Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - March 24, 2006

Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov said in Moscow on March 23 that prosecutors have opened a new case against oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom in 2003, in connection with his alleged call for a coup in Russia, news agencies reported. Kolesnikov added that "the case [against Berezovsky] was opened because of an interview published on the Internet on January 25, 2006, which Berezovsky had given to Agence France-Presse and the Ekho Moskvy radio station. It is perceived from the content of the interview that Berezovsky and his supporters -- and Berezovsky claims to have a large number of them -- have been preparing to seize power in Russia by force for one and a half years." Kolesnikov said that Berezovsky could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He added that prosecutors are probing allegations that Berezovsky has channeled funds to radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev. Kolesnikov said that Moscow will again ask London to extradite Berezovsky, who once had close ties to the Kremlin, but fled Russia in 2000 after a falling out with President Vladimir Putin. Berezovsky told Reuters recently that he is working to overthrow the Putin regime, which prompted British Foreign Minister Jack Straw to warn him to desist from any such attempt while he is staying in the United Kingdom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1 and 2, 2006). PM

Berezovsky told the BBC on March 24 that he has broken no Russian or U.K. law and has simply called for a change of government in Russia on the model of the "colored revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine. He stressed that he is firmly opposed to the "Putin regime." Berezovsky added that he has complete faith in U.K. democracy and the independence of that country's judicial system and is confident that he will not be extradited. British Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton told reporters on March 24 that his country will extradite Berezovsky if a U.K. court decides that the evidence against him is sufficient, Interfax reported. PM

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who also heads the new $25 billion Military-Industrial Commission (VPK), said in Surgut on March 23 that Russia will respond to any U.S. decision to set up a missile defense base in Europe, but only once Moscow learns what the capabilities of that base are, Interfax reported. The idea of setting up such a base "has been widely discussed for years, including in closed-door talks between Russia and the United States.... Only after we determine [the base's capabilities] will we formulate our response," he added. Ivanov noted that the capabilities of the base and the number of missiles deployed there are more significant than its location. PM

Russia's special envoy to the EU, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said on March 23 after meeting with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in Vilnius that Russia will not provide compensation for damage Lithuania claims it suffered during roughly half a century of Soviet occupation, news agencies reported. Yastrzhembsky added that Lithuania should stop making such demands if it wants good relations with Moscow. For his part, Adamkus noted that President Putin recently proffered apologies in Prague and Budapest for repression by Soviet forces, and he called on Moscow to say "the same words of apology to the Lithuanian people." Lithuania's parliament adopted a law several years ago that estimated damage caused by the Soviet occupation at $20 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 4 and 9, 2000). PM

On March 23, unidentified attackers in Khabarovsk beat up and robbed the unnamed North Korean consul general, whose office is in Nakhodka, Primore Region, Interfax reported. "Two assailants beat up the North Korean consul and stole a bag with his passport, a stamp, and visa forms," the Khabarovsk Territorial Interior Department told the news agency. The injured diplomat, who lives in Khabarovsk, was hospitalized. Police are investigating the incident. PM

Dmitry Rogozin told Interfax on March 24 that he is prepared to quit as leader of the nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party at its upcoming congress, but will stay on as an ordinary party member. "We will have to take a decision at Motherland's congress on March 25 that will allow the party to run in the upcoming elections. I am ready to vacate the post of party chairman, but will remain a rank-and-file solider," he said. He added that Motherland is under heavy but unspecified outside pressure. "An ultimatum has effectively been put forward: Motherland can continue to exist as a party only if it has a different leader," he noted. Rogozin maintained that the "rules of the game" have been set by the leadership's enemies, but did not elaborate. He added that Aleksandr Babakov, who heads the party presidium, will most likely succeed him as chairman in a move designed to combine the two posts. PM

Rogozin told Interfax on March 24 that Motherland is both a political party and "a broad public movement." There has been considerable press speculation that Rogozin might step down as party leader but emerge as the head of a large civic movement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2006). The Moscow daily "Kommersant" wrote on March 24 that Rogozin has already resigned as party chairman. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on March 24 suggested that the often independent-minded Rogozin was forced out by a vindictive Kremlin that allegedly wants someone more pliant to head the party, which many originally regarded as a Kremlin-backed organization to attract nationalist voters. PM

Mikhail Fradkov said in Moscow on March 24 that the Economic Development and Trade Ministry is not doing enough to promote foreign trade, Interfax reported. "If you [the Economic Development and Trade Ministry] fail to cope with the task [of bolstering the ministry's foreign trade operations], I will come to the conclusion that the reorganization carried out several years ago, when the post of foreign trade minister was abolished, was unjustified," he added. In recent weeks, Fradkov has criticized both the Economic Development and Trade Ministry and the Finance Ministry. He suggested that the respective ministers, German Gref and Aleksei Kudrin, might be sacked if their performance does not improve (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9 and 15, 2006). PM

Lawyers for the 16 men currently on trial on charges connected with the October 2004 murder of seven businessmen at a dacha belonging to Ali Kaitov, the son-in-law of Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic President Mustafa Batdyev, say all the defendants have retracted the testimony they gave during the preliminary investigation of the killing, according to as cited on March 24 by The 16 men all claim they were tortured, and have formally requested that the court investigate that collective allegation. When the trial opened nine months ago, 15 of the accused, including Kaitov, pleaded not guilty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16, 2005). LF

Ambassador Steven Mann, who is the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on March 23 that "2006 is the opportune year" for achieving such a solution, but he added that progress toward resolving the conflict depends not on the mediators but on the readiness of the conflict sides to compromise. Mann said that during their recent tour of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the co-chairmen met with the presidents and foreign ministers of both countries and had "very thoughtful and detailed discussions." The two presidents failed during talks in France last month to sign a framework document enumerating the basic provisions of a more detailed settlement. Azerbaijani media on March 23 quoted Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying that the chances for achieving a settlement this year have somewhat diminished since the February talks. But Azerbaijani presidential-administration official Novruz Mammedov told on March 24 that the talks are not stalemated. Mammedov rejected Armenian statements that Yerevan has made the maximum possible concessions, and it is now Azerbaijan's turn to reciprocate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2006). Mammedov argued that it was a concession on the part of Baku to refrain from military action to resolve the conflict. Meanwhile, one Azerbaijani servicemen died on March 22 when Armenian forces opened fire on the Line of Contact, reported on March 24, citing Defense Ministry spokesman Major Ilgar Verdiyev. LF

Former Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev suffered severe chest pains on March 23 that could presage a heart attack, his lawyer Irada Djavadova told Turan, according to on March 24. Aliyev was dismissed and arrested in October 2005 on charges of financing the opposition and preparing a coup d'etat, charges that he has consistently denied (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2006). LF

In line with earlier warnings, during talks in Geneva on March 23, Georgia declined to retract the conditions it has set for approving Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2005, and February 22, 2006). Tbilisi demands that Russia allow Georgia to establish customs controls to prevent smuggling through the Roki tunnel linking Russia and the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia and across the Psou bridge linking Russia and Abkhazia; that the Russian authorities crack down on the sale in Russia of adulterated mineral water and wine that is wrongly labeled as being of Georgian provenance; that Russia lift its recently imposed ban on the import of Georgian fruit and vegetables; and that Russia permit the import into Georgia via the Verkhnii Lars border crossing of wines and spirits. Russia's chief negotiator for the WTO, Maksim Medvedkov, has dismissed as political, rather than economic, all those Georgian demands except that for a crackdown on counterfeit wine and mineral water. LF

Russia's permanent ambassador to the OSCE, Aleksei Borodavkin, told the March 23 session of that body's Permanent Council that Moscow has "serious doubts" about the report delivered by OSCE Mission head in Georgia Ambassador Roy Reeve on the situation in South Ossetia, according to the text of Borodavkin's statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website ( Borodavkin expressed regret that the OSCE has not yet delivered an "objective" assessment of the Georgian parliament's February 15 demand that the government take steps to secure the withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces from the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones. Borodavkin noted that Reeve's report praises unilateral confidence-building measures undertaken by Georgia that violate earlier agreements, and he claimed that earlier such reports focus on alleged violations by South Ossetia while ignoring analogous violations by the Georgian side. Borodavkin said there is no legal justification for the "totally unexpected" proposal by the OSCE Mission in Georgia to prolong the OSCE monitoring of Georgia's border with Russia, which is due to expire on July 31, 2006, and he expressed concern at the deterioration of the human rights situation in Georgia, suggesting that the OSCE Mission should focus on that sector "in accordance with its mandate." LF

U.S. Ambassador Julie Finlay welcomed Ambassador Reeve's report to the Permanent Council on March 23, according to a statement posted on the website of the U.S. mission ( She praised the demilitarization and confidence-building measures undertaken by the Georgian government, but at the same time expressed disappointment that the planned February meeting in Vienna of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring developments in the conflict zone failed to take place. Russia failed to send a delegation to that meeting, and Finley commented that Russia "could do more to help resolve the conflict" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2006). Finley urged the South Ossetians to act on unspecified proposals presented by OSCE ambassadors during talks with South Ossetian leaders in Tskhinvali on March 17, and to "engage promptly" with Tbilisi in a discussion of the Georgian draft law on compensation for victims of the conflict. She also unequivocally condemned South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity's March 22 call for South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a decree on March 20 to create a state commission to develop a program of democratic reforms in Kazakhstan, "Kazakhstan Today" and Kazinform reported on March 23. Commission members will include the state secretary, deputy speakers of the two chambers of parliament, one representative from each officially registered political party, and other registered associations, leaders of parliamentary blocs, as well as other representatives of government and society. The commission, which is charged with developing a program for 2006-2011, will hold its first meeting in Astana on March 24. DK

In comments to journalists on March 23, Senate speaker Nurtai Abykaev said that he does not plan to heed calls for his resignation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Opposition leaders urged Abykaev to resign after his subordinate, Erzhan Utembaev, was charged with organizing the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 24, 2006); more recently, Darigha Nazarbaeva, the daughter of President Nazarbaev, called for Abykaev's resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2006). In reference to Nazarbaeva's comments, Abykaev said, "I realize that this was probably an emotional statement." Addressing the issue of Utembaev's alleged involvement in the murder, Abykaev said his relations with Utenbaev were professional, not personal. Noting that Nazarbaev expressed approval of the Senate's leadership in the wake of the killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006), Abykaev said, "As for what the president said about the Senate as a whole, and about me, I think that after this everything should be clear to everyone." DK

Culture Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev said on March 23 that early parliamentary elections will be necessary if constitutional reforms are to be finished by year's end, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He said, "If deputies intend to carry out a serious constitutional reform, I mean, giving new status to the parliament, and if we intend to do it this year, then early parliamentary elections are unavoidable." In a formal protest the same day, Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) deputies Sergei Kiselev and Nazarbaeva strongly disagreed, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kiselev and Nazarbaeva said: "Statements of this kind by members of the government are intolerable, since they indicate that their views are at variance with the policy carried out by the president of Kazakhstan. In many respects, they are factors that destabilize the political situation in the country." DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev told a news conference in Bishkek on March 23 that he sees no reason for former President Askar Akaev to return to Kyrgyzstan, reported. He said, "If, after everything that happened, Askar Akaev apologized to his people, the people of Kyrgyzstan are magnanimous and would forgive him. At present, I don't think the situation is such that it's necessary for him to return." Akaev currently lives in Moscow. Recalling the unrest that brought down Akaev on March 24, 2005, Bakiev said, "If the authorities grow distant from the people and think only of themselves, they are doomed to failure," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. DK

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on March 23, Akaev said that he erred in his personnel policy. He said, "I wish had replaced many of my tired and negligent managers before the [parliamentary] elections. I had thought of creating a new government after the elections to bring in new forces and new leaders." He accused the former opposition of organizing what he termed a coup d'etat supported by the drug mafia. Akaev said, "I didn't ever think that the opposition might rely on the drug mafia to organize a coup." Nevertheless, he claimed that he supported the new government. Akaev said, "As far as I could, I made every effort to maintain peace in our country, to develop it. I also made sure to support the new government." DK

Key figures in the protests against Akaev in 2005 who are now in the opposition also spoke out on March 23, agencies reported. Former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, "The new government led by [President Kurmanbek] Bakiev is making a lot of mistakes." Beknazarov continued, "The main point is that [Bakiev's government] has not taken any crucial steps to change Akaev's system. Up to now, there's been no breakthrough in constitutional reforms." Former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, "People needed to feel something new within the last year. It is [understandable] that you cannot immediately make the factories work. However, if [the Kyrgyz government] stamped out corruption then there would be a lot of money available [for reform]." DK

Beknazarov told a news conference in Bishkek on March 23 that former President Akaev offered him money if Beknazarov would close a criminal case against Akaev and members of his family, reported. The incident took place in 2005 when Beknazarov was prosecutor-general. Beknazarov explained, "Political middlemen got in touch with me. Through them Akaev conveyed an offer to pay a certain sum to close his criminal case and that of his relatives." Beknazarov said that he responded that Akaev should return all of his assets in Kyrgyzstan and pay the Kyrgyz budget a specific amount for assets he holds abroad. "After that, I would have closed his criminal case, as well as the case against his wife. But not the criminal cases against his son, Aidar Akaev, and son-in-law, Adil Toigonbaev." Beknazarov said he was removed as prosecutor-general (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2005) before he received an answer from Akaev. DK

Maksim Maksimovich, a lawyer representing Akaev, responded quickly to Beknazarov's charges, reported on March 23. Calling the allegations a "lie from beginning to end," Maksimovich asked Kyrgyzstan's prosecutor-general to file criminal charges for libel against Beknazarov. DK

At 3 a.m. local time on March 24, riot police forcibly dismantled an opposition tent camp on Minsk's October Square, seizing some 300 protesters who had kept vigil there since the evening of March 20 to protest alleged fraud during the March 19 presidential election, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The arrested protesters were subsequently transported in trucks to a detention center on Akrestsina Street in Minsk. Colonel Yury Padabed, who was in charge of the operation, said his troops did not resort to violence while making the arrests. "The authoritarian government has once again showed its true face, having failed to withstand the challenges of democracy.... This is the beginning of its end. The government has become afraid of the action planned for March 25," united opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich told Belapan. Earlier this week, the opposition called on its supporters to gather for a large protest rally in Minsk on March 25. JM

Andrey Papou, a spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, said on March 23 that the United States "has no mandate to reject or recognize the results of elections in other independent countries," Belapan reported. Papou was commenting on Washington's statement earlier this week in support of the Belarusian opposition's demands to hold a repeat presidential vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). "It's not the White House which decides on Belarus's president. It's the people who elect the president in our country, and not in the street but at polling stations," Papou said. "The Belarusian side cannot accept lectures from a country where there is no direct presidential election...and where people who have gained fewer votes than their rivals become president," Papou added, in an apparent reference to the 2000 U.S. presidential election. JM

The Central Election Commission announced on March 23 the final results of Belarus's March 19 presidential election, Belapan reported. According to the commission, 5,501,249 people, or 83 percent of those who took part in the ballot, voted for incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; 405,486 people, or 6.1 percent, for united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich; 230,664 people, or 3.5 percent, for Syarhey Haydukevich, a member of the House of Representatives and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party; and 147,402 people, or 2.2 percent, for Alyaksandr Kazulin, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada). JM

President Viktor Yuschhenko said in a television interview on March 23 that he will actively participate in forging a new governing coalition after the March 26 parliamentary elections, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Yushchenko said he is convinced that the Our Ukraine bloc will form the core of such a coalition, which, he added, should also include the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Pora-Reform and Order Party Bloc, and the Plyushch-Kostenko Bloc. Asked whether Our Ukraine could form a coalition with the Party of Regions led by his former presidential rival Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko said Our Ukraine could cooperate with Yanukovych's party on specific issues within the new parliament. JM

President Yushchenko also said in the same television interview on March 23 that he is against isolating Belarus in the international arena or using economic sanctions against that country in the wake of the March 19 presidential vote, which the Belarusian opposition claims was rigged, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "I think it is not a rational policy to work [with Belarus] through a system of economic blockades [and] economic ultimatums, given our ties with this country," Yushchenko said. At the same time, Yushchenko said that Ukraine's "political position" vis-a-vis Belarus is "clear." "If these elections failed to meet the standards of transparency, ignored the freedom of assembly, and denied equal possibilities to all candidates, etc., we will make the same political assessment as that voiced by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [on March 20]," Yushchenko said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). JM

U.S. President George W. Bush signed a bill on March 23 establishing normal trade relations with Ukraine, international and Ukrainian news agencies reported. The bill revokes the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974, which linked U.S. trade benefits to the rights of Jews to emigrate from former eastern-bloc countries. "The bill I sign today marks the beginning of a new era in our history with Ukraine," Reuters quoted Bush as saying. "Times have changed. The Cold War is over, and a free Ukraine is a friend to America and an inspiration to those who love liberty." JM

A Serbian court on March 23 requested that police reissue an arrest warrant for Mira Markovic, widow of late former President Slobodan Milosevic, Reuters reported the same day. Markovic, who was charged with abuse of power in 2003, has been living in self-imposed exile in Russia. The warrant was withdrawn after the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) posted a 15,000-euro ($18,000) bail, so Markovic could attend her husband's funeral on March 18. Markovic did not attend the funeral, however, and failed to show up for a court hearing on March 23. A court statement said that the bail was forfeited and "an arrest warrant will be reissued for the accused." BW

Boris Tadic said that he has "launched a diplomatic offensive" to extend an EU deadline to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, AFP reported on March 23. The European Union has told Belgrade that Mladic must be arrested by April 5, or talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) will be suspended (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2006). "I don't know what the final reaction to this demand will be, but I must say that the first ones are not favorable," Tadic said in a March 22 television interview cited by AFP the next day. "All state institutions have agreed on a joint policy on that issue," he added. BW

Tadic also said that his Democratic Party (DS) would support Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's embattled minority government in parliament if it gets into political difficulty for arresting Mladic, B92 reported on March 23. "There have been announcements in the public that the government will be attacked if it tries to further cooperation with the [Hague-based] tribunal," Tadic said. "The Democratic Party will not take down the government if it intends to solve the central problems of the country," he added. Kostunica's minority government depends on tacit support from the SPS in parliament, but that support is evaporating (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). BW

Albanian officials said on March 23 that the country has confirmed its second case of H5N1 avian influenza, Reuters reported the same day. The officials said there is still no evidence that the virus has made people ill, despite the fact that some farmers have eaten infected birds. "Tests have found no sign of the virus in people," Agriculture Ministry spokesman Rexhep Shahu said. The Agriculture Ministry said tests at a British laboratory in Weybridge confirmed the presence of H5N1 in four dead chickens in the Peze Helmes area, 10 kilometers west of Tirana. Shahu said teams are working to cull approximately 600 chickens and disinfect the area. BW

Ukrainian Ambassador to Moldova Petro Chalyy has said that Kyiv will maintain new customs regulations on the Transdniestrian border regardless of the result of the March 26 parliamentary elections, Flux reported on March 23. "Ukraine's position about the customs regime will not be changed even if a new parliament is elected, for the head of state represents the guarantor of the constitution in Ukraine," Chalyy said. Chisinau and Kyiv implemented new regulations on March 3 requiring all goods crossing Transdniester's portion of the Moldova-Ukraine border to clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). The move has met strong opposition from breakaway Transdniester and from Russia. BW

In addition to determining a new legislature with wider powers than those of its predecessors, Ukraine's March 26 parliamentary elections will effectively set in motion a constitutional reform transforming the country from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. The results of the elections are also expected to clarify whether President Viktor Yushchenko will be able to step up the implementation of his reformist policies declared during the 2004 Orange Revolution or whether he will get mired even deeper in political wrangling with his opponents.

The elections to the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada are the first in independent Ukraine to be contested under a fully proportional, party-list system. In effect, this means the representatives of each party in parliament have been predetermined based on the party leadership's positioning of candidates on its candidates list, leaving voters merely to decide the number of parliamentary mandates each party will obtain.

Only parties garnering at least 3 percent of the vote will be represented in parliament. Ballots cast for parties scoring less than 3 percent will be disregarded by the Central Election Commission in distributing election gains among the winners.

There are also two other important novelties in the election law. The new Verkhovna Rada will be elected for five years, compared to four years previously.

Furthermore, individuals elected to parliament will be barred from quitting the caucus of the party from which they were elected. The clause is potentially very controversial, as it does not include any suggestion as to what to do with lawmakers who might formally remain in a given caucus but vote against it.

The new Verkhovna Rada will have wider prerogatives than its predecessor as a result of the constitutional reform that was passed on December 8, 2004. That reform was seen as a compromise deal between the camp led by Yushchenko and that by his presidential rival Viktor Yanukovych to overcome an electoral impasse at the peak of the Orange Revolution.

Under the constitutional reform, a majority in parliament, rather than the president, will appoint the prime minister and most of the cabinet members. The president retains the right to appoint the foreign minister, the defense minister, the prosecutor-general, the head of the Security Service, and all regional governors.

Moreover, parliament, rather than the president, will have a decisive say in dismissing the prime minister or any other cabinet member. On the other hand, the constitutional reform gives the president the right to dissolve parliament if it fails to form a majority within 30 days after its first sitting, or to form a new cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one.

There are 45 parties and blocs vying for parliamentary seats in the March 26 elections, but surveys indicate that only six or seven of them have realistic chances of overcoming the 3 percent threshold for representation.

The election is expected to be won by Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which leads in opinion polls with backing of about 30 percent. The combined popular support for the two former Orange Revolution allies, the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, equals or even slightly exceeds that for the Party of Regions.

Analysts say there are two likely options for a future governing coalition in Ukraine, depending on how the main contenders fare on March 26.

First, Yushchenko may try to rebuild the Orange Revolution alliance with Yuliya Tymoshenko, with whom he officially split in September 2005 by dismissing her from the post of prime minister. A Yushchenko-Tymoshenko reunion would mean that Ukraine would continue to stay on track in its efforts to integrate with the rest of Europe, the final objectives being membership in NATO and the EU.

However, this scenario is fraught with some serious problems. Tymoshenko has not concealed that she wants back the prime minister's post. But this is the last thing that many influential politicians in Yushchenko's entourage would like to see happen. A cabinet led by her could very likely stir up another conflict within the ruling camp. Besides, a Yushchenko-Tymoshenko coalition would at best have a slim majority in the Verkhovna Rada, making it vulnerable to the deputy insubordinations or defections that have become characteristic of the Ukrainian parliament.

A much more stable scenario would see Yushchenko's Our Ukraine strike a coalition deal with Yanukovych's Party of Regions. A cabinet supported by Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions would seemingly enjoy the safety net of parliamentary backing. Since Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions are essentially run by oligarchs representing the interests of big business in Ukraine, there would be few obstacles to them agreeing on a basic set of economic, financial, or social reforms.

However, such a coalition might encounter difficulties defining Ukraine's foreign-policy priorities and goals. The parties "traditionally" have opposite geopolitical agendas, largely due to the fact that the Party of Regions' electorate is primarily located in Russia-leaning eastern Ukraine, while that of Our Ukraine is principally based in the west of the country, which has closer affinities to Western Europe.

Finding middle ground between the two in working out a joint foreign agenda would require much wisdom, responsibility, and compromise from both sides. But a resulting alliance could be worth the pain -- it could testify that the two major political forces in Ukraine see the country as an independent political player, rather than a participant in a geopolitical tug-of-war.

One of the principal drawbacks of a potential Yushchenko-Yanukovych alliance is that it would leave Yushchenko open to charges from Tymoshenko and her followers that he has "betrayed" the Orange Revolution by siding with the man who was his rival in the contentious 2004 presidential election. Yushchenko could see his support in western Ukraine erode even further, without any guarantee that he will make up for such losses by gaining support in the east.

Our Ukraine's deputy campaign chief, Roman Zvarych, told RFE/RL that despite the rumors, there will be no coalition after the elections between Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions.

Tymoshenko also has firmly ruled out the possibility of a postelection coalition with Yanukovych. "Our positions are mutually exclusive," Tymoshenko said on March 21. "The political bloc that I head categorically stands for the complete separation of clans and criminals from the government. The core leadership of the Party of the Regions headed by Viktor Yanukovych represents one of the most powerful of such clans, whose intention is to use the government for the purpose of maximizing its capital. Cooperation between the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Party of Regions is therefore impossible in principle."

Whatever option Yushchenko chooses after the March 26 vote, he will have to keep in mind that days when it was possible to run the country by decree and by bending the parliament to the president's will via pressure, bribery, or blackmail, which was the case under his predecessor, President Leonid Kuchma, are gone for good.

Pakistani Foreign Office spokeswomen Tasnim Aslam said in Islamabad on March 23 that her country has lodged a "strongest protest" over the killing on March 21 of 16 Pakistani civilians by Afghan security forces, Associated Press of Pakistan, an official news agency, reported. According to Aslam, the group of Pakistanis went to Kabul to participate in the Norouz festivities marking the Afghan New Year where they were arrested by Afghan authorities. The Pakistanis were then taken to Spin Boldak on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier in Kandahar Province, where they were all shot dead. Afghan authorities later falsely identified the Pakistanis as belonging to the Taliban, Aslam added. Hajji Abdul Qader Nurzai, a leader of the Nurzai tribe, said on March 23 that among those killed by Afghan security forces six were "pure Pakistani citizens," while the rest held joint Afghan and Pakistani citizenship, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Aslam said that Pakistan has demanded that Kabul conduct an "independent and thorough investigation into the incident and punishment for those responsible," AFP reported on March 23. The incident only adds to the already tense relations between Kabul and Islamabad (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 28, 2006). AT

In a keynote speech at a symposium in Ankara devoted to international terrorism, President Hamid Karzai said on March 23 that terrorism is the "most menacing of mankind's enemies," RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). The threat posed by terrorism requires a global response, Karzai added. He warned against equating Islam with terror. Calling Islam "a religion of peace," Karzai said that the world should commit itself "to recognizing that no religion is for extremism or terrorism, that no religion wants to hurt." Karzai also argued that the imbalance in access to technology is spreading "crimes, disease and terrorism," Anatolia news agency reported on March 23. AT

Mawlawi Ansarullah Mawlawizadah, the prosecuting judge in a case involving an Afghan convert to Christianity, said on March 23 that if the apostate, Abdul Rahman, does not accept Islam again, he will be punished according to Shari'a law, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. According to the Afghan Constitution, "no law confronting the sacred religion of Islam can be allowed in the country," Mawlawizadah added. Shari'a law stipulates that anyone who converts from Islam and does not return to Islam within three days should be punished by death, the judge explained. The case of Abdul Rahman, who converted to Christianity in the 1990s while living in Pakistan, is putting Karzai in a difficult dilemma, as his Western backers are pressing him to uphold religious freedoms but he depends politically on the support of the conservative elements of society, who currently control the judiciary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 22, and 23, 2006). A face-saving option for the Karzai government would be if Abdul Rahman were found insane by the court. Stating that Afghanistan is an Islamic state, Mawlawizadah said the judiciary will "act independently and neutrally." AT

Faryab Province Governor Abdul Latif Ebrahimi blamed an armed attack against him on General Abdul Malik, leader of the Freedom Party of Afghanistan, Sheberghan Aina Television reported on March 22. The attack, in the Deh-e Naw area in Dawlatabad District on March 21, injured two people in the convoy but left the governor unscathed. "It is obvious" that supporters of General Abdul Malik supporter "carried out" the attack, Ebrahimi told Aina, adding that the police are now searching the area for the attackers' hideouts. AT

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on March 23 that the Iranian nuclear issue should not be politicized when the UN Security Council discusses it, nor should the council serve as a court in which Iran is tried, Al-Alam television reported. Mottaki dismissed the possibility of Iran resuming its suspension of uranium-enrichment activities. Referring to the stances of Moscow and Beijing, which have opposed a critical British and French statement on the Iranian program, Mottaki said, "Some countries have suggested that the opportunity should be given to talks on the Iranian nuclear issue, and there is a possibility that the talks will continue until a comprehensive agreement is reached." Mottaki said there is no consensus on imposing sanctions. The foreign ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France have turned to telephone diplomacy with their counterparts from Russia and China in an effort to overcome the impasse in the Security Council, Reuters reported on March 23. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said, "We're waiting for the outcome of the conversations at higher pay grades." White House spokesman Scott McClellan described this as "diplomacy at work" rather than a deadlock. BS

Asma Jahangir, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of religion, has expressed serious concern on March 21 about allegations that the Iranian government will secretly monitor members of the Baha'i faith, Radio Farda reported on 23 March. Diane Alai, the UN representative of the Baha'i International Community, told Radio Farda that a letter dated October 29 instructs the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the ministry of Intelligence and Security, the police, and all security forces to collect the names of all Bahai's. The letter is from the commander of the armed forces, she said, but she suggested that it is not a coincidence that anti-Baha'i articles have appeared in the hard-line "Kayhan" newspaper lately. The information that has appeared in "Kayhan" is inaccurate, she continued, but the Baha'i have not been given the right to respond. Baha'i have no rights in Iran, Alai said, and are denied university access. If arrested, they are released only after paying very large fines or posting high bails, she said, and retirees do not receive their pensions. BS

Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, commander of the Iranian National Police, said on March 22 that the persons responsible for ambushing a motorcade in Sistan va Baluchistan Province late last week have been identified, Fars News Agency reported. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said the attackers are hiding out on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and information on the attackers has been conveyed to Kabul and Islamabad through Interpol. However, there is little central government control in the region, and the two governments have informed Tehran that they cannot apprehend the suspects. Earlier this week a Baluchi group called Jundullah released a videotape of the hostages, and they demanded the release of some Jundullah members who have been captured by Iranian forces in exchange for the hostages' safety. BS

A bomb exploded outside a Sunni mosque northeast of Baghdad on March 24, killing at least five, and wounding 12 others, Reuters reported. The bomb exploded as worshippers were leaving the Sa'd bin Abi Wakkas Mosque in the town of Khalis following Friday prayer services. Also on March 24, police found the bodies of five Iraqis near Al-Sadr City in Baghdad. They had been blindfolded, bound, and shot. The bodies of seven other victims who were killed in the same manner were discovered in the Al-Binuk district of the city, Reuters reported. Also in Baghdad, insurgents gunned down four bakery workers in a Sunni Arab neighborhood, and three policemen were killed and one wounded in an armed attack on their patrol in western Baghdad, according to Reuters. KR

Ibrahim al-Ja'fari told reporters at a March 23 press briefing in Baghdad that it is inaccurate to describe Iraq as currently being in a state of civil war, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "I believe that the assassination of a group of Shi'a by someone who alleges to be a Sunni, or the assassination of Sunnis by someone who claims to be a Shi'a is not a sectarian war or a civil war," he said. Al-Ja'fari added that at least one group of terrorists his government arrested included both Sunnis and Shi'a. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari likewise denied that Iraq is in a state of civil war in comments to new Japanese Ambassador to Iraq Hisao Yamaguchi in Baghdad on March 23, Kyodo World Service reported the same day. KR

Prime Minister al-Ja'fari said at the same press briefing that the government will rely on the constitution as its term of reference for the resolution of any political disputes. "The constitution defines all sides' power, stresses the separation of the three branches of power, and defines the rights, duties, and responsibilities of each one of them very clearly. Even if there were points of disagreement in the constitution, they should be addressed in a constitutional way," he said. Al-Ja'fari said that the issues of federalism and Kirkuk will not be difficult to resolve because the constitution is very clear on those issues. "Our strength lies in our implementation of the constitution, and not in imposing our will and holding the constitution responsible for what we do or do not believe in. Therefore, we are proud to say that we will adhere to the constitution," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq quoted al-Ja'fari as saying. KR

Muthanna Harith al-Dari, spokesman of the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association, told Al-Jazeera television in a March 23 interview that the purpose of the association's visit to Moscow was to inform the Russians about the situation in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2006). "Through the UN Security Council, Russia can exercise pressure on the Americans and their allies to leave [Iraq] to its people because their occupation of Iraq has only brought continued tragedies," he said. Al-Dari denied that the trip was occasioned by an appeal by Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim that Iran and the United States begin dialogue on Iraq. Asked about current attempts by political parties to form a government, al-Dari told Al-Jazeera that both the "occupation" and the big political blocs want a government tailored to their desires. "The current Iraqi government was formed through consensus, but this consensus was between...the strong and the weak. The next government might be the same. We want a government that would be composed of Iraqis who are sincere to Iraq, who are neutral, and who work for all of Iraq," he said. The Muslim Scholars Association boycotted December's parliamentary elections and remains outside the political process. KR

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched Operation Northern Lights in the Abu Ghurayb area west of Baghdad on March 23, according to a press release posted on Some 1,400 personnel are taking part in the operation, which aims to "find and destroy" weapons caches. The press release said that five weapons caches were uncovered on the first day, and troops detained two "persons of high-value interest," and 16 suspected terrorists. A separate press release dated the same day announced that Operation Swarmer has come to an end (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). That operation, billed as the largest air assault in Iraq since 2003, resulted in the detention of 104 suspected insurgents and the discovery of 24 weapons caches. KR