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Newsline - March 11, 2005

Russia's Supreme Court refused on 10 March to revoke a law on the appointment of governors by the Russian president, RIA-Novosti reported. Two residents of Vladimir Oblast, Vladimir Baryshenko and Vladimir Kuvshinov, had brought an appeal to the court asking it to overturn the law which came into force last December. Kuvshinov tried to run for governor in 2000, but the local election commission rejected his candidacy. He plans to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, according to Putin reappointed Vladimir Oblast Governor Nikolai Vinogradov to a third term in office in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2005). Also, on 10 March, the court rejected an appeal to declare invalid the first round of gubernatorial elections in Nenets Autonomous Okrug held on 23 January, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported. The appeal was filed by a former gubernatorial candidate for Nenets, Aleksandr Shmakov, who did not make it to the second round. JAC

Meanwhile, in Nizhnii Novgorod, a citizens initiative group that is seeking to hold a referendum on gubernatorial elections is challenging the local election commission's refusal to register it, VolgaInform reported on 10 March. Sergei Shimovolos, a representative of Nizhnii Novgorod's Human Rights Union and a participant in the initiative group, told the agency that a raion court will hold a hearing on 14 March on whether the local election commission is violating the group's constitutional rights. Shimovolos said that the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) is prepared to finance the gathering of signatures. Last week, SPS Political Council member Boris Nadezhdin told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that his party has launched a campaign to hold regional referendums on the question of restoring the direct election of regional governors. Nadezhdin said that if even a couple of regions adopt binding referendums demanding direct gubernatorial elections it will provoke a constitutional crisis and "an inevitable need to go to the Constitutional Court" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2005). JAC

Some unnamed finance ministers from the Group of Eight (G-8) most industrialized states reportedly have objections to Moscow's desire to become a full member in the grouping and to chair the group's economic and political policy meetings next year in Moscow, reported on 10 March. Russia's $533 billion economy is the 16th largest in the world and is not big enough to justify membership in the club, an unnamed G-8 official told Bloomberg agency. Russia does not take part in the economic consultations of the G-8 but is considered a full member of the political portion of the grouping. "Pushing for G-7 status is a great stretch for Russia, as it simply doesn't deserve it," Stuart Eizenstat said in an interview with Bloomberg. Eizenstat, former undersecretary in the state and treasury departments under President Bill Clinton, said: "Russia's economy is too small and isn't free enough to merit membership, and it has drifted on democracy and reform." Eizenstat is now an adviser to the board of Menatep, the investment arm of Yukos, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on 22 February. VY

TV-Tsentr said on 10 March that Russia was brought into the G-8 at the insistence of France and Germany in 1997, while the United States objected to this move. Russia was accepted into the grouping on political -- not economic -- criteria and for that reason Moscow is not a part of the decision-making process on world economic issues. At the G-8 summit in Canada in 2002 it was decided that Russia will take the chairmanship of the organization in 2006 when it is scheduled to host the G-8 summit in Moscow the same year. When Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin discussed last month in London the Russian chairmanship in 2006 with his British counterpart Gordon Brown, Kudrin said he did not foresee any problems, TV-Tsentr reported. VY

"Argumenty i Fakty" political editor Andrei Uglanov told TV-Tsentr on 10 March that it is very unlikely that Russia will be ousted from the G-8, although the other G-8 members will keep Russia out of any decisions on crucial economic issues. It is quite possible, he added, that there could be an expansion of the G-8, with possible membership going to China, India, or Brazil. Brazil so badly wants to join the G-8 that it has proposed, as leverage, the idea of creating an alternative economic alliance with Russia, China, India, and South Africa. If the G-8 does not expand soon then such an alternative alliance is likely to be created, Uglanov concluded. VY

Junichiro Koizumi announced on 10 March that he will not take part in the Moscow celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Victory Day in May, ITAR-TASS and the other mass media reported. Koizumi explained that his schedule is too busy and it would be problematic for him to leave Japan at that time. Koizumi's decision was influenced by sentiment in the Japanese parliament that his trip to Moscow would be inappropriate given the Russian-Japanese dispute over the Kurile Islands and the failure of the two countries to sign a peace treaty, ITAR-TASS commented. VY

The Russian Foreign Ministry on 10 March issued a press release condemning a statement made by the Polish Foreign Ministry after the killing of Chechen resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov, and other media reported. The Polish statement called Maskhadov's killing "not simply a crime, but political stupidity and a big mistake." It also referred to Maskhadov as someone who was working for a political resolution of the crisis in Chechnya. Moscow viewed the Polish statement with "bewilderment and incomprehension," the Russian press release stated. Russian officials consider Maskhadov responsible for the Beslan school hostage taking, deadly blasts in Moscow and other Russian cities, and other crimes, the Russian press release stated, and, "If the Polish side believes such activity is 'striving for a political settlement,' it has a very perverse notion of the fight against international terrorism." Meanwhile, Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka admitted on 10 March that his Foreign Ministry "overreacted" but added: "The only thing we would like to say is that such conflicts as the one in Chechnya are very rarely solved by force," Reuters reported. VY

The chairman of the Duma Veterans Committee, Army General Nikolai Kovalev, who headed the Federal Security Service (FSB) from 1996-1998, said on 10 March that the killing of Chechen leader Maskhadov was "undoubtedly a success of the Russian special services and was not a violation of international law or the Russian Constitution," reported "He was offered the chance to surrender and face a Russian court, but he refused," Kovalev said. However, the immediate result of Maskhadov's death will be a very serious threat of new terrorist acts, Kovalev warned, and the Russian government should do its utmost to prevent new attacks from occurring. VY

Gennadii Semigin, the leader of the coalition Patriots of Russia, announced at a 10 March press conference in Moscow the creation of "a people's shadow government" that will be in opposition both to the cabinet of Mikhail Fradkov and the administration of President Putin, "Novye izvestiya" and other media reported on 10 March. Semigin said he will be the shadow prime minister and that there will be 26 ministers in his cabinet. He said economist Sergei Glazev will be the shadow counterpart of Economic Development Minister German Gref; Oksana Dmitrieva, the former Social Affairs Minister and a one-time Yabloko member will be the shadow minister to Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov; and Igor Rodionov (Motherland), former defense minister in Viktor Chernomyrdin's government, will be the shadow minister of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The full list of Semigin's "shadow cabinet" is posted at Semigin added that he has no "presidential ambitions." VY

Karelian President Sergei Katanandov said at an online press conference on 10 March that unofficial calls for the return to Finland of parts of Karelia annexed by the USSR after the 1939-1940 Russo-Finnish war are unacceptable, Interfax reported. Katanandov pointed out that the Finnish government does not support those demands, and that one "should not attempt to rewrite history." Katanandov's statements, which were prompted by the publication last week in Finland of a book outlining how to regain the lost territories, echo earlier affirmations by President Putin and former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, who said during a visit to Karelia in 2000 that Helsinki has no territorial claims on Karelia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 28 June 2000). A recent study termed Katanandov the guarantor of political stability in Karelia. It therefore seems probable that Putin will reappoint him when his term expires next year. LF

"Kommersant-Daily" reported on 10 March that deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov was in Nizhnii Novgorod on 9 March for a short visit. As luck would have it, both the incumbent Governor and former Communist party member Gennadii Khodyrev as well as presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District, Sergei Kirienko, were out of town. According to the daily, Surkov held a closed meeting with the presidium of the regional branch of Unified Russia. Unidentified sources told the daily that Surkov said at the meeting that the cancellation of mayoral elections would not be politically expedient. In addition to the meeting with Unified Russia activists, Surkov also reportedly interviewed potential candidates for the post of governor, that is, Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast legislature speaker Yevgenii Lyulin and Nizhnii Novgorod Mayor Vadim Bulavinov. Bulavinov unsuccessfully ran for governor of Nizhnii Novgorod in 2001 and won the mayoral race in 2002 with strong backing from the Kremlin. JAC

The government's stabilization fund increased by 35 percent from 1 January to 707.5 billion rubles ($25.8 billion) as of 1 March, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 March. Meanwhile, the Central Bank's gold reserves increased from 25 February to 4 March to a record level of $134.4 billion, RosBalt reported on 10 March. On 1 January 2004, gold reserves amounted to just $76.9 billion. "Moskovskii novosti," no. 10, cited Troika Dialog chief economist Yevgenii Gavrilenko as arguing that high oil prices are starting to have negative consequences for Russia. According to Gavrilenko, the country's monetary officials do not have a mechanism for transforming the flow of oil dollars into investment dollars to various branches of the economy and are, instead, simply storing the foreign exchange into the stabilization fund and gold reserves. JAC

Not putting the money derived from oil sales back into the economy will not help Russia's GDP grow and is dangerous because it could lead to higher inflation and a stronger ruble exchange-rate against the dollar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2005), said Gavrilenko. In addition, "Moskovskii novosti" no. 10 reported, domestic producers are losing their competitive advantage on the world market due to the rising value of the ruble. The weekly also quoted Sergei Nikolaenko of the Bureau for Economic Analysis, who said that "in a period of conducting reforms, there is nothing worse than high oil prices." Against the background of super-high oil prices, the government's will to conduct significant reform atrophies, he said. JAC

Pavel Drugov, the former head of Yabloko's youth movement in St. Petersburg, told police that an unknown assailant fired bullets at his parked car and placed an offensive, threatening note under his windshield wiper, reported on 10 March. Drugov, 30, told Regnum that the incident is connected to a disagreement within the leadership of Yabloko's St. Petersburg branch over whether Yabloko should cooperate with the National Bolshevik Party and other "half-criminalized structures." He said he opposes such cooperation and has received threats against his life over the past few months. Meanwhile, Maksim Reznik, head of Yabloko's St. Petersburg branch, told Regnum that he believes Drugov should consult with a doctor specializing in drug addiction. He added that Drugov has not been expelled from the party, but his questionable statements may cause the issue to be raised. JAC

Two member of the State Duma's Culture Committee, Lyubov Blizhina (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) and Irina Saveleva (Motherland), met with the general director and the musical director of the Bolshoi Theater on 10 March to discuss the possible pornographic content of the libretto of the opera, Rosental's Children, which is scheduled to premiere on 23 March, "Izvestiya" reported. Unified Russia Deputy Andrei Neverov sponsored an initiative on 2 March on the floor of the Duma to forbid the Bolshoi from "showing this pornography." Vladimir Sorokin, who wrote the libretto on commission from the theater, faced charges in 2003 of distributing pornography following complaints from the pro-Putin youth group Walking Together that his novel "Goluboye Salo" (Blue Lard) is pornographic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 April 2003). Blizhina said that they do not plan to ban the production, since it is not legally possible. She added that it is hard to judge a theatrical production without seeing it. The Bolshoi directors responded by inviting all members of the Duma's committee to attend a dress rehearsal. JAC

Anzor Maskhadov, 29, the only son of murdered resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov, told journalists on 10 March in Baku, where he now lives, that the war in Chechnya will continue despite his father's death. He said he will continue the fight for Chechen independence but without returning to Chechnya and taking up arms. Maskhadov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on 9 March that Russian arguments that his father was "a terrorist" cannot be substantiated, and that he can prove they are untrue. He further denied that his father bore any responsibility for the Beslan hostage-taking in September 2004, asserting that, on the contrary, Maskhadov was on his way to Beslan to try to negotiate with the hostage takers when Russian special forces stormed the school where the militants were holding over 1,000 children, parents and teaching staff hostage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 7 September 2004). LF

Maskhadov told journalists in Baku on 10 March that he and his mother have appealed to unnamed Western heads of state to pressure the Russian government to hand over Aslan Maskhadov's body for burial, AFP and reported. Russian officials, and pro-Moscow Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov, argued on 9 March that under Russian legislation, "terrorists" should be buried in an unmarked grave. But Russian presidential aide Aslambek Aslakhanov, himself a Chechen, told journalists in Moscow the same day that he "sees nothing wrong" in handing over Maskhadov's body to his family for burial in accordance with Muslim rites. Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel said in Grozny on 10 March that Maskhadov's body has been taken from Chechnya to an undisclosed location elsewhere in Russia for further forensic tests, Interfax reported. LF

The Armenian government does not plan to privatize the country's rail network, Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 10 March. He rejected as "an absolute lie" a Russian media report earlier this week that the railway will be sold to a company jointly owned by Manukian and its current director, Ararat Khrimian. Manukian added, however, that some of the rail network's rolling stock will be sold to private investors. LF

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told Reuters on 10 March that there is no point in Armenian and Turkish historians conducting a joint study of the alleged 1915 genocide. Oskanian said historians "have already said their piece," and that it is up to Turkey to "determine its attitude." Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on 8 March for "an impartial study" of the killings, Reuters reported. Erdogan said that Ankara has opened its archives to scholars studying the alleged genocide and Armenia should do the same. The director of Armenia's National Archive, Amatuni Virabian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 17 February that those archives are open "without restriction" to any Turkish scholars who are interested. Virabian said the archives contain up to 12,000 documents, primarily first-hand accounts of the incidents from survivors. LF

Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry launched a major operation early on 10 March at multiple locations in and near Baku and in the Gusar Raion in northern Azerbaijan during which it secured the release of Zamira Gadjieva, wife of the president of the International Bank of Azerbaijan, Turan and reported on 10 and 11 March, respectively. Gadjieva was abducted in Baku a month ago by a group that demanded $20 million for her release. She was found in a concrete bunker belonging to a senior police official who was apprehended together with some 20 other people, seven of them Interior Ministry officials. It is not clear whether the group was also responsible for a series of recent abductions of relatives of prominent officials, none of which have been solved. LF

The Georgian parliament passed on 10 March by a unanimous vote a resolution demanding that Russia agree by 15 May to close its two remaining military bases in Georgia by 1 January 2006, Georgian and Russian media reported. Should Moscow fail to meet that deadline, the Georgian Parliament will ask the Foreign Ministry to stop issuing visas to Russian military personnel and instruct the Finance Ministry to designate Russia's outstanding debts for use of the bases part of Russia's state debt to Georgia. Nika Rurua, deputy chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, calculated the sum involved at between $300 million-$400 million, Caucasus Press reported. The parliament resolution also contained a demand for access to the former Russian military base at Gudauta, Abkhazia, ITAR-TASS reported. Russia claims all personnel were withdrawn from that facility in 2000, but Georgia believes that some 300 Russian servicemen are still stationed there. LF

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said on 10 March on her arrival in Ankara on an official visit that Tbilisi and Moscow have agreed on "an action plan" for the closure of the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia, Caucasus Press and reported. She did not disclose details, but added that she hopes "progress will be registered" by the end of May, when the presidents of the two countries are to reach a decision. Also on 10 March, Gela Charkviani, an adviser to former President Eduard Shevardnadze whom President Mikheil Saakashvili named on 9 March as his official spokesman, told journalists in Tbilisi that "we have positive signals from Moscow that Russia is prepared to make concessions if both sides are prepared to compromise." Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russian Defense Ministry Department Head Colonel General Anatolii Mazurkevich confirmed that an anonymous statement cited by that Russia needs between three and four years to close the two remaining bases in Georgia is "the official position of the Defense Ministry," Interfax reported on 10 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2005). LF

Robert Simmons, NATO special representative to the Caucasus and Central Asia, met with Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev in Astana on 10 March to discuss the possibility of an agreement to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan through Kazakhstan, Kabar reported. Simmons said, "We very much hope to have your help in delivering shipments [of supplies] to our troops in Afghanistan," Kazinform reported. Simmons will meet with Kazakh Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbek on 11 March. DK

A group of 20 opposition deputies to Kyrgyzstan's parliament issued an appeal on 10 March after failing to gain a quorum for an emergency joint session of the legislature, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The appeal expressed a lack of confidence in the Central Election Commission and called on President Askar Akaev to set presidential elections, currently scheduled for October, for July and to extend the current parliament's powers until November, reported. The legislators had hoped to hold an emergency joint session to discuss allegations of fraud in the wake of the 27 February first-round parliamentary elections, but they failed to gather the necessary two-thirds of the two chambers' 105 deputies. Moreover, police encircled the parliament building, claiming that renovations were under way, and the deputies were forced to meet on the street, RFE/RL reported. Their appeal described police actions as "a coup that has halted one of the branches of government." DK

Police in the city of Naryn used force on 10 March to disperse supporters of parliamentary candidate Turunbek Akun and former candidate Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, reported. Demonstrations have continued in Naryn for several days to protest election fraud and the annulment of Kadyrbekov's candidacy for campaign violations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 8, and 10 March 2005). Police took decisive action to disperse the protestors after a conflict broke out between a female demonstrator and a policeman. Police arrested 40 protestors, later releasing all of them. One woman was forced to seek medical attention after the clash. The report described the incident as the most violent to take place in Naryn in the last 15 years. DK

In his first public comment on the protests that have broken out between the 27 February first-round parliamentary elections and the 13 March runoff elections, President Askar Akaev gave a televised address on 10 March praising the 27 February vote and dismissing the protests, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The president blamed protests on "irresponsible political operators who are ready to sacrifice innocent people for their ambitions and craving for power," Kyrgyz Television 1 reported. He said that he had given instructions "to take all necessary measures to ensure the elections are not hindered." Akaev charged that "certain politicians who suffered an absolute or relative defeat in the first round, and a group of politicians who were legally unable to run in the elections, are undertaking an unprecedented campaign to undermine the second round of elections." He made no mention of opposition demands for preterm presidential elections and new parliamentary elections. DK

James Callahan, the Central Asia representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told a news conference on 10 March that the UN is generally satisfied with the drug situation in Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Callahan said, "The UNODC considers the situation in Uzbekistan in this area satisfactory, although the narcotics situation in the region as a whole concerns the UNODC. Afghanistan, which is a source of narcotics, is nearby and trafficking takes place through these countries." According to Kamol Dusmetov, the head of Uzbekistan's Drug Control Center, Uzbek police seized 1,633 kilograms of drugs in 2004, reported on 10 March. The total included 384 kilograms of opium and 543 kilograms of heroin. Official data on the number of drug users in Uzbekistan showed a slight increase in 2004, rising 2.4 percent to 22,419, of whom 12,000 of them are heroin users. DK

The European Parliament on 10 March adopted a strongly-worded resolution on Belarus, calling on EU member countries to recognize the current Belarusian regime as a "dictatorship" and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as a "dictator," Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The resolution condemns the Belarusian government's crackdown on the political opposition and independent media and demands that the authorities release Mikhail Marynich, Valery Levaneuski, Alyaksandr Vasilyeu, and other persons whom it describes as "imprisoned political opponents of the regime." The European Parliament also calls for "identifying and freezing the personal assets of President Lukashenka and those of other senior members of the regime who ensure the continuation of the dictatorship," as well as expanding the list of Belarusian officials banned from entering the EU. The document also proposes creating alternative information sources for Belarusians, such as television and radio stations in neighboring countries and rendering support to independent media outlets in Belarus. JM

Alyaksandr Lukashenka visited a market in Minsk on 10 March and promised small retail traders that the government will soon address their concerns regarding the payment of value-added tax (VAT) on commodities imported from Russia, Belapan reported, quoting the presidential press service. Lukashenka's meeting with vendors took place against the backdrop of continuing protests by private retailers over VAT on Russian imports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2005). Lukashenka said the government may negotiate only the VAT payment system, not whether or not the tax should be paid. "The transition to the new principle of VAT collection in trade with Russia should be made as painlessly as possible for sole entrepreneurs," Lukashenka said. He suggested holding a roundtable with top government officials and representatives of the protesting vendors to find a solution to the VAT standoff. JM

The state-run newspaper "Respublika" on 10 March proposed erecting a monument to the potato to highlight the great role the vegetable plays in the national diet. Unofficially, the potato ("bulba" in Belarusian) is regarded as a symbol of Belarus, and Belarusians sometimes call themselves by the humorous nickname of "bulbashy" (potato eaters or potato growers). Belarus is among the world's seven leading producers of potatoes. Last year the country of 10 million people harvested 9.9 million tons of potatoes. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko has submitted to the Verkhovna Rada a bill on the reduction of Ukraine's Armed Forces by 40,000 people (including 30,000 servicemen) to 245,000 people (180,000 servicemen and 65,000 civilians) by the end of 2005, Interfax reported on 10 March. JM

President Yushchenko told a forum of businessmen and government officials in Kyiv on 11 March that Ukraine will introduce a non-visa regime for EU citizens "in a few days," Interfax reported. "In response, we would like to see understanding on the EU's part," Yushchenko said. He suggested that the EU could reciprocate by lifting visa requirements for Ukrainian students, artists, journalists, and businesspeople. Such a move, Yushchenko added, would show that "Europe is far-sighted" and that "it is welcoming the sprouts of democracy." JM

Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko told journalists on 10 March that the government is considering proposing to the owners of "strategic" economic enterprises that were privatized dishonestly without tenders to pay the state the balance between the real value of enterprises and the prices they paid during privatization, Interfax reported. Tymoshenko added that the government does not intend to review small privatizations. JM

The Prosecutor-General's Office on 10 March questioned former President Leonid Kuchma as a witness in the ongoing investigation into the kidnapping and murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000, Ukrainian media reported. No details of the interrogation have been released. Meanwhile, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko told journalists on 10 March that Kuchma will not be held accountable in court for his past deeds, including his alleged involvement in the Gongadze case. Symonenko added that Kuchma obtained personal security guarantees from the United States in exchange for his "help" in installing Viktor Yushchenko as president in the 2004 election. JM

The Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country's supreme court, confirmed on 10 March the indictment of Dragan Covic, who is the Croatian member of the joint Bosnian Presidency, "Nezavisne novine" reported. Covic is charged with abuse of power, corruption, and organized crime. The court also confirmed the corruption charges against Constitutional Court President Mate Tadic. Both Covic and Tadic allegedly accepted bribes from businessmen who were also indicted for organized crime and corruption. The charges against Covic date back to his time as finance minister of the Muslim-Croat Federation (2000-03). In reaction to the court's decision, the office of High Representative Paddy Ashdown stated: "Persons holding executive positions that have a crucial bearing on the trust of citizens at home, and the reputation of [Bosnia] abroad, are expected to stand down if indicted for criminal offences," according to UB

The Serbian government officially confirmed on 10 March that former Republika Srpska Interior Minister Mico Stanisic, who is indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal, will voluntarily surrender to the tribunal on 11 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Meanwhile, the tribunal announced that former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj is indicted for his alleged role in the forced expulsion of Serbian and other non-Albanian minorities in Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 9, and 10 March 2005). UB

The governments of Croatia and Serbia protested on 10 March the decision by the Bosnian government to levy customs on agricultural products and food from those countries, arguing that the decision is a breach of the free-trade agreements between Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, "Nezavisne novine" reported. Serbian Trade and Tourism Minister Bojan Dimitrijevic said that Belgrade will use all diplomatic means against the customs decision, which runs counter to Serbian economic interests, Tanjug reported. With the 8 March decision to levy customs on agricultural products and food, the Bosnian government sought to protect its domestic production. The Office of the High Representative has reportedly called on the Bosnian government to reconsider its decision, "Nezavisne novine" reported. UB

In his key note speech at the beginning of a two-day summit on regional development and cooperation in Southeastern Europe, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said in Skopje on 10 March that the different levels of development in the southeast European countries constitute an incentive for better cooperation on their common goal of becoming members of the EU, MIA news agency reported. "The economic efficiency of any of the countries in the region will improve if a larger and more comprehensive market is created by way of regional economic cooperation," Crvenkovski said. "Moreover, the level of foreign investments in Southeastern Europe will increase when the entire region will start functioning as a modern economic entity and a solid investment area," Crvenkovski said. Acting EU Director-General for Enlargement Fabrizio Barbaso said that economic development is one of the main aspects of Euro-Atlantic integration. However, Barbaso added: "Further social and economic prosperity requires completion of structural reforms, judicial reforms and building of more efficient administration capacity." Some 150 heads of state, senior government officials, and business representatives are participating in the summit. UB

Romania began opening millions of files compiled by the Communist-era Securitate secret police on 10 March, Reuters reported on the same day. In the first stage of the process, 20,000 files were handed over to an independent body called CNSAS, which is charged with the task of releasing them. Over the next several months, millions of files are to be passed to the CNSAS after being scrutinized for possible risks to national security. The Securitate used approximately half a million officers and millions of informers to spy on citizens under Communism. There have been many allegations that prominent politicians, civil servants, judges and other public figures collaborated with the secret police. More than 100,000 files were lost or destroyed during or shortly after the December 1989 revolution that overthrew dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. BW

U.S. President George W. Bush praised his Romanian counterpart Traian Basescu for his anti-corruption efforts, dpa reported on 10 March. Bush made his comments at a White House meeting the previous day, in which he discussed issues related to the Middle East and Eastern Europe with the Romanian leader. Bush said he was "most impressed" with Basescu's anticorruption efforts, and that Basescu "believes in transparency and rule of law, and that is very important for American companies looking for a place to invest to hear from the leader of the country." Basescu also said he raised the issue of allowing Romanians to travel to the United States without a visa. BW

A Moldovan court has extended for 30 days the pretrial detention of two Russian women charged with money laundering, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 March. The women, Yelena and Olga Romashchenko, are employees of the Moscow-based United Direct Marketing, which had been subcontracted by the Moldovan Reklama-Express Company for campaign work during parliamentary elections. The two were detained in mid-February with a group of Russian, Kazakh, and Ukrainian campaign workers who did not have proper work permits. The Romashchenko sisters, who were carrying $500,000, were detained, while the other campaign workers were deported from Moldova. BW

Moldova's Central Election Commission has submitted results of the 6 March parliamentary elections to the Constitutional Court, ITAR-TASS reported on 11 March. The court has 10 days to recognize the results. According to ITAR-TASS, the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) won 46.1 percent of the vote, the Democratic Moldova Bloc (BDM) took 28.41 percent, and the Popular Party Christian Democratic won 9.07 percent. The PCM will hold 56 out of 101 seats in the new parliament, the BDM will have 34 seats, and the PPCD will get 11. BW

More than 6,000 delegates gathered in Kyiv on 5 March to set up a party called Our Ukraine People's Union (NSNU), which is to provide political support to the government of President Viktor Yushchenko and vie for a substantial parliamentary representation in the 2006 general elections.

The congress elected 120 delegates to the party's council, and chose Deputy Prime Minister Roman Bezsmertnyy as head of the council and lawmaker Yuriy Yekhanurov as head of the party's executive committee. Yushchenko, who reportedly signed up for the new party as an ordinary member and received membership card No. 1, was made the party's honorary chairman.

Some Ukrainian commentators jokingly described the Our Ukraine People's Union as the country's first "party of power" that is simultaneously a "people's party," which is true to a large extent if one takes into account the party's current membership. The delegates to the constituent congress, who automatically became full-fledged NSNU members, comprised both current government officials from Kyiv and rank-and-file activists of the 2004 Yushchenko presidential campaign from the provinces.

However, some circumstances under which the NSNU came into being and some developments during the congress have left many wondering whether the pro-Yushchenko party is not primarily poised to put the interests of the government before those of the people.

It was widely expected that Yushchenko would build a new political force based on parties participating in his Our Ukraine parliamentary bloc. This, however, did not happen. The NSNU constituent congress was organized by the public movement "For Ukraine! For Yushchenko!" coordinated by the president's older brother, Petro Yushchenko, as well as by some government officials from Kyiv and regional governors. President Yushchenko had apparently failed to mobilize his major allies from the Orange Revolution -- notably Yuriy Kostenko's Ukrainian People's Party and Borys Tarasyuk's People's Rukh of Ukraine -- in support of the idea of a single party.

It is also not known for the time being whether the Our Ukraine Party (formerly the Reforms and Order Party) led by current Finance Minister Viktor Pynzenyk will join the NSNU. Pynzenyk reregistered his party last year under the new name, which is commonly associated with Yushchenko and the Orange Revolution, in the apparent anticipation of the emergence of a united pro-Yushchenko force after the 2004 presidential election. Pynzenyk most likely expected that his renamed party would serve as a basis for such a consolidation. However, he was not given any role in forming the NSNU, and Yushchenko did not even mention Pynzenyk's Our Ukraine Party in his address to the 5 March congress.

What Yushchenko did mention was an expected election coalition of the NSNU with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and the Agrarian Party of Ukraine led by parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. "Today and many times [earlier] I told Yuliya Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko -- we see you in 2006 in one team with us," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website quoted Yushchenko as saying. "Volodymyr Mikhaylovych Lytvyn! We see [us] in 2006 in one team [consisting of] the Our Ukraine People's Union, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Agrarian Party of Ukraine."

As regards the hitherto allied parties that evolved from Vyacheslav Chornovil's Rukh -- Kostenko's Ukrainian People's Party and Tarasyuk's People's Rukh of Ukraine -- Yushchenko did not leave any doubt that they may either be absorbed by the NSNU or go their own way. "I have been saddened by the [intention] of our two partners, the Ukrainian People's Party and the People's Rukh of Ukraine, to go for the 2006 election on their own," Yushchenko said. "This is a mistake, but these people had the right to adopt the resolution they adopted.... Our doors will remain open." But he immediately qualified his "open-door policy" by reiterating his vision of a pro-presidential political alliance in 2006: "There will be a single coalition of the three forces [NSNU, Lytvyn's party, Tymoshenko's bloc]. This is our credo on which we stand."

The election of the NSNU's leading bodies, the council and the executive committee, reportedly took place by an undemocratic procedure -- delegates to the congress were provided with a list of 120 members for the NSNU Council, which was prepared in advance by unknown people, and approved the list in one single vote, without discussing individual candidates. Delegates from Donetsk Oblast tried to protest the candidates proposed to the NSNU Council from their region but were reportedly outwitted by those who presided over the congress -- the Donetsk delegates were promised a repeat vote during a later stage of the congress but this never happened.

The NSNU's "Political Bureau" -- the 21-member Presidium of the NSNU Council -- includes such persons as Deputy Prime Minister Roman Bezsmertnyy, Youth and Sports Minister Yuriy Pavlenko, Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, Emergency Minister Davyd Zhvaniya, Culture Minister Oksana Bilozir, top presidential aide Oleksandr Tretyakov, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko, Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko, and a group of pro-Yushchenko lawmakers.

In short, the NSNU looks very much like a party of Ukraine's newly established nomenklatura or like the Popular Democratic Party founded as a "party of power" in 1996 for the Kuchma era. Today, the Popular Democratic Party, which still has a dozen deputies in the Verkhovna Rada, seems to be nearing an unavoidable political demise in the 2006 election, when only parties winning no less than 3 percent of the vote nationally are to be rewarded with parliamentary seats.

The pro-Yushchenko NSNU, as a party based on time-serving political interests rather than on a consistent ideology and program, may well repeat the fate of the pro-Kuchma Popular Democratic Party, though this is unlikely to happen in 2006. It seems that Yushchenko can be sure of a considerable gain of parliamentary seats, perhaps even a majority, in 2006 for his supporters in the planned coalition with Tymoshenko and Lytvyn. What happens after that is anybody's guess. But the fact that Yushchenko is following Kuchma's footsteps in building a political base for his presidency is already troubling, to say the least.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai met on 10 March with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Madrid, RNE Radio 1 reported. At the meeting, which took place on the sidelines of a conference on democracy, terrorism and security being held in Madrid, the two leaders reviewed the deployment of Spanish troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Zapatero said that Spain is committed to the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan and to fighting international terrorism there. AT

Masuda Jalal met on 8 March with U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky in Washington, the U.S. State Department said in a statement. Dobriansky promised Jalal continued U.S. support on issues facing Afghan women. "The equality of women is guaranteed in the constitution, but not in real life," Jalal said. According to Jalal, the solidarity shown by the international community with Afghan women is "fast fading." She pointed out that in one Afghan province alone in 2004, 184 women set themselves ablaze "because of domestic violence and forced marriages," which continue despite being banned in the country's constitution. During her visit to the United States, Jalal also met with U.S. First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, VOA reported on 10 March. AT

Four senior officials of Laghman Province were injured and two civilians were either injured or killed on 10 March in armed clashes between local nomads and security forces in Qarghai District, Radio Afghanistan reported. Laghman's security commander Zalmay Mazlumyar said the clash took place when Minister of Refugees and Returnees Azam Dadfar was trying to resettle returnees on land being used by local nomads. The nomads have complained that the land is being distributed among provincial officials. AT

The Afghan Special Narcotics Force (ASNF) on 10 March began a series of raids in Achin District of Nangarhar Province, the Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement. The operation's main objective is to disrupt illegal narcotics activities and arrest individuals involved. In its last operation in Nangarhar, ASNF destroyed 17 tons of opium and a number of laboratories in December 2004. According to the statement, ASNF has been granted special powers through a presidential decree to hold detainees for up to 72 hours, after which time they are to be transferred to the Counternarcotics Police in Afghanistan. AT

Iran obtained nuclear centrifuges from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who developed his country's nuclear program but also ran an international black market in nuclear technology parts, agencies reported on 10 March, citing Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. This is the first public admission that Khan supplied Iran not just with designs, but centrifuges, which can enrich uranium for civilian fuel or bomb making processes. Ahmed said his government had nothing to do with the sales, agencies added. His statements confirm previous discreet admissions to the same effect made by Iranian and Pakistani officials to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), AP reported, citing "diplomats close to" the IAEA. Khan, who reportedly offered to sell Iran nuclear technology in 1987, would know if the "Iranians wanted nuclear weapons," as the United States has alleged, a "Western diplomat" close to the IAEA in Vienna told Reuters on 10 March. Pakistan refuses to allow the IAEA speak to Khan. Iran insists its nuclear program is strictly for generating electricity. VS

Diplomats from Iran, Britain, France and Germany reportedly discusses Iran's nuclear program during talks in Geneva on 11 March, after an inconclusive three-day round finished the night before, AFP reported on 10 March (See "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2005). In Iran, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hassan Rohani described the talks on 10 March as "successful," though he gave no details, AFP and IRNA reported. Separately, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on 10 March that the United States and Europe are "coming to a common view" on how to deal with the Iranian program, and the United States is "looking for ways to more actively support" European diplomacy, Reuters reported the same day. The United States has so far urged a tough line against Iran's program. The current dialogue, Rice said, "is not an issue of what people should be giving to Iran," but of "keeping the spotlight on Iran" to ensure it respects its "international obligations." Rice warned on 9 March that action by the UN Security Council is possible if Iran rejects the deal offered by Europe, Fox News and Reuters reported the same day. VS

An appeals court has ordered that charges be dropped against Hashem Aghajari, a dissident once sentenced to death for apostasy, then jailed for statements allegedly insulting to Iran's ruling clergy, and released on bail since July 2004, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on 10 March, citing Aghajari's lawyer Saleh Nikbakht (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 July and 9 August 2004). Nikbakht said on 9 March that the court accepted only the profanities charge against Aghajari, for which he has already served the 23-month jail sentence given him, Radio Farda reported. The appeals court has also thrown out rulings by lower courts depriving Aghajari of "civil rights" for five years, including the rights to teach and publish articles. Nikbakht said that Aghajari, whose case sparked a political uproar, will keep a lower profile and return to teaching. He has already received work offers from several academic institutions, Radio Farda quoted Nikbakht as saying. VS

An unspecified number of workers scuffled with police in Tehran on 9 March after gathering outside the Labor Ministry to demand their unpaid wages, Radio Farda reported on 10 March. The workers were employees of a plastics manufacturer, and have not been paid for four months, it added. Also, secondary-school teachers from six Tehran districts are pursuing a strike they began on 5 March to protest against low wages, and alleged wage inequalities between teachers and other civil servants, with some teachers protesting outside parliament on 9 March, Radio Farda and "Iran" reported on 10 March. Separately, in Ilam, western Iran, employees of a meat-processing plant called Salem are pursuing a three-week strike and sit-in to protest unpaid wages of six months, Radio Farda and Iranian agencies reported on 10 March. VS

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) acknowledged in a 10 March statement posted to its website ( that a preliminary agreement has been reached between the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdistan Coalition on the leadership of the transitional government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2005). The statement said that the agreement underlines vital principles and concepts, including that the Transitional Administrative Law must serve as the terms of reference for the transitional government and National Assembly. The agreement also calls for the formation of a national unity government. A 10 March report in the Kurdish daily "Al-Ittihad" noted that the two sides agreed to "respect the special status" of Kurdistan and the governorate councils there. The report noted that consultations continue between the Kurds and Shi'a over the distribution of posts and ministries. KR

A suicide bomber blew himself up in a tent outside the Shi'ite Al-Shahidayn al-Sadrayn Mosque in Mosul on 10 March, killing 47 people and injuring more than 80 others, international media reported on the same day. Those killed were gathered in the tent for funeral services at the time of the attack. "As we were inside the mosque, we saw a ball of fire and heard a huge explosion," Tahir Abdullah Sultan told AP. "After that, blood and pieces of flesh were scattered around the place." Muhammad Husayn al-Hakim, son and spokesman for Shi'ite Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, said in a statement condemning the bombing: "It is very strange that all the attacks are targeting the Shi'ites. Regrettably, these attacks are increasing because of the delay in forming the government," reported on 11 March. KR

Citing an "official source," Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 10 March that four Defense Ministry employees were detained on allegations that they have links to militants in Iraq. The arrests reportedly came after Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan ordered Chief of Staff Major Babakir Badrakhan al-Zebari to cleanse the ministry of staff who cooperate with the insurgency. United Iraqi Alliance member Rida Jawad Taqiy told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 9 March that the transitional government will work to purge terrorists and sympathizers from government positions. The first priority will be to clear the "security apparatus -- the army, the police, and the intelligence -- of the officers who had been [affiliated] with the previous regime and whose hands are soiled with the blood of Iraqis. Those officers have cooperated with terrorists," he said. Meanwhile, multinational forces arrested police Major Arkan Muhammad from the Al-Riyad District Police in Al-Hawijah, west of Kirkuk, on allegations that he led armed attacks against Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military, Al-Sharqiyah reported on 10 March. KR

The Interior Ministry has called on students who were in their last year at the Military Academy on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and did not graduate as a result of the war and aftermath to contact the ministry, "Al-Ta'akhi" reported on 10 March. Ministry Undersecretary for Administrative Affairs Adnan Hadi al-Asadi told the daily that the ministry will call on those students to apply for positions in the police and Interior Ministry "to contribute to the defense of the homeland and to confront the criminal terrorist attacks targeting our country." The interim government has faced increased strain on the security services due to terrorism. KR

President George W. Bush named current Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad to be the next ambassador to Iraq, reported on 11 March. Khalilzad will replace outgoing ambassador John Negroponte, who has been appointed director of national intelligence. Khalilzad was born in Afghanistan and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He previously served as special assistant to the president and senior director for Gulf, Southwest Asia and other regional issues at the National Security Council; assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for policy planning; and special adviser to the undersecretary of state for policy working on policy issues, advising on the Iran-Iraq War, and the Soviet War in Afghanistan. It is unclear when he will assume his post. KR

Pentagon documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and made public on 10 March point to the existence of an agreement between the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency to keep "ghost detainees" off the books and hidden from international observers in Iraq, Reuters reported on the same day. One document stated that Army Colonel Thomas Pappas met with CIA and Task Force 21 officials hunting fugitives in Iraq and "the memorandum on procedures for dropping ghost detainees was signed." Another document obtained by the ACLU by an unnamed author recommended the establishment of a protocol between various U.S. agencies "to establish procedures for a ghost detainee." It said someone (name redacted) "suggested an idea of processing them under an assumed name and fingerprinting them but COL PAPPAS decided against it." KR

Navy Vice Admiral Albert Church said in a 10 March report that U.S. forces had kept about 30 ghost detainees in Iraq, according to the Reuters report. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged in June that he ordered the secret detention of one suspected terrorist in November 2003 at the CIA's request, Reuters reported. The Geneva Conventions require states to notify the Red Cross and assign a prison number for all detainees. Vice Admiral Church told a 10 March Pentagon briefing: "I have no knowledge of that memorandum," while Thomas Gandy, a senior army intelligence official, said that army investigators conducted an "exhaustive search" but could not find evidence of the purported agreement. A transcript of the briefing can be found on the website. KR