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Newsline - March 22, 2007

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a televised address to the State Duma on March 21 that Washington is using "Cold War-era...scare tactics" to prod Europe into forming a "disciplined bloc" in support of a missile-defense system that Russia says is directed against it, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, and March 9, 12, and 14, 2007). He added that Russian military experts want to discuss the matter with their U.S. counterparts "so hypothetical threats can be neutralized using other methods that would not pose a tangible threat to the Russian Federation." He noted that Russia's views have found support within the EU. Lavrov added that the U.S. approach shows disrespect for the members of the EU and NATO. Some German media said that it is ironic that Lavrov appears concerned about the cohesion of those two blocs and seems to ignore past U.S. efforts aimed at keeping NATO and Russia informed of its plans. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 19, 20, and 21 that some questionable Russian concerns about missile defense being directed against Russia or heralding the start of a new arms race have been adopted uncritically by some leaders of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) in an apparent effort to boost the party's sagging fortunes by reviving old anti-American themes. Russian Ambassador to Germany Vladimir Kotenev told Deutsche Welle on March 21 that Moscow "supports the Europeans," apparently meaning the SPD, in "their" concerns. Some Russian critics charge that the Kremlin and the military establishment are adducing the U.S. plans as an excuse to embark upon a costly arms program that will necessitate diverting funds away from domestic spending projects. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried responded to Lavrov by saying in Warsaw on March 21 that "Russia is not threatened by this system and it knows it. We have said repeatedly and explicitly that the missile-defense system we have now is not designed against Russia, nor is it capable of use against Russia." Fried added that he does not "believe in placing artificial barriers on our cooperation with Russia. But it is the Russians and only the Russians who can decide how much cooperation they want." PM

In his March 21 speech to the Duma, Foreign Minister Lavrov repeated Russia's long-standing position that it will not agree to any settlement for Kosova that is not acceptable to both Belgrade and Prishtina, ITAR-TASS reported. It remains unclear whether Russia will veto such a measure or abstain after driving a bargain for concessions in other spheres (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," October 24, 2006). "The Wall Street Journal-Europe" wrote on March 22 that "recent developments revolving around energy supplies and the future of Kosovo demonstrate how an emboldened Russia is intent on dominating the European agenda. Moscow's strategy toward the European Union consists of three core elements: disrupting EU consensus; gaining influence over key states; and preventing any further NATO and EU expansion." The daily also noted that "Russia's delaying tactics over Kosovo serve two purposes. First, it enables the Kremlin to interject as a major player in Europe's trouble spots, even though it has contributed little to regional security, political reform, or economic growth. Second, Moscow benefits from international disputes over Kosovo as this further hinders the emergence of any Western consensus in containing Russia's ambitions in the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian regions." PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov told the Duma on March 21 that Russia opposes "excessive" sanctions against its economic partner Iran, news agencies reported. He also denied media reports that Russia has refused to deliver nuclear fuel for Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant unless Tehran complies with UN demands on stopping its nuclear-fuel-enrichment project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 19, 20, and 21, 2007). Unnamed EU and U.S. officials told reporters on condition of anonymity recently that Moscow has told Tehran it will not ship fuel for Bushehr until Tehran freezes its uranium-enrichment work. But in his March 21 address, Lavrov called such claims a "trick." He added that this "is not the first time that we witness such an unscrupulous approach aimed at driving a wedge between us and Iran." Lavrov said that Russia "will not support excessive sanctions against Iran," and he noted that Moscow succeeded in softening the terms of a draft resolution on new sanctions currently before the Security Council (see Iran below). Also on March 21, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said in New York that Russia has made sure that any new UN resolution on Iran will not "undermine" Moscow's existing contracts with Tehran, RIA Novosti reported. PM

The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" reported on March 22 that President Vladimir Putin chaired a Novo-Ogaryovo meeting on March 20 of the government's committee dealing with international military cooperation, at which it was made clear that 2006 was a record year for Russian exporters of arms and military hardware. Sales were up 20 percent over 2005 for a total value of $6.5 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007). Putin stressed that developing new forms of cooperation with other countries is the priority now, the daily added. He noted that India and the CIS countries are particularly "promising areas" in that respect. Putin said that "on January 18, I signed a decree changing the structure of Russia's arms and military hardware exports. This will leave us with one exporter of arms and military hardware, namely Rosoboroneksport. I hope that it will be fully capable of achieving its objectives in the area of Russian military product exports." The daily pointed out that, in practical terms, the decree means that 22 defense-related companies are no longer allowed to export their finished products without going through Rosoboroneksport. About 65 percent of Russian arms exports in 2006 went to Asia, primarily to India, China, Vietnam, and South Korea. Arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa were also up. In related news, Colonel General Anatoly Mazurkevich, who heads the Defense Ministry's department dealing with international military cooperation, announced his resignation on March 22, Interfax reported. He cited "personal reasons," adding that he is "exhausted physically." PM

Authorities in Krasnodar Krai said on March 22 that families of the 62 people killed in a recent blaze in a retirement home in Kamyshevatskaya are not legally entitled to receive compensation, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20 and 21, 2007). The authorities added that they will only pay compensation to the son of the sole staff member killed. In Novokuznetsk in Kemerovo Oblast on March 21, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu told a press conference that the investigation of the recent explosion at the Ulyanovsk mine will take a minimum of two weeks, news agencies reported. By the evening of March 21, the official death toll in that incident reached 108, with two miners still listed as missing, Interfax reported. PM

Pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov convened a meeting in Moscow on March 21 with prominent Moscow-based Chechen businessmen and political figures, and reported. RussNeft President Mikhail Gutseriev, an Ingush, was invited but did not attend, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on March 22. In the course of a 30-minute address, delivered in Chechen and without notes, Kadyrov described what has been accomplished under his supervision to rebuild Chechnya's war-shattered infrastructure, assuring his audience that while he does not need their help to continue that process, he "advises" them to demonstrate solidarity with their co-ethnics. Kadyrov further deplored negative Russian press coverage of developments in Chechnya, and again said the republic does not need a power-sharing agreement with the federal center. Speaking after Kadyrov, Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, speaker of the lower chamber of the Chechen parliament, announced that the Chechen legislature has formally asked the Russian Constitutional Court to allocate 8 billion rubles ($307.9 million) in compensation for those Chechens repressed under Stalin, reported. LF

Daghestan's Election Commission made public on March 21 the final results of the March 11 elections to the republic's new parliament, and reported. Five of the six parties that fielded candidates will be represented in the new parliament: only the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia failed to surmount the 7 percent barrier for representation. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia garnered 63.6 percent of the vote, giving it 47 of the 72 seats; A Just Russia -- eight mandates, the Agrarian Party of Russia -- seven, and the Communist Party and Patriots of Russia -- five each. The Communists disputed preliminary returns that showed they failed to win the minimum 7 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). LF

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) launched on March 21 its monitoring of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The first 13 long-term observers are already in Armenia, and 29 more will join them later this week. Some 300 short-term observers will arrive in Yerevan shortly before May 12 to observe the voting and vote count. That is slightly more than the total number deployed for the May 2003 Armenian parliamentary elections. Slovenian diplomat Boris Frlec, who heads the ODIHR monitoring mission, noted Armenia's poor track record of election fraud, and termed the May 12 election "a chance to turn this negative trend around." Also on March 21, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian similarly warned of the possible "very bad consequences" for Armenia in the international arena should the upcoming parliamentary elections be judged less than free and fair, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. "We need fair elections like bread and water if we are to have a legitimate government in the coming years," Oskanian argued. LF

The Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian refused on March 21 to launch an investigation into attempts last week by one of its members to prevent an opposition party leader from meeting with voters, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Surik Khachatrian, governor of Syunik province in south-eastern Armenia, reportedly prevented former Prime Minister and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian from meeting with voters and from spending the night in a hotel in the provincial capital, Kapan. Manukian on March 20 branded Khachatrian an "uneducated criminal" and said the population of Syunik "lives under a feudal system." Explaining the HHK's decision not to act on Manukian's allegations, Galust Sahakian, who heads the HHK parliament faction, advised Manukian to ask the police to do so. LF

A Georgian delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Giorgi Mandjgaladze met in Brussels on March 21 with senior NATO officials to discuss the implications for Georgia's membership aspirations of the unresolved conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. The NATO officials affirmed support for Georgia's territorial integrity and positively assessed Georgian initiatives aimed at resolving the conflicts peacefully and securing greater international participation in that peace process. LF

Interior Ministry official Shota Khizanishvili told Caucasus Press on March 21 that the recent threats against the Georgian leadership by renegade former Kodori Governor Emzar Kvitsiani are "not serious." Russia's ORT television recently screened footage in which Kvitsiani said Georgia would be constrained to cede control of Kodori unless the Georgian authorities immediately release his sister Nora, who was arrested last summer and is currently on trial on charges of forming an illegal armed group and illegal possession of arms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). LF

Major General Maratkali Nukenov has been appointed head of the Kazakh Interior Ministry's committee for combating drug trafficking, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on March 21. Nukenov replaces Anatoly Vyborov, who submitted his resignation to Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamdzhanov. Before his appointment, Nukenov headed the Interior Ministry branch in the northwestern province of Aktyubinsk. DK

Almazbek Atambaev, co-chairman of the opposition For Reforms movement, met with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev in Bishkek on March 21 to discuss opposition demands in the lead-up to a planned April 11 demonstration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007), and reported. reported that For Reforms made the following demands to Bakiev: the passage of a new constitution by April 5; the transformation of Kyrgyz state television into a public television channel; an end to "family business"; an agreement with the opposition on the appointment of a new prosecutor-general (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20 and 21, 2007); the dismissal of Bishkek police chief Moldomusu Kongantiev; and the creation of a coalition government with opposition participation. Atambaev said, "The president is in agreement with virtually all of the demands of For Reforms," reported. The official news agency Kabar was more restrained, reporting, "There was agreement that the measures proposed are important, necessary, and could be implemented." Bakiev told Atambaev that he will announce the measures he plans to take in a televised address on March 23, Kabar reported. DK

A presidential decree appointing Elmurza Satybaldiev to be Kyrgyzstan's acting prosecutor-general will stand so that the post is not vacant while parliament considers a new nominee, Kabar reported on March 21. The day before, President Bakiev rescinded his decree appointing Satybaldiev, saying that employees in the presidential administration prepared the decree without his knowledge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). Additionally, reported that Satybaldiev falls six months short of the requirement that the prosecutor-general have 15 years of work experience. The requirement does not apply to an acting prosecutor-general, Kabar reported. DK

Imomali Rakhmonov announced on March 20 that he wants to remove the Russified "ov" ending from his name and use the more Tajik spelling "Emomalii Rahmon," AP reported the next day. Rakhmonov said, "In Soviet times, our names were documented according to the rules of the Russian language." He added, "I want to return to traditions and change my name to Emomalii Rahmon." Rakhmonov, who was addressing a meeting of Tajik intellectuals on the traditional spring celebration of Norouz, called on others to change their names in similar fashion and urged a return to the use of traditional place names, reported. DK

Police on March 21 arrested Barys Haretski, an activist of the unregistered opposition organization Youth Front, in Minsk, Belapan reported. His brother told the agency that he links the arrest of Barys to the opposition demonstration scheduled for March 25. Barys Haretski and several other Youth Front activists are under criminal prosecution on suspicion of acting on behalf of an unregistered organization. On March 20 in Pinsk, southern Belarus, police arrested Alyaksandr Ramanovich, an activist of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front. Also on March 20, a district court in Hrodna sentenced young opposition activist Andrey Famin on a charge of "petty hooliganism." Famin was reportedly taken to the Hrodna regional office of the Committee for State Security (KGB) from his university and questioned in connection with a criminal investigation into the activities of the Youth Front. Upon leaving the KGB office, he was picked up by two policemen, who accused him of using obscene language. On March 19, a district court in Hrodna sentenced Ihar Bantsyr, a staff writer with the independent Polish-language "Magazyn Polski na Uchodztwie" magazine, to 10 days in jail, finding him guilty of using obscene language in public. Bantsyr reportedly links his jail sentence to the fact that last week he witnessed a drinking spree by police officers in Hrodna during which they allegedly blocked cars on the street and manhandled pedestrians. JM

The organizing committee for the March 25 opposition rally announced on March 21 that October Square in downtown Minsk remains the assembly place for demonstrators despite the city government's ban on gathering there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007), Belapan reported. On March 25, popularly called Freedom Day, the opposition plans to mark the 89th anniversary of the short-lived 1918 Belarusian People's Republic, which was crushed by the Bolsheviks. "We consistently view the March 25 holiday as an opportunity to display -- in a nonconfrontational way -- the intention of a large part of the Belarusian people to come out in support of the independence of our country and vitally important democratic changes.... The authorities still have the opportunity to show their good will and make such steps on March 25," the organizing committee said in a statement. "We hope the authorities will understand that in view of the difficult foreign-policy situation since the New Year, the time has come to seek understanding, preserve our independence, and save our homeland from division," Reuters quoted former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich as saying on March 21. Milinkevich said the March 25 rally in Minsk is expected to be attended by delegations from the European Parliament, from the German and Polish parliaments, and by supporters from Russia and Azerbaijan. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on March 21 that the desertion of Anatoliy Kinakh from the Our Ukraine bloc and his acceptance of the post of economy minister in Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007) is "morally shameful," Ukrainian media reported. "This recruitment is disliked by everybody. It is a dishonest act in politics," Yushchenko added. Kinakh, who backed Yushchenko in the 2004 Orange Revolution, served as economy minister in the post-Orange Revolution cabinet of Yuliya Tymoshenko and was subsequently appointed by Yushchenko as head of the National Security and Defense Council. On March 22, eight lawmakers from the Kinakh-led Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs are to decide whether to leave the opposition and join the ruling majority of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. There are fears within the propresidential Our Ukraine bloc that the defection of Kinakh may signal the beginning of a mass exodus of lawmakers from the ranks of the opposition. Prime Minister Yanukovych said on March 21 that he intends to expand the number of his supporters in parliament by founding "a qualitatively new national unity coalition." Currently the ruling coalition, which is also called the anticrisis coalition, has 238 deputies in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. JM

In a major shift away from deliberate ambiguity, the UN's special envoy for Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari, has told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that independence is the only option for the province, international media reported on March 21. "Upon careful consideration of Kosovo's recent history, the realities of Kosovo today, and taking into account the negotiations with the parties, I have come to the conclusion that the only viable option for Kosovo is independence, to be supervised by the international community," Ahtisaari wrote in a confidential four-page letter whose contents were first reported by "Le Monde" on March 20. The letter fleshes out some of the areas left vague in Ahtisaari's initial plan for Kosova, which was made public in February, and which did not explicitly propose independent statehood for the province, calling for self-government under international supervision instead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). The letter will now be presented to the Security Council on March 26 ahead of a debate scheduled for April 3. "The time has come to resolve Kosovo's status," Ahtisaari reportedly wrote in the letter, adding that a delay in deciding Kosova's status could lead to renewed fighting between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serbian minority in the province, which has been under UN administration since 1999 but is still formally part of Serbia. Belgrade adamantly opposes independence, while Russia has indicated it could use its veto at the Security Council to block moves in that direction. International media also reported that it is not yet clear whether the UN's plan will get the nine votes it needs in the Security Council. China, Congo, Ghana, Indonesia, Peru, Qatar, South Africa, and Slovakia have all expressed reservations, often out of fear that independence could embolden separatist movements in their own regions. On March 21, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica described the UN plan as "illegal and illegitimate" and a violation of the UN's charter, saying it should therefore not even be put up for debate by the Security Council. TV

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on March 21 that failure to quickly resolve the status of Kosova could provoke violence in the Balkans, international media reported. "Kosovo is an important litmus test of our common security policy," Rehn told European parliamentarians in Brussels and warned Russia not to oppose the UN plan for Kosova. "If the UN Security Council fails to agree, there will be instability and even chaos in the region," Rehn said in the EU's bluntest warning to Russia to date. "As in the early 1990s, Europe will have to pay the price, not Russia, not the United States," he said in a reference to the EU's failure in the 1990s to prevent or stop the wars in former Yugoslavia. The EU officially stands behind the Ahtisaari plan, but some members, notably Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, and Spain, have reservations. "European unity and leadership are needed now," Rehn said. "Europeans should not lull themselves that we can muddle through, miracles like that don't happen." At the same meeting, Rehn presented a mixed scorecard for the EU-hopefuls in the western Balkans, reserving especially harsh words for Bosnia-Herzegovina. "There is a risk that Bosnia-Herzegovina unfortunately is missing the European train because of the politicians fighting on the platform and not prioritizing European integration," Rehn was quoted by Bloomberg as saying. Bosnian politicians have so far failed to agree on police reform, a key requirement for the conclusion of a preaccession agreement with Brussels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). TV

In one of the strongest indications to date that Russia could veto the Ahtisaari plan in the UN Security Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 21 told the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, that Moscow will oppose any plan that ignores Serbia's interests, international media reported the same day. "If there are attempts to force on the Serbs something that is unacceptable to them, that would be unacceptable to us as well," Lavrov said, AP reported. He also appeared to dampen speculation that Russia could abstain rather than use its veto. "We aren't going to stay away from it -- that's a matter of principle," he said. Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, believes that the plan is unbalanced, and has been sending mixed signals ahead of a crucial Security Council debate scheduled for April 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16 and 20, 2007). Russian officials have repeatedly pointed to the status of Kosova as a precedent for separatist conflicts such as those in Georgia, but Lavrov rejected speculation that Russia could act on such a precedent. "We aren't waiting and rubbing our hands that they would split Kosovo away from Serbia and we will act in the same way regarding these regions," Lavrov said. "There is no such link here. That would be the wrong stance to take." Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer said ahead of talks in Brussels with EU officials that he hopes a "united position" on Kosova is possible in the Security Council. "Our goal is to have Russian support," he said, according to AP. TV

Twelve transport officials including a former Serbian transport minister have been charged in connection with financial irregularities during the reconstruction of Belgrade's airport, local media reported on March 20. Marija Raseta Vukosavljevic, who served in the government of assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, was charged with "abuse of power" related to the reconstruction of a VIP lounge and a terminal at the airport, deputy prosecutor Sasa Ivanic told Serbian state television. The charges cap an investigation that began in 2004. In November of that year, Vukosavljevic and several other officials, including an airport manager, his deputy, and two managers of the companies in charge of the reconstruction, were briefly detained over the irregularities, which are believed to have run to some 220 million dinars ($3.7 million). The airport was damaged during the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, and rebuilding Serbia's gateway to the world was a top priority of Djindjic's reformist government following the fall of the Milosevic regime. Work has been going on for more than six years. TV

The European Commission has agreed to ease visa requirements for certain categories of Serbian citizens traveling to EU member states, Tanja Miscevic, the head of Serbia's European Integration Office, told reporters in Brussels on March 21 following talks there, the Serbian daily "Danas" reported. An agreement to ease the visa regime is now expected to be finalized in early April, signed this fall, and to take effect at the end of the year; the European Commission is negotiating similar agreements with other countries of the region. They foresee relaxed rules such as fee waivers and reduced paperwork for some categories of applicants, including students, businessmen, academics, journalists, and people seeking medical treatment, as well as those with family members residing in the EU. In exchange, the Balkan countries have to improve technical standards for personal documents and border control, and to sign so-called readmission agreements with the EU, which allow EU members to return illegal migrants to their country of citizenship. Serbia has already concluded bilateral readmission treaties with several EU member states, but the new agreement would establish uniform rules for all countries of the EU and the western Balkans. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 Serbs live in the EU illegally. TV

After a continuous presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the last 15 years, British troops began withdrawing from the country on March 21, international media reported. "We have got about a hundred soldiers leaving today," an officer with the British contingent of the EU peacekeeping force, EUFOR, told AFP. Britain has around 600 troops in Bosnia as part of EUFOR's 6,500-strong force, which will be reduced to some 2,500 by June. A small British contingent will remain at NATO headquarters in the capital Sarajevo. EUFOR took over from a NATO mission, itself the successor to UN peacekeepers, in 2004 and is tasked with supporting the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia in November 1995. Most British soldiers are stationed in Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb autonomous region, Republika Srpska. It was a British unit that made the first arrests of persons indicted for war crimes in 1997, but international peacekeepers have been criticized for their failure to apprehend Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic and the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, who are both wanted by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The British commander in Bosnia, Brigadier Chris Murray, said that a "safe and secure environment" has been achieved, according to the BBC. "Now that doesn't mean for a moment that this country is fixed, it isn't. There are still some dangerous fault lines here in this nation." Fifty-five British personnel have been killed in Bosnia since the first deployment in 1992. TV

The influential Russian think tank, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP), recently released a report on its projections for global geopolitical developments over the next decade.

SVOP, whose membership includes more than 170 members of Russia's political, intellectual, and business elite, is frequently viewed as a mouthpiece for Western views. But it is too powerful an organization for the Kremlin to ignore outright.

So when SVOP Chairman Sergei Karaganov presented the report at a meeting on March 17-18, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov were on hand to challenge some of its assertions.

The report, in part, anticipates a weakening of the U.S. geopolitical role during the next decade. The remaining void, it goes on to predict, will be filled not by other world powers but by a rise in chaos, anarchy, and an overall decline in international institutions.

Lavrov begged to differ. In a speech on March 17 (the full text of which can be found at the Foreign Ministry website), he agreed that the power of the United States may be in decline -- due in large part to its "unipolar" philosophy.

But, he added, dismissing the "alarmism and pessimism" of the SVOP report, chaos and anarchy are not the inevitable outcome. There are other countries, like Russia, that are prepared to assume a more muscular role in international events. The end of U.S. supremacy, he appeared to suggest, is not necessarily the end of the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's uncompromising rhetoric at the Munich security conference in February prompted waves of speculation that a new Cold War is on the horizon. Lavrov, taking up the issue of Russia-U.S. relations, said there are no "objective grounds" for such a conflict. At the same time, he suggested that the two countries must find a new way to work together -- one with "full equality in analyzing threats and making decisions."

In general, the foreign minister said, Washington and Moscow will continue their existing dialogue on combating international terrorism, resolving regional conflicts, and nonproliferation and strategic stability issues. Occasionally, he acknowledged, the two sides may disagree. "We don't deny the United States the right to decide matters for themselves," he said. "But that means they proceed at their own risk, and at their own expense."

At the same time, Lavrov was harshly critical of Washington, for both its support of pro-Western governments in the CIS, and its resistance to Moscow's claims of control in the neighborhood. Accusing the United States of "playing games" in the CIS, Lavrov added: "One should inform our Western partners that attempts to contain Russia in her regional 'shell' are hopeless."

Lavrov was even more harsh on the topic of Washington's planned missile-defense installments in Central Europe, which he characterized as a "provocation in global and European politics." "Russia is not going to drive a wedge into trans-Atlantic relations," he said. "But we don't want the trans-Atlantic link to be reinforced at our expense."

Lavrov showed uncustomary anger in remarks on the Balkan territory of Kosova and the UN envoy on Kosova, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who is due to present his plan recommending nationhood, and eventual independence, to the UN Security Council as early as March 26.

Russia, which has steadfastly backed Serbia's resistance to the plan, says negotiations on the issue must continue. Ahtisaari, Lavrov said, "has exhausted his potential. It's always possible to find another man for the job."

Igor Ivanov, picking up the topic on March 18, said NATO would be to blame for any potential military clashes the issue might provoke in Kosova. There are currently no conditions in Kosova to provoke a resumption of fighting, he said. If a provocation arises, he said, "it will be NATO that is responsible."

Ivanov also touched on the contentious issue of Iran. Moscow has often used its nuclear partnership with Tehran as leverage in its dealings with the Security Council. Those days, Ivanov seemed to suggest, are over. For Tehran to possess a nuclear weapon would be a "direct and indirect threat to Russia," he said, adding: "Russia is doing everything to prevent this."

Ivanov's remark is the first open statement by a senior Russian official that appears to coincide almost fully with the U.S. position on Iran's alleged designs on a nuclear arsenal. Explaining this apparent about-face in Russian policy, a member of SVOP, TV-Tsentr commentator Aleksei Pushkov, noted that it amounted to nothing less than a complete halt in Russia's years of work on the Iranian nuclear energy facility in Bushehr, which is itself in the final stages.

A "top-level" decision like this, Pushkov said, means Moscow is desperate to avoid a major confrontation with the United States -- especially if Washington decides to pursue a military option against Iran. "Putin decided to reduce the number of conflict issues with the United States," Pushkov said. Officials in Iran and Russia have since denied any direct link between the Bushehr postponement and Iran's intransigence on demands to give up uranium-enrichment activity.

Lavrov also used the SVOP gathering to address the issue of what he called "our rising role in energy geopolitics." He dismissed allegations that Moscow has engaged in "energy blackmail" of its CIS neighbors and the European Union.

"Russian foreign policy today is such that for the first time in its history, Russia is beginning to protect its national interest by using its competitive advantages," Lavrov said.

In a statement issued on March 21, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) voiced its support for the Afghan journalists' groups that have called on Mullah Dadullah to release Ajmal Naqshbandi, the Afghan translator for Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a correspondent for "La Repubblica" who was released by the Taliban on March 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). Taliban fighters under the command of Dadullah abducted Mastrogiacomo, Naqshbandi, and their driver, Sayyed Agha on March 4. The Taliban exchanged the Italian journalist for five of its members after beheading Agha. "This case will not be over until Mastrogiacomo's Afghan guide [Naqshbandi] has been freed and the family of his murdered driver have obtained justice," RSF said. According to the statement, the Taliban have no reason to hold Naqshbandi, "who was just accompanying Mastrogiacomo. The Italian and Afghan authorities have a duty to keep trying to obtain his release. His life is just as precious as Mastrogiacomo's." RSF voiced its concern about the "way Mastrogiacomo was freed" and the implications it might have for foreign and Afghan journalists working in Afghanistan. AT

The decapitated body of an Afghan truck driver delivering supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan was found on March 21 in Shah Joy district of Zabul Province along the main road between Kabul and Kandahar, AFP reported. The driver was captured by suspected Taliban militia last week in Zabul. No one has claimed responsibility for the killing. AT

More than a hundred Polish soldiers left for Afghanistan on March 21 to join the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Poland's PAP news agency reported. ISAF's mission "has individual, global, and national dimensions," Polish Defense Minister Aleksander Szczyglo told the departing troops in Wroclaw, adding that no one has "concealed" the difficulty of the mission in Afghanistan. Warsaw has committed 1,188 soldiers to ISAF (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2006). AT

Forty-two Uzbek militants and 16 Pashtun tribesmen were killed in clashes on March 20 and 21 in the South Waziristan autonomous tribal area along the border with Afghanistan, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on March 21. Pakistani officials said that 27 Uzbeks have been captured by a tribal militia led by Mawlawi Nazir, a pro-Taliban local commander. According to an unnamed official, Nizar's supporters asked the Tojikhel, a sub-clan of the Ahmadzai Wazirs who dominate the area, to hunt down the Uzbeks. The Uzbeks, estimated to number around 1,000 in South Waziristan, are associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. An unidentified Pakistani official said that it would be best to "let the tribes people deal with the situation," as there is "a groundswell of support for action against Uzbeks." The latest disturbances reportedly flared up following the death last week of an Al-Qaeda-linked Arab named Saif al-Adl, whom Nazir suspected the Uzbeks of killing. An attempt to calm the situation by Seraj Haqqani, the son of Afghan Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, has thus far failed to persuade Nazir to stop attacking the Uzbeks. According to the report, Nazir owes his position in South Waziristan to the elder Haqqani. Discussing the fighting between pro-Islamabad tribes and the Uzbeks, a Pakistani government official told "Dawn" that "We were waiting for this to happen...and thank God it has happened. Those [Pashtuns] who were too weak but wanted to take on the Uzbeks now feel emboldened." In September, Islamabad signed a peace agreement with tribes in North Waziristan in the hope that locals would expel foreign terrorists from the area (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," November 6, 2006). AT

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a message on March 21, the first day of the new Iranian year, urging unity between Iranians and Muslims in the coming year, IRNA reported. There is an "extensive" effort by the "enemy," he stated, to divide Iranians and "various Muslim societies" and "provoke a war of Shi'a and Sunnis anywhere they can in the world." He also said in a speech on March 21 in Mashhad, northeastern Iran, that Iran would retaliate if attacked, Western news agencies reported, citing Iranian television. Khamenei told a crowd that if Western states want to "exploit" the UN Security Council and overlook Iran's "rights" within its nuclear program, "then we too can act outside the law, and we will do so," AFP reported. He said regardless of the wishes of Western states, Iranians want nuclear power to produce electricity, AFP reported. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad also issued a new year's message, defending his government's performance and vowing to press on with "the progressive and revolutionary policies of Article 44" of Iran's Constitution, which is to oversee a large-scale privatization drive, ISNA reported. Iranians, he said, are harbingers of peace and piety, but he denounced "a lot of racist Zionists" who control "power and media centers" and try to keep the world mired in "problems, poverty, and hatred," ISNA reported. VS

Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati urged Iranian officials in his new year's message on March 21 to implement Ayatollah Khamenei's call for the new Persian year to be one of "national unity and Islamic cohesion," IRNA reported. The Guardians Council checks the constitutionality of all parliamentary bills and must confirm election results. Jannati said the council has reviewed and given its opinion on 88 parliamentary bills and 16 cabinet decisions in the past year, among other documents. He said there will be parliamentary elections in the year that ends in March 2008, and urged "those thinking of" competing in the polls to "listen to the messages of previous elections, and design and present their plans and slogans on the basis of the wishes of Iran's revolutionary people," IRNA reported. He said the elections should be clean and well-attended, and the Guardians Council will do its "legal duties" to defend the "rights and votes of the nation." The council has faced intermittent criticism that it has been too strict, especially with reformists, when vetting candidates. It must approve candidacies and routinely disqualifies many aspirants for elected offices. VS

Members of the UN Security Council began discussing on March 21 a proposed new set of sanctions on Iran, intended to force it to halt nuclear fuel-making activities that Western states suspect might one day be used to make bombs, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 16, and 21, 2007). AFP said the 15 members of the council are comparing notes and considering certain amendments proposed by Indonesia, Qatar, and South Africa. France's UN envoy, Jean Marc de la Sabliere, said the body would "like, if possible, a consensus," and thus "we can take amendments which are consistent with the text" proposed by envoys of the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the council and Germany. The amended text would likely not include South Africa's proposals, which effectively removed key punitive measures against Iran, AFP reported. President Ahmadinejad may address the council before it votes, perhaps later this week. The United States has granted him and a retinue of 38 people entry visas, though the acting U.S. envoy to the UN, Alejandro Wolff, said in New York on March 20 that he is not yet informed of their travel plans. VS

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on March 21 that Russia has stated its support for incremental sanctions on Iran, but would not support "excessive" sanctions, Radio Farda reported, citing agencies. He said the Security Council should consider amendments proposed by Indonesia and South Africa which, he added, serve international nonproliferation goals. Radio Farda noted that Russian diplomats have so far agreed with the proposal the Security Council is now considering. Separately, the United States was reported on March 21 to be considering export restrictions on countries, to be dubbed "country group C," deemed to be potential reexporters of sensitive nuclear or related material to Iran and "rogue states." U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Mark Foulon told U.S. senators, apparently members of the Senate banking committee, on March 21 that unspecified measures would "increase the options at our disposal" and help fight "illicit transshipment to Iran and elsewhere," AFP reported. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told the committee the same day that the United States has also in past weeks talked to oil industry companies to dissuade them from investing in Iran, AFP reported. He said the firms have been informed of "our opposition to such deals" and the "potential implications under our law" of investing in Iran. VS

In a March 21 interview with the BBC, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi called for a dialogue to be opened with insurgents in an effort to end the violence in Iraq. "I do believe that there is no way but to talk to everybody with the exception of Al-Qaeda," al-Hashimi said. He said that the only way to make progress in Iraq is to hold negotiations, and he described the insurgents as "just part of the Iraqi community." He also said that in order to move beyond sectarian divisions, Iraq needs to implement political reforms. "One of the political recipes might be that the Iraqis need to be convinced that to break up this polarization we have to go for, first of all, election-system reform and second, to go for early elections," he said. Furthermore, he said that U.S.-led coalition forces should remain in Iraq "until further notice." "We're expecting a timetable, conditional withdrawal [of foreign forces]," he added. "This could serve the national interests of Iraqis, as well as the national interests of Britain" and the United States. SS

Hadi al-Amri, the head of the Iraqi parliament's Security and Defense Committee, told Al-Arabiyah satellite television on March 21 that he now expects terrorists to do anything. "They blow up children in the streets, schools, and markets," he said. "They are ready to commit all kinds of foolish acts and so we do not rule out the possibility that they would do such a thing." On March 20, U.S. Major General Michael Barbero accused Iraqi insurgents of employing children to help them carry out attacks, international media reported. Barbero said that the vehicle used in a March 18 car-bomb attack in Al-Amadiyah that killed five and wounded seven was allowed to pass through a checkpoint after soldiers saw two children in the back seat. The driver parked the car near a market and fled, leaving the children inside. Moments later, the car exploded. "Children in the back seat, lower suspicion, we let it move through," Barbero said. "They park the vehicle, the adults run out and detonate it with the children in the back...the brutality and ruthless nature of this enemy hasn't changed." Although the U.S. military said the Al-Amadiyah attack is the only known incident in which children were used, Barbero suggested that the attack heralds a new tactic. SS

Thousands of Iraqi expatriates have been left in legal limbo after their passports became invalid, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on March 21. The problem started in 2005, when the Iraqi government declared that passports issued under the former regime, called the N series, and those issued shortly after fall of the Hussein government, called the S series, would no longer be valid. These passports were to be replaced by the G series. However, the new passports were never delivered to Iraqi consulates abroad, thereby preventing thousands of Iraqis from traveling freely. The United States, Britain, Canada, and Jordan currently accept only the G-series passports. Moreover, some Iraqi consulates are continuing to issue the S-series passports despite the Iraqi government's decision to stop issuing them. Yasar al-Muayid, the diplomatic attache at the Iraqi Embassy in Doha, Qatar, said the authorities are aware of the issue and are issuing the new passports, but he does not expect the problem to be solved anytime soon. "The new passports will be sent first to the Arab countries that host large Iraqi communities, and the quantity is not expected to be much in the beginning. In Jordan, for example, they will start to issue 10 passports a week only," al-Muayid said. SS

General Abd al-Husayn al-Saffe, the police chief of the southern Dhi Qar Governorate, said on March 20 that one-third of his officers cannot be trusted because they retain their previous loyalties to militias, the BBC reported the same day. However, al-Saffe said he is not able to dismiss many of them because they have political protection. Brigadier General Ghalib al-Jaza'ir, the official in charge of overall security in the Dhi Qar and the Al-Muthanna governorates, said that due to tribal or political reasons, the police were forced to hire 300 to 400 officers who were completely illiterate. He noted that one officer was dismissed for smuggling weapons to be used against British forces, but was later reinstated and promoted by officials in Baghdad. "In Saddam's time, you might have to take a corporal or a sergeant who couldn't read or write if they had connections," al-Jaza'ir said. "But now it is colonels, even a brigadier, and there is nothing we can do." SS

U.S. forces on March 21 raided the offices of Baha al-Aaraji, a member of Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement, in the Al-Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad, KUNA reported the same day. Local police sources said that U.S. forces raided al-Aaraji's office and confiscated items including several weapons and a personal computer, but did not make any arrests. "We find that this provocative step is meant to drag the al-Sadr trend into a confrontation," al-Aaraji said. "But we are sticking to our supportive stand to the government and to the Baghdad security plan." Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced on March 21 that it has destroyed an explosives factory in the town of Al-Taji, north of Baghdad. In a statement, the military said that U.S. forces discovered numerous 50-gallon (189-liter) barrels of explosive material inside a building. "Coalition forces conducted an air strike to destroy the explosives factory, associated vehicles, ammunition, and weapons," the statement said. SS

Iraqi Major General Muhammad Ni'mah, the head of operations at the Interior Ministry, said on March 21 that fighters from the Council of Al-Anbar Tribes backed by Iraqi forces are waging a war against Al-Qaeda in the governorate, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported the same day. He said that the Al-Anbar tribes have been fighting Al-Qaeda elements for almost a year, after the terrorist group continued to disrupt life throughout the governorate with its campaign of intimidation, killings, and bombings. "This organization accuses anyone who does not collaborate with it of being an infidel," Ni'mah said. SS