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Newsline - March 29, 2007

On March 28, President Vladimir Putin discussed Russian concerns over a planned U.S. missile-defense shield in Europe with U.S. President George W. Bush at the latter's initiative, reported. The Russian statement added that Bush told Putin he is ready to discuss the project in detail with Moscow. The two presidents also talked about Iran's nuclear program and Kosova. In Washington, Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said that "Bush emphasized that missile defenses in Europe are intended to protect against the evolving ballistic-missile threat from the Middle East -- a threat that we share in common with Europe and Russia," Reuters reported. Also in Washington, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the Missile Defense Agency, said on March 28 that Russia is welcome to participate in the missile-shield program, which is directed primarily against a potential threat from Iran, news agencies reported. He added that "we are very open to Russian participation and invitation into collaboration on missile defense in the broader sense and on any level, all the way down to specifics in terms of potentially sharing data and radar data information." PM

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said in Washington on March 28 that "the notion that somehow missile defense has to be seen as part of an emerging arms race between the United States and Russia, which is some of the odd commentary I hear from some Europeans, has no relationship to reality...[and is] somewhat exotic," news agencies reported. He noted that "at the official level, there is far more understanding, far more commonality of views [on both sides of the Atlantic] than you would ever dream from reading some of the European press." Russia has sought in recent weeks to encourage divisions within NATO over the missile-defense issue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 23, 26, and 28, 2007). In Berlin on March 28, Eric Edelman, who is U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, warned against turning missile defense into "an issue in domestic politics" in Germany, where Russian officials have made particular efforts to mobilize public opinion against the U.S. plans. Edelman described Russia's argument that the missile shield would upset the delicate strategic balance in Europe as "a bit flawed." He stressed that "it would be good not to have any missiles in Europe. I certainly hope there won't be any incoming ones from any of the 20 countries that are developing ballistic-missile capabilities. But one can't guarantee that." He also challenged recent assertions by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the German media that the U.S. system could be used for offensive purposes. Edelman argued that doing so "would require reconfiguring the launchers, and it would be obvious if there were attempts to do that. I repeat, it is a defense system." Edelman added that "Russia has 85 nuclear-tipped interceptors around Moscow. That has not destabilized the security situation." In Prague on March 28, the Czech cabinet agreed to start formal talks with the United States over setting up a radar site on Czech territory as part of the proposed system. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said that "the Czech Republic recognizes the threats against which the defense shield should be set." Washington hopes to have 10 interceptors installed in Poland by 2013, if the Polish and Czech governments approve the project in 2007. PM

The New York-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report entitled the "Stamp of Guantanamo," which was released on March 29, that seven citizens of the Russian Federation were beaten and abused by Russian authorities in 2004, after the U.S. authorities returned them to their home country, according to HRW's website ( U.S. forces detained the men in Afghanistan in 2002 and held them at the Guantanamo detention center for two years. HRW representatives interviewed three of the former inmates and talked to the families and lawyers of all seven men in preparing the 43-page report. The study criticized the U.S. government's policy of repatriating suspects to countries with poor human rights records, such as Russia, on the basis of "diplomatic assurances" that the returnees would not be abused. HRW Associate Director Carroll Bogert said in a statement that "what happened to the former detainees is pretty standard for a lot of suspects in police custody in Russia. But that's just the point. The U.S. government knew these men would likely be tortured and sent them back to Russia anyway." PM

Chinese President Hu Jintao completed his three-day official visit to the Russian Federation with a stop in Kazan in the Republic of Tatarstan, Chinese and Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). After a meeting with Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev, Hu and his host stressed the importance of cooperation between the two countries' regions but do not appear to have signed any of the new deals that some press reports predicted. Shaimiyev noted the Chinese interest in Tatarstan's methods of oil extraction and refining, as well as in its petrochemical industry. Hu's delegation examined plans for a Chinese car factory in Yelabuga and visited the Kazan Helicopter Plant and Kazan State University, which Vladimir Lenin once attended and which has a large and growing Chinese studies department. "The Moscow Times" reported on March 29 that Tatarstan "hopes" for more Chinese investment but does not expect it to materialize soon. PM

The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on March 28 that the Foreign Ministry's new document on policy priorities, "A Review of the Russian Federation's Foreign Policy," is over 100 pages long and "unprecedented" in its scope (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). The ministry argues that "increasing globalization processes, despite their contradictory consequences, lead to a more equitable distribution of resources for influence and economic growth, laying an objective foundation for multipolarity in international relations." The document argues that these processes promote the "equilibrium and competitive environment" that were lost with the end of the Cold War. The study points out that there are "some [unnamed] countries that regard Russia as a potentially dangerous competitor on the world economic stage [and seek to restrict] our country's competitive advantages...[as] a major reservoir for global economic growth." The ministry believes that Russia should concentrate its attention on the former Soviet republics, noting that "this is where our security interests and economic interests are concentrated, and this is where serious challenges come from, including illegal immigration and organized crime." The study notes that "there is no rational alternative to regulation of crisis situations, especially in the Middle East" and that this corresponds with Russia's traditional approach. The daily believes, however, that the report breaks new ground in Russia's policy toward Kosova because "for the first time, [the ministry] calls attention to the UN's experience in creating Israel [through partition] in 1948." The daily comments, however, that "it isn't entirely clear how this historical experience is relevant to the Balkans situation" because the 1948 partition did not lead to the parallel establishment of a Palestinian state together with the Jewish one. The study quotes Marcel Proust's comment that bluffing can be a useful tool in diplomacy but also cites the importance of force in international affairs. The ministry calls Russian-American relations "ambivalent" and criticizes what it calls the U.S. pursuit of a "unipolar world." The review notes nonetheless that Moscow and Washington are linked by some common interests, including "a shared concern for strengthening the nonproliferation regime." On March 29, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" called on Russia to act on President Putin's aggressive February 10 speech in Munich and base its policy toward the United States on "strategic national interests only." PM

Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika said on March 29 that investigators are making progress on the case of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed by unknown people in her Moscow apartment building in October 2006, Interfax reported. He added that "everybody will learn about the...very good results...very soon." Chechen resistance websites on March 23 published allegations by five members of a Chechen security unit implicating pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and a Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel in Politkovskaya's murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26 and 28, 2007). PM/LF

The New York-based nongovernmental organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement on March 29 that it is "alarmed" at the prosecution of an opposition newspaper editor in the Republic of Bashkortostan, news agencies reported. Prosecutors have charged Viktor Shmakov with extremist activity for publishing two recent commentaries in his newspaper "Provintsialnye vesti," in which he criticized corruption and called for the resignation of the President Murtaza Rakhimov. If convicted, Shmakov could face up to five years in prison. The CPJ said all charges against Shmakov should be dropped "immediately." PM

Some 150 residents of two villages in Daghestan's Khasavyurt Raion staged a protest on March 28 in Makhachkala in connection with the repeat vote on March 25 for the post of mayor of one of the villages in question, reported. The local election commission annulled the outcome of the vote, in which local resident Gaydar Sharapudinov reportedly defeated incumbent Khasmagomed Dachayev with 54 percent of the vote. The names of many villagers were excluded from the electoral rolls, and others were unable to vote as not enough ballot papers were provided. Also on March 28, additional police were deployed to the raion center of Sergokala, south of Makhachkala, following a shoot-out between two senior municipal officials, reported. LF

Thousands of people filed past the coffin of deceased Prime Minister Andranik Markarian in Yerevan's Opera House on March 28, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Markarian was buried later the same day at the Pantheon following a prayer service conducted by Catholicos Garegin II. Pro-government and opposition politicians paid tribute to Markarian, stressing his "kindness" and unique ability to act as a bridge between rival political factions. Markarian died of heart failure on March 25 at the age of 55 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). Dignitaries from a dozen countries attended his funeral, including U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, Russian Transportation Minister Igor Levitin, and Turkish Ambassador to Georgia Ertan Tezgor. LF

Twenty-four political and one electoral bloc of the 28 that announced their intention to participate in the May 12 parliamentary elections under the proportional system submitted the requisite documentation to the Central Election Commission by the deadline of March 28, Noyan Tapan reported. The three that failed to do so were the United Progressive Communist Party of Armenia, the Liberal Progressive Party of Armenia (AAK), and the Armenian Fatherland Party. AAK Chairman Hovannes Hovannisian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on March 29 that his party has decided to boycott the election because members are convinced it will not be free and fair. He said that the party will instead concentrate on organizing anti-government protests in the wake of the vote. Of the total 131 parliament mandates, 90 are to be elected under the proportional system. Of the 173 candidates who announced their intention to compete for the remaining 41 parliament seats, 141 submitted registration documents. LF

The Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) was forced on March 28 to vacate the premises it occupied in Baku after the owner refused to extend the lease for a further year, Azerbaijani media reported. AMIP press spokesman Ali Orudjev told that the owner ceded to pressure from the Azerbaijani authorities. AMIP was forced in 2001 to vacate spacious premises it occupied in Baku's Binagadi district, and in 2004 to leave its subsequent temporary office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 20, and 30, 2001, and April 14, August 27, and October 22, 2004). LF

The predominantly Georgian movement People of South Ossetia for Peace released a statement on March 28 greeting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's stated intention to establish a temporary pro-Georgian government in the region pending peace talks that are intended to resolve the longstanding conflict between the central Georgian government and the Russian-backed leadership of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 29 March, 2007). Saakashvili announced those plans in his state-of-the-nation address on March 15, and elaborated on them at a March 26 session of the National Security Council at which he proposed installing Dmitry Sanakoyev to head the temporary administration. In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian Foreign Ministry released a statement on March 28 deploring what it termed Tbilisi's rejection of successive calls for dialogue, reported. It further argued that Saakashvili's initiative constitutes a violation of international law and shows that he has lost all sense of reality and has no desire to engage in negotiations with what it called South Ossetia's "legitimate authorities." Yury Dzitsoyty, who chairs the South Ossetian parliamentary commission on foreign policy, defense and security, told in a separate statement on March 28 that Georgia is planning to "use" Sanakoyev to bring the breakaway region back under its control. LF

Speaking on March 28 at a press conference at Interfax's Moscow office, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh said Russia would be welcome to operate a radar station in Abkhazia in the event that Georgia decided to host a U.S. radar facility, reported. Bagapsh said such a facility already exists in Sukhum(i) and only needs to be made operational. He described Georgia as a "hostile state" that is "preparing for war" with Abkhazia, adding that in those circumstances, any U.S. radar in Georgia "would be directed against Abkhazia." Bagapsh also predicted that Abkhazia will gain formal international recognition as an independent state in the foreseeable future, according to a statement posted on his website ( LF

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met in Astana with the foreign ministers (and one deputy foreign minister) from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan on March 28 in an EU Troika-Central Asia Countries meeting, agencies reported. Germany currently holds the EU Presidency and the EU expected to approve a new Central Asian strategy this summer, Steinmeier said. "The talks showed that the time is right for a new, closer cooperation," reported. Steinmeier noted that the EU plans to "diversify its energy policy" and for this reason believes "it is necessary to increase our contacts with Central Asia." But he stressed: "It's in our interest that the Central Asian countries take a path to be peaceful, democratic, and prospering states." For his part, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov emphasized the need for equality in EU-Central Asian relations, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Norov said, "In our opinion, it is crucially important to build relations on the basis of equal rights, mutual respect, noninterference in internal affairs, pragmatism, [respect for] the vital interest of the parties, without bringing ideology into the matter." DK

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told journalists in Astana on March 28, "In various situations, we have said that we are for Kazakhstan's obtaining the OSCE chairmanship in 2009 if some democratic reforms can soon be carried out," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. She added, "Now we want to see these reforms." DK

One day after President Kurmanbek Bakiev blocked his attempt to sack five ministers, Azim Isabekov resigned on March 29, RFE/RL's Kygyz Service reported. Bakiev publicly rejected Isabekov's decision to fire the ministers. Bakiev quickly accepted Isabekov's resignation and nominated Almaz Atambaev, the leader of the Social Democratic Party and a member of the new For A United Kyrgyzstan opposition movement, to replace Isabekov. Former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, also a member of that movement, welcomed Atambaev's appointment, saying: "Atambaev is a compromise figure and a representative of the opposition. I believe that he will try to resolve all the major issues on our agenda. Right now, we say that the main thing is to establish a coalition government while, at the same time, carrying out constitutional reforms." But two other opposition movements, For Reforms and the United Front For A Worthy Future For Kyrgyzstan, said they will not participate in a coalition government. Parliament must vote whether to confirm Atambaev's appointment.

Abdufattoh Sharifov, a spokesman for Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov (who now refers to himself as Emomalii Rahmon), said on March 28 that Rakhmonov merely recommended that Tajiks use de-Russified versions of their names (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22 and 28, 2007) is a "recommendation," Avesta reported. Sharifov said, "Changing [his] surname is the president's own affair, and by his action he did not and does not intend to impose this decision on other citizens of the country." DK

Representatives of security services from the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) met in Tashkent on March 28 to discuss the coordination of counterterrorism measures, agencies reported. Sergei Smirnov, first deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service and chairman of the SCO's Rational Antiterrorism Structure, said, "We expect a common database of terrorist organizations or persons involved with terrorist activities" should be completed this year, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Smirnov also said that SCO members plan to set up a secure communications system to exchange information. The session in Tashkent selected Myrzakan Subanov of Kyrgyzstan to head the counterterrorism structure's executive committee, Interfax reported. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has not been seen in public for more than two weeks, toured Minsk Oblast on March 28 and held a news conference, Belapan reported. Lukashenka denied rumors that he recently suffered a serious illness recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). "I got a bit tired perhaps, but I didn't stop hockey training at that time. Even under these conditions -- and I'm used to working under extreme conditions -- I continued sticking to my work style. I appeared less on television but the opposition cannot do without me: When they don't see me for a day, they say I had a stroke," Lukashenka said. JM

President Lukashenka promised during a news conference on March 28 that he is not going to use Belarus's geopolitical position to "blackmail" Russia, Belapan reported. "The defense capability of Russia, Belarus, our common fatherland, is not subject to any blackmail," the Belarusian president said, adding that Belarus will honor all its military commitments to Russia. However, Lukashenka appears to have simultaneously suggested to Moscow what could happen if it ceased to be friendly toward Minsk. "Americans have announced the deployment of missile-defense installations in Poland, the Czech Republic -- NATO is on Russia's threshold today. Ukraine, Georgia, other [ex-Soviet] republics will join NATO if Americans decide on this. Tell me, what does our Belarus then become? This is the outpost, the beachhead that has always been our joint trump card," Lukashenka said. "We should not get bogged down in mutual accusations, or else they will separate us and do away with us separately," he added. He further assured Moscow that his current "talks with the West" are not intended to spoil relations between Belarus and Russia. Lukashenka did not elaborate on the nature of these talks. JM

Opposition activist Krystsina Shatsikava has complained to the Mahilyou City Prosecutor's Office and the Mahilyou Regional Executive Committee over her kidnap-style detention, Belapan reported on March 28. On March 23, two days before a large opposition rally in Minsk, following her interrogation by KGB officers, Shatsikava was forced into a car in downtown Mahilyou and taken to a mental hospital where she was held until March 26. Her whereabouts were officially confirmed on March 25. Shatsikava told a news conference on March 28 that she is prepared to bring the medical staff of the mental hospital in Mahilyou to account over her detention. Shatsikava's mother, Svyatlana Shatsikava, spoke at the same news conference: "I will do everything possible to prevent these people from working as doctors. Why did not they tell me where my daughter was? Why did not they allow me to talk to her? Such actions do not come as a surprise when committed by police, but they are unacceptable for doctors." Human rights defender Valyantsin Stefanovich said Krystsina Shatsikava should go to court over the incident. "Under regulations [in force], a person may be put in a mental hospital under two conditions only -- if the person is under permanent medical observation or if he or she behaves aggressively. But in any case, this must be reported to relatives, which was not done," Stefanovich added. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko has sent a letter to the Verkhovna Rada, urging lawmakers to adhere to the constitution while expanding the ruling coalition, Interfax-Ukraine reported on March 28. "As a guarantor of Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity, constitution, and civil rights and freedoms, I cannot ignore any destructive processes and demand that the Verkhovna Rada and each deputy immediately stop ignoring constitutional rules, particularly those regulating the formation of a coalition," Yushchenko's letter reads. Yushchenko's concerns in this regard have been raised by the recent defection of a dozen opposition lawmakers to the ruling majority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). According to the president, such defections distort the results of the 2006 parliamentary elections and violate "fundamental principles" of the constitution. Yushchenko threatened to take unspecified "appropriate steps" if the Verkhovna Rada disregards his appeal. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych defended the parliamentary turncoats on March 28 by saying that their move was caused by their desire to disassociate themselves from "destructive, destabilizing actions" of the opposition. "[The defections] were prompted by the destructive position of opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko, for instance, by her demand to sign a petition calling for the dissolution of parliament, or actions aimed at removing deputies from parliament," Yanukovych noted. JM

The opposition, pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc has warned against provocations that it claims the ruling coalition is allegedly preparing for an opposition rally planned to take place on Independence Square in Kyiv on March 31, Interfax-Ukraine reported. According to Anatoliy Lutsenko, head of the analytical service of the Our Ukraine People's Union, the ruling coalition has set up a special group that is recruiting "criminal elements" in eastern Ukrainian regions in order to bring them to Kyiv and foil the opposition demonstration. Lutsenko appealed to police to step in and prevent "provocations or any other forms of civic conflict" during the rally. The demonstration, organized jointly by Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the nascent People's Self-Defense movement, will take place under the motto "Het zRadu," which is a pun that involves the Ukrainian words "Rada" (Verkhovna Rada) and "zrada" (betrayal) and can be interpreted as "Down with the Rada" and/or "Down with the Betrayal." Meanwhile, Viktor Honcharuk, an official from the Kyiv city administration, told journalists on March 29 that, in addition to the opposition rally, a number of political meetings and pickets organized by the ruling Party of Regions and the pro-government Youth Union of Ukraine's Regions will take place in Kyiv from March 29 to April 3. JM

Senior diplomats of the six-nation Contact Group, a body that has been steering Balkan policy for over a decade, met in London on March 28 to discuss the plan presented to the UN Security Council by chief negotiator Martti Ahtisaari two days earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007), international media reported the same day. Ahtisaari's blueprint, which calls for internationally supervised independence for Kosova, could be debated in the Security Council as early as next week, and the United States is hoping to get agreement on a resolution in April or May. It is as yet unclear if Russia, which is a member of the Contact Group alongside the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, will use its veto to prevent international recognition of Kosova's independence from Serbia. "The Contact Group remains united in its shared sense of responsibility to promote peace in Kosovo and in the region, despite any differences of perception," the British liaison office in Kosovo said in a statement following the meeting, Reuters reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Russia's opposition to an imposed solution in a phone call with U.S. President George W. Bush on March 28, AFP reported the same day. "On Kosovo, the Russian side confirmed its principled position against imposing on the sides any kinds of scenario -- so that a solution is worked out that would be acceptable both to Belgrade and Pristina," a statement released by the Kremlin after the conversation read. TV

On March 30-31, Germany, which currently holds the EU's rotating Presidency, will host a conference of EU foreign ministers in Bremen that will discuss the role of the EU in an independent Kosova. The EU mission in Kosova is "expected to be the largest civilian crisis-management mission that the EU has ever undertaken," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told the European Parliament on March 28, according to an official transcript. "The EU's overall presence in Kosovo is likely to run in the order of 1,500-2,000 international staff." Rehn estimated the required international assistance to Kosova at 1.3 billion to 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion-$2 billion) for the first three years. "The EU will play a leading role both in the running of international civilian missions and in support of Kosovo's European perspective. This will require deployment of all our instruments and considerable resources," Rehn said. "We have no exit strategy, only an entry strategy." The new EU mission will replace the current UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). An internal EU paper cited by Reuters warned of possible violence in the planned 120-day transition period from the UNMIK to the EU mission. "It will be extremely important that UNMIK, while on its way out, will during this period still be capable to fulfill its mandate," the document read, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, in the latest in a series of incidents in recent days in the northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, the home of a Serbian member of the Kosova Protection Corps (TMK) was targeted by an explosive device, possibly a hand grenade, B92 reported on March 29. No injuries were reported. TV

Delegates at a conference of Serbia's Islamic community in the southwestern town of Novi Pazar elected the mufti of the Sandzak region, of which Novi Pazar is the capital, as their chief mufti for the coming year, deepening the rift with a rival Islamic community centered around Belgrade, B92 reported on March 28. The Novi Pazar mufti, Muamer Effendi Zukorlic, and his followers look to Sarajevo, the capital of neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the spiritual center of their community and accept the authority of Bosnia's grand mufti, Mustafa Effendi Ceric, while the Belgrade group, which boycotted the meeting, rejects it. Abdulah Numan, a member of the Belgrade Islamic leadership, described the Novi Pazar conference as "an assembly of disunity, not unification," the Bosnian news agency SRNA reported on March 27. "We agree with the principle of unifying the Islamic community into a single community, but with its headquarters in Serbia and its capital, Belgrade. We are Serbian citizens and we wish to decide on our own fate in this country, not have someone on the outside decide things for us," Numan told SRNA. Ceric for his part told the assembled religious leaders, "The address of the Islamic community in Serbia is in Novi Pazar, and those who fail to believe in that run the risk and the responsibility to die as non-Muslims," B92 reported. Zukorlic and his Belgrade counterpart, Grand Mufti Hamdija Effendi Jusufspahic, have been locked in a long-standing power struggle. TV

The government of the Bosnian Serb republic on March 28 declared the municipality of Srebrenica "an area of special social and economic importance," the news agency SRNA reported the same day. The Republika Srpska minister for justice and local administration, Zoran Lipovac, told reporters in Banja Luka that the government "has formed a special commission for Srebrenica, which will comprise representatives from ministries and the Srebrenica council." All ministries and public enterprises will begin drawing up special social and economic programs for Srebrenica immediately, Lipovac said, adding that equal employment of Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, and Croats will be ensured. Six million euros ($7.8 million) will be set aside for such programs. Lipovac also said the government would support activities to mark the atrocities that took place in Srebrenica during the 1992-95 war. In an apparent departure from earlier statements by Republika Srpska's president and prime minister, Lipovac rejected suggestions that the government might impose direct rule on the municipality (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007) in response to a recent declaration by the municipal assembly that Srebrenica should be removed from Republika Srpska control. TV

Republika Srpska President Milan Jelic has rejected calls by representatives of the Serbian Movement of Nongovernmental Associations to hold a referendum for Republika Srpska to become independent from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bosnian state broadcaster BHT-1 reported on March 27. Jelic admitted that his party has abandoned similar calls its representatives, most notably party leader and Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, made in the run-up to Bosnia's general elections in October 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14 and 15, 2006). The most recent revival of the idea of a secession referendum by the Bosnian Serb civil-society movement, which threatened to organize a referendum even without the help of the government, came in response to a similar initiative by Srebrenica's municipal assembly for the town to be removed from Republika Srpska control. "Since the international community and the Office of the High Representative have said clearly and explicitly that the Republika Srpska will not be abolished, that the Republika Srpska institutions will not be dismantled and that powers will not be forcefully transferred from the Republika Srpska to the level of Bosnia-Herzegovina," Jelic said, "there is no need for a referendum either." The top international official in Bosnia, High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, called the Srebrenica initiative "a violation of the [Bosnian] constitution" and announced "robust action" in the event that the Srebrenica assembly acts on its resolution. TV

In an interview with Bosnia's public broadcaster BHT-1 on March 27, Safet Halilovic, the central government's minister for human rights and refugees, said around 135,000 people still want to return to their prewar residences in Bosnia-Herzegovina but are unable to do so because of lack of reconstruction assistance. Around 4,000 reconstructed housing units still lack connections to the power grid, according to BHT-1, and returnees who belong to an ethnic minority locally face difficulties accessing social and health services as well as employment. "We are seeing a worrying trend," Halilovic said, "where people who have returned to their prewar homes are leaving again because they cannot get jobs or ensure adequate education for their children, or are able to exercise their right to social and health care with difficulty or not at all." Refugee return was a core concern of the international assistance mission in the country, but responsibility for it was handed over to local authorities in 2003. According to statistics by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over 1 million displaced persons had returned to their prewar residences by 2006. TV

On March 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree merging the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage (Rosookhrankultura) and the Federal Information Technologies Agency (Rossvyaznadzor) into one.

Broadcasting licenses are currently issued and revoked by the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage, which is part of the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry. Technical licenses for the transmission of data are issued by the Information Technologies Agency, which is part of the Information Technology and Communications Ministry. The newly formed agency is due to start work within three months, during which time parliament is expected to amend current media legislation and the government will introduce some new regulations concerning the functions and powers of the Information Technology and Communications Ministry.

Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage head Boris Boyarskov was named head of the new agency on March 26. Boyarskov, originally from St. Petersburg, has worked in the security services, and is considered close to the first deputy head of the presidential administration, Igor Sechin.

Boyarskov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on March 19 that Putin's decree was "the result of the work of the broadcasting commission headed by [First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential hopeful] Dmitry Medvedev." That intergovernmental commission was set up last year. Boyarskov added that the commission "highlighted the significant differences" existing between the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry and the Information Technology and Communications Ministry on broadcasting issues. He also said that, at Medvedev's request, he headed the working group that assessed the viability of combining the two agencies.

The merger has been interpreted largely as an attempt to control the Internet, the only sphere of media and communications that is currently free of regulation. This lack of regulation has turned the web into an island of freedom of speech and the number of users continues to grow. But despite intense speculation that the authorities want to establish control over the Internet, the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications has maintained a hands-off policy to date.

Most observers have leapt to the conclusion that the Internet is the main target of the merger, as legislators have repeatedly called for more stringent control. However, Boyarskov's words seem to corroborate the opinion of a smaller number of experts, who consider that the primary issue Russian officials are currently concerned with is the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, which has huge political and economic implications. Those experts consider the anticipated consequences of the merger for the Internet, and for Internet service providers (ISP) specifically, as essentially a side effect.

In May 2004, the Russian government joined the European Digital Video Broadcasting standard for television and declared that a new digital broadcasting system would be ready by 2008. The digital switchover will increase the number of television channels available to the population. Some 25 percent of Russians -- mainly in rural areas - currently receive only two national channels. Digital television, which uses smaller channel bandwidth, would have more space for niche television channels and other services, rendering almost impossible the task of controlling broadcasts.

Andrei Richter, director of the Media and Law Institute, said in a recent article that if 100 new television channels were to start broadcasting across Russia, the authorities would seek either to create the implausible situation in which most viewers will watch only the leading three federal channels (Pervy, Rossiya, and NTV) fully loyal to the Kremlin, or would try to make sure that the new channels are "97 clones" of the three leaders.

Equally importantly in a country with such high levels of corruption as Russia, the budget assigned for the switch to digital over six years is reportedly $4 billion, and various government agencies have been competing for a slice of that sum or control over how the money is to be spent.

The discussion between the two regulators has been very heated. It was expected that the special working group headed by Boyarskov would reach a deal by March. However, the recommendations of the working group have not been made public ahead of Putin's decree.

During his March 19 interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Boyarskov hinted that at an undisclosed moment the new agency could be split again, or restructured once more. Merging agencies overseeing the media is a recurring practice in the run-up to elections in Russia. Before Putin was first elected president in March 2000, the then-Press and Information Ministry, headed by Mikhail Lesin, was merged with the Federal Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting. That merger created a powerful structure that propelled the relatively unknown Putin to wide popularity.

Seemingly contradicting other officials who have said that the merger will improve efficiency by putting a single entity in charge of both media content and technology, Boyarskov said that "it would not be logical to leave regulation in this situation for a long time. A certain degree of specialization should exist." He noted that the Information Technology and Communications Ministry is responsible in the first place for the development of digital broadcasting in the country and that it will "probably" continue to oversee the issuing of technical licenses for the transmission of data.

As far as Internet regulation is concerned, it is expected that new rules may be introduced, increasing the responsibility of ISPs for content and making compulsory the registration of Internet media. The existing System for Operational-Investigative Activities (SORM2) currently requires security authorities to obtain a warrant prior to checking users' electronic traffic.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved on March 26 a 10-year, $119 million loan to help combat poverty in Afghanistan, the Bakhtar News Agency reported on March 28. The country will receive $19 million over the next three years under the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF). According to the Bakhtar News Agency, the IMF has hailed Afghanistan's rapid economic growth and declining inflation rate, as well as important reforms in fiscal policies. IMF Chairman Agustin Carstens said that these improvements were possible despite an environment characterized by "lingering insecurity, poor infrastructure, and weak institutions." CJ

The Afghan Health Ministry recently confirmed several new cases of the H5N1 bird flu in Kabul and the southern province of Kandahar, the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on March 28. On March 25, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised Afghan citizens to stop buying and selling live birds and avoid bird markets in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Health Ministry, told IRIN he believed it is "both economically and socially...impossible to close all bird markets." The first confirmed case of bird flu in Afghanistan was reported in March 2006. There have been more than 20 proven cases in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Konar since February, though no cases of bird flu being transmitted to humans have been verified. The Afghan government has banned the import of live birds and poultry products from Pakistan, where several cases have also been confirmed. CJ

A suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up in a central business district in Kabul on March 28, Reuters reported the same day. According to Reuters, a "senior Afghan intelligence official" in a nearby car may have been one of the intended targets. The blast killed four people and wounded the official as well as 11 civilians. Reuters reported that Mullah Dadullah, the main Taliban military commander, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was aimed at "U.S. spies." Such violence has in previous years increased in Afghanistan as the Taliban begins its spring offensive. CJ

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki was in Riyadh on March 28 to attend a meeting of Arab heads of state and senior diplomats discussing regional issues including Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian conflict, news agencies reported. Mottaki said on the sidelines of a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the summit should not make any decision that might be exploited by Israel. Agency reports suggest that the Arab League summit may try and revive a five-year-old peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broadly proposing peace with Israel if it returns to its 1967 borders. Mottaki told Erdogan that Islamic states should cooperate in the interest of "higher" Muslim goals. The two also discussed bilateral cooperation in areas of energy, including gas and electricity. Mottaki met with various Arab leaders on March 28, including Syria's Bashar al-Asad, host King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon's Emile Lahoud, and Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf. He also met with the foreign ministers of Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, and India, IRNA reported. VS

Foreign Minister Mottaki said in a March 28 meeting in Riyadh with Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani, that Iran will continue its nuclear activities until it "fully attains" its "legitimate rights," and he expressed surprise at Qatar's March 24 vote in favor of Security Council Resolution 1747, which increased sanctions intended to force Iran to limit its nuclear program, Mehr news agency reported. Mottaki said Iran's positions on its program are "peaceful, clear, and transparent." Mehr separately reported that the Iranian government's recent decision (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007) to limit cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) took effect on March 28, when it formally informed Iran's Atomic Energy Organization of the decision. Iran will partially suspend "subsidiary arrangements" it accepted in February 2003 in addition to a previous safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Mehr reported. Those deals required Iran to inform the IAEA months in advance of future nuclear projects. The government notice stated that the partial suspension will remain in force until the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is fully implemented -- a reference to Iran's repeated claims that it is being denied its treaty right to make nuclear fuel. The Atomic Energy Organization was instructed to inform the IAEA of the decision, Mehr reported. VS

The consumption of heavily subsidized gasoline by Iranian drivers has reportedly risen to record levels in recent days and is likely to have confounded official hopes for a drop in demand by the end of the Persian year to March 20, Radio Farda reported on March 27. The increase was likely due to millions of car journeys undertaken in Iran during the March 20 to early April new year's holiday period. Radio Farda cited a recent report issued by the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company (NIORDC), affiliated with the Oil Ministry, which showed that daily gasoline consumption in Iran exceeded 95 million liters on March 19 and 20, respectively. The report indicated this was 25 percent higher than consumption figures for the same period the previous year, while NIORDC officials had anticipated a fall in consumption to a daily 70 million liters. The government is to introduce a two-tier gasoline pricing system this year, in a bid to cut waste and reduce costly gasoline imports. A set amount of petrol at the pumps is expected to cost 100 tumans (just under $0.11) a liter, up from its present cost of 80 tumans, while the government should decide by late April how much drivers will pay for gasoline purchased above the set amount, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media. The system will reportedly work with the use of "smart cards," to identify users. VS

Badri Farahbakhsh, the mother of a journalist jailed in Iran for three years on espionage charges, has appealed to international rights bodies to help win the release of her son, Ali Farahbakhsh, Radio Farda reported on March 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). She told Radio Farda on March 28 that her son has "committed no offense and is entirely innocent." She said that attorney Mahmud Alizadeh-Tabatabai will lodge an appeal in coming days so it could be processed immediately after April 2, when the new year's holiday ends in Iran. She expressed hope that an appeals court will at least "partially" pardon her son, as she said he has no criminal record. Farahbakhsh's father, Hushang Farahbakhsh, separately told Radio Farda the same day that despite instructions by Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi and the Tehran chief justice Alireza Avai, the judge in the case refused to release Farahbakhsh on bail for the new year's holiday. He reportedly told Farahbakhsh's parents, who complained to him, "You are not allowed to talk to me. I am the one making [the] decisions." VS

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 28 that the summit's draft resolution on Iraq meets the minimum demands of the Iraqi delegation, KUNA reported the same day. He said the resolution calls for supporting the Iraqi government's policies and programs in order to increase stability and security. Zebari told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on March 28 that the Arab position is still not up to the desired level, adding, "What is needed is something bigger and more profound cooperation." Reacting to comments by Arab leaders on the need to review the Iraqi Constitution, Zebari said: "We have duties toward our people and we are aware of these duties. We do not need dictates from the Arab states. We say to them that national reconciliation is our idea and not theirs." He added that his government is committed to reviewing the de-Ba'athification law, and does not need to be asked to do so. "We hope that the Arabs would follow a more constructive course in supporting Iraq instead of abandoning it or doing nothing," he added. KR

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz said in a speech at the Arab League summit on March 28 in Riyadh that Iraq is under an illegitimate foreign occupation, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on March 29. "In our beloved Iraq, blood is shed among brothers under...illegitimate foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism that raises the threat of a civil war," he said. KR

President Jalal Talabani held meetings with leaders from several neighboring states and Egypt on the sidelines of the Arab summit on March 28 and 29, international media reported. Talabani had a 40-minute meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss several issues, including the status of Kirkuk, the Anatolia news agency reported. Talabani called the meeting very positive, adding that he and Erdogan "can find solutions to all problems" through dialogue. Talabani met with Jordan's King Abdullah II on March 28, SPA reported. Abdullah stressed his country's support for Iraq and noted Jordan's determination to strengthen relations between the two states. Talabani met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on March 29, MENA reported. They discussed the security situation in Iraq, as well as efforts toward national reconciliation. KR

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani announced on March 28 that an investigation has been launched into alleged retaliatory attacks by Shi'ite security forces on Tal Afar's Sunni population following a double truck-bomb attack that left dozens of Shi'a dead, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). Al-Bulani said inappropriate behavior by members of the police force will not be tolerated. "Any policeman or member of the security agencies who attacks any citizen will be punished," he said. "The law is very clear with regard to these punishments." Tal Afar's mayor, Brigadier General Najim al-Juburi, said on March 28 that 18 people were detained on suspicion of their involvement in the reprisal attacks, Reuters reported on March 29. A security source told Reuters that many of the suspects were policemen. Reuters reported that the death toll from the bombing has risen to 85, with 183 wounded. Some 70 Sunni men were killed in reprisal attacks. A senior U.S. military official said the larger of the two truck bombs is thought to have used between 3,000 and 4,500 kilograms of explosives, making it one of the largest bombs since the 2003 war. KR

Iraqi soldiers and police repelled what the U.S. military has called a "complex attack" at the Al-Fallujah government compound on March 28, according to a coalition press release the same day. The attack included two suicide truck bombs containing chlorine. According to the press release, the attack began after 6 a.m. with mortar fire, followed by two truck bombs and small-arms fire. Police identified the first suicide attacker and fired on the truck, causing it to detonate before it reached the government compound. Iraqi soldiers identified the second suicide truck bomb and fired on it; the truck exploded near the entrance to the compound. Some 15 Iraqi and coalition personnel were injured in the bomb blast and evacuated for treatment. "Numerous" others sustained injuries related to the chlorine explosion including nausea, breathing difficulties, and skin irritations. No Iraqi or U.S. personnel were killed in the incident. KR

Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i has been discharged from Baghdad's Ibn Sina Hospital and flown to Jordan for continued treatment following a failed assassination against him on March 23, Iraqi media reported on March 28. Al-Iraqiyah television quoted doctors as saying al-Zawba'i is in good health and will be able to return to work soon. Al-Sharqiyah television quoted Iraqi Ambassador to Jordan Sa'd al-Hayyani as saying that al-Zawba'i has been admitted to King Husayn Medical City. Al-Hayyani said al-Zawba'i came to Jordan because medical care in Baghdad is not up to standard. KR