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Newsline - February 24, 2005

On the eve of the Bratislava summit of U.S. President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin, Putin's foreign-policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko said on 23 February that for Russia "relations with the United States were, are, and will be of a strategic nature," reported. The forthcoming bilateral talks are "no place for weak people who are ready to overstress external problems, obstacles, and differences. These talks require a responsible approach, dictated by national interests," Prikhodko said. Meanwhile, Russian Ambassador to the United States Yurii Ushakov told "The Washington Times" of 23 February that past Bush-Putin summits showed that the presidents usually moved past combative rhetoric to focus on concrete achievements. "Publicly, yes, the administration has to respond to the things people are saying, but when they sit around the table, the talk is about things like trade relations or cooperating in the war on terror," Ushakov said. VY

Presidential adviser Prikhodko also said that the sides plan to discuss international security; the fight against terrorism; further measures against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the situations in North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Kosova, and other regions, reported on 23 February. "The Kremlin and the White House exchanged suggestions for the talks' agenda; 85, or maybe 90 percent of these suggestions coincided," Prikhodko added. It is expected that the sides will sign accords on strengthening cooperation in emergency situations and man-made disasters and tightening controls on shoulder-launched missiles, Prikhodko said. VY

In an editorial on 23 February, "Komsomolskaya pravda" said that in Bratislava, President Bush most probably will ask President Putin what Russia is going to do to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially as far as Iran and North Korea are concerned. He is also likely to ask Putin whether Russia will sell missiles to Syria, when it will withdraw its troops from Georgia and Moldova, and what is the aim of Russia's closer relations with China. Finally, Bush may ask Putin what will happen with embattled oil major Yukos and its jailed former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii and whether there is a chance for democracy to develop in Russia or if this process has ended. For his part, Putin may ask Bush what are the goals of U.S. policy in the CIS and could it lead to the isolation of Russia. Putin will also be interested in knowing whether the United States will help Russia enter the World Trade Organization and if the United States will invest further in Russia's economy, "Komsomolskaya pravda" concluded. VY

In an interview in "Izvestiya" on the occasion of Defenders of the Fatherland Day on 23 February, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that for Russia it "is optimal to have at least a million-strong army" and it cannot reduce this number without threatening national security. "It is easy for European countries to talk about smaller armies as they have no strategic missiles or space forces and navies consisting of two or three ships. But we have a different reality and a different territory," Ivanov said. He said by 2008 the Russian Army will have only 144,000 professional soldiers. "I never promised that we will renounce [draftees] and have a completely professional army," Ivanov said. He added that he advocates a drastic reduction of most draft deferments, except for health reasons. Ivanov also said that he supports a radical reduction of military departments in universities that, in his view, give students a nominal rank with no real military training. He said that eliminating most of these departments would reduce the number of young people who attend university to avoid the draft. Students in select universities with the remaining military departments should serve in the army for five years after finishing their education, Ivanov concluded. Ivanov made similar statements earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2005). VY

Opposition, human rights, and veterans' organizations held demonstrations on 23 February in several Russian cities against the deteriorating social status of servicemen, social-benefits reforms, the decay of the armed forces, and the war in Chechnya, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. According to the Interior Ministry, about 40,000 people took part in demonstrations in Moscow. A military veteran told RFE/RL in Moscow that as a veteran he "feels absurd celebrating the 60th anniversary of victory [in World War II] this year, as we are living in conditions of defeat." Speaking at a demonstration in Krasnodar, Duma Deputy Oleg Mashchenko (Motherland) said that the present social unrest "is a sign of forthcoming public wrath that will lead to massive civil disobedience." And Duma Deputy and retired Colonel Viktor Alksnis (Motherland) told RFE/RL's Russian Service, "Never, even in the hardest years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, was there such frustration within the military ranks as now." Officers are resigning from the service in the thousands and blaming their situation on the authorities, starting with President Putin, Alksnis added. Meanwhile, independent military journalist Pavel Felgenhauer told RFE/RL that it would be naive to think that unhappiness within the military will lead to an "armed rebellion." However, if there is the same sort of civil disobedience as there was recently in Ukraine, the Russian military, like the Ukrainian, will not move to defend the authorities, he added. VY

The Kremlin is attempting to establish still firmer control over information in Russia, the Russian Union of Journalists declared in a statement posted on its website ( on 22 February, reported on 24 February. The statement criticizes the ongoing reorganization of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK), saying that the state-owned national broadcasting network is "centralizing" its programming and radically reducing the amount of locally produced informational programming available in the regions. "This is a gross violation of the rights of television viewers, who are being deprived of the possibility of finding out what is happening in their own republic, oblast, or krai," the statement says. The statement claims that local VGTRK affiliates are selling off "unique property and equipment" and laying off staff. VGTRK controls 86 regional television companies, as well as the national channels RTR and Kultura and the radio station Mayak. As a part of the reform, which began in February 2004, all funding for local VGTRK affiliates now comes through the Moscow organization. RC

According to "Novye izvestiya" on 24 February, only three local programs remain on the schedule of the VGTRK affiliate in Krasnodar Krai: "Sport-klass," which is hosted by the son of the head of the affiliate; "Children's Place," which has a local commercial sponsor; and a program of local folk music that is said to be a favorite of the parents of krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev. RC

OVA-Press publisher Leonid Bershidskii published a commentary on on 23 February that charged that businesses are unwilling to advertise in media outlets that present views unacceptable to the Kremlin. Bershidskii said that satirical television producer Viktor Shenderovich told "Ogonek" recently that some businesspeople are willing to sponsor his show, but they insist on anonymity. He noted that the serious weekly "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" recently stopped its print edition for lack of advertising "because clients did not want to be suspected of supporting the uncompromisingly anti-Putin position" of the magazine. Bershidskii argued, however, that the situation with freedom of expression is better in the print media than on television because most outlets adopt "a rational [editorial] position." "They criticize the regime when they find its actions inappropriate, but they also endeavor to perceive positive aspects in Russian life," he wrote. "Readers want this from the press." RC

Tax officials on 24 February reportedly began an audit of the Open Russia foundation, which is headed by jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, reported. The authorities have also begun probes of 23 Russian nongovernmental organizations that have received funding from Open Russia, including the Institute for Independent Elections and the Glasnost Defense Foundation, according to a press release issued by Open Russia. The press release states that officials have requested far more documents than is typical for such audits. Open Russia was first audited in November 2003, just days after Khodorkovskii's arrest. A second audit was conducted in April 2004. According to the press release, Open Russia gave more than 465 million rubles ($15.5 million) in grants in 2004. RC

Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency Director Mikhail Shvydkoi has said that Russia is obligated to return the so-called Baldin collection of World War II-era trophy art to Germany, reported on 24 February. In 2003, when Shvydkoi was culture minister, he worked actively to return the 364 artworks to Germany, despite the protests of prosecutors and Duma deputies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003). In an interview with "Itogi," No. 8, Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, who is Shvydkoi's boss, declared that the return of the Baldin artworks is not currently being discussed. According to the weekly, Sokolov recently replaced Shvydkoi as the head of the government commission on the restoration of trophy art. In the "Itogi" interview, Sokolov said that instead of the Baldin collection, Russia might return 18 silver pieces that are currently in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum. RC

The Amur Oblast legislature on 24 February voted to confirm acting Governor Leonid Korotkov as the oblast's governor, Interfax reported. By a vote of 21 in favor, seven opposed, and one abstaining, deputies approved President Putin's nomination of Korotkov, who was sworn in immediately following the vote. Legislators in Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug on 24 February voted unanimously to confirm Governor Aleksandr Filipenko in that post, RIA-Novosti reported. Presidential envoy to the Urals Federal District Petr Latyshev was present for the vote, the news agency reported. Filipenko has headed the okrug since 1995. RC

Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Shchadrin, who has been looking into the 10-14 December police operation in Blagoveshchensk that reportedly left hundreds of locals beaten and abused, has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Interior Ministry to replace the investigators probing the incident, reported on 24 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2005). Shchadrin visited Blagoveshchensk this week, where he met with 66 local residents who claim to have been victimized in the incident, as well as with doctors and local officials, the website reported. Reportedly, all the witnesses expressed dissatisfaction with the Interior Ministry's investigation into the alleged massive abuses, which include allegations of illegal detentions, beatings, and rapes. Shchadrin also reportedly stated that because of the large number of witnesses to be heard from, it is unreasonable to expect that the investigation will be concluded quickly. He added that he felt the December operation was justified, but that it had been carried out with violations of legal norms. "The people I met with all told me that in recent months the number of public disturbances, especially by young people, has increased significantly and that the actions of the police were justified, although many considered those actions too severe," Shchadrin said, according to RIA-Novosti. RC

"Izvestiya" on 22 February interviewed local activists in Blagoveshchensk who said that the government is trying to cover up the December incidents by arguing that they were "legal and justified." Ildar Isangulov and Vyacheslav Bikbulatov issued a statement saying: "The authorities have already admitted that violations occurred in Blagoveshchensk, that the operation was not monitored, and that the police chief and divisional inspectors were guilty of abuse of office. But they insist that by and large the operation was warranted. But you wouldn't expect objectivity on the part of local authorities." The activists said that officials have not conceded that anyone was raped during the operation: "It is a delicate matter. Blagoveshchensk is a Muslim and Old Believer area," they said. "It's not easy for a local girl to admit that kind of thing." RC

Thirty-eight former workers of the Tavdinskii Microbiological Plant in the Sverdlovsk Oblast town of Tavda declared a hunger strike on 22 February to protest not being paid wages that are allegedly owed to them from before they were laid off in November, Interfax reported on 24 February. The workers are striking in a three-room apartment belonging to one of the protesters, according to the report. According to the report, the plant owes the workers more than 10 million rubles ($333,000). The workers staged a hunger strike in December to protest the arrears, but quit it after local prosecutors filed criminal charges against the plant's former director. RC

In a statement posted on 22 February on the Chechen Kavkaz-tsentr website to mark the 61st anniversary of the forced deportation of the Chechen people to Central Asia on Soviet leader Josef Stalin's orders, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov expressed sympathy for the sufferings and oppression to which the Chechens are currently subjected by what he termed "Russian bandit formations," and expressed gratitude for the Chechen people's unwavering support. At the same time, he affirmed that "the spiritual strength and of the Chechen people...are unbreakable." Maskhadov repeated his offer of last month to begin unconditional peace talks with Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2005 ), but added that the Chechens are prepared to continue their fight "to protect their human dignity" if that offer is rejected by those "who cannot give up the ambitions [spawned by] a sick imagination." LF

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov too addressed the Chechen people on the anniversary of the deportation, which he branded a crime against humanity, Interfax reported on 22 February. Alkhanov said the deportation "should remind us that neither difficulties nor political contradictions, nor social problems can be resolved by violence or civil conflicts." LF

After undergoing a monthlong course of medical treatment in Krasnodar Krai, field commander Shamil Basaev married a Kuban Cossack woman on 14 February, reported on 24 February, citing Kavkaz-tsentr. The wedding ceremony was reportedly attended by fellow field commanders from Adygeya, Cherkessk, and Krasnodar, with whom Basaev discussed plans for extending the "jihad" across the entire North Caucasus over the coming year. Basaev has since returned to Chechnya. LF

Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian, whom some commentators have suggested may soon replace Andranik Markarian as prime minister, was quoted by the daily "Azg" on 23 February as saying that Markarian is in a "stronger position than ever before," and that their relations are "warm and businesslike." Abrahamian had been quoted as telling a journalist on 21 February that if offered the post of prime minister to succeed Markarian, who has recently undergone surgery, he would seriously consider accepting. He told "Azg" that that question was "a provocation." Also on 23 February, Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliament faction of Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia, was quoted by "Hayots ashkhar" as saying that Markarian would step down only in the event of new elections. Sahakian accused a junior coalition partner of spreading the rumors about Markarian's imminent resignation, but did not name that party. LF

Levon Shahinian, a former head of the Finance Ministry's oversight department that monitors the use of public funds, was arrested on 22 February and charged with embezzling some 40 million drams ($85,000) that should have been paid to two private auditing firms, a spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office said on 23 February, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Also on 23 February, Ruben Torosian, head of the small Human Rights and Democracy Party, branded the ruling three-party coalition a "kleptocracy" riddled with corruption, according to A1+ as cited by Groong. LF

Armen Melikian told a press conference in Stepanakert on 22 February that direct talks between the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Baku could help to expedite a solution to the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported the following day. Melikian said there are certain issues, such as the return to their homes of displaced persons, that can be successfully addressed only in that format. He reasoned that the need to take into consideration the superpowers' respective interests in the Caucasus does not mean that the Karabakh authorities should be relegated to the role of a passive observer. He denied that there are any differences of opinion between Stepanakert and Yerevan regarding how to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Russian presidential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, has proposed that Nagorno-Karabakh be administered directly by the UN, according to Assa-Irada on 22 February as cited by Groong. LF

Deputies approved on 23 February the candidacy of Kote Kublashvili, whom President Mikheil Saakashvili proposed last week to chair the Supreme Court, Georgian media reported. The vote was 171 in favor; the New Rightist faction abstained from voting. Kublashvili, who is 31, has a degree in international law and served as first deputy justice minister in 2000-02 when Saakashvili headed that ministry. Saakashvili pointed out when presenting his candidacy that Kublashvili has never been a member of any political party. Reuters on 23 February quoted Kublashvili as pledging after the confirmation vote to do his best to strengthen the power of the judiciary as one of the prerequisites for a strong state. LF

Deputies also approved on 23 February in the third and final reading a bill that reduces the number of parliament deputies from the present 235 to 150, of whom 100 will be elected under the proportional system and 50 in single-mandate constituencies, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2005). Georgia's Armenian community has expressed concern over the reduction in single-mandate constituencies, which they predict will result in the reduction from three to two or less of the number of ethnic Armenian parliamentary deputies, Caucasus Press reported on 22 February. LF

U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles traveled to Sukhum on 23 February where he met for one hour with President Sergei Bagapsh, Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, and acting Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, Apsnipress reported. The talks focused on UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva on a settlement of the conflict, which Miles told journalists have been postponed from March to April, and possible U.S. participation in economic reconstruction in Abkhazia. Apsnipress further quoted Miles as saying he would try to persuade the Abkhaz leadership to drop their objections to negotiating with Irakli Alasania, chairman of what the Georgian leadership terms the "legitimate Abkhaz government" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). LF

Responding to a plea from Georgian parliamentary deputies, a Tbilisi district court overruled on 23 February a decision by a district court in southern Georgia to remand Merab Beridze, former rector of the Akhaltsikhe branch of Tbilisi State University, in pretrial detention for three months pending his trial on charges of embezzlement, Caucasus Press reported. Students and faculty members staged repeated protests following Beridze's arrest on 18 February, which they believe was politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). LF

During a recent visit to Turkey, Adjar government Chairman Levan Varshalomidze signed several agreements with Turkish government agencies, Caucasus Press reported on 22, 23, and 24 February. Under those agreements, Turkey will provide Adjara with electricity, and a Turkish company will resume construction of a tunnel linking the Adjaran towns of Kobuleti and Batumi. Also discussed were the modernization of the Sarp border crossing, beginning flights between Batumi and Istanbul, and cooperation in agriculture. In addition, the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce undertook to publicize in its weekly newsletter information on investment opportunities in Adjara. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev held separate telephone conversations on 23 February with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev and Karimov discussed security cooperation and agreed that law-enforcement heads from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will meet to coordinate their efforts to fight terrorism and extremism. Karimov said that Uzbekistan will continue to accept runoff water from Kazakhstan's overflowing Shardara Reservoir, although this has necessitated the evacuation of some Uzbek residents in the area. Finally, Karimov specifically denied a report circulated on 22 February by claiming that Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry scoffed at Nazarbaev's 18 February appeal to create a union of Central Asian states, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Karimov stressed that the Uzbek Foreign Ministry made no such declaration. Nazarbaev's conversation with Tajik President Rakhmonov focused on trade ties and water issues, Kazinform reported. DK

Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev told "Kazakhstanskaya pravda" in a 23 February interview that President Nazarbaev's 18 February appeal to form a union of Central Asian states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005) was not a call for the creation of a single state. Toqaev said that Nazarbaev "did not mean the setting up of a 'union state' that would clearly swallow national sovereignty...." Toqaev stressed that what Nazarbaev had in mind is a movement for greater integration based on a free-trade zone, customs union, common market, and currency union. "The experience and principles stipulated in the main documents on setting up the European Union will be used," Toqaev added. DK

Thousands of demonstrators continued to block roads in Kyrgyzstan for the second day on 23 February to protest decisions by regional election commissions to remove opposition candidates from the 27 February parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In the Tong district, where 2,000 protesters initially surrounded the local administration to protest the removal of candidate Arslan Maliev, demonstrators eventually took over the building, demanding Maliev's reinstatement and the resignation of regional head Nurbek Aliev. In Kochkor district, 5,000 protesters blocked the Bishkek-Torugart highway demanding the reinstatement of candidates Akylbek Japarov and Beishin Bolotbekov and the resignation of Governor Shamshybek Medetbekov. When Kochkor district head Tariel Aitbaev arrived to speak with protesters, the latter forcibly detained him. Moreover, the heads of six rural councils in Kochkor said that they are going over to the side of the protesters. Mass protests also took place in the Tiup and Suzak regions, as well as the city of Jalal-Abad. Demonstrators across the country vowed to continue their protests until officials stop harassing opposition candidates. DK

The Central Election Commission reinstated the candidacy of Sadyr Japarov late on 23 February, Japarov's lawyer told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Japarov is running for parliament in the Tiup district of Issyk-Kul Oblast; his removal from the race had sparked large-scale protests in the district. DK

Power was restored on 23 February to an independent printing house in Bishkek supported by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House after a mysterious outage that lasted nearly two days, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The power went off early on the morning of 22 February. In a 23 February press release, Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor said, "This action raises concerns that the Kyrgyz government seeks to deny opposition newspapers and candidates a voice in the crucial pre-election period." The press release noted that the power shutoff came only days after President Askar Akaev threatened to file a libel suit against the newspaper "MSN" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2005); the independent printing house publishes over 60 local and regional newspapers, including "MSN." Later on 23 February, power was restored to the printing house, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. DK

With the 27 February parliamentary elections only days away, a number of Tajik opposition parties are pointing to violations of election law by the authorities, news agencies reported. Muhiddin Kabiri, deputy leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party, told Asia Plus-Blitz on 23 February that "there is no hope left" for democratic elections. Kabiri said that in the Fayzobod district, where he is running for parliament, "our activists and party members...are exposed to pressure by local authorities. Many activists are summoned to law-enforcement agencies and interrogated." Rahmatullo Zoirov, leader of the Social Democratic Party, told ITAR-TASS on 23 February that candidates from his party are encountering blackmail and intimidation from local authorities who are attempting to aid the ruling People's Democratic Party. Zoirov said that his party has filed complaints with the Central Election Commission and international bodies. But a commission spokesperson said that it has received no complaints of pressure from opposition parties, the BBC's Persian Service reported. DK

The Russian presidential administration has denied political asylum to Syarhey Skrabets, a dissident lawmaker in the previous Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house, Belapan reported on 23 February. The administration reportedly responded that Russia does not offer asylum to citizens of countries with which it has no border or visa controls. Skrabets asked Moscow for asylum in October, arguing that he was threatened with imprisonment for opposing Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2004). JM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 23 February acclaimed the competence of current senior government officials, Belapan reported, quoting official sources. "The current government is one of the best over the existence of independent and sovereign Belarus," Lukashenka said. According to him, the government has recently been joined by "smart" company executives who "are aware of what should be done and are ready to perform difficult tasks within a short period if necessary." In particular, the president lauded the government for what he described as solving all problems arising from new taxation rules in trade with Russia "promptly and without pressure from the president" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January and 11 February 2005). JM

President Lukashenka said at a rally to mark Fatherland Defenders' Day in Minsk on 23 February that NATO's plans to expand eastward came as no surprise to Belarus, Belarusian Television reported. "The policy of double standards does not seem strange to certain states that are used to talking with others only from a position of dominance," Lukashenka expanded. "It is this soil that breeds international conflicts. It is exactly this diktat that provokes outbursts of international terrorism. Therefore, we are compelled to continue paying the closest attention to strengthening our defense potential." JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 23 February that Kyiv does not consider the EU's European Neighborhood Policy to be "an adequate basis for further Ukraine-EU relations," Channel 5 reported. "The format of our ties should proceed from the recognition of Ukraine as an inalienable part of united Europe," Yushchenko stressed. He added that the Ukrainian government views the implementation of the recently signed three-year EU-Ukraine Action Plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005) "beyond the context" of the EU New Neighborhood Policy. JM

President Yushchenko told European lawmakers in Strasbourg on 23 February that Ukraine's entry into the EU is his primary objective, Channel 5 reported. According to Yushchenko, entry talks should begin when the Action Plan is fulfilled in 2007. "The final result of the implementation of the Action Plan, which we are ready to speed up, has to be the signing of a new, reinforced accord in the form of a European associate membership accord," Yushchenko said. "Ukraine is ready to walk the distance to meet the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership. I would like to state in clear terms that we realize that the bulk of the work to integrate Ukraine into the EU has to be done by Ukrainians themselves." JM

President Yushchenko also said in the European Parliament on 23 February that Ukraine's European aspirations are compatible with the development of closer cooperation with Russia, Channel 5 reported. "The development of multifaceted, mutually beneficial cooperation with the Russian Federation will be complemented by Ukraine's new active regional policy," Yushchenko said, promising that Kyiv will take a more active stance in settling the Transdniester problem. "A stable, democratic and reformed Russia, integrated into European economic and political ties, is a key interest for Ukraine and a guarantee of a stable, secure and prosperous Europe," he added. JM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on 23 February that he rejects a proposal made recently by Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to replace the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro with a "union" of two internationally recognized independent states, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kostunica called the suggestion a "gross violation of the Belgrade agreement" that established the joint state in 2002-03 under strong EU pressure. Kostunica's main rival, Serbian President Boris Tadic, disagreed, saying that every proposal made by Montenegrin state institutions merits careful consideration and analysis. The Montenegrin proposal is not new, dating back at least to September 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May, 2 August, 7 September, and 1 October 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report" 11 February 2005). The BBC Serbian Service commented on 24 February that the Montenegrin proposal is vague and impractical at best, including, for example, a joint army under two separate sets of commanders. Some critics have suggested that Podgorica has put forward this idea because the Djukanovic leadership believes that it cannot win a referendum on independence, a charge that Montenegrin officials strongly deny. PM

Montenegrin parliamentary speaker Ranko Krivokapic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Podgorica on 23 February that a union of two independent states is the best solution for both Serbia and Montenegro, adding that the Montenegrin leadership regards its proposal as a means for the peaceful separation of the two states. Elsewhere in the Montenegrin capital, representatives of the political opposition criticized Djukanovic's proposal. Pro-Belgrade opposition leaders said the idea would lead to instability, while their pro-independence opposition counterparts slammed the proposal as a half-measure. Criticism of the idea also came from the Brussels spokeswoman of EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, who said that the EU wants the two republics to remember that European integration should be their priority. Solana was the architect of the joint state, which critics have dubbed "Solania." PM

Leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina's four governing parties agreed in Neum on 23 February to continue their cooperation in central institutions, thereby apparently ending the crisis that began in December when some Serbian members of the central government resigned, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 17, 20, and 23 December 2004, and 16 February 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September and 22 October 2004). PM

The Hague-based war crimes tribunal announced on 23 February the contents of a previously "sealed" indictment against former Bosnian General Rasim Delic, who commanded the mainly Muslim Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1993 to 1995, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2005). Using the principle that commanders are responsible for the actions of those formally subordinated to them, the tribunal indicted Delic on four counts involving atrocities allegedly committed by foreign mujahedin fighters under his command during the 1992-95 conflict. These include, among other things, the murder of at least 24 ethnic Croats outside the village of Maline in June 1993, as well as the killing of an unspecified number of Bosnian Serb captives at the Kamenica camp and the rape of three women. In related news, Bosnian Television reported on 23 February that the tribunal has indicted wartime Bosnian Muslim leader Ejup Ganic and Muslim former commanders Sakib Mahmuljin and Edhem Godinjak, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. The tribunal has not confirmed the report. PM

In a report issued on 1 February, the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the government should follow the example of the United States, China, and Russia and recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, MIA news agency reported on 23 February. "We conclude that the recognition of Macedonia's constitutional name by three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council should encourage the United Kingdom to follow suit," the report stated (see "We recommend that the United Kingdom work in unison with Germany, France, and other EU partners to recognize Macedonia's constitutional name, and encourage the Greek government by an act of statesmanship to do the same." Under Greek pressure, the UN recognizes Macedonia as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) rather than under its constitutional name (see "RFE/RL 5 and 8 November 2004, 24 January, and 16 and 18 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 June 2003 and 12 November 2004). UB

Lawmakers and representatives of the local organization of the governing National Liberal Party (PNL), which is headed by Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, in a meeting on 23 February criticized the PNL's ministers for not doing enough to replace government officials appointed by the previous government, "Adveralul" and "Jurnalul national" reported. Both the lawmakers and the local representatives argued that officials appointed by the now-opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) are obstructing the administration. However, Popescu-Tariceanu opposed a purge of the PSD nominees, arguing that such a move could send a negative signal to the EU, as it could be regarded as nepotism on part of the PNL. UB

Speaking at a conference on the relations between Romania and its eastern neighbors Moldova and Ukraine, Foreign Minister Razvan Ungureanu said Romania will be the first barrier against organized crime from Central Asia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Transdniester, RFE/RL's Romanian Service reported on 23 February. Ungureanu pledged that Romania's security system will be reinforced and adapted to the systems of the other EU member states. In related news, a government spokeswoman said the former government will have to explain why it paid the European defense giant EADS to modernize a part of the border controls from the state budget that was originally to be financed by Phare funds, whereas the most difficult border section with Ukraine was not covered, RFE/RL's Romanian Service reported on 23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January and 16 February 2005). UB

Moldovan President and Party of Moldovan Communists Chairman Vladimir Voronin told a press conference on 23 February that he regards a recent declaration by Russia's State Duma calling for economic sanctions against Moldova as an "emotional reaction," Moldpress and Interlic reported. Voronin also said that he regards the declaration, along with the presence of Russian election advisers, as an attempt to influence the 6 March parliamentary elections and as interference in Moldova's domestic affairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 14, and 23 February 2005). On 18 February, the Russian State Duma adopted a declaration recommending that the Russian government impose an economic embargo on Moldova should Chisinau continue its blockade policy towards the separatist region of Transdniester, Moldovan and Ukrainian media reported. UB

At the same press conference, President Voronin reiterated his accusation that the opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) is supported by Russia and Transdniester, the BBC's Romanian Service reported. Voronin said Russia has supported BMD Deputy Chairman and former Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis in the past, and continues to support him and his political party. Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev leveled similar accusations, adding that the BMD has received massive financial support from the separatist authorities in Tiraspol. Braghis dismissed the accusations as unfounded. "I want to declare openly that I did not hold any talks with Transdniester," Braghis said. "Neither on the participation [of the citizens living in Transdniester] in the elections, nor on the financing of the elections -- nor on a lot of other things [that the government] attempts to accuse the [BMD] of, especially in recent days." UB

When U.S. President George Bush meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Bratislava on 24 February, Central Asia will not be an agenda-topping item. But as a region where U.S. and Russian interests intersect, Central Asia provides a window on the dynamics that dominate the two countries' uneasy relationship in the former Soviet Union.

More importantly, current trends in U.S.-Central Asian relations highlight the contradictory impulses that might well determine the future policy context for the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Although it forms a convenient geographic entity bound by myriad cultural, historical, religious, and ethnic ties, Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- has made little progress toward becoming a discrete geopolitical unit since the breakup of the Soviet Union. As a result, the relations of outside states with the countries that make up Central Asia occur first and foremost on the bilateral level, and only secondarily through the various regional groupings that have sprung up over the past decade. U.S. and Russian relations with Central Asia reflect this, making a country-by-country survey preferable to a regional overview.

Under the "multivector" diplomacy of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan has maintained good relations with Russia and the United States. An oil-rich country that boasts Central Asia's largest economy, Kazakhstan has attracted considerable foreign investment to its energy industry, much of it from U.S. companies. Major export routes lead through Russia. Kazakhstan has a large Russian minority but has successfully avoided serious ethnic tension. Potential sources of friction exist, such as the construction of alternate oil-export routes through the Caspian, but no storm clouds line the immediate horizon.

Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country that hosts both Russian and U.S. military bases. The official Kyrgyz position is that both contribute to Kyrgyzstan's security, with the Russian base at Kant providing an air-force component to the Collective Treaty Security Organization's (CSTO, comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) rapid-reaction forces and the U.S. base at Manas providing air support for coalition operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. base opened in 2001, and the Russian base in 2003, contributing to a general perception that the two facilities counterbalance each other.

Recent events have suggested that Kyrgyz-Russian relations are warming and Kyrgyz-U.S. relations cooling. President Askar Akaev vehemently condemned the Rose Revolution in Georgia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine -- events that Russian and Kyrgyz official media have consistently suggested were orchestrated with the help of U.S.-sponsored NGOs -- and has made it clear that he does not want to see any repetition in Kyrgyzstan, which holds parliamentary elections on 27 February and a presidential election in October.

During a visit to Moscow in late January, President Akaev told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that Russia plans to invest $2 billion in the Kyrgyz economy. Not long after, Russian Air Force commander General Vladimir Mikhailov told ITAR-TASS on 10 February that Russia plans to double the amount of equipment and personnel, who currently number approximately 500, at the base in 2005. A few days later, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov announced that Kyrgyzstan, after consultations with the CSTO and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), has decided against the deployment of U.S. AWACS surveillance aircraft at Manas.

Tajikistan has been expanding ties recently with Russia, where up to 1 million Tajik citizens are currently employed as migrant workers. During Russian President Putin's visit to Dushanbe in October, the two countries signed agreements settling Tajikistan's Soviet-era debt to Russia, converting Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division into a permanent military base and paving the groundwork for multibillion-dollar investments by the Russian company Rusal in Tajikistan's power and aluminum industries. At the same time, Russian border guards, who had been guarding the Tajik-Afghan border, handed over an 881-kilometer section of the frontier to Tajik jurisdiction in 2004, and will complete the transfer of the remaining Moscow and Panj sections in 2005.

The hermit kingdom of Turkmenistan has limited relations with the United States and strong economic ties to Russia in the form of a 25-year gas contract. The United States has criticized Turkmenistan's human rights record while maintaining arms-length ties, although a number of U.S. companies have done business with the country. Russia's state-controlled gas company Gazprom is a major buyer of Turkmen natural gas and is slated to increase purchases to 70 billion-80 billion cubic meters a year by 2009. Turkmenistan halted shipments earlier this year in an attempt to renegotiate its contract with Gazprom and win a price hike; talks are currently under way. A compromise is likely, as Turkmenistan currently lacks other export routes and debt-strapped Gazprom would like to use Turkmen gas to compensate for declining yields at current fields and put off the cost-intensive development of new fields. Against the backdrop of the Gazprom-Turkmen relationship, Russia has generally downplayed discrimination against the Russian-speaking minority in Turkmenistan.

America's other military facility in Central Asia is located in Uzbekistan, which has stressed its status as a U.S. ally in the war on terror, formalized in 2002 as the U.S.-Uzbek Strategic Partnership. The base at Karshi-Khanabad supports operations in Afghanistan and houses approximately 1,800 personnel, Central Asia security expert Roger McDermott told RFE/RL on 24 May 2004.

Experts have described the U.S.-Uzbek relationship as problematic in light of Uzbekistan's human rights record, citing as evidence a State Department decision in July to withhold up to $18 million in aid for a "lack of progress on democratic reform" and a subsequent Pentagon decision in August to give Uzbekistan $21 million to prevent biological-weapons proliferation. Critics of the partnership, such as former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Charles Murray, have argued that it is counterproductive for the United States to pursue the war on terror by supporting a regime that creates conditions for extremism with repressive policies. Since events in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, Uzbekistan has denied registration to a number of U.S.-based organizations such as George Soros's Open Society Institute and Internews. At a recent address to parliament, President Islam Karimov warned Western ambassadors against any attempts to use NGOs to spark political change.

Russian relations with Uzbekistan, which had been chilly for some time, underwent a rapprochement in 2004. In June, President Putin visited Tashkent, where he and President Karimov signed a strategic-partnership treaty. Russia's Gazprom and LUKoil pledged $2 billion in investments, albeit over an extended period. David Lewis, director of International Crisis Group's Central Asia project in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, told RFE/RL on 17 June 2004 that the treaty expressed Tashkent's frustration with Western criticism over human rights and lagging reforms and came as "a reaction against the failure of U.S.-Uzbek relations over the past two years."

The preceding overview of Russian and U.S. relations with Central Asia reveals several trends. In Russia, where a majority of policy analysts assert that Russia has been "pushed out" of its natural sphere of influence in Central Asia and disapprove of the U.S. military presence in the region, recent policy under President Putin indicates a push to restore lost influence. This has taken the form of reestablishing parity in military bases; but more importantly it has involved substantial investment commitments in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and possibly Kyrgyzstan, with state-owned and private Russian companies acting in concert with a broader policy initiative. Thus far, the move to strengthen ties has proceeded smoothly, although the long-term economic bases for cooperation remain untested.

Broadly speaking, there has been a tendency in Central Asia for closer ties with the United States to translate into cooler relations with Russia, although this is by no means true across the board. Moreover, the specter of the Rose and Orange revolutions in Central Asia, where political power has remained static for over a decade, is a phenomenon very much in flux, with uncertain implications for political change in the region and for U.S. and Russian relations with individual countries. Limited Western interest in the region and recent Russian official contacts with representatives of the Kyrgyz opposition suggest that the situation need not produce a standoff in which Russia supports the status quo.

While Central Asia will not be among the priority topics when Bush and Putin meet in Bratislava on 24 February, in one important sense it will loom large in the margins of their dialogue. Recent events in Russia, from the reassertion of state control over television to the elimination of elections for regional heads to the growing speculation over constitutional changes that might allow President Putin to remain in power after 2008, suggest a path of development reminiscent of Central Asia. Further underscoring the similarity, U.S.-Russian cooperation today focuses on the twin pillars of energy, the core element in U.S.-Kazakh relations, and security, which dominates U.S.-Uzbek relations.

So even if Central Asia is not a key theme when Bush and Putin talk, observers should heed the cooperation and contradictions that mark Central Asia's relations with the United States, for they might increasingly form the context for Russia's relations with the United States as well.

At the start of a three-day official visit to India, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on 23 February met with Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, PTI News Agency reported. Karzai also met with the Indian External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and pledged to discuss with officials in Islamabad the possibility of establishing a trade corridor through Pakistan. Trade between India and Afghanistan is hampered by the existing difficulties between India and Pakistan. Karzai is scheduled to meet with his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 24 February. AT

President Karzai has reportedly asked General Abdul Rashid Dostum, head of Junbish-e Melli-yi Islami-ye Afghanistan, to take up a government post in Kabul, Jowzjan Aina Television reported on 23 February. According to the report, Karzai made the offer to Dostum during a meeting in Kabul on 22 February. It is not clear what position Karzai has offered to Dostum, but the report hinted that the job would be related to the formation of the Afghan National Army. Dostum currently resides in his home province of Jowzjan and has effective influence over several provinces in northern Afghanistan. AT

Officials in Nangarhar Province intend to set up autonomous local councils for each district, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 23 February. The councils would work at a community level helping to organize development work in their districts. Once formed, all national and international nongovernmental organizations need to be in contact with these councils prior to carrying out any activity in Nangarhar districts. Nangarhar Governor Hajji Din Mohammad said on 23 February that with the establishment of the local councils, no organization will be allowed to have a monopoly over how to serve the people of his province. The decision to form the local councils came at the end of a three-day conference in Jalalabad, provincial capital of Nangarhar, in which representatives of neighboring Konar and Laghman provinces also participated. It is not clear from the report when the councils will be formed. AT

According to Pakistani Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions Yar Mohammad Rind, the first census of Afghan refugees began throughout Pakistan on 23 February, the official Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported. Rind said the census is being conducted to determine the exact number of Afghans living in Pakistan and end the confusion over contradictory estimates. According to Rind, available data show that 3.9 million Afghans have taken refuge in Pakistan while 4.2 million Afghans have repatriated. However, Rind estimated that 2.9 million Afghans are still present in Pakistan. When he announced the census in January, Rind had indicated that the process would be finished in 30 days and warned Afghans to participate in the census or they would be considered illegal and treated accordingly based on Pakistani laws (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 22 January 2005). AT

Residents in earthquake-struck Kerman Province and the national media have reacted angrily to what they perceive as an inadequate government response. Reuters reported on 23 February that demonstrating quake victims attacked the visiting Interior Minister's convoy, and aid workers noted that the relief effort has been slow. "Aftab-i Yazd" noted on 23 February, "Nobody can prevent earthquakes, but human beings can respond to the casualties and damage done by earthquakes." The daily asked why, more than one year after an earthquake in the southeastern city of Bam killed tens of thousands of people, new standards for earthquake resistant buildings are not in use. The daily suggested that in the coming days there will be reports about the weak buildings that will demonstrate that there is "no systematic program to make buildings resistant as the only way to prevent casualties." The daily also condemned "the repeated lack of coordination in aid and rescue services." A "Sharq" editorial said people learn from adversity. Iranians have studied earthquakes and called for changes, such as new building codes, since the 1960s, but officials have not done enough. The editorial said this most recent earthquake is a reminder not to forget post-Bam proposals. BS

"Gilan-i Imruz" Editor in Chief Arash Sigarchi, who condemned the recent arrests of online journalists and Internet activists on the banned "Panjareh-yi Eltehab" weblog (, has received a 14-year jail sentence from a provincial Revolutionary Court, Reuters reported on 23 February. He was arrested in mid-January for giving interviews to Radio Farda and the BBC. Sigarchi's family has reportedly asked Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and human rights defender Mohammad Saifzadeh to represent him when he appeals the verdict. BS

Visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz met on 23 February with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Islamabad's PTV World and IRNA reported. On the same day, the two sides signed memoranda of understanding on plant quarantines and on the Iran-Pakistan Investment Company, and they amended a trade agreement. PTV World's correspondent reported from Tehran that under the trade protocol, "Initially, a trade of $400 million would be done by both the countries, and it again would be increased to $1 billion in a year." Moreover, the investment company is worth $25 million, and according to the memorandum on the Tehran meeting of the two countries' joint economic commission, Iran will provide a $200 million credit for infrastructure development. According to PTV World, Iran is currently supplying Pakistan's Baluchistan with electricity and this will increase, and Iran will import Pakistani mangoes and citrus. In Islamabad, meanwhile, Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan said to expect progress on the Iran-Pakistan-India natural-gas pipeline, APP reported. BS

In his meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Aziz, Supreme Leader Khamenei criticized the United States for what he sees as its double standard on terrorism, state radio reported. He said, "Terrorism is a dangerous and infectious phenomenon which must be fought, but the claims made by the Americans are not acceptable to us because they discriminate and practice double standards. They support the terrorist actions of the Zionists and some terrorist groups." He also said Iran rejects the Western view that it should benefit from nuclear technology while other countries do not. If there is concern over the possibility of nuclear weapons, Khamenei said, then Iran does not trust the West because it utilized depleted-uranium ammunition in Iraq. BS

Interim State Minister Qasim Dawud announced at a 23 February press briefing in Baghdad that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has established a coalition called the National Democratic Bloc that supports his bid to retain his post in the transitional government, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The channel also cited State Minister Adnan al-Janabi as saying that the Kurdish bloc will support Allawi's nomination for prime minister. Kurdish officials, however, claim that they are still in consultations with Allawi and his rival for the post, interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. The Kurds have said that they will support the candidate that will best meet their demands in the transitional government. KR

Islamic Al-Da'wah leader and prime-ministerial candidate al-Ja'fari told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in an exclusive interview on 23 February that he is optimistic that political parties will amicably come to an agreement over the leadership of the transitional government. "The responsibility will be heavy but I'm optimistic that all brothers and sisters are determined to make this process succeed, that they look at things on the scale of Iraq and will overcome everything in the interest of Iraq, whether it's about security, services or other issues." Onetime contender Adil Abd al-Mahdi, from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told RFI in another exclusive interview on 23 February that the United Iraqi Alliance has shown its commitment to the unity of Iraq in recent days. "The alliance proves once again its maturity by opting for the unity and the unification between the members of the list or the alliance and by opting, God willing, for the consensus with other lists and blocs in the parliament," he said. Abd al-Mahdi withdrew his candidacy for the premiership when al-Ja'fari entered the race. KR

Sunni Waqfs Director Ahmad al-Samarra'i told "Al-Hayat" that efforts are under way to establish a coalition called the General Conference of the Sunni Arab People, the daily reported on 23 February. The coalition will not act as a political party, he said, but rather work to prepare for the drafting of the constitution and greater Sunni participation in December elections. He claimed that the Muslim Scholars Association, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, and the Salafi Movement will all participate in the coalition. Members of the Salafi Movement told "Al-Hayat" that members of the Iraqi resistance will be represented in the coalition. KR

Militants targeted Iraqi police in two attacks in Tikrit and Mosul on 24 February, international media reported. A man disguised as a policeman drove his vehicle into the police headquarters in Tikrit, killing at least 10 and wounding 35, Reuters cited police and hospital officials as saying. About a dozen cars were destroyed in the explosion. Two policemen were killed and two wounded in a roadside bomb blast in Kirkuk, the news agency reported. Both cities have been plagued by violence this week. Two civilians were killed and 14 wounded in a car bombing in Mosul on 23 February, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Also on 22 February, Iraqi security forces arrested Sami Ali Faydhi, aka Agha Sami Fathi Ali, an Ansar Al-Islam leader operating in Mosul, "Al-Ta'akhi" reported the following day. Faydhi reportedly headed a cell of 80 terrorists in Mosul. Iraqi police and multinational forces carried out a series of raids in Kirkuk earlier this week, arresting 20 suspected terrorists, "Al-Ittihad" reported on 23 February. A police source told the daily that 11 of the arrested were wanted by multinational forces for their alleged involvement in earlier attacks. KR