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Newsline - March 16, 2007

Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, said in Moscow on March 16 that the media interest in Russia's dispute with Iran over the Bushehr nuclear-power-plant project is not helpful, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13 and 15, 2007). "Commercial talks are not held in such an atmosphere," he said in reference to media coverage of the delays in construction, which Russia says are the result of Iran's failure to make payments on time. The daily "Vedomosti" wrote on March 15, however, that the real problem is political and that Iran is trying to pressure Russia into making further, unspecified concessions. The paper noted that "the whole saga of the Bushehr nuclear power plant (and of Russian-Iranian cooperation in the nuclear energy sector) proves that economic and technological issues are inseparable from pure politics in relations with regimes like the Iranian one. Russia started building the reactor when moderate Mohammad Khatami was in power in Tehran [1997-2005]. At the time, Russia's reluctance to succumb to political pressure from the United States and lose a lucrative contract was quite logical and understandable. And yet, Moscow did not change its stand on the matter, even when the radical Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power in Iran in early 2005." The paper added that "Tehran doesn't know when to stop -- it only demands more and more. The Iranian regime is now hinting that Russia should make some additional political concessions if it wants Iran to continue Bushehr payments. All this is only another argument indicating that Russia should be extremely careful in relations with regimes like the Iranian regime, resisting the temptation of economic agreements, no matter how attractive they may seem. Leaders of such regimes won't hesitate to use Russia as a tool in efforts to try to reduce pressure from the international community. As for agreements with Russia itself, these regimes never have any intention of abiding by them." PM

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on March 12 merging two existing agencies that regulate the media and the Internet into one, the Paris-based "International Herald Tribune" reported on March 16. The decree fuses Rosokhrankultura, or the federal service for the protection of Russia's cultural heritage, and Rossvyaznadzor, which deals with telecommunications and information technology, into a new federal service for the supervision of mass communications and the preservation of the cultural heritage, the presidential website reported. The daily quoted official spokesmen as saying that the move is aimed at efficiency. But some journalists expressed concern that the decree is aimed at tightening the Kremlin's grip on the media, and especially the Internet, in the run-up to the 2007 legislative elections and the 2008 presidential vote. Raf Shakirov, who was sacked as editor of the daily "Izvestia" for his critical coverage of the 2004 Beslan school hostage taking, said that the decree "is an attempt to put everything under control, not only electronic media but also personal data about people such as bloggers." PM

The Moscow City Court ruled on March 16 that former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov must return a luxury country house that he bought from the state in 2005, Interfax and RIA Novosti reported. The court turned down a second suit filed by the state property agency Rosimushchestvo for compensation. Kasyanov said that he expected the decision against him and will appeal to a higher court. He called the ruling politically motivated and said that he expects to lose the appeal because the courts are part of President Putin's "power vertical." Another court ruled in February that Kasyanov's acquisition of the dacha was illegal. Kasyanov served as prime minister during Putin's first term but was replaced in 2004. He has since become a vocal critic of the Kremlin, the leader of a small liberal movement, and a potential candidate in the 2008 presidential race. He has been investigated for fraud and abuse of office, charges that he says are politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006, and February 26, 2007). PM

The Russian state-owned flag carrier Aeroflot will soon finalize an agreement to buy 22 of the proposed Airbus A350 long-haul aircraft instead of Boeing's 787 Dreamliners, "The Wall Street Journal" and Britain's "Financial Times" reported from Moscow on March 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2006, and March 5, 2007). A spokeswoman for Aeroflot said that contacts with Boeing are "frozen." Aeroflot is expected to sign "within weeks" a contract with Airbus worth a list price of $4.4 billion, before expected large discounts are deducted. Aeroflot CEO Valery Okulov told a press conference that his airline will buy an unspecified number of Airbus A330 jets, with delivery starting in late 2008, under an operating lease agreement. Delivery of the A350s will begin in 2015. The "Financial Times" noted that the deal will be "seen as a political snub to the [United States], with relations between the two countries at their worst since the collapse of the Soviet Union." Aeroflot is chaired by Viktor Ivanov, a former KGB officer and aide to President Putin. PM

The European Parliament adopted a resolution in Strasbourg on March 15 calling on the Russian authorities to launch a serious investigation into an attack in January on Galina Kozlova, an indigenous-people's rights activist in the Mary El Republic, RFE/RL reported. EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes, representing the EU executive, said that "the commission regrets the violent attack on...Kozlova, which took place on January 25 in the capital of Mary Republic," Yoshkar-Ola. Kroes called for a "thorough and speedy" investigation and said the situation in Mary El will be raised during the next EU-Russia human rights dialogue on May 3. The parliament's resolution, backed by all major political groups, condemned the continuing violence against cultural figures and journalists in Mary El. During the debate, representatives of the three largest groups -- the conservatives, socialists, and liberals -- all attacked Russia's record on minority rights and media freedom and asked the EU to raise the issues at the upcoming EU-Russia summit. As of 2002, about 727,000 people lived in the small swampy republic, which is 57 percent forest and contains over 200 lakes. It has virtually no natural resources. The population is about 47 percent ethnic Russian and 42 percent Mari. Just over 51 percent of Russia's Mari live in the republic, with an additional 17 percent living in Bashkortostan. Mari activists claim that the republic, which has been headed by President Leonid Igorevich Markelov since 2001, is under heavy pressure aimed at Russification (see "RFE/RL Russia Report," August 23, 2005). PM

Russian President Putin, Greek Premier Costas Karamanlis and Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev signed an interstate agreement in Athens on March 15 on construction of a 280-kilometer oil pipeline that will link the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas with the Greek oil terminal at Alexandroupolis. Discussion of the project dates back to 1994, when Turkey again announced restrictions on the passage of oil mega-tankers through the Turkish straits, but implementation has been delayed due to uncertainty whether enough crude will be available to render the project economically viable. Burgas is a shallow-water harbor, which limits the capacity of tankers it can accommodate. It is still unclear whether the pipeline will transport Kazakh as well as Russian crude. The pipeline has a throughput capacity of 35-50 million tons, and will be completed by 2010 at the earliest, according to the "Financial Times." Construction costs are currently estimated at $1 billion, compared to $700 million in 2005 when the initial memorandum on construction was signed. Russia will have a 51 percent stake in the pipeline, while Greece and Bulgaria will each have 24.5 percent. LF

Meeting in Moscow on March 15, the top leadership of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party voted to expel Stavropol Krai Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov from its ranks due to his "failure to fulfill party directives," and reported. Unified Russia failed to win the majority of seats in the Stavropol Duma elected on March 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). Asked whether Chernogorov will retain his post as governor, Unified Russia Chairman Boris Gryzlov said it is not within the party's competence to decide. Chernogorov for his part told that "patriotism takes priority over politics," and that he plans to continue in his post. But Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov was quoted by on March 16 as saying his A Just Russia Party that controls the majority of seats in the Stavropol parliament will raise the question of Chernogorov's dismissal. LF

Daghestan's Election Commission annulled on March 14 the results of voting in the March 11 elections for a new republican parliament in seven polling stations in the Tsumadin, Tabasaran, Akhvakh, and Tlyaratin raions in light of procedural irregularities, including the destruction of ballot papers, reported. On March 15, following a picket in Makhachkala by some 100 voters, the commission also annulled the election results at another Akhvakh polling station where armed masked men stole the ballot box during the vote count. Makhmud Makhmudov, who heads the Daghestan branch of the Communist Party, said that the repeat voting could raise the total number of votes cast for his party above the 7 percent minimum required for parliamentary representation. With some 80 percent of ballot papers counted, the KPRF had 6.33 percent of the vote. LF

Addressing both chambers of the Chechen parliament on March 15, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Ramzan Kadyrov said an examination of republican laws has revealed many discrepancies with the constitution and laws of the Russian Federation, reported. He noted in particular that the laws on parliamentary and presidential elections and some articles of the constitution contradict federal law, and should therefore be amended, but he warned against undue haste in doing so. Kadyrov further expressed dissatisfaction that some Chechen legislation is blindly copied from federal law or laws passed by other federation subjects. He said Chechen law should take into account the unique features of the republic. LF

A statement posted on March 15 on the website of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration ( rejected as untrue Russian media reports that Kadyrov has named First Deputy Prime Minister Odes Baysultanov prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007). Baysultanov's father is Kadyrov's mother's brother. The statement noted that while Kadyrov has identified Baysultanov as the most qualified candidate for the post of premier, he has not yet nominated him for the post, and that the parliament will be required to approve that nomination. LF

The investigation in the criminal case against former Economic Development Minister Farxad Aliyev and his brother Rafik, former head of Azpetrol, has been completed, reported on March 16. The two men were arrested in late October 2005 on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the county's leadership and have since been held in pretrial detention. They are to face trial initially on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion, respectively. The charges of plotting a coup together with former Health Minister Ali Insanov, former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov, and former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiyev will be heard in a separate, subsequent trial. Farxad Aliyev has repeatedly denied both the coup charges and the subsequent allegation by former Interior Ministry official Gaci Mammadov that he gave the orders for the March 2005 murder of investigative opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," July 28, 2006). LF

Mikheil Saakashvili delivered a 90 minute state-of-the-nation address to the Georgian parliament on March 15, but declined to field any questions from parliament deputies. Saakashvili said that over the past year Georgia has made "a giant leap forward" and achieved 10 percent economic growth despite the ban in its imports imposed by Russia; has solved problems with energy supplies; and has "broken the back" of organized criminality, Caucasus Press reported. He said Georgia is internationally recognized as a successful democracy and a leader in implementing reforms. He said the conflicts between Georgia and its breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were inspired "from outside," meaning by Russia, and thus constitute a "conflict with empire," rather than with the Abkhaz and Ossetian people. He claimed Georgia "is already succeeding" in having the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the conflict zone replaced by contingents from international organizations. Saakashvili expressed his gratitude to parliamentarians for the declaration in support of NATO membership unanimously approved by 160 deputies earlier this week, and which he said reflects the will of the entire Georgian people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). LF

The trial opened on March 15 in the Zugdidi municipal court in western Georgia of Nora Kvitsiani, whose brother Emzar challenged the Georgian leadership in July 2006, triggering the dispatch to the Kodori Gorge in western Georgia of Georgian Interior Ministry troops who failed to locate and apprehend him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 26, and 29, 2006). Nora Kvitsiani is charged with illegal possession of arms, creation of an illegal armed group, and embezzling humanitarian aid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21 and October 25, 2006). LF

Daniyar Usenov told a press conference in Bishkek on March 15 that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia plan to establish a joint venture to build the two Kambar-Ata hydroelectric power stations, reported. Usenov said that Kyrgyzstan will own 34 percent of the joint venture, while Kazakhstan and Russia will hold 33 percent stakes. Kambar-Ata 1 will require $1.7 billion and Kambar-Ata 2 needs $300 million. Kyrgyzstan has already spent $150 million on Kambar-Ata 1, and Kazakhstan and Russia are expected to match that investment, Usenov said. Usenov did not say where the additional financing will come from or what the time frame for the project will be. DK

Usenov said that he has instructed his lawyer to file suit against former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov over the latter's corruption allegations against him, Kabar reported. Kulov recently asserted that Usenov told him that he paid a $300,000 bribe to assume his post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). DK

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev met with General Norton A. Schwartz, commander of the Transportation Command in the U.S. Army, in Bishkek on March 15 and asked that the United States conduct an additional investigation into the fatal shooting at the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006), Kabar reported. On March 14, Karabaev delivered a verbal note to U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Marie Yovanovitch asking Washington not to transfer U.S. serviceman Zachary Hatfield out of Kyrgyzstan until an investigation of the incident is complete. Karabaev told a news conference in Bishkek on March 15 that Kyrgyzstan does not plan to ask for changes to the agreement on the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan, Interfax reported. Karabaev said that "Rather, it is necessary to discuss ways to make our country feel more comfortable about the presence of the air base in order to remove all problems generated by it." DK

Ilham Aliyev met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on March 15, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Rakhmonov noted, "We signed an agreement on visa-free travel, which provides good prospects [for bilateral cooperation]," Tajik television reported. Rakhmonov also said, "We indicated our readiness to expand cooperation in all spheres, including economy and trade," RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. For his part, Aliyev said, "We attach great importance to our bilateral relations," Tajik television reported. He continued: "As a clear example of this, I can say that Azerbaijan has decided to open an embassy in Tajikistan." DK

Exploratory operations have led to the discovery of a new natural-gas field in southeastern Turkmenistan, Turkmen TV reported on March 14. Russia's RBC Daily reported on March 15 that Turkmen specialists claim the field could be larger than Russia's Shtokman field, which holds 2.5 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas, according to But experts queried by RBC Daily were skeptical. Andrei Gromadin, an analyst with MDM Bank, told RBC Daily: "According to available geological data, it's still too early to draw conclusions about the size of the field they've found." DK

An Uzbek city court has sentenced Rustam Muminov to 5 and 1/2 years in prison after convicting him of belonging to the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on March 15. Muminov was deported to Uzbekistan from Russia in October 2006 for alleged involvement in unrest in Andijon in May 2005. DK

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said during a visit to Tashkent that his country hopes to obtain full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Interfax reported on March 15. Aziz said, "Pakistan shares the views of SCO member states regarding the response to terrorism and would like to develop efficient cooperation." Pakistan currently holds observer status in the SCO along with India, Iran, and Mongolia. SCO members are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. DK

A delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), led by Bundestag member Uta Zapf, held what it called a workshop on the EU Neighborhood Policy in Minsk on March 15, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The debate was attended by government officials and opposition activists. Jean-Eric Holzapfel from the Kyiv-based Delegation to Ukraine and Belarus of the European Commission said in Minsk that the European Union is prepared to move toward closer cooperation with Belarus and increase financial assistance as soon as the authorities release political prisoners, start respecting freedom of the press, abolish the death penalty, and make progress in democratic reform. Volha Abramava, a member of the Belarusian Chamber of Representatives, accused the European Union of seeking a change of government in the country. She said that the fulfillment of the EU demands by the Belarusian government would be viewed by the Belarusian people as a sign of its weakness. Another member of the Chamber of Representatives, Anatol Krasutski, called on the EU to end the "policy of sanctions and ultimatums." JM

Opposition politician Mikhail Marynich told Belapan that he turned down an invitation to attend the OSCE workshop in Minsk because of the government's ongoing oppression of the opposition. "I think that it's immoral to participate in the workshop when politicians Alyaksandr Kazulin, Pavel Sevyarynets, Mikalay Statkevich, and others are in prison; when politicians are arrested ahead of the workshop and young activists are pressured and persecuted," Marynich said. Former Deputy Foreign Minister and current opposition activist Andrey Sannikau did not participate in the OSCE workshop, either. "It is immoral to participate in events whose format was determined by the authorities," Sannikau told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "This seminar was directed not toward promoting dialogue but toward recognizing the regime.... I know that after Uta Zapf's departure, the authorities will imprison [opposition activists Vintsuk] Vyachorka and [Vyachaslau] Siuchyk, there will be other political prisoners, and this will come as a result of the work of Uta Zapf and her group," Sannikau added. Meanwhile, Zapf told Belapan that the OSCE is planning to hold another workshop in Minsk in the fall. Zapf stressed that the EU attitude to Belarus will largely depend on how the ruling regime treats political prisoners. "I think it's very important that [the authorities] release at least a couple of political prisoners," she added, mentioning in particular Kazulin, who is serving a 5 1/2 year prison term. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said in a television interview on March 15 that President Viktor Yushchenko should nominate a new candidate for the post of foreign minister, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The Verkhovna Rada debated the candidacy of Volodymyr Ohryzko for the post earlier the same day but postponed its vote until March 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). Yanukovych is expected to meet with Yushchenko on March 19 to discuss Ohryzko's fate. The Verkhovna Rada already rejected Ohryzko as foreign minister in February. Commenting on the postponement of the vote on Ohryzko, Party of Regions parliamentary caucus leader Raisa Bohatyryova denied a journalist's allegation that the ruling coalition did so under pressure from Moscow. "You see the hand of the Kremlin everywhere but do not notice Bush's leg under yourself," Bohatyryova said on Inter television. JM

President Yushchenko told Danish journalists in Aarhus on March 15, the first day of his official visit to Denmark, that Ukraine needs Danish support in working out a new, enhanced agreement on cooperation with the European Union, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "We [also] need [Denmark's] support in the European Football Association's voting on the possible hosting of the Euro 2012 [soccer] championship by Ukraine and Poland," Yushchenko added. Speaking in the Danish parliament in Copenhagen later the same day, Yushchenko suggested establishing a "panel of wise men" composed of senior European figures with the experience and expertise needed to help Ukraine on its path toward EU membership He made the same proposal in a commentary titled "Realistic Kyiv" published in "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" on March 15. JM

UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari will explicitly recommend that the UN's Security Council recognize Kosova as an independent state, Reuters reported on March 15. The news agency quoted unnamed sources as saying Ahtisaari will call for "independence under international supervision" and that his recommendation makes frequent references to independence. Ahtisaari told Reuters on March 12 that he will submit a "separate piece of paper which actually spells out the status issue very clearly and gives a justification for that." Ahtisaari's mandate from the UN was to advise the Security Council on the final status of the region, which is a Serbian province populated overwhelmingly by ethnic Albanians and administered by the UN. Ahtisaari's proposed settlement, unveiled on February 2 and revised on March 7, has already been interpreted by Serbian and Kosovar Albanian leaders as amounting to independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and March 8 and 12, 2007). The Security Council is expected to discuss Ahtisaari's proposal in early April. AG

A Kosovar Serb leader, Oliver Ivanovic, on March 15 said that criticism of Russia by the former U.S. envoy for the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, would be to blame if war were to break out in Kosova, the Serbian news agency FoNet reported the same day. In an article published on March 13 in "The Washington Post," Holbrooke argued that "if Moscow vetoes or delays the Ahtisaari plan, the Kosovar Albanians will declare independence unilaterally. Some countries, including the United States and many Muslim states, would probably recognize them, but most of the European Union would not. A major European crisis would be assured. Bloodshed would return to the Balkans. NATO, which is pledged to keep peace in Kosovo, could find itself back in battle in Europe." Ivanovic, who leads the moderate Serbian List for Kosovo, said, "such statements...solely serve to intimidate Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia." There has so far been no official comment by Serbian or Russian leaders. Holbrooke's commentary reflects a shift in emphasis away from the status of Kosova to Moscow's response if, as assumed, the UN's envoy calls for independence for the region. A commentary in the March 11 edition of the Serbian publication "Politika" predicted that Washington would set a "trap" for Russian President Vladimir Putin, blaming Russia if there are complications. "That raises the question of whether [the Russians] are ready to take the risk for the sake of a small Balkan enclave at a time when they are not concealing their global ambitions." The commentator concluded Russia would not use its veto. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic has warned Serbs not to jump to "hasty, gambling conclusions" that Russia will veto the Ahtisaari plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007). AG

The head of the Association of Macedonian Muslims, Ismail Bojda, called on March 13 for the authorities in Kosova to recognize the Gorani community as a Macedonian ethnic minority, Radio-Television Kosova (RTV) reported the same day. Bojda, himself a Gorani, also called for the Gorani to be allowed to be taught in Macedonian, granted dual Kosovar and Macedonian citizenship, and guaranteed three seats in Kosova's parliament. RTV referred to Bojda as "the self-proclaimed president of the International Gorani Conference," a previously unknown group, but Bojda has long been a leading figure in the Gorani community as head of the Association of Macedonian Muslims. Including its diaspora, the Gorani may number up to 50,000 people. In a 1991 census, 16,000 people in the Gora region, on Kosova's southern border with Albania and Macedonia, identified themselves as Gorani. The Gorani are a Slavic community that converted from Orthodoxy to Islam in the 18th century. In the modern era, there have been attempts to identify them as a Slavic community of Bosnian, Macedonian, Serbian, and even Bulgarian origin. The UN's blueprint for Kosova's future drawn up by Ahtisaari does not specifically name the Gorani in its provisions on minorities. However, in a March 9 commentary for, Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku wrote that "my objective is to protect and integrate all of our minority citizens -- whether they are Turkish or Croat, Serb, or Gorani." AG

Reports from Belgrade say that a former leading figure in the regime of deceased former President Slobodan Milosevic, Jovan Zebic, died during the night of March 15-16. Just days before, on March 13, the 66-year-old Zebic was indicted for embezzlement and money laundering for allegedly siphoning off many millions of dollars of state money into private offshore accounts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). Zebic served as a deputy prime minister in the former Yugoslavia and before that as vice governor of the National Bank of Yugoslavia. Zebic's death has been confirmed by his party, Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia. The cause of his death was not given. AG

Montenegro took its first step toward EU membership on March 15 when it signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, local media reported the same day. The agreement was initialed during a visit to Podgorica by EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. The date on which the agreement would be signed became known only in the days before Rehn's visit, but it became increasingly clear in recent weeks that Montenegro's concerted bid for EU membership would result in the SAA being signed quickly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 14, 2007). Talks on an SAA with Serbia, with which Montenegro was in a "state-union" until mid-2006, were suspended in May 2006 over Serbia's failure to hand over the Bosnian Serbs' wartime commander, Ratko Mladic, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, February 9 and 13, and March 15, 2007). A poll conducted by the U.S. National Democratic Institute in February found that the European Union is the fifth-most important issue for Montenegrins (behind crime, wages, corruption, and workers' rights). AG

The appeals chamber of the UN's war crimes tribunal on March 15 upheld a ruling that found Croatian journalist Josip Jovic guilty of contempt of court for publishing the transcript of a closed-door hearing with Croatia's president, the news agency Hina reported the same day. President Stjepan Mesic, who entered office in February 2000, was previously called to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to give testimony in a case against a Bosnian Croat commander accused of war crimes, Tihomir Blaskic. Jovic, a former editor of the daily "Slobodna Dalmacija," published the transcript in December 2000, was indicted by the ICTY in September 2005, and was found guilty and fined in August 2006. The appeals court rejected all seven of Jovic's arguments and ordered him to pay a $20,000 fine. Mesic's predecessor, Franjo Tudjman, responded to the ICTY's indictment of Blaskic in 1996 by making him the inspector-general of the Croatian Army. However, Blaskic was then, in 1997, forced to surrender to the ICTY. He was sentenced in March 2000 to 45 years in prison, a sentence overturned in July 2004 by the ICTY's appeals court, which found Blaskic guilty of just three of the 19 charges against him. AG

The parliament of Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region on March 15 gave its preliminary backing to a plan to restructure Transdniester's debt to the Russian gas supplier Gazprom, the Chisinau-based news agency Basa reported the same day. Details of the plan are obscure, but appear to involve the transfer of debt from Transdniester's gas distributor to the Transdniestrian administration. Basa quoted Transdniestrian officials as saying, "it is time to build market relations with Gazprom," and the deal is expected to raise gas prices within Transdniester. According to Basa, at the start of 2007 Transdniester's debt to Gazprom amounted to $1.3 billion, suggesting that Transdniester's debt per capita is around $2,400. Gazprom has in the past year and a half moved to change the terms of its deals with almost all of its foreign customers, but changes in the conditions with Transdniester are of extra sensitivity, as Russia is widely regarded as the guarantor of Transdniester's continued de facto independence from Moldova. AG

Macedonia on March 15 sent an official protest to Athens in connection with a video showing Greek soldiers singing xenophobic songs during training, the MIA news agency reported the same day. The dispute began a few weeks ago when a Greek newspaper reported on a video posted on the Greek Army's official site in which recruits are heard shouting chants insulting neighboring countries, including Macedonia. Albania has already expressed its objections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). "Greece firmly rejects any notion of bigotry," Foreign Ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos told AFP on March 15. The video shows Greek soldiers chanting, "I'm a Macedonian, my blood is Greek, and I do not grant Skopje the name [Macedonia]." The incident is the most recent of many highlighting the long-standing dispute over the name of Macedonia, which Greece insists should be known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia since there is a Greek province of the same name, and since Macedonia was the heart of Greece's ancient empire. Macedonian media reports in early March, for example, suggested that, at Greece's urging, NATO has asked it to remove artifacts from the era of Alexander the Great from the country's military museum. NATO denied those reports. As an existing member, Greece could veto Macedonia's accession both to NATO and to the EU. Greece's isolation on the name issue was highlighted again on March 12 when Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis told the Greek television station MEGA that "Athens and Washington have discordant positions on many issues, particularly in regards to the dispute with Skopje over the name." AG

The March 10 Baghdad security conference was hailed as a success by Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who labeled the meeting "constructive and positive." But other observers tended to view the event through the prism of the country's sectarian divisions.

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 were eager to support Iraq, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. He also hailed the meeting as a first step to better relations between the United States and Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria. Zebari later told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the conference sent a positive message that Iraq can act successfully and that life in the country is not as bleak as some imagine.

The Iraq government's consensus was that the conference was important because it was held in Baghdad, meaning it was a recognition of the political process that resulted in the current, elected government and a show of solidarity with the Iraqi people. It was also the first such high-level meeting to take place in Baghdad in 17 years, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Rafi al-Isawi said.

The conference produced few concrete results, though. Conference participants decided to form three committees to tackle security cooperation; refugees and displaced Iraqis; and fuel and energy imports for Iraq.

Zebari said he expects it will take some time to see results from Iraq's neighbors, since the committees will discuss and review neighbors' previous commitments before any new actions are taken, RFI reported.

A follow-up meeting will likely be held in April on the level of foreign ministers, but the venue has not been decided, he said. He still prefers a Baghdad venue, but said he is considering offers from both Egypt and Turkey to host the meeting.

Among Iraqi observers, opinions on the conference reflected sectarian positions. Both Sunni and Shi'ite observers criticized the organizers for failing to produce a list of recommendations at the meeting's end. Some said the lack of recommendations reflected a lack of sincerity by participants. Others claimed it proved the meeting was held only to improve the images of participants, with no real intention of achieving change.

Moreover, comparing the government's view of the conference with the perspective of Sunni "resistance" groups highlights the continuing disconnect between the opposing sides: Sunnis continued to talk about reshaping the current Iraqi government, rather than focusing directly on the stated aim of the conference, which was strengthening security and ending violence.

Sunni Arab leaders outside the political process also complained that the conference would have been more productive had it included those members of the so-called resistance who have thus far shied away from participation in the political process.

Several Sunni Arabs also argued in Arabic-language print and broadcast media that the conference was only held to prepare the way for a U.S. withdrawal, claiming the United States has failed in Iraq. The fact that no timetable was discussed at the conference riled some Sunni leaders outside Iraq. Days earlier, former leaders in Saddam Hussein's government -- including former Central Bank Governor Khayr al-Din Hasib, former minister and Deputy Secretary-General of the Arab Nationalist Movement Abd al-Karim Hani, and former minister Salah Umar Ali -- announced an initiative to "save Iraq," claiming it would not be possible to make peace between the "resistance" and the Iraqi government because, in their view, the Iraqi government is sectarian.

Instead, they contended, a timetable should be set for the withdrawal of multinational forces and a two-year interim government established. In addition, all political detainees should be released, they demanded.

Some Shi'ite leaders also contended that the setting of a timetable would reassure nervous neighbors. But Foreign Minister Zebari said a timetable would not be established for the sake of Iraq's neighbors.

"The Iranians have public fears, and we answered them that these forces have an international mandate and the decision is in the Iraqi government's hands," Zebari said, the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on March 12.

Iyad al-Samarra'i, a parliamentarian from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, told Baghdad Satellite Channel that he did not think the conference would bring the political process back to square one but rather "amend the course of political progress, taking into consideration a number of principles, including Iraqi national reconciliation."

Independent Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman told "Al-Hayat" that "meeting for few hours and under a deteriorating security situation and the presence of parties that have major problems between them rendered the conference's success limited."

"Iraq does not need international conferences as much as internal meetings that include the parties to the conflict inside the country," he said.

But Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim had a different take on the meeting. Before it convened, he said in an interview published on his political party's website: "Continuing to hold conferences and meetings with official and nonofficial figures will have an effect. They have indeed had an effect, although they did not solve the basic problem in Iraq."

General Abdul Rahim Wardak said in Kabul on March 15 that concern for civilian casualties along with political and tribal issues has slowed down the military operations aimed at recapturing several districts in Helmand Province from Taliban control, Kabul-based Ariana Television reported. Wardak did not specify which political and tribal issues are involved, but said the districts of Musa Qala, Sangin, and Baghran are controlled by the Taliban. Some 4,500 NATO troops and close to 1,000 Afghan government forces recently launched Operation Achilles in northern Helmand where the three districts are located (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). AT

John Howard made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on March 15, the Australian Broadcast Corporation reported on March 16. Speaking at a news conference with Karzai, Howard said that his country remains "committed" to helping Afghanistan resist terrorism and the Taliban forces and in "providing, in conjunction with other countries, a level of stability and a level of security." Later, while visiting the southern Oruzgan Province where the bulk of Australia's 550 troops in Afghanistan are stationed, Howard said he is very proud of the work of his country's forces. "You've impressed our allies. They all want to work with you," Howard told the troops. AT

Taliban fighters have beheaded an imam (prayer leader) in Ghazni Province -- southwest of Kabul -- on charges of spying for United States and the Afghan government, the state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported on March 15. The imam, Jamaluddin, was dragged out of his mosque in the Qarabagh district and later killed. Nasir Kakar, the purported Taliban commander in Ghazni, claimed responsibility for the killing. A resident of the area, wishing to remain anonymous, told Bakhtar that the Taliban had issued harsh warnings to the imam not to cooperate with the Afghan government or foreign forces. AT

Afghan Foreign Ministry officials have indicated that a number of former Afghan diplomats who have refused to return home after being dismissed, continue to illegally use their diplomatic immunity in the countries where they are staying, the state-run Afghanistan National Television reported on March 15. Eleven such diplomats have been identified thus far in the Afghan media, the report added, without providing their names. The Foreign Ministry has ordered all Afghan diplomatic missions abroad to ask the authorities in the relevant countries to identify these former diplomats and to prevent them from using their diplomatic privileges. AT

The governments of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the 5+1 powers, approved on March 15 a set of enhanced sanctions that was drafted by their UN ambassadors, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). The sanctions aim to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear program. The additional sanctions will be presented to the full UN Security Council for consideration by its 10 nonpermanent members, AP reported. Iran is facing sanctions for its refusal to halt nuclear fuel-making activities, which concern the international community in light of their potential military applications. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad dismissed the move and questioned the council's legitimacy. The new measures include freezing the foreign assets of 10 Iranians and eight entities or firms purportedly connected to Iran's nuclear and ballistic programs -- in addition to a list of such firms drafted last December -- and imposing an embargo on Iranian arms exports, AP reported, citing an unnamed diplomat in New York. South African Ambassador to the UN Dumisani Kumalo said on March 15 that nonpermanent members would likely be studying the draft until "well into next week," AFP reported. VS

President Ahmadinejad told a gathering in Bafoq, in the central Yazd Province, that "the enemies...of Iran have no choice against our resistance but humiliation and death," IRNA reported. Iranians, he said, "are not concerned and have no fear" of their enemies' threats. He said "the decisions of Iran's enemies" are "not acceptable to their own people, and their companies do not accept sanctions, and...they should be sure their sanctions will not harm" Iran. Separately, Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh said in Vienna on March 15 that "we are not worried about sanctions," IRNA reported. He said "we have been under sanctions for 25 years." He added that Iran has increased its "capacity in various areas, including gas and petrochemicals" with domestic money and "through other countries," responding to a reporter's question on the impact of sanctions on development projects. Hamaneh said "we have done nothing outside the law for which we should expect extensive sanctions by the United Nations." Iran's policy, he said, is "interaction with the world," and "one of the components of this policy is the secure provision of energy in the world, and there has been no change in this policy." VS

Muhammad Naji al-Atri was in Tehran on March 15 where he met with officials including parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Haddad-Adel said in his meeting that UN sanctions are being imposed on Iran in "the framework of America's intentions in the Middle East and the Islamic world," IRNA reported. He accused the Americans of sowing discord between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East in order to strengthen Washington's regional control. He suggested that consolidated relations between Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon could form an effective barrier against "this plot." Al-Atri said events in the Mideast currently illustrate the fight between "the logic of power and the power of logic." He said "strategic" ties between Iran and Syria are "one of the essential factors in confronting pressures...against Muslims," IRNA reported. He separately discussed with Rafsanjani regional issues and the expansion of bilateral cooperation in the oil, car, and cement industries, as well as the transport and agriculture sectors, IRNA reported. He also gave a report of the latest decisions taken by an Iran-Syria economic cooperation committee. VS

Mehdi Aminizadeh, a rights activist and member of the Iranian Graduates' Organization, told Radio Farda on March 14 that Iran's government suppresses "any professional, political, or social demands" such as those recently voiced by teachers, in spite of the "populist and demagogic" slogans with which it came to power on in 2005. He said that while teachers have financial difficulties, "the country's budget is spent on unnecessary and sometimes harmful activities." Separately, Radio Farda and reported on March 14 on a petition signed by some 300 liberal politicians and activists, urging the government to find -- "before it is too late" -- a solution to the nuclear program controversy and to avoid a confrontation with Western states. Signatories include prominent liberals and former legislators or ministers, among them academic Hashem Aghajari, cleric Hasan Yusefi-Eshkevari, and politicians Isa Saharkhiz and Ezzatollah Sahabi, reported. Separately, the website reported on March 15 the release from Evin prison in Tehran of lawyer Naser Zarafshan, after five years in jail. Zarafshan represented the families of dissidents purportedly murdered in the 1990s by state security agents, and was jailed for allegedly revealing sensitive state information during subsequent legal proceedings (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," November 11, 2000, and "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2005). It was not immediately clear if his release was permanent or temporary. VS

Iraqi Kurds on March 16 commemorated the 19th anniversary of the attack with chemical bombs on the Kurdish town of Halabjah by Saddam Hussein's forces, in which 5,000 people died, international media reported. Kurdish youths clashed with government officials after a demonstration broke out during the ceremony to commemorate the anniversary last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2006). They complained that the regional government had not done enough to improve the lives of the citizens of Halabjah. London's Sky News reported on March 16 that little has changed in the past year. KR

According to a press release posted to its website on March 14, the United Nations is expected to convene a meeting on the International Compact for Iraq on March 16. The meeting has been called at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. "The meeting offers an opportunity to involve the larger international community in a discussion on how best to support the government of Iraq and the framework" of the compact, UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said. UN special adviser on Iraq Ashraf Qazi warned the Security Council on March 15 of the possibility of the conflict spilling over Iraq's borders. "The United Nations is determined to encourage the neighboring states to develop a sustained and constructive dialogue to minimize the prospect of Iraq's tragedy being exacerbated by the wider problems of the region," Qazi said. He called on the international community to encourage Iraq's neighbors to live up to their security commitments. Qazi said he is "repeatedly struck" by calls from Iraq and its neighbors for greater UN involvement. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi briefed the Security Council on political, economic, and security developments at the March 15 session. KR

The Iraqi Court of Cassation on March 15 upheld the higher criminal court's judgment that former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan be sentenced to death by hanging for crimes committed against the people of Al-Dujayl in 1982, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Cassation Court Judge Munir Jabbar made the announcement at a press briefing in Baghdad. The Iraqi High Tribunal convicted Ramadan of premeditated murder against the people of Al-Dujayl and sentenced him to life in prison on November 14. On appeal, the tribunal sentenced Ramadan to death by hanging; the Cassation Court unanimously ratified the verdict on March 15, Jabbar said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007). KR

Iyad Allawi arrived in Cairo on March 15 for a "several days" visit, MENA reported the same day, where he is expected to brief Egyptian leaders on his plan to establish a national salvation government. Allawi has already presented the plan to U.S. officials, as well as the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). His visit to Saudi Arabia coincided with a visit by Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani. When asked if he met Allawi in Riyadh, Barzani told reporters in Irbil on March 15, "I saw Iyad Allawi there, but there was no connection between our visits." When asked his position on Allawi's proposed front, he said: "This is only media reports and there is nothing like that. When I visited Baghdad three months ago, together with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, we tried to meet other political forces to form a broad-based political entity in support of the current Iraqi government. We may only support that [entity]." Media reports indicate that Barzani discussed the front with Allawi and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Irbil earlier this month. KR