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Newsline - March 10, 2008

The Central Election Commission on March 7 certified the final official results of the country's March 2 presidential election, Interfax and other Russian media reported the same day. Officially, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev won the poll with 70.28 percent of the vote (52,530,712 votes). Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was second with 17.72 percent (13,243,550 votes); Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovsky was third with 9.35 percent (6,988,510 votes); and Democratic Party of Russia leader Andrei Bogdanov was fourth with 1.3 percent (968,344 votes). The official turnout was 69.81 percent, just short of the 70 percent that Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov predicted in December. Medvedev's vote total (but not percentage) was the highest in post-Soviet Russian history. In 2004, President Vladimir Putin was reelected with 71.3 percent, representing 49,565,582 votes. Medvedev, at age 42, is also the youngest Russian head of state since the tsarist period, although Bogdanov, at 38, was the youngest person ever to run for the office. Election officials said that none of the more than 200 complaints of voting irregularities that were filed had merit. Election Commission member Yevgeny Kolyushin, who represents the Communist Party, objected to the official protocol, saying that turnout figures were inflated and the results "violate the principle of free elections." Medvedev addressed the nation on television the same day, saying: "More than 74 million people participated in the election, 69.7 percent. This is a very significant figure. It gives me the reserve of confidence necessary to solve the basic socioeconomic problems facing the country and to improve the lives of our citizens." RC

Several politicians and analysts spoke with RFE/RL's Russian Service on March 8 about the configuration of power under President-elect Medvedev, who has said he will name Putin as his prime minister. Analyst Dmitry Oreshkin described the arrangement as a "two-pronged vertical" and said the government and the presidential administration will either find a way to work together, which has never happened before, or one of the power centers will emerge as dominant over the other. He described the latter as "the more traditional scenario" for Russia. Union of Rightist Forces Political Council member Boris Nadezhdin told RFE/RL that the heavily managed general elections and the elimination of the direct election of regional-administration heads have undermined the federative structure of the country. In addition, the country can no longer be called a republic, he said. Oreshkin added that the presidential election this month has reduced the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of many Russians. Oreshkin said the fact that government officials talk about justice and double standards and the like while engaging in manipulative tactics makes the situation worse, as do their claims to be upholding traditional religious and moral values. Oreshkin said that the time will come when the majority of Russians want to change the country's political elite but that there will be no "legal, peaceful, calm means" of doing so. RC

The independent NGO Sova, which monitors ethnic relations and hate crimes, has said nationalist extremists in Russia are becoming better organized and more violent with each passing year, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on March 7. A group of alleged extremists was arrested in Yekaterinburg and authorities charged that they were videotaping violent attacks against minorities and posting the results on the Internet. Some of the videos have even been shown on regional television. The practice is similar to tactics used by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups (see "RFE/RL Report Reveals Extent Of Sunni-Insurgent Media Network" at The Moscow Bureau of Human Rights has reported that there were more than 60 registered racially motivated crimes in Russia in the first two months of this year, with Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Nizhny Novgorod, and Volgograd having particularly lamentable records. Sova Deputy Director Galina Kozhevnikova told RFE/RL that the majority of hate crimes in Russia go unsolved and unpunished. RC

About 100 people demonstrated in St. Petersburg on March 9 in support of arrested local Yabloko official Maksim Reznik, Interfax and other Russian media reported the same day. Reznik, a well-known liberal activist who has alleged fraud in the March 2 presidential election and is a key organizer of an upcoming conference to discuss the formation of united front of liberals, was arrested early on March 3 on charges of assaulting a police officer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2008). Reznik denies the charges. He has been ordered held without bond for up to two months pending his trial. The March 9 demonstration involved people assembling on a city square and silently reading newspaper reports of Reznik's arrest for 10 minutes, after which they dispersed. RC

German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a brief visit to the Moscow area on March 8, during which she held separate talks with President Putin and President-elect Medvedev, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 7, 2008). Merkel and Putin discussed their differences on topics that included Kosova and NATO enlargement. She said that Russia's insistence on accepting no formula for the status of Kosova that is not acceptable to Belgrade has eliminated other diplomatic options for Moscow. Putin reaffirmed that Russia opposes any NATO expansion involving Ukraine and Georgia because the people of those two countries are not in favor of membership and because NATO expansion will "increase tensions." He added that he sometimes gets the impression that NATO is trying to "replace the United Nations." Merkel rejected his charges. She stressed the importance of completing the controversial Nord Stream pipeline on schedule and ahead of any planned pipelines to the south. Merkel also offered to take unspecified "political initiatives" of her own to promote Nord Stream should the efforts of her predecessor, current Nord Stream executive Gerhard Schroeder, prove insufficient, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 10. The daily noted that the exchange between Putin and Merkel did not lead to any new tensions because both sides stated well-known positions. The paper added that the German delegation was surprised when Putin alluded to the possibility of a presidential pardon for imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Merkel noted that, over the years, her dealings with Putin have been a joy at some times and troublesome at others. Putin replied that "I have the feeling that some of our partners cannot wait for me to stop exercising my powers so that they can deal with another person. I am long accustomed to [hearing that] it is difficult to work with a former KGB agent." He argued, however, that "Medvedev will be free from having to prove his liberal views. But he is no less of a Russian nationalist than I am, in the good sense of the word, and I do not think our partners will have it easier with him." Putin and Merkel both stressed the importance of their bilateral relations and the need for Moscow and Berlin to continue to work together. PM

German Chancellor Merkel met President-elect Medvedev near Moscow on March 8, the first major foreign leader to do so since his recent election, international media reported. Alluding to President Putin's remarks that the West will not have easier relations with Medvedev than with Putin, she noted that she "refrained from saying 'I hope they won't become more difficult, either.'" Medvedev said: "I am assuming we will have a continuation of that cooperation which you have had with...Putin.... You have [conducted major] negotiations, and that makes my task easier." Merkel later told reporters that Medvedev will find "open doors" in Germany when he visits later in the spring. "I think there will be continuity. I don't think the controversies will disappear at once," she noted. Germany is Russia's biggest single trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching a record $52.8 billion in 2007. German firms invested $3.4 billion in Russia in 2007 and are particularly involved in the energy sector. Russia's state-run Vesti-24 television stressed on March 8 the need for continuity in bilateral relations as well as the importance to both countries of their economic ties. PM

South Korea's Science Ministry announced in Seoul on March 10 that Ko San, who was slated to be the first South Korean to go into space, will be replaced by his backup Yi So-yeon on the April 2008 Soyuz flight, international media reported. Unnamed Korean officials said that Russian authorities banned Ko from the flight because he removed unspecified books "that he was not supposed to see" from the training center in Star City near Moscow. The officials said that Ko's infringements of the rules were "minor," but added that the Russian authorities insist on "abiding by the rules, since even small mistakes can have big consequences in space." Interfax on March 10 quoted a spokesman for the Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos, as saying that his office is "looking into" the South Korean reports, but declining to comment. The news agency also quoted Vasily Tsibliyev, who heads the training center, as saying that "this question belongs to the realm of politics, and we don't deal with politics." PM

All municipal transport was suspended on March 8 between the center of Nazran and the village of Kantyshevo on the southwestern outskirts, the planned venue for an unofficial congress of the Ingush people, the independent website reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2008). The republic's Interior Ministry denied Russian media reports that a large number of troops and armored cars were deployed to prevent delegates assembling. Some 260 of the 500 delegates managed to convene not in Kantyshevo but in Karabulak on the northeastern outskirts of Nazran. They addressed a statement to President Putin and President-elect Medvedev, posted on March 10 on, asking how long the Russian leadership intends to tolerate corruption and mismanagement on the part of Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov and his entourage and adding that the population of Ingushetia is convinced that Moscow is unable to take any measures to restore order. The statement further condemned the failure of the Ingushetian Interior Ministry to register any successes in the struggle against terrorism and the abduction and subsequent disappearance of hundreds of Ingush over the past three years. They called on Putin and Medvedev to establish an independent commission to probe the extent of corruption in Ingushetia and to determine to what extent Zyazikov's repeated claims of an economic upswing are at odds with reality. LF

At a meeting in Grozny on March 7, members of the Union of Journalists of Chechnya resolved to quit the Union of Journalists of Russia (SZhR) to protest the annulment by that body of the membership in the Chechen union of pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, reported. The federal body argued that Kadyrov is not eligible for membership as he is not a professional journalist; the Chechen union countered that annulling Kadyrov's membership was illegal because the statutes of the SZhR do not empower it to annul a decision by a republican level subsidiary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 7, 2008). The Chechen union adopted a statement terming the Russian decision a mark of disrespect to Kadyrov and pointing out that Novosibirsk Oblast head Viktor Tolokonsky is an SZhR member, reported. LF

In a statement posted on March 8 on the website, the Ossetian jamaat Kataib al Khoul said that its members were responsible for shooting dead Lieutenant Colonel Mark Matsayev, head of the North Ossetian police Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime, on the street in Vladikavkaz the previous day. on March 8 claimed that police have apprehended one of the suspected killers, but did not identify him; the statement posted on said only that one militant was slightly wounded. Investigators are assessing the similarities between the operation to kill Matsayev and the shooting in Nalchik in January of his counterpart from the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), Anatoly Kyarov, for which the North Caucasus resistance has likewise claimed responsibility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14 and 30, and March 3, 2008). LF

Some 200 people congregated in Nalchik on March 8 to mark the anniversary of the 1944 deportation of the Balkar people to Central Asia on orders from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and reported. Participants deplored the Russian authorities' failure to implement the April 1991 USSR law on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples, and the republican authorities' failure either to implement a ruling by the Russian Constitutional Court that would give Balkars access to additional grazing grounds, or to revise the 2005 amendments to boundaries between municipalities to restore the autonomy formerly enjoyed by Balkar-populated villages. Among the speakers at the meeting were former leaders of the Council of Elders of the Balkar People that the KBR Supreme Court banned as "extremist" two months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15 and 29, 2008). LF

The Constitutional Court on March 8 upheld the final results of the February 19 presidential elections promulgated by the Central Election Commission, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Those results named Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian the winner with 52.8 percent of the vote followed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian with 21.51 percent. Ter-Petrossian challenged those figures, claiming he polled 65 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2008); so also did a second defeated candidate, Tigran Karapetian. Also on March 8, some two dozen women defied the restrictions imposed under the state of emergency declared on March 1 by outgoing President Robert Kocharian and staged a march through Yerevan to pay their respects to the eight people killed on March 1 during clashes between police and Ter-Petrossian supporters, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. On March 7, Armenian Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian alleged that Ter-Petrossian and his election campaign staff resorted to mass hypnosis and "psychological sabotage" to induce the population to vote for him, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hovsepian added that 68 leading opposition members have been arrested or detained for their part in the mass post-election protests, of whom 52 have been formally charged with seeking to seize power or participating in mass disorders. A further 350 people have been questioned. On March 7, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza met in Yerevan with Kocharian, Sarkisian, and Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan said Bryza "appealed for calm and an end to violence" and for lifting the state of emergency and related restrictions on the media. Bryza further stressed that the best way to ease tensions is through dialogue between all parties involved. On March 10, quoted Kocharian's spokesman Viktor Soghomonian as saying that Kocharian has lifted two of the restrictions imposed under the state of emergency, namely the ban on the activities of political parties and groups and the expulsion from Yerevan of persons who are not residents of the city and who violated the provisions of the state of emergency. LF

The French, U.S., and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group tasked with mediating a solution to the Karabakh conflict issued a joint statement on March 7 appealing to Armenia and Azerbaijan to comply with the 1994 cease-fire and desist from further hostilities, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Four Azerbaijani servicemen were reported killed and two Karabakh Armenian soldiers wounded in sometimes intensive exchanges of fire over the preceding several days, but as of late March 7 the situation was reportedly calm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2008). On March 9, however, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry accused Armenian forces of launching intensive fire along the Agdam sector of the Line of Contact, as a result of which it claimed an unspecified number of people, including Azerbaijani civilians, were killed, reported. LF

Baku's Yasamal Raion Court on March 7 sentenced Qanimat Zaxid, editor of the opposition paper "Azadliq," to four years' imprisonment for hooliganism, reported. The prosecution had demanded a five-year term. The charge, widely regarded as fabricated, stems from an incident in November 2007 between Zaxid and a second man, Vusal Gasanov, who intervened after a woman on the street protested that Zaxid insulted her (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and 20, 2007 and February 21, and March 7, 2008). Gasanov was jailed for 18 months. On March 10, Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative on media freedom, issued a formal statement in Vienna condemning the verdict on Zaxid as "harsh" and deploring the recurring pattern of using charges not related to their professional activities to silence opposition journalists. "Targeted imprisonment of journalists must stop as a first step toward compliance [by the Azerbaijani authorities] with international standards," Haraszti added.

The eight Georgian opposition parties aligned in the National Council staged a demonstration in Tbilisi on March 9 to call for new presidential elections on the grounds that the January 5 reelection for a second term of incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili was rigged, reported. Turnout was in the thousands, but still far lower than during the initial protests immediately after the January 5 ballot. Defeated opposition presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze told protest participants that the protest will be open-ended and continue "until we achieve our goal -- free elections," RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. Three opposition parliamentarians, Gia Tortladze (United Georgia) and Zviad Dzidziguri and Bidzina Gujabidze (Conservative Party), and two other oppositionists, Koba Davitashvili and Irakli Melashvili, began a hunger strike on March 9 to call for a repeat presidential ballot; free and fair parliamentary elections in May 2008; and the release of all persons arrested in the wake of the November 2007 protests in Tbilisi. Saakashvili had appealed to the opposition on March 8 not to proceed with the planned protest, arguing the need for national unity and cooperation in the wake of the March 6 announcement by the Russian Foreign Ministry of Russia's decision unilaterally to withdraw from the January 1996 economic sanctions imposed by CIS member states on the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). David Usupashvili of the Republican Party dismissed Saakashvili's appeal as "a PR stunt," adding that if the Georgian leadership is truly interested in resolving the Abkhaz conflict it should quit the CIS, reported. U.S. acting Undersecretary of State Daniel Fried told the Georgian television channel Rustavi-2 that Washington "regrets" the Russian decision to lift the sanctions on Abkhazia and cannot comprehend "how it contributes to a resolution of the Abkhaz conflict or to better Georgian-Russian relations," reported on March 8. Georgian Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia rejected on March 8 as untrue an Interfax report that President Putin informed his Georgian counterpart Saakashvili during the unofficial CIS summit in Moscow on February 21 of Russia's impending decision to lift the sanctions on Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

The parliament of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia issued a formal appeal on March 7 to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Russian parliament, and the international community for formal recognition of Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state, reported. The parliament of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia issued an analogous appeal three days earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). The Abkhaz appeal reiterated earlier legal arguments for Abkhazia's independence from Georgia and stressed that Abkhazia has existed for the past 15 years as a de facto democratic independent state. It argued that international recognition of Kosova's independence has significantly changed the geopolitical situation and that any such legal ruling should be universal, despite the very different circumstances that led to the declaration of independence by other still unrecognized states. LF

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on March 7 in Dushanbe at the end of a state visit to Tajikistan, Asia-Plus and Tajik Television reported. Yushchenko oversaw the signing of 10 new bilateral accords, dealing with issues including cooperation in the energy and transport sectors. During his visit to Tajikistan, the first ever by a Ukrainian leader, Yushchenko raised the "issue of reinstating free trade zones without limitations and exclusions," and agreed to lift import duties on Ukrainian goods, which now range from 5 to 15 percent. Yushchenko noted Ukraine's "leading role in supplying equipment" to Tajik hydroelectric facilities, pointing out that Ukrainian companies account for over 80 percent of hydroelectric equipment imports to Tajikistan. He also announced that Ukraine has decided to participate in "an international consortium to complete the construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power station." For his part, Rahmon noted that the talks between the two leaders were "constructive" and served as "a new impetus to relations between the two countries." He welcomed Ukraine's "readiness to provide military assistance to Tajikistan." The two leaders concluded their meeting by signing an official action plan guiding bilateral relations for 2008-09. Yushchenko was scheduled to visit the Norak hydroelectric power station and the Russian and Iranian-financed Sangtuda-1 and Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power stations, but those visits were cancelled and his trip reportedly "cut short" for unexplained reasons, according to ITAR-TASS. Yushchenko arrived in Tajikistan after a state visit to nearby Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2008). RG

Uzbek President Islam Karimov on March 7 approved an investment bid by U.S. automaker General Motors (GM) to join an existing joint venture between Uzbek and South Korean automobile companies, ITAR-TASS reported. Karimov's approval allows GM to formally invest in the UzDaewooAuto car assembly plant in the town of Asaka in the eastern province of Andijon. The plant was established in October 2007 with a $266.7 million investment from Uzbek state automobile group Uzavtoprom and South Korea's Daewoo Corporation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). General Motors seeks to acquire a 25 percent share in the project, and has received a five-year tax amnesty from the Uzbek government. RG

Minsk has recalled Ambassador to the United States Mikhail Khvastou for consultations over economic sanctions imposed in November 2007 by the U.S. Treasury Department against Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on March 7. "This step was forced upon us, and it may lead to a search for some sort of a compromise. But, I repeat, the American side forced us to take this step," Anatol Krasutski, the deputy chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Belarusian Chamber of Representatives, said on March 7. The U.S. Treasury Department has frozen all assets under U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Belnaftakhim and its representatives, and has forbidden Americans from doing business with the company on the grounds that it is controlled by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou said the same day that U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart "has been urgently recommended to leave Minsk for the same purpose." Papou continued: "During a rather long period of time, Belarus took quite a number of consistent and constructive steps for the purpose of normalizing relations with Western countries. By ignoring agreements reached earlier, the United States has violated the agreed procedure of actions toward the normalization of the relations." Papou was referring to the Helsinki Final Act, in which the United States "pledged to refrain from any act of economic compulsion aimed at subordinating the exercise by other participating states of the rights inherent to their sovereignty [or] its own interests." AM

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on March 7 that U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Stewart will remain in Minsk, despite the Belarusian government's "urgent recommendation" that she return to the United States for consultations, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Stewart "is in Minsk and she will remain in Minsk while we continue to review the situation," Casey said. "It is important, we think, to have our embassy there in Minsk and to have high-level diplomatic representation there to engage with the Belarusian government on a number of concerns," he said. "We are appreciative of the fact that they have released several of the political prisoners, and we, in fact, noted at the time that if they were to release the remaining political prisoners -- very specifically [former presidential candidate Alyaksandr] Kazulin -- then we might be in a position to engage with them and begin a dialogue on how we might be able to improve relations. But frankly, if the Belarusian government wishes to shoot itself in the foot, they are welcome to do so," Casey said. AM

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Varanetski signed an agreement in Brussels on March 7 on the establishment of a European Commission delegation in Minsk, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "We are ready to re-engage with you, and move toward normalization of our relations, provided that additional serious steps are taken in Belarus toward democratization," Ferrero-Waldner said. The European Commission has been trying to open a Minsk office since 2005. A significant development in relations between Brussels and Minsk took place in late 2007 when President Lukashenka authorized Varanetski to negotiate with the commission and sign the final agreement. In addition, the recent release of several people regarded by the West as political prisoners has contributed to the warming of relations. "I look forward to Belarus confirming these signals with the release of [imprisoned oppositionist] Kazulin," Ferrero-Waldner said. Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 presidential election, was arrested during antigovernment demonstrations that followed the polls and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed the public order. Kazulin returned to a high-security correctional facility near Vitsebsk after recently being granted three days of leave to attend the funeral of his wife. AM

A district prosecutor's office in Minsk on March 7 ruled that small-business activist Syarhey Parsyukevich should remain in a pretrial detention center, Belapan reported. Parsyukevich was recently jailed for three days pending a decision on criminal charges against him. He is accused of attacking a police officer while serving a 15-day prison term for his participation in a January 10 demonstration in Minsk. Parsyukevich claims that he did not attack anyone, but that a prison warden attacked him. On March 9, Belarusian police detained 32 members of the Youth Front organization who gathered for a meeting at the Minsk office of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. Police officers entered the office under the pretext that litter was tossed from the office's window, and ordered participants to come to the police station. After identity checks at the police station, the activists were released. Police took similar action in mid-February, detaining at least 30 Youth Front members when they gathered at a private home for a meeting of the organization's council. The Youth Front has unsuccessfully applied for registration with the Belarusian Justice Ministry five times, and is therefore considered an unregistered organization by the government. The group was recently registered in the Czech Republic. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on March 7 that he is surprised that Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko criticized the gas deal he reached with Russian President Vladimir Putin, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. On March 6, Tymoshenko sent Yushchenko a letter in which she said that the government does not intend to observe some points of the gas deal -- in particular, paying $315 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas or setting up new intermediary companies to deal with Ukrainian-Russian gas relations. Yushchenko told reporters that he agrees with Putin that the price for gas supplies in 2008 will be $179.5 per 1,000 cubic meters. Yushchenko said that $179.5 is the best possible price that could be reached during talks, and therefore "it should be respected." Oleksandr Shlapak, the first deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat, said the same day that "accusations" appearing in Tymoshenko's letter "have nothing to do with the facts." Shlapak said that Tymoshenko's letter caused Yushchenko "to take an unprecedented step and declassify the directives he gave over [gas] talks with the Russian side" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). AM

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and the coalition government are expected to agree on March 10 to ask President Boris Tadic to dissolve the parliament and call early elections for May 11, concurrently with the already-scheduled municipal elections, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 7, 2008). Tadic is expected to dissolve the legislature later on March 10. Kostunica announced on March 8 that the shaky coalition government collapsed over the issue of Serbia's future ties to the EU. All coalition parties refuse to recognize the independence of Kosova, which most EU member states have recognized. Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the smaller New Serbia party will not hold any talks with the EU unless Brussels accepts that Kosova is part of Serbia, which it is not likely to do. Kostunica's position is thus widely seen as tantamount to breaking off the negotiating process with the EU. Tadic's Democratic Party and the G17 Plus group, which was founded by liberal economists, argue that Serbia must continue to work toward European integration regardless of the Kosova question (see End Note, below, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 25, and 28, and March 5, 2008). PM

Serbian police on March 9 prevented several hundred army reservists from leaving Kursumlija and crossing the border to Kosova at Merdare, where a violent incident took place on February 21, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). The reservists dispersed but pledged to return on March 10. On March 7, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said in Prishtina that Kosova's "independence is a fact. This is a reality. History is only going to move forward." He noted that, since Kosova's declaration of independence on February 17, "there have been various provocations in the [mainly Serbian-inhabited] north. I think the Kosovo leadership has responded to these provocations with, frankly, a maturity that vindicates the decision of the United States and two-thirds of the European Union members to recognize it" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 3 and 4, 2008). PM

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and the coalition government agreed on March 10 to ask President Boris Tadic to dissolve the parliament and call early elections for May 11, when municipal elections are scheduled, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Tadic is expected to dissolve the legislature later on March 10.

Kostunica announced on March 8 that the shaky coalition government had collapsed over the issue of Serbia's future ties to the EU. All coalition parties refuse to recognize the independence of Kosova, which most EU member states have recognized. Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the smaller New Serbia party will not hold any talks with the EU unless Brussels accepts that Kosova is part of Serbia, which it is not likely to do. Kostunica's position is thus widely seen as tantamount to breaking off the negotiating process with the EU. Tadic's Democratic Party and the G17 Plus group, which was founded by liberal economists, argue that Serbia must continue to work toward European integration regardless of the Kosova question.

The upcoming election, like the February 3 presidential vote, is widely depicted in the international media as a contest between a modern, democratic, progressive, and European-oriented Serbia against ghosts of the past, who favor close links to Russia and engage in what one observer recently called "aggressive self-pity." According to this analysis, the first group includes the Democratic Party, G17 Plus, and Cedomir Jovanovic's small Liberal Democrats, which is the only Serbian party that argues that Serbia lost Kosova for good in 1999 and should face up to that fact. The forces from the past are usually seen as including the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of Tomislav Nikolic, who narrowly lost the presidency to Tadic, and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) of the late President Slobodan Milosevic. The DSS and New Serbia have defied easy categorization, largely because they are as nationalistic as the SRS but were active in bringing down Milosevic and hence are often tagged as "reformist."

The coalition survived for years because the most likely alternative would have been a government led and dominated by the SRS, which is easily the largest party in Serbia. The EU and the United States made it clear ever since the fall of Milosevic in October 2000 that they will provide political, economic, and security support to Serbia only if it seeks Euro-Atlantic integration and pursues democratic and economic reforms. These requirements exclude by definition a government that includes the SRS or the SPS.

Kostunica stayed with the coalition so long not only because he could appreciate the benefits of close ties to Europe, but also because he could demand and claim the premiership from Tadic and G17 Plus as his price for cooperation. It is widely believed that the main reason he has not formed a coalition with the SRS is that he could not demand the prime minister's post from the much more powerful Radicals.

Kostunica's current showing in the polls is about 10 percent of the vote. By contrast, the SRS would take about 40 percent, while the Democratic Party and G17 Plus would win about 37.5 percent. Even with the support of smaller parties, neither group would have more than 45 percent. In theory, at least, this would open the way for Kostunica to play king-maker again.

It is not altogether clear how he might go about this after May 11. Would the Radicals be so eager to gain power that they would share it with someone who won far fewer votes than they did and who has a proven record of being a difficult coalition partner? Would Kostunica and Tadic somehow sink their differences -- as they often did in the past -- in the interest of keeping the SRS out of office? If such a renewed coalition is indeed a possibility, then why bother bringing down the current government to begin with? Do some leading politicians think that an early vote will strengthen their hands in future coalition talks by giving them fresh legitimacy from the voters or by slightly increasing their representation in the parliament? If the various parties and leaders are indeed ready to take such a gamble, it is clear that there will be losers as well as winners.

On March 10, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating EU chair, said in Brussels that "to be quite frank, I don't think that there is any other possibility for our Serbian friends than the European Union. Where else should they go?" Kostunica and Nikolic may be preparing an answer of their own to that question.

Thousands of Afghan students gathered near the city of Jalalabad and blocked a highway leading to the Pakistani border on March 9 in the latest protest against the reprinting of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspapers, Reuters reported. The protesters chanted anti-Western slogans, burned Danish and Dutch flags, and demanded that the controversial cartoonist be put on trial, along with a right-wing Dutch politician who is expected to release a film said to be critical of the Koran. The demonstrators also demanded that Kabul freeze its ties with the Dutch and Danish governments and expel troops from the two countries operating in Afghanistan under NATO command. They threatened to continue their protests and resort to attacks on foreign troops if their demands are not met. Similar violent demonstrations took place the previous day in the western city of Herat. AT

The Afghan government on March 8 welcomed Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide as the new UN envoy to Afghanistan, Reuters reported. Eide's appointment, which is to be confirmed by next week, marks the end of a struggle between the Afghan government and the United States and other powers that have sought to install a strong diplomat to enhance coordination between UN and NATO forces. Afghan presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said: "Eide has been the key person in the Norwegian government on Afghanistan; he has the knowledge of the country, international experience, and the backing of the United Nations. The Afghan government supports his appointment." Eide served as Norway's representative to NATO in 2002-06. Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying that because of Eide's ties to NATO, he will fail to act as an effective UN representative. AT

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on March 8 called on Afghans to allow young women to be educated, and to stop the practice of forcing underage women to marry much older men, AFP reported. According to the United Nations, up to 80 percent of Afghan girls face the prospect of being forced into marriage against their will, and approximately two-thirds of married women wed before the legal age of 16. Speaking at a ceremony to mark International Women's Day, Karzai said: "In parts of Afghanistan, Afghan girls cannot go to school because of the terrorism problem, but [even] in places without the threat of terrorism, girls are not allowed to attend school." Some Afghan families in rural areas do not see the need to educate girls. AT

A roadside bomb killed a NATO soldier and wounded another in Paktia Province on March 8, AFP reported, while a second roadside bomb killed three Afghan civilians in Helmand Province the same day. The names and nationalities of the soldiers serving with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were not disclosed, but most troops deployed near the Pakistan border are Americans. The latest casualty brought to 24 the number of western troops killed in Afghanistan this year, mainly in insurgency-related violence. In the bombing in Helmand, an Afghan man and his two children were killed, the Interior Ministry said. AT

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on March 9 that Iran might "consider" potential EU proposals on Iran's nuclear program if the discussions are "focused," Radio Farda reported. On the sidelines of a seminar on Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mottaki said Iran has always supported focused talks that produce results. He was responding to a reporter's question whether Iran would resume talks on its nuclear program with the EU in the wake of the UN Security Council's new sanctions resolution, adopted on March 3 against Iran. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad recently said Iran would only discuss its nuclear program with the IAEA (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2008). Mottaki said Iran will soon respond to the resolution, and that all the states that voted for the resolution "have a part" in discrediting the Security Council, Radio Farda reported. The EU has in the past sought to persuade Iran to freeze its nuclear fuel-making activities, offering improved trade ties with the bloc in exchange. Speaking at the same seminar, Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili, responding to a question on whether Iran would allow U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to come to Iran for talks, said that Iran welcomes "any kind of negotiation," but with conditions, IRNA and Fars reported. Jalili said the sanctions resolution shows the great powers are not interested in confidence-building, but "are confronting a nation trying to defend its rights." VS

The vice secretary for international affairs of the Supreme National Security Council, Javad Vaidi, said on March 9 that Iran is not deterred from pursuing its nuclear program by the "threat" of the new UN Security Council resolution, IRNA reported. Vaidi said Iran will continue its cooperation with the IAEA in line with regulations, referring to the standard provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Vaidi said that cooperating with the agency is an important principle, but that the "carrot and stick" method is not working for Iran, which cannot negotiate when threatened. "If they want to talk by issuing a resolution, this is not the way to make contact.... Negotiations have to be on an equal footing," he said. Vaidi did not say whether Iran has received a message from the EU on the resumption of talks with chief EU diplomat Javier Solana since the adoption of the new UN resolution. VS

President Ahmadinejad on March 9 denounced what he called "the recent crimes in Gaza," saying that "the rotten Zionists" have killed women and children because they "do not have the courage to confront the soldiers of Lebanon and Palestine," Mehr and IRNA reported. He was referring to Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip since late February that have killed about 120 Palestinians, and made the remarks while speaking to relatives of victims of the July 2006 Israeli strikes on Lebanon. "Today not just the Zionists but their masters are in decline, and victory belongs to mistreated and oppressed nations," he said. VS

The conservative news agency Fars reported on March 9 that a number of right-wing candidates for Tehran have withdrawn from the race for March 14 parliamentary polls in order to boost the chances of the United Front of Fundamentalists, the main right-wing grouping in the elections, and especially its 30-member Tehran list (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). Many conservatives have in recent weeks called for unity among conservative candidates and a reduction of the number of candidate lists to ensure strong conservative backing across the country. Fars listed 10 candidates who resigned, including prominent conservatives Alinaqi Khamushi, a former head of Iran's trade chamber; Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the head of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party; and Gholamhossein Amiri and Lotfollah Foruzandeh, both well-known politicians. It was not clear from the agency report which lists they were on. A member of the United Front, Hossein Fadai, told Fars on March 9 that most "fundamentalists" or conservatives support the United Front, including Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. Media reports have previously associated the mayor with a rival right-wing list. Fadai said two senior clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani and former judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, are also supporting the United Front. Deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar, who is also a United Front member, said on March 9 that the grouping has been relatively successful in uniting conservatives for the elections in Tehran and elsewhere, Fars reported. Bahonar said he thinks about 85 percent of Iranian conservatives support the United Front of Fundamentalists. VS

Hoshyar Zebari told Al-Arabiyah television on March 8 that a date will soon be set for the next round of talks on Iraq between Iran and the United States. An Iranian delegation left Baghdad last week after U.S. and Iraqi officials said no talks were scheduled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). Zebari told Al-Arabiyah that no date was set last week, and that a misunderstanding led the Iranians to believe a meeting was scheduled. The Iranian side had suggested March 6, but the United States said it needed more time to prepare. KR

Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a deputy spokesman for the Multinational Force-Iraq, told reporters at a March 9 press briefing in Baghdad that Iranian-made weapons continue to be confiscated in Iraq, and that there is evidence that Iran is providing training to Iraqi militiamen. Smith said recent caches uncovered by Iraqi and U.S. forces included Iranian-made weapons. One cache uncovered last week included 165 blocks of C-4 explosives and 25 107-mm high-explosive rockets. "The C-4 and 107-mm rockets were assessed to have been produced in Iran sometime in 2007," Smith said. "The discovery of the caches that we continue to find on the battlefield today, some of which are fairly new in terms of the manufacture of the weapon itself, suggests that the activity of the training and financing, when added together with the constant flow of weapons into this country, makes for a very volatile and dangerous situation," he added. Smith said the accounts of Iraqis detained between October and December confirm Iranian involvement. "Those detainees, Iraqis, all speak the same story. They all tell of exactly the same involvement of handlers here inside of Iraq that move them into Iran specifically for training, how they were trained inside of Iran by Lebanese Hezbollah and other trainers, the training that they received in paramilitary activities, and that they were sent back here support anticoalition, antisecurity, and obviously antipeace [activities] in Iraq. That's undeniable," Smith said. KR

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been in hiding for some eight months, issued a statement on his website on March 9 to clarify his position and that of his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The statement appeared contradictory at times, showing an apparent uncertainty as to what direction al-Sadr intends to take in the future. On the issue of his militia being transformed into a civil society organization, he said: "There is no contradiction between this army being a military army and being humanitarian and cultural. This means that different circumstances bring certain duties and requirements." He continued: "Freezing [the militia's activities] does not mean transforming into an institution or other such names, but this is a period for rehabilitation, reform, and organization." On the issue of the "injustices" experienced by his militiamen since a cease-fire was declared in August, he said those seeking to take up arms should trust their commander and his decisions, and advised the militiamen: "Be patient and persistent, and fear God." He added that offenses against the militia can be resolved peacefully, particularly with the help of parliamentarians. When asked to comment on attacks on his followers by Iraqi security forces, al-Sadr wrote: "Self-defense is sanctioned in such situations." Al-Sadr also said self-defense against U.S. forces is permitted. Though he appears to condone violence, the cleric commented several times that he will disassociate himself from violence, saying: "If matters come to spilling blood...among Muslims, I exonerate myself from that to God and to both parties, whether the aggressor or the victim, and I have nothing to do with them from near or far." KR

Salih al-Ubaydi, an aide to Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr, told Al-Sharqiyah television in an interview broadcast on March 7 that al-Sadr is taking time to review his failures and devise a way forward. "Muqtada al-Sadr said that the continuation of the occupation and the failure to succeed in driving out the occupation thus far is one of the reasons that made him think that his performance or that of others around him, and Iraqi society in general, is inadequate or deficient," al-Ubaydi said. He added that al-Sadr "is studying this issue in detail, is re-reading events, developments, and behaviors, and the general rules that he adopted." Regarding the splits within the al-Sadr movement, al-Ubaydi said the cleric discovered that some of his so-called supporters were actually vying to reposition themselves in the political arena, which "shocked" him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). Al-Ubaydi said internal and external pressures affected both al-Sadr and his movement. Regarding an announcement that a committee will manage the al-Sadr movement's affairs in the cleric's absence, al-Ubaydi said: "There are decisions that only al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr will make. There are other decisions, moves, or practical details and these will be given to a number of committees, figures, and bodies that constitute the internal and administrative structure of the Martyr Al-Sadr office." KR

President Jalal Talabani led a delegation to Ankara on March 7-8, international media reported. Talabani met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "We want to forge strategic relations in all fields, including oil, the economy, trade, culture, and politics," Talabani said in comments before a meeting of Iraqi and Turkish businessmen. To this end, Taliban proposed to Erdogan the establishment of a supreme political council at the prime ministerial or foreign ministerial level. The council's goal would be to oversee the development of relations, Talabani said. He said Iraq remains committed to eliminating the presence of terrorists on its soil, including those of the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani, who accompanied Talabani, met with his Turkish counterpart Hilmi Guler. Al-Shahristani said Iraq is eager to use Turkey to transport oil and natural gas to Europe. "We want to give gas to Turkey and we see it as a transit country," the Anatolia news agency quoted al-Shahristani as saying. KR