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Newsline - March 13, 2008

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 12 in which it sharply criticized the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights, published on March 11, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). The statement charged that the report used a condescending tone to present "a hackneyed collection of claims regarding Russia, such as departure from the principles of democratic government, the harassment of dissenters, and restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press. Many passages are copied from previous reports." The ministry charged that the U.S. document "abounds in groundless accusations, quotes from unverified and obviously biased sources, mistakes, and the juggling of facts, particularly in regard to [unspecified] recent events." Moscow accused Washington of hypocrisy and "double standards," and of avoiding mention of its own failings. It argued that the United States "essentially legalized torture, applies capital punishment to minors, denies responsibility for war crimes and massive human rights abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, and refuses to join a series of human rights treaties...[while] disregarding systemic problems within its own country." The Russian statement added that "we did not expect from the State Department's latest opus an objective assessment of the human rights situation in Russia. After all, the United States has long regarded human rights as a foreign policy tool." PM

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said on March 12 that U.S. President George W. Bush will send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Moscow on March 17-18 to discuss missile defense, non-proliferation, and counterterrorism, news agencies reported. Perino added that Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently agreed in a telephone conversation that sending the two to Russia would be a "good idea." Interfax reported on March 13 that an unidentified Russian Foreign Ministry source said that Rice and Gates will offer Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov written proposals reflecting what was discussed at a similar meeting in October 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24 and December 6 and 7, 2007). Lavrov said in December that the United States subsequently backtracked on what it told Russia in October. The ministry source said on March 13 that the U.S. proposals provided for "greater transparency" in the proposed missile-defense project, but did not meet Russia's call for "truly allied relations in monitoring missile threats worldwide." PM

Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who was one of the Soviet Union's top Middle East experts and the first director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), told a press conference in Tomsk on March 13 that "relations with the United States are a priority for us," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2007). Primakov called on Washington to understand that Russia is "an equal player in the international arena and in global politics." He argued that "what the United States is doing today against Russia and our national interests does not mean that it wants 'hot' confrontation with Russia. Unfortunately, many such things are being done, but I don't think the United States really fears Russia as a potential enemy." Primakov said that Washington seeks to "put us in what they see as our proper place, which is a secondary place." He argued that such an approach "won't work. With its potential, its capabilities, and its energy sufficiency, Russia has been and will be one of the most active players in the world arena. And the world will only benefit from this." PM

Sergei Rogov, who heads the U.S. and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was quoted by the daily "Novye izvestia" on March 13 as saying that U.S.-Russian relations "are continuing to deteriorate" and that the United States "wrote us off" in the 1990s as a major partner. Rogov argued that part of the reason for the recent downturn is that Washington has interjected an ideological element into the relationship by criticizing the state of democracy in Russia. Rogov noted that the United States' foreign policy priority is not Russia but Iraq. Regarding the upcoming U.S. presidential election, he suggested that "trying to guess who will be better for Russia" -- meaning a Democrat or Republican -- "is certainly a mistake. It seems that the next U.S. administration will take a firmer stand with regard to Moscow, in any event" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and 27, 2008). Rogov suggested that U.S. Senator Barack Obama (Democrat, Illinois) "recognizes the necessity of a dialogue with Russia more than other candidates do." Rogov also noted that either Obama or U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (Democrat, New York) would be better from Moscow's point of view on issues such as missile defense. He argued that U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), by contrast, might "revert to dependence on brute force." Rogov added that "the deterioration of the U.S. economy and problems with Iraq will make the Americans too busy to entertain the idea of a new Cold War." PM

Hard-line former Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, who once headed the Defense Ministry's International Department and is currently vice president of the nationalist Academy for Geopolitical Problems, said in Moscow on March 12 that Russia "must reserve the right to use nuclear weapons to protect CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB) members in the event of an imminent threat," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27 and August 16, 2007). Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan make up the ODKB. Ivashov said that Article 4 of the existing ODKB treaty is too vague about the nature of assistance, including military assistance, which each member state must provide to an ally in case of a "clear and imminent threat of military aggression." He called for a more "concrete definition of such assistance, clearly described in military-strategic terms." On March 12, ODKB Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha said in Moscow that NATO is working to "cut Russia off" from the countries of Central Asia and Afghanistan, the daily "Vremya novostei" reported on March 13. The daily added that Washington and NATO prefer not to deal with the ODKB as an organization, as Russia wants, but seek to negotiate with its members individually. The paper quoted outspoken Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov as saying that it is in Russia's interest to "keep NATO in Afghanistan [until the alliance] solves all the problems its presence fomented: international terrorism, mushrooming dope production, and so on. Let them restore the Afghan economy and establish a strong state first, before they leave" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). PM

President Putin has ordered presidential aide Igor Shuvalov to develop a strategy for the reorganization of the executive branch in preparation for Putin's widely expected post-presidential premiership, "Kommersant" and other Russian media reported on March 13. The daily said the reorganization plan is to be completed and approved before President-elect Dmitry Medvedev's May 7 inauguration. A key element of the plan should be a clarification of how the government and the presidential administration will interact in a period of what many analysts are describing as a dyarchy, with both Putin and Medvedev anchoring power centers. RC

Duma deputies on March 12 passed in the first reading a bill that would authorize legislators in both houses to suggest to the president possible candidates to serve as auditors with the Audit Chamber, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported the next day. The move marks a rare example of assertiveness by the legislature in its relations with the executive branch. The daily notes that the Duma just last year passed a law that gave the president complete authority to appoint auditors. Under the bill, any Duma or Federation Council committee or commission would be able to propose a candidate. Party factions in the Duma would have the same right. The proposal does not oblige the president to consider the suggestions. An unnamed source close to the presidential administration was dismissive of the initiative, telling the daily: "Deputies have to do something, so they were allowed to pass a law that in reality changes nothing." RC

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, speaking at a Moscow timber industry conference on March 12, outlined plans to construct 30 new biofuel plants, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 13. Zubkov said the government aims to reach annual ethanol production of 2 million tons, although he did not give a target date. National Biofuel Association Director Aleksei Ablayev told the daily that since Zubkov was addressing the timber industry, the government likely plans to focus on producing ethanol from timber waste. Ablayev added, however, that private industry is exploring the possibility of producing ethanol from food crops, and that former Gazprom deputy CEO Aleksandr Ryazanov is building a plant in Tambov Oblast that will produce ethanol from wheat. Ablayev says there is little demand for ethanol in Russia at present and most of the country's production will likely be intended for export. RC

Deputy Health and Social Development Minister Vladimir Starodubov has resigned, Interfax reported on March 13. Starodubov's primary responsibility was the pharmaceutical sector. "Kommersant" reported earlier that it is possible Russian Health Inspectorate (Roszdravnadzor) Director Nikolai Yurgel might step down as well and that Roszdravnadzor itself might be liquidated. Unidentified sources cited by the daily said the shakeup is part of a plan to create a government holding company in the pharmaceutical sector, which is widely believed to be riddled with corruption. Starodubov was at the center of a national controversy over shortages of medicines that erupted about one year ago. The daily identified the Industry and Energy Ministry and Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov as the main advocates for eliminated Roszdravnadzor and for setting up the holding company. RC

The St. Petersburg branch of the Yabloko party continues to come under assault from the authorities, Ekho Moskvy reported on March 13. The party is the subject of a new investigation on extremism charges that has been launched by the city prosecutor's office. In addition, it has been formally evicted from its long-time downtown St. Petersburg office as of June 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). Yabloko officials are not sure whether the extremism investigation is connected with the March 3 arrest of local party activist Maksim Reznik on charges of assaulting a police officer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). Small protest actions in support of Reznik, who claims the charges are politically motivated, continued in Moscow and St. Petersburg on March 12, with police detaining several activists. Activists from the United Civic Front, Other Russia, and Yabloko have been picketing the Interior Ministry building and the Prosecutor-General's Office in an unusual way. Since the Moscow authorities routinely deny permission for protests, the activists have been protesting one person at a time, since permission is not required for one person to demonstrate. Nonetheless, police detained United Civic Front activist Suren Yedigerov on March 12 outside the Interior Ministry. RC

Four students of the sociology department of Moscow State University have been expelled, purportedly for failing to meet academic standards, Ekho Moskvy reported on March 13. The four are members of a student-advocacy group called OD Group that is devoted to improving conditions for students at the department. Its charter asserts that the department's textbooks are "empty" and that there is no electronic library and no possibility for exchanges with foreign universities. Moldovan journalist Natalya Morar, who has been denied entry into Russia on national-security grounds, is a graduate of the department and a member of the group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). Morar recently was deported to Moldova after a second attempt to enter Russia. She claims she has been banned because of her critical reporting on the Putin administration. The four expelled students recently filed a complaint about the department's dean to the rector of the university and say their expulsion is an act of revenge on the dean's part. The students complained that the dean told a department meeting that they had acted "unethically and immorally" by publicly demanding the reinstatement of students expelled earlier. Shortly after the four students complained to the rector, they were given failing grades on an exam. The Russian Union of Students has said it will take up the cause of the four students. RC

Murat Zyazikov issued a decree on March 12 dismissing the republic's government and naming First Deputy Prime Minister Khava Yevloyev as the acting premier, reported. Outgoing Prime Minister Ibragim Malsagov, who has served in that capacity since June 2005, reportedly submitted his resignation a week ago. Zyazikov also dismissed the heads of the republic's four major towns and four rural districts, according to Zyazikov said that the new cabinet will be called upon to tackle "ambitious tasks," including implementing more energetic reforms of the economy and social sphere. Commentators Amir Yevloyev (no relation to the acting prime minister) and Ruslan Bogatyryov downplayed Zyazikov's move as a PR stunt that will not fundamentally change the political situation, according to, while quoted human rights activist Ruslan Badalov as saying he hopes the new cabinet members will demonstrate greater responsibility than their predecessors and not concentrate their energy on enriching themselves and their families. Delegates to a Congress of the Ingush People that took place on March 8 on the outskirts of Nazran adopted a statement addressed to outgoing Russian President Putin and President-elect Medvedev asking how long Moscow intends to tolerate corruption and mismanagement on the part of Zyazikov and his entourage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2008). LF

Law enforcement officials launched a "counterterrorism operation" on March 12 in the village of Troitskaya in Ingushetia's Sunzha Raion in which they surrounded a house and then opened fire, killing 21-year-old Rustam Mutsolgov, Russian media reported. An official of the Ingushetian prosecutor's office subsequently identified Mutsolgov as an employee of the Ingushetian human rights organization Mashr and a member of an illegal armed formation. The official said Mutsolgov was apparently planning a suicide bombing and opened fire on the police who sought to apprehend him. The website quoted Mutsolgov's sister as denying that he had a gun or ammunition. A spokesman for Mashr told that Mutsolgov worked for the rights organization for six months last year but quit at the end of July. LF

The Armenian authorities on March 12 in the town of Abovian detained parliamentarian Sasun Mikaelian, a supporter of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who was sought by police in connection with his participation in the clashes in Yerevan on March 1 between police and Ter-Petrossian supporters, Noyan Tapan reported. Police spokesman Sayat Shirinian told journalists on March 12 that 59 people have been arrested in connection with the clashes; several hundred others have been questioned and released. Also on March 12, President-elect Serzh Sarkisian denied rumors that Ter-Petrossian himself is in danger of imminent arrest, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Armenian Foreign Ministry acting spokesman Tigran Balayan on March 12 expressed "astonishment" at what he termed "arbitrary" statements by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who was quoted by AP on March 10 as calling the police retaliation against the Yerevan demonstrators "harsh and brutal," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). Meanwhile, outgoing President Robert Kocharian on March 12 announced that he would lift either that evening or early on March 13 most of the restrictions imposed on the media in connection with the state of emergency he declared on March 1, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

Parliament deputies on March 12 in the third and final reading approved constitutional amendments that will reduce from 235 to 150 the number of deputies in the new legislature to be elected this summer and change the procedure for electing the 75 majority deputies, reported. The amendments were approved by a vote of 165 in favor and two against. The opposition parties aligned in the National Council denounced the vote as violating an agreement reached last month with parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze and as intended to preserve the two-thirds majority currently enjoyed by President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (see upcoming "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 14, 2008). Oppositionists are continuing a hunger strike outside the parliament building in Tbilisi; similar protests began on March 12 in Kutaisi and Batumi. LF

Deputies on March 12 also approved amendments to the 2008 budget that increase revenues by 202 million laris ($130.3 million) and expenditures by 203 million laris, Caucasus Press reported. The amendments passed with 153 votes in favor. The economic growth target was revised upward from 6 to 7.5 percent; the planned GDP is set at 19.7 billion laris. The increase in expenditure will make it possible to raise the monthly allowance paid to displaced persons to between 22-28 laris. A sum of 1 million laris is earmarked for organizing camps to inculcate a spirit of patriotism in young people. LF

The "Georgian Times" on March 13 quoted Zurab Samushia, leader of the White Legion guerrilla organization that systematically targeted Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia in the late 1990s, as saying his fighters will again take up arms in response to last week's unilateral decision by Russia to waive the economic sanctions imposed on Abkhazia in January 1996 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). "Vremya novostei" on November 26, 2007, estimated that the White Legion has 300-500 members. Samushia was also quoted as vowing to do everything in his power to prevent the 2014 Winter Olympic games from taking place in Sochi as planned. On March 12, quoted political commentator Aleksei Vashchenko as telling a round-table discussion on the Olympics that the Russian government's decision to lift the sanctions on Abkhazia was taken in response to pressure from construction firms that have secured contracts to build Olympic facilities and hope to increase their profits by purchasing construction materials in Abkhazia rather than transporting them to Sochi from elsewhere in the Russian Federation. LF

The head of Kazakhstan's National Association of Social and Political Scientists, Bakhytzhamal Bekturganov, announced on March 12 that a recent public opinion survey has revealed significant "discontent among the Kazakh population with the government and the local authorities," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Bekturganov explained that the growing dissatisfaction is the result of sharp increases in prices for consumer goods, including fuel and food. He noted that the survey, conducted last month, shows that public discontent with the national government was some 1.4 times higher than the level indicated by the same poll in October 2007. The poll also revealed a more significant surge in discontent with local officials, at nearly five times the level of the earlier poll. The methodology of the public opinion poll, including the size and composition of the survey sample, was not released. RG

The Kazakh parliament, or Mazhilis, on March 12 voted overwhelmingly to ratify an international convention to combat nuclear terrorism, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Kazakh leaders initially signed the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism at a September 2005 meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The Kazakh parliamentary committee for international affairs, defense, and security issued a statement hailing the vote to ratify the treaty as a move that "will create the grounds for international cooperation in fighting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." It was not clear why it took so long for the parliament to ratify the treaty. RG

In a report to the Kyrgyz parliamentary committee for education, science, culture, and information policy, Minister of Education and Science Ishengul Bolzhurova on March 12 revealed serious shortcomings in the country's preschool education system, AKIpress reported. According to the report, Kyrgyzstan's preschools are able to educate only 10 percent of children under the age of seven. Bolzhurova noted that during the early days of Kyrgyz independence in 1991, the country had roughly 1,300 kindergartens, attended by 65-70 percent of the preschool age children; by contrast there are now just 485 preschools operating in the entire country. Bolzhurova explained that the primary factor for the decline in preschool education was the 2003 Kyrgyz law prohibiting the sale or privatization of educational institutions. Following the report, opposition Social Democratic Party deputy Bakyt Beshimov expressed concern over the "poor quality of education at preschool institutions and primary schools," and highlighted the "poor qualifications of teachers in remote parts of the country." A similar review of schools in Bishkek recently warned of serious overcrowding and inadequate school construction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). RG

At the end of an official visit to Algeria, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on March 11 concluded a set of four new agreements on bilateral cooperation, including new measures in the areas of investment, trade, and culture, according to Asia-Plus. At a meeting with Rahmon in Algiers, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika agreed to a Tajik proposal for a business forum to be held in Dushanbe with leading entrepreneurs and businessmen from both countries, aimed at boosting bilateral trade beyond its currently marginal level of under $184,000. The two presidents also discussed future cooperation in the fields of energy, industry, and infrastructure development, and agreed "to hold constant mutual consultations on foreign policy," ITAR-TASS reported. RG

In a joint statement, three leading Tajik opposition parties vowed on March 11 to provide a "way out" of what they defined as the "socioeconomic crisis" in the country, Asia-Plus reported. The Democratic, Social-Democratic, and Socialist Parties expressed their shared concern over "the present political and socioeconomic situation in the country," which they attributed to what they called "flourishing" crime and corruption in Tajikistan. The parties proposed a national referendum on amendments to the country's constitution that would expand the size and power of the parliament and reduce the power of the presidency. They also suggested that specific state functions, including authority over the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption and the Prosecutor-General's Office, should be granted to the parliament. They further demanded a "transparent and critical report on all international humanitarian aid, loans, and grants provided to the country." Two other main opposition parties, the Islamic Revival Party and the Communist Party of Tajikistan, refused to sign the joint statement, arguing that they would instead work within parliament to address the problems raised in the statement. RG

At a conference in Tashkent focusing on the inland Aral Sea, Uzbek President Islam Karimov on March 12 stressed that the "environmental, social, economic, and demographic problems" linked to the Aral Sea concern not only issues of water security in the region, but "are of international and global importance in terms of their origins and the scale of consequences," ITAR-TASS reported. Karimov said the "intensive reclamation of new land" during the Soviet era resulted in a reduction of the Aral Sea to less than 10 percent of its original volume over the past 50 years. Karimov added that he hopes the conference will "help the international community to form a new vision and understanding of the Aral crisis" and enable the adoption of "specific measures to improve the situation." Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Secretary-General Bolat Nurgaliev also argued on March 12 that the "Aral Sea's ecological crisis should be considered as man-made global disaster," Kazinform reported. Nurgaliev added that the problems of the Aral Sea region "can be resolved only by attracting serious financial aid from the international community." The conference brings together over 200 public figures, scientists, ecologists, and specialists from several countries and major international organizations. The landlocked Aral Sea, which straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s, and has suffered from severe agricultural and industrial pollution (see "Russia: Oil Spill Highlights Tragic Environmental Legacy,", November 28, 2007). RG

Andrey Papou, a spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, said on March 12 that U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart has left the country at the ministry's request, Belapan reported. "The departure of the U.S. ambassador took place after Stewart was once again invited to a meeting at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on March 11, where she was for the second time asked to follow the pressing recommendations of our country's government," Papou said. 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," but the U.S. State Department initially announced that Washington did not intend to recall its ambassador. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on March 12 confirmed that Stewart is returning to Washington for consultations. "We expect that after her consultations have been completed, she would return to Belarus," McCormack said. AM

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer told Belapan on March 12 that relations between Washington and Minsk have rapidly deteriorated due to "the unwillingness of the Belarusian government to release Alyaksandr Kazulin." Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 presidential elections, 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. Kramer said that the U.S. government expanded its visa ban list targeting Belarusian officials and introduced the sanctions against Belnaftakhim last year in response to the Belarusian government's failure to release political prisoners. According to Kramer, U.S. and Belarusian officials were in negotiations about Kazulin's release up until March 5. On March 6, the U.S. Treasury Department posted on its website "a further clarification of the sanctions we imposed on Belnaftakhim," which might have been regarded by the Belarusian authorities as an extension of sanctions. "The release of five prisoners before, as well as [journalist Alyaksandr] Zdvizhkou, who was not on the original list but whose case we certainly raised with authorities in Minsk, was a positive step," Kramer said. "We have made clear to the government in Minsk that in order to begin the process of improvement in relations we had to see the release of all political prisoners, not simply five out of six," he said. Kramer added that with Kazulin's potential release, "Belarus would pave the way, would open the path for discussion about improved relations between Belarus and the West, not just with the United States but [also] with the European Union." AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko announced on March 12 that Ukraine's gas operator Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Russian gas monopoly Gazprom agreed at talks that day in Moscow to exclude intermediary company UkrGazEnergo from the gas-supply system, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "One more decision that the sides adopted today: the gas price for Ukraine in 2008 will not exceed $179.5 per 1,000 cubic meters," Tymoshenko said. Reuters on March 13 also reported the agreement on $179.5 as the price for Central Asian gas to be delivered to Ukraine in 2008. But the agency reported that Russian gas, including the volumes already supplied in January and February, will cost $315 per 1,000 cubic meters, although Ukraine apparently will be allowed to pay the difference in kind, by returning some gas to Russia from its underground storage facilities. Gazprom has supplied Ukraine with Russian and Central Asian natural gas since January 2006 through Swiss-registered joint venture RosUkrEnergo, which delivers gas to the Russian-Ukrainian border, and then sells it to Ukrainian-registered company UkrGazEnergo, which has been the exclusive gas deliverer on the Ukrainian market. Tymoshenko, who is known to be strongly in favor of excluding intermediaries from Ukrainian-Russian gas deals, also said that Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Gazprom agreed that further cooperation does not require setting up new intermediary companies. The possibility of creating new intermediaries for a transitional period was mentioned in directives given by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to a government delegation at gas talks in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). According to Tymoshenko, Naftohaz Ukrayiny will now independently distribute gas on the Ukrainian market. Tymoshenko did not mention what is expected to happen to RosUkrEnergo. AM

Ukraine's Cabinet of Ministers on March 12 asked President Yushchenko to dismiss Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Prime Minister Tymoshenko accused the leadership of the city administration of corruption. "The situation that has been emerging for a long time in Kyiv is perceived by average Kyiv residents as corruption and absolute neglect of Kyiv's interests," Tymoshenko said. An interdepartmental working group, created by the Cabinet of Ministers to investigate the Kyiv city administration, has revealed large-scale violations of regulations in the granting of plots of land. Chernovetskyy, who was expected to attend the cabinet meeting, did not appear. In a letter sent to Tymoshenko, he described the cabinet's discussion of Kyiv local issues as "a farce" staged for political purposes rather than an attempt to uncover the truth. AM

Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the UN civilian mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said in Prishtina on March 12 that Serbia should stop interfering with UNMIK's work if it is sincere in saying that it respects UN Security Council 1244, which grants civilian authority to UNMIK, news agencies reported. He argued that "if Belgrade says publicly that 1244 should be respected, we expect them to put their money where their mouth is.... We are trying to reestablish the courts, we are trying to reestablish the customs. This will take time. It will not happen tomorrow." Serbia has repeatedly staged what the United States calls "provocations" in northern Kosova and has strengthened illegal "parallel" institutions there. Meanwhile, a passenger train traveled from Serbia to Zvecan, north of Mitrovica, on March 12 in defiance of UNMIK's right to control the movement of trains. A spokeswoman for UNMIK said in Prishtina that "the Serbian side put forward their wish to be the authority over railways in Kosovo, and UNMIK denied" the request (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4 and 10, 2008). Pieter Feith, the chief representative in Kosova of both the EU and the international community, was quoted by the Belgrade daily "Vecernje novosti" on March 12 as saying that he expects his new EU mission to be slow in establishing its presence in the Serbian-dominated north of Kosova. He added that "we won't use force or start World War III in order to deploy our mission." PM

On March 13, Serbian President Boris Tadic formally dissolved the parliament and announced general elections on May 11, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2008). He stressed that the "election is a democratic way for citizens to say how Serbia should develop in the years to come." He called for "a fair campaign in a peaceful and democratic atmosphere in order to enable Serbia to get stable institutions that will work efficiently." PM


United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on March 12 that he will attend an international conference on Afghanistan to be held in Bucharest in early April. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, high-level NATO representatives, non-NATO contributing nations of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force, and representatives of the European Union and the World Bank will attend the April 3 meeting, according to a statement by Ban's spokesman. In his latest report on Afghanistan to the Security Council, Ban wrote that the country continues to face a number of serious challenges, and that despite tactical successes by Afghan and international forces, the antigovernment insurgency is far from defeated. AT

A suicide car bomber detonated explosives near a convoy of Canadian troops in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan on March 12, killing a passing civilian and wounding a soldier, AP reported. Police officer Nematullah Khan said the slain civilian was driving a truck past the site where the blast occurred, and added that two civilians were wounded. NATO troops cordoned off the area. Most NATO troops based in Kandahar are Canadian. AT

According to a UN report released on March 10, humanitarian aid cannot reach about 10 percent of Afghan territory because of the risk of Taliban attacks, AP reported on March 12. The report stated that 36 of Afghanistan's 364 districts are too unstable for aid deliveries and reconstruction missions. The report echoes similar findings released earlier this month by the United States. But Afghanistan's intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, rejected the findings, saying that only eight of Afghanistan's 364 districts are not under government control. AT

The British Ministry of Defense has expressed regret at the death of four Afghan civilians and the injury of another in a strike by its forces in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported on March 12. "We confirm U.K. forces were involved in an operation in the south of Helmand Province," the Ministry of Defense said in a statement. The statement said that it would be inappropriate for the ministry to comment further on the incident, as it is under investigation, but added that the British military does all it can to minimize civilian casualties. Civilian deaths in fighting involving foreign troops has sparked public anger in Afghanistan, and President Karzai has regularly called on foreign forces to protect local civilian populations. AT

Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei has called reformist parliamentarian Nureddin Pirmoazzen a traitor for criticizing Iran's electoral process in a March 9 interview with Voice of America, Radio Farda reported on March 12, citing Iranian agency reports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). Mohseni-Ejei said "this was undoubtedly a piece of treachery and ugly, and even if someone was not a member of parliament, they [should] not do this." He said the ministry "will certainly follow up the matter and will not overlook this." In his comments to the broadcaster, Pirmoazzen, a member of the minority reformist faction in parliament, described as a "disaster" electoral bodies' strict vetting and disqualification of hopefuls before Iran's parliamentary elections, set for March 14. He also criticized the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad for effectively bypassing the parliament's authority and the legislative process by implementing its own directives. Pirmoazzen told VOA that parliament effectively ignores governing processes. He said he has asked Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki how many "petrodollars" Iran has paid Russia for its help in building the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran, but has yet to receive an answer. Pirmoazzen told the conservative Fars agency on March 12 that he will return to Tehran from the United States, and denied rumors that he would seek asylum abroad. He said he respected the "red lines" in his VOA interview -- meaning that he had not challenged Iran's political system or key leaders. VS

Reformist lawmaker Bijan Shahbazkhani told IRNA in Tehran on March 11 that "we strongly condemn [Pirmoazzen's] comments and his interview with the enemy loudspeaker." He said Pirmoazzen's remarks were "personal and [made] without coordination with the parliamentary minority faction and prominent reformist figures, and he is responsible for the consequences" of his statements. Shahbazkhani said Pirmoazzen "will no longer speak for the minority faction," and regretted that his remarks to VOA would be "attributed to the reformist faction." Shabazkhani said there is enough freedom of expression in Iran to preclude the need to talk to foreign news networks, IRNA reported. VS

Cleric and right-wing parliamentary candidate Ruhollah Hosseinian has accused former deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami, a member of the Participation Front, of holding "secret" meetings with Britain's Ambassador to Iran Geoffrey Adams, Fars reported on March 12. Khatami has already faced criticism for meeting with German Ambassador Herbert Honsowitz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). Hosseinian told Fars that Khatami's meeting with Honsowitz was no surprise, as "Khatami has had several such meetings with British diplomats, to the point where the British ambassador wrote to [the Foreign Office] to state he was delighted with this meeting." Hosseinian accused Khatami and his allies of taking inspiration from the West, saying: "They still think the British and Westerners are the ones who determine our fate. Do not think [U.S. President George W.] Bush's support for these people is accidental or idiotic. These are signals they are exchanging." Iranian right-wing radicals have in the past implicitly accused reformists of being traitors or foreign agents. Hosseinian said he believes there was a confrontation in the reformist camp between the National Trust Party, a leftist and moderately reformist party led by former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi, and the Participation Front, which Hosseinian placed in the "liberal" current. Hosseinian said he planned to speak to students at Tehran University on March 11, but university chief Farhad Rahbar contacted him hours before and told him his speech was cancelled. Hosseinian told Fars he planned to reveal at the university how Iran's reformists are "despots" inspired by Western liberal ideas. Intelligence Minister Mohseni-Ejei on March 12 criticized Khatami's reported conversations with the British ambassador, and said "contacts with foreigners have norms, and people cannot talk about just anything to foreign parties. This has to coordination with the Foreign Ministry," IRNA reported. VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering in Tehran on March 12 that Iranians should vote extensively in March 14 polls to discourage "global arrogance, especially [that of] America," IRNA reported. Senior Iranian officials and clerics have been urging Iranians to go to the polls. Ayatollah Khamenei urged Iranians to vote for those who "hate corruption, defend the rights of the deprived, and defend national interests," and for candidates who are "clearly demarcated from the enemy," IRNA reported. Khamenei accused Western powers of opposing the democratic process in Iran, and seeking to "sow doubts" in Iranians' minds about the "great services" President Ahmadinejad's government and the parliament have given them, and about the freedom and fairness of the elections. But he said Iranians "will take part in the elections with greater enthusiasm than before, and thwart the plans of international oppressors to weaken the Islamic system and increase pressures on Iran," IRNA reported. VS

Iranian reformist former President Mohammad Khatami told a gathering in Islamshahr, near Tehran, on March 11 that freedom implies the people's right to determine their fate, and "if we want to be a model state in the region, we have to have political freedom," ISNA reported. He said the country's problems will not be solved with "pretence, rowdiness, and rigid views." He did not criticize any politicians specifically. Khatami said "all the people must take part in the elections. [Voting] will strengthen the system, which is now facing many threats." VS

Sunni Arab lawmaker Umar Abd al-Sattar on March 12 issued a statement on the Iraqi Islamic Party's website saying that the Iraqi Accordance Front's (Al-Tawafuq) talks with the government on the resumption of Sunni Arab participation in the cabinet have fallen through. He said that Al-Tawafuq has determined "the government is not ready for a real political partnership on the security issue or any other issue, whether with Al-Tawafuq or any other bloc." He said the front will wait for the government to follow through with its commitment to forge national reconciliation. Abd al-Sattar added that the front continues to push for constitutional amendments, particularly in the area of the prime minister's powers. Al-Tawafuq last year issued several demands to the government which it says must be met before its ministers return to work. The ministers began their boycott in August. KR

The body of Mosul Archbishop Bulus Faraj Rahhu has been found some two weeks after he was abducted in Mosul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). Monsignor Shlimun Warduni, the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, told AP that the abductors called the church in Mosul to say the archbishop had been killed and to indicate the location of the body. "We are hurt by this painful incident," Warduni told AP. Rahhu told a Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency in November that in Mosul, "religious persecution is more noticeable than elsewhere because the city is split along religious lines." He added: "Everyone is suffering from this war irrespective of religious affiliation, but in Mosul Christians face starker choices." Meanwhile, Italian media has reported that Pope Benedict expressed deep sadness at the news. The Chaldean church is an Eastern-rite denomination that is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and recognizes the authority of the pope. KR

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih opened a conference in Al-Basrah on March 12 that focused on soliciting international support for the reconstruction of Iraq's ports, Iraqi media reported. U.K. Defense Secretary Des Browne was among the delegates. Salih and other Iraqi officials told "The New York Times" that the government may soon send troops to Al-Basrah to try to rein in militias that are currently controlling the port, the daily reported on March 13. Militiamen loyal to the Al-Fadilah Party are in control of the dock workers' union in Al-Basrah, and have been accused of corruption and smuggling. Members work only eight set hours each day, rather than around the clock, as in most other world ports. Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told the daily that Baghdad has warned Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad al-Wa'ili to clean up the city and port area, or else troops will be sent in. Al-Wa'ili belongs to Al-Fadilah, which pulled out of the government last year, and has accused Baghdad of neglecting Al-Basrah. Japan has offered a long-term, low-interest $2.1 billion loan to reconstruct southern Iraq, including several port-related projects, such as a $254 million deal to dredge the port and undertake other rehabilitation work. KR

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) has claimed responsibility for the March 10 bombing of the Al-Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). In a statement posted online on March 12, the group said it targeted the hotel because it is "considered to be a center for Kurdish and foreign security companies, as well as a hotbed for Iranian and foreign delegations." The group said the operation was "revenge for our brothers in Al-Zanjili," referring to security operations in the Al-Zanjili area of Mosul that targeted the ISI after the group blew up a building there and assassinated the Mosul's police chief in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). It said the security operations were "carried out by elements of the [Kurdish] peshmerga and its masters...who thought they were safe from the fire of the mujahedin in that city." The ISI statement posted on the Internet was a scanned copy of an official letter from the group, which included its logo. It was not released through the ISI's media production unit, which normally puts out slickly produced statements. KR

International media reported on March 12 that U.S. authorities are in possession of five severed fingers, four of which have been identified as belonging to private security contractors kidnapped in Iraq in late 2006. The contractors were among a group of four Americans and an Austrian who worked for Kuwait-based Crescent Security Group and were abducted while guarding a convoy in southern Iraq. The fifth severed finger was taken from a U.S. contractor who was abducted separately outside Al-Basrah but reportedly was being held with the other missing men. Austrian media reported on March 12 that no ransom has been issued. The identities were determined through fingerprint and DNA analysis. KR