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Newsline - March 18, 2005

Police late on 17 March detained Vladimir Kvachkov on suspicion of involvement in the attempt on the life of Unified Energy Systems (EES) chief Anatolii Chubais earlier the same day, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2005). According to numerous media reports, Kvachkov is a retired military intelligence (GRU) colonel. But Interfax quoted a Defense Ministry spokesman as saying that this information is false and that Kvachkov never served in the GRU. Kvachkov reportedly owns a house in the same Moscow Oblast town, Zhavoronki, as Chubais. According to Interfax, Kvachkov denies any connection with the case. ITAR-TASS quoted an unidentified source close to the investigation as saying that Kvachkov was a GRU specialist in "diversion tactics" and that he might have organized the attack on Chubais. The news agency also said that police recovered a vehicle that is believed to have been used by the assailants to flee the scene abandoned in the city of Moscow. News agencies reported that explosives and a hunting rifle were found in Kvachkov's Moscow Oblast house. RC

"Kommersant-Daily" on 18 March reported that Kvachkov is 57 years old and that he has served in the military since 1969. According to the daily, he served with Soviet forces in Germany and then for several years he commanded a GRU special-forces unit in Afghanistan. He later reportedly commanded the 15th special-forces brigade in the Turkestan Military District. He retired from active service in 1989 and began working in the Defense Ministry's Military and Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and as a private security consultant. RTR television on 18 March further identified Kvachkov as an explosives expert. According to the daily, police have also identified and are seeking a second suspect in the case, a person who was identified only as a resident of Stavropol Krai. Interfax reported that police were searching a Moscow apartment belonging to one of Kvachkov's two sons, which is located near where the suspected getaway vehicle was recovered. The news agency speculated that the son, Aleksandr Kvachkov, might also have been detained in connection with the case. RC

Members of Russia's political elite on 17 March commented on the attempted assassination earlier that day of EES head Chubais, RTR and other Russian media reported. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov described the incident as "a gangster dispute" prompted by Chubais's controversial proposals to reform the country's electrical grid. State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Volodin (Unified Russia) speculated that the Kremlin-connected Chubais stands in the way of efforts by "our former oligarchs...residing in England and Israel" to unite the anti-Putin opposition. Volodin referred to self-exiled former oligarch Boris Berezovskii by name and seemed to also be referring to Menatep shareholder Leonid Nevzlin, who lives in Israel and has provided financing to President Vladimir Putin's opponents. Duma Deputy Speaker and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovskii also attributed the attack to Berezovskii. "I am confident that this is an act of provocation that is being carried out deliberately by our enemies, including those abroad in London and other capitals," he told RTR. "There is one aim, that of destabilizing the situation in the country again, of sowing fear again." RC

National Strategy Institute Vice President Viktor Militarev told APN on 17 March that he believes Chubais staged the assassination attempt himself. "These tragic events are not very believable," he said, comparing them to the "widely reported poisoning" of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. He suggested that the government's new bill on natural resources "was the last straw, which broke Chubais's loyalty to the president and motivated him to join such gentlemen as Berezovskii, [former oligarch Vladimir] Gusinskii, Nevzlin, and [Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman] Abramovich." RC

The cabinet on 17 March approved a draft bill on the exploitation of subsoil natural resources, which will now be forwarded to the State Duma, Russian and international media reported. Although the new bill increases hurdles for foreign companies seeking development licenses, it avoids an outright ban on the participation of foreign companies in such projects. Under the measure, foreign companies will have to register Russian legal entities to bid for and take responsibility for licenses. The bill also bans foreign companies from bidding on resource deposits that are considered "strategic," a limited list that includes six licenses that are expected to be auctioned in 2006. Renaissance Capital analyst Adam Landes told "The Moscow Times" on 18 March that although this seems like a harsh new restriction, it actually merely formalizes an existing informal practice because foreign companies already need prior Kremlin approval to secure major licenses. Analysts say the most positive feature of the new bill is that it requires that exploration and development rights be sold together. In the past, companies have spent large sums exploring certain deposits and then have been forced to compete a second time for development rights. RC

Russian Media Group on 16 March announced that it will transform its Russkoye Radio 2 radio station into a largely news and information channel, "The Moscow Times" reported on 18 March. Russian Media Group is headed and co-owned by Sergei Arkhipov, who does not deny his Kremlin contacts. "I do have friends in the Kremlin, but they are not involved in any affairs that relate to my business. And the Kremlin does not bother much about what I do. The project is purely commercial." Russkoye Radio 2 had been primarily a music channel until last month, when it began boosting information programming. It is currently broadcasting news and information about 35 percent of the time, and it intends to boost that further to 50 percent, or 12 hours per day. Ekho Moskvy Editor in Chief Aleksei Venediktov told the daily that the project is a Kremlin-inspired tactic to counter his station's independent news coverage with pro-Kremlin programming. "I know that the project to transfer Russkoye Radio 2 to a news format was discussed in the Kremlin administration," Venediktov said. He speculated that the Kremlin wants such a national news channel in order to influence the 2007 parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential election. In 2004, Russian Media Group staged a free concert for people who could prove that they had voted in the presidential election, a move that was viewed as part of the Kremlin's effort to boost turnout for an election in which President Putin faced minimal competition. RC

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 March reported that an unidentified source within the presidential administration has said that the new Public Chamber, which was approved by the Duma on 16 March, will be staffed with "people who worked as [President] Vladimir Putin's agents during the [March 2004] presidential campaign." Under the bill passed by the Duma, the Public Chamber will have a weekly 60-minute program on state television, its own print organ, and a website. The chamber will comprise 126 members, 42 of whom will be directly chosen by the president. Those members will then choose 42 more, and the 84 members will select a final set of 42 members. Political Research Institute Director Sergei Markov told the daily that it is unlikely that Putin will make his selections before summer. Center for Political Technologies Deputy Director Aleksei Makarkin told the daily that the chamber will provide an opportunity for nongovernmental organizations to prove their loyalty to the Kremlin. "[Selection to the chamber] will mean that the state regards these organizations as respectable and reputable and recommends that its representatives in the regions do the same." RC

Russian Academy of Sciences member Vasilii Velichkin told the State Duma on 17 March that Russia's explored uranium deposits could be exhausted by 2012, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that it will only be possible to meet the demands of Russia's nuclear-power industry if production is increased by 40 percent by 2010 and by 240 percent by 2020. Following Velichkin's testimony, the Duma adopted a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to "urgently examine the question of priority funding for work to develop further Russia's uranium resources." RC

Former Krasnodar Mayor Nikolai Priz on 18 March was given a three-year suspended sentence and two years' probation for awarding noncompetitive contracts while he was mayor, REN-TV reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 September 2004). During his entire sentence, Priz is ineligible to serve in local or federal government agencies. Priz was found guilty of awarding municipally funded construction contracts without any competitive tenders. He maintains his innocence and says that he will appeal the verdict. "I was working with a deficit budget," Priz told REN-TV. "That's why I couldn't just wait 45 days for winter to come and the city to be unprepared. All 16 orders concerned the functioning of vital municipal services." RC

In a statement to reposted on 18 March on, Republic of Ingushetia Security Council Secretary Bashir Aushev advocated taking advantage of the current lull in Chechnya to embark immediately on peace talks with those Chechen representatives who sincerely want to end the current war before those militants who want to continue hostilities seize the initiative. Aushev said that Ingushetia is tired of being located next door to a war zone, and that he hopes that the supporters of a peaceful settlement in Chechnya will act more swiftly and decisively than the "party of war." LF

Akhmed Zakaev, who served as slain President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy in Great Britain, told journalists in London on 17 March that Maskhadov's successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev remains committed to Maskhadov's policy objectives, including to a peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict, AP reported. But Zakaev added that Sadulaev will no longer call for peace talks because doing so is "useless" in light of Moscow's actions. Zakaev further denied that Sadulaev is either an extremist or a fundamentalist. In a statement released earlier this week, Sadulaev implied that the Chechen resistance will force Moscow to accept peace and considers it permissible to use "methods that are acceptable to God" to achieve that objective (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005). In a 17 March statement posted on, Umar Khanbiev, who served first as health minister in Maskhadov's government and later, like Zakaev, as a spokesman abroad, warned Chechen media that any statements implying that Maskhadov's death has resulted in a spilt within the resistance will be regarded as "anticonstitutional" and "a crime against the Chechen state." LF

Armenian National Security Service deputy head Hrachya Harutiunian confirmed that an unspecified number of people have been arrested in Armenia on suspicion of involvement in a scheme to smuggle arms to terrorist groups in the United States, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Two Armenians were among 18 people, most of them citizens of CIS states, arrested in the United States on 15 March in connection with that scheme (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2005). In Tbilisi, U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles said on 17 March that those charged with arms smuggling will receive a fair trial, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 17 March, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said in Tbilisi that the weapons in question were not transported to the United States from Georgian territory. LF

The OSCE Minsk Group made public on 17 March at a session of the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna its conclusions reached following an extensive tour in early February of seven districts of Azerbaijan adjacent to the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January and 1 and 8 February 2005). That tour was undertaken at the request of the Azerbaijani leadership, which claimed that the Armenian government is implementing a deliberate policy of resettling Armenians on those lands. The fact-finding mission, however, concluded that resettlement is "quite limited," strictly voluntary, and not the result of a deliberate Armenian government policy, and that most of the Armenians resettlers involved are displaced persons from other regions of Azerbaijan. It estimated the total number of such Armenian settlers as less than 15,000, in contrast to Azerbaijani projections of between 30,000 and 300,000. The Armenian Foreign Ministry released a statement on 17 March expressing appreciation of the Minsk Group's "hard work" and "detailed, first-hand objective report," which Armenia believes has "laid to rest" the Azerbaijani allegations. In related news, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 17 March that the Minsk Group has not yet specified a date for the next meeting in Prague between Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict. LF

The leaders of the Musavat Party, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party announced on 18 March that they will compile a single list of candidates to participate in the parliamentary elections due in November, Turan reported. Musavat leader Isa Qambar said the as-yet-unnamed bloc is open to other opposition parties that wish to join. The three parties announced two months ago the creation of a Forum for Free Elections that will campaign to ensure the ballot is free and fair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2005 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 4 March 2005). LF

Following a 16-17 March meeting in Moscow of the Joint Control Commission that monitors the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava said the two sides have signed a protocol setting specific dates for the resumption of the demilitarization process, Georgian media reported on 17 March. Under an agreement signed in November 2004 by the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, that process should have been completed by 20 December, but according to Khaindrava it was delayed by bad weather. It was also agreed to schedule a meeting between Kokoity and Zhvania's successor, Zurab Noghaideli. Caucasus Press cited Khaindrava as assessing positively the role of the Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed in the conflict zone. Russian diplomat Valerii Kanyaikin said a possible reduction of the peacekeeping force, which also includes Georgian and Ossetian contingents, was not discussed at the meeting, ITAR-TASS reported. Boris Chochiev, the South Ossetian co-chairman of the commission, proposed convening a meeting of human rights activists to discuss an exchange of Georgian and Ossetian prisoners, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Former Forestry Department Chairman Bidzina Giorgobiani, who left Georgia on 15 March for Germany, left behind him videotapes on which he implicates Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili of condoning, and unnamed State Security Ministry officials of engaging in, the smuggling of valuable timber, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported on 17 March. Merabishvili dismissed those charges on 17 March as lies, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Giorgobiani accused Merabishvili and the State Security Ministry (which Merabishvili headed from June-December 2004) of harassing him and opening a criminal case against him. LF

Representatives from the Georgian ombudsman traveled on 18 March to Tsalka in southern Georgia to investigate the circumstances of a fight between local Armenians and Greeks, on the one hand, and Georgians resettled in the region from Adjara, Caucasus Press reported. Fourteen people were reportedly injured in the fighting on 17 March. LF

Postelection protests continued in a number of regions of Kyrgyzstan on 17 March, news agencies reported. In the Kochkor District of Naryn Oblast, a crowd of up to 3,000 people demanding the resignation of Governor Shamshybek Medetbekov and President Askar Akaev demonstrated as 200 protesters occupied local government offices, reported. In the Toktogul District of Jalal-Abad Oblast, supporters of losing candidate Toktosun Madiyarov seized local government offices and demanded the annulment of second-round election results, reported. In Talas, however, a number of opposition leaders were unable to hold a planned rally when the authorities closed off a road leading to the city, reported. In Osh, several thousand people took part in a pro-government demonstration, Kyrgyz Television reported. Meanwhile, a representative of Ar-Namys told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the opposition party plans to hold protests in Bishkek beginning on 18 March. The chief demand will be the resignation of President Akaev. Feliks Kulov, the imprisoned leader of Ar-Namys, said that Akaev can restore stability by resigning, RFE/RL reported. Kulov also said that he does not rule out a run for the presidency in the October elections. DK

A number of Kyrgyz officials spoke out on 17 March against antigovernment demonstrations, news agencies reported. Deputy Prime Minister Toktosh Aitikeeva told Kyrgyz Television that political "extremism" could cause delays in the payment of salaries and pensions. She added, "I think that a political resolution should be adopted to end this extremism." The Foreign Ministry lambasted the opposition for encouraging "civil disobedience through storming administrative buildings and blocking regional and international highways," ITAR-TASS reported. And Boris Poluektov, first deputy chairman of the National Security Service, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, "Despite [the opposition's] obvious defeat...there is every sign of [an attempt at] unlawful seizure of power in the actions of the opposition." But Poluektov stressed that "the situation is under control. Only several regions have taken a position that is not very good. I don't think this will assume a massive scale because the elections were transparent and clear." DK

Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry issued an official statement on 17 March disputing U.S. Ambassador Stephen Young's critical comments the day before about the recent parliamentary elections, reported. The statement specifically took issue with Young's remarks about candidate disqualifications, pressure on the media, and state interference in election campaigns. The ministry noted that the judicial system is "entirely independent" and stressed that decisions to remove candidates from races affected both opposition and pro-government candidates. The statement also asserted that "all necessary efforts were made to defend free speech and strengthen the independence of the media." It also rejected the charge that state structures interfered in races to support specific candidates. Nevertheless, the ministry expressed its agreement with "the American call to conduct a detailed analysis of flaws in order to rectify them...." And in conclusion, it welcomed the envoy's statement that the United States intends to "continue warm and friendly relations between our two countries." DK

The lower chamber of Tajikistan's newly elected parliament held its first session on 17 March, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The session took place behind closed doors with no journalists present. Sixty-two of 63 delegates attended, with only Muhammadsharif Himmatzoda of the Islamic Renaissance Party absent. Saydullo Khayrulloev of the ruling People's Democratic Party was elected speaker. Representatives of the ruling party, which garnered an overwhelming majority in recent elections, will also head all parliamentary committees; in the previous parliament, delegates from the Communist Party chaired two committees. In an address, President Imomali Rakhmonov called on legislators to "focus on creating the legal foundation for economic development," Tajik Television reported. He also stressed the importance of foreign investment and entrepreneurship. DK

Igor Makarov, head of the energy firm Itera, met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 17 March, reported. The two discussed the participation of Zarit -- a joint venture founded by Itera together with Russia's Zarubezhneft and Rosneft -- in developing Turkmen hydrocarbon fields on the Caspian shelf. Their meeting covered work toward the eventual signing of a production-sharing agreement, and Makarov expressed the hope that the sides will ink a deal in coming months. DK

John Wakeman-Linn, who headed an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission to Uzbekistan that ended on 15 March, discussed some of the difficulties in IMF-Uzbek cooperation in an interview with the BBC's Uzbek Service on 16 March. While noting that the Uzbek government has undertaken some encouraging reforms, Wakeman-Linn said that the government maintains tight control over domestic and foreign trade, the pace of privatization remains very slow, and the state continues to interfere in the economy. He also said that the IMF lacks independent verification of economic growth figures for Uzbekistan. Noting that the IMF's efforts to engage the Uzbek government on the issue of customs difficulties and high import duties failed to bear fruit, Wakeman-Linn concluded that movement toward trade liberalization is unlikely. In closing, he defined the IMF's goal in Uzbekistan as the improvement of living standards and the reduction of poverty. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a government conference in Minsk on 17 March to address protests by Belarusian market vendors against the introduction of an 18-percent value-added tax (VAT) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2005), Belapan and Belarusian Television reported. Lukashenka said vendors will not be exempted from paying VAT, arguing that only those who want to remain in the gray economy are reluctant to pay it. The president vowed to issue a decree in the near future to improve conditions for the operation of vendors. The decree will allow market vendors to continue to pay VAT on Russian imports without producing documents confirming the amount of their purchases and prices. The new rules will take effect in July. Lukashenka instructed the government to work out a mechanism for VAT payment after 1 July. Lukashenka also suggested that local administrations lower rents for outdoor market stalls and kiosks, effectively compensating vendors for losses brought on by VAT payments. JM

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ruslan Yesin on 17 March rejected Poland's accusation of interference in an 11-12 March convention of the Belarusian Union of Poles (BSP) in Hrodna, Belapan reported. The gathering elected 31-year-old Anzhalika Barys as the new BSP leader. "Belarus does not intend to exert any pressure on members of the Belarusian Union of Poles and resolutely demands an end to the interference in the activities of this association on the part of Poland's nongovernmental organizations and governmental agencies," Yesin said. Polish media reported that the Polish Foreign Ministry last week notified Belarusian Ambassador to Poland Pavel Latushka that it objects to "inadmissible interferences" by Belarusian officials in BSP activities. Warsaw suggested that local authorities in Hrodna pressured BSP activists to reelect BSP leader Tadeush Kruchkouski for another term. The new chairwoman, Barys, expressed her determination to steer clear of politics and cooperate with the authorities at all levels, Belapan reported. JM

Opposition activist Ivan Nikitchanka, a member of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, agreed with President Lukashenka that the relocation of residents from Chornobyl-affected areas "makes no sense" any longer, Belapan reported. Nikitchanka was commenting on Lukashenka's call earlier the same day for a revision of the relocation program adopted in the wake of the 1986 blast at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. Lukashenka argued that many people demanded relocation for the sole purpose of improving their material position. Nikitchanka stressed a different aspect of the issue. "Now the relocation of people makes no sense, because there is practically no external radiation in Chornobyl-hit areas," Nikitchanka said. "People are exposed to radiation when they consume contaminated food. But people eat contaminated food elsewhere in the country, not only in the affected areas.... The main thing is to ensure the production of radiation-free food in contaminated areas." JM

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun told the 18 March issue of the "Financial Times" that Ukraine has secretly exported 12 cruise missiles to Iran and six to China. The missiles, known as X-55 or Kh-55s or AS-15s, were sent in 2001 and, according to Piskun, did not include the nuclear warheads they were designed to carry. Japan and the United States reportedly said they are worried by what appears to have been a significant leak of technology from the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv noted that it is "closely monitoring" the investigation and wants the findings of a secret trial made public. The EU and the United States imposed an arms embargo on China following the June 1989 crackdown on democracy protestors on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The United States prohibits weapons sales to Iran under the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 17 March voted overwhelmingly to support a presidential bill reducing Ukraine's Armed Forces by 40,000 people to 245,000 people (180,000 servicemen and 65,000 civilians) by the end of 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2005), UNIAN reported. The bill also cuts the term of compulsory military service to 18 months in the Navy and 12 months in the land forces. JM

Viktor Yushchenko told the 18 March issue of "Kommersant-Daily" that the government will offer to allow the current owners of dishonestly privatized companies to pay an additional sum to the government to close the gap between purchase prices and "real market prices." If the owners reject, the government will propose their companies for new tenders to find new buyers. Yushchenko stressed that metallurgical giant Kryvorizhstal, which was bought in 2004 by oligarch Rynat Akhmetow and Viktor Pinchuk at a price widely regarded as dubious, will unconditionally be put up for a new tender. Referring to the prospect of Russian investments in Ukraine, Yushchenko said, "I've told [Russian businessmen] straightforwardly, 'I will do my best to make your life in Ukraine better than in Russia.'" JM

President Yushchenko told Interfax on 17 March that he expects the 2006 parliamentary elections to produce an alliance of "two political forces that will obtain control over parliament and a majority of local power bodies." Yushchenko did not name these forces. Speaking at the constituent congress of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine People's Union (NSNU) party earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 11 March 2005), Yushchenko called for a parliamentary election coalition of the NSNU, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the People's Party. JM

Speaking on the first anniversary of violent protests in Kosova in which 11 Albanians and eight Serbs were killed, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on 17 March that the date should not be forgotten, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 18, and 19 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 and 26 March 2004). Kostunica suggested the incidents were carefully organized rather than spontaneous, adding that none of those purported organizers has been held accountable. The Kosovar government issued a statement saying the events of 17-18 March 2004 were a "serious challenge" on Kosova's road to independence. The violence seriously complicated interethnic relations in Kosova and the province's relations with the international community, according to the statement. UB

A joint Serbian-Kosovar working group on missing persons met in Belgrade on 16 March, Beta reported. The working group agreed to use a unified list of missing persons that drafted by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The meetings of the working group were interrupted following the March violence in 2004. The list includes some 3,000 persons, 2,300 of whom are ethnic Albanians. UB

Drago Nikolic, a former security officer in the Bosnian Serb army's Zvornik brigade, arrived at the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal on 17 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The tribunal has indicted Nikolic for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Nikolic is the seventh Bosnian Serb or Serbian indictee who has voluntarily surrendered to the tribunal in recent weeks. Also on 17 March, indicted former Bosnian Serb Interior Minister Mico Stanisic pleaded not guilty during his first appearance before the tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 14 March 2005). UB

Serbian Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic suggested on 17 March that the assets of fugitives of Hague indictments might be frozen, Belgrade's Radio B92 reported. Stojkovic added that it is up to Serbia and Montenegro's National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal to decide whether or not to freeze the assets of war crimes indictees. Serbia and Montenegro's Minister for Human Rights and Minority Rights Rasim Ljajic, who heads the council, said the body is looking for legal ways to implement asset freezes. UB

Commenting on irregularities during the 13 March local elections, Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski said on 17 March that the government will not allow Macedonia to fall hostage to individuals or groups that stuff ballot boxes "out of tradition," MIA news agency reported. Buckovski said the Interior Ministry has filed criminal charges against 19 individuals in connection with alleged irregularities. He said he hopes the second round of the elections on 27 March will be free and fair, and urged the opposition to avoid "destructive and counterproductive" steps. He also called on the governing Social Democrats' coalition partners, especially the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration and the United Party of the Roma, "to behave much more democratically during the vote" (see End Note below and "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, and 16 March 2005). UB

Moldova's Chamber of Appeals upheld a ruling by a Chisinau court keeping former Defense Minister Vaeriu Pasat in custody pending formal charges, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 March. "I protested the court's decision which decided on detention as a measure securing Pasat's appearance in court, because there are no legal reasons for keeping him in custody," Gheorghe Amihalachioaie, Pasat's attorney, said, adding that the chamber's ruling is final. "It means the mandate for the arrest of Pasat can be extended; we can do nothing to prevent it," he added. Moldovan prosecutors are reportedly considering further charges related to an alleged failure to transfer millions of dollars to the state, Interfax reported on 17 March, quoting anonymous sources. BW

Former Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi will testify at Pasat's trial, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. "We are planning to invite Lucinschi in the capacity of a witness, because the decision to conclude the deal to sell MiG-29 fighter planes to the United States in 1997 was made collectively, by the country's top leadership," defense attorney Amihalachioaie said. Lucinschi claimed the decision to sell 21 warplanes to the United States in 1997 for $40 million came after pressure from Washington, which feared they would fall into Iran's hands (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2005). BW

Moldova's Constitutional Court has upheld the results of the country's 6 March parliamentary elections, international news agencies reported on 17 March. The court rejected claims by the opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) that it was denied access to the media during the campaign. According to the final results, the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) will have 56 mandates in the 101-seat parliament, the BMD will have 34 and the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) will hold nine seats. BW

The release of two Russian campaign workers from custody in Moldova, where they were being held for alleged money laundering and smuggling, was probably ordered by high government officials, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 17 March, quoting unidentified sources in law enforcement. "Most likely, they have been released by order of authorities," "Kommersant-Daily" quoted a source as saying. The two sisters, Yelena and Olga Romashchenko, were detained in mid-February 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. The sisters, who were reportedly carrying $500,000, were detained on suspicion of money laundering, while the others were deported. An unidentified investigator told "Kommersant-Daily" that the two were in charge of distributing funds to political experts who came to Moldova to work for a political candidate. The women were released following a decision by Moldova's Chamber of Appeals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2005). BW

The Russian Foreign Ministry will formally submit a proposal to the State Duma for sanctions against Moldova at the end of March, Russian and international news agencies reported on 18 March. Russian ministries are studying "how we can use the appropriate economic levers, taking into account the Moldovan leadership's unfriendly acts," Loshchinin told the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, in remarks reported by Reuters. "The Economy and Agriculture ministries have already presented their proposals. We are awaiting proposals from the Fuel and Energy Ministry," Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin added. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, a longtime Russian ally, has angered Moscow by seeking closer ties with the West, and the Duma had called on the government to take retaliatory action (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2005). BW

On 13 March, Macedonian voters elected mayors and district councils in 84 administrative districts and in the city of Skopje. The vote was widely regarded as an important test for a number of aspects of the political situation in Macedonia. The elections were also seen as a test of the political maturity of a country that is seeking NATO and EU membership.

The elections were of special importance as they were the first to take place after a controversial administrative reform that reduced the number of administrative districts from 123 to 85. The government's redistricting plans had been unsuccessfully challenged in a referendum in November that was supported by the ethnic Macedonian opposition parties. Therefore, one key question was whether the outcome of the vote would reflect a reduction in political support for the governing coalition of Social Democratic Union (SDSM), Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI).

A second question was whether the deep divide among ethnic Macedonian opposition parties would have any effect on the outcome. Here, the conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) competed with its own offshoot, the VMRO-People's Party (VMRO-NP) of former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski.

At the same time, the elections were to show whether the newly formed coalition uniting the two major ethnic Albanian opposition parties -- the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) -- could retain its power on the local level, or whether the BDI has consolidated its electorate to such an extent that it would be able win in a number of former PDSH strongholds.

The preliminary official results, which were published by the State Election Commission on 16 March, show that the situation on the ground is more complex that it may seem upon first glance. It should be noted here that the published results were incomplete, since the ballot was declared null and void in some polling stations in Skopje and therefore has to be repeated. The SDSM-dominated Coalition Together for Macedonia -- an election bloc including the LDP and parties representing smaller ethnic minorities such as the Serbs and Turks -- won 421 seats on district councils, more than all other parties, MIA news agency reported. The united opposition led by the VMRO-DPMNE garnered 310 seats, the ethnic Albanian BDI 206, the VMRO-NP 132, and the PDSH-PPD coalition 131. Sixty-three seats went to independent candidates.

This means that the only clear winner in the governing coalition is the BDI, which previously had no elected representatives on the district councils, as it was formed after the last local elections. At the same time, the PDSH-PPD coalition lost much of its influence on the local level. And it should be noted that the SDSM-led Coalition Together for Macedonia won fewer seats than the two conservative opposition parties together. This is not only true for the whole country, but also for a number of district councils, where the SDSM's coalition may have the strongest faction, but not an overall majority.

The results of the mayoral elections by and large mirror the outcome of the vote for the district councils. Only 17 of 85 mayors were elected in the first round -- 11 candidates from the SDSM-led coalition, three from the BDI, one independent candidate, one from the PDSH-PPD, and one from the VMRO-DPMNE-led united opposition. All other mayors will be elected in runoffs on 27 March. The SDSM-led coalition has the largest number of candidates in the runoffs (45), followed by the VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition (36), the BDI (15), the PDSH-PPD (12), VMRO-NP (seven). In addition, there will be 14 independent candidates, and three candidates from smaller parties.

The most complicated situation evolved in the capital, Skopje. The city is subdivided into nine administrative districts, each with its own council and mayor. The city as a whole is governed by a city mayor and a city council. Initial reports suggested Trifun Kostovski, a wealthy businessman who ran as an independent candidate for city mayor, won the election in the first round. Kostovski was supported by the VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition.

A parallel vote count carried out by the NGO MOST seemed to confirm the claims of Kostovski's campaign staff. However, the SDSM-led Coalition Together for Macedonia, which supported incumbent Mayor and LDP Chairman Risto Penov, cast doubts on Kostovski's first-round victory, saying there will be a second round. It acknowledged, however, that Kostovski beat Penov by about 20 percentage points (Kostovski: 48 percent, Penov: 28 percent) in the first round. The city election commission, for its part, confirmed that Kostovski failed to garner the 50 percent-plus-one-vote necessary to win the elections in the first round. What followed were mutual accusations of vote rigging. After protests by both the governing and the opposition parties, voting will have to be repeated in a number of polling stations throughout Skopje.

The irregularities recorded in these polling stations -- primarily ballot-box stuffing -- also occurred in other polling stations throughout the country, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) international election observation mission noted in its preliminary report. There were also instances of group and proxy voting. The OSCE remarked that the mutual allegations of "intimidation, pressure, and plans for election-day fraud, especially from opposition parties...were indicative of a high level of mistrust among the parties and a lack of confidence in the overall fairness of the electoral process."

Also remarkable was the OSCE's observation that "With the exception of the Skopje contest, local issues barely featured in the campaign." This is even more astonishing if one bears in mind that after the administration reform, the district councils and mayors will have much greater rights and powers.

Given the international community's critical comments on the elections, it remains to be seen whether the political parties will reconsider either their campaign strategies or their tendency to accuse their political opponents of vote rigging, or both.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived for an official visit to Kabul on 17 March, international media reported. Rice praised Afghanistan for its reconstruction efforts while addressing reporters alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "I want to say to the Afghan people that their story here of coming out of civil war and turmoil and difficulties, and going to vote to demonstrate their commitment to democratic enterprise, has indeed been an inspiration to people all over the world," Rice said. "We learned the hard way what it meant to not have a long-term commitment when, after the Soviet Union left, I think it is well understood that we did not remain committed." Meanwhile, also on 17 March, an explosion in the southern city of Kandahar killed five people, AFP reported. Shortly before Rice and Karzai met, a roadside bomb in the former Taliban stronghold ripped through a taxi as a two-vehicle convoy for the World Food Program passed. The blast killed two women, two men, and a child. Local authorities blamed neo-Taliban insurgents, but a spokesman for the guerrillas denied involvement in the attack. MR

In a widely anticipated move, President Karzai announced on 17 March that Afghanistan's parliamentary elections will be postponed until September, AP reported. Legislative elections had been slated for the spring. But election officials have been struggling to count and register returning refugees, among other logistical difficulties. "The preparations are going on and now they told us -- the commission chairman -- that the elections will be held in September," said Karzai, who announced the delay to reporters during a news conference with visiting Secretary of State Rice. "The Afghan people are waiting very eagerly to send their members to parliament," he added. Rice vowed continuing U.S. support for Afghanistan in the fall elections and beyond. "We will stand by the Afghan people as they go through the next stage in their democratic development, the parliamentary elections that will take place this fall," Rice said. "We look forward to continuing to help in the reconstruction of Afghanistan," Rice said. MR

Families of crash victims who perished in an airline disaster last month demanded their remains in a demonstration outside the airline's Kabul offices, AP reported on 17 March. Roughly 40 protesters gathered at the Kam Air office. "I have no more patience to wait for my son's body," said Pashtun Gul, whose 28-year-old son was among those killed. The Kam Air 737 slammed into a snowy mountainside east of Kabul in bad weather on 3 February, killing all 204 aboard. Afghan authorities launched a search effort to identify and recover the bodies, but weather conditions and land mines scattered in the area have hindered the operation. "They tell me to come today, come tomorrow," said shop owner Haji Khan Ali, who also lost a son in the crash. "What kind of government is this?" Authorities have so far recovered the remains of 16 victims and returned them to their families. An Afghan soldier who was part of the recovery effort was killed on 15 March when he triggered a land mine. MR

Afghan police and opium farmers traded gunfire in northeastern Afghanistan in an incident that left two farmers wounded, AP reported on 17 March. The fighting erupted as about 100 police officers combed the Achin District of the eastern Nangarhar Province. Farmers, apparently trying to save their opium-poppy crops from destruction, fired on police, officials said. Police returned fire, injuring two attackers, deputy police chief Amir Khan Lewal said. The condition of the injured farmers remained unclear. The area is notorious for opium production, and authorities say Achin is a leading district for the local narcotics trade. Afghan officials claim opium cultivation is down this year, although Afghanistan's drug market remains the largest sector of the country's economy. In 2004, opium from Afghanistan is believed to have accounted for 90 percent of supplies on the world market. MR

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has warned the United States against interference in Iranian domestic affairs in an article published in a prestigious U.S. journal ("Middle East Policy," v. XII, n. 1 [Spring 2005]). Kharrazi writes that "foreign armies cannot bring democracy." He adds that "the illusion that reform and democracy can be dictated from outside must be abandoned" and says that "foreign interventions...tend to spawn resistance and undesirable outcomes." Kharrazi claims that foreign involvement could undermine a country's reform process, and adds that such a process and democratization must be "homegrown and country specific, rather than imposed from outside." Kharrazi's article appears shortly after White House officials reiterated their support for democratic aspirations in Iran. In other parts of the article, Kharrazi denies that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs, claims that Iran is a regional stabilizer, and calls for a multilateral regional security framework. Kharrazi defends Iran's nuclear ambitions and claims that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious decree against developing weapons of mass destruction. BS

Supreme Leader Khamenei met on 17 March with members of the Assembly of Experts and said that public participation in the upcoming presidential election will have a positive impact in the face of the "arrogant powers'" efforts to "dominate the world," ISNA reported. "The vigilance of the people in electing the president, who must be pious and devoted to Islamic and revolutionary values, and must possess stamina and versatility, can have an important impact on the speed of the implementation of the [20-Year] Outlook Plan," he added. The Assembly of Experts -- a popularly elected, 86-member body of clerics tasked with selecting and supervising the supreme leader -- held its semi-annual meeting on 15-16 March. On the first day, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini was reelected chairman, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Ali Meskhini were elected vice chairmen, and Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi and Ahmad Khatami were elected secretaries, IRNA reported. The assembly's final statement, issued on 16 March, addressed the upcoming presidential election. "People should vote for an individual who will defend the ideals of the Islamic revolution and who will give priority to solving people's economic problems," it stated. BS

An Iranian state radio analyst using the name "Mr. Fathi" discussed on 17 March the White House's nomination of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank. Fathi argued that the nomination has upset many governments because Wolfowitz is a "neoconservative who is the planner of America's attack on Iraq." Fathi suggested that Wolfowitz does not have the expertise to head the global development bank, but said Wolfowitz's time as ambassador to Indonesia when that country received loans from the World Bank contributed to poverty eradication. The Iranian state radio analyst cited personnel moves involving Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, as well as Condoleezza Rice's move from national security adviser to secretary of state, as evidence that President George W. Bush is increasingly sensitive to the international community. "By sending the neoconservatives to political and economic institutions, he wants to make them familiar with international realities and show them that there is extensive opposition to American policies in the international scene," Fathi said. The Wolfowitz appointment, Fathi said, marks the decline of neoconservative influence in U.S. defense institutions. BS

A number of newly elected governorate councils have convened across Iraq in recent days, according to Iraqi media reports. The Salah Al-Din governorate council convened on 17 March and reelected Iraqi National Accord member Hamad Humud al-Qaysi as governor, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Abdallah Husayn of the National Unity Grouping also retained his post there as deputy governor. The Kirkuk governorate council convened on 15 March without the participation of Turkoman and Arab members, who boycotted the meeting, "Khabat" reported on 16 March. The daily claimed in a 14 March report that the Turkomans and Arabs on the council had insisted that they assign administrative posts in the governorate, while Kurdish members, who hold 24 of the 41 seats on the council, claimed that the right belonged exclusively to the Kurds as majority members. The Diyala council held its first meeting on 15 March, electing attorney Ra'd Hamid Buland Jawad al-Tamimi as governor. Councils in Al-Basrah and Dhi Qar elected governors on 13 March, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Meanwhile, the Al-Najaf council called for granting Iraqi citizenship to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, RFI reported on 14 March. KR

More than 2,500 former Iraqi soldiers have been retrained through a three week "refresher course" for duty in Iraq, according to a 17 March press release posted on the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) website ( The soldiers, who formerly served under the Saddam Hussein regime, are called "direct recruit replacements." Some 878 direct recruit replacements completed the same course in Kirkush on 18 January, while another 212 graduated from the Iraqi training battalion in Al-Kasik on 27 January, according to earlier CENTCOM press releases. The retrained soldiers will serve in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th divisions of the Iraqi Army. The retraining of former soldiers was supported by the interim administration Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Shi'ite leaders from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the winning list in 30 January's elections, have opposed the plan. KR

Governor Fassal Rikan al-Qu'd told reporters at a 17 March news conference in Baghdad that plans have been drawn up to unite the Al-Anbar, Ninawah, and Salah Al-Din governorates according to the loose federalism sanctioned under the Transitional Administrative Law, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Qu'd told reporters that the plan is not based on an ethnic formula. "The geographical location of these governorates as well as the tribal ties binding them made the residents of the governorates call for setting up this region," al-Qu'd said. He added that the plan is "based on the will of the residents of these governorates. The social factors, tribal ties, economic situation, in addition to thinking of Iraq's future made us propose this plan." Other governorates are welcome to join the grouping, he said. Representatives of the Ninawah and Salah Al-Din governorates have not confirmed the plan. Political groups in Al-Basrah, Al-Amarah, and Dhi Qar are promoting a plan for a southern confederation in Iraq. KR

Islamic militants seeking to impose hard-line religious rule in parts of the Iraqi capital are suspected in the deaths of at least 12 barbers in recent months after forbidding them to shave men's beards or give Western-style haircuts, reported on 18 March. The threats have prompted many barbers to comply with the demands, rather than risk death. One barber told the website that he received a handwritten threat with a bullet about three months ago. The note warned that it was forbidden to shave men's beards or to give facial massages, or the French-style haircuts known as "carre" and the "spiky." The targeting of barbers is the latest attempt by Islamists to impose their ideology on the population, reported, pointing to the earlier targeting of liquor stores and Taliban-style control over Al-Fallujah before U.S. forces entered the city last year. Police in the Al-Durah neighborhood in Baghdad, where the killings have been concentrated, told the website that they are poorly equipped to deal with the threats and attacks. KR