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Newsline - April 2, 2008

President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said in Moscow on April 1 that Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush will adopt a document in Sochi on April 6 outlining a "strategic framework" for relations between their two countries, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27 and 28, 2008). Peskov added that "experts are working on a joint document, which will become a road map of our cooperation during a transitional period and for the medium term." He did not elaborate. 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 leave office. In Washington on April 1, the House of Representatives endorsed a nonbinding resolution expressing the sense of Congress calling on Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to press Russian officials to cooperate with British investigators dealing with the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 18, 22, and 24, and February 19, 2008). Representative Howard Berman (Democrat, California), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the killing raises "disturbing questions about how elements of the Russian government appear to deal with their enemies." PM

On the eve of NATO's April 2-4 Bucharest summit, President Bush said at a joint press conference with President Viktor Yushchenko in Kyiv on April 1 that "we support [a NATO Membership Action Plan] MAP for Ukraine and Georgia," news agencies reported. The MAP is the final stage on the road to full membership in the alliance, which both Kyiv and Tbilisi seek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 31, and April 1, 2008). Bush stressed that "helping Ukraine move toward NATO membership is in the interest of every member in the alliance and will help advance security and freedom in this region and around the world." Referring to Russian opposition to those two countries joining NATO, Bush stressed that Moscow will not have a "veto" over NATO's decision. He said there is no link between Ukraine's and Georgia's NATO membership bids and a plan to deploy a U.S. missile-defense system in Europe, which Russia says is directed against it, a point that Washington firmly denies. In Bucharest on April 2, Bush said that Georgia and Ukraine "inspired the world with their Rose and Orange revolutions and now they're working to consolidate their democratic gains and cement their independence. Welcoming them into the [MAP] would send a signal to their citizens that if they continue on the path to democracy and reform, they will be welcomed into the institutions of Europe; it would send a signal throughout the region that these two nations are and will remain sovereign and independent states." He added that "my country's position is clear. NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the [MAP]." PM

Deutsche Welle on April 2 quoted German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as saying that there is "no convincing reason" at present to "burden" relations between NATO and Russia by deciding on a possible future NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. He warned that NATO must respect certain "limits" in its dealings with Russia (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). "The Wall Street Journal" noted on April 2 that "after meeting with President Putin in Moscow on March 8, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hardened her opposition to opening NATO's door to Ukraine and Georgia. About 10 other member states took cover behind her. Ukraine is too divided over NATO, goes their argument, and Georgia's democracy too unsettled by last winter's street riots and early elections. And why -- the real reason -- annoy Russia?" PM

Aleksei Ostrovsky, who heads the State Duma's Committee for Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) affairs and ties with compatriots abroad, said in a broadcast of RFE/RL's Russian Service on April 1 that the Russian-Ukrainian Treaty on Friendship, Partnership, and Cooperation, which expires in 2009, should be at least revised, or perhaps even annulled. He added that "Russia least choose not to extend the treaty when it expires a year from now" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 1, 2008). Ostrovsky said that "in the event of Ukraine's integration into NATO, what friendship, partnership, or cooperation can we talk about when an overwhelming majority of State Duma deputies are confident that NATO unfortunately will always be our country's opponent?" On April 2, Sergei Ryabkov, who heads the Foreign Ministry's department for European cooperation, was quoted by Interfax as saying that "we are in a situation where a very serious, powerful, and modern machine is moving closer and closer to those areas that we simply cannot help but consider a sphere of our own serious interests. We have to react sharply and directly, which we are doing." Ryabkov added that what he called NATO's attempts at assuming a global role are a "problem." The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" commented on April 2 that President Putin will attend a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Bucharest on April 4 in order "to minimize the geopolitical and military-strategic costs for Russia of NATO's inevitable further expansion to the east. Moscow is well aware that it has no veto power over NATO's admittance of Georgia and Ukraine. But it also understands that many NATO leaders, especially its European leaders, do not want to risk their close economic ties and other ties with Russia by rushing to admit Kyiv and Tbilisi into their ranks. The Russian leadership's tactics take this factor into account." PM

At a time when the United States and most EU member states are seeking to promote good relations between Kosova and the international community, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the State Duma on April 2 that "we have done all we could to disrupt plans to achieve quick and broad international recognition of Kosovo," news agencies reported. He added that "we are not allowing the Kosovo issue to be taken outside the United Nations and have prevented the UN secretary-general from consecrating the European Union's mission to Kosovo, which does not have a UN mandate." Lavrov stressed that "as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has the ability to prevent Kosovo from becoming a full-fledged member" of the United Nations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20 and 31, 2008). PM

Dmitry Dovgy, the head of the Investigative Committee's main investigative unit, said on April 1 that the corruption charges leveled against him by two senior Investigative Committee investigators were a "well-planned action," "Vremya novostei" reported on April 2. According to the newspaper, Dovgy did not reveal who was behind this action but said it was targeted not only against him, but also against Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin. "Thus he made it clear that the 'corruption scandal' that has flared up inside the committee was not initiated by its head, as some observers assume, but is advantageous to someone else," the paper wrote. Senior investigator Sergei Chernyshov claimed Dovgy was paid 2 million euros ($3.1 million) to release former Trust Bank Chairman Oleg Kolyda from custody in an embezzlement case involving Yukos subsidiary Tomskneft. Zigmund Lozhis, also a senior investigator, claimed that Dovgy received a $1.5 million bribe from one of the suspects in a criminal case brought against the director of a large Moscow company, Petro-Union. Dovgy's first deputy, Aleksei Novikov, and two other Investigative Committee employees -- Sergei Glukhikh, a department head, and Yury Yermakov, another senior investigator -- have also been temporarily relieved of their duties on suspicion of corruption and abuse of their official positions. According to "Vremya novostei," all four have asked the Prosecutor-General's Office for protection. Dovgy told prosecutors that his life is in danger, with his home under surveillance and "unknown persons in automobiles" shadowing him. Dovgy headed the team that has been investigating Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, who was arrested on attempted embezzlement charges in November 2007, and Federal Antinarcotics Committee Lieutenant General Aleksandr Bulbov, who was arrested in October 2007. Both cases are widely seen as part of an ongoing power struggle between rival factions inside Russia's political and security establishments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008) JB

The suspected murderer of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who is currently being sought by prosecutors, is hiding abroad, "Tvoi den" reported on April 2. On March 28, prosecutor Vyacheslav Smirnov told a military court that the "direct murderer of Politkovskaya" has been identified and that "every measure to search for and apprehend this person" is being taken, Interfax reported. Smirnov did not name the suspect. However, "Komsomolskaya pravda," citing "unofficial sources," reported on March 29 that Politkovskaya's possible killer is Rustam Makhmudov, a 30-year-old inhabitant of Chechnya. "Tvoi den," citing "reliable sources," reported that international search requests will be sent to Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Britain. According to the paper, Politkovskaya's suspected killer has been wanted by Russian law-enforcement for 11 years: in August 1997, he was charged with kidnapping, it reported. "Tvoi den" noted two other suspects in the Politkovskaya case, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former officer in Moscow's anti-organized crime unit, and Federal Security Service (FSB) Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov were detained together in 2002 for abducting and beating someone. Meanwhile, the periods of pretrial detention for Khadzhikurbanov, Ryaguzov, and two other suspects in the Politkovskaya case, Dmitry Grachev and Dzhabrail Makhmudov, have been extended. It is not clear whether Shamil Burayev, the former administration head of Chechnya's Achkhoi-Martan Raion who was arrested last year as a possible accessory to the killing, remains in custody or has been charged. Burayev admitted knowing Ryaguzov but denied any connection with Politkovskaya's death (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 18, and 24, 2007, and October 19, 2007). JB

Interfax on March 28 quoted Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseyeva as saying that the announcement that Politkovskaya's direct murderer has been identified was deliberately made on the eve of the Russia-NATO summit in Bucharest and the meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Putin. "The news that a suspect has been established is a sensation [aimed at] maintaining the reputation of our law-enforcement organs," Interfax quoted Alekseyeva as saying. "But we will be careful before celebrating victory: the person has not yet been arrested." As "The Moscow Times" reported on March 31, prosecutors announced last October that they had identified the man who killed Politkovskaya. JB

Yelena Tregubova, the former "Kommersant" reporter and author of the best-selling book "Tales Of A Kremlin Digger" who fled Russia after an explosion caused minor damage outside the door of her Moscow apartment in 2004, told the Reuters news agency on April 2 that Britain has granted her political asylum. Reuters quoted Tregubova as saying from London that she applied for asylum because her life would be in danger in Russia due to opposition to her critical writings about the Kremlin under President Putin and that her asylum application was approved by Britain's Home Office. As noted on April 2, in a BBC television interview in July 2007, Tregubova accused the Russian leadership of practicing censorship and thereby violating the Russian Constitution. Tregubova also said that when officials from the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office came to London and interviewed self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky about the radiation poisoning death of former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, they tried to get Berezovsky to give them her address. JB

Ruslan Linkov, the former aide to State Duma deputy Galina Starovoitova who was shot dead in St. Petersburg in November 1998, told Ekho Moskvy radio on April 1 that the FSB informed him that the investigation into her murder was ended on March 20. Linkov, who was shot and wounded in the attack that killed Starovoitova, said that the reasons that the FSB cited for closing the investigation were "a large volume of operational-investigative activities and also the termination of the period of investigation." Linkov called the decision "outrageous," saying the FSB had no legal basis for shutting down the investigation and that he plans to challenge the decision in court. "How can you end an investigation when it has not yet been established who ordered the murder; [when] the go-between, whose name was mentioned in court and whose location abroad is known to the law-enforcement organs, has not been caught; [when] those who directly carried out the murder have not been caught and appeared in court," Linkov said. In June 2005, the St. Petersburg City Court sentenced Yury Kolchin, a former military intelligence officer, to 20 years in prison for orchestrating Starovoitova's killing and Vitaly Akishin to 23 1/2 years in prison for pulling the trigger. Both were found guilty on charges of perpetrating a terrorist act and murder for political purposes. In September 2006, Vyacheslav Lelyavin was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his role in organizing the murder. JB

Elista Mayor Rady Burulov said in an interview with the city newspaper "Elistinskaya panorama" that he will not abide by the municipal court ruling temporarily suspending him from discharging his duties, reported on April 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). Burulov, who in January called on republican President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to step down, faces criminal charges in connection with a tender to supply the city with heating oil that was won by a company owned by members of his family. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on April 1 quoted Nikolai Ochirov, a deputy to the recently elected Kalmykia parliament, as saying that Ilyumzhinov and Burulov may still reach an accommodation under which the latter will remain in office. A second parliament deputy, Nikolai Nurov, told on April 2 that a recent wave of dismissals has resulted in heightened social tensions in Elista, and that the opposition plans a protest demonstration on April 11-12 to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Ilyumzhinov's election as president. LF

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Investigation Board for Chechnya has opened a criminal case against Doku Umarov, self-styed amir of the North Caucasus and commander of the North Caucasus armed resistance, and "Kommersant" reported on April 1 and 2, respectively. Umarov is charged under Article 282, Paragraph 2 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code with inciting hatred in statements posted to the Internet last year in which he allegedly called for the killing of "unbelievers," including the leaders of the various North Caucasus republics. Chechen Prosecutor Valery Kuznetsov has asked the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office to review all criminal cases connected with Chechnya in order to determine which other crimes Umarov is suspected of involvement in. LF

A court in the Ulyanovsk Oblast city of Dimitrovgrad has rejected an application for parole by Colonel Yury Budanov, whom the North Caucasus Military Court sentenced in 2003 to 10 years' imprisonment for the murder in March 2000 of 18-year-old Elza Kungayeva, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, March 3, and July 28, 2003). This is the third time that Budanov has unsuccessfully applied for parole (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2007). LF

A delegation representing the Council of Europe's Ago Group met separately in Yerevan on April 1 with Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian and with the leaders of two political parties that agreed to his invitation last month to form a coalition government, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. A statement subsequently issued by Sarkisian's press office did not say whether he agreed to the delegation's proposals for defusing the tensions triggered by the opposition's refusal to accept the official results of the February 19 presidential ballot. Those proposals included dialogue between the authorities and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian and the release of the more than 100 Ter-Petrossian supporters arrested for their suspected participation in the violent clashes with police and security forces in Yerevan on March 1-2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 1, 2008). Artur Baghdasarian and Vahan Hovannisian, who polled third and fourth, respectively, in the February 19 ballot after Sarkisian and Ter-Petrossian, were quoted as saying the Ago Group's proposals are "largely acceptable," although Hovannisian argued against releasing all those taken into custody on the grounds that some detainees "shot or threw grenades at police officers." Also on April 1, 19 opposition activists among those detained, including former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian and National Security Service former deputy head Gurgen Yeghiazarian, released a statement saying they will begin an unlimited collective hunger strike on April 2 to demand their release, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. People's Party leader Stepan Demirchian was quoted on April 2 by as expressing approval of the Ago Group's harsh criticism of amendments passed by parliament two weeks ago restricting the right to freedom of assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). LF

Outgoing Armenian President Robert Kocharian on April 2 dismissed Lieutenant General Manvel Grigorian as deputy defense minister, Noyan Tapan reported. No reason was cited for that decision. On February 21, Ter-Petrossian told supporters in Yerevan he met the previous day with Grigorian, who also heads the influential Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, and that Grigorian assured him that he would not permit the army to be deployed against participants in the postelection protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). Grigorian never confirmed or denied Ter-Petrossian's claim. In response to a query about rumors of Grigorian's rumored dismissal, Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian told Noyan Tapan on March 25 that Grigorian would return from leave on April 1, after which a decision would be taken. LF

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has submitted a formal request to its Georgian counterpart to open a consulate in Marneuli Raion in southeastern Georgia, the online daily reported on April 2. Marneuli and the neighboring Bolnisi and Dmanisi Raions are home to an estimated 500,000 Azerbaijanis who have complained for decades of discrimination and poor social and economic conditions. A political party formed to represent the interests of Georgia's Azerbaijani minority was recently refused formal registration by the Justice Ministry, thus disbarring it from participating in the parliamentary election scheduled for May 21. LF

In a televised address to the nation on April 1 prior to his departure for Bucharest to attend the April 2-4 NATO summit, Mikheil Saakashvili admitted that it is still not clear whether Georgia and Ukraine will be offered the hoped-for NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), reported. Most NATO members are reportedly in favor, and the United States has been lobbying vigorously to win over those countries, including Germany and France, that oppose a MAP for Georgia on the grounds of its failure to meet specific political criteria. Saakashvili quoted German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as having told the "Leipziger Volkszeitung" that instead of an MAP, Georgia and Ukraine will be offered "a whole range of very practical and concrete steps to deepen ties" with the alliance. For that reason, Saakashvili continued, whatever the summit outcome, it will prove to have been "an important declaration that Georgia's progress toward NATO is continuing successfully." He further explained that NATO membership would not only create "a fundamental guarantee of Georgia's territorial integrity," but also strengthen stability, which in turn would facilitate "huge investment that will help Georgia out of nightmarish unemployment and bring prosperity to our families." LF

At a cabinet meeting in Bishkek, President Kurmanbek Bakiev on March 31 criticized the ministers for their "poor performance" and rebuked them for their failure to adequately implement the government's economic reform program, AKIpress reported on April 1. Upon his return to Bishkek after more than a month in Germany, where he received unspecified medical treatment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008), Bakiev demanded fresh reports from the cabinet by the end of the week, and expressed his frustration over the poor discipline and inactivity of the ministers and warned of his displeasure over the slow pace of energy reform, according to Regnum. He added that the ruling Ak-Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party has a "poor understanding of privatization issues, which might be a cause of delay." Following the president's criticism, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov announced that the country's GDP increased at a rate of some 6 percent for the first quarter of the year, while the overall volume of trade expanded to reach $28 million for the same period. Economic Development and Trade Minister Akylbek Japarov followed with a report saying that efforts to control inflation remain a priority. At the end of the meeting, Bakiev called on the cabinet to consider measures to improve the aviation sector, saying that "the fact that foreign companies are transporting our citizens" is unacceptable. He then criticized Transport and Communications Minister Nurlan Sulaimanov for failing to address the poor state of the aviation sector and ordered him to "bring order into the sector, upgrade the aviation fleet, and improve services to passengers." RG

In an open letter to President Bakiev, the opposition For Justice movement appealed on April 1 for his help in organizing a national "people's assembly" on April 12 in Bishkek, the website reported. According to one of the movement's leaders, Alikbek Jekshenkulov, the opposition called on Bakiev, "as a guarantor of the constitution, to stop pressure and remove barriers created by local officials and the central authorities and to assist the people's assembly," according to AKIpress The opposition even invited Bakiev "as well as other central and local authorities to take part in the assembly." Jekshenkulov also stressed that the movement no longer seeks the president's resignation, but that the opposition has devised its own economic development program that it intends to unveil at the upcoming assembly. Early last month, opposition Asaba (Flag) party leader Azimbek Beknazarov announced plans to convene the national assembly as part of the recently formed "alternative parliament," reportedly aimed at critically examining the government's policies, with a focus on a recent rise in food prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). The "alternative parliament," initially formed by a group of opposition parties in January as a response to the legislature elected in December 2007, was formally banned by the Justice Ministry late last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). RG

President Emomali Rahmon convened on March 31 a meeting in Dushanbe of senior police and security officials to discuss efforts to combat organized crime and drug trafficking, Asia-Plus reported. Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Solehov reported on a recent joint Tajik-Russian police operation that resulted in the arrest two Tajik citizens suspected of the recent killing of Russian television journalist Ilyas Shurpayev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008), adding that talks are under way on the Russian request for their extradition. The heads of the country's other law enforcement agencies then briefed Rahmon on their efforts to investigate and prosecute criminal cases related to organized crime. The officials also noted the recent arrest of two judges from the Sughd regional court for corruption after they were caught accepting a $2,000 bribe, according to Asia-Plus. RG

In an interview with a local television station, the prosecutor of the eastern Tajik town of Khorugh, Sultonnazar Alinazarov, vowed on April 1 to prevent a planned opposition rally, according to the Avesta website. In similar comments, Rashid Gulmadshoev, the prosecutor of the Gorno-Badakhshon autonomous region, who oversees the local prosecutor, warned that regional officials and police are carefully considering the implications of a possible opposition rally planned for April 8 in Khorugh. Gulmadshoev explained that regional officials intended to meet with the "representatives of political parties, public organizations, the law enforcement agencies, and the [regional] youth committee" to discuss the planned rally. The rally is being organized by the opposition Social Democratic Party. Meanwhile, speaking to reporters in Dushanbe, the head of the Tajik opposition Islamic Rebirth Party, Muhiddin Kabiri, on March 31 criticized local officials for hindering "meetings with the people," despite the fact that "the people of the country are ready to welcome us," Asia-Plus reported. Kabiri, also a deputy in parliament, went on to say that "local authorities impeded" recent public meetings his party attempted to organize with residents of the Kulob and Tursunzoda districts, and in the northern Sughd region, clearly "violating the law." Kabiri added that the meetings were essential to address the concerns of local residents, who he said are most concerned with the country's energy crisis and related electricity shortages, as well as issues of taxation, labor migration, and the freedom of conscience, particularly on the banning of girls from wearing Islamic head scarves in schools or higher education institutions. RG

Alyaksandr Shatsko, the deputy chairman of the Belaya Rus (White Rus) association, told Belapan on April 1 that his organization is planning to field candidates in all 110 electoral districts in legislative elections planned for this coming fall. Shatsko added that Belaya Rus's participation in the elections will be discussed at the association's first national convention, in May. According to Shatsko, Belaya Rus's membership has reached 75,000 people. The organization, which was officially registered in December, grew out of a group founded in Hrodna in 2005. It held a series of state-sponsored local conventions last year to set up a network of grassroots units. Belaya Rus is chaired by Education Minister Alyaksandr Radzkou, and, in a political technique reminiscent of the Soviet era, lists among its members state officials of all levels, managers of state-run companies, legislators, popular-culture figures, and athletes. JM

Judge Alena Ilyina from Minsk's Tsentralny District Court ruled on April 1 that opposition activist Andrey Kim should remain in jail, and postponed his trial indefinitely, Belapan reported. The judge rejected the defense's motion that the 22-year-old Kim be released on bail or on his own recognizance. Kim has been held in jail since January 21, when he was arrested together with more than 20 other participants in an unsanctioned demonstration in Minsk against the government's restrictive policies regarding small-business owners. At that time Kim received a 10-day sentence and a fine of $490 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). But prosecutors subsequently charged him under a Criminal Code article on violence or threats of violence against a police officer that carries a penalty of up to six years in prison. A charge of "active participation in group actions grossly disturbing the public peace" was later added. Several dozen young opposition protesters gathered near the courthouse on April 1 to display their solidarity with Kim, but were soon pushed back by police. JM

Speaking on April 2 at the National Savings Bank in Bucharest, hours before the opening of a NATO summit there, U.S. President George W. Bush said Ukraine and Georgia are ready for membership in the alliance, and that NATO must remain open to all European countries regardless of Russia's objections, international news agencies reported. "Welcoming [Ukraine and Georgia] into the Membership Action Plan would send a signal to their citizens that if they continue on the path to democracy and reform, they will be welcomed into the institutions of Europe; it would send a signal throughout the region that these two nations are and will remain sovereign and independent states," Bush said. In Moscow the previous day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that "Ukraine's accession to NATO would cause a deep crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations that would affect all European security. Therefore, the West must also make a choice as to what kind of relationship with Russia is in its interests." JM

During President Bush's visit to Kyiv on April 1, the two sides signed a document stating that Ukraine and the United States will double their efforts in promoting non-proliferation, arms control, and disarmament, Interfax-Ukraine reported. It also mentions continued reform in Ukraine's defense sector, and states that "the United States will assist and advise Ukraine in purchasing and fielding/deploying communications equipment for Ukrainian defense forces." The document, titled "Priorities for U.S.-Ukraine Cooperation (Road Map)," is available on the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry's website ( The previous day, the two sides signed a document on boosting U.S. trade and investment ties with Ukraine, Reuters reported. "Ukraine is making important strides to modernize its economy and attract foreign trade and investment. The agreement...will assist Ukraine's efforts to expand its economy and diversify its markets." U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab said in a statement. JM

Miroslav Lajcak, the international community's high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, said in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, on March 30 that the EU is paying so much attention to Serbia and Kosova that it risks ignoring developments in Bosnia, where nationalist forces remain strong, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He noted at an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers that "the Western Balkans are our backyard, and this is the area where the EU is supposed to play a key role. But in order to do so, we do need to focus on the [entire] region.... With all the attention on Serbia and Kosovo, Bosnia must not become a secondary issue." Lajcak, who is a Slovak diplomat fluent in Serbo-Croatian, argued that "Bosnia's success is our success, and there must be no alternative to success because it would say a lot about European credibility" if the EU failed there. He noted that Bosnian Muslims in particular fear that the EU might make special political concessions to Serbia, for which other would-be member states will have to work in keeping with the EU's own rules and procedures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). The Bosnian Muslims argue that Serbia does not deserve any preferential treatment as long as it fails to arrest and extradite to The Hague the indicted war criminals believed to be hiding on its territory. Lajcak also pointed out that if the EU were to enable Bosnian Serbs and other holders of Serbian passports to travel visa-free to the EU, it would leave the Muslims alone in Bosnia without that right, since ethnic Croats already enjoy it as holders of Croatian, as well as Bosnian, passports. He noted nonetheless that it is up to Bosnian politicians to enact the long-delayed police reform that is the prerequisite for Brussels agreeing to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia. PM

Kosovar police spokesman Besim Hoti said in Prishtina on April 1 that police have arrested three ethnic Serbs and one ethnic Albanian who belong to a gang that reportedly smuggled 1,000 tons of oil from Serbia to Kosova since it became independent on February 17, Reuters reported. He said that the arrests took place the previous night as the four men tried to fight their way past an unspecified checkpoint as they prepared to collect a consignment of 6 tons of smuggled oil. Police called in NATO peacekeepers to assist in the arrests. Kosova's police rely on mobile checkpoints to deal with smuggling, which Serbian and Kosovar police agree is widespread. The news agency noted that smuggling accounts for 60 percent of cross-border trade, especially for medicines, blue jeans, and cows. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, criminals collaborated across ethnic lines. The Bosnian Croat-held town of Kiseljak in particular was well known as an open market for arms, fuel, and other necessities of war. PM

Raids on the offices of independent media outlets, journalists' private apartments, and the recent mass arrests of opposition activists in Belarus have evoked a harsh reaction by the West -- but the criticisms have apparently fallen on deaf ears.

The Belarusian authorities on March 28 resumed their crackdown, a day after dozens of journalists were detained for questioning by the KGB. Many of them also had their private apartments searched.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, independent journalist Alena Stsyapanava described the KGB's search of her home in Vitsebsk.

"Around 9 a.m. someone rang to my apartment -- not from the house intercom but the doorbell," Stsyapanava said. "My husband opened the door. I heard that he was being asked for the passports of residents because, they said, it was a check of whether the residents have the right to live there. Only after that did they show us a search warrant."

Targeted were media outlets or journalists with ties to the outside world, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Investigators also zeroed in on employees of Radio Racja and Belsat, both primarily Polish-funded, and the EU-funded European Radio for Belarus -- which have all been denied government accreditation.

In a statement issued on March 27, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the raids, saying, "some 30 independent journalists in 12 cities were detained without legitimate cause."

He said this week's incidents show that a "brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that blatantly ignores human rights and fundamental freedoms" is in power in Belarus.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski expressed the "deepest possible anxiety" over the developments, and said the situation in Belarus is taking a turn for the worse.

Homel-based independent journalist Anatol Hatouchyts spoke to RFE/RL after his home was searched on March 27.

"I have been a professional journalist for more than 30 years. Naturally, I have a computer, and my wife has a computer. I have tape recorders, diskettes. All this was confiscated. They confiscated 31 items in total. In fact, all this was done in order to paralyze the work of journalists who work for nonstate media," Hatouchyts said.

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maryya Vanshyna said on March 27 the searches were being conducted to uncover journalists working illegally in Belarus. "The illegal character of these individuals' activities in Belarus has never been hidden by their foreign owners," she said.

Belarusian Deputy Prosecutor-General Alyaksey Stuk, however, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service the same day that investigators were looking for signs the targeted journalists had cooperated with the creators of animated cartoons deemed insulting to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Independent journalist Stsyapanava supported Stuk's claim.

"The search was linked to me. The search warrant stated that I have to be a witness in a criminal case opened in 2005 against citizens by the name of Marozau, Minich, and Abozau," Stsyapanava said. "While staying abroad, they allegedly disseminated -- via the television company Belsat -- cartoons that defame the president of the republic of Belarus."

Andrey Abozau, Pavel Marozau, and Aleh Minich fled Belarus in 2007 to avoid arrest in connection with the cartoons, which were originally posted on their website, "Third Path," and continue to circulate on the Internet.

Defaming the Belarusian president is punishable by up to four years in prison.

The Polish-funded television station Belsat, which has broadcast the cartoons, said 20 of its Belarusian employees were detained. The Belarusian Journalists Association recorded 16 journalists who were either detained or whose apartments were searched.

A human rights activist was also reportedly detained during a search of a journalist's apartment in Visebsk for swearing. Pavel Levinau had arrived on the scene to ensure that the search was being conducted in accordance with the law.

The Belarusian Journalists Association has petitioned the Prosecutor-General's Office to stop the searches, and has objected to the confiscation of audio and video equipment and printed material.

The crackdown came on a day that 17 U.S. diplomats left Belarus -- a concession to Minsk's recent demand that the U.S. Embassy's staff be halved. U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart was recalled two weeks ago, and some embassy services in Minsk have been curtailed or suspended.

The staff reductions followed accusations that the embassy had recruited a dozen Belarusians to pass information for use against Belarus to the FBI -- allegations the United States has denied.

U.S.-Belarusian relations were further strained when truncheon-wielding Belarusian police violently broke up a street rally on March 25 and detained some 80 demonstrators. Several hundred opposition activists had gathered in a Minsk square to mark the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Belarusian People's Republic, which was subsequently crushed by Bolshevik forces.

The newly appointed U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, David Kramer, told RFE/RL earlier this week that breaking up the rally was "thuggish behavior on the part of the security forces."

"A reminder, I think, of the total lack of respect that the authorities have demonstrated in the past for citizens' rights to assemble and speak freely. It is very unfortunate that a number of people not only were arrested, but many beaten up by the authorities. Totally uncalled for," Kramer said.

Kramer at the time touted a united U.S.-EU front in calling for the Belarusian authorities to ease restrictions on citizens and civil society.

"Belarus is in the heart of Europe, and it remains the last dictatorship in Europe, and it is a country where, together, the United States and the European Union feel we need to both apply pressure on the government so that it demonstrates greater respect for human rights for its own citizens, but also where we reach out to civil society and the democratic opposition and NGOs in Belarus to show that we support what they are trying to achieve in their country," Kramer said.

The EU has echoed the U.S. condemnation of the recent events in Belarus, calling on Belarus to end the crackdown if it wants to improve relations with the bloc.

Since the beginning of the year, President Lukashenka has indicated that he wants to improve relations with the EU. He has released most of the country's political prisoners -- a key EU demand -- and given the European Commission the go-ahead to open up a branch in Minsk.

However, one former Belarusian political prisoner, Syarhey Skrabets, believes Brussels could do more. "I think all this [political persecution] takes place only because the European Union maintains permanent contacts with the current authorities," he said. "Had they taken the position that was taken by the United States, all this would not have happened."

After a clash in southern Afghanistan that left three rebels dead, police arrested a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Naqibullah, who has already escaped twice from Afghan prisons, AP reported on April 1. Dressed in police uniforms, the militants ambushed a police convoy north of the Helmand Province capital of Lashkar Gah, provincial police chief Mohammad Hussain Andiwal said. Three of them were killed and two policemen injured in the gun battle. Also on April 1, a civilian car in southwestern Nimroz Province hit a mine, killing the driver and injuring two civilian passengers, provincial police chief Mohammad Ayub Badakshi said. AT

Afghan officials have said they have evidence that Pakistan dumped nuclear waste in Afghanistan when it was under Taliban rule, the BBC reported on April 1. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Faruq Wardag said that the waste was buried in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, though he said he does not know how much or for how long it continued. Wardag added that he does not know the exact nature of the evidence. A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman said his country will not comment until the Afghan government makes an official statement about the allegations. AT

In his monthly news conference on April 1, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for more burden sharing among the countries contributing forces in Afghanistan, APP reported. "Afghanistan is the front line against the Taliban," he said. "If Afghanistan falls again to the Taliban, it creates a vulnerability for the whole of the rest of the world. And if Al-Qaeda, as they are trying to do, make progress in Afghanistan, that is also a danger to the world." He said apart from fighting Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the West must train local forces and give the Afghans a stake in their own future. AT

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has rejected reports that three civilians were killed in the Panjwai district of the southern Kandahar Province, insisting that they were militants, Xinhua news agency reported on April 1. "An ISAF patrol spotted insurgents placing improvised explosive devices on a road close to an ISAF base last night, calling in air support killing three and wounding one," an ISAF statement said on April 1 said. But district chief Haji Shah Baran said all three victims were farmers irrigating their lands. Baran called on ISAF to investigate the incident. AT

Detained trade unionist Mahmud Salehi was reported to have become ill after he started a hunger strike in prison in Sanandaj, in the western province of Kurdistan, on or soon after March 21, his lawyer Mohammad Sharif told Radio Farda on March 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008). Salehi is the head and founder of a bakers' union in the nearby town of Saqqez. Sharif said his detention is illegal, as the prison term he had been given ended on March 23. He added that another arrest warrant was issued for Salehi on March 17 or 18 because of messages he allegedly sent to contacts outside the prison. The new arrest warrant was issued in spite of discussions between Salehi's lawyer and relatives and the Sanandaj public prosecutor on his likely release after March 21, the lawyer said. Sharif added that the new charges being leveled against Salehi are based on "claims judiciary officials have made" about messages Salehi sent to unionists to thank them for their support. Sharif said that even if those messages contained insults to authorities or antistate comments, sending messages from prison does not justify a new arrest warrant, Radio Farda reported on March 27. VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki congratulated new Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Hussein Qureshi by phone on April 1, and expressed hope the newly installed Pakistani government will bring stability and calm to the country and help defeat "terrorism and extremism in the region," IRNA reported. Mottaki said Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan will continue to hold trilateral consultations on Afghan affairs. Qureshi told Mottaki that Pakistan gives priority to expanding ties with Iran, and the two states should speed up plans to build a gas pipeline connecting the two countries. A new 24-member Pakistani cabinet took its oath of office on March 31 and started work on April 1. Qureshi and 10 other members of the cabinet are members of the Pakistan People's Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, IRNA reported. VS

Hesam Khoshnevis, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's personal envoy in Lebanon, has outlined Iranian aid and reconstruction projects in Lebanon over the past two years, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 2, citing the Lebanese daily "Al Akhbar" and Iranian website "Aftab-i Yazd" stated that Khoshnevis is overseeing the expenditure of Iranian aid and the implementation of projects by an Iranian delegation, including contractors and engineers. He said the amount of money Iran has spent in Lebanon in recent years is not important, and that instead "it is the results of this reconstruction that are important, and the Lebanese...should be sure" Iran's construction activities are in line with international standards. He said Iran has completed or is involved in 11 road-building projects, and has built 10 "essential" bridges at what he said was a third of the cost other contractors charged for similar projects from 1998-2006. Khoshnevis said Iran is building another 94 bridges of varying dimensions. He also said he is not surprised that Lebanon has run up high foreign debts, which he estimated at $44 billion. He denied Iran has political goals behind its building activities, and said its reconstruction work is "strategic," and will continue for at least three more years. Khoshnevis accused Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora of ingratitude toward Iran, stating that Siniora at an unspecified time accused the Iranian reconstruction delegation of not coordinating its work with his government. VS

French newspaper "Le Figaro" reported on March 25 that Beirut is the site of a "new cold war" between forces backed by Syria and Iran on the one hand, and Western powers and conservative Arab states such as Saudi Arabia on the other. Timur Goksel, a UN spokesman in Lebanon, told the daily that regional tensions have "come to crystallize" in Lebanon "between the Iranians and Americans..., Israelis and Arabs, and Shiites and Sunnis." He said the Saudis see the Shi'ite-majority government in Iraq as a "disconcerting advance by Iran. They are determined to prevent Lebanon falling into the axis Tehran is forming at the heart of the Arab world by backing the Sunnis in Lebanon." Separately, the exiled head of the Palestinian Hamas movement, Khalid Mish'al, told Spanish newspaper "El Pais" that Hamas does not have exclusive ties with Tehran and "as a resistance movement, we are open to everyone." Asked what relationship Hamas has with Tehran, he said the group has ties with Arab and Islamic states including Iran, as well as members of the EU. "We accept any help for our people," Mish'al said. "We do not ask for help for Hamas, but for [Palestinians].... We choose any help that does not come with conditions," quoted him as saying on March 31. VS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on April 1 that the recent military operation to reassert control in the southern city of Al-Basrah has been a "success," Iraqi and international media reported. A statement released by his office said the operation in Al-Basrah brought "stability" and "achieved the aim of imposing law in the city and restoring normalcy." On March 25, the Iraqi government launched operation Sawlat al-Fursan (Attack of the Knights), which mostly targeted members of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki also announced the implementation of a seven-point program in Al-Basrah that includes recruiting 10,000 new troops, restoring basic services, imposing strict checks on vehicles without licenses, building new houses for the poor, and turning government-owned palaces into tourist destinations. Earlier, al-Maliki called on Iraqi security forces to end random raids and arrests without warrants. However, he stressed that Iraqi security forces should "deal strongly with any groups carrying arms in public." Meanwhile, officials from al-Sadr's movement have accused Iraqi forces of continuing a campaign of arrests against the cleric's followers. Harith al-Athari, the head of al-Sadr's office in Al-Basrah, said people loyal to the movement are "exposed to random arrests and raids, and houses of the members are being burned. This is in violation of what has been agreed upon." SS

Prime Minister al-Maliki on March 31 announced a plan to maintain security during provincial elections scheduled for October 1, KUNA reported. The plan involves deploying a large contingent of Iraqi security forces in each governorate to maintain security. In addition, each governorate will hold elections on different days in an effort to prevent a repeat of the unrest that marred previous elections. Al-Maliki stressed the importance of holding "sound and fair elections in the framework of free political competition," without influence from armed groups. On March 19, the three-member presidential council approved the Governorates Law, which paved the way for the October elections to held under the auspices of the UN (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). SS

Figures released by the Iraqi government showed that the death toll in March increased sharply and was the highest since August 2007, international media reported on April 1. A total of 1,082 Iraqis, including 925 civilians, were killed in March, up from a total of 721 in February. In addition, the latest data showed that 103 policemen and 54 soldiers were killed, compared with 65 and 20 respectively in February, and that 641 insurgents were killed and 2,509 detained. The figures are based on data compiled by the health, defense, and interior ministries. Despite the sharp rise in casualties, the March 2008 figure was still significantly lower than the 1,861 who died in March 2007. Officials contend that many of the casualties resulted from the weeklong clashes between Iraqi security forces and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, Kut, and Al-Nasiriyah. SS

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on April 1 that the recent clashes between Shi'ite militias and Iraqi security forces in Baghdad and southern Iraq have caused a severe lack of food and fuel supplies. The group said the violence and the subsequent curfews caused shortages of food, fuel, water, and medical supplies to large parts of Iraq. The fighting also damaged many shops and market stalls, forcing merchants to delay trading until repairs are completed. IOM staff reported that the shortages have caused prices to rise by 50-600 percent. In response, the IOM announced it will procure food and other supplies for immediate distribution to hospitals in some of Iraq's southern governorates, including Al-Basrah, Wasit, Al-Qadisiyah, and Dhi Qar, as well as neighborhoods in Baghdad that are still under curfew. SS

Iraqi forces arrested an Iraqi correspondent for Al-Sumaria TV in Baghdad on April 1, "Aswat Al-Iraq" reported. The Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), a local human rights group, said Ahmad Mahmud Hasan was detained "for unknown reasons." The group called on the Iraqi military to "release the Al-Sumaria journalist as soon as possible, if no charges have been filed against him." JFO also noted that "five journalists have been subjected to excessive force" during the weeklong military operation launched by the Iraqi government on March 25. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on March 31 that increased oil revenues will allow the country to add an additional $5 billion to its 2008 budget, international media reported. Al-Dabbagh said the additional funds will be included in a complementary budget to be issued by the end of June, and that the money will be used for important and strategic investment. In light of the new revenue, Iraqi Finance Minister Bayan al-Jabr asked all state institutions to produce technical feasibility studies of all projects pending their endorsement in the framework of the new budget. The additional $5 billion brings the government's total revenues to approximately $53.4 billion. Iraq's oil exports have steadily increased, with an average of 1.93 million barrels per day in February. Officials say the recent clashes in the southern city of Al-Basrah, Iraq's main oil exporting center, barely affected the country's oil industry. SS