "Russia's 'suspension' risks eroding the integrity of the CFE regime and undermines the cooperative approach to security which has been a core of the NATO-Russia relationship and European security for nearly two decades." NATO member states will hold a summit in Bucharest on April 2-4. Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend for a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels on March 27 that he hopes that Putin will refrain at that meeting from "unhelpful rhetoric" directed against the West (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2008). PM

RUSSIAN EXPERT SAYS NATO IS 'AFRAID OF PUTIN'
On March 31, Russian political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads the Effective Politics Foundation, told Interfax that NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer's recent warnings to President Putin "are unparalleled in the history of NATO and international diplomacy. [NATO leaders] are afraid of [Putin]." Pavlovsky stressed that if Ukraine and Georgia are offered a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is an important step on the road to full membership, at NATO's April 2-4 Bucharest summit, NATO-Russian relations will deteriorate drastically and make the existence of the NATO-Russia council "redundant." He stressed that a decision to "invite or half-invite" Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO would amount to complete disregard for Russia's interests. PM

HAS RUSSIA OFFERED NATO A DEAL?
In an interview with "Izvestia" of March 31, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned NATO against "dragging" Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance. He argued that Ukrainian NATO membership would seriously affect Russian industrial and defense cooperation with that country, whose industry, he argued, would have to adapt to "NATO standards." Lavrov pointed out that the upcoming NATO summit "will coincide with a conference on Afghanistan, where some new approaches are planned. We are being asked to sign a military transit agreement...with NATO as a whole, and to provide military transport aircraft. We are open to cooperation, but we shall speak out firmly against any creeping advances that are detrimental to our interests" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and 19, 2008). On March 28, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko said in an interview with Interfax that Russia is willing to expand cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan. He denied that there will be any "trade-off" between such cooperation and NATO's policy on admitting Ukraine and Georgia, but suggested nonetheless that there is such a link. "The Moscow Times" on March 31 quoted independent Russian analyst Aleksandr Golts as saying that it is in Russia's own strategic interest for NATO to succeed in Afghanistan. He added that "the conflict between Russia and NATO is actually rooted in the fact that NATO represents the ideal paper tiger, which Russia can tear apart and set on fire to demonstrate its anti-Western sentiments." On March 31, Golts told RFE/RL that the real reason the Kremlin is so concerned about possible Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership is that the admission of those two countries to the alliance would be a "sign of defeat for Russian foreign policy, and that's what irritates the Kremlin more than anything." He argued that "Ukraine's and Georgia's desire to join NATO [shows that] the two countries have chosen fundamentally different values [from Russia's], they have given themselves the task of striving to join the NATO community, and they have no desire to compete for the role of [Russia's] younger brother in exchange for cheap energy supplies." PM

RUSSIAN ARMS EXPORTS TO CHINA PLUMMET
Britain's "Financial Times" reported on March 31 that Russian arms sales to China fell by 62 percent in 2007, according to a new study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which compiles a comprehensive public database of worldwide arms transfers (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006, and September 6 and 12, 2007). The paper noted that "China has been the world's biggest arms importer for at least a decade, and more than 90 percent of these imports have come from Russia." The latest figures suggest, however, that China's "industrial capabilities are beginning to approach those of its neighbor," and that it seeks more sophisticated technology than Russia is willing or able to offer. Russia is the world's second largest arms exporter, after the United States. Quality control problems in arms sales to India and Algeria recently came to light in the Russian and international media (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). PM

TOP INVESTIGATIVE COMMITTEE OFFICIAL TEMPORARILY REMOVED...
Dmitry Dovgy, the head of the main investigative unit of the Investigative Committee, has been temporarily removed from his post for trying to get a banker connected to a case involving large-scale embezzlement and money laundering released from prison on bail, Russian media reported on March 31. Newsru.com reported that senior investigators Sergei Chernyshov and Zigmund Lozhis accused Dovgy and his first deputy, Aleksei Novikov, of abusing their positions. "Kommersant" reported that Chernyshov, who since October 2007 has been in charge of the investigation into a case involving alleged large-scale embezzlement from Yukos subsidiary Tomskneft in 2005, claimed Dovgy tried to release from custody one of the accused in the case, former Trust Bank board Chairman Oleg Kolyada. According to "Vremya novostei," Chernyshov claimed Dovgy was paid 2 million euros ($3.1 million) to release one of those involved in the Tomskneft case -- apparently Kolyada -- while Lozhis claimed that Dovgy received $1.5 million from one of the suspects in a case brought against the director of a large Moscow company, Petro-Union. "Kommersant" reported on March 31 that Kolyada remains in custody in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison. Aleksandr Khinshtein, the State Duma deputy who also writes for "Moskovsky komsomolets," wrote in a piece posted on the daily's website on March 31 that Dovgy wrote a letter to the Prosecutor-General's Office on March 28 stating that he fears his life is in danger from his erstwhile colleagues at the Investigative Committee. JB

...ALONG WITH OTHERS SUSPECTED OF TAKING LARGE BRIBES
"Vremya novostei" reported on March 31 that two other Investigative Committee employees -- Sergei Glukhikh, a department head, and Yury Yermakov, another senior investigator -- have also been temporarily relieved of their duties. According to the daily, the two are suspected of corruption and abuse of their official positions, including receiving large bribes from suspects in criminal cases. Specifically, Glukhikh and Yermakov are suspected of trying to arrange the transfer of Vladimir Barsukov, aka Vladimir Kumarin, the reputed head of St. Petersburg's Tambov organized crime group, from Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina to a prison in St. Petersburg "from which he could immediately walk free." JB

PROBE OF INVESTIGATORS MAY BE CONNECTED TO KREMLIN TURF WAR
The accusations against Investigative Committee official Dovgy are significant because he headed the team that has been investigating Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, who was arrested on attempted embezzlement charges in November 2007, and Federal Antinarcotics Committee Lieutenant General Aleksandr Bulbov, who was arrested in October 2007 on charges of abuse of office and illegal wiretapping. Storchak's boss is Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, while Bulbov was right-hand man to Federal Antinarcotics Committee Chairman Viktor Cherkesov. Both Kudrin and Cherkesov are associated with a "liberal" Kremlin group allied with President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and are widely believed to have been targeted by the more hard-line "siloviki" faction associated with deputy presidential chief of staff Igor Sechin, presidential aide Viktor Ivanov, and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev. The siloviki group is said to also include Dovgy's boss, Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin. Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, who is identified with the "liberals," has battled with Bastrykin over bureaucratic turf and in December 2007 forced the Investigative Committee to drop a second set of criminal charges against Storchak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2007). Bastrykin and Chaika are also apparently at odds over the idea of creating a unified investigative body on the model of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Bastrykin said recently that he opposes the idea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008), while Chaika said on March 28 that he has "always been a supporter of a unified investigation committee," RIA Novosti reported. JB

POLL SHOWS RUSSIANS PREFER PRESIDENTIAL REPUBLIC
"Kommersant" reported on March 31 that in a poll conducted this month by the Levada Center, only 10 percent of the respondents said that they would support transferring power from the presidency to the post of prime minister if Vladimir Putin, as expected, fills that post, while 67 percent said they prefer the current system with "strong presidential power." Still, among those polled this month 59 percent said they trust President Putin while 41 percent said they trust President-elect Medvedev. The poll's respondents identified Putin's top three achievements as "the economic development of the country (21 percent), "increasing living standards of citizens, the growth of salaries and pensions" (16 percent), and "increasing optimism, hope for a rapid improvement of the state of affairs in the country" (12 percent). According to "Kommersant," 46 percent of those polled said that Putin's "stabilization" was achieved through "a rejection of democratic transformation and market reforms" and 73 percent of the respondents said that achieving stability by rejecting democracy is a "good" thing. JB

ELISTA MAYOR SUSPENDED
The Elista Municipal Court on March 29 ruled to suspend temporarily from his post city Mayor Rady Burulov, and tasked his first deputy, Aleksandr Yermoshenko, with substituting for him, regnum.ru and kavkaz-uzel.ru reported the following day. Burulov, who three months ago called on Republic of Kalmykia President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to resign after Ilyumzhinov constrained the republic's parliament to vote for its dissolution and preterm elections, faces criminal charges in connection with a contract he awarded to a company owned by members of his family to supply heating oil for the city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11 and 30, and March 20, 2008). LF

ABKHAZ, SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADERS VISIT KABARDINO-BALKARIA
Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity traveled on March 27 to the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic where they met with Abkhaz volunteers who fought in the 1992-93 war, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Both leaders stressed that they are committed to securing international recognition for their respective republics. Kokoity expressed gratitude for the support provided to South Ossetia by the populations of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia. At a ceremony in Vladikavkaz on March 28, North Ossetian Nationality Affairs Minister Taimuraz Kasayev presented Kokoity with the "Man Of The Year In The Caucasus 2007" award in recognition of his services in improving the socioeconomic situation in South Ossetia and promoting peace and friendship between various ethnic groups, regnum.ru reported. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION REAFFIRMS READINESS FOR DIALOGUE
More than 20 opposition parties that backed the candidacy of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian in the February 19 presidential election released a statement on March 28 reaffirming their readiness for dialogue with the authorities but at the same time setting conditions for such talks, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. They called on the Armenian government to meet the demands contained in an EU statement of March 4, namely lifting the state of emergency imposed on March 1 by President Robert Kocharian, releasing persons arrested for their participation in the violent clashes with police on March 1-2, and opening an independent investigation into the causes of that violence. The opposition parties noted that although the state of emergency expired on March 20, a ban on opposition rallies in Yerevan remains in force. Ter-Petrossian aide Levon Zurabian told RFE/RL that the authorities cannot continue "this tough course" indefinitely, and he predicted that "a much more influential [opposition] movement" will emerge within months, if not days. Also on March 28, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling on the Armenian authorities to lift the "unreasonable" ban on public gatherings and demonstrations, which it said violates Armenia's obligation to respect the right of peaceful assembly. On March 26, police in Yerevan detained 46, and on March 27, 19 Ter-Petrossian supporters who staged silent "political walks" each evening along Northern Avenue, the site of Ter-Petrossian's post election rallies, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Meanwhile, U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Yerevan Joseph Pennington warned on March 28 that the United States may "suspend or terminate" the disbursal of funds to Armenia from the Millennium Challenge Account program if the Armenian authorities continue to crack down on political dissent, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He added that no decision to that effect has yet been taken, and "we think it is only fair to give the new administration time to turn the situation around." Armenia is to receive $236 million from the Millennium Challenge Account over a period of five years to upgrade roads and irrigation infrastructure in rural areas. LF

PRESIDENT TERMS AZERBAIJAN A 'ZONE OF TOLERANCE'
In his address to the nation to mark March 31, which is observed in Azerbaijan as the "Day Of The Genocide Of The Azerbaijanis," Ilham Aliyev used the term "Armenian nationalists" or "aggressive Armenian nationalists" four times, but stressed that "we have no intention of using the fact of the genocide to fuel enmity and hatred toward other peoples," day.az reported on March 30. Aliyev described Azerbaijan, despite the incarceration of numerous political prisoners and opposition journalists, as "a zone of cooperation and tolerance" where "social and national-religious harmony reign." During a March 28 visit to the family of one of those imprisoned journalists, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Ann Derse observed that media freedom has deteriorated in Azerbaijan over the past two years, day.az reported. Aliyev further claimed that "by its aggressive policy Armenia has isolated itself from all regional economic and energy projects," while in fact it is Baku that excludes any such cooperation with Armenia until the Karabakh conflict is resolved on Azerbaijan's terms. Aliyev concluded by assuring the people of Azerbaijan that "we shall achieve our goals, including restoring our territorial integrity and sovereignty and revealing those who committed genocide and who sow enmity and hatred" between peoples. LF

PRESIDENT ARGUES THAT REFUSING GEORGIA NATO MAP WOULD UNDERMINE MEDVEDEV
In an interview published on March 31 in the "Financial Times," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili argued that a decision by NATO member states to "appease" Moscow by not offering Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at NATO's April 2-4 Bucharest summit would "serve the [interests] of the conservatives among the Russian leadership, instead of giving [Russian President-elect Dmitry] Medvedev a clean slate and starting a relationship from this new starting point... This is not good for Medvedev, whatever his good intentions might be... Appeasement is seen there [by the hard-liners] as a signal that they should act...even tougher.... These are not people who understand soft appeasement language." Saakashvili said that in light of his March 28 new offer of unlimited autonomy for Abkhazia (see below), "this is exactly the moment when NATO should not blink." Saakashvili sidestepped the suggestion that the brutal crackdown by police on peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi in early November might have seriously damaged Georgia's chances of being offered an MAP at the Bucharest summit. In an interview with the Russian daily "Kommersant" also published on March 31, Saakashvili said that his dream is not that Georgia should join NATO, but that it should be a flourishing and unified state, and that NATO membership is merely a means to that end. Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze said on March 27 in Tbilisi after returning from talks in Brussels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2008) that Georgia is not interested in the watered-down substitute for an MAP that some NATO member states are reportedly drafting, Caucasus Press reported on March 28. LF

ABKHAZIA REJECTS GEORGIAN OFFER OF 'UNLIMITED AUTONOMY'
Speaking in Tbilisi on March 28, Georgian President Saakashvili unveiled the new peace proposal for Abkhazia he announced 10 days earlier, civil.ge reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2008). The proposal largely duplicates one that Saakashvili floated two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2006), but in addition to granting Abkhazia "unlimited autonomy" within Georgia and introducing the position, to be held by an Abkhaz, of vice president, it also entails establishing a Georgian-Abkhaz free economic zone in the Gali and Ochamchira raions of Abkhazia. It would, however, require that the Abkhaz police force lose its autonomy and be subsumed into the Georgian police. Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh rejected Saakashvili's offer the same day as "unacceptable" and "propaganda" in the run-up to the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest, apsny.ru reported. Bagapsh pointed out that Abkhazia had autonomy within Georgia prior to the 1992-93 war, and that when the Abkhaz proposed a federation, Georgia responded by invading Abkhaz territory. The very term "autonomy" is anathema to the leaders of unrecognized republics because under the Soviet territorial-administrative system it was devoid of any substance. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba for his part told kavkaz-uzel.ru on March 29 that Abkhazia has no intention of embarking on any talks with Tbilisi on "political issues," and ruled out talks on other issues "until the last Georgian soldier leaves the territory of the Kodori Gorge." Tbilisi deployed additional forces to Kodori in July 2006 to suppress a threatened insurrection by renegade local governor Emzar Kvitsiani (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25 and 26, 2006). LF

OSCE REGISTERS CONCERN OVER DEATHS IN SOUTH OSSETIA
Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, who is the current OSCE chairman in office, expressed concern on March 28 over the bomb blasts that have killed three people in South Ossetia over the past month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 29 and March 25 and 27, 2008). He stressed that "it is of vital importance that both sides resume unconditional dialogue and refrain from any actions or statements that would further destabilize the situation." On March 31, the South Ossetian authorities accused Georgia of shelling a police post in the village of Okona, which is where the second of the three blasts occurred, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. The South Ossetian prosecutor's office has offered a reward of 1 million rubles ($42,591) for information leading to the arrest of those behind the March 27 blast in which a young Russian woman was killed, Caucasus Press reported on March 29. LF

FORMER GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SENTENCED
The Tbilisi Municipal Court sentenced former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili in absentia on March 28 to 11 years' imprisonment, finding him guilty of extortion, money laundering, abuse of his official position, and negligence, Georgian media reported. The prosecutor had demanded 13 years; Okruashvili predicted on March 21 he would be given a 15-year jail term, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT AGAIN SIDELINES HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN
Sozar Subar presented the findings of his 2007 report on human rights to journalists, diplomats, and NGO representatives in Tbilisi on March 28 after the Georgian parliament again postponed a formal debate on it, Caucasus Press reported. The human rights ombudsman is required to report twice yearly to parliament, but a debate on Subar's October 2007 report was postponed for unspecified "political reasons," as was a report he was scheduled to deliver on February 15. Subar termed those delays a reflection of the "deplorable state of human rights" in Georgia and of the contemptuous attitude of the authorities toward the concept of human rights. His report for the second half of 2007 was very critical of the authorities' harsh reaction to the peaceful opposition demonstrations in Tbilisi in early November and demanded that Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili admit responsibility for police violence against the demonstrators. LF

LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS OPPOSE RESERVOIR IN SOUTHERN KAZAKHSTAN
Nurlan Kudaibergenov, a Kazakh official in the southern Kyzylorda Oblast, said on March 29 that local environmental activists are strongly opposed to a plan to construct a large reservoir in the region, according to Kazakhstan Today. He noted that the activists enjoy the support of local officials in opposing the project to build the Koksarai reservoir along the Syr Darya River, because the project will damage efforts to correct the serious decline of the Aral Sea. The diversion of the Syr Darya River in the 1950s had a devastating impact on the landlocked Aral Sea, which straddles both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and has heavily damaged by agricultural and industrial pollution (see "Central Asia: Photographer Offers Window on a Dying Sea," rferl.org, April 26, 2007). The central Kazakh government imposed the reservoir construction project on the region against the wishes of local officials and environmental activists, organized within the broad-based Tugan Zher civic group, before agreeing to await the results of an ecological study of the plan. The government also agreed to "organize and hold public discussions" with local officials and local civil-society representatives and supervised by senior officials from the Agriculture Ministry. RG

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT RETURNS HOME, DISMISSES RUMORS OF ILLNESS
President Kurmanbek Bakiev returned home on March 28 following more than one month in Germany, where he received unspecified medical treatment, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Bakiev was greeted at Manas Airport near Bishkek by a delegation of senior government officials led by Prime Minister Igor Chudinov. He told reporters at the airport that he was treated for circulatory problems in his legs, but said that he is "feeling fine," the 24.kg website reported. His absence, which began on February 28, fueled rumors that he was seriously ill and prompted the opposition to demand an explanation (see "Kyrgyzstan: Rumors about President's Health Prompt Official Response," rferl.org, March 25, 2008). RG

TAJIK, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS CONCLUDE NEW AGREEMENT ON COOPERATION
In Moscow on March 27, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi concluded a new agreement on bilateral cooperation with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Asia-Plus reported. The signing of the agreement, which formalizes the expansion of several areas of cooperation between the two countries' Foreign Ministries, followed a meeting between the two ministers that included detailed discussion on "developing bilateral cooperation in the political, economic, and humanitarian spheres" and regarding measures aimed at bolstering the "effectiveness of the work of the Commonwealth of Independent States," as well as "ensuring stability and security in Central Asia." During his official visit to Moscow, Zarifi also met with a group of Tajik students studying in Russian universities in Moscow. RG

TAJIK, RUSSIAN POLICE ARREST SUSPECTS IN JOURNALIST'S SLAYING
Tajik police Colonel Haydar Mahmadiev announced on March 29 in Dushanbe that a joint Tajik-Russian police operation located and detained two Tajik citizens suspected of the recent killing of a Russian journalist, Interfax reported. The two men allegedly killed Russian television journalist Ilyas Shurpayev, who was found strangled in his Moscow apartment. Russian firefighters discovered the body of Shurpayev on March 21 when they arrived to extinguish a fire in his apartment that had apparently been set by the killers in an attempt to cover up their crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). Shurpayev had moved to Moscow from Daghestan, where he worked as a reporter for the Russia's Channel One television. The men reportedly tortured Shurpayev before killing him during the night of March 20-21 and stole some 100,000 rubles ($4,260) from him. Tajik police arrested a third suspect in the killing, a 24-year old Tajik villager named Marujon Yatimov, later on March 29, according to ITAR-TASS. RG

UZBEK PARLIAMENT RATIFIES CSTO MEMBERSHIP
The Uzbek parliament voted on March 28 to formally ratify the reinstatement of the country's membership in the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), AKIpress, and Interfax reported. Uzbekistan joined the CSTO, a military and political bloc, along with Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in May 1992; Belarus joined later. Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO in 1998, along with Azerbaijan and Georgia. Uzbek President Islam Karimov first signed a law to reinstate Uzbekistan's membership in the CSTO as far back as December 2006, but the necessary parliamentary ratification was delayed for unexplained reasons. RG

EU CALLS ON BELARUS TO END CRACKDOWN ON DEMONSTRATORS, JOURNALISTS
The Slovenian presidency of the European Union on March 28 issued a statement calling on Belarus to end a crackdown on protesters and journalists if it wants to improve relations with the EU, Belapan reported. "The European Union, recalling that the main demonstration in Minsk had been authorized by the Minsk City Council and proceeded peacefully, calls upon Belarus to release those arrested without delay and to refrain from further prosecuting them," the statement reads. The Belarusian opposition held a demonstration in central Minsk on March 25 marking the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic, which is regarded by Belarusian democracy activists as a key event in the formation of Belarusian statehood in the 20th century. The authorities detained and jailed or fined around 100 demonstrators. Since then, officers of the Committee for State Security (KGB) have conducted raids and searches of the offices and homes of independent journalists all over Belarus. "In order to improve relations with the European Union, the Belarusian authorities should refrain from further arrests and stop persecuting the representatives of Belarusian civil society," the EU said. "In this context, the events of March 25 and the nationwide roundup of local journalists connected to foreign media, which started on March 27, are particularly worrisome. As is the recent treatment of the U.S. Ambassador to Minsk [Karen Stewart] and many of her staff who have been obliged to leave Belarus at very short notice," the statement said. AM

BELARUSIAN INTERIOR MINISTER SAYS POLICE ARRESTED OPPOSITION'S 'CASHIER'
Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau said on March 28 that during the crackdown on an attempt to stage a demonstration in central Minsk on March 25, police detained a "cashier" for the opposition, Belapan reported. Navumau said that police detained a woman affiliated with an opposition party in whose bag 8 million rubles ($3,726) in 100,000-ruble wads of notes was found. "She explained that she wanted to buy something the following day, but she could not explain why bills were packed up in wads totaling 100,000 rubles each," Navumau said. "We are 100 percent sure that this money was to have been paid to those people who participated in clashes with police," he said. Navumau did not provide the woman's personal details. "All fairy tales about the funding of street demonstrations staged by the opposition have never been corroborated by photo or video materials, not even once," the leader of the opposition United Civic Party, Anatol Lyabedzka, told Belapan. Lyabedzka suggested that the incident might have been orchestrated by the KGB, which "printed the money and threw out someone with it." AM

U.S. PRESIDENT CALLS FOR UKRAINE TO BE GIVEN 'CLEAR PROSPECT' OF JOINING NATO
President George W. Bush said on March 29 in Berlin that Ukraine and Georgia should be given a "clear prospect" of joining NATO, Reuters and Ukrainian media reported. Bush said that the alliance's summit in Bucharest on April 2-4 will not decide on Ukraine's and Georgia's membership, but on their right to apply for such a membership. "I think it is in our interest to give Georgia and Ukraine a clear prospect here," Bush told Germany's "Die Welt" newspaper. Bush also commented on Russia's opposition to closer relations between Ukraine and NATO. "I have a clear opinion about that: if someone has democracies on their borders, then that's good, not bad," he said. "Democracies tend to be peaceful. Democracies that do the will of their people do not tend to wage war." In mid-January, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk formally asked NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to offer Ukraine a Membership Action Plan at the alliance's summit in Bucharest. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko repeated their request in mid-March. AM

PROTESTS IN CRIMEANS AGAINST UKRAINE'S POSSIBLE NATO MEMBERSHIP
Around 5,000 protesters gathered on March 29 in Simferopol, Crimea, to protest Kyiv's moves toward joining NATO, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The rally was organized by Crimean chapters of 10 Ukrainian political parties, including the opposition Party of Regions and the Communist Party. Participants burnt the U.S. flag and adopted a resolution that condemns "drawing Ukraine into the NATO military bloc." "We are grateful to those political forces of NATO members who display [common] sense regarding Ukraine's membership in the alliance," the resolution reads. "We are expecting that in Bucharest they will not support Ukraine receiving a NATO Membership Action Plan," it added. AM

UKRAINE, POLAND SIGN AGREEMENT ON LOCAL BORDER TRAFFIC
Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko and her Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, signed on March 28 in Kyiv an agreement on the rules of local border traffic, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko said that Ukrainian residents of a 50-kilometer border zone will be able to cross the border many times on the basis of a special card, without applying for visas. "In practice, it means an absolutely visa-free regime," she said. After joining the EU's Schengen zone in December 2007, Poland adjusted its visa requirement for Ukrainians in accordance with the rules in force in the EU. This has caused tensions among residents of the border zone, who blocked checkpoints and demanded greater freedom of movement across the border. According to Polish officials, the first permits for visa-free movement in the border zone should be issued in June. The agreement must still be ratified by the parliaments of each country. AM

KOSOVA'S PREMIER SAYS HE EXPECTS RECOGNITION FROM REMAINING EU STATES 'VERY SOON'
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said at an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, on March 29 that he expects those EU countries that have not yet recognized Kosova to do so "very soon," Reuters reported. According to kosovothanksyou.com, 36 countries officially recognize Kosova, including 18 EU member states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). Lithuania is expected to join the list soon. On March 29, Thaci argued that "everyone [who has extended recognition] supported Kosova because we deserve it and work according to democratic criteria.... Kosova's independence brings peace and stability to the region." Thaci added that he received "confirmation from Spain, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Greece today that they will continue to work very hard to recognize the independence of Kosova.... Most EU countries have recognized Kosova's independence, and all of them support our independence. We need to respect [the various] countries' [respective] procedures in the process of recognition." He suggested that, after the May 11 Serbian parliamentary elections, "Serbia will start to move to recognize independence of Kosova, because there are two opinions regarding Kosova [in Serbia]. Privately, everybody knows and accepts independence, but they need time [before they can acknowledge Kosova's independence] officially." Referring to Serbian proposals to partition Kosova, Thaci said that "there is no chance of partition because the territorial integrity of Kosova is recognized and protected by the international community. We work for integration and not to change borders." Thaci said on March 29 that it is "important" that Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic was also present in Brdo, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 31. The BBC noted on March 29, however, that Jeremic left a meeting early by a side door to avoid any contact with Thaci. PM

EU SEEKS TO BOOST PRO-BRUSSELS CAMP IN SERBIAN VOTE
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a news conference in Brdo Pri Kranju on March 28 that "we expect we should be able to conclude...a road map for visa-free travel with Serbia before the end of April," news agencies reported. He stressed that "Serbia itself needs to reaffirm its European choice.... The EU can set up a road sign, but it's up to Serbia to decide the direction" it wants to take in its May 11 parliamentary elections. He stressed that "this is indeed a crucial choice. Serbia can turn to a European future or risk a self-imposed isolation.... The [second] option, in my view, is a road to nowhere" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11 and 28, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). It is not clear if the possible offer to Serbia of visa-free travel, which is a very important issue throughout the western Balkans, is distinct from the EU's long-planned, visa-related "road map" for the region as a whole. Croatian and other regional commentators often warn Brussels against making concessions to Serbia, lest Brussels be seen in countries that seek to obey EU rules and procedures as rewarding Serbian intransigence. In Brdo on March 28, Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic said that he fears that "Serbia is further away from the European Union than it has been in quite a while," news agencies reported. He argued that the questions of Kosova and of Serbian EU membership are separate ones, whereas Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has said repeatedly that Serbia will not move closer to the EU unless Brussels recognizes Kosova as part of Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10 and 26, 2008). On March 28, Jeremic also said that "we shall locate, arrest, and hand over [former Bosnian Serb General] Ratko Mladic and other remaining [war crimes] indictees." The Belgrade daily "Politika" wrote on March 31 that it is up to Serbia itself to decide how quickly it wants to resolve the long-standing issue of the war crimes fugitives and thereby draw closer to the EU. PM

RUSSIA, CHINA UNLIKELY TO WELCOME IRAN INTO SCO
After meeting Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe on March 24, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki announced that Rahmon has promised to support Tehran's bid to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Mottaki added that Iran wants to move from being an observing member in the regional grouping to being a full member.

Iran, India, Mongolia, and Pakistan currently have observer status in the SCO, while Afghan officials have also attended meetings as observers. The group -- established in 1996 as the Shanghai Five before changing its name in 2001 -- comprises China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

On March 27, SCO Secretary-General Bolat Nurgaliev, of Kazakhstan, welcomed Iran's membership bid and said it will not bring any "negative moments in relations with the regional and international organizations."

Vladimir Sazhin, a regional expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, says that seeking full SCO membership is a "smart move" for Iran, which he says would find "political and economic survival" by joining the regional organization. Sazhin says Iran, which has a strained relationship with the West because of its controversial nuclear program, finds itself increasingly isolated in the international arena. "By entering the SCO as a full member," he says, "Iran first of all would get official and legitimate partners, including two important players, Russia and China."

SCO membership would also give Iran some degree of protection against threats from the United States. "Secondly, Iran wants -- under the SCO wings and as a full member of the group -- to get a guarantee against possible U.S. and Israeli [military] action against Iran," Sazhin says. "Here, I mean a guarantee against a possible, hypothetical military resolution for Iran's nuclear crisis."

But most experts say it is unlikely Iran will become an SCO member any time in the near future. Although leading SCO members Russia and China have long given some support at the UN to Iran against U.S. and EU pressure aimed at curtailing Tehran's nuclear program, experts say Moscow and Beijing would not risk precipitating an open confrontation between the SCO and Washington and Brussels.

Turaj Atabaki, a professor of Middle Eastern and Central Asian history at Leiden University in the Netherlands, tells Radio Farda that Russia and China would not jeopardize internal relations within the SCO and the group's status by accepting Iran as a member. "China and Russia -- the two main SCO members -- will try to prevent the SCO from becoming an active anti-Western and anti-American organization," Atabaki says. "Therefore, the two countries are concerned that Iran's presence [in the group] would possibly take it in a different direction [that could] result in regional conflicts and confrontations between the East and the West."

Sazhin, of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, agrees. He says Mottaki's statement in Dushanbe about Tehran joining the SCO was nothing more than wishful thinking on Iran's part. "I believe Tehran has not yet consulted with Russia or China about making such an announcement in Dushanbe," he says, "because obviously Moscow and Beijing have a lot reservations" about Tehran becoming a member.

According to Sazhin, both Moscow and Beijing realize that Iran -- as a full member of the SCO -- would try to create "a split, if not outright animosity" between the Western permanent members of the UN Security Council on one side and Russia and China on the other.

Experts say Russia and China would find themselves in an uncomfortable position if Iran put forward its candidacy for membership at the next SCO summit in Dushanbe later this year. The organization would also be obliged to give an official response to Tehran's request. The SCO currently has a moratorium on expanding its membership. The group has only accepted one new member, Uzbekistan, in 2001.

Furthermore, if Iran's apparently unrealistic aspiration to join the SCO would be granted, it could be followed by a membership request from Pakistan, which has also expressed its willingness to join the SCO and enjoys China's support.

But including Pakistan without also accepting India as a member would be problematic for the organization. The SCO has in the past encouraged India to become a member of the organization, but New Delhi has not formally expressed such an interest. This is another reason why Iran is unlikely to gain membership soon.

The SCO members and observers together form the world's largest producer of energy and a very formidable bloc of economic and military power. The SCO leaders have stated that the organization has no plan to become a military bloc and that the alliance is not directed against any other state or region.

Nevertheless, many observers believe the group was created chiefly as a counterbalance to NATO and the United States, particularly to prevent Washington from intervening in areas near Russia and China.

At the Astana summit in 2005, the group urged the United States to set a timetable for withdrawing its troops from SCO member states. Shortly after the meeting, the Uzbek government asked U.S. forces to leave the Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan.

Allowing Tehran to use Russia and China to exert similar pressure on the United States is not something the SCO's controlling members are likely to approve in the near future.

(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

CIA WARNS AFGHAN-PAKISTAN BORDER REGION POSES DANGER TO WEST
Al-Qaeda has established a safe haven in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in recent months has ceased relying on the operational leadership of Osama bin Laden, CIA Director Michael Hayden said on March 30. "It's very clear to us that Al-Qaeda has been able for the past 18 months or so to establish a safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border area that they have not enjoyed before," Hayden said. He warned that the terrorist network is training operatives in the region who "wouldn't attract your attention if they were going through the customs line" at a U.S. airport, and would therefore be able to enter the United States without difficulty. Hayden also criticized the policies of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in dealing with terrorism in the tribal region, saying that leaving security responsibilities to tribal leaders has only given Al-Qaeda "more free rein there." Washington has sought reassurances that Pakistan's new government will do more to crack down on extremist groups in the tribal region, and not allow the region to become a launching pad for attacks abroad. AT

AFGHAN POWER PLANT BLOWN UP BY TALIBAN
An explosion blamed on Taliban militants damaged a power plant in the southern Afghan province of Helmand on March 29, Reuters reported. Provincial police chief Mohammad Hussain Andiwal said two power station employees were killed and eight people were injured, including two passersby. He added that the power-supply machinery was not damaged in the explosion. Taliban fighters have targeted infrastructure and communications projects such as telephone towers in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). In Zabul Province on March 29, Afghan and international troops killed eight Taliban fighters in a clash that broke out when the militants ambushed trucks transporting supplies to foreign military bases, AFP reported on March 30. Provincial deputy police chief Faridullah Zadran said four militants were captured. AT

U.S.-AFGHAN-PAKISTANI MILITARY CENTER OPENS IN AFGHANISTAN
The United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have established the first of six planned joint intelligence centers in Afghanistan with the goal of preventing militants from crossing into the country, AP reported on March 29. The center in the border town of Torkham in eastern Nangarhar Province is intended to facilitate intelligence sharing, and represents the latest step in U.S. efforts to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to coordinate in the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants. The commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Major General David Rodriguez, told military personnel from the three countries at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that they are taking "a giant step forward in cooperation, communication, and coordination." Officials of the three countries will meet on a regular basis to review the situation along the border. AT

IRAN DISMISSES ARAB CLAIMS ON PERSIAN GULF ISLANDS
Iranian officials have again rejected the latest claims by Arabs to three islands Iran occupies in the Persian Gulf, IRNA reported on March 30. The islands of Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa have been disputed between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) for decades, and the claims were reiterated by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa at an Arab League summit in Damascus that concluded on March 30. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told the press in a Damascus hotel on March 30 that Musa's assertion that the islands belong to the U.A.E. is "baseless." He said that "in the meetings I had with some Arab states, they expressed different positions, and [U.A.E.] authorities said nothing about this in the conference's meetings." Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran the same day that the islands are an "inseparable" part of Iranian territory and interference in the dispute by "third parties" is not helpful. He said it is not "fitting" for a conference of that level to discuss "unreal and diversionary" issues, when the Middle East has more pressing problems, like "the continued crimes" of Israel, IRNA reported. VS

GUARDIANS COUNCIL CONFIRMS ELECTION RESULTS IN IRANIAN CAPITAL
The Guardians Council, an unelected 12-member body of jurists and clerics that has the final say on legislative and electoral matters in Iran, has confirmed disputed results for the March 14 parliamentary elections in greater Tehran and 35 other constituencies, Radio Farda reported on March 30, citing Iranian news agencies. Top reformists including former President Mohammad Khatami have asked for a recount and expressed doubts about the counting process in recent weeks. The Guardians Council has so far confirmed the results in 136 of 207 constituencies across the country, Radio Farda reported. Iran's parliament has 290 seats. There will be a second round of voting in late April for some seats, including for 11 of Tehran's 30 seats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). VS

IRAN SUMMONS ENVOYS OVER DUTCH FILM ON KORAN
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassador of the Netherlands, Radinck van Vollenhoven, and an unnamed Slovenian charge d'affaires in Tehran on March 30 to protest against a film released in the Netherlands that purportedly insults Islam, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. Slovenia currently holds the EU Presidency. The 15-minute video titled "Fitna," which was produced by right-wing Dutch legislator Geert Wilders and placed on the Internet, associates Islam with terrorism, alternating pictures of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with quotations from the Koran. Various religious groups, Arab leaders and other politicians, and the EU have condemned the film as provocative or insulting. Van Vollenhoven was quoted by the Iranian state broadcaster on March 30 as expressing his disapproval of the film. He told Mostafa Dolatyar, the director-general for Western European affairs at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, that his country respects Islam and the Koran. Separately, the director-general for Central and Northern European affairs at the ministry, Ali Baqeri, told the Slovenian representative that disrespect for religion is against the interests of both Islam and Christianity, IRNA reported. He said the EU Presidency must respond to this film, IRNA reported. The EU Presidency stated on March 28 that the film "served no other purpose than inflaming hatred," AFP reported. VS

IRANIAN POLICE BURY CRASH VICTIMS
Police held a service on March 30 in Tabriz, in the northwestern East Azerbaijan Province, after a helicopter crash nearby killed five policemen on March 28, Fars news agency reported. The report did not give the cause of the helicopter crash, which occurred in the Varzaq district near Tabriz and killed the head of the provincial traffic police, Ali Niazi, provincial police Colonel Mohammad Jalali, and three others on board. The head of the police security and intelligence department, Hossein Ashtari, said at the funeral on March 30 that Iran's police and armed forces face "aggressors" on Iranian territory and criminals like a "fist," Fars reported. VS

SHI'ITE CLERIC ORDERS MILITIA TO STAND DOWN AGAINST IRAQI FORCES...
Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement on March 30 calling on his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, to withdraw from the streets of several Iraqi cities and avoid confronting Iraqi forces, Iraqi and international media reported. "Because of the religious responsibility, and to stop Iraqi blood being shed, and to maintain the unity of Iraq and to put an end to this sedition that the occupiers and their followers want to spread among the Iraqi people, we call for an end to armed appearances in Al-Basrah and all other provinces," al-Sadr said in a statement. "Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us." Al-Sadr also called on his followers to "work with Iraqi government offices to achieve security and to file charges against those who have committed crimes." The "Los Angeles Times" reported that that al-Sadr presented a list of demands to the government to end the fighting. Among them are an end to random raids on Sadrists, an amnesty for fighters in the Al-Mahdi Army, and the release of all imprisoned members of the Sadrist movement who have not been convicted of any crimes. It remains unclear which demands, if any, the Iraqi government agreed to. SS

...WINNING PRAISE FROM IRAQI GOVERNMENT, LEADERS
In a March 30 interview with state-run Al-Iraqiyah television, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh described al-Sadr's statement as "positive and responsive." "A large number of people will listen to Muqtada al-Sadr's call. Life will return to all of Iraq as before," he said. Parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani lauded al-Sadr's call. "With this statement, Sayyed [honorable] Muqtada al-Sadr proved that he is a good politician, working for the sake of Iraq," al-Mashhadani said. However, al-Dabbagh also told Reuters that the Iraqi military will continue its operation in Al-Basrah, despite al-Sadr's declaration. "The operation in Al-Basrah will continue and will not stop until it achieves its goals. It is not targeting the Sadrists but criminals," he said. The six days of fighting have left an estimated 250 people dead and hundreds injured. The fighting erupted after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered an assault on Shi'ite militias, armed gangs, and criminals in the southern city on March 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008). SS

BAGHDAD CURFEW TO BE LIFTED ON MARCH 31
Major General Qasim Atta, a spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, announced on March 30 that the curfew in the capital will be lifted on March 31, "Voices of Iraq" reported. He added, however, that "the neighborhoods of Al-Shu'lah, Al-Kadhimiyah, and Al-Sadr City will have their curfew lifted partially, and only pedestrians will be permitted." Atta declined to mention why these neighborhoods are being excluded. However, these areas are known to be Sadrist strongholds. On March 27, the government announced a three-day curfew after tensions between Iraqi security forces and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army increased. It was later extended by another day. SS

TURKEY BOMBS REBEL POSITIONS IN NORTHERN IRAQ
Turkey announced on March 29 that it has killed approximately 15 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters in northern Iraq during a two-day operation, "Hurriyet" reported on March 30. The Turkish military said it shelled the Avasin-Basyan region of northern Iraq on March 27 when it detected a group of PKK fighters preparing to carry out attacks inside Turkey. The military said in a statement that the subsequent shelling killed 15 PKK fighters. The following day, the military launched air strikes in the same region, but did not give casualty figures. The PKK confirmed the attacks, but denied that any fighters were killed. In a weeklong offensive in February, Turkey targeted bases in northern Iraq it said were used by PKK fighters to conduct cross-border attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said that Ankara's relationship with the Kurdistan regional government depends primarily on how it deals with the PKK, "Fortune" magazine reported on March 28. "If the administration in the north of Iraq distances itself from the PKK and reaches the conclusion that the PKK is an element that must be eradicated and if we see action, there is no doubt that our relations [with Iraqi Kurds] will take a different course," Babacan said. SS

IRAQ CRITICIZES FINAL COMMUNIQUE AT ARAB LEAGUE SUMMIT
Iraq has refused to sign the final declaration of the Arab League summit held in Damascus, citing disagreements with the wording of the text, "The Daily Star" reported on March 30. The Iraqi delegation said the communique failed to express support for the Iraqi government and to condemn operations by Sunni insurgents. Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi said: "I express reservations on the text because this is not what we have agreed upon [in closed-door meetings]. It does not include the efforts of the Iraqi government for national reconciliation, and it does not condemn terrorism and violence." Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Reuters the paragraph on Iraq was "not positive" and he asked the Arab League to rephrase it. "We want the declaration to support the authority of the Iraqi state, the rule of law, and our efforts to achieve security, stability, and defeat terrorism," Zebari said. "We are looking for the Arab League to affirm positions it had already taken on supporting the Iraqi government, and not to take a neutral position in the declaration," he added. SS

U.S. FORCES DISCOVER MASS GRAVE IN CENTRAL IRAQ
The U.S. military issued a statement on March 29 saying that a mass grave was discovered in the central Diyala Governorate. It said a contingent of U.S. and Iraqi forces unearthed a mass grave containing 14 bodies outside the town of Al-Miqdadiyah after they were alerted by local residents. "The bodies appear to have been at the location for two to six months. Some of the remains showed signs of torture," the statement said. The bodies were found not far from another mass grave discovered on March 27 in which 37 bodies were unearthed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2008). Those bodies also showed signs of torture. U.S. military spokesman Mike Garcia praised the assistance of local residents. "The local residents in Diyala have realized that working with coalition and Iraqi security forces is far more beneficial to them then working with an insurgency that uses deplorable tactics like torture and murder to achieve its objectives," he said. SS

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