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Newsline - March 2, 2006

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Prague from Budapest on March 1 on a visit widely seen as focusing on energy and other economic links, as well as on demonstrating closer ties to Hungary and the Czech Republic than to Poland and the Baltic states, international and regional media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). Czech President Vaclav Klaus said that Putin's visit is "necessary" and offered to conduct the talks in Russian, which Putin called an "honor," CTK reported. Putin noted that Klaus told him that the Czech Republic has returned to Russia a painting by Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi. "When I first learned about it, I was extremely surprised. Usually it is we who hand something over, or return something, or make presents. This is the first time in my experience in politics that I have seen something being returned to us," Putin added. His schedule for March 2 includes meetings with Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek and the chairmen of both parliamentary houses. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet with his Czech counterpart Cyril Svoboda. PM

Speaking in Prague on March 1, President Putin said that his country "is interested in broadening cooperation in the area of nuclear energy. We are ready to provide assistance in building new energy systems and upgrading the existing ones," international and regional media reported. He argued that "we are unfortunately faced with certain restrictions, or attempts to put restrictions on our nuclear energy, electric energy activities on European markets. We are not dramatizing anything here but we will seek equal opportunities." Putin said that "the more our partners depend on us, the more we depend on them, and we will also think about diversifying our supplies. But as far as Europe is concerned, we will act with utmost responsibility with European partners as with everyone else and will diversify transport options and work together with all of our partners, in the world and in Europe." Czech media noted that Gazprom controls Skoda JS (not to be confused with the automaker Skoda), which would enable Russia to enter the nuclear-power business in Central and Eastern Europe and be in a good position to acquire the Czech CEZ electricity company if the government decides to privatize it. Russia is also reportedly interested in the Czech banking system. PM

President Putin said on March 1 in Prague that he and President Klaus spoke "about Chechnya and we spoke about it at length, as well as about democracy issues.... I informed Mr. President about what it is going on in these areas in the Russian Federation," regional and international media reported. Putin noted that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, condemned the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on a visit to the Czech Republic 13 years ago. Putin added, however, that "the only thing that concerns us when we speak about such tragic events of the past is that these tragedies should not be used by certain political forces to stir up anti-Russian sentiments." He stressed that "while there is not and cannot be any legal responsibility [on Russia's part for the 1968 invasion], there is of course a moral responsibility, and it cannot be otherwise." For his part, Klaus replied that he does not see "any reason why today, on March 1, 2006, I should try to settle with President Putin what [former Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev's Soviet Union did in August 1968. We both know about it and understand it. It was an exceptionally tragic moment for us, but I am for a positive outlook on the present and the future." PM

The Voice of Russia, which is the state-run international broadcaster formerly known as Radio Moscow, announced on its website on March 1 that it has acquired a medium-wave (AM) license from the German state of Saxony and will soon expand its broadcasting to Central Europe, reported. Starting April 1, the Voice of Russia will air 18 hours of programs per day from Dresden to Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary in German, Russian, English, and other, unspecified, languages in cooperation with the German company T-Systems. The Russian broadcaster already works with that German firm in Berlin, Brandenburg, and Braunschweig as part of its worldwide transmissions to over 160 countries in 32 languages. PM

Ali Larijani, who is Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, said in Moscow on March 2 that the United States wants to block a possible Russian-Iranian deal on uranium enrichment, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2006). He argued that U.S. insistence on referring Iran to the UN Security Council for possible punitive sanctions is hindering an agreement. The latest round of talks between Iran and Russia on a proposal to enrich Iran's uranium on Russian soil ended earlier that day without any visible breakthrough. There was no date given for the next round. The Russian proposal is widely seen as a compromise that would allow Iran to have a civilian nuclear program, while allaying international fears the country could be building a covert nuclear weapon. A commentary in the Moscow daily "Kommersant" argued that Russia should understand that Iran and Hamas are using its Middle East policy for their own "utilitarian" benefit and to drive a wedge between Moscow and the rest of the international community. The paper stressed that Iran and Hamas rely on radical Islamic backers, and Russia "has no real levers of control over them." PM

German Gref, who is Russia's minister of economic development and trade, said in Moscow on March 2 that a bill is being drafted to restrict foreign access to 39 "economic activities...[in] strategic sectors," Interfax reported. The areas for which foreign investors must receive special permission are primarily related to the production of weapons, military hardware, and nuclear materials, as well as to the construction of nuclear facilities, he added. Gref said that the Russian legislation will nonetheless be "more liberal" than its counterparts in some other countries, such as the United States and Finland. PM

Yevgeny Samokhvalov, who is a member of a government inspection team, told RIA Novosti in Yekaterinburg on March 1 that the chemical-weapons destruction plant at Kambarka in Udmurtia Republic has been inaugurated. He said that it will use "cutting-edge technology" to produce chemicals for medicines for domestic use and export. Russia's first such facility is located in Gorny in Saratov Oblast, and an additional one is under construction in Maradykovo in Kirov Oblast. PM

The Russian Prosecutor-General's office filed a new request with British authorities on March 1 for the extradition of embattled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, Russian and international media reported. In the request, Moscow accused the exiled businessman of planning to overthrow the Russian government, in violation of the constitution. Berezovsky, who once had close ties to the Kremlin, fled Russia in 2000 after a falling out with President Putin. Berezovsky received asylum in London. He told Reuters recently that he is working to overthrow the Putin regime, which prompted British Foreign Minister Jack Straw to warn him not to do so while he is staying in the United Kingdom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). PM

Leaders of the regional branches of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party met on February 28 in Maikop, capital of the Republic of Adygeya, to discuss the party's role in implementing federal programs aimed at promoting closer integration of the two federal subjects in the socioeconomic sphere, reported. Adygeya's President Khazret Sovmen attended the meeting in his capacity as a member of Unified Russia's Supreme Council; also present was Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkach. Both men stressed that persistent rumors of the impending merger of Adygeya into Krasnodar Krai are unfounded, and serve only to destabilize the political situation (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 7 and April 22, 2005, and "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25 and April 25 and 26, 2005 and February 9, 2006). Insofar as political stability is considered a precondition for improving Adygeya's economy, the economic-integration programs may be intended as a substitute for a formal merger of the two regions. The daily "Kommersant" quoted unnamed participants at the meeting as saying that while Tkach publicly disavowed the rumored merger, he still considers it expedient, according to on March 2. LF

Interior Ministry personnel discovered and disarmed an explosive device placed under a parked police patrol vehicle in Nazran, reported on March 1. Also on March 1, Ingushetia's parliament issued an appeal to the persons who abducted lawmaker Magomed Chakhkiev two days earlier to release him, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). Ingushetian Interior Minister Major General Beslan Khamkhoyev told Interfax on March 1 that his ministry has identified possible suspects in the abduction, which he termed the work of "dark forces" out to destabilize the situation in Ingushetia. Khamkhoyev said the kidnappers have not yet made contact to set terms for Chakhkiev's release. LF

Following a heated debate on February 28, parliament postponed on March 1 voting in the first reading on draft amendments to the Law on Energy, Noyan Tapan reported. Those amendments include one abolishing the state monopoly on nuclear energy, a move that many lawmakers fear is intended to pave the way for a Russian takeover of the Medzamor nuclear power plant, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 28. Russia's Unified Energy Systems acquired the right to manage Medzamor's finances in 2003 in exchange for repaying the plant's debts for supplies of Russian nuclear fuel. The Armenian government insists the draft amendment will apply only to a new nuclear power station intended to replace Medzamor, and that failure to enact the amendment would make it more difficult to raise the foreign investment required to finance construction of that new facility. LF

Former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiyev was given emergency medical treatment for severe stomach pains during the night of February 28-March 1, reported on March 2 quoting Muradverdiyev's lawyer Fuad Agayev. Muradverdiyev was dismissed four months ago and arrested on charges of plotting mass civil disturbances and the overthrow of the country's leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2005). In January, he was reported to be suffering from high blood pressure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 2006). Rashad Mirmehtizade, a second lawyer acting for Muradverdiyev, claims he is also suffering from serious problems with his nervous system that cannot be treated as long as he remains in pre-trial confinement. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili praised on March 1 Vano Merabishvili's track record as interior minister, Prime News and Interfax reported. Saakashvili described Merabishvili as "an especially good minister" who has succeeded in solving acts of terrorism and other serious crimes. On February 28, opposition deputies walked out of parliament to protest Merabishvili's failure to answer questions relating to the suspected involvement of senior officials from his ministry in the killing in late January of banker Sandro Girgvliani (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). LF

As they have done over the past week, several hundred market traders gathered outside the Georgian parliament building on March 1 to protest the new law that went into effect that day requiring them to install cash registers, Caucasus Press reported. Similar protests have been reported in Batumi, Zugdidi, and Gori, where police blocked roads to Tbilisi on March 1 to prevent traders traveling to the capital to join the protest there. The traders complain that they cannot afford to buy cash registers, and want the new law to take effect only in 2008; they have proposed that a profit tax be introduced instead. But Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili countered on February 25 that cash registers cost as little as 200 laris ($109), Caucasus Press reported. He also explained that the cash-register requirement does not extend to small farmers seeking to sell agricultural produce at markets. Members of the opposition Labor party who joined the Tbilisi protest on March 1 argued that "if the president and the parliament do not want to listen to the people, we shall demand their resignation and new elections," Caucasus Press reported. The Georgian parliament declined on March 2 to add to its agenda a discussion of the ongoing protests, Caucasus Press reported. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev laid out his priorities for Kazakhstan's future development in an address before a joint session of parliament on March 1, Khabar reported. According to the text of Nazarbaev's address published by Kazinform, the first priority is the "successful integration of Kazakhstan into the world economy." The second is the "further modernization and diversification of Kazakhstan's economy." The third is a "modern social policy that defends the most vulnerable segments of the population while supporting economic development." The fourth is the development of education. The fifth is the "development of democracy and the modernization of the political system." The sixth is the implementation of a "national security strategy that is appropriate to modern threats and challenges." And the seventh is the continuing implementation of a "balanced and responsible foreign-policy course." In concrete policy terms, Nazarbaev proposed the introduction of a 10 percent flat income tax in 2007, and gradual reductions in the value-added tax in 2007-2009, Khabar reported. DK

Nazarbaev stressed that, while Kazakhstan will press on with democratic reforms, "permissiveness" could destabilize the country, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "We must admit that the absence of deep traditions of a democratic culture and a view of freedom as permissiveness are entirely capable of destabilizing the country," Nazarbaev said. Nazarbaev stressed that "openness also entails responsibility, and not permissiveness." Nazarbaev added that "one of the reasons for the delusions we fall into is that the liberalism of the authorities is understood as weakness and an inability to veto all manner of 'mischief' and 'caprices' of willful, ambitious individuals." He noted: "Regardless of criticism inside and outside the country, we must ensure a fairly tough system of defense for this democracy even as we develop democratic traditions." Nazarbaev concluded that "we will continue to move toward democratization, the guarantee of further freedom for citizens, and liberalization. But for this we need discipline as well." DK

In a statement on March 1, Darigha Nazarbaeva, the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and head of the Asar Party, criticized press reports about members of her family that have appeared since the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006), "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Nazarbaeva said that various media "are knowingly disseminating false information about the involvement of close relatives of the president in this crime." She said that the publications, "in addition to ridiculous accusations, [contain] direct threats toward members of my family." Nazarbaeva concluded: "I consider it necessary to issue a resolute warning to the authors of such libelous publications, in whatever public outlet or country they have appeared, that not one of these actions will be left without the inevitable legal consequences provided for by law, including international law." DK

Bulat Abilov and Petr Svoik, two leading members of the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan, announced on March 1 that they are going on a hunger strike to protest their jailing after an unsanctioned February 26 demonstration in Almaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2006), Navigator reported, citing a For a Just Kazakhstan press release. On February 28, a court sentenced Abilov and Svoik to five days' detention for their role in organizing the demonstration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). Other rally organizers were sentenced to fines and jail terms of up to 15 days. On March 1, an Almaty court increased Abilov's detention period to 15 days, Navigator reported. The court also increased the penalty imposed on Gulzhan Ergalieva from a $300 fine to 15 days' detention. DK

In a March 1 interview with the newspaper "Delo No," former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva said that little has changed in Kyrgyzstan since the ouster of President Askar Akaev on March 24, 2005. She said, "I do not think the country has undergone drastic changes. There was crime when Akaev was in power, and crime has remained since [current President Kurmanbek] Bakiev came to power." Otunbaeva is currently co-chair of the Asaba Party. DK

Almaz Orazaliev, deputy chief of police in Bishkek, told journalists on March 1 that a man he described as a member of an organized crime group was shot dead in Bishkek on March 1, reported. Orazaliev identified the victim as Adis Kulmanbetov, who at one time had been sought, along with Ryspek Akmatbaev, in connection with a triple murder. Charges against Orazaliev were later dropped. Akmatbaev is the brother of the legislator Tynychbek Akmatbaev, who was killed during a visit to a prison in October 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 2005). Akmatbaev was recently cleared of multiple murder charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2006) and is currently running to occupy his brother's vacant seat in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2006). DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov met with Chinese Ambassador Lu Guisheng in Ashgabat on March 1 to discuss the details of Niyazov's planned visit to China in April, reported. Niyazov's visit will focus on the possible export of Turkmen natural gas to China, Turkmen Television First Channel reported. Niyazov told a cabinet meeting in January that a proposed pipeline to China could carry 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2006). DK

A court in Tashkent sentenced Nodira Hidoyatova, coordinator of the opposition Sunshine coalition, on March 1 to a 10-year prison term for a variety of economic crimes, reported. Hidoyatova, who maintained her innocence, was convicted of membership of a "criminal group" along with the brothers Abror and Sanjar Umarov. Sanjar Umarov, leader of the Sunshine coalition, is also on trial for economic crimes; he is expected to be sentenced in the coming days. DK

"RFE/RL Newsline" on March 1 incorrectly identified Kote Kemularia. He is chairman of the Georgian National Security Council.

Security forces on March 2 beat and detained presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who is challenging incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the March 19 presidential election, Belapan and Reuters reported. Kazulin, former rector of Belarusian State University, was trying to register for the two-day All-Belarusian People's Assembly, which opened in Minsk on March 2, when plainclothes officers knocked him to the ground, took him out of a hall, and drove him away. Officers also scuffled with journalists, injuring a Reuters television correspondent. Nina Shydlouskaya, a spokeswoman for Kazulin, told Reuters that he is being held at a police station in Minsk. "He has been beaten up quite badly. We don't know what his status is at the moment," Shydlouskaya added. JM

Stsyapan Sukharenka, head of the State Security Committee (KGB), told journalists in Minsk on March 1 that opposition activists are planning to detonate explosives in a crowd at one of their protests after the March 19 presidential vote and then blame the authorities for the resulting bloodshed, Belapan and Reuters reported. "Blood and victims would give the protest organizers a free hand to seize the buildings of government agencies and train stations, block railroads in order to paralyze the state," Sukharenka said. He noted that the plot is to be carried out by activists of nongovernmental organizations aided by "militants" from Georgia, Ukraine, and former Yugoslav republics. "I do not think that after we have made it public they will take such a step. However, we will keep on monitoring the situation and if they take such a risk, we will find the explosives," Sukharenka added. JM

Speaking on Ukraine's Channel 5 on March 1, united opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich denied that his supporters are planning to seize power, Reuters reported. "This is an absolutely malicious falsehood," Milinkevich said. "We are peaceful people, a peaceful coalition. We are telling the authorities all the time -- hold a fair election, and there won't be any revolution in Belarus. But the authorities do not want to do so." Without securing official permission, Milinkevich has called on his supporters to meet with him on Liberty Square in downtown Minsk on March 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna told Belapan on March 1 that Milinkevich may be held responsible by criminal prosecutors for organizing an unsanctioned rally. Meanwhile, Milinkevich told journalists the same day that the authorities' behavior toward the planned rally will be a "litmus test" for the opposition. "If they use force, we reserve the right to take appropriate measures," Milinkevich said without elaborating. JM

Opposition presidential candidate Milinkevich told journalists in Minsk on March 1 that the presidential election campaign in the country has "degenerated into a farce," Belapan reported. Milinkevich charged that the authorities intentionally disrupt meetings of his authorized representatives with voters, seize legal campaign material, and pressure his campaign activists to give up political activities. "They grab our activists, take them to police stations, and bring charges against them. Some thugs appear, shove them, and take away mobile phones from them," Milinkevich noted. He said he has harbored no illusions that the campaign would be fair but added that what is going on now "cannot be described in any other way than terrorism." Milinkevich accused the state media of generating "revolution hysteria" and reiterated that the pro-democratic forces are not plotting any revolution. JM

Belarusian Television on March 1 broadcast a show about a presidential fund for support of gifted students instead of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's presidential campaign spot to which he is entitled under law, Belapan reported. Lukashenka also gave up his right to his TV campaign spot on February 21, when Belarusian Television aired a cautionary documentary about political revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Also, on February 24, Belarusian Radio played Soviet-era Belarusian songs when Lukashenka's campaign address was expected to be broadcast. On March 2-3, the three Belarusian national television channels are to air a total of 10 hours of live broadcasting from the Third All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk, at which some 2,500 delegates handpicked by the presidential administration are expected to approve a program of socioeconomic development of the country for the next five years. JM

Kyiv and Washington have completed bilateral talks on mutual access to commodity and services markets under Ukraine's preparations to obtain membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Interfax-Ukraine reported on March 1. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced on March 1 that Ukrainian Economy Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is expected to sign a relevant agreement with U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman in Washington on March 6. Ukraine began talks over WTO membership in 1994 and has yet to complete bilateral talks with eight more countries. Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said on March 2 that the accord with the U.S. gives Ukraine hope for joining the WTO this year. JM

In a move he described as an effort to preserve Kosova's ruling coalition, Bajram Kosumi resigned as prime minister on March 1, international news agencies reported. Kosumi's decision followed criticism of his leadership as Kosova engages in critical talks on its final status. "I find the correct and ethical action is to resign from the post of prime minister," Reuters quoted Kosumi as saying. Kosumi had drawn criticism from members of Kosova's ruling coalition, but the decision to resign came when he lost the support of his own Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK). He has also come under fire from international officials. Soren Jessen-Petersen, the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said Kosumi's resignation came "in recognition of many calls reaching the authorities here...that we want to support Kosovo, but at the same time we want the leaders and the people to work very, very hard to earn that which they want to see in Kosovo," Reuters reported. BW

The AAK on March 1 nominated Kosova Protection Corps (TMK) commander Agim Ceku as Kosumi's replacement, international news agencies reported the same day. Ceku is a former general in the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). Ceku "will lead Kosovo with dedication toward the achievement of our common goal of an independent and sovereign state," the AAK said in a statement quoted by Reuters. Ceku's nomination drew harsh criticism from Belgrade. "The proposal that Ceku should take over such a big and important political role is a sign that the ethnic Albanian side is losing their composure and opting for radicalization," Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, head of Serbia's Kosova Coordination Center, said, Beta and dpa reported on March 1. BW

Speaking on Serbian state television, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on March 1 that Belgrade will arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic and hand him over to the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), AP reported the following day. "Our state sorely needs us to fully meet our responsibility toward The Hague tribunal," Kostunica said in an interview broadcast on March 1 and partially rebroadcast the next day. "We have to do this in the most immediate future." When asked if his comments meant that Mladic will be handed over to the ICTY by the end of March as the European Union has demanded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006), Kostunica replied, "Of course." He added, "Since this has not happened yesterday, it must happen tomorrow, or rather, in the nearest future." BW

Montenegro's parliament on March 1 passed legislation setting the ground rules for an independence referendum, dpa reported the same day. According to the law, 55 percent of those casting ballots must vote in favor for the republic to become independant. The 55 percent threshold was proposed by the European Union, and criticized by pro-independence Montenegrin officials as unfair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 23, and 24, and March 1, 2006). President Filip Vujanovic is scheduled to name the date for the referendum - widely expected to be May 21 -- on March 2. BW

The Children's Human Rights Center of Albania (CRCA) on March 1 accused Tirana of failing to address the problem of child labor, AP reported. The CRCA also assailed the Albanian government for not caring for street children and thus leaving them vulnerable to traffickers. "During the last 15 years, the Albanian government has shown a lack of attention to eliminating the economic exploitation of children and fighting its causes," the CRCA said in a report, adding that child labor is "one of the gravest human rights crimes" in Albania. The CRCA said that approximately 50,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 have been forced into begging, prostitution, or selling trinkets in the street, or are made to work in textile factories, construction, fishing, or agriculture. BW

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced on March 1 that talks aimed at resolving the conflict in Transdniester have been suspended until further notice, AFP reported the following day. According to the OSCE's mission chief in Moldova, the talks broke down over approximately 6,000 hectares of agricultural land in the breakaway province. Moldova says that the land, located on the Transdniester side of the Dniester River, belongs to villagers from Dorotskoe, located on the Moldovan side. Chisinau says the villagers should be allowed to work the land without hindrance. Moldovan officials left the talks on February 28, citing an overall lack of progress (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). BW

Kosova (Kosovo) seems poised to acquire a new prime minister and speaker of the parliament in what some media have described as a political upheaval, albeit one that was long overdue. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the changes is the nomination of General Agim Ceku as prime minister in a move that takes an already very influential figure out of the wings and onto center stage.

Bajram Kosumi of the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) announced his resignation from the post of prime minister in Prishtina (Pristina) on March 1, saying that this was the only "correct and ethical action" for him to take in order to preserve the governing coalition's legislative majority and the confidence of the international community. In what was seen as a parallel move aimed at revitalizing the governing coalition, the larger Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) of the late President Ibrahim Rugova announced its decision to sack Nexhat Daci as speaker of the parliament and replace him with Kole Berisha, who has been the de facto head of the LDK since Rugova's death in January.

The two changes have some elements in common. The coalition has been weakened by a prolonged dispute in 2005 over control of the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry that reflected badly on the leaderships of both parties. Both Kosumi and Daci have been tainted by scandal and accused of arrogance, and not just by the opposition. Kosumi in particular came under fire for accepting favors from private businessmen fairly early in the one year since he replaced Ramush Haradinaj as head of the government after Haradinaj, who founded the AAK, voluntarily went to The Hague to face war crimes charges. Kosumi eventually lost credibility within his own party and has also been criticized by some members of the international community, including Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK).

Some commentators in Kosova have suggested that a further reason for the ouster of the two men is a general dissatisfaction with the progress of talks on Kosova's final status, which began recently in Vienna and are slated to resume on March 17. This view is not universally held, however, and Kosumi cited the progress made towards independence so far as one of his accomplishments when he delivered his resignation speech.

In any event, several Kosovar political leaders and Martti Ahtisaari, who is the UN's chief negotiator for the status talks, made it clear that the changes will have no adverse effect on the negotiations. Ahtisaari said that the latest political developments in Prishtina are a matter for the Kosovar leadership itself and that he expects the talks to move ahead. President Fatmir Sejdiu, who recently succeeded Rugova and also belongs to the LDK, called the changes "part of a normal [political] process" and pledged to work together with everyone concerned. Hashim Thaci, who leads the opposition Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), said that Kosova's future does not depend on individuals but on institutions.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the changes is Ceku's emergence from the sidelines of political life on to center stage. Like Haradinaj and Thaci, he was a commander of the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), but unlike them he still wears a uniform, this time as head of the civilian Kosova Protection Corps (TMK). That body consists mainly of ex-UCK guerrillas and is widely seen as the nucleus of the army of a future independent Kosova. Ceku has nonetheless said repeatedly that he does not rule out going into politics and has sometimes spoken out on important issues of the day.

Unlike many in the former UCK leadership, Ceku, who is 45, did not begin his military career as a guerrilla. He was an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) when the conflict began in Croatia in 1991 and joined the Croatian army. Many Serbs have accused him of war crimes against Serbian civilians there, and court in Nis convicted him in absentia in 2002 of "genocide" against the Serbian minority in Kosova.

It is thus not surprising that Serbian reaction to the news of Ceku's nomination as prime minister was negative. Goran Bogdanovic, who is a leader of the Serbian List for Kosovo and Metohija party, told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service that a man with Ceku's particular military past cannot be expected to serve as a representative of all citizens. Bogdanovic argued that Ceku's appointment "is not good, above all for Kosovo, for all citizens of Kosovo, and especially for the Serbs. I can't imagine...who of the Serbian [leaders] would take part in a government headed by Ceku." In Belgrade, Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, who heads the Serbian government's coordinating team for the status talks, said that "the proposal that Ceku should take over such a big and important political role is a sign that the ethnic Albanian side is losing their composure and opting for radicalization."

George W. Bush paid a five-hour surprise visit to the Afghan capital Kabul on March 1 en route to India and Pakistan, international news agencies reported. Bush is the first serving U.S. president to visit Afghanistan since Dwight Eisenhower in 1959, RFE/RL reported. Describing Bush's visit as "a wonderful moment for us in Afghanistan today," Karzai called Bush "our great friend, our great supporter, a man [who] helped liberate us, a man [who] helped us rebuild, a man [who] helped us move toward the future." For his part, Bush said that people "all over the world are watching the experience here in Afghanistan," adding that he hopes the "people of Afghanistan understand that, as democracy takes hold," they "are inspiring others, and that inspiration will cause others to demand their freedom." AT

The siege inside Pol-e Charkhi Prison on the outskirts of the Afghan capital following riots that began on February 26, ended on March 1, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and March 1, 2006). A body was recovered from the prison, bringing the number of dead to five. Journalists were allowed to visit the prisoners who were involved in the riot, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on March 1. Pockmarks on the prison walls suggested a heavy exchange of fire, the report added. Afghan Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasem Hashemzai did not explain how the government managed to end the riots, but praised the tactics of the police in the incident. Hashemzai promised that the government will review the prisoners' grievances. AT

In a secret ballot, the Afghan parliament has voted to confirm members of Karzai's cabinet individually rather than to vote on the whole cabinet as a package as hoped for by President Karzai, "The New York Times," reported on February 28. The vote, 130 to 90, is expected to lead a long and controversial confirmation process of the cabinet. Soon after the inauguration of the National Assembly, opposition media warned that Karzai did not have full authority to form his cabinet and after the confirmation process a mixed cabinet should be expected to emerge that would include not only Karzai's supporters but also his opponents (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," January 16, 2006). AT

In a March 2 press release, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the trial of Asadullah Sarwari "violated basic fair-trial and due-process standards." Sarwari was sentenced to death on February 25 by a special National Security tribunal for his role as the head of the intelligence service of Afghanistan's communist regime in 1978 under former communist ruler Nur Mohammad Taraki. He has the right to appeal his sentence within 20 days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2006). "A notorious human rights abuser has been convicted but his trial was so flawed that it actually represents a setback for the cause of justice in Afghanistan," said Sam Zarifi, the research director of HRW's Asia division. "The court of appeals should throw out this conviction and show that in today's Afghanistan, the rule of law applies, even to the most notorious former leaders." Sarwari was held without trial or even clear charges until December 26, when he was put on trial for the killing of hundreds of Afghans. According to HRW, Sarwari did not have legal counsel at his trial because he could not afford a lawyer and the court could not find a lawyer willing to represent him. AT

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said on March 1 that the five hours of nuclear discussions with visiting Iranian officials were "constructive and earnest," but some issues await resolution, Interfax reported. Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said the discussions will continue. Larijani emphasized that Iran will not forgo enriching uranium on its own territory, even if it does agree to the proposal that it use uranium enriched in Russia. "I want to say that the enrichment process is the sovereign right of any state," he said. "States with a peaceful nuclear program must not be deprived of this right." BS

Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, the supreme leader's representative at the Supreme National Security Council, said at a March 1 meeting of clerics in Yazd that Iran is facing pressure over the nuclear issue because the international community wants to hinder the country's development and independence, ISNA reported. "The pressures forced on us are all because the enemies fear the region and Islam," he said. "Our sin is that we confess that God has created us intelligent and that we want to stand on our own feet." Rohani said Iran has cooperated with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), answering all their questions and making all facilities accessible. Contrary to Rohani's assertion, the IAEA report on Iran that was released to the board of governors on February 27 suggests Iran's cooperation has been underwhelming. It concludes by saying that even after "three years of intensive agency verification," uncertainties about the nature and scope of the nuclear program remain. Elsewhere in the report there are references to the quest for further clarification on topics, as well as instances where Iran "declined to provide" information, declined to make people available, and "declined to discuss" some subjects. BS

An unnamed Israeli "senior diplomatic official" said Israel will block the Iranian provision of money to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on March 1. The day before, Hamas political bureau chief Khalid Mish'al was quoted by the London-based Arabic daily "Dar al-Hiyat" as saying that Iran has agreed to provide the Palestinian Authority with $250 million. Another Hamas official, Musa Abu Marzuk, denied this, saying Iran promised "to support the Palestinian people in general, without specifying the kind or amount of support," "The Jerusalem Post" reported on February 28. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri confirmed on February 28 that Iran will provide financial assistance, Jiji Web news Service reported, although he would not confirm Mish'al's claim. Mish'al reportedly secured a pledge of financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority during his February 22 visit to Tehran ("RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2006). The United States and Israel have made clear, since the Hamas election victory in late January, that they will not fund a Hamas-led government until the organization renounces the use of violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. BS

Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei announced on 1 March that more than 10 people have been arrested in the last week in connection with bomb explosions in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, IRNA and state television reported. Ahvaz has been the site of several bombings in the last nine months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). Mohseni-Ejei added that Iran's foreign enemies hired the bombers, and seized documents indicate that they received logistical support from abroad. BS

Two men, Ali Afravi and Mehdi Navaseri, were executed in the southwestern city of Ahvaz on the morning of March 2 for their involvement in fatal October bombings there, Fars News Agency reported. Khuzestan Province Deputy Governor-General Mohsen Farokhinejad said on March 1 that the executions are to be carried out in public in the same place -- Salman Farsi Avenue -- where their bombs went off, provincial television reported. Farokhinejad added that the other five people involved with the bombings will be imprisoned. Khuzestan television also reported on March 1 that "a documentary film showing parts of [the bombers'] confessions" will be broadcast that evening. That 30-minute program showed nine men confessing, saying they were in touch with Iranians in Canada and Britain who instructed them to create insecurity. One of the bombers, Awdah Afravi, said he was told that a man like Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was being sought, but he did not know who that is. BS

Militias loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced on March 2 that they will take responsibility for defending Baghdad's Al-Sadr City after a bomb blast killed five people there, Reuters reported. "Today, the terrorists have targeted Al-Sadr City because it has a Shi'ite majority, which [says] that the extremists want to fight Shi'ites wherever they are," Shi'ite cleric Hazim al-Araji, who is close to al-Sadr, told Reuters. "We are going to coordinate with Iraqi army and police but the [Imam Al-] Mahdi Army is going to have a key role providing protection." At least five people were killed and eight wounded in an explosion in a minibus in Al-Sadr City on March 2, Reuters reported. BW

Deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein acknowledged in court on March 1 that he ordered trials leading to the executions of dozens of Shi'a, but insisted that he was acting within the law, Reuters reported the same day. "Where is the crime?" Hussein asked in reference to his role in the executions of 148 men from Al-Dujayl. "I referred them to the revolutionary court according to the law. Awad was implementing the law, he had a right to convict and acquit," he added, referring to co-defendant Awad al-Bandar, the former chief judge of the Revolutionary Court. The executions, and the razing of farms around the town, followed an attempt on Hussein's life there in 1982. Describing how gunmen fired machine guns as his motorcade as it drove through the town during a visit, Hussein said, "I saw the bullets with my own eyes." BW

Iraqi politicians on March 1 demanded an investigation into why the government did not act on a warning about plans to bomb the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Reuters reported the same day. Reuters quoted unidentified officials as saying that National Security Minister Abd al-Karim al-Anzi sent a report to the government warning that security had been breached at the Golden Mosque two weeks before the 22 February bombing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). "He sent a report saying they had received information of attacks being prepared against Shi'ite shrines," an unidentified official told Reuters. "This shows incompetence." Al-Anzi said that he warned the government that militants were planning attacks on Shi'ite religious sites, but he insisted that his report referred to Karbala, not Samarra. BW

Four Iraqi policemen and seven soldiers were killed in an insurgent attack on a checkpoint north of Tikrit on March 2, Al-Arabiyah television reported. An unnamed security source told the news channel that 20 gunmen attacked a joint army-police checkpoint and set fire to a number of vehicles. At least three Iraqi policemen were killed in northern Iraq on March 1 when armed gunmen ambushed a convoy transporting them to Tikrit from Al-Sulaymaniyah, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Some 50 police officers were traveling in the convoy; at least eight were wounded in the attack. The perpetrators initially took 22 police officers hostage, but they were later released, Reuters reported on March 1. Another 16 escaped. KR

Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and a secular party have reportedly held discussions over whether to ask the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) to withdraw its nomination for Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to retain his position as prime minister in the incoming government, international media reported on March 1. Sunni, Kurdish, and secular political parties are now considering whether to send a formal letter to the UIA requesting they change their nomination, but no decision has been reached on the issue, reported on March 2. Leaders from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, the Kurdistan Coalition, and the Iraqi National List have expressed reservations about al-Ja'fari's nomination. Under the election law, the bloc that wins the majority of seats in parliament is responsible for naming a prime minister and cabinet. Al-Ja'fari defeated fellow Shi'ite leader Adil Abd al-Mahdi by just one vote in an internal UIA election last month to secure the bloc's nomination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2006). KR

Kamran al-Karadaghi, chief of staff for President Jalal Talabani, told RFE/RL on March 1 that Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), an interim constitution written by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority, remains in effect until the cabinet is formed. As such, the president is under no legal obligation to call the parliament to session within 15 days, as is required under the newly ratified constitution, al-Karadaghi said. Regarding Talabani's urging that the president play a greater role in the permanent government, al-Karadaghi said that Talabani has not called for a constitutional amendment to enhance his powers, as some politicians claim. Rather, he has called for a mechanism to give the president more authority to actively participate in government, including in the cabinet. One possibility might be through a law establishing a national security council that would be headed by the president. KR