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Newsline - March 19, 2008

On March 18 in Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed Washington's proposed missile-defense system, which Russia describes as a threat, with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and 18, 2008). Lavrov told a news conference that Russia still sees the U.S. project as a "risk" for his country. He added that the two sides "discussed contentious issues where we have not reached agreement." He stressed that the best way to deal with the controversy "is to not set up these...sites [in Poland and the Czech Republic] at all." Lavrov noted nonetheless that "in response to our concerns, while it still plans to complete the deployment [of the missile-defense system in Europe], the United States has made important and useful proposals to us, which we will examine, and which are made by the United States based on its desire to resolve our concerns." He added that "as for a future strategic offensive arms treaty, we have agreed that it should be a legally binding document, although there is still a lot of work to be done to fill this document with concrete content. We will continue working on it." Rice told reporters that "we have agreed that there should be a joint strategic framework document for the [U.S. and Russian] presidents to be able to record all of the elements of the U.S.-Russia relationship as we go forward into the future. We've agreed on the elements that will be included in that document and made some considerable progress on a number of them." She added nonetheless that "we have work to do." PM

Yevgeny Volk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, told RFE/RL on March 18 that "the main purpose of this visit [by Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Gates] was just to demonstrate to the international community, to the national leaders in both countries, that the dialogue is continuing, that both sides are interested in maintaining the negotiating process to prevent the [deterioration] of their mutual relationship, and to provide certain prospects for the improvement of Russian-American relations in the future." On March 19, the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" noted that "the tone" of the latest high-level talks was "far more welcoming" than was the case in October. The daily quoted State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov as saying that "this meeting's significance lies not so much in the...visit itself as in the use of a new format for bilateral relations," which enables top-level officials to discuss vital issues otherwise dealt with by specialist negotiators. He argued that this format, which involves people with significant authority but without directly bringing in the heads of state, proved effective in the 1990s and may well do so again. Kosachyov added that he is "not expecting any sensational news or breakthroughs from this week's meeting, but I am somewhat optimistic about opportunities for using these new formats." PM

Prior to their meeting with their Russian counterparts on March 18, Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Gates met for breakfast at the ambassador's residence with six political, social, and business leaders, the daily "Kommersant" and "The Moscow Times" reported on March 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). The guests were liberal Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky; former State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov; Vladimir Milovidov, who is a former deputy energy minister turned Kremlin critic; Carnegie Moscow Center deputy head Dmitry Trenin; Olga Dergunova, a board member of the state-run Vneshtorgbank (VTB) and former head of Microsoft Russia; and "Newsweek Russia" columnist Mikhail Fishman. Yabloko later said in a statement that Yavlinsky urged Washington to switch from what he called its current "half partnership, half confrontation" approach to a "strategic partnership" with Moscow. Ryzhkov said afterward that he spoke of the "firm link" between Russia's domestic development and its foreign policy. "I said that the more authoritarian, closed, and chauvinistic our state becomes, the more confrontation we will see in foreign policy, and the larger will be the cost the Russian people will have to bear," he argued. Not included were several prominent Kremlin critics, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, and Union of Rightist Forces leader Nikita Belykh. An unnamed "embassy official" said that the meeting was with "civil society leaders" and not with the opposition. Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who attended Rice's meeting in October, said that she was neither informed about the latest meeting nor invited to it. Lokshina added that "I can't say why she didn't meet us this time, but, frankly, it's very disappointing. It sends a signal to the Russian government." Kasparov told AP that he and others in his Other Russia coalition were not invited. He charged that Rice did not meet with people who are actively working to unite Russia's opposition, and he called on Washington to be more critical of Putin's rule. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov noted in an interview published in the state-run "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on March 19 that the Russian-built Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr serves to "anchor" Tehran into the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. On March 18, he said that Russia will soon announce whether it will conclude an agreement with NATO to enable the Atlantic alliance to use Russian territory and air space to deliver supplies to Afghanistan, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). On March 19, reported that there was strong negative reaction in Afghanistan to a report recently published in the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" that Russia is planning to send a military contingent to Afghanistan to support NATO's efforts there. President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, subsequently told Ekho Moskvy radio that the Polish report "does not correspond to reality." PM

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev met on March 18 with experts of the Modern Development Institute -- of which he is advisory board chairman -- to discuss the possible consequences for Russia of a global economic downturn, "Vremya novostei" and other Russian media reported on March 19. The meeting was closed and details of the discussion were not released, but a source close to Medvedev told the daily that it could result in concrete proposals and policies. "Vedomosti" referred to the institute as "Medvedev's expert center." Many leading bankers and economic analysts participated in the talks, which focused on ways of shoring up the banking system during the current global credit shortage. According to the report, presidential-administration head Sergei Sobyanin, presidential expert department head Arkady Dvorkovich, Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina, and Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman also participated in the meeting. RC

Yabloko leader Yavlinsky has come under increasing fire from his own party as a result of a closed-door meeting he held with President Putin on March 10, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported on March 19. Daniil Kotsyubinsky, a Yabloko official from St. Petersburg, has called on Yavlinsky to resign as the party's leader "for entering into secret negotiations with the head of the political regime." Yavlinsky has refused to say what was discussed at the meeting, except to say that Putin promised to "look into" the case of Maksim Reznik, a Yabloko official from St. Petersburg who was arrested on March 3 on charges of assaulting a police officer that he says are politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). Yavlinsky had already faced calls for his resignation following the party's failure to poll well in the December 2007 Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2007). Yabloko official Sergei Mitrokhin told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that any move to alter the party's leadership will not happen until the party's scheduled congress in June. Mitrokhin said that "Putin did not propose anything to Yavlinsky," although Yavlinsky himself has been more coy. Appearing on REN-TV after the meeting, Yavlinsky responded to the question by simply saying, "I don't know." Yavlinsky has not refuted widespread media reports that Putin offered him the post of deputy prime minister in the government that Putin is expected to head after Dmitry Medvedev becomes president in May. In a comment published in "Vedomosti" on March 19, analyst and economist Vladimir Milov argued that Reznik's arrest and Putin's meeting with Yavlinsky show that the Kremlin is really "afraid" of a possible liberal-democratic opposition coalition. Milov argued that Yavlinsky is in a perilous situation and "any back-door deals with the authorities while Reznik is sitting in jail will mean the end of his reputation." "The release of Maksim Reznik without any conditions cannot be a subject of negotiation," Milov wrote. "It is a matter of honor for Russia's democrats." RC

Andrei Buzin, chairman of the Interregional Association of Voters and a member of the Moscow City Election Commission, published a commentary in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on March 18 that denounced Russia's elections as "a national spectacle." He noted a report from one official election monitor during the March 2 presidential poll that stated "at each polling station a special room had been set up for the observers where officials provided a buffet and six bottles of beer, a bottle of cognac, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of red wine. I saw this at all three polling stations, all of which were located in schools." Voters also were regaled with cheap snacks, lotteries, and live music, Buzin wrote, arguing that the main duty of election commissions in Russia has become the creation of a "holiday" atmosphere during elections. "The system of election commissions in the Russian Federation has been turned into one of many lines protecting the state from the citizenry," he wrote. "The organization of voting itself is done by completely different agencies." Buzin said that when he told one election official about "gross violations" taking place at his polling station, the official said, "Have some tea!" Monitors were warned not to "spoil the electorate's mood." Buzin noted that the Central Election Commission considered the more than 200 complaints that were filed about the March 2 vote in fewer than five days before dismissing all of them as unfounded (see " Russia: How The Kremlin Manages To Get The Right Results,", March 7, 2008). Buzin concludes that the "system of election commissions under the Central Election Commission is not fulfilling its basic function of defending the citizen's right to vote." RC

The Russian Supreme Court on March 18 annulled a January ruling by the Supreme Court of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) ordering the closure of the Council of Elders of the Balkar People, and ordered that court to review the issue, reported. The council formally appealed against its dissolution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15 and 29, 2008). Russian Supreme Court Judge Viktor Knyshev rejected the argument by the KBR prosecutor's office that the council was an "extremist" organization; that argument served as the basis for the KBR Supreme Court's ruling. Djambulat Eteyev, chairman of the council's Executive Committee, argued that the KBR Supreme Court ruling was unfounded given that "we never violated a single Russian law." A second council leading member, Oyus Gurtuyev, told on March 18 that the council plans to convene a congress in May. LF

The Russian Supreme Court on March 18 rejected an appeal by the prosecutor's office of the Republic of Ingushetia to close the independent website on the grounds of its "extremist" activities, Russian media reported. The Ingushetian Supreme Court earlier rejected an analogous appeal on the grounds that such a decision does not lie within its jurisdiction, given that the website is registered in the United States. LF

The newly elected parliament of the Republic of Ingushetia, whose deputies were reportedly handpicked in advance by President Murat Zyazikov (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 8, 2008, and "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008), appealed on March 18 to both chambers of the Russian parliament, the FSB, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the Interior Ministry to suspend broadcasting to Ingushetia by the small, privately owned television channel REN-TV, reported. REN-TV reportedly incurred Zyazikov's wrath by screening on March 17 a documentary sympathetic to the Ingushetian opposition. The parliament deputies branded REN-TV's coverage of developments in Ingushetia "provocative, libelous, tendentious...and intended to destabilize the situation." Sergei Mironov responded on March 18 that the Federation Council, of which he is chairman, is not empowered either to suspend, or to influence the content of REN-TV's broadcasting, reported, while Boris Reznik, who is deputy head of the State Duma's Information Policy Committee, said there are no grounds for suspending broadcasting by REN-TV, according to Reznik advised the parliamentarians to focus their attention on trying to improve the situation in Ingushetia and to address any complaints about the media either to the Union of Journalists of Russia or to a court. REN-TV posted a statement on its website on March 18 affirming that Russian law extends throughout the territory of the Russian Federation, and describing the parliamentarians' appeal as "closer to a denunciation" that "would have the [functionaries of the] Agitation and Propaganda Department of the CPSU Central Committee turning in their graves," reported. LF

Viktor Dallakian, who quit the opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc in 2006 and was reelected to parliament last year as an independent lawmaker, advocated on March 18 measures intended to defuse the inner political tensions resulting from the police crackdown on March 1 on supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, Noyan Tapan reported. Dallakian suggested that President-elect Serzh Sarkisian grant an amnesty to those who were "simply expressing their political views," but did not participate directly in the violence. He further advocated lifting the longstanding ban on the independent A1+ television channel and granting the opposition access to national television; establishing a new political council headed by the president, on which both the parliamentary and the extraparliamentary opposition would be represented; passing a law on creating a Public Chamber; and amending the election law to introduce a 100 percent proportional system and to ensure the proportional representation on election commissions of the authorities and the opposition, in preparation for holding preterm parliamentary elections. Finally, Dallakian suggested that concurrently with those preterm elections a referendum should be held introducing elections for the post of regional governor (currently named by the president), and on transforming Armenia into a parliamentary republic whose government would be formed on the basis of parliamentary election results, and in which the parliament would elect the president. LF

Ter-Petrossian's office on March 18 released a statement branding the amendments to the law on public gatherings enacted by the parliament the previous day a blatant violation of the constitution and an attempt to prolong the restrictions imposed under the state of emergency imposed on March 1 and which expires on March 21, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). Ter-Petrossian aide Levon Zurabian argued that "in these circumstances, it is the people's legitimate right to ignore the illegal ban and reaffirm their freedom, which is guaranteed by the constitution and international law, to hold rallies." Outgoing President Robert Kocharian signed the amendments into law earlier on March 18. Also on March 18, Ter-Petrossian spokesman Armen Khachtrian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that several more members of Ter-Petrossian's election campaign staff, including two senior members of the People's Party of Armenia that backed his presidential bid, have been detained for questioning. Prosecutor-General's Office spokeswoman Sonia Truzian declined on March 18 to confirm that information, saying only that a total of 109 opposition supporters have been arrested since March 1, of whom 106 have been formally charged. LF

Ilham Aliyev signed on March 18 a decree pardoning 59 prisoners, and reported. They do not include journalists Eynulla Fatullayev, Qanimat Zaxid, and Mirza Sakit, or several people considered political prisoners, including Rasim Tagiyev; Asif Guseinov; former special police officers Nariman Ismanov and Etibar Allakhverdiyev; and opposition politician Qadir Musayev. LF

Speaking on March 18 in New York, Mikheil Saakashvili suggested that the number of deputies in the new Georgian parliament could be increased from 150 to 175 or even 185, of whom 100 or 110 could be elected under the proportional, party-list system, reported. He indicated that the parliamentary ballot will probably be scheduled for May 21. The present parliament voted last week to reduce the number of lawmakers from the current 235 to 150, of whom 75 would be elected under the proportional system and the remaining 75 in single mandate constituencies, an arrangement that the opposition has denounced as violating an agreement reached last month with parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 16, 2008, and "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and 18, 2008). Also on March 18, the Republican Party proposed that the 75 majoritarian deputies be elected in multimandate constituencies, as the opposition originally called for, Caucasus Press reported. On March 19, quoted Republican leader David Usupashvili as saying he met late the previous evening with Burjanadze, who assured him the authorities "will consider" that proposal. LF

President Saakashvili told journalists in New York on March 18 after meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Tbilisi wants a total revision of the peacekeeping format in the Abkhaz conflict zone, reported. Saakashvili said the UN Observer Mission (UNOMIG) "has failed to fulfill its duties," while there are no longer any legal grounds for the CIS peacekeeping force to remain there in the wake of Russia's decision to lift the economic sanctions imposed by the CIS on Abkhazia in January 1996 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). The quarterly reports by the UN secretary-general to the UN Security Council invariably stress the productive cooperation between UNOMIG and the CIS peacekeeping force, and frequently acknowledge logistical help provided by the latter to the former. Saakashvili, who on March 15 ruled out signing a formal pact on the non-use of military force against Abkhazia or South Ossetia, said Tbilisi will propose within the next few days new initiatives for resolving the Abkhaz conflict that are "very peaceful," and that he expects a resumption of dialogue "on all issues" with the Abkhaz side. Also on March 18, Stanislav Lakoba, National Security Council Chairman of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, demonstrated to journalists in Sukhum(i) what were said to be fragments of Georgian pilotless spy plane shot down earlier that day over Abkhaz territory, Caucasus Press and reported. The drone was said to have been manufactured by the Israeli firm Elbit-Systems and to carry the identification number 551. The Georgian Defense Ministry admitted on March 18 that it has pilotless aircraft, but denied that any have been shot down, reported. LF

Kazakh human rights ombudsman Askar Shakirov and Supreme Court Chief Justice Kairat Mami on March 18 signed a memorandum on cooperation, Kazinform reported. Speaking to reporters following the signing, Mami hailed the agreement as enabling further cooperation in "protecting human rights and freedoms" based on the principle of the independence of the judiciary. For his part, Shakirov noted that the agreement is "the first document of its kind" and stressed that it is "aimed primarily at ensuring effective judicial protection of citizens' rights." In September 2007, Shakirov became the country's human rights ombudsman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2007), a position that is officially empowered to monitor the observance of human rights nationwide, but is barred from any "interference with the work of either the police or the judicial system" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2002). RG

At a press conference in Bishkek, Pamela Spratlen, the director for Central Asia at the U.S. State Department, expressed concern on March 18 over "shortcomings" in the December 2007 parliamentary elections and urged Kyrgyz officials to publish the official results, AKIpress reported. Spratlen added that the United States is also concerned over the recent constitutional referendum, but noted that the recent agreement providing Kyrgyzstan with nearly $16 million in aid as part of the two-year U.S. Millennium Challenge Account aid program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008) reflects an assessment that the Kyrgyz government is committed to advancing political and economic reforms. Visiting Kyrgyzstan as part of a regular series of bilateral consultations with the Foreign Ministry, Spratlen also stressed that bilateral cooperation will continue to focus on implementing reforms of the electoral system and bolstering independent media and civil society. RG

A Russian delegation led by the governor of Astrakhan Oblast, Aleksandr Zhilkin, met on March 18 with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat and signed an agreement on trade and economic cooperation, according to ITAR-TASS and Turkmen Television. The delegation, consisting of a group of 20 leading businessmen, also concluded an agreement on scientific and cultural cooperation, before holding detailed talks on the need for greater cooperation in cargo transportation and shipbuilding in the Caspian Sea. Reflecting the significance of Astrakhan as a key Russian port on the Caspian, an official from Russia's Guzhvin shipbuilding and vessel-repairing facility also opened negotiations to expand a current contract for the repair of two Turkmen dry-cargo ships. RG

Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov signed on March 18 a decree amending the Tax Code and laws on foreign investment, including a new measure simplifying the visa requirements for foreign businessmen, ITAR-TASS reported. In an announcement accompanying the signing, Berdymukhammedov explained that the new laws would help to eliminate "unnecessary administrative barriers in licensing," and ease the "registration processes and concession activities" in order to "attract large amounts of foreign investments into the economy." He also said that the amendments to the laws on foreign investment are particularly important, noting that the previous laws were not significantly modified since their introduction in 1992. On March 17, Berdymukhammedov established a new group, the Association of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, aimed at boosting the country's emerging private sector, according to the Turkmen government's website, RG

The Uzbek parliament voted on March 13 to adopt a new law aimed at combating human trafficking, AKIpress reported on 18. According to an official press release issued by the Uzbek government, the new law will serve as a "reliable legal base for the prevention of human trafficking" and help to bolster the state effort to "fight the illegal exploitation, migration, and trade of human beings," according to the Jahon news agency. The press release also claimed that Uzbek law enforcement agencies have investigated over 1,000 reports from victims of human trafficking over the past three years, resulting in the formal initiation of over 700 criminal cases. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on March 18 that the United States is stirring up tensions with regard to Belarus by its economic sanctions against the country's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim, Belapan reported. "In violation of its commitments under a December 1994 memorandum on security guarantees in connection with Belarus's accession to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the U.S. introduced and then expanded sanctions against the enterprises of Belnaftakhim, thereby revealing its cynical attitude toward international law," Lukashenka said. He also said that the United States violated its commitment not to apply measures of economic compulsion in exchange for the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Belarus. "We did that and signed that memorandum," Lukashenka said. "The U.S., Russia, and other states then pledged that owing to this humane act, they would treat our country accordingly, support it by every possible means and in no way apply any measures [against Belarus] in the economic and other spheres. Little time has passed and what do we see in reality? And what has Belnaftakhim to do with it? What has democratization to do with it?" However, Lukashenka admitted that the sanctions are not fatal to Belarus. "We lived before, live now under their so-called sanctions, and will continue to live," he added. In November 2007, the U.S. 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 Lukashenka. On March 7, Minsk recalled its ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Khvastou, for consultations and urged U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart to temporarily leave Belarus, which she did on March 12. On March 17, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry also "recommended" the U.S. Embassy cut its staff. AM

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said on March 17 that Washington does not expect Minsk to sever bilateral diplomatic relations and shut down the U.S. Embassy in Belarus, according to the State Department's website. "Obviously, Belarus, like any other country, is free to determine how it wishes to manage its diplomatic relations with us or with other countries," Casey said. "We, of course, have said that we believe it's important and think it's appropriate for us to have senior-level representation in Belarus, among other things, to continue to press for the release of [former presidential candidate Alyaksandr] Kazulin and work on other human rights issues there," he added. The deputy head of the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Kyle Scott, has said in Vienna that the U.S. sanctions against Belnaftakhim and some persons "undermining democratic processes and institutions in Belarus" do not violate obligations that the United States took by signing the Helsinki Final Act. "Our actions are fully consistent with our OSCE obligations and commitments and are taken in support of the Belarusian people," Scott said. "Commitments undertaken in the human dimension of the OSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern of all participating states and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned." He added that the United States is "particularly baffled by the charge that our action is designed to further some illegitimate interest or infringe upon the sovereignty of the government of Belarus." AM

A Minsk district court on March 18 sentenced youth activist Pavel Kuryanovich to 15 days in jail for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy in Minsk, Belapan reported. Six youth activists on March 17 unfolded English-language signs saying "Free Tibet," waved the Tibetan and Belarusian historic white-red-white flag that was banned by President Lukashenka, and shouted slogans such as "Freedom to Tibet!" and "China, stop terror!" The demonstration lasted for several minutes until police interfered, detaining Kuryanovich and Palina Dyakava. The latter, as a minor, was released later the same day. AM

The Verkhovna Rada on March 18 passed a bill on the Cabinet of Ministers in the first reading and a resolution on early elections for Kyiv mayor, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Both laws were supported by the coalition of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) as well as the Lytvyn bloc. The bill on the Cabinet of Ministers was submitted to parliament by President Viktor Yushchenko and provides for the strengthening of the president's authority at the cost of the government. In particular, it gives ministers the right to nominate their deputies, but it deprives the prime minister of the right to coordinate the activities of ministries and other executive institutions. The bill subordinates the government to decisions adopted by the National Security and Defense Council and approved by the president. The resolution on the early mayoral elections for Kyiv was approved immediately after a government investigative commission reported on the activities of the Kyiv authorities. The election must be held within 70 days from the publication of the resolution. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko recently accused the Kyiv authorities of corruption and threatened that the BYuT would boycott meetings of the Verkhovna Rada until it approved the preterm election. Tymoshenko finally agreed to consider the bill on the Cabinet of Ministers provided that the resolution on the mayoral election was also included on the agenda. AM

Larry Rossin, who is deputy head of the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said in Prishtina on March 18 that the recent unrest by Serbs in northern Mitrovica was organized, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and 18, 2008). Rossin argued that it is clear to UN officials that the violence that left Ukrainian policeman Ihor Kynal dead "was orchestrated, [and] we believe we know who was responsible." Rossin stressed that "we've never had what we could consider a clear and unambiguous denunciation of this kind of violence from the ministers or indeed any other Belgrade government official.... We're having trouble continuing some of our operations in the north of Kosovo right now, and it's directly because of either their interventions or lack of interventions with those who are causing these problems." Rossin said that statements that Slobodan Samardzic, who is Serbia's minister for Kosova, made in Mitrovica on March 17 were "objectionable." Samardzic told demonstrators that "we will protect you just like we protect the Serbs in Serbia [and] will reach the goal only if we are patient, smart, and organized, and if we believe in what we want to accomplish." On March 18, Serbian officials said that they are trying to calm the situation. Britain's ambassador to the UN, John Sawers, said on March 18 that "what we saw yesterday showed the lengths to which some the Kosovo Serb community are prepared to go." The BBC reported on March 19 that boxes of stones had been prepared for the rioters to use before they launched the violence on March 17. In Prishtina on March 18, KFOR commander General Xavier Bout de Marnhac said that "yesterday morning, clearly the red line was crossed with the deliberate intent to kill people. Molotov cocktails, fragments, hand grenades, and direct fire have been targeted at UNMIK and KFOR soldiers, and we are not going to tolerate that." He praised the "professionalism" of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers. Captain Milija Milosevic, an ethnic Serb in Kosova's police force, told Reuters in Mitrovica on March 18 that "following yesterday's events, KFOR has taken over authority for north Mitrovica and occupied the northern police station. UN police have ordered us to stay at home until further notice." PM

Reuters on March 18 quoted unnamed UNMIK "sources" in Prishtina as saying that Samardzic, who is Serbian minister for Kosova, recently presented a plan to UNMIK under which Belgrade would take responsibility for governing ethnic-Serbian areas in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). The sources said that the offer amounts to an attempt to partition Kosova along ethnic lines, which the United Nations, European Union, United States, and Kosovar government firmly reject as illegal. Deputy UNMIK head Rossin said on March 18 that his organization has received what was intended to be "a framework for a comprehensive relationship between Serbia and UNMIK." He did not elaborate. PM

Politics is a dirty business anywhere in the world, but Iraqi politics today rank among the most divisive. While much has been written about Iraq since 2003 -- the early mistakes that continue to impede progress, the bitter rivalries that leave so many innocents dead, the roles of superpowers and neighbors -- few observers have taken a far-sighted approach to viewing the state of affairs.

Like all nation-states forged from strife, Iraq is experiencing growing pains. As the country's diverse ethnic and sectarian groups struggle for a piece of the ruling pie, gains, though slow, have been made. But it will take time. The term "political accommodation" has yet to register in the mind-set of many Shi'ite leaders who were swept to power after the fall of the Hussein regime. Kurds, intent on maintaining their autonomy, say they are being asked to accommodate too much, with Baghdad demanding control over the region's oil while offering little in return. Sunni Arabs, the losers in the war, continue to complain of marginalization by the government.

Iraq is not easy and the problems seem never-ending. A reconciliation conference in Baghdad this week, hastily arranged by the government, proved this. The Sunni Arab-led Iraqi Accordance Front boycotted the meeting altogether, while a Shi'ite bloc affiliated with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi "declined" to attend. One Sadrist parliamentarian called the meeting "government propaganda." The splits run deep, even among supposed allies.

Three major blocs pulled out of the government in 2007 and have yet to return. Two of those blocs, the Al-Fadilah Party and the Sadrists, were onetime allies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. All boycotting blocs say the government, dominated by the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, is bent on consolidating power in the hands of the few. Al-Maliki has been promising for months to reshuffle the cabinet and replace powerful political appointees with qualified technocrats. Still, no changes have come, leaving many to conclude that there is no will behind the rhetoric. Or, perhaps, the prime minister is constrained by his own bloc, which has effectively consolidated its control over the country's security forces over the past five years.

Much has been written about Sunni and Shi'ite militias. Less has been written about the militia-controlled security forces, and their ties to supposed benefactors like Iran. Iraqis living in Shi'ite-populated areas whisper about a government project to eliminate Shi'ite opposition. Journalists acknowledge that this goes on but are hesitant to write about it for fear of retribution. Meanwhile, the government says it is cracking down on insurgents.

Like 2007, 2008 promises to be a decisive year for Iraq. By naming it the year of reconstruction, al-Maliki hopes to build on security gains through robust foreign investment and job creation. On the political front, the country should see nationwide provincial elections. Set for October, the elections threaten to usher in a radically different local leadership that will challenge the halls of power in Baghdad.

These leaders, comprised of tribesmen and homegrown political parties, have a real base of local support, unlike so many opposition parties that came to power in 2005. For Shi'ite leaders like Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who returned to Iraq after 20-some years in Iran, and whose onetime militia, the Badr Corps, has now infiltrated the ranks of police and army, the threat of losing power in governorate elections is very real. Sunni Arabs from the Accordance Front will also have to share space with tribal leaders who have turned their awakening councils into political parties. The awakening councils were initially formed by tribesman in 2007 to fight Al-Qaeda.

The Kurdistan Coalition may be the only coalition to stand unchallenged at the local level.

Indeed, progress is slow, and slower than many in the West would want. Iraqi leaders chose in the first three years after the war to postpone the hard decisions until later. And now, there is mounting pressure from within (not to mention from outside Iraq) to deal with them. The government's passage of a general amnesty law last month was a huge step towards reconciliation. Already, more than 3,000 Iraqis have been released from Iraqi detention.

The Accountability and Justice Law, which serves as a revision of the Coalition Provisional Authority-era de-Ba'athification law, is another step forward. It paves the way for thousands of Ba'athists dismissed from their jobs and from the army, to be reinstated. Though the Shi'ite-led government is moving slowly toward implementing the law, the pressure continues, and progress is being made. The move may be less one of political accommodation and more a need for qualified technocrats. As time goes on, and development takes off, that need for qualified technocrats will only rise. Incorporating awakening forces into the security apparatus has met more resistance from the government. Should the awakening councils not be merged into the police and army, the potential for a breakdown on the security front rises considerably.

Other controversial issues remain. The draft oil law has yet to be passed, obstructing development of the dilapidated oil infrastructure. But technical-support agreements are being signed, and exploration agreements are on the horizon. If al-Maliki succeeds in luring in foreign investment, pressure on the oil industry, the revenues from which make up more than 90 percent of the country's budget, will increase. Last year, Iraq had an estimated $21 billion to $25 billion budget surplus from money not spent on reconstruction projects due to insecurity. With greater parts of the country experiencing security, those surpluses should be expected to fall in coming years.

Corruption continues to be a major impediment to al-Maliki's administration. The government recognizes this and has taken steps to curb corruption. But in one recent high-profile case, it turned a blind eye to the issue, leading many to wonder if there is any substance behind the rhetoric. Last week, al-Maliki cleared two former senior Health Ministry officials, both Shi'a, of corruption charges, even though the Commission on Public Integrity had evidence to substantiate the charges.

The former head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity, Judge Radi al-Radi, said in testimony before the U.S. Congress on March 11 that out of 3,000 corruption cases successfully investigated by the commission, only 241 cases to date resulted in guilty verdicts. He estimated the cost of ministry corruption uncovered by the commission at $18 billion, citing the Defense, Trade, Electricity, Transport, Health, Interior, Communications, Housing, Finance and Oil ministries as the most corrupt.

The figures do not include cases dismissed by judges after they were threatened or assassinated, and they do not reflect the full extent of oil corruption, which includes smuggling, theft, and other fraud. The level of corruption affecting the industry because of the activities of Sunni and Shi'ite militias has resulted in the Oil Ministry "effectively financing terrorism through these militias," he said. Al-Radi, a career technocrat, has since sought asylum in the United States after the Iraqi government issued counteraccusations against him and issued its own arrest warrant for him. Al-Radi's replacement, Musa Faraj, said in January that pressure from within Prime Minister al-Maliki's administration -- but not from al-Maliki himself -- has restricted the commission's ability to function.

As Iraq enters the sixth year since the fall of the Hussein regime, the challenges remain daunting. Many questions linger as to the effects of the U.S. military surge, and whether security gains can be maintained. The greater question is whether there is a will on the part of the government to maintain those gains. U.S. support for awakening councils is one reason Iraq is more secure today than it was one year ago.

But it remains unclear whether the Shi'ite-led government will continue along that path. To date, there are awakening councils in 11 governorates, including in six Shi'ite-populated governorates. Those too, may see little support from the government down the road, depending on where the councils -- or to be more exact, the tribes that comprise them -- stand politically. Indeed, much work lies ahead for Iraq. But the challenges are not insurmountable. All that is needed is a will to move forward equitably and with transparency.

Following a call from Canada for more troops, some of the 3,200 U.S. Marines scheduled for a seven-month deployment in the south of Afghanistan began arriving at the largest base in the region, AP reported on March 18. The Marines will conduct a "full spectrum of operations" to take advantage of the recent gains by NATO and Afghan forces, said Brigadier General Carlos Branco, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). "I believe that the arrival of the Marines simply reinforces what is proving to be a successful strategy. It also demonstrates the commitment of the United States to Afghanistan over the long-term," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood said on March 18. AT

NATO air raids against Taliban insurgents in the southern Helmand Province killed 50 people, including 18 rebels, a parliamentarian from Helmand said on March 18, news agencies reported. However, provincial police chief General Mohammad Hussein Andiwal told AFP that he has no such information. ISAF spokesman Branco also rejected the claim by legislator Amir Dad Mohammad as groundless. However, he added that ISAF did conduct an operation close to the Malmandcina area in Ghorak district of Kandahar Province on March 17, destroying a vehicle driven by insurgents and killing 12 armed militants. He added that the operation was 2 kilometers away from residential areas and there were no civilians among the dead. AT

Under an agreement signed on March 17 in Kabul, the Japanese government agreed to provide a fresh grant of 3 billion yen ($29 million) to the war-torn country, Xinhua news agency reported the same day. The Japanese ambassador to Afghanistan, Hideo Sato, and Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Kabir Farahi signed the agreement on behalf of their governments. The grant, according to a statement by the Afghan Foreign Ministry, will be used to improve economic-structure and poverty-alleviation projects. Japan, with contributions more than $1 billion, is the second-largest aid contributor to Afghanistan after the United States. AT

After several days of disturbances, Afghan security forces have sealed off the country's main high-security prison outside Kabul, Reuters reported on March 19. Gunfire was heard from Pul-e Charkhi prison, and at least nine prisoners have been wounded. According to the BBC, the standoff between prisoners and security forces started on March 16. Inmates took control of parts of the building, and prisoners contacted by mobile phone said that two National Army soldiers have been captured and will be killed unless mediators are sent to resolve the dispute. Although there has been no official response from the government, a Defense Ministry official told parliament an operation is being planned to take control of the prison. AT

Iranian officials have announced definitive results for 223 of the 290 seats in parliament following elections on March 14, while 67 seats in 51 constituencies are to go to a second round of voting, Radio Farda reported on March 18, citing Iranian media. More than 110 candidates are to compete in the runoff in April or May. Results announced by the authorities for the first round give conservatives from various groupings 166 seats, reformists 32 seats, and independent deputies 25 seats, Radio Farda reported. The broadcaster reported that 19 conservatives have been announced as having won seats in Tehran: they include the present speaker of parliament, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, as the top vote winner, followed by Morteza Aqatehrani, Ali Mottahari, Ahmad Tavakkoli, and Hasan Ghafurifard, respectively. They were members of the list of the United Front of Fundamentalists or Principle-ists, which backs the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Others who have won seats in Tehran are the deputy speaker of parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, right-wing cleric Ruhollah Hosseinian, and two women conservatives, Fatemeh Rahbar and Fatemeh Alia. VS

The United States said on March 17 it is "disappointed" with the gas-exportation deal Switzerland signed with Iran the same day and that this sends "precisely the wrong message" amid international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program, AFP reported on March 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and 18, 2008). The U.S. Embassy in Bern issued a statement observing that "we have conveyed to the Swiss that major new oil and gas deals with Iran send precisely the wrong message" when Iran continues to defy UN Security Council demands that it halt sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities; the statement added the deal "violates the spirit of the sanctions" imposed on Iran. VS

A Tehran provincial court examined in camera on March 17 the case of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist detained in Tehran in 2003 who died under suspicious circumstances, apparently as a result of forceful interrogation, Radio Farda and ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007, and February 12, 2008). Iran failed to convict anyone for her death, and her family, lawyers, and rights activists have asked for a review of the case. The dispute has damaged relations between Iran and Canada. The court examined the case with Kazemi family lawyers Shirin Ebadi and Mohammad Seifzadeh, and decided that the judiciary's legal affairs office will ask Kazemi's son Stephane Hashemi, who lives in Canada, to lodge a complaint, ISNA reported. It was not immediately clear if this will be against the judiciary or against individual suspects. The court is to renew its inquiry in mid to late April 2008, ISNA reported. Separately, the judiciary has effectively pardoned and ordered released a woman sentenced earlier to be stoned for adultery, Radio Farda and ISNA reported on March 18. Mokarrameh Ebrahimi, a mother of two, was given a death sentence after being convicted for extramarital sex with Jafar Kiani 11 years ago. Kiani was stoned in mid-2007, provoking protests from the European Union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). VS

Mariam Firuz, an aristocrat who married Nureddin Kianuri, a leader of the banned Tudeh communist party, died on March 13 at the age of 94, and was quietly buried the next day in the Behesht-i Zahra cemetery outside Tehran, Radio Farda reported on March 14. She was buried under the supervision of Intelligence Ministry officials, and relatives reportedly did not attend the burial. Former communist activist Mohammad Ali Amui told Radio Farda on March 14 that Intelligence Ministry agents organized her burial before some of her friends even knew she was dead, and made sure she was buried without publicity or attention. Her life, as well as that of her husband's, was punctuated by court convictions, spells in prison, torture, and exile, as the couple ran afoul of authorities under the monarchy and the postrevolutionary regime after 1979. Firuz was a member of the Farmanfarmaian-Firuz clan, a branch of Iran's former royal family, the Qajars. She spent many years in communist East Germany in the 1960s and 70s, but returned to Iran following the revolution with other exiled members of the Tudeh party. However, many Tudeh members, including Firuz and her husband, were arrested in February 1983 or later, and accused of spying for the Soviets and plotting a communist coup. Some of the detained were later shown on television confessing to the alleged crimes and renouncing their communist opinions; many, including Firuz, had apparently been tortured. She remained in solitary confinement for some years, until released on medical grounds in the late 1980s, and the couple then lived in downtown Tehran under state surveillance. Kianuri died in 1999. "Sometimes intelligence agents went [to their home] and warned them" not to have any contact with Tudeh activists, Amui told Radio Farda. He said the state loosened its surveillance slightly during the 1997-2005 reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami. VS

The trafficking of stolen antiquities is helping to fund both Sunni and Shi'ite militias in Iraq, according to the lead investigator in a probe on the looting of the National Museum, AP reported on March 19. "The Taliban are using opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan. Well, they don't have opium in Iraq," he said. "What they have is an almost limitless supply of...antiquities. And so they're using antiquities." U.S. Marine Reserve Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a New York assistant district attorney, said on the sidelines of a UNESCO conference in Athens on the return of antiquities to their country of origin. Bogdanos said it is nearly impossible to put a value on the looted antiquities, but he gave the example of a missing eighth-century B.C. Assyrian ivory carving of a lioness attacking a Nubian boy, overlaid with gold and inlaid with lapis lazuli, saying it could sell for $100 million. "That would be cheap, I really believe," he said. Bogdanos said looted goods are either plundered from museums or illegally excavated and driven overland either to Jordan or Syria. They are then usually sent to one of three cities: Beirut, Dubai, or Geneva. There, documentation is provided and they "surface," after which they can be sold to private collectors or auction houses. He said his sources say an underground tariff system is even in place, under which Lebanon's Hizballah taxes antiquities. Baha' Mayah, and adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told AP that Iraq is facing "tremendous difficulties" in recovering objects now in Europe, because countries are not cooperating and returning trafficked goods. KR

Rashid al-Zaydan, who heads the Ninawah-based National Front of Iraqi Tribes, was reportedly detained during a U.S. military raid in Mosul on March 18, the "Aswat Al-Iraq" website reported. Al-Zaydan is also the chief of the Al-Lahib tribe. The National Front of Iraqi Tribes was established in March 2004 and brings together tribal leaders, academics, and former military leaders. Since then, several members of the movement have been detained due to alleged links to terrorists. The Al-Lahib tribe in Ninawah and Diyala governorates was listed among hundreds of other tribes as having pledged "allegiance to the Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation" in an online jihadist statement by the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order. The tribes aligned with the insurgency pledged the "readiness of their sons to fight for the victory of Islam and liberation of the country from any foreign occupation," the statement said. KR

A study by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on asylum seekers in the industrialized world found that the number of asylum applications in industrialized countries grew by 10 percent in 2007 compared to a year earlier, mainly because of an increase in Iraqi applications. Some 338,000 new applications for refugee status were submitted in 43 industrialized countries, with the main applicants from Iraq (45,200), the Russian Federation (18,800), China (17,100), Serbia (15,400), and Pakistan (14,300). The number of Iraqis submitting asylum claims nearly doubled compared to 2006, from 22,900 to 45,200. Forty-one percent of those applications were submitted in Sweden, which has a large Iraqi refugee community. The UNHCR cited Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics stating that Iraqis are now the third-largest foreign-born population in Sweden. The UNHCR said Iraqi asylum seekers in industrialized countries represent only 1 percent of the estimated 4.5 million Iraqis uprooted by the current conflict. The top receiving countries for asylum seekers in 2007 were the United States, Sweden, and France, followed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Greece, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Belgium. KR

Jordanian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Nasir Shraidah told a conference in Amman on March 18 that the international community needs to do more to aid countries hosting Iraqi refugees, the Petra news agency reported the same day. "We appreciate the contributions of the donor countries and organizations, but the challenges Jordan is facing because of hosting Iraqis are great, the thing that demands more aid and support for Jordan by the international community," Shraidah said. He told the conference that Jordan has changed a number of rules applying to Iraqis living in the kingdom so that Iraqi children can now attend public school regardless of their residency status. Iraqis will now be charged the same rate as Jordanians for medical treatment, and they will be exempt from residency fines if they decide to return home willingly. Shraidah said the government will also sign an agreement with a private firm to provide visas to Iraqis wishing to travel to the kingdom. The conference hosted representatives from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, the main Arab countries hosting Iraqi refugees. Representatives of the Group of Eight, the United Nations, and the Arab League also attended the one-day conference. KR