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Newsline - March 14, 2008

The independent nongovernmental organization Golos on March 13 presented the results of its monitoring of the March 2 presidential election, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Golos Executive Director Lilia Shibanova told a press conference that the "percentage of violations in the 2008 presidential election was so great that we do not know the real results of the voting" (see "Russia: How The Kremlin Manages To Get The Right Results,", March 7, 2008). Fellow monitor Andrei Buzin told the same gathering: "It is clear that such violations in a place with a normal, working judicial system would lead to an annulment of the vote." Some 2,000 Golos monitors were sent to polling stations in 40 federation subjects on election day, but many of them were refused admission. Shibanova said the authorities have worked out new mechanisms to allow multiple voting without using absentee ballots after observers of the December Duma elections drew attention to the large number of such ballots that were issued (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2007). Shibanova said Golos has no plans to contest the election in court. "We have no hope of winning a suit," she said. "But we still hope we can win over public opinion." RC

A majority of Russians believe President-elect Dmitry Medvedev will pursue policies that will strengthen democracy in Russia, a new survey by the state-affiliated All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) has found, "Vremya novostei" reported on March 14. Only 35 percent of respondents in a similar survey in 2000 believed that the newly elected President Vladimir Putin would adopt such policies. Just 6 percent of respondents in the latest survey expect the establishment of a "dictatorship." Fifty-seven percent said Medvedev's first order of business should be "economic problems," including reducing inflation and establishing some price controls. Other priorities are indexing state-sector wages and pensions, fighting official corruption, and stimulating domestic industry and agriculture. The percentage of Russians who believe the government should establish a state-regulated economy has risen to 17 percent from 11 percent in 2000. Just 6 percent of Russians are presently worried about the situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, compared with 36 percent in 2000. RC

Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin has issued his annual report on the state of human rights in Russia, which was published in full in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on March 14 ( The government daily published the complete text of the report. In an interview with the daily, Lukin said the greatest problem is "the arbitrariness of the law-enforcement organs." Lukin said that roughly one-half of all complaints his office receives involve the police, prosecutors, or the courts. He particularly noted that children in orphanages, patients in mental facilities, and people in prison are vulnerable and unprotected. Lukin told the daily that he personally presented the report to President Putin and discussed it with him. "The head of state asked about the dynamic of complaints," Lukin said. He said he drew Putin's attention to problems with the judicial system, including biased judges, bribe-taking, and the frequent failure to enforce judicial decisions. He said such shortcomings are increasingly leading people to take the law into their own hands, which "is undermining the very foundations of the law-based state." RC

Russia's foreign-trade surplus has reached a record $18.3 billion, according to Central Bank figures released on March 14, "Gazeta" reported. The surplus has increased by more than 86 percent since January 2007, largely because world oil prices rose from $54 a barrel a year ago to more than $90 in January this year. RC

Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov believes he has hit upon a formula that would make members of the upper chamber more accountable to the public, without requiring changes to the country's election laws or constitution, "Vedomosti" reported on March 14. Mironov told the daily that a new system for choosing members of the upper chamber could be instituted by a presidential decree if it avoids using the term "elections" or referring to senators as "elected." Mironov said the word "voting" could be used and voters could be asked to declare their preference among two or more candidates proposed by the heads of regional administrations and by regional legislatures. At present, governors and regional legislatures choose their representatives in the upper chamber without the participation of the public. President-elect Medvedev said recently that the idea of reforming the upper chamber has "many pluses." RC

Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman on March 13 spoke out against a bill currently in the Duma that would limit the involvement of foreign investors in television and radio broadcasting and the provision of Internet services, "Vremya novostei" reported on March 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). The Duma is expected to consider the bill -- which was submitted by the presidential administration and is believed to be the brainchild of the so-called siloviki in President Putin's inner circle -- in its second reading on March 19. Reiman said that if the bill is adopted, "the Internet will simply leave our country." Reiman said he will work with the administration to modify the bill in order to "minimize the negative effects on the market." RC

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Warsaw on March 13 that he hopes to repair relations with Russia at the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest, Reuters reported. He added that "we want to deepen our cooperation and continue our dialogue. As far as NATO is concerned, there are really no red lines and no limits on how far our relationship with Russia can go." Alluding to Russian sensitivities about NATO expansion and the proposed U.S. missile-defense program, he said: "I hope that President Putin would come to Bucharest with a similarly open mind prepared together with his NATO colleagues to give the cooperation a political push again and much-needed strategic quality." De Hoop Scheffer noted that NATO will "reach out" to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro at the summit, but he declined to comment on the possibility of Ukraine and Georgia being offered Membership Action Plans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). Georgian commentators have suggested that Putin would not have accepted an invitation to Bucharest unless he had received cast-iron assurances that Georgia and Ukraine would not be offered Membership Action Plans. PM/LF

President Putin said on March 13 that the two-day Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting that opened that day in Dakar, Senegal, is "an important landmark not only for Muslims but for the international community as well," Interfax reported. In a message conveyed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin said that "deeper relations of friendship and cooperation with the Islamic world are Russia's strategic course. That is why we note with pleasure that after our country secured the status of observer in the OIC, our constructive cooperation with the Muslim world acquired a new dynamic." He said that Moscow believes in "strengthening collective [action] and legal principles in international relations, with the UN playing a leading role.... We are allies in the fight against terrorism and any manifestation of political and religious extremism." Putin argued that "Russia, as well as other Islamic countries, is seriously concerned by a number of still unresolved conflicts. The determination of Russia in its foreign policy to actively assist in the search for a just resolution of the Palestinian problem and the revitalization of the situation in the Middle East in general stems from this." Putin added that "we share concerns about the danger of the world splitting along religious and civilizational lines, and we are ready to deal with this threat jointly." PM

Interfax reported on March 13 that Russia's Magnitogorsk Iron And Steel Works (MMK) has put in a bid to buy a controlling stake in Iran's Esfahan Steel. In Moscow on March 14, Russian steel maker Evraz announced the purchase of Canada's IPSCO Inc. for a net cost of $2.3 billion, AP reported. Evraz said in a statement that it wants "to consolidate a strong base in North America for downstream steel products, such as steel plates and tubes.... This deal will increase our exposure to the attractive energy and infrastructure sectors throughout the region." IPSCO supplies steel mainly for infrastructure projects and employs about 4,300 people. Its annual capacity is over 4 million tons of steel. PM

The State Duma began discussing on March 13 as planned the requests by the parliaments of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester for formal international recognition, but postponed any decision until March 17, Russian media reported. The Duma Committee on CIS Affairs reportedly initially suggested three alternative courses of action: to recognize the three republics; to refuse to do so; or to propose "suspended status" for them, "taking into account Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence," "Kommersant" reported on March 14, quoting CIS Affairs Committee Chairman Aleksei Ostrovsky. Ostrovsky added that while Russia supports in equal measure the territorial integrity of Serbia, Georgia, and Moldova, "we do not intend simply to do nothing." The committee's draft resolution was amended to cut any reference to the three republics' respective appeals for formal recognition. Deputies further advocated calling on the Russian government to implement measures to strengthen economic and humanitarian ties with all three regions and to open diplomatic representations on their territory. Meanwhile, Federation Council Chairman Mironov told an interregional banking council on March 13 that Russian banks should engage more actively in the three unrecognized republics, reported. Over the past two years, the Georgian authorities have repeatedly called for international sanctions on Russian banks engaged in commercial operations in Abkhazia. LF

Residents of the Balkar-populated village of Khasanya on the southern outskirts of Nalchik have appealed to the local administration head to ask the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic authorities to remove a police patrol post on the road leading south from Khasanya to the village of Gerpegezh, reported on March 13. The police post has been fired on by militants three times in the past six months. A village resident injured in the latest incident on March 9, in which the post came under automatic fire for over an hour, died of his wounds three days later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). LF

The Ryazan oblast legislature voted unanimously on March 13 to approve President Putin's nominee, Oleg Kovalyov, as the oblast's new governor, "Kommersant" reported on March 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). Kovalyov, who was elected to the State Duma in 1999 and 2003, and again last December on the Unified Russia party list, was born in 1948 in Krasnodar and trained as a construction engineer. He was apparently a compromise candidate proposed after the Ryazan legislature rejected two people proposed by the presidential envoy to the Central Federal District Georgy Poltavchenko: Audit Chamber member Mikhail Odintsov, and Mikhail Babich, a former deputy governor of Ivanovo Oblast and now a member of the Vladimir Oblast Duma. The Ryazan legislature proposed its speaker Vladimir Sidorov for the post, but he too was turned down, after which Kovalyov was nominated. LF

The United States has raised with the Armenian government the possibility of "suspending or terminating" the aid Armenia is scheduled to receive under a five-year Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) program to combat rural poverty in light of the brutal crackdown by police on protesters in Yerevan late on March 1, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 13. In a March 11 letter to outgoing Armenian President Robert Kocharian, MCC head John Danilovich stressed that the MCC needs to be certain that "our programs operate in a democratic environment." Commenting on the possibility that U.S. aid could be suspended, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on March 13 that "we are facing a dilemma: the country's security and the people's security versus democratic values, liberties, civil rights." The government of Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, issued a statement late on March 12 calling again on the Armenian authorities "to release all persons detained in connection with their political activities and to refrain from further arrests of opposition leaders," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 13. The statement also called for an independent investigation into the March 1 violence and the events that triggered it. LF

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry is seeking to clarify the circumstances in which Azerbaijani serviceman Yaghub Mukhtarov crossed the border into northeastern Armenia on March 9, reported on March 13. Officers from Muktarov's unit say he asked for, and was granted, temporary permission to return to his home in Sheki. Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian said on March 12 that Mukhtarov surrendered to Armenian forces, complaining of abuse and ill-treatment by his superior officers, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry says he was taken prisoner. LF

Presidential administration social-political department head Ali Gasanov on March 13 took issue with criticisms of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan contained in the U.S. State Department's annual Human Rights Report for 2007, reported. The report characterized the situation as bad, and as having deteriorated in 2007. It noted, among other alarming trends, the authorities' failure to take measures to stem endemic corruption within the police force and judiciary; the torture of suspects by police; a deterioration in media freedom; and the authorities' failure to arrest and bring to trial the people responsible for the 2005 murder of independent journalist Elmar Guseinov. It expressed "particular concern" over President Ilham Aliyev's statement to police cadets in July 2007 that he personally forbade any disciplinary action against police who resorted to violence against participants in a protest against the rigging of the November 2005 parliamentary election. While opposition politicians, including Eldar Namazov, were quoted by on March 14 as assessing the U.S. report as generally objective, Gasanov said the Azerbaijani authorities "cannot agree" with its conclusions. He implied that it failed to reflect accurately unspecified "successes" in developing democracy and protecting human rights and media freedom, and suggested that it was compiled on the basis of biased sources, and that some facts were distorted. He also accused the State Department of double standards for not condemning Armenia in the same report for the crackdown on protesters in Yerevan on March 1, 2008, although the report only covers rights developments in 2007. LF

Agil Xalil, a journalist with the opposition newspaper "Azadliq," was stabbed in the chest by unknown assailants on his way home on March 13, and reported the following day. Xalil was attacked in Baku on February 22 while on a photo assignment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Since then, according to "Azadliq" director Azer Ahmedov, he has received repeated telephone threats and has been constantly shadowed. LF

On a one-day visit to Baku on March 13, accompanied by Energy Minister Aleksander Khetaguri and Finance Minister Nika Gilauri, Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze met with his Azerbaijani counterpart Artur Rasi-zade, State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) President Rovnag Abdullayev, and President Aliyev, Georgian and Azerbaijani media reported. The talks focused on bilateral trade and economic cooperation; the planned construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku railway; and demarcation of the border between the two countries. It is not clear whether any progress was made toward an agreement on the amount of Azerbaijani natural gas Georgia will be able to purchase this year and the price it will pay. LF

Speaking on March 13 in Brussels, where he was attending a European People's Party forum, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed that internal political dissent is damaging Georgia's chances of being offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2-4, reported. That offer is contingent not only on reform of the armed forces but on progress toward greater democracy, strengthening civil society, and reforming the judiciary. It is not clear whether Saakashvili acknowledged that the brutal police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi in November 2007 may also have jeopardized Georgia's prospects of being offered a MAP, which is the final stage before a formal invitation is extended to join the alliance. Saakashvili defended the controversial constitutional amendment approved by parliament the previous day (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 14, 2008). At the same time, he hinted that he will transfer unspecified presidential powers to the legislature "as soon as we have a final agreement on the election system," reported. Speaking in Tbilisi the same day, parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze appealed to opposition politicians to abandon the hunger strike they initiated to protest the constitutional amendment, reported. She called the strike an "unacceptable" attempt to exacerbate tensions and "thwart dialogue," and warned that the "language of ultimatums and rallies" will not yield the desired results. LF

Meeting in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz parliament resolved on March 13 to establish a new national holiday, Revolution Day on March 24, to commemorate the 2005 ouster of former President Askar Akiev, AKIpress reported. The proposal by President Kurmanbek Bakiev was approved in a 67-4 vote, with six abstentions. In what became known as the Tulip Revolution, a seriously flawed parliamentary election triggered a series of mass demonstrations that culminated in the hasty resignation and subsequent exile of the former president, opening the way for then-opposition leader Bakiev to emerge as a national leader. Opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party leader Omurbek Tekebaev criticized the move as "a hasty decision" and "a big political mistake," explaining that it would only serve to persuade voters that "it is not possible to change the government by legal means, through elections," but only "by force [and] through pressure," the website reported. RG

At a cabinet meeting in Bishkek on March 13, Kyrgyz presidential administration chief Medet Sadyrkulov warned that the government's economic policy is threatened by poor implementation of reforms, AKIpress reported. Sadyrkulov said the situation in a number of sectors of the economy is worse than previously expected, and is exacerbated by significant price rises, declining exports, and a spike in monthly inflation. He also criticized the cabinet ministers for failing to fulfill President Bakiev's order last January for them to prepare regional development programs. The head of economic and social policy in the presidential administration, Azamat Dikambaev, also warned of serious delays in the implementation of reforms in the science and health care sectors, and noted the legislature's failure to modify the country's energy laws. RG

A spokesman for Kyrgyzstan's National Agency for Corruption Prevention, Baktybek Rysaliev, reported on March 13 that financial losses resulting from corruption in 2007 reached 253.4 million soms (approximately $7 million), according to AKIpress. Citing studies conducted by the anticorruption agency, Rysaliev said that state investigators uncovered some 775 corruption-related crimes last year, including 475 cases of abuse of office and 179 cases of bribery. The statistics are nearly identical to those in 2006, when officials reported 754 criminal cases of corruption. Rysaliev noted that the state was able to recover about 26.4 million soms ($730,000) in losses from the successful prosecution of corruption cases. The National Agency for Corruption Prevention recently conducted a comprehensive survey that identified as the state body most tainted by corruption the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources, and Processing Industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2008). RG

Turusbek Mamashoev, the director of the Kyrgyz State Agency for Tourism, on March 13 hailed the significant expansion of the country's tourism sector, and reported that tourism-related income reached $341.7 million in 2007, according to AKIpress. Mamashoev added that roughly 1.6 million tourists visited Kyrgyzstan last year, with an overwhelming 60 percent coming from neighboring Kazakhstan, followed by Russian tourists at about 15 percent. He also highlighted the need to further develop the tourism sector with a focus on raising the low number of foreign tourists from beyond the CIS, who represented a mere 2 percent of visitors last year. With tourism reaching a 4 percent share of overall GDP in 2007, and the total number of tourism businesses surpassing 5,000, Mamashoev attributed the positive results to substantial state investment in the sector, which posted an impressive 236 percent rise in 2006. RG

Kyrgyzstan on March 13 granted an area of some 866 hectares around the Karabulan peninsula on Lake Issykul in northeastern Kyrgyzstan to the Russian Navy, AKIpress reported, citing a report in the Kyrgyz "De Facto" newspaper. The Russian navy is reportedly planning to utilize the lakefront land to establish new naval facilities as part of the 2007 bilateral Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation, Mutual Help, and Protection of Secret Materials. The Russian military will pay $4.5 million annually to lease the area for an undetermined length of time. RG

The International Committee of the Red Cross announced on March 13 that it will resume inspections of prisons and other detention facilities in Uzbekistan, according to the ICRC website ( The head of the Red Cross delegation in Tashkent, Yves Giovanni, explained that the resumption of penal inspections follows three years of complicated negotiations with the Uzbek authorities. Giovanni noted that the visits will be limited to an initial six-month trial period, during which Red Cross representatives will be allowed to evaluate the treatment of detainees and the conditions in Uzbek detention centers. RG

Yuliya Kazulina, the younger daughter of imprisoned former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, on March 13 sent a second request to the Belarusian authorities to commute her father's remaining term to a non-custodial sentence, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Kazulina sent her request to the correctional facility where her father is incarcerated and to the punishment administration department at the Interior Ministry. Kazulina also urged officials to use their authority to declare null and void four disciplinary actions taken against her father. Kazulina's first request, sent to the administration of the correctional facility in February, was rejected. Kazulin's former lawyer Ihar Rynkevich said that Kazulin has served one-third of his prison term, and is therefore eligible for the remainder to be commuted to a milder punishment, in particular "corrective labor." Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 presidential elections, was arrested during antigovernment demonstration that followed the polls and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed the public order. West governments regard Kazulin as the last remaining political prisoner in Belarus, following the recent releases of several other high-profile prisoners. AM

Ukrainian gas operator Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Russian gas monopoly Gazprom on March 13 signed a contract on direct gas supplies to Ukraine since the beginning of March, and resolved a dispute surrounding Russian gas that was delivered to Ukraine in January and February, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Gazprom signed a contract defining the terms of interaction between our two companies for this year. In particular, it stipulates the terms of payment for gas that was already delivered in January and February; that applies both to Central Asian gas, which will be paid for according to the scheme that existed at the beginning of the year, and Russian gas," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said. "As for gas supplies [to Ukraine] in March and indeed until the end of this year, the direct buyer of gas at the Russian-Ukrainian border will be Naftohaz Ukrayiny, while Gazprom will be able to deliver no less than 7.5 billion cubic meters of gas directly to industrial consumers in Ukraine," Kupriyanov said. Gazprom supplies Ukraine with a mix of a cheap Central Asian gas and more expensive gas extracted in Russia. Usually, the share of Russian-extracted gas is less than one-fourth, and Ukraine currently pays $179.5 per 1,000 cubic meters. In January and February, however, the percentage of Russia-extracted gas delivered to Ukraine was significantly higher, and Gazprom therefore demanded a rate of $315 per 1,000 cubic meters. Naftohaz Ukrayiny agreed to the demand, but the two sides agreed that Ukraine could pay part of its debt in kind with gas from its storage facilities. The signing of the contract also means the closure of two intermediary companies, RosUkrEnergo and UkrGazEnergo, that have been the exclusive deliverers of gas to Ukraine since January 2006. In the absence of the intermediaries, Ukraine agreed to allow Gazprom to directly deliver at least 7.5 billion cubic meters of gas -- about 10 percent of its annual needs -- to Ukrainian enterprises. AM

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on March 13 said that the possibility of granting Ukraine and Georgia NATO Membership Action Plans at the alliance's summit in Bucharest on April 2-4 is still under consideration, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "I believe our Bucharest summit should also send a clear signal to Ukraine and Georgia that NATO's door remains open for them too," de Hoop Scheffer said. In mid-January, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk formally asked de Hoop Scheffer to grant Ukraine a Membership Action Plan. The request triggered a lengthy crisis in the Ukrainian parliament and a sharp reaction from Russia, which said it will target Ukraine with its missiles if Ukraine moves closer to NATO. De Hoop Scheffer said that Russian President Vladimir Putin "has said that he will attend the [Bucharest] summit. No one expects, of course, that he will stay silent on issues such as Kosovo, the [Conventional Forces in Europe] treaty, or NATO enlargement. But we must not let our differences on those and other issues, like missile defense, disguise the very real progress that NATO and Russia have made in a number of other areas." Some NATO members, including Germany, oppose granting Ukraine a NATO Membership Action Plan at the April summit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). AM

Ukrainian President Yushchenko told reporters in Brussels on March 13 that U.S. President George W. Bush will visit Ukraine on March 31-April 1, just before the NATO summit in Bucharest, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko said he intends to discuss with Bush Ukraine's possible membership in NATO and bilateral relations. "There is still a lot of work to be done about negotiations with different countries" regarding Ukraine's NATO bid, Reuters quoted Yushchenko as saying. "We are not speaking about joining NATO today.... There were cases of countries that were part of the Membership Action Plan for three, five, eight years," Yushchenko added. AM

President Yushchenko on March 13 issued a decree suspending Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy for 15 days in connection with an official investigation into corruption allegations, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko also approved the appointments of members of a committee that will assess whether Chernovetskyy has failed to fulfill his duties or directives from the president or the Cabinet of Ministers, or violated the constitution or the law. Yushchenko ordered the head of the committee, Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Vasyunyk, to report on the committee's findings by March 28. The Cabinet of Ministers on March 12 asked Yushchenko to dismiss Chernovetskyy because of alleged corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2008). Chernovetskyy asked Yushchenko to conduct an independent investigation into the activities of the Kyiv city administration, and to remove him from the post for the period of the probe. AM

Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said on March 13 that he strongly regrets the decision earlier that day by the large Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSh) to leave the governing coalition it formed two years ago with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Crvenkovski argued that the weakening of the government comes at a particularly inopportune time for Macedonia's international relations. He noted that Macedonia hopes to be asked to join NATO at the alliance's April 2-4 Bucharest summit, and that talks with Greece over the perennial name issue have entered a "very delicate phase" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 2007, and March 4, 2008). The PDSh left the coalition to protest what it called the VMRO-DPMNE's refusal to recognize Kosova, to ensure greater rights for the use of the Albanian language and flag, and to provide benefits for ethnic Albanian veterans of the 2001 conflict, which was resolved peacefully through the mediation of the United States and the EU. PDSh leader Menduh Thaci said on March 13 that his party's decision to quit the cabinet is final. It is not clear whether Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski will seek new coalition partners or lead a minority government. Radmila Sekerinska, who heads the mainly ethnic Macedonian Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM), the largest opposition party, said that "all options are open," adding that "we don't have much time." Gruevski's coalition has 57 out of 120 seats in the parliament. Macedonian governments usually include at least one large party from each of the two main ethnic groups. PM

Boris Tadic said in an interview with the daily "Blic" of March 14 that after the May 11 elections, his Democratic Party (DS) will "keep the door open" for all potential coalition partners who share his party's "strategic course for Serbia," namely EU integration. Tadic noted that politicians must make compromises every day, but warned that he is not prepared to share his government with those opposed to his vision of Serbia's European future. Accordingly, he stressed that he does not want Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) to chair a future DS-led government, because Kostunica openly sides with the opposition Radicals (SRS) on key EU-related issues. Tadic said that he has long been "disturbed" by the possibility that the SRS and DSS could form a coalition government of their own (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13 and March 11, 2008). PM

Igor Smirnov, the leader of the unrecognized breakaway Transdniester republic in Moldova, told Russia's Vesti 24 television on March 13 that he does not trust Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin's proposals for resolving the Transdniester conflict, Interfax reported. Smirnov asked rhetorically how one can "trust a man who has signed 64 agreements, none of which has been implemented." In an interview published on March 11 in "Kommersant," Voronin said he is close to reaching an agreement with Russia that would resolve the Transdniester conflict by giving the region autonomy within Moldova in return for assurances that Moldova will formally declare its neutrality and not seek to join NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). Moldovan political commentator Sergei Nazariya was quoted on March 12 by as saying that Voronin's statements were ambiguous, and that he appears either to be naive or to be convinced that everyone else is a fool. LF


Six Afghan civilians were killed in a suicide car bomb attack targeting a convoy of coalition troops during rush hour on March 13 on the road to the Kabul airport, AFP reported. Kabul police chief General Salim Ahsas confirmed the death toll. Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatimi said that 33 civilians were wounded, and blamed the attack on the "enemies of Afghanistan," a label used for the Taliban. Coalition spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Johnson confirmed that a military convoy was attacked and noted that four coalition soldiers were lightly injured. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack, saying: "The attack was against two foreign military vehicles and killed all the soldiers in the two vehicles." Taliban militants have often made claims about casualties from attacks that prove to be exaggerated. AT

Afghan and international forces on March 12 killed 41 Taliban fighters in a clash in Nimroz Province in southern Afghanistan, AP reported on March 13. Nimroz Governor Ghulam Dastagir said the four-hour clash erupted as the Taliban militants were traveling by motorcycle toward the Pakistani border. A Taliban commander from Nimroz was among the dead, Dastagir said. On March 12 in Zabul Province, Afghan security forces and NATO troops launched an operation against militants that left three dead and six wounded. Daychopan district chief Fazel Bari said the casualties were ethnic Chechens, but reportedly offered no proof. Also on March 12, authorities in Farah Province recovered the body of the Pusht Rod district police chief, who was kidnapped along with five other policemen, according to Bariyalai Khan, a spokesman for the Farah provincial police. There was no information on the fate of the other five men. AT

Afghan doctors in the province of Herat on March 12 called off a strike after holding negotiations with a team sent by President Hamid Karzai to resolve the dispute, BBC News reported. Medical staff went on strike on March 8 to protest against a recent rise in attacks on staff and their families. The strike began after the son of a local doctor was kidnapped, the latest in a series of abductions of health workers or their relatives. The strike severely affected medical services in the area, paralyzing Herat's main hospital and leading to the closure of local pharmacies and private clinics. It is not clear who is behind the wave of abductions. AT

Campaigning formally ended early on March 13 for Iran's parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 14, Radio Farda reported. The only continuing publicity was the state media's calls for Iranians to vote, the broadcaster noted. Radio Farda listed some of the main groupings competing in the polls: the right-wing United Front of Fundamentalists, which includes presidential supporters; a competing right-wing list, the Comprehensive Coalition of Fundamentalists; the opposition Coalition of Reformists; and their fellow reformists, the National Trust Party of former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi, which has sought to convey a message of moderate reformism loyal to "revolutionary" ideals. A poll by IRNA indicated that about 60 percent of registered voters intend to go to the polls, Radio Farda reported on March 13. IRNA recently asked Tehran residents whom they would likely vote for; about 28 percent said they would vote for one of the conservative lists, and 15 percent for reformists. The Interior Ministry has announced that 4,476 candidates are competing for 290 parliamentary seats, and that 43.7 million Iranians are eligible to vote, Radio Farda reported. VS

Women's rights activists have observed a dearth of women on the main election lists in Iran and an absence of any prominent female figures, Radio Farda reported on March 13. The broadcaster noted that just nine women are on the two conservative lists, and 11 appear on the two reformist lists, apparently referring to the lists for the Tehran district. Mariam Behruzi, the secretary-general of the conservative women's grouping Zeinab Society, recently told a seminar at Tehran University that 10 percent of candidates in the last parliamentary elections were women, but that number has fallen to 8 percent for the March 14 vote, Radio Farda reported. Feminist Mahdieh Golru told Radio Farda that she would prefer to see male candidates who would defend women's social and political rights than "a few women dressed in an extraordinary way, trying to make all women in Iran like themselves." She was referring to conservative women deputies, usually wearing the chador, a full-length black robe, and often touting the most conservative views in the chamber. She and another activist, Marzieh Mortazi-Langarudi, told Radio Farda that many women would prefer to boycott the vote, given the Iranian state's patronizing attitude toward women. Others, Mortazi-Langarudi said, believe in participating even in Iran's restricted democracy as part of ongoing efforts to move toward equal rights for women. VS

Police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam said in Tehran on March 13 that parliamentary elections will be held in "excellent" conditions, with some 175,000 police officers and members of the Basij militia assuring the security of voting centers and ballot boxes, Fars reported. Deputy Interior Minister Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Hossein Musapur separately urged Iranians on March 13 to vote early in the day to avoid crowding in the afternoon, IRNA reported. Voting hours are often extended in Iran. At a press conference at the Interior Ministry, he asked Iranians to cite the numbers or codes of candidates on their ballot papers to help with computerized vote counting. He said that 45,000 voting stations were scheduled to open at 8:00 a.m. on March 14, IRNA reported. VS

A number of labor, student, and political activists have written an open letter to Iranian Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, asking him to put an end to "rogue" arrests, the seemingly unregulated and possibly illegal arrests of critics of the government, Radio Farda reported on March 13. The signatories told Ayatollah Shahrudi that "a large number of prisoners" are being held in prisons or detention centers in a state of legal uncertainty after being detained on the orders of "certain security officials." They stated that the practice violates Iran's laws and religious norms, as well as international rights conventions. They asked the judiciary chief to allow the release of such detainees at least for the two-week Persian New Year holiday period starting March 20, and to order investigations into their cases. Jurist Mohammad Ali Dadkhah has told Radio Farda that Iran's constitution grants inviolable rights, "but we see unfortunately that certain summons, arrests, and detentions are outside these [rules] the constitution has set down." The open letter specifically objected to the arrests of activists and students including Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, Ahmad Qassaban, Majid Takkoli, Hana Abdi, and Adnan Hasanpur. The charges against the detainees typically include acting against state security or insulting religion or state officials. Dadkhah also told Radio Farda about the continued detention of three students -- Ahmad Qassaban, Majid Tavakkoli, and Ehsan Mansuri -- apparently on charges based on confessions they made while in detention and under duress, and in spite of their families' having put up large sums as bail for their release (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). VS

President Jalal Talabani's chief of staff, Nasir al-Ani, announced on March 12 that 1,293 detainees have been released under the General Amnesty Law, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the following day. Al-Ani said the Presidency Council is in daily contact with the Higher Judicial Council to track the numbers of those released. Al-Ani praised the work of Chief Judge Midhat al-Mahmud in expediting the processing of cases. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani told Al-Arabiyah television in a March 7 interview that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Ministerial Security Committee are working to transfer control over coalition-run prisons to the Iraqi authorities, after which the government will begin to work on the cases of detainees now under coalition control. The release of detainees, many of whom are Sunni Arabs, is seen as a necessary step toward national reconciliation. Meanwhile, Japan has invited 13 Iraqi Arabs, both Sunni and Shi'ite, to a national reconciliation conference in Tokyo, slated to be held March 20-28, Kyodo World Service reported on March 14. Japan hosted a similar event last year for 15 Iraqi leaders. A broader reconciliation conference is scheduled for March 25 in Cairo. KR

Iraqi police have found significant weapons caches in Al-Anbar Governorate over the past week, according to a March 13 Multinational Force-Iraq press release. The first cache was found on a farm near Al-Rawah on March 7. During a search, a shepherd boy revealed that there were three more caches buried at the farm. He had observed the farmer burying the caches with a bulldozer at night the previous week. Among the weapons found were Chinese and Russian-made mortar rounds, Russian-made fuses, hand grenades, and guided missiles, as well as Chinese 100-millimeter HEAT-T projectiles. Seven other cache sites were found in the same area during a follow-up sweep on March 9. All contained significant amounts of Russian, Chinese, and Bulgarian-made weapons, as well as a few German and U.K.-manufactured machine guns. The caches contained more than 8,800 weapons weighing a total of 2,600 pounds (1,179 kilograms). Meanwhile, another cache was uncovered in Al-Fallujah on March 11 during "an intelligence-driven dismounted cache sweep of a city residence." The cache, found inside a room hidden behind a false wall, contained Soviet, British, and Yugoslavian-manufactured hand grenades, French and Soviet-made rockets, Chinese rockets, bayonets, miscellaneous Iraqi Army uniforms, tactical gear, mortar and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) sights, rifle scopes, license plates, several types of batteries, Motorola hand-held radios, car telephone chargers, washing machine timers, documents, and several other items. The release stated that the majority of the items found in Al-Rawah were unserviceable, but no comment was made on the condition of the weapons found in Al-Fallujah. KR

Iraqi police and awakening council forces carried out joint operations against Al-Qaeda in Salah Al-Din Governorate on March 13, killing a suspected Al-Qaeda commander, Voices of Iraq reported. Ghazwan al-Jarad was killed after security forces, working on a security tip, surrounded his hideout in Samarra. Al-Jarad is accused of kidnapping and killing dozens of security forces and civilians along the Baghdad-Mosul road. Joint security operations in Salah Al-Din also uncovered a "huge weapons and explosives cache" on March 13, an unidentified official from the Salah Al-Din Operations Room told the website. More than 80 landmines, artillery rounds, hundreds of kilograms of explosives, explosive belts, improvised explosive devices, RPG launchers, and rifles were confiscated. Police arrested a man with suspected links to the caches, the official said. KR

Des Browne said at a March 13 press briefing in Baghdad that he is impressed with the security achievements being made in Al-Basrah, which he visited the day before, MNF-Iraq reported. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2008). "Over the last six months, the Iraqi security forces, under the leadership of Generals Muhan [al-Furayji, commander of Iraqi Army forces in Al-Basrah] and Jalil [referring to Abd al-Jalil Khalaf, head of the Al-Basrah police], have shown a consistent and robust approach to all security challenges in Basrah," Browne said. "Of course, security remains a continuing challenge, but General Muhan, whom I met yesterday, and General Jalil are providing the quality of leadership that is fundamental to delivering the security that is the basis for all the progress that we want to see in Basrah." Browne said General Khalaf has curbed corruption and fired rogue police officers. Asked if Britain still intends to reduce its troop presence, Browne said the U.K. military continues to study the issue. KR

Defense Minister Browne told reporters on March 13 that the United Kingdom has no regrets about turning over responsibility for security in Al-Basrah to Iraqi forces. Asked how British troops can accurately assess the security situation in Al-Basrah from their base outside the city, Browne said: "We have many ways of establishing what is going on in Basrah, many interlocutors and regular contact. And our people are in regular daily contact with a number of different people who are able to move about the city and know what is going on in the city." Browne also told reporters that Britain's future commitment in Al-Basrah will focus on economic development and the continued training of security forces. Browne's visit coincided with a surge in violence across southern Iraq, including in Al-Basrah. Emergency security measures, including the deployment of more than 5,000 police officers, were enacted in Al-Basrah on March 9 to deal with the spike in violence. KR