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Newsline - March 7, 2007

Konstantin Totsky, who is Russia's ambassador to NATO, was quoted by Interfax and the daily "Novye izvestia" on March 7 as saying that the proposed U.S. missile defense is no "serious threat for Russia." He added that "Russia is capable of responding to any strike. But...I'm absolutely sure that Russia will not and is not going to fight against America or Europe. And Iran is not capable of doing so. There will be no war in Europe, so it is not the military threat that is being discussed now" in the ongoing debate about missile defense. He implicitly questioned recent remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said that Washington has held 10 rounds of talks with Russia on the defense system since spring 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 22, and 23, and March 6, 2007). Totsky noted that "the United States' rhetoric is one thing, and its practical steps are something totally different, and this is very unpleasant." He stressed that Washington has not held any "consultations" with Moscow regarding the project. Totsky argued that "consultations imply an exchange of views, a discussion, and attention paid to the partner's opinion. What we [had was] a briefing [and were] informed about the United States' decision to deploy elements of its national missile-defense system.... Yes, this is being done at a sufficiently high level, and one more briefing was held at a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council last week." But Totsky added that "researchers, mathematicians, physicists, and ballistics experts must meet, not ambassadors or ministers." He questioned Washington's motives for treating the project as a series of bilateral arrangements between itself and countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic rather than involving NATO. The United States' "allies are not even being asked," he added. On March 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that the United States has not given Russia "clear answers to most questions" that Russia has asked about missile defense, ITAR-TASS reported. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a group of pro-Kremlin political activists from the Nashi movement and similar groups on March 5 that there has always been and always will be a struggle for influence in the world, and that the only question is how best to achieve it, the daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 6. He argued that there is no alternative to diplomatic means, and that the U.S. record in Iraq and Israel's performance in Lebanon in 2006 showed that military strength is not enough to achieve policy goals. Lavrov stressed that the United States wants to secure its status of the world leader based on military superiority, "but lacks the financial, trade, and economic, and -- last but not least -- moral resources to do so." Lavrov believes that "the West is losing the monopoly on establishing rules of the game." He added that President Vladimir Putin's February 10 speech in Munich was supposed to press the idea home and convince U.S. allies of the point. Lavrov argued that fixed alliances have become pointless, and that is why NATO is now in crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2006, and January 24, February 12 and 23, and March 1, 2007). PM

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said in Washington on March 6 that "if [the Russians] are concerned about us targeting their intercontinental ballistic missiles...we probably could [intercept] them from a U.K. launch site," Britain's "Financial Times" reported on March 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007). By contrast, he argued, U.S. missiles would not be effective against Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) if based in Poland or the Czech Republic. "We would not have chosen Poland or the Czech Republic [as potential base sites] if our criteria were to try to somehow offset the Russian ICBM advantage," he added. Britain's "The Economist" reported on February 23 that Prime Minister Tony Blair is interested in obtaining a missile-defense site for Britain in order to ensure that Washington and London remain strategic allies for years to come. Some Polish media have suggested that such reports were simply floated to put pressure on Warsaw and Prague to agree to the U.S. request. PM

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, was quoted by Britain's "Financial Times" of March 7 as saying that the EU requires "reciprocity" from Russia if its energy companies seek to acquire firms within the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3 and February 12, 2007). She added that this applies to energy and other strategic economic sectors. Merkel argued that "the EU will keep a close eye on whether Russia allows foreign investors to own majority control of strategic industrial assets, and that applies not just to the energy sector. If only 20 percent of a [Russian] company can be in foreign hands, then we should consider the same approach." PM

A spokesman for Russia's Atomstroieksport company said in Moscow on March 6 that Russia is delaying sending workers to complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran because of Iran's failure to keep up with payments, ITAR-TASS reported. An Iranian delegation is due in Moscow on March 7 to discuss the financing of the project. Previous agreements called for the plant to be launched with Russian nuclear fuel in September. Sergei Novikov, who is a spokesman for the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), told reporters in Moscow on February 20 that Iran has been behind in its payments for the Bushehr nuclear power plant since the fourth quarter of 2006, Interfax reported. He added that the "underfinancing" will lead to a delay in construction work and eventual fuel deliveries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). PM

Colleagues of Ivan Safronov, a writer on military and space affairs for the daily "Kommersant" and a former army colonel, said that he was threatened with prosecution for criminal charges if he published allegations that Russia made a deal to supply advanced missiles to Syria, "Kommersant" reported on March 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). Safronov fell to his death on March 2 under unexplained circumstances. The Russian Journalists' Union announced on March 6 that it plans to conduct its own investigation into his death, in addition to the one being carried out by Moscow's Taganka Raion prosecutors, reported. The union said its investigation will not hinder the prosecutors' official one. PM

President Putin hosted Valentina Tereshkova in the Kremlin on March 6 to mark her 70th birthday, international media reported. In June 1963, she spent 71 hours in orbit in a Vostok spacecraft in what was seen at the time as a major Soviet propaganda coup. Putin told her on March 6 that her "flight was, and will remain, a matter of pride for the Soviet people, for the Russian people." She told the president that she will "serve [her] country to the end." Tereshkova was quoted by the daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" on March 6 as saying: "if I had money, I would enjoy flying to Mars. This was the dream of the first cosmonauts. I wish I could realize it! I am ready to fly without coming back." PM

The Supreme Court ruled on March 6 against an appeal by the liberal Yabloko party to be placed on the ballot for the March 11 local elections in St. Petersburg, news agencies reported. Yabloko maintains that its exclusion was a political move by the authorities and that the court acted on orders from above. Election officials previously disqualified Yabloko on the grounds that the signature lists appended to its application for registration for the ballot contained too many questionable signatures. St. Petersburg is one of the party's few strongholds. PM

Prosecutors in Irkutsk Oblast on March 6 charged a mayor and his deputy with masterminding the murder of a local legislator, Russian news agencies reported. Prosecutors allege that Vasily Saikov, mayor of the Slyudyansky Raion, and his deputy Khasan Ramazanov ordered the murder of lawmaker Aleksandr Babuchenko in March 2005. Saikov and Ramazanov were detained on February 26 and are in custody in Irkutsk. PM

The Prosecutor-General's Office announced on March 7 that Vladivostok Mayor Vladimir Nikolayev is in custody on suspicion of embezzlement and abuse of office in connection with a land-sale scandal, reported. He was "temporarily" relieved of his duties on February 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2007). PM

In a lengthy interview with "Banderivets," the organ of followers of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov alleged that Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow Chechen administration head killed in a terrorist bombing in May 2004, was an FSB stooge since before the collapse of the USSR, and that claims that Kadyrov and his son Ramzan fought in the ranks of the resistance during the 1994-96 Chechen war are untrue. Elsewhere in the interview, which was posted in Russian translation on March 7 on the Chechen resistance website, Umarov said that despite the deaths last year of two prominent resistance figures, military operations have not ceased "for a single day," and the operations that are publicly reported constitute no more than 5-10 percent of the total number. Umarov denied that the Chechen resistance was responsible either for the deaths of hostages during the Moscow theater siege in October 2002, or for the killing of schoolchildren in Beslan in September 2004. He said President Putin could have prevented those deaths, but chose not to do so. At the same time, Umarov implied that the resistance may retreat from the prohibition imposed by his predecessor Aslan Maskhadov on acts of war against civilians, saying the resistance is prepared to adhere to international laws of warfare to the degree that Russia also does so. Umarov said the resistance is watching closely the negotiations surrounding the final status plan for Kosova, accusing the international community of double standards. He reasoned that the examples of both Kosova and East Timor show that it is force, rather than international law, that is decisive in obtaining independent statehood, but added that "the Kosova precedent can influence the situation in the Caucasus only in the context of a tradeoff between the West and Russia." Umarov said he would welcome the creation of a forum in which all repressed former Soviet peoples would be represented. LF

Lebanese-born Zhirayr Sefilian has denied in written responses to a series of questions submitted by parliamentarians lobbying for his release on bail that the alliance of Karabakh war veterans he heads sought to overthrow the Armenian leadership in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 6. He said those allegations are "ludicrous" and based on "a political order," but at the same time admitted that he has "always spoken of the need for regime change," although not through violence. Sefilian and one of his former comrades in arms, Vartan Malkhasian, were arrested three months ago on charges of plotting a coup d'etat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 12, and 20, 2006, and January 3 and 24, 2007). LF

Vartan Oskanian met in Washington on March 5 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss the May 12 Armenian parliamentary election, Armenian-Turkish relations, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 6. U.S. officials have warned that the continued disbursement to Armenia of funds allocated under the U.S. Millennium Challenge Program is contingent on the May 12 vote being seen by international monitors as free, fair, and transparent. Oskanian was quoted by AP as saying he also discussed with Rice a draft U.S. congressional resolution that recognizes the massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 as genocide. Oskanian also met in Washington with U.S. Assistant Undersecretary of State Matthew Bryza, who is the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict. LF

The leaders of opposition parties aligned in the Azadliq bloc decided during talks in Baku on March 6 to suspend cooperation with one of the bloc's original members, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA), which is in the throes of a leadership struggle, reported on March 7. The decision was made in the absence of DPA First Deputy Chairman Sardar Calaloglu (aka Jalaloglu), who is seeking to formalize his control over the party and the exclusion from its ranks of its self-exiled chairman Rasul Quliyev (see upcoming "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 8, 2007). Calaloglu told on March 6 that the Azadliq leaders' decision was a surprise and shock to him. LF

Rupert Christiansen, who is the International Monetary Fund's resident representative in Georgia, was quoted on March 6 by as warning that unless it is well-managed, the free economic zone the Georgian government plans to establish in Poti could prove risky. He noted that "some countries have found that free economic zones can have a corrupting influence on taxes.... They can be difficult to manage," Caucasus Press reported on March 5. On a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili lobbied for Arab investment in the planned Georgian Black Sea coast free economic zone. LF

Responding at a March 6 briefing to a journalist's question, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin described the March 4 parliamentary elections in Georgia's unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia as "the continuation of the democratic tendencies that became apparent" during the elections there three weeks earlier to local councils, according to (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). Kamynin stressed that conducting elections and referendums is "the highest manifestation of the popular will, regardless of the status of the territory on which they take place." He added that such manifestations of popular will in Abkhazia should not constitute an obstacle to international efforts to mediate a just and long-term solution of the Abkhaz conflict. The United States, Germany as current president of the European Union, and NATO have all issued statements saying the Abkhaz vote lacks legitimacy. Also on March 6, Andrey Kokoshin, who heads the Russian State Duma's Committee for CIS Affairs, told that he has "no doubts" concerning the legitimacy of the Abkhaz ballot, reported. LF

Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze traveled on March 6 to Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, where he presented to Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiyev new proposals for resolving the conflict between the breakaway region and the central Georgian government, Caucasus Press and reported. The precise details of the new proposals remains unclear, but Tbilisi hopes they will be discussed during a meeting on March 20-21 of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the conflict zone. Russia and North Ossetia are both represented on that commission, together with the OSCE. President Saakashvili's original 2004 peace proposal for South Ossetia has already been modified twice. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili met with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev in Astana on March 6 to discuss bilateral relations, agencies reported. After the meeting, Nazarbaev told journalists that Kazakhstan is developing a project to build an oil refinery in Batumi, Georgia, which Saakashvili said would cost about $1 billion, Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev added that Kazakh companies planned to invest $300 million in the Georgian economy in 2006, although he noted, "It is a different issue whether the money has actually been invested," Interfax reported. In a joint communique, the two leaders affirmed their commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. DK

Kyrgyzstan's parliament confirmed Aichurek Eshimova as the chairperson of the country's Central Election Commission (CEC) on March 6, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Sixty-three legislators took part, with 57 voting in favor of Eshimova's appointment. Before the vote, she told lawmakers, "The [Central] Election Commission will organize the elections, not the authorities. I have been working [as a CEC member] for a long time, and I have been fighting against the involvement of the administrative resources of the [Kyrgyz] authorities [in election processes]." DK

A court in Tajikistan's Khatlon province sentenced Ibrohim Nasriddinov, a former inmate at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo, Cuba, to a 23-year prison term on murder and weapons charges, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on March 6. The court found that the 31-year-old Nasriddinov was a member of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Odil Yorbekov, Nasriddinov's lawyer, said that his client pleaded guilty to all charges. Yorbekov said, "My client committed a contract murder using a handmade explosive device in Danghara in 2000, and in order to escape punishment fled to Afghanistan and joined terrorists. He underwent military training in Afghanistan and Pakistan for several years. In 2006, he was detained in Konduz by U.S. Special Forces and sent to Guantanamo." DK

Andrei Podbolotov, a representative of the Russian oil company LUKoil in Uzbekistan, has told "Delovoi Partner" that LUKoil plans to invest $300 million in the development of Uzbekistan's Kandym-Khaizak-Shady-Kungrad natural gas field in 2007, Interfax reported on March 6. Podbolotov said, "Since the start of work under the production-sharing agreement, a total of $218 million has been invested in the Kandym-Khaizak-Shady-Kungrad project, and this year investment in the project is planned at about $300 million." Podbolotov said that the project is "the largest investment project in Uzbekistan." He added, "The cost of the project when the agreement was signed amounted to about $1 billion, but there are grounds to assume that in the end it will be significantly higher, up to $2 billion." The Kandym group of fields contains 240 billion cubic meters in reserves, with initial commercial production expected to begin by the end of 2007. DK

Natallya Pyatkevich, deputy head of Belarus's presidential administration, told journalists in New York on March 5 that the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance is not "topical" for Belarus, Belapan reported on March 6. "This convention is not topical for Belarus, it has the same degree of importance for us as ozone layer protection or the protection of those starving. We have no such problem," Pyatkevich said. Adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 20, 2006, the convention requires signatory states to take necessary steps to prevent and combat forced disappearances; introduces a ban on secret prisons; and calls for informing families about the fate of their disappeared members. Belarusian opposition politicians Yury Zakharanka and Viktar Hanchar, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and journalist Dzmitry Zavadski went missing under unexplained circumstances in Belarus in 1999 and 2000. Many in Belarus and Europe believe that they were abducted and murdered because of their opposition to the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. JM

The Belarusian Economy Ministry has prepared a draft presidential decree to draw loans from China, Belapan reported on March 6, quoting Economy Minister Mikalay Zaychanka. Zaychanka added that a total of 37 projects worth $2.7 billion are expected to be financed using Chinese credit lines from 2007 through 2010. Last month, the Belarusian government asked Moscow for a $1.5 billion stabilization loan to cushion the effects of the gas-and-oil price hikes earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2007). JM

Speaking at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv on March 6, Viktor Yushchenko voiced what he described as two "key theses" for the Ukrainian nation, UNIAN reported. First, Yushchenko stressed that Ukraine needs changes to the constitution because, he added, the 2004 political reform has upset the balance between power branches. Second, the president said that the Ukrainian authorities need to formulate a system of priorities for themselves. According to Yushchenko, such priorities should include supporting Ukrainian as the state language, forming a competitive market in the country, pursuing European integration, making Ukraine's national security a part of European security, and uniting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. JM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and his Hungarian counterpart Ferenc Gyurcsany signed a bilateral cooperation accord for 2007 in Budapest on March 6, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Yanukovych told journalists in Budapest that he offered Hungary the use of Ukrainian gas-storage facilities. According to Yanukovych, Hungary receives 12 billion cubic meters of gas annually via Ukraine but consumes only 8 billion cubic meters. Yanukovych also told journalists that the two countries are discussing plans to build a hydropower plant on the Tisza River. JM

President Boris Tadic told EU officials on March 6 that Serbia's "priority No. 1" is the capture of alleged war criminals wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), local and international media reported. For his part, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said that "under the best circumstances" it is possible that Serbia could gain the status of an EU candidate member in 2008, though he called that date "ambitious." Rehn said "trade" talks with Serbia could resume once UN prosecutors certify that Serbia is cooperating. The EU suspended full preaccession talks with Serbia in May 2006 after Serbia failed to meet a deadline to hand over the Bosnian Serb military commander charged with overseeing the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, Ratko Mladic. However, there have been signs in recent weeks that the EU may be willing to decouple the arrest of Mladic from the future of preaccession talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 13, 2007). "We are not going to be part of the European problem," Tadic said in Brussels. "We would like to be part of the European solution." On the issue of Kosova, Tadic said that Serbia cannot accept independence for Kosova, "but we are not going to make war, we are not going to make problems." Tadic's ability to deliver either in practice or symbolically will be severely tested. A recent call by Tadic for the Serbian parliament to condemn the Srebrenica massacre looks likely to fail, in part because of opposition from the party of acting Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). Rehn urged Serbian parties "to accelerate talks on the new government," and Tadic said he hopes a new Serbian government is in place by the end of March, two months after general elections. However, in the tense run-up to the conclusion of talks on Kosova, the public position of Kostunica's party, a key player, has hardened (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). AG

The lawyer who led Serbia's defense against charges that it was guilty of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s warned on March 6 that Serbia faces UN sanctions unless it arrests Mladic, AP reported the same day. The UN's highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), on February 26 cleared Serbia of genocide charges but ruled that it could have prevented the slaughter at Srebrenica, which it called an "act of genocide" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26 and 27, 2007). "There is nothing to cheer about in Serbia about the lifted genocide charges because what happened in Bosnia was still a huge tragedy and we now have some serious obligations imposed on us," Radoslav Stojanovic said. "We are now legally, and not only morally or politically, obliged to arrest Mladic," Stojanovic said. "If we don't do it, the world court's ruling makes it now possible for the [UN] Security Council to impose sanctions against our country." Stojanovic's interpretation matches that of other Serbian legal experts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007). Mladic is widely believed to be hiding in Serbia under the protection of wartime allies in the army and police. AG

During a one-day visit to Serbia and the contested region of Kosova, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told Serbian officials that the status of Kosova will "definitely" be resolved this year, Radio Belgrade reported on March 6. Fried urged Belgrade to take a "practical approach," saying that "history cannot be turned back, and that is why we have to face the truth." He added that "if there is no best option, then the second-best option should be accepted." AFP quoted Fried as saying, "I do not expect Serbian leaders necessarily to applaud a decision that they don't like, but I do expect them to behave in a manner consistent with European values and in a manner that is responsible." Fried, who later visited three Serbian-dominated municipalities in Kosova, said that, whatever the outcome, Serbs and their cultural and religious sites will be protected. Consultations on a revised UN plan for the region begin on March 10, and the final proposal is scheduled for discussion by the UN Security Council in April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). Serbia is pinning significant hopes on Russia, which it hopes will veto the plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 12, and 22, 2007). However, the Tanjug news agency quoted Fried as saying that "it is too early to say how certain members of the UN Security Council will vote on the issue of Kosovo," and adding that, in any case, "it would be a big mistake for someone to think that some country would prevent the final decision." In the final weeks before the UN votes on Kosova's future, serious divisions among Serbian political classes in Serbia and in Kosova have become increasingly apparent over issues such as the future of Kosova, on the wars of the 1990s, and on the formation of a government in Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2007). AG

Serbia's Capital Investment Minister Velimir Ilic said on March 6 that the volume of transit traffic through Serbia has plunged 20 percent since neighboring Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in January, B92 reported the same day. Ilic said the decline was due to shorter waiting times at border crossings. "It is impossible to explain why it takes up to 18 hours for trucks to cross Serbia's borders," he said. Ilic said that traveling through Romania and Bulgaria cuts two days off travel times. B92 reported that Bulgaria saw traffic increase by 20 percent in January and February. AG

The political temperature in Bosnia-Herzegovina rose several more degrees on March 6, continuing a trend apparent ever since the ICJ ruled on February 26 that the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 was an "act of genocide" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, 28, and March 1, 2, 5, and 6, 2007). The Committee for the Collective Relocation of Returnees from Srebrenica, which claims to represent Bosnian Muslims who have returned to live in Srebrenica, said on March 6 that a group of Bosnian Muslims plan to abandon the city on March 14 because local Serbs and Bosnian Serb authorities have made their life there unbearable, local media reported. Reports do not say how many Muslims plan to leave. Meanwhile, the Bosnian Muslim representative in the country's three-member presidency, Haris Silajdzic, followed up earlier calls for the abolition of the Bosnian Serb's autonomous region, Republika Srpska, by formally launching an initiative for Srebrenica to be taken out of the jurisdiction of the Republika Srpska. BH Radio 1 reported on March 6 that Silajdzic's initiative met with a mixed response from other Bosnian Muslim leaders. Bosnian Muslim leaders have also used the ICJ ruling to question the position on police reform held by Bosnian Serbs, who believe the Republika Srpska should retain a separate force. AG

Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik called on Bosnian Muslim returnees to remain in Srebrenica, the Croatian news agency Hina reported on March 6. "I absolutely deny anything bad has been done to the returnees in Srebrenica. This can only be a politicized story to put additional pressure on the Republika Srpska," Dodik said. Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb officials told the media that the number of death threats against Bosnian Serb politicians has risen since the ruling, Bosnian Serb media reported. One Bosnian Serb newspaper, "Nezavisne novine," reprinted in full a death threat delivered on March 5 to Dodik, in which the authors, a previously unknown group called the New BH (Bosnia-Herzegovina), indicated the threat was a response to the ICJ's decision that Serbia was not guilty of genocide. Another Bosnian Serb paper, "Glas Srpske," on March 3 accused media in the Muslim and Croat autonomous region of "war-mongering" language. One of the editors questioned, Radmilo Sipovac, editor of the daily "Fokus," said that "the media and political rhetoric today is worse than it was just before the war" in Bosnia, which began in 1992. AG

The tensions between Bosnia's ethnic communities were also highlighted on March 6 on the federal level, when the country's prime minister launched a sharply worded attack on Bosnian Muslim ministers. Nikola Spiric, a Bosnian Serb, accused Bosnian Muslim ministers of obstructing the functioning of the government, and preventing the emergence of an "efficient" Council of Ministers "capable of reaching decisions." The immediate trigger for Spiric's comments, which were reported by BH Radio 1, was the decision by two Bosnian Muslim ministers not to vote on an agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church or a bill on the quality of liquefied fuel. However, Spiric widened his criticism to raise questions about the possibility of increasing the power of the country's federal authorities. Spiric said that "it is impossible that the entities [Bosnia's two autonomous regions] will transfer their powers to the state when the state pursues autistic policies." He continued: "What kind of a message will the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina get if the state government refuses to conclude an agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church, while concluding the same kind of agreement with the Catholic Church, or the Vatican? I believe that it must be the same for all." One of the two Muslim ministers, Safet Halilovic, said he had wanted more information before voting. AG

Last week, a lawmaker from the ruling Party of Regions submitted to parliament a draft bill on holding simultaneous early parliamentary and presidential elections this coming fall. A week earlier two opposition parties, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine, signed a unity deal in which they pledged to seek early parliamentary elections. Is Ukraine poised to plunge into a whirlwind of electioneering this year?

"We see that the situation is getting out of control, including the president's control," Party of Regions lawmaker Vasyl Kyselyov told journalists two days before submitting his draft bill to the legislature. "Therefore I, as a people's deputy, am working out a draft bill, or a draft resolution, on simultaneous early presidential and parliamentary elections in the fall, approximately on September 30." The next presidential election in Ukraine is due in 2009, and the next parliamentary elections in 2011.

Kyselyov's initiative seems to be the ruling coalition's "asymmetric" response to the opposition's formalized vow to seek early parliamentary elections. Will the Verkhovna Rada put the bill on early parliamentary and presidential elections on its agenda?

Ivan Bokyy, head of the Socialist Party parliamentary caucus, believes that if the political rivalry between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko continues, Kyselov's proposal may be not only put to a vote but also endorsed by the ruling coalition.

"There is madness on the part of one political force, and the other political force has also begun to go mad and wants to propose this madness to all of Ukraine," Bokyy said. "But if this madness goes on, if this affliction is not cured on Bankova Street [in the presidential administration] or in parliament, if there is not enough sense to realize that playing with the idea of the dissolution of parliament is hopeless, we will have to support this [bill]."

Yanukovych and Yushchenko have recently locked horns over a bill that extends the powers of the cabinet and the parliament at the expense of the president. Yushchenko vetoed the bill but the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party managed to override his veto with the help of the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. Yushchenko subsequently appealed against the bill to the Constitutional Court.

In what seemed to be a political tit-for-tat, the ruling coalition rejected Yushchenko's nominees for the posts of foreign minister and head of the Security Service.

Ukrainian political analyst Kostyantyn Bondarenko believes that early elections could be a way out of the current political standoff in Ukraine. "There are no legal grounds [for early polls] but there is a problem of confrontation and a problem of the dead end in which Ukraine has found itself because of the institutional confrontation between the Cabinet of Ministers and the Presidential Secretariat," Bondarenko said. "[Such elections] would not be the worst scenario."

Bondarenko is right in suggesting that Kyselyov's draft bill on holding early parliamentary and presidential polls makes no legal sense. Staging early parliamentary elections is the exclusive constitutional prerogative of the president, who calls for such polls if the Verkhovna Rada fails to form a majority within 30 days after its first sitting or a new cabinet within 60 day after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one; or, if it fails to gather for a sitting within 30 days during an ongoing parliamentary session.

Thus, in order to produce formal grounds for early parliamentary elections, the ruling coalition would need to prohibit its lawmakers from convening for a month rather than pass a bill with no legal force.

On the other hand, the opposition could create prerequisites for early parliamentary polls by challenging the legality of Yanukovych's cabinet before the Constitutional Court.

The current Verkhovna Rada convened for its first sitting in late May 2006. The parliamentary majority supporting Yanukovych's cabinet was formed in early August 2006, thus apparently overstepping the time frame set by the constitution by more than a month. Consequently, if the Constitutional Court confirmed that Yanukovych's cabinet was formed beyond this time frame, Yushchenko could dissolve the legislature and call for new elections.

The Ukrainian Constitution stipulates that an early presidential ballot may be held only after the incumbent president has resigned or died, has become unable to perform his duties because of his health, or has been impeached by parliament. Clearly, no such preconditions are present in Ukraine.

Lawmakers from the ruling coalition seem to realize, too, that Kyselyov's draft bill is more of a propaganda move than a real threat to Yushchenko's presidency. Lawmaker Volodymyr Zubanov from the Party of Regions suggested that Yushchenko could resign as Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president, did in 1994 in order to defuse a political confrontation.

"In 1994, when there was a parliamentary and presidential crisis, Kravchuk agreed to leave his post before the end of his term and hold an early election," Zubanov said. "I think that today it would be timely for Yushchenko to step down and hold early [parliamentary and presidential] elections on September 30."

But Yushchenko has no intention of following in Kravchuk's footsteps. Last week, Yushchenko said the idea to hold an early presidential election is "provocation, blackmail, and psychological pressure." According to him, potential early parliamentary elections would reinstall the same political forces in parliament that are there now.

This week, Yanukovych also went public and said that the calls for early parliamentary and presidential elections are "groundless." Yanukovych's statement may imply the imminent withdrawal of Kyselyov's draft bill from the legislative agenda.

However, the topic of early parliamentary elections is likely to remain on the public agenda in Ukraine. This because the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, a major opposition force in the country, seems to be interested in holding such polls.

According to recent sociological surveys, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc could count on some 28 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections -- that is, 6 percent more than it won in the March 2006 ballot.

Surveys also suggest that the Party of Regions could repeat its election result from 2006 by winning 32 percent of the vote. The heaviest losers would be Our Ukraine with only 7 percent of the vote (14 percent in 2006) and the Socialist Party, which currently scores below the 4 percent voting threshold required for parliamentary representation.

Yuliya Tymoshenko, who had a series of high-profile meetings and talks in Washington last week, returned to Kyiv with the news that the West would support early parliamentary elections in Ukraine if they were "constitutional, democratic, and legal." She appears determined to pursue the early-election idea at least for the time being.(Tetyana Yarmoshchuk from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) launched a major military operation in coordination with Afghan National Army and police forces in northern regions of Helmand Province on March 6, an ISAF press release reported. The operation, dubbed Operation Achilles, "will eventually involve over 4,500 NATO troops and close to 1,000 ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces, which includes army and police forces] personnel," Dutch Major General Ton van Loon said, adding that the operation "is the largest multinational combined ANSF and ISAF operation...and it signifies the beginning of a planned offensive to bring security to northern Helmand." The aim of the operation is to improve security in "areas where Taliban extremists, narco-traffickers and other elements are trying" to destabilize the Afghan government. Van Loon said the operation's primary objective is to enable the Afghan government to rehabilitate the multipurpose Kajaki hydroelectric dam. In February, there were reports of planned attacks by the neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda against the dam, prompting British forces serving with ISAF to attempt to create a safe zone around it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). Meanwhile, speaking for the Taliban, Qari Mohammad Yusof on March 6 described ISAF's Operation Achilles as "not a critical operation," Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. He told AIP that large-scale operations by ISAF provide a chance for the Taliban to "easily target the enemy." According to Mohammad Yusof, ISAF troops are unable to carry out large-scale ground offensives and rely on bombings which kill civilians. Both the neo-Taliban and ISAF have talked of a spring offensive. AT

A Royal Marine attached to ISAF was killed during a "deliberate clearance operation [offensive] in the Kajaki area" of Helmand on March 7, according to the British Defense Ministry's website ( The statement does not link the death of the Marine in Kajaki with Operation Achilles launched on March 7 in and around Kajaki (see above). AT

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on March 6 for the United States to "abide by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's call for immediate investigations into U.S. military operations on March 4 and 5 that resulted in high loss of civilian life" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2007). "Suicide bombers in Afghanistan regularly pose as civilians, but that doesn't give coalition forces carte blanche to respond with indiscriminate fire," Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said in a statement. In one of the incidents, U.S. troops allegedly fired on civilians after their convoy was attacked by a suicide car bomber. "The fact that the insurgents violate the laws of war doesn't absolve the U.S. and its allies of the need to observe them," Adams added. According to HRW, some 1,000 civilians have been killed or injured in insurgent-related violence since January 2006. Most of these casualties are the result of insurgent attacks, but U.S.-led coalition and NATO operations and patrols were also responsible for many civilian casualties in 2006. Protesting civilian casualties, the Afghan National Assembly's Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders) threatened during a session on March 6 to close down the chamber if more civilians are killed in foreign-led military operations, the Kabul-based Tolo Television reported. Meshrano Jirga speaker Sebghatullah Mojaddedi told other senators that there is nothing else the chamber could do. "I have already told you that we are a semi-colony," Mojaddedi added. The civilian deaths led to demonstrations against the United States and President Karzai. AT

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on March 6 for the release of Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and his two Afghan guides, who are believed to have been captured by the Taliban, a RSF press release reported. Mastrogiacomo and his guides went missing on March 4 in southern Afghanistan. On March 6, the Taliban announced the capture of a British journalist and two Afghans, accusing them of being spies. "The captive journalist could in fact be Mastrogiacomo" since the Taliban identified their captive as "Doniele." "We point out with firmness to the Taliban chiefs that kidnapping journalists is contrary to all humanitarians laws," RSF said, adding that Mastrogiacomo is not a spy. AT

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran on March 6 that any "military measure against Iran will not only have no effect, but will make our people more resolved" in the current dispute over Iran's nuclear program, ISNA reported. He told a gathering of Iranian cultural attaches that "negotiations are the best way to resolve Iran's nuclear issue, and we are ready." Larijani said Iran "is no warmonger" and wishes to live in peace "with all countries." He said after a meeting in Tehran later that day with Hamas political bureau chief Khalid Mish'al that he is confident Russia will deliver fuel to the Bushehr nuclear power plant in the Persian month that ends on March 20, in line with agreements both states have signed, ISNA reported. Russia has delayed the shipment because it says Tehran is late in paying its debts. Larijani rejected suggestions that Iran has postponed the introduction of uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges in the Natanz plant for enrichment. These centrifuges would spin the gas as part of the enrichment process that yields fuel for nuclear power stations but, at a more advanced stage, could provide material for nuclear warheads. A reporter asked Larijani if Iran was supposed to have introduced the gas by late February. "We are almost ready to do this," he said. VS

Gholamreza Aqazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said in Tehran on March 6 that the Natanz underground uranium-enrichment plant must be important if the West is making "comprehensive" efforts to stop its activities, IRNA reported. "Today the West is trying to give us the most advanced power plant in exchange for Natanz's closure," he told a seminar at the Interior Ministry. He said that "the ill-disposed" will fail in a policy he said is designed to sow discord in Iran over its nuclear program. He said that "murmurs" in Iran that the country should once more suspend uranium enrichment in response to Western pressures are designed to "deter" Iranians from their desire for Iran to make its own nuclear fuel. He added that the restrictions Western powers imposed on Iran's program after a change of regime in 1979 have helped Iran develop its nuclear program and avoid the option of foreign-built plants fed with imported nuclear fuel. He said Iran has "the thinking capacity, should a problem arise," to rebuild its installations "with higher security measures." Iran, he asserted, has reached a technical stage where "it does not need others," while uranium enrichment remains its "red line," IRNA reported. VS

Iran carried out three hours of unspecified antiaircraft defensive operations around the "Isfahan nuclear site" on March 6, ISNA reported, citing the director-general of the Isfahan provincial governorate for political and police affairs, named only as Bahrami. The governor's office issued a statement to reassure local residents about loud noises they would have heard that day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., ISNA reported. Separately, Fars news agency reported that Iran has successfully tested an Iranian-made submarine, called "Nahang" (whale). Fars cited Majid Heidari-Murchekhurti, a spokesman for the submarine "project," as saying that the submarine has already spent 700 hours underwater and taken part in the war games known as Great Prophet, which were held from November 2-12. Heidari-Murchekhurti said the submarine is "advanced" and has "varied operational capabilities" suited to the environment of the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea. He said the craft was designed and built by Iranians and has passed the necessary tests. Fars observed that "this is the only submarine designed to suit the shallow and salty waters of the Oman Sea and the Persian Gulf." VS

Some 4,000 teachers have reportedly gathered outside parliament on March 7 to protest over salaries and working conditions, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian agencies. Teachers protested against the government's failure to implement what appears to be a new payment system for civil servants, and also aired their anger at state television and radio's refusal to report the teachers' grievances. Radio Farda reported that this is the fourth time in a month that teachers have gathered in protest, having also demonstrated on February 4 and 20 as well as on March 2. Protesters on March 6 called for the removal of Education Minister Mahmud Farshidi, who has apparently failed to meet with teachers' representatives as he promised after earlier protests. Police kept the gathering orderly, while some members of parliament watched the demonstration from behind a metal fence that encircles parliament, Radio Farda reported. VS

The Al-Fadilah Party announced on March 7 that it has withdrawn from the Shi'ite bloc known as the United Iraqi Alliance, Reuters reported. "We consider the first step of saving Iraq is to dismantle these blocs and to prevent blocs [from] forming on a sectarian basis," Al-Fadilah leader Nadim al-Jabiri told reporters. Iraqi media have speculated in recent days that the party, which has been at odds with other Shi'ite parties belonging to the alliance, will join a new bloc being formed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Meanwhile, Shi'ite parliamentarian Sami al-Askari said on March 6 that an upcoming cabinet reshuffle (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006) will involve 10 or 11 portfolios, adding that security portfolios may be reshuffled at a later date, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Al-Iraqiyah television on March 4 that the reshuffle will take place "this week or next." Al-Askari said he expects al-Maliki to present the revised list to the Council of Representatives by early next week. KR

In a statement posted on March 6 on the Iraqi Islamic Party's website, parliamentarian and Iraqi Accordance Front member Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i said his alliance will not accept a cabinet reshuffle unless it is awarded responsibility for the Defense Ministry. The party is a member of the front. "The weak performance of the defense minister...has caused the ministry to lose its respect and led to an obvious imbalance regarding high-ranking posts at the Defense Ministry," al-Samarra'i contended. He added that the front hopes "that this reshuffle will encompass all or most ministries, because we believe that the performance of most ministries was weak. The main reason behind this lies in the fact that ministerial portfolios were assigned to people based on the principle of quotas, instead of professionalism and specialization." KR

Dozens of gunmen stormed the Badush Prison in Mosul on February 6 and freed 141 detainees, mostly insurgents, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The incident has been called one of the biggest prison breaks since the U.S.-led invasion. Iraqi security forces guarding the prison sought backup from U.S. forces, the news channel reported, while noting that it was unclear whether any clashes took place between police and insurgents. Al-Qaeda regional leader Abu Umar al-Baghdadi reportedly took part in the attack, according to Hisham al-Hamdani, a member of the governorate council. Reuters reported that as many as 300 militants took part in the prison break, which occurred after sunset. Meanwhile, London's "Quds Press" reported that Al-Qaeda leader Abu Maysarah al-Iraqi was freed in the prison break. The report quoted an Al-Qaeda source as saying al-Iraqi was in detention for two years, but Iraqi and U.S. forces did not know of his true identity since he went by his nom de guerre. State-run Al-Iraqiyah television this week began urging citizens to provide information on the whereabouts of Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, the organization's apparent leader in Iraq. KR

At least two suicide bombers blew themselves up among scores of Shi'ite pilgrims, killing more than 100 and wounding twice as many in Al-Hillah on March 6, Iraqi media reported. The pilgrims gathered in the city south of Baghdad to prepare a procession to nearby Karbala to mark Arba'in, which begins later this week. Arba'in marks the end of 40 days of mourning that follow the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Prime Minister al-Maliki said the crime will not go unpunished. KR