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Newsline - February 22, 2005


U.S. PRESIDENT WARNS MOSCOW AGAINST DEMOCRATIC BACKSLIDING
Speaking to EU and NATO leaders on the first leg of his major foreign tour this week, U.S. President George W. Bush said on 21 February that the Russian government must "renew its commitment to democracy and the rule of law," AP and other media reported. "We must always remind Russia that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power, and the rule of law," Bush said. The United States should place democratic reform "at the heart: of its dialogue with Russia. At the same time, Bush indicated that he opposes the isolation of Russia, saying, "America supports WTO [World Trade Organization] membership for Russia, because meeting WTO standards will strengthen the gains of freedom and prosperity in that country," according to Bloomberg. "Russia's future lies within the family of Europe and the trans-Atlantic community.'' VY

DUMA DEPUTY RESPONDS TO U.S. SENATORS' EFFORT TO SUSPEND RUSSIAN G-8 MEMBERSHIP
The chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev (Unified Russia), said on 21 February that he is "absolutely convinced" that neither the Bush administration nor the U.S. Senate will back a recently introduced Senate bill to suspend Russian membership of the Group of Eight (G-8) until Moscow "ends its assault on democracy and political freedom," Interfax reported. "This initiative is based on the false idea that Russia's membership of the [G-8] is a reward or advance for good behavior," Kosachev said. Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika foundation, had suggested that Moscow does not view any U.S. effort to suspend Russia from the G-8 as realistic, TV-Tsentr reported on 14 February. Nikonov said such a suspension would require greater consensus among G-7 members on the issue. Senators John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and Joe Lieberman (Democrat-Connecticut) introduced the bill in the Senate on 18 February. AP quoted the bill as saying, "We must openly confront anti-democratic backsliding in Russia for the sake of all those who look to the United States as a beacon of freedom." VY

PUTIN SAYS RUSSIA WILL CONTINUE NUCLEAR COOPERATION WITH IRAN
President Vladimir Putin said after his meeting in the Kremlin on 18 February with visiting Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani that Iran has no plans to develop nuclear weapons, RTR and ORT reported. Putin said that "recent actions of the Iranian side" have convinced Russia that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear weapons, ITAR-TASS reported. "This means that we will continue our cooperation in all spheres, including the nuclear sphere," Putin added, according to the same source. Putin said Atomic Energy Agency Director Aleksandr Rumyantsev will travel to Tehran later this month to sign an agreement on the return to Russia of spent nuclear fuel from its Bushehr nuclear plant. Putin also reminded the media that Iranian officials have invited him to come to that country, adding that the date of that visit will be specified at a later date, RTR reported. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov meanwhile said at his meeting with Rohani on 21 February that Russia is prepared "to extend by any means" relations with Tehran, iran.ru reported. VY

LAVROV STRESSES GEORGIAN, UKRAINIAN SOVEREIGNTY
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told RTR on 21 February that neighboring Georgia and Ukraine are "absolutely sovereign, absolutely equal states in the new geopolitical architecture," which are "free to choose to participate in any [international] organization" they wish. "The main thing is that this process should be transparent, should strengthen existing good relations, and should not be aimed against any other country," Lavrov added. President Putin has repeatedly stated that Russia is not the only major force within the CIS and that political competition among the powers in that region is possible. VY

RUSSIAN OFFICERS JOIN SOCIAL PROTESTS
An estimated 1,000 officers from the Russian armed forces participated in a sanctioned demonstration near the Civil Service Academy in Moscow on 19 February to protest the situation in the army, the deteriorating social status for servicemen, and the recent monetization of social benefits, Ekho Moskvy and NTV reported. The demonstration was reportedly organized by veterans' and Cossack organizations, which initially wanted to convene in an officers' facility but were forced to gather on the street after the facility's owners backed out of the contract, NTV reported. Former Defense Minister and retired Army General Igor Rodionov told the group that officers from 54 regions were present at the demonstration. The Defense Ministry commented officially by saying that the officers were exercising their "constitutional rights," Ekho Moskvy reported. VY

DUMA CONSIDERS NEW PROPOSALS FOR REFORMING DUMA ELECTION SYSTEM...
The State Duma on 21 February debated proposed reforms to the system for electing Duma members, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. Unified Russia deputies reportedly pushed for larger regional party lists, with a minimum of 100-150 candidates, and for virtually eliminating restrictions on party campaign spending. Unified Russia Secretary and Deputy Valerii Bogomolov also expressed opposition to a requirement whereby the top three candidates on each party list would be required to serve in the Duma or the party would lose the seat. "If a candidate is appointed to the government or law enforcement agencies, his mandate should be handed over to a representative of the same party," Bogomolov said. Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin (Motherland) urged that deputies pass a law on the opposition that would "give the opposition additional guarantees of access to the mass media." Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia faction, objected to a proposed 30 percent quota for women in the legislature. "We can include wives and lovers in the party lists, but it is the men who will be doing their job for them," Zhirinovskii said. RC

...AS ELECTION SUPERVISOR SAYS PROCESS TO BE COMPLETED BY SPRING
Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told a Moscow conference on 21 February that the process of rewriting the law on the State Duma will be completed as early as May, ITAR-TASS reported. He noted that a bill mandating that all 450 deputies be elected under a proportional-representation system has already passed its first reading in the Duma. Among other proposals approved by the TsIK, Veshnyakov mentioned increased state funding for political parties that receive more than 3 percent of the vote in national elections. "The state is interested in a real multiparty system," Veshnyakov said, adding that it is important that "parties not go cap in hand to the oligarchs." The TsIK has also urged a ban on electoral blocs and the holding of national and local elections on the same day. Veshnyakov voiced opposition to Unified Russia's call for lifting campaign-spending limits. "We should not create the illusion that if the limits are removed, all funds will be declared," Veshnyakov said, according to ITAR-TASS. "We do not want to get into a situation where those who are able to raise enormous funds are those who get into power." RC

NEWSPAPER PREDICTS REPLACEMENT OF AUDITORS WITH UNIFIED RUSSIA MEMBERS
The State Duma on 18 February accepted the resignations of six auditors within the Audit Chamber, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 21 February. Formally, the auditors resigned in connection with the implementation of a new law on the formation of the Audit Chamber, Duma Budget Committee Chairman Yurii Vasilev (Unified Russia) told the daily. Earlier, Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin resigned and was reconfirmed to his post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2005). However, "Kommersant-Daily" reported that the new law does not affect the auditors and that their resignations might actually have been politically motivated. The six auditors were chosen by the last Duma, three of them representing single-mandate districts and three of them representing factions from the old Duma -- the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), and the Communist Party. Analysts have speculated that the new Duma will attempt to replace some or all of the auditors -- the SPS and Communist Party auditors are frequently mentioned -- with members of the Unified Russia faction. Deputies have until 7 March to nominate new auditors, and a vote will be held on 18 March, the daily reported. RC

DEPUTY TO ASK CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO RULE ON BENEFITS REFORM
Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov (independent) has said that he will file a case with the Constitutional Court against the government's reform to convert in-kind social benefits to cash payments, "Vremya novostei" reported on 22 February. Last week, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov said that he would also ask the court to rule on the reform (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005). Ryzhkov also told the daily that he believes the government has responded ineffectively to the crisis, adding that the 200 billion rubles ($67 million) that the government has allocated for compensation payments could be replaced by 60 billion-90 billion rubles if the funds were spent effectively. Ryzhkov added that the reform violates the rights of the handicapped by increasing the number of businesses that are exempted from hiring the handicapped and by eliminating penalties for businesses that are required to reserve hiring quotas for the handicapped but fail to do so. RC

LIBERAL LEADER BECOMES A DOCTOR
Yabloko party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii on 21 February successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in economics, lenta.ru reported, citing a Yabloko press release. Yavlinskii completed his candidate's degree in 1976. His doctoral dissertation was titled "The Socioeconomic System of Russia and the Problem of Modernizing It." Yavlinskii will receive his degree from the Central Economics and Mathematics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. RC

INTERIOR MINISTER SENDS OFFICIAL TO INVESTIGATE BLAGOVESHCHENSK POLICE RAIDS
Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Shchadrin arrived in Blagoveshchensk on 22 February in order to head an investigation into the 10-14 December security operation in that city that left hundreds of residents complaining of police abuse, Ekho Moskvy reported. Shchadrin's first decision, however, was to disperse a demonstration of victims of the operation being held outside the republican Interior Ministry building. According to the report, Shchadrin also ordered that the protestors be detained and subjected to administrative sanctions, demonstration organizer Marat Khairullin said. Shchadrin has set up an office to receive the public in connection with the investigation and has said that he will hold a news conference "after studying the situation and analyzing the information received." Ekho Moskvy also reported that two Blagoveshchensk students who participated in a recent picket outside the Interior Ministry building in Moscow have been expelled from their institute. Several victims of the December police operation continue their demonstration and hunger strike on Moscow's Pushkin Square. RC

PUTIN NOMINATES SEVENTH INCUMBENT GOVERNOR TO KEEP HIS POST
President Putin on 21 February nominated incumbent Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug Governor Aleksandr Filipenko to remain in that post, RIA-Novosti reported. Filipenko is the seventh incumbent governor to be nominated by Putin to retain his post. "Vedomosti" reported on 21 February that Kursk Oblast Governor Aleksandr Mikhailov was nominated earlier this month because he agreed in January to quit the Communist Party and join Unified Russia. Mikhailov was a former oblast Communist Party Committee Chairman in the Soviet era and was three times elected to the State Duma as a deputy from the Communist Party. Rostislav Turovskii of the Center for Political Technologies told the daily that the Kremlin will likely try to persuade other Communist governors to change their party affiliation in exchange for another term in office. RC

ELECTION BOSS TO INVESTIGATE CAMPAIGN-FINANCE SCANDAL IN RYAZAN
TsIK Chairman Veshnyakov told journalists on 21 February that he intends personally to supervise the investigation into alleged campaign-financing irregularities by Ryazan Oblast Governor Georgii Shpak, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2005). Veshnyakov said that he will travel to Ryazan to look into allegations by Shpak's former campaign chairwoman that Shpak spent several times the legal limit in his successful gubernatorial campaign last year. Local businesswoman Natalya Suchkova has alleged that Shpak offered to appoint her deputy governor in exchange for a $1.6 million loan to finance his campaign. Veshnyakov said that he is familiar with the Ryazan case materials and with a complaint filed by State Duma Deputy Igor Morozov (independent), who lost the election to Shpak. Veshnyakov said it is possible that a politically motivated smear campaign has been launched against Shpak, but he added that if a court rules against him, the governor will have to resign. RC

MORE SUSPECTED ISLAMIC MILITANTS KILLED IN KABARDINO-BALKARIA
Interior Ministry forces surrounded an apartment block in Nalchik, capital of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, early on 19 February and stormed the building 24 hours later, killing two suspected members of the Yarmuk group who refused to surrender, Russian media reported. Two women and one man also suspected of belonging to Yarmuk were apprehended in Nalchik on 18 February. Russian Deputy Interior Minister Lieutenant General Arkadii Edelev was quoted by Interfax on 20 February as saying that explosives and 69 detonators were found at the stormed apartment. He said all five suspected militants belonged to a group controlled by Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev and Chechen resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov. Commenting on the Nalchik operation at a government meeting on 21 February, President Putin ordered Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev to crack down more harshly on militants in the Caucasus, Russian media reported. Putin rebuked Nurgaliev for referring to the militants by their preferred designation of "djamaat," arguing that "bandits are bandits." LF

POLICE INVESTIGATOR SENTENCED FOR FALSIFYING CHERKESSK MURDER INVESTIGATION
A court in Cherkessk, the capital of the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia (RKCh), sentenced former police investigator Kamal Veziev on 18 February to four years' imprisonment on charges of falsifying documentation pertaining to the slaying in October of seven men at a dacha belonging to Ali Kaitov, the son-in-law of RKCh President Mustafa Batdyev, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Sixteen people, including Kaitov, have been charged in connection with those killings, which triggered mass protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22, 25, and 26 October and 10 and 12 November 2004). Veziev was accused of forging documentation in order to conceal the involvement in the murders of one of the accused, whose identity was not divulged. LF

FIELD COMMANDER REPORTED KILLED IN CHECHNYA
Yunadi Turchaev, 32, who commanded a detachment of fighters operating in Grozny and central districts of Chechnya, was killed in a shootout in Grozny on 18 February after a Chechen police patrol discovered his hiding-place, Reuters and ITAR-TASS reported. On 19 February, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov told Russia's Ekho Moskvy that he believes the Chechen police and security forces should be given greater autonomy to crack down on crime, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

EXHUMATION OF CHECHEN MILITANT'S BODY RULED OUT
Russia's Federal Penitentiary System issued a statement on 17 February saying that there is no need to exhume and conduct an autopsy on the body of radical Chechen field commander Salman Raduev, Interfax reported. The service's director, Yurii Kalinin, had told journalists the previous day that the service is prepared to exhume the body and conduct an autopsy in order to refute persistent rumors that Raduev was killed in prison. Raduev was captured in March 2000 and sentenced in December 2001 to life imprisonment for his role in the mass hostage taking in Kizlyar, Daghestan in December 1996. He died in prison, reportedly of natural causes, in December 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2001 and 16 December 2002). LF

NORTHERN IRELAND MODE REJECTED AS INAPPROPRIATE FOR CHECHNYA
Chechen interim parliamentary Chairman Taus Djabrailov said on 17 February that it is "impossible" to apply to Chechnya the model for conflict resolution adopted in Northern Ireland, Interfax reported. During a public lecture in Moscow earlier that day, British Ambassador Anthony Brenton said British diplomats had recently proposed that approach at a meeting with Russian officials. But Djabrailov said there are no similarities between the situation in Chechnya and that in Northern Ireland. Also on 17 February, Federation Council International Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov pointed out that Moscow tried such an approach by signing in August 1996 the Khasavyurt accord with Maskhadov, but that the latter "failed to become the Chechen Gerry Adams." LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADER DOES FOREIGN POLICY U-TURN
National Accord Party (AMK) Chairman Artashes Geghamian told a party conference in Yerevan on 19 February that the United States "must be the main pillar of democratization and strengthening" of Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. By contrast, during the 2003 presidential election campaign, Geghamian had argued for closer relations with Russia and Armenia's accession to the Russia-Belarus Union. Geghamian finished in third place in the first round with some 17 percent of the vote. Geghamian also announced on 19 February that the AMK will soon launch a new campaign aimed at forcing the resignation of the present Armenian leadership, but he implied that he will not necessarily coordinate that new campaign with the Artarutiun opposition bloc as he did during last year's opposition protests. Arminfo as cited by Groong on 19 February quoted Geghamian as criticizing Artarutiun and its leader, Stepan Demirchian, and as hinting that the AMK might abandon the opposition's yearlong boycott of parliament proceedings. LF

ARMENIAN COALITION PARTNER CALLS FOR FASTER DEMOCRATIZATION, ELECTION REFORM
Armen Rustamian, a senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), one of the two junior partners in the three-party coalition government, warned on 21 February that failure to amend election legislation to ensure that the local elections due in October are truly free and fair could result in armed clashes between supporters of rival candidates, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said such clashes could be as serious as the 4 February gunfight in Yerevan in which one person was killed and several were injured (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 18 February 2005). LF

ARMENIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL QUESTIONS ACCURACY OF CRIME STATISTICS
Aghvan Hovsepian told procuracy staff on 18 February that he doubts the accuracy of statistics showing that the number of crimes registered in 2004 by the Interior Ministry was 9 percent lower than in the previous year, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He criticized the police for alleged incompetence and lack of professional expertise and qualifications, claiming that they frequently pass to the Prosecutor-General's Office criminal cases that have been inadequately investigated. Hovsepian further warned his subordinates that it is illegal for them to engage in business activities. It is rumored, however, that Hovsepian himself owns a dairy farm and a private television station. LF

SOME AZERBAIJANI PRISON-RIOT PARTICIPANTS TRANSFERRED TO OTHER JAILS
An unknown number of prisoners who took part in the 15 February protest at Azerbaijan's prison No. 11 were transferred on 16 February in five vehicles to other prisons, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2005). Their relatives were not informed where they were being taken. Also on 16 February, No. 11 prison director Oktai Gasanov denied that either prisoners or riot police were injured when the latter fired shots and used water cannon to end the protest, Turan reported. The same agency reported on 17 February, however, that a prisoner lost his sight in one eye after being hit by a rubber bullet. LF

GEORGIA, RUSSIA FAIL TO DISGUISE MUTUAL ANTIPATHY...
Talks in Tbilisi on 18 February between visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and senior Georgian officials failed to defuse any of the major sticking points in bilateral relations, Georgian and Russian media reported. The visit was blighted from the beginning by Lavrov's refusal to lay a wreath at a monument in Tbilisi to Georgian troops killed during the offensives launched again the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s. Lavrov told journalists that, contrary to normal diplomatic procedure, that event was not included in the preliminary schedule of engagements until the day before his visit. Tbilisi responded by downgrading the visit from an official to a working one and sending only Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze to greet Lavrov at Tbilisi airport, where no guard of honor was provided. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili branded Lavrov's refusal "unexpected, strange, and unacceptable," according to Caucasus Press on 19 February. LF

...AND SEEK TO RESOLVE DIFFERENCES WITHIN TWO MONTHS
President Saakashvili's spokeswoman, Alana Gagloeva, read a statement to journalists late on 18 February that said the two sides cannot at present sign any bilateral agreements but have agreed to continue talks, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili told journalists separately that working groups will be set up to focus on six specific issues and will report to Saakashvili and Russian President Putin in two months. The six issues are the proposed framework treaty on friendship and cooperation; the time frame for the closure of Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia; delimitation of the Russian-Georgian border; the visa regime between the two countries; setting up a joint antiterrorism center; and Georgia's conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. ITAR-TASS on 20 February quoted Lavrov as saying that the framework treaty should contain a clause under which the Georgian leadership pledges not to resort to force against those two republics. Lavrov also met in Tbilisi with former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, under whom he worked when Shevardnadze headed the Soviet Foreign Ministry in the late 1980s. LF

ABKHAZ OFFICIALS RULE OUT TALKS WITH GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S REPRESENTATIVE
Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba and Security Council Secretary Stanislav Lakoba said on 17 and 18 February, respectively, that while the new Abkhaz leadership considers talks with Tbilisi essential, it will not conduct such talks with Irakli Alasania, whom President Saakashvili named last week as his personal envoy for such talks, Apsnipress reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005). Lakoba explained, as did President Sergei Bagapsh's adviser, Sokrat Djindjolia, that they have nothing against Alasania personally but that they do not regard as legitimate his official title, which is head of the Abkhaz government-in-exile. That body represents the Georgian members of the pre-1992 Abkhaz government who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war. Meanwhile, Bagapsh assured visiting Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin in Sukhum on 19 February that he will coordinate with Moscow his moves during talks with Tbilisi, Interfax reported. Bagapsh said those talks should focus on economic issues. Loshchinin for his part expressed satisfaction at Sukhum's readiness to resume direct talks with Tbilisi. LF

GEORGIA DENIES SUSPENSION OF ARMS SUPPLIES FROM ISRAEL
Georgia's minister for European integration, Giorgi Baramidze, dismissed on 20 February as deliberate disinformation Russian media reports citing an article in the Israeli paper "Ha'aretz" that Israel has suspended deliveries of military hardware to Georgia, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported on 20 and 21 February respectively. The Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a similar denial, as did Israel's ambassador in Tbilisi, Shabtai Tsur. ITAR-TASS estimated that Israel's supplies of weaponry to Georgia, including the modernization of MiG-25 fighter aircraft, are worth "tens of millions of dollars" annually. The Russian agency quoted "Ha'aretz" as saying that the suspension of arms deliveries to Georgia may have been intended as a "goodwill gesture" in the hope of persuading Moscow not to supply advanced antiaircraft missiles to Syria (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2005). LF

STUDENTS IN SOUTHERN GEORGIA PROTEST RECTOR'S DISMISSAL, ARREST
Several students and faculty members were arrested on 18 February in Akhaltsikhe after staging a protest against the dismissal two days earlier and arrest on charges of embezzlement of Merab Beridze, rector of the local branch of Tbilisi State University, Caucasus Press reported. A police spokesman denied on 18 February that the detainees were beaten; they were later released. A local court sentenced Beridze on 18 February to three months' pretrial detention, and students staged further protests on 19 and 21 February, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 21 February, the Georgian Association of Young Lawyers told journalists that Beridze was arrested on political grounds and there is no evidence to corroborate the charges of embezzlement he faces. Georgian Ombudsman Sozar Subeliani argued on 21 February that if Beridze is held criminally responsible, then the former rector of Tbilisi State University Roin Metrevili should share that responsibility, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN CRIME RATE SOARS
Georgia's Interior Ministry registered 24,856 crimes in 2004, an increase of 42.9 percent over the previous year, Caucasus Press reported on 18 February. Of the total crimes registered in 2004, 52.4 percent were solved, compared with 76.6 percent in 2003. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT HAILS COUNTRY'S ACHIEVEMENTS, PROPOSES CENTRAL ASIA UNION
In his annual address to the nation before a joint session of parliament on 18 February, President Nursultan Nazarbaev hailed Kazakhstan's achievements over the past 10 years and proposed the creation of a Central Asian union, Interfax-Kazakhstan and "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Nazarbaev stressed that the preceding decade has seen Kazakh citizens' wages, salaries, savings, and pensions rise significantly. "For the first time in our history, we have created an independent state constructed on the principles of Western democracy, taking into account the experience of leading East-Asian states and the specific features of our society, with its many ethnicities and faiths," Nazarbaev said. Noting that Central Asia is the scene of great-power rivalries, Nazarbaev proposed the creation of a union of Central Asian states. "We need to move from words to close economic integration, a common market, and a common currency," he said. DK

KAZAKH PRESIDENT SIGNS ANTI-EXTREMISM BILL
President Nazarbaev on 19 February signed into law a recently passed bill on fighting extremism, Khabar Television reported. The legislation includes provisions to combat the financing of terror and paves the way for creating an official list of groups defined as terrorist organizations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2005). DK

KYRGYZ DEMONSTRATORS SUPPORT OPPOSITION NEWSPAPER
Representatives of Kyrgyzstan's opposition and free-speech advocates demonstrated in Bishkek on 19 and 21 February in defense of the independent newspaper "MSN," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The newspaper faces a number of defamation lawsuits, and President Askar Akaev recently threatened to file suit as well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 February 2005). The protest on 19 February drew 200 people, who passed an appeal calling the president's intention to sue "MSN" part of a series of "threats and other repressive measures planned during upcoming [27 February parliamentary] elections and...aimed at retaining power by any and all means." Protestors charged that the lawsuits against "MSN" are aimed at depriving Kyrgyz citizens of access to objective information. In a briefing on 21 February, presidential spokesman Abdil Segizbaev told journalists that the only way "MSN" can avoid a lawsuit from the president is if it fully retracts a recent article that alleges that President Akaev and members of his family control numerous businesses in Kyrgyzstan. DK

TURKMEN-GAZPROM NEGOTIATIONS CONTINUE
Aleksei Miller, the head of Russia's Gazprom, visited Ashgabat on 19 February amid an unresolved price dispute between the state-controlled Russian company and Turkmenistan, "Vremya novostei" reported on 21 February. Although the official reason for the visit was the celebration of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's 65th birthday, Miller has been involved in difficult talks with the Turkmen leader since Turkmenistan halted gas shipments to Russia in January in an attempt to renegotiate an existing contract (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2005). Miller said that no detailed talks took pace on 19 February and insisted that the 2005 contract is being observed. But as "Vremya novostei" noted, the assertion rings hollow in the absence of a price agreement and a renewal of Turkmen gas shipments to Russia. Lev Snykov, an analyst at the Moscow-based brokerage Sovlink, told "Vremya novostei" that Gazprom could conceivably hold out until 2007 before its need for Turkmen gas forces it to compromise. But Snykov noted that Turkmenistan, which lacks other export routes, could lose billions of dollars if the standoff drags on. Under the existing contract, Gazprom's gas purchases in 2005 were to take place for $44 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, paid half in cash and half in kind; Turkmenistan would like to raise the price to $58 per 1,000 cubic meters. DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT TO MEET WITH RUSSIAN, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTS
In a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 19 February, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov confirmed that he will visit Moscow on 9 May to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Russian victory over Nazi Germany, Turkmen Television First Channel reported. The two presidents agreed to discuss bilateral and multilateral cooperation during Niyazov's visit. Newly elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko plans to visit Ashgabat in March, turkmenistan.ru reported on 19 February. Yushchenko proposed the visit during a 19 February telephone conversation with the Turkmen leader to congratulate the latter on his birthday. DK

UZBEK PROTESTORS DECRY ILL EFFECTS OF TAJIK ALUMINUM PLANT
A group of residents from Uzbekistan's Surkhandarya Province held a demonstration outside the Tajik Embassy in Tashkent on 18 February to protest the ill effects that emissions from the Tajik Aluminum Plant are having on their region, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The protestors stated that the emissions are causing increased rates of illness and birth defects. In a written appeal to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov signed by more than 3,000 Surkhandarya residents, they expressed concern at plans to increase production at the plant, which is located near the Tajik-Uzbek border, and to construct additional production facilities. Tajik Ambassador to Uzbekistan Ghulomjon Mirzaev met with protestors and promised to deliver the appeal to the competent authorities. Mirzaev said that modern equipment will be installed to minimize harmful emissions, adding that the issue should be resolved through bilateral agreements, not demonstrations. DK

BELARUSIAN COURT CUTS PRISON SENTENCE FOR OPPOSITIONIST
The Minsk Oblast Court on 18 February confirmed a controversial lower court verdict that declared opposition politician Mikhail Marynich guilty of stealing office equipment from the Dzelavaya Initsyyatyva (Business Initiative) association, of which he was chairman (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 4 January 2005), Belarusian media reported. Simultaneously, the court reduced the prison sentence for Marynich from 5 to 3 1/2 years, citing his past services to the state and failing health as the reason. Marynich was minister of foreign economic relations (1994-98) and later served as ambassador to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. In mid-2001, Marynich resigned his ambassadorial post to challenge Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the presidential election in September that year. "There is no reason to be jubilant over the decision, " Belapan quoted Anatol Lyabedzka of the opposition United Civic Party as saying. "The point is that the Belarusian judicial system has put itself in an awkward situation by giving a shorter sentence to a Lukashenka acolyte [former presidential property manager Halina Zhuraukova] over a theft of $3.5 million, than to Mr. Marynich, who allegedly stole six computers." JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT APPOINTS NEW PROPERTY MANAGER
President Lukashenka on 21 February appointed Alyaksandr Kulichkou as head of the presidential administration's Property Management Department, simultaneously relieving him of the post of trade minister, Belapan reported. Last week Lukashenka dismissed former Property Management Department Henadz Laurankou, appointing him as a presidential aide and chief inspector for the Mahilyou Oblast. Laurankou's predecessor, Halina Zhuraukova, was recently sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling $3.4 million (see above and "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005). Zhuraukova's current whereabouts are reportedly unknown. JM

BELARUSIAN INTELLIGENTSIA PROPOSES PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL
In addition to half a dozen presidential candidates put forward by Belarusian opposition parties and coalitions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2005), Belarus's pro-democracy intelligentsia has proposed Uladzimir Kolas as a potential candidate in the 2006 presidential election, Belapan reported on 18 February. Kolas is the director of the officially closed Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum, which has been operating at private premises in Minsk since the autumn 2003. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT CONFIRMS COURSE TOWARD NATO
President Viktor Yushchenko said at a session of the Ukraine-NATO Commission in Brussels on 22 February that the recent political changes in Ukraine open opportunities for taking Ukraine's relations with NATO to a "qualitatively new level," Interfax reported. Yushchenko stressed that the main task of the new Ukrainian government is to bring the country's political, socioeconomic, and defense systems to Euro-Atlantic standards. "We want every [Ukrainian] citizen to feel and see the advantages of these standards," Yushchenko said. "This is precisely the way we want Ukrainian society to reach a full understanding of Ukraine's European future, which is inseparably linked to the deepening of [the country's] relations with the alliance." JM

KYIV REMAINS WARY OF 'DEEPER' INTEGRATION WITH MOSCOW
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Kyiv on 21 February, calling for the development of a strategic partnership between the two countries, Ukrainian media reported. "We face the need to develop a strategic partnership under agreements reached between our presidents," Lavrov said in Kyiv, in an apparent reference to a 2003 accord on the Single Economic Space uniting Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. But the reaction of Kyiv, which is set to pursue more vigorous integration with Europe, was reportedly wary and lukewarm. "If we are talking about a free-trade zone [within the Single Economic Space], in principle this would not cause any problems in terms of our integration with the European Union or our membership in the World Trade Organization," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said. "If we are talking about a deeper level of integration [with Russia], there could be problems." President Yushchenko confirmed to Lavrov that Russia is Ukraine's "eternal strategic partner" but also added, "It is important that relations with the East do not block our path to Europe." JM

UKRAINE, EU SIGN THREE-YEAR ACTION PLAN
Ukraine and the EU signed a three-year Action Plan in Brussels on 21 February, Ukrainian and international media reported. The plan envisions EU support for Kyiv's bid to obtain market economy status in the coming months, to join the World Trade Organization, and to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU. The EU recently attached a 10-point addendum to the plan, calling for more cooperation in foreign and security policy as well as trade and visa regimes. "I'll tell you that one message that I'm getting to Brussels -- now you have a very responsible Ukrainian government, you have very responsible partners, and if we put our signatures on something, there is no way we're not going to deliver it," said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Oleh Rybachuk, who represented Ukraine at the signing ceremony. Both sides reportedly sidestepped mentioning any prospects for Ukraine's EU membership. JM

FORMER TOP BOSNIAN SERB GENERAL REPORTEDLY TO GO TO THE HAGUE VOLUNTARILY...
The Serbian government announced on 21 February that former Bosnian Serb General Milan Gvero, who was a deputy to Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic during the 1992-95 conflict, has surrendered to the authorities and agreed to go voluntarily to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, adding that Gvero is expected to leave for the Netherlands on 24 February, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and Reuters reported. The tribunal charged him with war crimes at an unspecified date in a "sealed indictment," which is a procedure that the body sometimes uses to indict people without tipping them off that they are being sought. After former General Dragomir Milosevic, former Colonel Ljubisa Beara, and former General Vladimir Lazarevic, Gvero is the fourth high-ranking indictee to turn himself in in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November and 7 December 2004, and 8 February 2005). PM

...BUT IS IT ENOUGH?
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who has long advocated persuading indictees to turn themselves in voluntarily rather than having the authorities arrest and extradite them, said in a statement on 21 February that Gvero's decision to go to The Hague of his own accord vindicates Kostunica's approach, Reuters reported. Kostunica argued that "the coming days will show [that the voluntary approach] really is the best form of cooperation [by Serbia with the tribunal], one that protects the interests of the state, the indictees, and their families. I am convinced this is how we can carry out our cooperation with the Hague tribunal." Belgrade has been repeatedly criticized by that body, the EU, and the United States for allegedly doing little or nothing to fulfill its obligations to cooperate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005). It is not clear whether Gvero's decision will prompt EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn to change his view that sending indictees to The Hague "only when they finally decide to come" is not enough. PM

CROATIA AGAIN DENIES THAT TOP INDICTEE IS IN THE COUNTRY
Croatian President Stipe Mesic said in Zagreb on 21 February that there is no evidence whatsoever that leading war crimes indictee and former General Ante Gotovina is hiding in Croatia, a point that many officials of the EU and the Hague-based tribunal dispute. His statement came hours after EU foreign ministers said in Brussels that the EU will decide on 16 March whether Croatia is cooperating sufficiently with the tribunal to begin Zagreb's planned EU membership talks the following day. Failure to arrest Gotovina is holding up Croatia's plans to join the EU by 2007, which is the government's top foreign policy priority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1, 7, and 9 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 24 September 2004). Mesic said recently that Croatia has asked French and other unidentified foreign intelligence agencies to help find Gotovina, who served in the Foreign Legion and reportedly has a French passport. In related news, Croatia's Chief Prosecutor Mladen Bajic said in Zagreb on 21 February that the authorities have collected information on Gotovina's banking and business interests and are preparing to freeze his assets. PM

EU SAYS KOSOVA CANNOT RETURN TO FORMER STATUS
EU foreign ministers agreed in Brussels on 21 February that Kosova cannot return to its pre-1999 status, meaning Serbian rule, the BBC's Serbian Service reported. They agreed to discuss in "early summer" whether Kosova has made sufficient progress in meeting international standards to merit starting talks on its final status. Decisions on Kosova, including the status question, are in the hands of the UN Security Council. Also in Brussels, Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said that economic issues are the biggest threat to Kosova's stability. He criticized the Serbian authorities for their "boycott" of talks with Kosova's elected officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004, and 7 January and 18 February 2005). PM

MONTENGRIN LEADER SAYS SERBIA HAS WRONG PRIORITIES
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said in Belgrade on 19 February that the Serbian leadership has gotten its priorities wrong in what he called concentrating on Kosova and relations with Montenegro rather than on European integration, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 and 18 February 2005). He said that his government will hold a referendum on independence in February 2006 if Belgrade and Podgorica have failed by then to redefine their relations as a union of two independent, internationally recognized states. PM

ELECTION CAMPAIGN BEGINS IN MACEDONIA
The campaign for the 13 March local elections officially opened on 21 February, "Dnevnik" and MIA news agency reported. A total of 379 candidates are competing for the mayor's job in 85 administrative districts. Voters will also elect the members of the district councils. Following recent redistricting and changes in legislation on local self-government, the district administrations will have far greater rights than before (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 4 and 11 February 2005). An international election observation mission of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) will monitor the vote. Campaigning ends on 11 March. UB

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT SEEKS PARTICIPATION IN TRANSDNIESTER TALKS
In an interview with RFE/RL on 19 February, Romanian President Traian Basescu reiterated his position that Romania must be part of the negotiations to resolve the Transdniester conflict. Speaking about his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Basescu said that he "expressed a point of view [on Transdniester], and I did not expect an answer from President Putin at once because this is an issue of analysis." Basescu said he felt that Putin did not oppose this position. The president also outlined his vision for Romania's future role in the Black Sea basin. "[The Black Sea basin] is the area where the three dimensions of crime -- narcotics, arms smuggling, and human trafficking [are concentrated]," Basescu said, calling on Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey to focus on this area and perhaps establish a task force to monitor criminal activities on the Black Sea. "I would add that the Black Sea is of extraordinary importance in the perspective of the energy resources of the Caspian basin." UB

ROMANIAN SOCIAL DEMOCRATS GEAR UP FOR PARTY CONGRESS
Former Romanian Prime Minister and incumbent Social Democratic Party (PSD) Chairman Adrian Nastase said on 18 February that he will run for the position of the party's executive chairman at the party congress slated for 21-22 April, RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova Service reported. Nastase also suggested he would not oppose Iliescu's candidacy as PSD chairman. On 21 February, Sorin Oprescu announced that he will run against Nastase for the position of executive chairman, "Adevarul" and other Romanian media reported. Oprescu's move is widely seen as a bid by Iliescu to undermine Nastase's position within the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1, 10, and 14 February 2005). UB

ROMANIAN SENATE LIFTS IMMUNITY OF FORMER MINISTERS
The upper house of the Romanian parliament, or Senate, on 21 February voted 88-3 to adopt a bill lifting the immunity of former ministers, "Ziua" reported. Twenty-nine senators abstained from the vote. During the debate, Justice Minister Monica Macovei argued that both the International Monetary Fund and the Council of Europe have recommended lifting the immunity of former ministers. UB

ROMANIAN HUNGARIAN LEADER DEMANDS HUNGARIAN-LANGUAGE FACULTY AT UNIVERSITY
Deputy Prime Minister Marko Bela, who chairs the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), has told a news conference that it is necessary for the government to found a faculty for the Hungarian language at the state Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, RFE/RL's Romanian Service reported on 19 February. At the end of January, Education and Research Minister Mircea Miclea had refused the founding of a separate faculty for the Hungarian language, arguing that he categorically opposes segregation along ethnic lines. UB

U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT, SENATE CALL FOR FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS IN MOLDOVA
The U.S. State Department issued a statement on 17 February calling for a free and fair election campaign and general elections in Moldova. Recognizing that Moldova has had a good record of holding parliamentary elections since 1991, the State Department warned that "recent trends are disturbing." "Reports of biased coverage in the public media, harassment of the opposition by police, intimidation of independent civil society groups, and use of public resources for campaign purposes are cause for particular concern and could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election." The State Department noted that a free and fair election is about more than "just a smoothly and legally administered election day." The State Department supported a similar call issued by the European Union earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2005). On 18 February, the U.S. Senate unanimously adopted a resolution urging the Moldovan government to ensure free and fair elections, according to a statement by Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), who sponsored the bill together with Senators Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) and Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware). "Tired of oppressive regimes, the people of Georgia and Ukraine took to the streets to demand accountability and transparency in their elections. The people of Moldova ... share this dedication to democracy," McCain's statement said. "Unfortunately, it is not clear that the Moldovan authorities share this commitment." UB

PACE CONCERNED OVER MOLDOVAN ELECTION CAMPAIGN AND TRANSDNIESTER VOTE
After returning from a three-day visit to Moldova on 16-18 February, a five-member delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voiced concern that voters in Moldova may lack information to make an informed choice on election day because of the lack of a clearly visible election campaign, according to a statement on PACE's website (http://www.assembly.coe.int). The delegation also called on the Moldovan government to ensure that all citizens can vote. "With regard to the question of voting in Transdniester, the delegation calls on the authorities to open suitable polling stations sufficiently near those voters, for instance in the security zone," the statement said. In related news, the Central Election Commission in Chisinau decided on 18 February that citizens living in Transdniester will have to vote in eight polling stations on the right bank of the river Dniester, azi.md reported. Special voter lists and ballot boxes will be set up for the voters from Transdniester (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005). UB

IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION CENTRAL TO BUSH-PUTIN SUMMIT
The proliferation danger posed by Iran is likely to be a major topic of discussion when President George W. Bush meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava later this week.

In light of Russia's extensive involvement in the Iranian nuclear program, any efforts to persuade Moscow to disengage are likely to fail. And while nuclear cooperation could be the most important aspect of Iran's relationship with Russia, that relationship is multifaceted and complex.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss told the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in testimony on 16 February, is one of the most pressing challenges currently facing the United States. Goss went on to mention Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability in this context.

Another intelligence-community leader, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, said in his Congressional testimony that Russia bears some responsibility for proliferation, not least in the case of Iran. Jacoby charged that Iran wants a nuclear-weapon capability because it wants to become the "dominant regional power" and it wants to deter a possible U.S. or Israeli attack. "We judge Iran is devoting significant resources to its weapons of mass destruction [WMD] and ballistic-missile programs," Jacoby alleged, adding that Iran will be able to produce nuclear weapons "early in the next decade." Jacoby also predicted that Iran will be able to manufacture an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015 and that it will either develop or import a land-attack cruise missile within a decade.

President Bush discussed the importance of diplomacy in resolving the proliferation problem in a series of 18 February interviews with European television stations, according to the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs website (http://usinfo.state.gov). He told France's TV3 that France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States must work together to convince Iran that they do not want it to have a nuclear weapon, and they must work together to make other countries aware of this stance. "I think President Putin understands that the Iranians shouldn't have [a nuclear] weapon. I'm convinced, again, if the Iranians hear us loud and clear, without any wavering, that they will make the rational decision."

One must assume that Putin, as a presumably rational decision-maker, is reluctant to see Iran develop a nuclear-weapons capacity. Nevertheless, according to the DIA's Jacoby, the Russian government or Russian entities "sell WMD and missile technologies for revenue and diplomatic influence" and "[continue] to support missile programs and civil nuclear projects in...Iran." Jacoby added that "some of the civil nuclear projects can have weapons applications."

Bush will be hard-pressed to persuade Putin to disengage from the Iranian nuclear program. Russia is heavily involved in building a nuclear power plant in the southwestern Iranian city of Bushehr. The Bushehr project is worth approximately $800 million to Russia, and Russia also will profit from the provision of fresh fuel and the reprocessing of spent fuel. The Iranian nuclear sector also is a source of employment for Russian scientists and technicians, and Russian universities train Iranian specialists. Putin said after meeting with Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani in Moscow on 18 February, "Iran's latest actions convince us that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear weapons, and it means that we will continue our cooperation in all areas, including in nuclear power generation," RFE/RL reported.

From the Iranian perspective, the relationship with Russia is important in at least five ways. First, Russia is willing to cooperate openly with the Iranian nuclear program. For all Iran's claims of self-sufficiency and indigenous know-how, Iran still depends on overt and covert foreign assistance. Tehran has expressed an interest in having Russia build more reactors. Second, Russia serves as a counterbalance to the United States, which Iran regards as an enemy, and Europe, which Iran sees as a lukewarm ally. Tehran depends on Moscow's vote in international forums like the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors. Third, Tehran sees itself and Russia as the two major Caspian Sea powers. Iran is adamant that it is entitled to 20 percent of that sea's resources, although it has less than 14 percent of the shoreline. Although Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have signed bilateral agreements regarding the Caspian Sea, neither Iran nor Turkmenistan has done so.

Fourth, Russia is a vibrant market for Iranian goods and a reliable trading partner. This is particularly important for the Iranian military, which is equipped with Russian aircraft, submarines, tanks, and other equipment. Russian firms are involved in the Iranian energy sector, too. Finally, Russia is a source of expertise in other, more exotic areas, including Iran's desire to have a satellite. The two sides signed a $132 million contract for the design, testing, and launch of the Zohreh satellite on 30 January.

But Tehran is willing to pressure Moscow, and it is no coincidence that Rohani's visit to Moscow preceded the Bush-Putin summit. Rohani twisted the screws a bit after his trip to Moscow, saying on 19 February, "We expect Russians to be one step ahead of Europeans, but they always follow the dominant trend in the IAEA Board of Governors," the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported.

Bush and Putin are scheduled to have a 2 1/2-hour private meeting on 24 February, "The Washington Post" reported on 20 February. This could provide an opportunity for the U.S. president to urge his Russian counterpart to be more responsive to international concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

Putin is unlikely to satisfy any such request, although diplomatic boilerplate will disguise any serious disagreement. And that will be welcome news in Tehran.

FORMER TALIBAN ENVOY SAYS HE IS HOLDING TALKS WITH AFGHAN GOVERNMENT
Abdul Hakim Mujahed said on 20 February that he is holding talks with the Afghan government not as a member of the Taliban, but as a member of his party, the Khaddam al-Furqan (Servants of the Koran), Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. On 16 February "The Washington Post" reported that Mujahed, who served as the ousted Taliban's former unofficial envoy to the United Nations, and three other former senior Taliban member were holding talks with Kabul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005). "We have held these talks with Kabul to strengthen national unity, national accord and peace. We have reached an agreement with officials to this effect," Mujahed told AIP. According to Mujahed, his team will formulate their "policy in the next two to three days" in order to carry out their "activities accordingly." He did not elaborate what those activities might be. Former Taliban leader Mullah "Mohammad Omar is no longer our leader," Mujahed said. Khaddam al-Furqan is the name of an old Afghan political organization that was active prior to 1973. AT

AFGHAN PRESIDENT TRAVELS TO SAUDI ARABIA...
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, at the head of a large delegation, made an official visit to Saudi Arabia from 20 to 21 February, Afghanistan Television reported on 21 February. Karzai held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah al-Saud and addressed the Jeddah Economic Forum. The Afghan leader invited Saudi investments in Afghanistan, referring to his country as "an open opportunity," for businesses, the Kabul daily "Anis" reported on 21 February. AT

...WHERE HE ALSO MEETS PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER
While attending the Jeddah Economic Forum, Karzai met with Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on 21 February, the Jeddah daily "Arab News" reported. In an interview with "Arab News," Aziz said that while his country and Afghanistan enjoy good relations and are cooperating on the war on terror, the "security situation in Afghanistan is far from satisfactory, given the fact that much of the country is controlled by warlords." Aziz said that he and Karzai discussed the issue of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline project (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 February 2005). Aziz did not elaborate on the pipeline project, adding only that the "situation in Afghanistan is improving." The tenuous security situation in Afghanistan is one of the obstacles facing the pipeline project. AT

KABUL APPOINTS THREE NEW GOVERNORS
President Karzai on 20 February appointed Abdul Jabar Taqwa as the governor of Parwan Province; Abdul Satar Morad as the governor of Kapisa Province; and Tamim Nuristani as the governor of Nuristan Province, Radio Afghanistan reported. Parwan and Kapisa are located north of Kabul and Nuristan is in northeastern Afghanistan. AT

ALLEGED IRANIAN AGENT REPORTEDLY CONFESSES PLAN TO ASSASSINATE EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT
An Egyptian identified as Mahmud Id Dabus, who is charged with espionage on behalf of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), has confessed that the IRGC was plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, "Al-Misri Al-Yawm" reported on 20 February. Dabus said the IRGC instructed him to devise a plan for the assassination and to select the individuals who would carry out the operation, the paper reported. Although the IRGC was ready to finance the operation, Dabus said, he failed to find the appropriate co-conspirators. Dabus reportedly confessed that he communicated with the IRGC via the Internet. The next hearing in Dabus's trial is scheduled for 26 February. BS

BUSH VOICES CONCERNS ABOUT IRAN
Most news agencies predicted that Iran would be a major topic of discussion during U.S. President George W. Bush's current trip to Europe, and the American leader fulfilled these expectations in a 21 February speech in Brussels, according to a transcript on newyorktimes.com. Bush said, "For the sake of peace, the Iranian regime must end its support for terrorism and must not develop nuclear weapons." Regarding a possible military solution to the Iranian problem, Bush said "no option can be taken permanently off the table," adding, however, that he prefers diplomacy instead: "We're working closely with Britain, France, and Germany as they oppose Iran's nuclear ambitions and as they insist that Tehran comply with international law." Bush also addressed his hope for democratic reforms in Iran, a subject he raised previously in his State of the Union Address. "We also look for Iran to finally deliver on promised reform," he said. "The time has arrived for the Iranian regime to listen to the Iranian people and respect their rights and join in the movement toward liberty that is taking place all around them." BS

TEHRAN DISMISSES BUSH SPEECH
A 21 February commentary on Iranian state television dismissed Bush's speech. It suggested that Bush's concern about human rights in Iran is hypocritical: "Without making any reference to the killings of the Afghan and the Iraqi people and their barbaric crimes in Guantanamo Bay and Abu-Ghraib prisons, the American president referred to the presence of the American military in these two countries as examples of bringing people freedom and democracy and called on the countries situated to the west of the Middle East to establish this sort of democracy in their countries." Tehran television accused Bush of ignorance about the Iranian people: "[Bush] repeated the US allegations and threats against Iran and talked about the voice and the will of the Iranian people. When it comes to his talks about the voice of the Iranian people it seems that no one knows what Bush is referring to, except himself." The commentary said Bush is continuing the policies of his predecessors, and this will result in failure. BS

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS INDIA
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi arrived in New Delhi on 21 February for a three-day visit, All India Radio Home News Service reported. Upon arrival, Kharrazi told reporters that he is encouraged by New Delhi's attitude toward the 2,700-kilometer Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline, Mehr News Agency reported. Kharrazi added, "The signing of a document in January 2005 on Iran selling 7.5 million tons of LNG [liquefied natural gas] a year to India for 25 years and India's participation in developing Iranian oil fields and extracting some 100,000 barrels of oil per day from them was one of the most significant results of the strategic agreements reached by the two countries so far." He mentioned the possibility of a common market including Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Central Asian states, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Turkey. He also commented on the value of the North-South Transport Corridor (India, Iran, and Russia) as well as the East Corridor that connects Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Kharrazi called for better bilateral trade relations, as well as direct flights between Mashhad and Hyderabad. BS

FUEL SMUGGLERS BUSTED IN IRAN
Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security has arrested 14 members of a gang that over the last two years smuggled millions of liters of benzene and diesel fuel to Pakistan and Afghanistan, "Iran" reported on 21 February. The smugglers were arrested in Iran's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan province, and since the arrests provincial fuel consumption has fallen sharply. Petroleum products in Iran are subsidized and therefore very inexpensive. The smugglers purchase the products in Iran, transport them to neighboring states, and make a profit by selling them at higher prices. BS

IRAN TO HAVE A SPACE COUNCIL
Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 21 February in Tehran that the cabinet has decided to establish a Supreme National Space Council, Mehr News Agency and state television reported. The country's president will chair the council, Ramezanzadeh said, and the head of the national space agency will be its secretary. Other members will be the ministers of communications and information technology, of defense and armed forces logistics, of foreign affairs, of mines and industries, and of science; the director of the Management and Planning Organization; the head of state broadcasting; and four "space experts." The council's objective is to peacefully use space technology, protect Iran's national interests, and develop economically, culturally, and scientifically. BS

CREATION OF NEW IRANIAN PROVINCE UNDER CONSIDERATION
Karaj parliamentary representative Rashid Jalali said some national level officials have "implicitly announced their agreement" to the creation of a new province, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 16 February. Alborz Province will be located west of Tehran, Jalali said. That area includes the towns of Karaj, Nazarabad, Robatkarim, Savojbolagh, and Shahriar, he said, and its population of 4.5 million exceeds that of several other provinces. BS

IRAQI PRIME MINISTER WANTS TO RETAIN JOB; SHI'ITE TALKS CONTINUE
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced on 21 February that his party has nominated him to retain his post in the transitional government, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 22 February. Current contenders for the post include interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, who is considered the front-runner; and Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi, whom many Iraqis view as a compromise candidate. Shi'ite leaders began intensive talks on the issue on 20 February, RFI reported. Al-Diyar television reported on 19 February that tensions have arisen between Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq (SCIRI) leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and Allawi in recent days over the return of Ba'athists to state institutions, a move Allawi supports. Al-Hakim is vehemently opposed to the plan. Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 20 February that the losing contenders will be offered posts in the defense, finance, foreign affairs, and interior ministries. The news channel also claimed that the United Nations is working to convince interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir to assume the post of head of the National Assembly. Al-Yawir reportedly wants to retain his current position, which Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani is vying for. KR

U.S. TRANSFERS SECURITY CONTROL OVER SOME BAGHDAD AREAS TO IRAQI ARMY
The U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division transferred control over security in several areas to Baghdad to the Iraqi Army's Fortieth Brigade on 21 February, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on the same day. "We have reached a certain stage. The Americans are very accurate. They saw that we reached a certain stage in advanced training and in [the ability to] take over responsibilities.... We have now entered the first phase [of the handover of security management in Iraq]," Iraqi Brigadier General Jalil Khalaf said at the ceremony marking the handover. He added that the army is now better equipped to handle its new duties. "We have got very good and highly developed equipment. We have also received middle-size weapons like mortars. God willing, it is going to continue step by step. I hope you do realize that today is a great day in the history of Iraq because our [military] units will be under our command. It will be us [patrolling] in the streets, it will be us issuing orders." KR

...AS U.S. GENERAL PRAISES READINESS OF BRIGADE
U.S. Major General Peter W. Chiarelli told Iraqi soldiers at the ceremony: "As the first brigade to assume an independent sector, you are pioneers and leaders in a nation that is free at last. You stand as the beacon of hope for a nation that is emerging to a position of prominence in the region," RFI reported on 21 February. "Your national defense, the defense you provide is the defense of the people and of the idea of freedom for your people. You have trained hard with the understanding that your service is for the people of Iraq.... Your training has been nothing short of phenomenal. From the start, we've seen a dedication that comes only from a strong love of country and family." Chiarelli said the Iraqi soldiers "have fought nobly during intense combat operations" while training with U.S. forces. "No one can doubt your high level of readiness. No one can doubt your resolve. No one can doubt your spirit," he told the Iraqi soldiers. KR

HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP CALLS FOR PROTECTION OF IRAQI WOMEN
Amnesty International said in a report issued on 22 February that the Iraqi government must take steps to protect women and change discriminatory legislation that encourages violence against them, according to the group's website (http://www.amnesty.org). The human rights organization said that the unstable security situation in Iraq has driven many women away from public life; the report also documents the targeting of female political leaders and rights activists. It further contends that gender discrimination in Iraqi law contributes to continuing violence against women. "Iraqi authorities must introduce concrete measures to protect women," Abdel Salam Sidahmed, the organization's director of the Middle East and North Africa Program said in a press release. "They must send a clear message that violence against women will not be tolerated by investigating all allegations of abuse against women and by bringing those responsible to justice, no matter what their affiliation." KR

EU AGREES TO TRAIN IRAQI JUDGES, POLICE, AND PRISON OFFICIALS
The European Union Council announced in a 21 February statement posted to its website (http://ue.eu.int) that it will undertake an integrated training program in Iraq in the fields of management and criminal investigation for Iraqi judges, police, and penitentiary officials. The training will reportedly take place either in the EU or in the region, but not necessarily inside Iraq. The statement said, however, that security conditions permitting, the council would consider opening a liaison office in Baghdad. On the first day of the U.S.-EU summit in Brussels on 21 February, U.S. President George W. Bush urged EU member states to provide "tangible political, economic and security assistance" to Iraq. AFP reported on the same day. KR

AUSTRALIA TO SEND 450 TROOPS TO IRAQ
Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced on 22 February that he will send an additional 450 troops to help provide security to Japanese engineers working in the Al-Muthanna governorate, AFP reported. Howard told reporters that Iraq is at the tipping point, adding, "It's very important that the opportunity of democracy, not only in Iraq but also in other parts of the Middle East be seized and consolidated." Australia currently has some 950 troops stationed in and around Iraq, with 300 troops known to be on the ground in the country, AFP reported. The new troop commitment is for one year; soldiers will work six-month deployments. Australian troops will also help train Iraqi security forces during the mission, he said. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda welcomed the commitment in Tokyo, telling reporters, "We are very grateful," Jiji Press reported. KR

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