|Friday, 28 February 2020|
RFE/RL Newsline, 06-03-24
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 RUSSIAN LEGISLATIVE SPEAKER BLASTS WHITE HOUSE STUDYSergei Mironov, who is speaker of the Federation Council, said on March 22 that the White House's recent "National Security Strategy" paper judges other countries on the basis of seemingly arbitrary U.S. standards, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). "In short, it states: If I want - I pardon, but if I want - I punish," Mironov added. He argued that the study judges "every country...from the standpoint of America's view on freedom." The legislator asked rhetorically how the United States itself should be judged on matters relating to the war in Iraq and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The Russian Foreign Ministry has also criticized the study. PM
 RUSSIA, JAPAN LAUNCH TALKS ON VISA-FREE TRAVEL TO DISPUTED ISLANDSRussian and Japanese diplomats began talks in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on March 23 on the possibility of visa-free travel by Japanese tourists to Russia's Kurile Islands, primarily to visit family gravesites, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). Other issues under discussion are visa-free travel for Russian citizens to Japan's northern Hokkaido Island and various sport and cultural exchanges. Japan claims the southern Kurile Islands, which are known in Japan as the Northern Territories, or islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri, and Etorofu (see http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/europe/russia/territory/overview.html). The Red Army occupied them after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in the last weeks of World War II in the Pacific. The two countries have never signed a formal peace treaty, primarily because of the territorial dispute. PM
 CHINA MAKES 'GIFT' TO SPEED OIL PIPELINESemyon Vainshtok, who heads the Transneft pipeline construction company, said in Beijing on March 22 that the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has made Transneft a "gift" of $400 million to help finance a pipeline extension to bring oil from the planned Far Eastern pipeline at Skovorodino to the Chinese border, "The Moscow Times" reported (see End Note). He added that the CNPC will finance a feasibility study for the branch pipeline and cover construction costs on Russian soil. It is not clear exactly how the $400 million will be used. For his part, Sergei Bogdanchikov, who is head of the state-owned oil company Rosneft, said that his company and the CNPC have signed an unspecified number of agreements setting up joint ventures for oil production in unspecified areas and for the marketing of refined petroleum products. "The Moscow Times" also quoted Russian oil and gas analyst Valery Nesterov as saying that "there is much more politics in [President Vladimir Putin's] announcement [of a new gas pipeline to China] than there is economics, since all the calculations have yet to be done." Nesterov suggested that the political purpose behind the gas pipeline is to provide Russia with an alternative customer if Europe balks at Russia's sales terms. PM
 ROSNEFT MADE ALMOST $4 BILLION IN 2005Officials of Rosneft announced in Moscow on March 23 that their company had nearly $23.95 billion in earnings in 2005, of which almost $3.98 billion was profit, RIA Novosti reported. This was an increase of $5.27 billion and $840 million, respectively, over the corresponding figures for 2004. PM
 NATO COUNTRIES SEAL AIR-TRANSPORT DEAL WITH RUSSIA AND UKRAINEA Russian-Ukrainian joint venture called Ruslan SALIS is slated to sign an agreement with NATO in Leipzig on March 23 under which the joint venture will provide large Antonov-124 (aka Ruslan) transport aircraft to 15 NATO member countries and Sweden at short notice, lenta.ru reported. Under the terms of the agreement, Ruslan SALIS will provide two Antonovs capable of carrying troops and heavy equipment on three days' notice. Within six to nine days, it will supply four additional Antonovs. The deal is aimed at alleviating a shortage of heavy-lift transport aircraft among European NATO members. The 15 NATO countries involved in the deal are: Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom. Sweden has many years of experience in international peacekeeping missions and is a member of the EU but not of the Atlantic alliance. Some 56 Antonov-124 aircraft have been built since 1986, of which 49 are still in service. It is the only aircraft in the world that can carry a load of 150 tons with a diameter of 6.5 meters, the Russian news agency noted. PM
 MINISTER SLAMS 'PROTECTIONISM' IN AIRCRAFT INDUSTRYGerman Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, said in Moscow on March 23 that Russia's aircraft industry must become more competitive in the global market, RIA Novosti reported. "All our protectionist measures in the past seven years have proved ineffective. Shutting off the market to foreign aircraft has only resulted in the sector becoming uncompetitive," he said. President Putin signed a decree unifying the aircraft industry just over one month ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2006). PM
 RUSSIA TO CUT TIME OF MILITARY SERVICEDefense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Krasnoyarsk on March 22 that the current two-year term in the army will be cut to 18 months starting in 2007, and then to one year in 2008, Russian news agencies reported. He added that "at a government meeting on March 30 this year, we are scheduled to examine a bill that will then be submitted to the State Duma on moving to a 12-month term of service for conscripts starting January 1, 2008, and also in this connection on abolishing or partly abolishing a number of current deferments of military service for conscripts." He did not say whether there will be any changes to the current three-year conscription term for the navy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2005). PM
 COURT DECLARES MOTORIST INNOCENT OF DEATH OF GOVERNORA court in Novosibirsk ruled on March 23 that railway worker Oleg Shcherbinsky was not to blame for the August 2005 road accident that left Altai Krai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov and two others dead, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2006). The court also declared the case closed. Shcherbinsky was released from detention to a crowd of friends, relatives, and well-wishers. An Altai Krai court recently sentenced Shcherbinsky to four years in a penal colony in connection with the incident. Thousands of motorists have since taken part in protests across Russia on behalf of the railway worker, who had become a symbol of the plight of ordinary drivers involved in accidents with officials. PM
 RUSSIAN TEENAGER ACQUITTED OF SLAYING TAJIK GIRLA jury in St. Petersburg ruled on March 22 that an unnamed teenage boy is not guilty of murder charges in the February 2004 killing of Khursheda Sultonova, a 9-year-old Tajik girl, mosnews.com reported. The jury declared seven of the eight defendants guilty of hooliganism in the beating and stabbing incident, in which Sultonova's father and his nephew were wounded. Tajikistan protested the killing, which has become a symbol of increasing hate crimes in Russian cities. PM
 SYNAGOGUE ATTACKER 'APOLOGIZES' TO VICTIMSAleksandr Koptsev, who is charged with attempted murder, causing premeditated bodily harm, and inciting racial or religious discord in conjunction with his stabbing of eight people at a Moscow synagogue on 11 January, "apologized" to his victims on March 22 while still continuing to express the anti-Semitic views he stated previously, mosnews.com reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). He said that he "understands that the victims are not waging war against the Russian people, unlike those [unspecified] fellows in power." He called Jews chauvinistic and contemptuous of non-Jews, adding that "Russians do not have a life in their own country, they only survive." PM
 ONE-THIRD OF RUSSIAN TEENS REPORTEDLY ADDICTED TO SMOKING TOBACCOThe World Health Organization has released statistics showing that Russia has more teenage and child smokers than any other country in the world, mosnews.com reported on March 23. The study indicates that about one-third of all Russian teens smoke regularly. Antismoking activists say that it is too easy for children and teens to buy cigarettes in Russia, and they are seeking tighter restrictions. PM
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER TIGHT-LIPPED ON GAS TALKS, 2007 ELECTION PLANS...Andranik Markarian told journalists at the Armenian parliament on March 22 that it unlikely Yerevan will succeed in negotiating a reduction of the increase in Russian gas prices due to take effect on April 1, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He declined to elaborate, on the grounds that talks on the issue are continuing. On March 21, parliament deputy speaker Vahan Hovannisian said he was recently informed by Russian officials that Georgia insisted that if it were required to pay higher prices for Russian gas, Armenia should do the same (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2006). Markarian declined to say whether the government is discussing a further "equities for debt" swap with Russia comparable to that concluded in 2002. Markarian dismissed as premature the question whether his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) will participate in the 2007 parliamentary elections alone or in tandem with the Prosperous Armenia party recently established by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 13 and 17, 2006). He explained that while he has repeatedly affirmed that the HHK will not align with any other party for that ballot, he has never categorically excluded the possibility of doing so. Markarian denied that the ruling coalition played any role in the recent dismissal of presidential administration head Artashes Tumanian, who last week abandoned his bid to form a new political party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2006). LF
 ...EXPLAINS MOVE AGAINST OPPOSITION PARTYAt the same question-and-answer session with journalists on March 22, Markarian said the premises of the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian (no relation to Vahan) were sealed because the party failed to have the rental agreement it concluded with the building owner officially notarized, according to Arminfo as cited by kavkazweb.net. Markarian said that if asked, the government would provide Zharangutiun with alternative premises. LF
 MORE AZERBAIJANI ARMY OFFICERS SENTENCED FOR BRIBERYThe Military Collegium of Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes passed sentence on March 23 on 18 army officers charged with soliciting bribes in return for exempting conscripts from military service and forging documentation, day.az reported on March 23 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 17, 2006). The men were arrested in late December and went on trial in early February. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to 8 1/2 years. On March 21, Colonel Elnur Mamedov complied with a personal request by Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev that he end the hunger strike he began on March 11 to protest the Defense Ministry's systematic rejection of his requests to retire from military service, day.az reported on March 23. On March 11, zerkalo.az quoted Mamedov as saying he has submitted over 30 such formal requests since January 2004. Abiyev has issued orders that Mamedov be permitted to retire from his post as an instructor at the armed forces' Training Center, day.az reported. LF
 ANOTHER GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTY ACCUSES FORMER PRESIDENT OF TREASON...Tavisupleba (Liberty) party Chairman Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, son of deceased former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, told a press conference in Tbilisi on March 22 that Eduard Shevardnadze violated the Georgian Constitution in 1993 when he sought military assistance from Russia to quash an attempt by Zviad Gamsakhurdia to return to power, Caucasus Press reported, Zviad Gamsakhurdia fled Georgia in early January 1992 following street battles in Tbilisi between his supporters and opposition paramilitary forces. A second Tavisupleba member, lawyer Iosif Baratashvili, told the same press conference that party members spent five months collecting evidence from residents of the western region of Mingrelia (Gamsakhurdia's main support base) of random killings by those Russian troops. Also on March 22, the opposition Conservative party submitted to the Prosecutor-General's Office a recording of a November 2003 telephone conversation between Shevardnadze and then Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze that party Chairman Koba Davitashvili believes constitutes grounds for bringing treason charges against Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and 22, 2006). LF
 ...WHICH HE DENIESShevardnadze in turn convened a press conference later on March 22 to respond to Gamasakhurdia's allegations, Caucasus Press reported. He told journalists he had no choice in 1993 but to appeal to Russia for help, given that Zviad Gamsakhurdia's bid to return to power threatened "to split the country." Shevardnadze claimed that his countermove was constitutional. LF
 FORMER ADJAR OFFICIALS' PROPERTY TO BE PRIVATIZEDThe Georgian government has issued a decree transferring to the authorities of the Adjar Republic real estate confiscated from former Supreme Council Chairman Abashidze and members of his family and immediate entourage, Caucasus Press reported on March 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2004). The eight properties, some residential and some commercial, are to be privatized: their total value is estimated at over 1 million laris ($554,000). LF
 SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADER PLANS APPEAL TO RUSSIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURTSpeaking on March 22 at a joint session in Vladikavkaz of the governments of North Ossetia and the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity announced that he will submit to Russia's Constitutional Court a formal request that South Ossetia be recognized part of the Russian state on the basis of a 1774 document recording the incorporation into Tsarist Russia of "Ossetia," kavkaz.memo.ru reported. Kokoity's representative in Moscow, Dmitry Medoev, told regnum.ru on March 22 that the population of South Ossetia supports Kokoity's initiative, which North Ossetian Minister for Nationalities Taymuraz Kasaev characterized as "absolutely legitimate and logical from both the political and the legal point of view. But Georgian Deputy Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Volsky rejected Kokoity's argument, saying that "we should return to the 21st century" and work more systematically to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia, regnum.ru reported. Azerbaijani legal expert Ilgar Mamedov told day.az on March 23 that Kokoity's initiative has little chance of success given that the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, to which Russia is a signatory, upholds the existing borders of (now) OSCE member states. Mamedov suggested that Moscow may have put Kokoity up to making the proposal as a way of intensifying pressure on Georgia. LF
 EU BANS FOUR CENTRAL ASIAN AIRLINESFour airlines from Central Asia have been included in a list of 92 airlines the European Union has banned from its airspace for safety reasons, the BBC reported on March 22. The Central Asian airlines are Kyrgyzstan's Phoenix Air and Reem Air and Kazakhstan's BGB Air and GST Aero Air Company. The list, released on March 22, will be reviewed and updated every three months. DK
 WOULD-BE KYRGYZ DEPUTY'S TRIAL HALTEDA Bishkek court has halted proceedings on a case in which Ryspek Akmatbaev and nine others face charges of organizing the 2004 killing of policeman Chynybek Aliev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 6, 2004), ferghana.ru reported on March 22. Akmatbaev is running in a parliamentary by-election on April 9, for the seat vacated when his brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was killed during a visit to a prison in October 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 2005). If he wins that seat, he will obtain immunity from prosecution for five years. Akmatbaev is running to occupy the seat The surviving Akmatbaev's candidacy and reputed organized-crime ties have sparked a heated polemic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20 and 21, 2006). DK
 EU VOICES CONCERN ON JAILING OF TAJIK PARTY HEADThe European Union expressed concern about the case of Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, the imprisoned head of Tajikistan's opposition Democratic Party, in a March 22 statement posted to the website of Austria's EU presidency (http://www.eu2006.at). Iskandarov was sentenced to a 23 years in prison in October 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2005). The EU pronounced itself "particularly concerned about the circumstances of Mr. Iskandarov's transfer to and arrest in Tajikistan in April 2005, which remain unclear, and about the treatment Mr. Iskandarov received during his pretrial detention." Iskandarov told his lawyers he was abducted from Russia by unknown persons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 3, 2005). Noting that it will "continue to closely follow the situation," the EU stressed that the case sends "a mixed message about democratic reform and the respect of human rights in Tajikistan with respect to its OSCE and other international commitments." DK
 RIGHTS GROUP URGES EU TO HALT TRADE PACT WITH TURKMENISTANHuman Rights Watch (HRW) said in a March 21 statement on the organization's website that the European Parliament "must halt further consideration of an important trade agreement with Turkmenistan." The interim agreement, which was approved on March 21 by the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, "would regulate 'trade and trade-related relations' until a full Partnership and Cooperation Agreement is ratified by member states and the Turkmen government," the statement said. Noting that the European Parliament passed on the interim agreement in 2001 and 2003 because of Turkmenistan's poor human rights record, HRW said that recent government moves such as the abolition of the death penalty do not constitute "real progress." Holly Cartner, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director, commented: "The Turkmen government has an appalling human rights record, as the committee well knows. That's why it is so shocking that it would choose to squander the EU's leverage by rewarding such an egregious human rights violator." DK
 BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION CONTINUES ANTIPRESIDENTIAL RALLY IN MINSK...Some 5,000 people gathered on October Square in Minsk on the evening of March 22 to join several hundred opposition activists who have been keeping vigil on the square since the evening of March 19, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The opposition is demanding a repeat of the March 19 presidential vote, which was condemned by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as neither free nor democratic. United opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich told the crowd on March 22 that, according to "various sources," he received 31 percent of the vote while President Alyaksandr Lukashenka garnered 42 percent. Milinkevich also said the Belarusian election has not been accepted by the "civilized world," adding that its official results were recognized only by Russia and Iran. Milinkevich once again called on Belarusians to come to October Square on March 25, the 88th anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic, which was established in defiance of the Bolshevik center in Moscow. "On this day we should demonstrate that we are not slaves," he stressed. JM
 ...AS AUTHORITIES CONTINUE TO ROUND UP OPPOSITION ACTIVISTSAccording to Belarusian human rights activists, up to 200 people have been arrested to date in connection with their participation in opposition protests that were launched in Minsk after the closure of presidential polls on March 19, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported on March 22. Several dozen people gathered at the detention center on Akrestsina Street in Minsk on the evening of March 22 in an attempt to find out whether their relatives were taken there from the opposition rally on October Square. Meanwhile, courts on March 22 sentenced dozens of protesters to jail terms of up to 15 days. In particular, Judge Alyona Kraychyk of the Sovetsky District Court in Minsk sentenced Andrey Dynko, editor in chief of the independent newspaper "Nasha Niva," to 10 days in jail. Police officers accused Dynko of uttering obscenities after he got off a bus. The judge found the journalist guilty of "petty hooliganism," ignoring testimonies of journalists who said that Dynko had no time to use foul language because police pushed him back in the bus even before he got off. JM
 POLAND THREATENS SANCTIONS OVER ALLEGED ELECTION FRAUD IN BELARUSThe Polish Foreign Ministry on March 22 condemned methods used by the Belarusian authorities during the election campaign and the presidential election, Polish media reported. The ministry warned that Poland could impose restrictions against those people responsible for electoral rigging and violating civil rights. "We call upon the Belarusian authorities to stop repressions and return to the policy of respect for basic democratic standards. We expect all political prisoners to be released immediately," the ministry said in a statement. JM
 UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAYS PARLIAMENTARY VOTE IS SECOND STAGE OF ORANGE REVOLUTIONPresident Viktor Yushchenko said in an interview with the Kyiv-based "Kommersant-Ukrayina" published on March 23 that the March 26 parliamentary vote in Ukraine will be a "second part of what the Maydan [the Orange Revolution headquarters on Independence Square in Kyiv] spoke about and fought for." Yushchenko said the "ideal scenario" for him in the postelection period would be to restore the Orange Revolution coalition in Ukraine. "[It will be] difficult, difficult [to do this]. Because many political statements made during the campaign were incompatible with each other. But we are speaking about politics, about elections. As regards the implementation of national interests, goals, [and] ideals, I think that a lot of incredible things may happen," Yushchenko noted. Asked about whether Yuliya Tymoshenko can become the prime minister once again, Yushchenko said: "Speaking frankly, it is not very pleasant for me to comment on this issue now." JM
 UNMIK URGES WESTERN GOVERNMENTS TO IGNORE SERBIAN ARREST WARRANTS ON KOSOVAR POLITICIANS...Soren Jessen-Petersen, head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said on March 22 that Western governments should ignore an international arrest warrant issued by Serbia against the province's prime minister and another top official, AP reported the same day. In a letter cited by AP, Jessen-Petersen said the UNMIK did not recognize the validity of Serbian arrest warrants against Prime Minister Agim Ceku and Hashim Thaci, the head of Kosova's negotiating team for final-status talks. Both Ceku and Thaci were commanders in the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). "Given the need for both Prime Minister Ceku and Hashim Thaci to be able to move freely, including in order to be part of the status process, it is important that the Interpol warrants against them be put aside as soon as possible," Jessen-Petersen said. BW
 ...AS PREMIER SAYS SERBIAN MINORITY SHOULD HAVE A FUTURE IN KOSOVAIn an interview published in the Austrian newspaper "Kurier" on March 22, Prime Minister Ceku pledged to show Serbs in Kosova that they have a future in the province, dpa reported the same day. He also accused Belgrade of manipulating the Serbian minority in order to maintain some control over the province. "We must show them that they have a future in Kosova," Ceku said, adding that Kosovar Serbs should "see Prishtina, and not Belgrade, as their capital." Ceku said that at the end of final-status talks, Kosova should be given the prospect of independence as early as this year. "There's no other perspective for us than independence," he said. BW
 MONTENEGRIN PRIME MINISTER ACCUSES SERBIA OF INTERFERING IN REFERENDUMMilo Djukanovic on March 23 accused Serbia of attempting to interfere in preparations for the independence referendum scheduled for May 21, B92 reported. "I am certain that this will not have an effect on the outcome of the referendum," he said. "I am certain that we will gain independence, but what is indicative in this story is that the Serbian administration is not showing decisiveness to back away from the hegemonic model of politics with its neighbors," Djukanovic added. The B92 report did not specify exactly how Djukanovic said Serbia was interfering in the referendum process. BW
 NATO CHIEF SAYS FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS 'LITMUS TEST' FOR MACEDONIAN MEMBERSHIP IN ALLIANCENATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told Macedonian officials on March 22 that free and fair elections this year will be a key condition for joining the alliance, AP reported the same day. "These upcoming elections are a very important and never-to-be-underestimated litmus test," de Hoop Scheffer said during a press conference with Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski. De Hoop Scheffer said he told the Buckovski that the elections should be "110 percent" free and fair. BW
 ICTY APPEALS COURT REDUCES SENTENCE OF BOSNIAN SERB MAYORA UN appeals chamber has reduced the sentence of a former Bosnian Serb mayor from life to 40 years in prison for organizing the expulsion, detention, and extermination on non-Serbs in 1992, Reuters reported on March 22. Milomir Stakic, the former mayor of the Prijedor municipality in northwest Bosnia, was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Presiding Judge Fausto Pocar said the trial chamber had made some errors in determining Stakic's sentence, although the impact of these mistakes on the sentence were limited. BW
 MOLDOVA RECALLS AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIAMoldova has recalled its ambassador to Russia for consultations on the settlement of the Transdniester issue, ITAR-TASS reported on March 22, citing the Moldovan Foreign Ministry press service. According to a letter from Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Ambassador Vasile Sturza was recalled due to comments by Russian Ambassador to Moldova Nikolai Ryabov. At a March 20 press conference, Ryabov accused Moldova and Ukraine of attempting to destabilize Transdniester with new customs regulations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). The regulations, which came into effect on March 3, require all goods moving in and out of Transdniester to clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 7, 8, and 16, 2006). BW
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 AFGHAN PRESIDENT RESHUFFLES CABINETPresident Hamid Karzai reshuffled his cabinet on March 22 and presented it to the Afghan National Assembly the same day for approval, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). The most high-profile change was at the Foreign Ministry. Karzai gave the post, occupied for four years by Abdullah Abdullah, to one of his former foreign affairs advisers, Rangin Dadfar Spanta. It was not immediately clear why Abdullah was replaced. In other changes, Zarar Ahmad Moqbel's temporary post as interior minister was made permanent and Suraya Rahim Subhrang replaced Masuda Jalal as the minister for women's affairs. Fourteen of the 25 ministers in the new cabinet served in the old cabinet. Karzai's spokesman Khaleq Ahmad told Tolu Television on March 22 that in addition to the cabinet members, the president also presented to the National Assembly changes to the composition of Afghanistan's Supreme Court. Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari, a conservative, retains his position. AT
 COPENHAGEN PROTESTS DEATH SENTENCE FOR AFGHAN APOSTATE...Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller has expressed his country's outrage at the decision by an Afghan court to sentence to death an Afghan man who has converted to Christianity, "Copenhagen Post," reported on March 22. "Afghanistan has signed international conventions that ensure religious freedom and that are also included in the country's constitution," said Moller. Danish Prime Minister Andres Fogh Rasmussen has rejected calls for the withdrawal of some 350 Danish troops serving in Afghanistan, saying that such a move "would be playing into the hands of fundamentalists." The case of Abdul Rahman, the Christian Afghan, has created a dilemma for Karzai who has thus far avoided becoming directly involved in the matter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20 and 22, 2006). AT
 ...WHO SAYS FOREIGN NGOS HELP OTHER CONVERTSAbdul Rahman, speaking from his cell in Kabul, has reportedly told a journalist that a large number of Afghans have converted to Christianity, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on March 22. Quoting Abdul Rahman, the unidentified journalist told AIP that the church Abdul Rahman attended in Peshawar when he converted to Christianity in the early 1990s told him that around 125,000 Afghans have changed their religion. The journalist claimed that Abdul Rahman told him that foreign nongovernmental organizations are providing assistance to the converts. Mawlawi Ansarullah Mawlawizadah, the prosecuting judge in the case, told AIP that if Abdul Rahman does not "embrace Islam once more...he will be sentenced to death in accordance" with the tenets of Islam. Mawlawizadah rejected the argument that Afghanistan's Constitution protects the right to freedom of worship, including the right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for an individual to change religion. "The constitution clearly says that no law can be established in this county that contradicts the sacred religion of Islam. The human rights declaration or other declarations recognized in the constitution are recognized within the specific limits that they should not contradict the sacred religion of Islam," Mawlawizadah added. AT
 AFGHAN LEADER TRAVELS TO TURKEY FOR TERRORISM MEETINGPresident Karzai arrived to Ankara on March 22 to participate in an international symposium on counterterrorism, Anatolia news agency reported. Karzai is accompanied by his new Foreign Minister Spanta, National Security Chief Amrullah Saleh and the chief of the high command of the armed forces of Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. AT
 AFGHAN NATIONAL AIRLINE IN EU BLACKLISTAriana Afghan Airlines is included in the blacklist of airlines banned from entering the airspace of member-states of the EU, IRNA reported on March 22. The EU blacklist, which was published on March 22, includes 92 airline companies. Ariana can only use one of its aircraft for services to Europe. "This blacklist will keep dubious airlines out of Europe. It will also make sure that all airlines operating in Europe's sky meet the highest safety standards" said Jacques Barrot, the EU commissioner responsible for transport. AT
 IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER EXPLAINS TALKS WITH WASHINGTON...In a speech in Mashhad on March 21, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that he does not object to bilateral talks between Iran and the United States, Radio Farda and Iranian state television reported. He said the United States had repeatedly requested such talks, but "our officials just ignored them at the beginning." Khamenei said his subordinates will offer the Iranian view on Iraq to the Americans. That view, he said, is "aimed at making Americans understand that they should leave Iraq alone and let Iraqis run their own country. They should stop provoking various sects, so Iraq could experience security." Khamenei went on to level accusations against the U.S. and other countries, saying, "There is overwhelming evidence implicating espionage organizations in the instability in Iraq -- British, American, and Israeli espionage operations." He accused the United States of saying that Iran wants to discuss topics other than Iraq, but this is "inaccurate" and the Americans are "deceptive." Khamenei repeated that Iran does not object to holding talks, but "we do not support the talks if they provide a venue for the bullying, aggressive, and deceptive side to impose its own views." BS
 ...AND SAYS U.S. WANTS WHAT IT LOST IN REVOLUTIONKhamenei also said in his speech that Iran's enemies are trying to impede the country's progress, state television reported. "America is at the forefront of these attempts," he said. What does the United States want, he asked rhetorically? "They demand that the Iranian nation should return to them what the revolution took away." BS
 TEHRAN REJECTS ALLEGATIONS OF AL-QAEDA LINKSForeign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on March 22 that allegations that Al-Qaeda members are present in Iran are "unfounded and false," IRNA reported. Assefi added: "Dissemination of such reports aims to cover up the failure of the occupying forces to guarantee Iraq's security." Assefi said Iran has followed through on all its international counterterrorism commitments. Assefi was presumably reacting to a March 21 report in the "Los Angeles Times" that cited anonymous U.S. intelligence officials as saying that more than 25 Al-Qaeda commanders are in Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2006). Moreover, a cabinet member in Iraq claimed that forthcoming Iran-U.S. talks will be about Al-Qaeda. BS
 MULTINATIONAL FORCES FREE THREE WESTERN HOSTAGES IN IRAQMultinational forces freed two Canadians and one Briton held hostage in Iraq since November, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on March 23. The hostages were working for the Christian Peacemaker Teams at the time of their abduction; a fourth member of the group, American Tom Fox, was found dead in Baghdad earlier this month. Their captors, identified as the Swords of Righteousness Brigades, had demanded all Iraqi prisoners be released from coalition custody in exchange for the four men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2005). British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confirmed the release of the hostages in a statement from London, saying the operation to free the hostages was carried out on March 23 after weeks of careful planning. KR
 THREE CAR BOMBS TARGET IRAQIS IN BAGHDADA suicide car bomber got through one security gate and was being checked at a second security checkpoint outside Baghdad's Major Crimes Unit on March 23 when he detonated his vehicle, killing 15 people and wounding 32, international media reported. Ten of the victims were police officers, the Interior Ministry said. Police were targeted in a number of other attacks throughout the country on March 23, according to media reports. Two policemen and two civilians were killed in one attack in Al-Azamiyah, AP reported, citing police Lieutenant Ahmad Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, thousands of Shi'a marched through the Al-Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad on March 23, carrying the coffins of 17 pilgrims killed in attacks on March 22, AP reported. KR
 SECURITY DETERIORATES IN MOSUL, TAL AFARSecurity has deteriorated in Mosul following the transfer of security control to the Iraqis, azzaman.com reported on March 21, prompting Governor Durayd Kashmula to call on local tribal leaders for help in pursuing "criminals and terrorists and restrain their activities." Kashmula reportedly told the tribesmen that terrorist attacks were targeting public infrastructure, which belongs to the people of the governorate. The website reported on March 19 that Tal Afar has fallen again to insurgents. Local leader and parliamentarian Sheikh Muhammad Taqi told the website that insurgents once again roam the streets of the town freely. Taqi said more than 150 people have been killed in insurgent attacks over the past few months, including nine students. KR
 IRAQI KURDISH JOURNALISTS SAY THEY WERE ARRESTED, BEATEN BY SECURITY SERVICESSeveral Kurdish journalists have said they were arrested, beaten, and had their equipment confiscated by Kurdish security services during the March 16 Halabjah demonstration, "Hawlati" reported on March 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2006). The journalists said that as soon as the demonstration got out of hand, security men began confiscating cameras and video equipment. A Kurdish correspondent for Iran's Sahar satellite television, Hardi Mahdi, said he was detained while recording the demonstration and held for 40 minutes, and that the security men destroyed his microphone. Al-Sulaymaniyah-based Radio Nawa editor Faruq Ghafur said he and four colleagues were stopped at a checkpoint in Sirwan and their cameras were confiscated. The cameras were returned a few days later but the photographs had been deleted. "They took away our three cameras. They returned two of them to us yesterday, but they are still keeping the third one. They have also taken all the cassettes in the cameras," Kurdistan Islamic Group television cameraman Aram Fatih said. Journalists working for Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party-controlled television channels as well as the "Kurdistani Nuwe" newspaper were not targeted by the security forces on March 16, "Hawlati" reported. KR
 RUSSIAN, CHINESE 'PARTNERS' STRUGGLE WITH UNEQUAL RELATIONSHIPBy Patrick Moore
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China on March 21-22 to launch "The Year Of Russia In China" and take part in the signing of about 30 mainly economic agreements, accompanied by an entourage of about 800 people. Although two of the agreements deal with energy issues of top importance to China, the two countries may not have enough complimentary interests to make their much-touted "strategic partnership" of primary importance to either.
China's main interest in Russia is as a supplier of arms and commodities, primarily oil and gas to fuel China's rapidly expanding economy. After meeting with his counterpart, Hu Jintao, Putin said a new gas pipeline system, called the Altai, could be built to deliver gas from western Siberia to China. Another system would deliver gas from eastern Siberia for a total of up to 80 billion cubic meters per year.
An unnamed member of the Russian delegation told reporters the projected pipeline could cost $10 billion and go into service in 2011. He added that financing is unlikely to pose problems. He also noted that Gazprom and its Chinese counterparts have agreed on a price for deliveries but did not elaborate. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller told Interfax that deliveries could start in six years and that the prices were based on the going rates for "hydrocarbons in Asia."
Of at least equal importance to China is getting a firm commitment from the Russians about extending to its frontier a branch of the planned oil pipeline from eastern Siberia to the Pacific. Russian oil exports to China currently are limited by the capacities of the two countries' rail systems and stood at about 7.7 million tons in 2005. The Russian decision in 2004 to build an oil pipeline across Siberia to the Pacific was largely seen as a victory for Japanese interests over those of China. Beijing has since sought to persuade Moscow to build a "spur" line to bring oil to China.
On March 22, Putin indicated that Moscow has tried to respond to Beijing's wishes. He announced that "The Russian Federation and China have taken the decision to construct an oil pipeline system from eastern Siberia to the Pacific coast," Putin said. "Transneft and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation signed a protocol [on March 21] to research the issue and construct a branch of the pipeline to...China. I have no doubt that this project will take place, and it will allow us to increase significantly the supply of oil from Russia to China."
"The practical implementation of [the oil-pipeline] project will begin in the next few months," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added. "The Chinese side is aware of this. The related technical and economic feasibility study will be conducted jointly, as quickly as possible."
Rosneft head Sergei Bogdanchikov said he hopes the pipeline will be completed "at the end of 2008."
It is not clear whether the Russian pledges will be sufficient to satisfy their partners. Some Chinese trade officials have publicly complained in recent weeks that the Russians have given them mixed signals on the pipeline project and, perhaps more importantly, have shown little understanding of how the market works. Such an assessment seems all the more remarkable in that it comes from Chinese and not Western sources.
London's "Financial Times" wrote on March 22 about Putin's visit that "there is a temporary coincidence of material interests between Russia and China, but it is superficial, and the results have yet to yield lasting benefits for either country or the world at large." Moreover, China's economy is 2 1/2 times the size of Russia's and growing at a much faster pace.
The volume of Sino-Russian trade is 2 percent of China's total foreign trade, or 1/10th the amount of China's trade with the United States, 1/9th of that with Japan, 1/8th of that with the European Union, and 1/6th of that with South Korea. Putin has sought to promote sales of Russian industrial goods, but China is not much interested in anything except commodities and arms. It does not take much looking in the Russian press, moreover, to find articles suggesting that imports of Chinese goods are threatening whole sectors of Russian industry, or that it is unwise to sell weapons to a large and dynamic country that poses a potential strategic and demographic threat to Siberia.
Prior to Putin's arrival in Beijing, the official media of both countries sought to paint the present and future of bilateral political, economic, and military relations in rosy terms. The countries share an interest in the "stability" of Central Asia and in promoting "multipolarity" in the Far East to offset U.S. dominance. Moscow is trying to raise its international profile by playing an active role in the Iranian nuclear issue, while China has taken on a similar role in respect to North Korea.
But Moscow wanted to use the public display of Putin's visit to reaffirm its role as a major player in a dynamic region of the world, a prospect that, however, seems wishful thinking. The fact that Russia accounts for only 2 percent of China's trade volume underscores the point, as does the fact that Putin's hosts seemed interested in little besides gas and oil. A glance through recent issues of the influential Hong Kong-based monthly "Far Eastern Economic Review," moreover, reveals mention of Russia's role there only in passing in articles dealing with larger issues. Articles on the regional impact of China, India, Japan, or the United States abound, but none on Russia.