Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - March 17, 2008

An unidentified "Kremlin official" told RIA Novosti on March 17 that President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates later in the day in Moscow to discuss the proposed U.S. missile-defense project, which Russia "calls a national security threat" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24, December 6 and 7, 2007, and March 13, 2008). The two U.S. officials will hold "two-plus-two" talks on missile defense with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on March 18. En route to Russia, Gates told reporters on his plane on March 16 that "at some point the Russians are going to have to decide whether they want to be true partners -- which we're offering -- or whether this is all just a sham game on their part to [stop] the whole deal," news agencies reported. He argued that "we've put a lot on the table [in recent negotiations]. Now it's time for them to reciprocate." Gates added that "I don't know whether there are genuine concerns on the part of the Russians that we can allay and where we can be partners," or whether their proposals on joint use of radar sites and other suggestions are "all basically a stalling exercise." He suggested that "obviously anything that's agreed is going to have to be agreed by...Putin, potentially by...Medvedev.... It was [Rice's] and my calculation that if we were in Moscow and that communication line was a short one, that the potential for making progress might be enhanced." One U.S. proposal is not to activate any missile-defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic until Iran demonstrates that it has missiles that can strike Europe. Deutsche Welle noted on December 21 that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been at pains to find out from Moscow what it wants in return for cooperation on a host of issues (see End Note). The broadcast added that some German experts have concluded that the Kremlin is interested only in obstruction. The daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" wrote on March 17 that Russia's attempts at stonewalling the Americans and bullying its neighbors have served only to make the others more enthusiastic about missile defense. The daily called on Moscow to "negotiate intelligently, without hysteria" or ulterior motives. PM

NATO announced on March 15 in Brussels that it is negotiating a series of land- and air-transit agreements with Russia for resupplying NATO security forces in Afghanistan, news agencies reported. NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the agreements could be signed at the alliance's April 2-4 summit in Bucharest. "The Moscow Times" on March 17 quoted NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as saying in Brussels that "Afghanistan might be an area where NATO and Russia can make strides to cooperate more closely together." A meeting of the NATO-Russia council on March 17 is expected to deal with concrete proposals, such as the possible leasing of Russian planes and trains, Russian training for Afghan helicopter pilots, and assistance in antidrug operations. Russia and NATO already cooperate in training antidrug officials from Afghanistan and Central Asia in an effort to deal with the huge supply of opium coming from Afghanistan. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was then speaking as defense minister, said at a NATO gathering in early 2007 that Moscow has a "vital, visceral interest" in restoring stability to Afghanistan. The Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" suggested on March 15 that Moscow's latest offer could be part of a broader deal, under which NATO would not admit Ukraine and Georgia to a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is a key stage in the membership process. German media pointed out in recent days that Germany and some other important NATO members are, in any event, opposed to a MAP for Ukraine or Georgia at present. PM

On March 14, Aleksandr Khalezov, a senior investigator with the Investigative Committee for Khabarovsk Krai, reportedly visited the Moscow office of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who heads the opposition Popular Democratic Union, and inquired about signatures that were gathered in support of Kasyanov's presidential candidacy and the financing of his presidential campaign. "Kommersant" on March 17 quoted the head of Kasyanov's election headquarters, Konstantin Merzlikin, as saying that a federal case charging Kasyanov with falsifying signatures in support of his presidential bid is being "fabricated." The head of the Popular Democratic Union's executive committee, Aleksandr Polovinkin, told "Kommersant" that the investigator asked about the alleged falsification of signature lists by Kasyanov's campaign not only in Khabarovsk, but around the country. Kasyanov adviser Yelena Dikun told the newspaper that people who collected signatures in support of Kasyanov's candidacy are experiencing "pressure" from the authorities, including searches and summons from the Federal Security Service (FSB), in several dozen regions. In late January, the Central Election Commission officially refused to register Kasyanov as a candidate in the March 2 presidential election, citing a purportedly high rate of invalid signatures among the 2 million that Kasyanov submitted in support of his candidacy and the fact that the campaign reportedly failed to submit complete documentation about the people who collected the signatures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). A few days before that, prosecutors in several regions opened criminal cases involving the alleged falsification of signatures supporting Kasyanov's candidacy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). JB

"Novye izvestia" reported on March 17 that the offices of the St. Petersburg branch of the Yabloko party were searched for signs of "extremist" activities. The daily quoted the press secretary of Yabloko's St. Petersburg branch, Aleksandr Shurshev, as saying that law enforcement officers searched its premises and took copies of the party's charter and program, rental agreement, and financial-accounting documents. Shurshev said no one has yet informed the party about the search results, adding that an aide to the city's prosecutor told journalists after the search that no violations were discovered "at first glance." According to "Novye izvestia," officials in the city prosecutor's office said the search had nothing to do with the March 3 arrest of local Yabloko activist Maksim Reznik on charges of assaulting a police officer, charges that Reznik and his supporters claim are trumped up and politically motivated. The newspaper reported that a letter from the prosecutor's office of St. Petersburg's Central Raion stated that the search was routine and one of several targeting the offices of regional political party chapters. President Putin met privately with Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky on March 10 and promised to look into Reznik's arrest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 13, 2008). JB

Members of St. Petersburg's creative and scientific intelligentsia have signed a petition addressed to the country's leadership calling for the immediate release of Yabloko activist Reznik, reported on March 14. The petition, signed by some 20 prominent figures, including the writers Boris Strugatsky and Viktor Shenerovich, the movie directors Aleksei German and Aleksandr Sokurov, and Olympic cross-country skiing champion Lyubov Yegorova, called Reznik's arrest "a gross political mistake all-too reminiscent of the reprisals against dissidents of yesteryear." Such mistakes "undermine trust in the judicial system" and ultimately "discredit the authorities," the petition stated. Meanwhile, Reznik's mother, Galina Malinovskaya, said on March 14 that she has been prevented from seeing her son by investigators worried that he would use the meeting to protest his detention, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 17. She said investigators have expressed dismay that her son made phone calls from his cell to order rallies and a letter-writing campaign on his behalf, and they feared an escalation in his protest if she visited him. JB

Moscow's Meshchansky Raion Court on March 17 will begin hearing a complaint filed by Natalya Morar, the correspondent for the weekly "Novoye vremya" who late last month was barred from entering Russia for a second time. Morar, who has Moldovan citizenship, married fellow "Novoye vremya" journalist Ilya Barabanov on February 23, just days before trying unsuccessfully to enter Russia. She was prevented from entering Russia in December 2007 on national-security grounds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2008). Interfax on March 17 quoted Morar's lawyer, Yury Kostanov, as saying, "When they are going to kick somebody out of the country, all permits...including [those] for permanent work...must be annulled, and [the person involved] must be sent notification about it." According to the lawyer, such notification can be subsequently appealed, but no such notification was given to Morar. Kostanov also said that any decision barring a person from entering Russia must give a reason and that no reason was given for the ban on Morar. The ban, he said, simply cited Article 27 of the law "On entry and exit," which states that a person who represents a threat to the security or health of citizens can be refused entry into Russia. JB

President Murat Zyazikov on March 14 named Kharun Dzeitov to head the new government, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2008). A former Checheno-Ingush Obkom party secretary, Dzeitov was named a deputy prime minister in 2003, but his most recent post was with an electricity company in Moscow. Both deputy prime ministers from the outgoing government -- Bashir Aushev (security and law enforcement) and Kazbek Kostoyev (youth, sport, tourism and nationality policy) -- retained their posts. Magomed Mursugov was named education minister, a post he held in the late 1990s before being named deputy head of the presidential administration. Isa Chakhkiyev was named minister of culture, and a second deputy presidential-administration head, Salimkhan Yevloyev, minister of labor and social security. On March 13, Zyazikov reappointed all but one of the town and district administration heads he dismissed the previous day, naming only Beyal Ozdoyev, the brother of oppositionist Musa Ozdoyev, to head the Nazran municipality, the independent website reported. LF

Police in Daghestan launched a special operation on March 14 in Buynaksk, reported. The Daghestan Interior Ministry said six militants and two police officers were killed, including Abdulgapur Zakaryayev, but the website on March 16 claimed Zakaryayev is still alive, and gave the number of police killed as six. On March 16, police in Makhachkala apprehended Magomed Musagadzhiyev, a member of the Gimri jamaat whom police suspect of involvement in the killing of two police officers in Ulyanovsk Oblast in January, "Kommersant" reported on March 17.LF

In a two-hour question-and-answer session on national television on March 13, President-elect Serzh Sarkisian said he is prepared to engage in dialogue with his defeated main challenger in the February 19 presidential ballot, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, only if the latter recognizes him as the legitimate president, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 14. Ter-Petrossian has refused to do so, claiming that he won the ballot with 65 percent of the vote, and that the official returns that gave Sarkisian 52.8 percent of the vote were rigged. Sarkisian insisted that the Armenian authorities did "everything possible" to preclude loss of life during the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between police and Ter-Petrossian supporters, and therefore share the blame for the resulting fatalities. He said that the police used force only in response to fierce resistance from the protest participants, and denied the death toll was higher than eight. Sarkisian warned that the authorities will not permit a resumption of mass protests after the state of emergency is lifted on March 21, Noyan Tapan reported. He also dismissed as untrue the widely held conviction that he has a share in all major business enterprises in Armenia and is a compulsive gambler. LF

Sarkisian ruled out during his televised question-and-answer session on March 13 appointing outgoing President Robert Kocharian to head the new cabinet, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported the following day. Sarkisian said he has still not decided whom to name to that post, but added that if it had been decided to follow the "Russian scenario," under which outgoing President Vladimir Putin endorsed the presidential candidacy of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who duly undertook to appoint Putin prime minister, "we would have announced this before the [February 19] election." LF

Thomas Hammarberg, who is the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on March 14 that some of the arrested supporters of former President Ter-Petrossian whom he visited in detention centers in Yerevan complained of having been beaten, and some believe they were taken into custody solely for expressing their political opinion. Hammarberg echoed earlier calls by the EU for an independent investigation into the clashes on March 1 in Yerevan between police and Ter-Petrossian supporters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3 and 14, 2008). He added that he informed outgoing President Kocharian and President-elect Sarkisian that Kocharian's March 13 decree partially easing the restrictions imposed on the media under the state of emergency Kocharian declared on March 1 "is not enough." Seven newspapers that are critical of the Armenian authorities were unable to resume publication on March 14 after censors from the National Security Service rejected the content, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The National Security Service also failed to give the green light to Internet providers to unblock several websites. LF

At a meeting in Vienna, Vartan Oskanian discussed with the French, Russian and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group the prospects for resuming talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 14. They focused specifically on the possibility of a meeting on the sidelines of the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest between President-elect Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov met with the co-chairs on March 15 in Paris; no details of the meeting were disclosed, reported on March 16. On March 15, Azerbaijani First Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov described as "a serious warning" to the Minsk Group co-chairs the Azerbaijani-sponsored resolution "On the Situation in the Occupied Territories of Azerbaijan" passed the previous day by 39 members of the UN General Assembly, reported. Over 150 countries, including France, Russia, and the United States, abstained from voting. LF

Prime Minister Artur Rasizade delivered the cabinet's annual report to parliament on March 14, Azerbaijani media reported. As widely anticipated, he focused primarily on encouraging economic statistics for 2007, noting in particular that GDP increased to $27 billion, or $3,500 per capita. He said the poverty rate fell again, but failed to specify by what percent, and pledged that by 2015 it will be no higher than in "developed countries," reported on March 15. He admitted that high inflation (over 20 percent according to official data) remains a cause for concern, but attributed it to global economic trends. While deputies from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party signaled approval of the cabinet's performance, opposition deputies including Panah Husein called on ministers "to resign and devote themselves to what they are best at, namely private business," reported. Speaker Oktai Asadov in turn accused the opposition of willfully refusing to acknowledge how the economic situation has improved. LF

Up to 5,000 opposition supporters rallied outside the parliament building in Tbilisi on March 16 to demand the resignation of speaker Nino Burjanadze on the grounds that she reneged on an agreement reached last month with the opposition National Council, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 16, 2008). Up to 70 oppositionists are currently on hunger strike to call for Burjanadze's resignation and a repeat of the January 5 preterm presidential ballot. In an interview published on March 17 in the daily "Rezonansi" and summarized by, Burjanadze said she will step down only if the opposition drops its remaining "unrealistic" demands, including the reversal of the controversial constitutional amendments approved by parliament in the final reading last week, and stops branding Mikheil Saakashvili an illegitimate president. Saakashvili for his part appealed to the opposition on March 16 for the second time in three days to demonstrate solidarity with the country's leadership in the run-up to the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest, at which he hopes Georgia will be offered a Membership Action Plan, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2008). Saakashvili said the opposition supporters should abandon their "un-Christian hunger strike." Levan Gachechiladze, the National Council's defeated presidential challenger, countered that Saakashvili has no moral right to say what is Christian and what is not, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Speaking in Tbilisi on March 15, President Saakashvili said Georgia will not sign a formal agreement abjuring the use of military force against the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, reported. He stressed that "Georgia is a peaceful country and we have said repeatedly that we want to resolve these conflicts peacefully." Both Russia and the UN have repeatedly urged the Georgian government to sign a formal pact abjuring the use of military force in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008, and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 1, 2008). LF

Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister Bolat Zhanasaev announced on March 14 the launch of a special military investigation probing the loss of a significant amount of ammunition and weapons from a military storage unit, Kazakh Television reported. Speaking to reporters following a speech at Kazakh National University, Zhanasaev said that the missing weapons and ammunition, assigned to an army combat-assault brigade in central Kazakhstan, prompted an inspection of several of the army's large arsenals and storage depots. He added that the investigation has not determined the exact nature and amount of missing weapons and ammunition and has not identified any suspects in the disappearance. RG

In an official statement, Kyrgyz Deputy Interior Minister Askar Beshimov announced on March 13 that preliminary negotiations have started with Uzbek officials over resolving Uzbekistan's territorial claims, Kyrgyz Television reported. According to Beshimov, Uzbekistan claims ownership of four resorts located at Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government has resolved to delay announcing its official position on the dispute until after the first round of preliminary talks. RG

At a ceremony with senior Kyrgyz officials in Bishkek on March 14, U.S. officials signed an agreement marking the start of Kyrgyzstan's eligibility to receive $16 million in aid as part of a two-year U.S. aid program, AKIpress and the website reported. The MCC-run aid program, known as the Millennium Challenge Account, links a country's eligibility for aid to its performance in democratic and economic reform. Following the ceremony, Pamela Spratlen, director for Central Asia at the U.S. State Department, warned that the December 2007 parliamentary elections and constitutional referendum may "have a negative effect" on Kyrgyzstan's future eligibility for aid. Spratlen explained that in order to remain an eligible recipient of the Millennium Challenge Account, the Kyrgyz "government needs to carry out the planned reforms, by bringing about changes in such issues as freedom of the media, as well as improvements in an electoral process [and] the decentralization of power and universal democratization." She pointed to some signs of progress, such as "amendments to the Criminal Code, which have come into effect allowing a balance between the prosecutor and the defendant to be improved and the judicial system's independence to be strengthened, as well as initiatives taken by the new minister of internal affairs to more actively involve citizens in protecting law and order." For his part, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) head John Danilovich added that the efficacy of the aid program depends on the Kyrgyz government's "commitment to the ongoing process of democratization," and he reiterated U.S. concerns about the conduct of the parliamentary elections. The aid from the Millennium Challenge Account is intended to promote judicial and electoral reform, and bolster local government and the development of a free press. RG

On the sidelines of the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met on March 13 with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and discussed a draft bilateral Tajik-Iranian program on economic cooperation for 2009-15, according to the Avesta website and Asia-Plus. Ahmadinejad promised to fully implement the planned construction of the Sangtuda-2 and Shurob hydroelectric power plants, and to complete the construction of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran highway. Rahmon said that he is "satisfied with the level of friendly bilateral relations" and hailed Iran as one of his country's "main strategic partners," ITAR-TASS reported. He also pledged Tajikistan's support for Iran to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. RG

Belarus has appealed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department on Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim, Belapan reported on March 14. Minsk asked Ban to publish "as an official document of the UN General Assembly" a statement that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry made on March 7 in connection with the United States' "additional restrictive measures of an economic nature" against Belnaftakhim. "During a rather long period of time, Belarus took quite a number of consistent and constructive steps for the purpose of normalizing relations with Western countries," the ministry said in the statement. "By ignoring agreements reached earlier, the United States has violated the agreed procedure of actions toward the normalization of the relations." The statement cites the Helsinki Final Act, in the signing of which the United States "pledged to refrain from any act of economic compulsion aimed at subordinating the exercise by other participating states of the rights inherent to their sovereignty [or] its own interests." The Treasury Department has frozen all assets under U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Belnaftakhim and its representatives, and has forbidden Americans from doing business with the company on the grounds that it is controlled by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. On March 6, the Treasury Department posted on its website a clarification of the sanctions against Belnaftakhim. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer told Belapan that the clarification was issued because Washington's "hopes for the release of [imprisoned former presidential candidate Alyaksandr] Kazulin" have not materialized. On March 7, Minsk recalled its ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Khvastou, for consultations and insisted that U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart leave Belarus temporarily, which she did on March 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 13, 2008). AM

The Kyiv Court of Appeal on March 15 sentenced Mykola Protasov to 13 years in prison and Oleksandr Popovych and Valeriy Kostenko to 12 years each for the murder of Ukrainian investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The court stripped Protasov, Popovych, and Kostenko -- former officers in the surveillance department at the Interior Ministry -- of their ranks, prohibited them from taking state jobs, and asked the ministry to deprive them of rewards they received while serving in the ministry. Gongadze, who wrote for the "Ukrayinska pravda" online newspaper, was a critic of former President Leonid Kuchma. Gongadze disappeared on September 16, 2000, and his headless corpse was found two months later in a forest on Kyiv's outskirts. Oleksiy Pukach, the former head of the surveillance department, is still wanted on an international warrant in connection with Gongadze's killing. The court started hearings in the case on January 9, 2006. Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, told RFE/RL that the March 15 sentence does not close the case. "Organizers of the killing and those who ordered it should also sit on the dock," she said. AM

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on March 16 that her party will not participate in meetings of the Verkhovna Rada until the parliament adopts a resolution on early elections for Kyiv's mayor and city council, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko said that her bloc will not attend the parliamentary session on March 18 unless a resolution on early elections in the capital is the "first issue on the agenda." The government recently asked President Viktor Yushchenko to dismiss Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy because of corruption allegations. Yushchenko suspended Chernovetskyy for 15 days and set up an independent commission to investigate those allegations. Anna Herman of the opposition Party of Regions suggested that Tymoshenko is threatening to block parliament because the coalition "is not sure whether it will gather the required votes for the approval of the government's program" that was scheduled for consideration on March 18. AM

A French spokesman for NATO's KFOR peacekeepers told Reuters in Prishtina on March 17 that NATO troops came under automatic-weapons fire in largely Serbian-populated northern Mitrovica earlier that morning. He did not elaborate. He added that eight French peacekeepers were slightly injured by grenades, stones, and Molotov cocktails. Another KFOR spokesman noted that "KFOR is securing the areas in the north where...Albanians live." Kosova's Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuci argued that "there can be no compromise when it comes to the rule of law," AP reported. A spokesman for the UN's UNMIK police said on March 17 that "an order has been given for UNMIK police to withdraw from the north because of ongoing violent riots," after more than 500 mainly Ukrainian UNMIK police retook control of a UN court building that morning that Serbian crowds seized on March 14. Police arrested several dozen Serbs on March 17 amid what Reuters described as "the worst violence" in Kosova since independence was declared on February 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 10, and 13, 2008). Rioters attacked UN vehicles and freed some of those arrested. KFOR and UN police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowds. An unidentified explosion wounded three police and two KFOR soldiers. The Polish news agency PAP reported that 13 Polish UNMIK police were injured in the course of the morning but did not elaborate. About 20 protesters were reportedly injured in northern Mitrovica. On March 14, after Serbian crowds seized the court building, Kosovar police spokesman Besim Hoti told reporters that "the protesters, supported by hospital staff in Mitrovica, used at least six ambulances to break through the gates surrounding the building," RFE/RL reported. He added that "special units of UNMIK police tried to stop the protesting crowd, but at the front of this crowd, women and girls were placed, while from behind, protesters systematically attacked the police by throwing sharp objects." PM

Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki said on March 14 that Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's conservative cabinet will continue in office as a minority government, at least until after the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2-4, at which Macedonia hopes to be invited to join the alliance, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2008). President Branko Crvenkovski reportedly negotiated a "broad political deal" involving unspecified governing and opposition parties that will enable the government to continue to function. Gruevski said that "I'm not going to allow any politician or any political harm the interests of the Republic of Macedonia and its citizens.... Macedonia can deal with all challenges with wisdom and reason, with pride and dignity." PM

German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a brief visit to the Moscow area on March 8, during which she held separate talks with President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev. She was the first major foreign leader to meet with Medvedev following his election.

The chancellor and president made no effort to hide their differences on important issues, including Kosova and NATO enlargement, among others. She said that Russia's insistence on accepting no formula for the status of Kosova that is not acceptable to Belgrade has eliminated other possible diplomatic options for Moscow. Putin reaffirmed that Russia opposes any NATO expansion involving Ukraine and Georgia because the peoples of those two countries are not in favor of membership and because NATO expansion will "increase tensions." He added that he sometimes gets the impression that NATO is trying to "replace the United Nations."

Merkel rejected his charges. She stressed, however, the importance of completing on schedule the controversial Russian-German Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea and doing so ahead of any planned pipelines to the south. Merkel also offered to take unspecified "political initiatives" of her own to promote Nord Stream in case the efforts of her predecessor and current Nord Stream executive Gerhard Schroeder are not sufficient. This remark raised some eyebrows in Germany and elsewhere, because in previous years, Merkel criticized Schroeder for being insensitive to concerns in Poland and the Baltic states over close Russian-German relations in general and over Nord Stream in particular. She now appears to pay little heed to the frequent protests by those neighboring countries over Nord Stream, which they all oppose on political, economic, or ecological grounds.

The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 10 that the exchange between Putin and Merkel did not lead to any new tensions because both sides stated well-known positions. The paper also reported that the German delegation was surprised when Putin alluded to the possibility of a presidential pardon for imprisoned former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on March 11 also drew attention to Putin's remarks about a possible pardon.

Merkel noted that, over the years, her dealings with Putin were a joy at some times and troublesome at others. Putin replied that "I have the feeling that some of our partners cannot wait for me to stop exercising my powers so that they can deal with another person. I am long accustomed to [hearing that] it is difficult to work with a former KGB agent." He argued that "Medvedev will be free from having to prove his liberal views. But he is no less of a Russian nationalist than I, in the good sense of the word, and I do not think our partners will have it easier with him." Putin and Merkel both stressed the importance of their bilateral relations and the need for Moscow and Berlin to continue to work together.

When Merkel met Medvedev later the same day, she recalled Putin's remarks that the West will not have easier relations with his successor. She added in Medvedev's presence that she "refrained from saying, 'I hope they won't become more difficult, either.'" Medvedev said: "I am assuming we will have a continuation of that cooperation which you have had with...Putin.... You have [conducted major] negotiations, and that makes my task easier."

Merkel later told reporters that Medvedev will find "open doors" in Germany when he visits later in the spring. "I think there will be continuity. I don't think the controversies will disappear at once," she noted.

Both countries have a vested economic interest in ensuring that the well-known controversies do not get the upper hand. Germany is easily Russia's biggest single trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching a record $52.8 billion in 2007. German firms invested $3.4 billion in Russia in 2007 and are particularly involved in the energy sector. Russia's state-run Vesti-24 television stressed on March 8 the need for continuity in bilateral relations as well as the importance to both countries of their economic ties.

But several problems clearly bedevil relations between Moscow and Berlin. The first is the recent aggressiveness in Russian foreign policy, which Putin displayed to the world in a major speech on February 10, 2007, in Merkel's presence in Munich. She was visibly upset by his bellicosity, which was directed mainly but not exclusively at the United States. Many observers subsequently referred to the speech as the launching of a new Cold War, although many Western leaders subsequently denied that relations are that bad. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" noted on February 8, however, that Russia's relations with the West are now worse than they have been since before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A second problem is Russia's efforts to split the EU by playing the older West European members off against the newer ones, most of whom are former Soviet republics or satellites. Putin openly speaks of the newer members in contemptuous terms and often flatters West European leaders by playing to their vanity as being international statesmen in a "multipolar world."

Russia also seeks to split the EU by avoiding dealing with Brussels whenever possible and cutting bilateral deals instead. This has been particularly glaring in the field of energy policy, where Gazprom and other Russian state firms have made important agreements with German, Italian, French, and other West European firms. Some East European leaders like Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk call in vain for their Western counterparts to agree on a joint EU energy policy so that the bloc can, in a favorite phrase of Schroeder and former French President Jacques Chirac, speak with one voice. Tusk recently pointed out that Russia acts according to its own rules and has no interest in adhering to a "European model" in energy or in many other spheres. He also recalled that Moscow refuses to ratify the EU's Energy Charter Treaty, which it signed in 1994.

Russia's barely concealed contempt for the EU is particularly noteworthy in connection with Merkel's visit, because support for the EU is almost an article of faith among mainstream German political parties and politicians. This is, of course, not due only to altruism: the EU is a vehicle that Germany and its partner France use to extend their influence over the rest of the continent. But it is certainly noteworthy that Moscow only pays lip service to the importance of Brussels, even when it seeks to woo Berlin. When Merkel called on March 8 for a new overall partnership agreement between the EU and Russia, Putin's response was positive but less than enthusiastic.

A third aspect of Russian-German relations is the trans-Atlantic factor and its role in German domestic politics. Merkel, who belongs to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and grew up in the former East Germany, deliberately uses the word "friend" to describe the United States. She has sought to restore the trust and respect in U.S.-German relations that were badly damaged under Schroeder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), when those relations sunk to their lowest point since World War II. She is careful to refer to Russia as a "partner" or "strategic partner," but has pointed out that Germany has much closer and deeper relations with its American friends than with its Russian partner.

Much of the SPD does not share her sentiments. In the 1950s, it only reluctantly embraced Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's (CDU) concept of Western integration for West Germany. Egon Bahr, who is the SPD's senior writer on foreign affairs, has long argued that the interests of Germany and the United States not only different from but often conflict with each other. He was an early architect of the Ostpolitik that became associated with former Chancellor Willy Brandt (SPD) nearly 40 years ago, which sought to promote good relations with the Soviets and their allies, particularly those in East Berlin. Some SPD leaders and members detested the Soviet Union and communism, but others were more put off by what they considered U.S. imperialism and "wild West capitalism."

Peter Struck, who was Schroeder's defense minister and now heads the SPD faction in the parliament, has called for "equidistance" between Moscow and Washington. When Putin made his Munich speech in 2007, one of the few Western leaders to praise it in public was Kurt Beck, who now heads the SPD. In the run-up to Germany's EU presidency in the first half of 2007, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), who was Schroeder's chief of staff, and Gernot Erler (SPD), who is state secretary at the Foreign Ministry, developed an elaborate plan to "interweave" and institutionalize relations between Russia and the EU in classic EU-style. In the end, they got a fairly cold shoulder from a Kremlin that was pursuing an agenda of its own.

Steinmeier has not been deterred. He said on March 4, 2008, at a gathering of the SPD's Willy Brandt Foundation that the EU needs closer relations with Russia as part of a new overall eastern policy. Such a policy should also take in the EU's ties to Ukraine, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics to east and southeast of the Brussels-based bloc. He said that the EU should act as a "go-between" in dealing with the United States and Russia in order to develop "peace structures" linking "our trans-Atlantic allies...and our eastern neighbors," a remark that must have triggered smiles on the banks of the Potomac and the Moskva.

Steinmeier argued that the EU "must" work to establish "a common space of peace and prosperity from the Atlantic coast to Siberia." He said that the main issues that have to be faced in constructing "an all-European peace system" are climate change, energy security, natural resource supplies, demographics, and terrorism. Steinmeier warned the West against distancing itself from Russia or seeking confrontation with it, calling instead for "dialogue and trust." He acknowledged that Russia's recent presidential election could have been "more free, fair, and open" and alluded to unspecified "problematic developments" in Russia. Steinmeier nonetheless stressed that Russia is an "irreplaceable strategic partner" for the EU, adding that "Russia needs us" to help develop its economy and infrastructure.

Steinmeier called for "taking Medvedev at his word" when he speaks out on behalf of freedom and the rule of law. "Let us accept his offer of partnership," the minister argued. He added that this includes seeking "mutually acceptable solutions" regarding the planned U.S. missile-defense system to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Washington, Warsaw, and Prague maintain are their business alone.

A 13-year old Afghan child was killed in a suicide car-bomb attack on a convoy of international troops on March 15, AP reported. According to General Mohammad Ayub, the police chief of the eastern province of Khost, the attack targeted a four-vehicle convoy of NATO troops. One soldier whose nationality was not revealed was wounded, along with four Afghans. On March 13, a suicide car bomb exploded near U.S. troops in Kabul, killing at least six Afghan civilians. U.S. officials have predicted another increase in the number of suicide attacks this year due to the fact that rebels cannot overpower U.S. and NATO forces in conventional military confrontations. AT

U.S.-led coalition forces have killed an armed Afghan woman and man during a raid, according to a coalition statement issued on March 16. The two were killed during a nighttime raid in Khost Province as troops attempted to close a roadside-bomb factory. The statement said that although the troops identified themselves in the local language, one of the armed individuals made threatening gestures and was killed, as was the second one as he reached for his weapon. Coalition spokesman Major Chris Belcher said the troops discovered later that one of the two was a woman. AT

Conservative candidates appear to have won the most seats in Iran's March 14 parliamentary elections, according to results for about 250 of 290 districts clarified by March 16. The results did not surprise foreign observers or critics, given earlier vetting and the extensive disqualification of reformist and independent candidates by state authorities, news agencies reported. Many observers nevertheless expect the emerging chamber to be less cooperative with the right-wing government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad than the present legislature, as the conservative vote was split between his supporters and critics. Citing Iranian news agencies, Radio Farda reported that 160 conservative candidates were elected in constituencies outside Tehran. Votes were still being counted in Tehran on March 16. AP reported on March 16 that reformists won 31 seats and were hoping that 14 other elected candidates are of reformist sympathies. There are also 39 independents of unknown leanings and five seats reserved for minorities, AP reported. VS

The EU Presidency issued a communique on March 16 observing that the Iranian parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair, and regretting the prior exclusion of more than a third of the prospective candidates by the Iranian authorities, news agencies reported. The statement said that the "exclusions prevented the Iranian people from being able to choose freely among the full range of political views...and represent a clear violation of international norms," AFP reported. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on March 14 that the Iranian election results were already "cooked" by the vetting process, and "Iran has once again failed to meet international standards on the conduct of democratic elections," AFP quoted him as saying. He said Iran has not allowed impartial observation of the polls and limited candidates' ability to campaign. VS

Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey traveled to Tehran on March 16, and is expected to sign a natural-gas deal and discuss human rights there the next day, news agencies reported. She was to preside over the signature of a deal for Iran to supply 5.5 billion cubic meters of gas annually to the firm Electricite de Laufenbourg from 2011, Television Suisse Romande reported. The Swiss Foreign Ministry said that the deal does not contravene current UN sanctions targeting Iran's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs and related activities. Calmy-Rey is also to discuss human rights and Tehran's incendiary diatribes against Israel with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, reported. Separately, the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, said in Brussels on March 16 that he hopes to meet with Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili in the next 30 to 90 days, though Iranian officials have for now ruled out talks on Iran's nuclear program following the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions, AFP reported. The Security Council passed its third sanctions resolution against Iran on March 3, and is to review Iran's compliance after 90 days. Iran has refused to heed UN demands to stop sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities. VS

Foreign Minister Mottaki said in Dakar, Senegal, on March 15 that Iran will take part in the Arab League conference due to be held in Damascus in late March, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. The Arab League summit on March 29 and 30 is expected to discuss issues including the political crisis in Lebanon, which is without a president as the confrontation between pro-Western forces and an opposition led by Hizballah and backed by Syria and Iran deadlocks the government. Mottaki also discussed Lebanon and Iranian-Saudi economic ties with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Dakar on March 15, Iran's Fars news agency reported. VS

Several Iraqi political leaders have criticized the government's plans to convene a two-day national reconciliation meeting in Baghdad on March 18, saying the government must first demonstrate its commitment to the project before leaders can meet, Iraqi media have reported in recent days. Iraqi Accordance Front legislator Zafir al-Ani told Al-Sharqiyah television in a March 15 interview that he believes the conference is intended as a response to internal political pressure and U.S. pressure, but that the government has put little effort and time into preparations for it. Asked if representatives of the front, which is the major Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, will attend, al-Ani said they will. "Although we believe the government is not serious in its efforts to render national reconciliation a success, we do not want to miss the chance to express ourselves and explain our position," he added. Representatives from the Iraqis List, as well as supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told the news channel on March 16 that they do not expect the meeting to yield any positive results. Meanwhile, several prominent clerics held a reconciliation meeting in Cairo on March 15. The conference focused on the need for dialogue among and between faiths, and an end to sectarianism. KR

Lawmakers representing the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance coalition and the so-called Al-Sadr Trend led a delegation to the eastern Wasit Governorate to assess the security situation and contain the violence there, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on March 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). U.S. and Iraqi security forces are reportedly battling rogue fighters from Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Wasit Governorate Council head Muhammad Jabir told the news channel following a meeting with the delegation that all attempts are being made to launch a serious dialogue. Militias continued to clash with police on March 15, despite an announcement by al-Sadr's representative in Kufa, Abd al-Hadi al-Muhammadawi, during Friday Prayers on March 14 that the national cease-fire remains in effect. Wasit police chief Major General Abd al-Husayn al-Imarah told Al-Iraqiyah television on March 15 that police are battling groups of outlaws. KR

Meanwhile, al-Sadr aide Hasan al-Zarqani told Al-Jazeera television on March 15 from Damascus that security forces began targeting al-Sadr followers on March 4. He said the operations included the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. "Everyone was patient over what happened [in Al-Kut] in order to defuse the crisis and to contain the situation," he said, adding that people wanted to prevent similar attacks in nearby Al-Diwaniyah and Karbala governorates "and other governorates where the Al-Sadr Trend was punished because it enjoys a good social status, which is to be feared [by other Shi'ite parties] during the coming governorate-council elections." Following the most recent escalation between Iraqi security forces and Sadrists, it became clear that the commander of the rapid deployment force ignited the crisis, he maintained. Al-Zarqani said that while Sadrists were targeted by security forces, they were auxiliary targets, and that the tribes were the main target of the security operations. KR

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society has warned that security operations targeting Al-Qaeda in Mosul could trigger a mass exodus from city, "Al-Zaman" reported on March 15. The Red Crescent said it fears a joint attack on the city, the second-largest in Iraq, by U.S. and Iraqi forces will lead to one of the largest waves of internally displaced persons since the 2003 invasion. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni Arab city, with an estimated population of 3.8 million. Kurds comprise the second-largest ethnic group, and Kurdish security forces are present throughout the governorate and in the city. U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told a March 16 press briefing in Baghdad that the operation in Mosul has been under way "for quite some time," adding that security operations targeting terrorists have been going on for years in Mosul. Iraqi military spokesmen have been saying for several weeks that preparations for the Mosul operation were still ongoing. Typically, U.S. and Iraqi forces announce the start of a security operation, though no formal announcement has come in the case of Mosul. The lack of any formal announcement has led to confusion among the media as to whether the operation is in full swing or not. KR