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Newsline - March 12, 2007

Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who heads the Central Election Commission, announced on March 12 that Unified Russia, which is the main pro-Kremlin party, won in all 14 regions where votes for regional assemblies and mayors took place on March 11, reported. Overall voter turnout was just over 39 percent. The new A Just Russia party, which is left of center and also loyal to President Vladimir Putin, polled second overall and made an impressive showing in Stavropol Krai, where it actually led in initial returns. Boris Gryzlov, who is speaker of the State Duma and leader of Unified Russia, said on March 12 his party expects final tallies will give it an absolute majority in nine regions, reported. He added that Unified Russia "will closely observe" those other regions where it fails to take at least 40 percent. Opposition parties said they were sidelined and denounced the vote as a sham. A Just Russia is generally seen as a Kremlin-sponsored "manufactured opposition" project. The vote involved just under a third of the total electorate and is regarded as a preview for parliamentary elections in December. Russia has a total of 86 federal subjects. Federal legislation stipulates that regional elections can take place only on fixed dates in March and October, which forces parties to concentrate their funds and personnel on those two dates and thereby favors the parties with the most resources to concentrate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14 and October 12, 2006, and March 7, 2007, and "End Note," March 9, 2007). PM

President Putin told a Kremlin audience of newly-promoted generals from the Federal Protection Service, Prosecutor General's Office, Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry, Federal Corrections Service, Federal Antinarcotics Service, and Federal Security Service (FSB) on March 9 that Russia has acquired a new lease on life in recent years thanks mainly to the security services, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 12. He noted that when he came to power at the start of 2000, "the picture appeared to be of a country with no future ahead of it, with the armed forces in the state they were at that time, with what was essentially an ongoing civil war being waged, continued bloodshed in the Caucasus, and the country's national wealth being plundered on an unprecedented scale [by oligarchs], as millions of people looked on." He added that "dramatic change has been achieved over these last years, and this is thanks to your efforts, too." He promised the so-called power agencies and ministries that they will be well funded to face new challenges, including extremism, violent xenophobia, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Putin noted that "a task of particular importance for the FSB this year will be ensuring security during elections to the State Duma and regional legislative assemblies. It is important to make sure the campaigns remain free of nationalist and extremist sloganeering." He added that "all of this demands constant work to improve our country's military organization, including maintaining our nuclear deterrent forces at a high level of combat readiness." Putin repeated what senior officials have said previously -- that the government will spend nearly $191 billion on the military from 2007 to 2015. He added that the planned U.S. missile defense system is one of many reasons Russia needs to increase arms spending. PM

NATO Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer was quoted by Britain's "Financial Times" of March 12 as saying that the proposed U.S. missile defense system could protect Europe as a whole against potential North Korean or Iranian attacks. He added that "NATO as such should not take the position of in any way influencing the negotiations of the [United States] and the Czech Republic and the [United States] and Poland. I see that as a bilateral trajectory which is made transparent because of the U.S. briefings to the NATO-Russia Council and to the North Atlantic Council [of NATO ambassadors]." De Hoop Scheffer believes that "missile defense in general is a subject which is a very NATO relevant subject.... We have a feasibility study that says it is theoretically very possible to use missile defense to protect Europe as a whole. But it needs political discussion. It needs a discussion on who is going to pay what." He stressed that security is indivisible, and warned against splitting the continent between those who benefit from the system and those who do not. Referring to Russian fears that any components based in Poland or the Czech Republic would be directed against Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), De Hoop Scheffer said that "you don't need to be a technological wizard or an Einstein to understand that this cannot possibly be directed against the Russians and cannot diminish their first-strike capacity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and March 6, 7, and 9, 2007). He noted that "the 10 interceptors slated for Poland would be overwhelmed by Russia's arsenal." PM

Outgoing French President Jacques Chirac was quoted by Britain's "Financial Times" on March 10 as saying that the proposed U.S. missile defense could "create a new dividing line in Europe and a return of the order of the past." He called on Europeans and the United States to heed "Russian concerns" about the project. On March 10, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who heads the stockholders' oversight body for the projected Russo-German Nord Stream gas pipeline and often speaks out on behalf of Russian interests, said in Dresden on March 10 that the missile defense "planned by the United States and which is to be installed in Eastern Europe is politically extremely dangerous," international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, February 8, and March 9, 2007). He argued that the project "is rightly seen in Russia, and not only there, as an attempt to set up an absurd policy of encirclement [of Russia], a policy which is everything but in the interests of Europe." Schroeder believes that "what we need is the exact opposite. Out of our own interest, we must align Russia as closely as possible to Europe and European structures." Russia's "RBC Daily" wrote on March 9 that "Old Europe is annoyed by the fact that Washington, Warsaw, and Prague are determined to deploy missiles and radar stations near Russia's borders without consulting older members of the EU. After all, [deployment] could have a highly damaging impact on gas deliveries." PM

The Tomsk Oblast Duma voted on March 10 with 36 votes in favor, one against and one abstention to confirm Governor Viktor Kress for a fifth consecutive term, reported on March 12. Kress's current term expires only in September 2008, but he asked for, and received, an endorsement from President Putin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). LF

The overwhelming majority of voters in both Chita Oblast and the Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug voted in a referendum on March 11 in favor of merging those two federation subjects, reported on March 12. The former Agin-Buryat AO will have special status within the new region, which will be called Zabaykal Krai, according to Interfax on March 11. Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Veshnyakov told a press conference on March 12 that voter turnout was 80.4 percent in Chita, of whom 90.29 percent approved the merger. The corresponding figures in the Agin-Buryat AO were 89.9 percent and 94 percent. LF

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Ramzan Kadyrov named his cousin, Odes Baysultanov, on March 8 to succeed him as Chechen prime minister, reported on March 9. Baysultanov was named first deputy prime minister in March 2006 following Kadyrov's appointment as prime minister, and in that capacity was responsible for reconstruction. He is reportedly considered a competent manager. Also on March 8, Kadyrov appointed Labor and Social Development Minister Magomed Vakhayev, one of two alternative candidates proposed for the post of republic head, as chairman of Chechnya's Constitutional Court, and Deputy Prime Minister Khalid Vaykhanov as security council chairman. Vaykhanov succeeds German Vok, a close ally of Kadyrov's predecessor as republic head, Alu Alkhanov. LF

One man was injured in an exchange of fire at a polling station in Buinaksk during voting on March 11 for a new republican parliament and heads of local councils, reported. In at least three separate locations -- the town of Buinaksk, and Babayurt and Tsumadin raions -- ballot papers were forcibly taken from polling stations, but Election Commission Chairman Magomed Khalitov told that those incidents are unlikely to affect the outcome of the ballot. In Makhachkala, the republican capital, journalists from and the local weekly newspaper "Chernovik" were denied access to a polling station where they intended to watch the vote count, reported. Initial returns gave the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party 69 percent of the vote, reported on March 12. LF

Magamet Botashev was elected mayor of Karachayevsk, the second largest town in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR), on March 11, narrowly defeating incumbent Sapar Laypanov and a third candidate, Khanapi Uzdenov, reported. A nominally independent candidate, Botashev was backed by Constitutional Court Chairman Islam Burlakov, whom incumbent President Mustafa Batdyev defeated in the 2003 presidential ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15 and 18 and September 2, 2003). Batdyev supported Laypanov's candidacy. Also on March 11, voters in the KChR's newly created Abazin autonomous raion voted in a referendum in which they were required to choose between electing a local parliament or a directly elected raion head, reported. The KChR's estimated 32,000 Abazins constitute 7.4 percent of the republic's total population; 15,000 of them live in the new autonomous raion. LF

Vartan Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on March 9 that progress during his talks in Geneva on March 14 with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov could pave the way for a further meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a negotiated solution to the Karabakh conflict hope that meeting could be scheduled immediately after the May 12 parliamentary elections in Armenia, and that it will constitute a breakthrough in the peace process, Oskanian continued. At the same time, he admitted that the two sides have not yet reached agreement on the modalities of the planned referendum to determine the future status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, including its timing and who would be eligible to vote. LF

Two Russian military helicopters overflew and opened fire on the villages of Azhara, Gentsvishi, and Chkhalta in the Georgian-controlled upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge late on March 11, reported the following day. But on March 12, Russian Air Force spokesman Colonel Aleksandr Drobyshevsky denied that Russian helicopters launched any such attack, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian media further claimed that following the air attack, Abkhaz forces subjected the three villages to Grad rocket fire for 40 minutes, causing serious damage to buildings but no casualties. Interfax on March 12 quoted Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh as saying that the Abkhaz authorities do not have a clear idea of what happened in Kodori, but simultaneously denying that Abkhaz armed forces were responsible for the attack. Abkhaz Defense Minister Lieutenant General Sultan Sosnaliyev likewise denied on March 12 that Abkhaz forces launched any operations over the previous 24 hours, and he dismissed the Georgian reports as a "provocation," reported. Abkhaz Security Council Chairman Stanislav Lakoba accused Georgian security services of faking the air and artillery attack, reported. A Georgian military helicopter crashed on March 12 while en route for Kodori, killing all three crew members, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili cut short a visit to Kazakhstan and returned to Tbilisi, where he convened a session of the National Security Council on March 12, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, Major-General Sergei Chaban, who commands the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone, has denied that his men are mining roads between Abkhazia's southern Gali district and the west Georgian town of Zugdidi to prevent Gali's predominantly Georgian population from leaving Abkhazia in the run-up to the March 18 second round of voting in the Abkhaz parliamentary elections, Caucasus Press reported on March 12 quoting Interfax. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Qatar on March 10-11 to discuss bilateral relations and the development of energy-sector cooperation between the two countries, Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev met with Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in Doha, although details of their talks were not reported. From Qatar, Nazarbaev flew to Egypt on March 11 to begin a two-day visit. DK

Kyrgyzstan's For Reforms opposition movement issued a statement on March 9 giving the government until April 10 to enact reforms or face a campaign for "the early termination of President Kurmanbek Bakiev's powers and [an early presidential] election," news agency reported. "We give one month to the authorities to fulfill our demands, otherwise we will be ready to endorse the demands articulated by the united front For a Worthy Future on holding early presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan," Melis Eshimkanov, a For Reforms leader, told Interfax. Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who heads For a Worthy Future, articulated the movement's demand for an early presidential election at a recent news conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). Members of For a Worthy Future, including Kulov, have decided to begin an open-ended demonstration in Bishkek on April 11 demanding the resignation of President Bakiev, an early presidential election, and constitutional reform, reported. Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, who belongs to both For Reforms and For a Worthy Future, told that the For Reforms deadline and the For a Worthy future demonstration date are linked. "Yes, these dates are linked," Abdrakhmanov said. "Some members of For Reforms still believe that the president will shape up. Let them wait. We'll also wait and we'll start protest actions." DK

The United States is considering the relocation of its airbase at Bishkek's Manas International Airport to the village of Koytash, located in the Jalalabad Province, the newspaper "Agym" reported on March 9. The report said that U.S. armed forces are constructing barracks in the town with the help of a company called Neman but provided no further details. DK

Recently elected President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov chaired his first cabinet meeting on March 9, stating that the most important work at present is being carried out by the Foreign Ministry, reported. Berdymukhammedov named the energy sector as the second most important area. The report noted that cabinet meetings will take place every Fridays, with mandatory attendance by ministers, the speaker of parliament, heads of law-enforcement agencies, governors, and the mayor of Ashgabat. Acting on a suggestion from Central Election Commission head Murat Garriev, Berdymukhammedov urged fewer repetitions of the national oath and called on parliament to draw up legislation regulating the utterance of the oath, Turkmen Television and RIA Novosti reported. Garriev said that he has received requests from village elders to reduce the frequency of the oath's use, a practice that was encouraged by former President Saparmurat Niyazov. In another apparent move to change customs associated with the late president, Berdymukhammedov said that youth choirs should no longer greet the president on visits to the provinces. "When the president visits any region, one can see there crowds of children and young people singing and dancing," he said. "What I am trying to say is that all this is performed for the president. Let us get rid of all this." DK

President Berdymukhammedov has signed a resolution creating a state agency, which he will head, for the management and use of hydrocarbon resources, reported on March 10. The resolution gave the Ministry of the Oil and Gas Industry and Mineral Resources one week to hand over to the new agency property and documents that had belonged to an earlier, now abolished, presidential agency for the use of hydrocarbon resources. DK

Lukoil, Russia's largest oil company, has ceased to supply crude oil to Belarus's two refineries for processing on a give-and-take basis, Belapan reported on March 10. "We've abandoned the processing of oil in Belarus on a give-and-take basis because this is unprofitable for us now," the Lukoil press office told the agency. Until recently, oil processed on this basis at the refineries in Navapolatsk and Mazyr came from Lukoil, Slavneft, Surgutneftegaz, Russneft, Rosneft, LITASCO Belorussia, Univest-M, Slavneftekhim, Triple, Miralex, Belrosneft, Sibtechnostal, Toplivoresurs, PrimexBelOil, and Iterbelnafta. As much as 21.5 million tons of Russian oil was processed at the two Belarusian refineries in 2006. However, Lukoil pledged that it will continue to supply oil to Belarus. In March, Lukoil was to supply 240,780 tons and has already supplied some 141,000 tons. "This oil was not processed on a give-and-take basis but was sold to enterprises of Belnaftakhim [Belarusian State Petrochemical Concern] and independent market participants," the Lukoil press office explained. In February, the Russian oil price for Belarus, including all duties, was $225 per ton. JM

Yuriy Lutsenko on March 9 held a rally in Lviv, which was attended by some 18,000 people, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Interfax-Ukraine reported. Lutsenko, who is currently touring Ukrainian regions, called on demonstrators in Lviv to join the civic movement People's Self-Defense, which he launched following his dismissal from the post of interior minister in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2006). One of the first political actions of the People's Self-Defense is to be a converging march of provincial activists on Kyiv, called the March of Justice, at a yet unspecified date this coming spring. Lutsenko says the main goal of the march is to make politicians in Kyiv meet their electoral promises. The Kharkiv Oblast Council appealed last month to the prosecutor-general to open a criminal case against Lutsenko for what it called his "attempt at destabilizing the constitutional system in the state." JM

UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari on March 10 wrapped up consultations on his plan for the UN-administered Serbian province of Kosova, telling international and local media that there is no prospect of a compromise deal being reached. "I would have very much preferred that this process would lead to a negotiated solution," the former Finnish president said. "But it has left me in no doubt that the parties' not contain any common ground to reach such an agreement." Ahtisaari said he plans "to finalize the proposal for submission to the UN Security Council in the course of this month," Reuters reported. The UN's top body is expected to address the issue in April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). Negotiators from Belgrade and Prishtina were joined on the final day of meetings by the Kosovar government and president and the Serbian president, prime minister, and foreign minister. The day brought little other than a restatement of the teams' original positions on the plan, which has been rejected in its entirety by Serbian politicians and broadly welcomed by Kosovar Albanian politicians as setting the contested region on the path to independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). AG

Serbian President Boris Tadic made a final appeal for a plan in which Serbia would retain sovereignty over Kosova, which would be provided with substantial autonomy and international guarantees, international media reported. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica stressed, in comments aired by Radio-Television Serbia on March 10, that anything "at variance with the principle of territorial sovereignty, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Serbia, is simply unacceptable." Kostunica also repeated calls for the talks to continue. Serbian officials have been highly critical of Ahtisaari during the consultation process, and Kostunica was again critical on March 10, with the Croatian news agency Hina quoting him as saying that "Ahtisaari showed antagonism toward compromise from the start." A Kosovar Serb negotiator, Marko Jaksic, told Radio-Television Serbia that none of the 200 amendments suggested by Serb negotiators have been included. A number of amendments to the plan were made during the consultation process, though all were of a fairly minor character (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007). AG

Serbia's foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic, on March 9 warned Serbs "against hasty, gambling conclusions, playing only the card of Russia's veto while fighting to maintain Serbia's territorial integrity." Speaking to local media ahead of the final day of talks on the future of Kosova, Draskovic said Moscow has sent a clear message that it will not support any solution for Kosova that either goes against Russia's interests or is not agreed to by both sides. But Draskovic said "it is one thing to say, 'we will not support the solution,' and it is quite another so say 'we will oppose it.'" Draskovic repeated earlier warnings that "most Serbs, once they wake up and discover the border running along the summit of Mount Kopaonik, with Vranje [in southern Serbia] in the border area, will suffer an emotional shock accompanied by a feeling of national humiliation. That will lead to an erosion of Euro-enthusiasm in Serbia, in turn causing instability and turbulence in the country and the region," B92 reported. AG

Serbian Foreign Minister Draskovic also warned on March 9 that followers of Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia in the 1990s, could attempt to overthrow the Serbian government if Kosova gains independence. Draskovic told the news agency Beta that ultranationalist allies of the late Serbian president are "waiting for that Kosovo bomb to happen and then, in what could follow in Serbia, return their people to power." Milosevic's own party, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), won only 5.7 percent of the popular vote in elections in January. However, the elections were won, with 28.6 percent, by the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, and its deputy leader, Tomislav Nikolic, on March 8 threatened an October 5-style uprising, a reference to the street demonstrations that resulted in the ouster in October 2000 of Milosevic. Opposition to independence for Kosova is almost universal in Serbia. A poll conducted in mid-February and published in the Serbian media on March 9 showed that almost 90 percent of Serbia's population view independence for Kosova as unacceptable. However, the poll, conducted by Medium Gallup, also found that 70 percent believe the situation in Kosova is untenable. Most Serbs (87 percent) would support broad autonomy for autonomy, while 42 percent would be willing to support partition. AG

A more optimistic assessment of the chances of the Ahtisaari plan being rejected by the UN was presented in a March 9 report in the Serbian newspaper "Glas javnosti," which cited "one of the best-informed diplomats in Vienna" as saying that, largely under Russian pressure, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will send back the proposal for further deliberations. That would "practically freeze the situation," the paper said. The paper did not name its source, but said the diplomat is "close to Russian and U.S. circles." The source claimed Russian diplomats have made clear to U.S. envoys that "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is not [former President Boris] Yeltsin and that Russia does not have debts, but rather, it has a can [sic] on which the European Union depends." AG

One of the leaders of Kosova's moderate Serbs, Oliver Ivanovic, warned on March 9 that there is a strong possibility of a new exodus of Serbs from the region. "In 1999 we had an opportunity to see what happens when a government fails to prepare its people for an event, so panic seized 200,000 Serbs and non-Albanians who left Kosovo together with the army," Ivanovic told "Dan," a Montenegrin daily. "Today's atmosphere is similar." The Belgrade broadcaster B92 reported on March 10 that one woman has even exhumed the body of her mother from Prishtina's Serbian Orthodox cemetery "since we are not allowed to visit her grave safely in Prishtina." Sladjana Draskovic said she plans to rebury her mother in Belgrade. Ivanovic's concern about the possibility of another large outflow of ethnic Serbs was a central factor in his attempt to create a new political forum to unite the region's Serbs. However, that initiative has been controversial and has so far served chiefly to highlight divisions within the Serbian community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). "If Kosovo becomes independent, the Kosovo Serbs will probably wait until the end of the school year and then start leaving en masse," Ivanovic told "Dan." Kosovar Serb representatives have in recent days conveyed similar messages to U.S. Undersecretary of State Daniel Fried, the head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, and Russia's ambassador to Serbia. A 2005 estimate by Kosova's statistical office put the number of ethnic Serbs in Kosova at 126,000-140,000, or around 7 percent of the population. The last official census, in 1991, found 194,000 Serbs in Kosova, or roughly 10 percent of the population. AG

Several thousand Serbs gathered on March 10 and 11 to mark the first anniversary of the death of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who led Serbia into several wars in the 1990s and who died while on trial in The Hague for genocide. The Croatian news agency Hina reported that 2,000 people attended a wreath-laying ceremony on March 10 and another 400 came on March 11. Milosevic's body was found in his prison cell on March 11, 2006, but the exact time of his death was never determined. Milosevic died several weeks before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was due to rule whether he was responsible for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosova during the 1990s. As was the case with Milosevic's funeral, the memorial was not attended by members of his family, all of whom are living abroad. Nor was it attended by government officials. Instead, a spokeswoman for President Tadic condemned the former dictator, saying, in comments carried by AP on March 10, that his "policies led Serbia into a horrible situation" and that Serbia is still struggling to deal "with the devastating effects of his legacy." AG

A senior figure in the party of Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica on March 8 launched a blistering attack on Montenegro's policy toward Serbia in an interview with the Montenegrin newspaper "Dan." Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, a deputy leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), accused the Montenegrin government of "rubbing salt into our wound" by effectively remaining silent about the UN's plan for the future of Kosova rather than supporting Serbia's demand for continued sovereignty over the contested region. Montenegro has restricted itself to calling for a "viable" solution in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). "Suddenly everything that is not close to Serbia and the Serbs is close to Montenegro," Raskovic-Ivic said. "Those who do not arouse sympathy in Serbia and among the Serbs are suddenly very dear to Montenegro and the Montenegrins." She expressed confidence that "this is some juvenile disease Montenegro will manage to fight off." Later in the interview, she diagnosed the disease as "the narcissism of small differences," referring to Sigmund Freud's concept that those distinguished only by small differences often have particularly antagonistic relationships. Within Montenegro, one of the key issues dividing those who voted for and against separation from Serbia is a new constitution that defines the state as a community of citizens rather than nations, as many Serbs would like (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2007). The draft was approved on March 9 and will go before the Montenegrin parliament on March 26, local media reported. AG

Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic said during a March 9 visit to Croatia that Montenegro is ready to dismiss all government officials who took part in the siege of the UNESCO-listed town of Dubrovnik in 1991, Radio Montenegro reported on March 10. This was Vujanovic's first trip to Croatia since Montenegro separated from Serbia in mid-2006, but it is just one of many recent signals that Montenegro wants closer ties with Croatia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 16 and March 5, 2007). Montenegro has already apologized for the involvement of Montenegrins in the bombardment of Dubrovnik and has offered to pay reparations. The current indications are that Croatia will instead opt to take stakes in Montenegrin enterprises. The issue of Montenegrin officials' involvement in the war in Croatia was highlighted in late February by the broadcast of footage showing the head of the Conflict of Interests Commission, Slobodan Lekovic, in the war zone around Dubrovnik. Lekovic has admitted taking part in the war as a reserve officer in the Yugoslav Army. The Montenegrin president said the two countries must focus on the future. Montenegro's efforts to forge a distinct foreign policy as an independent state gained extra momentum on March 8 when EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said that Montenegro should be able "very soon" to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, the first step on the path to membership of the EU. AG

A court in Prishtina on March 9 jailed a former commander of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) for 12 years for terrorism, the Belgrade broadcaster B92 reported. Xhavit Morina was jailed for leading an attack in 2001 on a Macedonian village, Mala Recica, in which three people died. The UCK was officially disbanded under UN supervision in 1999, but elements of the UCK remained active and took part in six months of fighting in Macedonia in 2001 between ethnic-Albanian guerrillas and Macedonian security forces. Morina was arrested in Kosova in May 2003 for illegally possessing weapons. Morina was tried in Kosova, as Macedonia and Kosova have no extradition agreement. In a separate case, a court in Kosova comprised of three international judges on March 9 sentenced an ethnic Albanian to 16 years in prison for killing an alleged collaborator and his family in 1999, during the conflict between ethnic Albanians and the Serbian authorities. AP reported on March 9 that Jeton Kiqina, who holds a Swedish passport, was found guilty of murdering Hamza Hajra, who had worked for Serbian police in Kosova, and four members of his family, including two children. A sixth member of the family survived. Others involved in the attack were sentenced in 2005 to jail terms of 11 to 30 years. AG

Serbian businessman Miroslav Miskovic was ranked 891st on a list of 946 billionaires published by the U.S. magazine "Forbes" on March 8. The list features dozens of Russians, several Poles, and one Czech, but no one other than Miskovic from the former Yugoslavia. Miskovic is the owner of Delta Holding, which has interests in the agricultural, retail, distribution, and financial industries, as well as real estate. His wealth was estimated at $1 billion. Miskovic acquired much of his wealth under former Yugoslav President Milosevic, but his connections with the now-deceased Serbian leader are unclear. He moved into business on a large scale after a brief spell in government in 1990. AG


President Hamid Karzai on March 10 signed an amended version of the amnesty bill passed by the Afghan National Assembly, returning it to the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) for approval, state-run Radio Afghanistan reported. The Wolesi Jirga initially passed the controversial "National Stability And Reconciliation" resolution, granting blanket amnesty for human rights violations to all sides in more than two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, on January 31, sparking calls in Afghanistan and abroad for Karzai to reject it (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 23, 2007). The upper house, the Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders), passed the resolution on February 20. The main change in a copy of the amended version of the bill obtained by RFE/RL appears to be the addition of an allowance for victims of crimes to pursue lawsuits against the perpetrators. Another noticeable difference in Karzai's version of the bill is a clause that rejects amnesty for persons who are currently under investigation for crimes committed against the security of Afghanistan; if such persons accept the national-reconciliation program and promise not to return to criminality, they may receive a pardon or reduced sentencing under specific decrees. Thus, faced with a thorny dilemma over the amnesty resolution, Karzai has neither rejected the bill nor approved it in its entirety. AT

The Wolesi Jirga ratified the presidentially amended National Stability And Reconciliation bill on March 10, Radio Afghanistan reported. It was initially unclear whether the bill has come into law or must be approved in its new form by the Meshrano Jirga. The Afghan Constitution (Article 94) states that a bill becomes law after approval by both houses of the National Assembly and endorsement by the president "unless the Constitution states otherwise"; if the president rejects a bill approved by the National Assembly, he "can send the document back with justifiable reasons to the Wolesi Jirga" within 15 days; the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) can override presidential objections with a two-thirds majority vote; but if the president takes no action on a bill for 15 days, the document becomes law. Since the amnesty bill is an amended version of what was originally initiated by the lower house, it could be considered law, but the constitution appears to leave room for debate on that point. If a deal has been struck that allows the bill to become law, the burden of proof for years of grave abuses seems to have been shifted to the Afghan public. Some of the purported abusers hold senior government or parliamentary posts. AT

Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban commander, indicated on March 10 that Taliban captors will kill Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo unless Italy withdraws its forces in Afghanistan within seven days, AFP reported. The Taliban announced on March 6 that they had abducted Mastrogiacomo, along with two Afghan guides, in southern Afghanistan and charged them with spying for British forces stationed in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 8, 2007). "If our demands are not met within seven days, we will slaughter this man," Dadullah told AFP from an undisclosed location. Mastrogiacomo is a correspondent for "La Repubblica." Italy has approximately 2,000 troops serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. AT

An Iraqi terrorist group calling itself Siham al-Haqq (Arrows of the Truth) announced on March 10 that it has abducted a German woman and her son and threatened to kill the two hostages if Germany does not withdraw its forces from Afghanistan within 10 days, Dubai-based Al-Arabiyyah Television reported. The abducted woman, who is in her 60s, was born in Germany, but has lived in Iraq with her Iraqi physician husband for years, ddp reported. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that his government is studying the video footage and will "leave nothing undone to bring the two kidnapped Germans back to their loved ones." Germany has no troops in Iraq, but there are around 3,000 German soldiers serving with ISAF in Afghanistan. AT

The commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, said in Tehran on March 11 that "the Americans have armed terrorist groups and counterrevolutionaries on Iran's frontier regions," Mehr news agency reported. He told a gathering of officers of the IRGC and the Basij, the militia affiliated with that force, that the United States has attacked Afghanistan and Iraq to control "energy resources...[and] sell arms and military equipment to regional states," assure the security and "disgraceful survival" of Israel, and oppose Iran. He said Washington's failure to achieve its goals "after several years of military occupation" has led it to resort to fomenting discord among Shi'a and Sunnis in Iraq and arming terrorists and "counterrevolutionaries" against Iran. He urged "operational readiness" and "intelligence dominance" to thwart enemy plans. Separately, Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar arrived in Damascus on March 11, where he held talks with President Bashar al-Asad and Syria's defense minister, General Hassan al-Turkmani. Mohammad-Najjar said during his meeting with al-Asad that defensive ties between Iran and Syria could provide a "native" security model for the Middle East. Al-Asad said bilateral ties should be boosted in all areas, "especially in defense and military affairs," Mehr reported. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on March 11 that "we hope the Russians will not engage in political maneuvers" over the Bushehr nuclear plant, referring to an impasse over payment terms that is delaying completion of the facility, which Russia is helping build in southern Iran. "Given our close relations with the Russians, we expect them to act on the basis of their commitments," he said. Hosseini added that Moscow is not asking Iran for money but "they want our help." He reiterated Tehran's position that it will not desist from a nuclear program that he termed legal and peaceful, and he called for "solutions" over Western concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions, which would "assure the rights of" Iranians. "The best way to present these solutions is the negotiating table," Hosseini said. He said that while comments by "some Western officials" indicate a "willingness" to talk, this "needs action without preconditions, and we are ready to resolve ambiguities within this context." He added that, "of course, we cannot forego our rights." VS

Legislator and member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Rahman Qahremanpur said on March 11 that while the Russians are citing payment problems as the cause of the delay in building the Bushehr nuclear plant, "the reality indicates extensive pressures on them by the Americans," ISNA reported. He said "our relations with Russia are not in a normal state right now, because Russia is under intense pressure by the Americans to cut its ties with us." He said he doubted the Russians will send fuel for the power station while there is talk of sanctions on Iran, even if Iran pays more money, and "this is not possible for the next four or five months." Iranian officials have said Russia was to have sent fuel to the power station by the end of March. Qahremanpur said: "This is the path we have taken. It is difficult to come out of it, as we do not have another supporter in the international arena aside the Russians." He added that "we might have had fewer problems if we had gone toward the Europeans from the start." Another member of the committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said that "Russians are resorting to extortion and are asking for a sum above the contract," Mehr reported. He said the Russians are "abusing international conditions to the full, and Iran will ultimately lose out." VS

A Tehran court lifted the ban on the reformist daily "Sharq" on March 11, although its editor, Mehdi Rahmanian, said the same day that he is unsure when the daily will resume publication, Radio Farda and Iranian news agencies reported. The daily was banned on September 11 on a variety of charges that included insulting senior officials and religious dignitaries, publishing indecent material, and distorting reported statements, Radio Farda reported. One of the alleged insults was a cartoon of a donkey on a chessboard, with a halo around its head; the image was thought to depict President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who had claimed he was enveloped in light when he addressed the UN General Assembly in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2006). The website of the daily "Etemad-i Melli" ( observed on March 11 that most previous members of the daily's staff now work elsewhere. A press jury in Branch 76 of the Tehran penal court, presided over by a judge identified as Saremi, acquitted "Sharq" of some of the charges and recommended a reduced sentence, reported on March 11. Saremi lifted the ban and fined the daily 90,000 tumans (about $100), reported. VS

Representatives from Iraq's neighboring states, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, the Arab League, and Organization for the Islamic Conference met in Baghdad on March 10 to discuss Iraq's security, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki addressed the conference, saying terrorism has obstructed political and economic progress in Iraq. "The Iraqi people are now paying the price for this global epidemic," and Iraq is the frontline of this fight, said al-Maliki. He reiterated the obligations of states under UN Security Council Resolution 1618, which calls for preventing the arming, financing, and transiting of terrorists and calls on Iraq's neighbors to strengthen their cooperation. Saying states have "moral responsibilities" to stand against terrorism, al-Maliki added: "We expect cooperation in the field of drying up sources of terrorism." He said states should not try to influence factions or parties. "We call upon our brothers and friends to adopt one attitude toward all the Iraqi people without any division or distinction on a communal, national or regional basis," he said. Iraq also expects more international support for reconstruction, he added. KR

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he was pleased with the substance of the meeting, telling reporters at a March 10 press briefing following the conference that neighboring states are eager to support Iraq, RFI reported. Participants have decided to form three committees to tackle security cooperation; refugees and displaced Iraqis; and fuel and energy imports for Iraq. Zebari said a follow-up meeting will be held on the level of foreign ministers, but the venue has not been decided. Zebari said dialogue between the United States and Britain with Iran and Syria was "constructive and useful." "No issues other than the issue of security and stability in Iraq were raised" at the conference," he said. He added that he expects it will take some time to see results from Iraq's neighbors. The committees will discuss and review neighbors' previous commitments, he added. KR

Asked by RFI whether the issue of Iran's support for armed groups in Iraq was raised, Foreign Minister Zebari said: "Some of the problems which took place between the United States and some Iranian diplomats and officials were discussed," an apparent reference to the arrest of Iranian diplomats in Iraq. "In this regard, the Iraqi government expressed its opinion. It is hoped that all detainees will be released in the near future," Zebari said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). KR

Ra'uf Rasid Abd al-Rahman, the chief judge in the Al-Dujayl trial of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other Hussein-era officials, has reportedly sought asylum in the United Kingdom, Al-Jazeera television reported on March 10. Abd al-Rahman's son was recently gunned down in Baghdad. Death threats against the judge increased after he sentenced Hussein to death in November, according to media reports. Iraqi politician Muhammad Hasan al-Musawi told Al-Jazeera television that Abd al-Rahman and other members of the Iraqi criminal court were granted political asylum in a number of EU countries and in the United States before the Al-Dujayl and Anfal trials began. He contended that Abd al-Rahman's asylum request has not been confirmed, but only reported in the press. Amman-based "Al-Dustur" also reported the asylum request on March 11. The daily cited Hussein defense attorney Ziyad al-Najdawi as saying that chief judge in the Anfal trial, Muhammad al-Uraybi has been targeted for assassination by members of the "resistance." KR

Irbil Governor Nawjad Hadi Mawlud has said he will ask that South Korean troops remain stationed in Irbil, Yonhap news agency reported on March 11. There are some 1,600 South Korean soldiers stationed in the northern Iraqi governorate, and that number is slated to be reduced to 1,200 by April, with a complete pullout by year's end. "We believe it is necessary for Zaytun [the name of the Korean division, which translates as "olive"] to stay here because we are still in need," said Mawlud. He added that he expects the Kurdistan Region Government to give priority to South Korean oil companies in exchange for their support over the year to the region. A delegation from Korea National Oil Corporation is currently on a visit to the region, Yonhap reported. KR

U.S. President George W. Bush has approved a request to send an additional 4,700 troops to Iraq, international media reported on March 11. The number is in addition to the 21,500 troops he ordered to Iraq in January. The president has also asked Congress for $3.2 billion in emergency funding to pay for the units to Iraq, which include combat-support troops, military police, and 129 soldiers for provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). It will also fund additional military equipment and efforts to reopen Iraqi state factories, the daily reported. KR