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Newsline - March 18, 2008

On March 18, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates began a second day of talks with Russian officials in Moscow on Washington's proposed missile-defense system, which Russia describes as a threat, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Prior to meeting with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Rice spoke of a "positive spirit" surrounding the talks. For his part, Lavrov said Russia is "satisfied with the way relations are developing," and that there is a "will" to minimize discord. Earlier that morning, Rice met with several civil-society leaders and Kremlin opponents, as she generally does during her visits to Russia. Gates also attended the breakfast, as did Grigory Yavlinsky of the Yabloko party, and Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent who lost his seat in the State Duma last year, among others. She asked them how Washington can help promote "a more open and participatory political system" in Russia. PM

On March 17, Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Gates discussed missile defense and other strategic issues with President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, Russian and international media reported. Putin said he received a "very serious" letter from U.S. President George W. Bush, which he said will help resolve some problems in U.S.-Russian relations. Putin added that "we believe that we can probably dot the i's and reach final agreement on some of these issues." He did not elaborate, and neither side released the text of the letter. Gates said he hopes for an agreement on missile defense before Bush leaves office in January 2009. Gates noted that "the environment in our meetings was positive" but that "I wouldn't say I'm optimistic on any of this stuff.... The Russians hate the idea of missile defense. We are trying to figure out a way to make them partners in it." Referring to Bush's letter, Rice suggested that Bush "wanted to see...whether...Putin is really interested in pursuing progress on a number of fronts, [including] missile defense." Medvedev noted that "we still have differences in our positions on missile defense and strategic offensive arms [in the START treaty]. However there is a will to move forward. We must create a basis for continuity in relations between the Russian Federation and the United States in the future." A Pentagon press spokesman said that the Bush letter provided the impetus and agenda for the trip and is aimed at making good use of time as both countries undergo political transitions. PM

The daily "Kommersant" wrote on March 18 that Secretary of State Rice went to Moscow to see whether President-elect Medvedev intends to continue the confrontational course that President Putin embarked on with his February 10, 2007, speech in Munich. The daily argued that Bush wants to secure broad international agreement on missile defense before he leaves office because likely Republican presidential "candidate John McCain seems to be the only politician firmly confident of the necessity of...missile defense in Europe. His trigger-happy political team would dearly like to strike at Iran." The daily quoted former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton as saying that Russia knows that missile defense is no threat to it and is using the issue to extract U.S. concessions on other issues. "Kommersant" believes that the Bush administration "is one of the lamest ducks in history," adding that "the whole world is waiting for it to step down." The paper noted that Russia's transition will be complex and delicate. "The Kremlin's foreign political actions will be cautious because a balance between continuity and innovations is needed. Both Russian leaders will be aware of each other and many other factors, domestic and foreign alike. This state of affairs does not facilitate any revolutionary steps. Suspicions are what it does facilitate." The daily stressed that "avoiding an outright conflict in the next several months is what the Kremlin will have to make sure of." The government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" commented on March 18 that Moscow is justified in suspecting that missile defense is part of a broader scheme to surround Russia. The paper quoted General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the General Staff, as saying that Washington seeks "invulnerability, strategic domination," and new contracts for its "military-industrial complex." PM

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin, who chairs the Security Council in March, said on March 17 that the council will not discuss the recent unrest in Tibet because developments in Tibet are an internal affair of China, international media reported. Foreign Minister Lavrov said in an interview published on March 18 in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" that recent Western recognition of Kosova's independence has encouraged "separatists" elsewhere, including in Tibet and Macedonia. He argued that the unrest in Tibet "is not taking place by chance," adding that this is just "the beginning of a very precarious process." Lavrov, who recently attended a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and will leave soon for the Middle East, cautioned Muslim countries against recognizing Kosova lest they undermine "international law and practices" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11 and 14, 2008). On March 17, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "we express hope that the authorities of the People's Republic of China will take all necessary measures to curtail unlawful actions and ensure the speedy normalization of the situation in the autonomous region" of Tibet, reported. The statement added that any "attempts to politicize the summer Olympic Games that are to be held in China in 2008 are unacceptable." PM

Britain's "Financial Times" reported on March 18 that Gazprom signed an agreement on March 17 with YPFB, Bolivia's state-owned energy company, for the "exploration and exploitation" of gas reserves there. The paper suggested that the deal could be worth a much as $2 billion. Stanislav Tsygankov, the head of Gazprom's international business department in Latin America, told the daily that "due to its large gas reserves, Bolivia is the country that most interests us in the region. I consider it will be the region's leader in gas terms, and our objective is to go as far as to exploit as much as we can." President Evo Morales, who nationalized Bolivia's hydrocarbons in 2006, pledged on March 17 to respect all agreements with Gazprom. YPFB's interim President Santos Ramirez Valverde stressed that "Gazprom will be our partner." PM

President Putin told the cabinet on March 17 that the government must "keep a close eye on the appreciation of the ruble" against the U.S. dollar lest the ruble's strength have an adverse effect on Russian exports, including gas and oil, the daily "Kommersant" reported on March 18. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin replied, however, that appreciation is inevitable as petrodollars flood into Russia. The value of the Russian currency has risen by about 20 percent against its U.S. counterpart over the past two years. PM

Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow on March 17 with Igor Smirnov, leader of the breakaway Transdniester republic, Interfax reported. A subsequent statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website,, stressed that all efforts undertaken by the Russian leadership to date with the aim of resolving the conflict have been based on international law and principles worked out by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It said recognition of the equality of both negotiating sides is a prerequisite for unblocking the current impasse in the negotiating process. Smirnov for his part affirmed his readiness to sit down at the negotiating table with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin. Smirnov told Russia's Vesti-24 television on March 13 that he does not trust Voronin's most recent proposals for resolving the Transdniester conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 14, 2008). Meanwhile, on March 17 quoted Aleksei Ostrovsky as saying that the State Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, of which he is chairman, approved earlier that day a draft statement calling on the Russian government to begin determining the procedure for formal international recognition of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but not of Transdniester. Ostrovsky explained that the situation with regard to the former two regions differs fundamentally from that of Transdniester, whose leader has affirmed his readiness to resume talks with the Moldovan government. LF

As of March 17, 11 Russian regions had launched investigations into the ill-fated presidential campaign of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Kasyanov adviser Yelena Kikun told RFE/RL's Russian Service on March 17 that campaign workers have been questioned in at least 20 regions. The investigators are looking into charges that Kasyanov's campaign staff illegally obtained signatures in support of his candidacy. The Central Election Commission in January nullified his bid on the grounds that many of the signatures he submitted were invalid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). Kasyanov supporters across the country are complaining of intense pressure from law enforcement officials, saying their offices and computers have been searched and they have been threatened with arrest. A supporter in Stavropol Krai said police threatened to invalidate her son's military-service deferment if she did not confess to falsifying signatures. Another supporter in Kaluga said police threatened her ageing mother if she did not confess. A lawyer for Kasyanov's Popular Democratic Party, Vadim Prokhorov, said he doesn't believe Kasyanov will be targeted in the probes. "I doubt that a criminal case will be filed against him personally. However, in recent years our law enforcement organs have become so politicized that everything depends on what order comes down from the authorities. The decision will not be made at the legal level." Analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the website that the authorities are trying to frighten Kasyanov. "This is the principle of the vertical of power," he said, "which dictates its own rules and does not tolerate alternatives." RC

Lyov Ponomaryov, head of the For Human Rights NGO, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on March 17 that he believes his office in Moscow is under surveillance by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Ponomaryov said the FSB is following "thousands of activists" across the country who have been involved in the opposition March of Dissent protests, noting that this is "a colossal violation of the Constitution of the Russian Federation." He said it is possible the increased activity of the authorities is connected with "the transition period from one president to another." RC

A presidential order on the creation of a new Federal Investigations Service has been prepared and will be signed in the near future, RBK reported on March 18. According to the report, the new agency -- which should begin functioning in September -- will comprise the main investigations agencies of the Interior Ministry and the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General's Office (see "Powerful New Investigative Body Begins Work,", September 10, 2007). Later, investigators from the Antinarcotics Committee and the FSB will join the new agency, which is being touted as an analogue to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). RBK reported that the main candidates to head the new agency are Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin and the head of the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee, Aleksei Anichin. A source within the Interior Ministry told RBK that the creation of the new agency could lead to massive firings of police investigators. Proposals to create a Russian FBI have been floated since the 1990s. RC

The Other Russia opposition coalition announced on March 17 that it will hold two conferences next month with the goal of setting up a National Assembly that will serve as a sort of alternative Duma, "Vremya novostei" and other Russian media reported on March 18. "The mission of the National Assembly will be to facilitate dialogue among the representatives of various social forces, including those with opposing views, about the most urgent problems of the strategy of the country's development," a statement from the assembly's organizing committee read. The founding conferences are set to be held in St. Petersburg on April 5 and in Moscow on April 6. Other Russia said that representatives of Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces, the For Human Rights movement, the Republican Party, the United Civic Front, and the Popular Democratic Party have been invited to attend the conferences. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who has suspended his membership of the Union of Rightist Forces, told "Vremya novostei" that the conference does not intend to create a new opposition political party, since current legislation makes the process of registering parties too onerous. RC

Representatives of several veterans organizations in Primorsky Krai have sent an open letter to local authorities urging them to prevent further rises in the price of bread, RIA Novosti reported on March 18. The price of the least expensive type of bread in Vladivostok rose from 20 rubles ($0.85) a loaf to 25 rubles on March 14. The letter urges authorities to subsidize the cost of bread for veterans. The governments in other Far Eastern regions provide subsidies for bread producers to compensate for the high cost of energy and transportation in the region. The rising cost of basic foodstuffs has been a worrisome problem nationally for the past six months or so and many economists forecast further price rises in the immediate future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). RC

Deputies approved at an emergency session on March 17 in the first and second reading a draft law empowering local authorities to ban the holding of mass meetings if there are reasonable grounds to believe they could escalate into disorder or an attempt to seize power, and reported on March 18. The organizers of planned meetings are required to request permission five days in advance, and the local authorities must respond within 72 hours. Also on March 17, outgoing President Robert Kocharian's spokesman Viktor Soghomonian told journalists that Kocharian has no intention of extending the state of emergency he declared on March 1, which expires on March 21, Noyan Tapan reported. Armenian Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian told the head of the OSCE office in Yerevan, Ambassador Sergei Kapinos, on March 15 that the role of the armed forced under a state of emergency is confined to protecting government buildings, Noyan Tapan reported on March 17. Soghomonian further explained that seven newspapers of which the March 14 edition was banned by censors sought to report "obviously false information," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He added that despite the decree Kocharian signed on March 13 easing restrictions imposed on the media under the state of emergency, the authorities will continue to block Internet users' access to local online publications. The seven newspapers affected by the censorship adopted a statement on March 14 branding Kocharian's decree "a wretched attempt to mislead the international community and the Armenian public." LF

Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who insists he won 65 percent of the vote in the disputed February 19 presidential election, met at his home on March 17 with those of his key supporters who have not yet been detained or arrested for their participation in the postelection protests that turned violent on March 1, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. His office released a brief statement after the meeting saying that they remain committed to "getting rid of the current authorities by legal and democratic means." The Yerevan authorities have rejected a formal application by Ter-Petrossian to schedule a demonstration in the city on March 21, the day after the state of emergency expires, on the grounds that such a meeting would pose "a serious threat to the life and health of citizens." Ter-Petrossian aide Armen Khachatrian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on March 17 that police have illegally detained dozens of opposition activists across the country in recent days and tried to coerce them into giving incriminating testimony against Ter-Petrossian. In an editorial published on March 17 in "The Washington Post," President-elect Serzh Sarkisian and former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who polled third in the February 19 election with 16.69 percent of the vote, accused Ter-Petrossian of "resorting to a dangerous and profoundly undemocratic form of populism," and of impelling his supporters into "a standoff with the state." They argued that declaring a state of emergency was "the only possible option to protect our citizens." They further affirmed that the coalition agreement they have forged "is the best way forward"; that "continued progress is only possible through dialogue and reform"; and that "only a government with wide popular support, not one created through street violence" can resolve the external challenges Armenia faces. LF

The eight opposition parties aligned in the National Council, together with the Republican Party and the New Rightists, released a joint statement in Tbilisi on March 18 reaffirming their readiness to begin a dialogue with the authorities, reported. At the same time, the statement affirmed that the parties involved do not trust in the authorities, and for that reason appeal "in the first place to our European partners, whom we call upon to help Georgia...get back on the path toward democracy" by mediating such a dialogue. The New Rightists have demanded the resignation of parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze on the grounds that she reneged on an agreement reached last month with the National Council (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 16, 2008 and "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Burjanadze for her part said in a March 17 interview with the newspaper "Rezonansi" that the opposition was "unserious" in demanding she step down just eight weeks before the powers of the current parliament expire. She said she would comply with the New Rightists' demand only if they abandoned their other demands, which include the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili, the holding of a repeat presidential ballot, and the annulment of the recently enacted constitutional amendment on the procedure for electing majoritarian lawmakers. LF

Eduard Kokoity, de facto leader of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, said in a statement released on March 17 by that republic's Press and Information Committee that Georgian President Saakashvili's comments two days earlier show that Tbilisi is "incapable of constructive dialogue" and only serve to "destabilize the situation." Speaking on March 15 at a Georgian military base near Gori, Saakashvili excluded the possibility of a signing a formal pact abjuring the use of military force to resolve Georgia's conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Kokoity further reaffirmed that his republic will continue to campaign for formal international recognition as an independent state, and predicted "progress" toward that goal "in the near future." LF

At a press conference in Astana, Kazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetov announced on March 17 that Kazakh police detained two Georgian citizens suspected of preparing "mass disobedience actions in Kazakh prisons" and seeking to take over organized crime in the country, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kozhakhmetov added that the Georgians are career criminals "illegally living in Almaty." They were arrested in a joint raid by a special police department targeting organized crime and officers from the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) on March 14 and were also found to be in possession of an undisclosed amount of narcotics. Smaller Georgian organized crime groups have been known to operate in Kazakhstan for several years and are believed to serve as a link between other criminal groups operating in Central Asia and the Caucasus. RG

On the second day of a state visit to Oman, President Nursultan Nazarbaev on March 16 signed a set of bilateral agreements with Omani leader Sultan Qabus bin Said, including accords on cooperation in education, science, commerce, and industry, Kazinform and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Speaking at a press conference in Muscat after a meeting with his Omani counterpart Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdallah, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin added that the two countries also agreed to expand cooperation in the energy sector. According to the terms of the energy agreement, Oman will start negotiations with the Kazakh Energy Ministry for the exploration and development of offshore oil fields in the Caspian Sea. A separate agreement called for the creation of a new Kazakh-Omani business council, empowered to foster "the exchange of business delegations and organizing forums and exhibitions." Nazarbaev hailed his visit to Oman as an opportunity to expand bilateral trade by maximizing the use of a planned railway transiting Turkmenistan and running to Iran, adding that the railway "project is beneficial to all sides as an opportunity of optimum organization of freight transportation to the Persian Gulf." Both sides seek to expand the volume of bilateral trade, which for 2007 was only $14.8 million. RG

With over 500 people in attendance, Kyrgyz opposition leaders staged on March 17 a "public trial" in the southern Aksy district on the sixth anniversary of a clash between police and demonstrators that killed at least five people, the website reported. The "trial," attended by human rights activists, citizens, and leading members of Kyrgyz civil society, closed with the reading of a "verdict" by former parliament speaker Mukar Cholponbaev asserting that former President Askar Akaev and current President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was then prime minister, "as heads of the state and of the government, as guarantors of the constitution and the rights of the country's citizens," were responsible "for organizing and carrying out" the 2002 shooting in Aksy. The verdict also identified 39 other officials as being complicit in the clash but "acquitted" the former governor of the Jalal-Abad region, Sultan Urmanaev, the only official present at the public event, AKIpress reported. The event was designed as symbolic trial to examine the March 2002 clash, as those who ordered the police to open fire on the demonstrators have never been brought to trial. In comments to reporters, the head of the opposition Green Party, Erkin Bulekbaev, explained that although it is "unlikely that the authorities will recognize the legitimacy of the public trial's decision," the significance of the verdict is its "moral and ethical" value. RG

Kyrgyz police on March 17 forcibly dispersed a demonstration in Bishkek and arrested an undisclosed number of protesters demanding the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from a military air base outside of Bishkek, the website reported. The detainees were subsequently charged with violating city laws restricting public "rallies, pickets and marches without obtaining prior permission from the city administration." Since December 2001, the U.S.-run Ganci air base at Manas airport, located about 30 kilometers east of Bishkek, has accommodated some 1,000 U.S. troops along with nine refueling and cargo planes supporting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz President Bakiev recently announced that he plans to "raise the issue" of U.S. withdrawal from the air base, noting that "the majority of our population" feels that the U.S. use of the base should be "temporary" but also admitting that the U.S. operation of the air base "is economically bringing certain benefits to Kyrgyzstan" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). RG

Some 300 demonstrators staged a public protest on March 17 accusing the Tajik police of "extortion" and arbitrary enforcement of the law, Asia-Plus reported. The demonstration, held in front of the Gorno-Badakhshon town hall in the Khorugh district, in the eastern Badakhshon region, was organized after two officers from the local prosecutor's office were reportedly assaulted after allegedly soliciting bribes from residents of the Roshtqala district on March 14. The protesters also demanded the "return" of six villages in the Darvoz district that were recently redistricted into the neighboring Tavildara district by parliament, arguing that the Tajik Constitution requires local consent before any change to the administrative borders of the region can be implemented. RG

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said on March 17 that it called in Jonathan Moore, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, and gave him an "urgent recommendation" to reduce the staff of the embassy. Later the same day, the embassy issued a statement that Washington is "studying the situation." Minsk on March 7 recalled its ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Khvastou, for consultations over economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department against Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim, in November 2007. The Treasury Department froze all assets under U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Belnaftakhim and its representatives, and barred Americans from doing business with the company, which it says is controlled by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. On March 6, the department posted on its website a clarification of the sanctions and this apparently has been regarded by Minsk as an extension of the sanctions. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry twice urged U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart to temporarily leave Belarus, which she did on March 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 13, and 17, 2008). AM

The Youth Front, an organization that has failed in several attempts to register in Belarus, but was recently registered in the Czech Republic, has decided at a conference in Minsk to withdraw from the United Pro-Democratic Forces, Belarus's main opposition coalition, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on March 17. "This idea was prompted by the complete ideological and organizational disunity among the members of the coalition, who have neither a common strategy nor a single leader," Zmitser Dashkevich, who was elected chairman of the Youth Front, told Belapan. "Furthermore, the members of the coalition are increasingly dominated by the Communist leader [Syarhey Kalyakin], who openly positions himself as a candidate in the next presidential election. That's why the Youth Front has announced its withdrawal from the coalition and recalled its representatives from the coalition's Political Council." Dashkevich also suggested setting up an alliance of center-right pro-democratic groups as an alternative to the United Pro-Democratic Forces. Participants at the Youth Front's conference also decided to continue attempts to obtain legal status in Belarus. The lack of such status gives the authorities grounds for prosecuting Youth Front members for acting on behalf of an unregistered organization. However, the Belarusian authorities, in striving for warmer relations with the West, recently released Dashkevich and Artur Finkevich before the end of the prison term they were given for leading an unregistered organization. AM

A Minsk court on March 17 sentenced youth activist Zmitser Kaspyarovich to 12 days in jail for allegedly using foul language with police officers, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Kaspyarovich was detained on March 15 by the traffic police, who found in his car leaflets calling for integration with Europe. At the police station, Kaspyarovich was charged with the use of foul language and detained in a pretrial detention center. Meanwhile, a group of people facing criminal charges over their participation in the January 10 protest against government restrictions on the activities of small-business owners petitioned the Prosecutor-General's Office on March 17 to drop the charges and punish the officials who filed them. The Minsk city police opened a criminal case against at least 10 people, accusing them of "organization of, preparations for, or active participation in actions flagrantly violating public order." AM

President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have sent another request to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for Ukraine to be given a Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on March 17. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have also asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to support Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Germany and France recently expressed skepticism that there is sufficient support in Ukraine for NATO membership. The first request to de Hoop Scheffer was sent in mid-January by Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and triggered a crisis in the Ukrainian parliament that lasted for over a month. AM

Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha said on March 17 that the demand by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) for the dismissal of Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy poses "a real risk of a repetition of the recent paralysis in parliament's work," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Prime Minister Tymoshenko recently announced that the BYuT will boycott the Verkhovna Rada until it adopts a resolution on early elections for Kyiv's mayor and city council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Baloha suggested that the issue of Kyiv's local government should "be settled exclusively on the legal level," and not through an arbitrary political decision. Tymoshenko recently accused the Kyiv authorities of corruption and asked President Yushchenko to dismiss Chernovetskyy. Last week, Yushchenko suspended Chernovetskyy for 15 days and ordered an independent investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2007). AM

A small group of Serbian youths threw stones at a convoy of French KFOR peacekeepers in mainly Serbian northern Mitrovica on March 18, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). The situation there otherwise remained tense but calm following televised appeals by local Serbian leaders against violence. On March 17, clashes between Serbian crowds on the one hand and KFOR and the UN's police on the other left one Ukrainian policeman dead, and 63 police, 45 KFOR troops, and about 100 protesters injured. At least four UN vehicles were burned before UN police withdrew and left KFOR to ensure security. In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said on March 17 that "NATO condemns firmly the violence that we have seen in northern Mitrovica. The rioters who threw stones, then threw Molotov cocktails, then threw grenades, then it seems used automatic weapons, are in clear violation of the law, clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. All parties should exercise restraint and obey the law of Kosovo. KFOR will respond firmly to acts of violence." In Prishtina, Larry Rossin, who is deputy chief of the UN mission, similarly said on March 17 that the rioters flagrantly violated the terms of Resolution 1244, which Belgrade often cites as a basis for its continuing legal claims to Kosova. In New York on March 17, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Serbia to use its influence to halt the violence and thereby allow the UN and KFOR to carry out their respective mandates. In Washington on March 17, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that "the United States condemns the violence.... We urge all communities in Kosovo to remain calm, and we call on the Serbian government to denounce these acts of violence and take affirmative steps to reduce tensions." But Slobodan Samardzic, who is Serbia's minister for Kosova, said in televised remarks on March 17 that Belgrade has "to be present here as a state to provide security for Kosovo Serbs.... Our battle continues. Kosovo is part of Serbia." The UN, EU, United States, and Kosova's government have repeatedly warned Serbia against setting up "parallel structures," which are aimed at promoting a de facto partition of Kosova. PM

The Republika Srpska parliament voted overwhelmingly on March 17 to back Nebojsa Radmanovic, who is the ethnic-Serbian representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member Presidency, in rejecting recent moves by his Croatian and Muslim colleagues that Radmanovic claims violate the "vital interests" of Bosnian Serbs, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Under Bosnia's constitution, any one of the three ethnic groups can block a decision by the other two if it considers that ruling to be against its vital interests. The matter in question was a decision by the Croat Zeljko Komsic and the Muslim Haris Silajdzic on March 6 to ask The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to consider sending its archives to Bosnia when it closes in 2010. Radmanovic argued on March 17 that such a move would be "destructive" to Bosnian Serb vital interests and against Bosnian law. He called the 1992-95 war a "tragic conflict" and denied charges by unnamed "politicians and historians" that it was an act of aggression by the Serbs against their neighbors. Those supporting Komsic and Silajdzic argued that the archives belong in Bosnia, where they can be accessible to all who are interested in the conflict. PM

Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow on March 17 with Igor Smirnov, leader of the breakaway Transdniester republic, Interfax reported. A subsequent statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website,, stressed that all efforts undertaken by the Russian leadership to date with the aim of resolving the conflict have been based on international law and principles worked out by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It said recognition of the equality of both negotiating sides is a prerequisite for unblocking the current impasse in the negotiating process. Smirnov for his part affirmed his readiness to sit down at the negotiating table with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin. Smirnov told Russia's Vesti-24 television on March 13 that he does not trust Voronin's most recent proposals for resolving the Transdniester conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 14, 2008). Meanwhile, on March 17 quoted Aleksei Ostrovsky as saying that the State Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, of which he is chairman, approved earlier that day a draft statement calling on the Russian government to begin determining the procedure for formal international recognition of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but not of Transdniester. Ostrovsky explained that the situation with regard to the former two regions differs fundamentally from that of Transdniester, whose leader has affirmed his readiness to resume talks with the Moldovan government. LF

Although there has been considerable talk in recent months about possible political, constitutional, or economic crises in Russia, only distinguished human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov has drawn attention to a crisis that is already under way: Russia's "shameful moral crisis."

In a largely ignored open letter to President Vladimir Putin published shortly before the March 2 presidential election, the former Soviet-era political prisoner and heir to Andrei Sakharov condemned the culture of lies that the government has fostered in its bid to "manage" Russian democracy.

Kovalyov particularly had in view official statements and court rulings that the December 2007 Duma elections and the presidential campaign were open, fair, and democratic. But he also referred to the wider culture that has blossomed under Putin -- the creation of managed political parties that pretend to be an opposition, the fostering of Kremlin-sponsored nongovernmental organizations that take funding and attention from their problematic counterparts, the "spontaneous" appearance of grassroots movements such as For Putin! that purport to be groundswells, and so on and so on.

Kovalyov emphasized the "corrupting force" of the lies that Russia's leaders "are incapable of rejecting." He notes that no "remotely literate citizen" believes these lies, including even the staunchest supporters of Putin and the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

Kovalyov, addressing the leadership, speaks of a "paradoxical change" in the relationship between the public and the ruling elite. "You lie, your listeners know this and you know that they don't believe you...and they also know that you know they don't believe you. Everybody knows everything. The very lie no longer aspires to deceive anyone. From being a means of fooling people it has for some reason turned into an everyday way of life, a customary and obligatory rule for living."

"The customary lies of leaders always generate and cultivate cynicism in society and cannot achieve anything else," Kovalyov declared. "And gradually going back by the same path we came on is almost impossible, since you are doomed to lie." He said that, in such a culture, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev's statements about "freedom being better than non-freedom" and the need for independent media can only be taken as "a continuation of your untruth," rebounding against the hard wall of the public's cynicism.

Russia, of course, has had unaccountable government for more than 1,000 years and the Soviet era accustomed the public to incredulity. Although Putin's Russia is not a reincarnation of the Soviet Union, it has succeeded in reestablishing this pernicious aspect of its political culture, making it arguably worse by stripping it of an ideological framework that at least offered some clues for interpretation.

Now, when Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov calls Russia's electoral system the most open and transparent system in the world, it cannot be understood in any other way than as Kovalyov said -- "the very lie that no longer aspires to deceive anyone."

For anyone inside such a culture, therefore, any statement becomes the subject of analysis rather than a furtherance of discord. Why is he saying this, the listener asks. And why now? And for whom? This is not a new development of the Putin era, but Putin has certainly done nothing to roll this culture back. Instead, he has manipulated it, benefited from it, fostered it, and -- in Kovalyov's opinion -- all but ensured that there is no road back for Russia.

On March 10, Putin held a rare, closed-door meeting with Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky. Very little has been said about the content of those discussions, with even the usually open and accessible Yavlinsky remaining silent. Yavlinsky did say, however, that he briefed Putin on the case of Yabloko official Maksim Reznik, who was arrested on March 3 on charges -- assaulting a police officer -- that he claims are politically motivated.

Reznik has exposed falsification of the presidential election results, organized opposition March of Dissent rallies, and is a leading organizer of a conference later this month at which the country's liberals plan to discuss the formation of a genuine, liberal opposition front. Yavlinsky said Putin promised "to look into the case," implying strongly that Putin gave him the impression that he had not heard of the matter before.

But in Russia's current culture, how are we to understand Putin's promise? The skeptical observer could be excused for speculating that Reznik was essentially being held as a hostage in some political game, perhaps one aimed at disrupting or discrediting the upcoming liberal conference. (One might logically assume that Yavlinsky's silence about the meeting is connected to his desire to secure Reznik's release.)

Russia's political culture is replete with similar examples: Early in Putin's tenure, when oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky refused to sign over his media properties to the state, he was thrown in prison until he complied. More recently, former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan, who has spent some two years in pretrial detention under abominable conditions, was denied medical treatment for AIDS and serious related complications. (After massive domestic and international outcry, he was eventually moved to a medical clinic for treatment, but remains in custody.) Lawyers involved in the Yukos cases have said they believe Aleksanyan's treatment was an attempt to pressure the defense in other cases, including new charges pending against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former partner, Platon Lebedev.

Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak was arrested on vague corruption charges in November, and many analysts have concluded the case is a bid by siloviki in the administration to put pressure on Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin. All of these cases are landmarks -- and not the only ones -- in what Medvedev himself has decried (whether earnestly or rhetorically) as Russia's appalling culture of "legal nihilism."

And the speculation around Yavlinsky's meeting with Putin and the Reznik case does not end there. Political analyst Valery Ostrovsky told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that it doesn't make sense for the Kremlin to try to disrupt the liberal conference. "It could lead to a unification of the democrats that would then be convenient for the Kremlin to control," he said. "But Grigory Yavlinsky, on the other hand, doesn't need such a unification. And removing Reznik, the conference organizer, from the political arena might even be convenient for [Yavlinsky]. It can't be excluded that [Reznik] was set up by his own people, who arranged a provocation with the police."

This is the sort of character assassination and innuendo that is the direct result of the country's cynical culture of political lies. As Kovalyov wrote: "Cynicism is cowardice, the flight from burning problems and hard-hitting discussion. It is the lowest pragmatism, petty time-serving teetering on the verge of baseness, or already toppled over the edge. It is intrigue trumping competition, and a rejection of moral taboos." And as he concluded, it is hard to see a way out of such a situation.

A suicide car-bomb attack on a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) convoy traveling on the main road from the southern city of Kandahar with Herat in the west killed three soldiers and three civilians on March 17, news agencies reported. The Danish Army announced that two of its soldiers were killed in the attack in the Gereshk district of Helmand Province, and one soldier was wounded, AP reported. One soldier in a Czech detachment escorting the Danish soldiers was also killed, and two others injured. According to provincial police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, the attack in a bazaar also killed three Afghan civilians and wounded another seven. An Afghan interpreter was also killed. Qari Yusef Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack. On March 16, a Danish soldier was wounded in the same region. The two Danes were the first to have been killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. Denmark has 600 troops in Afghanistan serving under ISAF. Meanwhile, a Canadian soldier who stepped on a land mine in southern Afghanistan while on patrol died of his wounds, the Canadian military said on March 17, AFP reported. The soldier was killed late on March 16 while on patrol in the Panjwayi district, about 35 kilometers west of Kandahar city, which has been the site of intense clashes between security forces and Taliban recently. By carrying out the patrol on foot, the Afghan and NATO troops intended to "show their presence, monitor the security situation, and interact with the local population," the Canadian statement said. AT

The Taliban will take advantage of public anger in Afghanistan about a forthcoming Dutch film attacking the Koran, according to a new Afghan think tank, UPI reported on March 17. Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, says the insurgents will use the issue to force their way into the political dialogue. Afghan protesters have called for the severing of relations with the Dutch and Danish governments as well as the withdrawal those countries' peacekeeping troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 10, 2008). According to Rahmani, it is the first time since the fall of the Taliban regime that popular demands have been issued for the withdrawal of foreign troops. He added that these demands are also the only precondition of the Taliban for peace talks. AT

Iran's Foreign Ministry has rejected as unacceptable and "opportunistic" the EU's recent criticism that the March 14 parliamentary polls in Iran were not free or fair, Radio Farda reported on March 17, citing reports from Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). The EU and the United States criticized Iran for restricting the range of candidates it allowed Iranians to vote for. Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on March 17 that the EU Presidency's assessment of the elections was hasty and marked by "political hostility," and the elections were "lively" and voter turnout was good, Radio Farda reported. "The participation of more than 4,750 candidates across the country for 290 [seats] shows the extensive presence of candidates with differing preferences and inclinations," he said. Hosseini said the EU "would have done better" to note the messages he said Iranians have sent the West with their participation. About 71 percent of parliamentary seats were won by conservatives from various groups more or less supportive of the right-wing government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Radio Farda reported. VS

Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, a conservative cleric, was elected in midterm elections on March 14 to a seat in the Assembly of Experts, an 86-seat body of senior clerics that oversees the supreme leader's office, the Fars news agency reported on March 17. He received just over 1.45 million votes in Tehran as the candidate of the United Front of Fundamentalists, or Principle-ists, a right-wing group generally supportive of the Ahmadinejad government. Iran's conservatives say they follow religious and revolutionary principles, and sometimes reject the label "conservative" as an invention of Western observers. Mahdavi-Kani is to take the Tehran constituency seat left empty by the assembly's late president, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini. Separately, on March 16 the government appointed Mohammad Nazemi-Ardakani as the new governor of Qom Province, south of Tehran, ISNA reported. The news agency reported that he previously served as cooperatives minister, a deputy industry minister, and head of a state housing foundation. VS

Iranian reformists on March 17 objected to vote-counting methods in Tehran and the authorities' delay in making public the results , Iranian news agencies and websites reported on March 17 and 18. The head of the reformist election headquarters in Tehran and former Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari wrote to Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi on March 17 to observe that results for Tehran given by state television and radio differed from results the reformist headquarters received from other sources, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 18. Of Tehran's 30 seats, the conservative Fars news agency reported on March 17 that 19 seats went to candidates of the United Front of Fundamentalists, without the need for a second round of voting. Among the top vote winners reported by Fars were current parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Tehran representative and head of the parliamentary research center Ahmad Tavakkoli. But "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 18 that the results from Tehran "amazed everyone" and that 10 reformists may well be -- or should be -- among the top 10 vote winners. Reformist candidate Majid Ansari told the Baharestan website on March 17 that "we are very suspicious of the counting process...and announcement of results," and that he is certain he should be among the top 10 candidates. Iranian news agencies had not so far reported him as having won a seat. He cited a former reformist industries minister, Ishaq Jahangiri, as another candidate who won many votes in Tehran. Ansari said reformists want the Interior Ministry to present them with detailed results from individual polling stations. On March 15, former Interior Minister Musavi-Lari wrote to his successor Purmohammadi to point out that reformist candidates' representatives were not allowed to observe the voting process in many voting offices, in spite of a prior agreement with ministry officials and electoral supervisors, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 16. VS

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey was in Tehran on March 17, and presided over the signature of a natural-gas deal Swiss officials have said is part of Switzerland's efforts to diversify its gas suppliers, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Iran's gas, alongside gas from Azerbaijan, is to reach Switzerland through a pipeline going through Greece, Albania, and Italy. The deal was signed between Iran's National Iranian Gas Export Company and the Swiss firm EGL, and involves the annual supply by Iran of 5.5 billion cubic meters of gas by 2012, for a 25-year period, reported. Calmy-Rey also discussed with Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki the international community's concerns about human rights in Iran, especially the use of the death penalty, and the country's contested nuclear program. The two states agreed to prepare a subsequent round of talks as part of a five-year human rights dialogue, Calmy-Rey told a Tehran press conference. VS

The Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, boycotted a national reconciliation conference that opened in Baghdad on March 18, Iraqi media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Meanwhile, the head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Nasir al-Rubay'i, arrived at the conference and called it "government propaganda," Reuters reported. Accordance Front leader Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i told Al-Sharqiyah television on March 17 that invitations to attend the conference were addressed to persons rather than to political parties and blocs, implying that some senior political leaders may have been slighted by conference organizers. He added that previous reconciliation meetings have not brought any tangible results in terms of the government's performance. "We were glad when the government raised the slogan of reconciliation and we share with it the desire to achieve this reconciliation," he said. "But it is regrettable that none of the measures taken on the ground was conducive to reconciliation. Let the government first hold political reconciliation with its partners. The Accordance Front is now outside the government [a reference to ministers from the front who have boycotted the government since August] and we have still not felt there is a desire to have us as real partners. Therefore, we took the side of the opposition." State Minister for National Dialogue Affairs Akram al-Hakim told Al-Iraqiyah television on March 17 that Islamic, national, liberal, and democratic forces will attend the conference, including Ba'athists not linked to terrorist organizations. KR

Accordance Front leader al-Samarra'i told Al-Sharqiyah television on March 17 that Iraqis don't need conferences, they need to see "action on the ground," noting: "We want tangible facts that there is a serious desire to introduce change and carry out reform. Most political blocs have been outside the government for several months. They boycotted it and there is still no intention [on the part of the government] to carry out reform." He cited the example of the awakening councils, saying that although tribesmen formed the councils and brought security, the government still only wants to incorporate 20 percent of tribal fighters into the security forces. He also criticized the government for acquitting Health Ministry officials, who are Shi'a, on corruption charges even though the Commission on Public Integrity had evidence to substantiate the charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). Meanwhile, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Sharqiyah television on March 17 that the government "is not a party to the conference." Al-Dabbagh said the conference is organized by "a group of political forces in cooperation with the National Dialogue Ministry." Al-Dabbagh appeared to dismiss Al-Tawafuq's boycott, telling Al-Sharqiyah that some groups always tend to boycott conferences. "By using the method of boycotts and withdrawals, they try to distinguish themselves from others." He added, "Nevertheless, things will move on regardless of the boycott." Al-Dabbagh further accused Al-Tawafuq of abandoning the voters who elected the front to parliament. He called on all parties to sit and discuss, and disagree if necessary, to work for the common good of the homeland. KR

The Iraqi National List headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi also boycotted the conference, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 17. List member Izzat al-Shabandar told the news channel that the bloc decided "not to attend" the conference, which he said is different than boycotting the meeting. "As an Iraqi political bloc, we do not know if we are the ones who will reconcile others, or be reconciled with others. We do not know under what headline we are invited. Nobody told us if we are one of the parties involved in the effort to reconcile others and we do not know the program or mechanism to do so. Also, we were not told if we are one of the parties to be reconciled. We were only invited to attend. This is the best proof that it is difficult for this [reconciliation] plan to succeed.... All destinies and all interests of the country and citizens are rushed and decided in this manner," al-Shabandar said. "We expected greater effort and accord to precede this plan, but he who does not have it [a reference to the government] cannot give it," he continued. "With regard to the entire political process, the Iraqi government needs to be reconciled with itself" before it can engage other blocs. KR

Government spokesman al-Dabbagh told Al-Arabiyah television on March 17 that recent demands by members of the Hizballah political party that they be considered for entry into the security forces are legitimate, but he cautioned that security services must maintain separation from political parties. "It is a dangerous issue when units that belong to groups that have political allegiance to their parties join the army. The army is supposed to be professional, national, and neutral toward all political trends," al-Dabbagh said, adding that he was not singling out Hizballah in his statement, because the party has a right to peacefully express its opinion and demands. He added that the merger of militias into the military under the Coalition Provisional Authority -- an apparent reference to members of the Islamic Supreme Iraqi Council's Badr Brigades -- created obstacles and problems for the Interior and Defense ministries. KR