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RUSSIA SAYS IT IS 'LOOKING FORWARD' TO WORKING WITH UKRAINE... The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 28 that "in seeking to build a system of interstate relations based on principles of equality, friendship, pragmatism, and mutually beneficial cooperation, Russia looks forward to an intensive dialogue with the Ukrainian president, new cabinet, and new Verkhovna Rada [parliament]," RIA Novosti reported. The ministry noted that Russian and international observers monitored the March 26 vote and concluded that the election was valid, although they described the process as an "acute political struggle" and noted some unspecified violations. The statement added that Ukrainians have made a "conscious choice and shown a high level of political interest." PM

...AND SLAMS BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 28 that the opposition in Belarus deliberately provoked a violent reaction by the security forces three days earlier, news agencies reported. "It's clear that the opposition provoked the government to take violent action and thereby created a wave of criticism in the West against the government in Minsk," the statement added. The ministry considers the protests in Minsk to be "a failed attempt to repeat the opposition's tactic during presidential elections in certain other countries [such as Ukraine and Georgia]. Again, instead of acknowledging one's opponent's victory in a civilized way, a gamble was made on [playing to] emotions on the street in an attempt to have one's way, not by popular choice, not at the ballot box, but beyond the legal framework." President Putin congratulated Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on March 20 on his "reelection victory" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). PM

UKRAINE'S VOTE COUNT NEARS COMPLETION. Ukraine's Central Election Commission reported on March 29 that, with 94.5 percent of the ballots counted, the Party of Regions is leading the parliamentary elections held on March 26 with 31.5 percent of the vote, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The Party of Regions is followed by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc with 22.4 percent of the vote, Our Ukraine with 14.4 percent, the Socialist Party with 5.8 percent, and the Communist Party with 3.6 percent. Of all other blocs and parties that participated in the elections, the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc and the Lytvyn People's Bloc -- with 2.8 percent and 2.5 percent of the vote, respectively -- are the closest to overcoming the 3 percent barrier qualifying for parliamentary representation. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT MULLS POSTELECTION SITUATION WITH PARTY LEADERS. President Viktor Yushchenko on March 28 held separate meetings with Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych; Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous political bloc; and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz to discuss the postelection situation and the formation of a future coalition in parliament, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "I can say that today's meeting with the president testifies that the path [toward restoring an Orange coalition] is absolutely possible, and we are beginning today to conduct practical consultations and make steps toward rapprochement," Tymoshenko told journalists. Moroz said of his meeting with Yushchenko that, "We have not reached any agreement with anybody, as there are only preliminary talks.... Since there are no official returns from the elections, there can be no final documents on the coalition." The Party of Regions press service reported that Yushchenko and Yanukovych agreed that "the elections were democratic and transparent although there were flaws in organization, and as a result, a lot of citizens were unable to vote." JM

Belarusian authorities have also taken steps to bar journalists from neighboring Poland and Ukraine from entering the country. In a press conference following Minsk's refusal to give visas to EU observers, Bogdan Klich, a Polish European Parliament member, on March 15 described the continuing crackdown.

"The administration of President Lukashenka is trying to isolate the country on the eve of the elections, trying to reduce to the lowest possible level the witnesses from the Western world," Klich said. "I mean not only politicians, but also journalists. We collected information about those who were stopped at the border or who were refused to receive visas to enter the territory of that country."

The Vienna-based International Press Institute also said on March 15 it was concerned by what it described as increased pressure on Belarus's independent media. It cited the contract closures in Smolensk, as well as a recent announcement by Lukashenka that a fourth paper, "Zhoda," was to be closed and its managers put in prison for allegedly inciting religious hatred by reprinting controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

"Zhoda" was founded by the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, Hramada, which is headed by Alyaksandr Kazulin, a candidate in the presidential race.