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Newsline - March 30, 2005

Former Yukos security chief Aleksei Pichugin was sentenced on 30 March to 20 years in prison for murder and attempted murder, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March 2005). Pichugin's lawyers maintained there were numerous violations of the defendant's rights during the course of the closed-door trial and said they will appeal the conviction to the Supreme Court, Interfax reported. They maintain that the case against Pichugin was contrived in order to put pressure on former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii. "This was a politically motivated trial," Yukos press spokesman Aleksandr Shadrin told the news agency. "If the court had been objective, the case would have been dismissed on the first day." RC

Dmitrii Shokhin, state prosecutor in the case against former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii and Menatep Chairman Platon Lebedev, on 29 March asked a Moscow court to convict the defendants and sentence them each to 10 years in prison, Interfax and RIA-Novosti reported. Shokhin asked for a 5 1/2-year suspended sentence for the third defendant, former Volna General Director Andrei Krainov. Khodorkovskii and Lebedev are accused of tax evasion and embezzlement; they maintain their innocence. Lebedev was arrested in July 2003, while Khodorkovskii was arrested in October 2003. Speaking at his trial last month, Khodorkovskii called the charges against him "fantasies and conjectures" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2005). JAC

The tax organs of Russia and Moscow on 30 March asked Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion court for 17.8 billion rubles ($593 million) in damages from Khodorkovskii and Lebedev, Russian media reported. ITAR-TASS reported that the authorities have filed the civil suit in order to recover back taxes and losses from the alleged illegal use of shell companies by the defendants. Representatives of the tax authorities told the court that the defendants created companies that gave the illusion of working in the oil sector merely to avoid taxes. They said these companies failed to meet their obligations to invest in local economies, did not carry out any real commercial activity, and were usually headed by managers who did not even reside in the regions where the companies were based. The court adjourned until 1 April, when defense lawyers are expected to make their opening remarks. RC

In a survey conducted in March of 1,500 people in more than 100 cities and towns, ROMIR found that 51 percent of respondents consider the state of the Russian economy to be mediocre and 37 percent consider it poor, reported on 29 March. The percentage that considers the economy mediocre or poor has risen compared to polls conducted in July 2004 and December 2004. Residents of the Southern and Volga federal districts were the most pessimistic, with 43 percent and 42 percent, respectively, saying the economy is a poor state. Those in the Northwest Federal District were the most bullish, with 15 percent of respondents describing the economy as either good or very good. According to Federal Labor and Employment Service Director Maksim Topilin on 29 March, the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhnii Novgorod have the lowest unemployment rates in Russia, RIA-Novosti reported. The unemployment rate has reached 23.1 percent in the southern republic of Ingushetia, well above the national average. JAC

President Vladimir Putin announced on 29 March that he will sign a decree which as of 1 May will raise pensions for World War II veterans by either 1,000 rubles ($36) or 500 rubles a month, depending on eligibility, RTR reported. Also on 29 March, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov said the federal government has earmarked around 6 billion rubles for the May celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, not including social payments to veterans, reported. Part of the expenditures will be to cover travel expenses of veterans from the Baltic and CIS countries. JAC

About 20,000 people participated in a demonstration in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, on 26 March to demand the resignation of Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 28 March. The demonstration was part of a continuing series of protests aimed at forcing Rakhimov out (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2004). Protestors carried signs lamenting violations of human rights and demanding compensation for the victims of a controversial December police operation in Blagoveshchensk, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2004). According to the daily, a bloc of eight political parties -- including the Communist Party, Yabloko, Motherland, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Rus, and the Union of Tatars of Bashkortostan -- organized the protest. The next major protest calling for Rakhimov's resignation is planned for 16 April. The daily drew parallels between Bashkortostan and Kyrgyzstan, concluding that Kyrgyzstan was the "weakest link in Central Asia" and "Bashkortostan, judging by everything, is the weakest link in Russia." JAC

"Novye izvestiya" reported on 29 March that "experts" are predicting that outstanding disputes over administrative borders between Russian regions threaten the security of the Russian Federation. Dmitrii Oreshkin of the Merkator Group told the newspaper: "I think that in coming years, territorial disputes will only become aggravated. Moreover, this is a purely cartographic problem of where to put a pipeline or where an oblast ends. [But] the absence of quality maps today is very much interfering with life." According to the daily, border disputes are currently flaring up in Siberia, for example, between Krasnoyarsk Krai and Khakasia. With the pending unification of Krasnoyarsk Krai with the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs, officials in Krasnoyarsk are eager to resolve the controversial question of its border with Khakasia. There are two villages that krai officials say are administratively part of their territory, but they are surrounded by land belonging to Khakasia. According to maps of Russia, the villages do not exist. The adult residents have resident permits that say they live in Krasnoyarsk Krai, and they vote in krai elections. According to the daily, this example is not unique. JAC

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party finished in second place in the 27 March legislative elections in Amur Oblast, according to preliminary results posted on the oblast election commission's website. According to Ekho Moskvy on 28 March, Unified Russia, which received 16.3 percent of the vote, lost half of its voters compared with its showing in the December 2003 State Duma election. Another loser in the race was the LDPR, which garnered 3.6 percent and failed to enter the assembly. The surprise winner was a coalition of the Party of Life and Yabloko called We Support the Development of Amur. The bloc got 17.7 percent of the vote, compared with 13.5 percent voting "against all" candidates, 13.2 percent for the Communist Party, 12.7 percent for the Union of Rightist Forces, and 8.32 percent for the Party of Pensioners. According to "Vremya novostei" on 29 March, the Amur Oblast results represent the first loss for Unified Russia in a regional parliamentary election held under the new party-list rules. JAC

In Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug's regional parliamentary elections also held on 27 March, Unified Russia got an impressive majority of 60.2 percent, according to the okrug election commission's website. The option "against all" candidates finished second, with 14.2 percent of the vote. Motherland finished third with 11.3 percent, and the Communist Party got 7.1 percent. According to Ekho Moskvy, Unified Russia got 15 percent more votes than it received locally in the December 2003 State Duma elections -- which is the exact percentage of votes the LDPR had in the 2003 vote. The LDPR did not participate in the 27 March race. Local Motherland branch member Arkadii Kurtiyan told "Kommersant-Daily" on 29 March that his party did exceptionally well considering it established itself in the region just two months ago. JAC

About 15 State Duma deputies from the LDPR, including party leader and Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii, assaulted deputies of the Motherland faction on the floor of the Duma on 30 March in a dispute over the Yamalo-Nenets elections, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. Interfax reported that Zhirinovskii attempted to strike Motherland deputy faction head Andrei Savelev, but the latter was able to fend him off. During the disturbance, which was not shown on the chamber's closed-circuit television and which lasted about five minutes, Speaker Boris Gryzlov repeatedly called on deputies to come to order and return to their seats. After leaving the chamber, Zhirinovskii refused to speak to reporters, RIA-Novosti reported, except to say that he is certain that he will be blamed for the incident. Motherland said they will ask the Duma to strip Zhirinovskii of his post as deputy speaker. Following the incident, LDPR deputies left the chamber in protest of the Yamalo-Nenets results. The party called for the resignation of okrug Governor Yurii Neelov, for the election results to be annulled, and for the local election commission to be disbanded. Zhirinovskii told deputies that if the elections are not annulled, there will be mass demonstrations in the okrug. "Do we want another Kyrgyzstan with elections like these?" he asked. RC

Konstantin Krivorotov, a senior investigator with the Prosecutor-General's Office, has denied that Musa Yusupov, the owner of the house in Tolstoi-Yurt where Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov was killed on 8 March, is dead, www.kavkaznet reported on 26 March, quoting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March 2005). Krivorotov said Yusupov was taken into custody together with three associates of Maskhadov and has been charged with abetting terrorism. Grozny police chief Ali Arsanakuev similarly told Interfax on 29 March that reports that Yusupov's body had been found have not been confirmed. LF

Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian and officials from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation signed an agreement in Yerevan on 29 March under which Japan will make available $150 million to finance construction of a modern gas-fired thermal-power plant, AFP and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The new plant, to be completed within four years, is intended to replace the obsolete Hrazdan thermal-power plant, and its generating costs will be far lower. Movsisian made clear, however, that the new plant cannot be regarded as a substitute for the Medzamor nuclear-power station, which generates up to 40 percent of Armenia's electricity. LF

Vartan Oskanian addressed the Armenian parliament on 29 March, the first day of a two-day hearing on the Karabakh conflict and the current stage of talks aimed at resolving it, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Referring to repeated violations in recent weeks of the cease-fire agreement signed 11 years ago, Oskanian said Azerbaijan has moved its troops forward, closer to Armenian positions, which suggests that "maybe they have a serious intention to start military actions." If Azerbaijan attacks, Oskanian continued, "the Armenian Army is ready to give an adequate response." Oskanian reaffirmed Yerevan's commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully, through negotiations, stressing that such a settlement cannot be imposed on the conflict parties from outside and must result from honest, open, and realistic talks between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Oskanian further argued that the international community should drop its insistence that the principle of territorial integrity takes precedence over the right to self-determination. LF

Azerbaijan's Supreme Court rejected on 29 March an appeal by seven prominent opposition politicians jailed last October for their imputed role in the unrest in Baku that followed the October 2003 presidential elections, Turan reported. The seven men were pardoned earlier this month by President Ilham Aliyev and released from jail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2005), but the court declined to annul their original convictions on charges of conspiring to provoke mass disorder. LF

Eldar Medjidov, who is the senior prosecutor in charge of the investigation into the 2 March murder of Elmar Huseinov, editor of the opposition journal "Monitor," rejected on 30 March as untrue media reports that a suspect in that case has been arrested, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 4 March 2005). The online daily reported on 30 March that an Azerbaijani from Georgia has been detained in connection with the killing, and that an unknown number of other suspects are still being sought, including some Chechens. LF

In her annual report to parliament, delivered on 25 March, Elmira Suleimanova deplored the fact that corruption in Azerbaijan "has become the norm," and government officials routinely solicit bribes, Turan and reported on 26 March. She said her office received 6,300 complaints in 2004, a 70 percent increase over the previous year. Suleimanova also admitted that "we cannot say that freedom of speech in guaranteed in Azerbaijan," and she condemned the murder of "Monitor" editor Huseinov as directed against media freedom and political stability. LF

Hadji Mamedov, who reportedly headed a group within the Interior Ministry that is suspected of several high-profile murders and abductions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 14, and 24 March 2005), tried but failed on 24 March to commit suicide while in detention, Turan reported on 25 March citing ANS television. LF

Details of the Georgian government's proposal for resolving the conflict with South Ossetia were posted on 29 March on the website of the Georgian president (http://www.president/gov/ge/article1.asp?idarticle=269), Caucasus Press reported. The text is similar to the offer unveiled by President Mikheil Saakashvili in his January address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2005 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 28 January 2005). It offers South Ossetia autonomous status within Georgia, the right to elect its "head" (he is not designated "president") and parliament, and representation within the Georgian parliament. It provides for the use in South Ossetia of Ossetian as well as "the state language" (meaning Georgian, which few Ossetians speak), and gives the South Ossetian leadership jurisdiction over education. It further promises financial compensation to Ossetian families for damages and losses sustained during the hostilities of 1990-92 and payment of pensions arrears since 1991. The Georgian government pledges to restore the region's infrastructure, provide support for private business, and "consider" establishing a special economic zone in South Ossetia. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava told Caucasus Press on 29 March the South Ossetian leadership has not yet responded to that offer, but he expressed confidence they will accept it as "there is no other solution," and "Georgia cannot offer more than this." South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity rejected Saakashvili's January offer of "broad autonomy" the day it was made. LF

Senior Georgian and U.S. military officials signed an agreement in Tbilisi on 29 March under which Washington will fund a further two-year training program for the Georgian armed forces, Caucasus Press reported. The $65 million Sustainment Stability Operations Program will provide further training for the 11th Brigade and a complete training program for two battalions of the 21st brigade, a total of some 2,060 men. It complements the "Train and Equip" program implemented between 2000-04. LF

In an appeal published on 29 March in the online newspaper "Navigator," members of the liquidated opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2005) announced the formation of a new party: Alga, Kazakhstan! (Onward, Kazakhstan!). The signatories, who include exiled opposition leader and former DVK chairman Asylbek Kozhakhmetov, wrote that the new party will follow democratic principles while struggling for power "through all legitimate means, no matter how illegally they may act against us." The appeal speaks out in favor of a "socially responsible state" and promises to preserve "the best traditions of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan." DK

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the presumptive opposition candidate in Kazakhstan's 2006 presidential elections, told a news conference in Almaty on 29 March that President Nursultan Nazarbaev should engage in direct dialogue with the opposition in light of recent events in Kyrgyzstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Speaking on behalf of the bloc For a Just Kazakhstan, Tuyakbai called for "face-to-face dialogue." Noting that "the blatant violation of electoral legislation" is one of the catalysts of "velvet revolution," Tuyakbai stressed that "all responsible political forces...should take steps to ensure that the forthcoming presidential elections be prepared and carried out in such a way that no one can doubt the veracity of citizens' voting." DK

In an interview with Russia's ORT on 29 March, ousted President Askar Akaev said he would be willing to resign the presidency. But he immediately qualified the statement, saying, "If I will be given appropriate guarantees, and if this will be in full accord with Kyrgyzstan's acting legislation." Akaev, who is currently residing near Moscow, had indicated in an earlier statement that he saw no reason to resign, reported the same day. Akaev told ORT that he is ready for dialogue, but only with the new parliament and its newly elected speaker, Omurbek Tekebaev, which he called the sole legitimate authority in the country. Insisting that he remains the legitimate president, Akaev admitted that he is not preparing to make use of his powers, calling himself "a realist." Akaev stressed, as he did in an interview to "Ekho Moskvy" the same day, that his final order to the interior minister before departing was not to use force under any circumstances. Speaker Tekebaev said he is willing to conduct talks with Akaev if parliament gives its approval, ORT reported. DK

The upper house of Kyrgyzstan's outgoing parliament dissolved itself on 29 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Deputies described the move, which clears the way for the newly seated parliament to work, as the sole legislature, as a necessary compromise to restore stability. Acting Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev and Constitutional Court Chairwoman Cholpon Baekova took part in the session. About 100 people held a protest outside the building demanding the dissolution of the new parliament and the holding of new parliamentary elections. DK

A new winner has emerged in parliamentary district 11, a constituency located in Bishkek, after a Bishkek court ruled to annul voting results at two polling stations in the district, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The court agreed with Karabai Karabekov, the losing candidate who filed suit, that significant fraud occurred at the two polling stations. Results from the remaining 14 polling stations in the district left Karabekov the winner. He overtook the candidate who had initially triumphed, Olga Bezborodova, former editor of the newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek" and a member of the pro-Akaev party Alga, Kyrgyzstan! Bezborodova now plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. Kyrgyzstan was divided into 75 electoral districts for the 27 February parliamentary elections; at present, the outcomes of up to 20 races are disputed. The Central Election Commission has ruled that new elections will be held in 13 constituencies, although no dates have been set. DK

At a press conference in Bishkek on 29 March, former Emergency Situations Minister Temirbek Akmataliev and former Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebaev denounced the events of 24 March as a coup and said its organizers should be called to account, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The two, who on 28 March formed a political movement called Akyykat (Justice), called for a state commission to investigate the circumstances of the "anti-constitutional regime change on 24 March." They stated that Askar Akaev remains the legitimate president of Kyrgyzstan and urged him to return home and address the people, saying he should resign only if he feels that such a step is necessary. Dushebaev and Akmataliev, who announced on 28 March that he plans to seek the presidency in 26 June elections, warned that protests could begin if their demands for an investigation are not met by 31 March. DK

Acting Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov announced on 29 March that documents have been discovered in government offices confirming official support for pro-government candidates in recent parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The documents allegedly include a diary by ousted President Akaev detailing financial contributions to the campaigns of specific candidates. An investigation of the materials is planned. DK

In an interview with Italy's "Corriere della Sera" on 29 March, acting Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva said the recent changes in Kyrgyzstan will not affect the country's foreign policy. She said Kyrgyzstan "will remain a close ally of Russia," adding that "at the same time we will develop our relations with the United States and with Europe." Both Russia and the United States have military bases in Kyrgyzstan, and Otunbaeva stressed, "The military bases on our soil are crucial for us in light of our neighbors' instability." She added, "We do not want the United States and Russia to enter into competition with one another on our soil." Otunbaeva also stated that while relations with other Central Asian countries will continue "with no repercussions," she hopes that her country's neighbors follow Kyrgyzstan's path in establishing a higher level of democracy. DK

Lieutenant General Vasilii Zavgorodnii, first deputy chief of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), told Interfax-AVN on 29 March that Kyrgyzstan will take part in the CSTO's Rubezh 2005 military exercises in Tajikistan on 2-6 April. Colonel Askar Japarov, deputy chief of staff of Kyrgyzstan's armed forces, told ITAR-TASS, "We've already sent a unit of 25 crack troops and two MI-8 helicopters there." The exercises, which will involve around 1,000 troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, were to have been held in Kyrgyzstan on 29 March-2 April. DK

Romanian diplomat Adrian Severin, UN special rapporteur on Belarus, presented a report to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on 29 March, in which he severely criticized Belarus's human rights record, noting that the country represents "a threat to regional security and stability," Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Belarus's permanent representative to the UN, Syarhey Aleynik, blasted the report as biased and demanded that its author offer public apologies to the country. "We were well aware that the politically motivated [UN] resolution [on human rights in Belarus in 2004] ruled out any impartiality in the preparation of the report, but what we saw in the document is shockingly unprecedented, even in comparison with other country reports," Aleynik reportedly said in Geneva. According to Aleynik, the report's allegation that the Belarusian people lack a sense of national identity is "treated by the Belarusian side as a harsh and unambiguous insult to Belarus and the Belarusian people." JM

In a report on U.S. efforts in 2004 to advance human rights and freedom worldwide, released on 28 March, the U.S. State Department accused the Belarusian authorities of continuing "to deny citizens the right to change their government," Belapan reported on 29 March. The document slams the Belarusian government for restricting "freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association" and working to "intimidate, harass, and close virtually all independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations." The report specifies that the Belarusian authorities punished critical journalists on libel charges and shut down or suspended 25 independent newspapers in 2004. JM

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dmytro Svystkov told journalists on 30 March that the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has detected and "neutralized" an international group of arms smugglers from Russia, Ukraine, and Australia who illegally supplied 12 X-55 missiles to China and Iran in 2000-01 under the pretext of exporting them to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2005), Interfax reported. Svystkov added that "in May-June 2001, citizens of Ukraine and Australia, using faked documents, illegally exported to Iran six more X-55 missiles and equipment for their maintenance on behalf of the Rosvooruzhenie state company." Svystkov noted that prosecutors launched a "number of criminal proceedings" in connection with the missile smuggling, adding that two involved smugglers died in road accidents in 2002 and 2004. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on 29 March that he is in favor of raising the efficiency of local self-government through introducing relevant constitutional amendments by this fall, Interfax reported. Yushchenko also stressed that he supports the political reform adopted by parliament in December to switch the country from its current presidential system to a parliamentary one (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 9 December 2005). The reform bill will take effect on 1 September if parliament adopts a bill on reforming the self-governing system prior to that date or, failing such passage, it will automatically go into effect on 1 January 2006. JM

Paddy Ashdown, who is the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, announced on 29 March the removal of Dragan Covic as the Croatian member of the Bosnian Presidency, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service reported. Ashdown stressed that Covic has been a "good president" since assuming office in 2002 but must be replaced to spare Bosnia embarrassment while he stands trial on corruption charges dating from his time as finance minister of the Croat-Muslim federation in 1998-2001. Ashdown argued that "anyone who is indicted for criminal offences, while holding high executive authority, [must] stand down from their post in order to defend themselves as a private citizen, so as not to damage the public office they hold," his website reported (see Western diplomats have sought unsuccessfully in recent weeks to persuade Covic to resign voluntarily (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June 2003, and 11, 21, and 24 March 2005). Since assuming office in 2002, Ashdown has repeatedly used his sweeping powers to sack Bosnian officials, mainly Bosnian Serbs, who he believes are holding up reforms or providing clandestine support to fugitive war crimes indictees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 11 February, 1 July and 20 and 30 December 2004). PM

Following High Representative Ashdown's announcement on 29 March, Bosnian Presidency member Covic called the move to sack him unconstitutional, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In recent weeks, he was supported in his determination to remain in office not only by his own Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) but also by Boris Paravac, who is Covic's Serbian colleague on the Presidency. Paravac has argued that Covic remains innocent until proven guilty. Sulejman Tihic, who is the Muslim member of the Presidency, has said that it will be difficult for Covic to carry out his duties while on trial. Covic has argued in his own defense that the corruption charges against him are part of an unspecified campaign to "put pressure on the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina." He was due to assume the chair of the Presidency in June. Ashdown banned him on 29 March from all state functions but not political activity, thereby holding open the possibility that Covic might become head of the HDZ in order to maintain a high profile. On 30 March, the trial opened in Sarajevo of Covic and five other men allegedly involved in corruption for the benefit of a Herzegovinian company in what is known as "the Lijanovic affair." Among the accused is Mato Tadic, who heads Bosnia's Constitutional Court. Under Bosnian law, judges may only be dismissed before the end of their term if they are sentenced to prison terms. PM

High Representative Ashdown's decision to sack Bosnian Presidency member Covic on 29 March has raised questions about the future of that office and of the political order in Bosnia, international and regional media reported. Many observers had expected the post of high representative to be phased out after Ashdown leaves later in 2005, but the "Financial Times" quoted an unnamed "senior U.S. diplomat" as saying that "Bosnia's leaders cannot go suddenly from having such an assertive high representative to swimming on their own, even if the European Union steps [in] with a strong role, as everyone expects" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March and 16 July 2004). Furthermore, many observers note that Ashdown's repeated sackings of elected officials underscore a central dilemma faced by the international community in administering what is in effect a protectorate in Bosnia. The issue is whether it is possible to promote Western democratic values by intervening by fiat to overrule the wishes of the electorate clearly expressed at the ballot box (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 May and 5 September 2003, 22 October 2004, and 25 March 2005.) PM

Police failed to find former General Nebojsa Pavkovic at his Belgrade home on 29 March as they attempted to deliver a summons for him to appear in a special Serbian court in connection with the 2000 abduction and murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and an assassination attempt on Serbian politician Vuk Draskovic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Pavkovic has also been indicted by the Hague-based tribunal in connection with alleged war crimes carried out in Kosova in 1998-99. In related news, Rasim Ljajic, who chairs Serbia and Montenegro's National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, said that former General Sreten Lukic has successfully undergone an operation and will soon go voluntarily to The Hague, where the war crimes tribunal has indicted him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 25 March 2005). The European Union has warned Serbia and Montenegro to improve its cooperation with the tribunal soon if it wants to receive a green light for talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. PM

Romania's government has prepared a plan to combat corruption, as requested by the European Union, Reuters reported on 28 March. The EU had given Romania a 31 March deadline to draft plans to reform its judiciary and combat graft, two issues that threaten the country's goal of joining the bloc in 2007. The government's two-year action plan includes strict deadlines to pass anti-corruption and judicial reform legislation. "We want to ensure the independence of prosecutors and their autonomy in order to boost the efficiency of our anticorruption fight and to eliminate political interference," Reuters quoted Justice Minister Monica Macovei as saying. The government is also planning a nationwide anti-corruption awareness campaign, including radio and television advertisements and high school classes on corruption, Macovei added. BW

The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee endorsed bids by Romania and Bulgaria to sign accession agreements to the European Union, Bloomberg News reported on 30 March. The committee recommended that the full European Parliament, which has veto power over membership treaties, endorse the Bulgarian and Romanian accession agreements, which are scheduled to be signed on 25 April. The 732-seat parliament will vote on the matter during the week of 11 April. "It's an important step in the accession of Romania and Bulgaria,'' Pierre Moscovici, a French lawmaker helping to steer the recommendations through the EU assembly, told Bloomberg News. "I am confident the whole parliament will give its backing." BW

Incumbent President Vladimir Voronin will face George Duca, the president of the Moldovan Academy of Sciences, in elections on 4 April, Infotag reported on 30 March. Both candidates were nominated by the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) the previous day. Voronin had been the only candidate until late in the day on 29 March, the deadline for registering candidates. But at 6:30 p.m., a group of 16 PCM lawmakers submitted the necessary forms for Duca's candidacy. The PCM holds 56 mandates in the 101-seat parliament, fewer than the 61 votes necessary to elect a president. The Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) has 26 seats in the new parliament, the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) has 11, and the Democratic Party faction, which split from the BDM, has eight seats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2005). BW

Both the BMD and the PPCD declined to nominate candidates for president, keeping a pledge not to participate in the elections, AP Flux reported on 29 March. "BMD parliamentary group decided...not to present...a nomination of its own for the first attempt to elect the head of state," BMD spokesman Victor Osipov said. He added that if there is a PCM candidate on the ballot, "a member of the BMD parliamentary group will not participate in the election -- that is, they will not enter the vote cabins." In the event that all opposition deputies boycott the 4 April vote, "BMD will examine the possibility of presenting a candidate of its own for a second attempt to elect the president of the Republic of Moldova." The PPCD has also declined to nominate a candidate and has indicated it will boycott the vote. BW

Inspired by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and infuriated by the increasing authoritarianism of Moscow, a group of Russians in the northwestern corner of the country is calling for the restoration of the economic and political values and, eventually, even the territory of medieval Novgorod.

In the last few weeks, this idea has attracted increasing attention in the Russian Federation. Most commentators have dismissed it as the harmless product of overheated intellectual discussions, but others are taking it more seriously either as a source of ideas that could help Russian society transform itself or as a genuine threat to the Russian state.

The idea of a Novgorod alternative to Moscow's approach to economic development, political organization, and foreign links has been much discussed over the last few years (see the survey of such discussions and their sources in the December 2004 "Neva,"

But the notion that Novgorod should be restored or at least define Russia's future has received heightened attention after the appearance last month on a variety of websites of what could be called the "declaration of independence of the Republic of Northern Rus" (

That document reads, in part: "We, the citizens of the free Novgorod Republic, which was illegally annexed by the Muscovite tsars in 1471-1479, declare that we do not recognize the Muscovite occupation regime whether it is tsarist, Soviet, 'democratic,' or presidential. We consider the territory of the Novgorod Republic to be occupied at the present time and we consider illegal the conduct on its territory of any elections, military draft, or tax collections.

The authors of this declaration continue: "As our final goal, we put the formation of a Republic of Northern Rus in the historical borders of the Novgorod Republic and call upon all interested citizens -- regardless of their nationality or political convictions -- and organizations to join our liberation movement."

And this document, which on 22 March attracted the attention of a Moscow website (, may gain even more readers now that one of its authors has suggested a possible symbol for the new republic: two children warming their hands over a fire under Russia's two-headed eagle (

But if that symbol may have been offered more in fun than anything else, the ideas of those behind this movement are both serious and already having a broader impact. As one of its leaders points out in an article titled "Will Russia Follow the Novgorod Path?" Novgorod represents a clear alternative future for Russia. (

Medieval Novgorod, Aleksandr Vertyachikh notes, was an open society based on trade and production, and the region, which five centuries ago extended from Smolensk in the south to the White Sea in the north and from Ivangorod nearly to Moscow, viewed itself as part of Europe.

In that regard the city stood in sharp contrast to Muscovy, a region that was based on the ever-more extensive exploitation of natural resources and people and that was controlled by a militarized state that had more in common with despotic Oriental states than with the Europe of that day or this.

As a result, Vertyachikh points out, Muscovy saw medieval Novgorod as a threat to its power and destroyed Novogorod at the end of the 15th century with consequences that Russians and their neighbors still have to live with.

He suggests that there are two possible vectors for the future of Russia: one in the Muscovite direction that would involve attempts to restore an empire and virtually guarantee that Russia would remain a backward and despotic state cut off from Europe, and a second following in the tradition of Novgorod that would allow the country to democratize and become prosperous by trade and other contacts with the outside world.

Other supporters of the Novgorod alternative have made similar arguments either on their own ( or on websites maintained by the Novgorod enthusiasts like New World-Northern Civilization (, whose website includes links to books produced by this group, or Polar Circle ( ).

And supporters of this idea have even begun to take some concrete steps. Perhaps the most interesting is the decision this month by the Saami people of the Kola peninsula to copy the experiences of their co-ethnics abroad and organize a national parliament independent of existing state structures. (

Some of this certainly reflects the antagonism people on peripheries often feel toward the central authorities. As one critic of the Novgorod alternative suggested, in the Russian Federation today, Russophobia is being replaced in the regions by Moscowphobia, an attitude reflected in the joke suggesting some Russians watch "Street Patrol" because it features dead Muscovites (

The same APN author argues that this latest episode of "Russian separatism" has its roots in the late Soviet period when Russians asked why their republic did not have many of the same institutions that other union republics did. Now, he suggests, Russians in the provinces are asking why they don't have what Moscow does.

And at least some of them, he continues, believe that they would be able to acquire what Moscow has most easily by breaking away from the Russian Federation and somehow joining Europe. That attitude currently takes the form of declarations like the one mentioned above or in a turn to local or pagan ideas, the APN writer says.

But, over time, these ideas -- which he says flourish not only in the northwestern part of the country but in Siberia and the Far East as well -- could grow into a genuine threat to the integrity of the country as a whole. And he points out something else: the local populations will portray themselves as more truly Russian than Moscow and the Russian state currently are, something that may allow them to tap into at least one segment of Russian nationalist opinion.

Because of this risk and the possibility that the Novgorod alternative or some other Russian region could become an ethnic Russian Chechnya, some Russian writers are suggesting that Moscow should make concessions to defuse the situation, but others say that Moscow must crush it (

At the very least, these ideas on Russia's periphery deserve greater attention and, at the same time, their advocates need to remember the warning one participant in an Internet chatroom offered them: They need to be "vigilant because little Moscow will be listening in" (

President Hamid Karzai said on 29 March that "there is no room" for the possibility of the United States using Afghan territory for attacks against Iran, IRNA reported. Karzai added that there is no evidence to "prove" that this could happen and that officials from neither country have discussed such an issue with the Afghan side. Karzai said his country has friendly relations with both the United States and Iran, and emphasized that one "should not forget that the Americans are the vanguard of reconstruction in the war-shattered country of Afghanistan." AT

The trial of eight alleged Islamists, four of whom are suspected of having links to the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masud, opened on 29 March in Paris, LCI Television reported. Assassins believed to be linked to Al-Qaeda killed the military leader of the United Front (aka Northern Alliance) on 9 September 2001. The four are suspected of giving logistical support to two Tunisians who, posing as journalists, killed Masud. The suspects include two Frenchmen, a Franco-Algerian, and an Algerian. AT

Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur and Ali Shakurirad, who run the election headquarters of Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and Mustafa Moin, respectively, recently met to discuss reformist campaign strategy, "Iran News" reported on 29 March. The two agreed that the conservative press is running unsourced reports that try to cause rifts within the reformist camp. Karrubi and Moin are the main reformist candidates, and according to "Iran News" two solutions are being considered for making the final choice. One solution is to let them both campaign until the last minute. The final candidate will be selected on the basis of an opinion poll and the other candidate will withdraw. Said Hajjarian of the Islamic Iran Participation Party proposed that an arbitration council would select the reformist candidate. The council would include President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Musavi, and other prominent reformists. BS

Conservative front-runner Ali Larijani said during a 29 March gathering of Sunni Muslims in Aq Qala, Gulistan Province, that all of the country's ethnic groups are important, Fars News Agency reported. He praised the country's Turkmen minority and said their respect for the elderly exceeds that of other groups. He said the Pahlavi monarchy repressed the Turkmen but now they have Sunni seminaries. BS

Zanjan parliamentary representative Rafat Bayat has declared she wants to be an independent presidential candidate, Fars News Agency reported on 29 March. The Guardians Council must approve all candidacies, and there is controversy over the gender-related aspects of the wording of the law on eligibility. Bayat expressed confidence that the Guardians Council will approve a female candidate when one with the necessary managerial and executive qualities comes forward. Bayat added, "I believe that supervisory institutions are corrupt. Therefore, only an individual who is free from factional and group tendencies will be able to solve the current economic and social problems of the country." Bayat decried the impact of factionalism on the political process. She said student groups and independent figures urged her to run. BS

Someh Sara parliamentary representative Seyyed Kazem Delkhosh said on 29 March that Europe cannot be trusted in nuclear negotiations, Fars News Agency reported. He said Iran should focus more on the IAEA as a negotiating partner. Delkhosh criticized Iranian negotiators for insufficient toughness vis-a-vis the Europeans. BS

The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned Egyptian Interests Section chief Shoqi Ismaili on 29 March to hear a complaint about a trial in Cairo. On 27 March, the court in Cairo sentenced an Egyptian to 35 years in jail and an Iranian official, who was tried in abstentia, to 25 years in jail for espionage and other activities on Iran's behalf. Ismaili promised to relay Tehran's complaint to Cairo. BS

Hassan Tiz-Maqz, secretary-general of the Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce, said in the 26 March issue of "Iran" newspaper that the two countries are discussing linking their railways. Tiz-Maqz said a short piece of track is required to connect the railway in Khorramshahr with the Iraqi network. From there it can be connected with Syria and then the Mediterranean Sea, he said. He said the Syrians would send Iranian goods to Europe by sea. Iran and Iraq agreed in April 2004 to link their railways (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 April 2004). BS

Iraqi authorities closed the country's air, land, and sea borders on 29 March ahead of the 31 March Arba'in observance to be held in Karbala, KUNA reported on 29 March. Arba'in marks the 40th day after the anniversary of the death of Imam Husayn and his brother Abbas in a battle over the Islamic leadership in the year 680. Authorities did not say when the borders will reopen, the news agency reported. Police in the Babil governorate warned pilgrims making the trip to Karbala to beware of taking food and drink from unknown sources while making the pilgrimage, after a terrorist group distributed poisoned food items to pilgrims near the Al-Hillah bus station, "Al-Mu'tamar" reported on 26 March. Three people were treated at a hospital in Al-Hillah as a result of the poisoning. Meanwhile, the Health Ministry said 400 ambulances have been stolen in the past two years. It is expected that insurgents may use the vehicles in suicide bomb attacks, "Al-Zaman" reported on 29 March. Deputy Health Minister Amr al-Khuza'i said the thefts have "highly restricted" the movement of the ministry's remaining ambulances. KR

The transitional National Assembly announced on 29 March that it will reconvene on 3 March and elect a speaker, two deputies, and a presidency council, international media reported on 30 March. The assembly failed to elect a speaker on 29 March following interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir's refusal to fill the post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2005). Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders supported the appointment of a Sunni to the position. There are some 17 Sunni parliamentarians in the 275-member assembly, including al-Yawir. Shi'ite parliamentarian Abbas al-Bayati told Al-Jazeera television in a 29 March interview that Sunnis have not reached agreement on a nominee. Possibilities include Sheikh Fawwaz al-Jarba, Nizar Habib al-Khayzaran, and Muhsin al-Yawir. Should the Sunnis fail to reach consensus by 3 April, the United Iraqi Alliance and Kurdistan Coalition "will undertake their national responsibilities and might nominate a person from outside these circles so that we could go ahead with the political process," al-Bayati said. "From the legal point of view, we are entitled to elect whoever we want, and we have the legal quorum to do so," he said, adding that the Kurds and Shi'a still prefer the Sunnis to nominate a speaker. KR

Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 29 March that Adnan al-Janabi of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi List has been nominated to be speaker of the transitional assembly. It is unclear whether the nomination will be supported by Sunni parliamentarians, however. United Iraqi Alliance member Husayn al-Shahristani told Al-Arabiyah television on 29 March that the alliance nominated him to the post of deputy speaker of the assembly. The alliance has also nominated interim Finance Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi to one of two vice presidential posts. The Iraqi People's Unity Conference of Sunni Arabs in Iraq held on 19 March in Baghdad nominated al-Sharif Ali bin al-Husayn to a vice-presidential post, "Al-Manar al-Yawm" reported on 28 March. KR

Prima television correspondent Marie Jeanne Ion and her cameraman Sorin Miscoci were reportedly kidnapped under unclear circumstances on 28 March, international media reported on 29 March. Bucharest daily "Ziua" reported that the abduction took place after Ion and Miscoci left the Romanian Embassy en route to their hotel in the capital. Another Romanian journalist, Eduard Ovidiu Ohanesian of "Romanian Libera," is also reported missing. Ion and Miscoci had only been in the country for six days at the time of their abduction. Ion reportedly called a colleague at her television station's editorial office during the abduction, "Ziua" reported. The colleague reported hearing voices speaking in Arabic while Ion shouted, "Do not kill us! We are being kidnapped! We are Romanian journalists!" Meanwhile, AP reported on 30 March that all three journalists were abducted after interviewing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Ion also sent a text message to her newsroom saying: "Help, this is not a joke, we've been kidnapped," according to AP. The journalists' abductors have yet to issue a statement about the kidnappings. KR

An independent commission headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker has cleared UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of any wrongdoing related to the awarding of a contract to the Swiss firm Cotecna under the now-defunct oil-for-food program in a 29 March report ( Cotecna employed Annan's son, Kojo, at the time the firm won the contract. The investigation determined, however, that Kojo Annan misled investigators and his father about his relationship with Cotecna, and failed to cooperate with Volcker's investigators. The report found that procurement rules were not appropriately followed because Cotecna was not asked to complete a questionnaire and submit a financial statement, nor was a criminal investigation about Cotecna Chief Executive Robert Massey's alleged payoffs to the family of Benazir Bhutto to secure an inspection contract in Pakistan noted by the UN. Kofi Annan was faulted for failing to investigate whether a conflict of interest occurred, due to his son's employment by Cotecna. Annan's senior advisers were accused in the report of misusing Iraqi funds and of shredding documents at the outset of the investigation. KR