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Newsline - March 28, 2008

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels on March 27 that he hopes that Russian President Vladimir Putin will refrain from "unhelpful rhetoric" directed against the West when he attends the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at the alliance's April 2-4 Bucharest summit, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on March 28. Referring specifically to comments made in recent months by Putin and other top Russian officials about "targeting" several countries with missiles in response to NATO enlargement or the projected U.S. missile-defense project, de Hoop Scheffer said that such remarks are "not only unhelpful, but make me remember a time when I was growing up, when there was a Berlin Wall and an Iron Curtain.... So let us refrain from [such] rhetoric" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 12, and 17, 2008). In February 2007, Putin shocked many in the West, including some of his German hosts, by delivering an anti-American speech before a major international gathering in Munich. There are likely to be sharp differences at the April 2-4 Bucharest summit between the United States and some new NATO members on the one hand, and Germany, France, the Netherlands, and some other older members on the other over whether Ukraine and Georgia should be offered a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is an important step on the road to full membership, the "Financial Times" added. PM

Amid widespread media speculation that U.S. President George W. Bush's upcoming visit to Sochi will produce a breakthrough over missile defense, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on March 27 that "we are certain that the best way to resolve all concerns about the [U.S.] plans to create a third [missile-defense] positioning region is to abandon those plans altogether and start a truly collective, regional project that includes Russia, the United States, and European countries," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27. 2008). He added that "we believe that [possible] NATO expansion plans are at odds with realities of the modern world where we face common threats. We can only tackle them together, not by mechanical expansion of blocs left over from the Cold War times." The daily "Kommersant" wrote on March 28 that the fact that Bush is going to Sochi suggests that it is unlikely that the United States will provoke Russia at the April 2-4 Bucharest NATO summit by pressing for a MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. Bush will visit Ukraine prior to the summit. PM

"The Moscow Times" reported on March 28 that Presidents Putin and Bush will meet at a session of the NATO-Russia Council in Bucharest on April 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2008). After leaving the Romanian capital, Bush will go on to Croatia, which many expect will be invited to join NATO at the Bucharest gathering. The daily quoted recent remarks by Stephen Hadley, who is Bush's national security adviser, to the effect that Bush might arrive in Sochi on April 5 before returning to Washington on April 6. Hadley noted that Bush wants the U.S.-Russian "relationship to be in good shape to be handed over to [his and Putin's] respective successors." The daily quoted an unnamed Russian "source close to the summit's organization" as noting that Washington "showed a strong interest" in having President-elect Dmitry Medvedev present in Sochi. The source added only that "the Russian side is well aware of that." PM

Two newspapers reported on March 28 that Russia's outgoing president and likely future prime minister, Vladimir Putin, will be named head of Unified Russia during a party congress in April. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Moskovsky korrespondent," Putin will attend the Unified Russia congress in Moscow in order to respond to the requests made by various groups during the Unified Russia party congresses held last October and December that he agree to become the party's leader. Putin announced during the party congress in October that he would head the party's list of federal candidates for the State Duma election in December. During the congress in December, Putin agreed to First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev's invitation to serve as prime minister in a future Medvedev administration. At the upcoming congress, according to the newspapers, Putin will agree to head the party. JB

President-elect Medvedev told a State Council meeting in the Siberian city of Tobolsk on March 27 that as a "radical measure" to protect small businesses from bureaucracy and "exactions," controlling bodies should be barred from having access to small business without the prior approval of a prosecutor or court. According to Interfax, Medvedev said an inspecting agency should not be allowed to visit even a small business against which complaints have been filed without first getting authorization from a prosecutor or court. Some fire, health, and police officials might not like this idea given that they use their power to inspect small businesses to earn money both "officially and unofficially," Medvedev said. "I think that this will arouse complex emotions among a number of employees of the fire services, the sanitary-epidemiological inspectorate, [and] police, if not preinfarction angina, because this is what they do, how they make money," he said. Medvedev said that small businesses are subjected to 45 types of control from some 30 different bodies on the federal level alone. A "truly monstrous set of bureaucratic obstacles -- federal, regional, and local -- provokes bribe-taking and extortion that is open, outwardly legalized, and absolutely criminal," he said. "And this hits small business most painfully of all. Only large organizations can fight their way through such barriers." As a result, it is simply "unprofitable" to start new businesses or put new goods and services on the market, even though this is precisely what a modern economy requires, Medvedev said. JB

Addressing a State Council meeting in Tobolsk on March 27, President-elect Medvedev said that small business should be supported in industrial projects "implemented by innovative branches of the economy," as well as in agriculture and the services sector. Medvedev called for "developing entrepreneurial activity in industry, construction, and the housing/utilities sphere, because almost half of small businesses are now in trade," ITAR-TASS reported. "We have to create stimuli for mass entry of small businesses in industries directly related to the economy of knowledge," he said. "Already today, it is small businesses that are taking the main role in finalizing, commercializing, and promoting new ideas on the market." Medvedev said he hopes small businesses will become "a lever in creating a new model" for the organization of Russian industry and noted that "small agribusinesses" are "in demand" in the agricultural sector. In addition, the "social sphere" -- including health care, education, and social services -- must be opened up to small businesses, Medvedev said. This will provide "a real opportunity" to improve the quality of such services, "which, as we know, is still low," he said. JB

Vladimir Pozner, host of the "Vremena" program on the state's Channel One and president of the Russian Television Academy, told a Moscow roundtable on March 27 that there is no freedom of speech in the Russian media. "The law on the mass media here is not being fulfilled on one main point: I contend that freedom of speech does not exist on television here, and not only on television,", citing Interfax, quoted Pozner as saying. During the parliamentary and presidential elections "there were things that were absolutely forbidden: this must not be talked about, that must not be shown, this person must not be invited," Pozner said. National Association of Television Broadcasters President Eduard Sagalaev told the same roundtable that "we have very little truth and a lot of platitudes on television." There is an information policy in Russia today "that de facto does not presuppose free discussion and live broadcasting," Sagalaev added. "And I don't know what can be done here." JB

The leaders of two major Armenian political parties on March 27 defended their decision to enter into a coalition with the ruling Republican Party, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Armen Rustamian of the Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) and Artur Baghdasarian of the Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party said they agreed to join the government to be formed by President-elect and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, because Sarkisian is committed to implementing sweeping political and economic reforms. Rustamian said that "a new situation has emerged since March 1," when riot police clashed with opposition demonstrators in Yerevan, and warned that Armenia continues to face "threats to both internal and external stability" and that "security is now the top priority." A month after the disputed presidential election on February 19, four of the five parties represented in the Armenian parliament signed a formal agreement on creating a new coalition government once Sarkisian is inaugurated as president on April 9 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). The coalition comprises Sarkisian's Republican Party, the HHD, Orinats Yerkir, and the Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) party. Before the coalition agreement was reached, both Rustamian, who headed the campaign staff of his party's presidential candidate, Vahan Hovannisian, and Baghdasarian, a former parliament speaker who polled third in the February 19 election and signed his own cooperation agreement with Sarkisian on February 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008), were at times particularly harsh critics of both the government and Sarkisian himself. According to the coalition agreement, Sarkisian pledged to deepen democratic reform, accelerate economic development, combat corruption, and strengthen the rule of law. RG

Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov on March 26 clarified the Azerbaijani's government position on the OSCE-brokered peace process seeking a negotiated resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Lider Television reported. Azimov refuted recent media reports in Armenia suggesting that Azerbaijan is opposed to the OSCE peace process. He explained that Baku has, however, submitted a formal query to the OSCE Secretariat seeking information on the process for replacing the three representatives from the OSCE's Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States and manages the peace talks. Azimov, who is the main Azerbaijani negotiator in the talks, added that his government is concerned about recent statements that he defined as threatening "the country's territorial integrity," but stressed that "Azerbaijan does not want to change the format of the OSCE Minsk Group." On March 25, the U.S. co-chairman of the Minsk Group, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, stated that he does not want "to comment on Armenian media reports that Azerbaijan wants to refuse the mediation mission of the OSCE Minsk Group for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem," the APA news agency reported. Bryza said he does not believe that Baku's inquiry regarding the OSCE process reflects "the opinion of the Azerbaijani government at the highest level," and stressed a desire to move forward "to complete the determination of the basic principles of the conflict settlement in order to lay the foundation of peace and prosperity and strengthen relations between the two countries." RG

Speaking to reporters in Tskhinvali, Irina Gagloeva, a spokeswoman for the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, reported on March 27 that local police are investigating what she called a "terrorist attack" in Tskhinvali that targeted Prosecutor-General Taymuraz Khugaev, Interfax reported. Gagloeva said the "law enforcement agencies of South Ossetia are looking into the theory" that the central Georgian government may be "behind the terrorist attack." According to Gagloeva, a rocket or grenade struck Khugaev's car just after he exited the vehicle, seriously injuring the driver and killing a young woman accompanying the official. Khugaev was uninjured. Gagloeva added that the incident was "not the first attempt to commit an act of terrorism against South Ossetia's prosecutor-general." RG

Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili on March 27 denounced the leadership of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia for "trying to drag Georgia into provocative acts," Rustavi-2 television reported. Yakobashvili criticized South Ossetia for its response to an explosion last month that killed two police officers and injured some 15-20 people in the village of Dmenis in Tskhinvali Raion. Eduard Kokoity, South Ossetia's de facto president, and Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzaev accused Georgian security services of involvement in the blast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 29, 2008). At that time, Yakobashvili accused the South Ossetian side of refusing access to Georgian and OSCE officials who wanted to investigate the explosion. In a separate incident on March 26, South Ossetian police detained a unit of Georgian peacekeepers in the area, Kavkas-Press reported. A spokesman for the commander of the Joint Peacekeeping Force, which includes Georgian, Russian, and South and North Ossetian troops, Vladimir Ivanov, said on March 27 that the arrest of the Georgian peacekeepers "was a flagrant violation of existing agreements" that "impeded the peacekeepers from carrying out their duties." RG

Speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Georgia, Matyas Eorsi, the head of a visiting Council of Europe observer delegation, on March 27 warned that the Georgian authorities and opposition leaders have once again failed to reach agreement on fundamental issues concerning parliamentary elections scheduled for May, Georgian Public Television reported. He said that "the Council of Europe is attentively following the processes under way in Georgia ahead of the parliamentary election." But Eorsi stressed that violations noted by the Council of Europe in the January 5 presidential election were not adequately investigated, and that its "recommendations were not taken into account." Eorsi said the Council of Europe's observer mission will regularly visit Georgia ahead of the May parliamentary elections, and give recommendations to both the authorities and the opposition, Interfax reported. RG

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze announced on March 27 that the RAK Invest group, based in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), has secured a tender to develop the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, Rustavi-2 reported. Gurgenidze said the U.A.E. firm has acquired a 51 percent share in the two- or three-year project, which seeks to reconstruct the aging port infrastructure at Poti in order to bolster plans for a free economic zone, projected to create some 20,000 new jobs. RG

An official in charge of counternarcotics in the Kazakh Interior Ministry, Maratkali Nukenov, warned on March 27 in Astana of "poor results" to date in tackling the influx of drugs from Afghanistan, Kazinform reported. Nukenov said the amount of narcotics smuggled into the region from Afghanistan, the world's primary source of opium, has increased. He also noted that the large-scale production of drugs in Afghanistan and the "transparency" of borders in the region have combined to "hamper efforts" to combat the drug trade. He was speaking at a meeting of officials from the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In a similar report to a meeting of senior Interior Ministry leaders last month, Nukenov called for more state funds to implement a "more effective" program to "fight against the drug trade" and combat drug addiction, noting that the state budget for the ministry's counternarcotics agency has declined by nearly 40 percent over the past two years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). Meanwhile, Kazakh customs officials announced on March 27 the seizure of more than 500 kilograms of heroin being transported on a truck heading from Uzbekistan to Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. The seizure at the Kayrak checkpoint in the northern Kostanai Oblast, follows an increase in the number of inspections at key border crossings as part of a broader effort to combat drug trafficking. RG

At a press conference in Bishkek, a group of Kyrgyz legislators proposed on March 27 to move the capital from Bishkek to the southern town of Osh, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to the deputies' plan, the move would consist of two stages, with an initial transfer of some government ministries and state agencies followed by a subsequent complete move of the capital by 2010. One of the deputies, Murat Juraev from the Social Democratic Party, explained that the move will be considered by the parliament sometime next month. He said that the transfer of the capital would help to solve social problems in the southern region and would reduce "a decrease in the number of the native population as a result of emigration and will make it possible to reduce potential conflicts, which are peculiar, as international experts say, to the densely populated Ferghana Valley." RG

Defense Minister Ismail Isakov reported on March 26 on the status of the training of a peacekeeping unit numbering about 80 men, the website reported. He explained that an earlier effort to create a peacekeeping battalion, known as the Central Asian Battalion (Centrazbat), with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was abandoned last year after Defense Ministry officials determined that the collective effort was not meeting Kyrgyzstan's strategic needs. The new training is focused on forging greater self-sufficiency and is aimed at developing a new combat engineering unit capable of participating in UN peacekeeping operations. He also noted that eight officers of the Kyrgyz armed forces are currently serving in UN peacekeeping operations, two of them in Kosova. RG

Minsk deputy prosecutor Alyaksey Stuk told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on March 27 that he ordered the searches of the homes and offices of independent journalists all over Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2008). Stuk said that investigators believed that the journalists might be cooperating with the authors of animated cartoons defaming President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and contributing to their online dissemination. He said that the searches were part of proceedings in a criminal case opened in August 2005 against Andrey Abozau, Pavel Marozau, and Aleh Minich, who posted on the website of their organization, Third Path, cartoons lampooning Lukashenka. Abozau, Marozau, and Minich fled Belarus in early 2007 to avoid arrest. The officers who conducted searches seized computers, office equipment, and various data-storage devices. In Vitsebsk, during a raid on the apartment of a correspondent of the Polish-based Radio Racja, they arrested human rights activist Pavel Levinau. The Foreign Ministry the same day defended the raids on the offices of independent broadcasters funded by the European Union and Poland, and the apartments of journalists working with them. Ministry spokeswoman Maryya Vanshyna said in a statement that the media outlets were not accredited with the ministry, Belapan reported. "I would like to recall right away that activities carried out by foreign journalists on the territory of the Republic of Belarus are governed by the law on the media. It stipulates that reporters of foreign media outlets require accreditation to work in Belarus, like in many other countries," Vanshyna said. "As for the foreign media structures mentioned at present by the media, I can officially state that their representatives do not hold accreditation to work in Belarus," she said. Vanshyna added that the targeted reporters are "just some individuals among Belarusian nationals who were illegally engaged in journalistic activities for foreign money on the territory of the Republic of Belarus for a long time." AM

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement posted on the department's website on March 27 that the United States "condemns today's crackdown on independent media in Belarus, during which some 30 independent journalists in 12 cities were detained without legitimate cause." He continued: "This follows the violent breakup of peaceful demonstrations in Minsk on March 25, which was accompanied by scores of arrests. The regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka has again shown itself as a brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that blatantly ignores human rights and fundamental freedoms." McCormack called on the Belarusian authorities to release all those arrested and jailed as well as to hold those responsible to account. "We also call on Belarus to stop its harassment of the remaining independent media still striving to report on the realities in Belarus and to respect freedom of assembly, speech, and independent media in Belarus," he added. The same day, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering condemned the violent dispersal of the March 25 demonstration in Minsk, Belapan reported. "The use of violence by the Belarusian authorities against peaceful demonstrators and the harassment of independent journalists are in contradiction to the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression and is not compatible with democratic fundamental rights," Poettering said in a statement. Meanwhile, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov, who on March 27 commented on the police crackdown on the March 25 demonstration, said that people involved in political activities in violation of the law are sent to jail in all countries. Surikov said that opposition forces in Russia and Belarus try to "stress the political component of their actions while keeping silent about the criminal aspect." AM

Seventeen staff members of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk left Belarus on March 27, Belapan reported, citing a source at the embassy. On March 24, the embassy issued a statement that Washington agreed to Minsk's demand to cut staff of the U.S. diplomatic mission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). U.S.-Belarusian relations have deteriorated 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. Andrey Papou, spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, on March 20 told reporters that "it is necessary to equalize the levels of diplomatic presence on a parity basis." The Belarusian Embassy in Washington employs around 20 people, while the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, prior to the cut, had around 35 staff members. AM

The Supreme Court on March 27 sentenced Alyaksandr Barouski, a former chairman of Belnaftakhim, to five years in a minimum-security correctional institution on a charge of abuse of office, Belapan reported. The court also barred Barouski from serving in administrative and managerial positions for an additional three years. The court found Barouski guilty of causing large-scale damages through the abuse of office. According to the prosecutor, Barouski ordered the Naftan oil refinery in Navapolatsk to cancel supply contracts with Russia's Tyumen Oil Company and conclude more expensive contracts for the supply of 80,000 tons of light oil with two Belarusian companies, Triple and Interservice, with whose executives he had a "friendly relationship." Naftan allegedly paid two Belarusian companies $1.6 million more than it would have paid for the same supplies to the Russian company. AM

The foundation congress of the United Center party was held on March 27 in Kyiv without prior notification of the media, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The congress elected lawmaker Ihor Kril as party leader, set up a 35-member political council, and a presidium that, includes pro-presidential Our Ukraine party lawmakers Oksana Bilozir, Olesya Orobets, Mykhaylo Polyanych, and Viktor Topolov. It was widely expected in Ukrainian political circles after presidential-administration head Viktor Baloha left the Our Ukraine party in mid-February that a new political force would emerge on the scene. Baloha's exit was immediately followed by that of another six members of the Our Ukraine party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19 and 20, 2008). AM

The Supreme Court has reinstated Syuzanna Stanik to the Constitutional Court, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on March 27. The court announced that its ruling is final and cannot be appealed. President Viktor Yushchenko dismissed Stanik in May 2007 in connection with "a breach of oath." Stanik was a rapporteur in the case probing the constitutionality of the presidential decree by which Yushchenko dissolved the Verkhovna Rada and called early parliamentary elections. Stanik was also suspected of corruption, but the Prosecutor-General's Office refused to institute proceedings against her. AM

A helicopter belonging to the Ukrainian border service with 13 military men and a civilian on board crashed on March 27 into the Black Sea, RFE/RL Ukrainian Service reported. Rescuers have recovered 13 bodies and the only survivor, a military man, has been hospitalized. AM

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, whose country has the rotating EU chair, said in an interview with the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of March 28 that he is not worried by what many regard as Serbian provocations aimed at undermining Kosova's independence, such as Belgrade's plans to open polling stations in Kosovar Serb communities for its May 11 elections (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). Jansa said that Slovenian citizens also take part in other countries' elections, such as when they live abroad or hold dual citizenship. He pointed out that it is not in Serbia's interest to press for an ethnically based partition of Kosova, as Belgrade's leaders are currently doing, because half of Kosova's Serbs live in scattered enclaves (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26 and 27, 2008). Jansa said that he foresees few difficulties for the new Kosovar state, other than the problems in the mainly Serbian north. He added that the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations are present to protect the Serbian minority, which makes up about 5 percent of Kosova's population. Janez noted that unnamed "moderate politicians" in Serbia recognize that the minority enjoys international protection. "So things are not so hopeless in Serbia," he added. Asked if Serbia will "come to terms" with the existence of a border separating it from Kosova, Janez said that "this border was not set down by the Kosovars' declaration of independence [on February 17] but by the policies of [former Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic and the reaction of NATO to them" in 1999. He argued that EU membership for the countries of the region is the only way to remove borders, "and that will take maybe 20 or 30 years." He also said that "Russia will never intervene militarily" in the Balkans. Janez believes that the EU must seek to influence the Serbian electorate by holding open a "good perspective" for European integration. He added that Serbian President Boris Tadic told him personally that such "help from Brussels was the main cause for his victory" in the recent Serbian presidential vote. Janez suggested that one thing that the EU can do to promote pro-EU sentiments in Serbia is to liberalize visa requirements, especially for students and other young people. He added that, three days after a violent mob broke windows at the Slovenian Embassy in Belgrade in February, a group of students presented the ambassador with an unspecified number of new windows. PM

Pieter Feith, who is the EU's and international community's chief representative in Kosova, told AP in Prishtina on March 27 that the International Civilian Office, as well as the EU's Office of the Special Representative and EULEX mission of police, judges, and advisers, will need the help of NATO's 16,000 KFOR peacekeepers if they are to operate in the Serbian-dominated north. He said that his mission needs a "safe and secure environment" to function effectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 29, 2008). Belgrade and the Serbs in northern Kosova do not recognize that mandate of Feith's organizations because that mandate is linked to the independent Kosovar state, which the Serbs do not accept. French Colonel Jean-Luc Cotard, who is a KFOR spokesman, said on March 27 that KFOR has no orders to support the deployment of EU staff. He stressed that "we are aware of the situation, but in fact it's a political issue. Before doing anything, the politicians have to deal with it at the EU, UN, and NATO level." The EU has long had ambitious plans in the Balkans but first needed a NATO presence to stabilize the situation, initially in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina and now in Kosova. The EU's efforts to resolve the 2001 crisis in Macedonia required a strong U.S. diplomatic presence. The EU is widely seen in the region as a source of money, visas, and development projects, whereas the United States and NATO are regarded as having more clout on the ground, particularly among the region's ethnic Albanians. PM

Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki said in an article published in Britain's "Financial Times" and some other European dailies on March 27 that Macedonia is ready and willing to be invited to join NATO at the alliance's April 2-4 summit in Bucharest. He argued that "Kosovo's independence last month changed the security and political outlook for the Balkans. We still don't know what the end game will look like. Much progress was made in the recent years in the western Balkans in terms of keeping stability and expanding our economies. This has been achieved in no small part thanks to the positive roles played by the EU and the U.S. in our region in the last decade." Milososki argued that "NATO membership is a staple of progress in our region. To this extent, progress, stability, and prosperity will be enhanced in the Balkans if Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia are invited to join NATO next week in Bucharest." He stressed that "the more states from the Balkans we have joining NATO, the less NATO we will need in the Balkans. The alliance would then be freed up to cope with challenges further afield" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4 and 14, 2008). PM

Reports that the chief of Russia's General Staff tendered his resignation have rekindled speculation over the extent to which General Yury Baluyevsky opposes reform efforts led by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Baluyevsky was conspicuously absent from a recent summit between top U.S. and Russian officials to discuss defense issues. Although Russia's military has since denied that Baluyevsky offered to step down, observers say the move, if true, could signal a growing conflict between rival forces within the country's defense structures.

When Defense Minister Serdyukov offered to resign in September after his father-in-law, Viktor Zubkov, was named prime minister in a cabinet reshuffle, Baluyevsky was at pains to disguise his satisfaction. The chief of the General Staff allegedly told reporters that after Serdyukov, even a woman could lead the Defense Ministry -- a comment seen as a grave insult to the minister.

But President Vladimir Putin said he saw no conflict of interest and told Serdyukov to keep up his work at the ministry. Putin had installed Serdyukov, who previously led the Tax Ministry, in order to clamp down on rampant corruption and misspending in the armed forces.

Serdyukov, a former furniture salesman, and Baluyevsky, a career soldier, rarely if ever saw eye to eye. Their troubles appear to have arisen because there is no clear delineation between the functions of the General Staff and the Defense Ministry, according to Aleksandr Golts, a defense expert and editor of the online newspaper "Yezhednevny zhurnal."

"The point is that Russia has rather an exotic defense structure in comparison to other modern states," Golts says. "The General Staff works out strategic planning at the same time as dealing with deployment issues, which is something that Western countries, and particularly the United States, stopped doing a long time ago. It's dangerous if you are both planning and carrying out your [military] plans -- it makes for the militarization of politics in a country."

As defense minister, Serdyukov's task has been to bring urgently needed reforms to the country's sprawling armed forces -- a hangover from the Soviet era. His suggestions have been drastic -- selling off military land, privatizing naval and aviation repair yards, and outsourcing medical services. That has riled many of the country's top generals, Golts says.

"In practical terms, it means the following: as soon as the Defense Ministry sets in motion changes that encroach on the interests of one or other military clan, because of this institutionalized contradiction, the slighted parties will complain to the chief of the General Staff," Golts says. "Serdyukov has put forward some suggestions that have shaken the higher echelons of the General Staff."

For Pavel Felgenhauer, the defense correspondent for the newspaper "Novaya gazeta," Baluyevsky's alleged resignation plans are a sign of the clash between army traditionalists, such as Baluyevsky, and reformers, such as Serdyukov. But, Felgenhauer says, when spending on the armed forces has risen from $5 billion in 2000 to $40 billion this year with little sign of improvement, a radical overhaul like the one Serdyukov has proposed is essential.

"The results [of the rise in funding] are meager, if not zero: no new weapons procured, salaries low, widespread discontent," Felgenhauer says. "This corruption is real. I don't know whether the reforms that Serdyukov is trying to introduce will really make things better, but things as they are now are intolerable, and that's why Putin actually appointed Serdyukov, with the task of cleaning up."

Baluyevsky has been a close ally of outgoing President Putin, supporting his opposition to a proposed U.S. missile-defense shield to be built in Central Europe. And, like Putin, he likes to indulge in Cold War rhetoric. Earlier this year, he warned that Russia was ready to use force -- including preemptively and with nuclear weapons -- to defend itself against potential threats from what he called "international terrorism or countries seeking global or regional hegemony."

Earlier this month, Baluyevsky was missing from a key summit on defense issues between Russian and U.S. top brass. His absence -- officially because he was on holiday -- was seen as a sign he was soon to be replaced.

The Defense Ministry on March 26 took the unusual step of denying as "false" media reports on Baluyevsky's intention to resign. But observers are unconvinced, saying either Putin -- or Dmitry Medvedev, after his inauguration on May 7 -- will ultimately accept the general's offer. Then, Golts says, the real question will be whether his successor can reach a compromise with the Defense Ministry.

"For me the important question -- and it's one to which I don't have the answer -- is whether there can be any sort of advances made in an army that hasn't undergone reforms, which is what Serdyukov is trying to do," Golts says. "It's like trying to put an engine into a cattle cart -- you just can't transform it into a car."

(Chloe Arnold is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Moscow.)

An Afghan parliamentary committee is drafting a proposal that will request the removal of foreign military bases from central Kabul, AFP reported on March 26. The agency reported that roadblocks and security barriers surrounding foreign bases in the city center have made transport practically impossible. Kabir Ranjbar, the head of the lower house's committee on inspection and oversight on law implementation, told AFP that the presence of the international forces in downtown Kabul has caused many problems for locals. He added that the parliamentary proposal will also include suggest that foreign troops stop patrolling the capital. "I think there is no need for foreign soldiers to patrol the city. Now we have our own security forces to do the job," he said. AT

Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak on March 27 called on NATO to help reinforce the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to enable it to fully take charge of security efforts, international news agencies reported. Wardak said he hopes that during the NATO summit scheduled for April 2-4 in Bucharest, alliance members will "reaffirm their long-term commitment to Afghanistan" and allocate more resources toward supporting Afghan security forces. "We are asking the international community to accelerate the growth of the ANSF, both in quality and quantity," Wardak said. He stressed that it is the responsibility of Afghans to ensure the security of their country, but he noted that the ANSF does not have the equipment it needs to lead counterinsurgency operations. "We still rely on NATO and the coalition for air support, fire support, and some logistics," Wardak said. Replying to a question about the ANSF's current strength, Wardak said that "80,000 is too few. We want to have more troops." AT

The head of international police training in Afghanistan, Major General Robert Cone, on March 27 said some 2,300 additional police trainers are needed to train local police forces, Xinhua news agency reported. He said the trainers are specifically needed to help implement a new initiative, called Focused District Development, that aims to reform the police and improve local governance, public works, and the rule of law. The program is expected to be implemented in 52 out of 364 Afghan districts in 2008, Cone said. Seven districts have already finished the program, while training is under way in another eight districts. Cone said that training the Afghan police is an especially difficult task because corruption is endemic in the police forces, and many police officers are former militia fighters and have not received professional education. AT

A Danish soldier was killed and another wounded in an attack on March 26 blamed on Taliban militants, AFP reported. The Danish forces came under fire while on patrol in Helmand Province, according to a spokesman for the NARO-led International Security Assistance Force. Meanwhile, two German soldiers were seriously injured and a third slightly wounded when a blast struck their vehicle near the city of Konduz early on March 27, Afghan officials said. The two seriously wounded troops were expected to be evacuated to Germany. AFP quoted Konduz Governor Mohammad Omar as saying the blast was caused by a remote-controlled roadside bomb. Although Taliban attacks have been largely centered in the southern and eastern areas of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan, there has also been violence in the north, sometimes blamed on other radical factions or criminal groups. AT

The head of Iran's state broadcaster, Ezzatollah Zarghami, said in Moscow on March 27 that Iran will have an unspecified nuclear celebration or festival on April 8, for which state television and radio will broadcast special programs, IRNA reported. Zarghami -- currently visiting Russia to discuss broadcasting cooperation -- told the press on March 27 that Iran has a right to access nuclear technology and it has so far made advances in the field by its own efforts. He accused "America and the West" of hindering relations between Iran and Russia, and described U.S. plans to construct an antimissile system in Eastern Europe as intended "to counter Russia and its power." Zarghami said even children could not believe assertions made by U.S. officials that the missile shield is intended to counter possible threats from Iran rather than Russia. He said that during the "Shah's regime, America created a fear of the Soviet Union among Iranians." Zarghami also said the most recent UN Security Council resolution against Iran's nuclear program motivated more Iranians to vote in the March 14 parliamentary elections. "One of the most important results of the elections was the...extensive participation, and the ratification of the third Security Council resolution against Iran, with America's backing, increased [voters'] motivation," he said. VS

Iran's ambassador in Japan, Abbas Araqchi, told reporters in Tokyo on March 27 that Iranians "have lost their confidence in America and Western states" as a result of their changing attitude to Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. Araqchi said the West began to oppose the program after the 1979 revolution and overthrow of the pro-Western monarchy. Western states suspect Iran's nuclear program includes the production of weapons, which Iran denies. Araqchi said Iran's program began in 1957 with U.S. approval, and "America advised Iran [in 1957] to use nuclear energy because it knew Iran's oil and gas reserves were finite." He said Iran signed nuclear-related agreements with Western states in the 1960s and 70s but that these stopped with the change of regime. This, he added, was a "bitter experience" for Iranians and showed "Western states rescind agreements whenever they want, for political reasons." He said various sanctions imposed on Iran since 1979 have shown Iran that it must "stand on its own feet in all areas including nuclear energy." Araqchi said UN sanctions penalize Iran for "something it has not done" and are "illegal, irrational, and unfair" given Iran's past cooperation with UN inspectors. VS

Lebanese authorities have banned the French feature-length animated film "Persepolis," which criticizes aspects of life in Iran, from cinemas, apparently in order not to upset Shi'a and the pro-Iranian Hizballah militia amid political tensions in Lebanon, AFP and Lebanon's "L'Orient-Le Jour" reported on March 26 and 27. The film, which won a prize at the Cannes film festival in 2007, has angered Iran because of its critical portrayal of the Islamic regime and life in Iran since 1979. Tensions are high in Lebanon between the Westernizing government of Fuad Siniora and the Hizballah-led opposition, backed by Iran and Syria. "Persepolis" relates the life of author Marjane Satrapi and her family during the 1979 revolution that led to the imposition of an Islamist state. While critical of the Shah, it is apparently more so of Iran's present regime, which it presents as imposing social restrictions, especially on women, and imprisoning, torturing, and executing opponents. Lebanon's security chief, Wafic Jezzini, reportedly a Hizballah sympathizer, has approved the ban after he said that "Shi'ite authorities" deemed the film offensive to "Islam and Iran," AFP reported on March 26. Hizballah spokesman Hussein Rahhal told "L'Orient-Le Jour" on March 26 that he was not informed of the affair, while the daily quoted Culture Minister Tariq Mitri as calling the ban "totally unjustified." Mitri said he is trying to press the Interior Ministry to reverse the ban. The daily quoted an unnamed security source as saying that Jezzini did not like the film because it shows Iran to be worse now than under the Shah. Mitri said Lebanon is supposed to be a free country and he opposes censorship, but he said even the most "rigorist" interpretation of Lebanon's censorship laws could not justify the ban. The party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, which backs the Siniora government, has denounced the "intellectual terrorism" being imposed on Lebanon, the aim of which it said is to turn "Beirut and its into a Tehran suburb," reported on March 27. The daily gave a web address where its readers could see parts of the film, but added the address was apparently no longer accessible, or might have been blocked, in Lebanon. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini deplored on March 27 the reported fingerprinting by coalition forces of Iranian pilgrims trying to cross the border into Iraq, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Hosseini said this is a "unilateral" move by the "occupying U.S. forces" and a restriction on Iranian pilgrims visiting Shi'ite shrines in Iraq. Hosseini said Iranian pilgrims visit Iraq on the basis of agreements made between Iran and Iraq and "with due coordination between Iranian and Iraqi officials, and there is no need for anyone else's interference." Iranian officials have recently advised Iranians against traveling to Iraq because of the resurgent violence there. Iran's state pilgrimage body announced separately on March 26 that Iraq is in any case has prevented the entry of Iranian pilgrims since March 24, Radio Farda reported, citing the state broadcaster. Iranian pilgrims reportedly faced "restrictions" as they sought to enter Iraq at the Mehran border post in the western Ilam Province, Radio Farda reported on March 27, citing ISNA. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a statement on March 27 in which he vowed to continue the fight against what he called "lawless gangs" in the southern city of Al-Basrah, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. "We have made up our minds to enter this battle, and we will continue until the end. No retreat. No talks. No negotiations," al-Maliki said. On March 26, he gave Shi'ite militias in the south 72 hours to surrender their weapons or face serious consequences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2008). Meanwhile, fighting continued for a third day in the southern port city, with the fiercest clashes reported in the Al-Jumhuriyah neighborhood, a stronghold of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. In addition, a suicide car bomber attacked the convoy of the city's police commander, Major General Abd al-Jalil Khalaf. Three policemen died in the attack, but Khalaf was unharmed. The U.S.-funded Alhurra television channel reported that a contingent of U.S. Marines is now in Al-Basrah's city center, involved in sniper operations. There has been no confirmation by the U.S. military. In an apparent sign that the security operation might not be going as planned, Kuwait's KUNA news agency reported that al-Maliki will not be attending the Arab Summit in Damascus on March 29, opting instead to remain in Iraq to focus on the Al-Basrah operation. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari will take his place and head the Iraqi delegation. SS

A major oil pipeline in Al-Basrah was bombed on March 27, which could disrupt Iraq's oil exports, international media reported. Local officials said unknown gunmen bombed the Al-Zubayr-1 pipeline, which sends crude oil from the Al-Zubayr fields to the city's two export terminals. An official at Iraq's Southern Oil Company told Reuters that the main pumping station of Al-Zubar-1 was shut down and that oil exports will be greatly affected. "Firefighters are struggling to control the fire, which is huge. A lot of crude has spilt onto the ground.... We will not be able to repair it unless security is provided for the crews," he said. However, during an interview with the U.S.-funded Radio Sawa, Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani insisted that the attack and the ongoing violence in Al-Basrah will not affect oil exports. "The security situation in Al-Basrah is still unstable...but this has not reflected negatively on works at oil output and export installations," he said. SS

Thousands of residents of Al-Sadr City and the Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Khazimiyah staged massive demonstrations on March 27 denouncing the operations in Al-Basrah and calling on Prime Minister al-Maliki to resign, international media reported. More than 130 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded since the government began its offensive in the southern city on March 25. Parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani announced that Iraqi lawmakers will hold an emergency session on March 28 to discuss how to end the current violence in Al-Basrah and Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry announced that the spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, Tashin al-Shaykly was kidnapped and three of his bodyguards killed. The government also imposed a three-day curfew in Baghdad. No unauthorized vehicles, motorcycles, or pedestrian traffic will be allowed on the streets of the Iraqi capital from 11 p.m. on March 27 to 5 a.m. on March 30. This is the first curfew in the Iraqi capital since mid-January. SS

Baghdad's Green Zone was again attacked on March 27 with rockets and mortars, killing at least one person, international media reported. A U.S. military statement said one civilian was killed and 14 wounded "in the vicinity" of the protected district, without offering any other details. This is the fourth time this week that the Green Zone has come under attack. U.S. military officials have blamed the attacks on Iranian-backed "special groups," which are breakaway factions of al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army that have refused to abide by a cease-fire. The attacks have prompted the State Department to issue a memo urging all personnel to at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad not to leave reinforced structures due to incoming insurgent rocket fire. "Due to the continuing threat of indirect fire in the International [Green] Zone, all personnel are advised to remain under hard cover at all times," it read. "Personnel should only move outside of hard cover for essential reasons." The memo called on all employees to wear helmets, body armor, and other protective gear if they do venture outside. It also strongly advised personnel not to sleep in their trailers, instead offering space inside the former palace of Saddam Hussein, which currently houses the U.S. Embassy, and as-yet-uncompleted new embassy compound. SS

The U.S. military issued a statement on March 27 saying that a mass grave was discovered in the central Diyala Governorate. The military said a contingent of U.S. and Iraqi forces found a mass grave containing 37 bodies outside the town of Al-Miqdadiyah. "All the bodies were badly decomposed and appear to have been there anywhere from two to eight months. Some of the bodies showed signs of torture," the statement said. No further details were provided, but the military added that the bodies will be moved to a nearby cemetery. Several mass graves have recently been discovered in the governorate. According to an AP tally, at least 594 bodies have turned up in mass graves since May 2007, half of them in Diyala. SS

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced on March 26 that since the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it has provided $105 million in microloans to Iraqis. The loans typically range from $500 to $3,000, and are primarily used by Iraqis to start or expand small businesses. The program maintains a repayment rate of nearly 99 percent. According to John Seong, director of USAID's Economic Growth and Agriculture Office in Iraq, "USAID's microfinance program has enjoyed a warm reception from Iraqi entrepreneurs and small-business owners who are eager to provide better lives for their families while helping to rebuild the Iraq economy." SS