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Newsline - March 3, 2006

Hamas political bureau chief Khalid Mish'al and his delegation arrived in Moscow on March 3 for talks with Russian officials, international and Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10, 15, and 28, 2006). He said that the "trip will mark an important step in Hamas's relations with the international community. Moscow is the capital of a great country, and we see it is a gate to the international arena.... We aim to hold political consultations to clarify our position and to listen to Russian positions." He stressed that Israel is at the core of the problem in the Middle East, not the Palestinians. "We want a place in the region, but it cannot be achieved without removing the occupation and the return of the Palestinian rights and land," he added. Mish'al hailed Russia's role in the region and "the courage of President [Vladimir] Putin, who invited Hamas leaders." PM

In Washington on March 2, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said that "the United States is not going to deal with Hamas," international media reported. He stressed that Hamas is "a terror group. Every country is free to make its own decisions about who it meets with and who it doesn't meet with. Our position is that if you are going to meet with a terrorist group, you should make it clear to them that their way of doing business is unacceptable, that their philosophy is contrary to the norms of the civilized world." PM

Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the Russian State Duma International Affairs Committee, told Interfax on March 3 that Iran is using talks with Russia on Tehran's nuclear program to stall for time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006). "This tactic has been obviously chosen by Iran for negotiations. Iran is now using every opportunity to drag out the talks. One can only guess what Iran needs [the extra time] for," he said. Kosachyov stressed that "progress could have already been made if Iran had made [up its mind] regarding the outcome of the negotiations. But that has not happened, and I consider it a bad sign that Iran is not very much interested in an agreement, and that the negotiating process itself is much more important [to Tehran] than the results." PM

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his 75th birthday on March 2 in a Moscow restaurant in the company of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and numerous other dignitaries in what Gorbachev called his last big party "before old age begins," dpa reported. He previously told "Komsomolskaya pravda" that his only regret is not having sent his successor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, "to pack citrus fruit in some banana republic." Gorbachev recently told REN-TV that he has not met with Yeltsin in 15 years and has no desire to see him. "I have never met with him [since 1991] and do not want to. He feels the same.... [Yeltsin] has failed to rid himself of a base character trait, which is vindictiveness." Gorbachev charged that Yeltsin committed "an unforgettable act of treason" by signing the 1991 agreement establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States, thus dealing the death blow to the Soviet Union, without Gorbachev's approval. Yeltsin recently celebrated his own 75th birthday at a gala in the Kremlin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31 and February 1 and 3, 2006). PM

President Putin told former Soviet leader Gorbachev in a telegram on March 2 that he is among those "politicians who have had an effect on modern world history," Interfax reported. Putin added that Gorbachev's "name is associated with the transition to a policy of openness in the sphere of international relations and...the changes that allowed our country to make a decisive step towards democratic reforms. Even today, [your] significant experience in politics and in life and your interest in solving social problems help you in your active work to carry out educational, ecological, and charity projects." PM

An Italian parliamentary investigation into Mehmet Ali Agca's May 13, 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II has concluded that the leaders of the Soviet Union were behind the effort, London's "The Guardian" reported on March 3. The investigating commission says in its report that it "believes, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate Pope John Paul. They relayed this decision to the military secret services for them to take on all necessary operations to commit a crime of unique gravity, without parallel in modern times." Senator Paolo Guzzanti, who chairs the commission, also noted that Italy now has photographic evidence to prove that local Bulgarian airlines representative Sergei Antonov was in St. Peter's Square at the time that Agca shot the pope. Antonov has always denied being in the square at that time, and a 1986 trial acquitted him of conspiracy in the attempted killing. PM

Boris Labusov, who is a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), told Interfax on March 2 that the charges in the Italian legislative report are "absurd." He added that "all assertions of any kind of participation in the attempt on the pope's life by Soviet special services, including foreign intelligence, are completely absurd." In Sofia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Dimitar Tsanchev also rejected the commission's findings, adding that the conclusions of the 1986 trial remain definitive for Bulgaria. He also noted that the late pope himself had rejected what was widely called "the Bulgarian connection" theory, which held that the Bulgarian secret services organized the attempted killing at Moscow's behest. Pope John Paul wrote in his book "Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums" of the assassination attempt that Agca was just a tool and that "someone else planned it, someone else commissioned it." Meanwhile, several members of the Italian opposition charged on March 2 that Senator Guzzanti's report is an attempt by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government to discredit leftist forces in general in the weeks leading up to Italy's general election. PM

The Supreme Court ruled on March 2 that imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has a right to see his attorneys during working hours and not just in his spare time, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2006). PM

A spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Union said in Moscow on March 2 that new government statistics show a 17 percent drop in the number of people arriving in Russia on tourist visas in 2005 compared to 2004, when the rate of decline over the previous year was 9.4 percent, "The Moscow Times" reported. She blamed high and rising prices, a lack of affordable hotel space, and Russia's poor international image as a tourist destination for the continuing drop. The spokeswoman also argued that the government has not made any attempt to remedy the problem in areas that it controls, such as the railways and major museums. Russia spends about $3.6 million per year to promote tourism, while Finland, for example, budgets over $31 million and Mexico spends nearly $145 million. PM

Alu Alkhanov submitted to the Chechen parliament on March 2 his proposed candidate to succeed Sergei Abramov as prime minister, Russian media reported. That candidate is First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. Parliament is to vote on his nomination on March 4; parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov told Interfax on March 1 that if Alkhanov proposed Kadyrov's candidacy, lawmakers would unanimously endorse it (see End Note). LF

Police in Daghestan have reacted with skepticism to Azerbaijani media reports that the radical wing of the Lezgin separatist organization Sadval has formed an underground "terrorist" organization, reported on March 1, citing An unnamed Daghestani Interior Ministry official pointed out that most of the terrorist acts committed in Daghestan last year took place in the northern half of the republic, in Makhachkala or Khasavyurt, while the fertile and densely populated southern regions remained relatively calm. The Lezgins are Daghestan's sixth-largest ethnic group. In the early 1990s, Sadval campaigned for an independent Lezgin state comprising parts of southern Daghestan and northern Azerbaijan, which is home to a Lezgin minority numbering some 180,000-250,000 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 10, 2006). LF

Artur Baghdasarian issued a statement on March 2 condemning the police raid two days earlier on the Yerevan apartment of Gagik Avetian, a lawmaker from Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir (OY, Law-Based State) party, Noyan Tapan reported. Avetian told parliament on February 28 that the police sought documentation concerning a business he no longer owns; he attributed the raid to his pledge of support for residents of Yerevan's Buzand Street who have been evicted from their homes in connection with an urban redevelopment scheme (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 29, September 12, and October 13, 2005 and February 28, 2006). Baghdasarian too implied a connection between what he termed the police officers' "groundless persecution" and Avetian's activity on behalf of the Buzand residents. The opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" on March 2 termed the incident "the first public clash" between OY and the other two member parties in the ruling government coalition. LF

Speaking in a television interview late on March 2, Armenian President Robert Kocharian downplayed the failure during talks between himself and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in France last month to sign an agreement on basic principles for resolving the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2006). Kocharian said that failure was "not a tragedy," and that talks on a settlement will continue; he implied that over-optimistic predictions by some international figures generated exaggerated expectations that such an agreement was imminent. Responding to a March 1 statement by Aliyev suggesting that Azerbaijan might abandon its stated commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1 2006), Kocharian said that in the event Azerbaijan opts out of further peace talks or launches a military attack on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), Armenia will formally recognize the NKR de facto as an independent state and legally assume responsibility for the region's security. He implied that Azerbaijan does not have "the political will" to make the major concessions any peace deal would require. In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 18, NKR President Arkady Ghukasian similarly said that "if we see that Azerbaijan is really unprepared for concessions we will have to raise the issue of Armenia's recognition of Karabakh." LF

U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish has released a statement in connection with the first anniversary of the still unsolved murder of Elmar Huseynov, who was editor of the outspoken opposition journal "Monitor," reported on March 3. Harnish described Huseynov as a courageous and talented journalist who contributed greatly to promoting civic dialogue. Ambassador Maurizio Pavesi, who heads the OSCE's Baku office, called on the Azerbaijani authorities on March 2 to step up their hunt for Huseynov's killers, reported. Huseynov was gunned down in the stairwell of his apartment building on March 2, 2005. LF

Ruslan Basirli, leader of the opposition youth organization Yeni Fikir (New Idea), who was arrested last August on charges of colluding with Armenian intelligence, lost consciousness on March 2 while giving testimony, reported on March 3 quoting Basirli's lawyer Osman Kyazimov. Basirli was reported last month to be suffering from problems with his kidneys, heart, and liver (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006). LF

Addressing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Permanent Council in Vienna on March 2, U.S. Charge d'Affaires Kyle Scott expressed concern that recent incidents in South Ossetia could have triggered new bloodshed there, and he called on "both sides to exercise restraint and take care to avoid any further incidents." In a statement posted on the webpage of the U.S. OSCE mission, Scott likewise expressed "dismay" at Russia's "perplexing decision" last week to pull out of a session of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetia conflict zone that was scheduled to take place in Vienna on February 20-21. Russia instead summoned South Ossetian and North Ossetian leaders to Moscow for talks in which Georgia did not participate. Scott said the cancellation of the Vienna talks was "a significant setback," and he called on "all sides to agree now to a meeting of the JCC as soon as practical and in a mutually agreeable location." Also on March 2, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava similarly called for convening a session of the JCC as soon as possible, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Scott further told the OSCE's Permanent Council on March 2 that "there is much work to do, including reconciling the relatively few differences between the peace plan proposed by Georgia, which the OSCE Ministerial [Council meeting in Ljubljana in December 2005] recognized as a basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict, and the plan proposed a few days later by South Ossetia." Noting that "the current situation calls for confidence-building steps by all parties," Scott praised "the unilateral steps recently announced by the Georgian leadership to begin demilitarization and improve security in South Ossetia," and he called on Russia and South Ossetia "to reciprocate with confidence-building measures of their own," including allowing international observers to monitor the Roki tunnel that connects South Ossetia with Russia's Republic of North Ossetia and withdrawing "Russian personnel and equipment that does not belong in the conflict zone." LF

Tamar Kintsurashvili, who was named six months ago as general director of Georgian Public Broadcasting, rejected on March 2 as inappropriate concern expressed by parliament deputies over a string of firings and resignations of the broadcaster's employees, Caucasus Press reported. At a Tbilisi press conference on February 28, some of those former employees accused Kintsurashvili of mismanagement and nepotism. Kintsurashvili stressed on March 2 that Public Broadcasting is an independent entity and lawmakers have no right to interfere in its personnel policy. LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev issued a decree on March 2 appointing Amangeldy Shabdarbaev head of the National Security Committee (KNB), Kazinform reported. The Senate (upper chamber of parliament) approved Shardarbaev's appointment with a unanimous vote of 34 in favor, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Nazarbaev, who released Shabdarbaev from his current position as head of the presidential guard on March 2, said that the new KNB head "has no negative recommendations and enjoys wide authority." Shabdarbaev succeeds Nartai Dutbaev, who stepped down as KNB chairman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2006) after five members of the KNB's Arystan special-forces unit were arrested in connection with the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). Queried about the fate of the special-forces unit, Shabdarbaev said, "I can't draw snap conclusions, but measures will be taken," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Before being appointed to head the president's guard in 2002, Shabdarbaev served as Arystan's commander in 1997, Interfax-AVN reported. DK

Nazarbaev chaired a meeting of the Security Council on March 2 and ordered a draft national security strategy for 2006-2010 drawn up within a month, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Nazarbaev stated that the new national security strategy should "further Kazakhstan's entrance into the ranks of the 50 most competitive states in the world." In policy terms, the report said that the new strategy envisions a more active role for Kazakhstan in Central Asia; constructive relations with Russia, China, and the United States through both bilateral ties and international organizations; and measures to improve the equipment and training of Kazakhstan's armed forces. DK

President Nazarbaev stated on March 2 that Erzhan Utembaev, the arrested administrative head of the Senate who has been charged with organizing the murder of opposition leader Sarsenbaev, has written him a letter confessing to the crime, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Nazarbaev said, "Utembaev has already confessed to law-enforcement agencies, and he's written me a letter in which he reported that he has fully acknowledged his guilt." Nazarbaev stressed that Utembaev wrote to him that "he decided on this deed without any pressure because the deceased [Sarsenbaev] impugned his honor." Utembaev is alleged to have contracted Sarsenbaev's murder out of "personal enmity" after Sarsenbaev made comments in an interview that Utembaev felt harmed his career (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). DK

Nazarbaev told a session of the Senate on March 2 that he has confidence in the body's leadership, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. He said, "We have no complaints about the leadership of the Senate. There should be no misunderstandings." Nazarbaev's comments followed a report by "Kazakhstan Today," citing the Senate's press office, that Senate speaker Nurtai Abykaev has been hospitalized with "heart pains." Abykaev was absent on March 1 when Nazarbaev delivered an address to a joint session of parliament. Abykaev recently rejected opposition calls for his resignation after his subordinate, Utembaev, was arrested in connection with Sarsenbaev's killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 24 and 27, 2006). DK

Kyrgyzstan's legislature elected Marat Sultanov as its speaker on March 2 , reported. Sultanov's candidacy was approved in the third round of voting, with 45 legislators for and only 14 against him, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Sultanov said that he will try to promote a conciliatory line in the legislature's relations with the executive branch, Interfax reported. He said, "If the opinions of the executive authorities and the parliament differ, we will object. But we will not start a confrontation." Sultanov succeeds Omurbek Tekebaev, who stepped down after making derogatory comments about President Kurmanbek Bakiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2006). DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev has appointed his brother, Janysh Bakiev, deputy chairman of the National Security Service (SNB), reported on March 2. Prime Minister Feliks Kulov expressed support for the move. Kulov said, "He [Janysh Bakiev] conducted himself well during the Batken events, has awards and citations from the Interior Ministry. I know his professional qualities. But his career stopped when his brother became president." President Bakiev's earlier appointment of his brother, Marat Bakiev, as Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to Germany prompted charges of nepotism from Kyrgyzstan's opposition, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

A Bishkek court has upheld a lower court's decision denying refugee status to two Uzbek citizens currently detained in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, reported on March 2. The legal-aid clinic Adilet said that it plans to take the case, which involves Rasuljon Pirmatov and Yaqubjon Toshboev, to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court recently issued a similar ruling on two other Uzbek detainees in Osh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17, 2006). International organizations have expressed fears that the four could be extradited to Uzbekistan, where they are wanted on various charges. The four men escaped to Kyrgyzstan after unrest in Andijon in May 2005. reported that a fifth Uzbek citizen, Fayoz Tojikhalilov, is also being held in Osh and that he too is wanted on charges in Uzbekistan. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered a more than three-hour-long speech to the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 2, Belarusian media reported. Lukashenka told the forum, which comprised some 2,500 loyal supporters of his regime, that the West is channeling "hundreds of millions" of dollars to the Belarusian opposition to topple him in the March 19 presidential election. "Hundreds of millions are coming via Ukraine, the Baltic countries, and Poland. We know what embassies receive cash and bring it here, and later distribute the money," Lukashenka said. He claimed that Belarus's State Security Committee (KGB) has recently "busted 72 organizations" that had received "hundreds of millions of dollars, cell phones, computers, [and] already prepared election falsification documents." "On March 19 they will appear [in the streets] with these documents, which have already been prepared, declare one of these bastards [the opposition candidates] the winner and say that the authorities have rigged the vote. It's good that [KGB Chairman] Sukharenka with his guys, who are very few, have smashed this structure," Lukashenka added. JM

President Lukashenka told the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 2 that the government's priorities for the next five years should be "enterprise, the services' sector, science, and social policies," Belarusian Television reported. According to Lukashenka, the government will work to achieve a 50-percent rise in gross domestic product (GDP) and industrial output, and a 40-percent increase in agricultural output in the next five years. "We will not be able to achieve these results through regulation and pressure. One cannot steer the economy using manual instruments only," he noted. Lukashenka also predicted that wages and pensions should double and people's real income should rise by 50 percent within the five years. JM

Some 3,000 people came to an unauthorized rally in downtown Minsk on March 2, following an appeal by united opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "Dear friends, I congratulate you -- freedom, justice, and the truth are coming to Belarus. And we will win the right to live as humans, to live in Europe and to be a free country. Long live Belarus!" Milinkevich told his supporters at the rally, which was the largest antigovernment demonstration in Belarus in the past several years. Some 1,000 police were deployed around the site of the planned rally but the demonstration, which took place nearby, went without any incidents. JM

Presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was beaten and arrested by security officers on March 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006), was released after spending eight hours at a police station in Minsk, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. Kazulin said police accused him of disorderly conduct under the Administrative Offenses Code but added that he also may be charged with hooliganism under the Criminal Code. "Our country is a country behind the looking glass, a country of arbitrary totalitarianism," Kazulin told RFE/RL. "I think it has become absolutely clear to everyone the international community and the Russian Federation, and their last doubts have been dispelled, that the dictator longs for power and he will do anything, even use force and weapons -- it's what he has said himself, that he would defend his power with a gun in his hand until the last bullet." JM

Aleh Ulevich, a journalist with the independent newspaper "Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii," was hospitalized with a head injury and a broken nose after he was brutally beaten and arrested by police in Minsk on March 2, Belapan reported. Ulevich was among reporters who arrived at the Kastrychnitski District police department in Minsk to obtain news about presidential candidate Kazulin, who was arrested earlier the same day. Ulevich and some 20 people were grabbed by plainclothes police officers and pushed into buses. "I was taking pictures of them grabbing people and beating them," the "Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii" website quoted Ulevich as saying by telephone from the bus. "When they ran up to me, I showed them my journalist card, but they did not care. I got a punch in the face. My nose was smashed. They twisted my arms and roughly pushed me into the bus. Half the bus is covered with blood. Kazulin's lawyer has gotten an especially brutal beating." JM

Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said at a meeting with voters in Kharkiv on March 2 that his Party of Regions will definitely win the March 26 parliamentary elections, UNIAN reported. "After 24 days we will become masters in our land," Yanukovych said. "We need power and we are ready to receive it from your hands. On March 26 we should show who is the master in our own house." And Party of Regions election campaign manager Yevhen Kushnarov called on voters to come to the polls on March 26 and "liberate our land from the Orange [Revolution] invaders." According to a poll held by the Center for Social and Political Studies from February 22-26 among 1,200 Ukrainians, the Party of Regions is backed by 30 percent of voters, Our Ukraine by 17 percent, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc by 11 percent, and the Socialist Party by 5 percent. JM

Amid harsh condemnation from Belgrade, Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu has asked former guerilla commander and Prime Minister-designate Agim Ceku to form a new government, international news agencies reported on March 2. "The president requests that the nominated prime minister create a government based on the coalition agreement," a statement released by Sejdiu's office and quoted by Reuters said. Ceku, a former commander of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), was nominated by the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) to replace former Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi, who resigned on March 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). Serbia attacked Ceku's selection, noting that a 2002 arrest warrant accuses him of crimes against Serbia. "The Serbian government finds it absolutely unacceptable that a man who should be tried for war crimes could be elected to any political office," an unidentified Serbian government spokesman told Reuters. BW

Montenegro's parliament has unanimously voted to schedule an independence referendum on May 21, dpa reported on March 2. The vote, which took place on March 2, came a day after parliament passed a law setting the ground rules for the referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006). According to those rules, Montenegro's 460,000 registered voters will vote yes or no to a question asking whether they support a fully independent Montenegro. If at least 55 percent of those casting ballots vote for independence, the referendum passes and the union of Serbia and Montenegro will be dissolved. BW

A dead swan found near the town of Sombor has been diagnosed as having the H5 strain of avian influenza, marking the first case of the virus in Serbia, dpa reported on March 2. Tests on tissue samples from the swan at laboratories in Novy Sad and Kraljevo confirmed the presence of the H5 strain of bird flu, the Serbian Agriculture Ministry said. Additional samples have been sent to an EU laboratory in Weybridge, England, to determine if the swan was infected with the lethal H5N1 strain of the virus. Last month, neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina confirmed its first case of bird flu (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 28, 2006). BW

An attorney for fugitive businessman Bogoljub Karic would neither conform nor deny allegations in the Serbian press that Karic is seeking political asylum in Great Britain, B92 reported on March 3. The attorney, Slobodan Soskic, said it is too early to be seeking asylum. "Asylum can be asked for, but not at this time. Everything depends on the criminal process," Soskic said in response to a report in the daily "Glas javnosti." He also denied knowledge of Karic's whereabouts. "I don't know where Bogoljub Karic is, but imagine that I did know, and you asked me, and there is a warrant for his arrest out," Soskic said. "Do you think that I would be allowed to tell you where he is?" Karic, the former head of the Mobtel mobile-phone operator who is widely believed to be in hiding abroad, has been charged with bribery and tax evasion. Serbian police, meanwhile, said on March 2 that fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement at Mobtel caused damages of $135 million, dpa reported the same day. Some 20 suspects have been charged, including Karic. BW

A court in Split on March 2 convicted eight former Croatian military policemen of committing war crimes against Serbs, dpa reported the same day. The policemen were convicted of psychologically and physically abusing civilian prisoners at the Lora prison in Split during Croatia's 1991-95 war for independence from Yugoslavia. Two of the prisoners died as a result of the abuse. The eight defendants -- four of whom are still at large and were tried in absentia -- received sentences ranging from six to eight years. The eight were originally acquitted in 2002, but Croatia's Supreme Court overturned the verdicts and ordered a retrial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2005). BW

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said on March 2 that Athens plans to dramatically increase its investments in the western Balkan region, dpa reported the same day. After meting with Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic in Sarajevo, Bakoyannis said that Greece plans to invest $35 million in Bosnian reconstruction projects over the next two years. After leaving Sarajevo, Bakoyannis is scheduled to visit Belgrade and Prishtina. BW

Chechnya's new parliament is scheduled to vote on March 4 on the nomination of First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov as prime minister. The vote is likely to be little more than a formality.

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov proposed Kadyrov's candidacy on March 2 to succeed Sergei Abramov, who submitted his resignation on February 28, reportedly citing health reasons. Abramov was injured in a car crash in Moscow Oblast in November 2005, and Kadyrov has been discharging his duties since then.

Most Russian commentators agree that Kadyrov's promotion will merely legalize his status as the most powerful man in Chechnya. Kadyrov was named first deputy prime minister on May 10, 2004, the day after his father and Alkhanov's predecessor, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, was killed by a terrorist bomb in Grozny.

Just hours after the bombing, Russian television screened footage of a meeting between Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has consistently praised the younger Kadyrov and in December 2004 bestowed on him one of Russia's most prestigious awards, the Order of Hero of Russia.

Many doubt whether Kadyrov has the qualities required for the post of prime minister. As former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin pointed out in an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service last year, Kadyrov has only a rudimentary education. Nonetheless, in 2004, he was reported to have acquired a degree by correspondence from a university in Daghestan, and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences made him an honorary member earlier this year.

Kadyrov was given overall responsibility last year for overseeing the process of reviewing applications for financial compensation from Chechens whose homes have been destroyed during the fighting of the past 11 years. (Abubakir Baibatyrov, the official who formerly held that post, has been arrested and charged with large-scale embezzlement.)

But observers in Grozny have suggested to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting that Baibatyrov has been made a scapegoat, and that members of the Chechen government continue to embezzle funds earmarked for reconstruction. Some believe that Kadyrov routinely demands a percentage of the stolen cash.

His ability to control and even blackmail colleagues and subordinates derives in the first instance from the so-called presidential security service loyal to him, and known as the "kadyrovtsy." That force numbers several thousand men, including some former resistance fighters. Russian human rights activists allege that the "kadyrovtsy" engage with impunity in the random abductions and killings of innocent civilians that are an everyday occurrence in Chechnya. In late 2003, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya claimed that Kadyrov ran a private prison located at a former dairy farm in his native village of Tsentoroi in the Kurchaloi district.

The brutality of his henchmen has made Kadyrov one of the most hated and feared man in Chechnya. According to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, he trades on that reputation to blackmail other senior officials, possibly even Alkhanov. His economic interests reportedly encompass the oil sector (Chechnya's annual oil production is currently estimated at around 2 million tons) and a string of gasoline stations in both Chechnya and neighboring Daghestan.

In a bid to offset popular perceptions of him as vicious, ruthless, and all-powerful, Kadyrov has financed the construction of a boxing club for adolescent boys in his home village and a $7.8 million water theme park for children in Gudermes, east of Grozny.

In his capacity as acting prime minister, Kadyrov has issued pronouncements on a range of subjects, from the need to ban gambling in Chechnya, to the benefits of polygamy to redress the imbalance between the sexes, to demands for a redrawing of borders to restore to Chechnya territory that is currently part of Daghestan. But Moscow has overruled him on several occasions, most recently over his demand that the Danish Refugee Council be barred from engaging in further humanitarian work in Chechnya in light of the publication in Danish newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Some have speculated that Kadyrov already has so much power that failure to appoint him to a position commensurate with the influence he actually wields might drive him to oppose Moscow. Mikhail Babich, one of Abramov's predecessors as Chechen prime minister, explained to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on March 1 that "the moment has arrived for Ramzan Kadyrov where he needs to legalize de jure the power he already wields de facto." With that in mind, Abramov may have been pressured to step down in order to enable Moscow to appease Kadyrov, and thereby avoid the complications that would inevitably result should the armed "kadyrovtsy" turn against the Alkhanov regime.

And even before Abramov's automobile accident, many Russian commentators predicted that Kadyrov would succeed Alkhanov as republican head as soon as he reached the minimum age of 30 (he was born on October 5, 1976).

But some experts have sounded a note of caution about Kadyrov's presidential chances. Aleksei Malashenko of Moscow's Carnegie Center conceded in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on February 14 that Kadyrov "will almost certainly become president," but added that in order to do so "he must first radically change."

Chechen society, Malashenko explained, does not want as its future leader "a man who drives around Grozny in a Hummer and feels himself master of all he surveys."

Dmitry Kozak, President Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District and arguably the senior Russian official best-informed about the true situation on the ground in Chechnya, has likewise implicitly ruled out the possibility of Kadyrov's elevation to the republic's most senior post in the near future. Kozak was quoted on March 1 by RIA Novosti as saying that Kadyrov is still too young, and he added that the question will arise only when Alkhanov's term in office expires. That will be only in early October 2008. But as Malashenko pointed out, leaders in Chechnya tend to die prematurely -- there is no guarantee that Alkhanov will live to see the end of his term.

The sharp exchange of words between Afghanistan and Pakistan over cross-border incursions continued on March 1, in a further sign of the gradual deterioration in bilateral relations. Responding to a question from the Karachi daily "Dawn" regarding remarks made by U.S. President George W. Bush during his brief visit to Kabul on March 1 that he would raise the issue of infiltration with Pakistani authorities, Pakistan's Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam said that "incursions are also taking place" to Pakistan from the Afghan side of the border, called the incursions a "common problem" on both sides of the border, declared that the problem "cannot be resolved by making baseless allegations," and added that "Afghanistan should also play its part" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006). According to a March 1 press release by the White House, during his visit to Kabul Bush said that he will "absolutely...bring up the cross-border infiltrations with" Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf when he travels to Islamabad. "These infiltrations are causing harm to friends, allies, and cause harm to U.S. troops. And that will be a topic of conversation," Bush added. "When President Bush comes here he will hear a lot of things from us also on the Afghan-Pakistan issue," Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri told a press conference on March 1. AT

At a March 2 meeting with the Khost Province Tribal Council, a 30-member delegation of elders from the Pakistani border region of Kurram vowed not to allow any terrorists to use their areas for activities against the Afghan government, the official Radio Afghanistan reported on March 2. Kurram is one of seven tribally administered areas -- or agencies, as they are called -- in Pakistan. According to a report by the official Bakhtar News Agency, the Pakistani delegation pledged their support for the Afghan government. Delegation member Akbar Khan said that there is no difference between Pashtuns living in Afghanistan and those in Pakistan. The visit, which the agency said is the first of its kind by a delegation from Pakistan's tribal areas to the southeastern Afghan city of Khost, is reminiscent of activities supported by Afghan governments in the 1950s-80s as part of a "Pashtunistan" policy that sought self-determination or union with Afghanistan for Pakistan's Pashtun population. The current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has never been officially recognized by Afghanistan and while Karzai wants free open borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Musharraf has suggested fencing and mining the border (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," August 7, 2003, and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17 and March 1, 2006). AT

A commentary published on March 2 in the Kabul daily "Panjara" questioned the policy of reconciliation offered to the neo-Taliban by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Referring to a speech in 2003 in which Karzai allegedly stated that "being a Talib is not a crime," the commentary asks whether "slaughtering innocent people," "burning people's houses and farms," and "beheading students" are not crimes. The commentary argues that the militants have grown in number and power because the neo-Taliban are not regarded as criminals. The policy of reconciliation with the neo-Taliban has been at the core of Karzai's effort to end the insurgency against his government, but the results have been mixed and the insurgency has not waned in strength. The "Panjara" commentary reflects an increasing tendency to openly question the effectiveness of the policy. AT

Two supporters of General Abdul Rashid Dostum were killed and two others injured in the Pashtunkot district of Faryab Province during an ambush by forces loyal to General Abdul Malek, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on March 2. The province's security chief, General Khalilullah Ziaye, told AIP that "the clashes erupted due to previous hostilities" between the rival generals. Dostum currently holds the largely ceremonial title of chief of staff of Afghanistan's military high command, while Abdul Malek heads the Freedom Party. The two were once allies, but Abdul Malek sided with the Taliban regime, fought against Dostum in 1997, and then turned against the Taliban. Malek is originally from Faryab while Dostum's power base lies east of Faryab, in Jowzjan Province (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 13, 2006). AT

Foreign ministers from France, Germany, and Britain are due to meet with Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, on March 3 in Vienna to discuss the escalating crisis over Iran's nuclear program, international news agencies reported. The meeting comes at the Iranians' request, AFP reported, with Larijani saying that he wants to meet with the Europeans ahead of a March 6 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Larijani and an Iranian team were in Moscow on March 1 and 2 to discuss a Russian proposal that might have resolved the impasse over uranium enrichment. reported on March 2 that the Moscow talks "ended in failure." Iranian state radio said on March 2 that the Moscow talks failed because of Moscow's "insistence" on reiterating the Western stance. "During the talks, the Russians were strongly under the influence of American policy," state radio reported. This attachment to U.S. policy, the radio report concluded, undermines Russian policy in the Middle East and no country will in future take Russia seriously. BS

Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the Iranian legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told "Aftab-i Yazd" that Iran might as well bypass intermediaries and negotiate directly with the United States, the daily reported on March 2. He explained that both the Europeans and the Russian appear to be acting in line with U.S. desires and that, furthermore, they are taking advantage of the lack of alternatives to improve their negotiating position. He said such talks are feasible if the United States accepts the principle that Iran is entitled to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, but added that Washington seems to be taking a completely politicized stance on all issues. Javad Jahangirzadeh, a legislator from Urumiyeh, told "Aftab-i Yazd" that Iran has already made clear the circumstances under which it will talk to the United States, but that it is unrealistic to expect Washington to change its behavior. Jahangirzadeh said he does not foresee a rift between Washington and the Europeans, and the involvement of Moscow and Beijing has not helped. Hassan Kamran-Dastjerdi, a representative from Isfahan, opposed talks with the U.S. administration, saying that anyone who suggests that should resign. BS

The general outlines of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's annual budget were approved by the legislature on March 2, IRNA reported, with 161 legislators voting in favor, 31 against, and seven abstaining. The budget, which legislators began debating on March 1, is supposed to come into force on March 21, the start of the Iranian calendar year. Government spending will be higher than last year, "Sharq" reported on March 2, with more money being earmarked for job creation and public projects. The administration's priority, the article continued, is to ensure that the masses and its allies are satisfied. The article went on to warn that the budget will not only fail to satisfy people, but will stoke inflation and worsen the current situation. BS

Iran beat Costa Rica 3-2 in a March 1 soccer match, but a group of ticket-holding female fans were prevented from seeing the game, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. One of the young ladies told Radio Farda that a Tehran Province official promised that the women would be transported to the match on specially ordered buses. However, the bus took them to another part of the city, she said. The game was over by the time the women reached the stadium. One of the women said they now realized that they are second-class citizens in Iran. Adnkronos International reported that security forces prevented women who had reached the stadium ahead of the game from entering the grounds. BS

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari on March 2 called a daylight curfew on all nonessential vehicular traffic for Baghdad on March 3 following a series of car-bomb attacks in recent days, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Meanwhile, gunmen killed at least 25 Shi'ite factory workers in Nahrawan, southeast of Baghdad, on March 2, Reuters reported the next day. The gunmen first attacked a local power plant. When U.S. and Iraqi forces responded, the gunmen retreated to a nearby factory and began opening fire on workers. Municipal councilman Ala Abd al-Sahhab al-Lami told Reuters that among those killed in the factory was a woman and three children, including a 6-year-old girl. Many had a single gunshot wound to the forehead. Nahrawan has come under repeated attacks since the February 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim condemned reprisal attacks on Sunnis in Nahrawan during a February 24 speech after some 47 workers from a brick factory in the town were found shot dead alongside 10 burned-out cars on February 23. Sunni leaders on February 25 claimed Shi'ite militiamen were going from house to house and killing citizens there, "Al-Ittijah al-Akhar" reported on February 25. KR

Parliamentarian Mahmud Uthman told RFE/RL in a March 2 interview that political blocs and parties have formally asked the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) to withdraw its nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari as prime minister in the incoming Iraqi government. "We, the Kurdistan Coalition List, and the Sunni list [Iraqi Accordance Front] and Dr. [Iyad] Allawi's list, the Iraqi National List, we have asked the Shi'ite alliance list to nominate another candidate because we think it's not easy to have another few years with Mr. al-Ja'fari," Uthman said. He added that Salih al-Mutlaq's Iraqi Front for National Dialogue has also asked for the nomination to be withdrawn. Asked if the standoff will drag out the process of forming a government, Uthman told RFE/RL: "It's better to wait a bit...than going into [a government] which you don't believe in" (see "Iraq: Kurdish Politician Discusses Political Standoff,", 2 March 2006). Meanwhile, Al-Arabiyah television reported on March 2 that the UIA has said it intends to maintain its nomination of al-Ja'fari, though the report has not been independently confirmed. KR

Mahmud Uthman told RFE/RL on March 2 that the Kurds are suspicious of al-Ja'fari's motives toward them after the prime minister traveled to Turkey without informing any Kurdish leaders, including the foreign minister. "Whatever discussions between Turkey and the Iraqi government without the Kurds being in it...we are suspicious because the Turkish policies are negative towards the Kurdish issue. That's why this has raised a lot of dissatisfaction [among] the population in Kurdistan," Uthman said. Regarding al-Ja'fari's statements in Turkey that he intends to uphold the constitution to the letter regarding the rights of Kurds to return to Kirkuk, Uthman told RFE/RL: "We don't believe him. It's a matter of faith and belief. If it's true, why didn't he take any Kurd with him [to Turkey].... We are suspicious about...we don't believe what he says. He could say anything but whether he will implement it or not, we are suspicious." Meanwhile, Anatolia news agency reported on March 2 that Sunni Arab leaders Tariq al-Hashimi and Salih al-Mutlaq have accepted an invitation to meet with Turkish leaders in Ankara and are expected to arrive in the Turkish capital "soon." Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is also expected to visit Turkey in the coming days. KR

Adnan al-Dulaymi, leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, said he escaped an assassination attempt in Baghdad on March 2 when gunmen opened fire on his motorcade, Al-Jazeera television reported the same day. Regarding the Accordance Front's stance on the nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to the premiership, he told the satellite news channel that al-Ja'fari is responsible for "increasing indignation and turbulence" in Iraq. "Killings, arrests, kidnappings, and dereliction are the reasons that made [the front] take this position toward [al-Ja'fari's] nomination." Al-Dulaymi added that the front, which comprises the three main Sunni Arab political parties, will reject any Shi'ite candidate who is not committed to forming a national-unity government away from sectarian lines. KR

Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, head of the Sunni Waqf (Endowments) Office, told reporters at a March 2 press briefing in Baghdad that the ongoing violence resulting from the February 22 attack on a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra is taking its toll on Iraqi citizens, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Al-Samarra'i said that 45 Sunni scholars and imams have been killed in the violence, while 37 mosques have been totally destroyed. Eight-six mosques have sustained damage, and six mosques remain under the control of Shi'ite militiamen. Calling for patience and calm, al-Samarra'i said that Sunnis remain under attack across the country. He cited the March 2 assassination of an imam in Al-Basrah who was killed following morning prayers. In Salman Pak, some 35 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, Sunni leaders have asked him to request the intervention of multinational forces for protection against Shi'ite militiamen. Regarding Shi'ite calls that the Sunni Waqf hand over control of the Samarra mosque complex to the Shi'ite Waqf, al-Samarra'i said, "The attempt to change the administration is a call for sectarian strife -- something that will have dire consequences." KR

U.S. military forces attacked an Al-Qaeda training center northeast of Al-Fallujah on March 1 and arrested 61 suspected militants, U.S. Major General Rick Lynch told reporters in Baghdad on March 2, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Lynch said that weapons, munitions, and bomb-making equipment were seized during the raid on the facility, which reportedly acted as a bomb-making factory. The training center was located some 50 kilometers northeast of Al-Fallujah, Lynch said. KR