|Monday, 9 December 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 08-03-05
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 MOSCOW POLICE STIFLE ATTEMPTED MARCH OF DISSENT PROTESTPolice prevented the Other Russia coalition on March 3 from holding a March of Dissent action in Moscow to protest the previous day's election of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as president, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported the same day. Several hundred people gathered for the unsanctioned march, but police cracked down with overwhelming force. Union of Rightist Forces leader Nikita Belykh was among the dozens of demonstrators detained by the authorities. (Video of the demonstration and the police reaction can be seen at http://www.svobodanews.ru/Article/2008/03/03/20080303190310803.html). In St. Petersburg, some 1,000 activists participated in a sanctioned demonstration at which no violence was reported. Speakers at the rally called Medvedev's election "shameful" and "illegitimate," while the crowd chanted, "We are not slaves" and "Your elections are a farce." National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov told the crowd that "our generation will prove [its courage] yet again by showing resistance to this unjust regime," "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on March 4. RC
 PRO-KREMLIN YOUTHS MARCH ON U.S. EMBASSY"The Moscow Times" reported on March 4 that about 5,500 young people linked to the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement marched on the U.S. Embassy on March 3 to celebrate the election of Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev as president and to protest U.S. foreign policy and alleged interference in Russian internal affairs. The daily noted that "Moscow authorities have repeatedly refused to authorize opposition marches on the grounds that they would snarl traffic and inconvenience people. But with the city's blessing, thousands of pro-Kremlin youths marched across central Moscow on Monday -- and created some of the worst traffic jams ever seen in the capital." The paper reported that neither the police nor representatives of the city government were willing to say why Nashi received a permit to demonstrate while opposition groups did not. PM
 OFFICIAL ELECTION RESULTS SHOW MEDVEDEV SUPPORT UNIFORM AROUND THE COUNTRYThe Central Election Commission has begun issuing the preliminary results of the March 2 presidential election by region, gazeta.ru reported on March 3. President-elect Medvedev polled best in the North Caucasus, according to official results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008), although he polled worse there than the Unified Russia party polled in the December 2007 legislative elections. He polled significantly better than Unified Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Medvedev got his worst result in Smolensk Oblast, polling just 52.62 percent. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov got his highest result -- 26.3 percent -- in Orenburg Oblast. He also polled well in Novosibirsk Oblast (24.6 percent), Nizhny Novgorod Oblast (23.9 percent), and Altai Krai (23.3 percent). Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) head Vladimir Zhirinovsky received the most support -- 17.1 percent -- in Nenets Autonomous Okrug and polled 15.9 percent in Khanty-Mansy Autonomous Okrug. RC
 PRO-KREMLIN PARTY SWEEPS IN REGIONAL ELECTIONSThe pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party predominated in the regional legislative elections that were held simultaneously with the presidential election on March 2, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on March 3. The party polled 62 percent in Amur Oblast, 70 percent in Rostov Oblast, 66.5 percent in Ulyanovsk Oblast, 55 percent in Kalmykia, 83 percent in Bashkortostan, and 52 percent in the Sakha Republic. Some analysts noted, however, that in many regions the local party lists polled less than the party polled in the national legislative elections in December 2007. Despite Unified Russia's domination of the polls, the Communist Party, the LDPR, and A Just Russia broke through the 7 percent barrier in most regions, meaning that the make-up of the local legislatures reflects the four-party composition of the Duma. Analyst Aleksandr Kynev told RFE/RL that A Just Russia, on average, polled worse than it did in December, while the Communist Party polled slightly better, indicating that the Kremlin's efforts to establish a leftist pro-Kremlin party may be stalling. The composition of local legislatures is important in part because they confirm the president's choice as head of the regional administration. RC
 U.S. 'LOOKS FORWARD' TO WORKING WITH MEDVEDEV...White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Crawford, Texas, on March 3 that First Deputy Prime Minister "Medvedev was elected president of Russia [and] the United States looks forward to working with him," news agencies reported. Johndroe added that "it's in our mutual interest for Russia and the United States to work together on areas of common interest such as nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and combating transnational crime." In Washington on March 3, State Department spokesman Tom Casey noted that "in terms of the election and in terms of Russian democratic process, the president, the secretary [of state], and many others have spoken about our concerns over time about democracy and the progress of democracy in Russia. And I don't think that these elections have done anything to change our views or change our concerns about them." In a radio broadcast, presidential candidate and Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) said on March 3 that the Russian election "would not pass the smell test in any functioning democracy. The people of Russia are going back to the days...where they don't have the right of free elections or even a free society" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and 27, 2008). PM
 ...AS DOES WESTERN EUROPE...In London on March 3, Prime Minister Gordon Brown congratulated First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev on his election as president, news agencies reported. A spokesman for Brown said that "we have always said that we will look for opportunities to improve our relationship with Russia, and hopefully get Russian cooperation on a number of issues. We should judge the new government on its actions." Anglo-Russian relations are overshadowed by the continuing row stemming from the 2006 murder in London of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 18, 22, and 24, and February 19, 2008). Medvedev recently suggested that the British Council engages in spying in Russia. In Brussels on March 3, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement that he is "confident that under President Medvedev's leadership, the Russian Federation and the European Union will consolidate and develop their strategic partnership, based not only on common interests, but also on respect for the values to which we both declared our commitment." Deutsche Welle reported on March 4 that German Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to meet with Medvedev "within a week" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). In Stockholm on March 3, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said that "we are concerned about the democratic development in Russia, not the least regarding independent media." In Helsinki on March 3, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said that he hopes Russia will "be as stable and predictable as possible." He described the anticipated division of power between Medvedev and Putin as prime minister as "unusual," but noted that "both have given assurances that they are cooperating well in their new tasks." In Paris on March 3, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Inter radio that "even though I know there wasn't any real competition in this election, I think it is undeniable that Russia has voted very clearly and with figures that are very astonishing." PM
 ...AND A MORE CRITICAL EASTIn Warsaw on March 3, Krzysztof Lisek, the head of Poland's parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, noted that Medvedev's "Gazprom past is reason for worries...that Russian will keep using energy as a weapon and not change its attitude on issues like the Nord Stream" pipeline, news agencies reported. In Prague on March 2, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it "hopes that the new Russian leadership will actively collaborate with European and Euro-Atlantic structures of which the Czech Republic is a member." The ministry added it is "regrettable that with their restrictive approach, the Russian authorities did not allow equal conditions for all candidates in the presidential election or access by a regular independent foreign observers' mission." On March 3, Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek congratulated Medvedev. Topolanek said that said he believes that Medvedev "won such strong support from the citizens because they expect him to improve the overall economic situation and continue democratic reforms." Topolanek added that he regrets that the election was "accompanied by accusations of manipulated results and an uneven election campaign." PM
 PUTIN MEETS WITH MEDVEDEV, CALLS FOR CHANGES IN RESERVES MANAGEMENTPresident Vladimir Putin and President-elect Medvedev met in the Kremlin on March 3, gazeta.ru reported the same day. Putin confirmed his intention to serve as Medvedev's prime minister and said they discussed "preparations for the structure of the executive branch." For his part, Medvedev said, "I am ready to undertake these matters [and] to consider the structure of the government." Later, Putin met with the cabinet and urged ministers to develop a legislative plan for the coming months and to begin coordinating that plan with the Duma. He also called for "the optimization of the management of the country's financial reserves," meaning the country's massive gold and foreign-currency reserves. He added that some mechanism for the long-term refinancing of the banking system must be worked out. Some analysts in recent months have worried that changes in the way the country handles its reserves could lead to them being increasingly given to state corporations to fund their debts or expansion (see "Russia: Pot Of Gold At The End Of The Stabilization Fund," rferl.org, January 30, 2008). RC
 ANALYST DESCRIBES RELATIONS BETWEEN PRESIDENT AND PREMIER AS 'A BLACK HOLE'In an interview with gazeta.ru on March 3, Mikhail Krasnov, head of the constitutional law department of Russia's Higher School of Economics, discussed how Medvedev and Putin might rule together after Medvedev becomes president and Putin becomes prime minister. Krasnov noted that in the current political system, which lacks any political competition or oversight, any arrangement of power is possible without changing the constitution. "Without an opposition, the entire system of relations between the president and the government is a black hole," Krasnov said. He said that the constitution gives the president the authority to conduct foreign police and national-security policy, but noted as well that the government has the authority to "undertake measures to ensure the security of the country, state security, and the realization of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation." Krasnov added that in the event of an economic downturn or other crisis, it has been traditional for the president to treat the government as a "whipping boy." "If the situation with the economy worsens, the president will have to choose between his personal agreements and the necessity of making a political decision," Krasnov said. "In the event of a crisis, the president usually dismisses the government, but in our situation it is also possible that the president could voluntarily resign. He might place his gentlemen's agreement above his constitutional responsibility for the state of the country." RC
 GOVERNMENT PAVES WAY FOR MONITORING OF ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONSThe Information Technologies and Communications Ministry has ordered all telecoms companies and Internet-service providers to allow the Federal Security Service (FSB) to carry out unrestricted monitoring of telephone and electronic communications, "Kommersant" reported on March 4. According to the report, the order was issued on January 16, but was only made public on February 29. It requires operators to provide the FSB and the police with the ability to monitor all communications and to eavesdrop on telephone conversations. Operators are required to install special equipment that can cost up to $100,000. The order affects email, text-messaging services, and telephone calls and requires operators to provide the location of the originator of the messages, as well as the content of the messages. Under the order, the FSB will be able to monitor communications without the knowledge of the service provider. The Russian Constitution prevents the authorities from monitoring such communications without a court order. RC
 CHINA INVITES MEDVEDEV FOR A VISITOn March 3 in Beijing, China's President Hu Jintao congratulated Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev on his victory in the presidential election and invited him to visit China soon, news agencies reported. Hu, who spoke to Medvedev by telephone, noted that he is ready to work with Medvedev to "boost the strategic partnership and cooperation" between the two countries (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). PM
 FORMER CZECH PRESIDENT CALLS ON NATO, EU TO EXPAND TO RUSSIA'S WESTERN BORDERSVaclav Havel told NATO's SHAPEX 2008 conference in Mons, Belgium, on February 28 that the EU and NATO should have an identical frontier in the east that "starts with the border between Russia and the Baltic states and follows the Russo-Belarusian and Russo-Ukrainian border down to the Black Sea," CTK reported. He added that "this is absolutely obvious from the map, and it has more or less a historical and cultural basis, too." Stressing that these are his personal opinions, Havel added that "from the point of view of a worldwide security order, it would be practicable...if countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and others -- and maybe a free Chechnya also one day -- were to create their own powerful [and] supranational political and security entity, which, as a partner of the West or of Russia, would have much greater clout than any individual countries of that region, whatever [other] organizations they belong to." Havel said he regrets that "old Russia is coming back to life" in the form of a "dictatorship of a fairly new type" that threatens not only Russia, but its neighbors as well. PM
 RUSSIA WARNS U.S., NATO OVER ROLE IN AFGHANISTANRussian Ambassador to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told the BBC's Persian Service on March 3 that "we accept the military presence of the armed forces of the United States and NATO...in Afghanistan only in the framework of our common campaign against terrorism," Reuters reported. He added that "as long as this presence continues towards this end, we have no concern. But if the military presence is for other political or economic gains in Afghanistan and the region, [then] this certainly and definitely will cause special concerns." He did not elaborate, but stressed that Russia will "definitely react" if the West pursues unspecified other political and economic goals there. "It might just be that our partners have other agendas...[that they pursue] under the pretext of the war against terrorism." PM
 KALMYKIA PRESIDENT ASSURED OF 'TAME' PARLIAMENTKirsan Ilyumzhinov has succeeded in engineering the election of a new Khural (parliament) in which he can count on the loyalty of the overwhelming majority of deputies, Nikolai Nurov, head of the republican chapter of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), told kavkaz-uzel.ru on March 4. Deputies of the previous parliament voted for its dissolution on December 20 under pressure from Ilyumzhinov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6 and 28, 2007). Nurov said the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party will have 17 mandates in the new Khural and the Agro-Industrial Party that is loyal to Ilyumzhinov a further three. Almost all the 30 candidates on Unified Russia's party list were hand-picked by Ilyumzhinov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). The election bloc uniting Communists and independent candidates won only seven mandates. Nurov alleged numerous violations of election legislation by the republic's authorities, including a televised appeal to the population by Ilyumzhinov on March 2 to vote for Unified Russia. Russian election law precludes electioneering on election day. LF
 INGUSH OPPOSITIONIST SHEDS LIGHT ON LOW TURNOUT FIGUREMagomed Yevloyev, the owner of the independent website ingushetiya.ru and the organizer of the mass protest by voters who formally denied having participated in the December 2007 Russian State Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 4, 11, and 28, 2007, and January 10 and 15, 2008), told kavkaz-uzel.ru on March 4 that he does not plan to collect denials from voters who did not cast ballots in the Russian presidential and simultaneous republican parliamentary elections on March 2. Independent observers estimated voter turnout in Ingushetia on March 2 at just 3.5 percent, while the republic's Election Commission cited a figure of over 92 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). Yevloyev explained that voters' disinclination to participate in the polls should not be construed as a rejection of Russian presidential candidate Medvedev, but as directed against Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov and the endemic corruption to which he turns a blind eye. Yevloyev said that far too many of the candidates for all four parties registered to participate in the March 2 elections to a new Ingushetian parliament were selected by the authorities, and the population "simply did not want to vote for them" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 8, 2008). Preliminary returns indicate that Unified Russia has won 19-20 of the 27 parliament mandates, the LDPR three, and the KPRF and A Just Russia -- two each, according to kavkaz-uzel.ru on March 3. The daily "Kommersant" noted on February 29 that the decoration "For Services to the Fatherland," Third Class, which Zyazikov was reported two days earlier to have been awarded has in the past frequently heralded the recipient's imminent dismissal from his current post. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 OSCE ENVOY SEEKS TO END POLITICAL STANDOFF IN ARMENIAFinnish diplomat Heikki Talvitie, who served in 1996 as co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in mediating a solution to the Karabakh conflict and from July 2003-early 2006 as EU special representative to the South Caucasus, met separately in Yerevan on March 2 and 3 at the behest of OSCE Chairman in Office and Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva with outgoing President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian, and former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 3. Both Kocharian and Sarkisian reportedly told Talvitie that security forces had no choice but to open fire late on March 1 on angry protesters in Yerevan; Ter-Petrossian disputed that argument, alleging that the authorities provoked the violence in order to create a pretext for imposing a state of emergency. Talvitie told journalists that he considers both sides responsible for the violence in that both were armed. Talvitie quoted Ter-Petrossian as saying he will agree to the dialogue with the authorities that Kanerva and other European and U.S. officials have called for only after the state of emergency Kocharian declared late on March 1 is lifted and the Constitutional Court rules on his appeal to declare the official results of the February 19 presidential election invalid. The court was to begin hearing that appeal on March 4. The official results gave Sarkisian 52.82 percent of the vote and Ter-Petrossian 21.51 percent. Ter-Petrossian claims to have polled 65 percent, but Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, the head of the long-term OSCE Election Observation Mission, was quoted by "The New York Times" on March 2 as saying that figure is "not grounded in any factual evidence." Speaking to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 29, however, Ahrens also said that the conduct of the presidential ballot was inferior to that of the May 2007 parliamentary poll. He explained that the preliminary OSCE assessment describing the February 19 ballot as "mostly in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standard" "is not a compliment." Ahrens added that OSCE experts are still analyzing glaring anomalies in the distribution of votes. "The New York Times" on March 2 quoted him as describing the results from one polling station where all but one of 1,449 votes cast were purportedly for Sarkisian as being as probable "as the birth of a dog with five legs." LF
 ARMENIAN PRESIDENT-ELECT DEPLORES VIOLENCEPrime Minister and President-elect Sarkisian released a statement on March 3 deploring the "grievous" and "irreparable" losses sustained during the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between police and security forces and demonstrators in which eight people, including a police officer, died of gunshot wounds, Noyan Tapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2008). Sarkisian said the violence resulted from "the illegal actions of radical oppositionists" and "revolutionary leaders" who sought to make use of their supporters to satisfy their "insatiable ambitions." The Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which is represented in the coalition government headed by Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia, similarly issued a statement on March 3 condemning the actions of Ter-Petrossian's supporters as "an attempt to come to power by violent means" and describing the imposition by President Kocharian of the state of emergency as "a necessity," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. At the same time, the HHD, whose defeated presidential candidate Vahan Hovannisian twice offered to mediate between Ter-Petrossian and the authorities, criticized the latter for failing to address the "objective reasons" for widespread public discontent. Hovannisian in his campaign speeches repeatedly criticized social injustice and economic stagnation and pledged if elected to bring about "radical changes." Meanwhile, at least five more prominent Ter-Petrossian supporters have been detained for their imputed role in the March 1 violence, and the home of Ter-Petrossian's brother Petros was searched in a hunt for weapons, ammunition, and incriminating documents, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 3. The five are parliamentarians Miasnik Malkhasian and Hakob Hakobian; former deputy parliament speaker Karapet Rubinian; former Customs Service head Yerjanik Abgarian; and former National Security Service deputy head Gurgen Yeghiazarian. LF
 ABKHAZIA HINTS AT RELEASE OF DETAINED GEORGIAN JOURNALISTSDe facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh met in Sukhum(i) on March 3 with a group of Abkhaz journalists who pleaded on behalf of their Georgian counterparts for the release from pretrial detention of Malkhaz Basilaia, a journalist with the independent Georgian television channel Mze who was detained on February 26, apparently for having entered the territory of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia without permission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and 29 and March 3, 2008). According to kavkaz-uzel.ru on March 3, "foreign journalists" need written permission from the de facto Abkhaz Foreign Ministry to work in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz journalists, who include "Nuzhnaya gazeta" editor Izida Chania, said they interpret their Georgian colleagues' plea as reflecting a tacit understanding that controversial issues can be resolved only through civilized dialogue. Bagapsh assured them that Basilaia and a second detained Georgian, David Tsotsoria, will be released if an investigation determines they are not guilty of any further illegal acts, apsny.ru reported. LF
 GEORGIA REJECTS EXISTING NEGOTIATING FORMAT FOR SOUTH OSSETIAGeorgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili said in Tbilisi on March 4 that the Georgian authorities see no point in resuming talks on resolving the South Ossetian conflict within the format of the Joint Control Commission, which he termed biased and unbalanced, Georgian media reported. That commission consists of representatives from Georgia, Russia, North Ossetia, and the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia. The commission's Russian co-chairman, Ambassador Yury Popov, was scheduled to arrive in Tbilisi on March 4, but Yakobashvili said the Georgian authorities will host him not in that capacity but as a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry tasked with issues relating to South Ossetia. Yakobashvili said Tbilisi wants to replace the JCC with a new format for talks under the formula 2+2+2, meaning the central Georgian government and the pro-Tbilisi temporary South Ossetian administration headed by Dmitry Sanakoyev; the breakaway republic of South Ossetia and Russia; and the OSCE and the EU. Visiting Tbilisi last week, OSCE Chairman in Office and Finnish Foreign Minister Kanerva was quoted as arguing in favor of resuming talks within the existing JCC format (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). LF
 KYRGYZ OPPOSITION LEADER QUESTIONS REASON FOR PRESIDENTIAL VISIT TO GERMANY...At a press conference in Bishkek, former legislator and opposition Asaba (Flag) party leader Azimbek Beknazarov disputed on March 3 the reason for Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev's unofficial visit to Germany, AKIpress reported. Beknazarov accused Kyrgyz officials of covering up the fact that Bakiev is in Germany to "undergo medical treatment" for an unspecified ailment. Beknazarov added that the larger problem stems from "questions" over who is running the country in his absence. Presidential spokesman Nurlanbek Shakiev disputed Beknazarov's statement, explaining that Bakiev is on a "brief leave" in Germany from March 3-16. Beknazarov, a former prosecutor-general, has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of Bakiev and has publicly called on him to resign. RG
 ...AND DESCRIBES PLANS FOR HOLDING 'PEOPLE'S ASSEMBLY'Asaba leader Beknazarov on March 3 also reviewed opposition plans to convene a national "people's assembly" in Bishkek on March 29, AKIpress reported. At his press conference in Bishkek, Beknazarov noted that the assembly is part of the recently formed "alternative parliament" and will critically examine the government's policies, with a focus on the recent rise in food prices. He added that "neutral politicians and opposition members will take part in the assembly," but stressed that the organizers "will not ask for local authorities' permission" to hold the event, since the Kyrgyz Constitution provides citizens with the right to hold a national assembly. Late last month, Beknazarov announced the formation of a new "revolutionary body" intended to force the resignation of President Bakiev and vowed to coordinate "mass protest campaigns" to demand his resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2008). The "alternative parliament," initially formed by a group of opposition parties in January as a response to the legislature elected in December 2007, was formally banned by the Justice Ministry late last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). RG
 TAJIK PRESIDENT MEETS WITH SENIOR SECURITY OFFICIALS TO REVIEW ANTICRIME EFFORTSAfter meeting with senior police and security officials in Dushanbe, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on March 3 ordered all relevant state agencies and ministries to report on efforts to combat organized crime and drug trafficking and measures to bolster border security and military training, Avesta reported. Rahmon expressed displeasure with the pace of reform within law enforcement and security bodies and issued specific orders to "improve living conditions" in the military and to "set up new detachments" and security posts along the borders. Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov, Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Solehov, and National Security Committee Chairman Khayriddin Abdurahimov each briefed Rahmon on their agencies' efforts to combat and prosecute "criminal cases connected with organized crime." RG
 TAJIKISTAN CONCLUDES NEW AGREEMENT ON MILITARY COOPERATION WITH UKRAINEAccording to an announcement released by the Tajik Defense Ministry in Dushanbe, Defense Minister Colonel General Sherali Khairulloev concluded on February 29 a new agreement on military cooperation with Ukraine, Asia-Plus reported on March 3. Khairulloev led a military delegation on a six-day working visit to Ukraine from February 25 to March 1, and successfully negotiated the terms of a bilateral agreement providing for an expansion of military training for Tajik officers in Ukrainian military academies and for "military-technical cooperation" and weapons purchases from Ukraine. Tajikistan and Ukraine concluded a lesser bilateral accord on defense cooperation in late 2006 that set up joint training exercises and provided technical expertise in preparing Tajik specialists for repairing tanks and armored personnel vehicles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is set to begin a state visit to Tajikistan on March 6. That visit was originally scheduled for November 2007 but was postponed for unspecified reasons. RG
 BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT PROPOSES ECONOMIC LIBERALIZATIONAt a swearing-in ceremony for Constitutional Court judges on March 3, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called for an overhaul of the country's legislation, Belapan reported. "Many laws and government directives have served their time, and some contradict others," Lukashenka said. "We should regard the best practices of states with market economies as a foundation, including with regard to the inviolability of private property and the enforcement of bank secrecy, and overhaul Belarusian laws," he said. "There are points where we should simply liberate the initiative of economic entities.... For instance...there should be competition in economic activities, and we should regulate laws in such a way that they would not impede these activities," Lukashenka said. He also suggested that the Constitutional Court's authority be extended so that it can "settle complicated legal issues that directly concern both the rights and legal interests of citizens and the activities of governmental agencies." AM
 BELARUSIAN MINISTER SAYS IMPRISONED KAZULIN IS NOT ELIGIBLE FOR AMNESTYBelarusian Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau said on March 3 that there are no grounds to grant an amnesty to imprisoned former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, Belapan reported. Navumau also said that Kazulin has committed four disciplinary offenses while in prison, most recently in December 2007. Navumau said that his ministry will not answer appeals for Kazulin's release, but added that "if there are other proposals, we will carry them out." Kazulin was arrested during antigovernment demonstrations that followed the March 2006 presidential elections, and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed public order. Kazulin is believed to be the last remaining political prisoner in Belarus after several others were released in recent weeks, including youth activists Zmitser Dashkevich and Artur Finkevich, former legislator Andrey Klimau, journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou, and businessmen Yury Lyavonau and Mikalay Autukhovich. AM
 GAZPROM CUTS GAS SUPPLIES TO UKRAINE BY ANOTHER 10 PERCENTRussian gas monopoly Gazprom increased an initial 25 percent cut in gas supplies to Ukraine on March 3 to 35 percent later the same day, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008), "Naftohaz Ukrayiny [Ukraine's state-owned gas operator] has received another telegram from Gazprom about an additional 10 percent reduction in gas supplies," Naftohaz Ukrayiny spokesman Yuriy Korolchuk told RFE/RL. "The explanation given to us by Gazprom officials is that they believe that Ukraine has yet to pay off its debts. We know that we have paid our debts for 2007. What remains unresolved is a disputed amount between Naftohaz and the UkrGazEnergo intermediary company," Korolchuk said. Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov recently assured Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko that Ukraine's debts to Gazprom were paid off as of January 1, 2008, and said the government did not agree with the fees charged for gas consumed in 2006 at the 2007 prices. Yushchenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in mid-February on conditions for gas debt repayment, while Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny announced that they intend to set up a new company that will supply Russian gas to Ukraine. Turchynov said on March 3 that the Russian side is politicizing the gas issue, and accused Gazprom of failing to pay for gas transit across Ukraine since December 2007. "Ukraine is not blackmailing Russian Gazprom, though it has the grounds to do so," Turchynov said, noting that Naftohaz Ukrayiny has not made any threats to cut the transit of Russian gas if Gazprom does not pay its fees in time. AM
 EU CALLS ON UKRAINE, RUSSIA TO SETTLE GAS DISPUTEEuropean Commission spokesman Michele Cercone on March 3 called on Ukraine and Russia to find a quick and definitive solution to the current gas dispute, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "Gazprom has assured the [European] Commission that gas supplies to the European Union will not be affected, and the commission, naturally, calls on the two parties to find a quick and definitive solution to this commercial issue, and we will continue to monitor closely the development of the situation," Cercone said. "The commission has, at the same time, alerted the network of security [monitors] to follow the progress of the Russian gas supply to the EU from Ukraine, and it is also considering the possibility of calling for an urgent meeting of the [EU's] Gas Coordination Group" if necessary, Cercone added. AM
 UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT REQUIRES COALITION TO RESUME WORK IN PARLIAMENTPresident Yushchenko on March 3 met with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and proposed holding a meeting of the coalition's council to consider the situation in the Verkhovna Rada, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Ukraine's parliament has remained deadlocked since Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and Yatsenyuk in mid-January sent a request to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to present Ukraine with a NATO Membership Action Plan at the alliance's summit in Bucharest in April. The opposition Party of Regions has disrupted parliamentary meetings by demanding the withdrawal of Yatsenyuk's signature from the request, and the adoption of a resolution declaring that any steps toward NATO membership should be preceded by a national referendum. Last week, four parliamentary factions agreed to sign on March 3 a political agreement aimed at the resuming the parliament's work the following day. However, the deal was not concluded because Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych put forward a new demand -- to include the issue of gas supply cutoffs in the parliament's agenda. "One of the first issues to be considered tomorrow is the limitation of gas supplies to Ukraine.... [We should consider] the measures that the authorities will take," Yanukovych said. Yushchenko recently announced that he is not willing to dissolve the Ukrainian parliament again. AM
 SERBIA CLAIMS RAILWAY IN NORTHERN KOSOVABranislav Ristivojevic, who is an adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and head of Serbia's state-owned railways (ZS), announced in northern Mitrovica on March 3 that Serbia is "retaking control" from Kosova Railways (HK) of a 50-kilometer stretch of railway north of Zvecan after a hiatus of nine years, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and news agencies reported. Some 50 railway workers declared in Zvecan that they officially cut ties to the Prishtina-based HK in support of their view that "Zvecan is still Serbia and will remain Serbia." Ristivojevic said that ZS will take over responsibility for the railway infrastructure in northern Kosova. Xhevat Ramosaj, who heads HK, told RFE/RL that his company has no control over the rail line north of Mitrovica and called on the UN civilian administration for help. The United States, European Union, and United Nations reject any partition of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 3, 2008). Also on March 3, Archbishop Artemije, who heads the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosova, told his priests to end all contact with the authorities in Prishtina, the EU mission slated to begin work in Kosova, and representatives of countries that recognize Kosova's independence. He said that the church should "not have contact or hold any kind of discussion with representatives of these institutions or countries, nor receive them or respond to their invitations," Tanjug reported. Artemije himself previously appeared frequently on the international Balkan conference circuit. PM
 NATO CHIEF CALLS ON MACEDONIA TO COMPROMISE ON NAME ISSUENATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Athens on March 3 that the Macedonian authorities should take the first step in resolving the long-standing dispute with Greece over Macedonia's official name, news agencies reported. He stressed that "we have to realize that Greece is a staunch member of NATO. Aspiring nations are not members of NATO, and that is the basic difference." Macedonia hopes to receive an invitation to join NATO at the alliance's Bucharest summit in April. The name issue has bedeviled relations between the two countries ever since Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. It was admitted to the UN in 1993 under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Greece maintains that the name "Macedonia" alone implies a claim on the northern Greek province of the same name. PM
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 TALIBAN CLAIMS IT KNEW PRINCE HARRY WAS IN AFGHANISTANA Taliban commander in Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Karim, told "Newsweek" magazine that the insurgents knew Britain's Prince Harry was stationed with a unit in Afghanistan and were after him, AFP reported on March 2. Karim said he sent his fighters after the prince after receiving an urgent message from Taliban intelligence that an "important chicken" had joined the British troops in his area of operations. "He is our special enemy," Karim said, speaking via satellite phone from the eastern Helmand Province. "Our first option was to capture him as a prisoner, and the second to kill him." AT
 ANTI-KORAN DUTCH FILM COULD HARM TROOPS IN AFGHANISTANThe airing of a Dutch film criticizing Islam will have repercussions for troops in Afghanistan, according to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, news agencies reported on March 2. Following protests against the film by Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif on March 2, de Hoop Scheffer said, "If the [troops] find themselves in the line of fire because of the film, then I am worried about it and I am expressing that concern." Wilders' film, which describes the Koran as "an inspiration for intolerance, murder, and terror," will be shown later this month and released on the Internet. The project has already been condemned by several Muslim countries. During the demonstration protests against the film, hundreds of Afghans took to the streets, burning Dutch flags and calling for the withdrawal of Dutch troops from the NATO force. AT
 RUSSIA WARNS COALITION NOT TO MISUSE AFGHAN MISSIONRussia has warned the United States and NATO to use their presence in Afghanistan only to fight terrorism and not for regional political or economic purposes, Reuters reported on March 3. Russian Ambassador to Kabul Zamir Kabulov told the BBC's Persian service: "We see the military presence of armed forces of the United States and NATO...in Afghanistan just in the framework of our common campaign against terrorism." Russia, he told the station in an interview on March 3, will "definitely react" otherwise. "May it not be that our partners have other programs...under the pretext of war against terrorism," he concluded. AT
 TALIBAN FIGHTERS KILLED IN CLASH IN SOUTHERN AFGHAN PROVINCEAccording to the Afghan Defense Ministry, more than 20 Taliban insurgents were killed or injured in an operation by Afghan security forces and NATO troops on March 2, AFP reported the next day. The operation took place in southern province of Helmand. The same day, a Canadian soldier serving with NATO troops was killed in neighboring Kandahar Province, bringing the number of Western soldiers killed since January to 21, according to official reports. AT
 UN SECURITY COUNCIL APPROVES NEW RESOLUTION SANCTIONING IRANThe UN Security Council on March 3 approved a resolution tightening sanctions on Iran in response to its refusal to halt its nuclear fuel-making activities, agencies reported. Iran has ignored two similar resolutions, and maintains it has a right to a civilian nuclear program. Security Council members voted 14-0 to tighten existing sanctions, with Indonesia abstaining. The sanctions impose travel and trade bans on a greater number of Iranian companies thought to be involved in Iran's nuclear and ballistic programs, and also include a ban on trading in some civilian goods. Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazai said in New York before the vote that Iran would not comply with an "unlawful" resolution, AP reported. After the vote, he said that the Security Council has been "downgraded to a mere tool" of the foreign policy goals of some countries, Reuters reported. Britain's UN Ambassador John Sawers said on March 3 that the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany want the EU's chief foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, to meet with Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili to discuss ways to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, Reuters reported. VS
 IRANIAN OFFICIAL WARNS POWERS NOT TO COMPLICATE NUCLEAR ISSUEMohammad Saidi, the deputy head for international affairs of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, on March 2 warned governments that support more punitive sanctions against Iran not to "complicate" the situation with any "unreasonable, irrational, or illegal" conduct, IRNA reported. Saidi was speaking in Vienna, the seat of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose governing board met on March 3 to discuss issues including Iran's nuclear dossier. Saidi told IRNA the best way to deal with the dispute over Iran's nuclear program is to engage in dialogue with Iran and return the issue to "its legal course," referring to the IAEA. Saidi said IAEA reports indicate Iran has answered six main questions the UN body wanted clarified; Saidi said the process of clarification sought by the IAEA is now complete, and Iran has no pending obligations to further explain its program. He said Iran's nuclear installations will now be subject to an ordinary inspections regime in line with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), IRNA reported. IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei urged Iran on March 3 to be "as active and cooperative as possible in working with the agency to clarify" recent allegations relating to the development of nuclear weapons technology, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26 and 27, 2008). "Iran continues to maintain that these alleged weaponization studies related to conventional weapons only are fabricated. However a [full] examination of this issue has yet to take place," el-Baradei said. VS
 STUDENTS CONTINUE TO PROTEST IN SOUTHERN IRANStudents of Shiraz University in the southern province of Fars on March 2 continued demonstrations that began almost a week ago, demanding the dismissal of university chief Mohammad Hadi Sadeqi, Radio Farda reported on March 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and March 3, 2008). Radio Farda quoted activists as estimating that 2,000 students took part in the March 2 demonstration, which indicated an increase in their numbers. The students reportedly prevented Sadeqi from holding a question-and-answer session at a campus hall on March 2, heckling him and calling him "shameless." Students allege that the university has interfered in elections for independent student associations, and are calling for Sadeqi's resignation. They are also protesting against proposals that classes be segregated by gender, Radio Farda reported, citing websites from Shiraz. The broadcaster added that nine protesters have been summoned to the university disciplinary office. Disciplinary offices have in the past punished student protesters with suspensions or expulsions. VS
 WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVIST PREVENTED FROM LEAVING IRANAuthorities prevented women's rights activist Parvin Ardalan from leaving Iran late on March 2 as she was about to fly to Stockholm to receive a human rights prize, Radio Farda reported on March 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1 and April 25, 2007). Ardalan is involved in a campaign in Iran to amend discriminatory laws against women. The Olof Palme Memorial Fund in Sweden has awarded Ardalan its 2007 prize for her work making "the demand for equal rights for men and women a central part of the struggle for democracy in Iran," the fund's website palmefonden.se stated on February 13. Ardalan told AFP on March 3 that she was taken off an Air France flight after boarding, then told at the airport she could not leave Iran. She said a case against her is pending, although there are no grounds for any charges. She was summoned to court on February 24 for unspecified reasons, the agency reported. Ardalan, 41, was sentenced to jail time in April 2007 for taking part in street protests, but has not yet gone to jail, as an appeal is pending, AFP reported. Ardalan's prize was due to be awarded on March 6 in Stockholm. VS
 IRANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS U.S. SHOULD LEAVE IRAQ...Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on March 3 advised the United States to pull its troops out of Iraq, international media reported. Speaking at Baghdad International Airport during his final press conference before leaving Iraq, Ahmadinejad said: "Powerful countries which are far from our region should allow nations to manage their own affairs. They should not interfere; nations and governments are able to manage the region. The region will be secure and will enjoy brotherly relations more than before. We believe that the best service that forces who traveled here from thousands of kilometers away can offer is to leave the region and respect the will of the nations." He continued: "Those who have come from far away have achieved nothing. Their only achievement is that the countries in the region dislike them. No one likes them. The countries in the region wish that foreigners would leave the region and leave them alone." KR
 ...AS MEDIA QUESTIONS HIS CLAIMSAsked by a journalist what evidence he has that Iraqis do not approve of the U.S. presence in Iraq, Ahmadinejad said: "This claim can be easily proved. I think that when [U.S. troops] go among the people of Iraq on the streets, they immediately realize that fact." Asked how he can claim to support Iraq's stability while elements in Iran are supporting the insurgency, he said: "The American officials talk a lot. These remarks are not very important to us, because we have observed that they make remarks [regarding Iranian interference] based on false information. We cannot rely on what they say. But we can give them friendly advice. We believe that accusing others will not solve the Americans' problems in the region. They have to seek the solution elsewhere." KR
 HELICOPTER MISSING IN NORTHERN IRAQAn Iraqi transport helicopter disappeared on March 3 during a sandstorm in Ninawa Governorate, Reuters reported on March 4. The Russian-built Mi-17 was last heard from around 2 p.m. local time after the pilots said in a radio message that they had to make a forced landing because of the sandstorm, a senior Iraqi official in Ninawa said. U.S. and Iraqi forces are currently working to locate the helicopter. The number of passengers onboard has not been released, but Reuters reported that the helicopter can transport more than 30 people. KR
 FORMER IRAQI MINISTER ACQUITTED OF CORRUPTION, ORDERING KILLINGSFormer Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili and the former head of the ministry's security service Brigadier General Hamid al-Shammari were acquitted on March 3 of charges of corruption and using their positions to order sectarian kidnappings and killings, Iraqi media reported. Al-Zamili, who was affiliated with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during his term in office, was accused of funneling ministry funds to militiamen. Al-Sadr and his followers have distanced themselves from al-Zamili. At least eight people have filed charges accusing the pair of masterminding the kidnappings and killings of ministry employees. The trial began on March 2 after delays last month when witnesses failed to appear in court. A U.S. military lawyer said seven out of nine witnesses received threats that they would be killed if they appeared in court, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 19. The court cited a lack of evidence in its March 3 ruling after several witnesses failed to appear. One witness questioned by the court reversed his testimony. "The New York Times" reported on March 3 that that witness appeared tense and nervous before the court, suggesting that he may have been intimidated by the defendants. "The court did not find a single piece of evidence on either of the two regarding the killings and kidnappings," Amir Taher, the head of al-Zamili's defense team, told Reuters. "There were no witnesses to testify that [the two] were involved in killing and kidnapping, so they are free to go," he added. Iraqi newspaper "Al-Mashriq" claimed in a February 23 report that the United States gave entry visas to the witnesses slated to appear at the trial. KR
 TURKISH ARMY CHIEF DENIES U.S. INFLUENCED GROUND INCURSION HALTTurkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit has over the past five days consistently rejected Turkish media reports claiming that the military ended a ground incursion into northern Iraq because of U.S. pressure. "We gave [the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK] a lesson and we have more lessons to give," Buyukanit told reporters on March 3 in Ankara, "Hurriyet" reported on March 4. "If anybody can prove U.S. influence [on this decision] I will remove my uniform," he added. Buyukanit said the military achieved its goals during the incursion, killing some 240 PKK fighters, Anatolia news agency reported on March 3. He added, however, that "the actual terrorist losses are much higher, because this number does not include the losses caused by Turkish air forces." The Turkish military began withdrawing from northern Iraq following U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Ankara last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). KR
 MEDIA WATCHDOG ASKS UN TO DEFEND JOURNALISTS IN IRAQThe International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on March 3 called on the UN to lead new efforts by the international community in defense of journalists and media workers in Iraq. "A timely statement of support from the United Nations for Iraqi journalism will show that the international community stands alongside the community of journalists in these dark days," the IFJ said in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The watchdog called on the UN and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to support the Iraqi Journalists' Union. The head of the union, Shihab al-Tamimi, 75, was gunned down last week in Baghdad. The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, condemned the attack on al-Tamimi in a February 29 statement, saying attacks against media workers are tantamount to "repressing press freedom and freedom of expression that are an essential component of democracy," the UN website reported. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also condemned al-Tamimi's murder. More than 200 journalists and media workers, mostly Iraqi nationals, have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. KR
 TOP U.S. MILITARY COMMANDER VISITS IRAQAdmiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim in Baghdad on March 3, Iraq's state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Mullen was on a "field visit" to evaluate the effectiveness of ongoing security operations and joint operations between U.S. and Iraqi forces, Iraqi military spokesman Major General Muhammad al-Askari said after the meeting. Mullen toured the restive town of Hawijah, southwest of Kirkuk, on March 2. Hawijah police Lieutenant Colonel Fatah Abdallah told AFP on March 3 that Mullen met some members of the Al-Sahwah [awakening] groups. "He heard our demands and promised to support us. He hailed the Al-Sahwah forces," Abdallah said. Mullen left Iraq for Pakistan on March 3. KR
 MNF-IRAQ SAYS BA'QUBAH AWAKENING FIGHTERS RETURN TO WORKTribal fighters from the Ba'qubah Awakening Council returned to work on February 29 following a meeting with local officials in Diyala Governorate, a MNF-Iraq press release reported on March 1. The fighters, referred to as Sons of Iraq, boycotted patrols last month after disagreeing with Diyala security forces on a number of issues. "We discussed the situation...and all parties agreed that the Sons of Iraq and their leaders would return to work," U.S. Lieutenant Colonel John Steele said in a statement. The statement said media reports of thousands of Diyala security volunteers refusing to fulfill their duties were "inaccurate." It noted that "a small number of [Sons of Iraq] in east Ba'qubah did temporarily refuse to work while their disputes were being worked out. At no time did this result in a decreased level of security in the city." KR
 NTV'S PAST POINTS TOWARD REN-TV'S FUTUREBy Robert Coalson
When independent experts last week released their assessment of media coverage of the Russian presidential election, there were few surprises. On Channel One, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev received 32 percent of election-related airtime; on Rossia, he received 26 percent; on TV-Tsentr, he received 35 percent; and on NTV he received 43 percent.
The other three official candidates all received single-digit coverage on all four national networks, with figures ranging from 6.8 percent to 0.1 percent, according to figures released by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Also unsurprisingly, President Vladimir Putin -- who was not running, of course -- got more airtime even than Medvedev, between 50-60 percent.
The one oddity in this uniform picture, however, was REN-TV, a small but still-private national network. REN-TV's figures are truly startling: 31 percent of the airtime went to Putin, followed by 21 percent for Medvedev, 22 percent for Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 21 percent to Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, and 6.3 percent to Democratic Party head Andrei Bogdanov.
Such even-handedness is unheard of in Russian national media these days. The reduced percentage for Bogdanov can easily be justified by the facts that his support consistently polls at about 1 percent, that his party received less than 1 percent of the vote in the December Duma elections, and that his candidacy was widely seen to be a Kremlin-inspired stratagem to create the impression that at least one liberal politician is in the race.
The contrast between REN-TV and NTV is particularly noteworthy. NTV, it should be recalled, is the once-private and once-respected national television network that was taken over by Gazprom in 2000-01 as one of the first major steps in Putin's dismantling of civil society. At the time, Gazprom claimed the takeover was merely a business dispute and senior managers pledged repeatedly the network would be sold off in short order.
Now, seven years later, Medvedev is the chairman of Gazprom's board of directors, and the channel is outdoing even the formally state-controlled Channel One and Rossia in violating the law ensuring equal media access to all candidates and in contributing to what the liberal-posing Medvedev has eloquently described as "legal nihilism."
In an interview with "Kommersant" on February 21, Gazprom-Media head Nikolai Senkevich said that Medvedev pays personal attention to this part of the vast conglomerate's empire, and confirmed that close Medvedev allies from St. Petersburg -- Anton Ivanov, Mikhail Krotov, and Konstantin Chuichenko -- have worked in the media holding (although Ivanov and Krotov have since moved into high positions in government). Senkevich said Gazprom-Media "has the warmest memories and greatest gratitude" for the work Medvedev and his associates did for the holding.
In 2000, NTV was the odd man out on the Russian media scene. Now, REN-TV is. And its future doesn't look bright.
REN-TV is a network of 864 stations across Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Baltic states. As of December 2006, 51 percent of its shares are held by a company called Abros, while 30 percent are held by the Luxembourg-based RTL Group, part of the Bertelsmann media conglomerate. Abros also controls 35 percent of the Peterburg television company, which runs the St. Petersburg-based Channel Five. Channel Five, it should be noted, was granted federal status by Putin in November 2007, opening the way for massive expansion.
Abros is part of a complex corporate chain at the top of which sits Yury Kovalchuk, co-owner of the Rossia bank and a close personal friend of President Putin. Kovalchuk's bank came to prominence during the 1990s by handling most of the finances for the St. Petersburg municipal external-relations committee, which was then headed by Putin. Journalists and analysts over the years have repeatedly claimed that Kovalchuk is Putin's personal banker, managing a fortune that some have estimated is worth billions of dollars. Abros, it is worth noting, also owns a major stake in a company called Sogaz, which is a major owner of a company called Lider, which in turn manages Gazfond -- the huge pension fund of Gazprom. Sogaz also owns 10 percent of the Peterburg television company.
Kovalchuk's media ambitions extend much further. All the major newspapers in St. Petersburg -- "Smena," "Nevskoye vremya," "Vecherneye vremya," and "Vecherny Peterburg" -- are also considered part of his group, as they are controlled by long-time business ally Oleg Rudnov. Rudnov's media projects have been financed by Gazprom, which is the major advertiser of all of his newspapers. In addition, Gazprom-Media head Senkevich confirmed in his "Kommersant" interview that a deal has been struck (but not implemented) to sell control of the national daily "Izvestia" to Sogaz, which would place it inside Kovalchuk's media empire as well.
In a recent report summing up the results of Putin's eight years in power, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov drew particular attention to Kovalchuk's emerging media empire. They describe it as a "powerful political resource," potentially more influential than anything ever controlled by former oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky or Boris Berezovsky.
According to "Moskovsky korrespondent" on February 15, Kovalchuk plans to combine his media holdings into a single company called the National Media Group, a name that reflects his ambitions. According to the report, the new holding company will be headed by Sergei Fursenko, the brother of Science and Education Minister Andrei Fursenko. Reportedly, Kovalchuk has been friends with both Fursenko brothers since grade school. The same report asserts that Lyubov Sovershayeva, a former deputy presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, sits on the boards of directors of both REN-TV and the Peterburg television company.
"Gazeta" reported last month that Kovalchuk has created a new public advisory board to oversee REN-TV. The board will most likely eventually oversee the entire National Media Group. The board will include well-known cultural figures, artists, politicians, and businesspeople, the daily reported, and will be headed by Unified Russia Duma Deputy and former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva. Kabayeva is also believed to be close to Putin.
What this all means for REN-TV's admirably even-handed election coverage remains to be seen. But political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin is skeptical: "The channel will become controlled and managed," he told "Gazeta." "Everything will happen gradually, just as it did with NTV."