PUTIN SAYS RUSSIA WANTS GOOD RELATIONS WITH EU ON ITS OWN TERMS...
President Vladimir Putin marked the EU's celebrations of what is effectively its 50th anniversary by publishing on March 25 an article on Russian-EU relations in several newspapers, including Britain's "The Sunday Times." He argued that Russia is Europe's natural ally and added that "the Russian people's choice in the early 1990s...actually determined the path of further European integration." Putin stressed that Russians "share the values and principles of the vast majority of Europeans. Respect for international law, rejection of force to settle international problems, and preference for strengthening common approaches in European and global politics are factors that unite us.... We always feel we share a common view of the world." Putin also wrote that "a stable, prosperous, and united Europe is in our interests. European integration is an integral part of the emerging multipolar world order...[although] for obvious reasons, we have no intention of either joining the EU or establishing any form of institutional association with it." In an apparent reference to Russia's use of energy as a political weapon against some of its neighbors in 2006-07, he warned, however, that "the interests of Russia and the EU will not always coincide.... One should not see political intrigues behind purely economic measures. One should not superimpose Cold War ideological labels on legal and quite understandable actions aimed at protecting our national interests." PM
...WITHOUT INTERFERENCE FROM EASTERN EUROPE
Without mentioning Poland by name, President Putin also suggested in "The Sunday Times" of March 25 that Russia's year-old prohibition on imports of agricultural products from that EU member state should not prevent other countries in the bloc from working toward a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Moscow. He stressed that "any pause in the dialogue is always going to be counterproductive." Putin added that "we should not let bloc mentalities prevail in European politics, nor should we allow new dividing lines to appear on our continent or unilateral projects to be implemented to the detriment of the interests and security of our neighbors." This appears to be an allusion to U.S. plans to establish parts of a planned missile-defense project in Poland and the Czech Republic, despite objections by Russia and some of its friends in Germany and elsewhere. Russia often seeks to drive a wedge between some of the older EU members from some of the newer ones, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, as Putin tried to do at the October 2006 EU-Russia summit in Lahti, Finland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006, and January 18, February 9, and March 22, 2007). For their parts, Poland and the Baltic states have called the projected Russo-German Nord Stream pipeline a unilateral project undertaken without concern for Moscow's or Berlin's neighbors. Poland and the Czech Republic have stressed that their policies on the missile-defense project are their own business as sovereign states. They have also warned Moscow that attempts at bullying them will only strengthen their resolve to improve their security. PM
EBRD WARNS WESTERN INVESTORS OF NEW RUSSIAN 'RULES'
Jean Lemierre, the president of the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), was quoted in Britain's "Sunday Telegraph" on March 25 as saying that Western energy firms still have investment opportunities in Russia. He stressed, however, that there are now "rules that may be different from the ones we have seen before." Royal Dutch Shell and its two Japanese partners were recently forced to cede control of their Sakhalin-2 venture to state-controlled Gazprom, and BP's Russian venture TNK-BP has come under government pressure regarding its plans to develop the vast east Siberian Kovykta gas field (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20 and 25, and December 22, 2006, and February 12, 2007). Lemierre suggested that the problem in Russia is not state intervention in the energy sector but the possibility that this is not always done in a "transparent way." The Sakhalin-2 case in particular prompted critics in Japan and other Western countries to suggest that Russia feels that it is in a strong enough position to effectively repudiate and rewrite existing agreements. PM
CHINESE LEADER CALLS FOR 'STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP' WITH RUSSIA
Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Moscow on March 26 for a three-day visit, his third since he came to power in 2003, Russian media reported. In an interview published in both countries on March 26, he told Russian journalists that he wants to develop a "strategic, cooperative partnership" with Russia, but did not elaborate. Hu last met with President Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi in November 2006. China's main interest in Russia is as a supplier of gas, oil, other natural resources, and armaments. Russia is the world's second-largest oil exporter, while China is the second-largest importer. It has an ever-growing demand because of its economic boom, but must compete with Japan and South Korea for resources from Russia and other trading partners in the region, as well as with Europe for Russian oil and gas. The recently launched East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO) project will transport oil from eastern Siberian fields to Japan and South Korea, with an eventual extension to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26, July 17, and September 18, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). "The Moscow Times" noted on March 26, however, that "the project...will only be completed by 2015 at the earliest." Russian oil deliveries to China are currently made by rail, which limits their volume, even if new fields are eventually explored and developed. The daily also noted that it remains to be seen whether the two countries will have the "political will" to overcome problems in infrastructure and thereby help realize their potential as trading partners. Bureaucracy also remains a problem, and regnum.ru reported on 26 March that timber exporters in Russia's potentially rich but underdeveloped Far East recently appealed to Putin to postpone the introduction of 80 percent export duties on some forms of timber, which are slated to take effect on January 1, 2009. PM
PUTIN'S POPULARITY HITS NEW HIGH
Russia's prestigious Levada Center polling agency recently found that President Putin's popularity rating has reached 82 percent, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on March 26. Levada Center researcher Leonid Sedov said that support for Putin is likely to remain high as long as Russians perceive him to be a competent and energetic manager of foreign and domestic affairs, especially the economy. PM
PUTIN LOYALISTS TAKE TO THE STREETS
About 15,000 supporters of the well-disciplined, pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi pledged in Moscow on March 25 to defend their country from a host of enemies as they celebrated seven years of President Putin's incumbency, news agencies reported. Some speakers said that "traitors" are trying to pave the way for foreign powers to steal Russia's huge reserves of natural resources. One pamphlet depicted both former German dictator Adolf Hitler and U.S. President George W. Bush as enemies of Russia. Nashi supporters sought to recruit members and gave out special mobile-phone cards, with which they urged people to send congratulatory text messages to Putin at a special number (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18 and March 7, 2007). PM
COURT SHUTS DOWN LIBERAL OPPOSITION PARTY
On March 23, the Supreme Court ruled that Vladimir Ryzhkov's Republican Party must be disbanded because it does not adhere to a 2004 law that requires parties to have at least 50,000 members and 45 regional offices, Russian media reported. Court officials said the Federal Registration Service filed the suit. Ryzhkov, who is a prominent critic of President Putin, argued that the court's decision violates "the rights of tens of thousands of Russians." He said the party will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court's Presidium and then to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. PM
POLICE BREAK UP OPPOSITION RALLY
Police broke up a demonstration by several hundred people in Nizhny Novgorod on March 24, which was organized by a liberal and leftist protest movement known as the "March of the Discontented," RFE/RL's Russian Service and news.ru reported. Organizers said police prevented dozens of activists from reaching the rally, which did not have official approval, and arrested dozens more at the venue. A total of 102 people were detained, of whom 29 must appear in court. PM
FSB, PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADER IMPLICATED IN POLITKOVSKAYA KILLING
Five former members of the now disbanded Gorets armed unit headed by Movladi Baysarov have accused pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Ramzan Kadyrov of sending three of their former colleagues to Moscow to kill Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and of having them murdered upon their return to Chechnya. In a 1,200-word missive sent to Daymohk and Chechenews and reposted on March 23 by chechenpress.org, the five outlined Baysarov's collaboration with the GRU and the Russian 58th Army beginning in 1996, and his estrangement from Kadyrov after Kadyrov's father's death in a terrorist attack in May 2004. They alleged that Kadyrov personally selected three of their colleagues and dispatched them to Moscow, where they murdered Politkovskaya on orders from an FSB Colonel identified as Igor Dranets. On their return to Chechnya, the three men reported personally to Kadyrov on their mission, after which they were purportedly executed by members of Kadyrov's security guard. Baysarov protested the killing of his men and then left for Moscow, where he was gunned down in the street on November 18 by police sent by Kadyrov from Grozny (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20 and 29, 2006). LF
INGUSHETIAN PRESIDENT'S RELATIVE ABDUCTED
Four Russian-speaking armed men snatched Uruskhan Zyazikov, a 79-year-old relative of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, as he was heading with two relatives to the mosque in Nazran for Friday prayers on March 23, regnum.ru and kommersant.ru reported on March 23 and 24, respectively. The reasons for the abduction are unclear. President Zyazikov's elderly father-in-law, Magomed Chakhkiyev, was similarly abducted one year ago but released after two months, apparently after payment of a sizeable ransom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1 and 2 and May 2, 2006). LF
MOSCOW'S NORTH CAUCASIANS FOUND NEW CONGRESS
Moscow-based representatives of ethnic groups from the North Caucasus congregated in Moscow on March 25 to found a new Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus, kommersant.ru reported on March 26. Its members deplored harassment by police and "chauvinists," and plan to campaign for greater understanding and tolerance: in the words of one delegate from Daghestan, "the North Caucasus should stop being a factor for instability and become a constructive factor." Congress co-Chairman Salambek Maigov, a businessman who in 2003 served for six months as Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov's representative in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and August 15, 2003), said the Congress intends to play a role in Russian politics and is already discussing with the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party the possible inclusion of Congress members on its party lists for the upcoming elections to a new Russian State Duma. LF
ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER DIES
Andranik Markarian, who served as Armenian prime minister since May 2000, died of a heart attack in Yerevan on March 25 at the age of 55, Armenian media reported. Markarian began his political career in the late 1960s as a member of the clandestine National Unity Party (AMK) and was sentenced in 1974 to two years' imprisonment on charges of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. In 1992, Markarian joined the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the successor party to the AMK, and became its chairman in 1997. Markarian was elected a parliament deputy in 1995, and again in 1999; President Robert Kocharian named him prime minister in May 2000. In that capacity, he presided over a period of double-digit economic growth, but consistently adopted a tough line on such key issues as the Karabakh conflict and Armenian-Turkish relations. He also, as parliament speaker Tigran Torosian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on March 25, worked to bring closer adherents of diverging strategies within the leadership. Accepting the resignation of the cabinet on March 26, President Kocharian paid tribute to Markarian as "a colleague and friend" and as "a moderate, tolerant, and decent person," lragir.am reported. LF
EU ENVOY MEETS WITH KARABAKH LEADER
Ambassador Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative for the South Caucasus, met in Yerevan on March 23 with Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Semneby described the meeting as "an exchange of views" on the ongoing negotiations on resolving the Karabakh conflict, rather than a formal negotiation, and he told journalists that he hopes that following the May 12 Armenian parliamentary election, Armenia and Azerbaijan will step up their attempts to build on the progress achieved on resolving the conflict since the meeting in Minsk in November 2006 between President Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev. Ghukasian, however, played down the progress to date, telling journalists that "there isn't a single issue on which there is a clear-cut agreement." LF
TWO GEORGIAN POLICE OFFICERS KILLED IN SOUTH OSSETIA
Two Georgian police officers died on March 25 when their patrol car came under fire near the village of Didmukha, some 20 kilometers from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. The Georgian Ministry for Conflict Resolution identified the attackers as members of an illegal militant group and claimed the wounded Georgians were killed execution-style by a shot to the head, according to Interfax. But South Ossetian Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzayev was quoted by kavkaz-uzel.ru as saying South Ossetian police only opened fire when the Georgian patrol car ignored their efforts to flag it down. On March 26, Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko expressed profound regret at the killings, Caucasus Press reported. Kovalenko reportedly added that it is time "to try to restore confidence between the two states -- I say the two states, not the two peoples, " without specifying whether he indeed meant Georgia and the republic of South Ossetia, which is not recognized as an independent state. LF
ABKHAZ OPPOSITION ALLEGES PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION OUTCOME WAS RIGGED
Four opposition candidates defeated in the second, March 18 round of voting for a new Abkhaz parliament have formally challenged the outcome of the vote in the Supreme Court, Caucasus Press and regnum.ru reported on March 23 and 26, respectively. The four claimed that there were "thousands" of instances of repeat voting in several, unspecified constituencies and polling stations. Only 18 of the total 35 parliament deputies were elected in the first round on March 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 20, 2007). Addressing representatives of the opposition Forum of People's Unity on March 23, Vice President Raul Khadjimba expressed regret that the parliamentary election has broadened the gulf between those who support and those who oppose the republic's present leadership, apsny.ru reported. He rejected rumors that he intends to resign, and denied that there are any plans in the making to oust the present leadership. "No one is preparing to oust anyone! I tell you one more time, no one is planning any putsches or coups d'etat!" LF
DEATH TOLL RISES IN KAZAKH VILLAGE CLASH
The death toll from a clash in the Kazakh village of Malovodnoe on March 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007) has risen to five, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on March 25, citing information from local law-enforcement officials. Kazakh police have arrested nearly 50 people in connection with the clash (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007), which initial reports said claimed three lives. DK
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT PROPOSES TASK FORCE ON CONSTITUTION
In a televised address on March 23, President Kurmanbek Bakiev said that he is ready to form a task force on constitutional reform, akipress.org reported. Speaking on the eve of the second anniversary of the fall of President Askar Akaev, Bakiev said, "I am ready to create immediately a task force to develop constitutional changes and to submit the agreed-on version of the constitution to parliament and, if necessary, to a national referendum." Bakiev said that he will sign a decree on the task force as soon as he receives "proposals from political groups on its composition." Referring to controversial changes to the constitution in 2006, Bakiev said: "All of us together -- the opposition and parliament -- acted in haste in November and December. Now we have to fix the mistakes that were made." Speaking on March 24, Bakiev said that he is ready to discuss anything "with any politician," akipress.org reported. The opposition has called for constitutional reform and planned a mass demonstration in Bishkek on April 11. Legislator Melis Eshimkanov, a member of the United Front For A Worthy Future opposition movement, reacted negatively to Bakiev's speech, news agency 24.kg reported. "The president showed through his speech once again that he is unable and incompetent to run the country and that he simply has no idea of today's real situation in Kyrgyzstan," Eshimkanov said. DK
EX-PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER REGISTERED AS CANDIDATE IN KYRGYZ BY-ELECTION
Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of former Kyrgyz President Akaev, has been officially registered as a candidate in an upcoming parliamentary by-election, akipress.org reported on March 23. Akaeva will face three other candidates in an April 29 vote in Kemin district. Akaeva's father is a native of Kemin. DK
KYRGYZ DEPUTY URGES CLOSURE OF U.S. BASE
Rashid Tagaev, head of the parliamentary committee on defense, security, law and order, and information policy, told the news agency 24.kg on March 23 that the time has come to shut down the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan. "I think the U.S. air base Manas in Kyrgyzstan has already had its day, and the time has come to remove it from the country's territory," Tagaev said. "I think the term of the presence of U.S. servicemen in Kyrgyzstan should be reviewed and it should be ascertained how much money is coming to the country and what it is being spent on. Currently, there is no transparency in this sort of international agreements, and I am seriously concerned about this." Tagaev stated also that a war between Iran and the United States "is already just around the corner," noting that "Kyrgyzstan's relations with Iran are quite good." Moreover, Tagaev said, "I think one of the reasons behind the exacerbation of the situation with terrorists and religious radicals is the presence of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan." Tagaev vowed to raise the issue of the U.S. air base at a committee meeting in April. DK
KYRGYZ LEGISLATORS REJECT OFFICIAL STATUS FOR UZBEK LANGUAGE
Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted on March 23 not to grant the Uzbek language official status in those parts of Kyrgyzstan where large numbers of Uzbek speakers are concentrated, ferghana.ru reported. A bill to give the Uzbek language official status in such areas had been proposed by Qodirjon Botirov, an ethnic Uzbek lawmaker from Jalal-Abad. The bill drew only 29 votes, with 38 needed to pass. DK
GEORGIAN PREMIER, TURKMEN PRESIDENT DISCUSS GAS IMPORTS...
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat on March 23 and promised him that Georgia "will create all conditions for Turkmenistan to find a short and cheap way [to export natural gas] to Europe," Georgia's Imedi television reported. "This can be done through either investment or Turkmen participation in shipping projects using the South Caucasus corridor," Noghaideli said. Noghaideli and Burdymukhammedov also agreed that Georgia will pay off its $40 million debt to Turkmenistan over the next 11 months. Berdymukhammedov plans to visit Georgia, ITAR-TASS reported, although the news agency gave no date for the planned visit. DK
...AS KAZAKH MINISTER VISITS ASHGABAT FOR ENERGY TALKS
President Berdymukhammedov also met with Kazakh Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov on March 23, Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr TV reported. Talks between the two focused on energy cooperation. "Special attention was given to the issues of Turkmen natural gas transportation through Kazakhstan's territory both in the northern direction and in other directions viewed by Turkmenistan as the most promising," the report noted. Izmukhambetov said that Kazakhstan looks forward to a visit by Berdymukhammedov to move forward relations between the two countries. DK
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION STAGES 'FREEDOM DAY' RALLY AMID HEAVY SECURITY...
Some 10,000 people turned up for an opposition-staged rally in Minsk on March 25, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The rally was intended to mark the anniversary of short-lived Belarusian People's Republic of 1918, the first independent Belarusian state, which was crushed by the Bolsheviks. Police forces, who were present on the streets in huge numbers, prevented demonstrators from gathering on October Square in downtown Minsk and redirected the march in three separate columns to the Academy of Sciences, where participants were addressed by former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. Police scuffled with demonstrators, but no injuries or arrests were reported. Several dozen people were reportedly detained while coming to the rally and released after it ended. More than 30 opposition activists were arrested and/or jailed in Belarus last week in what was widely seen as a preventive measure before the March 25 demonstration. JM
...AS EU POLITICIANS EXPRESS SUPPORT FOR BELARUSIAN DEMOCRATS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who presided over celebrations in Berlin on March 25 to mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of the EU, said the Minsk rally was a "source of immense hope for those in Europe who still endure oppression -- like the people of Belarus," international news agencies reported. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Berlin the same day that the European Union is ready to form "a full partnership" with Belarus and boost financial aid to the country if it adopts democratic reforms. European Parliament Deputy Chairman Janusz Onyszkiewicz attended the March 25 rally in Minsk. "There is a dictatorship in Belarus.... There cannot be a country in the center of Europe without democracy," Onyszkiewicz told the crowd. JM
UKRAINIAN PREMIER ACCUSES PRESIDENT OF VIOLATING CONSTITUTION
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych told journalists in Kyiv on March 23 that President Viktor Yushchenko is violating the constitution by ignoring court rulings on some regional appointments, Interfax-Ukraine reported. In particular, Yanukovych said Yushchenko has failed to comply with a court ruling regarding Kharkiv Governor Arsen Avakov, in whom two-thirds of deputies of the Kharkiv Oblast Council passed a no-confidence motion. "The president's duty is to relieve him of his position. The president is failing to abide by the constitution," Yanukovych added. Yanukovych argued that under the constitution, a no-confidence vote supported by two-thirds of lawmakers is sufficient to oblige the president to sack the head of a raion or oblast administration. Yanukovych also said Yushchenko has so far failed to reinstate Kyiv Governor Yevhen Zhovtyak in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling. Presidential staff chief Viktor Bakoha said later the same day that it is the Constitutional Court that should decide on the appointment of regional administration heads. "I think the prime minister was probably thinking about something else when he spoke about violating the constitution," Baloha added. JM
ROMANIA WITHDRAWS POLICE FROM KOSOVA DURING PROBE
Romania on March 23 withdrew 11 members of its 75-strong contingent from the UN police force in Kosova in the middle of a probe into their role in the deaths of two ethnic Albanian protesters in demonstrations on February 10, local media reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, 14, and 15, 2007). The decision drew criticism from all sides. Tome Gashi, a lawyer for families of the two dead men, said on March 23 that the departure of the Romanian police was "another UNMIK scandal," and that "it will be will be even more difficult to reach the truth without the presence of the Romanian police," Radio-Television Kosova reported the same day. The UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), which has been adminstering the Serbian province since 1999, said on March 23 that it "regrets that the Romanian authorities did not agree with the request of UN headquarters that 11 of these officers remain in Kosovo until April 6 to continue cooperation with the investigation." The Kosovar government expressed "disappointment" at the decision, Radio-Television Kosova reported on March 23. The Romanian Interior Ministry said the men were withdrawn as part of a troop-rotation scheme, and that they would be available to help in investigations. An independent inquiry is currently under way into the events of February 10. Both demonstrators died from wounds caused by rubber bullets fired by police. Police say the decision to fire was made after demonstrators broke through a police cordon in an attempt to storm government buildings. Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian police officers were also involved in the incident. AG
ALBANIAN SOLDIERS ARRESTED FOR RUNNING GUNS TO KOSOVA
Radio-Television Kosova reported on March 21 that Albanian police on March 20 arrested four Albanian soldiers for smuggling guns into Kosova. The men reportedly stole the weapons and ammunition from army deports. Additional details are unavailable. The arrests come at a sensitive time, as there are fears of violence across the region, whether or not the UN Security Council decides to grant Kosova independence. AG
MONTENEGRO HAILED AS 'STABILIZING' FORCE IN KOSOVA DISPUTE
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy on March 23 praised Montenegro as a stabilizing factor in the dispute over the future of Kosova, Radio Montenegro reported the same day. Douste-Blazy's comments came a day after the opposition Serbian People's Party (SNS) again accused the Montenegrin government of seeking to weaken the position of Serbia, which is willing to concede considerable autonomy to Kosova but insists on retaining sovereignty over the UN-administered province. "There are multiple reasons for the Montenegrin regime's behavior, from chauvinism, that is, a common hatred of the Serbian people, to open collaboration with [ethnic] Albanians because of the personal interests of persons in the upper levels of the authorities who are involved in suspect business deals," SNS chief spokesman Jovan Vucurovic told the Mina news agency on March 22. Montenegro has adopted an essentially neutral position on the future of Kosova, calling simply for a "viable" solution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7 and March 12, 2007). The issue of Kosova is just one of a range of issues over which ethnic Serbian political parties are critical of the Montenegrin government. Others include the constitution for the newly independent state, the possible deployment of troops to Afghanistan, and Montenegro's efforts to establish good relations with Croatia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 16, and March 5 and 12, 2007). Douste-Blazy also praised Montenegro for its policy toward Croatia. Since separating from Serbia in mid-2006, Montenegro has moved swiftly to promote its case for EU membership and on March 15 it was rewarded when Brussels signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Podgorica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). AG
MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT EXPECTS EU TALKS TO BEGIN IN 2008
Macedonia will start preaccession talks with the European Union at the start of 2008, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said on March 24, the MIA news agency reported. In comments made to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of what later became the European Union, Crvenkovski added a number of caveats, saying Skopje will need to make extra efforts and "make up for lost opportunities." Crvenkovski's statement is a more optimistic assessment of Macedonia's prospects than others made in recent weeks and months by a range of EU officials, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who has said it is too early to give a date for EU accession (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 9, 15, and 20, 2007). Crvenkovski was not reported as commenting on some of the specific concerns raised by EU officials, which include concern about tensions within the government, tensions between ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian politicians, and a lack of progress on reform. The rotating EU Presidency will, from January 2008, be held for six months by Slovenia, whose foreign minister has also said the preaccession process could begin in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). AG
NORTH CAUCASUS RESISTANCE REACHES TIPPING POINT
Russian Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Arkady Yedelev recently announced his latest estimates for the number of resistance fighters still active in Chechnya: 450, subdivided into 37 separate groups.
Those figures, provided during a press conference in Grozny on March 19, contradict earlier statistics cited by the Russian military and Interior Ministry. They also differ from estimates from the Chechen resistance leadership, which admits that not all groups of fighters are still under its direct control.
Yedelev's figure of 37 militant bands is down from his estimate of just six weeks earlier: "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on February 2 published an interview with him in which he gave the same total -- 450 men -- but estimated the number of individual groups at 46.
Two months before that, the resistance website kavkazcenter.com cited Colonel General Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the Interior Ministry forces, as estimating the number of Chechen resistance fighters at between 800-1,000. And in early November 2006, the commander of the Group of Federal Forces in the North Caucasus, Colonel General Yevgeny Baryayev, was cited by kommersant.ru as providing a figure of 700.
It can be expected that the number of resistance fighters is likely to vacillate as a result of combat losses, but there are no indications that the resistance is short of volunteers. In April 2006, then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria Vice President Doku Umarov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus in a long interview that more young men seek to join the resistance than can be accepted into its ranks, in light of limited funding available. He said only the toughest candidates -- those who can withstand the bitter cold of the mountains in winter -- are accepted.
Umarov, who in line with the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Constitution adopted in March 1992 became president after the death in June 2006 of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, repeated in a recent interview with the Ukrainian nationalist publication "Banderivets" that the number of would-be recruits constitutes "a huge problem for us" since "we cannot provide all of them with weapons."
He expanded on that point in an address to the Muslims of the Caucasus posted on March 5 on kavkazcenter.com, saying that "thousands of young men turn to us, asking us to give them the opportunity to participate in the jihad. Unfortunately, limited resources do not allow us to do so."
But whereas in 2006 Umarov expressed regret that those not accepted into the ranks of the resistance have no choice but to leave Chechnya, he said in the recent address that "many young Muslims, both in Ichkeria and in other regions of the Caucasus [and also in Russia] are organizing themselves into military jamaats and acting autonomously."
In other words, the days when the North Caucasus resistance -- and its offshoots in the Volga and Urals -- constituted a single unified force that reported to, and coordinated its activities with, the Chechen War Council, appear to be over.
The emergence of autonomous fighting forces is likely to herald an intensification of hostilities, possibly over a larger geographical area than in the past. But it could create problems for the Chechen "core" of the resistance if Umarov and his supporters find themselves in competition for financial donations from Muslims in Russia and abroad.
The emergence of autonomous jamaats could also impel Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to try to co-opt their less experienced members in a "false flag" recruitment with the aim of either infiltrating and destroying the Chechen War Council headed by Umarov, or tasking them with committing acts that could undermine the Chechen cause.
Nor is the emergence of autonomous jamaats the only factor likely to affect the ongoing low-level fighting. In his interview with "Banderivets," Umarov admitted that the killing in 2006 of both Sadulayev and radical field commander Shamil Basayev negatively affected the timing and nature of subsequent military operations. And, he said, as a result of those losses (and possibly also of the death of field commander Sultan Khadisov in September 2006), the resistance has decided to switch tactics.
Umarov spoke in greater detail of those changes in his recent address, explaining that "we have reorganized some military structures. Plans have been revised, tactics have been changed, communications and coordination between individual groups of modjaheds, and between fronts and sectors, have been strengthened. The past autumn and winter were given over to large-scale preparatory work.... The activities of the Volga and Urals fronts are taking off."
In short, the periodic estimates by Russian officers of the strength of the remaining resistance forces in Chechnya are largely irrelevant in light of the military flexibility and ideological commitment of the North Caucasus resistance, the influx of volunteer fighters, and the expansion of hostilities from the North Caucasus across the Russian Federation.
UN SECURITY COUNCIL EXTENDS MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN FOR ADDITIONAL YEAR
The UN Security Council voted unanimously on March 23 to extend United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) by one year, AFP reported the following day. The 15-member body endorsed UNAMA's role in promoting "a more coherent international engagement" to support development and security in Afghanistan in light of a revived Taliban-led insurgency. The council urged Afghan groups to take a more active role in political dialogue and praised UNAMA's expanded presence in the provinces through additional offices to support economic reconstruction efforts. The resolution also stressed the importance of maintaining the mission's timeline for progress on issues of security, governance, and counternarcotics. The decision comes less than a week after the release of a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report that identified clear links between the growing Taliban insurgency and Afghanistan's increased drug trade. JC
U.S. MARINE UNIT ORDERED TO LEAVE AFGHANISTAN
U.S. officials reported on March 23 that an elite U.S. Marine Corps unit accused of shooting and killing at least eight civilians after a suicide bombing in Afghanistan is under investigation by the U.S. military and has been ordered to leave the country ahead of schedule, AP reported the same day. Lieutenant Colonel Lou Leto, spokesman at Special Operations Command Central, said that Army Major General Francis H. Kearney III ordered the approximately 120-member unit out of Afghanistan and initiated the investigation into the March 4 incident, during which the unit allegedly fired on civilians after an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into their convoy. Major Cliff Gilmore, spokesman for the Marine unit, said it is in the process of leaving Afghanistan and will complete its overseas deployment with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. It is highly uncommon for any combat unit to have its mission cut short. JC
U.K. OFFICIAL ASSESSES AFGHAN DRUG PROBLEM
U.K. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith said on March 25 that 90 percent of heroin in Britain comes from Afghanistan's poppy trade, the Canadian Press reported the same day. During a visit to Kabul's Criminal Justice Task Force, which investigates and prosecutes drug traffickers, Goldsmith described drugs as among the "gravest long-term threats" to the security of both Afghanistan and the United Kingdom. Goldsmith announced the allocation of $18 million in funding over the next four years for the task force. The United Nations has accused top officials in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry of turning a blind eye to the drug trade in exchange for bribes from traffickers. Afghan Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet claims the accusations are part of a campaign targeting President Hamid Karzai. Opium production from poppies in Afghanistan last year rose 49 percent to 6,700 tons, a figure that represents more than 90 percent of the world's heroin supply. JC
AFGHAN AND COALITION FORCES REPORTEDLY KILL 23 TALIBAN MILITANTS
U.S.-led coalition troops and Afghan forces have killed 23 Taliban militants in two separate battles in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported on March 25. A three-hour battle in the early morning of March 25, in which 12 insurgents were killed, reportedly took place after armed Taliban militants attacked an Afghan and coalition base in the Gian district of southeastern Paktika Province, regional Afghan National Army commander Mohammad Akram Sami told AFP. In a separate incident on March 24, a joint force of Afghan army, police, and intelligence killed 11 Taliban militants in the southern Helmand Province capital, Lashkar Gah, according to a Defense Ministry statement. The operation followed a major clash with Taliban militants on March 22 in which 69 insurgents and seven police were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). Southern and southeastern Afghanistan have been most affected by the Taliban-led insurgency, which claimed more than 4,000 lives in 2006. JC
IRAN'S PRESIDENT REJECTS NEWEST UN RESOLUTION ON NUCLEAR DISPUTE...
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a cabinet meeting in Tehran on March 25 that UN Security Council Resolution 1747 (of 2007), approved the previous day and intended to curb sensitive nuclear activities by Iran, showed the "hostility" of "certain powers" toward Iranians and the 1979 revolution, which replaced a secular monarchy with a religious and revolutionary government. He said such resolutions are neither new nor legal but mere formalities, adding that they will not stop Iran's "peaceful and legal" nuclear progress, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad said certain Western powers formed bodies like the Security Council after World War II to enhance their "domination" of international relations. He added that the great powers were not prepared to listen to Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki before voting on March 24. The "form" of their decision, he said, showed the "failure of liberal democracy" and its imminent demise. "They have put themselves in the position of judge, prosecutor, plaintiff, and agent of the verdict, and will not even allow the other side's" attorney to defend its case, he said. "They should be certain nothing will happen in Iran even if they issue hundreds of other papers," he added, and said Iran's program will continue "without any interruption." VS
...AS INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY REACTS
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet on March 25 that Resolution 1747 (of 2007) was another step by the international community toward stopping Iran's nuclear program, Radio Farda reported. Japan's Foreign Ministry also welcomed the resolution as conveying a unified and coordinated message to Iran, and it asked Iran to respect the wishes of the international community, the broadcaster reported. On March 25, Fars news agency quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim as saying that the language of threats and penalties will not resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute. Fars was citing remarks originally made to the Kuwaiti daily "Al-Anbia." Al-Muallim reportedly expressed concern at the possibility of military confrontation between Iran and the United States. EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana vowed in Berlin on March 25 to seek out Iran's ranking nuclear dossier diplomat, Ali Larijani, to urge a resumption of talks, AP reported. "We want to get in touch with Dr. Larijani, this morning if we can, to try to find a route" for renewed talks, he told reporters on the sidelines of an EU summit. He said the door to talks remains open, and such talks might "prepare a route" toward a "negotiated solution to this conflict." VS
BANK OFFICIAL SAYS IRAN PREPARED TO WITHSTAND PRESSURE
The deputy head for international affairs of the Iranian Central Bank, Mohammad Jafar Mojarrad, said in remarks published by the "Financial Times" on March 20 that Iran has begun to "tighten its fiscal policy" in response to international pressures and has enough foreign-exchange reserves to "absorb any shocks" in the market. He said Iran's foreign-exchange-reserves -- its petrodollars fund -- were roughly $9 billion at the close of the year that ended on March 20, $1.6 billion lower than at the same time the previous year, ft.com reported. Mojarrad said Iran has made "contingency plans" for "all the negative impacts on its economy if there is a major crisis." He foresaw a more restrained government budget for this year and expressed hope that its provisions might help curb inflation and absorb liquidity in Iran's economy, ft.com reported. President Ahmadinejad pledged to the cabinet on March 25 that his government will work hard this year to implement the country's development plans, reduce "excessive" formalities or bureaucracy, and root out corruption, IRNA reported. VS
BRITISH ENVOY DISCUSSES CAPTURED SEAMEN WITH IRANIAN MINISTRY OFFICIAL
Britain's ambassador in Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, met on March 25 with Ibrahim Rahimpur, the head of Western European affairs at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and discussed the capture by Iranian authorities on March 23 of 15 British servicemen off the Iraqi coast, news agencies reported. Iran says they were detained for violating Iranian territorial waters. Rahimpur reportedly told him the captives are well and their "dossier" is being processed. Rahimpur said Iran has tried to react with restraint to what he said were "violations" of its southwestern border area since the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces, but he said "events and contradictory" statements by the British have forced it to scrutinize such "suspect" incidents more closely. Adams said the troops were in the region for security operations and had no "hostile" intentions toward Iran, ISNA reported. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki by telephone on March 25 that the troops were operating in Iraqi waters, looking for smugglers, and asked for their return, AP reported. British Prime Minister Tony Blair separately rejected on March 25 Iranian allegations that the troops violated Iran's waters, AP reported. AP quoted Mottaki as saying in New York the same day that this was not the first time British troops have violated Iranian waters and Iran has presented Great Britain with "very detailed information" purportedly backing its claims on this incident. VS
AL-QAEDA CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY FOR ATTACK ON IRAQI DEPUTY PREMIER
A statement posted on an Islamist website on March 24, allegedly by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for the March 23 assassination attempt on Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i in Baghdad, international media reported the same day. The group said its fighters "succeeded with Allah's help" in attacking al-Zawba'i, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab in the Iraqi cabinet. "We pray to God not to save the life of this inferior traitor who sold his religion and his people for a cheap return," the statement added. Al-Zawba'i was wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up as he was praying at a mosque located inside his residential compound. The suicide attack was followed by a car bomb in the compound that killed nine and wounded 15. Police officials said the attack was carried out by one of the deputy prime minister's bodyguards. It was the second assassination attempt on a high-profile government figure in less than a month. On February 26, Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi was unhurt when a bomb exploded at the Municipalities Ministry, killing at least 10 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). SS
IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT CALLS FOR MORE ARAB SUPPORT...
At a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman on March 25, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi called on Arabs to offer more support to his country, Petra news service reported the same day. "The Arabs should have a strong role in support of Iraq to avert the country from falling prey to terrorism and foreign ambitions," al-Hashimi said. He thanked Abdullah and praised Jordan's continued assistance to Iraq. For his part, Abdullah reaffirmed the Hashemite Kingdom's efforts to help restore peace and security in Iraq and expressed hope that the Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, scheduled to begin on March 28, will introduce initiatives that will help Iraq end the crippling cycle of violence and foster national reconciliation. SS
...AFTER SAYING U.S. PULLOUT WOULD UNDERMINE IRAQ
Vice President al-Hashimi warned on March 24 in Tokyo that a quick pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq would be detrimental to his country, the BBC reported the same day. Al-Hashimi's comments came in response to the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passing a bill calling for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by August 31, 2008. "Many of the Democrats are now pushing the White House for a quick withdrawal from Iraq. This is not going to benefit either the American or Western interest, as well as the Iraqi interests," al-Hashimi said. He warned that Iraq's armed forces are not ready to take over from the U.S.-led coalition, and a security vacuum could ensue if a quick withdrawal takes place. He also called for the government to persuade insurgents to drop their weapons and participate in the political process. "We need to amend and rectify the reconciliation project to enable the accommodation of the national resistance of Iraq, which the Western media nominates as an insurgency," he said. SS
IRAQI DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS IRAQI FORCES ON TRACK
At a March 24 press conference in London, Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi said that Iraqi forces are making strides to take over security responsibilities, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported the same day. "The Iraqi Army's state of readiness is very good," Jasim said. "We have a plan for integrated operations among all our forces. The army's capabilities are developing and soon we will have sufficient ability to rely on ourselves and our own estimates." He was in London to discuss armament issues with British officials and suggested that Iraqi forces are ready to take over security operations in Al-Basrah in the event British forces withdraw. "We have been working for a while to take over the British forces' posts gradually in accordance with well-studied plans," he said. "We are fully prepared to fill any security vacuum in the event of a sudden British withdrawal," he added. SS
SUNNI MOSQUE DESTROYED SOUTH OF IRAQI CAPITAL
Gunmen on March 25 stormed a Sunni mosque in the religiously mixed neighborhood in Al-Haswah, south of Baghdad, blowing up its minarets and burning the building to the ground, international media reported the same day. Local police said there were no fatalities, but four people were wounded in the attack. A second nearby Sunni mosque was attacked, but damage was reported to be minor. The burning of the Sunni mosque was apparently in retaliation for the destruction of a Shi'ite mosque in the same town on March 24. In that attack, a truck bomb exploded outside the mosque, killing 14 people and wounding more than 21, police said. SS
CENTCOM COMMANDER VISITS IRAQ
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Admiral William Fallon arrived in Baghdad on March 25, his first trip to Iraq since taking over CENTCOM, international media reported the same day. The Iraqi Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that Fallon held meetings with Defense Minister Jasim, and the two men discussed the ongoing Baghdad security plan as well as the security situation in the governorates of Al-Anbar, Al-Basrah, Diyala and Ninawah. Fallon officially took over command of CENTCOM on March 18 from General John Abizaid. Previously, he was the commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) from February 2005 to March 2007. SS