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Newsline - March 27, 2008

U.S. President George W. Bush announced in Washington on March 26 that he has accepted an invitation from President Vladimir Putin to go to "Sochi to discuss the [proposed U.S.-Russian] strategic agreement, a crucial part of which is missile defense," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, 19, and 20, 2008). Bush added that "we're optimistic we can reach an accord on some very important matters." He noted that "a lot of people in Europe would heave a deep sigh of relief if we're able to reach an accord on missile defense." Bush said that he has been careful "to maintain good relations [with Putin] so he'll listen to what I say." The visit will take place after NATO's April 2-4 Bucharest summit, which Putin plans to attend for a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. "The Washington Post" commented on March 27 that "Bush's decision to go [to Sochi] was unusually spontaneous by presidential standards. A president's overseas trips are booked weeks, even months in advance." The daily noted that "Putin raised the idea of going to Sochi several weeks ago and brought it up again in a March 7 telephone conversation with Bush. But it was not until [March 26] that Bush decided to take him up on the offer. 'This is a big deal,' said one surprised administration official. 'This is a leap.'" Observers in both countries suggested recently that Bush and Putin might like to reach an agreement on missile defense and some other strategic issues before they both leave office. PM

The daily "Vremya novostei" reported on March 27 that a "Russian delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak began the second round of consultations" on missile defense and other strategic issues in Washington on March 26. The U.S. side was an expert group headed by Undersecretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation John Rood. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried also took part. The newspaper suggested that Washington and Moscow might be preparing a major trade-off on missile defense. The daily quoted Aleksandr Konovalov, who heads Russia's Institute of Strategic Estimates, as saying that such a deal is possible. He suggested that "a compromise may come down to the following. The Americans do not bring their killer missiles to Poland, and agree to joint control over the U.S.-Russian integrated radar framework. Russia in return agrees to joint design, development, and use of strategic and tactical missile-defense systems and integrates its southern radars into them." Konovalov added that a "merger of all elements of Russian and U.S. missile-defense systems into a single complex will solve all problems and allay all suspicions." PM

The presumed U.S. Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, said on March 26 in Los Angeles that "we have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact, a league of democracies, that can harvest the vast influence of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests," news agencies reported. He added that "we should start by ensuring that the G8, the group of eight highly industrialized states, becomes again a club of leading market democracies. It should include Brazil and India, but exclude Russia." McCain stressed that "rather than tolerate Russia's nuclear blackmail or cyber attacks, Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO from the Baltic to the Black Sea is indivisible, and that the organization's doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom." In a radio broadcast, McCain said on March 3 that the recent Russian presidential election "would not pass the smell test in any functioning democracy. The people of Russia are going back to the days...where they don't have the right of free elections or even a free society." In recent weeks, several Russian commentators have sharply criticized McCain (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and 27, and March 4, 13, and 18, 2008). PM

In a statement issued on March 26, the Defense Ministry denied recent media reports that General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the General Staff, resigned over a dispute with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov involving proposed staff cuts, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). The ministry called the reports "irresponsible [and] not true." On March 27, Colonel General Vasily Smirnov, the deputy chief of the General Staff, denied that cuts are planned in the armed forces or the ministry's central departments, reported. He noted that the armed forces currently number 1,134,800 people and that the Defense Ministry central apparatus consists of 10,523 people. Smirnov said that any "restructuring" will not affect the size of the armed forces or the ministry. On March 27, however, the daily "Kommersant" argued that there are deep differences between Baluyevsky and Serdyukov, who is a former tax official with no military background. The newspaper recalled long-standing speculation that Baluyevsky hoped to become defense minister when Sergei Ivanov left the post about a year ago. It noted that many professional military men are, in any event, angry over several changes proposed by the ministry's civilian leadership, "who view the ministry as just another business venture." PM

Nikolai Svanidze, the veteran television journalist and historian, and his wife Marina Svanidze, who is also a historian, have written a book about President-elect Dmitry Medvedev. The book includes interviews with friends and longtime acquaintances of Medvedev, and with Medvedev himself. Excerpts of the Svanidzes' interviews with Medvedev were posted on the president-elect's official website,, on March 27. The Svanidzes' book is reminiscent of "In the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin," a book based on interviews that Putin gave to a group of journalists that was published at the start of his presidency in 2000. JB

In his interviews with the Svanidzes, Medvedev was asked to comment on "the role of the siloviki" in Russia today, meaning the influence of the special services and veterans of the special services. Medvedev said that people from the special services bring both "positive" and "negative" experience and, like anybody else, should be neither demonized nor glorified. There is "nothing unusual" in leaders with experience in the special services inviting those with the same experience, "people with whom they have worked," to take up "political posts," Medvedev said. "Such people tend to be well-versed in decision-making" and "have experience working in a regime of secrecy, and that's good," he said, but often lack the "necessary" experience in "public work." Medvedev added that even though he is a "veteran lawyer" who never worked in the special services, "publicity also doesn't come easy for me." There is "a mass of examples," he said, of a person with a "splendid classical education" who never worked in "the organs" turning into an "out-and-out scoundrel" while working either in government or in business, and cases in which a person who had been involved in "special work" all their lives found their true calling in politics or business, "or even became a priest." Medvedev said he sees no problem in the fact that today more "public positions" are held by "people who have experience working in the special services" than was the case previously. Special-services veterans hold top positions in other countries, he said, although he added that Russia's history in this regard has been "very complicated," with attitudes toward the special services varying widely. "And this, of course, strains people," he said. "But that is already history." JB

The excerpts of the Svanidzes' interviews with Medvedev also include his thoughts about his relationship with President Putin. The president-elect told the authors that the guarantee of success in his relations with his former boss and future prime minister -- which he conceded will be a "new situation for us" - will be their "personal comradely relations." In Russian history, "the head of state, whatever he was called, did not leave office for another position," said Medvedev. "He either went into retirement or fell into disgrace. And so it is in all countries -- all European countries, at any rate. It is usually different in America. American presidents can afterwards get involved in foundations, even business, but do not appear again in government service. But we are a European country, and here there is extensive practice of people moving from position to position and not seeing it as the end of the world. And this, it seems to me, is a very important tradition -- when a person can be in a top position and return to active politics in another leading position, being an effective person and, as in the case of Vladimir Putin, also a super-popular leader." Medvedev said he views the model in which he is president and Putin is prime minister as "a model that is capable of working," although he conceded that it will be tested "for durability" and probed for "defects." He concluded: "But we are sufficiently grown-up guys for this. We'll manage." JB

In his conversations with the Svanidzes, Medvedev said it is too early to make an assessment of Russian democracy. "Russian democracy is still quite young," he said. "It will be only possible to assess the results in 30-50 years, as usually happens in history." The development of democracy in Russia is proceeding "according to its own laws," said Medvedev. "Most complicated is the interplay between the universal character of the democratic form and one's own national historical component," he said. "The priority of one or the other is, in my view, dangerous." Medvedev said he disagrees with the claim that "the degree of specificity of Russia, its history, is such that no universal values, no universal forms of state governance [or] forms of organizing a civilized society will work in Russia." Such a claim, he said, is "trickery" that has certain "objectives" -- either "geopolitical objectives, when representatives of foreign states talk about this," or "domestic objectives, when our home-bred politicians say that Russia is not ready for democracy." Medvedev also said he does not think it appropriate to attach additional definitions to the word "democracy." "I think this simply impoverishes the situation," he said. "Even with the full understanding that democracy is possible only in an absolutely sovereign state that has its own constitution, supreme power inside the country and an independent course outside." JB

The head of the A Just Russia faction in the State Duma, Nikolai Levichev, said that a law lengthening the term of the Russian president may be ready by this autumn, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on March 26. The state-run newspaper said that it is not yet clear by how much the current four-year presidential term will be increased, but quoted Levichev as saying that the "optimal" term would be five years, as long as a president is able to serve two terms. However, according to Levichev, the possibility of limiting a president to a single seven-year term is also being considered. Levichev said that the law extending the presidential term, if passed, will apply to the president elected in 2012 and not affect the impending term of President-elect Medvedev. Meanwhile, Interfax on March 26 quoted Kostroma Oblast Governor Igor Slyunyayev as saying that the optimal term for Russia's president would be 12-15 years or, alternatively, that the president should have the right to run for three terms. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov recently called for lengthening the presidential term, while Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov reiterated his previous calls for such a step (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). JB

Audit Chamber chief Sergei Stepashin on March 26 called for re-instituting a progressive income tax, reported. "For a country like Russia, it would be socially just," Stepashin told the Vesti-24 television channel. Russia currently has a flat personal income-tax rate of 13 percent, which was instituted in 2001. Stepashin said he was struck by the experience of the Baltic states and "countries that are close to us in economic and social terms -- Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Canada," all of which have progressive income-tax systems. He also justified his call for a progressive income tax by stating that there are too many billionaires in Russia today. "In terms of their number Russia is solidly in second place in the world after the United States, which does not correspond to the size of the economy or level of development of our country," he said. A record 87 Russians made the "Forbes" magazine list of global billionaires this year, with Russians accounting for 19 of the top 100 richest people in the world, second only to the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). Stepashin also called for reducing the value-added tax. President-elect Medvedev has called for a single, reduced value-added-tax rate and said replacing the value-added tax with a sales tax should also be considered (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2008). Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said on March 25 that the Finance Ministry is proposing a cut of $4.2 billion in annual taxes for oil companies next year, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 26. JB

Moscow investigators have established the identity of the men who killed Ilyas Shurpayev, a journalist from Daghestan who worked for Channel One television, at his Moscow apartment during the night of March 20-21, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). The men reportedly tortured Shurpayev before killing him and stole some 100,000 rubles ($4,260). LF

In a press statement released on March 26, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused "professionals" from Georgia of masterminding two blasts in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia on February 28 and March 23 that killed two people and injured 19, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 29 and March 25, 2008). The statement called on the conflicting sides to exercise "maximum restraint," and advocated the urgent resumption of talks within the framework of the Joint Control Commission, which Georgia has declared ineffective and defunct (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4 and 7, 2008). The statement further expressed support for de facto South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity's renewed call last month for a meeting between himself and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, reported. It said that direct top-level dialogue between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali would contribute to the ongoing search for effective approaches to resolving the conflict. LF

FSB and Interior Ministry personnel armed with mortars and grenade launchers opened a counterterrorism operation late on March 26 against four members of an illegal armed formation holed up in a five-story apartment building in the town of Dagestanskiye Ogni, just north of Derbent on the Caspian coast and some 50 kilometers from the frontier between Daghestan and Azerbaijan, killing three of them, Russian media reported on March 27. Interfax quoted Daghestan Interior Ministry officials as saying the militants belong to a group that since the death of Rappani Khalilov in September 2007 has been led by Elgar Malachiyev, a citizen of Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). Khalilov was named commander of the Daghestan Front in the summer of 2006. Also on March 27, reported that the special operation launched in mid-December in the mountain village of Gimri is continuing, and residents have been given no indication how much longer the restrictions on leaving the village will last (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 18, and 28, 2007, and January 7, 17, and 18, 2008). LF

Union of Journalists of Russia (SZhR) Chairman Vsevolod Bogdanov flew on March 25 to Grozny where he offered personal apologies to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov for the embarrassment he caused by approving a request by the Chechen subsidiary of the SZhR to enroll Kadyrov into its ranks, reported. Several Russian journalists threatened to quit the union in outrage, and its secretariat annulled the Chechen move on March 6 on the grounds that it contravenes the statutes of the union, which stipulate that only professional journalists may become members. Members of the Chechen Union then threatened to quit the SZhR en masse (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 10, 2008), but have retracted that threat in the wake of Bogdanov's public apology, reported on March 26. LF

In the wake of the expiration of a 20-day state of emergency in Armenia, police units stepped up on March 26 efforts to deter and detain daily public gatherings of demonstrators and opposition supporters in central Yerevan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The municipal police force adopted obvious measures of heightened security and reasserted control over public places with aim of preventing spontaneous gatherings and nearly daily silent walks by groups of people. A number of people were subject to an almost random series of arrests, with many people detained for hours before being released after simply walking through public areas and main thoroughfares. Defending the new police tactics, Artyom Babayan, the head of the Yerevan police force's criminal investigations unit, told reporters that such measures were necessary "to clear things up" and claimed that the detainees were all opposition supporters who "may commit crimes," adding that the police believed that there could be "wanted criminals" among them. Nearly 50 people were arrested on March 26 in the latest police roundup of people walking in public, Arminfo reported. Opposition legislator and former human rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdian warned that "with such steps, the authorities further escalate the situation." RG

Prominent independent deputy Viktor Dallakian called on March 26 for a parliamentary investigation into the violent postelection violence in Yerevan, adding that it is crucial to defuse the Armenian political crisis, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Dallakian proposed that the parliament form a special "ad hoc commission" to investigate the circumstances of the March 1 clashes between riot police and thousands of opposition supporters, adding that the commission should consist of members of all parliament factions, two deputies not affiliated with any party as well as former President Levon Ter-Petrossian or one of his representatives. He explained that such an investigation is the best way for the parliament to "take on a serious role in our country's political life." As he did on March 18, Dallakian also proposed a broader set of recommendations aimed at stabilizing the crisis, including the holding of snap parliamentary elections next year, the release of all arrested opposition activists who were not involved in violent acts and the reopening of two independent television stations taken off the air in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2008). Also on March 26, deputy parliament speaker Galust Sahakian told a press conference in Yerevan that it is time to "turn the bad page" in Armenian history that former President Ter-Petrossian's attempted political comeback represented, Noyan Tapan reported. He stressed the need to implement political reforms swiftly in order to defuse the tensions resulting from the disputed February 19 presidential ballot and subsequent violence. Sahakian said no decisions have yet been made on the allocation of portfolios within the four-party coalition sealed on March 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008), but that President-elect Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), to which Sahakian belongs, wants one of its members to serve as prime minister. RG/LF

A spokeswoman for Armenia's Prosecutor-General's Office, Sona Truzian, confirmed on March 26 that two opposition activists currently held in police custody were actually first arrested and extradited to Armenia by Georgian police, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The two opposition activists, Samvel Abovian and Suren Sirunian, admitted to having fled Armenia to seek refuge in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, in the wake of the deadly postelection March 1 clashes between riot police and demonstrators in Yerevan. Armenian prosecutors also confirmed that the two men face lengthy prison sentences if convicted for involvement in those clashes. Anzhela Hobosian, the defense attorney for the two men, reported that Abovian and Sirunian were detained in Georgia in the early hours of March 9 and, two days later, were formally charged with organizing "mass riots." Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan confirmed the extradition, which he said was carried out on the basis of a bilateral agreement on extradition first reached in 2000. A local leader of the Armenian community in Tbilisi, Arnold Stepanian, was also quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service as revealing that dozens of opposition supporters of former Armenian President Ter-Petrosian have fled to Georgia since the launch of the unprecedented government crackdown. RG

A total of 69 political parties have informed Georgia's Central Election Commission of their intention to participate in the May 21 parliamentary elections, Caucasus Press and reported following the expiry at 6 p.m. local time on March 26 of the deadline for doing so. They include the ruling National Movement, which has been renamed the National Movement for a Victorious Georgia; the Republican Party; the New Rightists; Tavisupleba (Freedom, led by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia); the People's Party (Mamuka Giorgadze); the Radical National Party; Our Georgia; Kartuli Dasi (Georgian Group, headed by Jondi Bagaturia); For a United Georgia (headed by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili); and the Union of Traditionalists (Akaki Asatiani). Those parties not represented in the current parliament must collect and submit to the commission by April 1 a minimum of 30,000 signatures in their support. The opposition Labor Party, which on March 13 called on other opposition parties to join it in boycotting the ballot, submitted an application at the last minute after that appeal went unheeded, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Speaking to reporters in Tbilisi, Bidzina Baratashvili, the executive director of the Imedi Television station, announced on March 26 that he expects the station to resume at least partial broadcasts by the beginning of next month, Caucasus Press reported. Baratashvili admitted that the resumption of broadcasts has been delayed due to "many problems, including financial, technical and problems related with staff" and added that "it will take some time to resolve these problems," but stressed that Imedi TV should be able to resume partial broadcasts by April 1, with a full schedule planned for April 10, following the selection of "new anchors for primetime news programs, as well as new anchors for political talks-shows and their formats." Baratashvili met earlier in Tbilisi with Joseph Kay (also known as Joseph Kakalashvili), an adopted cousin of the late co-owner of Imedi, oligarch and opposition presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died in the United Kingdom last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). But Patarkatsishvili's widow, Inna Gudavadze, was quoted as saying that Kay is "an imposter" and nothing more than "a front man for the authorities, who are using him to gain control of the station." For his part, Kay, who asserted his claim to be new owner of Imedi, told reporters that he effectively canceled an agreement under which Patarkatsishvili reportedly transferred over management rights of the Imedi media holding group to the News Corporation owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Earlier on March 26, the Georgian National Communications Commission said that it has no plans to consider suspending Imedi TV's broadcast license. Former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili recently accused the Georgian authorities of engaging in what he termed "clandestine behind-the-scenes deals" to gain control of Imedi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). RG

A senior Georgian delegation led by Foreign Minister David Bakradze and Giorgi Baramidze, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, met on March 26 in Brussels with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Caucasus Press reported. They also attended a meeting of the North Atlantic Council and discussed the implementation of Georgia's Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO. The visit is timed to strengthen the Georgian bid to elevate its status as a NATO aspirant prior to the NATO summit set to open on April 2 in Bucharest. Georgia seeks to graduate from its IPAP to the next stage of candidacy for NATO membership by formalizing a new Individual Membership Action Plan. The country's NATO aspiration was also a central theme in Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's recent visit to Washington (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). In comments to reporters following the meeting, Bakradze warned that NATO leaders risk increasing regional tensions if they give in to Russian pressure and block the membership aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia, and he urged NATO leaders to base their policy toward Russia "on principles, not appeasement," AP reported. RG

After a closed trial in Astana, a Kazakh military court on March 26 sentenced Rakhat Aliev, the former son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, to a 20-year prison sentence in absentia after finding him guilty of plotting to overthrow the Kazakh government, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. A co-defendant, former National Security Committee (KNB) chief Alnur Musaev, was also sentenced to 20 years in prison following his conviction on the same charge. Musaev was also sentenced in absentia. In a separate trial in January, a district court in Almaty sentenced Aliev and Musaev to 20 and 15 years in prison, respectively, after their conviction for corruption, money laundering, and extortion charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2008). The two men were also convicted in that trial of forming an organized criminal group and abducting two employees of a leading Kazakh bank in an attempt to coerce them to turn over sizable property holdings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). The 45-year-old Aliev, a former ambassador to Austria, remains in self-imposed exile there after an Austrian court rejected a Kazakh extradition request (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, and 13, and August 9, 2007). Aliev was divorced from the president's oldest daughter, Darigha, in June 2007 after over 20 years of marriage. RG

After a joint Kazakh-Russian operation on March 25 uncovered an arms-trafficking network in the West Kazakhstan Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008), Kazakh Interior Ministry official Beket Aymaganbetov announced on March 26 that the police have expanded the investigation to focus on the involvement of a large state-affiliated arms producer, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Aymaganbetov said that the ministry is investigating "the illegal production and sale of firearms" and the "possible involvement of the management" of the Metallist armory, the sole arms producer in Uralsk, the administrative center of West Kazakhstan Oblast. RG

Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov met on March 26 in Astana with the visiting secretary-general of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Nikolai Bordyuzha, ITAR-TASS reported. Bordyuzha succeeded in persuading Akhmetov of the merit of Kazakhstan joining the CSTO, which Akhmetov confirmed in a statement to reporters asserting that "Kazakhstan is oriented toward deep integration not only in the economic sphere, but also in the sphere of maintaining security, primarily within the CSTO." In response, Bordyuzha unveiled new "plans to enhance military cooperation" within the CSTO, and hailed "Kazakhstan's particular contribution to strengthening the collective security system." In a later meeting on March 26, Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin also met with Bordyuzha to discuss "issues of political cooperation," Kazakhstan Today reported. During his visit, Bordyuzha also briefed Kazakh officials on plans to expand efforts to combat drug trafficking in the region, with a particular focus on drugs coming from Afghanistan, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. RG

Speaking at a conference in Bishkek, U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Marie Yovanovitch stated on March 26 that the United States has urged the Kyrgyz authorities to ease restrictions on demonstrations and public rallies, AKIpress and the website reported. Yovanovitch added that "these restrictions do not take into account the scope of a possible rally or other gatherings," and stressed that "the requirement that a notification should be sent 10 days in advance and the event itself should be held in designated places are too restrictive, or simply freedom of speech will be of no importance if you are allowed to shout only in a wasteland of several hectares." She also noted that public demonstrations do not pose a "threat to public order" and that "long-term stability can be achieved only through ensuring freedom of speech and opportunities for all the citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic to enjoy their constitutional rights." The Bishkek city council imposed new restrictions on public gatherings and rallies in late November 2007, with measures specifying that public gatherings be held at only three main locations in Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). Those restrictions followed other measures, including a requirement calling for the traffic police to monitor and approve the use of loudspeakers in vehicles. RG

Belarusian opposition politician Alyaksandr Milinkevich condemned the police crackdown on demonstrators who gathered on March 25 in central Minsk to mark the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008), Belapan reported. "Absolutely peaceful people with flowers took to the streets.... But they were beaten up, hauled into dark corners so that the press could not see abuses," Milinkevich said. According to Ales Bylyatski, head of the Vyasna Human Rights Center, police detained around 100 demonstrators. Belarusian Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau has confirmed that 88 protesters were detained and that during their arrest some of them were injured. "They [the authorities] only played democracy in hope to get money from the West, but they remained the same under the surface," Milinkevich said. Belarusian Popular Front leader Lyavon Barshcheuski, one of the demonstration's organizers, said that there was no reason for its violent dispersal by riot police. "The demonstrators' actions were absolutely peaceful," he said. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said that "it is unacceptable that peaceful demonstrators, including journalists, were reportedly arrested and some subjected to violent treatment." She continued: "I am all the more dismayed by these events, since we had recently seen some more positive actions by the Belarusian authorities: the release of five out of six of the internationally recognized political prisoners, suspension of the court case against the Belarus Helsinki Committee, and the final steps paving the way for the opening of an [European Commission] delegation in Minsk." "The Belarusian authorities must understand that the positive momentum created by these acts needs to be confirmed if we are to engage in a full partnership. The final release of all political prisoners, including Alyaksandr Kazulin, and the end of harassment of civil society are concrete steps that could progressively open the way for a normalization of our relations," Ferrero-Waldner added. AM

Five district courts in Minsk on March 26 heard the cases of detained participants of the opposition demonstration marking the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of Belarusian People's Republic, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. Twenty-eight demonstrators were sentenced to terms from three to 15 days in jail and 42 demonstrators were fined from $81 to $489 for participating in an unsanctioned rally. Among those arrested or sentenced are youth activists Zmitser Dashkevich, Artur Finkevich, Ivan Shyla, Krystsina Shatsikava, and Katsyaryna Salauyova. Dashkevich, leader of the unregistered organization Youth Front, received a 15-day jail term. Riot police also detained two journalists from the Minsk-based independent "Nasha Niva" newspaper, staff writer Syamyon Pechanko and photographer Andrey Lyankevich. Both had press cards and were working on the newspaper's online coverage of the demonstration. Pechanko was sentenced to 15 days in jail, while Lyankevich's trial was postponed until March 27. Police also briefly detained Lithuanian reporter Ruta Ribaciauskiene and her cameraman Jonas Griskonis, who had accreditation from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, and seized a videotape containing footage of the demonstration and its violent dispersal. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry on March 26 handed Belarusian Ambassador Uladzimir Drazhyn a note demanding an explanation of the detention and the return of the seized tape. AM

Belarusian Committee for State Security (KGB) officers in Minsk on March 27 set a trap for correspondents of the Polish-based Radio Racja, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. In the morning, officers waited near the apartment rented as the Minsk office of the broadcaster and detained everyone headed toward it. They later searched the apartment. Eugeniusz Wappa, head of the Belarusian Union in Poland, which founded Radio Racja, told "RFE/RL Newsline" that the KGB detained three of the station's correspondents: one in Minsk, one in Brest Oblast, and one in Hrodna Oblast. The correspondent in Vitsebsk notified the broadcaster's office in Bialystok, Poland, that his apartment was broken into. Similar searches were also made of the offices and private apartments of independent journalists in Brest, Hrodna, Vitsebsk, and Homel, including the office of the European Radio For Belarus and the apartments of correspondents of independent Belsat television. The KGB accused the journalists of slandering President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. AM

The Belarusian KGB has officially confirmed that U.S. lawyer Emanuel Zeltser and his secretary, Russian national Vladlena Funk, were arrested on March 12, Belapan reported on March 26, citing KGB spokesman Valery Nadtachayeu. Nadtachayeu told Belapan that both were charged under the article of Belarus's Criminal Code that penalizes the deliberate use of counterfeit documents by a group of people. Russian-born Zeltser, who heads the Russian-American Law Institute NGO, was arrested after he arrived in Minsk for meetings with clients and has been held in the KGB detention center. The KGB has previously refused to provide any explanation for the arrest. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has told reporters of prominent European newspapers that the issue of Ukraine's possible NATO membership should be regarded in the context of the country's sovereignty, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on March 26. "I have no doubts that we will receive a positive signal," Yushchenko said. He said that Ukraine's intention to join NATO is a desire to join the most effective system of collective security and the readiness to share responsibility for Europe's security with all its states. Asked by the "Financial Times" whether Ukraine's move toward NATO is, as described by Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, "extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security," Yushchenko said that Ukraine's possible NATO membership does not pose any threat to its neighbors, including Russia. "These are attempts to leave Ukraine in a position in which it would be unable to protect its security against threats. This is not acceptable. We are a sovereign nation," he added. AM

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on March 26 that she is satisfied with the achievements of her government during its first 100 days in power, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "This is a government whose priorities undoubtedly are the national interest and the interest of each individual," Tymoshenko said. Among the main achievements of the government, Tymoshenko mentioned Ukraine's accession to the World Trade Organization, the initiating of talks on a free-trade zone between Ukraine and European Union, and the signing of the extended agreement with the EU. Tymoshenko said that anti-inflation steps taken by the government should yield results within six months. "It is necessary for at least half a year to curb inflation processes," she said. Tymoshenko criticized the Verkhovna Rada for failing to approve the government's program submitted for parliament's consideration two months ago. The Presidential Secretariat also assessed the government's first 100 days in power positively, although its deputy head, Oleksandr Shlapak, suggested the government be more modest when setting its achievements and more objective as regards its predecessor's actions. AM

Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who was one of the Soviet Union's top Middle East experts and the first director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), said in a recent interview with the Belgrade daily "Vecernje novosti" that the only practical solution for Kosova is a partition along ethnic lines, which would entail population transfers, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and Reuters reported on March 26. Primakov, who was Russia's peace envoy to Belgrade in the run-up to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, said that "the best solution would be now for [Kosovar] Serbs to move out of southern parts to northern parts, which are closer to Serbia, and then to join Serbia." He stressed that "partition is the only solution. If not, there will be constant conflicts, and innocent people will suffer." Kosova, the European Union, United Nations, and the United States oppose the partition of Kosova, which Belgrade nonetheless seeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25 and 26, 2008). Possible population transfers, in conjunction with a partition, have long been discussed among diplomats and Balkan experts in private (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," April 24, 2007, and February 13, 2008). It is not clear whether he cleared his remarks with the Kremlin or the Russian Foreign Ministry before he gave his interview, but RFE/RL reported from Belgrade on March 26 that he probably cleared his statement with the Serbian government. If that is the case, then it seems likely that Belgrade has come to favor population transfers, but prefers to let a Russian statesman launch the first trial balloon. Some of the most important Serbian cultural and religious monuments in Kosova are located outside the north. Echoing views often made by Serbian leaders, Primakov said in his interview that Kosova's independence could lead to the breakup of some other Balkan states, and that "one thing should be kept in mind, that giving independence to Kosovo means the start of creating a Muslim state in the middle of Europe." PM

Serbian Trade and Services Minister Predrag Bubalo, who belongs to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), said in Belgrade on March 26 that Serbia "did not ask for any special humanitarian aid for Kosovo" from Russia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. On March 24, the Russian cabinet discussed what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said was a Serbian request for humanitarian aid for Serbian-populated enclaves in Kosova. On March 26, however, Bubalo said that the Russians must have come to realize themselves that Kosova's Serbs "are living in especially difficult circumstances, particularly in the enclaves" outside of the Serbian-dominated north (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). PM

French Colonel Jean-Luc Cotard, a spokesman for NATO's KFOR peacekeepers, said in Prishtina on March 26 that NATO will use "all appropriate means" if mobs attack it with lethal weapons, Reuters reported. He stressed that "we are not a police force. We don't have the same rules. Don't expect KFOR to send flowers when we are being shot at." He noted that he makes "a strict distinction between citizens and murderers." Cotard said that KFOR has examined an unexploded hand grenade of the kind recently used against UN police and NATO troops in Mitrovica during Serbian riots, in which one Ukrainian policeman was killed, and that the grenade proved to be a Yugoslav-made M75, which contains 3,000 "marbles", or prefragmented steel balls. He added that "it is used to kill people during an assault." In an interview with the Belgrade daily "Vecernje novosti" of March 23, Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica accused NATO peacekeepers and UN police of using "snipers and banned ammunition" to put down the riot in which the Ukrainian policeman died (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, 19, 20, and 25, 2008). PM

On March 26 in Prishtina, Kosova's President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci met with Cindy McCain, the wife of presumed Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain of Arizona, AP reported. She is on the board of the mine-clearing organization HALO trust and recently visited Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, and Angola to discuss its work in former conflict zones, including Kosova. The top-level reception accorded to her reflects the importance Kosova attaches to relations with the United States. PM


A car bomb exploded in a market in the Girishk district of Helmand Province on March 26, killing at least eight people and wounding 17, Reuters reported, citing local police. Provincial police chief Hussain Andiwal told the news agency that "the explosives were inside a car parked at the weekly market, where a sizable number of people were buying and selling goods." Andiwal said the explosion apparently targeted civilians; there were no foreign or Afghan forces in the area, and children were among the victims. A Taliban spokesman denied responsibility for the attack, which is common Taliban policy when many civilians or children are among the dead. AT

Afghan Education Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar has called on Western countries to allow Afghan communities to fight the Taliban on their own, the BBC reported on March 26. Atmar said higher numbers of NATO troops won't solve the conflict, and called instead for the greater "Afghanisation" of security efforts. The BBC referred to "Afghanisation" as a popular concept among Western countries eager to start withdrawing troops from the country. Atmar noted that NATO spends 10 times more on its foreign troops than it does on supporting Afghan forces, and said the same money would be better spent on arming and training local troops. He told the BBC that Afghan forces could defeat the Taliban in five years, but that NATO would require at least 15 years to do the job. AT

A group of Afghans who were kidnapped in a tribal region of northwestern Pakistan were released on March 26, Xinhua news agency reported. Negotiators sent by the local authorities managed to secure the prisoners' release. The 40 Afghans were traveling on the so-called Pakistan-Afghan Friendship Bus, heading toward the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, when they were stopped and abducted by armed tribesmen. It was unclear from the news reports when the kidnapping took place. The kidnappers were reportedly seeking the release of three of their relatives who were arrested in Afghanistan earlier this month. AT

The Taliban has threatened to use new techniques and increase its attacks in Afghanistan during its spring offensive. A statement delivered to news agencies and credited to Taliban senior commander Mullah Brother warns Afghans to quit their government jobs or risk being targeted. The U.S. military and NATO, however, have dismissed the threat of a Taliban spring offensive, saying the only offensive that will take place this year is one by Western and allied Afghan troops. AP quoted Mark Laity, the NATO spokesman in Kabul, as saying on March 26 that the Taliban is threatening "more destruction, more unhappiness, more misery. What is there that will present any hope for the Afghan people?" General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said the Taliban announcement is nothing but propaganda. Azimi said that "thousands of Taliban were killed last year," while "the Afghan National Army has increased its numbers. Important Taliban leaders have been killed." AT

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki has written to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to say that UN Security Council Resolution 1803 passed on March 3 against Iran contravenes the UN Charter, and Iran has no obligation to abide by its stipulations, Radio Farda reported on March 26, citing Iranian news agencies. The resolution was intended to pressure Tehran to curb its contested nuclear program and especially nuclear fuel-making activities that could be used in making weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3 and 4, 2008). The letter was given to Ban on March 25 by Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazai. Mottaki stated in his letter why Iran considers certain sections of the resolution were illegal and he claimed that certain Security Council members "politicized" Iran's case. It observed that Iran worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency in the months preceding the resolution to help clarify its activities. Mottaki said Iran reserves the right to take unspecified legal measures against states that voted for the resolution, and he urged them to compensate Iran for financial or economic losses incurred and "apologize to the Iranian people." VS

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim said in Damascus on March 26 that Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki could attend the Arab League summit to be held in Damascus on March 29 as a participating guest, the same way Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attended a recent Gulf Cooperation Council summit, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 12, 2007). The summit will discuss issues including the political crisis in Lebanon, although Lebanon is not attending in protest at Syrian interference in its politics, while Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are sending low-level envoys, not their foreign ministers or monarchs, showing their unease at Syrian involvement in Lebanese politics. Iran and Syria are believed to back the Hizballah-led opposition to the government of Fuad Siniora; the two blocs have failed to agree since November 2007 on a choice of president. Iran and Syria have denied meddling in Lebanese politics. Al-Muallim dismissed the idea that Iran's presence at the summit would mean it would dominate or influence the agenda. He added that ties between the Arabs and Iran are important, though the summit will remain principally an Arab affair, IRNA reported. VS

President Ahmadinejad said on March 26 at the first cabinet meeting in the new Iranian year -- the year 1387 that began on March 21 -- that the next 12 months will be a time of economic change and the brisk implementation of state policies, the state broadcaster reported. Ahmadinejad said the year will see "structural changes" in Iran, the implementation of "great works including economic changes," updated projects and the reduction of state-sector costs, and an "orderly" program of provincial trips, reported. Ahmadinejad has favored visits to the provinces as a means for cabinet members to come into direct contact with people outside Tehran. The cabinet also approved on March 26 the creation of a new district called Rostam, in the southern Fars Province. VS

The Interior Ministry has urged Iranian pilgrims not to travel individually to Iraq due to "numerous security problems," IRNA reported on March 26. The report did not indicate if groups or caravans of pilgrims should also postpone trips to Iraq, which has most recently been the scene of resurgent violence and gun battles between troops and insurgents in several areas. Iran's Shi'ite Muslims visit shrines or mausoleums in Iraq belonging to some of the Prophet Muhammad's descendents or relatives, whom the Shi'a revere as saints or as Muhammad's rightful successors as rulers of the Islamic community. Most were killed in the seventh to 10th centuries by the caliphs in Damascus or Baghdad who did not recognize their dynastic claims. The Iranian state pilgrimage body also advised pilgrims to postpone trips to Iraq in light of the "special conditions" in Iraq, IRNA reported. VS

Fighters belonging to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, on March 26 clashed with Iraqi forces for a second day in several cities, Iraqi and international media reported. In the southern port city of Al-Basrah, AFP reported that at least seven people died in fierce clashes in the Al-Mahdi Army stronghold neighborhoods of Al-Quzayzah, Al-Hayaniyah, Al-Qarmah, Khamsah Mil, and Al-Ma'qal. Al-Sharqiyah television reported that a massive explosion on the outskirts of Al-Basrah damaged an Iraqi military convoy traveling from the holy city of Karbala to support government forces in the south. In an interview with Al-Arabiyah satellite television, Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abd al-Karim al-Khalaf said the city is returning to normal and the Iraqi military is in control. The Iraqi Army launched a major military operation on March 25 in Al-Basrah in an attempt to regain control of the city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008). In Al-Hillah, Iraqi police fought with militiamen in two neighborhoods near the city center. Police sources said that Al-Mahdi Army fighters seized control of five neighborhoods in the southern town of Al-Kut after clashing with Iraqi police. And in the Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Sadr City in Baghdad, fighting left at least 14 people dead and 140 wounded, according to local hospital officials. SS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on March 26 issued a warning to all Shi'ite militias in Al-Basrah to disarm within 72 hours or face serious consequences, international media reported. Al-Maliki made the announcement during a visit Al-Basrah, where he was personally overseeing the massive military operation. "Those who were deceived into carrying weapons must present themselves within 72 hours and make a written pledge not to repeat such action," al-Maliki said. "Otherwise, they will face the most severe penalties." Reacting to al-Maliki's warning, Interior Ministry spokesman Major General al-Khalaf told Al-Arabiyah satellite television that "the operations will continue whether they surrender or not. Anyone who surrenders within 72 hours will not be held accountable.... As for those who do not turn in their weapons, our troops will proceed with their mission, and those who are arrested will be referred to the judiciary." According to media reports, at least 50 people have been killed and more than 300 wounded in two days of clashes in Al-Basrah and Baghdad. SS

Hazim al-Araji, a senior aide to Shi'ite leader al-Sadr, told the BBC on March 26 that the cleric has sent local representatives to ask Prime Minister al-Maliki to leave Al-Basrah and resolve the current conflict peacefully. Several other al-Sadr aides were quoted by AP as saying that no negotiations can take place until Iraqi forces withdraw from the city. On March 25, al-Sadr called on all of his followers to embark on a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience to protest what he called the government's targeting of Imam Al-Mahdi Army fighters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008). Meanwhile, the leader of the Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, Nasr al-Rubay'i, said that the bloc will suspend all participation in parliament until government forces stop targeting members of the Sadrist movement, "Al-Azzam" reported on March 26. The bloc has 30 seats in parliament. SS

U.S. military spokesman Major General Kevin Bergner said on March 26 that Iran is to blame for the recent upswing in violence in Iraq, international media reported. Bergner said Iran is providing training for militants in Baghdad and is not doing enough to rein in fighters in Al-Basrah. "There is no question that the government of Iran has significant influence in Al-Basrah, in the governorate and in southeastern Iraq in general," Bergner said. "We would love to see the government of Iran fulfill its commitments to help improve security and stability [in Al-Basrah]...and reduce the activities of those operating outside the law." Bergner blamed the recent series of rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad on Iranian-backed "special groups," which are rogue elements of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The U.S. military says these special groups have refused to observe 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). Bergner also stressed that the ongoing military operation in Al-Basrah is not aimed specifically at reining in the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, but at dealing with lawless gangs and criminals. SS

The U.S. military on March 26 announced that Iraqi security forces, assisted by local civilians, have arrested a senior Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader and five other suspected terrorists near the northern city of Kirkuk. The suspected leader is believed to be linked to militant operations in the Al-Ta'mim (Kirkuk) Governorate, while the five others are suspected "to have conducted numerous acts of intimidation against innocent Iraqi citizens," the military statement said. U.S. commander Colonel David Paschal praised the cooperation between Iraqi security forces and the civilian population. "You can run but you cannot hide from us: the Iraqi police force, the Iraqi Army, or the citizens of this province. We are committed to hunt down those who want to disrupt the reconciliation and rebuilding efforts here, and bring them to justice," Paschal said. SS

Muhammad al-Mualim, the CEO of Dubai Ports International, on March 25 announced that his company is considering several investment opportunities in Iraq, "Voices of Iraq" reported on March 26. "Iraq is listed among the developing countries that have good investment opportunities, and we have future plans to take advantage of these opportunities," al-Mualim said. "We are waiting for the appropriate time to carry out any plans," he added. He declined to reveal details of the company's investment plans. SS