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Newsline - February 23, 2005

Speaking to Slovak media ahead of his summit in Bratislava with U.S. President George W. Bush on 24 February, President Vladimir Putin said on 22 February that he is ready for dialogue about democracy in Russia, but will not allow the topic to be used "for trying to achieve foreign-policy goals," Russian and international media reported. Replying to Bush's remark about the necessity of renewing democracy in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005), Putin said that Russia chose a democratic path 14 years ago and did so "not in order to make itself compatible with anyone, but for its own good," RTR reported. "Naturally, the fundamental principles of democracy and the institutions of democracy must be adapted to the reality of today's life in Russia, to our traditions and history," he added. Putin also remarked that Russia is always ready for dialogue "with those interested in it, with friends" and that Bush is one such person. "A friendly look from the outside, even a critical look, won't hurt and will only help us," Putin said. Finally, Putin said that U.S.-Russian relations have never been at "such a high level as now." VY

Former Soviet KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov said that the United States is a "very awkward partner" for Russia and that the two countries are "gradually moving toward a new Cold War," "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 22 February. The United States has declared its interests in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, regions that Russia has considered as within its sphere of influence, and at the same time tries to prevent Russia from making new allies, Kryuchkov said. "Just as we began to improve our relations with Turkey, Washington gets worried," he added. Kryuchkov, who headed the KGB foreign intelligence branch during the time President Putin served there, said he thinks Putin will represent Russia well at the summit and he "has set out our position on Iraq and on Iran in a proper manner. He is hardly going to give Bush a break in Bratislava." VY

In an interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 18 February, Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada Director Sergei Rogov said that the accelerating growth of negative factors in U.S.-Russian relations in the last year has led to the formation of a very negative consensus in U.S. public opinion toward Russia. This consensus has united left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives who usually cannot agree on anything. Even more dangerous for Russia is the U.S.-EU consensus that has begun to form on events in Russia, he noted. Rogov said that both the EU and the United States agree that Russia is moving toward authoritarianism and neo-imperial ambitions. The Cold War thinking that Russia must be contained and isolated has returned and "it is a very dangerous situation," Rogov concluded. VY

Eddi Rios, the head of the Venezuelan parliamentary Defense Committee, announced that his country plans to sign this week in Moscow a $120 million contract to buy Russian military helicopters, reported. According to the contract, this year Moscow will provide Caracas with 10 Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters to patrol its border with Columbia. All in all, Venezuela plans to buy from Russia 44 helicopters in the next five years. The United States has repeatedly expressed its concern that the Russian arms sales to Venezuela may destabilize the situation in the region. However, Duma First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) responded to these concerns last week by saying that Russia can do without lectures from Washington (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005). VY

The Duma adopted a resolution on 18 February calling on President Putin and the government to introduce a boycott of Moldovan wine and tobacco and raise prices on energy exports to the country, if Moldova does not "stop its blockade" of the breakaway Transdniester region, RTR and other media reported. The Duma also condemned the "anti-Russian campaign" of Moldova's government and some harsh statements by Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin. During discussion of the resolution, Duma Deputy Nikolai Pavlov (Motherland) accused Voronin of "treason" for his refusal to sign a Kremlin-sponsored settlement between Moldova and Transdniester in 2003, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 February. Pavlov also called Voronin "a gypsy," but was unable to explain the connection between Voronin's ethnic origin and political position as his microphone was switched off, the newspaper added. The resolution was adopted in response to the expulsion on 16 February of 11 Russian citizens who were in Moldova as observers for the 6 March parliamentary elections, and whom the Moldovan security service accused of interfering in the election campaign and spreading disinformation, reported the same day. VY

At a congress in Moscow on 19 February, groups claiming to represent more than 700,000 Moldovan migrant workers in Russia founded a new organization named Patria Moldova, RTR reported. The organizers of the congress called on the Moldovan electorate to vote against President Voronin's Party of Moldovan Communists in the 6 March parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said on 21 February that by expelling the 11 Russian observers, Moldova violated the regulations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, RTR reported. Also, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 22 February that Russia has sent a note to Moldova protesting the detention of two Russian women for allegedly entering the country with large, undeclared sums of money, RTR reported. VY

A group of senior Indian officials, including Oil and Natural Gas Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, arrived in Moscow on 21 February for high-level talks about boosting Indian participation in Russia's energy sector, Russian media reported. Aiyar told journalists that representatives of India's state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) are in talks to buy a stake in Yuganskneftegaz, which was formerly the main production subsidiary of Yukos and was auctioned off by the government in December for $9.3 billion. Yuganskneftegaz produces about 12 percent of Russia's total annual output, "The Moscow Times" reported on 22 February. Aiyar met on 21 February with Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko and on 22 February with representatives of Rosneft, which currently controls Yuganskneftegaz. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 22 February that ONGC is seeking a 15-20 percent stake in Yuganskneftegaz and that another 20 percent stake has been offered to China's National Petroleum Corporation. RC

ONGC on 21 February signed a cooperation agreement with Gazprom, and it was announced that Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller will visit India this year, "The Moscow Times" reported on 22 February. "Our single most important strategic ally in the energy sector is Russia, because their supply position is as strong as our demand position," Aiyar said. "Russia's strength is its energy supply and our strength is our energy demand. We are natural partners." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 22 February quoted Aton Investment Company analyst Dmitrii Lukashov as saying: "India is now buying everything everywhere. It is known to be interested in Kazakhstan's oil and gas projects, Kurmangazy, for example. India simply needs reserves, some guarantee of oil deliveries, and minority stakes give such assurance. This is why India is ready to buy even a not-very-large stake in Yuganskneftegaz." RC

A group of 10 prominent Russian intellectuals have issued an open letter calling on the international human rights community to declare jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii a political prisoner, and other Russian media reported on 22 February. "No state interests can justify the misuse of the justice system to fight one's political opponents," the letter states. The letter was signed by artists Liya Akhedzhakova, Oleg Basilashvili, and Sergei Yurskii; writers Danil Granin, Boris Strugatskii, Lyudmila Ylitskaya, and Eduard Uspenskii; and academicians Mikhail Gasparov, Yurii Ryzhkov, and Aleksandr Yakovlev. RC

Two men suspected of carrying out the 9 July 2004 murder of Paul Klebnikov, the American editor in chief of the Russian version of "Forbes" magazine, have been extradited to Russia from Belarus, RIA-Novosti reported on 23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 13 July 2004). The two men, Valid Agaev and Kazbek Dukuzov, are both residents of Chechnya. They were reportedly arrested in Minsk on 17 November. Dukuzov is reportedly the main suspect in the case and authorities say they have matched his hair to hairs found in the car used by the killers to flee the scene of the crime. Police also suspect Dukuzov of involvement in the 25 June killing in Moscow of former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Yan Sergunin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June 2004). RC

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told Radio Mayak on 22 February that there have been no irregularities in the ways the money in the so-called stabilization fund has been invested or used. He rejected allegations of violations put forth earlier by the Audit Chamber. "The government has issued an instruction that sets out which securities, which currencies the stabilization fund can be invested in," Kudrin said. "The fund is used in strict accordance with the law, with no violations, without even the slightest departure from the law." Kudrin said the fund is being used to the maximal benefit of Russia and that "we can prove that to anyone, any inspectors." RC

A group in Kaliningrad Oblast headed by Baltic Republican Party leader Sergei Pasko is lobbying to have the oblast granted the status of a republic within the Russian Federation, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 22 February. The group, called Republic, was registered on 21 February, just days after presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Ilya Klebanov unexpectedly raised the issue of the exclave's status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). Pasko told the daily that his group will agitate for the oblast to be given the international legal status to enter into independent relations with the European Union, while retaining "associative membership in the Russian Federation." Pasko is also the head of the local business association Union of Entrepreneurs, which is reportedly financing the movement. About 300 people participated in Republic's founding congress. RC

In an 18 February interview with the Chechen agency Daymohk that was reposted on, Umar Khanbiev, who is Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's representative abroad, said that the process of establishing contacts between the Chechen resistance and the Russian leadership is continuing, albeit with great difficulty, and that "there are grounds to hope that real political negotiations" on ending the war will take place. He declined to elaborate, but noted that there are people who have accumulated large fortunes as a result of the war and would be reluctant to see it end. Khanbiev also said that recent official reactions abroad to the unilateral cease-fire Maskhadov proclaimed last month have been overwhelmingly positive. That cease-fire expired at midnight on 22 February, and Russian military officials quoted by Reuters on 22 February said they anticipate a renewed upsurge of hostilities as the resistance forces have taken advantage of the cease-fire to regroup. LF

Also on 22 February, Aslambek Aslakhanov, who is an adviser to Russian President Putin, told journalists in Moscow that while he used to support the idea of peace talks between Putin and Maskhadov, he now considers it "immoral" to push for such talks in light of what he called Maskhadov's complicity in the hostage takings in Moscow in October 2002 and Beslan in September 2004. Aslakhanov claimed that Maskhadov was informed in advance of both those terrorist acts but did nothing to prevent them. Maskhadov has denied any such involvement. Aslakhanov acknowledged, nonetheless, that peace talks are necessary to bring about an end to the fighting, and he proposed that the two warring sides be represented at such talks by the Chechen civilian population, on the one hand, and members of the resistance not implicated in terrorist acts, on the other, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 23 February, citing the RBK news agency. LF

In interviews on 22 February with the daily "Haykakan zhamanak" and with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Andranik Markarian, who is Armenia's longest-serving prime minister, rejected as unfounded renewed speculation that he will soon step down. Markarian also denied that the anticipated promotion of Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian to head a new amalgamated ministry is intended to circumscribe the powers of the prime minister, or that Abrahamian will be named his successor. He termed the creation of that ministry "simply...a structural consolidation." Markarian further explicitly denied that the ruling three-party coalition intends to create legal loopholes to enable incumbent Robert Kocharian to run in 2008 for a third presidential term, which is not possible under the present constitution. LF

In his 22 February interview with "Haykakan zhamanak," Markarian made clear that he thinks parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, chairman of Orinats Yerkir, one of the two junior partners in the coalition government, has exceeded his powers by creating parliamentary commissions that he himself chairs, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Markarian said he has issued instructions to his subordinates not to respond to requests from those committees or to participate in their work. LF

Vartan Oskanian met on 21 February in Malabo with the leadership of Equatorial Guinea to discuss the prospects for establishing and expanding bilateral ties, especially in the spheres of cooperation within international organizations and education, Noyan Tapan reported the following day. Oskanian held separate discussions aimed at securing the release of six Armenian civilian pilots and air crew sentenced in Equatorial Guinea last November to prison terms ranging from 14 to 24 years for their alleged role in an abortive coup d'etat intended to overthrow the country's leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 7 December 2004). Oskanian also met with the jailed Armenians, who have consistently protested their innocence. LF

Azerbaijani presidential-administration official Ali Hasanov told Turan on 21 February that the presidential Pardons Commission will soon rule on requests by the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and some Western embassies in Baku to release some 40 oppositionists jailed in the wake of the disputed October 2003 presidential ballot. Some of those 40 have petitioned for pardon, but seven jailed prominent opposition leaders have not done so, arguing that they are innocent of the charges against them. The OSCE recently released a report detailing procedural violations during the trials of some "October prisoners" and affirming that in some cases the charges against them were unfounded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2005). Three months ago, Hasanov said a pardon request by the seven opposition leaders could only be considered after they have appealed to Azerbaijan's Supreme Court and Constitutional Court, and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2004). Even before Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes sentenced the seven opposition leaders, President Ilham Aliyev said their guilt was beyond dispute, and he implied that a pardon in the near future was out of the question (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 October and 4 November 2004). LF

Economy Minister Kakha Bendukidze told journalists in Tbilisi on 22 February he sees no danger in selling Georgia's main gas pipeline to Russia's Gazprom in return for exports of natural gas, Caucasus Press and reported. But Caucasus Press also quoted Economic Development Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili as saying on 22 February that the Georgian government is not considering selling the pipeline to Gazprom, while presidential spokeswoman Alana Gagloeva pointed out that such a sale would necessitate amending the constitution, which currently forbids the sale of strategic facilities. ITAR-TASS, however, quoted Aleksishvili as saying on 22 February that the Georgian government is holding consultations with Gazprom on the sale but has not reached any final decision. A Gazprom delegation visited Tbilisi in mid-January, at which time Georgian media reported that the Georgian government had asked a price of $300 million for the pipeline. LF

Lasha Chichinadze, deputy chairman of the Association of Trade Unions of Georgia, was released on 22 February from pretrial detention following a protest by union members outside the Supreme Court building in Tbilisi, Georgian media reported. Chichinadze was arrested on 19 February on charges of fraud and financial deception. Association of Trade Unions Chairman Irakli Tughushi claimed those charges were unfounded and politically motivated. On 21 February, Tughushi criticized a draft bill under which all trade-union property would be nationalized. He said that in August 2004 he reached an agreement with the Georgian government to cede to the state 90 percent of the union's property. On 17 February, Caucasus Press quoted a senior official from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions as having accused the Georgian leadership of blackmailing the Georgian Association of Trade Unions in an attempt to obtain its property. LF

Tensions within the Kazakh opposition party Ak Zhol, which has been displaying signs of a rift since mid-February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2005), were fuelled by a number of statements and appeals on 21 February, "Navigator" reported the next day. In a statement to regional party organizations dated 21 February, party co-Chairman Bulat Abilov pointed to possible violations of party bylaws at a 13 February meeting; the statement points to a deepening rift with co-Chairman Alikhan Baimenov, who called the 13 February meeting. Official news agency Khabar reported on 22 February that Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former ally of President Nursultan Nazarbaev who joined the opposition in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 15 March 2004), has accused Ak Zhol co-Chairman Altynbek Sarsenbaev of fomenting the split in the party. Also on 22 February, "Navigator" published an open letter from former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, now an exiled opposition leader, to Abilov and Sarsenbaev, calling on them to participate in the creation of a new opposition organization that will be able to put forward a single presidential candidate to oppose Nazarbaev. DK

Approximately 3,000 protesters blocked a major highway in Kyrgyzstan's Kochkor Raion on 22 February to protest the removal of opposition candidates Akylbek Japarov and Beishenbek Bolotbekov from the 27 February parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The two were disqualified from the race by a regional court on 21 February in what their supporters said was an attempt to clear the way for 86-year-old Turdakun Usubaliev, who served from 1961-85 as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kirghizia. In the southern oblast of Jalal-Abad, 500 protesters rallied when police closed the local headquarters of the opposition bloc People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan; demonstrators gathered after reports that former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, who heads the bloc, would be excluded from the race for parliament. Protesters also demonstrated in the Tong and Tiup raions of Issyk-Kul Oblast to protest the exclusion of candidates Arslanbek Maliev and Sadyr Japarov, akipress reported. The demonstrations were the largest thus far in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections. DK

Chinese plans to invest $900 million in Central Asia were discussed at a meeting between Tajik Economy Minister Hakim Soliev and Chinese Deputy Commerce Minister Zhang Zhigang in Dushanbe on 22 February, Avesta reported. The Tajik side presented Zhang with a number of investment projects for consideration. The two officials noted that bilateral trade, which came to $69 million in 2004, is likely to increase as a result of the recently constructed Khorog-Kulma-Karakorum road. DK

Vera Kurochkina, a spokesman for Russian Aluminum, told Asia Plus-Blitz on 22 February that the company will take environmental impact into consideration as it pursues its investment projects in Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October 2004). Kurochkina was responding to protests outside the Tajik Embassy in Tashkent on 18 February by residents of Uzbekistan's Surkhandarya Province, which is located across the border from the Tajik Aluminum Plant (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). Kurochkina stated, "All planned arrangements relating to the assessment of environmental impact comply with Russian Aluminum's strategic policy aimed at minimizing influence on the environment and meeting international standards of openness and access to information." DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov underwent a successful eye operation on 22 February, Turkmen Television Channel 1 reported. The operation, carried out by German ophthalmologist Arthur Mueller, was intended to improve diminished vision in Niyazov's left eye. The seven German doctors who participated in the procedure noted that all of the Turkmen president's organs are functioning normally, reported. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 22 February accused the opposition of seeking Western economic sanctions against Minsk and denied the opposition the right to call Belarus its own country, Belarusian Television reported. He also blasted the West for sponsoring what he called a "blue or cornflower revolution." "The West spares no money for [funding the Belarusian opposition]," Lukashenka said. "They consider that Belarus is ripe for some sort of an orange or, I'm [even] terrified to utter it out loud, some blue or cornflower -- which is the same thing, I think -- revolution. We have already had enough of that blueness!" In Belarusian poetry, blue cornflower stands for a popular symbol of the native country. Some Belarusian oppositionists have proposed the blue cornflower as a symbol for an anti-Lukashenka revolt. Lukashenka's mentioning of "blue" and "blueness" appears to be a play on the semantic connotations of these words, which in the post-Soviet area denote homosexuality. JM

Infobank, a privately owned Belarusian bank accused by the United States of money laundering, has changed its name to Trastbank, Belapan reported on 22 February. In August, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated Infobank as an institution of "primary money-laundering concern" (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 31 August 2004). "Infobank laundered funds for the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein that were derived from schemes to circumvent the United Nations oil-for-food program, including illegal surcharges and inflated contracts," the U.S. Department of Treasury said in a statement. "Proceeds from the illegal surcharges and inflated contracts either were returned to the Iraqi government -- in violation of UN [oil-for-food] program conditions -- or were used to purchase weapons or finance military training through Infobank and its subsidiary." JM

U.S. President George W. Bush met with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko in Brussels on 22 February, on the sidelines of a Ukraine-NATO Commission session (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005), Ukrainian and international media reported. "We want to see Ukraine integrated into both the European Union and the North Atlantic alliance," Reuters quoted Yushchenko as saying at a news conference after the meeting. But the Ukrainian president also exercised caution. "Let me say clearly that Russia is our strategic partner," Yushchenko said. "Ukraine's policy on NATO is in no way directed against any other country, including Russia." Bush referred to Ukraine's recent political makeover in his address to a NATO summit in Brussels earlier the same day. "As a free government takes hold in that country [Ukraine] and as the government of President Yushchenko pursues vital reforms, Ukraine should be welcomed by the Euro-Atlantic family," the U.S. president said. JM

The family of President Viktor Yushchenko has asked Ukrainians not to give him expensive gifts for his 51st birthday on 23 February, Ukrainian media reported on 22 February, quoting his press secretary Iryna Herashchenko. ''During the time of Yushchenko's presidency there will be no loud receptions, magnificent celebrations on birthdays, no car cavalcades, luxurious bouquets and super-expensive gifts," Herashchenko told journalists. Ukrainian media on 23 February quoted the congratulatory birthday message Russian President Vladimir Putin sent to Yushchenko. "I highly appreciate the results of [our] recent meeting in Moscow [on 24 January] and the constructive character of relations that have been established between ourselves," Putin wrote. "I expect that the continuation of our direct dialogue will serve the development of equal and mutually advantageous Russian-Ukrainian cooperation in all spheres." JM

Former Bosnian General Rasim Delic, who commanded the mainly Muslim Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1993 to 1995, said in Sarajevo on 22 February that he will soon turn himself in to The Hague-based war crimes tribunal, which has indicted him in connection with atrocities allegedly committed by foreign Islamic fighters against Bosnian Serbs, international and regional media reported. Delic told local media that he "fought for this country" and will soon "defend the truth" before the tribunal. Florence Hartmann, who is a spokeswoman for the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said that Delic is expected in The Hague on 28 February but declined to provide details of the indictment, Reuters reported. Delic told local media that the charges apparently hold him responsible for actions committed by a unit of mainly Middle Eastern mujahedin fighters, which was part of his command structure. "In practical terms, it was far away from my command level -- three command levels away -- but someone needed this [indictment] to accuse the leadership of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina," of war crimes, he said. PM

Sulejman Tihic, who is the Muslim member of the Bosnian Presidency and who consults with Delic on military matters, said on 22 February in the Bosnian town of Neum that the charges against the former commander show that the tribunal has "submitted to [Serbian] pressure to put an equals sign between the responsibility of those who defended Bosnia and those who committed mass crimes and aggression," dpa reported. The overwhelming majority of indictees are Serbs, which has led many Serbs to say the tribunal is anti-Serb. Two commanders of Delic's Third Corps -- former General Enver Hadzihasanovic and former Brigadier Amir Kubura -- have already turned themselves in to the tribunal. Delic's predecessor as commander, former General Sefer Halilovic, is currently on trial there. PM

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel told the EU-U.S. summit in Brussels on 22 February that the western Balkans provide an excellent example of successful trans-Atlantic partnership, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. He argued that even though only five years have passed since the last conflict ended in the region, all countries except Serbia now enjoy impressive economic growth rates. The possibility of eventual EU membership provides an important incentive for all Balkan countries to introduce reforms, he continued, adding that the EU does its part to promote security there by stationing 19,000 soldiers in the region compared to 1,800 U.S. troops (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March, 9 April, 16 July, and 20 August 2004). PM

The Macedonian government decided on 21 February to send 12 additional army officers to Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces, dpa and MIA news agency reported. At present, 32 members of a Macedonian specialist unit are serving there under U.S. command (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 May 2004 and 5 January 2005). UB

The European Commission on 22 February adopted a "favorable opinion" on the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, saying it is confident that the two countries will "pursue the reforms that need to be carried out in view of their accession," the EU's official website reported. "Today's decision is another milestone in our relations and a clear signal that the commission welcomes Bulgaria and Romania in the European family," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said. "However, the authorities in the countries can not lie back and relax: in 2005 and 2006 a lot of hard work will be needed to progress on reforms in order to fully and timely meet all conditions for membership." Romania and Bulgaria are expected to sign the EU accession treaty in April and become full members on 1 January 2007. UB

Madalin Voicu, a former Romany lawmaker for the Social Democratic Party (PSD), founded a National Council of the Roma in Alba Iulia on 22 February, "Ziua" reported. The council is to be a nonpolitical structure based strictly on ethnic principles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 November 2003 and "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," 11 June 2003). UB

Speaking at the special NATO-Ukraine summit in Brussels, Romanian President Traian Basescu said on 22 February that he hopes that Moldova follows the examples of the democratic developments in Georgia and Ukraine, according to a statement from the president's office. Basescu also said that faster internal reforms in Ukraine will result in more intense cooperation between that country and Western institutions, especially with NATO. "The future of Ukraine is in the framework of the democratic community of European nations," Basescu said. "Europe will be neither complete nor free until Ukraine, Moldova, and the South Caucasus are anchored in the Euro-Atlantic community." UB

A Moldovan delegation headed by Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev and representatives of the European Union signed a European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan in Brussels on 22 February, Moldpress reported. The plan provides for increased economic and political cooperation between Moldova and the EU as well as increased financial assistance for Moldova. It also calls on Moldova to sustain efforts to resolve the Transdniester conflict and to carry out democratic, judicial, and economic reforms (a draft version of the Action Plan can be found at In a statement, the EU stressed the great importance it attaches to the democratic conduct of the 6 March parliamentary elections in Moldova, adding that it will closely follow the work of the OSCE election observation mission and take careful note of its final report. UB

As the summit meeting of the U.S. and Russian presidents approaches, much of the focus has centered on the rise of a newly authoritarian Russia. Although several of Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent measures have led to calls for a more confrontational U.S. challenge, the scope and scale of this new Russian authoritarianism have been largely domestic and internal in nature. The real challenge of this summit lies well beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, however.

The core issue involves neither an expansion of Putin's presidential power at the expense of democratic institutions nor a renationalization of resources at the expense of oligarchic networks. The underlying problem is the steady reassertion and consolidation of Russian power and influence throughout the former Soviet space. For the infant states along the Russian periphery, the threat is not from internal Russian authoritarianism but from external Russian activism.

This is most evident in the states of the South Caucasus, whose independence is impeded by a combination of internal weakness, structural vulnerability, and regional discord. The region has also been particularly vulnerable to the success of a more sophisticated Russian tactic of utilizing energy as leverage. This has involved a pattern of the Russian Gazprom and Unified Energy System (EES) firms actively targeting and acquiring key elements of the energy sectors of its smaller, vulnerable neighboring states. The strategy, as articulated by Anatolii Chubais, is one of forging a new "liberal empire" using the Russian control over nearby energy sectors as platforms for exporting electricity and projecting power in new ways. It is from this perspective that Russia seeks to supply power to Iran, Turkey, and China.

There is also a broader geopolitical asset from this energy policy. Aside from the obvious importance of high oil revenues for the Russian state budget, energy is a key component of Russian relations with both the United States and Europe. In fact, Russian natural-gas exports account for one-third of the European Union's gas needs and almost 90 percent of the energy needs for the new EU member states from the former Soviet bloc.

For Moscow, the manipulation of energy dependence has largely supplanted the more traditional use of military power to maintain its influence and, as part of its broader strategy, has bolstered its effort to forge a deeper integration of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Russian energy policy has followed this pattern from the Baltic states to Central Asia. But nowhere has it been more evident than in the energy sectors of Georgia and Armenia.

For Armenia, it has led to outright Russian ownership of much of the country's natural-gas and electricity distribution networks and management of the sole nuclear power plant. For Georgia, the already troubled electricity distribution network is now Russian-owned, ironically, after the pullout of the previous owner, a U.S. firm.

Against this backdrop of a more sophisticated Russian policy of control, there are two important trends that only threaten to prolong a pronounced erosion of statehood and sovereignty among the states of the Caucasus.

First, as demonstrated in the pre-summit agenda, attention to the needs of the Caucasus will most likely be eclipsed by larger issues. This trend of prioritizing the bigger issues, albeit significant in and of themselves, does nothing to curb a the deeper rise of Russian power over its former Soviet neighbors and does everything to foster a frustration and disappointment with the United States among these fragile democracies.

For the United States, a discussion beyond issues of democracy and the rule of law within Russia will be limited to broader geopolitical challenges. These include the need for Russian help in containing Iran to an agreement controlling the spread of portable surface-to-air missiles, or Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).

Moreover, the tendency of bilateral relations to be dominated by a shared emphasis on security, as seen in the parallel U.S. and Russian views on the war on terrorism, is a fundamental Russian advantage. The brutality of the Chechen conflict, for example, has been accepted far too readily as a blanket justification for ever harsher Russian security policies, rather than revealing the dangers of the conflict's spillover into Ingushetia, Daghestan, and, most recently, Kabardino-Balkaria. And it has mostly served as a foil to deflect any intrusive examination of Russian policy in the region.

The second trend affecting the Caucasus stems from a new modification in the course of Russian policy. Specifically, there are signs that the defeat of Russian interests in the recent Ukrainian Orange Revolution has affected Russian policy toward its neighbors. The significance of the Ukrainian case for Russia is unique, however, and more profound from Moscow's perspective, for two reasons.

First, unlike Georgia's Rose Revolution, Russia played no role in mediating or managing events in the case of the Ukrainian drama. Throughout the period of dramatic but peaceful change in Georgia, Russia played a fairly active role, culminating in the downfall of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. It was also Russia that mediated a calm restoration of Georgian central control over the Adjaran fiefdom of Aslan Abashidze, even to the point of providing him with a protected escape into Russia.

Yet the Russian role in the Ukrainian case was profoundly lacking. It found itself divorced from the reality of Ukrainian politics and devoid of any real leverage as the crisis escalated.

The second reason for the significance of the Ukrainian lesson for Russia stems from the realization that no amount of leverage or intimidation can overcome an empowered citizenry mobilizing behind the appeal of an effective alternative figure. This belated recognition of the potency of a combination of an engaged civil society with an engaging opposition candidate raises serious doubts over the future of the remaining authoritarian states.

This Russian apprehension is driven in large part by an already pronounced loss of state power and status, and is exacerbated by the inherent fragility of such strongman states. For Moscow, it is one thing to lose ground to the West in terms of NATO expansion or U.S. basing rights in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but it is quite another thing to have CIS members spin out of the Russian orbit from their own independent velocity.

Thus, the imperative for Russian policy is now one of preemption, to consolidate existing control while moving to prevent, or at least forestall, the rise of a "rainbow of revolutions" well beyond the case of the rose or the orange. The most recent example is in Moldova. With general elections set for early March, Moldovan security forces have already detained or expelled more than 20 Russian intelligence operatives in the past three weeks alone.

Yet Moscow can be consoled by two reassuring factors. For one, it seems unlikely that the coming presidential summit will even recognize the significance of the Ukrainian lesson. And second, for the Russian position in the Caucasus, the lack of a serious or even united opposition in either Armenia or Azerbaijan removes the threat of another abrupt change of government, at least in the near term. But both factors will merely spur greater Russian efforts to impede deeper democratization and immobilize potential political opposition.

Aside from a failure to grasp the true issues of importance, however, the true challenge for the United States in handling its summitry with its Russian partner is in forging a balance between the broader geopolitical needs of Russian cooperation with the imperatives for securing the statehood and sovereignty of the weak states of the Caucasus.

But until that balance is found, the Caucasus will most likely remain very much a region at risk.

The UN Development Program (UNDP) on 21 February issued "Afghanistan National Human Development Report: Security with a Human Face," the UN body said in a statement on its website ( The report concluded that while the impoverished country of Afghanistan has made much progress since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the country "could easily tumble back into chaos." According to the report, Afghanistan ranks near the bottom among 177 countries in several categories. In the Human Development Index, Afghanistan ranks higher than only the African states of Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone; in the Gender Development Index, only Burundi and Mali are ranked lower than Afghanistan; and in the Human Poverty Index, Afghanistan is ranked above only Niger and Burkina Faso. Afghanistan also ranks very low in terms of literacy, with only 28.7 percent of Afghans over the age of 15 able to read and write. Life expectancy for Afghans is placed at 44.5 years -- or 20 years less than all of its neighboring countries. AT

Receiving the UNDP report on 22 February, President Hamid Karzai said it "places Afghanistan for the first time on the ladder of global development," Radio Afghanistan reported. Karzai called the report's findings "grim" with Afghanistan placed at the bottom of the Human Development Index. Thanking the UNDP for its efforts, Karzai added that his government is "determined" to use the report "for policy guidance and as a yardstick to measure its future achievements." AT

Health Minister Sayyed Mohammad Amin Fatemi, in a news conference in Kabul on 21 February, rejected recent reports according to which 1,000 Afghan children have died from cold weather in the last 45 days, Radio Afghanistan reported. He put the number of deaths at 180. According to the reports, 1,000 children have lost their lives due to freezing temperatures in the west-central Ghor Province, but Fatemi said only 69 children had died. AT

A neo-Taliban spokesman, Luftullah Hakimi, on 22 February denied that the militia is holding talks with the Afghan government, Pajhwak News Agency reported. His remarks came after the Taliban regime's former unofficial envoy to the United Nations, Abdul Hakim Mujahed, claimed on 20 February that he and three other former members of the ousted regime were holding talk with Kabul. But Hakimi told Pajhwak that anyone talking with the government does not represent the current Taliban -- the so-called neo-Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). "Our only way is to wage jihad, not negotiations and this jihad will continue till doomsday," Hakimi added. Hakimi's remarks appear consistent with Mujahed's assertion that he and his team were holding talks with Kabul as members of their political party, the Khaddam al-Furqan (Servants of the Koran). Afghan presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin affirmed on 22 February that the Afghan government was holding talks with Mujahed and his team, the report added. According to Ludin, the former Taliban members who are negotiating with Kabul will in due time speak to the media. But he did not provide a timeframe. AT

Officials at the Afghan Interior Ministry's crime department on 21 February destroyed 720 "immoral" CDs, Radio Afghanistan reported. The CDs were burned in the presence of a delegation, the report added. Kabul police recently launched a crackdown on what is described as immoral behavior or practices (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 4 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2005). AT

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi said on 22 February that she will be tried in court on 23 February, ILNA reported. Ebadi explained that the trial relates to an earlier court summons, adding that the judge told her to come to court and find out what the charges are. Ebadi said she will not appear because the court does not have the right to summon people in this way. Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said on 17 January that the summons for Ebadi relates to the case of an audiotape several years ago, "Iran" reported. He added that several other people were summoned, and her appearance is probably unnecessary. This case relates to a videotape in which former Ansar-i Hizbullah member Amir Farshad Ebrahimi described the activities of hard-line pressure-groups in attacking reformists. In 2001, Ebadi and another attorney, Mohsen Rahami, were banned from practicing law for five years and received suspended jail sentences for videotaping Ebrahimi. BS

Officials in Iran's southeastern Kerman Province said on the morning of 23 February that the death toll from the previous day's earthquake has risen to 790, ISNA reported. A 6.4-magnitude quake struck near the city of Zarand at 5:55 a.m. of 22 February. Initial reports estimated 220 fatalities, and more people reportedly died on the way to or in the hospital. Zarand parliamentary representative Hussein Amiri-Khamkhani said some nearby villages were wiped out. Rescue and relief operations are hampered by rainfall, he added. He said the priority is to provide shelter for survivors. BS

On the second day of his visit to India, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi discussed the nuclear issue in a lecture at Sapru House, headquarters of the Indian Council of World Affairs, IRNA reported. He said Iran will not forsake its right to develop a nuclear capability, but will continue discussions on confidence building measures with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Kharrazi said India plays an important part in Iranian foreign policy. Kharrazi said unilateral U.S. policies are responsible for the upswing in terrorism in West Asia. Alleged U.S. militarism is a threat to regional states, he added. BS

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz arrived in Tehran on 22 February for a three-day visit, international news agencies reported. According to IRNA, Aziz is accompanied by Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Amanullah Khan Jadoon and Narcotics Control Minister Ghaus Mahar. The main topic of discussion is expected to be the gas pipeline from Iran to India that will traverse Pakistan, and the two sides also will discuss the export of electricity from Iran to Pakistani Baluchistan. Aziz also told reporters that Islamabad supports Iran's right to a nuclear capacity, but his country does not intend to intercede on Iran's behalf, IRNA reported. Aziz met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and First Vice-President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi. BS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 22 February that Iran has not cooperated with the United States in Iraq, IRNA reported. He went on to say that Iran has utilized its own capabilities to stabilize and secure Iraq. Assefi added that Iran's ambassador to London, Mohammad Hussein Adeli, was recently misquoted on this subject. Adeli reportedly told a 16 February Reuters forum in Tehran that Iran and the U.S. cooperated in order to persuade Shi'a and Sunni Iraqis to support their country's election. He said, "For the recent elections, there was not only implicit but explicit indirect and direct cooperation between the two, Iran and the United States, in order to keep the majority calm and in favor of the election." Adeli reportedly added that Tehran is willing to cooperate with Washington in the future in the pursuit of regional stability. BS

United Iraqi Alliance candidate for prime minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari said on 22 February that he would work to improve security if he is picked to head the state, Al-Arabiyah television reported on the same day. "In the coming 10 months, we look forward to making a difference in the security performance, God willing, which has been witnessing a clear weakness. There are many assassinations and bombing operations as well as many breaches that help this phenomenon continue. There are many security files that need to be addressed." He added that he would work to increase the number of Iraqi security forces and work to better equip them. KR

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels on 22 February that there is strong support for Iraq among alliance members, according to his remarks published on the NATO website ( "Strong support for the training mission in Iraq where we have further ambitions in setting up the training academy and where we have now fully manned and financed what we committed to do and you know it's the Iraqi government's first priority: training the Iraqi Security Forces so that their dependence on others can be less than it is at the moment." A second statement posted on the NATO website on 22 February said all 26 member states will contribute to the training of Iraqi security forces. KR

A car bomb detonated on 23 February in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, killing two and wounding 14, AP reported. Witnesses said the blast occurred in the city's western Yarmuk neighborhood. The target is unclear and the blast may have been a premature detonation, as witnesses said there were no U.S. or Iraqi forces in the area. The U.S. military said in a statement that the attack was caused by insurgents who "continue to disregard the safety of their fellow citizens during their attacks," AP reported. Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers shot and killed an Iraqi civilian in a pickup truck who reportedly got too close to their convoy while attempting to pass it, policeman Ahmad Rashid told AP. KR

Researchers speaking at a U.S. conference have said that as much as 30 percent of Iraq's marshlands could be restored under a program sponsored by the international community, the BBC reported on 21 February. The wetlands were reduced to about 7 percent of their original size under a program initiated by the Saddam Hussein regime to drain the marshes and divert water. The program also drove between 70,000 and 80,000 Iraqis from the area; many sought refuge in Iran. Now, some 60 percent of wildlife has returned to the marshlands and the water quality has proved to be better than expected by scientists studying the area, the website reported. KR