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Newsline - March 2, 2007

U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns said in Moscow on March 1 that the two countries need more "dialogue" to remove "misconceptions" on issues such as the planned U.S. missile-defense system and the future of nuclear arms reduction treaties, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 10, 11, 21, 22, and 23, 2007). He told a gathering of nuclear experts that "we may not be able to agree on every issue, but neither of us can afford miscommunication or the absence of genuine consultation." Burns said Washington and Moscow need to plan on how to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) which expires in 2009 and the Moscow Treaty, also called the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which expires in 2012. He stressed that "there is also much more that can be done to enhance communication between us on everything from data exchange on ballistic-missile launches to difficult questions of missile defense and space and deterrence posture, to...the future of [the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty].... There are no easy answers to any of these questions but all of them require a candid, sustained, systematic strategic dialogue between us." General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, and Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov, who commands the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, recently suggested that Russia might abrogate the INF treaty. PM

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the Missile Defense Agency, said in Brussels on March 1 that the United States wants to set up an antimissile radar station at an unspecified point in the Caucasus, news agencies reported. He reiterated the U.S. position that the projected missile interceptors to be based in Poland are not directed against Russia, although President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials have argued that they are. Obering said that "what [we] are talking about is 10 interceptors that we would locate in Poland. First of all, from a numbers perspective, there is no way that they can challenge the hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads that the Russians have. [Secondly,] even if we were trying to target those missiles, we cannot catch those missiles from Poland. In fact, if we were trying to target Russian missiles we would not put the interceptors in Poland -- it is too close to Russia. They would be in a different location." On March 2, Russian Air Force Commander in Chief Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov said that the possible deployment of a U.S. radar site in the Caucasus is of no real concern to Russia, RIA Novosti and ITAR-TASS reported. "We have everything necessary in order to respond appropriately to such deployments. They have lots of money, so let them spend it," he said. The daily "Kommersant" on March 2 summed up the Russian attitude towards the missile-defense project as "predictably hostile." The same paper reported on February 28 that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told the government's Military and Industrial Commission recently that Russia needs to set up its own defense system against aircraft, missiles, and space weapons. PM

Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, said in Moscow on March 1 that recent critical comments about Russia by U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell before the Senate Armed Services Committee were prompted by McConnell's desire to shore up his agency's budget, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and March 1, 2007). Margelov argued that "[U.S.] security services come to Capitol Hill with their budget requests, and it is understandable that in order to make those budget requests sound more convincing, security chiefs have to make their presentations as colorful as possible." Margelov added that "if we compare the Russian and U.S. military budgets, the difference between them is not even in tens but in hundreds of times [in favor of the United States]. So, in my opinion, to say that Russia could present a threat to the United States is not serious." The daily "Vedomosti" noted on March 1 that "all talk of a 'strategic partnership' between Washington and Moscow has come to an end. After a recent visit to the United States, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described Washington as 'our most difficult partner.'" PM

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said in Jerusalem on March 2 that Russia should scrap plans to negotiate a new arms deal with Syria involving advanced antitank and antiaircraft missiles, dpa reported. Peres warned that such sales would encourage Syria to "turn to a road of war." The news agency noted that Israeli media have recently quoted unspecified Israeli officials as saying they have learned that the negotiations are in their final stages and involve selling several thousand of the missiles to Damascus for hundreds of millions of dollars. The missiles are reportedly able to pierce the armor on any modern Western tank. Israeli Radio quoted unnamed "senior government officials" as warning that the missiles would probably "reach" Hizballah in Lebanon, which would then use them against Israeli tanks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 12, and October 17, 2006). Former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, of the opposition Likud party, told Israeli Radio on March 2 that President Putin wants to return Russia to the era of the former Soviet Union and the international status it had at the time. Shalom stressed that Putin "is playing with fire." On March 2, Foreign Minister Lavrov called on Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a step toward making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, reported. PM

The Russian daily "Vedomosti" noted on March 1 that "Russia has become one of the chief problems for U.S. policy in the Middle East," particularly where Iran is concerned, which "enables Moscow to demonstrate the potential geopolitical benefits of friendship with Russia to other Middle Eastern countries." The paper stressed that "Moscow and Washington have disagreed in the Middle East before, but matters have not gone this far since the Cold War era.... As recently as 2005, Russia bowed to pressure from the United States and Israel and declined to sell portable surface-to-air missiles to Syria. [Instead, it] signed an agreement with the United States on reciprocal notification about any such arms deals in future." The daily pointed out that "the Middle East is a key area for Russia's arms and nuclear technologies exports. Putin is relying on this potential in his efforts to diversify the Russian economy." PM

On March 1, the Supreme Court upheld an October 2006 decision by a court in St. Petersburg to clear 17 young men charged with stabbing a Vietnamese student to death in 2004, news agencies reported. Witnesses of the murder say the 20-year-old victim, Vu An Tuan, was attacked by a group of young men dressed like skinheads. In October 2006, the Vietnamese government protested the acquittal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2006). PM

Diomid, who is Russian Orthodox bishop of Siberia's remote Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, said in a recent open letter that the Moscow Patriarchate has effectively "retreated from the purity of Orthodox faith" through its policies in nine separate areas, Reuters reported on March 1. Diomid criticized the church's "approval of democracy" as a call to vote for specific political leaders in alleged defiance of church tenets. The bishop also warned that "the Group of Eight [industrialized countries (G8)] preparing the coming to power of a single world leader, [who would be] an anti-Christ. Therefore, any cooperation with them is spiritually dangerous." He also said that it is a "mistaken opinion" for the Orthodox Church to teach that Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and the Orthodox have the same moral values. On March 1, several Moscow-based clerics condemned the letter. One of them, identified as Kirill, said in a televised broadcast that Diomid's letter is in fact a "provocation" by unnamed "people hiding in the shadows." Dissident clergyman and rights activist Gleb Yakunin told Ekho Moskvy radio that Diomid's letter expressed views more befitting the Middle Ages, and will "drastically undermine the unity of the Moscow Patriarchate." Yakunin added that Diomid's letter could nonetheless serve a useful purpose by triggering a discussion within the church on important issues. PM

The weekly "Rossiya" published a recent poll on Russian citizens' views of the military in its March 1 issue, which suggests that public opinion is divided on several important topics. The survey, conducted by the prestigious Levada Center, showed that almost half of respondents believe that other states pose a threat to Russia, while 43 percent see no such threat from any other state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 27 and November 20, 2006). Sixty-five percent of respondents think that the military are capable of defending Russia in the event of an armed external threat, but 27 percent disagree and 8 percent are uncertain. Fifty-four percent of respondents support the state's move to abolish most exemptions from conscription and reduce conscription terms to one year, while 37 percent are against. Fifty-four percent of respondents want to replace the draft with contract service, which is a drop of 8 percent from the previous year, while 41 percent do not. PM

Valery Kuznetsov has described as "not entirely accurate and not entirely correct" Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg's statement that the use of torture in Chechen prisons and detention centers is widespread, reported on March 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). Kuznetsov pointed out that Hammarberg based that conclusion on a single visit to one detention center in Grozny. Hammarberg for his part repeated that conclusion on March 1 at a conference in Grozny on human rights in Chechnya, reported. He called for measures to identify and punish those who resort to torture, and argued that using torture to extract a confession from a suspect undermines the entire judiciary system. The official Chechen government website reported on March 1 that Hammarberg met on February 28 with representatives of over 30 Chechen human rights groups. But Magomed Mutsolgov, who heads Mashr, an organization that unites the relatives of persons in Ingushetia who have been abducted, told on March 1 that he saw no point in attending what he described as a PR exercise staged by the pro-Moscow Chechen administration. Mutsolgov estimated that 145 people have vanished without trace in Ingushetia after being detained by police or security officials. LF

The 58 members of the two chambers of the Chechen parliament approved in a secret ballot on March 2 by 56 votes in favor and two invalid ballots the nomination the previous day by President Putin of former Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov to succeed Alu Alkhanov as republic head, Russian media reported. Alkhanov resigned two weeks ago following a protracted power struggle with Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007). Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak and Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov were both present at the March 2 parliament session, reported. Meeting with Kadyrov in the Kremlin on March 1, Putin noted his success in expediting reconstruction in Chechnya and expressed the hope that process will continue at the present pace. Kadyrov for his part characterized Putin's nomination of him as imposing "a great responsibility to the Almighty, to the people," and to Putin himself, reported. Kadyrov said the most serious problem currently facing Chechnya is not security, but reconstruction and reducing unemployment. LF

Vahan Hovannisian, a senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), rejected on February 28 as untrue media speculation that HHD member and former Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Artur Aghabekian will put forward his candidacy in the presidential election due in August in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, according to Arminfo and A1+ as cited by Groong. Incumbent Arkady Ghukasian has said he will not seek a third term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). Hovannisian confirmed that Aghabekian will be a candidate on the HHD's proportional list in the May 12 Armenian parliamentary ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007). LF

Ali Nasir, deputy chairman of the Talysh Cultural Center and a journalist with the newspaper "Tolyshi sado," has been released after being summoned on February 27 for questioning by the State Security Ministry, and reported on March 1 and 2, respectively. Ministry spokesman Arif Babayev said on February 27 that Nasir was being questioned in connection with the criminal case brought against two other ethnic Talysh, including "Tolyshi sado" editor Novruzali Mamedov. The two are suspected of spying for Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). Nasir has denied that he was subjected to any pressure. LF

Visiting Tbilisi on March 1, Victor Yushchenko discussed with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili bilateral relations and cooperation, their respective countries' bids for NATO membership, and regional cooperation, including within the GUAM group, Georgian media and reported. Speaking at a subsequent joint press conference, Yushchenko reiterated earlier offers by Ukrainian leaders to contribute a contingent to an international peacekeeping force to be deployed in Abkhazia under the UN aegis. The two sides signed several bilateral agreements, including one facilitating the permanent residence of citizens of one country in the other, and a second on facilitating the export to Ukraine of Georgian wine and mineral water, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Former Kyrgyz parliament speaker Omorbek Abdrakhmanov, a leader of the For Reforms opposition movement, announced on March 1 a fresh effort with fellow opposition groups to propose a new constitution for the country, AKIpress reported. The combined opposition effort, which will include the United Front for a Worthy Future of Kyrgyzstan, is aimed at introducing constitutional restrictions on presidential powers while granting the legislature more authority. Abdrakhmanov said, "we do not recognize the December [2006] constitution" and noted that the opposition had no role in its drafting. He also called for the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiev. RG

A delegation of officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) arrived in Bishkek on March 1 for a two-week mission aimed at reviewing the Kyrgyz government's economic strategy, AKIpress and Interfax reported. The head of the IMF team, Paulo Neuhaus, expressed concerned over the recent Kyrgyz cabinet decision to reject participation in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, an IMF-sponsored debt-relief program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2007). Officials suggested the HIPC program could have provided for the reduction of about half of Kyrgyzstan's $2 billion in external debt, while critics argued that it would have given international financial institutions too much influence over domestic policy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007). RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a decree on March 1 formally setting March 30 as the date for a special session of the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), the country's highest legislative body, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. The meeting is to convene in the southern Turkmen city of Mary, and its main agenda item is the election of new leadership of the People's Council, although participants will also discus "essential" agricultural reforms, according to state television channel Altyn Asyr. The 2,500-member body normally meets just once a year, usually coinciding with the Turkmen Independence Day holiday in October, but may also be convened to ratify particularly significant government decisions. RG

President Berdymukhammedov formally reprimanded Energy and Industry Minister Yusup Davodov for "serious shortcomings" in his work, the state television channel Altyn Asyr reported. Davodov was also specifically criticized in a presidential decree for "insufficient attention to the work of electricity facilities" stemming from a series disruptions to electricity supplies in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. Davodov has been minister of energy and industry for a little more than a week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). RG

Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich on March 1 reiterated that he will take part in the upcoming congress of democratic forces in Belarus only if the congress decides to elect a single opposition leader, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Last month, Milinkevich refused to participate in the congress planned for mid-March, saying he objects to the idea of a rotating chairmanship in the coalition of opposition forces that has been proposed for approval at this forum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). Milinkevich on March 1 also repeated his former charge that the procedures for selecting delegates to the congress are nontransparent. "Those delegates to the congress whom we have today will most likely decide on the reorientation of Belarusian democratic forces toward the East," Milinkevich said. "Therefore, I am in favor of reconsidering those who have been given the right to go to the congress." JM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television that maintaining friendly relations with Russia is a sacred matter for Belarus, Belapan reported on March 1. "Irrespective of whether someone likes it or not, they in the West should understand that our friendship with the Russians is above all," Lukashenka said. Lukashenka simultaneously underlined that both countries need "to shift from politics of blackmail to normal dialogue." "We were not the primary reason for what has happened in [our] relations with the Russian Federation," Lukashenka said in an apparent allusion to the recent Belarusian-Russian row over gas- and oil-price hikes. "If they want to build a union with us on an equal, friendly footing, we are ready," he added. Lukashenka is expected to visit the United Arab Emirates in the near future. JM

President Lukashenka also told Al-Jazeera that Belarus is ready for dialogue with the United States, Belapan reported on March 1. "The ball is in the [U.S.] court. If the Americans deem it necessary to establish normal relations with Belarus, we are ready for that," Lukashenka said. He reportedly stressed that the planned deployment of a U.S. missile-defense system near Belarus's borders is only the beginning of a U.S. military buildup in East Europe. "The grouping of U.S. military forces here will be significantly reinforced, therefore the Russian Federation should act actively in the western direction in order to make itself secure," he added. Lukashenka also strongly disapproved of the situation in Iraq. "It is not a civil war any longer, it is a slaughter. These events in Iraq completely annul the declarations of the mighty of this world that they have come to that country as democrats," he said. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said in Tbilisi on March 1 that he does not approve of the proposal to hold simultaneous early presidential and parliamentary elections this coming fall, UNIAN reported. Yushchenko was commenting on the initiative of a lawmaker from the ruling Party of Regions to submit a draft bill to that effect (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). According to Yushchenko, the potential early elections would reinstall the same political forces in parliament that are there now. "The answer [to the current political standoff in Ukraine] is in a dialogue of mutual understanding. All the rest is provocation, blackmail, and psychological pressure, and won't give any result," Yushchenko noted. The Ukrainian president believes that the Party of Regions could find a lot of unifying points with the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine if it wanted to discuss "challenges" faced by the country. Meanwhile, Yuliya Tymoshenko, who is currently in the United States, said in an interview with "The Washington Times" published on March 2 that early parliamentary elections could prevent Ukraine from sliding into autocracy and halt Russia's growing influence in the country. "If this government is in power until [2011], there would be nothing left of a democratic Ukraine. The territory would still exist, but it would not be Ukraine any longer," the newspaper quoted her as saying. JM

Talks on the future of Kosova turned on March 1 to the issue of security, with Serbian media reporting that Serbian negotiators rejected the concept underlying the UN's proposal. "We have discarded the whole lot because it is inconsistent with the demilitarization of Kosovo we proposed on the first day of the negotiations," one of the Serbian negotiators, Slobodan Samardzic, was quoted on March 1 by the Belgrade broadcaster B92 as saying. "The security elements of the UN envoy's plan contain violations of Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we will again demand that such provisions be erased," said another negotiator, Leon Kojen, adding that "Belgrade insisted that international troops and Serbian border police secure the province's border." Under the plan authored by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, Kosova would create a 2,500-strong multiethnic "security force" without heavy weapons or an air force. The composition of the police force would reflect the ethnic composition of the municipality. Kojen said Belgrade believes the security force "is a prelude to a future Kosovo army or an Albanian army in Kosovo." That belief will have been reinforced by comments by a Prishtina representative, Ardijan Gjini, whom B92 quoted as saying that "the Kosova security forces form the basis for the future Kosova security system, namely the Kosova army." The international community would maintain a military presence in the region for an undefined period. Belgrade wants the province to be demilitarized within six months and would agree to international troops remaining in the region during those months. AG

International diplomats have advised Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku not to attend the talks on the future of the contested Serbian province, the Albanian-language daily "Koha ditore" reported on March 1. A spokesman for the Prishtina delegation, Skender Hyseni, said several weeks ago that Ceku planned to attend some sessions and that Ceku expressed particular interest in being present for talks on security matters. However, the possibility that Ceku might attend reportedly angered Serbian officials, who threatened to boycott the talks if Ceku were to attend. Serbia has issued an arrest warrant for Ceku for his role as a senior commander of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) in the 1998-99 conflict between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces. "We have advised the Kosovar side to take this fact into consideration, because we do not want to see the process blocked," "Koha ditore" quoted unnamed diplomats as saying. AG

The prospects of the Serbian parliament responding to a call by Serbian President Boris Tadic by issuing a declaration condemning the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 appear remote, local media reported. Many of the parties expected eventually to form a government with Tadic's Democratic Party have expressed support for the idea. However, another potential coalition party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of acting Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, opposes the idea of a declaration specifically addressing the massacre at Srebrenica, which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on February 26 called "an act of genocide" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, 28, and March 1, 2007). The DSS in June 2005 proposed a declaration condemning all crimes committed during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "Nothing has changed in our outlook on the matter of crimes, which we condemn with abhorrence, but we do not think that we were the only ones that perpetrated crimes," DSS Deputy Chairman Vladeta Jankovic said, the daily "Blic" reported on February 28. The DSS position reflects a perception within large sections of the Serbian population that crimes were committed by all sides and that Serbian crimes should not be singled out. "Blic" reported that Tomislav Nikolic, the acting leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which won the largest number of seats in elections held on January 21, said: "If anybody were to propose a declaration condemning all crimes, the Radicals would be there to support it. But if only one crime is mentioned, even if it were a crime committed against the Serbian population, we will not support it." A similar position was taken by the party once led by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). "Blic" quoted its leader, Ivica Dacic, as saying that "we do not mean to ignore the fact that genocide at Srebrenica has been proven, but we do believe that one should not lose sight of the fact that what led up to the Srebrenica crime were crimes committed against Serbs in the surrounding area." The DSS, the SRS, and the SPS together hold 144 seats in the 250-member parliament. A previous attempt, in 2005, to adopt a declaration condemning the massacre at Srebrenica failed with the same divisions apparent then. AG

Serbian legal experts are warning that Serbia risks facing UN sanctions if it fails to comply with demands by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to hand over fugitive war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic. The warnings are based on their interpretation of the ICJ's February 26 ruling. While the ICJ cleared Serbia of genocide charges, it ruled that Serbia breached the Genocide Convention by failing to prevent the killings at Srebrenica and to punish those responsible for it, and called on Serbia to comply with its obligations under the convention by handing Mladic over to the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, 28, and March 1, 2007). On February 28, the daily "Blic" quoted Vojin Dimitrijevic, a professor of international law and a former ICJ judge, as arguing that the verdict is not an appeal, but imposes an obligation on Serbia. "If this verdict is not implemented properly, the [UN] Security Council may intervene. If the Security Council rules that the country is in breach and that it must make a serious effort to implement the verdict, then Serbia will be in serious violation of its obligations to the UN Security Council," Dimitrijevic said. "If we do not do what is expected of us, the Security Council can activate any measure from the rich repertoire at its disposal," Milan Antonijevic, head of the Yugoslav Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights, told "Blic." Milan Paunovic, a professor of international law, told "Blic" that the finding that genocide was committed at Srebrenica could be used as grounds to support the dissolution of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb autonomous region that emerged out of the conflict. Serbia's ambassador to France, Predrag Simic, told the Serbian daily "Dnevnik" on February 27 that "in the background of the Bosnian lawsuit, why it was lodged, is precisely an attempt to accuse the Republika Srpska of genocide, mark it as a genocide structure, and lay the blame on it." AG

Local and international media reported that former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj on March 1 pleaded not guilty to all 37 charges brought against him in The Hague by prosecutors for the ICTY. Haradinaj entered his plea at a pretrial meeting. His trial formally opens on March 5. Haradinaj stands accused of "the forcible, violent suppression of any real or perceived form of collaboration with the Serbs by Albanian or Romany civilians" between March and September 1998, when he was serving as a senior commander in the UCK, and faces life in prison if convicted. The ICTY indictment against Haradinaj alleges that "as a commander...he established a system whereby individuals were targeted for abduction, mistreatment, and murder, and whereby a systematic attack on vulnerable sections of the civilian population was carried out." The mistreatment of victims includes alleged instances of rape and torture. Haradinaj, who resigned as prime minister in March 2005 after his indictment, remains a powerful political figure in Kosova, and fears that the case against him will be undermined by the dwindling number of witnesses willing to testify were amplified by a controversial decision by the head of UN Mission in Kosovo to meet with him before his departure for The Hague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). AG

Serbia's Supreme Court on March 1 upheld a guilty verdict passed down by the country's war crimes court on a Serb charged with executing Croatian troops in 1991, the Croatian news agency Hina reported the same day. However, the court ordered the sentence on Milan Bulic to be cut from eight years to two years on health grounds. Bulic was one of 16 men indicted for the massacre, in Ovcara near Vukovar, in which at least 200 people were killed. Serbia's war crimes court in December 2005 sentenced 14 former militiamen to prison terms of up to 20 years for their role, but the Supreme Court in December 2006 ordered a retrial on procedural grounds. Bulic was tried separately on account of his poor health. Like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia filed a case with the ICJ accusing Serbia of genocide, a case whose future is now the subject of much discussion in the Croatian press following the UN court's finding that Serbia was not guilty of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, 28, and March 1, 2007). Meanwhile, there is a renewed bout of reflection in Croatia about its own handling of the war following a February 28 broadcast on Croatian television of a documentary about the Lora prison camp, site of war crimes committed mainly against ethnic Serbs. After an initial trial in 2002 controversially cleared eight military officers of torture and murder, Croatia's War Crimes Chamber in March 2006 sentenced all eight men to between four and eight years in prison. On March 1, the Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA reported that, during a televised discussion about the film, Croatia's war-time prime minister, Zdravko Tomac, and the commander of Croatian forces in Vukovar, Mile Dedakovic, criticized the filmmakers for equating events in Lora with those in Vukovar, and argued that, given the ICJ ruling, this was the wrong time to air the film. During the discussion, Tomac reportedly turned to former inmates and asked, "What were you doing in Croatia at that time anyway?" One of them, Milan Tosic, said he was captured in Bosnia-Herzegovina while doing military service there. AG

The prime minister of the Bosnian Serb autonomous region, Milorad Dodik, said on March 1 that he has filed a lawsuit against Paddy Ashdown, who served as the international community's high representative in the country from 2002 to 2006. Dodik decided to bring the case because the country's Constitutional Court has found that Ashdown breached human rights in a number of decisions to sack Republika Srpska officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 30 and July 1, 2004), the news agency Fena reported on March 1. "If this was said by the Constitutional Court, then it is completely normal for institutions to demand a level of responsibility," Dodik said. "Unfortunately, the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina do not want to do this, and because these breaches occurred in the Republika Srpska we cannot remain silent," he continued. The court's ruling, passed on February 17, related to the sacking of Dragan Kalinic, the president of the Republika Srpska assembly, and of Milan Biblija, a senior figure in the region's security services. Ashdown sacked the men using the "Bonn powers" conferred on the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in 1997, powers that enable the international high representative to drive through legal reforms as well as to sack officials deemed obstructive. On February 27, the international community decided to extend the OHR's mandate by a year, to mid-2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). "I have no intention of allowing Ashdown's actions to make a framework for the behavior of anyone who comes here," the Croatian news service quoted Dodik as saying. Ashdown told the BBC on March 2 that in this case international law is superior to domestic law and that the Bonn powers "come from the UN Security Council." AG

The European Court of Human Rights on February 27 ruled against Moldova for refusing to register a new church. The court found that Moldova violated the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, the right to an effective remedy, and the protection of property, and ordered it to pay the 10 plaintiffs 10,000 euros ($13,000) each. The case dates back to November 2000, when the plaintiffs tried unsuccessfully to register a church calling itself the True Orthodox Church in Moldova. The authorities subsequently refused to comply with rulings by Moldova's higher courts, and unsuccessfully sought to reopen the case. The ruling comes as a new bill on religion is passing through parliament. The religious-affairs news service Forum 18 says that the bill contains provisions that are causing concern to religious minorities, in part because of a lack of clarity about how many members are needed for a community to be recognized legally and because of unclear definitions of "abusive proselytism" -- which is to be forbidden -- and "religious hatred," from which registered religious communities are to be protected. The government has also reportedly refused to allow a Council of Europe assessment of the bill to be made public. The bill was approved by the government in October 2004 and received its first reading in parliament in December 2005. In the intervening years, several religious communities have been denied registration on grounds that they believe were arbitrary. AG

The international body that monitors the implementation of UN antidrug efforts has warned that Afghanistan is failing to make progress on drug control; on the contrary, things are getting worse. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has concluded in its annual report that illicit opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached record levels in 2006. It adds that, apart from exporting narcotic substances, Afghans are themselves falling victim to drug dependency.

The INCB also says a full one-third of the Afghan economy is based on the production of narcotics, and that this is contributing inexorably to the corruption gripping the country. The Vienna-based board says it is "seriously concerned" at the deterioration in drugs control. It also calls on the government of President Hamid Karzai to urgently address this problem with the help of the international community, particularly donor countries.

The report says that the production of opium, the raw ingredient of heroin, has grown by almost half in the past year. "Illicit opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has reached record levels -- the highest level in history in 2006 -- and this is a main concern of the board," INCB spokeswoman Liqin Zhu told RFE/RL. The opium crop is estimated at a massive 6,100 tons, making Afghanistan by far the largest producer of opium in the world.

Afghanistan is more than just the source of much of the heroin flooding into North America and Europe. It is itself falling victim to drug consumption. The board says a nationwide survey of drug abuse in Afghanistan in early 2006 revealed that the country has 1 million drug users, 60,000 of whom are children under the age of 15.

Meanwhile, the use of other illicit or controlled substances in Afghanistan is growing. The INCB cites in particular the synthetic substance acetic anhydride. It says the absence of proper drug-control regulations means that, for instance, shops are selling such substances over the counter.

And not only Afghanistan is suffering. The neighbor countries of the Middle East and Central Asia are being drawn into the web of addiction. "More than half of the world's heroin abusers live in Asia, and the highest level of opiate abuse occurs along the main trafficking routes originating in Afghanistan," spokeswoman Zhu said. "Therefore the situation in Afghanistan definitely has a great impact on the neighboring countries."

Iran, for instance, is estimated to have 1.2 million opiate abusers, while Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are also hard hit. There are around 50,000 drug addicts in Kyrgyzstan -- 12 percent of whom are under 18 years old, according to figures cited in Bishkek on March 1 by Timur Isakov, an adviser to the director of Kyrgyzstan's Drug Control Agency.

James Callahan, who is based in Tashkent for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the northern route through Central Asia from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe probably accounts for at least 20 percent of the drugs that are trafficked out of Afghanistan. "The impact of that in Central Asia is that there has been a significant increase in drug abuse, particularly of heroin," he said. "And along with the drug abuse comes HIV/AIDS because of sharing of needles and other unsterile equipment by injecting drug users."

He said that additionally -- because of the large amounts of money available in drug trafficking -- public officials are tempted to take money from drug traffickers in order not to prosecute them.

Callahan urges all the governments in the region to cooperate with one another to combat the drug-trafficking problem because the drug traffickers themselves don't pay any attention to borders.(Breffni O'Rourke is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad blamed "certain forceful powers" and their "selfishness" on March 1 for "all the problems and shortcomings in the world," IRNA reported, quoting remarks he made in Khartoum. Ahmadinejad told a gathering of "thinkers, elites, and academics" in the Sudanese capital that the world's problems include deprivation, drug addiction, wars, and "the influence of certain great powers in international organizations." The most important problem of the Middle East, he said, is "the existence" of Israel. Ahmadinejad, who has in the past described the Holocaust as a "myth," suggested that World War II's non-Jewish victims went unmentioned and undefended. "Supposing the Jews were killed in Europe, why have they created a home for them in Palestine?" He accused the United Kingdom and the United States of helping "terrorists" to "make Iraq insecure" and foment ethnic discord in order to prolong their presence there, IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad accused a "Zionist network" of fomenting insecurity and division in the region and "forceful powers" of "regulating" international bodies after World War II to serve their purposes. The right of veto in the Security Council is illegal, and "the Security Council has been created to defend the great powers [not] the security of nations," he said. VS

Lebanese parliamentarian Saad Hariri told reporters in Brussels on March 1 that Iran and Saudi Arabia have made efforts to help resolve "the present impasse" in Lebanon's affairs, but that Syria is being obstructive, Radio Farda reported. Hariri heads the larger, pro-Western parliamentary bloc in Lebanon's parliament, opposed by pro-Iran and pro-Syria forces that include the Shi'ite Hizballah and some Christians and Sunnis. Hariri urged the EU to tell regional states -- presumably Iran and Syria -- to stop meddling in Lebanon. Reuters separately reported on March 1, quoting an unnamed Iranian official, that President Ahmadinejad is due in Saudi Arabia on March 3 to discuss regional affairs. Reuters quoted an unnamed Lebanese source as saying that Ahmadinejad may try during that visit to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria in order to ensure that the three states cooperate in helping to resolve the confrontation between the pro-Western government of Fuad Siniora and the Hizballah and its allies, which enjoy Iranian and Syrian backing. VS

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi made a one-day visit to Beijing on March 1 for unspecified talks that might have focused on Iran's nuclear activities, Reuters reported. Iran regards China and Russia as less confrontational than other veto-wielding members of the Security Council, which imposed limited sanctions on Iran in December to curb its nuclear program. The five permanent Security Council members plus Germany are discussing an expansion of sanctions since Iran's refusal to stop nuclear fuel-making activities by the council's February 21 deadline. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing on March 1 that the impasse should be resolved by diplomatic initiatives, inside and outside the Security Council, Reuters reported. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told the press in Beijing the same day that Paris is trying to find common ground among Security Council members to ensure a harmonized response to Iran. In Paris on February 28, French Interior Minister and presidential candidate Nicholas Sarkozy said he thinks strengthened sanctions "can be effective" in preventing Iran from manufacturing nuclear bombs, AP reported. Sarkozy said a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and its quest for bombs could fuel an arms race in the Middle East. He urged taking sanctions "as far as possible," and said any talks with Iran must be at the "European level." The Iran nuclear issue "is too serious for anyone to...go it alone," he said. VS

Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi on March 1 ordered the formation of specialized tribunals and prosecutors' offices to help implement Article 44 of Iran's constitution, which calls for the privatization of large state-sector businesses, IRNA reported. The move is in line with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's past instructions to the three branches of government to take measures to facilitate the privatization drive, according to IRNA. Shahrudi told a gathering of provincial judiciary chiefs in Tehran the same day that the judiciary must do its part to create a secure setting for private enterprise, and he said the judiciary will announce in the year from March 21 specific ways in which it can contribute to the implementation of Article 44. He said courts with the necessary expertise must now be formed in all provinces to deal with the legal aspects of expanding private-sector activities. VS

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed in a video statement posted to a jihadist website to have captured 18 Interior Ministry personnel, Al-Jazeera television reported on March 2. The group said in a statement that the Iraqi government has 24 hours to release all women held in Interior Ministry prisons and to hand over the officers accused of raping Sabrin al-Janabi in return for the lives of the 18 employees. Al-Janabi claimed in late February that she was raped by Interior Ministry forces while in custody in Baghdad, raising the ire of Sunni insurgent groups who claimed the attack was sectarian, because al-Janabi was purportedly a Sunni Arab. Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party later said in a statement that al-Janabi is a Shi'a (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20 and 26, 2007). KR

Jordan has announced that only Iraqis carrying the new series G passports will be allowed to enter the country, international media reported on March 1. Iraq's series 'S' passports, issued after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, can be easily forged. The new passports, printed in Germany, contain several security enhancements, such as iris scans, which cannot be forged, the Amman-based "Al-Arab al-Yawm" reported. Meanwhile, Iraqi citizens from different areas of the country have reported difficulty in obtaining the new passports. A Baghdad resident who fled to Jordan told the UN humanitarian news website IRIN that he paid a $2,000 bribe at the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad to obtain his series G passport. Jordan has also placed restrictions on Iraqi refugees entering the Hashemite kingdom, saying they must be over age 40 or under age 20, and must prove they have sufficient funds to support themselves while staying in the kingdom -- and they must hold a series G passport, according to IRIN. Jordan's Interior Ministry also announced it will no longer renew residency permits for Iraqis holding series S passports. An Iraqi Embassy official in Jordan said the Foreign Ministry plans to begin providing the new passports on March 10, but only 10 passports a week will be issued. There are some 700,000 Iraqis estimated to be living in Jordan. "We tried to persuade Jordanian officials to delay the implementation of the law until we can renew all the passports of Iraqis, but they refused," the unidentified embassy official told IRIN. KR

Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Hamid al-Bayati told an audience at New York University on March 1 that Syria could do more to improve security along its border with Iraq, AP reported on March 2. Al-Bayati said that "most of the terrorists, especially suicide bombers" pass through the Syrian border. He said the Syrians blamed the United States for the border problem after it prevented the Arab state from obtaining sensitive surveillance equipment including night-vision cameras (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," June 27, 2005). The Syrians "expected at the beginning for the Americans to give such equipment. They said that the Americans didn't give them such equipment, so they can't guard the borders," al-Bayati said. He also commented on the negative influence of the Ba'ath Party in Iraq, saying: "For hundreds of year before, all these communities -- Jews, Muslims, Sunnis, Shiites -- they lived in peace. When Saddam [Hussein] came to power, he began to play the game of divide and conquer," New York University's news website reported. Regarding future prospects for peace, he added: "I can assure you that the vast majority of Iraq's people are peaceful people. They are determined to go the course of democracy." KR

Syrian parliament deputy Sabir Falhut told Al-Arabiyah television in a March 1 interview that it is "premature" to talk about a thawing of relations between Syria and the United States during the upcoming Iraq conference, slated to be held in Baghdad on March 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). "We welcome dialogue over any issue of primary interest to the region -- Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon -- be it dialogue with the U.S. or any other side that is influential on the political world scene," Falhut said. He also criticized the U.S. approach to diplomacy. "The United States does not realize that the Iraqi people are our people, their blood is our blood, and whatever harms them harms us," he said. Instead, the United States "acts as if Iraq is not part of the Arab nation," he added. This approach has created problems in the region, Falhut maintained. KR