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Newsline - March 15, 2007

Russia's Atomstroieksport company said in a statement on March 14 that there may be "irreversible" damage to the Bushehr nuclear-power-plant project if Iran continues to delay making payments, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). The company added that it will continue to work in Bushehr, and that Russia is "relying on Iran to show common sense and resume funding." The firm noted that it needs to pay its subcontractors. Russian officials recently announced that in light of payment delays, they will not be able to meet the original deadlines for the first fuel deliveries to take place in March and for the plant to begin operations in September. The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on March 15 that the Russian announcement "has obvious political overtones. This news has come as a shock to Iran." On March 14, U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell praised Russia's stance on Bushehr, saying Washington and Moscow share similar concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. He added that "Russia's interests related to what is going on in Iran are similar to the United States interests" (see Iran below). PM

President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi signed several economic agreements in Bari on March 14, which Prodi called "the best proof of the strategic partnership between Italy and Russia," Russian and international media reported. The previous day, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema argued that "relations with Russia are strategic for Italy." The agreements dealt with building a new passenger jet, constructing a railway line along the shore of the Black Sea, and cooperating in developing electrical and nuclear power projects in Russia and Eastern Europe. Putin's delegation included Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov, Rosoboroneksport CEO Sergei Chemezov, SuAl co-owner Viktor Vekselberg, and Russian Railroads President Vladimir Yakunin, the daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 14. Prodi noted that Russia is a "huge market" for Italy, the daily "Izvestia" reported on March 15. Italy is Russia's third-largest trading partner after Germany and China, with trade in 2006 worth $27.7 billion. "Izvestia" also noted that Prodi made comments "that people in Moscow [can only] dream about hearing from European leaders, [namely that] 'there is no European dependency on Russia but rather mutual dependency.'" "Vedomosti" reported on March 14 that the two leaders also discussed the development of "a submarine and antisubmarine torpedoes." PM

Andrei Kokoshin, who is chairman of the State Duma's Committee for the CIS, said on March 14 that the recent visit to Ukraine by U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the Missile Defense Agency, "is a serious attempt to disturb the established system of strategic stability at regional and global levels," Interfax reported. Kokoshin added that the visit "is dangerous, given growing political and military uncertainties in political relations in the world." He believes that such moves "negatively influence opportunities to broaden cooperation" between Russia and the United States on several important security issues. Kokoshin stressed that Russia has an "extremely negative" view of the projected U.S. missile-defense system, which Obering came to discuss, especially "on the territories of former Soviet republics," as well as in Poland and the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and March 9, 12, and 14, 2007). Kokoshin said that he is "surprised, to put it mildly," that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko expressed support for the project during Obering's visit. Kokoshin added that Yushchenko's statement "runs counter to sentiments among the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian society." On March 15, Obering repeated in Berlin the long-standing U.S. position that missile defense is not directed against Russia but against Iran and other rogue states, news agencies reported. PM

Aleksandr Veshnyakov, whom President Putin unexpectedly did not reappoint this week for a third term as head of the Central Election Commission, said on March 15 that the commission will choose his successor on March 27, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). "The new Central Election Commission chairman, his deputy, and his secretary will be elected at the session by secret ballot," he added. Veshnyakov also said that it is likely that future heads of the commission will be limited by "an unwritten code" to two terms, which is the constitutional limit for presidents of Russia. Veshnyakov, who is widely regarded as ambitious, said that he has already received job offers from three political parties, which he did not name. He added, however, that going into politics "is the least probable" of the options he is considering. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on March 14 that "Veshnyakov's ouster reflects the new role that the [commission] will play in upcoming federal elections, in which political expediency may take precedence over judicial integrity." On March 14, quoted several regional officials in Siberia and the Volga areas as expressing their regret at Veshnyakov's departure. PM

Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said recently that one-10th of Russia's territory "is under the control of organized crime groups, who often face little or no official resistance," Britain's "The Independent" reported on March 15, citing an unspecified issue of the daily "Novye izvestia." He added that the Russian mafia is "alarmingly well established in Moscow, St Petersburg, the south of the country, and in Siberia." He stressed that "this problem poses a threat to the state, society, and the economy," adding that more than 3.8 million crimes were registered in 2006, up by 8.5 percent over 2005. Criminals are caught in only 46 percent of the reported cases, he said. "Novye izvestia" wrote that "one-10th of Russia's regions are in criminal hands. In most cases, those regions are among the country's wealthiest and most promising." The British daily pointed out that unnamed "experts in organized crime said separately that up to 25 percent of Russia's gross domestic product [GDP] is generated by the black economy, much of which is under the control of organized crime groups. It is a figure which dwarfs the size of the shadow economies in Western European countries, which typically account for between 5 and 10 percent of countries' GDPs." The daily quoted "Aleksei Mukhin, a specialist in organized crime, [as saying] that Russia is home to up to 10,000 criminal groups employing 300,000 people. Most are paid to protect the businesses and assets of a small number of powerful mafia leaders," whose businesses often operate under the cover of legal enterprises. In one recent well-publicized case, the mayor of Vladivostok, Vladimir Nikolayev, was arrested on corruption charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). He previously acquired a criminal record and the underworld nickname of Winnie the Pooh. Most alleged mafia kingpins prefer, however, to operate behind the scenes and eschew publicity. PM

Umar Khanbiyev, who served from 1997 until early 2000 as health minister under Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov, arrived on March 13 in Italy, where he has formally applied for political asylum, and reported on March 14 and 15, respectively. Speaking at a press conference the same day with Italian Prime Minister Prodi, President Putin suggested that Khanbiyev return to Chechnya, reported, while Ziyad Sabsabi, who is Chechnya's official representative in Moscow, described him as a good doctor who does not represent any political force, and who could find employment within the Chechen health service. Khanbiyev remained in Grozny, personally operating on war casualties, after the second Russian military intervention in Chechnya in late 1999, but was apprehended by pro-Moscow Chechens in January 2000 and held for a while in the infamous Chernokozovo detention center. On his release, he left Russia for Baku and then settled in Europe, where he was named Maskhadov's special representative in February 2004. Khanbiyev's brother Magomed, who served as defense minister and then as a field commander under Maskhadov, surrendered to the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership three years ago, reportedly to shield his family from reprisals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 11, and 12, 2004). He currently represents the Union of Rightist Forces in the pro-Moscow Chechen parliament elected in November 2005. LF

Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev warned on March 14 at the formal opening of a new office building in Grozny for the republican division of his agency that Al-Qaeda cells still exist in the North Caucasus and that the risk of new terrorist attacks in the region remains high, reported, quoting RIA Novosti. At the same time, Patrushev claimed that the situation in Chechnya has improved markedly and that the republic today is a full-fledged subject of the Russian Federation. He added that in 2006, security agencies neutralized 35 militant groups and over 150 "extremist organizations" and prevented 43 terrorist attacks, reported. Also on March 14, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov reached agreement with Major General Eduard Petrukhin, the first deputy director of the federal prison oversight body, that by the end of this year some 900 former residents of Chechnya who are serving prison terms elsewhere in Russia will return to Chechnya to complete their sentences there, reported. LF

Seyran Saroyan, who stepped down in February as commander of the Fourth Army Corps to register as a candidate in the May 12 parliamentary election, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on March 14 that he considers it imperative to abolish parliament deputies' immunity from prosecution "if we want to have normal deputies." He said doing so would be his first priority if he is elected, but did not explain how he would set about it. Parliament deputies' immunity from prosecution is guaranteed by the constitution, which can be amended only through a nationwide referendum. Saroyan's parliamentary bid has the support of the majority Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) of which Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian is a prominent member. Saroyan will run in a single-mandate constituency in the southern town of Echmiadzin currently held by businessman Hakob Hakobian. Hakobian, who joined the HHK last year, was stripped of his immunity from prosecution last October and currently faces charges of hooliganism and tax evasion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11 and 16, 2006, and January 19, 2007). The HHK decided in late February not to endorse his candidacy in the May 12 ballot, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 1. LF

Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov met in Geneva on March 14 under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group to continue their efforts to resolve differences with regard to the finer points of a Karabakh settlement plan drafted by the Minsk Group co-chairmen, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Azerbaijani media reported. Oskanian told RFE/RL in a telephone conversation after the talks that the two sides failed to make any progress and still have "deep differences" over unspecified key details of that draft. He added that he will nonetheless meet again with Mammadyarov at some point in April. Azerbaijani media quoted Russian Minsk Group co-Chairman Yury Merzlyakov as saying that the basic principles outlined in the draft address two key issues: the withdrawal of Armenian forces from districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and the intermediate status of the region prior to the conduct of a referendum on its final status. The online daily reported on March 15 that the co-chairs believe the two conflict sides should hold direct talks on the return to Karabakh of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who fled during the fighting of the late 1980s and early 1990s. LF

Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov issued a decree on March 13 dismissing Baku city prosecutor Adalyat Mirsalamly and his first deputy Hafiz Babayev on the grounds that their performance failed to meet the required standards, and reported on March 14 and 15, respectively. An unspecified number of other employees, including Isfandiyar Mehbaliyev, deputy prosecutor in Baku's Narimanov district, were also dismissed for failing to comply with a directive calling for more stringent control over pretrial investigations. LF

Speaking on Kazakhstan TV, Karim Masimov said that Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev should apologize to journalists at Era TV for his recent conflict with them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007), "Kazakhstan Today" reported on March 14. He said that while he felt an obligation to support his colleague, "From a moral and ethnical point of view, I would advise you, Er-eke, as a man, to apologize to that particular journalist." The journalist in question, Yuliya Isakova, has filed a lawsuit against Ertysbaev in connection with the incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007), in which Ertysbaev allegedly evicted an Era TV crew from a public event because he did not like their coverage of his actions as minister. DK

Berik Imashev, head of Kazakhstan's Security Council, announced in Astana on March 14 that Kazakhstan captured and extradited 34 "international terrorists" in 2006, Interfax reported. Imashev did not say to which countries the "terrorists" were extradited, but noted that "the appropriate agencies of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan regularly exchange information on persons suspected of involvement in international terrorist organizations or links to them." Imashev added that specialists from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) have drawn up a common list of terrorist, separatist, and extremist organizations prohibited in member states and that the upcoming SCO summit in Bishkek will adopt "a number of important antiterrorist documents." DK

Imashev also called on countries in the region and the international community to provide aid to fight Afghanistan's transformation into a narco-state, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Imashev said that it is necessary "to develop concrete programs to provide large-scale financial and economic assistance to Afghanistan in order to 'de-narcoticize' the country's economy and to create conditions to stimulate the export of legal products from this country." He added that "Kazakhstan is ready to make whatever contribution it can to this process." DK

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev has signed a law banning smoking in educational institutions, public-health facilities, movie theaters, museums, libraries, buses, ships, and aircraft, Interfax reported on March 14. The law, which makes provisions for smoking areas in restaurants and cafes, establishes fines of up to 300 soms ($7.87) for individuals and up to 50,000 soms ($1,312) for institutions that violate the new law. DK

Turuspek Koenaliev, the head of Kyrgyzstan's Agency for Information Resources and Technologies, told a news conference in Bishkek on March 14 that Uzbekistan has temporarily halted a visa-free travel agreement between the two countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007), the news agency reported. Uzbekistan is requiring that Kyrgyz citizens present a special insert in addition to their national ID card when crossing the border in order to register their arrival and departure. Koenaliev said that Kyrgyzstan's interior and foreign ministries are working to resolve the issue. DK

President Bakiev signed a decree on March 14 removing Osmanali Guronov from his post as secretary of the country's Security Council, the official news agency Kabar reported. The report linked Guronov's dismissal with a "transfer to other work" but provided no additional details. DK

Dushanbe is experiencing limits on electricity usage in connection with low water levels at Tajikistan's Nurek power station, Asia Plus-Blitz and Interfax reported on March 14. Nozim Yedgori, a spokesman for national power company Barqi Tojik, told Interfax that "Energy deliveries will be cut in some Dushanbe residential districts from 0800 until 1700 local time due to electricity shortages and a critical situation at the Nurek hydropower plant." Asia Plus-Blitz reported that water levels at the Nurek reservoir have fallen to critical levels because mountain snow has not yet melted and because Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have not been able to supply electricity to make up the deficit because unusually cold weather has led to a higher demand for power in those countries. DK

Shaukat Aziz met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on March 14 to discuss the development of bilateral cooperation, the official Uzbek news agency UzA reported. The report noted that the two countries hope to establish transportation links through Afghanistan to boost trade. Bilateral trade volume doubled in 2006 to $20 million. The independent noted that Aziz's visit received more enthusiastic coverage in Uzbekistan's state-controlled media than the recent visit by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, and attributed that discrepancy to a shift in Uzbekistan's foreign policy toward closer ties to Muslim countries with authoritarian governments. DK

Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka and another opposition activist, Vyachaslau Siuchyk, who were arrested in Minsk on March 13, were released on March 14 and are to stand trial on March 23, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Vyachorka has been charged with using obscene language in the presence of children. Siuchyk, who was detained because of his purported likeness to a criminal wanted by police, was subsequently charged with relieving himself on the street. Both politicians have been engaged in preparing an opposition rally for March 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). "I link both my arrest and my release to confusion in the heads of current officials," Vyachorka told RFE/RL. "They have no single concept of what to do and, possibly, different groupings are at loggerheads with each other. Some of them believe that it is necessary to suppress and whack [people] as usual. The others may think that it is necessary to make at least some gestures toward Europe, otherwise it will be quite bad." A delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), led by Bundestag member Uta Zapf, arrived in Minsk on March 14 to hold a workshop on dialogue between Belarus and the European Union within the framework of the EU Neighborhood Policy. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on March 15 discussed the issue of appointing Volodymyr Ohryzko to the post of foreign minister but postponed its vote until March 20, Ukrainian media reported. The opposition parliamentary caucuses of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine, which are boycotting the ongoing parliamentary session (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007), appeared for the debate on Ohryzko but left immediately after the decision on his nomination was put off. President Viktor Yushchenko resubmitted the candidacy of Ohryzko for foreign minister even though the Verkhovna Rada rejected him last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). JM

Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, who currently organizes the People's Self-Defense civic movement, said in a television interview on March 14 that the recent allegation by Prosecutor-General Deputy Renat Kuzmin that he, Lutsenko, has both Israeli and Ukrainian citizenship is a lie, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and the "Ukrayinska pravda" ( website reported. "I know that in our country, to become a politician, you need to be called first a fascist, a rascal, a [Ukrainian ultranationalist Stepan] Bandera follower, a citizen of Israel, and an agent of Moscow," Lutsenko said. "There have been no changes in dirty [publicity] techniques of the authorities, the only difference is that earlier private provocateurs engaged in such behavior, now these functions have been taken by the Prosecutor-General's Office," Lutsenko added. Lutsenko also said on television that the public statement about his purported Israeli citizenship was made by an "official whose face has never been distorted by intellect." JM

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte on March 14 warned that the EU's "muted" response to a ruling by the UN's top court that found Serbia guilty of failing to prevent genocide at Srebrenica in 1995 could undermine the fight for international justice, AP reported the same day. Del Ponte singled out the EU Presidency but also extended her criticism to the rest of the international community. She especially criticized statements by Germany, the current EU president, and Javier Solana, the EU's foreign-policy chief, who issued a statement after the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) February 26 ruling that "made no mention whatsoever of the fact that Serbia was found in violation of the Genocide Convention. Instead, he applauded the fact that there is no collective punishment and that the highest tribunal in the world has closed that page" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, and 28, 2007). The ICTY had already ruled that genocide was committed at Srebrenica, and the massacre -- in which around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed execution-style -- is the cornerstone of its indictment against the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander, Ratko Mladic, and their political leader, Radovan Karadzic. Both men remain on the run. AG

Del Ponte also expressed the fear that "we will never see Mladic and Karadzic in our custody. That would have a devastating impact on international justice and on our battle against impunity." The ICTY will open its last cases in 2008 and close its doors in 2010. Mladic's continued evasion of justice has particular political ramifications, as his believed presence in Serbia -- and the Serbian authorities' failure to capture him -- prompted the EU to suspend preaccession talks with Belgrade in May 2006. However, there have been signs that the EU will resume talks with Serbia even if it fails to deliver Mladic to the ICTY, a possibility that has drawn sharp criticism from Del Ponte (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31 and February 9 and 13, 2007). The ICJ's February 26 ruling explicitly criticizes Serbia for "failing to fully cooperate with the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and to hand over war crimes fugitives, including Ratko Mladic." This echoes repeated accusations by Del Ponte that the Serbian government is deliberately doing little to arrest Mladic, who is thought to under the protection of allies in Serbia's military and law enforcement agencies. Del Ponte will step down in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007). AG

The Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia on March 13 condemned as a "shameful idea" a decision by editors at the daily "Glas javnosti" to "relativize" and deny that genocide was committed against Bosnian Muslims in Serbia, the news agency FoNet reported the same day. "Glas javnosti" issued a special edition in the wake of the ICJ's February 26 ruling that the Serbian authorities could have prevented the slaughter. In its statement, the association said: "It has been officially established that almost 8,000 Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims] were killed in Srebrenica, and the highest court on the planet -- the International Court of Justice in The Hague -- decided that genocide was committed. For the first time since World War II. Those are facts, and facts cannot be argued with." The difference goes to the heart of a long-standing dispute given new currency by the ICJ's ruling. Following the ICJ's decision, which cleared Serbia of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, President Boris Tadic urged parliament to issue a condemnation of the Srebrenica massacre, but, as in a similar vote in 2005, the party of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and extreme nationalists are likely to vote down the motion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 2 and 6, 2007). A recent survey found that 50 percent of Serbs doubt that the Srebrenica massacre took place (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). The Independent Journalists' Association called for the state "finally to start to punish those who publicly deny and contest the heaviest crimes against humanity," because, if they do nothing, they will contribute to "the somewhat sick, omnipresent atmosphere in society about all sorts of 'everyone-against-us' conspiracies." AG

The prime minister of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, on March 14 said that the ICJ verdict "is a fact and we accept all of its sections, including the one qualifying the crime in Srebrenica as genocide," the SRNA news agency reported the same day. Dodik's statement, made to journalists in Banja Luka, is not new in substance, and he reiterated earlier comments that the Bosnian Serbs could not accept collective guilt for the massacres. However, the clarity of the statement and its timing, in the heat of a dispute over the status of Srebrenica, make it notable. So too was an indication, amounting to a promise, that some of the funds raised from the privatization of the region's telecom operator, Telekom Srpske, will be spent on improving the lot of Bosnian Muslims who have returned to Srebrenica. These statements come at a time when Bosnia's Muslim leaders are calling for Srebrenica to no longer fall under the authority of the Republika Srpska and when many of Srebrenica's Muslims are threatening to leave the city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 13, 2007). However, Dodik coupled these seemingly placatory statements with a reiteration that any attempt to change the constitution would be "illegal and illegitimate." Republika Srpska President Milan Jelic on March 12 promised "sanctions" against a number of Muslim leaders who are pushing for the autonomous region's abolition on the grounds that it is the product of genocide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 6, and 13, 2007). Dodik has demanded that the two men he holds responsible for the Srebrenica killings give themselves up to the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). AG

In a speech to the European Parliament on March 14, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Brussels has "had enough" of Bosnia's nationalist politics and "parochial party interests," and that Brussels will not conclude a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) "before concrete progress has been made on two key conditions: the police reform and cooperation with the [international] war crimes tribunal" in The Hague. In his speech, reprinted in full on the website of the Turkish news network ABHaber, Rehn said recent efforts by authorities in the Bosnian Serb autonomous region, Republika Srpska, to crack down on some support networks for alleged war criminals wanted by the ICTY are "encouraging," but that those efforts need to be sustained and to produce "concrete results." Rehn said Brussels still needs convincing that Bosnia is "serious in its commitment to cooperate with the ICTY." Rehn also said that "attempts to politicize" the ICJ's February 26 ruling that the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 constituted genocide are "regrettable" because they hinder reconciliation and because they take "attention away from more important matters, such as solving the police reform" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 23, 26, 27, 28 and March 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13, 2007). Rehn added that "we also need to see progress on the reforms of public broadcasting and public administration before signing the SAA agreement." He described constitutional reform as "essential" but did not link it to the SAA. An SAA is seen as a first step toward EU membership. Rehn made it clear that Bosnia has recently made few steps toward membership, saying that "2006 was not a year of success for Bosnia-Herzegovina. As a result of an extended election campaign, the reform agenda stagnated and the political climate turned sour, leading to nationalist rhetoric and tensions. We've had enough of it." AG

A former leader of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB) on March 14 renewed calls for the region, which lies on Serbia's southern border, to be allowed to join Kosova, FoNet reported the same day. Jonuz Musliu was reportedly a political rather than military figure in the guerrilla group, which was disbanded in 2001 after an agreement with Belgrade. The UCPMB was responsible for hundreds of attacks in the region. Musliu is now the leader of the radical Movement for Democratic Progress and a deputy mayor in Bujanovac, one of three municipal districts in the region. Albanians, who make up about 90 percent of the border region's population of roughly 90,000, in 1992 voted in a referendum for cultural and political autonomy. The vote was ignored by Belgrade. Presevo Albanians subsequently boycotted elections to the national parliament. The full boycott ended in January, when the region's long-time leader, Riza Halimi, gained a seat in Belgrade. According to a "Beta Week" profile on February 8, Halimi, who organized the 1992 referendum, now speaks out against "wasting energy in waging war and redrawing borders," saying that trying to separate southern Serbia from the rest of Serbia "means playing with fire." Musliu and other similarly hard-line leaders boycotted January's national elections. Within the region itself, Musliu and other radicals have been a stronger political force than Halimi since local elections in November 2005. AG

A poll published in the daily "Vijesti" on March 14 indicates overwhelming support for one of the key elements in Montenegro's draft constitution. The survey, conducted by a U.S. organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), found that 86 percent support the notion that Montenegro should be a community of citizens rather than nations. Many Serbian political leaders believe Montenegro should be defined as a community of nations, an argument that others fear would be the basis for a bid for secession (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and March 12, 2007). A smaller number, 60 percent, believe that there should be two official languages, Montenegrin and Serbian. Linguists see little difference between Montenegrin and Serbian, but questions of self-definition run through many of the controversial issues in the constitution, including state symbols. The draft constitution needs the support of two-thirds of parliament to come into force. If it secures only a simple majority in parliament, it would need to be approved in a national referendum. Serbs and Muslims together make up about 40 percent of the population. The draft was approved on March 9 and will go before the Montenegrin parliament on March 26. The NDI's findings were not included in results posted on the NDI website but were delivered privately to parliamentary parties. "Vijesti" did not publish other results relating to the constitution. AG

Trade figures for January show a 60 percent year-on-year rise in the volume of exports from Moldova to Romania, the Basa news agency reported on March 14. Though these are figures just for the first month of Romania's EU membership, they may ease fears that the termination of Romania's free-trade agreement with Moldova will hurt bilateral trade. That agreement, which was annulled by Romania's entry into the EU, was replaced by trade preferences with the EU. Imports also soared, by 42 percent. Imports ($22.6 million) were 84 percent larger than exports ($12.3 million). Romania bought 17 percent of Moldova's exports, making it Moldova's key export market. That position was previously held by Russia, with whom Moldova has been embroiled in trade disputes for almost two years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006, and January 29 and March 13, 2007). Exports to the EU's other new member, Bulgaria, fell by 4 percent, but imports more than doubled. However, both figures relating to Bulgaria are from low bases. AG

Some Iranian commentators have observed a realignment of political forces in recent months, provoked by intense rhetoric from President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government. The result could be an opposition comprising forces variously described as centrists or pragmatists, on the one hand, and radicals associated with the president on the other.

The realignment comes as reformists -- effectively excluded from power since late 2005 -- try to raise their profile as government critics. The maneuvering could provide them an opportunity to regroup -- with a somewhat diluted or evolved agenda -- alongside centrist forces hovering around Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani is an ex-president with a penchant for liberal economics who has in fact begun to do what reformers have been threatening: criticizing the government in earnest.

Rafsanjani targeted the government's economic policies in particular in a speech in Tehran on March 5. Tehran-based journalist Mohammad Sadeq Javadihesar told Radio Farda on March 6 that Rafsanjani's criticism was long overdue, given the gravity of Iran's economic situation. But the remarks are a further sign of Rafsanjani's return to headline politics.

While he has been a constant of institutional life in past decades, Rafsanjani's political profile subsided during the presidency of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). This was in part due to his waning popularity relative to Khatami -- Rafsanjani was perceived as representing a conservative state that was thwarting the reform process. But now he is increasingly seen as an informal opponent of the radicalism associated with Ahmadinejad's government.

Rafsanjani has consolidated his position since his success in December's elections for the Assembly of Experts, the body of clerics of which he is now a vice president, and his reinstatement by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as chairman of the Expediency Council, a key arbiter and watchdog. On March 5, Rafsanjani said the government has had enough time to implement its promises. He pledged that the Expediency Council will particularly scrutinize government decisions and expenditures to ensure they conform with the goals of development plans and the constitution -- specifically, the fourth five-year development plan; the 20-year forecast; and Article 44 of the constitution, which calls for large-scale privatizations.

He claimed that several budget amendments so far have contravened those aims, but that council members "observed them and made do with verbal comments," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on March 6. He warned that this next year's (2007-08) budget text "is even more dependent on oil than those of the previous two years," and cited Iran's stated policy of ending economic dependence on crude oil.

Rafsanjani said the 20-year forecast seeks to reduce that dependence by 10 percent every year "but the trend has been the opposite in the past two years." He conceded that all government branches and the Expediency Council could have been more forceful in implementing these programs in past years.

The comments of other Expediency Council members also hint at newfound political courage. Secretary Mohsen Rezai told reporters on March 6 that the council is examining the formulation of new administrative policies, "because wherever you look in this country, people are suffering from bureaucracy and administrative complexities," ISNA reported.

Rezai said state officials must be informed about broader policies so those plans are not disrupted by changes in government. He predicted that the Expediency Council will face criticism as it seeks to ensure implementation of Article 44, which he said heralds a "revolution."

On March 7, Mahmud Vaezi, the head of the Expediency Council strategic research center, called for a similar stabilization -- but of foreign policy, urging an "objective" definition of national interests impervious to changing governments, ILNA reported. Vaezi warned that "today the discourse we use in foreign policy has meant the entire world is against us."

He was perhaps referring to Ahmadinejad's intermittent denunciations of Western powers. Vaezi said the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini "always separated the West from America, so that" in case of conflict with the United States, Iran "could have the support of European states." Vaezi deplored the "lot of slogans" and "bad discourse" used on the nuclear issue, urging instead "a discourse to which people are willing to listen in the international arena."

The criticism has not gone unnoticed inside Ahmadinejad's government. Ahmadinejad told a gathering on March 7 that "an extensive front" has opened against him. He blamed people "who have lost access to their privileges and the public purse, and cannot just pick up the phone and ask for millions of tumans to be paid into Mr. So-and-So's [bank] account," ISNA reported.

The president alluded to "certain people's" failure to tackle corruption while in office. He also claimed past privatization efforts were implemented "without norms" and through "middlemen," and implied that they are to blame for the plight of "factory workers [who] have lost their jobs and stand outside our offices every day asking for their wages."

The same day as Ahmadinejad's speech, presidential ally Mohammad Ali Ramin accused "people who formed a party" in 1995 of provoking crises for the government "every day," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on March 7. He was referring to the founders of the Executives of Construction Party, a centrist party associated with Rafsanjani.

Ramin accused that group and related "gangs" of wielding extensive economic power behind the scenes; of reducing the powers of Iran's supreme leader following the 1989 death of Khomeini so they could form a "land-grabbing" cartel; and of seeking to impose Rafsanjani "on the system" as a "president-for-life."

Reformists have meanwhile stated -- in typically mild fashion -- their own intention to begin scrutinizing government policies. Hossein Musavi-Tabrizi, a cleric and member of the Association of Qom Seminary Researchers and Teachers, said reformists have strengthened ties and addressed "weaknesses" in the past year, ILNA reported on March 6. He said the government has had "an opportunity" to carry out its promises and now, "two years into the life of the government," reformists can "explain to the public" its level of success in working toward long-term economic goals.

Former reformist Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said the same day that reformists should now coalesce around "acceptable figures and effective ideas" ahead of the next parliamentary elections, ISNA reported. He did not specify who those "figures" might be.

It is fair to say that since the loss of executive office in 2005, reformists have been wary of criticizing government policies. It would have been easy to take them to court on a variety of "elastic" charges now familiar in Iran, which include undermining national security or inciting public opinion. The term "elastic" was coined by reformist journalist Abbas Abdi to mean charges with broad scope for interpretation. Reformists have also sought prominent figures able to unite the various reformist branches.

Rafsanjani, who has cut a mildly reformist figure in the past two years and who has been vilified for it by radical right-wingers, might be such a figure. But that will become evident only with time, once alignments are clarified and lists formulated for coming parliamentary or presidential elections.

The bold reformist agenda of the late 1990s might not be immediately feasible. But some -- or many -- Iranians might reconcile themselves to a gradually liberalizing agenda, beginning with a revival of the private sector.

Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, speaker of the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) of the Afghan National Assembly, adjourned a scheduled session of the body on March 14 due to a lack of a quorum, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The Wolesi Jirga was set to hold a debate on the structure of the Afghan government, including the number of cabinet posts and their responsibilities. Only 100 members of the 249-member body were present. Qanuni's first secretary, Abdul Satar Khawasi, said that the missing parliamentarians are in violation of Wolesi Jirga rules, which require a deputy who is in the country and not ill to attend all scheduled debates. In September, faced with increasing absences during Wolesi Jirga debates, the body proposed keeping a tally of those who missed meetings and the government-run media on a few occasions broadcast the names of those habitually absent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6 and October 6, 2006). AT

At least five civilians and one police officer were killed and 37 others, including eight policemen, were injured in a vehicle-borne suicide attack in Khost Province on March 14, the state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported. Khost Governor Salim Kamran said that the attacker drove his car near a police car in the city of Khost and detonated the explosives he was carrying. The neo-Taliban said earlier that they have scores of volunteers ready to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan. There have been three suicide attacks in the western and southern parts of the country in the past two days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). AT

Alit Bai Nazari, the district chief of Qaramqol in Faryab Province, was killed and the district chief of neighboring Khan-e Chahar Bagh district sustained injuries when gunmen ambushed their vehicle on March 14, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. Faryab's police chief, Colonel Mohammad Sadeq, told RFE/RL that "eight unidentified armed people who were already positioned on a road...[south of Qaramqol] opened fire" on the vehicle carrying the two district chiefs. "It seems that [the attackers are] Taliban" members, Mohammad Sadeq added. The Taliban are not known to be active in the area where the attack occurred. AT

An explosion at an ammunition store on March 14 left six people dead and eight injured, international news agencies reported. General Ali Shah Paktiawal, the director of Kabul police, said the explosion was an accident and not a "suicide attack or bombing by the enemies of the government," RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on March 14. There is no evidence to suggest that the explosion was the work of terrorists. AT

News agencies reported on March 15 on an agreement in principle reached the day before between representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the 5+1 powers, to enhance existing sanctions on Iran for refusing to comply with UN demands to curb its nuclear program. The text of the agreement was sent to the envoys' respective capitals for approval, and the Security Council may vote on the proposal next week, Reuters reported on March 15. The new proposals, if approved, will expand an existing list of Iranian individuals and groups whose assets are frozen and will ban arms exports from Iran, Reuters reported. On March 15, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Ardakan, central Iran, that the "great powers" are making "instrumental" use of the Security Council. He asked the council: "What are you trying to stop?" He added that Iran has mastered the nuclear-fuel cycle "and if all of you gather together, you could not stop" the progress of Iranians, IRNA reported. VS

Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a former foreign minister, told IRNA on March 14 that "the nuclear fuel cycle" is Iran's "red line in the nuclear issue" and "our political life will not end" with UN resolutions or sanctions. He said Iran will not "retreat from this red line," but use various political "levers" to reduce the "price" it may have to pay to make nuclear fuel for its program. Western states want Iran to import fuel, as fuel-making know-how could enable it to make bombs at some stage. He compared the nuclear program to defending Iranian territory. Velayati said any new sanctions that UN Security Council permanent members may agree on will have mainly "psychological and political" effects, adding that Iran is effectively self-sufficient in areas of defense and armaments. Iran needs to make fuel, he said, because "you cannot place in any trust in the word of countries with nuclear technology." They may refuse to provide fuel, he said, rendering useless "all the investments in the nuclear energy field." Russia has recently postponed delivery of fuel for the Bushehr plant it has helped build, citing payment delays by Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 13, 14, and 15, 2007). VS

The Fars news agency on March 14 quoted Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani as saying that Iran would give a "powerful military response" to any U.S. military strikes against it. The remarks were initially made to "Al-Sharq," a Qatari daily. Larijani said he presumed the Americans and Israelis have "a scrap of intelligence" left and will not do something foolish. He said Iran is ready to endure sanctions and will not bow to "threats imposed on us with force and pressure." He said, "we chide" the United States for putting pressure on Iran and "will make sure they regret their action." He separately told the press in Tehran on March 14 that Russia has accepted Iran's right to have a peaceful atomic program in principle, and certain public remarks by Russian officials against Iran and in sympathy with Western powers are "tactical," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 15. He said "no path is closed" toward resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, but that "they cannot negotiate with us and then issue a resolution against us. Resolutions mean hostility toward Iran." VS

Hundreds of riot police and plainclothes security agents reportedly prevented a demonstration by teachers who were going to protest outside parliament in Tehran on March 14 over low wages and poor working conditions, Radio Farda reported. The gathering is one of several recent protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 9, 2007). An unnamed witness told Radio Farda on March 14 that security officials effectively created a "military government" in that part of downtown Tehran, and "were dispersing or arresting people who were gathering." The protest was planned after the failure the previous day of teachers' representatives, some parliamentarians, and officials to reach an agreement on the teachers' demands. The witness claimed to have seen security forces arrest "at least 10 people," while cited reports the arrests of "between 50 and 60" protesters. It named two of the arrested as Bijan Baghani and Mahmud Beheshti-Langarudi, members of the central council of the Teachers Guild Society, the teachers' union. One of the protesters' demands is the resignation of Education Minister Mahmud Farshidi, though he told ILNA on March 14 that reports of the teachers' arrests are exaggerated, and added that he is an excellent minister. VS

Judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told the press in Tehran on March 13 that "right now five people have been arrested as the main suspects" in relation to recent teachers' protests, "though none...are teachers and have no employment relationship with the Education Ministry," ILNA reported. He said they are charged with disturbing the public peace. He also commented on the arrest of women's rights activists following a March 4 protest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007) by saying that all 30-35 activists arrested were freed "within 24 hours," and only two, Shadi Sadr and Mahbubeh Abbasqolizadeh, are currently detained, facing charges of acting "against state security," ILNA reported. He said they are being kept in the notorious section 209 of Evin prison in northern Tehran, the wing for "those with security-related charges," though "prison regulations apply there." Separately, three Tehran prisoners were reportedly ill on March 12 from a hunger strike they began earlier to protest their transfer from Evin prison to another jail near Tehran and the "lack of clarity in their dossiers," reported. Khaled Hardani, Shahram Purmansuri, and Farhang Purmansuri were transferred on March 8 to the Rajaishahr prison in Karaj. On March 11, Rajaishahr prison officials confined the three to a part of the jail reserved for common criminals, though the charges against the three were not immediately clear. VS

The Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced two men to death on March 14 after they were convicted of the 2005 murder of a Tehran judge who had fined them, Radio Farda and Iranian agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 4 and 5, 2005). Majid and Hussein Kavusifar (unknown if they are related) were convicted on charges of "spreading corruption on earth" and of being enemies of God and religion, ISNA reported. They had allegedly shot dead Tehran deputy chief prosecutor Hasan Moqaddas on August 2, 2005, because -- they reportedly confessed to interrogators -- he had fined them. Radio Farda observed there is speculation that there are political reasons behind the crime, because Moqaddas was also involved in media trials. The two were also allegedly involved in other killings and thefts, Radio Farda reported. The court also fined them 1 million tumans (a little over $1,000) and sentenced them to 74 lashes "for consuming heroin," Radio Farda reported. They have 20 days to appeal the sentence, ISNA reported. VS

Brigadier General Qasim Ata, the official spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, released statistics on the first month of the Baghdad security plan on March 14, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Ata said 25 people were murdered between January 14 and February 14, while 18 were murdered between February 14 and March 14, meaning the murder rate dropped by 28 percent. In the first period, 3,192 citizens were wounded in attacks, while 781 were wounded in the second period. Earlier, 1,440 citizens were killed, compared with 265 in the later period. Nineteen terrorists were killed and 169 arrested in the earlier period, while 94 were killed and 713 arrested in the latter. One hundred-sixty suspects were detained in the first period, while 1,152 were detained in the second period. Car bombings between February 14 and March 14 dropped 36 percent; mortar attacks by 47 percent; and hand-grenade attacks by 70 percent. Katyusha rocket attacks dropped by 35 percent and suicide bombings dropped by 33.3 percent, Ata said. KR

Staff Lieutenant General Abbud Qanbar Hashim, commander of operations for the Baghdad security plan, told reporters at the same March 14 briefing that Baghdad citizens are expressing a new optimism now that the security plan is beginning to yield results. "The results of the past 30 days cannot be assessed by the numbers of explosions, car bombings, and acts of terrorism, but by the citizen's feeling that a new, positive development has taken place to reassure a large sector of the society about the situation," Qanbar said. He cautioned that change will come slowly, however. "We expect obstacles and more terrorist operations proportionate to our precautionary measures to tighten the noose around the [necks of] the terrorists, whose operations will not end abruptly," Qanbar noted, adding: "We will try to maintain the momentum of our operations in order to finally destroy the terrorism through patience, calm, and careful decisions." Asked by RFI who interrogates detainees, spokesman Ata said that "Iraqi lawmen investigate them," adding that detainees are "held in prisons under the control of Iraqi forces" and are treated in accordance with human rights principles. KR

Major General William Caldwell, the spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, told reporters at a March 14 press briefing in Baghdad that the Baghdad security operation is making slow and steady progress. "I continue to stress the patience that's required, because all the forces are not here and will not be until the end of May. But the initial indications from the forces that are here and the ongoing activities that are occurring within Baghdad clearly demonstrate that there has been a reduction in the overall levels of murders and executions," Caldwell said. Ten thousand tips were called in to the national tip line in February and people are becoming involved in their neighborhood advisory councils, he added. Caldwell said that he expects to see a "discernable difference" in the security landscape by the fall. Daniel Speckhard, the U.S. Embassy's charge d'affaires, also addressed the briefing, citing progress in Al-Sadr City. Coalition and Iraqi forces have worked with the district's mayor to come up with more than 12 projects to improve living conditions there, including sewer and electricity projects, Speckhard said. "In my nearly two years here, I sense for the first time a renewed sense of hope among Iraqis," he added. KR

Asked by reporters if he knows the whereabouts of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, spokesman Caldwell said al-Sadr remains outside Iraq. "Obviously [al-Sadr is] a very significant part of this entire political process here within the government of Iraq. We are, in fact, tracking his whereabouts. We do stay concerned. But again...we're very encouraged by what we're seeing on the ground right now in Sadr City," Caldwell told reporters. "There is a tremendous amount of cooperation and dialogue ongoing. It's proven to be very beneficial to both sides." Caldwell said nearly 700 al-Sadr militiamen have been detained in the past six months for their involvement in illegal activities, including death squads. KR

Iyad Allawi has told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that sectarianism is the most dangerous threat Iraq faces today and it must be eliminated, the daily reported on March 14. "What is happening in sectarian political infighting and not doctrinal," he said. "We must admit that what is some kind of civil war. It might not be conventional and customary like the wars of the past. But there is definitely killing on the basis of identity, sectarian infighting, and the marginalization and displacement of the innocent." Speaking in Kuwait, Allawi said he presented Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki with a 14-point plan to help the government emerge from its current crisis. Allawi said many Sunni and Shi'ite parties support a national approach to governance. Allawi is currently in Saudi Arabia; his party's spokesman, Izzat al-Shabandar, told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that it is no coincidence that his visit coincides with Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani's current visit to Riyadh. Al-Shabandar said the trips were coordinated during Allawi and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's visit to Irbil last week, and that Barzani supports Allawi's national plan. KR