FOREIGN MINISTRY SAYS RUSSIA IS FORCE FOR GOOD IN WORLD
The Foreign Ministry argued in a lengthy review of Russian foreign policy, posted on its website (http://www.mid.ru) on March 27, that "a strong, more self-confident Russia has become an important and integral part of positive changes in the world." The study, which runs over 100 pages in the Russian original, argues that "the qualitatively new situation in international affairs creates a favorable environment for Russia to take the intellectual lead in a number of areas of global politics. In other words, we are talking about Russia's active participation, not only in implementing the international agenda, but in shaping it." The report stresses that the United States has lost global leadership as a result of the Iraq war and that the world has become more "multipolar" as a result. "The myth about the unipolar world fell apart once and for all in Iraq," the paper noted. The Foreign Ministry's study also called on Russia to counter what it called U.S. influence in the CIS, particularly in Central Asia. The paper argued that Washington "continues to advance its plans to form a new entity bringing together five Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.... Russia should become an attractive, competitive, and realistic [factor] both for the political elites and for a broader spectrum of the population" in the Central Asian republics(see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2006, and February 12, and March 1, 7, 8, and 23, 2007). PM
RUSSIA AGAIN TESTS POLITICAL WATERS IN GERMANY...
Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said in Berlin on March 27 that the proposed stationing of parts of a U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic would be "ineffective and senseless," the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 28. He said that Washington never asked Moscow to take part in the project; the United States maintains it has done so. He also charged that the system is directed against Russia, which top U.S. military and civilian officials have repeatedly argued is not the case. Kosachyov maintained that "the Europeans" support Russia against the United States, although vocal backing in Europe for Moscow's position comes primarily from Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), who have been seeking with only limited success to improve their sagging poll ratings by appealing to anti-American sentiments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 23, and 26, 2007). On March 28, Foreign Minister Lavrov was quoted in the daily "Handelsblatt" as saying that the missile-defense project could damage international strategic stability and upset the balance of power. He added that the "plans will effectively remove the possibility of dealing with the threat to the nuclear nonproliferation regime by diplomatic means." The "International Herald Tribune" on March 27 quoted author Gerd Koenen, the co-winner of the latest Leipzig Book Fair Prize for European Understanding for his 2005 book on "The [German] Russia Complex," as warning against what he called German delusions concerning that country. Koenen argued that President Vladimir Putin, like Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, has again made Germany an object of what Koenen described as Russia's "refreshed world-power ambitions." PM
...AND SEEKS TO SPLIT EUROPEANS
On March 28, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote that "the deployment of missile-defense elements in EU and NATO new member states will fundamentally change the structure and philosophy of continental and global security, and the entire bloc of international treaties." The paper also argued that the project undermines the hopes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU hopes for a common foreign and security policy, although Washington, Prague, and Warsaw have repeatedly pointed out that the decision is one for sovereign states. "Izvestia" added that "there is no reason for Russia to discuss the problem with Prague and Warsaw, [which] apparently fail to realize that their own historical fixations and separate games with Washington are undermining Europe's established security structure. Europe itself needs" to clarify its stance. Foreign Minister Lavrov recently argued that the U.S. approach to missile defense shows disrespect for the members of the EU and NATO. Some German media responded that it is ironic that Russia appears concerned about the cohesion of those two blocs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006, and January 18, February 9, and March 22 and 26, 2007). PM
RUSSIA PLAYS FOR TIME AT UN ON KOSOVA
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 27 that "it is too early to say who is going to vote, and how," on UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari's recent proposal for granting Kosova "supervised independence," news agencies reported (see Part 2 and End Note below). Russia has repeatedly said it will not support any proposal not acceptable to both Belgrade and Prishtina but has never explicitly said it will veto Ahtisaari's plan. At the UN, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on March 27 that he wants to send a "fact-finding mission" to Kosova and have a "comprehensive review" of Security Council 1244 of 1999, on which the current UN mandate for the province is based, news agencies reported. That resolution says that Kosova remains legally part of "Yugoslavia," but former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote in her memoirs that the Western powers agreed to that formulation only as a sop to Russia and Greece and not as a statement of policy. Churkin also said that he has unspecified "issues" regarding Ahtisaari's report and "looks forward to discussing them in [his] presence" before the council in April. Russia has repeatedly sought to play for time on Kosova, presumably in support of Belgrade, which has always believed that time is on its side and that the Western powers will eventually tire of the Kosova question and leave the Balkans. PM
EU, NATO HAIL SIGNING OF RUSSIAN-LATVIAN TREATY
On March 27, the European Union and NATO welcomed the signing earlier that day of a long-awaited border treaty between Latvia and Russia, RFE/RL reported from Brussels. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called the signing an "important step" and said he looks forward to the treaty's early ratification. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso congratulated both countries in a statement in which he hailed the "decisive step toward the development of stable relations between both countries." Finalized border treaties with Latvia and Estonia are among the preconditions Russia needs to meet to achieve its long-term goal of visa-free travel with the EU. PM
FINAL BREAKUP OF YUKOS BEGINS
In a move described by some Russian and international media as the start of the final liquidation of the remnants of the Yukos empire, the state-owned oil company Rosneft bought for $7.6 billion at a Moscow auction on March 27 the 9.44 percent of its own stock that was held by the once-mighty oil major Yukos, Russian and international media reported. The fact that there was only one other, foreign bidder inclined some observers to dismiss the auction as rigged. Some Yukos shareholders called the sale an example of "state-sponsored theft." PM
FAMED CELLIST MARKS 80TH BIRTHDAY
President Putin hosted a Kremlin gala on March 27 to celebrate the 80th birthday of Mstislav Rostropovich, a renowned cellist, conductor, and composer, whom the Soviet authorities once forced into exile and stripped of his citizenship because of his support for democracy, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. In 1989, Rostropovich gave a spontaneous concert at the Berlin Wall to mark its fall. His Soviet citizenship was restored the following year. He said recently that August 22, 1991, the day that Soviet hard-liners failed to oust Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in a coup, was the "happiest day" in his life. Rostropovich was recently hospitalized for an undisclosed condition that doctors said was "not life threatening." He divides his time between Russia, the United States, and France (see "Russia: Rostropovich Marks 80th Birthday," rferl.org, March 27, 2007). PM
COLLEAGUES CAST DOUBT ON ALLEGATIONS OF CHECHEN INVOLVEMENT IN POLITKOVSKAYA'S KILLING
Retired major and "Novaya gazeta" journalist Vyacheslav Ismaylov was quoted on March 28 by kommersant.ru as expressing skepticism over the reliability of allegations by five members of the Gorets military unit that three Gorets members were co-opted to kill "Novaya gazeta" journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006. At the same time, Ismaylov stressed the need to locate the five men and question them further. In a detailed account e-mailed to two Chechen resistance websites, the five men claimed that pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Ramzan Kadyrov dispatched the three men to Moscow, where they killed Politkovskaya on orders from and under the supervision of a Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). The three men were reportedly killed on Kadyrov's orders upon their return to Chechnya. Gorets commander Movladi Baysarov, who protested the alleged killings, was gunned down in Moscow weeks later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20 and 29, 2006). Kadyrov's press service refused to comment on the allegations, kommersant.ru noted. LF
RUSSIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS MEET
Visiting Moscow on March 27, Ilham Aliyev met at the Kremlin with President Putin to discuss unspecified "economic issues," kremlin.ru reported. According to Azerbaijani Television as cited by day.az, they also focused on political and humanitarian issues, and both presidents positively assessed the "reliable partnership" between their two countries. LF
INGUSHETIA'S PROSECUTOR RESIGNS
Makhmud-Ali Kalimatov has resigned as Ingushetia's prosecutor, reportedly to protest "antinational policies" and endemic corruption, according to ingushetiya.ru on March 27. Kalimatov has reportedly been subjected in recent months to increasing pressure by President Murat Zyazikov, a former FSB general who is also married to Kalimatov's sister-in-law, but was quoted on February 5 by ingushetiya.ru as saying he has no intention of stepping down, and that he would continue to target violations of the law, regardless of who committed them. Issa Kostoyev, who worked for decades in the prosecutor's office and currently represents Ingushetia's government on the Federation Council, was quoted on January 12 by ingushetiya.ru as saying that in current conditions the prosecutor's office is "one of the guarantees of legality" in Russia and that its prerogatives should not be circumscribed or reduced. LF
KARABAKH STRONGMAN WITHDRAWS CANDIDACY IN ARMENIAN BALLOT
Samvel Babayan, former defense minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and now leader of the Dashink (Alliance) party, has withdrawn his candidacy for the May 12 parliamentary elections in the Goris constituency in southern Armenia where his main rival would have been Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian's brother, Aleksandr, a member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 27, citing a written statement released by Dashink. Babayan will, however, contest the ballot as one of the 47 candidates on Dashink's party list. Gnel Ghlechian, a member of Dashink's ruling council, told RFE/RL that Babayan decided to withdraw because Dashink was convinced the contest would not be fair in light of the administrative resources at the HHK's disposal. LF
AZERBAIJANI RULING PARTY EXPELS FIRST DEPUTY CHAIRMAN
Meeting in Baku on March 27, members of the board of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) voted unanimously to expel YAP First Deputy Chairman Siruz Tebrizli for "gross violation of the party statutes," day.az and zerkalo.az reported on March 27 and 28, respectively. On March 15, Tebrizli, one of the original founding members of YAP, harshly criticized presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev, accusing him of deliberately misinforming President Ilham Aliyev about the true situation in the country. Tebrizli described socioeconomic conditions as atrocious, with "no gas, no electricity, and no water supplies" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Siyavush Novruzov was quoted by zerkalo.az on March 17 as saying Tebrizli's criticisms of Mehtiyev and of YAP Executive Secretary Ali Akhmedov are unfounded, and that his description of socioeconomic conditions was inaccurate. He said unspecified disciplinary measures would be taken against Tebrizli. LF
GEORGIA FILES SUIT AGAINST RUSSIA IN EUROPEAN COURT
Besarion Bokhashvili, who is Georgia's representative at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, formally announced on March 27 that the Georgian government has filed suit against Russia in connection with the expulsion from the Russian Federation last fall of hundreds of Georgian citizens, Georgian and Russian media reported. Caucasus Press on March 27 quoted Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili as saying Georgia "is protecting the rights of its citizens in a civilized way." Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze for his part said he is "certain" Georgia will win the case. But a spokesman for Russia's Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Poltoranin, told Interfax that the Georgians deported were in Russia illegally, either without valid visas or without work permits. A Russian commentator writing in the daily "Kommersant" on March 27 said that in launching the suit, President Mikheil Saakashvili has "burned his bridges," meaning he can no longer hope to restore cordial relations with Russia. LF
FORMER PRESIDENT'S REMAINS BROUGHT BACK TO GEORGIA
The mortal remains of former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, which were disinterred in Grozny earlier this month and identified by Russian forensic experts in Rostov-na-Donu, apparently on the basis of a DNA sample from one of Gamsakhurdia's three sons, were transported to Tbilisi on March 27, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 8, 2007). Gamsakhurdia will be buried in Tbilisi on March 31, which would have been his 68th birthday. Gamsakhurdia was ousted in January 1992 after which he fled first to Armenia then to Chechnya. He died in still unclear circumstances on December 31, 2003, several months after an abortive comeback attempt, and was buried first in western Georgia, then in Grozny. LF
ABKHAZIA TOUGHENS POSITION ON REPATRIATION
Abkhazia is not prepared to begin formal talks with Georgia on the repatriation of the Georgians who fled the unrecognized republic in 1992-93 until the Georgian government admits responsibility for beginning that war, according to a statement by Abkhaz Security Council Secretary Stanislav Lakoba posted on March 27 on the website of Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh (http://www.abkhaziagov.org). In recent years, senior Abkhaz officials have linked such talks to the signing of a bilateral memorandum on the nonresumption of hostilities. Lakoba accused Georgia of using the displaced persons to exert pressure on Abkhazia. He said Georgia should set about paying compensation for the damage inflicted during the fighting, which the Abkhaz side estimates at $11 billion. Also on March 27, President Bagapsh met in Moscow with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin to discuss approaches to resolving the conflict with Georgia and the tensions that have arisen within Abkhazia following the parliamentary elections earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 20 and 26, 2007). LF
NEW KYRGYZ PRO-GOVERNMENT ALLIANCE FORMED
The leader of the Erkindik (Freedom) party, Topchubek Turgunaliev, announced on March 27 in Bishkek that a new pro-government political bloc has been formed comprised of some 12 parties and several nongovernmental organizations, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The new bloc, called the For Political Stability and Unity Movement, is seeking to mediate between the country's authorities and opposition to "safeguard Kyrgyzstan from a civil confrontation," and has called a meeting for March 29 between both sides. Although Turgunaliev criticized President Kurmanbek Bakiev for "shortcomings" and called for further reforms, he pointedly rejected calls for early presidential elections, as demanded by the opposition group the United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan. RG
OSCE HAILS KYRGYZ EFFORTS TO ADVANCE MEDIA FREEDOMS
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti hailed in Vienna on March 27 the Kyrgyz parliament decision to abolish criminal libel and insult laws, RFE/RL reported. In a release posted on the OSCE website, Haraszti also welcomed the signing into law of a bill to create a public service broadcaster, saying it opens the possibility for "truly independent broadcasting." Kyrgyz deputies voted on March 26 in favor of a bill that would strike from the Criminal Code articles that criminalize libel and defamation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). President Bakiev on March 25 withdrew an objection to the public television legislation, the same bill he rejected last year that would transform the National Television and Radio Corporation (MTRK) into a public service broadcaster. The establishment of a public broadcaster has long been a major demand of the country's opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2006). RG
KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT LOWERS RETIREMENT AGE
In a vote overriding a veto by President Bakiev, the parliament approved a draft law on March 26 lowering the retirement age by three years, ITAR-TASS reported. Under the terms of the new law, men will be able to retire at the age of 60 instead of the current age of 63, while the retirement age for women will be lowered from 58 to 55. The issue of a lower retirement age has been raised for the past five years by international financial organizations, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. RG
TAJIK PRESIDENT ORDERS END TO USE OF SLAVIC SURNAMES
Imomali Rakhmonov issued on March 27 orders to local authorities to stop imposing the Slavic suffixes "ov" and "ev" on the surnames of newborn babies, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. In a statement released by the presidential press service, Rakhmonov explained that people should revert to the traditional versions of their names as part of "a return to national roots." Last week, Rakhmonov announced that he has opted to use the traditional version of his own name, with both local media and the official presidential website referring to the president as Emomalii Rahmon. RG
BELARUS CHOOSES DUTCH BANK TO ADVISE ON CREDIT RATINGS
The Belarusian government has selected the Dutch-based bank ABN AMRO to advise on international credit ratings, Belapan reported on March 27, quoting the Finance Ministry. Last year, Minsk enlisted the services of ABN AMRO to estimate the financial value of Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas-pipeline operator. The Belarusian government said earlier this year that it wants to obtain a sovereign credit rating in the first half of 2007. The Finance Ministry has sent requests to the international credit ratings agencies Standard&Poor's, Moody's, and Fitch Ratings, asking them to state their prices and terms for providing such a rating for Belarus. A country's sovereign credit rating, made by experts on the basis of an analysis of its political and economic situation, reflects confidence in its ability to honor its hard-currency borrowing commitments. A sovereign credit rating is believed to make it easier for a country to deal in securities on international markets and to attract foreign loans. JM
RUSSIAN BUSINESSMAN WITH REPUTED MAFIA LINKS SHOT DEAD IN KYIV
Maksim Kurochkin, a Russian businessman suspected of having connections with organized crime, was shot dead in Kyiv on March 27 as he was leaving a court, Ukrainian media reported. The single shot fired at Kurochkin also wounded a security officer escorting him to a car. Police reportedly found a sniper's rifle believed to have been used in the attack, and established that there were two assailants who escaped from the crime scene by car. Kurochkin, 37, who was arrested last November in a Kyiv airport, was standing trial on charges of extortion. He was reputedly involved in a number of corporate scandals in the energy sphere in Ukraine, including attempts to take control over some companies with the help of armed thugs. Kurochkin, known to the public under the nickname "Mad Max," denied any wrongdoing. During the 2004 presidential election campaign in Ukraine, Kurochkin funded the so-called Russian Club in Kyiv, which involved Russian spin doctors Gleb Pavlovsky and Igor Shuvalov working for presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych. Kurochkin survived an apparent assassination attempt in November 2004, when a car bomb exploded near the Russian Club office. JM
UKRAINIAN PREMIER VISITS BRUSSELS
Prime Minister Yanukovych visited Brussels on March 27, where he discussed the progress of work on an enhanced partnership agreement between Ukraine and the EU with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and other EU officials, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. "We want an agreement that reflects the importance of our relationship and brings Ukraine and the European Union closer to each other.... These negotiations will open new opportunities, such as a free-trade area and a deepened partnership on energy," Barroso told journalists. Barroso stressed that due to "some vast and complex issues," he cannot say exactly when a new enhanced cooperation agreement with Ukraine will be signed. He also said a free-trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine can only be negotiated once Kyiv has completed its accession process to the World Trade Organization. "In our view, a new [EU-Ukraine] agreement should ensure a transition from cooperation and partnership principles to principles of political association and economic integration," Yanukovych said in Brussels. JM
RUSSIA SAYS 'TOO EARLY' TO TALK OF KOSOVA VETO
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused on March 27 to reveal how Moscow will vote on a UN resolution recognizing Kosova as an independent state, Russian and international media reported the same day (see Russia and End Note). Lavrov said it is "too early to say who is going to vote, and how." On March 26, UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari recommended that the UN Security Council grant Kosova independence as the "only viable option for a politically stable and economically viable Kosovo" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). The Security Council is expected to debate the plan during the coming month, with the United States saying it hopes for a vote in April or May. However, an Interfax report of Lavrov's comments suggested Russia may now push for a review of the UN's record in Kosova and not just of the proposed settlement for the still nominally Serbian province. According to Interfax, Lavrov said, "we would like to find out who fulfilled UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and how, in an objective way and without attempts to impose unilateral assessments." The resolution chiefly outlined the rights and responsibilities of the United Nations when it assumed control of Kosova in the wake of NATO's intervention to end Serbia's crackdown on separatists in Kosova in 1999. "Moscow intends -- and we will not sit with our arms crossed -- to find out about the real situation. It is not about what is on paper in Ahtisaari's plan, but in the way the existing UN Security Council decisions on Kosovo, primarily Resolution 1244, are implemented. These will be our first steps. Later we will press for the UN Security Council to record the progress and identify the tasks that have not yet been fulfilled," Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying. Russia has previously called for new talks on Kosova headed by a new UN mediator (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). As well as being in keeping with Russia's line that no solution can be imposed on Serbia -- a position reiterated by Lavrov on March 27 -- the time delays caused by such a review would put significant pressure on European leaders during what will be a delicate transitional period for a number of key powers. Germany, which is playing a key role in both Kosova and Bosnia, reaches the end of its six-month presidency of the European Union in mid-2007, and new leaders are expected in Britain and France within a matter of months. AG
WEST, UN ACCUSED OF TRYING TO FOIL TRIAL OF FORMER KOSOVAR PREMIER
In a report likely to fuel criticism of the United Nations' management of Kosova and of Western diplomacy in the region, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on March 26 that prosecutors in Kosova and in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) believe Western diplomats and some UN officials sought to prevent the trial of Ramush Haradinaj, a former separatist commander who in 2005 became the prime minister of Kosova. Haradinaj and two co-defendants are currently standing trial in The Hague on charges of "the forcible, violent suppression of any real or perceived form of collaboration with the Serbs by Albanian or Romany civilians," including rape, torture, and 40 cases of murder. According to the "International Herald Tribune," an unnamed justice official in the UN said he was told "we do not do the Haradinaj case" by his head of department. The reason, the daily suggested, is that diplomats perceived Haradinaj as a figure critical to establishing peace between the ethnic Albanian and Serbian communities. The head of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) at the time of Haradinaj's indictment, Soren Jessen-Petersen, credited Haradinaj with moving the process of reconciliation between ethnic Albanians and Serbs "forward in a way that nobody else has done," but insisted that UNMIK itself did not try to prevent the case from going ahead. He acknowledged, however, that Western diplomats sought to prevent it. A successor to Jessen-Petersen, Joachim Ruecker, has been criticized for meeting with the former prime minister on February 23, just days before he left Kosova for The Hague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). ICTY prosecutors reportedly warned Ruecker that he would contribute to the sense of impunity surrounding Haradinaj. According to Jean-Daniel Ruche, a political adviser to the ICTY's chief prosecutor, similar meetings between Haradinaj and UN officials ahead of Haradinaj's initial summons to The Hague in 2005 "had a chilling impact on our witnesses." A leading witness was killed before Haradinaj stood trial, and the number of people willing to testify against the former guerrilla commander has fallen sharply (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). The "International Herald Tribune" reported that more witnesses have been granted a right to anonymity than in any previous trial before the ICTY. AG
CRACKS JEOPARDIZE EFFORTS TO UNIFY SERBIA'S MUSLIMS...
One of Serbia's four distinct Muslim communities boycotted a March 27 meeting aimed at forging closer ties, local media reported the same day. Dzevad Hasani, a mufti from the predominantly Albanian southern region of Presevo, told the Bosnian news agency SRNA that Presevo's Muslims want to retain autonomy, but added that that wish is not related to their ethnicity. There have recently been renewed calls by ethnic Albanians for Presevo to be allowed to join Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). Muslim leaders from Sandzak, Vojvodina, and Belgrade, as well as a delegation from Bosnia-Herzegovina, met in the southern town of Novi Pazar, the hometown of four suspected terrorists arrested in mid-March and alleged to have connections with Al-Qaeda (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). The discovery of an alleged terrorist camp has generated significant coverage and debate in the Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin media. The meeting also takes place in the broader context of efforts to end the Bosnian Muslim community's traditional dominance of Muslim communities in the former Yugoslavia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). Regional television in Novi Pazar reported on March 26 that the mufti of Belgrade, Hamdija Effendi Jusufspahic, was elected to head the Islamic community's supreme council. AG
...WHILE BELGRADE, WASHINGTON LOOK ON
The unity of Serbia's Islamic community reportedly figured prominently during a March 26 meeting between Serbian President Boris Tadic, the leader of the Sandzak Muslim community, Mufti Muamer Effendi Zukorlic, and the senior leader of Bosnia's Muslims, Mustafa Effendi Ceric. According to an unnamed U.S. official quoted by local television in Novi Pazar, Washington sent observers because "we believe that Sandzak is of great importance not only for the citizens of this region but for the wider region" and to gather information about "the course of recent events in the region," presumably a reference to the discovery of an alleged terrorist camp in the area. The report quoted an unidentified Muslim leader as saying that Serbia's Muslim leaders believe that "a strong, unified Islamic community is a guarantee that extremism and fanaticism of any kind, especially on behalf of Islam, will not have its place here." He described extremism as "a disease created because of the poor immunity of the local environment." AG
SECOND BOMB EXPLODES IN SERBIAN QUARTER OF KOSOVAR CITY
Local media reported that, for the second time in four days, a bomb planted in the ethnically and politically explosive Kosovar town of Mitrovica has exploded without causing injury. Both blasts -- the first on March 23, the second on March 27 -- occurred near or on a site where two residential apartment blocks are being built with funds from the Serbian government. Mitrovica has been the key point of confrontation between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians since 1999, when NATO intervened to end a Serbian government crackdown on separatists in the province. Radio-Television Kosova reported on March 24 that local ethnic Albanians believe the project is a means of consolidating -- or, in the words of a respondent, "ethnically cleansing" -- the predominantly Serbian north of the city, and complain that Albanians are not being allowed to settle or return to the quarter. AG
ALBANIAN PRINCE BACKS INDEPENDENCE FOR KOSOVA
Media in Kosova reported on March 26 that Prince Leka, Albania's crown prince, has expressed his full support for independence for Kosova, whose population is overwhelmingly Albanian by ethnicity. Leka plays no role in Albania's public life and Albanians voted in a 1997 referendum against a restoration of the monarchy. The creation of a Greater Albania -- incorporating Kosova into Albania -- is not part of the mainstream political dialogue either in Kosova or in Albania. Nonetheless, Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu marked Leka's 25th birthday, on March 26, by granting the prince a personal meeting in Prishtina. "I have come to Kosova to express our unconditional support for the work that you have been doing," Radio-Television Kosova quoted the Albanian prince as saying. Leka's father, King Leka Zog, has had a checkered and highly controversial career in Albanian politics since the overthrow of the communist regime. It is unclear how much support there is for a restoration of the monarchy in Kosova. AG
INDEPENDENCE FOR KOSOVA IMMINENT , BUT PITFALLS REMAIN
The emergence of an independent Kosova appears to be only a matter of time. UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari has drawn up a clear road map for "supervised independence," including guarantees for minorities, as his plan for ensuring lasting peace and political and economic stability in the region.
Ahtisaari formally presented his long-anticipated recommendations for Kosova to the UN Security Council on March 26. While the broad outlines and many of the specifics of his plan for "supervised independence" came as no surprise, he made it clear beyond any doubt that his recommendation is "the only viable option" for the province, which has a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority.
He stressed that a return to Serbian rule is not realistic because of Belgrade's policy of repression there under Serbian and, later, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose rule there lasted from the late 1980s to 1999 and relied heavily on support from local Serbs. That period in Kosova's history culminated in the massive 1999 "ethnic-cleansing" campaign, which was ended only by NATO intervention in the spring of that year. Ahtisaari argued that the impossibility of a return to Serbian rule "is a reality one cannot deny. It is irreversible."
The former Finnish president noted that Kosova is the last chapter in the history of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, which began in 1991. Other observers have pointed out that Kosovar independence would also mean another step forward in the worldwide decolonization process based on self-determination and majority rule, which is associated with the decades following World War II.
Britain, which will chair the Security Council in April, and the United States, which most Kosovars regard fondly as the decisive factor in ending Serbian rule, were both quick to hail Ahtisaari's report on March 26. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said, "these proposals would give Kosova clarity over its future."
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the "proposals will give the people of Kosovo clarity about their future for the first time in many years. They contain far-reaching guarantees to protect the rights and security of Kosova Serbs and other non-Albanian communities.... Ahtisaari has also proposed that Kosova become independent, subject to a period of international supervision." Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns added that "it's time the Kosovars received their just due.... The U.S. does support the proposal by Ahtisaari for supervised independence for Kosovo. We have not said that before."
Ahtisaari's study and the reactions to it from London and Washington reflect the conclusions reached in late 2005 by UN diplomat Kai Eide, who reported to Secretary-General Kofi Annan that protracted political limbo in Kosova is a recipe for instability and perhaps a renewal of the violence that shook the area in March 2004. Indeed, the emergence of violent protests by young people earlier this year suggests that continued delays might indeed lead to further radicalization.
The report nonetheless contains some provisions that have already proven controversial in the weeks since parts of the study began to be leaked to the media. For example, the report calls for establishing a powerful office for a foreign high representative on the model set down in the 1995 Dayton agreement for Bosnia-Herzegovina. In recent years, however, many observers, including Germany's Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who is Bosnia's current high representative, have concluded that foreign paternalistic rule only hinders democratic development in the Balkans.
A second questionable recommendation calls for the abolition of the Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), which has its roots in the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), but which was founded to deal with natural disasters and other domestic emergencies. It is Western-trained and supervised, and has generally received high marks for its professionalism. Its abolition would not only eliminate an important civil-defense organization but also take jobs away from at least 2,000 people, many of whom are very influential in their respective communities. But since Serbs and Kosovar Albanians alike regard the TMK as the nucleus of a future Kosovar army, it appears to have been sacrificed as a concession to Belgrade and local Serbs.
A third possible problem is the report's failure to explicitly rule out the future possibility of partition. The study excludes any union of Kosova with other states, which presumably means Albania, even though no mainstream ethnic Albanian political party in the Balkans calls for setting up a greater Albanian state.
By failing to exclude partition, the text appears to encourage some Serbian hopes that Serbian settlements in northern Kosova might at some point break away and join Serbia. These hopes will not be discouraged by some other of Ahtisaari's recommendations, which grant Belgrade a role in culture and other internal ethnic Serbian affairs. Kosova Albanian leaders have long argued, however, that the local Serbs must look to Prishtina -- not Belgrade -- for answers to their problems if Kosova is to become a state of its citizens and not a collection of rival ethnic groups.
These issues have nonetheless been on the regional political agenda for several years, and their emergence in some form or other at this point was predictable. Nor did it come as a surprise that most Belgrade politicians continue to reject independence for the province, even though it has enjoyed de facto independence from Serbia since 1999. They take this position because it is easier for them to criticize others over Kosova than to provide solutions for Serbia's real problems, which are crime, corruption, poverty, and a democracy deficit.
In a similar vein, Russia continues to object to Ahtisaari's plan. As former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke recently pointed out, this is not because Russia really cares about Serbia or Serbs. Instead, Moscow seeks to use Kosova as a bargaining tool in its dealings with Washington and London on issues of more immediate concern to Russia, such as the "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet Union. The question is whether Russia will bargain and cajole awhile longer, or actually veto the plan, which no Russian leader has explicitly said that Moscow will do. Some observers have suggested that Russia has leverage over the Kosova issue as long as it does not actually cast a veto, but would lose its room to maneuver as soon as it did so.
AFGHAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS PROPOSED BUDGET
The Wolesi Jirga -- the lower house of the Afghan parliament -- has rejected the proposed budget by the Finance Ministry, the Bakhtar News Agency reported on March 27. House Secretary Abdul Satar Khawasi said the budget allocated funds unevenly. He said the proposed $226 million for development in Kabul Province is equal to the combined budget for development that the plan requested for 14 other provinces. Khawasi said both houses of parliament will discuss the issue further and the rejection of the budget proposal does not indicate opposition to the government. CJ
UN ASSISTANCE MISSION MANDATE EXTENDED
The UN Security Council has unanimously extended the mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for one more year, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on March 26. Alim Siddiqui, UNAMA's senior public information officer, said the mission's major tasks are to establish stability and sound management practices, to consolidate contributions from the international community, to assist vulnerable Afghans, and to encourage international cooperation. Siddiqui said UNAMA will continue to open new offices in remote locations. The mission is also currently stepping up relief efforts to approximately 20,000 Afghans affected by recent flooding. CJ
GROUP HIGHLIGHTS GROWING RESENTMENT AMONG AFGHAN CITIZENS
Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group stated recently that Afghans are growing more resentful of the military operations being conducted by foreign troops in Afghanistan, Reuters reported on March 27. The report said villagers in the southern regions are especially concerned about the growing number of civilian casualties and the "lack of material progress" in their lives, as the Afghan government has been struggling to provide services for its people. At a forum in Washington on March 26, anthropologist David Edwards said Afghan reconstruction efforts have been hindered by corruption, unemployment, and inadequate foreign aid. "It is important to understand that Americans [in Afghanistan] have come to be seen as an occupying power," Edwards said. Violence in Afghanistan in 2006 was the worst since the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001. According to Reuters, polling data indicates that Afghan support for the international troops in the country declined in 2006. CJ
PRISON EXPANSION PROJECT COMPLETED
A new prison block opened on March 26 at the Pol-e Charkhi Prison east of Kabul, the Bakhtar News Agency reported on March 27. Speaking at the inaugural ceremony on March 25, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said Afghan inmates from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram air base will be transferred to the expanded facility. He indicated that future detainees charged with terrorist acts will be housed there as well. The expansion cost $16.9 million and includes 324 new cells, a clinic, and other modern facilities. The report said 172 newly-trained Special Forces troops from the Afghan National Army will be responsible for security at the new block. CJ
IRANIAN OFFICIALS DOWNPLAY UN SANCTIONS
Iranian Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari said in Tehran on March 27 that UN Security Council Resolution 1747 and the expansion of sanctions against Iran are devoid of any substance and are more "a war of nerves against Iran" than a significant threat to its economy, "Iran" newspaper reported. He claimed that the international community seemed more impressed by the gesture of approving a resolution against Iran than by its contents. Danesh-Jafari accused the United States of trying to give states the impression that there are risks involved in dealing with Iran. "We have always said that the harm of these damaging economic moves do not just affect us, but also [affect] other parties and our economic partners," he told a gathering of insurance executives. He said the United States is ruining business opportunities for other countries, when it has little involvement in Iran's economy. Danesh-Jafari said the latest resolution could restrict Iran's access to low-interest loans or credits. Reuters cited Iranian Central Bank governor Ibrahim Sheibani as saying in Kuala Lumpur on March 27 that Iran has reduced its dollar holdings to about 20 percent of its hard-currency reserves in response to U.S. hostility. He reportedly said Iran has sufficient currency reserves to face off credit restrictions. Sheibani later added that Iran will end its practice of using the U.S. dollar to price oil for export, AP reported. VS
IRAN EXPRESSES HOPE FOR PEACEFUL END TO BRITISH SAILORS' CAPTIVITY
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on March 27 that the "subject of the violation of Iran's waters by British military forces" can be resolved "with self-restraint and respect for laws and rules," IRNA reported. He was referring to Iran's capture on March 23 of British naval personnel who Iran and Britain respectively maintain were in Iranian or Iraqi territorial waters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). British officials reject Iran's violation claims and have pressed for their release. Hosseini said, "media publicity and uninformed and even provocative comments" would not "help resolve the issue of the violation of Iran's territorial waters" by British troops. "British military forces entered" Iran's "territorial waters" and are now subject to the due "legal and juridical process." He said British diplomats may contact the detained troops once "the preliminary phase of investigations" and questioning is over. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London on March 27 that the British government is trying "through diplomatic channels" to "make the Iranian government understand these people have to be released," AFP reported. He said the problem would otherwise enter a "different phase," though an unnamed spokesman said the same day that Britain would not seek to escalate the dispute, AFP reported. At a news conference in London on March 28, Vice Admiral Charles Style presented maps and global positioning system (GPS) data that he said showed the sailors were about 3 kilometers inside Iraqi waters at the time of the Iranian "ambush," AFP and other news agencies reported. Style called the Iranian action "unjustified and wrong" and "a matter of deep concern." VS
IRANIAN SPOKESMAN SAYS NATION UNITED OVER NUCLEAR POWER
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said on March 27 that Iranians and their government are united over "attaining the country's rights in terms of peaceful nuclear technology" and the United States is mistaken if it believes there is a rift inside Iran over the nuclear issue, IRNA reported. Iran is facing UN sanctions for refusing to halt sensitive aspects of its nuclear program. Hosseini said "fantastic" speculations over the "lack of unity and coordination among the people and government of Iran" are an "unsuitable reaction" to Iranians' "legitimate demands." Hosseini added that the United States is taking a "hostile," unilateralist, and "domineering" approach to Iran, and he proposed negotiations "on the basis of just and fair methods" to resolve the diplomatic impasse, IRNA reported. VS
UN COUNCIL REMOVES IRAN FROM RIGHTS-SURVEILLANCE LIST
The UN Human Rights Council voted on March 26 to remove Iran and Uzbekistan from its list of countries subject to continued or systematic surveillance over rights violations, news agencies reported on March 27. "Iran" newspaper, citing AFP, reported on March 28 that the motion to remove Iran was proposed by Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, and Azerbaijan, members of a working panel in the UN council, against the wishes of the other two members, France and Argentina. Their proposal was backed by the 47-member council. Reuters reported on March 27 that the council vote was expected, as most members have opposed special surveillance for certain states. The UN Human Rights Council was formed in March 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, whose rights monitoring record was deemed to be disappointing. But the rights organization Freedom House argued in a November report that the new council's first months of activity were disappointing and said it had failed to attain purported objectives, RFE/RL reported at the time. On March 27, Reuters quoted an unnamed U.S. diplomat at the UN as expressing dismay at the latest vote. VS
IRANIAN JOURNALIST GIVEN JAIL SENTENCE
A Tehran court has sentenced Ali Farahbaksh, a Tehran-based financial journalist arrested last year and accused of spying, to three years' imprisonment and fined him, although his lawyer told ISNA on March 27 he will appeal against the sentence in April, after Iran's new year's holidays, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31 and February 6, 2007). Lawyer Mahmud Alizadeh-Tabatabai said Farahbakhsh was tried on February 24 and convicted of spying and receiving money from foreign parties, but that Farahbakhsh denies he had contacts with foreign agents. Alizadeh-Tabatabai said the text of the verdict included mistakes. The bill of indictment against Farahbakhsh accused him of receiving $2,300 from foreign agents, he said, while the sentence has mistakenly changed that to $23,000 and fined Farahbakhsh twice the sum, $46,000. Farahbakhsh's father, Hushang Farahbakhsh, has written to Iran's judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi twice, apparently in January or February, to protest the arrest, Radio Farda reported on March 27. He reportedly informed Ayatollah Shahrudi that his son, who he maintained is innocent, spent 44 days of his detention time in solitary confinement. VS
U.S. OPENS NAVAL EXERCISES IN PERSIAN GULF
The United States has begun two-day exercises in the Persian Gulf involving two aircraft carriers, AFP reported on March 27. It cited Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman as saying in Washington that the exercises are intended to reassure allies of the United States' commitment to security in the Persian Gulf and are not intended to provoke Iran, AFP reported. The exercises include joint maneuvers by fighter planes from the aircraft carriers "USS Dwight D. Eisenhower" and "USS John S. Stennis," while warships from the carriers' respective "strike groups" will practice joint antisubmarine, antisurface, and mine warfare, Whitman said. VS
ATTACK, RETALIATION LEAVE SCORES OF VICTIMS IN NORTHERN IRAQI TOWN
Sunni insurgents detonated two car bombs in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar on March 27, leaving at least 75 people dead and 185 wounded, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Reuters reported 55 dead and 185 wounded in the attack. The bombings were carried out in a Shi'ite market area, where a suicide bomber lured people to his vehicle to buy flour. The bomber then blew up his truck, while a second bomber detonated his truck in a nearby parking area. Off-duty Shi'ite policemen took to the streets after dark and launched revenge attacks, shooting at Sunni Arab civilians and homes. Witnesses said some Sunnis were dragged from their homes and shot execution-style on the street. Police, military, and health officials told Reuters that as many as 50 men were killed in one Sunni district of the city. The rampage lasted more than two hours before army personnel were brought in to secure the area, AP reported. Meanwhile, eight people have died and 75 are ill from poisoning at the Baghdad police academy, Alhurra television reported on March 28. The cause of the poisoning is not known. KR
TWO CHALDEAN NUNS STABBED TO DEATH IN NORTHERN IRAQI CITY
Two Chaldean nuns were found stabbed to death in their home on March 27, AP reported. Fawzeiyah Naoum, 85, and her 79-year-old sister Margaret were stabbed multiple times by two intruders who raided their Kirkuk home, police First Lieutenant Mariwan Salih said. There was no sign of robbery and the motive for the attack is unclear. Salih did not say how police knew that two attackers were involved. KR
IRAQI PRESIDENT, FOREIGN MINISTER HEAD TO RIYADH FOR ARAB SUMMIT
President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari will represent Iraq at the March 28-29 Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on March 27. Talabani told reporters as he departed Baghdad on March 27 that he hopes the meeting will "positively serve the Iraqi people," adding that initial reports from Zebari, who arrived in Riyadh ahead of Talabani, were "encouraging," Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. "As for Iraq's demands, we first demand a real understanding of the situation in Iraq, and an understanding of actual facts and developments. We will also demand that debts be written off and...assistance in fighting terrorism," he said. KR
IRAQ ISSUES TO TAKE BACK SEAT TO PEACE PROCESS AT SUMMIT
The Arab peace initiative will take precedence over the Iraq issue, Foreign Minister Zebari told Al-Iraqiyah television in an interview broadcast on March 27. Nonetheless, there is a feeling of seriousness from member states on the Iraqi issue, Zebari noted, adding that Arab states recognize the possible spillover effect that the instability in Iraq could have on neighboring states. Asked to comment on Iraq's national-reconciliation process, he stressed the government's need to take a firm position on who it will negotiate with. "We should come up with something concrete. It is not enough to call for reconciliation. The time will come to determine who you should achieve reconciliation with. With whom should we achieve reconciliation? Is it with Al-Qaeda, or with the Saddamists and Ba'athists who are killing us every day?" he asked. KR
INSURGENT GROUP ANNOUNCES NAME CHANGE IN IRAQ
The Islamic Conquest Corps, an offshoot of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, has reportedly announced it will change its name to the Islamic Conquest Brigades, Al-Jazeera television reported on March 27. In addition to its name change, the group said it wants to be known as the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) of Iraq. The group called on fellow fighters to work towards better coordination and cooperation, Al-Jazeera reported. The insurgent website mohajroon.com carried a statement by the 1920 Revolution Brigades on March 18 that announced the establishment of two brigades, Fatah Al-Islam and Jihad Al-Islam. The group said the two brigades are authorized to cooperate and integrate with other groups. Jihad Al-Islam will be responsible for insurgent activities in northern Iraq, including Mosul, Kirkuk, and Tikrit, as well as areas of southern Baghdad and its environs and Abu Ghraib. Fatah Al-Islam will be responsible for activities in Diyala, Samarra, areas of northern and central Baghdad, Al-Fallujah, Al-Ramadi, and the western regions. The Diyala branch of the 1920 Revolution Brigades is reportedly distancing itself from Al-Qaeda because of the latter's tactics, including its targeting of civilians, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on March 27. KR