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Newsline - March 28, 2006

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on March 27 that Washington has "hidden political motives" for recently making public a report alleging that Russia supplied then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with intelligence on U.S. forces in the run-up to the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom just over three years ago, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2006). Lavrov argued that "the way [the information was released] allows one to speculate that [there are] hidden political motives and that it is being done in connection with Iraq. But I am not certain of it. It is difficult to understand why we are learning about such [things] from the media." Elsewhere in Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on March 28 of the U.S. report: "There is nothing here to comment on. This is absolute nonsense. We certainly gave no information to anyone," Interfax reported. PM

Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said in Moscow on March 27 that he does not believe the allegations made in the recent Pentagon study on Russian relations with Iraq in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Interfax reported. "Such things could not have taken place. I hope that official U.S. agencies will find a way to adequately clarify the situation and not create a show without reason," he added. In Washington, a State Department spokesman said that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will discuss the matter with Lavrov at a meeting of the five permanent UN Security Council members in Berlin on March 30, or else by telephone, reported. The topic of the Berlin gathering is the Iranian nuclear issue. The Russian website and some other Russian media suggested on March 28 that the Iranian question is possibly behind the U.S. decision to release the Iraqi dossiers at this time. PM

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who heads the stockholders' oversight body for the planned North European Gas Pipeline running from Vyborg to Greifswald, wants to set up a "lobbying structure" to promote Russian interests in the West, the Moscow daily "Kommersant" reported on March 28. He first proposed the idea to Defense Minister Ivanov in February and discussed it with President Vladimir Putin on a Moscow visit that began on March 27 and continued the next day with a tour of Gazprom facilities in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. The daily suggested that the proposal has met with mixed reactions in Berlin because of Schroeder's suggestion that the lobbying enterprise be financed by Russian business interests, which would presumably compromise its independence in German eyes. The paper added that some people in Moscow are cool to the proposal because they fear that the project could damage relations with current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will visit Russia in April. The daily noted that Schroeder's effectiveness as a lobbyist in the West has probably been diminished by questions that arose about his taking up the Gazprom pipeline post so soon after the end of a chancellorship that saw ever-closer relations with Moscow and the worst German-American relations since World War II (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2006). PM

Yevgeny Primakov -- a former foreign minister and current president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as a veteran Middle East expert -- told the first-ever meeting of the Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group in Moscow on March 27 that his country is a model for good Christian-Muslim relations, news agencies reported. "There is perhaps no other state with a population made up of a Christian majority and Muslim minority that could serve as well as Russia as an example of their living peacefully, the interpenetration of cultures, and the creation of a diverse communality," Primakov added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2006). PM

President Putin told troops and veterans of the Interior Ministry in Moscow on March 27 that "you have very many missions to carry out, they are [all] different, and each is a complex problem that is related to a certain aspect of national security," ITAR-TASS reported. He stressed that "the struggle against terrorism and crime remains a priority. It is necessary to firmly stop any attempt to incite ethnic conflicts or provoke mass disorders." Marking the professional holiday of the Interior Ministry forces, Putin added that "today we pay tribute to those who guard the constitutional order, peaceful life, and calm of our citizens, those who fearlessly confronted criminals and firmly defended strategic facilities and transportation hubs." PM

In a move to boost the number of conscripts, Defense Minister Ivanov told the Moscow daily "Izvestia" of March 28 that he wants to cut the number of categories for military deferments. "At present, there are 25 types of deferments, and they can be divided into educational, social, professional, and medical deferments," Ivanov said. "Social deferments will be reduced partially and the number of medical deferments will remain the same." He noted that the proposal will not be popular because large numbers of young men avoid the military, where hazing and bullying are widespread. He added that, thanks to deferments, only 9.1 percent of the eligible conscript population actually entered the military in 2005, down from 27 percent the previous year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2005, and March 23, 2006). In related news, Ivanov denied in Moscow on March 28 that he has sought to influence the criminal investigation of an automobile accident in which his son was involved and an elderly woman killed, Interfax reported. PM

Oleg Kovalyov, who heads the State Duma's Management Committee, told "The Moscow Times" of March 28 that his pro-Kremlin Unified Russia wants to be able to count on the backing of 30 million people by the time of the 2008 presidential elections. "Supporters are those who back the party in the regions. They are the link between the party and its voters," he added. Kovalyov also noted that "we need to give people a good reason to trust us." The party's membership recently passed the 1 million mark (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2006). The Moscow-based daily commented that Unified Russia's strategy of building up a mass base is essentially an attempt at recreating the system established by the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Unified Russia's only ideological foundation is support for President Putin, the paper added. PM

An Ossetian djamaat (group of Islamic militants) has sent a formal statement to the Kavkaz-Tsentr website warning that it plans to continue attacks on Russian military and intelligence targets in North Ossetia, and also on drug dealers and gambling dens, reported on March 27. The statement further affirmed that the djamaat will take every precaution to avoid inflicting casualties on the civilian population. LF

The Karachai and Balkar website on March 25 quoted an anonymous informant as warning of an imminent crackdown by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on practicing Muslims in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic. The rationale cited for that action, purportedly scheduled for early April, is Moscow's dissatisfaction with the perceived inability of the republic's police to combat unofficial Islam. LF

Ingush displaced persons, who since late 1992 have lived in trailers in the temporary settlement of Mayskoe in North Ossetia, have informed Ingush media and that the North Ossetian authorities have begun transporting their trailers by force to a new settlement built for them, where there are no employment opportunities, reported on March 28. Sixty-five trailers have already been removed; a further 130 remain. The residents of Mayskoe continue to insist on their right to return to their homes in North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion from which they were evicted or fled during the fighting in late October-early November 1992 (see End Note). LF

In a March 27 interview with, Oktay Abdullayev, the head of a medical research institute in Baku, accused Azerbaijan's Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of failing to take adequate and timely measures to warn the population of the danger of avian influenza and prevent its spreading. Abdullayev also criticized the state commission established to deal with bird flu, although he declined to comment on the allegation that its chairman, First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov, has a monopoly in the import of poultry into Azerbaijan. In a separate report on March 28, quoted Sadagat Mamedova, the head of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources' task force to deal with bird flu, as criticizing the State Veterinary Service for failing to make available the results of laboratory tests of wild ducks believed to have succumbed to bird flu. Mamedova accused the State Veterinary Service of protecting the interests of local poultry farmers by continuing for weeks to deny that any cases of bird flu have been registered in broiler factories. Representatives of those factories convened a press conference in Baku on March 27 where they denied that any danger exists of the H5N1 strain of bird flu spreading to those enterprises, which employ a total of over 10,000 people and produce between 50,000-60,000 tons of poultry every day. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili told a National Security Council session on March 27 that the riot and attempted mass jail break at a Tbilisi prison earlier that day was part of a bid by unspecified criminal elements to destabilize the situation in Georgia, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2006). He said the authorities "will not talk with bandits" and vowed "zero tolerance" towards criminals. Saakashvili further praised the response of police and security forces deployed to suppress the riot, in which the Georgian authorities have confirmed that seven people died. Ninety-six prisoners have since been transferred from the Tbilisi jail where the riot took place to the Rustavi penal colony. LF

The parliament bureau rejected on March 27 a call by the Right-Wing Opposition to establish a parliamentary commission to probe the circumstances of the Tbilisi prison riot, Caucasus Press reported. Also on March 27, Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze briefed parliamentarians on details of the two-hour operation to quell the unrest. He rejected criticism from the opposition, saying that the authorities learned on March 25 that the jail break was planned but did not have time to transfer the suspected leaders to other prisons. LF

Responding on March 27 to an address by Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, U.S. Ambassador Julie Finley praised Tbilisi's commitment to resolving the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts peacefully, according to the website of the U.S. Mission ( She also acknowledged progress since the November 2003 Rose Revolution in reforming the education system and police, cracking down on corruption and boosting budget revenues. At the same time, Finley stressed that "much remains to be done" in terms of strengthening the independence of the judiciary and the media and improving the status of minorities, and she pledged Washington's continued assistance in addressing those problems. LF

Presidential-administration department head Simon Kiladze has been arrested on charges of treason and espionage for an unnamed foreign state, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told journalists in Tbilisi on March 28, Caucasus Press reported. Merabishvili said that Kiladze began passing secret information to a foreign intelligence service in 2004 and has been paid at least $20,000 for doing so. LF

Following talks between Irakli Alasania, President Saakashvili's adviser for Abkhazia, and Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, three Georgians detained by the Abkhaz authorities on suspicion of espionage were handed back on March 25 to representatives of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile, Caucasus Press reported. The three Georgians, who were arrested while filming churches and other monuments in Abkhazia, were handed over at a bridge over the Inguri River that marks the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. The three Georgians were arrested on March 4 and remanded to three months' pre-trial detention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 9, 2006). LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a decree on March 27 splitting the Ministry of Culture, Information and Sport into a Culture and Information Ministry and a Tourism and Sport Ministry, Kazinform reported. The decree also transfers the task of developing tourism from the Industry and Commerce Ministry to the newly formed Tourism and Sport Ministry. Ermukhamet Ertysbaev, who was appointed culture, information, and sport minister on January 18, will continue to head the Culture and Information Ministry, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev appointed Temirkhan Dosmukhanbetov to head the new Tourism and Sport Ministry. DK

OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said on March 27 during a meeting with President Nazarbaev in Astana that Kazakhstan has the best chance of any Central Asian country to chair the OSCE, Khabar reported. Noting that Kazakhstan hopes to chair the OSCE in 2009, De Gucht said, "For the OSCE, it's very important that it be headed by a country located to the east of Vienna. We feel that Kazakhstan is the worthiest candidate for the [chairmanship] post in the OSCE in Central Asia." De Gucht also praised Kazakhstan's democratization prospects, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He said, "In view of such phenomena as stable economic growth and tolerance in society, I believe that Kazakhstan has all the prerequisites to begin far-ranging democratic transformations, and I think that the country will manage this task." DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev has signed a decree forming a working group to create draft constitutions with various forms of government for Kyrgyzstan, Kabar reported on March 27. The group will prepare drafts on the basis of materials produced by a Constitutional Council, which was formed in 2005 in the wake of President Askar Akaev's ouster in March 2005. The decree named Azimbek Beknazarov, a member of parliament and head of the Asaba Party, to head the working group. The working group's drafts will eventually be used in a referendum to decide whether Kyrgyzstan should have a presidential, presidential-parliamentary, or parliamentary form of government. DK

Kyrgyz Finance Minister Aklybek Japarov announced on March 27 that international financial institutions will loan Kyrgyzstan $105 million in 2006, Kabar reported. The announcement came after two weeks of talks with representatives of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank, and Germany's KfW Entwicklungsbank (KfW Development Bank), reported. Some 40 percent of the funds will go to the Agricultural Water Use and Industry Ministry, 20 percent to the Transportation and Communications Ministry, and 13 percent to the Health Ministry, with the remainder distributed to other social projects. As of December 31, 2005, Kyrgyzstan's foreign debt stood at $1.44 billion, reported, with the largest amount, $680 million, or 47.4 percent, owed to the World Bank. DK

Nine district courts in Minsk on March 27 punished nearly 300 people, mostly youths and students, with jail terms of up to 15 days, finding them guilty of participation in unauthorized opposition protests last week, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Those punished were detained by police either on March 24, during the dismantling of an opposition tent camp on October Square, or on March 25, during a police crackdown on several hundred demonstrators marching toward a detention center on the city outskirts. There have been no official reports on how many people were arrested in Minsk following the March 19 presidential vote, which the opposition considers deeply flawed. "This time the authorities were sensible enough not to use arms. I don't think they are all insane, although there is a lot of hysteria among them," opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich told Reuters on March 27. "They didn't expect so many people to come out on the streets. In fact, Minsk hasn't seen so many protesters on the streets for 10 years. [The authorities] are afraid." JM

Oleg Kozlovsky and Eduard Glezin -- Russian nationals detained when police stormed the tent camp on October Square on March 24 -- were sentenced in Minsk on March 27 to 15 days in jail, Belapan reported. Aleksandr Padrobinek, a staff writer with the Russian newspaper "Novaya gazeta" received the same jail term. Mariusz Maszkiewicz, a former Polish ambassador to Belarus detained on October Square on March 24, also received a 15-day jail sentence. So far there has been no official information regarding the fate of Canadian freelance journalist Frederick Lavoie, who was reportedly arrested in Minsk on March 24. Those jailed also include two Ukrainians, two Georgians, and a Polish woman. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a total of 41 journalists, including 12 foreigners, were arrested in Belarus from March 14-27. Last week the authorities ordered the deportation of Russian political analyst Vladimir Suzdaltsev, giving him 10 days to leave Belarus. Polish Consul to Belarus Janusz Dabrowski was prevented from entering the country after Belarusian border guards accused him of smuggling illegal literature and attempted to check his baggage. JM

Lawyer Ihar Rynkevich on March 25 met with former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), in a remand prison in Zhodzina, some 60 kilometers east of Minsk, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Kazulin was arrested on March 25 while leading an opposition march toward a detention center on Minsk's Akrestsina Street. According to the lawyer, Kazulin was beaten during his transportation from Minsk to Zhodzina. Kazulin's wife, Iryna, told journalists that he is being investigated for possible violation of an article relating to hooliganism in connection with his attempt to register as a delegate to the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006). Iryna Kazulina added that her husband could also face charges of terrorism in connection with the march. JM

The Polish Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 27 that Warsaw has imposed visa sanctions on those Belarusian officials it considers responsible for rigging the March 19 presidential election in Belarus and persecuting the opposition, Polish media reported. The sanctions were announced earlier the same day by Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, who characterized a Belarusian court decision sentencing two Polish citizens to prison terms as "scandalous." JM

Ukraine's Central Election Commission reported on March 28 that, with 70 percent of the ballots counted, the Party of Regions headed by Viktor Yanukovych is leading the elections held on March 26 with 30 percent of the vote, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. The Party of Regions is followed by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc with 22.5 percent of the vote, Our Ukraine with 15.3 percent, the Socialist Party with 6.3 percent, and the Communist Party with 3.6 percent. The remaining groups from the 45 parties and blocs participating in the elections are below the 3 percent barrier qualifying for parliamentary representation. According to the election law in force, the Central Election Commission should establish the final election results within two weeks after the voting day. "We would like to finish our task as soon as possible, since we understand that the world is waiting -- even for preliminary results," Central Election Commission head Yaroslav Davydovych told journalists on March 28. JM

A joint observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Council, the European Parliament, and NATO said in its preliminary conclusions on March 27 that the March 26 parliamentary elections in Ukraine met Ukraine's commitments to the OSCE and allowed Ukrainians to make a free and conscious choice, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "These elections can only be described as free and fair. So it is the Ukrainian people who are the real winners," OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Alcee Hastings told journalists in Kyiv on March 27. Central Election Commission head Davydovych told journalists the same day that 3,500 foreign and some 290,000 domestic observers monitored the March 26 parliamentary vote. JM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous political bloc, called on President Viktor Yushchenko on March 27 to sign a deal that would recreate the Orange Revolution coalition between her bloc, the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party, Ukrainian media reported. "Principles have been agreed. The party winning the greatest number of votes among the three participants puts forward its candidate for prime minister, with no right of veto," Reuters quoted Tymoshenko as saying. "We should not lose a single minute. We need to make a decision immediately and form the order not to disillusion people again." Yushchenko has not yet responded publicly to Tymoshenko's proposal. "The president of Ukraine is today conducting a round of unilateral talks with leaders of those parties that are unquestionably over the 3 percent barrier," Presidential Secretariat deputy head Anatoliy Matviyenko told journalists on March 28. "There will be an exchange of opinions and a forced break for the time being, since even preliminary results have not yet been released." JM

During an official visit to Sweden, Serbian President Boris Tadic said on March 27 that recent deaths of high-profile detainees have made cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) increasingly problematic, dpa reported the same day "We have a problem with ICTY collaboration because of these very sensitive cases, Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Babic, which happened in the past few weeks," Tadic told a news conference after talks with Prime Minister Goran Persson in Stockholm. Babic committed suicide in his cell and Milosevic died of a heart attack in The Hague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 13, 2006). Tadic said that Belgrade will nevertheless meet its obligations to the tribunal and arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic. BW

At the same press conference in Sweden, Tadic said on March 27 that he will do everything possible to assure stability after the issues of Kosova's status and Montenegrin independence are decided, AFP reported the same day. Kosova's future is being determined in UN-backed talks and Montenegro has scheduled an independence referendum for May 21. "The Serbian government and I, as the Serbian president, are going to do everything that is in our power to provide stability after these two processes," Tadic said. "The current situation in Serbia is very important regarding stability in the Balkans region." Tadic pledged not to interfere in the referendum. "But at the same time," he added, "I am saying that I am for the state union of Serbia-Montenegro. It is a more functional way towards integration into the EU." BW

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his ruling Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) is willing to work with the opposition Democratic Party (DS) in parliament, but only without conditions attached, B92, Beta, and FoNet reported on March 27. Kostunica rejected calls for early elections and said the DSS "has a principled stance for cooperation with parties, that when national and state interests are in question, there can be no conditions imposed, nor is it good to be the object of calculation." Kostunica's minority government depends on tacit support from Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in parliament. But the SPS has recently become less inclined to support the government. The DS has offered to assist Kostunica's government in parliament in exchange for early elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22 and 24, 2006). Kostunica said that "elections will be held when the time comes or before that, if a new constitution is adopted." BW

In response to Kostunica's comments, DS official Djordje Todorovic said early elections are necessary for Serbia's future and he accused the DSS of allowing itself to be blackmailed by the SPS, B92, FoNet, and Beta reported on March 27. "The only party imposing conditions on the Serbian government and the Democratic Party of Serbia is the Socialist Party of Serbia, and we are being faced with their constant blackmailing and pressuring of the Serbian government," Todorovic said. "I think that Prime Minister Kostunica should know who is blackmailing and pressuring him, and he should also be aware of the fact that the current Serbian government does not have the support of the majority of Serbia's citizens," he added. BW

The Moldovan Economy and Commerce Ministry plans to appeal to Russia to lift a ban on wine imports from Moldova, Flux reported on March 28. Russia introduced a ban on wines from Moldova and Georgia on March 27, citing "safety considerations." Gennady Onishchenko, who heads Russia's health inspectorate, said components in Moldovan and Georgian wines are "dangerous for the health of Russian consumers." Moldovan Deputy Economy and Commerce Minister Igor Dodon said a letter appealing to Russia to lift the ban will be sent by the end of the week. BW

It has been more than 13 years since Ingush and Ossetian informal militias, the latter backed by Russian security forces, engaged in a brief but brutal conflict in North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion, to which both ethnic groups lay claim. More than 500 people died in six days of fighting in early November 1992 that precipitated the flight from North Ossetia of tens of thousands of Ingush settlers.

Due partly to a lack of political will and partly to inadequate funding, measures adopted by successive Russian governments intended to enable the Ingush fugitives to return to their abandoned homes in Prigorodny Raion have been implemented only half-heartedly, with the result that the Ingush collective sense of grievance has festered.

The Ossetians, for their part, remain resolutely opposed either to changes in their republic's borders that would hand Prigorodny Raion back to Ingushetia, or to the wholesale return of the Ingush to the district. The two sides have recently launched new propaganda offensives intended to impel the Russian leadership to amend the status quo in their favor.

Prigorodny Raion was incorporated into North Ossetia when the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) of which it was originally part was abolished in the wake of the 1944 deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia.

When both ethnic groups were exonerated under then-CPSU General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and their republic was reconstituted in 1957, its borders were amended to leave Prigorodny Raion within North Ossetia.

In April 1991 the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a Law on the Rehabilitation of the Repressed Peoples that stated that Prigorodny Raion should be handed back to the then-Checheno-Ingush ASSR, but failed to specify how and over what time period this should be done. The Checheno-Ingush ASSR split into separate Chechen and Ingush republics in July 1992, but the borders of those two territories were not formalized.

Because many of the Ingush who resettled spontaneously in Prigorodny Raion following the passage of the 1991 law failed to register with the North Ossetian authorities, estimates of the size of the Ingush population of Prigorodny Raion on the eve of the November 1992 fighting and of the number of Ingush forced to flee for their lives vary greatly. According to a Human Rights Watch report compiled in 1996, there were 34,000 Ingush officially registered as residents in North Ossetia in 1991; the Russian Federal Migration Service registered 46,000 forcibly displaced Ingush from North Ossetia; while the Ingushetian Territorial Migration Service put the number at 64,000.

In the aftermath of the violence, Moscow imposed a state of emergency in Prigorodny Raion that remained in force until 1995; a joint request two years later by the then-presidents of both republics that it be reimposed was rejected as unconstitutional by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin vowed instead to increase funding to rebuild destroyed homes and create new jobs for those Ingush who wished to return to Prigorodny Raion, but the Russian government apparently failed to make good on that pledge, and in July 1999 Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev threatened to suspend all talks with North Ossetia until earlier agreements on measures to defuse tensions were implemented.

In October 2002, Aushev's successor, former Federal Security Service (FSB) General Murat Zyazikov, and then-North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov signed a major "Agreement on the Development of Cooperation and Good-Neighborly Relations" intended to "mark the beginning of a new stage" in bilateral relations. That document obliged both sides to take the necessary measures to eliminate the consequences of the 1992 clashes, including expediting the repatriation of Ingush fugitives; preventing the creation of illegal armed or separatist groups; and establishing mechanisms for consultations to prevent the emergence and escalation of new tensions, according to Yet that agreement too was ignored rather than systematically implemented, with the result that as of September 2004 an estimated 40,000 Ingush displaced persons from Prigorodny Raion were still living in tent camps in Ingushetia.

In May 2005, Dmitry Kozak, whom President Vladimir Putin named in September 2004 as his representative to the Southern Federal District, unveiled a detailed new program for expediting the return of the Ingush displaced persons to their abandoned homes in Ingushetia by the end of 2006. Kozak's staff initially insisted on implementing that agreement to the letter, according to an article published in "Moskovsky komsomolets" on February 13, but North Ossetian bureaucrats have systematically created obstacles to the displaced persons' return to their homes.

Consequently, as Ingushetian Minister for Nationality Affairs Magomed Markhiyev told "Caucasus Times" on February 27, as of February only approximately 12,500 displaced persons, or some 30 percent of the total number, had returned to North Ossetia. Markhiyev said that Kozak's original plan is being constantly modified by North Ossetian officials who are insisting that the returning Ingush be housed in new settlements constructed specifically for that purpose. For reasons that remain unclear, at a meeting in Rostov-na-Donu in early February with government officials from Ingushetia and North Ossetia, Kozak signed off on a new protocol to his original plan that provides for Ingush returning to North Ossetia to take up residence in such settlements, rather than in their abandoned homes.

The Ingushetian parliament promptly addressed an appeal to President Putin rejecting that proposed arrangement as "pro-Ossetian," the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 20. And in a statement adopted one month later, the People's Assembly called for talks between its representatives, Zyazikov, and Kozak's staff on "constructive and dynamic" measures to resolve the conflict in accordance with the displaced persons' wishes, reported on March 23.

Meanwhile, the North Ossetian parliament is preparing another appeal to the Russian parliament to amend the 1991 Law on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples by removing from it the articles stating that the pre-deportation borders between republics be restored. The Ingush responded to news of that impending appeal by addressing four separate counterappeals to President Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, the Russian Constitutional Court, and the chairmen of the State Duma and Federation Council.

More ominously, a hitherto unknown group calling itself Patriots of Ossetia posted a statement on March 16 on arguing that measures reportedly adopted by the Ingushetian leadership on March 9 to expedite the return of Ingush displaced persons to North Ossetia herald "a new attack on us.... Clearly if Ingush extremism is not reined in, we shall have to prepare for war! We must not repeat past mistakes! This time no one will catch us unaware...! We are ready to defend our Homeland with weapons in our hands!" that statement concludes.

The March 23 statement by the Ingushetian National Assembly interpreted Kozak's apparent capitulation to pressure from the North Ossetian leadership as predicated on the assumption that, in time, the Ingush displaced persons will abandon hope and accept whatever final solution to the standoff Moscow sees fit to impose. But some of those hypothetical solutions might prove even less palatable than the "ghetto" settlements in North Ossetia envisaged in the most recent protocol to Kozak's original blueprint of May 2005.

One such solution would be to recombine Chechnya and Ingushetia into a single republic with two titular nationalities, by analogy with the Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia republics. True, Zyazikov has rejected that proposal on more than one occasion. But his Chechen counterpart Alu Alkhanov has been less categorical, suggesting that residents of both republics should vote on the issue in a referendum.

A second possibility, floated in an article published in "Rossia v global'noi politike" and reposted on on March 10, would be to merge Ingushetia and North Ossetia into a single republic and thus abolish once for all any grounds for disputing the borders between them, reported on March 10. That approach would have the additional advantage, as journalist Makhmud Malsagov pointed out in a commentary posted on on March 13, of assimilating the "unruly" Ingush with the "loyal" Ossetians.

It is not clear, however, how such a merger would impinge on a putative alternative geopolitical project, namely the unification of North Ossetia with Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. Unlike his predecessor Dzasokhov, who advocated resolving the conflict between the central Georgian authorities and South Ossetia by transforming Georgia into a federation in order to grant more substantial rights to both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Taymuraz Mamsurov, who was named North Ossetian president in June 2005, has repeatedly advocated the unification of the two Ossetian republics.

Whether Kokoity's stated intention on March 22 to petition the Russian Constitutional Court to designate his republic part of the Russian Federation -- a proposal for which Mamsurov and some Russian officials have reportedly expressed support -- reflects top-level Kremlin support for unification is unclear. Those statements may have merely been intended as a way to hit back at the Georgian authorities for their consistent blocking of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.

The Afghan authorities have dropped the case against a Christian convert who was facing the death penalty for abandoning Islam. Justice Minister Sarwar Danish said Abdul Rahman was released from a maximum-security jail on the outskirts of Kabul on March 27, but is being held in a secret location for his own security. Some Afghan clerics have threatened Rahman with violence for his open embrace of Christianity. Danish did not comment on the legal grounds for Rahman's release, but said earlier that there were doubts about Rahman's mental capacity to stand trial. Rahman is now seeking asylum outside Afghanistan, AP reported. UN spokesman Adrian Edwards said he expects Rahman to be offered asylum by "one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case." MR

Pakistani authorities on March 27 deported dozens of Afghans caught up in a dragnet aimed at capturing militants operating in tribal areas spanning the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, AP reported. Pakistani authorities said they detained 150 Afghans in the tribal area of North Waziristan on suspicion they were involved with militants in the area who have recently clashed with the Pakistani army. Pakistani officials later decided that 69 of them were not involved with militants, drove them to the Afghan border, dropped them off, and ordered them to stay in Afghanistan from now on. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has vowed to rid the tribal areas of foreign fighters, whom he blames for fomenting violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. MR

Suspected neo-Taliban fighters on March 26 torched a construction truck and kidnapped its driver in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported. The attack occurred in the Greshk district of Helmand Province, area police said. The head of the district police, Amanullah Khan, said armed men halted a truck carrying asphalt. "The six Taliban on motorcycles stopped and set fire to the truck and they took the driver with them," Amanullah Khan said. Southern Afghanistan remains the most volatile region of the country, and neo-Taliban forces operating in the tribal zones bordering Pakistan have stepped up attacks in recent months. MR

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on March 27 told a crowd in the town of Gachsaran in the southwestern province of Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad that Iran is a peaceful country but will not be deterred from its nuclear program by Western "psychological warfare," ISNA reported the same day. "They do not know that the right to use peaceful nuclear technology is the wish of the entire Iranian nation," and Iranians will defend this right "in unison." He was presumably referring to the United States and to EU states, who fear Iran's program may be used to develop bombs. "They think that by holding meetings, making statements, and issuing resolutions, they can prevent our people's progress," ISNA quoted him as saying. Iranians and their government will not "retreat one bit" over the nuclear program, he stated. Separately, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said in Tehran the same day that Iran has agreed to talk to U.S. officials about Iraqi affairs because of "our increasing concern over America's mistaken conduct in Iraq," ISNA reported. While "we distrust America's motives," discussions are intended to help bring security to Iraq, he said. VS

Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar told a gathering of officers in the Basij militia in the Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad province on 27 March that the Defense Ministry will seek to make defense-industry equipment "intelligent," and raise the quality of products in the new Persian year, which runs until March 2007. This would be one of a series of moves to raise defensive capabilities, assure "greater flexibility," and use "advanced technologies," ISNA reported the same day. Najjar said Iran has made "very good" progress in "the production of electronic technologies" that will help raise the intelligence of defensive equipment. "We are now able to produce intelligent weaponry to precisely identify and target the aims of the enemy," he said. "We shall expand this advanced technology in the armored, air, aerospace, marine, automobile, missile, and other determined industries," he said. He added that, "as we have declared many times," the armed forces' response to any enemy aggression will be "decisive and crushing, so the enemy will regret its move," ISNA reported. VS

The Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) withdrew from talks over the formation of the next government on March 27 to protest a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in Baghdad on March 26 that left 16 dead, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on March 27. There have been conflicting accounts surrounding the raid. "U.S. troops besieged the Al-Mustafa Husayniyah [Shi'ite religious center] in the Al-Sha'b area [of Baghdad]. They stormed the husayniyah and besieged worshippers," Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, a spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Al-Arabiyah television on March 26. "There is an office for the [Islamic] Al-Da'wah Party in this husayniyah as well. The U.S. troops went in and opened fire on the worshippers who were in one room, resulting in the martyrdom of 16 to 17 people. Three were wounded. Afterward, the U.S. troops detained the rest of the worshippers" in the husayniyah. "The building complex that was attacked was blocks away from the Mustafa Mosque" U.S. Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli said in an undated press release on "This operation was led by Iraqis who confirmed that this was not a mosque, and at no time did they enter any mosque or damage a mosque in any way." KR

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said on March 27 that he will head an investigation into the March 26 incident in Baghdad, Al-Arabiyah television reported the same day. Meanwhile, Baghdad's municipal council suspended all contacts with U.S. forces in protest over the operation. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) claimed in a March 27 press release on the party's website that U.S. forces carried out the raid with the help of Iraqi forces affiliated with the Americans but not with official Iraqi security forces. "What these forces have done is considered an organized crime that has serious political and security dimensions that seek to trigger civil war to serve political ends aimed at manipulating current political formulas during critical political circumstances" surrounding the formation of a government, Islamic Al-Da'wah Party member Jawad al-Maliki told reporters at a March 27 press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Al-Maliki further called for control over security to be transferred to the Iraqi government. KR

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association blamed U.S. and Iraqi forces for the wave of terrorist attacks taking place across Iraq in a statement posted to the association's website on March 27. Referring to the March 26 discovery of some 30 bodies, mostly decapitated, on a road between Ba'qubah and Al-Nahrawan, the association said it "holds the occupation forces and the current government responsible for this crime and for the terrorist assaults on innocent citizens whose lives, under the umbrella of alleged slogans of democracy and human rights, which the occupation and its allies promised to them, have turned into a never-ending, unbearable hell." KR

Japan will begin implementing a 76.5 billion-yen (about $655 million) loan to Iraq to help restore its failing infrastructure, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso announced on March 28 in Tokyo, Kyodo World Service reported. The loan is part of an aid package pledged at the October 2003 Iraq reconstruction conference (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," October 31, 2003). "I hope that the implementation of the yen loans will boost the Iraqi people's efforts for reconstruction and nation-building," Aso said. The loans will go to three projects: upgrading the Umm Al-Qasr Port; rehabilitating the Al-Musayyib Thermal Power Plant near Baghdad; and an irrigation project in the southern Al-Muthanna Governorate, where Japanese forces are stationed, Kyodo reported. KR