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Newsline - March 12, 2008

On March 11, the State Department issued its annual report on human rights in more than 190 countries around the world, RFE/RL reported. The study stressed persistent problems during 2007 in Russia in particular, as well as in other countries where power is concentrated in the hands of a few. The report noted that Russia's leadership under President Vladimir Putin is not accountable to the Russian people, and that a subservient legislature has transferred many of its powers to the president. According to Jonathan Farrar, an acting assistant secretary of state, who presented the report along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russia is characterized by "centralization of power in the executive branch, a compliant State Duma, corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, onerous [NGO] registration requirements, harassment of some NGOs, and media restrictions, which continued to erode the government's accountability to its citizens." PM

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee's senior Republican, said in Washington on March 11 that he wonders whether NATO was right to invite President Putin to its Bucharest summit on April 2-4, at which possible NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia will be discussed, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13 and 14 and March 7, 2008). Lugar recalled Putin's recent threat to target Ukraine with nuclear missiles if it joins NATO or participates in the U.S. missile-defense program. The senator said that "to invite President Putin into this to give him a meeting in which he intimidates [Georgia and Ukraine] further." Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Fried said at the same Senate hearing that "the challenge, however, is to make sure that NATO takes decisions on issues on their own merits, based on what is good for the alliance and good for the issues at hand, without undue pressure from any outside actors." PM

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said in Paris on March 11 that Russia wants to be part of the 3,700-strong EUFOR peacekeeping force deployed in February to Chad to protect refugees from neighboring Darfur, the daily "Vremya novostei" reported on March 12. He said that Russia will make transport helicopters available to the force and that President Putin has approved the project. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that details of Russia's participation have yet to be finalized. He hailed the EU's efforts to create a unified defense and security policy and a military force separate from NATO and the United States, saying that "there can be no stable development of our continent without a strong Europe that speaks with a single voice" in a "multipolar world." He did not indicate how such sentiments square with Russia's own frequent efforts aimed at splitting the EU on energy policy in particular. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stressed that France is "very much determined to make a strategic partnership with Russia one of the objectives of the French [EU] presidency," in the second half of 2008. The daily noted that the Russian ministers publicly referred to points of disagreement with France on several international issues. Lavrov and Serdyukov are attending a meeting of the Franco-Russian Security Cooperation Council. PM

The daily "Kommersant" reported on March 12 that India, which has traditionally bought 70 percent of its arms from Russia, is negotiating with the U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing about the price of eight antisubmarine P-8I Poseidon patrol aircraft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and March 11, 2008). India has had repeated problems with Rosoboroneksport in connection with substandard equipment and delays in aircraft deliveries, and is currently negotiating the amount of money that Rosoboroneksport will pay on account of delays in fulfilling an order for Ilyushin Il-38SD patrol jets. "Kommersant" noted that the Ilyushins are cheaper than the Poseidons, but that an increasingly prosperous India can now afford to buy more expensive planes. PM

Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB), said at a meeting of the National Antiterrorist Committee (NAK) in Moscow on March 12 that a five-level system based on the American model of evaluating terrorist threats and specifying appropriate responses will be introduced "in line with presidential instructions," reported. A crisis center will also be set up within the Foreign Ministry to respond to threats to Russian citizens and institutions abroad, he added. The measures are part of a new program aimed at combating potential terrorist threats through 2012. Patrushev also said that the FSB prevented "several terrorist acts planned by criminals" during the run-up to the March 2 presidential ballot and on election day. He did not elaborate. PM

President Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev met on March 10 with the leadership of the State Duma for wide-ranging talks on Russia's development through 2020, Russian media reported. Medvedev told deputies such meetings will be held regularly in the new administration. Presidential-administration head Sergei Sobyanin and his deputy, Vladislav Surkov, also attended the talks. Putin repeated earlier statements about the need to step up the campaign against corruption and to pass legislation needed to reduce the tax burden and foster an "innovation economy." Duma Speaker and Unified Russia party head Boris Gryzlov complained about the growth of the bureaucracy in recent years, saying the executive branch is now as large as it was in 1982. He said the number of civilian bureaucrats now is about 50 percent greater than in 1995. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov also recalled the late Soviet era, saying that a typical late-Soviet monthly pension of 90 rubles was the equivalent of 9,000 rubles today, although average pensions now are 3,000-4,000 rubles, "Vremya novostei" reported on March 12. Putin sarcastically responded that there was nothing to buy with those 90 Soviet rubles. RC

Before meeting with Duma leaders on March 10, President Putin met privately with Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Russian media reported. It was the first time Putin has met with Yavlinsky since late 2006. A Yabloko statement says the men discussed the economy, property rights, and political competition. Yavlinsky said they also discussed the fate of St. Petersburg Yabloko leader Maksim Reznik, who is in custody on charges of assaulting a police officer that he claims are trumped up and politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2008). Yavlinsky said Putin promised to look into the matter. Some analysts contacted by "The Moscow Times" speculated that the meeting with Yavlinsky could signal an attempt by the Kremlin to co-opt Yabloko as part of a bid to create a "loyal opposition" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). Two former leading Yabloko figures -- Federal Antimonopoly Service head Igor Artyomov and human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin -- are already working with the Putin administration. reported on March 12 that Yavlinsky was invited to lunch with Putin, Medvedev, and Duma leaders later that day and that Yavlinsky -- whose party is not represented in the Duma -- participated in the after-lunch session of Putin's meeting with legislators. The website reported that during the lunch Putin looked at Yavlinsky and proposed a toast "to a constructive opposition." RC

The campaign to support jailed St. Petersburg Yabloko leader Reznik continues to gain support, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on March 12. A picket has been set up outside the St. Petersburg Prosecutor's Office, while a small demonstration was held outside the city administration's offices at Smolny on March 11. On March 10, Yabloko youth activist Ilya Yashin demonstrated in support of Reznik outside the Prosecutor-General's Office in Moscow. A Petersburg court is expected to hear an appeal this week against a court decision not to grant Reznik bail. Yabloko leader Yavlinsky, Federal Antimonopoly Service head Artyomov, Moscow City Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin, Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Yury Karpenko, and other political figures have all offered to be personally responsible for Reznik if he is released pending trial. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has called for Reznik's immediate release. Analyst Dmitry Travin told RFE/RL on March 12 that many activists are now worried the authorities could "arrange provocations" against them at any moment. "The logic here might be as follows: the authorities don't want to take on everyone at once or shut down everything straight away," he said, "but after such things many people will be afraid." Travin also noted that Reznik is part of a "new generation" of Yabloko leadership following Yavlinsky and that he is "working on today's problems." He speculated that a unification of liberal-minded political forces is more likely under leaders who are not "yesterday's people." RC

RusAl, the aluminum-manufacturing group controlled by Kremlin-connected oligarch Oleg Deripaska, has obtained a $4.5 billion loan from Western lenders to finance the purchase of a 25-percent-plus-one-share stake in Norilsk Nickel, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 12. Market analyst Aleksandr Pukhayev told the daily "RusAl managed to get very attractive financing terms" given the state of the global credit market. RusAl is buying the stake from the Oneksim Group in what many believe is part of a bid to take over control of Norilsk Nickel from oligarch Vladimir Potanin. Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest producer of nickel and palladium, is worth about $55 billion. RC

Marina Fokina has resigned as the head of St. Petersburg-based Channel Five television, "Kommersant" reported on March 12. She said the reason for her resignation is "the uncertainty in the choice of the further positioning of the channel in the market." Channel Five is part of the Peterburg broadcasting group, which is controlled by Rossia bank co-owner Yury Kovalchuk, who is a close friend and reputed financial adviser to President Putin (see " Russia: NTV's Past Points Toward REN-TV's Future,", March 1, 2008). The channel is being incorporated into Kovalchuk's new media holding, the National Media Group. The general director of the National Media Group is Kovalchuk's longtime friend Sergei Fursenko, brother of Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko. According to "Kommersant," an executive with the National Media Group is likely to take up the post of head of Channel Five. RC

The local election commission in Stavropol Krai has asked a court to nullify the mandates of the 10 krai legislature deputies from the A Just Russia party who were elected on the party's list, "Vremya novostei" reported on March 12. Stavropol Krai is the only region in which Unified Russia failed to win a majority during regional elections on March 11, 2007. A Just Russia won 17 single-mandate seats and 10 party-list seats, giving them 27 deputies in the 50-seat legislature. Unified Russia has 15. A Just Russia's success is attributed to the support of former Stavropol Mayor Dmitry Kuzmin, who heads the party's regional branch and who is now wanted under corruption charges that were leveled against him during the Duma elections last year. Stavropol Krai is also part of Russia's "red belt," which traditionally supported the Communist Party before its demise in recent years. The krai election commission has now accused A Just Russia of illegal spending during the 2007 campaign. The case comes just days before the expiration of the term for filing complaints relating to last year's elections. If the court upholds the complaint, A Just Russia's mandates will be proportionately distributed among the other parties in the legislature -- Unified Russia, the Communist Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia -- and Unified Russia will have plurality in the chamber. Unified Russia won control of all 11 regional legislatures that held elections on March 2 this year. RC

Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev met in Makhachkala on March 11 with Andrei Rappoport, a member of the board of Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES), reported. The two men discussed the armed attacks last week on five Makhachkala substations, one of which was badly damaged, and the chronic failure of the Makhachkala city authorities to pay accumulated debts for energy. Aliyev deplored the armed attacks on the substations, during which some employees were physically assaulted, and laid the blame for nonpayment of debts wholly on the municipal authorities, whom Rappoport too criticized for failing to abide by the terms of an agreement on repayment reached two months ago. Noting that the electricity tariff in Makhachkala is the lowest in Russia, Rappoport said EES has reason to believe that residents are paying their bills, but that the municipal authorities are withholding the money. He warned that if an initial repayment of 150 million rubles ($6.28 million) is not made by April 1, power to the city will be cut again. Thousands of Makhachkala residents took to the streets in December-January to protest power outages that they blamed on Aliyev and city Mayor Said Amirov, whose resignation they demanded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 8, 10, 14, 17, and 25, 2008). Also on March 11, a police vehicle was damaged when a roadside bomb exploded in Makhachkala, but no one was injured, reported on March 12. LF

Stavropol's Cossacks have voted to dismiss the leader of the Terek Cossack organization, Colonel Mikhail Serov, on the grounds that he allegedly sought to cause a split in its ranks, reported on March 11. Serov reportedly appealed to fellow Cossacks to abjure their Russian citizenship to protest the failure to investigate the murder one year ago of Ataman and green activist Andrei Khanin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and 20, 2007) and corruption within Stavropol Krai. LF

Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian told journalists in Yerevan on March 11 that he plans to continue to challenge the official results of the February 19 presidential ballot, in which he claims to have polled 65 percent of the vote, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Official returns gave Ter-Petrossian 21.51 percent of the vote compared to 52.8 percent for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Ter-Petrossian added, however, that he will not convene unsanctioned protest meetings, and he predicted that the Armenian authorities will extend the state of emergency imposed on March 1 by outgoing President Robert Kocharian until after Sarkisian's inauguration on April 9. Kocharian said last week he sees no need to extend the state of emergency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2008). Ter-Petrossian added that while he refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of Sarkisian's election, he is nonetheless ready for "dialogue" with the authorities, whom he accused of sabotaging any such talks. Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who met in Yerevan last week with Ter-Petrossian, Sarkisian, and Kocharian, told AP on March 10 that the police crackdown on Ter-Petrossian supporters late on March 1 was "deplorable," "harsh and brutal," and that it is "crucial" that the Armenian authorities refrain from arresting any more Ter-Petrossian supporters. During talks in Yerevan with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Bryza also criticized as "unacceptable" the formal submission by Azerbaijan to the UN General Assembly on February 26 of a draft resolution "On the Situation in the Occupied Territories of Azerbaijan," reported on March 11 quoting Armenian Foreign Ministry acting press spokesman Tigran Balayan. LF

Masis Mayilian, the former deputy foreign minister of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh who ran unsuccessfully in the July 2007 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007), was quoted by on March 11 as saying that since the cease-fire was signed in May 1994, Azerbaijani troops have consistently sought to advance their positions closer to Armenian lines, and that cease-fire violations such as those that cost the lives of several servicemen last week generally occur at those points along the Line of Contact where the positions of the two sides are closest. Mayilian called for a return to the positions the two sides occupied in 1994 and for the dispatch to the conflict zone of additional OSCE observers. On March 10, a spokesman for the Karabakh Defense Ministry categorically denied Azerbaijani claims that Karabakh Armenian forces opened fire on Azerbaijani villages in Agdam Raion on March 8-9, killing two civilians and injuring two more, according to Mediamax as reposted by Groong (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2008). LF

Irakli Alasania, Georgia's ambassador to the UN, told journalists in New York on March 11 that Russia's unilateral decision to withdraw from the sanctions imposed in January 1996 on the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia threatens stability in the region and undermines the legal foundation for the continued presence in the conflict zone of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed there under the CIS aegis in July 1994, reported. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, similarly said on March 11 that Washington "regrets" the Russian decision and cannot "see how it contributes to stability in the South Caucasus, resolution of the Abkhaz conflict, or improvement of Russian-Georgian relations," RFE/RL reported. LF

Two Caucasian NGOs -- the Public Committee for the Independence of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia and the Coordinating Council of Leaders of Public Organizations and Movements of the Peoples of the North Caucasus -- released on March 11 and 10, respectively, formal appeals to the Russian State Duma to recognize the two breakaway republics as independent states, reported on March 11. Both NGOs argued that doing so would contribute to political stability in both the North and South Caucasus. The Russian State Duma is scheduled to debate on March 13 appeals for formal recognition addressed to the international community by the parliaments of both republics last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 10, 2008). But Caucasus Press on March 12 quoted Leonid Slutsky, who is deputy chairman of the Duma International Relations Committee, as saying that the Duma will not violate Georgia's territorial integrity by formally recognizing the two breakaway republics. "It will be a rational, interesting and productive exchange of views, but no decisions will be made," he was quoted as saying. LF

In its annual Human Rights Report, the U.S. State Department on March 11 criticized the state of human rights in Kazakhstan during 2007, citing the abuse of detainees and restrictions on the freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly. The report also singled out several fundamental flaws in the country's government, ranging from the lack of an independent judiciary to "pervasive corruption" within law enforcement and the judicial system. The State Department report criticized the Kazakh government for imposing restrictions on the registration of political parties and the activities of non-governmental organizations and civil society groups. The annual report, which is mandated by the U.S. Congress, tasks the State Department with examining how governments around the world honor their international commitments to human rights. Addressing Kyrgyzstan, the report found that the Kyrgyz government has attempted to restrict citizens' right to peaceful assembly, and has detained citizens for merely organizing or staging demonstrations. The report cites an increase in "pressure on independent media" in Kyrgyzstan, but noted that freedom of expression is "generally respected." It asserts that Kyrgyzstan's December 2007 parliamentary election failed to meet international electoral standards. RG

At an international conference on HIV/AIDS in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Dosbol Nur-uulu on March 11 pledged to step up state efforts to combat the disease, stressing that HIV/AIDS poses a "serious threat" to the country "in terms of medical, social, legal, and economic aspects," AKIpress reported. The three-day conference was organized to "unite the efforts of governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic," to reduce the number of cases of HIV transmission, and to increase the life expectancy and quality of life of people living with HIV. Nur-uulu noted several challenges to the Kyrgyz government's efforts, including the improving the affordability and accessibility of treatment, providing more efficient preventive measures for vulnerable groups, and supporting the development of an HIV vaccine. He asserted that successful programs in other countries demonstrate the need for qualified specialists to implement community programs to provide information and consultations as well as treatment. RG

Ainagul Niyazbekova, the deputy head of education and youth policy at the Bishkek Mayor's Office, warned on March 11 that schools in Bishkek are "seriously overcrowded," AKIpress reported. In a report, Niyazbekova stated that the 90 schools in Bishkek, which have a total capacity of about 75,000 students, now have over 102,000 students. She also said that despite the dramatic increase in the number of students in the capital, only four new schools were constructed in 2006, and only one new school was built last year. She recommended that at least 31 new schools should be built, at an estimated cost of $50 million, in order to keep pace with the growing demand. RG

A two-day CIS inter-parliamentary meeting opened on March 11 in Bishkek, with delegates from Russia and several Central Asian countries discussing labor and economic migration, according to AKIpress. The meeting, which brought together delegates from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, was financed by the European Union as part of the Central Asian Migration Project, and focused on reviewing measures aimed at the "implementation of coordinated and consistent" migration policies in CIS countries and the Eurasian Economic Community, as well as migration-related issues within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). RG

The Tajik Supreme Court on March 11 formally labeled the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamist group as an "extremist organization," RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The ruling follows a request submitted to the court by Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobodzhon Bobkhonov. Although the group has been outlawed in Tajikistan since April 2001, the ruling means even tighter restrictions on the group's presence on the Internet and its use of media to promote its ideology, Avesta reported. Hizb ut-Tahir reportedly seeks to establish a global caliphate, or Islamic society, although it purports to reject violence in pursuit of its goals (see "Uzbekistan: Who's Behind the Violence?", March 31, 2004). RG

In its annual human rights report, the U.S. State Department accused the Turkmen government of continuing to commit serious human rights abuses. The State Department charged that Turkmenistan's human rights record remained poor in 2007, noting that Turkmen authorities "severely restrict" political and civil liberties, and continue to allow torture on detainees. Other abuses cited in the report included the arbitrary arrest of suspects, failure to provide a fair trial, interference with private communications, restrictions on the freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly, and the harassment of members of religious minorities. But the report also pointed to some progress in Turkmenistan, including the registration of two Christian groups and the establishment of a government commission empowered to press for greater conformity of Turkmen law and human rights practices with its commitments under international human rights treaties. In its report on Uzbekistan, the State Department said the country has the worst human rights record in Central Asia. The report says that Uzbekistan's civil society continues to be "dominated" by torture, beatings, and the imprisonment of anyone who challenges or disagrees with Uzbek President Islam Karimov's authoritarian rule. The accusations were further bolstered by reports of the suspicious deaths of prisoners in custody, a pattern of "government harassment" targeting opposition media outlets, and charges that the Uzbek government has sought to exert control over the activities of non-governmental organizations, civil society, and religious groups. The report did note some progress in the Uzbek "commitment to work with the OSCE to reform its election and media laws." RG

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart on March 12 announced plans to leave Belarus later that day and return to Washington for several weeks, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Ihar Rynkevich, a former lawyer for imprisoned politician Alyaksandr Kazulin, told the broadcaster that Stewart announced her decision to civil society representatives. Stewart said that her trip will be short-term, and will not change her status as ambassador. Minsk recently recalled its ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Khvastou, for consultations in response to U.S. Treasury Department sanctions imposed in November 2007 on Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry also "urgently recommended" that Stewart leave Minsk "for the same purpose." The U.S. State Department said in a response that Washington does not intend to recall its ambassador (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2008). AM

The U.S. Department of State on March 11 released its annual report on human rights worldwide, in which it accuses Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of undermining democratic institutions in the country since he came to power in 1994. The report also points out that the March 2006 presidential ballot, in which Lukashenka won a third consecutive term, "again failed to meet international standards for democratic elections." The document states that "arbitrary arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of citizens for political reasons, criticizing officials, or for participating in demonstrations were common" in Belarus. In its section on Ukraine, the report states that fundamental civil and political liberties are respected there in general, but notes some serious violations in the law enforcement and penal systems. The report cites the use of torture in pretrial detention facilities, harsh conditions in prisons and pretrial detention centers, and arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention. AM

EU governments on March 11 called on Ukraine and Russian gas monopoly Gazprom to clarify the state of their relations after the recent dispute over Ukraine's gas debts caused cutoffs in gas supplies to the country, Reuters reported. Energy officials from the EU's 27 member states said in a statement that "the group underlined the importance and the necessity of urgent clarification of relations between Gazprom and Ukraine as far as domestic Ukrainian gas consumption and gas transit towards the EU is concerned." Gazprom twice reduced its gas supplies to Ukraine by 25 percent each time, demanding that Ukraine pay off its debts for gas consumed in late 2007 and sign agreements on cooperation in the gas sector for 2008. Last week, Gazprom resumed its gas supplies to Ukraine and the two sides returned to the negotiating table, averting the threat of cutoffs in supplies of Russian gas to European consumers. Representatives of Ukrainian gas operator Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Gazprom are currently holding talks in Moscow. The gas issue has caused disputes between Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, former Orange Revolution allies. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko announced on March 11 in Brussels that Ukraine and the European Union have agreed to extend by one year Ukraine's EU Action Plan, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The plan initially was expected to run from 2005 to 2007, and provided for cooperation efforts aimed at bringing Ukraine closer to the EU. "We agreed to extend the Action Plan by one year, and within this period a new political instrument with regard to relations between Ukraine and the EU will be created," Tymoshenko said. Tymoshenko added that Ukraine will take responsibility for the fulfillment of 23 additional commitments in bilateral cooperation, including the initiation of a dialogue on visa-free travel between Ukraine and the EU; the creation of a common air space; and implementing a new transport strategy. AM

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has condemned a statement by Russian UN envoy Valery Loshchinin in which he called on governments not to recognize Ukraine's Great Famine in 1932-33 as genocide, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on March 11. "Such statements...are nothing but a cynical attempt to humiliate and tarnish the memory of millions of our innocent brothers and sisters who starved to death," the ministry said in a statement. According to different estimates, 7 million-10 million people died in the famine, which was orchestrated by the regime of Soviet leader Josef Stalin and became a national tragedy for Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities are seeking to have the Great Famine recognized at the international level as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. President Yushchenko has declared 2008 a year of remembrance for the victims of the famine. AM

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, a member of President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party, told the UN Security Council in New York on March 11 that Serbia will not impose an economic blockade on Kosova, news agencies reported. "It is in our vital interest that all of Kosovo's communities prosper, and prosper together in peace, security, and reconciliation as neighbors in a progressive society of hope and forgiveness," he said. Jeremic added that "this is why Serbia does not intend to impose an embargo, and why we have a clear policy of not resorting to the force of arms." Shortly before Kosova declared independence on February 17, the Serbian government approved a secret "action plan" of measures it planned to take in response to Prishtina's move and the eventual diplomatic recognition of Kosova by foreign countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and 28, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). There was much speculation in the European media at the time that Belgrade might impose an economic blockade on Kosova, including cutting off water supplies from Gazivodsko Lake, which would seriously affect power generation inside Kosova. Some media reports suggested that Belgrade would avoid economic sanctions because they would affect Kosova's Serbian minority as well as its ethnic Albanian majority. Those reports also noted that Serbia would face 16,000 NATO-led KFOR troops if it tried to intervene militarily in Kosova. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who chairs the Security Council this month, called for new negotiations on Kosova. British Ambassador to the UN John Sawers said that "we are all conscious that there are political events going on in Serbia at the moment, and I don't think there is going to be any rapid or marked change in the position in the Security Council that you have seen for some months now." PM

Bernard Kouchner and Carl Bildt, the foreign ministers of France and Sweden, respectively, said in an article published in Britain's "The Times" and several other European dailies on March 12 that they are "conscious of the incomprehension of our Serbian friends when France, then Sweden, both friends of Serbia, recognized Kosovo's independence." They added that they "would have preferred the continuation of the union between [those] western Balkan states," but stated that there was "no other solution" than recognizing Kosova's independence. They stressed that the split with Kosova could ultimately "help Serbia move forward" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). Kouchner and Bildt said that they hope Serbia will receive EU candidate status "as soon as possible." RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on March 11 that the Serbian election scheduled for May 11 will be overshadowed by the question of how Serbia will deal with the EU in light of the fact that most EU members have recognized Kosova's independence. The broadcast quoted Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Tomislav Nikolic as denying reports that he has made a coalition pact with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). Both parties oppose any ties with the EU unless Brussels recognizes Kosova as part of Serbia, which is unlikely to happen. The broadcast also quoted a DSS spokesman, Andreja Mladenovic, as saying that his party will not launch any coalition talks until after the election (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2008). PM

In an interview published on March 11 in the Russian daily "Kommersant," Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin implied that Russia has withdrawn its opposition to a 2005 plan to resolve the Transdniester conflict in return for formal assurances from Moldova of its "neutrality," meaning that Moldova will not apply for NATO membership. He said a draft document affirming Moldova's neutrality will be signed by Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, the United States, the EU, and the OSCE, but not by representatives of the unrecognized Transdniester republic. Voronin said he discussed the expanded peace proposal with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the eve of the informal CIS summit last month. The proposal envisages autonomy within Moldova for both Transdniester and the Gagauz-Yeri Autonomous Republic. Transdniester would retain its own coat of arms and flag, and three state languages: Moldovan, Russian, and Ukrainian. The Russian peacekeepers in Transdniester would be replaced by civilian observers. Voronin, who told RFE/RL four months ago that a settlement of the Transdniester conflict was imminent (see "Moldovan President Says Transdniester Solution In Sight,", November 6, 2007), gave no indication of when the package of agreements will be signed. Voronin further hinted that the Moldovan parliament might vote to withdraw from the GUAM group, of which Moldova was one of the four founding members in 1997 together with Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 1997). Voronin pointed out that at the time of its inception, GUAM had "quite different objectives," and that he sees no advantage to be gained from remaining within an alignment whose future prospects are "dubious." LF

In April 2006, the news that Russia had struck its biggest arms deal since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving the sale to Algeria of more than $4 billion worth of arms, including $3.5 billion worth of fighter jets (40 Mig-29 and 28 Su-30), was widely feted. Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit to Algiers, personally clinched the agreement, which involved Russia writing off around $4 billion of Soviet-era debt.

The news seemed to point to a Russian renaissance in the field of arms exports, and to prove that Russian high-tech production had become globally competitive. It also coincided with the announcement of a new state policy that entailed setting up a United Aircraft-building Corporation (OAK) to bring together in a single organization Russian manufacturers of both commercial and civil aircraft.

By the end of 2007, the OAK had been successfully set up under the close watch of a close Putin associate, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. The state arms export monopolist Rosoboroneksport too had metamorphosed into a fully-fledged state corporation, a fiefdom of another friend of Putin's from his KGB days, Sergei Chemezov. The "back to the future" policy of reviving the Soviet defense industry to diversify the economy into high tech seemed to be taking off, with 2007 setting an arms export record of $6.2 billion, up from $6 billion in 2006 and 2005, and $5.8 billion in 2004, although exact figures are disputed.

However, in late February, the Algeria deal suddenly went badly awry, and a number of other failures in plane and ship-building raised questions about the true competitiveness of Russia's state-run defense industry giants.

The problems started when Algeria returned to Russia the first batch of 15 MiG29s delivered from a total order of 36, apparently complaining that they were substandard and had failed initial testing. In a humiliation for Russia, a revised deal was signed on February 19 between Putin and President Abelaziz of Algeria for Russia to provide less prestigious -- and less lucrative -- railroad equipment.

The true reason for the Algerian decision is difficult to pinpoint due to a lack of information about the technicalities of the Algerian complaint. It seems possible that the Russian manufacturers may have used components in the planes that were not new, perhaps from Soviet-era storage, and also that the U.S. and French lobbies in Algeria exerted pressure, according to Dmitry Vasiliev of Moscow's Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technology.

In any event, it was a major embarrassment for Russia, both in terms of its international reputation as an arms supplier, and also in terms of its relations with Algeria, with which it is stepping up cooperation in the energy sector as well. It is also a domestic policy setback for arms exporter Chemezov and the siloviki lobby.

A further setback for Russian arms exports followed just days later, when reports emerged on February 22 that China had succeeded in constructing a copy of the Russian defense industry's main export earner, the Sukhoi SU-27.

From 1996-2004, SU-27s were assembled in China under the name J-11 from components supplied by Russia, in particular jet engines and aviation electronics. However, since 2004 China has not ordered any further models, and some Russian experts now believe China has succeeded in achieving a breakthrough in engine construction, allowing the plane to be almost wholly produced in China. Sources within the OAK have been quoted as saying that the Chinese have assembled a number of copies of the plane, but are still far from serial production.

Opinions are divided as to whether the Chinese copy could jeopardize Russian export markets, with Russian optimists saying that the Chinese planes will not meet Russian standards for quality, and that the Indian market is closed to China for political reasons. However, it is undoubtedly a disturbing development that calls into question Russia's policy of using arms exports to achieve economic diversification.

The Russian defense industry suffered another embarrassment at the end of February when the Norwegian shipping concern Odfjell terminated a major contract signed in 2004 with Russian ship-builder Sevmash, which is based in the Arctic port town of Severodinsk, due to soaring costs and delays in completion of the 12 45,000-ton tankers on order. Sevmash is Russia's producer of nuclear submarines.

Like the Algerian arms deal, that $500 million contract had been hailed as the "deal of the century." It fit perfectly into the government policy of reorienting state-owned enterprises to commercial production, in particular to serve the oil and gas sectors. That was the declared aim of the newly-created state-owned holding company United Ship-building Corporation (OSK), a marine equivalent of the OAK.

Odfjell claims that the first tanker was slated for delivery in September 2007, but will not be ready until May 2009, and that the cost of the order has risen from $500 million to $544 million. Following the termination of the contract, Sevmash will also be liable for damage claims.

For its part, Sevmash argues that the soaring price of steel is to blame for the rise in costs, but in fact this is not Sevmash's first failure of this kind. The ship-builder also mismanaged a large Indian order to re-equip the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov for sale to India. Originally planned for 2008, the handover has now been postponed to 2011, a delay that cost the previous Sevmash management their jobs.

Chemezov's newly established state corporation, Russian Technologies, is now lobbying for the Russian government to transfer to it assets which can only loosely be described as defense-related, such as a 50 percent stake in a Mongolian copper mine. But the series of setbacks in its "core competence" field is likely to fuel opposition to any further such transfers.

(Graham Stack is a staff writer at Business New Europe.)

The Taliban is urging former mujahedin fighters to join them in their efforts to drive foreign forces out of the country, Reuters reported on March 11. Taliban leaders made the appeal after some mujahedin leaders complained about being excluded from the government of President Hamid Karzai, whom they helped bring to power by backing U.S.-led forces in ousting the Taliban in 2001. Several mujahedin leaders hold key military and political positions in Karzai's government. A statement on a Taliban website said that "the former leaders and commanders of Jihad have made a lot of sacrifices for Islam.... Now it is necessary that they stand beside their people and the nation and make sacrifices one again against the invasion." Meanwhile, violence linked to the Taliban unrest is jeopardizing a polio vaccination drive in Afghanistan, where four cases of the disease have been recorded so far this year, AFP reported on March 11. According to Health Ministry spokesman Abdullah Fahim, fighting between Taliban insurgents and Afghan security forces has interrupted health workers' vaccination efforts in several districts of the southern province of Helmand. In other districts under Taliban influence, local elders have denied health care professionals permission to vaccinate children. "Our local health workers, with the help of tribal elders, are trying to talk with the Taliban to let the workers carry out the vaccination campaign," the public health director for Helmand, Anayatullah Ghafari, said. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP by telephone that "we have told them they can come to our areas and run the vaccination campaign, but they are scared.... We have told them to hire locals to carry out the campaign." AT

Several small factories in the western city of Herat stopped their operations on March 11 as workers went on strike to demand better security. Toryalai Ghawsi, the chairman of the city's industrial union, said: "We don't have any security here, and unless security measures to ensure our safety are provided, we will not open." Doctors and nurses in the city earlier declared a strike for the same reason, refusing to go to their hospitals and private clinics except to handle emergency cases. Sayed Hassan Farid, a spokesman for the Herat doctors' union, told AFP that kidnapping and terrorism have increased in the city. "We want the central government to provide us with security," he said. According to Governor Sayed Anwari, the city's 2,500 police are far from sufficient to protect a population of 3 million. AT

Afghan police backed by NATO-led troops have killed four suspected criminals in western Afghanistan following a wave of kidnappings and robberies, AP reported on March 11. Regional police spokesman Rauf Ahmadi said police clashed with the suspects on March 11 in the Gusara district of Herat Province. According to Ahmadi, 15 other people suspected of involvement in criminal activities were arrested. The kidnappings of Afghan civilians for ransom are daily occurrences, but are seldom reported, while abductions of foreigners get extensive publicity. AT

Right-wing lawmaker Elias Naderan has bitterly criticized his colleague Nureddin Pirmoazzen for giving an interview to Voice of America during a visit to the United States, in which Pirmoazzen described the vetting and disqualification of Iranian parliamentary hopefuls by state authorities as "political mass murder," the conservative Fars agency reported on March 11. Naderan said Iran's parliament is no place for "spies and those taking refuge in America," adding that the vetting authorities were at least right to bar Pirmoazzen from running for parliamentary elections set for March 14. Pirmoazzen is one of the more liberal members of parliament and a spokesman for the minority reformist faction. Naderan said "adopting humiliating positions" toward the United States is part of reformists' wider liberalizing strategy aimed at improving ties with the West and getting Iran into the World Trade Organization. He also criticized recent conversations between the German ambassador in Tehran, Herbert Honsowitz, and the reformist former deputy speaker of parliament, Mohammad Reza Khatami, a member of the Participation Front, as well as members of the centrist Executives of Construction party. Iranians are discouraged from having contacts with foreign diplomats. Naderan told Fars that Honsowitz asked to meet with conservative politicians, but was told they could meet only when Germany changes its "hostile" attitude over Iran's nuclear program and other issues of concern to Iran. Khatami has defended his meeting with Honsowitz, and insisted he said nothing against Iranian national interests, Fars reported on March 11, citing Khatami's comments to German radio. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on March 11 that there is nothing wrong with such contacts in principle, provided the ministry is informed, which did not happen in this case, AFP reported. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said in Tehran on March 11 that the Israeli decision to build more settlements in the West Bank is in "blatant contradiction of international laws" and shows Israel's "expansionist " nature, IRNA reported. Israel recently announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, in areas claimed by Palestinians. U.S., UN, and EU officials have described the move as unhelpful to tentative peace efforts in the region, agencies reported on March 10 and 11. Hosseini said Israel and the United States are responsible for any exacerbation of tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories as a result of the expansion. He said the plan shows Israel's "real aims" of expanding the territories it occupies. He urged international bodies to give a firm response to "Israel's oppressive and impudent practices," IRNA reported. VS

A Tehran-based group called Student Movement for Justice (Jonbesh-i edalatkhah-i daneshjui) offered on March 9 to pay up to $1 million to anyone who kills three prominent Israeli officials, Radio Farda and AFP reported on March 11. The offer was made at a conference in Tehran, though the source of the money was not clear. The Israeli officials targeted are Defense Minister Ehud Barak; the head of the Mossad security agency, Meir Dagan; and military intelligence chief Amos Yedlin. The group referred to the initiative as the "revolutionary execution" of the officials in retaliation for the intensification of "Israel's crimes against the Palestinians and the assassination of people of the Islamic resistance front," Radio Farda reported. The student group reportedly emerged in the late 1990s in Mashhad and Tehran, and expanded its activities in 2005 following the election of the right-wing government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whom the group supports. Its activities have included the formation of a fund to finance Israel's destruction and sending volunteers to Lebanon in July 2006, presumably to help the Hizballah militia, during a month of Israeli strikes against suspected Hizballah targets, Radio Farda reported. VS

About 5,000 workers of the Haft Tapeh sugar production firm in Khuzestan in southwestern Iran on March 9 called off a four-day strike and returned to work the next day after their demand for overdue wages was met, Radio Farda reported on March 11. The company's management agreed to pay two months' back wages, and also promised in the coming days to pay the bonuses that Iranian employees usually receive at the end of the Persian year, which falls on March 21. The strike reportedly began with a walkout by 1,700 workers from part of the firm. Intelligence Ministry officials contacted workers to ask or pressure them to resume work, Radio Farda reported, citing local reports. Strikes in Iran over unpaid back wages are not uncommon. VS

Iran's Intelligence Ministry arrested Afghan writer Ali Mohaqeq Nasab in Qom in north-central Iran on March 4, Radio Farda reported on March 11, citing Nasab's relatives and Afghan activists. Little is known about the charges or Nasab's whereabouts. Rahimullah Samandar, the head of Afghanistan's Free Association of Writers, told Radio Farda that the Iranian Embassy in Kabul has received little information about the arrest, while Nasab's family has been denied permission to visit him. Radio Farda stated that Nasab has in the past written critically about Iran's clerical system of government, the Velayat-i faqih, and spent time in prison because of his writings. He has also run afoul of conservatives in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2005). VS

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the London-based newspaper "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on March 11 that Iraq refused a $1 billion soft loan from Iran during Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq last week. "The response from the Iraqi government was no," Zebari said, adding that Iraqi officials told Iran "what was required and more important for Iraq first, second, and third is security and assistance, because without security one cannot benefit from a loan to launch reconstruction and investment projects." Zebari commented on negotiations toward a strategic agreement between the United States and Iraq, saying agreements will soon be hammered out on bilateral cooperation and the status of foreign forces in Iraq. "These agreements will define the form of the relationship with the United States as far as sovereignty and immunity are concerned, as well as the training of [Iraqi] troops. Therefore, by the end of the year, we hope to emerge from under Chapter 7 imposed upon us by the United Nations," Zebari said. Chapter 7 gives multinational forces the legal authorization to "take all necessary measures to preserve peace and security" in Iraq. KR

Foreign Minister Zebari commented on the lack of representation from other Arab states in Iraq in his comments published on March 11. He said that when Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Ahmad Bin Hilli was in Iraq during the last week of February, "I deliberately gathered the Arab diplomatic missions together so that he would see the size of the Arab representation in Iraq. It was a shock to [Bin Hilli] because the number did not exceed five countries, and [the representatives were] at the level of charge d'affaires. These countries are Palestine, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria." Zebari said Iraq's primary demand at an upcoming Arab summit will be that states increase their presence in Iraq and appoint more senior representatives. Addressing domestic issues, Zebari also told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the Iraqi government has begun to merge armed elements of the so-called Awakening Councils into the Iraqi security forces. The Awakening Councils are Sunni Arab groups formed in several governorates last year to fight Al-Qaeda. He said the process is moving slowly, but must be done. "Keeping these forces separate the way they are at the present or in the form of militias may lead to the exploitation [of these groups] by foreign powers...or by groups that oppose the government," which may cause greater problems down the road, he said. Zebari said he does not expect a radical cabinet reshuffle, noting: "The government was formed on the basis of political reconciliation. It is also a coalition government where one side does not control it. Hence, the formation of a new government may take time." KR

Authorities in Wasit Governorate imposed an overnight curfew in the city of Al-Kut on March 11 following clashes between security forces and armed gunmen in the city center, Iraqi media reported. Wasit police commander Abd al-Hanin Humud said the curfew applied to vehicles and civilians. Clashes began on March 9 in seven areas of the city, according to Al-Sharqiyah television. In the first two days, eight civilians were killed, including three children, and nearly 30 people were wounded. Meanwhile, German news agency dpa reported on March 12 that the clashes have left 22 dead and 40 wounded. Voices of Iraq reported on March 11 that joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols arrested 30 wanted suspects in Al-Kut the same day. Earlier this week, Iraqi security forces discovered cooking-gas cylinders rigged with explosives at several homes in Wasit Governorate. A number of homes abandoned by people fleeing violence were found to be booby-trapped as well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). KR

Brigadier-General Hasan Nuri, the head of security in Al-Sulaymaniyah, told PUKmedia on March 11 that the car used in the bombing of the Al-Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel on March 10 came from Kirkuk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). "Half an hour before the attack, we went to Al-Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel on a private security matter, and half an hour after our arrival, a Chrysler car exploded in front of the hotel," Nuri said. "The exploded car had been brought from Kirkuk and the investigation is continuing." PUKmedia also published a photograph of a man who may have been the bomber. The report said Al-Sulaymaniyah security services are asking citizens to come forward with any information they might have about the man. The website reported on March 12 that Iraqi and U.S. forces stormed a bomb-making factory in Kirkuk and seized "100 bombs, 20 Katyusha missiles, 4 explosive belts, 100 control apparatuses, 100 kilograms of gunpowder, 50 kilograms of TNT, and other explosive materials." The report did not say when the raid took place. Documents belonging to the insurgent groups Ansar al-Sunnah Army and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq were also seized in the raid. KR

President Jalal Talabani addressed the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Irbil on March 11, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Talabani told delegates to the conference that recent security achievements should be attributed to national reconciliation efforts, as well as military efforts. "These accomplishments indicate our ability to strengthen our armed forces in weaponry and personnel, enabling them to perform their great national tasks," Talabani said. "But this does not mean that military and security power was solely responsible for the defeat inflicted on the terrorists. What was achieved was [the result] of the political process and the continuous endeavor to widen its circles." Talabani added: "Efforts continue on the level of leaders of the political blocs, the presidency, and the cabinet to eliminate any hurdles that might obstruct the achievement of comprehensive national reconciliation." The accomplishment of such tasks, he said, will positively impact Iraq's relations with neighboring Arab states. KR