|Monday, 1 March 2021|
RFE/RL Newsline, 04-03-09
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 PUTIN NAMES NEW GOVERNMENT, NEW FOREIGN MINISTERPresident Vladimir Putin on 9 March announced the composition of the new cabinet of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, Russian and international media reported. In a radical restructuring, the new government will have just 17 ministries, instead of the 30 ministries and agencies in the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Among the ministers from Kasyanov's cabinet who will keep their posts are Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeev, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, Justice Minister Yurii Chaika. Former Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko has been named to head a new Industry and Energy Ministry. Former acting Industry and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko has been named to head a new Education and Science Ministry. Russian Ambassador to the UN Sergei Lavrov has been named foreign minister. Moscow State Conservatory Rector Aleksandr Sokolov will head a new Culture and Information Ministry, while Pension Fund Chairman Mikhail Zurabov will become health and social policy minister. Perm Oblast Governor Yurii Trutnev was named natural resources minister. Igor Levitin, general director of the company Severostal-Trans, will be transport and communications minister. Putin also appointed former acting Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev as interior minister. Deputy presidential administration head Dmitrii Kozak was named chief of the government staff, and former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is now secretary of the Security Council. VY
 SIX CANDIDATES TO VIE FOR PRESIDENCY...Under election legislation, 8 March was the last day for candidates to withdraw from the 14 March presidential election, barring "exceptional circumstances," RBK reported, citing Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov. Such circumstances might include a serious illness or the death of a candidate's spouse, strana.ru reported. Former candidate Ivan Rybkin withdrew from the race on 5 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004), leaving a field of six candidates. President Putin will compete against State Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev (Motherland), former Union of Rightist Forces co-leader Irina Khakamada, State Duma Deputy Oleg Malyshkin (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, LDPR), State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov (Communist Party), and Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov. JAC
 ...AS 'AGAINST ALL' COULD FINISH SECONDNo opinion-poll results about the race may be published after 8 March, according to the election law. "Kommersant-Daily" on 6 March published the final results from a number of leading agencies. A VTsIOM poll conducted during the last week of February found that "against all" was in second place after President Putin. In the poll of 1,600 respondents conducted in 100 cities and towns, Putin polled 70.9 percent. "Against all" got 4 percent, Glazev 3.9 percent, Kharitonov 2.7 percent, Khakamada 1.6 percent, Malyshkin 1.1 percent, and Mironov 0.4 percent. A ROMIR poll conducted on 12-17 February gave Putin 77 percent, "against all" 6 percent, Glazev 3 percent, and Khakamada and Kharitonov 2 percent each. The Public Opinion Foundation and Tsentr-Levada (formerly, VTsIOM-A) both put Kharitonov in second place (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004). JAC
 KHAKAMADA AGAIN COMPLAINS ABOUT TV COVERAGE...Speaking at a press conference on 8 March in St. Petersburg, presidential candidate Khakamada complained that although candidates were each promised 29 minutes of airtime on live television -- to match the 29 minutes that RTR and ORT devoted to President Putin's 12 February speech to his campaign workers -- she has so far received only five minutes on RTR, RosBalt reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 23, and 27 February 2004). She added that the five minutes she was allotted was not live airtime, because a question posed to her by actress Natalya Fateeva was cut. "This surprised me," Khakamada said. "If the leading competitor has a rating of 60 percent, what would happen if Fateeva criticized him for a few seconds?" According to Khakamada, coverage of the presidential campaign is taking place under a regime of "spontaneous self-censorship." JAC
 ...ACCUSES STATE TV JOURNALIST OF BEING KREMLIN'S HENCHMAN...Presidential candidate Khakamada told Ekho Moskvy on 8 March that charges by journalist Andrei Karaulov on his TV-Tsentr program "Moment of Truth" the previous day were "all dirt." Karaulov charged that Khakamada has been doing "everything in her power" to get a children's theater in the basement of the apartment building where she lives kicked out of the premises. She wants a press club for foreign journalists to be housed there, Karaulov said. Khakamada denied that she has anything to do with efforts to relocate the children's theater, which she said is being done for the children's sake rather than the residents'. She said Karaulov is like a "hawk" who "executes the Kremlin's orders to do in the entire opposition, to shower it with dirt under the disguise of the people's will." JAC
 ...AND EXPLAINS PUTIN'S POPULARITYPresidential candidate Khakamada told RFE/RL on 8 March that President Putin's popularity rating is so high because he seems so much more attractive than former President Boris Yeltsin did. In contrast to Yeltsin, Putin is young, athletic, lives a healthy lifestyle, and speaks eloquent Russian and foreign languages. In short, many Russians consider him an intellectual leader. Moreover, Khakamada said, by nature and in keeping with his KGB training, Putin is a capable psychologist and communicator, saying to each interlocutor exactly what he or she wants to hear. In addition, Putin benefits from the Russian public's traditional respect for authority, since he was officially anointed as Yeltsin's successor. "I am sure that if I, a woman with Japanese blood, were officially declared Putin's successor in 2008, my popularity rating would increase several times over," Khakamada said. VY
 OIL MAJOR SIGNS 40-YEAR DEAL WITH SAUDI ARABIALUKoil President Vagit Alekperov and Saudi Oil Minister Ali Ibrahim Naimi signed on 7 March in Riyadh a major accord on developing natural-gas deposits in Saudi Arabia, Western and Russian media reported. Under the 40-year agreement, LUKoil will develop a 30,000 square kilometer gas field in the Rub al-Khali Desert, and will invest $200 million into the project. Alekperov said the deal has "strategic importance" for his company and that it could bring LUKoil up to $3 billion in profits, rusenergy.ru reported on 8 March. He said LUKoil has created a joint venture for the project with the Saudi state oil company Aramco, in which LUKoil holds an 80 percent stake. VY
 TANK PRODUCER LOOKING TO MAJOR EXPORT DEALSThe export of tanks has given a new lease on life to the Nizhnii Tagil factory Uralvagonzavod, which was once the major tank producer in the Soviet Union, NTV reported on 8 March. The factory, which once produced 2,000 tanks a year, is now Russia's only producer of heavy battle tanks, exporting its top model, the T-90, to a number of foreign militaries. Recently, the Indian Army ordered 310 tanks from the plant. Uralvagonzavod spokesman Boris Mikheev said the plant is now negotiating deals with Malaysia and Iran to purchase "a comparable number" of tanks. "If indeed we get an order for 300 tanks from Iran, we will light a candle in the local church," Mikheev told NTV. VY
 LEADING JOURNALIST SLAMS PUTIN'S CHOICE FOR PRIME MINISTERWriting in "Literaturnaya gazeta," No. 9, former "Nezavisimaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Vitalii Tretyakov said that Russia needs a capable, effective, and responsible government that will not be a burden on taxpayers. However, by appointing a "technical" prime minister, President Putin has only prolonged the de facto irresponsibility of the government for at least one more presidential term. Although Russians have a tradition of sacrifice and subservience to authority, Tretyakov wrote, one should not underestimate the public's desire to resist government irresponsibility and arbitrariness. Unfortunately, he added, the leaders of such resistance did not become intellectuals or effective members of civil society, but bandits with whom the authorities always managed to come to terms. Under such circumstances, Tretyakov concluded, it would be better to combine the offices of president and prime minister, since at least the president is popularly elected. VY
 THIRTY-YEAR-OLD SPY CASE STILL A MYSTERYTwenty years ago, Soviet television aired the blockbuster program "TASS Is Authorized To Announce," which was shot on orders from the KGB, "Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie," No. 9, reported. The program was based on the true story of Soviet diplomat Aleksandr Ogorodnik, who was recruited in Colombia by the CIA in the 1970s and who was exposed by the KGB and died while being arrested in 1977. According to the official version, Ogorodnik, who worked on the planning staff of the Soviet foreign ministry and who was engaged to the daughter of powerful Politburo member Konstantin Rusakov, committed suicide by swallowing poison that had been given to him by the CIA. The KGB was criticized at the time for failing to bring him to trial, but some KGB veterans have speculated that the agency's directors ordered Ogorodnik killed to avoid embarrassing Rusakov and his patron, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Neither General Vitalii Boyarov, who was in overall charge of the operation to arrest Ogorodnik, nor any of his subordinates were punished in connection with the case. Ogorodnik's U.S. case officer was Aldrich Ames, the highest-ranking Soviet/Russian mole within the CIA. Ames is now serving a life term in a U.S. prison. VY
 MAN ARRESTED WITH REMOTE-CONTROLLED EXPLOSIVE IN MOSCOWMoscow police on 8 March arrested a man who was allegedly under the influence of narcotics and who had a homemade explosive device capable of being detonated by remote control, Russian media reported. The man, whose name has not been released, reportedly told police that he bought the explosive on the black market and intended to resell it for a profit. A police spokesman said the device "was very professionally made and very destructive," RTR reported on 8 March. On 4 March, Moscow police arrested a woman from Chechnya who was in possession of 200 grams of plastic explosives. Her name has not been released. VY
 TYCOON REPORTEDLY EYEING REGIONAL TV OUTLETS FOR NEXT ELECTION SEASON...Self-exiled former oligarch Boris Berezovskii is finalizing deals on securing control over media assets in the Volga region, Urals and Siberia, RBK reported on 3 March, citing unidentified sources close to several regional media holdings. According to the agency, Berezovskii's interest in regional media outlets is linked with the 2007 State Duma and 2008 presidential campaigns. Berezovskii already owns 80 percent of the Novosibirsk-based NTN Company, which operates NTN-4 and NTN-12. Novosibirsk mayoral candidate Yakov London owns only 20 percent of the NTN Company, although it was previously believed that he was the majority shareholder. JAC
 ...AS NOVOSIBIRSK MAYORAL CANDIDATE'S TIES WITH BEREZOVSKII UNCOVERED ON EVE OF ELECTIONNovosibirsk mayoral candidate London avoided answering a question about the ownership of NTN at a recent press conference, Regnum reported on 4 March. However, a source in the company confirmed that Berezovskii owns a controlling interest in the company, the agency reported. Last month, the Novosibirsk Oblast prosecutor asked the Arbitration Court to cancel the broadcasting licenses of Novosibirsk television stations NTN-4 and NTN-12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). Some analysts blamed Unified Russia's poor showing in the State Duma election in Novosibirsk on those stations' coverage. The city's mayoral election will be held on 14 March. JAC
 ZHIRINOVSKII SUGGESTS MAKING NEWS MORE POSITIVELDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii told a party meeting on 6 March that the ranks of Russian journalists should be "cleaned up" and that "propaganda in [Russia should be] more positive," RosBalt reported. He noted that "the situation is changing and propaganda is becoming more positive," and "[we] have already cleaned up ORT and NTV." Soon a former head of the Federal Security Service's press service will run NTV, Zhirinovskii said. He said journalists are interested first of all in terrorist acts, murder, and other negative phenomena. Television should show "good Russian films" to put viewers in a better mood, he concluded. JAC
 LOCAL LEGISLATOR WITHDRAWS FROM UDMURT RACEUdmurtia republican legislator Mikhail Kokorin has withdrawn his candidacy in the republic's 14 March presidential election, regions.ru reported on 7 March. Kokorin has asked his supporters to vote for incumbent President Aleksandr Volkov. According to "Ekspert-Ural," No. 9, a Moscow-based polling firm found in a recent poll that Volkov is in second place. "Against all" was the most popular "candidate" (see "RFE/RL Russia Votes 2003-4" http://www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection). In order for a candidate to win in the first round, he or she must gather 50 percent plus one vote. JAC
 CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDER SURRENDERSMagomed Khambiev, who served as defense minister in the administration of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in 1997-99, and his deputy, Kharon Bibulatov, have surrendered to Ramzan Kadyrov, son of pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, Russian media reported on 8 March. Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev told Interfax on 8 March that Khambiev's surrender came after protracted talks with elders in the village of Benoi-Yurt. Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov told Interfax that Khambiev's surrender is "a lethal blow" to Maskhadov, while Ramzan Kadyrov predicted that Maskhadov too could decide to lay down his arms within the next two weeks. LF
 CORRECTION:An 8 March "RFE/RL Newsline" item entitled "Local Officials Work On Getting Out The Vote" should have said that the health-care directorate of the Khabarovsk Krai administration has ordered local hospitals not to admit patients without absentee ballots.
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN OPPOSITION DECLINES TO REVEAL PLANNED TACTICSLeaders of the Armenian opposition parties aligned in the Artarutiun bloc said on 8 March in Yerevan that at a meeting two days earlier they reached agreement on coordinating actions aimed at forcing the resignation of the present Armenian leadership, but failed to divulge details of those actions or any specific time frame, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Addressing a public rally on 6 March in Echmiadzin, Artarutiun head Stepan Demirchian reaffirmed the bloc's call for a nationwide referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian. He argued such a referendum "would give this regime a good chance to resolve the issue of its legitimacy in a calm and civilized way." LF
 COURT REJECTS APPEAL IN ALLEGED PLOT TO MURDER ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTERThe Armenian Appeals Court upheld on 5 March a six-year prison sentence handed down in January to former security-service officer Levon Abrahamian, Noyan Tapan reported on 9 March. Abrahamian was convicted of plotting to assassinate Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 14 January 2004). Abrahamian pled not guilty to the charges and claimed in court that investigators offered him a reduced sentence if he would agree to implicate Armenian opposition politicians in the alleged plot. LF
 LIBEL DAMAGES THREATEN TO BANKRUPT AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PAPERIn six separate libel cases, courts have ordered the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" to pay damages ranging from 5 million manats to 400 million manats ($1,000-$81,000) to prominent political figures, including Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev and Agil Aliyev, a brother of the late President Heidar Aliyev, Turan reported on 9 March. The total fines amount to some $150,000, which will be deducted from the newspaper's sales and subscription revenue. Acting Editor in Chief Gabil Abbasoglu told Turan the courts were acting on orders from the presidential administration in a bid to silence the paper because of its coverage of the purported falsification of the 15 October presidential election. LF
 PRESIDENT DENIES GEORGIA ABETS 'TERRORISTS'Speaking in Paris where he arrived on 8 March for a working visit, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili rejected as unfounded acting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's allegations that the Georgian authorities have done nothing to prevent "terrorists" infiltrating Chechnya from Georgian territory, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Ivanov said in Paris on 5 March that the Russian military has apprehended "dozens of foreign terrorists" in Chechnya, all of whom had Georgian visas in their passports. Saakashvili pointed out that he proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his recent trip to Moscow that the two countries initiate joint patrols of their shared border to minimize the possibility of illicit border crossings. He said Putin agreed to that proposal but has taken no steps to implement it. LF
 THREE GEORGIAN INVESTIGATORS CHARGED WITH NEGLIGENCEThree investigators from a Tbilisi district police department have been remanded in pretrial custody for three months on charges of dereliction of duty, the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported on 8 March. The three men are suspected of facilitating the departure from Tbilisi of two students from Adjaria who were apprehended in Tbilisi last month on charges of illegal weapons possession. The two young men were released on 27 February on condition that they remained in Tbilisi, but departed the same day for Batumi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February and 1 March 2004). "Rezonansi" on 9 March suggested that the detention of the three investigators might be directed against Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who gave orders to release the two students when they were temporarily detained at the Tbilisi airport on 27 February. LF
 GEORGIAN MILITARY OFFICE ROBBEDOn 4 March thieves broke into an office at the Krtsanisi military training center, which is used by U.S. instructors implementing the Train and Equip program, and stole a safe containing some $150,000 and personal valuables belonging to U.S. service personnel, Caucasus Press reported on 9 March, quoting Chief Military Prosecutor Paata Djakhutashvili. LF
 KAZAKH COMMUNIST BLASTS SPLINTER PARTYSerikbolsyn Abdildin, leader of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (KPK), held a news conference in Almaty on 5 March to lambaste dissident communists for setting up a splinter party, "Panorama" reported. According to Abdildin, the creators of the Communist Party of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KPRK) are "linked with the authorities and are fulfilling their orders." Abdildin also denied that the new party, which plans to hold its constituent assembly in April, could take with it up to 25,000 KPK members (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). Calling this "a lie," Abdildin claimed that his KPK has 69,884 members. DK
 REPORT SAYS TURKMEN MUFTI JAILED FOR OPPOSITION, ETHNICITYNasrullah ibn Ibadullah, the former chief mufti of Turkmenistan, is in prison because of his ethnicity and his resistance to President Saparmurat Niyazov's growing cult of personality, Norway-based religious-freedom news agency Forum 18 reported on 8 March. According to the report, Ibadullah, who was sentenced to 22 years' imprisonment on 2 March 2003 for treason, fell from grace because he opposes the enforced use of Niyazov's "Rukhnama" spiritual guide in mosques and because he is an ethnic Uzbek. A representative of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative told Forum 18 on 8 March that "many prominent and respected ethnic Uzbek leaders have been arrested and sentenced." Ibadullah's replacement, Kakageldy Vepaev, is an ethnic Turkmen. In recent years, Niyazov has further tightened his already firm grip on religion and raised his "Rukhnama" to the status of a divine text. Forum 18 notes that "imams are forced to display [the "Rukhnama"] prominently in mosques and quote [from it] approvingly in sermons." DK
 WOMEN MAKE UP MORE THAN HALF OF UZBEK UNEMPLOYEDEven as Uzbekistan celebrates International Women's Day on 8 March, a recent report indicates that women make up nearly 60 percent of the country's official unemployment rolls, uzreport.com reported on 4 March. Women comprise 58-60 percent of the officially registered unemployed and 46-47 percent of jobseekers. Despite falling birth rates, families remain large, especially in rural areas. Thirty-one percent of all rural families comprise 6-7 people. The report also noted contradictory tendencies, with some women giving up professional positions to take care of their children, while other women are joining the workforce to help their struggling families make ends meet. DK
Central And Eastern Europe
 INDEPENDENT WINS UKRAINIAN BY-ELECTIONUkraine's Central Election Commission announced on 8 March that Oleksandr Vasylyev, head of the State Tax Administration in Donetsk Oblast, won election to the Verkhovna Rada in a Donetsk Oblast constituency (No. 61) on 7 March, UNIAN reported. Vasylyev, running as an independent, won nearly 79 percent of the vote, far outpacing 24 other candidates. The election was organized in connection with the departure of lawmaker Hennadiy Vasilyev, who was elected in March 2002 but appointed prosecutor-general in November 2003. The Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a nongovernmental group that monitors election campaigns in the country, said there were numerous violations of the law during the 2002 election in constituency No. 61. In particular, the committee charged that Vasylyev abused his official position to promote his candidacy and held meetings with voters at their workplace during the workday. JM
 ESTONIAN PREMIER BELIEVES EU-RUSSIA AGREEMENT WILL BE EXPANDEDPrime Minister Juhan Parts told the Finnish daily "Turun Sanomat" of 8 March that he is certain the EU-Russian Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) will be extended to the 10 new EU states by their 1 May accession date, BNS reported. He characterized Russia's concerns regarding the situation of Estonia's and Latvia's ethnic Russian minorities as rhetoric. Estonia's integration policies, he said, can be held up as an example that allows minorities to "develop themselves, use their own language, and promote culture in Estonia." Parts denied that ethnic Russians in Estonia are barred from certain jobs, explaining that "finding a job calls for knowledge of the local culture, history, and language" and job applicants are thus not competitive if they do not speak Estonian. The prime minister also criticized efforts by current EU states to restrict the free movement of labor for citizens of the acceding states, saying fears of mass immigration are unfounded, as were similar fears expressed prior to the admission of Greece, Portugal, and Spain. SG
 THREE LATVIAN PARTIES SIGN DECLARATION ON FORMING MINORITY GOVERNMENTRepresentatives of three right-of-center parties -- the Union of Greens and Farmers, Latvia's First Party (LPP), and the People's Party -- signed an official declaration on 8 March stating the main goals of the minority coalition government they were expected to present for parliamentary approval on 9 March, BNS reported. The three parties, which combined account for 46 of the 100 deputies in parliament, will nominate Indulis Emsis of the Latvian Green Party as prime minister and LPP Chairman Ainars Slesers as deputy prime minister. The declaration was not signed by New Era, which on 5 March withdrew its demand that the new government be headed by its Chairman Einars Repse, as was the last cabinet. Despite criticism by other party members, New Era parliament deputy Andrejs Radzevics has reportedly agreed to serve as minister of regional development and municipal affairs. SG
 LITHUANIAN IMPEACHMENT PROCEEDINGS ADJOURNED PENDING COURT RULINGThe first day of the parliamentary impeachment hearings that will determine the fate of President Rolandas Paksas lasted only 13 minutes, "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 9 March. Supreme Court Chairman Vytautas Greicius, who is presiding over the impeachment process, on 8 March accepted a proposal by Liberal-Centrist parliament deputy Raimundas Sukys to suspend the hearings until the Constitutional Court rules on the admissibility of charges that Paksas violated the constitution. The president's lawyers also supported the adjournment. The Constitutional Court is scheduled to begin its hearings on the issue on 16 March. Parliament then discussed a proposal to change the rules of the impeachment process to accept the court's ruling without further investigation. Parliament would then conduct further questioning only on issues not addressed by the court, which some argue would speed up the impeachment process. However, others are arguing that the role of the parliament in the impeachment would be diminished and the changes to the rules could be challenged by the Constitutional Court. SG
 POLISH MINISTER UNVEILS AMBITIOUS PRIVATIZATION PLANSTreasury Minister Zbigniew Kaniewski told journalists on 8 March that the government is planning to sell stakes in 211 state-owned enterprises in 2004, "Gazeta Wyborcza" reported. The government expects privatization revenues this year of 8.8 billion zlotys ($2.3 billion). "We realize that investor interest is declining," Kaniewski said, according to the daily. "At the same time, we are under pressure to meet macroeconomic [targets].... This is why the [privatization] list is so long." Major planned sales include shares in PKO BP bank, the G-8 electricity distribution group, the Polish Oil and Gas Exploration Company, and textbook publisher Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne. JM
 POLAND'S MOST POPULAR OPPOSITION PARTY PLEDGES TO FIGHT POLITICAL 'BARBARIANS'Donald Tusk, leader of the centrist opposition Civic Platform, told journalists on 7 March that his party's main political opponent in Poland is now the populist, leftwing Self-Defense party led by Andrzej Lepper, PAP reported on 8 March. The Civic Platform sits atop recent popularity polls, with voter support oscillating around 30 percent. "The [ruling] Democratic Left Alliance [SLD] will not come to anything any longer," Tusk said in an allusion to a recent SLD convention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). Recent polls have shown that Self-Defense, with backing exceeding 20 percent, trails only the Civic Platform in popularity. "We won't leave Poland and Poles to barbarians," Tusk said. "In the context of the upcoming election to the European Parliament [in June] and the election that will determine Poland's future for many years to come, we want to make a pledge that the Civic Platform will win this great duel with political barbarism." JM
 VISEGRAD COUNTRIES CRITICIZE EU LABOR RESTRICTIONS AT PRAGUE MEETINGMeeting at the Kolodeje Castle outside Prague on 8 March, leaders of the Visegrad Four criticized restrictions being imposed by current EU members on the free movement of workers from the 10 acceding states, dpa and AP reported. "Nobody should be afraid of people who want to work," Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said, according to AP. "We should be afraid of those who do not want to work." Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller said the restrictions cast doubt on "the basic values of the EU,... freedom and solidarity." Hungary's European Commissioner-designate and current Ambassador to the EU Peter Balazs described the fears of a flood of job seekers from the East as "hysteria," dpa reported. Hungarian European Affairs Minister Endre Juhasz was quoted by AP as saying his country "will impose the same restrictions on the countries that impose those measures on us." According to reports in the Hungarian media on 9 March, Dzurinda said Slovakia and the Czech Republic will not follow Hungary's example but will instead opt for further negotiations with current EU members. Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said the Visegrad states will work together within the EU to rescind the restrictions. MS
 CZECH UNEMPLOYMENT HITS RECORD HIGHUnemployment in the Czech Republic rose in February to an unprecedented 10.9 percent, dpa reported, citing data from the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. The ministry said registered unemployment is highest in the northern coal-mining regions of Most and Karvina, where it tops 20 percent. The news agency reported that jobless figures usually begin to ease in February and quoted a financial analyst saying the 0.6 percentage-point rise on a year ago is "a bad dream that is worse than expected." MS
 NGO CALLS FOR PROBE INTO ALLEGED MISTREATMENT OF SLOVAK ROMAmnesty International on 8 March called on the Slovak government to investigate allegations that police and soldiers deployed in eastern Slovakia to quell Romany unrest last month abused their powers, AP reported. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Dzurinda, the international rights group said the Slovak cabinet should "promptly initiate a thorough, independent and impartial inquiry into the allegation of ill treatment of members of the Romany communities." Amnesty International said the 250 police officers deployed in Trebisov on 25 February "indiscriminately entered Romany houses without presenting search warrants" and used "truncheons [and] prodded [Roma] with electric batons." The group alleged that officers "kicked and otherwise physically assaulted men, women and children" and used racist epithets. A spokeswoman for the police department in Kosice meanwhile said on 8 March that an autopsy established that the death of Radoslav Puky, a Romany man who disappeared during the rioting in Trebisov, was the result of accidental drowning, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). MS
 COMMUNIST-ERA HUNGARIAN DISSIDENT TAKES UP OSCE POSITIONA former parliamentary deputy for the Free Democrats and a long-time human rights activist, Miklos Haraszti, will be the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) new representative on freedom of the media, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and the OSCE announced on 8 and 9 March, respectively. Ministry spokesman Tamas Toth said his ministry considers Haraszti's three-year appointment a Hungarian "diplomatic success." A former dissident writer, journalist, and human rights campaigner, Haraszti will assume the OSCE post in Vienna on 10 March. His task will be to monitor press freedoms among the organization's 55 member states. Haraszti told "Nepszabadsag" that he will give up his membership of the Hungarian Television Board of Trustees. MSZ
 EU INSISTS ON RUNNING BOSNIAN MISSIONUnnamed diplomats in Brussels told the "Financial Times" of 9 March that the EU and United States "are engaged in a fresh trans-Atlantic dispute over who should have control of a new military mission in Bosnia once the [EU] takes over from NATO this year." One unnamed "senior European diplomat" argued that the EU "cannot end up drying the dishes while the [United States] runs the show. We cannot be a junior partner to NATO. We need overall responsibility for the mission." Washington wants to reduce its role in the Balkans while maintaining a security presence at its Tuzla base and elsewhere to reassure Muslims and Albanians who do not trust the EU to be willing or able to protect them. The United States also seeks a continuing political role in the EU military missions, specifically those parts involving counterterrorism and apprehending indicted war criminals. An unnamed U.S. official told the London-based daily that the terrorist attacks of "11 September changed our perception of the Balkans" in favor of maintaining a security presence in the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September 2003 and 5 March 2004). PM
 NATO RELEASES FORMER BOSNIAN SERB GENERALSFOR said in a statement in Sarajevo on 9 March that NATO-led peacekeepers have released former Bosnian Serb General Bogdan Subotic, whom SFOR detained recently on suspicion that he might have helped former Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic evade capture, dpa reported. The statement added that SFOR will continue to investigate "Subotic's possible links to the network supporting persons indicted for war crimes" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January 2004). PM
 TWO INDICTED CROATIAN GENERALS AGREE TO GO TO THE HAGUEOn 8 March, the Hague-based war crimes tribunal formally charged former Croatian Generals Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac with crimes against humanity and violating the laws and customs of war in connection with their roles in the August 1995 campaign against Serbian rebels that ended the conflict in Croatia's Krajina region, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The long-expected indictment charged that the two men participated in a "criminal conspiracy" along with indicted former "General Ante Gotovina, President Franjo Tudjman [who died in 1999 before any indictment was completed], and [unnamed] others." After the indictment against Cermak and Markac was made public, Croatian Justice Minister Vesna Skare-Ozbolt said the two men agreed to go to The Hague voluntarily, adding that they hope for temporary release from custody pending their trial. She stressed that the Croatian government's handling of the matter shows that it is fulfilling its international obligations. Gotovina remains at large, but the Croatian government denies he is in that country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003 and 16 January 2004). PM
 FIRST SERBIAN WAR CRIMES TRIAL BEGINSOn 9 March, the trial began in Belgrade's special war crimes court of six men charged in connection with the killing of 192 Croatian prisoners of war after the fall of Vukovar in November 1991 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003 and 27 January 2004). A seventh indicted man died in custody the previous day as a result of injuries he sustained in a recent suicide attempt. The trial is widely seen as a test of Serbia's ability to deal impartially with charges against Serbian indictees. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has said that his government will not extradite any indictees to the Hague-based tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February and 2 and 4 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January and 20 February 2004). PM
 SERBIAN NGO WARNS OF 'LYNCH CALLS'Serbia's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, which is headed by activist Sonja Biserko, said in a statement on 8 March that it is concerned by what it called "ever more frequent lynch calls [against several prominent people] publicized in the media in various, though recognizable, forms that cannot but [recall] the campaign preceding the [12 March] assassination of Prime Minister [Zoran] Djindjic." The statement cited as an example an article published in the Belgrade daily "Kurir" that same day pointing out that former Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Cedomir Jovanovic no longer has bodyguards (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January and 20 February 2004). PM
 MACEDONIAN RAILROAD WORKERS GO ON STRIKEFollowing unsuccessful talks with Transport and Communications Minister Agron Buxhaku, employees of the state-owned Macedonian railroad company launched a strike on 8 March, blocking all domestic and international railroad connections, "Dnevnik" reported. Buxhaku proposed to pay one month's back wage and to declare 900 jobs "technologically superfluous." However, the railroad workers' unions insisted on their demand that the government pay three months' back wages. They also insisted on implementation of an agreement reached with the previous government in 2002 that job cuts should be accompanied by internationally financed social packages for the sacked workers, "Utrinski vesnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2002). UB
 MACEDONIA TO VOTE ON 14 APRILActing president Ljupco Jordanovski announced in Skopje on 9 March that presidential elections will be held on 14 April to fill the vacancy caused by the 26 February death of President Boris Trajkovski in a plane crash, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February and 5 March 2004). All registered voters are eligible to take part. PM
 ROMANIAN PREMIER OFFICIALLY RESHUFFLES CABINET...There were no surprises when Prime Minister Adrian Nastase officially announced his cabinet reshuffle on 8 March, as the most significant changes coincided with recent announcements, RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February, 1 and 4 March 2004). Nastase said those serving in the three newly formed minister of state positions will be subject to meeting "performance criteria." Minister of State Dan Ioan Popescu, who will oversee economic affairs, is tasked with ensuring that Romania receives status as a "functioning market economy" from the EU by the fall of 2004. Minister of State Ioan Rus, who will coordinate social and administrative issues, will have the "special mission" of seeing that funds resulting from expected economic growth are distributed fairly among the population. Minister of State Ioan Talpes is charged with seeing that accession negotiations with the EU are finalized by the end of 2004 and reviving judicial reforms. The newly established prime-ministerial chancellery is to be headed by sociologist Alin Teodorescu. MS
 ...EXPLAINS REPLACEMENT OF JUSTICE MINISTER...Nastase also said on 8 March that he decided to replace Rodica Stanoiu with Cristian Diaconescu as justice minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2004) because the judicial system must be reformed, Mediafax reported. He said he does not wish to "personalize the change" -- a clear allusion to Stanoiu's statements that she does not understand the reasons for the move. Nastase said judicial reforms were lagging behind due to the lack of qualified magistrates. He said the problem less due to the lack of an independent judiciary than it is to the "lack of credibility of the adjudication act." Nastase said he believes new Justice Minister Diaconescu, who was a judge before becoming a deputy foreign minister, has the skills and knowledge to promote the reforms, which the prime minister said "need be implemented by someone from within the system, who is familiar with its problems." MS
 ...AND SAYS RESHUFFLE SHATTERS MYTH OF CONFLICTNastase also said that the appointment of former Presidential Counselor Talpes as one of his deputies will "shatter the so-called myth of a conflict between the Victoria Palace [the official seat of the government] and the Cotroceni Place [the seat of the presidency]," Mediafax reported. He said he knows Talpes from the 1970s and that their "good relations" continued after 1990. The prime minister dismissed media speculation that Talpes's appointment signifies a takeover of the government by President Ion Iliescu. He said those who see Talpes as a "Soviet commissar" parachuted into the government by President Iliescu are using "aberrant formulations." MS
 ROMANIA SEEKS TO ELIMINATE CONSCRIPTION BY 2007Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu on 7 March said a bill has been drafted under which conscription would be gradually phased out and fully abolished by 2007, Romanian Radio reported. Pascu said the draft has been worked out by experts from the Defense and Interior ministries and that Romania will follow the NATO model and have a fully professionalized military by 2007. He also said the new legislation makes no provision for a "buy-off" system, which was previously considered for the interim period (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 May and 4 June 2003). MS
 BULGARIAN PARLIAMENTARIANS CONTINUE REGROUPINGEleven Bulgarian lawmakers who previously broke away from the ruling National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) announced their intention on 8 March to form a new parliamentary group, vsekiden.com reported. The legislators belong to the New Time faction, a splinter group that has accused the NDSV leadership of "undemocratic" behavior. The lawmakers, some of whom had already left the NDSV and become independent parliamentarians, favor cooperation with other conservative parties (see End Notes, "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July and 21 November 2003). The split was long expected but delayed due to internal discussions within the New Time faction. It is unclear how the decision will affect the government's effort to survive a no-confidence vote moved by the opposition Socialist Party (BSP) over the government's alleged "social irresponsibility" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004). UB
 BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT SPEEDS UP LEGAL CONVERGENCE WITH EUDeputy Prime Minister Plamen Panayotov announced on 8 March that the government's Council on European Integration has agreed on a schedule for harmonization of Bulgarian laws with EU legislation, mediapool.bg reported. Panayotov said parliament will dedicate one meeting a week through 30 June to passing the related laws and amendments. Bulgaria hopes to conclude its EU negotiations in 2004 and accede in 2007. UB
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 AFGHAN MINISTER-CUM-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE SAID TO HAVE RESIGNED GOVERNMENT POSTAfghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai accepted the resignation on 7 March of Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq and appointed Ramazan Bashardost to succeed the outgoing minister, Afghanistan Television reported the next day. Initial reports did not specify the reason for Mohaqeq's move, however, and there was no initial announcement from Mohaqeq himself. The Hindukosh News Agency and other media suggested that the departure will allow him to focus on his bid for the Afghan presidency in elections widely expected to take place later this year. Mohaqeq, who entered the presidential contest as an independent despite the fact that he heads one of the factions of the Hizb-e Wahdat, has voiced concern about alleged irregularities related to the upcoming elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February and 3 March 2004). AT
 U.S. FORCES REPORT KILLING NINE SUSPECTED NEO-TALIBAN IN SOUTHEAST AFGHANISTAN...A spokesman for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, announced on 6 March that U.S. special-operations snipers killed nine suspected neo-Taliban insurgents on 5 March, AP reported. The incident occurred in Orgun in the southeastern Afghan Paktika Province, some 30 kilometers from the Pakistani border. Afghan National Army troops were also involved in the operation, according to "The New York Times" of 7 March. Afghanistan Television reported on 6 March that the operation was carried out jointly by U.S. and Afghan National Army forces, but it identified those killed as Al-Qaeda members. Hilferty was noncommittal over whether the operation was part of the newly adopted tactics announced recently by the U.S. military (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan said on 8 March that no joint "spring operation" with U.S. forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border region is planned, the Karachi-based daily "Dawn" reported on 9 March. AT
 ...BUT NEO-TALIBAN SPOKESMAN DENIES THE REPORTNeo-Taliban spokesman Hamed Agha denied claims that any of the insurgency movement's fighters were killed by the U.S.-led coalition forces in Orgun on 5 March, Al-Jazeera reported on 8 March. In a statement to the press, Hamed Agha claimed that those killed in Orgun were civilians. AT
 INVESTIGATIVE TEAM REPORTS ON REPORT OF SELF-IMMOLATION BY AFGHAN WOMENA team dispatched from Kabul to investigate reports of self-immolation by women in the western Afghan Herat Province discovered that most of those cases occurred among women in forced marriages, the Kabul-based daily "Hewad" reported on 7 March. Soraya Parlika said the cases her investigative team probed "revealed that 70 percent of these women were forcibly married, 20 percent of them were living in extreme poverty, and the remaining 10 percent were engaged in immoral activities [presumably prostitution]." Parlika reportedly added that women might also be setting themselves alight as a result of "influence of the neighboring country, Iran, on them," although the "Hewad" report is vague on this last point. Parlika said there have been fewer incidents of self-immolation by women in Herat than the media have suggested, however, "Hewat" did not cite figures. AT
 IAEA TAKES IRAN TO TASK...International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei in his 8 March statement to the Board of Governors criticized Iranian obscurity and dissimulation on its nuclear program, according to the agency's website (http://www.iaea.org). He noted that the board has a "progress report" on verification activities in Iran (for the 24 February "Restricted Distribution" report entitled "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," see http://www.npec-web.org/projects/IAEAIranReport.pdf). "I am seriously concerned that Iran's October declaration did not include any reference to its possession of P-2 centrifuge designs and related R&D, which in my view was a setback to Iran's stated policy of transparency," el-Baradei continued. "This is particularly the case since the October declaration was characterized as providing 'the full scope of Iranian nuclear activities,' including a 'complete centrifuge R&D chronology.'" El-Baradei urged Iran to be fully transparent and take the initiative to provide information fully and promptly. He also demanded cooperation from the countries where the nuclear equipment and technology originated. BS
 ...PROMPTING SEVERAL REACTIONSAn anonymous "informed source" on 8 March said that Tehran has formally protested el-Baradei's remarks, ISNA reported. Meanwhile, Iran's Ambassador to the IAEA Piruz Husseini said on 8 March that Tehran's previous declaration to the IAEA was never meant to be complete and claims to the contrary were based on misquotations, Reuters reported. Husseini added that Tehran was not obliged to say any more than it did at the time. Iran's then-representative to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, said at the time that "we have submitted a report that fully discloses all our past activities -- peaceful activities -- in the nuclear field" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 October 2003). According to IRNA, however, Husseini was more upbeat, saying after a closed-door session of the board that el-Baradei hailed Iranian cooperation with the agency. U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Kenneth Brill responded on 8 March by saying that "the Iranians change their stories to fit the facts," Reuters reported. BS
 IRANIAN COMMANDER CLAIMS MILITARY SELF-SUFFICIENTBrigadier General Nasser Mohammadi-Far, commander of the Iranian military's ground forces, declared on 8 March that Iran is self-sufficient in making tanks and other armored vehicles despite recent reports of major procurement orders from Russia. "At present, the Islamic Republic of Iran's army ground force has achieved total self-sufficiency in manufacturing armored equipment, particularly in manufacturing various models of tanks," Mohammadi-Far told an audience in Urumiyeh that was honoring martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War's Karbala-7 operation, according to state radio. Russian media reported in late February that Iran has placed a $600 million order with Moscow for the delivery of 200 T-80U main battle tanks and 300 BMP-3 tracked infantry combat vehicles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2004). BS
 IRANIAN SUPERVISORY BODY ACCUSED OF NEGLECTING ITS DUTIESAyatollah Mohsen Musavi-Tabrizi, who represents East Azerbaijan Province in the Assembly of Experts, complained during its current semiannual meeting that the body is not fulfilling its duties, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 8 March. "The most important duty of the Assembly of Experts is to supervise the activities of the leader and the organizations affiliated to him," Musavi-Tabrizi said. "This is a very heavy and comprehensive duty. However, many of the Experts do not believe in this." Musavi-Tabrizi suggested that the Assembly of Experts create a supervisory code and perform its duties on the basis of that code. He also reiterated his frequent criticism that the assembly does not inform the public about its activities (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 January and 20 November 2000, 10 September 2001, and 3 June 2002). Musavi-Tabrizi struck a pessimistic note regarding the outcome of the current meeting, saying, "Unfortunately, there is no special agenda, topic, or issue, and the session will be held in keeping with the previous years." BS
 IRANIAN AUTHORITIES INTERVENE AGAINST INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY COMMEMORATIONSUniformed police cooperated with baton-wielding thugs who attacked women commemorating International Women's Day in Tehran on 8 March, Reuters reported. The authorities had withdrawn permission for the women's rally to take place, according to Reuters. A Tehran police official named Turani said on 7 March that he had no information from the Interior Ministry about permission for such an event, Fars News Agency reported. Meanwhile, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami in a 7 March speech called for an end to negative views about a woman's societal role, IRNA reported. He criticized narrow-mindedness and said, "Unfortunately our society has suffered great losses due to incorrect understanding of women's ability and adoption of wrong policy to deal with women." Khatami added that there are other problems facing Iranian women, such as policy-making, economics, and family affairs. BS
 AL-SISTANI EXPRESSES RESERVATIONS OVER TRANSITIONAL ADMINISTRATION LAW...In response to a question asking the Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's opinion of the new Transitional Administration Law, a website dedicated to the ayatollah (http://www.rafed.net/maktab) stated on 8 March that he remains skeptical of the legislation's legitimacy. The response reiterated Al-Sistani's reservations regarding the 15 November agreement between the Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority establishing a deadline for the law's passage. "Any law drafted for the interim period will not gain legitimacy until it is endorsed by an elected national assembly," the response stated, adding that "such a law puts obstacles in the way of drafting a permanent constitution that would preserve the country's unity and rights of Iraqis from all sects and religions." The Governing Council delayed the expected signing of the draft law on 5 March after Shi'ite council members refused to sign due to al-Sistani's reservations. They signed the document unchanged on 8 March following weekend talks with the ayatollah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha'iri said on 8 March that that the law does not fulfill Iraqis' minimum demands, Al-Manar television reported. Al-Ha'iri objected to a clause that legitimizes the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil. KR
 ...AND ISSUES FATWA PROHIBITING ILLEGAL ENTRY TO IRAQThe website of Al-Sistani's London office (http://www.najaf.org) on 8 March posted a fatwa by the ayatollah dated 6 February in which he forbids Muslims from seeking illegal entry to Iraq. Many Muslims pay smugglers to transport them illegally to Iraq for pilgrimage and other purposes when they do not have the proper documents to cross the border. Asked his opinion of this practice, al-Sistani wrote: "Entry into Iraq via unofficial border crossings and accepting money in return for carrying out or facilitating smuggling operations is haram [religiously prohibited], and God knows best." KR
 CELEBRATIONS TURN VIOLENT IN KIRKUKWhat began as celebrations in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk to mark the Iraqi Governing Council's signing of the Transitional Administration Law turned violent on 8 March as Kurds clashed with Turkomans and Arabs, international media reported on 9 March. Three Iraqis, including one woman, were killed and 20 were injured, LBC satellite television reported. Eyewitnesses told LBC that the Kurdish demonstrators raised pictures of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) head Jalal Talabani and Kurdish flags during the demonstrations Demonstrators also set fire to the Iraqi flag. Britain's "The Guardian," reported that tens of thousands of Kurds took part in the demonstrations, with demonstrators claiming that the signing of the law -- widely known as Iraq's interim constitution, effectively returned Kirkuk to Kurdish control. However, the interim constitution actually leaves the status of Kirkuk unresolved, and also does not resolve the issue of property claims in the city. Thousands of Kurds were forcibly displaced from Kirkuk during the Hussein regime's Arabization policy and their homes were given to Arabs. KR
 TURKEY APPEARS UNSUPPORTIVE OF NEW IRAQI LAWTurkish officials on 8 March appeared concerned about Iraq's new interim constitution, AFP reported. Turkish government spokesman and Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said that "the interim law does not satisfy us, it increases our concerns," AFP reported, citing Anatolia news agency. Cicek added that Turkey views the interim constitution as "as an arrangement that will not help the establishment of permanent peace in Iraq and one that will allow for the continuation for a long time of unrest and instability there." Turkish officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that Kurds in northern Iraq might attempt secession, which could lead to civil unrest among Turkey's own Kurdish population. KR
 TURKEY TILTS EASTWARDBy Ilan Berman
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's recent visit to Russia can be regarded as a watershed of sorts in the historic rivalry between Ankara and Moscow. The four-day visit in late February -- the first such diplomatic mission since then-Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin traveled to the fledgling Russian Federation in January 1992 -- demonstrated that converging strategic interests have begun to transform the traditionally rocky Russian-Turkish relationship, replacing competition with cooperation.
On the economic front, tourism between the two countries, long hampered by diplomatic distrust, has blossomed into a $1 billion-a-year cottage industry over the past couple of years. Official Russian-Turkish commerce has also ballooned to nearly $6.5 billion annually, a figure supplemented by a thriving unofficial "shuttle" trade that now measures roughly $3 billion dollars.
Diplomatically, Moscow has shown uncharacteristic interest in the thorny dispute over Cyprus in recent months, and has scored points with Turkey for its support of Ankara's political efforts there. The Kremlin has also thrown its weight behind Turkey's efforts to accede to the European Union, based on the quiet understanding that membership would not interfere with the emerging Russian-Turkish rapprochement.
Strategically, meanwhile, Moscow and Ankara are drifting closer to consensus on the issue of security in Russia's "near abroad." Gul's Moscow visit thus saw the formation of a common vision of "regional stability" in the Caucasus, one built around the territorial integrity of Georgia and Azerbaijan. As part of this drift, Turkey has welcomed a more active Russian role in the mediation of the long-running conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and has adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward Russia's redoubled diplomatic overtures to Georgia's new president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
The hitherto divisive issue of Chechnya likewise no longer constitutes an insurmountable barrier to warmer bilateral ties, even though the presence of Turkish militants in the breakaway Russian republic, together with lingering moral and financial support for Chechen separatism on the part of Turkey's sizeable North Caucasian community, remains a source of concern for policymakers in Moscow. A series of domestic reforms instituted by the Turkish government -- including greater accountability on humanitarian aid flowing to the region, and an overhaul of the country's counterterrorism apparatus in the wake of last November's bloody terrorist bombings in Istanbul -- has done much to allay Kremlin fears. So too has the growing counterterrorism dialogue between Moscow and Ankara, under which the two governments have now begun to share vital intelligence on groups and individuals of mutual concern.
Russia and Turkey have even closed ranks over the crucial issue of post-Saddam Iraq. Both have expressed an interest in a rapid transfer of power to Iraqi authorities and in the creation of a durable, sovereign Iraq -- albeit for different reasons. Ankara's motivations stem from persistent worries that the political unrest in neighboring Iraq could foment separatist tendencies among its own sizeable Kurdish minority. This concern has led the Turkish military to make several abortive attempts to create a military foothold in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, moves that have heightened lingering tensions between Ankara and Washington. Moscow, meanwhile, is looking to build a new relationship with Iraq's emerging government. Thus the Kremlin, a longtime energy partner of Saddam Hussein's regime, has opened discussions with Iraq's interim Governing Council regarding the resumption of Russian activity -- long stifled by international sanctions -- in Iraq's massive West Qurna-2 oil field.
Energy has a great deal to do with the emerging Russian-Turkish entente. Turkey is now the third-largest European importer of Russian natural gas. Further, officials in Ankara, previously wary of overdependence on Moscow, now say supplies from Russia could grow to as much as 30 million cubic meters -- more than half of Turkey's annual natural-gas imports -- by the year 2008.
Central to these plans is the controversial Blue Stream pipeline. Since its initiation in 1998, that project -- designed to ferry Russian natural gas to Turkey via the Black Sea -- has been a political and economic lightning rod between Moscow and Ankara. But a deal concluded in November between Russian natural gas giant Gazprom and Turkey's state-run Botas pipeline company has resolved the last quibbles raised by Ankara over the price and quantity of natural-gas deliveries. And given Turkey's soaring energy demand, Blue Stream could eventually be used to deliver as much as 16 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas annually.
But much of the new closeness is also attributable to Turkey's changing political orientation. Since its assumption of power in November 2002, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pursued an "independent" foreign-policy course, one that has brought it closer to longtime rivals like Syria, Iran, and Russia. And Kremlin officials have taken notice; in his meetings with Foreign Minister Gul, Russian President Vladimir Putin specifically stressed the positive progress in bilateral ties that had been made since the AKP's rise to power.
The resulting reconciliation has major implications for the Caspian and Caucasus. Eager to maintain their deep historical and cultural influence, both Moscow and Ankara have long championed competing designs for the political evolution of both regions. Turkey's newfound tilt to the East, however, suggests a lessening of its objections to the preservation of the current, Russian-dominated energy balance -- and to its political implications for the region.
Ilan Berman is vice president for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.