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Newsline - March 24, 2005

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 23 March criticized a statement by European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, who on 22 March called on the government and opposition in Kyrgyzstan to begin a dialogue to resolve the unrest there, RIA-Novosti reported on 23 March. In a telephone conversation with Solana, Lavrov said the statement was "counterproductive" and that it "could be used by the Kyrgyz opposition to intensify the tension in the country." "In the current situation, it is necessary to provide a fair evaluation of all actions committed that violated the constitution and the law," Lavrov said. In response, Solana reportedly said that EU policy is to "support a political settlement." VY

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 23 March that although the situation in Kyrgyzstan is a domestic political matter, "Kyrgyzstan is our ally under the agreement on collective security, and one should not forget that," RTR and ORT reported. "And I think the so-called opposition, which already no longer controls anything, will have enough intelligence and influence to calm down and turn the situation into a political dialogue." Ivanov also said he is getting regular reports from the Russian military base in Kant and that the situation there is "normal." Asked why the defense minister often comments on foreign-policy issues, Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov said, "the Russian Army is and will be one of the tools of our foreign policy," RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on 23 March. VY

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Brazil on 23 March that he is concerned about Russian plans to supply arms, including some 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, to Venezuela, AP and other international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2005). Rumsfeld said the deal could destabilize the situation in the region. "I can't understand why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s," Rumsfeld said. "I hope it doesn't happen. I can't imagine if it did happen it would be good for the hemisphere." Russia has repeatedly rejected U.S. criticism of the proposed sale. Defense Minister Ivanov said on 23 March that "Russia supplies weapons to Venezuela and will continue to do so," ITAR-TASS reported. The Foreign Ministry expressed its "bewilderment" at the U.S. statement, reported on 23 March. Russia, like any other country, has the right to sell weapons to countries that are not under international sanctions, a ministry statement said. VY

The Moscow City Duma has threatened to rename the city street on which the Polish Embassy is located after a Tsarist general who suppressed a Polish uprising against Russian authoritarianism in 1863-64, "Vremya novostei" reported on 23 March. City Duma Chairman Vladimir Platonov and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov signed a joint statement in which they objected to a recent decision by the Warsaw City Council to name a local street after former Chechen President Djokar Dudaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2005). Platonov and Luzhkov called the Polish proposal a "provocation" and said that as retaliation Moscow could name a street in honor of Tsarist General Mikhail Muravev. Muravev was the governor of the Russian Empire's Northwest Krai in the mid 19th century and was dubbed "the Hangman" for his cruel suppression of the Polish uprising. He hanged some 128 Polish rebels and exiled 4,500 others. VY

The Foreign Ministry on 23 March summoned Swedish Ambassador to Moscow Johan Molander to protest a 22 March incident in which the car of a Russian diplomat in Stockholm was blown up, and other media reported. A radical Islamist group called Global Intifada claimed responsibility for the blast. Global Intifada, which has been linked to several actions in protest of the war in Iraq, said in a press release that the Stockholm incident was directed against "the imperialist war in Chechnya." Foreign Ministry officials told Molander that "terrorists feel comfortable in Sweden" and that Russia links the bombing with the fact that the Swedish TT news agency on 21 March published an interview with radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. "Giving Basaev publicity actually encourages further violence," a ministry statement said. VY

Swedish Ambassador Molander told journalists on 23 March that he promised Russian officials that his government will step up security around Russia's diplomatic missions, reported. But he said he does not see any link between freedom of speech and terrorist acts, and that he believes Swedish media have the right to publish "interviews with both ambassadors and terrorists." "Freedom of speech is the basis of our political order and we will do nothing that would violate the Swedish Constitution," Molander said. VY

Speaking at a Federation Council hearing on 23 March, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev said there are 116 organized-crime syndicates operating in Russia at present and they are active in 40 foreign countries, reported. He said the core of these groups comprises some 4,000 members, controlling about 500 large companies. The most crime-riddled sectors of the economy are metallurgy; forestry; fisheries; automobile sales; and intellectual-property, tobacco-products, and alcohol production. Nurgaliev called for the restoration of property confiscation as a punishment for convicted criminals, citing a case in which police brought to trial a group of drug dealers with assets worth an estimated $100 million. However, the court was unable to fine them more than 1 million rubles ($26,600). VY

The Federation Council approved on 23 March a presidential bill creating a new Public Chamber, RBK and RosBalt reported. The bill was supported by 152 senators, with three abstentions and none voting against. The bill establishes the goals, tasks, and method for forming the new chamber. Its decisions will have only the force of recommendations. The chamber's 126 members will serve for 2-year terms and will meet at least twice a year. Members will have the authority to send inquiries to civil servants, who must answer within a month. They may also attend sessions of the committees and commissions of both the upper and lower legislative chambers. If approved by President Vladimir Putin, the bill will come into force on 1 July 2005. Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov told reporters that the new chamber should hold its first meeting on 1 November. JAC

Also on 23 March, the Federation Council voted to approve amendments to a series of laws that would make Interior Ministry personnel, fire fighters, and Federal Antinarcotics Agency personnel eligible for the military draft, Radio Rossii and RosBalt reported. Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Federation Council's Defense and Security Committee, said the bill will enable the armed forces to call up an additional 20,000 young men. JAC

The St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly was unable on 23 March to amend the city's charter to bring it into conformity with the law canceling gubernatorial elections, Interfax and reported. The amendments twice failed to gather enough votes. Of the 26 votes necessary, the bill received only 18 and, later, 22. Vladimir Lipitskii, head of the legislation department of the regional Justice Ministry office, told Interfax that under the law, the federal government may dissolve the legislature if it fails to bring its legislation into conformity with federal law. Of the various parties represented in the legislature, only Unified Russia supported the bill, but not all of its deputies voted in favor. Yabloko Deputy Natalya Yevdokimova told that she considers the bill unconstitutional. She added that she does not expect the chamber to be dissolved. "Let us go to court. We will defend ourselves. Let's bring some attention to this [matter]," she said. JAC

The Tver Oblast prosecutor has opened criminal cases against unspecified members of the Federal Antinarcotics Agency on suspicion of exceeding their authority during an operation earlier this month in the city of Bezhetsk, ITAR-TASS and Ekho Moskvy reported on 23 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005). Agency Colonel Viktor Kuzovkin said that during the special operation two alleged members of a crime group were taken into custody, while five people resisted police efforts. National Anticorruption Committee Chairman Kirill Kabanov told Ekho Moskvy earlier that two busloads of Federal Antinarcotics Agency officers arrived in the town, burst into cafes and restaurants, and forced male residents to strip and kneel with their hands on their heads. JAC

About 30 activists from Avant-Garde Red Youth group tried on 23 March to disrupt a protest by the pro-Putin youth group Walking Together, which has been picketing the Bolshoi Theater over the alleged pornographic content of a new opera called "Rosenthal's Children," AKM reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). The 30 activists unfurled two large posters and handed out leaflets saying, "Pornography is not in books -- it is in the Kremlin!" The police arrived within 10 minutes and the leftist youths left the scene. According to Interfax, about 100-150 people were gathered in front of the theater.

The Federal Arbitration Court in Moscow reduced the award levied against the Kommersant publishing house in a lawsuit filed by Alfa Bank from 312 million rubles ($10.4 million) to 40.5 million rubles, RIA-Novosti reported on 23 March. Alfa Bank objected to a "Kommersant-Daily" article on 7 July 2004 discussing the banking crisis affecting the capital at that time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2005). A court in October 2004 found that the newspaper had damaged the bank's business reputation. JAC

A municipal court in Kemerovo on 23 March sentenced a law student to an 18-month suspended sentence and one year of probation for using the mass media to urge extremist activities, Interfax reported. Gennadii Mulinov, press secretary for the oblast's Supreme Court, said the court ruled that the Internet newspaper the student created was a means of mass communication. JAC

In a special operation on 23 March, Chechen police and members of the presidential security service surrounded the home in Shali of field commander Rizvan Chitigov, then stormed the building and killed him, ITAR-TASS and reported. Chitigov, 39, is believed to have masterminded a bomb attack in Moscow in 1999 and other terrorist attacks in Chechnya. LF

The Armenian parliament rejected on 23 March after a two-day debate government-proposed amendments to the law on economic crimes that would have raised from two years' to between three and seven years' imprisonment the penalty for withholding taxes in excess of 10 million drams ($22,000), Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Parliament Chairman Artur Baghdasarian argued that criminalizing economic offenses is incompatible with the government's policy of economic liberalization. He also said that if approved, the amendments would "cause very serious discontent among our businesspeople.... We could end up imprisoning a large number of businesspeople who create jobs." LF

At a meeting on 23 March of senior Interior Ministry officials, Azerbaijan's Interior Minister Ramil Usubov dismissed his first deputy, Zakhid Dunyamaliev, Criminal Investigations Department head Zakir Nasibov, and two of Nasibov's deputies, reported on 24 March. Two senior Baku police officials were also fired, apparently in the wake of the recent arrest on charges of drugs possession of an employee of the Baku police department responsible for combating drug-related crimes. Also on 23 March, the National Security Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office released a joint statement giving details of additional crimes allegedly committed in recent years by a criminal gang headed by former Interior Ministry official Hadji Mamedov, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 14 March 2005). LF

Financial Police head David Kezerashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 23 March that three of his subordinates have been dismissed for alleged drug addiction, Caucasus Press reported. Earlier on 23 March, opposition parliament Deputy Koba Davitashvili (Conservative) accused several financial police officials, including Kezerashvili, of drug addiction, and Interior Ministry official Tornike Shvangiradze produced recordings of telephone conversations that he claimed substantiate that allegation. Shvangiradze said he commissioned the wire tapping without the permission or knowledge of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who has reportedly ordered an investigation. LF

Meeting in Sukhum with the visiting head of the OSCE Mission in Georgia, Ambassador Roy Reeve, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh reaffirmed his readiness for talks on economic issues with the Georgian leadership, Caucasus Press reported on 23 March. But Bagapsh added that Abkhazia would immediately break off any such talks in the event of Georgian aggression against the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. Meeting earlier this week with German Ambassador to Tbilisi Norbert Baas, Sergei Shamba, who served from 1997 until 2004 as Abkhaz foreign minister and whom Bagapsh has just reappointed to that post, proposed that Abkhazia and Georgia sign a document pledging their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, Caucasus Press reported on 21 March. Baas told Shamba that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, and Abkhaz government in exile head Irakli Alasania have all assured him that the Georgian leadership has no intention of resorting to military force to resolve the Abkhaz conflict. LF

Several thousand opposition supporters gathered in Bishkek on the morning of 24 March to demand the annulment of the disputed 27 February and 13 March parliamentary elections and the resignation of President Askar Akaev, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and RFE/RL correspondents reported. The demonstrators marched toward the government building, where they threw rocks at police and security forces who sought to drive them back. Some police officers, however, reportedly went over to the opposition. According to the opposition website, several people were injured in the fighting. The demonstrators eventually managed to storm and ransack the building, throwing furniture and documents from windows. Police oversaw the evacuation of most government officials. Akaev's whereabouts are at present unclear, although Russian media report he is at the Manas international airbase near Bishkek. According to Reuters and an unconfirmed report, protesters have secured the release from prison of former Bishkek mayor and opposition Ar-Namys party chairman Feliks Kulov. LF

Former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, one of the leaders of the Kyrgyz opposition, pledged on 24 March to hold new elections. Bakiev said government media reports of rioting and looting in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad are untrue, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Meanwhile, Alojz Peterle, special representative of OSCE Chairman-in-Office Dmitrij Rupel, met in Bishkek with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov to discuss how to end the uprising peacefully, dpa reported. Peterle subsequently proposed creating "a provisional government of national unity," Reuters reported. LF

President Akaev fired Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov and Prosecutor-General Myktybek Abdyldaev on 23 March, replacing them, respectively, with Bishkek police chief Keneshbek Dushebaev and Murat Sutalinov, head of the security and defense department in the presidential administration, Kabar reported. At a news conference in Bishkek on 23 March, Dushebaev said police can use "any legal means, including physical force, anti-riot gear, and authorized weapons" in order to establish "constitutional order," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Dushebaev warned, "We will not allow any seizures or sieges of government offices in the capital," Kabar reported. DK/LF

Speaking at the same 23 March news conference, Sutalinov said the Prosecutor-General's Office has begun gathering material for a criminal case against former Prime Minister Bakiev, who now heads the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Kabar reported. Sutalinov said Bakiev is suspected of serious crimes, including the attempted seizure of power, although no criminal charges have yet been filed. He said another 400 to 500 active participants in recent events in Jalal-Abad and Osh could also face criminal charges, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Describing the situation in the south, Sutalinov said, "Criminal elements are in control. And I cannot exclude the presence of people there who are also involved in trafficking narcotics." He added, "I also suspect that there are elements from extremist religious organizations in the area who are involved." DK/LF

No substantive talks took place between the government and opposition in Kyrgyzstan on 23 March, agencies reported. Defense Minister Colonel General Esen Topoev flew by helicopter to Osh, where he met briefly with "people's governor" Anvar Artykov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. That meeting was supposed to lay the groundwork for talks on 24 March between opposition leaders and Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, but because of the deteriorating situation in Bishkek on 24 March, Tanaev did not leave the capital. In Bishkek on 23 March, opposition leader Bakiev canceled a meeting with members of parliament, both opposition and pro-government, who had hoped to broker further negotiations, to protest newly appointed Prosecutor-General Sutalinov's accusation that Bakiev is suspected of crimes, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. DK

The City Council in opposition-controlled Osh on 23 March selected Mamasadyk Bakirov, previously the city's deputy mayor, as mayor, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The same session, which was attended by 21 of 30 deputies, passed a no-confidence vote on Mayor Satybaldy Chyrmashev, reported. According to Kyrgyzstan's constitution, mayors are first presented by the president and then confirmed by local councils, but's correspondent in Osh reported that deputies felt that under current conditions they could not afford to wait for Akaev to propose a new candidate for mayor. DK

Tajik prosecutors have extended the investigation of Ghaffor Mirzoev, former head of the country's Drug Control Agency, until 20 May, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 23 March. Qayum Yusufov, Mirzoev's lawyer, noted that this is the fifth time the investigation has been extended. Mirzoev, who was arrested in August 2004, is suspected of numerous crimes, including abuse of office and weapons possession (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2004). DK

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko ended a two-day visit to Turkmenistan on 23 March without a new agreement on gas purchases, agencies reported. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov said on 23 March that while he understands that Ukraine would like to achieve a long-term agreement to purchase gas from Turkmenistan, improving the region's gas transport capabilities is a priority, reported. Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh noted after talks between Yushchenko and Niyazov that Ukraine will continue to pay Turkmenistan $58 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas in 2005, in line with a price hike set out in an early January agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005), Reuters reported. Kinakh repeated that Ukraine would like to sign a 20- to 30-year agreement on gas purchases with Turkmenistan. DK

Yushchenko told Interfax on 23 March that he proposed to Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov a gas consortium involving Russia, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine to ship gas from Turkmenistan to Europe. Yushchenko said that with proper coordination the project could be realized within three years. For his part, Niyazov said he plans to hold talks with Russia on a plan to build a $1 billion pipeline along the Caspian Sea to deliver 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year to the Ukrainian-Russian border, Reuters reported. Niyazov noted that he will meet Gazprom head Aleksei Miller in Ashgabat on 15 April, adding that talks on a planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline will take place in Islamabad on 12-13 April. Addressing the issue of Turkmenistan's gas reserves, the president said his country can export 200 billion cubic meters of gas a year for the next 100 years. DK

The leaders of the United Civic Party (UCP) and the Belarusian Party of Communists (BPC) are the first two politicians to formally announce their intentions to run for the presidency in 2006, Belapan news agency reported on 24 March. Anatol Lyabedzka of the UCP and Syarhey Kalyakin of the BPC submitted their applications to the Democratic Forces Secretariat on 23 March. In their applications, the politicians pledged to enhance the independence and sovereignty of Belarus, establish democracy, and guarantee respect for human rights, the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the independence of the judiciary. Applications from those seeking nomination are being accepted until 25 March, Lyabedzka told Belapan. Pro-democracy activists are expected to hold conferences between 3 and 23 April to name their delegates to the National Congress of Democratic Forces. The delegates are expected to select a single opposition candidate in the summer or fall. RK

Latvian authorities seized for transit rule violations what they say is dual-purpose equipment worth $1.5 million that was on its way from Belarus to Angola, Belapan reported on 23 March. The shipment, which according to accompanying documents consisted of four tractors with semi-trailers, was stopped at the Ventspils seaport on 9 March. Upon examining the equipment, Latvian experts confirmed that the tractors could be used for carrying tanks and other military hardware. The Belarusian consignor produced no transit license, which is required for transporting military-purpose goods. Belarus has often been accused of arms smuggling since independence. The government has consistently denied such charges. RK

Ukrainian attempts to conclude a deal with Turkmenistan for a long-term delivery contract for natural gas did not materialize during President Viktor Yushchenko's visit to Ashgabad on 22-23 March. Despite this, the head of Naftohaz Ukrayina, Oleksiy Ivchenko, told Interfax that he is confident that Ukraine will continue to receive 30 billion to 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas per year after the present contract ends in December 2006. When asked how the 25-year Russian contract signed with Turkmenistan, which foresees deliveries of up to 60 bcm of gas per year beginning in 2007 -- would affect deliveries to Ukraine, Ivchenko replied that Turkmenistan has the capacity to produce enough gas to service both Ukraine and Russia. In fact, Turkmen gas production in 2004 was 58.8 bcm, a decrease from 2003's figure of 59.1 bcm. In the first month of 2005, production fell by 14 percent, due primarily to a stop in gas deliveries to Russia over a dispute with Russia's Gazprom over a new price for gas. Another drawback to Turkmen gas deliveries is that the trunk pipeline is capable of transporting only 50 bcm per year. RK

The death of Ukrainian opposition leader Vyacheslav Chornovil in a traffic accident in 1999 will be investigated once again, according to the Internal Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's office, Interfax reported on 23 March. Chornovil, a former political prisoner during the Soviet era, headed the Rukh party. He was killed when his car collided with a truck on 25 March 1999. Many opposition leaders believed the incident was staged for political purposes. An investigation at that time by the Internal Ministry concluded that Chornovil's death was due to an accident. Subsequently, the former head of the Security Service, Yevhen Marchuk, announced that he had been given a videotape on which Internal Ministry officers reportedly admitted the accident had been pre-arranged. Later, Marchuk claimed to have lost the tape. RK

The county court in the Croatian city of Pula ruled on 23 March that former Macedonian Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski be handed over to The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal, MIA news agency reported. The tribunal indicted Boskovski for war crimes in connection with the killing of 10 ethnic Albanian civilians during a police operation in the village of Ljuboten in August 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15, 17, and 22 March 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 January 2005). The Croatian Justice Ministry said in a statement on 24 March that Boskovski has been extradited, and the tribunal later announced that he has arrived in The Hague, Reuters reported. The former minister -- who holds Croatian as well as Macedonian citizenship -- was held in pretrial detention in Pula 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). UB

Vinko Pandurevic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army's Zvornik brigade, arrived at The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal on 23 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Pandurevic is indicted for war crimes in connection with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of up to 8,000 mainly Muslim males. He is the 10th Serbian or Bosnian Serb indictee to go to The Hague since October 2004 under Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's program of persuading indictees to give themselves up rather than be arrested and extradited. The European Union is expected to issue a report in late March as to whether Serbia is ready to begin formal negotiations with Brussels leading to a Stability and Association Agreement, and Belgrade's relations with the tribunal are expected to influence the report's conclusions strongly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). In related news, the Serbian war crimes prosecutor's office asked the Belgrade District Court to freeze the financial assets of 13 indictees who remain at large. PM

Dragan Covic, who is the Croatian member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Presidency, said in Sarajevo on 23 March that he will not resign from that body, even though corruption charges have been filed against him and his trial is slated to begin on 30 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 21 March 2005). The international community has called on him to resign, but his Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) supports him, and Boris Paravac, who is Covic's Serbian colleague on the Presidency, stresses that Covic remains innocent until proven guilty. Sulejman Tihic, who is the Muslim member of the Presidency, argues that it will be difficult for Covic to carry out his duties while on trial. Covic claims the corruption charges are part of an unspecified campaign to "put pressure on the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina." The charges date back to Covic's time as finance minister of the Muslim-Croat Federation (2000-03). PM

Serbian riot police escorted hundreds of the 607 striking mechanics of JAT Airways, the national carrier, from Belgrade airport on 24 March, dpa reported. There was no violence, and the mechanics continued their protest outside the airport grounds. The mechanics have been on strike for about one week to demand back pay and better working conditions. Management says the action is illegal and has suspended the mechanics, adding that those who do not return to work will be sacked. Management also argues that it needs only up to 150 mechanics to maintain its planes. JAT has been plagued by labor problems over the past year and is currently flying with leased planes under a reduced schedule. The airline plans to cut its total staff from 3,670 to about 2,000 by June and limit its routes to its best money-earners. PM

The Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) nominated incumbent President Vladimir Voronin for a second term on 23 March, international news agencies reported. The PCM also nominated Marian Lupu, who was economy minister in the outgoing government, to be speaker of parliament, and Maria Postoico, the outgoing head of parliament's juridical commission, as deputy speaker. With 56 seats in the 101-mandate parliament, the PCM can elect a government and the chamber's leadership without support from the opposition. But re-electing Voronin requires 61 votes, meaning the PCM will need to win support from some opposition lawmakers. The Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) has 34 seats in the new parliament and the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) has 11. The new parliament convened for the first time on 24 March to choose its leadership and set a date for a presidential election. BW

Both opposition parties reiterated that they will boycott a presidential vote in the legislature, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 March. "The parties comprising the bloc earlier signed a declaration pledging not to support Communist representatives in the election of a president," BMD spokesman Viktor Osipov said. "We are surprised at the ruling party's refusal to hold consultations with the bloc leaders, which is a standard practice in civilized states," he added. Likewise, PPCD leader Iurie Rosca announced that members of his party "won't even enter the polling booths" during the presidential election. BW

A schism emerged in the BDM as parliament opened on 24 March, ITAR-TASS reported. Dmitrii Dyakov, leader of the Democratic Party, one of 16 parties in the opposition bloc, announced his intention to form a separate parliamentary faction. The development appeared to confirm President Voronin's confident public predictions that parliament will elect a president on the first ballot despite opposition leaders' vows to boycott the poll. Voronin has been negotiating with backbenchers in the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). Moreover, analysts cited by ITAR-TASS say Voronin has already secured enough votes and the 16-party BMD could split into three or four factions in parliament. BW

Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev's government approved a bill tendering its own resignation on 23 March as required by Moldova's constitution, Infortag reported the same day. Tarlev thanked his cabinet, stressing that his was the first government in Moldova's post-Soviet history to complete its term "without shocks." Tarlev singled out Economy Minister Lupu, the PCM's nominee for parliamentary speaker, for particular praise. The new parliament, which convened for the first time on 24 March, must first elect its own leadership and then a new president. Once elected, the new president nominates a prime minister who proposes a government for the parliament's approval. BW

Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan is emerging as a leading candidate for prime minister of Moldova's new government, Infotag reported on 23 March, citing unidentified sources inside the PCM leadership. According to sources in the PCM Central Committee, appointing Stratan prime minister would send "a clear signal of Moldova's sincerity with the respect to European integration." Some in the party expressed concern that naming the outgoing foreign minister would aggravate Moldova's already strained relations with Russia. Last year, Stratan called Russia's troops in the breakaway Transdniester region "occupational" and demanded their withdrawal. He is also actively trying to encourage the United States and the European Union to become engaged in settling the longstanding dispute over the region. BW

Several news sources, most recently the 20 March issue of the "Financial Times," have reported that Ali Larijani has been selected as the conservative Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces candidate for the 17 June presidential election. But the situation is not that simple. Hamid Reza Taraqi of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party said on 18 March, "At the present time, Larijani has not been officially declared the chosen candidate and this choice is the result of the discussions, examinations, and assessments within this faction," the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. Taraqi said the conservatives will announce their final choice after the new year (21 March 2005).

With just three months before the election, the conservatives are cutting it close. Politically experienced and professionally and personally connected, Larijani seems like a highly qualified candidate. The delay in making a final selection could reflect the divisions within the conservative camp. It is also possible that the conservatives are trying to gauge public opinion more fully before announcing their choice. But at the end of the day, one person -- former president and current Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- could undo everybody's calculations if he too decides to run for the presidency.

Ali Ardeshir-Larijani has served as a political functionary in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, as Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance, and as director of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. He is a member of the Expediency Council, and currently serves as the Supreme Leader's representative to the Supreme National Security Council. In his previous posts, he showed himself to be quite conservative on cultural and social issues. His more recent engagement with national security issues likewise reveals a conservative tendency.

Aside from professional connections, Larijani is well connected personally. He is the son of a prominent cleric, Ayatollah Mirza Hashem Amoli. One of his brothers, Mohammad Javad Ardeshir-Larijani, is an adviser to the judiciary chief, and another brother, Sadeq Ardeshir-Larijani, is a clerical member of the Guardians Council.

Larijani is a prominent member of the "new generation of conservatives," Professor Farhad Khosrokhavar of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris notes in the Winter 2004 issue of MERIP ( This group, whose members are in their forties and fifties, includes many university graduates with engineering degrees and doctorates. In contrast with the older generation of conservatives, they do not reject "democracy" outright, and they back individuals' right to privacy. They have distanced themselves from revolutionary calls for "self-sacrifice" and "martyrdom," and they employ terminology similar to that of the reformists. They also advocate economic development.

Larijani's recent statements reinforce Prof. Khosrokhavar's observation. Larijani said the country must use academics' expertise if it is to progress, "Hemayat" reported on 17 February. He added, "Fundamentalism and new thinking forces should join hands with realism and solve the country's problems with a precise pragmatic outlook." Larijani also tried to appeal to the business community by criticizing excessive state involvement in the economy and calling for deregulation. He described the problem: "Any time the academics desire to create employment, they are faced with a mass of governmental regulations and this is a problem that must be eliminated." He added, "The bureaucratic system needs fresh air, so that privileged, young, and thinking forces of the wise and committed sort should come forward and change the atmosphere."

In earlier statements, it seemed that Larijani was trying to win the support of the conservative Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami), which dominated the February 2004 parliamentary polls. He said his ideology is similar to that of the Developers, "Kayhan" reported on 5 February. "The Developers is a new fundamental movement and they entered the scene when left and right lost their position," he said. "And now we see that members from different movements are in this group." Larijani concluded, "I respect and follow any decision that the fundamentalists or the Developers make." Coordination Council member Mariam Behruzi said that opinion polls show that Larijani is ahead of the other conservative candidates so far, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 March. Larijani won approval at the Coordination Council's 13 March meeting, she said, adding that the council will wait before making its final announcement. Behruzi said key members of the Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society (Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami) were not present at the 13 March council meeting.

The absence of the Devotees, an organization of younger conservative activists, is emblematic of wider and continuing differences within the Coordination Council. These differences could be what is delaying the final announcement of a candidate. The first Coordination Council was chaired by Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri and its members were Habibullah Asgar-Oladi-Musalman, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, Hussein Fadai, and Seyyed Reza Taqavi. Nateq-Nuri and Asgar-Oladi are old school conservatives, Bahonar is part of the new generation of conservatives, and Fadai represents yet another conservative tendency.

This group could not settle on a candidate so it expanded its membership. The expanded membership is believed to have included two of the following individuals: Tehran City Council Chairman Mehdi Chamran, Speaker of Parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, "Resalat" manager Morteza Nabavi, Haqqani seminary graduate Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, former Martyrs Foundation chairman Mohammad Hassan Rahimian, or "Kayhan" newspaper manager Hussein Shariatmadari.

The expanded council reportedly chose Ali Larijani as its candidate. Devotees' secretary-general Hussein Fadai abstained, however, so again there was no final decision on a candidate.

At this point, Fadai, frustrated by the waste of time over selecting a candidate, decided he had had enough. At the same time, two or three of the conservative candidates -- Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, and Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli -- expressed dissatisfaction with the selection process. Fadai then created was has come to be known as Coordination Council II.

Ahmadi-Nejad, Rezai, and Tavakoli signed a letter in which they agreed to continue campaigning until the month of Ordibehesht (April-May), at which point they will step aside for the most popular candidate. Another candidate, Supreme Leader's adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati, reportedly concurred with this.

Rezai said the conservatives will not announce their candidate until registration takes place (in early May). But he was willing to do some campaigning, saying that he will have people younger than 30 in his cabinet and 30 percent of managerial positions will go to young people. He added that his government will provide the resources needed to create more jobs for young people, and he also mentioned sports and leisure activities for young people. The voting age in Iran is 15, and about two-thirds of the population is under the age of 35, so his comments will resonate.

Iran's reformists have been fairly quiet lately, and the absence of newspapers during the No Ruz holiday contributes to this situation. The big question continues be whether or not former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani will be a candidate. Recent polls suggest that he would garner the greatest number of votes, but they also suggest that no candidate is sufficiently popular to win outright in the first round of polling. So perhaps the question is not who the reformists or the conservatives will back as their presidential candidate, but is Hashemi-Rafsanjani a conservative or a reformist? Given his political savvy and revolutionary background, as well as his use of technocrats rather than ideologues in his presidential administrations, he is likely to pursue policies similar to those of the "new conservatives."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai left Islamabad on 23 March after a two-day official visit to Pakistan, the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2005). During his visit, Karzai held talks with his counterpart, Pervez Musharraf, and with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. Afghanistan and Pakistan signed five agreements on culture, media cooperation, tourism, and the initiation of bus services between the two countries. In addition, a protocol covering political consultations between the two foreign ministries was also signed. This trip was Karzai's fourth to Pakistan since assuming the presidency after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. AT

Five unidentified insurgents were killed on 22 March in clashes with coalition forces in Khost Province, Radio Afghanistan reported on 23 March. According to the official Bakhtar News Agency, the men were killed in Gorbaz District, near the Pakistani border. AT

A spokesman for the neo-Taliban, Mofti Latifullah Hakimi, claimed on 23 March that the militia killed 10 Afghan government soldiers in the Sher Ali area of Khost on 22 March, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Hakimi also claimed that the neo-Taliban attacked government forces in Gorbaz District. According to Hakimi, reports on the casualties from the Gorbaz operation will be made public later. AT

In a telephone interview with AIP on 23 March, neo-Taliban spokesman Hakimi said U.S. forces on 22 March killed a neo-Taliban commander in southern Paktika Province. According to Hakimi, Raz Mohammad Khanjari was killed, along with his wife and six children, when their house in Waza Khwa District came under attack. According to Hakimi, U.S. forces transferred the body of Khanjari and the bodies of two of his sons to Bagram airbase north of Kabul. Hakimi also claimed there were U.S. casualties in the operation. AT

According to information from the Afghan Interior Ministry, two members of the neo-Taliban were arrested on 22 March in Mizan District of Zabul Province, Radio Afghanistan reported on 23 March. Some weapons and a motorcycle were confiscated during the operation. AT

Governor Habiba Sorabi assumed her post as governor of central Bamiyan Province on 23 March, Radio Afghanistan reported. President Karzai appointed Sorabi as the first female governor of an Afghan province earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2005). AT

Jordan's King Abdullah warned in a 22 March meeting in Washington with representatives of American Jewish groups that the greatest threats to regional peace are Iran, Syria, and Hizballah, "Haaretz" reported on 23 March. He also said Syria and Hizballah are encouraging Palestinian terror attacks in Israel in an effort to undermine the Middle East peace process. According to "Haaretz," among the groups represented at the meeting were B'nai Brith and the American Jewish Congress. A few months ago, King Abdullah warned of a Shi'a crescent from Iran to Lebanon, and earlier this week the Jordanian foreign minister blamed Iran for a thaw in Baghdad-Amman relations. BS

Officials from Iran, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom met in Paris on 23 March to review the work of three groups (an economic and technical committee, a political and security committee, and a nuclear committee) relevant to the nuclear issue. Tehran has said there must be progress if the talks are to continue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005), but Mehr News Agency reported on 23 March that the Iranians said there has been no progress. Iranian official Cyrus Nasseri said the Europeans would like to discuss technical issues before reaching a conclusion and added that more talks will take place in "the coming weeks." BS

The International Press Institute's World Press Freedom Review for 2004 (, issued on 22 March, says freedom of expression in Iran is "severely restricted." The report notes that the Internet is increasingly the forum for political expression, and online journalists and bloggers face governmental restrictions. Furthermore, as details in the report show, restrictions on the print media continue, with journalists being arrested on trumped-up charges and tortured while in jail. Others receive threatening phone calls. The Committee to Protect Journalists' "Attacks on the Press in 2004" report (, which was released on 14 March, also notes the "growing influence of Internet journalists" and the government's attempts to impose constraints on Internet use, to block websites, and to arrest online journalists. Dissident journalists and activists face repression, as well, CPJ reports. Foreign reporters were harassed, too. BS

Former Iraqi Governing Council member and independent politician Mahmud Uthman told Reuters that the quota system being implemented by political groups negotiating posts in the transitional government may be necessary at the moment, but is not a model to be implemented in the future, the news agency reported on 23 March. "Iraq is in an emergency situation, and I could understand the need for quotas for now to draw the Arab Sunnis into the government, for example, but we do not want to end up like Lebanon," he said. He criticized the quota system, saying: "Such an approach simply does away with merit," Uthman said, adding, "The hope lies in writing an enlightened constitution that replaces the present electoral system with more direct elections." KR

Some 30 to 40 insurgents were reportedly seen on 24 March at the site of an Al-Qaeda-Ba'athist training camp attacked by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005), AFP reported. A correspondent for the press agency who traveled to the training camp on Lake Tharthar spoke to an insurgent named Amr who claimed the fighters never abandoned the camp. He also claimed that only 11 fighters were killed in U.S. airstrikes on the camp. Iraqi General Adnan Thabit told AFP: "The commandos killed 35 and U.S. air raids killed 50. But no one was captured and many escaped by boat." As many as 30 boats fled the training camp, he said. An Iraqi commando who took part in the raid told AFP that machine guns, rockets, and training manuals -- including one on how to make roadside bombs -- were found at the camp, in addition to forged identification cards, passports, and documents that pointed to the presence of foreign fighters at the camp. "This was a serious military camp with a living section and guard posts," the officer, identified as Jalil, said. KR

Interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari told Al-Arabiyah television in a 23 March interview that he considers it a good sign that Iraq was not a priority on the agenda of this year's Arab League summit meeting. "This is a healthy sign. The issue of Iraq is certainly there but not at the top of the agenda. There is a good and positive draft resolution that was approved by all Arab foreign ministers.... It is a positive resolution that supports the political process and welcomes the elections held in Iraq. It calls for a larger Arab role in support of the Iraqi people during this transitional phase," he said. Al-Zebari added that he believes the general mood of Iraq's neighbors has changed since the elections. "In the past, doubts were cast on the extent of [the political parties'] popularity in Iraq. I believe this has changed now," he said. Al-Zebari said he believes Iraq's elections "have changed the face of Iraq and will change the face of the region, too." KR

The government has said it plans to bring electricity to new villages that have sprung up in Iraq's once-devastated southern marshlands, "Al-Zaman" reported on 23 March. The marshes were badly damaged by dam projects initiated by the Saddam Hussein regime on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and by a massive drainage operation undertaken by the regime to root out opposition forces that took shelter there, causing some 70,000 to 80,000 inhabitants to flee their homes. The wetlands were eventually reduced to 7 percent of their original size, but following an internationally funded program to revitalize the marshlands begun last year, 20 percent of the drained wetlands are filled again, and 60 percent of the wildlife has returned to the marshes. Electricity Minister Abd al-Karim al-Kubaysi told "Al-Zaman" that he hopes to provide electricity within three months to returnees. Meanwhile, Health Ministry official Iman al-Dabagh told the daily that the ministry has drafted a plan to provide health care, including a 50-bed hospital and several modern clinics, to the area. Marsh residents "are in urgent need of preventative services and treatment. The marshes are sparsely populated and some remote villages are difficult to reach," al-Dabagh said. KR