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Newsline - March 30, 2007

Russia blocked British attempts in the UN Security Council on March 29 to gain approval for a tough resolution calling on Iran to release immediately the 15 British sailors and marines it detained recently, international media reported on March 30 (see Iran below). Russia also opposed British proposals for the resolution to state that the 15 were seized in Iraqi waters and to "deplore" the seizure. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said that Moscow could not accept such language. In the end, the council approved a text expressing only "grave concern" for the detention. On March 29, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the United States against "increasing tensions" in the Persian Gulf through its planned military exercises there. Lavrov stressed that such maneuvers would only make an unstable situation worse. Rajab Safarov, who heads Russia's Center for Contemporary Iranian Studies, wrote in the daily "Vremya novostei" of March 29 that Washington seeks to humiliate Tehran diplomatically. He added, however, that neither the United States nor Iran has any interest in war breaking out. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on March 29 that "Russia could profit handsomely from a war in the Persian Gulf" and noted that recent rumors of an U.S.-Iranian armed clash there triggered a rapid rise in oil prices. The daily pointed out that "calculating Russia's dividends from a [U.S.] war with Iran is actually easy. Russian oil and petroleum-product exports amount to nearly 7 million barrels a day. A price rise of just $10 per barrel will earn Russia $25 billion a year. The lion's share of the revenues will go to the federal budget and thus enable the government to compensate for failing to meet tax-collection the first two months of this year." In related news, President Vladimir Putin on March 29 sent a message to the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, in which he criticized unspecified attempts to resolve Middle East problems "unilaterally" and by "using force," Russian news agencies reported. Putin also said he is "deeply concerned" over the situation in Iraq and called for a deadline on the presence of foreign troops there in order to avert a civil war. PM

Joel Brenner, who heads the Bush administration's Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, told a meeting of the American Bar Association in Washington, D.C., on March 29 that Russian efforts to obtain secrets from top U.S. policy-making circles have reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, news agencies reported. He said that "the Russians are back to Cold War levels in their efforts against the United States" and want insights into "the upper echelon of U.S. decision making" rather than secrets about sensitive U.S. technology, which is what China seeks. Brenner stressed that Russia is sending to the United States "an increasing and troubling number of intelligence agents." He noted that Russia is no longer one of the great superpowers but is actively seeking to regain at least some of its former status. PM

The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on March 29 that "Russia will remember the behavior of Prague and Warsaw" in the current debate about stationing part of the proposed U.S. missile-defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. The paper argued that the system is directed against Russia rather than Iran or North Korea and is being planned without concern for the wishes of all NATO members (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and March 22, 28, and 29, 2007). Russia has been seeking for weeks to bully Poland and the Czech Republic, but its efforts appear to be somewhat counterproductive. In the European Parliament in Brussels on March 29, Poland's Konrad Szymanski said that "the missile-defense shield is not the danger. The danger is a number of [EU] member states adopting the Russian view," news agencies reported. Holland's Bastiaan Belder warned that the controversy could split the EU as did the debate over Iraq in 2003. Some German commentators argue that Russia seeks to heat up the discussion as a way of splitting the EU and NATO and eventually winning over some older member states like Germany and Italy to its side. In Budapest on March 29, the opposition Fidesz party declared that Russia is trying to divide its former satellites, MTI reported. Zsolt Nemeth, who heads the party's foreign-policy department, accused Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany of betraying "the Hungarian national interest and the common European one, by openly acting as the spokesman of Russian power aspirations." Nemeth was referring to some recent high-profile business deals concluded between Gyurcsany's government and the Russian authorities, including Gazprom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13 and 23, 2007). Russian Ambassador to Hungary Igor Savolsky walked out of the conference after Fidesz leader Viktor Orban said that Hungary should not be so dependent on Russian energy supplies and that Gazprom is a state rather than a commercial company. PM

Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov said on March 30 that the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms for Russian presidents should be extended to three terms, each of which would be for perhaps seven years instead of the current four, reported. Mironov himself was elected on March 30 to a third term as speaker. Boris Gryzlov, who is a supporter of President Putin and speaker of the State Duma, repeated his opposition to changing the constitution. Putin is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. Since early 2006, several dozen Russian regional officials called for a constitutional amendment to enable him to do so. Putin has opposed any such move on the grounds that he would have no legitimacy if he changed the laws to suit his own purposes. He has not been explicit, however, as to whether he would go along with a constitutional change if there were widespread popular "demand" for it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16, July 18, and September 11 and 24, 2006). PM

The prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences voted on March 29 to adopt a new charter to maintain its autonomy in the face of pressure by the Kremlin, which seeks to control the direction of that body's research, reported. The Kremlin sought to subordinate the academy to a supervisory body, a majority of whose members would be appointed by the State Duma, which is firmly under President Putin's control, and the presidential administration itself. After the March 29 vote, academy President Yury Osipov said that "we will not agree to the supervisory council under any conditions. [Such a body] goes against the spirit of scholarship and the traditions of scholarship -- and not only Russian scholarship." The news agency reported that all of the academy's approximately 1,000 senior members voted in favor of the new charter, with one abstention, according to unnamed academy members. The government argued that the academy "needs new management to better integrate it into the modern economy." PM

United Civic Front leader and former world chess champion Garri Kasparov wrote in "The Wall Street Journal-Europe" of March 30 that Western businesses are unwise to take part in state-sponsored auctions for assets of companies that the Kremlin has destroyed by dubious means. He argued that "this month's flurry of auctions for pieces of the state-controlled Russian energy company Rosneft has attracted an impressive number of A-list banks and Western energy companies. Many reputable corporations seem happy to loot the corpse of [the once-mighty oil major] Yukos, the dismembered parts of which are being sold and handed off, over and over until the last drops of blood are cleaned away" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). Kasparov stressed that such Western business involvement "is a disappointment, but not a surprise. The surprise will come when the investors find out their Russian partners are cashing out as quickly as possible, ready to head for the hills -- or their mansions abroad -- in the face of rising political and economic uncertainty." He said that "anyone trying to make a fast buck investing in President...Putin's police state should first practice our traditional triple kiss. That's one for kissing off moral principles, another for...Putin's backside, and the last to kiss their money good-bye when a fresh government comes in and starts looking into all these dirty deals." PM

The leader of the small opposition Liberal Progressive Party (AAK), Hovannes Hovannisian, announced on March 29 that the party will boycott the May 12 parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. A former parliamentarian, Hovannisian explained that because the coming election will "not be free and fair," AAK plans to focus on organizing antigovernment demonstrations in the wake of the ballot. But he also admitted that his party will be unable to meet the 5 percent minimum threshold required for attaining seats in the new parliament. He attributed that shortcoming more to "vote rigging" in the system of proportional representation than to any lack of popularity of himself or his party. The announcement of an election boycott follows a similar move by the larger, more influential opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM), early this month after the breakdown of talks over the formation of an opposition electoral alliance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and March 1, 2007). RG

In a statement from Yerevan, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian cautiously welcomed on March 29 the inauguration of a newly renovated ancient Armenian church by the Turkish authorities, but noted that Turkey needs to do more to improve Turkish-Armenian relations, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Karapetian specifically pointed to the decision by the Turkish authorities to designate the 10th-century Armenian church as a historical museum rather than as a place of worship. He further stated that the event was timed to distract attention away from the current debate in the U.S. Congress over official recognition of the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government held an inauguration ceremony on March 29 to mark the opening of the recently restored Akhtamar Church, located on the island of Akhtamar in eastern Turkey's Lake Van, and was attended by senior Turkish officials, leaders of Turkey's Armenian community, and an Armenian state delegation led by Deputy Culture Minister Gagik Gyurjian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). RG

Speaking in Baku, prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov warned on March 29 of the worsening human rights situation in the country, Turan reported. Zeynalov, affiliated with the Baku-based Azerbaijani Human Rights Center, said that the protection of human rights "continues to deteriorate" and noted that incidents of physical violence targeting journalists and lawsuits against newspapers are part of a pre-election-year "campaign." He also warned that "the authorities will not stop" there, and "as the election draws closer and the election campaign starts officially, the situation will become even worse." Zeynalov added that the authorities are continuing to "put pressure" on the independent press, with the "main objective" designed to "make society fearful so that people cease to fight for their rights and freedoms." Some improvements were noted in the areas of penal reforms and concerning incidents of torture and abuse during pretrial detention. RG

After arriving in Baku on her visit to Azerbaijan, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Julie Finley met on March 29 with President Ilham Aliyev, the Trend news agency reported. They discussed regional energy and security issues, and Finley specifically raised the issue of human trafficking in Azerbaijan. In a subsequent meeting later that day, she also warned a group of parliamentarians that Azerbaijan must properly manage the influx of revenue from the country's energy sector, adding that the oil wealth must be used "in the right way" and the authorities should "consider the interests of the middle class." RG

Speaking in a televised interview in Baku, the chairman of the Azerbaijani Press Council, Aflatun Amasov, said on March 28 that a lack of adequate funding is a major problem facing the country's print media, ANS-TV reported. Amasov said that newspapers in Azerbaijan receive about 70 percent of their income from direct paper sales, with advertising comprising a meager share of revenue. He also reported on the Press Council's planned five-year media-development program, which seeks to reduce the number of newspapers, privatize media outlets, and implement greater market-driven commercial practices. A further problem stressed was the dominance of media in the capital, Baku, with a lack of regional publications in the rural areas of the country. RG

Artur Rasizade announced on March 28 that Azerbaijan is negotiating with Belarus over the terms of a plan to refine oil from Azerbaijan at Belarusian facilities, Interfax and reported. The announcement coincided with the participation of the Azerbaijani prime minister in a meeting of a joint Belarusian-Azerbaijani commission. He explained that although "the pumping of Azerbaijani oil through Belarus is not beneficial economically," the refining of oil from Azerbaijan in Belarus "is profitable." RG

Meeting in Baku, President Aliyev welcomed on March 28 a delegation led by Russian Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, and APA news agency reported. Aliyev discussed measures planned to expand bilateral cooperation between state agencies and between the Azerbaijani and Russian parliaments. He added that a new set of bilateral agreements on cooperation will be prepared following his meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin the day before. RG

Speaking at an international security conference in Tbilisi, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili announced on March 29 that Georgia intends to join the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism initiated at last year's summit of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries in St. Petersburg, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Bezhuashvili explained that Georgia "actively participates in international peacekeeping and antiterror operations" and is now "seriously considering" and "will soon join" the initiative. He added that Georgia is preparing new legislative measures aimed at bolstering the government's efforts to combat drug trafficking and accused the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia of being "staging posts" for organized crime, Imedi TV reported. He also warned that Georgia has become a transit country for illegal drugs by virtue of its geographic role as "a corridor between East and West." The conference on global threats and international security was organized by the Georgian National Security Council and was attended by representatives from 17 countries and several international organizations. RG

Arriving in Tbilisi from Yerevan, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza began a two-day visit by meeting on March 29 with representatives of the Georgian opposition, Caucasus Press and Rustavi-2 television reported. Bryza reviewed recent developments in the Georgian government's latest peace initiative for the unresolved conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia and discussed democratic and judicial reforms in the country. Bryza also welcomed the establishment of a political dialogue between the Georgian authorities and the opposition. Following the meeting, he met with Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli and President Mikheil Saakashvili. He also announced U.S. support for the Georgian government's proposal to create a special territorial administrative unit for South Ossetia, which he defined as a "constructive approach," but stressed that "dialogue is necessary for the peaceful settlement" of the conflict, according to Imedi. RG

Following a meeting with Polish President Lech Kaczynski, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said in Astana on March 29 that Kazakhstan wants to ship oil through a proposed Odesa-Brody-Gdansk pipeline, ITAR-TASS reported. Noting that Kazakhstan hopes to double its oil production by 2012-15, Nazarbaev said that "for this reason, the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk project is a good alternative for us." Nazarbaev added, however, that Russia should be brought into the project, Interfax reported. "It's not a political, but an economic issue, because excess oil would be transported from Kazakhstan through Russia," Nazarbaev said. For his part, Kaczynski said that "Poland is ready to process Kazakh oil in our refineries, as well as to be a transit country so that oil can reach the European Union and other parts of the world," Khabar reported. The Odesa-Brody pipeline was originally built to ship Caspian oil, although Ukraine in 2004 approved a reversal to ship Russian oil through the pipeline, Interfax reported. Ukraine and Poland plan to extend the pipeline to Gdansk in Poland. DK

The Kyrgyz opposition groups For Reforms and United Front For A Worthy Future announced on March 29 that the appointment of a new prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007) will not stop them from demonstrating in April for an early presidential election, news agencies reported. Azamat Kalman, a spokesman for the United Front, told Interfax that "the government's resignation and the appointment of a new prime minister will not influence the United Front's plans to start protests to demand an early presidential election on April 9 in the regions and on April 11 in Bishkek." Meanwhile, Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, a member of the United Front's leadership, told the news agency that the United Front and For Reforms will not join any coalition government and the two groups will take part together in April demonstrations calling for President Kurmanbek Bakiev's resignation. For his part, Feliks Kulov, the leader of the United Front, told, "After the peaceful transfer of power by constitutional means, we will be able to start a course of far-reaching reforms that can restore the country's democratic image and, more importantly, raise the economy." DK

Kyrgyz lawmakers confirmed opposition politician Almazbek Atambaev as prime minister in a vote on March 30. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported that 48 lawmakers backed Atambaev, while three opposed his candidacy. Atambaev needed support from at least 37 of the 72 lawmakers now in parliament. President Bakiev appointed Atambaev as acting prime minister on March 29 in a bid to defuse a deepening standoff with opposition lawmakers. "I am not going to put up with corruption or any privileges, whoever they may be for," Atambaev pledged ahead of the legislative vote. "My task is to implement anticrisis management -- to reanimate the government as a body that governs the social and economic development of the country. I also realize that we have little time to do that." Atambaev succeeds Azim Isabekov, who resigned one day after Bakiev blocked his attempt to sack several ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). RS

Kyrgyz legislators voted on March 29 to approve Elmurza Satybaldiev as Kyrgyzstan's prosecutor-general, the news agency reported. Satybaldiev garnered 60 votes, with 67 members of the 75-seat parliament voting. President Bakiev appointed Satybaldiev acting prosecutor-general on March 21 after the dismissal of Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20-22, 2007). DK

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on March 29 in Astana that she thinks Uzbekistan has had "a change of mind" and is willing to respond to EU concerns about its human rights situation, RFE/RL reported. "I think there is a change in their minds insofar as they have accepted two expert meetings, [the first took place in December 2006] the second one will be there [in Tashkent] on April 2, so very soon after our yesterday's meeting where we saw the [Uzbek] Foreign Minister [Vladimir Norov], indeed we hand lengthy talks with him," Ferrero-Waldner said. She also noted that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told her that Tashkent may also allow visits to Uzbek prisons by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Ferrero-Waldner's comments came a day after an EU-Central Asian meeting in Astana (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). DK

Uzbekistan's Senate, the upper chamber of parliament, voted on March 29 in favor of a package of laws aimed at expanding the role of political parties in Uzbekistan, Uzbek television reported. Mavjuda Rajabova, head of the Senate's Legislative and Judicial Reform Committee, told reporters, "Both bills are expected to enhance the role of political parties in state and social development." President Islam Karimov introduced the reform bills to parliament on November 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10, 2006). The lower chamber has already passed them. DK

A total of 24 agreements, contracts, and memorandums were signed during the recent seven-day trip to Venezuela by a Belarusian government delegation led by Viktar Sheyman, secretary of the Security Council, Belapan reported on March 29, citing the presidential press service. In particular, Minsk and Caracas signed contracts for the supply of Belarusian commodities to Venezuela, including tractors, trucks, road construction vehicles, televisions, refrigerators, and food products. A number of other deals concerns cooperation in agriculture, including the opening of plants in Venezuela to assemble Belarusian machinery. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reportedly agreed to allow Belarusian companies to develop oil fields in his country. A joint Belarusian-Venezuelan oil-production enterprise is to be established in Venezuela by August. Chavez visited Belarus in July 2006, and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is expected to pay a state visit to Venezuela in the near future. JM

Andrey Abozau, a member of a group that in 2005 created satirical cartoons featuring Belarusian President Lukashenka and other senior government officials, intends to apply to the Estonian authorities for political asylum, Belapan reported on March 29. Abozau fled Belarus after the Minsk City Prosecutor's Office instituted criminal proceedings over the cartoons in August 2005. The case was opened under an article that carries a prison sentence of up to five years for the defamation of the president. Last week, Abozau was arrested in the Russian city of Tver on a train traveling from Moscow to Tallinn, Estonia. He was previously put on the Russian police's wanted list at the request of the Belarusian investigators. A court in Tver, however, ruled that Abozau could not be extradited to Belarus, and the Belarusian national was brought to the Estonian border earlier this week. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on March 29 accused the government of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of violating the constitution by forming a coalition based on individuals rather than political factions, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko's charges were linked to a recent defection of a dozen opposition lawmakers to the ruling majority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). Yushchenko slammed the ruling majority for a "barefaced revision of the will of the Ukrainian voters, a breach of the constitution, and a direct road to lawlessness." He suggested that he might respond by dissolving parliament. "I will never allow the parliamentary majority to be reformatted in violation of the constitution. If any political forces believe they can claim 300 seats [in parliament] and they declare repeatedly that there will be a 300-deputy coalition in parliament, then a political decision should be made and we should call early parliamentary elections," Yushchenko said. Yushchenko has reportedly invited Yanukovych and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz as well as leaders of parliamentary factions for consultations on this controversial issue, but it is unclear when such talks could take place. Moroz is currently on a visit to China. JM

Prime Minister Yanukovych said on March 29 that President Yushchenko should not have hastened to threaten dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian media reported. "It is irresponsible to make such statements. There is a system in the country for interpreting laws, and that is the Constitutional Court, which draws conclusions and makes decisions. And in my view it is a mistake on the president's part to make such statements," Yanukovych said. Later the same day, lawmaker Raisa Bohatyryova, head of the Party of Regions parliamentary caucus, said in a television interview that if the president issues a decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada, the ruling coalition will appeal against it to the Constitutional Court. "If it is the president who wants early elections, they will take place, and we will help him win reelection," Bohatyryova added. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk revealed on March 30 that Yushchenko and Yanukovych discussed the current political standoff for several hours on March 29 and were expected to continue their discussion on March 30. JM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous opposition bloc, on March 30 called for new parliamentary elections and expressed confidence that opposition parties would get more votes in such elections than those from the ruling coalition, UNIAN reported. Tymoshenko was speaking at a meeting of the National Salvation Committee -- a coordinating body of opposition political parties and public organizations that existed in 2001 under the name of the National Salvation Forum and was reactivated by Tymoshenko earlier this month. "The mood has not changed, and people will once again choose democratic forces," Tymoshenko said at the March 30 meeting. "The Socialists, following their cynical betrayal [of the Orange Revolution coalition in July 2006], will not get any seats in parliament," she predicted. JM

Speaking after the third grenade or bomb attack in Mitrovica in the space of a week, a prominent leader of Kosova's moderate Serbs, Oliver Ivanovic, on March 29 called for the replacement of the chief of local police in the ethnically divided city, the KosovaLive news service reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 29, 2007). Ivanovic said that international police should take over law enforcement responsibilities from a local force comprised of members of Kosova's ethnic communities. Another Serbian leader, Marko Jaksic, who heads the Association of Serbian Municipalities and Communities, said that -- in the wording of KosovaLive -- the predictions of some U.S. officials that "Kosova will burn" are coming true. It is not clear what comments Jaksic was referring to, but Western diplomats have consistently argued that a swift resolution of Kosova's final status is essential for the maintenance of security in the UN-administered but nominally Serbian province. Members of both the ethnic Albanian and Serbian communities have previously warned that war is a possibility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 6, and 28, 2007). The head of the international military presence in the Mitrovica area, General Clement Bollee, on March 29 said the violence was, in his view, the work of rival gangs and could not destabilize the security situation in the city, KosovaLive reported the same day. KFOR, the international peacekeeping force in Kosova, has said that troop levels will be increased in the region. In related news, police in the region of Gjilan told Radio-Television Kosova on March 28 that they found a small cache of arms and explosives during a raid on the home of a 20-year-old ethnic Albanian. Police seized grenades and grenade launchers was well as ammunition and two guns. A second man, a 22-year-old, was also detained during the raid, which took place on an undisclosed date. AG

The leaders of Kosova's Bosnian Muslim, Turkish, and Romany communities told the news service KosovaLive on March 29 that they want to see Kosova granted independence as soon as possible. The three leaders -- Qemajl Kurtishi of the Bosnian Muslim coalition Vakat, Ercan Spat of the Turkish Democratic Party in Kosova, and Haxhi Zylfi Merxha of the United Roma Party -- all expressed full support for the plan proposed by the UN's Kosova envoy, Martti Ahtisaari. The proposed settlement, which is due shortly to go before the UN's Security Council for debate, includes substantial protections for minorities as well as a proposal to maintain international supervision of Kosova's government for an unlimited period. No census has been held in Kosova since 1991, but a 2005 estimate by Kosova's official statisticians suggests that Bosnian Muslims make up 1.9 percent of the population, Roma 1.7 percent, and Turks 1 percent. Another group, the Gorani, account for an estimated 0.5 percent of the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). Ahtisaari's plan envisages that a census would be held shortly after the plan is approved. AG

A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has criticized the authorities of the Bosnian Serb entity for a boycott in January of Bosnia-Herzegovina's state broadcaster BHT-1, but described the overall situation of media freedom in Bosnia as "commendable," BHT-1 reported on March 29. The report was presented in Vienna by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti following a visit in February to Sarajevo and Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb entity. Haraszti's visit was prompted by a decision by the Republika Srpska government to boycott BHT-1 following tough questioning by BHT-1 reporters of Bosnian Serb officials, notably Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik and Bosnian Prime Minister Nikola Spiric in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2007). "Under no circumstances should a public broadcaster whose mission is to inform all citizens regardless of their social, political or other affiliations be the object of a boycott by a government or governmental body," Haraszti wrote in his report. The Bosnian Serb government denied BHT-1 reporters access to press conferences and barred its own officials from giving statements to it. Haraszti also pointed out, however, that all officials he met during his visit stressed that this was an "isolated incident," while journalists told him the government has "learned its lesson." The report also calls on the authorities to complete the stalled reform of Bosnia's public broadcasting system in order to reunify the country's three public broadcasters. TV

The Georgian leadership has announced at least three successive proposals since September 2004 for resolving its conflict with the breakaway unrecognized republic of South Ossetia. All have been rejected.

Now, Tbilisi is seeking the backing of the international community to establish a pro-Georgian interim administration in South Ossetia in a bid to sideline the de facto administration of Eduard Kokoity, the republican president whom Tbilisi regards as a Russian puppet.

Meanwhile, the EU was scheduled on March 27 to discuss a new plan that advocates diverging approaches to expediting a solution to the frozen conflicts in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Under former President Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian leadership concentrated its energy on seeking, first through Russian mediation and then with the assistance of the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary-General group of countries (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia) a solution of the Abkhaz conflict that would enable the estimated 200,000 or more Georgians who fled the region during the 1992-93 fighting to return to their homes.

The conflict with South Ossetia, by contrast, was kept on the back burner. After the Rose Revolution in November 2003 and the ouster six months later of Aslan Abashidze, the autocratic ruler of Ajara, however, Tbilisi began focusing in earnest on South Ossetia.

An attempt in the summer of 2004 to bring the region back under Tbilisi's control by force of arms backfired badly, costing the lives of several dozen Georgian Interior Ministry troops and precipitating the dismissal of Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili, himself a native of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2004, just weeks after the botched Georgian military intervention, President Mikheil Saakashvili outlined a three-stage plan for resolving the twin conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

That plan entailed confidence-building measures; the demilitarization of the conflict zones -- to be followed by OSCE monitoring of the Roki tunnel linking South Ossetia and Russia, and the deployment of UN observers along the border between Abkhazia and Russia; and the granting to the two regions of "the fullest and broadest form of autonomy." This, according to Saakashvili, would protect the Abkhaz and Ossetian languages and cultures, and guarantee self-governance, fiscal control, and "meaningful representation and power-sharing" at the national level. Both unrecognized republics rejected that offer out of hand.

Four months later, in January 2005, Saakashvili unveiled a revised and expanded peace plan for South Ossetia during an address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The full text of Saakashvili's plan was posted on his website ( in late March 2005.

It comprised "a constitutional guarantee of autonomy, which includes the right to freely and directly elected local self-governance - including an executive branch and a parliament for South Ossetia. South Ossetia's parliament will...control...issues such as culture, education, social policy, economic policy, public order, the organization of local self governance, and environmental protection."

South Ossetia would also, Saakashvili said, have representatives in the national government, parliament, and judiciary. He further said Tbilisi was ready to discuss with the South Ossetian leadership "innovative ideas," including free economic zones, and to permit that leadership to tailor its economic policies to local needs.

Saakashvili proposed a three-year transition period during which a mixed Georgian-Ossetian police force would be set up under the guidance of international organizations, and the South Ossetian military would be absorbed into the Georgian armed forces.

He appealed to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the European Union, the United States, and Russia to support and facilitate the peace process. But Kokoity again dismissed Saakashvili's offer. Kokoity said he was ready for dialogue with Tbilisi "on equal terms," and to expand economic cooperation with Georgia, but he added that South Ossetia does not need Georgian humanitarian aid.

Saakashvili refloated the revised version of his original peace proposal at a conference in Batumi in July 2005 on conflict resolution to which Kokoity claimed he was not invited. Then, in October 2005, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli outlined to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna yet another rewrite of Saakashvili's peace proposal.

Just how it differed from earlier drafts is not clear, but Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin criticized it as inferior to the proposal that Saakashvili unveiled to the UN General Assembly in September 2004.

Kokoity responded in December 2005 by floating a three-stage peace proposal of his own, which the Georgian authorities initially lauded. But efforts to convene a meeting between Kokoity and Noghaideli to discuss details failed.

Meanwhile, Georgia launched a parallel two-track campaign to have the Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone withdrawn, and to bring U.S. and EU representatives into the ongoing talks on resolving the conflict conducted under the auspices of the Joint Control Commission (JCC). That body comprises government representatives from Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and the Republic of North Ossetia, which is a subject of the Russian Federation. OSCE representatives also regularly attend JCC meetings.

No progress was registered toward resolving the conflict in 2006. In November 2006, Kokoity was reelected for a second term as de facto president with 96 percent of the vote. The same day, however, the Georgian electorate of South Ossetia participated in a parallel ballot in which they elected their own de facto president, Dmitry Sanakoyev. Sanakoyev served as defense minister and then as prime minister for several months in 2001 under Kokoity's predecessor, Lyudvig Chibirov, but left South Ossetia for Moscow after Kokoity came to power.

The international community did not acknowledge the election of either Kokoity or Sanakoyev as legal and valid. But that did not deter Saakashvili from announcing in his annual address to parliament in mid-March that he intends to embark on "peace talks" with Sanakoyev, who has established a parallel government based in the village of Kurta.

The pro-Saakashvili Rustavi-2 television channel on March 26 quoted Saakashvili as saying he plans to set up a "temporary administrative unit" in South Ossetia that would oversee the economy and social services, help maintain law and order, and participate in talks on the region's future status within Georgia.

If those talks reach a conclusion, Saakashvili continued, "real elections" will be held throughout South Ossetia. He added that within days, the Georgian government will ask parliament to draft the appropriate legislation on the temporary government.

In an interview published on March 26 in "The Georgian Times," Sanakoyev outlined his own vision of South Ossetia's future. He reaffirmed his commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully, but at the same time said Kokoity has no options other than resigning or risk being deposed.

Sanakoyev admitted that neither he nor the administration he heads is regarded as legitimate, but said he thinks that will change given that "we have managed to create an alternative to the Kokoity authorities who are leading the Ossetian people into an abyss."

He said his administration hopes for economic ties with Russia, especially neighboring North Ossetia, and that "we are going to develop our economy on the basis of raw materials" in light of the region's untapped hydroelectric capacity.

In one key respect, however, Sanakoyev's plans appear to diverge from, and go far beyond, what Tbilisi is offering: he said he wants "federal relations," which Tbilisi has consistently rejected in the case of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (The Georgian Constitution defines Georgia as "an independent, unified, and indivisible state.")

And, while Sanakoyev expressed "understanding" for Tbilisi's unhappiness with the JCC as a format for talks, he said he still believes that commission "has great potential for [promoting] reconciliation and disarmament."

Meanwhile in Brussels, Ambassador Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative for the South Caucasus, has overseen the drafting of a landmark 60-page blueprint for resolving both the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. That plan advocates diverging approaches to the two regions, in tacit acknowledgment of the very real differences between the leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

While the former are widely regarded by international diplomats and experts as opportunistic, entirely subservient to Moscow, and mired in dubious, possibly even criminal economic activities, the latter are seen as politically sophisticated and desperately seeking the backing of the international community to lessen their dependence on Moscow -- currently their sole ally -- and broaden their leeway in ongoing UN-mediated talks with Tbilisi.

In line with that perception, what RFE/RL's Georgian Service on March 22 dubbed the "Semneby plan" seeks to persuade the Abkhaz of the economic and social benefits of reaching an accommodation with Tbilisi.

It also envisages establishing new customs structures to put an end to smuggling across the borders of both republics and, in South Ossetia, policing the porous border with North Ossetia to preclude the shipment of Russian weaponry to the South Ossetian military, according to a March 20 analysis on

Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah recently demanded that Afghan President Hamid Karzai negotiate for the release of Adjmal Nasqhbandi, whom the Taliban is currently holding hostage, Reuters reported on March 29. Nasqhbandi is the Afghan interpreter who was kidnapped by the Taliban on March 4 along with Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo and a driver, Sayyed Agha, who was beheaded by his captors. The Italian government negotiated indirectly with the Taliban, securing Mastrogiacomo's release on March 19 in exchange for the release of five Taliban members being detained by Afghan authorities. According to Reuters, Dadullah requested the release of two additional Taliban members in exchange for Nasqhbandi, saying: "The Kabul government has no option; it must negotiate with us for [Nasqhbandi]. If this doesn't happen,... then we will kill him." Reuters reported that Dadullah also taunted Karzai, calling him a puppet of Western governments, and encouraged him negotiate as the Italian government did. CJ

Sayed Iqbal Munib, governor of the northern Sar-i-Pol Province, survived two unsuccessful attacks on his life on March 28, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the next day. The first attempt occurred as Munib was traveling to an inauguration ceremony at a school, when a roadside bomb exploded near the official convoy as it was traveling through the Imam Sahib Kalan area; no one was injured in that incident. Later, as Munib was returning to his office, a hand grenade was thrown at his vehicle; four people were injured in that blast, including three locals and an Iranian cameraman, but Munib escaped unharmed. Pajhwak Afghan News reported that three suspects have been arrested in connection with the attacks. CJ

Thomas Schweich, the U.S. counternarcotics coordinator for Afghanistan, told AP in a March 28 interview that increased antidrug efforts and aggressive action against the Taliban are reducing opium-poppy production there. In an interview at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Schweich said there are currently six poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan. "I'm hoping we can get to 10 or 12 this year, and maybe up to 20 in a couple of years," he said, "which is more than half the provinces in Afghanistan." According to Schweich, the production and trafficking of heroin from Afghan poppies threatens the government, international reconstruction efforts, and overall stability and security in the country. CJ

In his interview with AP at NATO headquarters in Brussels on March 28, Schweich indicated there are significant challenges to antidrug efforts in Afghanistan. Opium-poppy cultivation has reportedly decreased in the more stable areas in northern Afghanistan, but Schweich conceded that those reductions could be "more than offset" by increased production in the volatile southern regions. The Afghan police counternarcotics unit is said to be understaffed, and corruption in the judicial system remains a significant problem. Schweich defended the poppy-eradication program but maintained that farmers should be offered assistance with the cultivation of alternative crops. In addition, Schweich said he thinks the Taliban are developing closer relationships with drug traffickers, who are increasingly moving drugs into Iran. Washington is cooperating with Pakistan and Central Asian republics to stifle the flow of Afghan heroin into these countries, but there is no such collaboration with Iran, Schweich said. Despite reductions in poppy cultivation in northern Afghanistan, the UN estimates that overall production was up 59 percent in 2006 compared to the previous year. CJ

Student members of the Basij militia, a force affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), gathered outside the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Tehran on March 29 to call on the government to prosecute British servicemen captured recently and to sever ties with Britain, Radio Farda reported, citing ILNA. Iran detained the Britons on March 23 for entering a zone it has described as its territorial waters. Angry British officials have rejected Iran's delineation and shown purported evidence indicating that the servicemen were well inside Iraqi waters. Tehran demonstrators reportedly carried placards calling the arrested servicemen "spies." Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told Iranian state television on March 29 that the captives may be prosecuted, AP reported, presumably for illegally entering Iranian territory. Iran also suspended an earlier promise to release the only servicewoman among the captives, in response to Great Britain's move to involve the UN Security Council in the dispute. The Security Council on March 29 agreed on a statement expressing "grave concern" at the detention. The statement also urged Tehran to allow "consular access" to the Britons. VS

EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana reportedly told Iranian Foreign Manuchehr Mottaki in Riyadh on March 28 that the EU found the Britons' arrest unacceptable, Reuters reported on March 29. Solana urged Iran separately in Brussels on March 29 to release the sailors and also to return to negotiations over its contested nuclear program, Reuters reported. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on March 29 that the issue is between Britain and Iran, and he rejected as "unacceptable" the "intervention" of "irrelevant" parties, which he said will not help resolve the problem, IRNA reported. Hosseini said EU officials "had better" advise the British to consider evidence, stop provoking a "scandal," put aside "the typical conduct of colonial times, and recognize the legitimate right of states to defend" their territory. He said he cannot understand how "third state" officials have accepted the British government's "claim" on the location of the sailors "without access to full and correct information." VS

At a meeting on March 29 with the head of the French Foreign Ministry's North Africa and Middle East department, Jean Felix-Paganon, Iran's ambassador in Paris, Ali Ahani, said the lead-up to the recent seizure of British naval personnel was not the first time the British have "violated our territorial waters," and claimed they did the same in 2004, Fars News Agency reported. The French Foreign Ministry reportedly expressed concern over the Britons' arrest and asked for their release, Fars and AFP reported. Ahani told Felix-Paganon that UN resolutions against Iran do not give the British permission to violate Iranian territory, Fars reported. He reportedly said British officials were "well aware" of the location of their troops. He said Britain's attempts to involve the media and the European Union in the dispute are provocative and a bid to "whitewash" the problem. "Clearly, this issue will be examined and pursued within the framework of international laws," Fars quoted him as saying. VS

The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 29 denouncing a "bold and provocative" act by British forces against its consulate-general in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah, ISNA reported. The ministry communique stated that British military vehicles arrived near the Iranian Consulate building before noon on March 29 and "besieged" the consulate by repeatedly driving past or around the compound "effectively for an hour and 20 minutes," ISNA reported. The ministry said the number of British forces gradually increased, that they "violated" the consular building, and that there was shooting. Iran's consul in Al-Basrah, Mohammad Reza Nasir, told AFP the same day that British troops entered the consular building for 10 minutes and there was a shoot-out. The British Army denied its troops left their cars and stated that its forces were shot at near the consulate, AFP reported. There were no reported casualties. ISNA observed that the incident, following "the blatant violation of Iran's waters by two British ships," raised "doubts" on "the real motives of the British in the actions they have taken in recent days." The Iranian Foreign Ministry "immediately" protested with the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, ISNA reported on March 29. Consul Nasir told AFP he thinks the incident is related to the recent capture of British sailors. VS

In a speech at the Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 29 broadcast live on Al-Iraqiyah television, President Jalal Talabani tried to allay fears that sectarian violence might spillover to neighboring states. Talabani told Arab leaders that Iraq needs their support to continue on the path to stability. He highlighted the progress made in the country over the past four years, including a threefold rise in incomes, a democratically elected government, and the drafting of an oil law that will put the national wealth in the hands of the people. He praised the progress being made under the Baghdad security plan, and told Arab leaders that the government is making strides in forging national reconciliation with resistance groups. "We are totally aware that it is not possible to claim building a new Iraq or a democratic and federal state" without the participation of all sects and ethnicities taking part in the political process, Talabani said. He invited Arab leaders to attend an extraordinary foreign ministers' meeting in Baghdad, saying their attendance will demonstrate their concern and support for Iraq's recovery. KR

In a March 29 interview with Al-Arabiyah television, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari disputed comments by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz that Iraq is under an "illegal occupation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). Zebari said coalition forces "are working in accordance with an international authorization with the consent of the elected Iraqi government, which represents the majority of Iraqis. Therefore, we do not consider this an illegitimate occupation in the legal sense of the word," Zebari said. Asked about comments by the king and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Iraq is on the brink of civil war, Zebari said: "We have our own opinion on this issue. We are the people of the cause, and we are living amid this violence, terrorism, and daily confrontations. We do not believe that the situation has reached the stage of civil war." Zebari told Al-Arabiyah that the Arab League has been assigned the task of preparing and organizing a reconciliation conference, which league Secretary-General Amr Musa said will be held as soon as possible. KR

The final resolutions announced at the conclusion of the Arab League summit on March 29 called on member states to support Iraqi security and stability, SPA reported the same day. The final statement stressed the need to respect the will of the Iraqi people in determining their political future, and said the establishment of security and stability is the sole responsibility of the Iraqi national-unity government, constitutional institutions, and political leaders. It also recognized the need for Arab states to support national reconciliation in Iraq. The summit welcomed steps taken by the Iraqi government to implement the security plan, and supported the government's efforts to reorganize its security institutions on national and professional bases. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television in a March 29 interview that Arab states can contribute positively to the establishment of security in Iraq. "We seek to launch an Arab endeavor to help Iraq combat terrorism, which threatens all Arab states and not only Iraq," al-Dabbagh said. He called on Arab states to help promote internal dialogue between Iraq's fractious groups, adding: "the Arab efforts should also seek to persuade some sides which are undecided about or opposed to the political process to take part in this process to build state institutions. I think the Arab [states] can give so much to Iraq if the Arabs are convinced that an unstable Iraq poses dangers" to the region. Sunni Arab parliamentarian Zafir al-Ani said in a statement that Iraqis are frustrated with the Arab states, which pledge support but do little more. Al-Ani said Iraqis feel they are facing their destiny alone despite the potential repercussions that the situation in Iraq could have on the region, Baghdad satellite television reported. KR

The Japanese cabinet has approved a plan to extend airlift operations in Iraq for an additional two years, Kyodo World Service reported on March 30. Foreign Minister Taro Aso said a two-year extension "is necessary to continue stable airlifting support." Tokyo pulled its ground troops out of Iraq last summer but expanded its air support. Japan began airlift operations from Kuwait in March 2004, initially in support of its ground troops stationed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. It later expanded its operations to transport supplies and personnel for the United Nations and coalition forces to Baghdad and Irbil. Meanwhile, the Bosnian parliament voted on March 29 to extend the military's mandate in Iraq until year-end, ONASA press agency reported on the same day. Bosnia-Herzegovina has 37 soldiers in Iraq. KR