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Newsline - March 6, 2008

President Vladimir Putin has issued a decree on the new status of President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, "Kommersant" and other Russian media reported on March 6. The decree was signed on March 3, the day after the election, and was published before the final official results were released. They are expected on March 7. The presidential administration was ordered to begin working for both Putin and Medvedev, and Medvedev was officially accorded presidential-level security. The administration has also been ordered to provide Medvedev with an official residence. The daily noted that the current transition of power is unique in Russian history and that this is the first time that such a document has been required. RC

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on March 6 is scheduled to move out of his office on the third floor of the White House, the seat of the Russian cabinet, as renovation gets under way in anticipation of the arrival of Vladimir Putin, who is expected to become prime minister in May, "Kommersant" reported the same day. The Russian-language newsweekly "Newsweek," No. 10, reported this week that the White House is undergoing major expansion, adding at least two offices to each floor. The magazine reported rumors that an office is being built on the fifth floor, next to the prime minister's office, for Viktor Zolotov, who currently heads Putin's personal security. There are also rumors that a gymnasium is being built on the same floor; Putin is an avid athlete. The magazine also reported that Sergei Sobyanin, who headed Dmitry Medvedev's presidential campaign, will remain as head of the presidential administration under Medvedev and that Vladislav Surkov, currently deputy presidential-administration head in charge of domestic politics and civil society, will also remain at his post. An unidentified source told the magazine that Medvedev might create an additional deputy presidential-administration head, in charge of legal questions and combating corruption. Analysts queried by the magazine predict that deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin, who oversees the security agencies and has close ties with state corporations, and presidential spokesman Aleksei Gromov will not be given posts in the new administration. RC

Pro-Kremlin Chechen administration head Ramzan Kadyrov has been admitted to the Russian Union of Journalists, Interfax reported on March 5. According to the report, Kadyrov was handed a union card earlier that day by Chechen Republic Nationality Policy and Press and Information Minister Shamsail Saraliyev, who cited Kadyrov's "enormous services in the establishment of Chechen journalism, a free press, and the creation of ideal circumstances for the work of the mass media." Kadyrov, who has been widely criticized for his strong-arm tactics and for overseeing a regime that is guilty of horrific human rights abuses, responded by saying that "journalists must --without looking over their shoulders, without fearing for their lives -- tell the truth and write what really is." At the same ceremony, a number of local journalists were awarded state medals for their work and several were personally given automobiles by Kadyrov. In Moscow, the reaction from many journalists was harshly negative. "Moskovsky komsomolets" journalist and Unified Russia Duma Deputy Aleksandr Minkin told Ekho Moskvy that he will quit the union. "If Ramzan Kadyrov is in the Union of Journalists, then I am not," he said. "I hope that I am not the only one to quit the union. "Novaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Dmitry Muratov has also quit the union. "I will not for a single second remain a member of the Union of Journalists of Russia if the information is confirmed that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has become a member...," Muratov wrote in his statement to the union. "I will not comment on my position. I simply categorically refuse to be in one union with cannibals." Anna Politkovskaya, a respected investigative journalist who specialized in writing about human rights abuses in Chechnya and who was murdered in Moscow in October 2006, worked for Muratov's paper. Union of Journalists Secretary Mikhail Fedotov told that Kadyrov's admission to the union violated its charter, under which only working journalists are allowed to be members. RC

The official voter roll for the March 2 presidential election, according to the Central Election Commission, was 107 million people, "Vedomosti" reported on March 6. This compares to 109.15 million for the December 2, 2007, State Duma elections, meaning that more than 2 million voters "disappeared" from the rolls in the intervening months. The daily speculated that the changes were made because in the legislative elections, Duma seats (and state financial assistance to parties) were determined by the number of votes a party received. On the other hand, in the presidential election, the most important factor from the Kremlin's point of view was to have as high a turnout as possible. The paper cited official figures as indicating there were 107.6 million registered voters as of June 2007, 1.5 million fewer than appeared on the lists in December of the same year. In St. Petersburg, according to official figures, the voting-age population of the city declined by 11 percent between last December and March. A recent independent statistical analysis of the December Duma elections gave compelling evidence of massive fraud to the advantage of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 29, 2008). RC

Maksim Reznik, a St. Petersburg Yabloko leader who is in custody pending trial on charges of assaulting a police officer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008) has declared a hunger strike, the BBC and other media reported on March 5. The report was confirmed by Yabloko official Aleksandr Shurshev. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky the same day appealed to the St. Petersburg court to release Reznik, saying he is willing to be personally accountable for him. Reznik's lawyer, Boris Gruzd, told the BBC his client's arrest is a result of his "political activity." The day before his arrest, Reznik appeared on local STO television and said that he and six other Yabloko activists visited seven St. Petersburg polling stations on March 2. They told officials at all seven that they were residents of Murmansk without absentee ballots, but that they wanted to vote anyway. They claimed officials at all seven stations admitted them to vote, in violation of election law. RC

Janez Jansa, the prime minister of current EU president Slovenia, said in Vilnius, Lithuania, on March 5 that he hopes that Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev will "have the will to improve relations with the EU," Interfax reported. Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas argued that "the EU needs to develop a joint external energy policy and internal energy links, and these issues should be among the [topics] of the upcoming EU summit." Many of the EU's newer member states, which were formerly Soviet republics or satellites, want a common EU energy policy in dealing with Russia. Those newer members object in particular to large Western European energy companies cutting individual deals with Gazprom and other Russian firms. Jansa said on March 5 that the EU needs a "consolidated position" on energy in order to strengthen its overall political role. Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, Sergei Dankvert, who heads Russian food safety watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor, said on March 5 that "we have resumed imports of plant products from Poland, but not vegetables. We are prepared to allow imports of [other] foods, but Poland was unable to guarantee the observance of Russian control standards" for vegetables. Russia's ban on some Polish imports is widely seen as politically motivated, particularly in light of Poland's stance on the proposed U.S. missile-defense system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11 and 19, 2008). PM

President Putin told departing U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns on March 5 at Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow that "the period during which you worked here [since late 2005] was not the simplest of times," and international news agencies reported. Putin added that the two countries "have quite a few problems. But there was always the most important thing -- and I'd like to thank you for precisely this approach -- [namely a] desire to reach mutually acceptable decisions and compromises." Putin noted that "despite the existing problems and disagreements -- of which there are many -- we do share the most important thing, namely common ground on key problems, among which I would include nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and certain questions of global security." Burns replied in Russian that "despite the fact that problems have emerged from time to time between our countries, I am convinced...that working together, we gain a lot. From my point of view, it would be a huge mistake to lose sight of that fact." Burns returns to Washington to take up the third-highest position in the State Department, where he will succeed outgoing Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns. PM

For the second time in less than a month, a Russian bomber flew over the aircraft carrier "U.S.S. Nimitz" on March 5, news agencies reported. The plane was then intercepted by U.S. F/A-18 jet fighters, which escorted it out of the area off the Korean coast, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 13, 2008). Reuters quoted unnamed U.S. military officials in Washington as saying that they do not consider the plane, which flew 610 meters above the ship, "a threat or concern." Following the previous such incident, some U.S. officials on a panel of experts argued that the Russian action was legal and "normal." Most of the experts agreed, however, that it is "not a good idea" to buzz an aircraft carrier. The Russian daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote on February 13 that such incidents can often lead to unforeseen consequences, even if the pilot's actions are in keeping with accepted international practice. In Moscow on March 6, Air Force Colonel General Yury Solovyov, who is in charge of the capital's air defenses, said that those aircraft will be "modernized" by 2011 so that "they will remain technically and tactically superior to NATO planes," Interfax reported. PM

A referendum held in the Chavash Republic on March 2 concurrently with the Russian presidential election on combining the cities of Cheboksary and Novocheboksarsk failed, "Kommersant" reported on March 6. While 75.21 percent of Cheboksary voters approved the proposed merger, which the mayors of the two cities jointly advocated in October 2007, 61.87 percent of their Novocheboksarsk counterparts rejected it. Republic head Nikolai Fyodorov, who was born and raised in one of the villages that were later subsumed into the satellite town of Novocheboksarsk, which is a center of the petrochemical industry, expressed regret at the failure, as did Chavash State Council deputy speaker Genrikh Vasilev, reported on March 3. Both men argued that it would only have benefited both communities. But Russian State Duma deputy Valentin Shurchanov, who heads the Communist Party's Chavash branch, branded the proposal a desperate but "cretinous" attempt by the republic's leadership to galvanize the stagnating economy, reported. He explained that the population of Novocheboksarsk "simply did not want to be subsumed into a gray mass." "Kommersant" on March 6 similarly quoted Chavash State Council Deputy Igor Molyakov (A Just Russia) as saying that there were no economic grounds for merging the two towns, and that residents of Novocheboksarsk were unwilling to cede the right to elect their own municipal administration. LF

A large number of officials from Ingushetia's Interior Ministry and Emergency Situations Ministry descended on March 5 on a building on the outskirts of Nazran where the opposition plans to convene on March 8 an extraordinary congress of the Ingush people, inspected it, and sealed the building on the grounds that it does not meets health and safety requirements, the website reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Also on March 5, two of the congress organizers, Magomed Khazbiyev and Gilani Imagozhev, were summoned to the republican prosecutor's office and informed that they do not have the right to convene a national congress as the law governing the procedures for doing so expired "long ago." Khazbiyev told that the organizers will not postpone the congress despite the official warning. It is not yet clear, however, where it will take place. LF

Hearings resumed in Nalchik on March 5 in the trial of 58 men accused of participating in the multiple attacks on October 14, 2005, on police and security facilities in Nalchik, reported. One of the accused, Zaur Tokhov, told the court that prison officials tried to strangle him; five other defendants earlier submitted written statements that testimony they gave while under investigation was extracted as a result of, or under the threat of, torture, and that they signed that incriminating testimony in the absence of a lawyer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15 and 30, 2007, and February 21, 2008). Meanwhile, the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic prosecutor's office is considering bringing legal action against lawyer Larisa Dorogova, who represents Tokhov and several other defendants, on the grounds that she purportedly insulted and threatened to kill a female prison official who refused her access to Tokhov, reported on March 3. LF

Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian addressed on March 5 a session of the Constitutional Court that is considering his appeal, and one by a second defeated candidate, Tigran Karapetian, to annul the official results of the February 19 presidential ballot, and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The official returns named Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian the winner with 52.82 percent of the vote, followed by Ter-Petrossian with 21.51 percent; Ter-Petrossian claims he polled 65 percent of the vote. Ter-Petrossian told the court that many key witnesses to the falsification of the presidential ballot have since been arrested, and he argued that if the court fails to annul the election results, it will damage not only its own reputation but that of Armenia. He further argued that Sarkisian's registration as a presidential candidate was illegal in light of legislation that bars serving government officials from running for president. LF

Outgoing Armenian President Robert Kocharian threatened on March 5 to put Ter-Petrossian on trial for his role in the postelection protests in Yerevan that culminated in violent clashes on March 1 between Ter-Petrossian supporters and police and security forces, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said it would be "unjust" to jail only rank and file participants in the protests and not the instigators. Kocharian also said he sees no reason either to shorten or to extend the state of emergency he imposed in response to that violence, which runs until March 20. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner both called on March 3 for the state of emergency to be lifted. Also on March 5, Kocharian harshly criticized an assessment of the March 1 violence by his human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a statement on March 3, which in light of media restriction was circulated by Noyan Tapan only two days later, Harutiunian suggested that the violent clashes might not have occurred if police and security forces had not intervened using force earlier on March 1 to clear Liberty Square of several thousands of Ter-Petrossian supporters encamped there. He described the police violence later on March 1 as "illegal," and expressed "bewilderment" that some television companies are currently promoting "an atmosphere of hatred." Harutiunian described the postelection tensions as reflecting far deeper systemic flaws, including the super-centralization of power and a concomitant absence of counterbalances; social and economic polarization; and the merging of business interests and government. Harutiunian said there are two ways out of the current situation: deadlock and "an atmosphere of total fear," or dialogue, and he added that it is "reassuring" that President-elect Sarkisian has opted for the latter course. Kocharian for his part said Harutiunian "does not know what he is talking about," and that appointing him human rights ombudsman was one of his "most unsuccessful" personnel decisions. LF

The fighting that began on March 4 between Azerbaijani army troops and Karabakh Armenian forces continued on March 5, and Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev said in Baku late that day that the situation "is becoming increasingly tense," reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met on March 5 with top army commanders to assess the situation and gave them "specific orders," reported. The Karabakh authorities handed over to the Azerbaijani side on March 5 the bodies of four Azerbaijani servicemen killed the previous day. In Yerevan, the Armenian Defense Ministry rejected on March 5 as untrue Azerbaijani claims that 12 Armenian soldiers were killed; it said two soldiers from the Karabakh Defense Army were injured, Noyan Tapan reported. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 5, posted on its website (, expressing concern lest the outbreak of hostilities spread to other sectors of the Line of Contact and calling on both sides to make every effort to prevent an escalation and to restore the status quo. In Baku, U.S. Ambassador Anne Derse was quoted by on March 6 as saying the U.S. calls on both sides avoid any further violations of the cease-fire. She added that the outbreak of hostilities only serves to underscore the need to resume the talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group on a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict. LF

Alan Pliyev, who is deputy foreign minister of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, told on March 5 that Georgia's refusal to continue talks on resolving the South Ossetia conflict within the existing format -- the Joint Control Committee (JCC) on which Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia are represented -- only serves to show that Georgia has no interest in a solution, and he predicted that the situation in the conflict zone will deteriorate as a result. Ambassador Yury Popov, the Russian co-chairman of the JCC who arrived in Tbilisi on March 4, was quoted by RIA Novosti as branding as "lightweight and superficial" Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili's March 4 statement that Tbilisi will talk to Popov only in his capacity as a Russian diplomat, reported on March 5. He said the JCC will continue to function even if Georgia suspends its participation. Yakobashvili has proposed excluding North Ossetia from future talks and instead including the pro-Georgian temporary South Ossetian administration established in May 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). Meanwhile, in a March 5 interview with, North Ossetian parliamentarian Valery Gizoyev said that "no one is planning to duplicate the Kosovo solution" in seeking the unification of the Ossetian people. He said Russia "will find a unique solution, the most correct one," to that problem, and as a result "the name North Ossetia will disappear from the map, and there will be a single Republic of Ossetia-Alania." On March 4, the parliament of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia formally appealed to the UN and to Russia to recognize the region as an independent state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Kokoity, the republic's de facto president, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on March 5 that recognition of South Ossetia's independence "in strict accordance with the norms of international law" is a necessary precondition for unification of the Ossetian people within the Russian Federation. LF

The Abkhaz authorities released on March 6 from pretrial detention in Sukhum(i) two Georgian journalists detained on February 26 after entering Abkhaz territory illegally, Caucasus Press and reported. The two men were handed over to the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) in what the Abkhaz termed "a goodwill gesture" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and 29, and March 3 and 4, 2008). LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev met on March 5 in Astana with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on the start of a two-day official visit to Kazakhstan, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazinform. They began talks focusing on measures to expand bilateral relations, including energy ties in the wake of a recent Russian cutoff of natural-gas supplies to Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4 and 5, 2008). A second round of talks is scheduled for March 6 and the two presidents are planning to sign a set of new agreements on bilateral cooperation, as well as a sweeping bilateral "action plan" for 2007-08. Yushchenko's visit was scheduled some time ago and timed to open the "Year of Ukraine in Kazakhstan." Although Ukrainian investment in Kazakhstan is limited, totaling only about $5.8 million from 1993-2007, Kazakh investment in Ukraine reached $25.8 million for the period of 2004-07. Most recently, the volume of bilateral trade increased by more than 60 percent last year, surpassing $2.5 billion, according to Khabar. In an interview with the Kazakh newspaper "Kazakhstanskaya pravda," Yushchenko also expressed interest in concluding a new agreement based on "an active dialogue" between the Ukrainian and Kazakh national space agencies, and said that the two sides are pursuing several projects including "the creation of a land-based infrastructure for a satellite navigation system, a scientific space system to study the Earth's ionosphere, and a space system for remote probing of the Earth." RG

In a statement released in Seoul, the South Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) announced on March 5 the signing of a memorandum of understanding with a Kazakh electric power company to construct a thermal power plant in Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the terms of the $500 million deal, KEPCO is to build a power plant in Astana with a production capacity of 240 megawatts and will expand the capacity of an existing thermal plant from 360 to 600 megawatts. RG

In an address to a meeting of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin vowed on March 4 to ensure the protection of human rights in Kazakhstan, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Tazhin said that the Kazakh government is "determined to further continue the policy of democratizing the country in line with international standards in the sphere of human rights" and stressed his country's commitment to "UN conventions and treaties in the sphere of human rights, including international pacts on civil and political rights, as well as on economic, social and cultural rights." Tazhin went on to note Kazakhstan's adoption in January of a "statement on the recognition of the competence of the UN Committee against Torture" to consider complaints under the Convention against Torture. Kazakhstan is also expected to formally ratify an optional protocol to the international pact on civil and political rights and the optional protocol to the Convention Against Torture that were signed by President Nazarbaev in September 2007. RG

Ruling on a request by the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, a district court in Astana officially banned on March 5 the Islamic Party of Turkestan, classifying it as a "terrorist organization," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Prosecutor-General's Office official Saparbek Nurpeisov welcomed the ruling and noted that the banned group, also known as "Jamaat-i Turkestan," joins an official list of 14 organizations in Kazakhstan banned as terrorist groups. The same group has been banned in Tajikistan since 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2007). Prior to 2001, the Islamic Party of Turkestan was known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and had the stated goal of establishing a caliphate or Islamic state encompassing all of Central Asia (see "Central Asia: Is Islamic Movement Of Uzbekistan Really Back?" February 2, 2006, RG

In a statement released in Astana, Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office official Nurpeisov announced on March 5 the rejection of a request submitted by Kyrgyzstan seeking the extradition of Kazakh citizen Adil Toigonbaev, a son-in-law of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nurpeisov said that the request was turned down because the Kazakh authorities must defend Toigonbaev as a Kazakh citizen, and he challenged the Kyrgyz to "send a petition to us to carry out criminal prosecution in Kazakhstan" if they have sufficient evidence "proving Adil Toigonbaev's guilt." He added that Toigonbaev "is our citizen, and we should protect him, since there is no criminal case against him in Kazakhstan." Toigonbaev is married to Bermet Akaeva, the eldest daughter of President Akaev, who now lives in exile in Russia since being forced from power in March 2005. RG

During a visit to the Azerbaijani capital Baku, a delegation of Turkmen officials led by Deputy Prime Minister Khidyr Saparaliev signed on March 5 an agreement settling a dispute with Azerbaijan over 1990s debt for past purchases of natural gas from Turkmenistan, Reuters reported. The Turkmen officials were promised that Azerbaijan will pay $44.8 million to settle the debt. RG

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Moscow, NATO's special envoy to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Robert Simmons, on March 5 hailed the Uzbek decision to renew limited NATO access to a military air base in Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and Regnum reported. The Uzbek government's decision also allows U.S. access and use of a base near the southern Uzbek city of Termez, on the Afghan border, that has been used largely by German forces to supply NATO troops involved in stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. The move represents a significant reversal of the Uzbek position on any U.S. military presence in the country, especially since the 2005 eviction of U.S. forces from Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad air base. RG

A Minsk court on March 5 sentenced youth activist Maksim Serhyaets to five days in jail for violating the law on mass events, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. According to the police officers who detained him, Serhyaets attempted to put up a leaflet in a trolleybus for a March 25 demonstration marking the 90th anniversary of the declaration of the Belarusian People's Republic (BNR). Serhyaets told the court that he was only reading the leaflet, while the trolleybus already had several leaflets posted in it. The declaration of the BNR is regarded by pro-democratic Belarusians as a key event in the process of the formation of 20th-century Belarusian statehood. Contemporary Belarus, which declared independence from the Soviet Union on July 27, 1990, initially adopted the BNR's state emblem and flag. These symbols were banned in 1995 by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who established new state symbols similar to those of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. AM

The Russian gas monopoly Gazprom on March 5 resumed gas supplies to Ukraine that had been reduced in the preceeding days, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "Gas transit via Ukraine to European consumers is being carried out in full. The restrictions on gas deliveries to consumers in Ukraine have been lifted," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told a March 5 news conference in Moscow. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller and Naftohaz Ukrayiny Chairman Oleh Dubyna agreed on March 5 by telephone that Naftohaz will pay for gas supplies between January 1 and March 1 according to "the scheme that existed at the beginning of the year." Miller and Dubyna also agreed to continue talks with regard to "other issues of the cooperation in the gas sector." Gazprom previously demanded Ukraine pay some $1.5 billion for gas already delivered and sign agreements on gas supplies in 2008, and threatened Ukraine with cutoffs if it failed to do so. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in mid-February on conditions of the gas debt payment, while Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's state-owned gas operator, agreed to set up a new intermediary company that will supply Ukraine with Russian gas. Currently, Russia supplies Ukraine with natural gas through two intermediary companies: the Swiss-registered joint venture RosUkrEnergo that delivers gas to the Russian-Ukrainian border, and the Ukrainian-registered UkrGazEnergo company that sells gas to Ukrainian customers. That arrangement dates from the beginning of 2006. The Ukrainian government on February 27 announced that it has paid gas debts to Gazprom as of January 1, 2008. However, Gazprom was still pressing Ukraine to continue talks and conclude agreements on supplies in 2008. On March 3-4, Gazprom twice cut gas supplies to Ukraine by 25 percent, assuring European customers at the same time that deliveries to them would be carried out in full. But Gazprom's Kupriyanov said earlier on March 5 that "Naftohaz Ukrayiny informed Gazprom today that gas deliveries to European consumers will be reduced today by 60 million cubic meters." AM

Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the opposition Party of Regions, said on March 5 that his party has exhausted its opportunities to reach a compromise in an ongoing parliamentary crisis and now intends to hold street demonstrations, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yanukovych said that the leaders of the parliamentary factions, who met on March 5, could not agree on the text of a resolution on Ukraine's policy on NATO membership. The Party of Regions has prevented the Verkhovna Rada from meeting since mid-January, demanding the adoption of a resolution stipulating that any step by Ukraine toward joining NATO should be preceded by a national referendum. Representatives of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc described the Party of Regions' announcement as "a political pose." President Yushchenko recently announced that he does not want to dissolve parliament again, but Security Council Secretary Raisa Bohatyryova has suggested that Yushchenko might start consultations on doing so if parliament fails to resume work very soon. AM

On March 6, Slovenia became the 26th country and first Yugoslav successor state to recognize Kosova, which declared independence on February 17, news agencies and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2008). Slovenia's government argues that recognition will help promote stability in the Balkans. Critics charge that the move potentially harms Slovenia's considerable business interests in Serbia. At least for the present, Croatia and Macedonia are withholding recognition lest they offend Serbia or appear to be acting ahead of many EU member states, which have yet to recognize Kosova. The Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina is blocking recognition of Kosova by Bosnia. On March 5, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said in Sandanski, Bulgaria, that he will discuss issues regarding Macedonia's border with Kosova not with the authorities in Prishtina but with international officials, who, he noted, "are likely to stay [in Kosova] for a very long time." He rejected calls by Prishtina to engage in direct talks as "a bad start for bilateral relations." In 2001, Skopje and Belgrade concluded a frontier agreement, which Prishtina does not recognize. In former Yugoslavia, delineation of borders between the republics or autonomous provinces was often imprecise, and relations between most successor states have consequently been bedeviled by border disputes. PM

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in Brussels on March 5 that Serbia should "reaffirm its commitment to closer ties" with the EU, news agencies reported. He added that he is "fully aware that a great majority of Serbian people consistently support EU membership. It should be a realistic expectation that the Serbian government listens to this silent majority." Alluding to recent anti-EU statements by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and some other leading Serbian officials and politicians, Rehn said that "we are on standby. We are ready once Serbia is ready by reaffirming its European perspective" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Rehn and other EU officials also proposed the eventual phasing out of EU visa requirements, doubling the number of student scholarships to EU member states, and integrating land and sea transportation with that of EU member states for Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In Brussels on March 6, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in his opening address to a meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers that "our job is security, and I think we should all be encouraged by what we have not seen inside Kosovo," news agencies reported. He argued that "since the declaration of independence, we have seen no interethnic violence, no mass flows of refugees, no organized attacks on patrimonial sites. This is positive." PM

A snapshot of the race toward the goal of EU membership reveals a scattered field. Croatia is long out of the starting blocks with Macedonia about to do the same, while Albania and Montenegro are still warming up. Serbia has yet to show up and threatens to pull out, should Kosova also be invited.

The European Union's executive arm, the European Commission, has issued a report reviewing the progress of reforms in the western Balkan countries -- all of which are guaranteed to join the EU one day. The commission also unveiled a new initiative to tighten the region's transport links with the rest of the continent.

Ahead of a trip to Zagreb for talks with the Croatian government, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn gave his strongest hint yet that Croatia could wrap up its membership talks with the EU before the year is out. "My intention is to send encouraging messages to Croatia as regards its EU accession negotiations because it can make this year, 2008, a decisive year -- or the decisive year -- on the conditions that the benchmarks [set by the EU] are met shortly by Croatia," Rehn said in Brussels.

The EU wants Croatia to speed up judicial and administrative reforms, rein in corruption, restructure its shipbuilding industry, and rescind its claim to a "fishing and ecological" zone in the Adriatic, which irks neighbors Italy and Slovenia, both EU member states.

Croatia is in a tight race to finalize its talks with the EU before the European Parliament elections in June 2009, so as to be able to join the bloc by 2011.

The EU's relations with Serbia, on the other hand, have nose-dived since most of the bloc's member states recognized Kosova's independence, which it proclaimed on February 17.

Officials in Brussels have dropped hints about Serbia's potential to ruin much of the EU's good work in the Balkans, which the bloc subsidizes to the tune of 1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) a year -- the highest levels of per capita EU aid anywhere.

Rehn stressed on March 5 that Serbia is key to stability in the region, and called upon Belgrade to heed its people's wish to build closer ties with the EU. "I'm fully aware that a great majority of Serbian people consistently support EU membership," he said. "It should be a realistic expectation that the Serbian government listens to this silent majority."

However, Rehn went on to ruefully note that "certain recent statements from Belgrade seem to rule [this] out." He said the Serbian government must now make its intentions clear. As things stand, this could lead to a formal severing of ties between the two sides, as Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has called on all political parties in Serbia to reject formal ties with the EU, unless it reverses its decision to work with an independent Pristina.

Rehn said the "EU is on standby" for developing closer relations with Serbia, but noted "it takes two" to conduct consultations that could lead to formal accession talks.

Reflecting deep-seated divisions among the EU's own member states over Kosova, Rehn confined himself to a single sentence in reference to the erstwhile Serbian province, saying the EU remains committed to working toward an eventual conclusion to its status. A small but vocal minority of EU member states, led by Spain and Cyprus, does not recognize Kosova for fear of setting a precedent for domestic separatists.

The EU is worried that Serbian resentment in the region could prompt Bosnia's Serbs to declare independence in their turn. Rehn did not address this concern directly, but said the EU remains prepared to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia-Herzegovina as soon as April. Rehn said the region's stragglers, Albania and Montenegro, still need to "convince" the EU they are able to implement their own SAAs.

Regarding Macedonia, Rehn said the country is close to being able to "demonstrate" to the EU it is ready to launch accession talks, possibly already this year.

Rehn said the country needs to speed up reforms of the judiciary and public administration, and properly implement police reform and anticorruption laws. He warned though, that Skopje may find its progress towards EU membership blocked by Greece, which does not accept the country's right to call itself Macedonia.

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

According to Christian Gynna Oguz, the country director for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Afghan government should target the big drug traffickers, AP reported on March 5. Noting that Afghanistan remains the world's largest producer of opium and heroin, Oguz said that drug lords and corrupt government officials continue to operate with impunity. "Powerful individuals are able to compromise the justice system through bribes and corruption, as well as implicit and explicit threats," Oguz said in a statement. "The illicit cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan has reached an unprecedented level," Oguz added. "The government must therefore widen its effort to include the fight against drug traders who profit the most from the illicit opium industry and who collectively earn more than $4 billion." AT

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta told reporters on March 5 that a mass expulsion of illegal Afghan migrants by Iran would harm peace and stability in his country, AFP reported the same day. "Afghanistan does not have the capacity to receive and reintegrate into social life this many refugees," Spanta said. Iran has recently threatened to expel all illegal Afghan refugees, estimated at about 1.5 million of a total of 2.5 million in Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Kabul has urged Tehran to halt the expulsions, which have at times seen more than 1,500 people forced across the border per day. Since 2002, about 4 million refugees have returned home to Afghanistan. There are still 900,000 registered refugees in Iran and 2 million in Pakistan. AT

Several hundred Afghan protesters in Sharan in the eastern Paktika Province burned Danish and Dutch flags on March 5 to protest those countries' "insults" against Islam, AFP reported the same day. The demonstrators demanded the government censure the Netherlands over a Dutch film that criticizes the Koran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008) and Denmark over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that Danish newspapers recently reprinted. Elsewhere, 17 members of the Nangarhar Provincial council led dozens of people through the eastern city of Jalalabad and burned the flags of the two countries. Another 400-500 people marched in the town of Pul-e Alam, 50 kilometers south of Kabul. On March 4, parliament demanded Kabul summon the ambassadors of the two countries to issue a formal protest. The Taliban has also warned that it would step up attacks on Dutch soldiers if the film by the right-wing Dutch legislator is released. AT

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on March 5 that Iran will discuss its nuclear program only with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and keep discussions strictly within the "framework of mutual commitments," Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian agency reports. Ahmadinejad told the press after a cabinet meeting that "some people outside the [IAEA] think Iran has to negotiate, but that is not the case. Our negotiations will from now on be about common issues and in a lawful framework." Ahmadinejad said the time when anyone other than the IAEA could take action over Iran's program is over, apparently referring to the UN Security Council. Radio Farda reported. The UN Security Council passed a third sanctions resolution on March 3 in response to Iran's refusal to end its nuclear fuel-making activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4 and 5, 2008). Security Council members on March 3 called for a resumption of talks between Iran and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. But Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Geneva on March 5 that there will be no talks for now on Iran's nuclear program, AFP reported. Mottaki said he wants to assure those who think "sanctions cause problems" for Iran that they are "definitely wrong." VS

Member states of the IAEA governing board discussed Iran's nuclear program at a meeting in Vienna on March 5, but did not reach a consensus, AFP reported. Non-aligned countries have praised Iran for cooperating with the IAEA in clarifying aspects of its nuclear program, while Western powers remain skeptical of Iran's claim that its program is strictly civilian. Following the Security Council resolution, the IAEA governing board on March 4 failed to adopt its own resolution criticizing Iran's program, mainly because of Russian and Chinese opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Britain's ambassador at the IAEA, Simon Smith, told the governing board on March 5 that Iran's record in addressing outstanding issues or suspicions over its program is "less than satisfactory." "We are obliged to conclude that Iran has chosen...the non-cooperative path," he said. Western powers or the IAEA, he added, will have to show Iran "the costs and consequences of that choice." The U.S. envoy to the IAEA, Gregory L. Schulte, said Iran's file remains open, and urged Iran to "fully disclose past and present activities" to reassure the world it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran recently completed a process of clarifying its activities with the IAEA, but suspicions have been renewed by recent evidence of its continuing research on nuclear weapons-related projects. Norway's ambassador to the IAEA, Ole Lundby, said on March 5 that Iran must provide answers to outstanding issues by June, when the governing board meets next. Cuban representative Norma Goicchea Estenoz praised Iran for its "proactive cooperation" with the IAEA, AFP reported. VS

Iran's former top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said in Tehran on March 5 that the latest UN sanctions against Iran "show the insane conduct of America and its allies," IRNA reported. Larijani said the new resolution does not seem to have mandatory provisions but "paves the way for harmful measures" against Iran. Larijani is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative on Iran's Supreme National Security Council and is running for parliament in mid-March elections. Separately, Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on March 5 that any U.S. hopes that sanctions could affect the results of Iran's parliamentary elections show that the United States is unfamiliar with the Iranian character and "is in a state of idiocy," IRNA reported. He said the United States "has yet to understand the Iranian people properly," even three decades after the 1979 revolution. "Every time they have decided to do something, the Iranian nation has given them an even livelier response," Borujerdi said. VS

The price of gold has been rising in Iran, partly in line with rising gold prices elsewhere in the world, but also for domestic reasons that are not entirely clear, the Fars news agency reported on March 4. The agency added that gold dealers in Iran cannot predict how much longer gold prices will continue rising, and cited unnamed dealers as asking the public to stop buying for now. Iranians buy gold mostly in the form of coins minted by the state. Fars reported that the price of the main type of gold coin -- called Bahar-i Azadi (Spring of Freedom) is between $250 and a little over $280, depending on the design, though the agency cited unnamed dealers as saying that prices are "much higher" than the actual value of the gold. They said these coins are being sold for $3-6 above the real value. Fars attributed the price rise in part to the approaching Persian New Year celebrations in late March, and to excessive amounts of cash circulating in Iran. Iran's Central Bank chief Tahmasb Mazaheri said on March 5 that there are enough gold coins circulating in Iran to meet demand, and that the state will manufacture more to stabilize prices, ISNA reported. Mazaheri said, "banks and [exchange bureaus] will be provided with coins on an unlimited basis," and the central bank will also ensure that there are enough notes and coins before the holidays. Iranian banks experience very long queues ahead of the holidays as people take out cash to buy food and presents. Mazaheri said he does not think the latest Security Council resolution has affected the price of gold coins, ISNA reported. VS

The Iraqi government has launched a security operation in Al-Basrah Governorate to target criminal gangs and armed groups, Iraqi media reported on March 5. Some 3,000 troops have been dispatched to the governorate as part of the effort. Security has spiraled out of control in recent weeks, with a surge in kidnappings, killings, and smuggling activity. Al-Basrah police chief Abd al-Jalil Khalaf said the plan was enacted after the killing of the Interior Ministry's inspector-general for Dhi Qar Governorate, Colonel Qasim Ubayd, and three of his staff in Al-Basrah on March 3. Later this month, an investors conference is scheduled to be held in Kuwait for the newly launched Al-Basrah Development Commission, which is funded by Britain's Department for International Development. The commission is seeking investment in ports, airports, the agriculture and banking sectors, and the coveted oil sector. A similar conference is expected to be held in London in April for European and Western investors, "The Observer" reported on February 24. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will refuse to hand over convicted Saddam Hussein-era official Ali Hasan al-Majid for execution unless the Presidency Council reverses a decision not to execute al-Majid's two co-defendants in the case, AP quoted government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh as saying on March 6. Former army Chief of Staff Husayn Rashid Muhammad and former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim al-Ta'i were both sentenced to death, but the Presidency Council overturned the death sentences last week. Sunni Arabs view the two men as career military officers who were carrying out orders. Al-Dabbagh said the prime minister refuses to enact only one of the death sentences issued by the High Tribunal, adding that al-Maliki "wants them to be carried out together. He believes that the death sentences issued by the High Tribunal are irreversible and unchangeable and the [tribunal] does not need the approval of the Presidency Council, which has no right to change the sentences." Under the law, al-Majid must be executed within 30 days. If executed, he would be the fifth former official hanged for alleged atrocities carried out by the Hussein regime. Chief prosecutor Munqidh al-Fir'awn said on March 5 that there is no legal basis to change the verdicts, adding that any attempt to do so would violate the constitution, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. KR

Seven Iraqi governors met with members of the ministerial council outside Tikrit on March 5 to outline their complaints and needs, international media reported on March 6. The governors of Salah Al-Din, Ninawa, Kirkuk, Diyala, and the three Kurdish governorates of Irbil, Al-Sulaymaniyah, and Dahuk discussed their top concerns, citing inefficient delivery systems for food rations, financial disbursements, poor infrastructure, and unemployment. According to a U.S. military press release, the meeting was part of the "United and Strong conference series, designed to bring Iraqi provincial and national leaders together to improve cooperation and discuss issues in the interest of all Iraqis." The statement said the issues "spanned investments, banking, oil, displaced persons, agriculture, and several other issues pertaining to Iraqi transition and rebuilding." Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, the most senior Iraqi official at the conference, told Al-Iraqiyah television after the meeting: "Security cannot be achieved without attaining a qualitative leap with regard to the level of services and the living conditions for citizens. Therefore, the conversation and the talks were important and I hope that they will result in tangible results for Iraqi citizens." Major General Mark Hertling, the U.S. commander for northern Iraq, said the time is ripe to build on security gains. "I think we have six months to make a difference. This [conference] today is the starting point," AP quoted Hertling as saying. KR

Shi'ite lawmaker Basim Sharif has called in an interview with "Voices of Iraq" for early parliamentary elections and the revision of Iraq's election laws, the website reported on March 6. "The parliament needs some changes because of its failure to supervise the government's performance," said Sharif, who is a member of the Islamic Al-Fadilah Party. He said a new election law should be based on an open list election. The January and December 2005 elections were based on closed lists, in which voters cast ballots for parties and lists, but only learned the identities of their representatives after the elections. Sharif said a cabinet reshuffle and the replacement of Prime Minister al-Maliki would "improve the government's performance." KR

The Iraqi government will host a meeting of the Arab Interparliamentary Union (AIPU) in Irbil on March 11-13, according to the Kurdistan regional government (KRG). Fu'ad Husayn, the head of the office of the KRG's presidency, said the conference will bring together delegations from the parliaments of several Arab states, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 5. Media reports indicate that the conference will focus on Arab countries' assistance to Iraq. Parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani met with AIPU Secretary-General Noureddine Bouchkouj in November, and told him that the development of a powerful and independent Iraq would guarantee security and stability in the region. KR