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Newsline - March 7, 2008

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner on March 6 led Western European efforts at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels against moves by Poland and the Baltic states to offer Ukraine and Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at NATO's April 2-4 summit in Bucharest, news agencies reported. Deutsche Welle noted on March 6 that Steinmeier is "skeptical" as to whether Ukraine and Georgia meet NATO's conditions for launching negotiations for a MAP, the final preparatory stage before a formal invitation is extended to join the alliance. The broadcast added that he is also reluctant to antagonize Moscow by starting MAP talks with the two former Soviet republics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Reuters quoted Kouchner as saying on March 6 that "we think that EU-Russia relations are absolutely important," adding that his country wants to stress energy ties in EU-Russian relations when it takes over the EU chair in July. Some unnamed West European diplomats argued that in order to improve EU-Russian relations, which have been strained under President Vladimir Putin, the alliance should not do anything to antagonize Russia when President-elect Dmitry Medvedev is about to take office. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on March 6 that "nobody questions [Ukraine's and Georgia's] right to membership. There are doubts about their level of preparedness." The ministers at the Bucharest meeting agreed in principle to invite Albania and Croatia to join NATO, but Greece threatened to veto Macedonia's bid unless a resolution is found to the dispute over its name, which dates back to 1991 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). Kouchner argued that "given the importance of what's at stake, there is a need to find an agreement" on the name issue. His Dutch counterpart Maxime Verhagen stressed that "a name cannot be an objection for the accession of a country." The Russian daily "Kommersant" wrote on March 7 that "Russia is predictably happy" that NATO membership for Ukraine remains a long way off. The paper added that Russia "should abandon its penchant for threats and ultimatums.... The less Ukraine is afraid of [Russian missiles or gas cutoffs], the less prone it will be to seek aid from the alliance." PM

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in Warsaw on March 6 that he hopes to work out a deal within the EU that will enable the bloc to launch talks with Russia on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which Poland earlier blocked because of Russian restrictions on Polish agricultural exports, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2007, and February 6, 11, and 19, 2008). "I see no big problems in working out a negotiating mandate within the EU, and Poland will certainly not be an obstacle to lifting the veto," he said. Tusk stressed the importance of the EU's speaking to Russia with "one voice." He argued that "we must treat Russia with no fear and no fascination, and see it as a separate political entity which is not pushing for integration with the EU. [Russia is] an entity with its own aspirations and interests that are sometimes in line with and sometimes in contradiction to the ones of the European community." He again criticized the planned Russian-German Nord Stream pipeline, saying that "we have little say on whether the pipeline is built or not. And to the Russians and Germans, who want to build the most expensive pipeline in history, we say they cannot count on our acceptance." The pipeline would transport Russian gas to Germany via the floor of the Baltic Sea. Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to Nord Stream on political or ecological grounds or both. Many Polish critics believe that the pipeline will enable Gazprom to continue to supply Western European customers if Russia cuts off deliveries to Poland for political reasons. PM

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said in an interview with the German weekly "Die Zeit" of March 6 that he is "disturbed" by the course of Russia's post-communist political evolution. He argued that the West did not do enough in the 1990s to help Russia evolve into a democracy because many Westerners believed that "democracy would develop by itself." He said that Russia faces "enormous problems" at home because of poor infrastructure, income inequality, and a democracy deficit. He added that Russia has not found adequate ways to make use of its income from oil and gas sales. He noted that the West should seek to develop ties to Russia, "and not only to the people at the top," while also being ready to confront Moscow over differences, such as when individual Russian generals publicly threaten foreign countries. Asked his opinion of President Putin, Schwarzenberg replied that Putin "is well known to be proud that he is a Chekist." In response to a question about Putin's threat to target Warsaw and Prague with missiles, Schwarzenberg said that he wonders against whom those missiles have been directed until now. "It is very nice of the Russians to say now that they are targeting us," he said. PM

A record 87 Russians have made the "Forbes" magazine list of global billionaires this year, "The Moscow Times" and other Russian media reported on March 7. Russians account for 19 of the top 100 richest people in the world, second only to the United States. Moreover, the total estimated wealth of the 87 billionaires is more than $470 billion, a figure that is twice Russia's GDP in 2000, the year President Putin took office. The Russians on the list also have an average age of 46, compared to an average of 61 for the entire list. The richest Russian on the list is aluminum mogul Oleg Deripaska (No. 9), with an estimated $28 billion. He is followed by Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich (No. 15) with $23.5 billion and steel magnate Aleksei Mordashov (No. 18) and Mikhail Fridman (No. 20). Luisa Kroll, the "Forbes" editor in charge of compiling the list, told "The Moscow Times": "None of the Russians inherited their wealth so its really interesting to see how much wealth has been created in such a short time." Financiers Gennady Timchenko and Yury Kovalchuk, who are reputed to be Putin's personal bankers and who have made vast fortunes in dealings with state companies like Gazprom, Rosneft, and Russian Railways, appeared on the "Forbes" list for the first time, with fortunes of $2.5 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively. RC

A national poll by the Levada Center has found that 61 percent of Russians believe President-elect Medvedev will serve just one term as president, "Novyye izvestia" reported on March 7. They believe President Putin and his entourage will continue to wield power during Medvedev's presidency. Twenty-two percent disagreed with this prediction. Levada Center analyst Leonid Sedov noted that in 2000, just 13 percent of respondents thought the newly elected Putin would serve two terms. The All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) has found that 88 percent of Russians believe some presidential power will be transferred to Putin if he, as he has said he will, becomes prime minister under Medvedev, "Kommersant" reported on March 7. Only 3 percent said they think Putin should step aside from politics and let Medvedev rule on his own. Both surveys are interpreted as indicating strong support for continuing the policies of the last eight years. RC

Former Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi was given a three-year suspended sentence on abuse-of-office charges by an Arkhangelsk court on March 6, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported the next day. Donskoi has been in trouble with the law since he declared a quixotic bid for the Russian presidency in July 2006 (see "Russia: Mayors In The Crosshairs As 'Power Vertical' Gains Force,", June 21, 2007). Speaking to RFE/RL, Donskoi refused to speculate on the fact that his case came to an end just days after the presidential election, but he did say "I have spent a certain time in prison in horrific conditions because I was careless enough to say that I would run for president." "I understand that there can be no independent politician in Russia," he added. "If you don't have the Kremlin's approval, you are not a candidate for president, you are not a national political figure." He repeated his assertions that Russia is not a democracy nor an authoritarian state, but a "monarchy" and predicted the political climate in the country will continue to worsen for the next 15 years or so. Donskoi added that he will appeal his conviction to the European Court of Human Rights. "I don't want my daughter, when she grows up, to be told that 'your father is a criminal,'" Donskoi said. "That is the main thing for me." RC

The Russian Foreign Ministry on March 6 informed the CIS Executive Committee that Russia no longer considers itself bound by the decision made by CIS heads of state at a summit in January 1996 to impose a ban on trade, economic, financial, transport, and other links with Abkhazia, reported. The Russian statement said the rationale for that decision was to induce Abkhazia to adopt a more flexible position with regard to the return to their homes in Abkhazia of Georgian displaced persons. It noted that most Georgians who wished to return to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion have done so, and that the primary obstacle to others doing so is Georgia's refusal to agree to the rules for their registration proposed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It further noted that unlike Georgia, Abkhazia is "fulfilling its obligations" on conflict resolution, and is ready for "practical steps for strengthening confidence and security in the conflict zone." The statement calls on other CIS members states to follow suit. The daily "Kommersant" on March 7 termed the Russian move a halfway step toward formal recognition of Abkhazia, while on March 7 quoted Alla Yazkova of the Russian Academy of Sciences" Center for Mediterranean and Black Sea Studies as calling it a "trial balloon" that will open up possibilities for Russian companies, including those engaged in creating the infrastructure for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, to invest in Abkhazia (for Georgian reaction see below). LF

The secretariat of the Union of Journalists of Russia annulled on March 6 the decision taken the previous day by its subsidiary in Chechnya to accept Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov into its ranks, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2008). The secretariat noted that the Chechen decision contravenes the statutes of the union, which stipulate that only professional journalists may become members. In Grozny, government and presidential administration information department official Lyoma Gudayev said on March 6 that the Chechen journalists' union "chose an inappropriate way" to express gratitude to Kadyrov for his efforts in support of the Chechen press. LF

Saigidpasha Umakhanov was reelected on March 6 with 24 of 25 votes as mayor of the northern town of Khasavyurt, a position he has held since 1997, reported. Under former Daghestan President Magomedali Magomedov, a Dargin, Umakhanov was regarded as unofficial leader of a rival Avar opposition political grouping known as the Northern Alliance (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," July 23, 2005). Umakhanov has reportedly come to an accommodation with Magomedov's successor as president, Mukhu Aliyev, who is a fellow Avar (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 7, 2008). LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza met on March 6 in Yerevan with Armenian Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian and with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported, quoting a government press service statement. That statement quoted Bryza as telling Sarkisian that "in principle, we support you. I and the U.S. charge d'affaires in Armenia believe that you have the kind of vision and approaches that we want to see in the implementation of joint programs." Bryza told journalists after his talks with Oskanian that "it looks like the status quo has been restored" following two days of sometimes intense exchange of fire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. He continued: "Generals are in touch with each other. It's unclear what really happened. We may never really know what happened. We do know that both sides were shooting at each other. Each side says the other one shot first, each side says, 'We stopped shooting and the other side continued.' As is often the case, probably the truth lies somewhere in between." Also on March 6, Armenian armed forces Chief of Staff Colonel General Seyran Ohanian told a press conference in Yerevan that the exchanges of fire in recent days were not confined to the vicinity of Mardakert Raion in the northeast of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, but that similar clashes also took place along the Noemberian, Tavush, Ararat, and Vayk sectors of the Armenian border with Azerbaijan, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

In his final address on March 6 at his trial at a Baku court, Qanimat Zaxid, editor of the opposition newspaper "Azadliq," rejected the charges against him of hooliganism and assault, reported on March 7. He told the court: "We, the journalists of Azerbaijan, are trying to ensure that the journalistic principles that comply with international standards triumph. [In response], we are being killed, beaten up, and arrested on trumped-up charges for the sole reason that we try to tell the truth." The prosecutor has demanded a five-year jail term for Zaxid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and 20, 2007 and February 21, 2008). LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry on March 7 released a statement terming the Russian decision of March 6 lifting the sanctions imposed in January 1996 on Abkhazia by CIS members states (see "Russia" above) as an overt infringement on Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity and as "an extremely dangerous provocation" aimed at abetting separatism and escalating tension in the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. It further dismissed as immoral the Russian linkage of that move to the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons. It hinted that Tbilisi might in retaliation insist on the withdrawal from the conflict zone of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed there since 1994 under the CIS aegis. In Sukhum(i), de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh hailed the Russian move as "good news" and as proof that relations between Russia and Abkhazia are gaining momentum, ITAR-TASS reported on March 6. LF

David Bakradze and Nino Burjanadze met in Brussels in March 6 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss bilateral relations, Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership, and how to reach a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, Caucasus Press reported on March 7. Burjanadze told Georgian television that the conversation was "very friendly," and that it also focussed on "plans to further strengthen...democratic values in Georgia," according to Burjanadze added that she thanked Rice for her statement earlier on March 6 that the U.S. will not recognize the independence of South Ossetia. The parliament of that unrecognized republic released a statement on March 4 appealing to the UN secretary-general, Russia, and other CIS states, and the EU for formal recognition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2008).LF

The Russian, North Ossetian, and South Ossetian co-chairmen of the Joint Control Commission that monitors developments in the South Ossetian conflict zone -- Yury Popov, Murat Tkhostov, and Boris Chochiyev, respectively -- met in Tbilisi on March 6 to discuss resuming talks on resolving the conflict, reported. They rejected the recent proposal by Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili that the format of the JCC be changed to exclude North Ossetia and include the pro-Tbilisi temporary South Ossetian administration headed by Dmitry Sanakoyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008) on the grounds that that administration was never a party to the conflict. Popov quoted Chochiyev as affirming that he would never sit down at the negotiating table with a representative of Sanakoyev's administration. Popov held a separate three-hour meeting with Yakobashvili but failed to reach a compromise agreement. LF

Speaking from Paris, where he has formally requested political asylum, Irakli Okruashvili accused President Mikheil Saakashvili in an interview aired on March 6 by Kavkazia television of acquiring through third parties stakes in the Georgian television channel Rustavi-2 and the mobile-phone company GeoCell, reported. He also lambasted Saakashvili for allegedly having no desire to bring the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under the central government's jurisdiction, and he predicted that the Georgian people will never forgive Saakshvili for deploying riot police against peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi on November 7. Okruashvili said he proposed to Saakashvili holding a formal court hearing to condemn what he termed the "anti-national policies" espoused by Saakashvili's predecessor as president, Eduard Shevardnadze, but that Saakashvili rejected that idea because "the Americans wouldn't like it." Okruashvili confirmed that he may run as a candidate in the parliamentary elections to be held in May 2008, provided that the Georgian authorities release all political prisoners prior to the ballot. He also said, however, that he will not return to Georgia as long as Saakashvili remains in power. LF

A Kyrgyz military court on March 6 imposed a five-year suspended sentence on former parliamentarian Sultan Urmanaev for his role in a violent clash between police and opposition demonstrators in 2002, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The military court found that Urmanaev, who was the governor of the southwestern Jalal-Abad region at the time, was guilty of abusing his position by failing to end the March 2002 clashes in the town of Aksy in which at least six people died. Urmanaev received a three-year probation term, during which time he could be immediately imprisoned for five years if he breaks the law. After he was initially charged in November 2007, Urmanaev argued that he was ordered by an unnamed official of the Kyrgyz presidential administration not to intervene in the clash (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5, 2007). The investigation into the Aksy clashes has also resulted in sentences against several other former officials, including the former police chief and the region's former chief prosecutor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24, 2007). The Aksy events triggered widespread protests throughout the country, with demonstrators blocking the main highway linking the north and south of the country. The reaction was further exacerbated by the release of a video showing riot police firing on unarmed demonstrators. The outcry eventually led to the resignation of the government (see "Kyrgyzstan: New Aksy Probe Could Reach Current Circles," June 28, 2007, RG

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on March 5 released a report warning of a "difficult year" in Kyrgyzstan, citing a sharp rise in inflation and a serious trade deficit, AKIpress reported. The report was released after an IMF delegation made a 10-day visit to Kyrgyzstan to negotiate the terms of an extension of the country's Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). The IMF officials noted an 8.2 percent increase in GDP last year, but warned that annual inflation surpassed 20 percent by the end of 2007, prompted by a dramatic surge in energy and food prices. Meanwhile on March 5, the IMF's executive board reprimanded Tajikistan for violating the terms of its poverty reduction agreement with the body, according to Asia-Plus. In a statement released in Washington and posted on its website (, the IMF accused Tajikistan of engaging in several questionable "disbursements of funds" in 2004-05 and "breaching its obligations." The IMF demanded that Tajikistan pay back almost $48 million in aid by early 2009; that aid was reportedly "based on inaccurate financial information provided by Tajik authorities." The IMF further expressed its "regret over the nature and extent" of the misreporting by Tajik officials. RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov met with Marc Perin de Brichambaut, the secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), on March 5 in Ashgabat, Turkmen Television reported. Berdymukhammedov affirmed his commitment to the OSCE, and welcomed the organization's activities in Turkmenistan. Accompanying the OSCE secretary-general, the head of OSCE economic and environmental activities, Bernard Snoy, and the head of the OSCE Center in Ashgabat, Ibrahim Djikic, briefed Berdymukhammedov on planned OSCE programs in the country and discussed the format of a planned economic and environmental forum to be held in Ashgabat, saying that the event will "raise the level of Turkmen-OSCE dialogue." For his part, Berdymukhammedov reviewed his government's energy reform program and said that he is committed to "putting the country's huge energy potential at the service" of all. RG

President Berdymukhammedov on March 6 issued a formal reprimand criticizing National Security Minister Carymyrat Amanow for "poor control" over the "implementation of the orders and instructions" issued by the president, Turkmen Television reported. The reprimand threatened that the minister would be dismissed if he fails to "improve his work." Another official, Geldimet Orazow, the head of the Mary regional department of the National Security Ministry, was "strongly reprimanded for weakening control over the work of departments subordinate to him and for violations" in the region. RG

Unnamed officials of the Uzbek National Security Service on March 6 announced the largest-ever heroin seizure in Uzbekistan, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the officials' statement, 568 kilograms of heroin was discovered in a truck traveling in the Guzar district of Kashkadarya region. The quantity surpasses the total of all heroin seizures in Uzbekistan last year. The heroin was believed to have entered southern Uzbekistan from Tajikistan and to have originated in neighboring Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of opiates. RG

Uzbek President Islam Karimov on March 6 completed a tour of the country's eastern Fargona region with an address to officials warning of "a number of shortcomings in the social and economic development" in the region, Uzbek Television reported. Following his tour, Karimov pointed out "key problems" in the region and highlighted the region's "poor progress" in industrial development, insufficient private business, and a "lack of initiative and rigidity" among the local authorities. The president then dismissed the governor of the Fargona Region, Abduhoshim Abdullaev, and named Mamatisoq Gofirov, a former food industry executive, to replace him. RG

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on March 6 met with Rene Fasel, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Lukashenka, who is an avid ice hockey player, presented Fasel with an award from the Belarusian National Olympic Committee, and assured him that within a few years "Belarus will make itself known as a great hockey power, taking a worthy place in the appropriate rankings." "Everything is being done in our country to turn it into a world-level hockey power," Lukashenka said. Fasel told reporters that Belarus stands a chance of winning the right to host the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championships, but the final decision will be made at a congress of the IIHF. AM

The Verkhovna Rada on March 6 passed a resolution stating that parliament will vote on Ukraine's possible membership in NATO only if membership is first approved by a nationwide referendum, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The first meeting of the 450-seat parliament after a long deadlock was attended by 446 legislators. The resolution was backed by 248 lawmakers, including all members of the Party of Regions and the Lytvyn Bloc, as well as 34 members of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and 19 of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc. The Communist Party did not participate in the vote. The adoption of the resolution formally opens the way for the Ukrainian parliament to resume work. The opposition Party of Regions blocked parliamentary meetings shortly after Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk in mid-January sent a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, asking him to present Ukraine with a NATO Membership Action Plan at the alliance's summit in Bucharest in April. The Party of Regions has demanded the adoption of a resolution declaring that any step toward NATO membership should be preceded by a national referendum. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko on March 6 criticized some points of a gas deal reached in mid-February by Ukrainian President Yushchenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko said in a letter to Yushchenko that she does not intend to implement the part of the agreement that relates to joint plans by Russian gas monopoly Gazprom and Ukrainian state-owned gas operator Naftohaz Ukrayiny to set up two new intermediary companies that would supply Ukraine with gas. Tymoshenko also said that the government does not intend to pay $315 per 1,000 cubic meters for Russian gas delivered to Ukraine in January and February. Gazprom supplies Ukraine with a mix of cheap Central Asian gas and a more expensive gas extracted in Russia. In January and February, the share of Russia-extracted gas in the mix was significantly higher, prompting Gazprom's demands that Ukraine pay a higher price. Presidential secretariat head Viktor Baloha described Tymoshenko's letter as a "distorted interpretation" of talks between Yushchenko and Putin. According to Baloha, the deal reached by the presidents did not actually spell out the details mentioned by Tymoshenko. Baloha said that neither the price of $315 per 1,000 cubic meters nor deliveries of Russian-extracted gas were the subject of talks. Baloha said that new intermediary companies were only considered as one possible means of further cooperation between Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny. Ukraine currently receives gas through two intermediary companies: Swiss-registered joint venture RosUkrEnergo, which supplies gas to the Russian-Ukrainian border, and Ukrainian-registered company UkrGazEnergo, which sells the gas to Ukrainian customers. AM

Ukrainian President Yushchenko has declassified the directives he issued in connection with Ukrainian-Russian gas talks, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on March 7. The directives, issued as part of a February 26 presidential decree, establish goals for the Ukrainian governmental delegation at talks with Russian government officials and Russian gas monopoly Gazprom. Yushchenko instructed the government and Naftohaz Ukrayiny to settle Ukraine's gas debt to Gazprom for 2006 at the price of $95 for 1,000 cubic meters, and the debt incurred in November and December of 2007 at $130 per 1,000 cubic meters, effective February 14. Naftohaz Ukrayiny should be able to buy gas in 2008 at $179.5 per 1,000 cubic meters at the Ukrainian-Russian border, according to Yushchenko's directives. Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Gazprom in 2008 should switch to direct gas supplies without the participation of intermediary companies RosUkrEnergo and UkrGazEnergo. In February and March, Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Gazprom should create a working group with the participation of RosUkrEnergo and UkrGazEnergo representatives in order to audit both supplies and payments made by RosUkrEnergo on Ukrainian and European markets in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Yushchenko also suggested that Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Gazprom might create two new intermediary companies. One would supply Naftohaz Ukrayiny in 2008 with at least 50 billion cubic meters of Central Asian gas at the price of $179.5 per 1,000 cubic meters, and at least 55 billion cubic meters of gas in 2009 at a new negotiated price. The second company, if established, would be able to receive Central Asian gas from the first company and sell no more than 30 billion cubic meters a year on the Ukrainian market. Gazprom would secure the conclusion of new agreements with Naftohaz Ukrayiny or the first intermediary company. UkrGazEnergo was to be given permission to sell no more than 5 billion cubic meters of gas on the Ukrainian market before it closes down at the end of 2008. All other gas supplies should be delivered directly from RosUkrEnergo to Naftohaz Ukrayiny. AM

The Serbian government voted 15 to seven on March 6 against endorsing a parliamentary resolution put forward by the opposition Serbian Radical Party (SRS), according to which Serbia would negotiate with the EU only if Brussels accepts that Kosova is part of Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Supporting the resolution were cabinet members from Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic's New Serbia party. Opposing the measure were government members from President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party and the G17 Plus group, which was founded by liberal economists. Backing the resolution in the legislature are the SRS, DSS, and the Socialists of late President Slobodan Milosevic (SPS). The SRS argues that the support for its resolution by the governing DSS means that the SRS now heads a parliamentary majority consisting of itself, the DSS, and the SPS. The Radicals accordingly want parliamentary speaker Oliver Dulic of the Democratic Party to resign and, ultimately, for the government to call new elections. Dulic said on March 6 that he will quit his post if the anti-EU resolution passes in the parliament. The DSS, which does poorly in the polls and hence seeks to put off elections as long as possible, wants a popular referendum on the resolution. The DSS is reluctant to form a new coalition with the SRS because the DSS would be certain to lose the premiership. After the March 6 cabinet vote, Slobodan Samardzic of the DSS, who is minister for Kosova, said that the government no longer has a unified policy on Kosova or the EU. Tadic argued that the government is not obliged to implement any resolution that an opposition party manages to get through the parliament because the opposition has no right to determine foreign policy. He added that his party will continue its pro-EU line as long as it is in the government, saying that EU integration and not resolutions are the key to "defending Kosovo." He also cautioned Croatia against recognizing Kosova. The broadcast noted that the Belgrade media are dominated by discussions as to whether the shaky coalition government can survive much longer. Several commentators suggested that the DSS and its allies have a clear interest in "prolonging the agony" of the coalition and avoiding new elections. PM

RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Sarajevo on March 6 that transportation officials have signed an agreement to set up a railway link connecting Capljina in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Niksic in Montenegro. The new route will help the development of eastern Herzegovina in the Republika Srpska, in particular by giving it direct access to the ports of Bar in Montenegro and Durres in Albania. The planned rail link will also provide connections to Tirana and onward via the so-called Corridor 8 route to Skopje. Construction of the Capljina-Niksic line, which has been under discussion for years, is now expected to begin in 2012. The broadcast quoted several Bosnian and Montenegrin officials as stressing the importance of improved regional railway development for their respective economies. Economic development, regional integration, and European integration in much of the Balkans are hindered by poor infrastructure, especially by a general lack of good east-west road and rail links. PM

One day after the March 2 presidential ballot in Russia put the final seal of approval on Dmitry Medvedev's carefully orchestrated win, the head of the country's election commission had warm words of praise for the vote. "There is no more open, more transparent, and more organized election system," Vladimir Churov said, "than the election system of the Russian Federation."

Churov added that perhaps the greatest innovation of the Russian voting system is the complex, multilayered system used for counting votes, a system he claims virtually precludes the possibility of falsification.

But to independent observers of both the presidential poll and the December 2007 Duma elections, the system seems geared for getting the right results for the Kremlin -- rather than for getting the results right.

Election management in Russia, of course, begins long before election day. It involves the massive distortion of public opinion through the control of the media, the abuse of public office at all levels for political ends, the manipulation of election law and the composition of election commissions, and the use of a variety of means to ensure that only approved parties and candidates appear on ballots at all.

One of the clearest macro-manipulations is the compilation of the official voter list. "Vedomosti" reported on March 6 that, according to official figures, there were 107.6 million eligible voters in Russia as of June 2007. By the time of the December legislative elections, that figure had risen to 109.15 million.

The hike might be explained by the fact that Unified Russia wanted as many votes as possible because Duma seats are allocated according to the number of votes. In addition, the federal budget provides parties who pick up more than 3 percent of the vote to qualify for annual state funding of 5 rubles ($0.20) for each vote they received.

By the time of the March presidential election, in which the Kremlin was interested in the highest possible voter turnout rather than a particular number of votes, the official voter list was back down to 107 million, ""Kommersant"" reported. According to official figures, St. Petersburg lost 11 percent of its voting-age population between December 2007 and March 2008.

But these macro-management means alone cannot ensure the kind of precision that Kremlin politicos seem to require of the results. For instance, First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev polled 70.2 percent, according to preliminary official results. Interestingly, that was slightly better than the 70.08 percent the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party polled in the December legislative elections, but slightly worse than the 71.3 percent that President Vladimir Putin garnered in his 2004 reelection. Clearly, the Kremlin wants Medvedev to seem popular. To be more popular than his predecessor, however, would be unseemly.

Andrei Buzin, chairman of the Interregional Association of Voters, told on March 5 that his monitoring group has noticed an increasing trend of election-day falsification. Such violations have long been de rigueur in the so-called ethnic republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and, especially, in the North Caucasus. In Ingushetia, to take one example, officials reported a startling 98-percent turnout for the Duma elections, but in the weeks following the vote, more than 50 percent of the republic's eligible voters signed statements saying they did not vote.

Following that embarrassment, Election Commission Chairman Churov announced that he would order the installation of video cameras at all Ingush polling stations for the presidential election. But the chairman of its legislature announced that such measures were unnecessary and no cameras appeared. "Novaya gazeta" journalists in the republic on March 2 asked about the cameras and election officials "simply laughed." Official turnout in the republic on March 2 was 92 percent (with 91 percent of them voting for Medvedev), while independent monitors counted 5,742 voters -- putting estimated turnout somewhere closer to 3.5 percent.

Earlier this month, two bloggers -- a chemist named Maksim Pshenichnikov and a person who goes by the online name Podmoskovnik -- published a damning statistical analysis that used Central Election Commission statistics to shed light on the extent of the fraud in the December Duma elections. The two made a graph of the voter-turnout percentage reported by each polling station. Under normal conditions, one would expect a bell-shaped curve, with few or no polling stations reporting 0 percent turnout and few or none reporting 100 percent. The normal curve would peak at the point representing the national average voter turnout, which for these elections was officially put at 63 percent.

What the bloggers found instead was a curve that began normally on the zero side of the graph and ran upward to a peak of 51 percent. On the right side of the graph, the side representing polling stations reporting higher-than-average turnout, the graph meandered in a spiked line and ended with a peak at 100 percent that was higher even than the number of polling stations reporting the apparent national average of 51 percent. Moreover, they found sharp spikes at all the "round" numbers above that average -- 55, 60, 65, 70, etc. For instance, 633 polling stations reported an 89-percent turnout and 770 reported 91 percent, while 927 reported a nice, round 90 percent. "It is a study that explicitly demonstrates that the results were manipulated," economist Konstantin Sonin told "The Moscow Times."

Moreover, the bloggers created a second graph showing the number of votes reported by each polling station as being cast for each party. The second graph shows nearly normal bell-curves for all of the minor parties in the election, but the curve for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party nearly precisely follows the curve for overall voter turnout. This seems to indicate conclusively that all the "additional" votes that appeared in contravention of statistical logic were cast for Unified Russia. According to their analysis, Unified Russia should have been given 277 seats in the Duma, instead of the 315 (more than the constitutional majority of 300) that the party was awarded.

Independent monitor Buzin told that there are increasing signs that brazen election-day manipulation is on the rise across the country, including in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. He noted that polling station No. 1257 in Moscow reported a 100-percent turnout (2,400 registered voters). "Such results have been seen in Karachayevo-Cherkesia and other Caucasian republics, but in the capital -- this is a first," he said. "Reports of such statistics are coming in from cities nationally."

On the evening of March 2, St. Petersburg Yabloko official Maksim Reznik appeared on a small local television station and told of an experiment that he carried out during the presidential vote. He reported that he and six other activists visited seven St. Petersburg polling stations. At each one, they told officials that they were residents of Murmansk without identification or absentee ballots and in each case they were admitted to vote in violation of election rules.

The next day, Reznik was arrested in the middle of the night for allegedly assaulting a police officer and a St. Petersburg court ordered him held without bond pending trial because his previous involvement with opposition protests supposedly contempt for the law. He could face up to six years in prison.

Buzin told that on election day, he was at Moscow polling station No. 1513. He said that independent monitors there discovered a fully stuffed ballot box and were guarding it. For a long time, election officials on the site discussed the situation. After a while, a civil-defense alarm sounded and police appeared, ordering the evacuation of the polling station. The monitors were ushered out of the building, although according to election law, in such situations monitors are supposed to be evacuated together with all the ballot boxes. Buzin said that during the evacuation, he spoke personally with the chairman of the Moscow municipal election commission. After the alarm was ended, representatives of the Prosecutor-General's Office appeared and confiscated the suspicious ballot box. Nothing was heard about it again.

"This story once again confirms how all these organs act as one," Buzin concluded. "They have a single leadership, and this combination of all branches of power and state organs enables them to perpetrate rather brazen direct falsifications."

"Novaya gazeta" reported this week on the election-day experience of Olga Pokrovskaya, a well-known St. Petersburg lawyer and liberal activist who has served on election commissions in the past. Pokrovskaya told the paper she spent election day monitoring polling station No. 488. She reported spending the entire day there and waiting after polls closed while officials filled out the station's voting protocol. She then asked for and received an officially signed copy of the protocol and accompanied polling-station officials to the territorial election commission, where they were to submit the documents. Pokrovskaya said that she noticed one of the officials was carrying a blank election protocol that had been signed and stamped, in addition to the document that had been shown to Pokrovskaya earlier.

Pokrovskaya later compared the document she had with the official Central Election Commission data for polling station No. 488. Both sets of figures showed 23 votes for Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov, 68 votes for Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and 188 votes for Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Pokrovskaya's document also shows 620 votes for Dmitry Medvedev, while the official tally for Medvedev for that polling station was 1,412. Pokrovskaya showed total turnout (including spoiled ballots and others) as 965, while the official figure is registered as 1,641.

"I suppose similar methods were used at other polling stations as well," Pokrovskaya said. "There were very few observers. At my polling station, for example, there was no one but me."

Lilia Shabanova, executive director of the independent NGO Golos, also monitored the elections and noticed the same trend of more brazen falsification and officials from all levels of government and all agencies working in tandem.

"Administrative resources have always been used," she told "Novaya gazeta," "but when there was political competition in earlier elections, control over the elections was incomparably greater. The commission under [former Central Election Commission head Aleksandr] Veshnyakov came to help at least during local elections, but the current [Central Election Commission] is deaf, blind, and dumb. It does not react to anything; it doesn't want to see or hear anything."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on March 6 said she is optimistic that NATO allies will deploy more troops to Afghanistan in order to meet Canadian demands, AFP reported. Rice was speaking en route to Brussels, where she was scheduled to meet with her NATO counterparts to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, among other issues. "I think people have made progress and I think we are hopeful that NATO is going to meet the commitment that it needs to meet," she said. Canada has threatened to pull its troops out of Afghanistan in a year if NATO does not send reinforcements and additional equipment. Canadian troops serving in the south of Afghanistan have suffered heavy casualties, prompting rising opposition from the Canadian public to the country's involvement in the conflict. AT

The first civilian experts of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) from the Czech Republic headed to Afghanistan along with a group of soldiers on March 6, the Czech news agency CTK reported. The Czech PRT comprises about 200 soldiers and 10 civilian experts in farming, construction, and water management, although the initial deployment included just three of the civilians. The Czech team is slated to work in Logar Province for about three years, focusing mostly on providing aid to local residents. The Czech Republic is the third of the new NATO members to deploy a PRT, following Lithuania and Hungary. The Czech Republic also operates a field hospital in Kabul. AT

Vice President Parviz Davudi said in Damascus on March 6 that Iran would attend a planned summit of Arab leaders in the Syrian capital if invited, and that the meeting would further regional states' interests, IRNA reported. The Arab League meeting in Damascus on March 29 is expected to discuss issues including the political impasse in Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though some states have said they may not go if Lebanon still does not have a president by then, Al-Jazeera reported on March 5. Rival Lebanese parties have been negotiating over a choice of president since November 2007. Davudi is leading a delegation to Syrian that includes Iranian Energy Minister Parviz Fattah and Housing Minister Mohammad Saidikia; the delegation has met with officials including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa, and Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Utri, IRNA and AFP reported. The two states also formed a cooperation committee that met on March 5 and 6 and signed nine agreements, IRNA reported. The joint committee is to coordinate cooperation in the political and economic spheres. VS

Students at Shiraz University in southern Iran have suspended their campus protests, apparently until March 8, to give the university a chance to address their grievances, while 12 protesting students were detained on March 6, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 4, and 5, 2008). The 12 students were summoned to the local branch of the Revolutionary Court soon after the protests began more than a week ago, and were detained and sent to a detention center on March 6. The charges against them have not been announced, Radio Farda reported. Students have said they will resume their campus protests on March 9 unless the Science and Research Ministry, which deals with higher education institutions, sends a delegation to Shiraz to discuss their grievances, which include dissatisfaction with university head Mohammad Hadi Sadeqi. Students have said they would discuss their other grievances with a new university chief or administrative team once Sadeqi is dismissed, Radio Farda reported. VS

The Iranian Interior Ministry allowed parties and groupings to start campaigning on March 6 for parliamentary polls set for March 14, though many groupings have already begun informally to promote themselves in recent weeks, Radio Farda reported. Groups can campaign until 24 hours before voting. Radio Farda reported that some political groups have been informally publicizing themselves for weeks now, for example in posters for religious services. The government and politicians of various factions have in turn been encouraging Iranians to vote. Radio Farda observed that with the disqualification of many independent and reformist hopefuls during the strict vetting process implemented in recent weeks, competition between right-wing factions has gained significance. The conservatives previously hoped to present a single list, but the main right-wing grouping, the United Front of Fundamentalists, has alienated other right-wing groups with its choice of candidates. Some conservatives have observed that its candidate lists, especially in Tehran, do not fairly represent various conservative groupings and include too many supporters of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Another grouping, the Comprehensive Coalition of Fundamentalists [Etelaf-i faragir-i osulgarayan], has therefore emerged, reputedly based around a trio of politicians considered presidential rivals: diplomat Ali Larijani, former revolutionary guards chief Mohsen Rezai, and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, according to Radio Farda. Some 4,500 candidates overall are to compete across Iran for 290 parliamentary seats, Radio Farda added. VS

Hojjatoleslam Hossein Taeb, a deputy head of the Basij militia affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), said in Tehran on March 5 that he expects about 67 percent of voters to take part in the March 14 polls, "Kayhan" reported on March 6. He told a gathering of Basij officers that the militia will cooperate with the "relevant officials" to assure the security of voting centers and a "peaceful voting atmosphere." IRGC chief Mohammad Ali Jafari separately said in Tabriz on March 6 that UN Security Council members recently adopted an "unjust" sanctions resolution against Iran in a bid to influence Iran's coming elections, the Fars news agency reported. Jafari said Iranians will vote freely on March 14, and "nobody can influence their votes." He added that "the enemies of the system" are trying to reduce voter turnout. Jafari said that in spite of the positive publicity promoted by liberal democracies, unspecified "powers" influence elections in Western states, and "effectively bring anyone they like to office." In Iran, he said, "candidates only go through the filter of the Guardians Council, and people's votes are freely cast into ballot boxes." The Guardians Council, a body of jurists and clerics, vets all candidates in Iran to ensure that they are devout believers and loyal to Iran's political system. VS

U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker and Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh dismissed media reports that a meeting was scheduled to take place on March 6 between the United States and a visiting Iranian delegation. Iranian media reported on March 6 that the delegation traveled to Baghdad for what would have been the fourth round of talks on Iraq with the United States. "If some party thought there was a meeting scheduled, there was a misunderstanding," Reeker said. "We were not expecting any meeting because no meeting was scheduled." Al-Dabbagh said the government was busy with Iran President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's visit last week, and did not set a date for the talks. The Iranian Foreign Ministry insisted that the date was set with the Iraqi government for March 6. KR

The Iraqi government is in talks to conclude a $1.2 billion oil contract with China, international media reported on March 6. China's state-owned National Petroleum Corporation signed an agreement with Saddam Hussein in 1997 to develop the Al-Ahdab field in Wasit Governorate. The original deal was valued at $700 million over 23 years, with planned production at 90,000 barrels per day. The oil field has proven reserves of 1.4 billion barrels, Wasit Governor Latif al-Turfa has said. "The Wasit Governorate has given the Chinese side assurances and guarantees to provide the necessary security and removing any hurdles on the path of Chinese operations in the governorate," al-Turfa, who is a member of the Iraqi negotiating team, told "Al-Zaman." He added that tribal leaders have said they will guarantee the protection of the Chinese firms and their equipment. "Al-Zaman" reported that the new agreement calls for the production of more than 100,000 barrels per day over a period of at least 22 years. China will receive a share of that output under the agreement. An Iraqi Oil Ministry official told AP on March 6 that the final round of talks with China for the development of the field will be held in April. KR

The Iraqi High Tribunal announced on March 6 that an investigation into former Staff General Wafiq al-Samarra'i, the assistant director of military intelligence under Saddam Hussein, has found that al-Samarra'i bore no criminal responsibility for the Al-Anfal campaign, in which the regime is alleged to have killed more than 100,000 Iraqi Kurds, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Adnan al-Budayri, the head of judicial investigations at the tribunal, said no material or moral evidence against al-Samarra'i was found. The tribunal has lifted a freeze on al-Samarra'i's assets in light of the decision. Al-Samarra'i was named as a defendant in the case in late June 2007. At the time, he was serving as President Jalal Talabani's military adviser. Media reports indicated that he fled to London or went into hiding, but the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Talabani's political party, maintained that al-Samarra'i was seeking medical attention outside Iraq. Al-Samarra'i fled Iraq in 1994, and was an active member of the Iraqi opposition before the fall of the Hussein regime. KR

The Political Council for National Security convened in Baghdad on March 6 to consider the possibility of a cabinet reshuffle, Iraqi media reported. The meeting, chaired by Jalal Talabani, focused on the need to engage a broad spectrum of leaders in order to build a technocratic and politically diverse cabinet, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. According to Al-Sharqiyah television, the discussion centered on whether to make minor changes to the cabinet or totally reshuffle it. Several ministers have been deemed ineffective because they were allegedly appointed on the basis of sectarian interests rather than their skills. The council also reportedly discussed the negotiations with the United States over a long-term security agreement. KR

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told a March 6 press briefing that the United States supports Turkey in its fight against the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The group is considered a terrorist organization by both countries. "As we have said before, the PKK is a common enemy. We have been strongly supporting Turkey in its efforts to combat the PKK," Perino said. Regarding reports that the United States held talks with the group, Perino said: "We have encouraged dialogue and coordination between the United States, Turkey, and Iraq, but we have not and we will not negotiate or hold talks with the PKK, nor do we expect Turkey to do so." Perino also told reporters that President George W. Bush met with a delegation of councilors from Al-Sadr City and Al-Adhamiyah. The 10-member delegation of Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs is visiting the United States as part of a State Department-sponsored leadership program. KR