ELECTRICITY GIANT HEAD ESCAPES ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT...
Unified Energy Systems (EES) head Anatolii Chubais was the target of an assassination attempt on the morning of 17 March, Russian and international media reported. The attack occurred as Chubais was driving to work from his house in Moscow Oblast, about 39 kilometers from Moscow. RIA-Novosti reported that an explosive device of about 500 grams of TNT went off after the vehicle carrying Chubais's bodyguards passed an intersection and as Chubais's armored jeep was approaching. Chubais's vehicle was not substantially damaged and continued on its way, but the vehicle with the bodyguards stopped. Two men then opened fire on the guards with automatic weapons and the guards returned fire. A passing driver was wounded in the exchange of fire, the news agency reported. Interfax quoted an unidentified security expert as saying that Chubais's bodyguards acted with a high degree of professionalism. Chubais was unharmed in the incident. Police throughout the oblast have set up roadblocks and are searching vehicles, ITAR-TASS reported. RC
...AND CLAIMS THAT HE KNOWS WHO WAS BEHIND IT...
The EES press service on 17 March issued a statement from Chubais saying that he knows who ordered the assassination attempt, although he did not specify, newsru.com reported. In an interview with the "Financial Times" in November, Chubais said: "I know of at least three orders for my murder. I know all the details and the names of those who were supposed to carry them out. The last order was put out a year and a half ago. It was for purely political reasons, hatred because I had 'sold Russia.' Yes, it is possible that today there is somewhat more risk than there was in 2000. But in 1992-99 the risk was many times greater." Chubais was the leading architect of Russia's controversial 1990s privatization program. Chubais's 17 March statement said that he will continue to work to reform Russia's energy sector and to unite Russia's liberal opposition. RC
...AS ALLIES SEE ATTACK AS POLITICALLY MOTIVATED
Union of Rightist Forces political council member Boris Nemtsov, a close political ally of Chubais, told Interfax on 17 March that "to me it is perfectly clear that the assassination attempt is politically motivated and is not connected with the ongoing reform of EES." Nemtsov said that all previous threats against Chubais have come from his political opponents. Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP) President Arkadii Volskii told the news agency, "I would guess that [the people who ordered the assassination attempt] were people whom we often see on television, people whose names are always in the mass media." Chubais is a member of the RSPP management board. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov told RIA-Novosti on 17 March that the assassination attempt was "blasphemy." "It is impossible not to pay attention to this matter," he said. "A crime has been committed." RC
PRESIDENTIAL AIDE SAYS CONSTITUTION WILL NOT BE CHANGED
Russia will remain a presidential republic, presidential aide Igor Shuvalov told journalists on 16 March, RIA-Novosti reported. "The current discussion about a parliamentary republic is far-fetched and has no basis in reality," Shuvalov said. "Under no circumstances" will this plan proceed, he added. "The constitution will not change. Russia will remain a presidential republic. The prime minister will acquire no additional powers and we will not go over to a parliamentary form of government," Shuvalov said. Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov (Unified Russia) rekindled speculation about such a shift on 16 March when he said that his party will propose amending the law on the election of the Duma to allow deputies to serve as federal ministers without giving up their legislative mandates, strana.ru reported. He said this measure and the introduction of a proportional-representation system in selecting the Duma mark "the next stage in the development of the country's political system." RC
POLLS SHOW DECLINING RESISTANCE TO MONETIZATION REFORM
Russians are gradually getting used to the new law on the monetization of in-kind social benefits, a new poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion has found, lenta.ru reported on 17 March. The percentage of Russians who support the reform has increased from 13 percent in mid-January to 24 percent now, while the percentage opposing it has fallen from 37 percent to 34 percent. The percentage of those who say their material position has worsened since the reform has fallen from 38 percent to 31 percent. A similar survey by the Levada Analytical Center found that support for the reform rose from 33 percent in January to 42 percent now, while opposition has fallen from 57 percent to 47 percent. Duma Speaker Gryzlov said on 17 March that the Duma will review the implementation of the reform on 13 April and that Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin will participate in the discussion. RC
PUTIN URGES IOC TO GRANT 2012 OLYMPIC GAMES TO MOSCOW
President Putin on 16 March met with representatives of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and pledged the federal government's complete support for Moscow's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, Russian and international media reported. He noted that Moscow has hosted "more than 100 European and world championship sporting events" since the 1980 Summer Olympics were held there and that Russia is one of the "major sporting nations of the world," ITAR-TASS reported. Putin added that more than 300 new athletic facilities will be built in Moscow by 2010 "irrespective of whether the Olympic Games are held" there. Putin also told the IOC agents that 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of Russia's participation in the Olympic Games. "Russia fully shares all humanistic principles of the Olympic Games, especially, of course, modern Russia," Putin said, according to the news agency. "In this respect, holding the games in Moscow would promote these principles in Russian society." RC
DUMA PASSES PUBLIC CHAMBER BILL
The State Duma on 16 March approved in its third and final reading a law on the formation of the Public Chamber, a new state organ made up of representatives of society that will advise the legislature and the government, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. Duma Public Associations Committee Chairman Sergei Popov (Unified Russia) told the news agency that the law gives the new chamber considerable informational resources. "Society will be able to follow very closely all the work of the chamber," Popov said. He pledged that Duma deputies and the government will "scrupulously heed the decisions of this body." He added, however, that in addition to prominent social figures, the chamber should include unknowns in order to "help bring out notable political figures." He said that it is especially important that the regions be represented on the body. Some activists have worried that the chamber will be controlled by the Kremlin and is designed to create the appearance of accountability (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2005). RC
FIRED 'MOSKOVSKIE NOVOSTI' JOURNALISTS TO PUBLISH RIVAL PAPER
The journalists who were fired last week by "Moskovskie novosti" Editor in Chief Yevgenii Kiselev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2004) plan to issue their own newspaper, titled "Moskovskie novosti bez Kiseleva" (Moscow News Without Kiselev), Interfax reported on 17 March. "We have already begun working on the issue. It will be four pages of our ordinary format with a print run of 900 copies," former "Moskovskie novosti" Deputy Editor Lyudmila Telen was quoted as saying. Publications with print runs of fewer than 1,000 copies do not need to be registered with the government. RC
MOSCOW GROWING UP
Within the next few years, 38 buildings of 30 floors or more will be completed in Moscow, chief municipal architect Aleksandr Kuzmin told a meeting of the city's Public City Planning Council on 17 March, RIA-Novosti reported. A further 22 such buildings will be completed by 2015, he added. "All of them will be built near major roads and in a number of the city's residential districts," Kuzmin said. The projects include both office buildings and residential space. RC
MILITARY OFFICIAL IN CHINA TO FINALIZE PLANS FOR JOINT EXERCISES
Chief of the General Staff Army General Yurii Baluevskii met in Beijing on 16 March with Chinese officials to discuss joint military exercises for this year, ITAR-TASS reported. Baluevskii also reportedly discussed other aspects of bilateral military cooperation. The first-ever Sino-Russian military exercises are scheduled for September on the Shandong Peninsula. "During the maneuvers, the sides are planning to train for peacekeeping operations," an unnamed Defense Ministry official told the news agency. Russian Army, Air Force, and Navy units will participate in the exercises. RC
DUMA CHOOSES NEW FIGURES FOR AUDIT CHAMBER
The Duma's Budget Committee on 15 March selected six new auditors for the federal Audit Chamber, replacing auditors who stepped down in February because of a new law on the formation of the chamber, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 16 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). Two of the auditors who resigned, Aleksandr Piskunov and Mikhail Surkov, were nominated to retain their posts. Among the new faces is former KGB officer Oleg Safonov, whom the daily described as "a clear envoy of the Kremlin." Piskunov was supported by the Defense Ministry, leading the daily to comment that "the siloviki evidently do not need a 'new broom' as an auditor." The committee also selected one auditor proposed by the Communist Party and one proposed by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. RC
DUMA VOTES TO RAISE RETIREMENT AGE FOR JUDGES
The Duma on 16 March passed in its third and final reading a bill that will raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 65 to 70, ITAR-TASS reported. The bill also removed a restriction that limited Constitutional Court judges to 15 years' service. RC
ARMENIANS, GEORGIANS IMPLICATED IN ARMS SMUGGLING CASE
At least one Armenian, Artur Soghomonian, is among 18 people arrested on 15 March in New York, Florida, and Los Angeles in connection with a network that allegedly engaged in smuggling Russian heavy weaponry into the United States for use by terrorist groups, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 16 March. Armenia's National Security Service initially denied any knowledge of the affair, but later on 16 March issued a statement saying that Soghomonian and his brother Levon, whom the statement said is also among those arrested, are both wanted by the Armenian police for evading compulsory military service. Also on 16 March, Georgian Ambassador to the United States Levan Mikeladze said four Georgians are among those arrested, Caucasus Press reported on 17 March. The weapons listed in the indictment include grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles, and machine guns of the types used by both the Armenian armed forces and the Russian troops stationed in Armenia. LF
ARMENIAN OFFICIAL ACCUSES TURKEY OF ECONOMIC SABOTAGE
Armenian Customs Service head Armen Avetisian accused Turkey on 16 March of attempting to sabotage the collection of excise duty in Armenia by clandestinely printing and circulating fake excise stamps, which he said are smuggled into Armenia via Georgia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Senior prosecutor Vladimir Grigorian said the same day that Armenian Justice Ministry officials have found up to 1 million such fake stamps over the past two years. Grigorian added that such stamps were first discovered in 1999, when he was employed by the National Security Service, and at that time it was established that the fake stamps were printed at the same plant that prints Turkey's national currency. LF
KARABAKH REJECTS AZERBAIJANI ACCUSATIONS OVER CEASE-FIRE VIOLATION
A Defense Ministry official from the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic rejected on 16 March as "clear disinformation" a statement released by the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry the previous day accusing Karabakh forces of opening fire on Azerbaijani troops in Aghdam Raion late on 14 March, according to Mediamax as cited by Groong (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2005). The Karabakh official said that Azerbaijan was responsible for exchanges of fire on the Line of Contact on 7 and 9 March during which both sides sustained casualties. Also on 16 March, an unnamed Azerbaijani Defense Ministry official was quoted as warning that Azerbaijan "has the right to launch full-scale military operations" if Armenia does not desist from further "provocations" on the Line of Contact, according to panarmenian.net as cited by Groong. LF
GEORGIA, RUSSIA SET DATE FOR RESUMING BASES TALKS
During a telephone conversation late on 15 March, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed that representatives of the two countries will meet on 23-24 March to discuss the time frame for the closure of the two Russian military bases in Georgia, Russian media reported on 16 March, quoting presidential spokesman Gela Charkviani, who termed the telephone conversation "constructive." The Georgian parliament last week passed a nonbinding resolution setting a deadline of 15 May for Moscow to agree to close the bases by 1 January 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2005). Also on 16 March, ITAR-TASS quoted the deputy chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, Colonel General Aleksandr Rukshin, as dismissing the Georgian parliament ultimatum as "unacceptable." Rukshin said that Russia's offer of 10 March to close the bases within three to four years is final, and that time frame will not be amended. LF
ABKHAZ LEADER SAYS MEETING WITH GEORGIAN PRESIDENT 'PREMATURE'
Presidential spokesman Charkviani also told journalists on 15 March that President Saakashvili is ready to meet for talks with Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, without preconditions in either Tbilisi or Batumi, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. But Bagapsh responded in Moscow the same day that it is "too early" for him to meet with Saakashvili, Interfax reported. Bagapsh said that working groups should first prepare the agenda for the meeting which, he said, should focus on economic issues. LF
GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTIES ESTABLISH COORDINATING CENTER
At a 16 March meeting at the office of the "Georgian Times," the leaders of the opposition Labor Party and the political movements Forward, Georgia! and Government of the Future, together with former National Bank Chairman Nodar Djavakhishvili, created a coordinating center, the stated aim of which is to unite all opposition parties to work for preterm parliamentary and presidential elections, RFE/RL's Georgian Service and rustavi2.com reported. Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili said the center will issue a declaration outlining its objectives within the next few days. Irakli Batiashvili, one of the leaders of Forward, Georgia!, identified the center's aims as defending democracy and human rights and protecting the population from what he termed "a government of dilettantes." LF
KAZAKH RULING PARTY PLEDGES CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS
Following a meeting of its parliamentary deputies, ruling Otan party Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Pavlov announced on 16 March that the party will introduce a package of constitutional reforms, Khabar TV reported. The constitutional amendments are to focus on several new measures designed to enhance the powers of the legislature and to strengthen local government. Pavlov added that the party will seek to ensure democratic elections for "regional governors, town mayors, and heads of districts and villages." RG
TERRORISM TRIAL OPENS IN KAZAKHSTAN
A closed trial of a group of 16 defendants charged with Islamist terrorism opened on 14 March in the southern Kazakh city of Taraz, Asia-Plus and Interfax reported. The defendants, including one woman, range in age from 18 to 37 years old and face several terrorism-related charges, including the illegal possession of arms and banned Islamist propaganda. RG
KYRGYZ POLICE FREE HOSTAGE OFFICIAL...
Kyrgyz Interior Ministry officers freed a government official on 16 March after breaking through a window of a state office building in Jalal-Abad Oblast, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Akipress reported. The district administration official was being held hostage by antigovernment protesters who seized the building to protest the results of the 13 March runoff parliamentary elections. RG
...AS DEMONSTRATORS SEIZE ANOTHER GOVERNMENT BUILDING
A group of over 600 demonstrators seized a local government building on 16 March in the town of Kochkor, in Kyrgyzstan's eastern Naryn Oblast, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Other opposition demonstrators seized another local government office in Uzgen, although no hostages were seized in that incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005). RG
TAJIK SECURITY FORCES ARREST ALLEGED HIZB UT-TAHRIR ACTIVIST
Tajik security forces announced on 16 March the arrest of an alleged activist of the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in northern Tajikistan, Asia-Plus reported. The Tajik officials also warned that Hizb ut-Tahrir has increased its recruitment activities in the country. The incident is the latest in a series of arrests of a dozen Hizb ut-Tahrir members since the beginning of the year. Out of another 60 members and activists affiliated with the group that were detained in 2004, 40 were sentenced to prison terms, Asia-Plus reported. RG
TAJIK ISLAMIC PARTY TO APPEAL ELECTION RESULTS
The Islamic Renaissance Party issued a statement in Dushanbe on 15 March vowing to submit an appeal to the Tajik Supreme Court "if the Central Election Commission does not adequately deal with" the party's complaint of voting irregularities in the 27 February parliamentary election, Asia-Plus and Avesta reported. The Islamic Renaissance Party, along with the Democratic, Communist, and Social Democratic parties, filed an 85-page formal complaint with election officials demanding an annulment of the election results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 March 2005). RG
TAJIK BORDER GUARDS PREPARE FOR TRANSFER OF CONTROL OF AFGHAN-TAJIK BORDER FROM RUSSIAN FORCES
Russian border-guard spokesman Aleksandr Kondratev announced on 15 March that Tajik border guards will assume control of a strategic 200-kilometer section of the Afghan-Tajik border within one month, Asia-Plus reported. Tajik State Border Protection Committee head General Saidamir Zuhurov stated that although the Tajik border forces "are inferior to the Russian border troops" and "have no air support," the international community is providing $25 million in assistance to bolster counternarcotics enforcement along the border area. The transfer will be the fourth sector to be ceded to Tajik control and stems from a bilateral agreement reached during the October 2004 visit to Tajikistan by Russian President Vladimir Putin. RG
UZBEK PRESIDENT IN SLOVENIA ON STATE VISIT
Uzbek President Islam Karimov arrived in Slovenia on 15 March at the start of a state visit, Uzbek TV reported. Karimov met with Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek and senior Slovenian officials on 16 March and formally signed several new bilateral agreements on trade and economic cooperation. In comments to Uzbek TV prior to his departure from Tashkent, Karimov noted that as a member of both NATO and the European Union, Slovenia is an important partner for Uzbekistan's goal of greater integration with Europe. RG
RUSSIAN JOURNALIST EXPELLED FROM TURKMENISTAN
After two weeks of interrogation while being held in detention by Turkmen security officials, Russian journalist Viktor Panov was expelled from Turkmenistan on 12 March, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported on 16 March. The journalist, who works for the Russian RIA-Novosti news agency, holds dual Russian and Turkmen citizenship and has worked in the country for several years. RG
BELARUSIAN VENDORS TO CONTINUE STRIKE OVER VAT ON RUSSIAN IMPORTS
Regional leaders of the Perspektyva association of small retail traders decided at a conference in Minsk on 16 March to continue their open-ended strike launched on 1 March against paying an 18-percent value-added tax (VAT) on Russian imports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005), RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Perspektyva said it will continue protests until the authorities make a decision on the VAT standoff. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka promised the protesting vendors earlier this month that the government will soon address their concerns about VAT payment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2005). Meanwhile, Perspektyva leader Anatol Shumchanka, who was jailed on 2 March for 10 days for inciting vendors to strike, is still in prison; the prison administration reportedly accuses him of beating a cellmate. JM
SMALL RALLY BACKS IMPRISONED BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONIST
Some 30 people, mostly teenagers, staged a demonstration in downtown Minsk on 16 March in support of imprisoned opposition politician Mikhail Marynich (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2005), Belapan reported. The unauthorized rally ended without arrests. Marynich was imprisoned for 3 1/2 years on charges of theft that are widely believed to be trumped-up. He suffered a stroke last week and has reportedly been transferred from a penal colony in Vitsebsk Oblast to a prison hospital in Minsk. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR RECONCILIATION OF SOVIET, NATIONALIST VETERANS...
President Viktor Yushchenko on 16 March urged Ukrainian war veterans who fought in the Soviet army and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in World War II to sign a "declaration of mutual understanding," Interfax reported. "We have reached an understanding with everyone, [including] Poland and even Japan. We only have failed to find mutual understanding between ourselves," Yushchenko said at a meeting with war veterans. The nationalist UPA fought for Ukraine's independence against Nazi Germany, the Soviet Army, and Polish anti-Nazi guerillas during World War II. JM
...AND REMAINS UPBEAT ABOUT HIS HEALTH
Yushchenko told journalists in Kyiv on 16 March that doctors found ways to evacuate dioxin from his organism two months ago, Interfax reported. "Now I have to undergo examination only once every three to four weeks to establish the degree of dioxin evacuation," he added. Yushchenko said his doctors believe that his recuperation rate is "great." "I've already started to go in for sports [and] swimming," he said. Yushchenko was diagnosed with dioxin poisoning in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004). JM
PRO-PRESIDENTIAL UKRAINE GROUP EMERGES IN CRIMEAN LEGISLATURE
Two parliamentary groups acquired new names in the 100-seat parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea on 16 March, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Interfax reported. The former Force in Unity group, consisting of 15 deputies, renamed itself the Our Ukraine People's Union to reflect the fact that its members took part in a congress establishing the pro-presidential Our Ukraine People's Union party in Kyiv earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 11 March 2005). The other group expanded its previous name, Stability, to the People's Union -- Stability; its 38 deputies, led by parliamentary speaker Borys Deych, reportedly support Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Kunytsyn. The Crimean parliament also has a group called Union (Soyuz), which comprises 11 lawmakers. JM
UKRAINE ORANGE REVOLUTION TV STATION MORPHS INTO ALL-NEWS CHANNEL
Channel 5, whose positive coverage of the opposition played a key role in the Orange Revolution, relaunched itself on 14 March as an all-news outlet, the English-language "Kyiv Post" newspaper reported on 17 March. Previously, Channel 5 provided hourly news coverage mixed with music videos, movies, and travel and entertainment features. The channel is going to hire up to 100 more journalists, cameramen, and technical personnel to deal with the new format. Channel 5 is co-owned by Petro Poroshenko, who is secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. JM
JOBLESS UKRAINIANS EXCEED 1 MILLION
The unemployment rate in Ukraine increased from 3.5 percent in January to 3.6 percent in February, going slightly over 1 million people, Interfax reported on 16 March, quoting the State Statistics Committee. JM
EU POSTPONES START OF ACCESSION TALKS WITH CROATIA...
The General Affairs and External Relations Council of the European Union said on 16 March that it will postpone the start of the membership talks with Croatia, which was originally scheduled for 17 March, Croatian and international media reported. "The council referred to the importance of full cooperation with the ICTY [the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] on the part of all the countries of the western Balkans; that is an essential requirement for closer relations with the EU," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who is acting president of the Council of the European Union, said in a statement issued on the presidency's official website (http://www.eu2005.lu). "In that regard, after deliberation by the council and in the absence of a common agreement, the opening of accession negotiations has been postponed." The council did not set a new date for the start of the talks. The decision was reportedly influenced by the tough stands of Britain, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries, which had insisted that Croatia hand over indicted former General Ante Gotovina to prove that it is fully cooperating with the ICTY. The EU member states in Croatia's neighborhood -- Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Slovakia -- had lobbied for opening the accession talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 10, and 14 March 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 January 2005). UB
...AND LEAVES CROATIAN POLITICIANS DISAPPOINTED...
In response to the decision to postpone the opening of accession negotiations, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said in Brussels on 16 March that he is disappointed, Hina reported. "Of course, one cannot be satisfied that the negotiations will not begin on [17 March], but I am expressing my satisfaction with the fact that a framework for the negotiations was adopted," Sanader said, insisting that Croatia is indeed fully cooperating with the war crimes tribunal. According to Sanader, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told him that full cooperation does not necessarily mean the extradition of Gotovina. Sanader also said he is satisfied that more countries supported than opposed the start of the talks. Meanwhile, Croatian President Stipe Mesic said during a visit to Jerusalem on 16 March that he expected the opening of the membership talks to be postponed. UB
...AS BALKAN STABILITY PACT COORDINATOR SPECULATES ON MOTIVES BEHIND POSTPONEMENT
Erhard Busek, who heads the EU-led Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, told the public Inforadio Berlin-Brandenburg on 16 March that the alleged non-cooperation of Croatia with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal was only a pretext to postpone the start of the membership talks. "I cannot...prove it, but I have the feeling that there are certain efforts to slow down the enlargement process," Busek said. Commenting on the role of ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, Busek said: "If Carla Del Ponte has concrete information where [Gotovina] is, I hope that she has presented it." Busek also said that among the former Yugoslav countries, Croatia has handed over the most indictees to the tribunal and that nobody mentions the fact that Croatian courts have convicted war criminals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005). UB
MACEDONIA EXTRADITES WAR CRIMES INDICTEE
Macedonian authorities extradited Johan Tarculovski -- a former police officer and bodyguard of the late Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski -- to The Hague on 17 March, MIA news agency reported. ICTY prosecutors charge Tarculovski with being responsible for the killing of 10 ethnic Albanians during a police operation in the village of Ljuboten in August 2001 and the subsequent torture of dozens of Albanians in police stations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005). Meanwhile, Croatian Justice Minister Vesna Skare Ozbolt has said Croatia will extradite former Macedonian Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski to The Hague. Boskovski, who is also indicted in connection with the Ljuboten police operation, is currently being held in pretrial detention in the Croatian town of Pula. Croatian prosecutors have charged Boskovski -- who holds Croatian as well as Macedonian citizenship -- with murder in connection with the killing of six Pakistanis and one Indian outside Skopje in March 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 May 2004 and 14 January 2005). UB
OFFICE OF HIGH REPRESENTATIVE IN SARAJEVO RECEIVES SECURITY THREAT
The Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Sarajevo remains under tight security due to unspecified security threats, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 16 March. The building was evacuated on 15 March in what an OHR spokesman called a "standard security procedure." Meanwhile, the OHR is working normally, but security forces are still blocking private automobile traffic around the building; only pedestrians and public transport are allowed to pass. UB
ROMANIA URGED TO STEP UP ANTICORRUPTION MEASURES
Romania needs to step up anticorruption measures in order to prepare for European Union membership, a top watchdog group said on 16 March, international media reported the same day. Transparency International, an organization that monitors corruption around the world, said Romania last year began moves to root out corruption, but needs to quicken enforcement of anticorruption legislation. "The anticorruption legislation improved significantly last year but it wasn't enforced," the group said in its 2005 report. According to the report, Romania's corruption index for 2004 was 2.9 on a scale where 10 means graft-free and one means most prone to corruption. The EU has told Romania that its bid to join the union in 2007 depends on a stepped-up fight against graft and judicial reforms. BW
MOLDOVA RELEASES RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN WORKERS AFTER APPEAL
Following a decision by the Moldovan Chamber of Appeals, authorities released two Russian sisters who had been held on suspicion of money laundering, ITAR-TASS reported on 16 March. Yelena and Olga Romashchenko were in Moldova with a group of political consultants from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine who were working on campaigns in the 6 March parliamentary elections without proper documentation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2005). The Romashchenko sisters, who were carrying $500,000 in cash, were detained in mid-February while the others were deported. BW
MOLDOVAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS PASAT CASE NOT ANTI-RUSSIAN MOVE...
Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said the detention of Valeriu Pasat was not directed against Moscow or the Russian electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems where he served as an adviser, RosBusinessConsulting reported on 16 March. Tarlev noted that Pasat was a Moldovan citizen, and that the criminal prosecution of Moldova's former defense minister could not possibly be aimed against Russia. Unified Energy Systems officials have said that a court decision to hold Pasat in custody for 10 days pending formal charges was inappropriate, since he had never tried to escape from Moldova's law-enforcement authorities. BW
...AS EX-PRESIDENT SAYS U.S. PRESSURED MOLDOVA ON 1997 MIG DEAL
Former Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi said Washington put pressure on his country in 1997 to sell MiG-29 warplanes to the United States in order to prevent the jets from falling into Iranian hands, Reuters reported on 16 March. The deal is at the heart of the fraud case against former Moldovan Defense Minister Pasat. Moldova had been considering selling 27 planes to a South Korean firm for $93.5 million. But the U.S. State Department warned that if that deal went through, the planes would end up in Iran, and threatened sanctions if the sale was completed, Lucinschi said. In the end, Moldova sold 21 planes to the United States for $40 million. "The decision to sell the planes to the United States was the only correct one," Lucinschi said. BW
LAWYER SAYS MOLDOVAN EX-MINISTER'S HEALTH DETERIORATING IN CUSTODY
Valeriu Pasat's health is deteriorating and Moldovan authorities have denied him access to a private doctor, the former defense minister's attorney said on 16 March, ITAR-TASS reported. "It is cold in the cell where my defendant is being held, he has a bad cold, and his chronic kidney disease has flared up," Pasat's lawyer Gheorghe Amihalachioaie said. Moldova's Prosecutor-General's Office said Pasat's condition gave no reason for concern. "Pasat is receiving all the necessary medical attention. Doctors are watching him and giving necessary consulting. He has undergone medical examination, and his condition is satisfactory," Deputy Prosecutor-General Valeriu Gorbulia said. BW
RUSSIA CONSIDERS TRADE SANCTIONS AGAINST MOLDOVA
Russia may consider imposing trade sanctions against Moldova and discussed the issue at a cabinet meeting on 16 March, Interfax reported the same day, citing Russian government spokesman Denis Molchanov. "Maintaining or refusing certain preferences in trade with this country will depend on the political position Chisinau assumes on issues most important to Russia," Molchanov said. The two countries are at odds over the status of Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region. Relations were also strained after the Party of Moldovan Communists, which seeks to pull the country out of Russia's orbit, won the most seats in parliamentary elections on 6 March. BW
UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT SENDS MIXED SIGNALS OVER MEDIA
President Viktor Yushchenko told a Council of Europe conference on media policies held in Kyiv last week that his government wants to make the media sector in Ukraine "open, transparent, and competitive." He did not explain specifically how the government intends to achieve this goal. However, he made an intriguing and cryptic comparison between the media sector under the current government and that under his predecessor, President Leonid Kuchma. The comment itself may serve as a clue to these intentions once the government makes some specific steps toward the media.
According to Yushchenko, in the Kuchma era Ukraine's "information day" was started by a "group" led by former presidential-administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, which "gave instructions what should be said and how." Yushchenko apparently referred to the infamous practice of "temnyky" -- unsigned prompts sent on a daily basis by the presidential administration to media outlets, primarily state-run and private television and radio stations, to tell journalists what events to cover and what points of view on reported events to publicize.
As regards the present day, Yushchenko said the country's media sector is essentially "divided between three families." "We see and understand this problem, and we are ready to find ways to resolve it," he noted. "Time will pass and you'll see that Ukraine's information space will become open and transparent." He did not elaborate.
A similar message about the media sector in Ukraine was sent by Yushchenko somewhat earlier, during a congress in Kyiv on 5 March to set up the Our Ukraine People's Union, a pro-government political party. "[In Ukraine], 288 broadcasting licenses belong to one man, and we know the first and last letters of his name," Yushchenko said. He did not solve this rebus but Ukrainian commentators figured out that he meant Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk.
"The entire meter [wavelength] band was given to another clan!" Yushchenko said, proposing another riddle, to which Ukrainian journalists gave the answer "Medvedchuk." "In the east, 188 media licenses were given to one company!" Yushchenko continued, and journalists identified this company as Rynat Akhmetov, Eduard Prutnyk, and Hennadiy Vasylyev -- the so-called "Donetsk clan" of Ukrainian oligarchs. "I do not want my kids to be taught by the media formed in this way," Yushchenko added, and this time everybody was at a loss what to think or conjecture.
"We had the National Council [for Television and Radio, NRPTR], which distributed licenses, we had the Prosecutor-General's Office. This means we had more than only one structure to watch that the information sphere was competitive and diverse," Yushchenko concluded his references to the media at the congress. Is he not suggesting that he wants a wide-scale redistribution of media licenses by the NRPTR and/or prosecutors? Media licenses in Ukraine are usually granted by the NRPTR for five-year periods. Of course, if prosecutors find out that some of them were granted unlawfully, they may expire somewhat sooner. What exactly is Yushchenko up to?
That the Yushchenko government is not happy with the current Ukrainian media has been confirmed by a different source. By the end of February, Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Deputy Prime Ministers Roman Bezsmertnyy and Mykola Tomenko, Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz signed an open letter to compatriots, politicians, and journalists, asking them to stop waging "information wars" and "discrediting" the current authorities. The letter was reportedly originated by Moroz, Yushchenko's ally in the ruling coalition.
"The Ukrainian reality is now characterized by not only anticipated transformations but also information wars," the letter reads. "Some politicians, perhaps considering themselves to be the main authors of [Yushchenko's] victory in the presidential race, are again trying to introduce intrigues, '[media] raids,' and media killers in political life."
Some Ukrainian commentators have deemed the letter unnecessary and silly, but some have drawn more upsetting conclusions, arguing that Yushchenko's government, like that of Kuchma, does not like media criticism and wants to get rid of it, for now by way of public persuasion and appeal. If this is actually so, then Yushchenko appears to have very quickly forgotten his solemn declaration during the Orange Revolution that he and the media are "on the same side in the battle for freedom."
Deputy Prime Minister Tomenko on 13 March seemed to make an attempt at diluting the unfavorable reaction of Ukrainian journalists to the letter when he called for "professional criticism" of the government in the media.
"When you present commentaries by experts, we want professional criticism," Tomenko said. "Because [you now present] people from the Ukraine's Regions, Communist Party, Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary groups, who voted for a [bad] 2005 budget, but now they tell stories how they have fought for [higher] social standards and how we [allegedly] are not fighting [for those standards]. This is not fair," he said.
"I watch commentaries on national channels by a politician who enjoys just 0.7 percent public trust and who teaches [us] how to live," Tomenko complained in what seemed to be a reference to Medvedchuk. "So I have a question: Perhaps you should also show a different point of view, shouldn't you?"
Taken at face value, Tomenko's admonition is hardly anything more than an appeal for objective journalism. But combined with the above-mentioned, more or less irate official pronouncements regarding the media sector in Ukraine, it can also serve as an indication that the government and the media may now be not exactly on the same side, and perhaps not even in the same battle.
AFGHAN PRESIDENT REASSIGNS KANDAHAR POLICE CHIEF, FIVE OTHERS
Afghan President Hamid Karzai reassigned Kandahar's police chief and five others in a reorganization prompted by protests in that city, which is a former Taliban stronghold, AFP reported on 16 March. "In total, six police chiefs have been replaced," Interior Ministry spokesman Dad Mohammad Rasa said. Karzai moved Kandahar police chief General Khan Mohammad to the northern Balkh Province to serve as police chief in the area around Mazar-e Sharif. Karzai's order followed 7 March demonstrations by hundreds of people in Kandahar over poor security. It is unclear whether Mohammad will accept the move to a different region, which would effectively leave him without a tribal following. MR
U.S. CONSIDERS PERMANENT BASE IN AFGHANISTAN
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Kabul that the United States is considering a permanent presence in Afghanistan as part of a reconfiguration of U.S. forces in the region, AP reported on 16 March. "We've developed good relationships and good partnerships in this part of the world, not only in Afghanistan," Myers said, pointing to new U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. "That'll all be considered as we go forward with the whole global basing construct." Major General Eric Olson, who recently left his post as second in command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the large U.S. base north of Kabul at Bagram airfield "is a place where we see a long-term presence of coalition and, frankly, U.S. capabilities." MR
LAND MINE KILLS FIVE AFGHANS
Five Afghan civilians died when a land mine ripped open a minibus in western Afghanistan, AFP reported 16 March. "Five Afghans were killed and six others wounded. Coalition forces evacuated three wounded to a coalition base in Kandahar," U.S. military spokesman Major Steve Wollman said. The others were taken to a local hospital, he said. A spokesman for the provincial governor, Mohammadullah Afzali, said the blast occurred early on 16 March near Shindand airfield, which is roughly 120 kilometers south of Herat. Afghan officials previously said there were three dead and eight wounded. The blast came shortly after another land-mine explosion nearby killed a U.S. soldier. Authorities remained uncertain whether the land mines were planted recently by neo-Taliban insurgents or if they were left over from past fighting in the area. MR
IRANIAN STUDENT GROUP SAYS MORE PROTESTS TO COME
The Islamic Association of Amir-Kabir University has announced that its recent sit-in was only an initial step, "Iran News" reported on 16 March. The association explained that it is protesting "the antistudent establishments at this university." Mehdi Habibi, a spokesman for the association, said on 12 March that the sit-in is a reaction to "the imposition of a security climate by paramilitary groups" and the failure of university managers to stand up to this phenomenon, ILNA reported. Habibi said management should reflect the students' interests. Habibi criticized the mass media for not reporting on the students' grievances. BS
BUSH AGAIN VOICES SUPPORT FOR DEMOCRATIC IRAN
U.S. President George W. Bush expressed his support for Iranians' democratic aspirations at a 16 March news conference in Washington, D.C., RFE/RL reported. He said: "I believe that the Iranian people ought to be allowed to freely discuss opinions, read a free press, have free votes and be able to choose amongst political parties. I believe Iran should adopt democracy." BS
HOOVER FELLOW OPTIMISTIC ABOUT IRAN'S 'DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT'...
Hoover Institution research fellow Abbas Milani asserted at a 15 March symposium in Washington that Iran's "democratic movement" is very much alive. Milani explained that he was not talking about the reformist political organizations associated with President Mohammad Khatami's 1997 election, and he suggested that these are a spent force. The real democratic movement, he said, includes women, who have been forceful defenders of their rights since the 1979 revolution. He noted that women are active in all spheres and in the early 1980s they rejected the government's generous offer of early retirement. The prevalence of NGOs, Milani said, is another sign of a democratic movement. Milani said the Iranian diaspora can make a contribution to democratic efforts, and he saw cleavages within the regime as a hopeful sign. BS
...BUT COLLEAGUE LESS SANGUINE ON IRAN
Speaking at the same symposium on 15 March, Hoover Institution fellow Michael McFaul said that Iran has some things in common with Georgia and Ukraine, which recently underwent relatively peaceful revolutions. However, McFaul noted that a number of important factors that existed in these post-Soviet states are absent in Iran. He said there is no economic crisis in Iran, and the Iranian regime is more ruthless. He dismissed the political cleavages as disputes between, for example, hard-liners and semi-hard-liners. There are political disputes, but not about the state or the system. McFaul noted that Iran does not have an independent media, and there are no independent election monitors to report on malfeasances. In Georgia and Ukraine, there was anger over violations of the constitution, and people and the media wanted their leaders to adhere to the constitution. In Iran, the constitution itself is the problem. McFaul also said Iran does not have a united or mobilized opposition. BS
INDIA WANTS CHEAPER IRANIAN NATURAL GAS
Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar announced on 16 March in New Delhi that his country might withdraw from its natural-gas deal with Iran. "We will not buy gas from Iran if we cannot sell it in India," he said, according to Press Trust of India. Aiyar explained that Iran wants to charge as much for natural gas as it does for liquefied natural gas (about $4 per million British thermal units, MBTU), whereas the main Indian consumers -- the fertilizer and power sectors -- are unwilling to pay more than $3 per MBTU. With the addition of transportation and transit charges to the Iranian price, Aiyar said, the gas would end up costing $4.50 per MBTU. Aiyar added that India and Pakistan will need approximately 200 million cubic meters of gas daily, and Iran should offer a special price for such a large order. The deal calls for the construction of a 2,700-kilometer overland pipeline and the provision of natural gas to India for 25 years (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 March 2005). BS
IRAQI SUNNI PARLIAMENTARIANS THREATEN PULLOUT OVER NOMINATION
Four Sunni parliamentarians have reportedly threatened to vacate their seats after rumors surfaced that a Sunni member of the winning Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance list will be nominated as vice president, Iraqi media reported on 16 March. Sunni members Ghazi al-Yawir, Anwar al-Yawir, and Mish'an al-Juburi prefer to see fellow parliamentarian Hatim al-Hasani assume the post. Al-Hasani had earlier been singled out in the press for the nomination. Media reports indicate that the alliance will nominate tribal leader Shaykh Fawwaz al-Jarbah for the post. Members of the transitional National Assembly were sworn into office on 16 March, as political groups continue to negotiate the nominations of a president and two vice presidents to the Presidency Council. According to the Transitional Administrative Law, the Presidency Council shall be elected as a single list and by a two-thirds majority vote. KR
INSURGENTS ASSASSINATE IRAQI POLICE OFFICER, ARMY MAJOR
Two Iraqi security personnel were shot and killed in separate incidents while returning home from work, international media reported on 17 March. Insurgents shot and killed Kirkuk police Brigadier General Wa'il Yusuf Ya'qub, the governorate's director of Internal Affairs, Al-Jazeera television reported. Army Major Muhammad Abd al-Mutlab was assassinated in Balad on 16 March, dpa reported the next day. A note found alongside Abd al-Mutlab's body read, "We have killed your hero." The major had survived an assassination attempt two weeks earlier. Five Iraqi soldiers were killed and 12 wounded when a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle at a checkpoint in Ba'qubah on 16 March. Two civilians were also wounded in the blast. KR
MASS GRAVE FOUND IN NORTHERN IRAQ
A new mass grave was discovered in Kirkuk on 15 March, "Kurdistani Nuwe" reported on 16 March. The grave contains the bodies of nearly 100 Kurds, the daily reported. Police Major Shirzad Muafary told the daily that the Human Rights Ministry in Al-Sulaymaniyah will send a team to exhume the bodies. Muafary said that the grave was the second found in Kirkuk in a month. Meanwhile, the Baghdad daily "Al-Ta'akhi" reported on 16 March that the grave contains the bodies of some 30 men and women, most of whom were shot en masse during the 1991 uprising. KR
JORDAN REFUTES ALLEGATIONS MADE BY IRAQI SHI'ITE LEADER
Jordanian Interior Minister Samir al-Habashinah refuted allegations that Jordan allows terrorists to cross into Iraq in a 16 March interview with Al-Arabiyah television. The allegations were made by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), during the 16 March opening session of the transitional National Assembly. SCIRI and al-Hakim have criticized the Jordanian government several times in recent days after the Amman daily "Al-Ghadd" published an apparently fictitious report on 11 March saying a Jordanian family celebrated their son's participation in a martyrdom operation in Iraq. "We call upon the government of Jordan to take measures that could put a halt to the incitement, the mobilization, and the recruitment of Jordanian terrorists for Iraq," al-Hakim said on 16 March. Al-Habashinah responded by telling Al-Arabiyah that the kingdom condemns all "terrorist operations targeting the sons of Iraq." "I speak in my capacity as a security official and say that Jordan's borders with Iraq are highly controlled. The Jordanian government and security services are exerting exceptional efforts to ensure that no tendentious people, who seek to harm the Iraqi people and their institutions, infiltrate into Iraq," he added. KR