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Newsline - March 25, 2008

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview published in Britain's "Financial Times" and the Russian daily "Vedomosti" on March 25 that he is a "lawyer to my bones." He told the British interviewers that Russia should develop the rule of law by asserting "the law's supremacy over executive power and individual actions," and by making sure that citizens understand the importance of "observing the law." He added that Russia needs an "effective" and independent judiciary. Medvedev said that "a modern head of state should conduct an absolutely objective and balanced, and as far as possible effective economic policy, based on the priorities of market values and property rights." He said a possible presidential pardon for imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is "a matter for the courts." Medvedev noted the long-standing "trust" that exists between himself and President Vladimir Putin. Medvedev added that he learned from Putin how to make decisions based on rigorous and thorough analysis, adding that "this is something for many people to learn from...Putin." Asked about the future division of power between himself and Putin, who is expected to become prime minister, Medvedev replied that "the point is not who says the final word, but what the political and legal system of the Russian Federation looks like. This system sets out quite clearly the respective areas of competence of the two main levels of power, that of the presidency and the executive." He noted that "it is the constitution itself that predetermines the answer to the question of who takes decisions on what issues. It is the president who sets out the main directions of domestic and foreign policy. He's the commander in chief, he makes key decisions on forming the executive. He's the guarantor of rights and freedoms of Russian citizens." Medvedev noted that "the government has its own very extensive area of competence. It is the government which implements all economic activities, adopting the most important decisions in the economy.... In other words, it's all simple. Russia is a presidential republic with a strong executive authority." PM

In his interview with the "Financial Times" of March 25, President-elect Medvedev discussed his own daily use of the internet to obtain news from many different sources, adding that "I am confident that our media have a very good future." He noted that Russia does not have a long tradition of a free media, but argued that the legal framework governing the media and the financial resources needed to fund complex modern media enterprises are emerging. Asked whether he is a democrat, Medvedev replied that "I am a supporter of the values of democracy in the form that humanity has developed them over the last centuries. Let the degree of [adherence to democracy], or liberalness, or conservativeness of one official or politician or another be determined by others." Asked about the possibility of turf wars within the security services, Medvedev said that "the security services were not created in order to fight against each other but to follow their constitutional task to defend the social order. At the same time, in any state the security services do compete against each other. This is the guarantee that [a wide variety of] information on the situation in the country will be put on the leader's table." He noted that "I have no information that the Russian security services are competing for wealth. But if I were to get information that representatives of any law enforcement structure are involved in competing or fighting for material wealth, then such people will be immediately fired and charged with crimes. In our country everything should be controlled by the law and by the corresponding structures that exist to oversee the implementation of laws." PM

Referring to possible further NATO enlargement, President-elect Medvedev stressed in the "Financial Times" and "Vedomosti" of March 25 that "we are not happy about the situation around Georgia and Ukraine. We consider that it is extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security." He argued that "no state can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders." Echoing recent remarks by Putin, Medvedev said that "this is something that is even more difficult to explain when the vast majority of citizens of one of the states, for example of Ukraine, are categorically against joining NATO, while the government of this state follows a different policy.... At the very least in such situations, it is usual to hold a referendum" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10 and 17, 2008). He argued that Britain is responsible for the current "limitations" in bilateral relations, but added that "we are open to the reestablishment of cooperation to the full extent" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20 and March 4, 2008). Referring to the proposed U.S. missile-defense program, Medvedev said that Russia is studying the latest U.S. proposals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18 and 20, 2008). He added that "we did not start all this, but we need to move somewhere in order to make sure the situation does not radically deteriorate." He also suggested that there is a "certain movement" regarding "the question of signing a new [and expanded] START agreement." PM

President Putin said in a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on March 24 that Russian "companies are ready to increase their contribution to the restoration and modernization of the economic infrastructure of Iraq, primarily in the energy, oil, and gas sectors, where we have accumulated rich experience and made good arrangements," Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20 and 21, 2007, and February 12, 2008). He stressed that he hopes that "the positive approach of Russian business to the development of cooperation will receive proper support from the Iraqi leadership." In particular, LUKoil wants to develop the West Qurna II field, for which it once had a $3.7 billion contract dating from 1997 under the previous regime. Putin also referred to Russian plans to help modernize the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to the port of Banias in Syria. Putin noted that Russia is expanding its diplomatic presence in Iraq. Moscow recently reached an agreement with Baghdad to write off most of its Soviet-era debt, but reportedly has not received the business contracts from Iraq for which it clearly hopes. PM

"The Moscow Times" on March 25 quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry source as confirming that General Yury Baluyevsky, the chief of the General Staff, has tendered his resignation. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on March 24 that Baluyevsky decided to quit because of his opposition to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov's plans for reforming the armed forces, including personnel changes, and that "many" generals and other senior officers opposed to Serdyukov's plans also intend to resign. According to the daily, Baluyevsky has publicly opposed plans to relocate the Russian Navy's headquarters from Moscow to St. Petersburg. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" also reported that last month's suicide of General-Colonel Viktor Vlasov, the acting head of the army's housing service at the Defense Ministry who reportedly killed himself after being chastised by Serdyukov, along with Serdyukov's call for a 40 percent reduction in personnel at Defense Ministry headquarters and the General Staff, were the "last straw" for Baluyevsky. Prime-Tass reported on March 25 that senior military officials are also unhappy about the privatization of Defense Ministry property, including the sale of two military camps in Moscow. The news agency reported that Baluyevsky previously tendered his resignation three times but that it was not accepted. According to Prime-TASS, Baluyevsky may now be replaced by his first deputy, Colonel-General Aleksandr Burutin. JB

In an interview with the daily "Izvestia" published on March 24, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said the fact that Russia's parliamentary and presidential elections take place within a few months of each other creates a "difficult" situation and that it would be "healthy and correct" to spread them out. The way to do that is to "increase the presidential term," Ivanov said, adding that he "openly and clearly" supports this idea. Ivanov's comments were seconded by Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, who was quoted by the daily "Kommersant" on March 25 as calling the idea of extending the presidential term "a very judicious idea that I suggested a long time ago." Mironov has on several occasions in recent years called for increasing the presidential term from four to five or seven years. As "Kommersant" noted, President Putin told Western journalists in June 2007 that a presidential term of five, six, or seven years would be "fully acceptable" for "today's Russia." Reuters on March 24 quoted Moscow Carnegie Center political analyst Masha Lipman as saying that some Kremlin groups are worried that President-elect Medvedev may not be able to keep infighting in check and are thus making preparations for Putin's possible return to the presidency. "If the system becomes less stable or the Kremlin needs the same person to come back, then it would make sense for him (Putin) to come back for longer," she said. In order to extend the presidential term, the Russian Constitution would have to be amended, which would require the approval of two-thirds of the deputies in the State Duma, three-quarters of the members of the Federation Council, and two-thirds of Russia's regional legislatures. JB

Moscow's Tagansky Raion Court on March 24 convicted seven activists of the banned National Bolshevik Party for their role in an April 2006 scuffle outside court's building with members of pro-Kremlin youth groups. "The Moscow Times" on March 25 quoted a lawyer for three of those convicted, Dmitry Agranovsky, as expressing "relief" that the defendants received relatively light sentences, ranging from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years in prison, despite a request by prosecutors that they be sentenced to three to five years. The defendants were charged with "armed hooliganism" for deploying pepper spray in the melee, a charge they deny. Agranovsky said the activists are "obviously" innocent and will appeal their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. "Vremya novostei" reported on March 25 that a group of supporters of the defendants gathered on the roof of a building across the street from the Tagansky Raion Court on March 24. According to the newspaper, the protesters held signs calling for the freeing of "political prisoners" -- including imprisoned Yukos oil company founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and former Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, who is in jail on charges of trying to kill Unified Energy Systems (EES) head Anatoly Chubais -- and also lit flares and tossed leaflets. Three of the demonstrators were arrested, the daily reported. JB

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on March 25 that some of the participants in an anticorruption roundtable held in the Federation Council on March 24 called for creating a special national body to coordinate the fight against corruption analogous to the National Antiterrorism Committee headed by Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev. Vladimir Spitsnadel, who chairs the Federation Council's subcommittee on counteracting corruption in the sphere of financial relations, said that such a body could be created on the basis of the anticorruption interagency working group headed by presidential aide Viktor Ivanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007) and would include representatives of all of the country's law-enforcement structures. However, not all of the roundtable's participants agreed that such a body should be set up. Audit Chamber chief Sergei Stepashin said he opposed such a move, calling it a "road to nowhere" and dangerous. "We have constitutional bodies and governing bodies, and if they can't handle it, they need a change of staff," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Stepashin as saying. JB

The Duma adopted on March 21 the final text of a draft resolution it began debating one week earlier advocating a fundamental revision of Russia's policy toward the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester in the wake of Kosova's unilateral declaration of independence, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2008). The resolution reaffirms support for Russia's insistence that "the system of international relations created with such difficulty after World War II must not under any circumstances be destroyed." In that context, it stresses the Duma's respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both Georgia and Moldova, but argues at the same time that those three republics have "far greater grounds" to demand international recognition than does Kosova. It notes that Georgia's accession to NATO will negatively affect the desire of the Ossetian people for unification, and that Russia has the right to demand that the will of Russian citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia be respected. It calls for closer economic ties with all three breakaway republics and for preserving the current format of peacekeeping operations in the respective conflict zones, given that the withdrawal of the peacekeeping forces could lead to destabilization and "catastrophic consequences for the civilian population." It suggests that additional security measures may be needed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. LF

The State Duma resolution also suggests that the Russian government should consider opening diplomatic representations in all three regions and enact measures to facilitate border-crossing procedures between those regions and the Russian Federation, reported. In the event of an armed attack by Georgia on one of its breakaway republics or measures to expedite Georgia's admission to NATO, the resolution stresses that it will become imperative to take all possible measures to protect Russian citizens living in those republics, and to consider "expediting the process of their sovereignization." It concludes with an appeal to the Russian president and government to "consider the expediency of recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," but not that of Transdniester. It did not stipulate a time frame for doing so. On March 17, RIA Novosti quoted Aleksei Ostrovsky, chairman of the Duma's Committee on CIS Affairs, as explaining that the situation with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia differs fundamentally from that of Transdniester, whose leader has affirmed his readiness to resume talks with the Moldovan government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). Duma Deputy Arsen Fadzayev (Unified Russia), who is himself an Ossete and the deputy chairman of Ostrovsky's committee, told on March 21 he would like to see "Russia formally recognize South Ossetia today." Nugzar Ashuba, who is speaker of the de facto Abkhaz parliament, told that he thinks some Abkhaz may be disappointed that the Duma resolution was not "more radical," meaning that it did not call for immediate and unconditional recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state, reported. By contrast, Dmitry Medoyev, who heads the South Ossetian representation in Moscow, hailed the Duma resolution as "very important" and as "the first step" toward Russian recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported on March 22. LF

Twenty-two of the 44 members of the Irkutsk Oblast legislature have signed a letter to President Putin asking him to dismiss Aleksandr Tishanin, who has served as oblast governor since the fall of 2005, and reported on March 21 and 24, respectively. (Under the federal constitutional law on merging Irkutsk and the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug, the oblast legislature does not have the right during the transition period to January 1, 2009, to vote no confidence in the governor.) On March 21, the parliament gave a negative assessment of Tishanin's role in coordinating socioeconomic development in 2007, while prosecutor Anatoly Melnikov told deputies that his office has appealed to a local court to declare illegal Tishanin's continued refusal sign the oblast budget for 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). Elections are scheduled for October 12, 2008 for the new, enlarged federation subject's parliament. LF

Valery Potapenko was quoted by "Kommersant" on March 24 as saying he is not aware of any decree by President Putin removing him from office, nor does he anticipate any such move. Rumors of Potapenko's imminent dismissal began circulating several weeks ago after Nikolai Kiselyov was dismissed from the post, which he had held since 2004, of governor of Arkhangelsk Oblast, into which the Nenets Autonomous Oblast is to be gradually incorporated against the will of many of its residents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). On March 19, the Arkhangelsk Oblast legislature approved by a vote of 55 in favor, three against, and one invalid ballot paper President Putin's proposed candidate to succeed Kiselyov, Ilya Mikhalchuk, who resigned last September as Irkutsk mayor after his subordinates were implicated in a corruption scandal, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007 and March 11, 2008). Mikhalchuk told deputies at his confirmation hearing that he will seek to consolidate the efforts of the authorities and society and revive the oblast's construction industry, and that he does not plan sweeping personnel changes, reported on March 19. LF

Unidentified gunmen opened fire on and killed Gadji Abashilov, chairman of Daghestan State Television and Radio, in the evening of March 21 as he was getting into his car in Makhachkala after buying groceries in a local supermarket, "Kommersant" reported. His driver was seriously injured. A former editor of the weekly "Molodyozh Dagestana," Abashilov was named to head the state broadcasting company in January 2007 by President Mukhu Aliyev, with whom he was close. A reward of 10 million rubles ($420,221) has been offered for "reliable information" about the identity of those who ordered and carried out the killing. Just hours before his death, Abashilov conveyed his condolences to the family of another journalist from Daghestan, Ilyas Shurpayev, who was found stabbed to death earlier on March 21 in his apartment in Moscow, where he worked for Channel One television. Moscow police do not suspect any link between Shurpayev's killing and his work as a journalist, according to on March 22 quoted Andrei Melamedov, former editor in chief of the Daghestan paper "Nastoyashchee vremya" as saying that the names of both Shurpayev and Abashilov figured on a "blacklist" given to him by the paper's general director, Rizvan Rizvanov, of people whose names were not under any account to be mentioned in that paper. Melamedov quit the paper on March 13 after a major falling out with Rizvanov. Shortly before his murder, Shurpayev reportedly noted in his blog his amazement at discovering that his name was on Rizvanov's blacklist. On March 18, reported that Rizvanov, a Lezgin, had issued orders to the paper's journalists to exercise no restraint in their criticism of the republic's leaders, and of President Aliyev in particular. LF

The preliminary hearings resumed in Nalchik on March 20 of 58 men accused of participating in the multiple attacks on police and security facilities in the city in October 2005, reported. The Investigative Committee of the Kabadino-Balkaria Republic office of the Russian prosecutor-general rejected an appeal by six of the defendants to open a criminal case in connection with the torture they claim they were subjected to during the pretrial investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15 and 30, 2007, and February 21 and March 3, 2008). Also on March 20, the defendants formally requested a postponement of the selection of jury members, due to begin on March 25, in order to consult with their lawyers, one of whom, Magomed Abubakarov, argued that a jury trial is inappropriate and expressed doubts that jury members would prove to be "objective and unbiased," reported. On March 19, the Nalchik City Court rejected an appeal by a second lawyer, Larisa Dorogova, against the refusal by prison officers to allow her access to her client Zaur Tokhov, one of the six men who claim to have given incriminating testimony under torture. A delegation from the European Committee Against Torture is scheduled to arrive in Nalchik on March 26 to meet with government officials and human rights activists and inspect the pretrial facility where the 58 accused are being held, reported on March 22. LF

Some 2,000 supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian congregated in central Yerevan on March 21 to pay their respects to the eight people killed during clashes on March 1-2 between police and security officials and Ter-Petrossian supporters, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). Police sought again on March 21 to prevent the protesters marching through the city center and detained several of them, but minor scuffles did not escalate into major violence. Outgoing Armenian President Robert Kocharian told journalists on March 20 that he would not extend the state of emergency he imposed following the March 1 clashes, and which expired on March 20, but he warned at the same time that he has ordered police to take "strict measures" to prevent further mass demonstrations, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian again rejected international calls for an independent investigation into the March 1 violence, which was the culmination of 10 days protests by Ter-Petrossian supporters against the official results of the February 19 presidential ballot that identified Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian as the winner with 52.8 percent of the vote, followed by Ter-Petrossian with 21.51 percent. Ter-Petrossian claims to have polled 65 percent of the vote. LF

Four of the five parties represented in the Armenian parliament signed on March 21 a formal agreement on creating a new coalition government following outgoing Prime Minister Sarkisian's inauguration as president on April 9, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Those parties are Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia; Orinats Yerkir, which is headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who polled third in the February 19 election and signed a cooperation agreement with Sarkisian on February 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008); Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia); and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun. The agreement pledges to deepen democratic reform, speed up economic development, strengthen rule of law and freedom of speech, and launch a "comprehensive and effective fight against corruption." It gives no hint who will be named prime minister. Stepan Safarian, who is faction secretary of the fifth parliamentary party, former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian's Zharangutiun, was quoted by on March 23 as saying that the coalition agreement is not a solution to the current political crisis and is intended only to dupe the international community, which has called for dialogue between the authorities and the Ter-Petrossian camp. LF

Four of the 10 Armenian Foreign Ministry officials who were fired in late February after publicly expressing "outrage" that the February 19 presidential ballot was marred by blatant fraud have appealed to Armenia's Administrative Court to reinstate them, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Their lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, said they will argue that their dismissal violated some provisions of the Labor Code. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian explained the dismissals as in line with legislation that bars Foreign Ministry employees from engaging in politics. LF

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin held talks in Yerevan on March 18-20 with outgoing President Kocharian, President-elect Sarkisian, and Foreign Minister Oskanian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Karasin told journalists on March 20 that Moscow was disturbed both by the March 1 violence in Yerevan and by the subsequent intensive exchanges of fire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the Line of Contact, Noyan Tapan reported. He said "riots in the streets" solve no problems, but only compound instability and uncertainty, and he praised the authorities' response to "this dangerous test" and their commitment to "a very certain political path of reforms and dialogues." Karasin affirmed Russia's continued support for efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group (of which Russia is one of the three co-chairs) to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, and said that Russia voted against the Azerbaijani-sponsored resolution "On the Situation In The Occupied Territories Of Azerbaijan" in the UN General Assembly on the grounds that "it could not yield any positive results," Noyan Tapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). "Any change in format would bring a sense of uncertainty," he added. On March 19, the three Minsk Group co-chairs released a statement calling on the conflict sides to resume negotiations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). On March 20, President Kocharian told journalists that if Azerbaijan quits the Minsk Group, which he described as the optimum negotiating framework, then Armenia should formally recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh and sign agreements with it on mutual assistance and defense, Noyan Tapan reported. Speaking in Baku on March 20, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev described the passage of the Azerbaijani resolution in the UN General Assembly as "a huge political and diplomatic success," reported. LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a response on March 24 to the resolution adopted on March 21 by the Russian State Duma affirming respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldova but at the same time urging the Russian president and government to consider the expediency of formally recognizing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported (see "Russia" section above). The Georgian statement characterized the Duma resolution as open interference in the affairs of a neighboring state and directed against the principles of international law. The Georgian statement argued that Russia has thereby forfeited any moral, political or legal right to seek to act as a neutral mediator in the Abkhaz conflict. It expressed specific concern at the Duma's proposal to beef up the Russian peacekeeping presence in both conflict zones and warned that Georgia will interpret any attempt to do so as an act of aggression. Konstantine Gabashvili, who chairs the Georgian parliament's committee on foreign relations, said on March 24 the legislature will not issue a strident response to the Duma resolution, but will instead draft an appeal to NATO members, reported. LF

Mamuka Kurashvili, who commands the Georgian peacekeeping contingent deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone, denied on March 23 that Tbilisi was responsible for a blast the previous evening in the village of Okona that seriously injured a peacekeeper from North Ossetia and a local Ossetian villager, reported on March 24. A spokeswoman for the government of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia blamed Georgia for the blast; Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili countered by accusing South Ossetia of seeking to provoke a resumption of hostilities. The website on March 24 identified one of the blast victims as having infiltrated the Georgian intelligence service and helped thwart a terrorist attack in Tskhinvali last year. LF

Following the amendments to the Georgian constitution approved in the final reading on March 12, the parliament approved in the final reading on March 21 by a vote of 134 in favor and two against an amendment to the election law under which 75 parliamentarians will be elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 75 according to the proportional, party-list system, reported. The opposition is lobbying for an alternative system under which majoritarian lawmakers would be elected in a smaller number of multi-mandate constituencies (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 16, 2008). The majoritarian lawmakers will need to poll only 30 percent of the vote to secure election; a proposal by opposition parliamentarian David Berdzenishvili (Republican party) to raise that threshold to 50 percent was rejected, a move that Berdzenishvili said will only deepen further the ongoing political crisis. A second amendment approved on March 21 bars independent candidates from contesting the 75 majoritarian seats, while a third gives the ruling United National Movement (GEM) a majority of seats on election commissions at all levels. LF

Meeting with five opposition party leaders on March 20, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II appealed to the opposition politicians who embarked on a hunger strike 11 days earlier to desist, echoing President Mikheil Saakashvili's March 16 argument that a hunger strike is an "un-Christian" form of protest, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Ilia called at the same time on the Georgian authorities, also without success, to take unspecified measures to defuse political tensions. Initially, the hunger strikers demanded repeat presidential elections; creating conditions to ensure the parliamentary ballot scheduled for May is free and fair; the release of all persons detained after the November 7 clashes between police and opposition supporters in Tbilisi; and amending the constitution to provide for the election of 75 majoritarian parliamentarians in multi-mandate constituencies. Koba Davitashvili (People's Party) explained on March 21 that the opposition has dropped the first three of those demands and will resume talks with the authorities if and when the fourth demand is met, reported. He said the deadline for doing so has been extended from March 21 to March 24. But prominent GEM parliamentarian Giga Bokeria said in an interview published on March 24 in the weekly "Kviris palitra" that the authorities will not make any concessions to the opposition as long as the hunger strike continues, while parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze was quoted by the same paper as saying categorically that the constitution will not be changed again as doing so would make it impossible to hold the parliamentary elections in May as scheduled. A group of prominent cultural figures met on March 24 with Burjanadze, who asked for the March 24 deadline to be extended for 24 hours so she could consult with President Saakashvili; they agreed to that request. Protesters began gathering outside the parliament building on March 25, reported. LF

The prosecution at the trial in absentia of former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili called on March 24 for a 13 years jail term on charges of bribery and blackmail; money laundering; abuse of his official position; and negligence, and Caucasus Press reported. Okruashvili was arrested last fall, 48 hours after accusing President Saakashvili in a television interview of condoning corruption and planning the assassination of a political rival (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and 27 and October 1, 2007). He was released on bail 10 days later after publicly recanting those allegations, and left Georgia in late October; he is currently in France where he has applied for political asylum. In a March 21 interview with the television channel Rustavi-2, Okruashvili predicted that the prosecution would demand a 15-year sentence. He also again criticized Saakashvili, who he claimed appoints mediocrities as his subordinates in order to manipulate them, and he expressed concern that the Georgian authorities are engaging in what he termed "clandestine behind the scenes deals" to gain control of the Imedi television channel formerly co-owned by oligarch and opposition presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died in the United Kingdom last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). LF

The Samgua state holding company announced on March 21 the purchase of the remaining shares of the Khabar media group not owned by the state, Kazakhstan Today reported. According to a press release issued by Khabar, the Samgua group acquired a 49.99 percent stake in the media group for an undisclosed amount from unnamed "private entities." An unidentified source within Khabar told reporters that the acquisition was part of a plan by the government "to return the Khabar TV channel to state ownership," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Khabar TV, the country's leading television station, was founded by the president's daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva. The acquisition of the shares in Khabar, in which the Kazakh state already controlled 50 percent plus one share, follows the plan advocated by Culture, Information and Sport Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, who has consistently pressed for complete state control of Khabar TV, arguing that "the importance of information security" necessitates state "domination" of the media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). RG

A spokesman for the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry announced in Bishkek on March 20 that police have arrested the man suspected of killing a prominent journalist and his wife, AKIpress and ITAR-TASS reported. The two victims, Russian-language "Vecherny Bishkek" newspaper correspondent Yury Aleksandrov and his wife Angelina, were first reported missing on March 7. Investigators believe that the killings had no connection to the journalist's work and attributed them instead to a dispute tied to the fact that the suspect rented an apartment from the 60-year-old Aleksandrov and his wife. RG

Unnamed officials of the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office announced on March 20 in Bishkek that a group of health workers have been charged with infecting children with HIV in the southern Osh region, AP reported. The 14 health workers were formally charged with criminal negligence during their administration of injections and blood transfusions for the children in August 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). Forty-one toddlers and eight adults were infected, sparking public outrage and fueling concerns over conditions in medical facilities. President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued orders at that time for a probe of a similar outbreak of HIV among residents of the southern Nurkat district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2007). That outbreak involved some 11 people, including nine children and a medical worker, infected with HIV due to what the probe determined was "irresponsible medical care." Speaking at a recent international conference on HIV/AIDS in Bishkek, Deputy Prime Minister Dosbol Nur-uulu pledged to step up state efforts to combat the spread of the disease, stressing that HIV/AIDS poses a "serious threat" to the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2008). RG

Officials from the office of President Bakiev in Bishkek issued a statement on March 24 denying rumors and opposition allegations suggesting that Bakiev is gravely ill and undergoing medical treatment in Germany, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Presidential chief of staff Midet Sadyrkulov added that Bakiev is "in good health" and will conclude his vacation in Germany on March 28. The rumors increased in recent days, due to Bakiev's absence from the country for a new national holiday marking the 2005 ouster of former President Askar Akaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2008). RG

President Emomali Rahmon met on March 24 in Dushanbe with visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, ITAR-TASS and the Tajik presidential website,, reported. Rahmon recognized Iran as "one of our main strategic partners," and noted that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad recently pledged to fully implement the planned construction of the Sangtuda-2 and Shurob hydroelectric power plants, and to complete the construction of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran highway. Mottaki was in Dushanbe to attend a meeting with his Tajik and Afghan counterparts aimed at bolstering a new effort at "trilateral cooperation" and establishing a Tajik-Iranian-Afghan "economic council." Speaking to reporters following the meeting with Rahmon, Mottaki welcomed Tajikistan's support for Iran to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. RG

In a special ceremony in Ashgabat, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov signed on March 20 a new broad strategic framework outlining a new concept of a "neutral foreign policy" stressing greater engagement in international efforts of security, stability, and development, Turkmen Television reported. Covering the period 2008-12, the new foreign policy focuses on "defending the country's national interests in the international arena" and "creating a favorable climate for the implementation of long-term plans of the political, socioeconomic, cultural, and humanitarian development of Turkmenistan," while "maintaining close partnership with international organizations and the United Nations." After signing the document into law, Berdymukhammedov met later that day with several of the country's most significant ambassadors posted abroad and senior Foreign Ministry officials. Berdymukhammedov also announced that the planned opening of two new embassies, in Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan, and the opening of a new diplomatic academy mark a more assertive foreign policy that includes "close partnership" with the more than 40 international organizations in which Turkmenistan is a member. He also pointed to the importance of "maintaining relations with our immediate neighbors" as a foreign-policy priority and noted that Turkmenistan intends to expand relations with its neighbors, including Iran and Afghanistan, and "will boost our partnership" with Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union, as well as the UN and OSCE. He then confirmed that he will lead a delegation in the first-ever Turkmen participation in a NATO summit set for April 2-4 in Bucharest, according to ITAR-TASS. As recently as 2007, Turkmenistan concluded a preliminary agreement with NATO. RG

On a state visit to Turkey, President Berdymukhammedov met on March 24 in Ankara with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, concluding a new agreement on cooperation between the countries' Foreign Ministries, Turkmen Television and ITAR-TASS reported. Berdymukhammedov asserted that both countries share "a similar view on international and regional issues" and are "supporters of strengthening security and stability." Berdymukhammedov also said that the two sides agreed to deepen cooperation in effort to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, while seeking measures to expand bilateral trade and investment. RG

Jonathan Moore, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, on March 24 told the Belarusian Foreign Ministry that the embassy has cut its staff to the number that the Belarusian diplomatic mission in Washington has in pursuance of Minsk's request, Belapan reported. "The United States views this demand as groundless and inconsistent. But it will abide by it and the number of diplomats in Belarus will be reduced to 17 by the end of the day on March 27," Reuters quoted Moore as saying. Moore said that around 30 diplomats are currently working at the embassy. "The United States will with great regret reduce the number of American staff at our embassy in Minsk by almost half, at the insistence of the government of Belarus," the U.S. State Department said in a statement the same day. "The unfortunate actions by the Belarus authorities demonstrate that Belarus has taken a path of confrontation and isolation rather than a path of engagement and democratic reform. We would like a different relationship with Belarus, but that can only happen when the government of Belarus shows commitment to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms," the statement added. U.S.-Belarusian relations have deteriorated recently over economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department against Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, and 19, 2008). In November 2007, the 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 President Alyaksandr 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 "urgently recommended" that the U.S. Embassy reduce its staff. Belarusian television on March 23 even reported that a U.S. spy ring was smashed in Belarus, but the report was immediately denied by the embassy. "We have no spies operating in Belarus," Moore said. AM

Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who attended the March 21 session of the Council of Ministers of the Belarusian-Russian Union State in Minsk and met with Belarusian President Lukashenka, called on Washington to revise its policy toward Minsk and ease economic pressure on the country, Belapan reported. "Instead of establishing a dialogue and abolishing restrictive measures, Washington tries to pressurize Belarus, pursuing its interests," Zubkov said. "All this is going on against a background of positive steps on the part of the Belarusian government, including toward gradually carrying out market-oriented reforms," he said. Lukashenka reiterated his stance that Washington's sanctions against Belnaftakhim are a violation of international treaties signed by the United States and added that "the economic situation in Belarus is absolutely normal." AM

A district court in Homel on March 24 sentenced youth activist Andrey Stryzhak to seven days in jail and Dzyanis Hramyka and Alyaksandr Yashanau to five days each for distributing leaflets for a March 25 demonstration in Minsk marking the 90th anniversary of the Belarusian People's Republic, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. On March 21, the Homel court sentenced activist Andrey Tsyanyuta to 10 days in jail for disorderly conduct. In Zhodzina, Minsk Oblast, where activists marked the anniversary on March 23, four organizers of the demonstration -- Yuras Zhylko, Pavel Krasouski, Yuras Silkin, and Alyaksandr Kamarouski -- were sentenced to seven days in jail each. Belarusian democratic activists regard the proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic as a key event in the formation of Belarusian statehood in the 20th century. AM

The Ukrainian tugboat "Naftohaz-97," with a crew of 24 Ukrainians and one Chinese, sank on March 22 near Hong Kong after colliding with a Chinese ship, Ukrainian media reported. Six Ukrainians and the Chinese, who were on the upper deck at the moment of the crash, were pulled from the sea by rescuers. The remaining 18 crew are still missing. In connection with the crash, the Foreign Ministry has set up a special committee headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Kupchyshyn. Kyiv also asked China to secure Ukraine's participation in the investigation of the crash. AM

The 450-seat Verkhovna Rada on March 20 annulled by 440 votes the law on state purchasing, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "The parliament has fulfilled its historic mission -- it freed the state from legislative corruption," parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk said. The parliament obliged the Cabinet of Ministers to prepare within two weeks a new draft on state purchasing and temporarily secure the procedure of such purchases during this period. Yatsenyuk said that President Viktor Yushchenko is ready to sign the annulment immediately. Yushchenko earlier mentioned the lack of the transparency among the main shortcomings of the law on state purchasing. AM

On March 24, Kosova's President Fatmir Sejdiu marked the ninth anniversary of NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia, which he said, "stopped the aggression of Serbia's military and paramilitaries against the people of Kosova," news agencies reported. He added that "we express our deepest gratitude and thanks to the U.S. [and] EU...for helping Kosova when our people were threatened with extinction" by Serbian security forces and their ethnic-cleansing policies. In Belgrade on March 24, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica attended a memorial church service for the Serbs killed in the campaign. His office issued a statement in which he said that "now it is more than clear that the merciless destruction of Serbia in the NATO bombing had only one goal, and that is to turn Kosovo into the first NATO state in the world." In an interview published in the Belgrade daily "Vecernje novosti" on March 23, he accused NATO peacekeepers and UN police of using "snipers and banned ammunition" to put down a Serbian riot in Mitrovica recently, in which Serbs killed a Ukrainian policeman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, 19, and 20, 2008). Kostunica noted that "the situation in Kosovo is very difficult, and there are reasonable and unreasonable people." In Moscow on March 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov to send "humanitarian assistance" to Kosova's Serbian enclaves but to do so "without political overtones," RIA Novosti reported. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the cabinet that Serbia requested that aid. PM

On March 24, Belgrade dailies published the text of a recent formal request by the Serbian government to the UN, which calls for the "functional division" of Kosova along ethnic lines, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. Under the proposal, Serbia would assume responsibility for the Serbian-populated areas of Kosova. The UN, United States, and EU have repeatedly rejected Serbian calls for a partition along ethnic lines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2008). Momcilo Trajkovic, who is a Serbian political leader in Kosova, told RFE/RL on March 24 that Belgrade's plan is impractical because Serbs live scattered throughout Kosova, and that Belgrade could not assume authority over them without the agreement of the ethnic-Albanian majority throughout the territory. Trajkovic said that Belgrade's proposal is as "absurd" as Kosova's "unilateral" declaration of independence, which was made without the agreement of the Serbian minority. Serbian Economy Minister Mladjan Dinkic said on March 24 that the cabinet never approved the document submitted to the UN. He suggested nonetheless that the basic outlines of the plan might be inferred from the government's still secret "action plan" on Kosova. In Prishtina on March 24, Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuci said that the Serbian proposal is "reminiscent of an old way of thinking." He stressed that "this proposal is a provocation from Belgrade, and we reject it 100 percent. We want to help create cooperation between Serbs and Albanians in Kosova, not divisions." PM

Kosovar Deputy Prime Minister Kuci said in Prishtina on March 20 that the government's two ethnic-Serbian members returned to their posts, which they "boycotted" following Kosova's declaration of independence on February 17, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kuci stressed that the return of Nenad Rasic, who is minister of social welfare and labor, and Boban Stankovic, who is minister of refugee returns and communities, "is not news, it's routine. The government session was called for all ministers, and [the two Serbs] continue to cooperate with us.... This is just a normal government session." PM

Without consulting with parliament, Vladimir Voronin on March 21 named outgoing First Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Greciani to head the new cabinet following the resignation two days earlier of Vasile Tarlev, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). Legislator Iurie Rosca of the Christian Democratic People's Party expressed approval of the choice of Greciani, whom he characterized as a professional with considerable experience and an impeccable reputation, reported. But Serafim Urecheanu of the opposition Our Moldova alliance warned that his faction will vote against Greciani and the cabinet she must propose within 15 days, reported. LF


According to the Defense Ministry, Afghan and international forces killed dozens of Taliban militants in an air and ground strike on March 22, AFP reported on March 23. The insurgents were killed in the southern province of Oruzgan and their bodies remained on the ground, the ministry said. Due to ministry policy, the precise number of dead was not disclosed, but a high-ranking ministry official said on condition of anonymity that more than 40 Taliban fighters were killed, including the group's commander. Weapons, including rockets and heavy machine guns, as well as a police vehicle were seized, the ministry said. Also, according to the ministry, the Afghan and foreign forces did not suffer any casualties in the operation. AT

A former mujahedin commander and pro-government figure was shot dead by Taliban militants in the southern Helmand Province, provincial police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal said on March 23, Xinhua news agency reported the same day. Andiwal told Xinhua that Haji Abdul Kabir was killed on the outskirts of Lashkarghah, the provincial capital. He added that Kabir did not work for the government, but only supported it. Qari Yusef Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility and added that militants punished Kabir for supporting government and foreign troops based in Afghanistan. AT

Gunmen have killed seven Afghan staff of the UN-funded mine-clearing teams in northern Afghanistan, their organizations said on March 24, AFP reported. Unknown attackers stopped a convoy of deminers in the province of Jawzjan on March 23 and opened fire, killing five and wounding seven, the Afghan Technical Consultants said. According to group's director, three people stopped the vehicle and started shooting without saying anything. It was the worst attack on the company in its 18 years of operations in Afghanistan, he said. Two more employees of a separate mine-clearing group, the Mine Detection and Dog Center, were shot dead in the northern province of Konduz on March 24. After nearly three decades of war, Afghanistan is one of the world's most mined countries. The acting UN representative in the country, Bo Asplund, said in a statement, "It is abhorrent that anyone would target individuals working to free the people of Afghanistan from the scourge of land mines." AT

The Guardians Council, a body of jurists and clerics that validates Iranian election results, on March 23 confirmed the results for 30 constituencies following the March 14 parliamentary elections, Radio Farda reported on March 24, citing Iranian news agencies. The constituencies were outside Tehran and included Qom, a conservative area south of Tehran, and Sanandaj and Shahr-i Kurd in western Iran, which are inhabited mostly by Kurds. The council earlier confirmed results for 30 other constituencies, IRNA reported on March 24. Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai told IRNA in Tehran on March 23 that the council has also confirmed results for mid-term polls for several seats in the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics that supervises the supreme leader's office. The elections have so far given conservatives control of the next parliament, the eighth since 1979, though there is to be a second round of voting for some seats and reformists have challenged the results, in Tehran and elsewhere (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, 19, and 20, 2008). The council has stated that there could be random recounting of some ballot boxes, but no large-scale or systematic recount, Radio Farda reported on March 24. Guardians Council spokesman Kadkhodai said in Tehran on March 24 that a second round of voting will take place on April 25, Fars news agency reported. VS

Police sources in Iran have reported that about 130 Iranians have died in car accidents in the March 19 or 20 to March 22 period, when many Iranians began visiting relatives around the country for the Persian New Year holidays, Radio Farda reported on March 23. Most Iranians take two weeks off from around March 20. March 21 was the first day of the year 1387 in Iran's solar calendar. Traffic police spokesman Hossein Alishahi told IRNA on March 23 that there are 1,400 cameras on Iran's roads and some 5,500 cars were stopped for speeding in recent days, but that careless driving persisted. The state coroner's office said last year that 1,487 Iranians died in road accidents from mid-March to April 4, while traffic police chief Mohammad Ruyanian has said that over 20,300 people died in car accidents in an unspecified 10-month period in the year 2007, Radio Farda reported on March 23, citing Mehr news agency. A state tourism official, Jamshid Hamzezadeh, told IRNA on March 24 that some 15 million Iranians were on the roads in the days around March 20. VS

Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh-Attar was in Mehran on Iran's frontier with Iraq on March 24, and said it is a secure area and the most suitable post for the movement of pilgrims and goods in and out of Iraq, IRNA reported. Mehran is 90 kilometers south of the town of Ilam, in the western Ilam Province. Sheikh-Attar said Iran has suggested Iraq open a consulate in the province, but Iraq has yet to respond. "We will try and open more offices to facilitate the movement of pilgrims from both states in the near future," IRNA quoted Sheikh-Attar as saying. VS

U.S. military officials are expected to urge Britain to implement a U.S.-style troop surge in the southern city of Al-Basrah in an effort to control the spiraling violence there, "The Sunday Mirror" reported on March 23. Rival militias and armed gangs have waged a campaign of killings, kidnappings, and oil smuggling in the city and the spike in violence and lawlessness has prompted the Iraqi government to send forces into the region to establish control (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2008). There are approximately 4,100 British troops in Al-Basrah, all of them housed in the outskirts of the city at the airport, and British officials have been reluctant to send soldiers into the city for fear of inciting even greater violence. However, a senior U.S. military official told "The Sunday Mirror" that the situation in Al-Basrah has become so critical that British forces need to be redeployed into the city. "U.S. and Iraqi forces are involved in a huge operation to attack an Al-Qaeda stronghold in Mosul. But after that the plan is to turn the coalition's attention onto Al-Basrah and we will be urging the British to surge into the city," the official said. "The feeling is that if southern Iraq is hugely unstable it will affect the success of the surge in the north and destabilize the whole country." SS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited Al-Basrah on March 24 to review the security situation, state-run Al-Iraqiyah reported the same day. No specific details were given concerning al-Maliki's visit. However, a high-ranking government source told Kuwait's KUNA news agency that al-Maliki's visit is part of the government's effort to restore order in the city, which is mired by instability. Meanwhile, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced during a news conference the same day that Baghdad is about to set up a plan to restructure and carry out a massive deployment of Iraqi forces in Al-Basrah. "Iraq's security forces would be reorganized and intensified in Al-Basrah with direct supervision from the prime minister, the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces, to confront groups involved in sabotage in the city," he said. SS

A U.S. air strike on March 22 near the central town of Samarra killed six members of a local awakening council allied with U.S. forces against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqi and international media reported on March 23. Abu Faruq, a leader of the awakening council in Samarra, told AFP that the six men killed were members of his group, which were manning a checkpoint outside Samarra. "At 5 a.m. today [March 22], I got a call from the...fighters to say that a helicopter had fired flares above their checkpoint and had then launched an attack. Six of the members were killed and two others were wounded," Faruq said. He also said that his fighters were wearing reflective vests, clearly identifying them as members of the awakening council. The U.S. military confirmed that "an incident" occurred in Samarra that resulted in the deaths of six people and the wounding of two others, but did not say whether they were members of the awakening council. The military did say it would conduct a full investigation. Awakening councils are coalitions of local tribesmen that have been established in eight governorates in an effort to root out Al-Qaeda-linked elements. SS

Baghdad's Green Zone on March 23 came under a barrage of rocket and mortar fire, international media reported the same day. No casualties or major damage were reported inside the heavily fortified area, but several reports indicated that up to 15 people outside the Green Zone were killed by rockets and mortars that fell short of their target. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. However, the U.S. military has previously blamed similar attacks on Shi'ite militia elements known as Iranian-backed "special groups," which are rogue elements of Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The military said these special groups have refused to follow al-Sadr's cease-fire, first imposed in August 2007 and later extended by six months on February 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). The Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies as well as the Iraqi parliament, has repeatedly been struck by rocket and mortar fire. SS

A truck packed with explosives rammed into an Iraqi Army base in the northwestern city of Mosul on March 23, killing 13 Iraqi soldiers and wounding more than 40 others, international media reported the same day. Officials at the scene said the driver of the truck smashed through a barrier of armored vehicles outside the army base in the Al-Harmat neighborhood in western Mosul and detonated the explosives in the courtyard of the base. Soldiers outside the base fired on the driver as he drove toward the base, but failed to stop him, since the truck was equipped with a bulletproof windshield. SS

An Iraqi Kurdish official, Azad Watho, announced on March 23 that Iranian artillery shelled three towns in the Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate in northern Iraq, international media reported. Watho said the border towns of Marado, Razda, and Dolakoka were shelled for approximately two hours. He also indicated that no casualties or serious damage was reported in the attacks. The Iranian military has frequently shelled Iraqi Kurdish villages in the mountainous regions of northern Iraq where it believes that rebels from the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) are based. PJAK is an anti-Iranian Kurdish group with links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that operates along the Iran-Iraq border. Tehran has claimed PJAK fighters frequently cross the border from Iraq into Iran to carry out attacks. SS