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Newsline - March 5, 2008

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin, who chairs the Security Council during March, said on March 4, one day after that body approved new sanctions against Iran for refusing to stop its uranium-enrichment program, that Tehran should face up to the "new reality" and cooperate with the international community, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). He added that Iran now has "a great opportunity [thanks to recent] offers by the [foreign ministers of Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany, and the United States], including the opportunity of overcoming its problems with the United States." Churkin stressed that the six countries now follow a common line in dealing with Iran, adding that "what happened in the past is the past, and now we have a different format of negotiations." He noted that Washington has dropped its previous "strong objection" to Russia providing enriched uranium as fuel for the reactor that Russia is building at Bushehr. The Russian daily "Gazeta" noted on March 5 that Moscow cannot afford to risk alienating Tehran because it wants to conclude a deal to sell 100 passenger aircraft to Iran. PM

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Berlin on March 4 at a gathering of his Social Democratic Party's (SPD) Willy Brandt Foundation that the EU needs closer relations with Russia as part of a new overall eastern policy, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 5. Such a policy should also encompass the EU's ties to Ukraine, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics to the east and southeast of the Brussels-based bloc. He said that the EU should act as a "go-between" in dealing with the United States and Russia in order to develop "peace structures" linking "our trans-Atlantic allies...and our eastern neighbors." Steinmeier argued that the EU "must" work to establish "a common space of peace and prosperity from the Atlantic coast to Siberia." He said that the main issues that need to be faced in constructing "an all-European peace system" are climate change, energy security, natural resource supplies, demographics, and terrorism. Steinmeier warned the West against distancing itself from Russia or seeking confrontation with it, calling instead for "dialogue and trust." He acknowledged that Russia's recent presidential election could have been "more free, fair, and open," and alluded to unspecified "problematic developments" in Russia. Steinmeier nonetheless stressed that Russia is an "irreplaceable strategic partner" for the EU, adding that "Russia needs us" to help develop its economy and infrastructure. Steinmeier called for "taking [President-elect Dmitry] Medvedev at his word" when he speaks out on behalf of freedom and the rule of law. "Let us accept his offer of partnership," Steinmeier argued. He added that this includes seeking "mutually acceptable solutions" regarding the planned U.S. missile-defense system. PM

The Foreign Ministry is continuing work on a planned document to replace its basic policy paper that dates from 2000, the daily "Novye izvestia" reported on March 4. The paper noted that "the situation nowadays is certainly different from what it was then. The United States withdrew from the [1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty [in 2001], Russia is less focused on international terrorism, and integration processes within the CIS have slowed." The daily quoted an unnamed "source" in the ministry as saying that "a great deal of what the concept adopted in 2000 is about has become outmoded. But our basic principles remain unchanged. They are pragmatism, [respect for differing] interests, and a nonconfrontational approach." The paper quoted Mikhail Margelov, who is chairman of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, as saying that the new document should take into account that the UN and other international organizations set up during the Cold War are no longer "efficient" and should be "restructured" to include more "constructive cooperation." The daily quoted State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov of Unified Russia as saying that the new policy paper "should take into account Russia's new role in the world" as a richer and more assertive power than it was in the 1990s. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," End Note, September 6, 2007, and "Russia: The Kremlin's Evolving Foreign-Policy Stance,", February 29, 2008). PM

The Association of Lawyers of Russia, which was created in December 2005 and whose oversight board is chaired by President-elect Medvedev, is undergoing rapid and massive expansion, reported on March 4. The association has branches or representative offices in 58 federation subjects and plans to have a presence in all of them in the near future, association co-Chairman Veniamin Yakovlev told journalists on March 4. He added that 100,000 Russians turned to the association for legal help in 2007. Yakovlev cited Medvedev's recent comment that Russia has a culture of "legal nihilism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2008) and said the association is determined to combat this culture. He added that the association assists the government by providing evaluations of proposed legislation. The association is also involved in the management of Zakon-TV, which began broadcasting in January and is financed by $10 million from Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the state-controlled natural-gas monopoly of which Medvedev is chairman of the board. speculated that the association has the potential to become an independent power base for Medvedev and could help him counter the influence of the siloviki -- people with connections to the defense, law enforcement, and security organs -- who came to prominence under outgoing President Vladimir Putin. RC

Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin on March 4 conducted a press conference summing up the work of his office in 2007, "Novyye izvestia" reported on March 5. He characterized the human rights situation in Russia as "unsatisfactory," saying that his office received more than 30,000 complaints last year. He noted that this is a 10 percent decline over 2006, but added that many election-related complaints were directed to other offices. He said the majority of complaints to his office involved alleged abuse by state officials, particularly law enforcement officials and judges. Many concerned conditions in pretrial-detention centers, torture and abuse in prisons, and unnecessary delays in court hearings. Lukin said the actions of the Moscow police in preventing a March 3 opposition protest were a "hyper-reaction and excessive," "Vremya novostei" reported on March 5. RC

Maksim Reznik, a prominent official in the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko and a leading force in the latest project to unite Russia's liberal groups, was ordered detained for up to two months by a Petersburg court on March 4 pending charges of insulting and assaulting a police officer, reported the same day. Reznik was arrested in the early morning hours of March 3, the day after the presidential election and the day of a planned opposition March of Dissent protest in the city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008), outside the Yabloko offices. Police allege he was drunk and abusive and that he struck an officer several times in the face. He could face a sentence of more than two years in prison if convicted. Reznik denies the charges, but the court ordered him held in custody, saying that his previous administrative-detention sentences stemming from his protest activities indicated that he does not respect the law. According to Reznik's lawyer, witnesses to the incident said Reznik was not abusive. They also said a local police station received a call from a resident of the building across the street from the incident saying that he or she had seen police officers beating two men. Reznik is a key organizer of a planned March 22 conference at which leaders of Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces, the United Civic Front, and other liberal groups plan to discuss the formation of a broad liberal coalition. RC

The Duma on March 19 is expected to consider in the second reading a bill that would restrict the right of foreigners to own Internet service providers, print-media outlets, book publishers, and printing presses, "Vedomosti" reported on March 5. According to the report, the innovation is the brainchild of chief Kremlin ideologist and deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov. Under the bill, such companies would be considered part of a strategic sector that already includes radio and television broadcasting. As a result, any foreign entity seeking to own more than 50 percent of such a company would have to receive permission from a "special organ" created by the government and chaired by the prime minister. If a foreign government is involved, permission is required for the purchase of more than 25 percent. RC

Russian companies must make a total of $110 billion in payments on accumulated debts in 2008, reported on March 4. According to the report, Russian corporations owe $73 billion and banks owe $38 billion. Some $36 billion is due by the end of March, setting off a scramble for additional loans or refinancing. Yury Amvrosiyev, an analyst with the Russian Development Bank, told the website it would be "logical" if the Central Bank provided "new instruments" to help with the debts if the situation "becomes close to critical." Dmitry Pushkaryov, an analyst with ITinvest, noted that the falling value of the dollar and continued rising global energy prices could help Russia avoid serious consequences. President Putin on March 3 called for "the optimization of the management of the country's financial reserves," meaning the country's massive gold and foreign-currency reserves. He added that some mechanism for the long-term refinancing of the banking system must be worked out (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). RC

The organizers of a planned extraordinary congress of the Ingush people, scheduled to take place on March 8 on the western outskirts of Nazran, circulated the agenda on March 4, which was posted to the website They noted that the Russian Federation's Concept of Administrative Reform made public in 2005 contains a section on the interaction of executive power and civil society that, if implemented, could help extricate the republic from the current political, social and economic crisis. In a separate posting on on March 5, one of the congress organizers, Magomed Khazbiyev, appealed to Ingush businessmen to contact them in order to discuss unspecified issues connected with a separate mass anticorruption protest planned for March 12. The republic's government refused last week to accept a formal application by Khazbiyev for permission to hold that protest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2008). LF

Nizam Radjabov, an investigator with the Daghestan Prosecutor's office, confirmed on March 4 that two people have been detained in connection with the November 2007 killing of Farid Babayev, who headed the Daghestan chapter of the opposition Yabloko party, reported. Babayev died on November 24, three days after an unidentified gunman shot him four times outside his home in Makhachkala (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 27, and 29, 2007). Radjabov did not name the detainees, who he said have not yet been formally charged with the killing. LF

Parliament deputies voted on March 4 overwhelmingly in favor of lifting the immunity from prosecution of four of their number, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The four men -- Miasnik Malkhasian, Hakob Hakobian, Sasun Mikaelian, and Khachatur Sukiasian -- will be charged with attempting to seize power by force in connection with their participation in the violent clashes in Yerevan late on March 1 between supporters of former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian and police and security forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). Hakobian and Malkhasian both attended the parliament session under guard and denied the charges they will face. Also on March 4, Armenia's Constitutional Court began hearing appeals by Ter-Petrossian and by a second defeated presidential candidate, Tigran Karapetian, to invalidate the official election returns that gave Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian 52.82 percent of the vote, Ter-Petrossian 21.51 percent, and Karapetian 0.6 percent, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In an op-ed published on March 5 in "The Wall Street Journal," Ter-Petrossian deplored the international community's lackluster response to procedural violations during the February 19 election and to the authorities' use of violence against protesters in Yerevan on March 1. He attributed that response to European organizations' "naive" belief that "praising small improvements, instead of criticizing major flaws, creates an incentive for good behavior," and to the equally spurious belief that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be resolved only by leaders such as Prime Minister and President-elect Sarkisian and outgoing President Robert Kocharian who themselves come from that unrecognized republic. Ter-Petrossian said the international community should unequivocally condemn the March 1 violence and acknowledge that the authorities, not the opposition were the instigators; warn the Armenian authorities against continued persecution of the opposition; lift restrictions on the media and on the right of assembly; and conduct a serious reassessment of the conduct of the ballot which would "inevitably" lead to a call to hold new elections. LF

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 3 expressed profound concern over the violence in Yerevan and called for a thorough investigation, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported the following day. He appealed to the Armenian authorities "to take all necessary steps to ensure a return to normalcy, including...a speedy lifting of the state of emergency." In Brussels, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner similarly urged the Armenian government to lift the state of emergency and the restrictions on leaving his home imposed on Ter-Petrossian. The New York-based Freedom House released a statement branding the imposition of a state of emergency "excessive and unnecessary" and demanding that it be lifted as soon as possible. The Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement calling on the Armenian authorities to lift the "ban on independent news gathering and dissemination, and restore access to independent and opposition media." LF

The Armenian and Azerbaijani Defense Ministries have each accused the opposing side of launching an offensive early on March 4 on the Line of Contact near the Mardakert Raion in the northeast of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian Defense Ministry said Azerbaijani forces attacked and took a Karabakh Armenian armed forces post but were forced to abandon it and retreat after a counterattack later that day. The Defense Ministry said on March 4 "several" Azerbaijani servicemen were killed but the Armenian side suffered no casualties. Russian media including quoted Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying that the Azerbaijani side used heavy artillery for the first time since the May 1994 cease-fire; that claim has not yet been substantiated. In Baku, Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu said the Armenian side launched the attack, in which he claimed 12 Armenian servicemen were killed and 15 seriously wounded, reported. On March 5, Sabiroglu named four Azerbaijani servicemen killed in the fighting, which Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim suggested on March 4 was an attempt to distract attention from the domestic political tensions in Armenia. On January 9, the online daily quoted an Azerbaijani Defense Ministry official as saying that in 2007, Armenia violated the cease-fire 575 times, killing 17 Azerbaijani servicemen in the course of that year and wounding nine. LF

In response to a February 26 request from President Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani parliament voted on March 4 by 87 in favor and three against to recall the Azerbaijani peacekeeping detachment in Kosova, reported. The 34 Azerbaijani servicemen have served in Kosova since 1999 as part of the Turkish contingent. LF

Georgian opposition parties on March 5 categorically rejected constitutional amendments passed by parliament in the first reading the previous day by a vote of 168 in favor and two against, reported. The amendments increase the number of deputies elected under the majoritarian system from 50 to 75 and lower from 100 to 75 the number to be elected under the proportional system. Opposition parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili (Republican Party) said even before the vote on March 4 that the opposition would appeal the amendments with the Constitutional Court as they were not debated prior to the vote. Kakha Kukava (Conservative Party) told on March 5 that the opposition will suspend further talks with the authorities to protest the amendments, and that "there will again be street rallies." He accused parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze of going back on an earlier pledge to support the opposition's demands for so-called "regional proportional lists" for electing majoritarian lawmakers that would have enabled opposition parties or blocs to nominate several candidates in each constituency. LF

The parliament of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia issued a formal appeal on March 4 to the UN secretary-general, the Russian president and legislature, and the heads of state and parliaments of CIS and EU member states to recognize the republic as an independent state, and the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on March 4 and 5, respectively. The appeal affirmed that the aspiration of the people of South Ossetia for international recognition is in line with UN statutes and with international legal norms, and that following international recognition of Kosova's independence, the principle of the inviolability of territorial integrity can no longer be regarded as taking precedent over the right to self-determination. LF

At a press conference in Bishkek, Shamshybek Mamyrov, the deputy head of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry's Center for Law Enforcement Reform, unveiled on March 3 a new set of programs designed to bolster crime-prevention efforts, AKIpress reported. According to Mamyrov, the new measures include the establishment of several new public preventive centers, set to be opened by March 10 in the more remote regions and rural areas, and operated by local officials with the participation of "representatives of local women's and elderly people's councils, nongovernmental organizations, and public councils." Aimed at providing specific assistance targeting "juvenile delinquents," the planned centers will be matched by an increase in the number of "district police officers and juvenile delinquency inspectors." Special telephone hotlines dealing with juvenile crime are also to be set up in each major police station. RG

About 4,000 workers at a factory in the southwestern Jalal-Abad region town of Maili-Suu have been on strike for a week over wage arrears, Kyrgyz Television reported on March 4. The strikers say they have not been paid since November 2007 and are owed some 36 million soms ($989,283) in back wages. The strikers told reporters that the situation worsened after the former director of the factory, Yevgeny Volkov, fled with an undetermined amount of company assets, which included the workers' salaries. The Maili-Suu factory, which accounts for roughly 40 percent of the town's economy, is one of the largest producers of light bulbs in Kyrgyzstan. The new owner of the plant, an unidentified Moscow-based Russian businessman, promised to pay the back salaries by March 24 if the strikers returned to work. The factory was a central part of the government's privatization effort in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 23, 2002). RG

During a television interview, Industry, Energy, and Fuel Resources Minister Saparbek Balkibekov announced on March 4 that Kyrgyzstan plans to demand payment for water resources from neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz Television reported. Balkibekov said that his ministry has prepared "new conditions for cooperation" with "downstream countries" for supplying them with hydroelectric power from the Toktogul power station. Kyrgyzstan recently suspended electricity supplies to Tajikistan after failing to agree to the terms of the sale of some 11 million kilowatt-hours of electricity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2008). RG

Tajik Justice Ministry official Davlat Sulaimonov confirmed on March 4 that a new pro-government party has submitted a formal application for registration with the ministry, Asia-Plus reported. According to Sulaimonov, the application by the "Vahdat" (union) party is the sixth time the party sought formal registration, while the ministry has rejected each of the five previous applications as failing to meet with certain unspecified legal requirements. Sulaimonov added that the ministry will issue a ruling on the party's application within 30 days. Vahdat leader Hikmatullo Saidov claims to have some 3,000 supporters and an organizational presence in nearly all of the country's regions. If approved for official registration, Vahdat would be the ninth political party in Tajikistan. The other parties are the ruling People's Democratic Party, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Islamic Revival Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Agrarian Party, and the Party of Economic Reforms. RG

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov appointed by decree on March 3 Supreme Court Judge Chary Hojamyradov as the new prosecutor-general, Turkmen Television reported. A second decree named Yaranmurat Yazmyradov as Hojamyradov's replacement as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Yazmyradov previously served as the head of the district court in the central Ahal region. Berdymukhammedov explained that the appointment of a new prosecutor-general was necessary due to "serious shortcomings" in the performance of the outgoing prosecutor, Muhammet Ogsukov. RG

In a decree on March 4, Alyaksandr Lukashenka abolished legislation that was seen as scaring off foreign investors, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Lukashenka's press office said that the decision to eliminate the so-called "golden share" rule will "contribute to creating favorable conditions for drawing foreign direct investments into...the Belarusian economy." The "golden share" rule, introduced by Lukashenka in 1997 to "regulate the privatization process," allowed the authorities to intervene in the activities of joint-stock companies in which the government held a stake, and to install government-appointed managers whenever the company was thought to be facing an "unfavorable socio-economic situation." Under another decree issued in 2004, the government could apply the "golden share" rule to any enterprise formerly owned by the state, regardless of its current ownership. The decision to eliminate the legislation was welcomed by the International Monetary Fund. AM

A district court in Salihorsk, Minsk Oblast, on March 3 sentenced small-business owner Uladzimir Shyla to 15 days in jail for participating in an unauthorized rally, Belapan reported. Shyla delivered a speech at the March 2 rally in Salihorsk protesting against government limitations on the activities of some entrepreneurs. Three other activists -- Uladzimir Syarheyeu, Mikhail Pashkevich, and Mikhail Kryvau -- were questioned by the Minsk police and charged with "active participation in group actions grossly disturbing the public peace" at a January 10 demonstration by small-business owners in Minsk. Syarheyeu, Pashkevich, and Kryvau were released after they signed a document pledging not to leave Minsk. Meanwhile, another small-business activist, Syarhey Parsyukevich, has been jailed for three days pending a decision on criminal charges against him. Parsyukevich is accused of attacking a police officer while serving a 15-day prison term for taking part in the January 10 demonstration in Minsk. Parsyukevich says a prison warden attacked him. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on March 4 sent a letter to Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko demanding the continuation of gas talks with Russia, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko wrote that "as of today, the Russian side has radically limited gas supplies to Ukraine. There are neither agreements nor an appropriate legal basis for securing the gas balance sheet in 2008." Yushchenko suggested that the only feasible solution is to continue talks in accordance with an agreement he reached with Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-February. Russian gas monopoly Gazprom on March 3 reduced gas supplies to Ukraine by an initial 25 percent, arguing that Ukraine has failed to sign agreements on cooperation in the gas sector, and is therefore consuming gas in an "undocumented" way (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). Later the same day, a spokesman for Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's state-owned gas operator, said that Gazprom cut its supplies by an additional 10 percent, but Gazprom has not confirmed this (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov announced on March 4 that the company would reduce supplies to Ukraine by another 25 percent. "Due to the lack of progress in negotiations, and because there are no contracts signed by Naftohaz Ukrayiny for the purchase of gas, including the amounts already delivered in January and February, a decision has been made to reduce gas deliveries to consumers in Ukraine by another 25 percent beginning at 8 p.m. [Moscow time] on March 4," Kupriyanov said. "Gas supplies to European consumers will be delivered in full. Gazprom is ready to continue negotiations with our Ukrainian colleagues," he added. Naftohaz Ukrayiny on the evening of March 4 confirmed that the total reduction of gas supplies to Ukraine amounts to 50 percent. AM

Raisa Bohatyryova, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO), said on March 4 that President Yushchenko might start consultations on the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada unless it resumes its work very soon, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Bohatyryova also said that Yushchenko does not intend to solve the ongoing parliamentary crisis through the dissolution of the parliament, and the responsibility for such a step therefore falls on the ruling coalition and the opposition factions in parliament. The Ukrainian parliament has been deadlocked since mid-January due to the opposition Party of Regions' protests against Ukraine's warming relations with NATO. The last effective meeting of parliament was reportedly held in mid-February. Ukrainian legislation gives the president the right to dissolve the parliament if it fails meet for 30 consecutive days. AM

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko and his Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski on March 4 in Warsaw initialed an agreement on the rules of local traffic within the Ukrainian-Polish border zone, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The agreement is a step toward easing tensions that emerged after Poland in December 2007 joined the Schengen free-transit zone. Ukrainian residents living in the 50-kilometer border zone have blocked checkpoints several times, demanding greater freedom of movement across the border. The agreement on local border traffic must be signed at the intergovernmental level and approved by the parliaments of both countries. AM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on March 4 that Serbs must present a unified front on Kosova towards the EU, news agencies reported. He argued that "instead of division...over the European Union, Serbia needs a united stance, that we want to resume European integration [only] as a whole country [including Kosovo].... I'm calling on all [Serbs] to clearly say that Serbia is going into the EU only with its Kosovo" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 29, 2008). On March 4, the Serbian Radical Party introduced a resolution in the parliament calling for the suspension of all formal contacts with the EU until it withdraws its new mission to an independent Kosova and appealing to EU member states that have recognized Kosova to "annul" their decision. The text states that "the parliament calls on the EU to clearly and unequivocally affirm the integrity of Serbia's territory as a condition for the resumption of talks on Serbia's association with the EU." The resolution, which is expected to be put to a vote soon, is also backed by Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the late President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists. The three parties hold 144 of the 250 seats in the legislature. President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party opposes the measure (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). The Belgrade daily "Politika" wrote on March 5 that the resolution puts the DSS and Democratic Party, which are uneasy coalition partners, in direct confrontation. PM

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement on March 4 that "it is obvious that the attempts at forcibly compelling Kosovo Serbs to reconcile themselves to Kosovo's independence can only provoke a further aggravation of the situation in the province," reported. He added that Kosova's "Serbian...protests are expanding, especially in areas of compact settlement in the province's north and in southern enclaves. Kosovo Serbs ignore the institutions of power being set up by Pristina, as well as the EU mission illegally deployed in the province. Serbian members of the Kosovo Police Service refuse to recognize [Pristina's] leadership." Kamynin also noted that "there are calls being made by supporters of Kosovo's independence on the UN and...KFOR [peacekeepers] to restore Kosovo Albanian governance in Serb-populated areas and return Albanians to local law enforcement structures and to customs checkpoints on the administrative border with Serbia by any means." In New York, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said on March 4 that Moscow has repeatedly warned the international community that independence for Kosova might lead to a de facto partition along ethnic lines, news agencies reported. He added that "this is exactly what is happening." The United States, European Union, and United Nations reject any partition of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 3, 2008). PM

The New York-based nongovernmental organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in an open letter to Serbian President Tadic on March 4 that it "is deeply concerned about the recent attacks on the Belgrade-based independent broadcaster B92 and its founder, Veran Matic. The attacks started in the wake of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence on February 17 -- culminating in the siege of the station by angry protesters on February 21 -- and have continued since" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13 and 25, 2008). The letter noted that "death threats containing explicit slurs [included in vulgar e-mails] have been issued against the broadcaster, and there have been open threats to burn B92's building." In addition, the CPJ stressed that it is "disturbed by statements made by high-ranking government officials, such as Prime Minister...Kostunica and Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, who have effectively condoned the violence following Kosovo's secession from Serbia as an act of patriotism. Journalists interviewed by CPJ say the mob that attacked B92 was inspired by such statements." The CPJ called on Tadic to intervene with officials such as Kostunica and Ilic and to "ensure the safety of our colleagues at B92. We ask that you urge the authorities to investigate the attacks in a timely, efficient, and thorough manner." PM

RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Sombor in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina on March 3 that unidentified local Serbian nationalists organized a boycott of ethnic-Albanian-owned bakeries on a model "recalling 1933," when the Nazis made similar moves against Jewish-owned businesses in Germany. The Sombor organizers pasted signs reading "boycott" on the windows of the bakeries and handed out free bread and rolls in front of the shops. Windows of businesses owned by ethnic Albanians and other ethnic minorities have been reported smashed elsewhere in Serbia since Kosova declared independence on February 17, but this is apparently the first instance of an organized boycott, the broadcast noted. Sombor city council chairman Jovan Slavkovic strongly criticized the boycott and what he called "false patriotism," meaning xenophobia. Sombor's population is about 61 percent Serbian, followed by Hungarians (13 percent) and Croats (8 percent). For decades, ethnic Albanians from the southern parts of former Yugoslavia moved northward in search of work, often specializing in specific trades such as baking and running sweet shops and cafes. PM

Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Iraq has seen a large influx of goods from various countries, most prominently from Iran.

Iraq is Iran's second-largest nonpetroleum export market. Iraqis bought some $1.3 billion worth of goods from Iran in 2006. And estimates for nonpetroleum trade during 2007 are as high as $2 billion -- but almost entirely one way, from Iran to Iraq, according to a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service issued in January.

Iraq imports a wide variety of goods from Iran, including air conditioners, construction material, office furniture, carpets, clothes, medicine, fish, spices, and fruit.

Hundreds of Iraqi trucks pass through border checkpoints every day. However, fuel trucks are the only Iranian vehicles that are allowed to enter Iraq. Iranian trucks that carry food or other products usually go to border "transloading" points where they are unloaded and their cargo is transferred to empty Iraqi trucks.

A seller in the Iraqi city of Al-Kut, near the Iranian border, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) that he regularly stocks Iranian produce that has passed through the transloading points.

"The imported goods from Iran stand out because of their low prices and good quality, which is the reason for their popularity," he says. "When you compare them with local [Iraqi] goods, you find that the local products are expensive and of lower quality compared to those being imported. Even vegetables are being imported from Iran -- as well as poultry, meat, canned foods, carbonated drinks, and dairy products. And they are all lower in price and better in quality."

Many Iraqi shoppers say they prefer Iranian food as a cheap alternative to products imported from other Persian Gulf countries. They say Iranian produce also is more competitive in terms of quality and durability than produce from China.

Majid Abd al-Husayn, from the predominantly Shi'ite city of Karbala in southern Iraq, says Iran has "excellent products that taste good, and we buy them. For example, raw cream is good and we buy it. Regarding other dairy products, I find that the Iranian products are tastier than their Saudi equivalents."

Ties between the Shi'ite Iranian traders and sellers in Karbala have been on the rise since the ouster of Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime and the reemergence of Karbala as a pilgrimage destination for Shi'ite Muslims. Iranian merchants also have been trying to increase their presence in Karbala by organizing trade fairs in the city.

However, not everyone is happy about the growing amount of imports from Iran. "We have observed that the goods reaching Iraq are not of the quality level we desire for Iranian goods coming to Iraq. This is because the quality of the Iranian goods reaching Iraq is not the same as what we have seen of Iranian production," says Shakir Abd Odeh Shhayib, the head of the Karbala Chamber of Commerce.

"While it is true that the Iraqi and Iranian merchants may be responsible for this, some Iranian merchants are seeking to increase their profits by exporting cheap goods to Iraq," he says. "And some Iraqi merchants are driven by their desire for a quick profit to bring in below-standard goods."

Nowruz al-Khaffaf, head of the Kurdistan Contractors' Association in northern Iraq, agrees. He tells RFI that Iraq's dependence on imported goods has forced local producers and sellers in northern Iraq to suspend their work. Al-Khaffaf wants Iraqi authorities to protect local producers by limiting imports from Iran.

"In my personal opinion, the Kurdistan regional government should do nothing. It should not import. We don't want any water or anything else [from Iran]. Let them only provide electricity. The entire regional budget should be allocated to [providing] electricity," al-Khaffaf says.

"Is it reasonable for [Iraq], with its fertile lands, to import cucumbers and tomatoes from Iran and Turkey?" he asks. "We even import dates from there. We have date [groves] stretching from Ba'qubah all the way to Al-Basrah. If you go now to any shop selling fruit, you will find canned date products from Turkey and Iran. Is this reasonable?"

During Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's historic visit to Iraq this week, Ahmadinejad and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani signed seven agreements on issues including industrial development, trade, and customs.

Improved relations between the two countries are not limited to trade only. Tourism also has been on the rise in recent years.

Since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003, Iranian pilgrims have been able to visit holy Shi'ite shrines in Karbala, Al-Najaf, and other sites in neighboring Iraq.

Despite a lack of security, Iranian pilgrims make their way to Iraq in large numbers, with 1,500 to 2,000 entering each day.

About 500,000 Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims visit Iraq every year, and hundreds of Iranian religious scholars head to Karbala and Al-Najaf to study every year. Iranian authorities say they hope the annual number of Iranians visiting Iraq eventually will increase to 3 million.

"The number of visitors differs in line with the occasions, but the average is between 100 to 150 per week," says Nasir al-Juburi, who owns a hotel in Karbala. "We receive Iranian visitors as well as those of other nationalities who come to Karbala to commemorate the memory of [Imam] al-Husayn and for other [occasions]. The ages of visitors varies. But a large portion of them are elderly -- between 70 and 80 years old."

Some Iraqis see the large number of Iranian visitors to their country as a key reason for the revival of the tourism industry that is now under way. Others, however, complain about rising prices and other inconveniences that they blame on the influx of foreigners.

Iraqis, for their part, visit Iran for similar reasons, with about 1 million Iraqis heading to holy sites in Iran each year. Tahsin Ali, the owner of a travel company in Al-Kut, says Iraqis also go to Iran for recreation and medical treatment.

"Tourism between Iraq and Iran has undergone major development since the fall of the [Hussein] regime," Ali says. "Most [Iraqi] travelers to Iran are in one of three categories: first, for a religious visit; second, for recreation; and third, for medical treatment -- because Iran has capable doctors, modern equipment, and lower prices for medical care than nearby Arab countries like the [United Arab] Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt."

(Contributors to this report include Radio Free Iraq correspondents Ahmad al-Zubaidi, Shamal Ramadhan, Mustafa Abd al-Wahid, Saif Abd al-Rahman, and Ayad al-Gailani.)

Seyyed Taghi Ghaemi, the director of Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants, said in Kabul on March 3 that all Afghan refugees without valid documents will be deported, IRIN reported on March 4. Because of the very harsh winter in Afghanistan, Iran temporarily suspended the deportation process, but it will resume shortly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 2008). According to official Iranian estimates, of the 2.5 million Afghans in Iran, 1.5 million are living there illegally. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Afghan authorities acknowledge Iran's right to deport illegal aliens who enter its territory, they have called on Iran to deport Afghans gradually. A recent IRIN report highlighted the possibility that poverty could be driving some Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. AT

Following the destruction of three mobile-phone antennas in southern Afghanistan, the ensuing blackout has raised concerns about the effect on humanitarian and development activities, IRIN reported on 3 March. Officials at Afghanistan's National Disasters Management Authority said mobile phones are its main form of communication in the country, and a shutdown of the network would have grave consequences for operations. "Without mobile phones we will not be able to quickly receive, verify and send information about the occurrence, response to, and management of, natural and man-made disasters everywhere in the country," said Mohammad Siddique Hassani, the agency's director of policy and coordination. Taliban insurgents destroyed three towers in Kandahar and Helmand provinces between February 29 and March 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). The Ministry of Communication and Technology condemned the attacks, and said all warring parties should respect the right to communication. AT

According to the U.S. military, two soldiers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force were killed and four others wounded by a suicide attack on a government office on March 3, AP reported the next day. The military did not disclose the soldiers' nationalities. The bomber smashed into the gates of the building in Yaqubi district of Khost Province, trapping the soldiers inside. The explosion also killed two Afghan civilians and wounded three Afghan policemen, provincial police chief General Mohammad Ayub said. AT

According to Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, the mastermind of the attacks on a five-star hotel in Kabul is in Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15 and 16, 2008), AFP reported on March 3. The January 14 attack, one of the most sophisticated by the Taliban movement, left three foreigners and five Afghans dead. All members of the "terrorist group" who were in Afghanistan have been arrested, Saleh said, but "further investigations have come to a deadlock now since the man who planned the attack is in Pakistan." AT

The United States on March 4 urged the international community to implement newly tightened sanctions on Iran, imposed on March 3 by the UN Security Council over Tehran's refusal to halt nuclear work, AFP reported. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it is important for governments to "follow through on [the] obligation" of implementing the resolution. Iran has downplayed the impact of the sanctions. "I don't think...we can expect anything else from Iran," AFP quoted Perino as saying. The Russian Foreign Ministry on March 4 similarly stated that the "resolution is a serious political signal to Tehran about the need to cooperate" with the Security Council, Reuters reported. Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) governing board on March 4 dropped a separate resolution regarding Iran's nuclear program, mainly because of opposition from Russia and China, AP reported. The proposed resolution expressed support for IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei's attempts to clarify the nature of Iran's nuclear program, and also expressed regret that Iran has refused to suspend uranium enrichment. AP quoted unnamed diplomats as saying Russia and China were dissatisfied that they were not consulted sufficiently about the resolution. However, the report indicated that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany -- which are also members of the IAEA governing board -- broadly agree that the Security Council resolution passed on March 3 conveys a sufficiently clear message to Tehran for now. VS

Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said in Vienna on March 4 that UN Security Council resolutions cannot stop Iran's nuclear activities, IRNA reported. He added that U.S. officials have expressed hope that Iran would leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and halt its cooperation with the IAEA, "but this has not happened, nor will it." He said the United States has only weakened the IAEA by involving the Security Council in the dispute. Javad Vaidi, a deputy secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, separately told IRNA on March 4 that the Security Council resolution is "symbolic," and indicates U.S. "anger" and the Security Council's inability to maintain international peace and security. He said the Security Council has "placed itself at the disposal" of the whims of certain powers, and called the resolution a repetition of discredited and outdated views on Iran's nuclear program. The deputy head for international affairs of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Saidi, stated in Vienna on March 4 that the countries that passed the "hasty" resolution are "trying to gradually bury international organizations" and the rules governing the international community, IRNA reported. He said the great powers should be prepared to face the consequence of their "illegal conduct.... It will not be long before the supporters of such resolutions acknowledge their strategic and historic mistakes." VS

Conservative and reformist coalitions have announced their candidate lists for 30 seats in the Tehran district in parliamentary polls scheduled for March 14, the "Etemad" newspaper reported on March 5. The Tehran elections are seen as a barometer of public opinion throughout Iran, and parties field most of their high-profile candidates in the capital. The daily mentioned three key candidate lists for Tehran: one for the reformist coalition, one for the United Front of Fundamentalists, which describes itself as the main right-wing grouping, and one for the National Trust Party, headed by former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi. There was some overlap in the candidates appearing on the reformist and National Trust lists, but Karrubi has always maintained he wishes to keep his party independent. The reformist coalition list includes former officials of the government of former President Mohammad Khatami, including former Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Sadr, and former Industry Minister Ishaq Jahangiri, who also appeared in the National Trust Party list. Mehr reported on March 4 that the National Trust list includes Elias Hazrati, a journalist and former legislator; Fatemeh Karrubi, a prominent leftist politician who is married to Mehdi Karrubi; current lawmakers Reza Talai-Nik and Adel Azer; and journalist Masud Soltanifar. Reformist campaign coordinator Morteza Haji has said that because of the state's strict vetting process for candidates, which led to the disqualifications of many, reformists can only run for 110 of 290 parliamentary seats on March 14. Some prominent figures who earlier registered have also withdrawn from the race, apparently for personal reasons or because of factional divisions or their objections to the vetting process. Among the candidates who have withdrawn are the secretary-general of the right-wing Islamic Coalition Party, Mohammad Nabi Habibi; reformist Ali Eshraqi, a grandson of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; reformist former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref; and Reza Amrollahi, a former senior official of the Atomic Energy Organization, "Etemad" reported. The United Front list for Tehran is headed by parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, and includes deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar; Ahmad Tavakkoli, the head of the parliamentary research center; Mehdi Kuchakzadeh, an outspoken Tehran lawmaker; and Ruhollah Hosseinian, a mid-ranking cleric considered to have radical right-wing views, "Etemad" reported on March 5. VS

About 2,000 students on March 4 held another day of sit-ins and other demonstrations at the Shiraz University campus in southern Iran to protest against alleged official meddling in student elections, Radio Farda reported, citing student activists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3 and 4, 2008). The protests have been continuing for more than a week. One student told Radio Farda that the university has phoned the families of more than 30 protesters and pressured them to ask their children to return to their classes and dormitories. Some or all of the protesters have apparently not returned to their dormitories to sleep in recent days. Twelve students have been summoned to court. The unnamed student told Radio Farda that members of the state-run Basij militia have been distributing leaflets on campus denouncing the demonstrators as lackeys or agents of foreign powers. The protesters have in turn accused university chief Mohammad Hadi Sadeqi of creating a repressive and militaristic environment on campus, Radio Farda reported. VS

The Iraqi cabinet has given Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani the authority to sign technical support agreements (TSAs) with international firms, AP quoted a ministry official in Vienna as saying on March 5. Al-Shahristani is currently in Vienna to attend this week's meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The Iraqi government's earlier position was that no work would begin in the oil sector until the draft oil law was passed. Al-Shahristani has been very critical of the Kurdistan regional government's decision to begin exploration without an oil law in place. The two-year TSAs will help develop five oil fields, adding an estimated 500,000 barrels per day to existing output. Iraq's output for January stood at 2.4 million barrels per day; Al-Shahristani wants to raise that number to 3 million barrels per day by the end of the year. Last year, proposals were submitted by Royal Dutch Shell to develop the Maysan and Kirkuk fields; by BP for the Rumaylah field; by ExxonMobil for the Al-Zubayr field; and by Chevron for the West Qurna 1 field. The Iraqi government responded with counterproposals, and talks are expected to continue on the TSAs later this month, AP reported. Al-Shahristani reportedly said in Vienna that Iraq will compensate the companies with crude oil rather than cash. The Russian firm LUKoil has been trying to regain its West Qurna 2 contract, which Iraqi officials declared defunct after the fall of the Hussein regime. Al-Shahristani said in December that LUKoil could bid on the contract again, but that the company would not get special treatment. In February, Russia wrote off 97 percent of Iraq's $12 billion debt, partly in an effort to help revive the oil deal. KR

The High Judicial Court on March 4 called on Iraqi citizens to begin applying for general amnesty, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. The Presidency Council endorsed the General Amnesty Law on February 26, clearing the last hurdle for the law to go into effect. Under the law, detainees held for six months without charge and those who have waited more than one year to appear before a judge will be eligible to apply for amnesty. Judge Abd al-Sattar Bayraqdar, a spokesman for the judicial council, advised citizens to pick up application forms for general amnesty from local criminal and investigative courts, which he said are the only courts authorized to process the applications. The law is expected to pave the way for the release of thousands of detainees, mostly Sunni Arabs, from Iraqi custody. Detainees currently held in U.S.-run prisons are not eligible for amnesty. However, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said in a March 4 statement that the U.S. military has agreed to accelerate the process of releasing detainees from its prisons, focusing first of all on freeing women and elderly or handicapped detainees, the Aswat Al-Iraq website reported. KR

The office of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has issued a statement addressing the split within his organization's ranks, which has resulted in the establishment of at least two new parties and "cultural offices" led by former members of the so-called Al-Sadr trend, international media reported on March 4. "By abandoning the righteous path and turning away from the Martyr Al-Sadr Office, [those parties] have selected the wrong path, claiming that they are affiliated with the Office and that they have my blessings. But the truth is that they are liars," Al-Sadr's statement said. The cleric called on God "to show them the righteous path and guide them back to the path of obedience to the Martyr Al-Sadr Office so that they will adhere to the principles of this Office," and not be duped into reconciling "with the occupation." Al-Sadr also advised the new "cultural entities" to maintain their affiliation with his office. "Let them not be seduced by life, for their funds will not do them any good before God. I hereby stretch my hand out to them and their likes to take them back to the tent of their Al-Sadr master, his approach, ethics, and lifestyle," al-Sadr said. Last month al-Sadr disassociated his following from one of the new parties, the Iraqi National Gathering (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2008). The other party, identified in the press as the Political Bureau for the Al-Sadr Office, is headed by former al-Sadr aide Ahmad al-Sharifi. KR

U.S. and Iraqi officials said on March 4 that the wreckage of transport helicopter that went missing on March 3 has been found (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). "Recovery operations have been completed and there were no survivors. One coalition force member was among the eight personnel onboard," the U.S. military said in a statement. Iraqi officials said the helicopter crashed north of Bayji during a sandstorm. The storm reportedly forced two other helicopters to make emergency landings in the same area. Iraq is currently rebuilding its air force in what officials have described as a slow and arduous process. KR

The Turkish Office of the Chief of the General Staff issued a statement on March 4 responding to criticism in the press over the military's decision to pull ground troops from northern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). Media reports have accused the Turkish military of bowing to U.S. pressure to pull its ground forces out of Iraq. The statement said "narratives targeting" the Turkish armed forces in the press "are perceived as unfair and unbecoming attacks on an institution that has been battling terrorism on behalf of the country and losing martyrs in the process." The statement said it was the first time such attacks have been leveled at the military in its 24-year history of fighting terrorism. KR