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Newsline - February 25, 2005

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in the Slovak capital Bratislava on 24 February amid rising bilateral tensions, apparently placing longstanding bilateral cooperation and joint strategic goals to the fore while muting disagreements, Russian and international media reported. The two men reportedly discussed North Korea, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, international security, counterterrorism and nonproliferation issues, bilateral trade, and energy projects. The meeting demonstrated that while the "honeymoon" is over between the Bush and Putin administrations and differences are likely to increase, bilateral relations will be more pragmatic and nonconfrontational, NTV commented on 24 February. VY

The televised news conference following the Bush-Putin summit in Bratislava on 24 February was marked by a number of questions relating to the state of Russian democracy. "Democracies have certain things in common: They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press, and a viable political opposition," Bush noted in his opening statement. Putin countered by saying that Russia made its "final choice" in favor of democracy 14 years ago and "we have no way back." "Russia made its choice independently, without any external pressure; it made that decision in its own interests and the interests of its people," Putin said. "Any kind of turn toward totalitarianism for Russia would be impossible due to the condition of Russian society." Putin added that "the implementation of the principles and norms of democracy should not be accompanied through the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people," according to EuroNews. In an apparent allusion to President Boris Yeltsin's administration, Putin said that "democracy is not anarchy; it is not the chance to do anything you want," adding, according to EuroNews, "It is not the chance for anyone to rob his own people." Putin said that he will "take into account in my work" some of Bush's ideas while opting not to comment on "other ideas." VY

The deputy director of the USA and Canada Institute at Russia's Academy of Sciences, Viktor Kremenyuk, suggested on TV-Tsentr on 24 February that Russian pundits are baffled as to why the Bush administration has become so insistent on democratic principles in Russia in its fifth year of contact with the Putin administration. "Has Washington never before heard about the situation in Chechnya, the Yukos affair, or the concentration of power in Putin's hands?" Kremenyuk chided. "Or does it believe that the situation with Russian gubernatorial elections can be resolved in talks between the [U.S.] White House and the Kremlin?" He suggested that the Bush administration does not want to accept the present situation in Russia, since it wants to be "100-percent confident that Russia is a predictable and normal country." Washington believes that Russia can be such a country, Kremenyuk said, only if Moscow respects the principles on which the U.S. administration is insisting. VY

Russian and U.S. officials signed the "Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation" in Bratislava on 24 February to convene a senior-level, bilateral workshop on nuclear security in 2005, the Kremlin's official website ( announced. The workshop is aimed at exploring technology to detect and protect nuclear materials and facilities. Russia and the United States also committed themselves to expanding their energy dialogue and working jointly on Russia's possible accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Kremlin and international media reported. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov signed an agreement to curb the trafficking of portable surface to air missiles, or Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS), ORT reported on 24 February. Russia and the United States are the world's only producers of MANPADS, and Moscow is reportedly worried that such weapons in circulation in Afghanistan might find their way to the North Caucasus and Chechnya, ORT reported. VY

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told a news conference in Moscow on 24 February that he would not exclude a bid for the Russian presidency in 2008, NTV and other Russian media reported. He cited "the country's retreat from democratic values" and his belief that Russia is "moving in the wrong direction," according to RIA-Novosti. In response to a reporter's question, Kasyanov said it is too early to say whether he will be prepared to lead a united and democratic opposition, as such a political force currently "does not exist." Kasyanov also announced his creation of a consulting company, MK-Analitika, to advise on investments into the Russian economy. TV-Tsentr commentator Aleksei Pushkov suggested on 19 February that "some circles inside and outside Russia would like to see Kasyanov lead a future Orange Revolution in Russia," adding that Kasyanov recently visited Washington. National Strategy Institute head Stanislav Belkovskii said on 24 February that those who wish to see Kasyanov in the role of a "Russian Viktor Yushchenko" are misreading the situation, reported. Yushchenko was an opponent of an oligarchic and criminal regime, Belkovskii argued, while Kasyanov is part of the current power structure and unprepared to do battle with it. VY

The youth wing of Yabloko and the newly created youth movement Walking Without Putin on 24 February signed an agreement to join forces to combat what they see as a trend toward increasing authoritarianism in Russia, "The Moscow Times" reported on 25 February. The goal of the agreement is to form a strong, active political movement for young people similar to Ukraine's Pora, which played a major role in the recent Orange Revolution in that country. INDEM foundation analyst Yurii Korgunyuk told the daily that "the Kremlin has a paranoid fear of what happened in Ukraine happening here." So far, both the Yabloko youth wing and Walking Without Putin are miniscule organizations with fewer than 2,000 members nationally, "The Moscow Times" reported. RC

The organizers of the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together are organizing regional branches of a new organization called Nashi (Ours), "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 24 February. According to the daily, Nashi organizers are seeking to prevent the United States from installing its own candidate as president of Russia in 2008. "Europe long ago asked itself the question: Who will be working at European gas stations, Turks or Ukrainians?," Walking Together founder Vasilii Yakemenko recently told a gathering of students in Kursk. "This question now has been decided in favor of the Ukrainians. In the final analysis, for practically its entire history, Ukraine has been a colony. It's just that previously it was a Russian colony and now it is an American colony." He charged that the United States now intends to turn Russia into a "colony." Yakemenko said that he is on a tour of 20 cities and that he hopes to create local branches of Nashi with 10,000 members in each city. RC

People's Patriotic Union head Gennadii Semigin said on 24 February that he intends to create a new leftist party on the basis of his organization, ITAR-TASS reported. The goal of the party is to participate in the 2007-08 federal Duma and presidential elections, Semigin said and a founding congress for the party will be held by 1 May. He said he also intends to form a faction in the Duma called Patriots of Russia that he expects will attract as many as 50 deputies. In recent weeks, Semigin has signed partnership agreements with the People's Party and the People's Will party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2005). RC

"The Wall Street Journal" on 23 February reported that President Putin and Dresdner Bank President Matthias Warnig have been close friends since the 1980s, when Putin was a KGB agent stationed in Dresden and Warnig worked for East Germany's Stasi secret police. Warnig reportedly helped Putin to recruit contacts. Warnig opened Dresdner's first Russian branch in St. Petersburg when Putin was working in that city's administration. Dresdner has received a number of lucrative government contracts, including a recent deal to conduct a valuation of Yuganskneftegaz prior to its sale by the government in December. Earlier this month, Warnig was nominated to serve on Gazprom's board of directors, "The Moscow Times" reported on 25 February. Former Dresdner CEO Bernard Walter said he would not have hired Warnig if he had known about his Stasi past, adding that Warnig told him that he first met Putin in 1991. RC

Spokespeople for Yukos and Menatep expressed dismay on 25 February following a decision the previous day by a court in Houston to dismiss a Yukos case against the Russian government, "RIA-Novosti" reported. Yukos CEO Steven Theede was quoted as saying the company is now looking into what options remain to it. Analysts cited by the news agency said that Yukos's only option now is to file a case with European arbitration courts. The Houston court on 24 February issued a statement dismissing the case because "the company works primarily on the territory of Russia and the question of its bankruptcy cannot be decided without the participation of other interested parties, including the Russian government." RC

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov will personally head the government committee drafting the federal budget for 2006-08, "Izvestiya" reported on 24 February. The daily had reported on 18 February that a serious conflict erupted within the government over whether Fradkov or Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin would head the body. According to the daily, the main difference between the two men is their attitudes toward the stabilization fund. Fradkov reportedly is much more willing to use the funds to increase the government's infrastructure investments, while Kudrin insists the money cannot be spent domestically and should only be used to pay down foreign debt. Academy of National Economy head Vladimir Mau told the daily that Fradkov believes that launching some major infrastructure "construction projects of the century" is the best way of achieving President Putin's goal of doubling GDP by 2010. "Vedomosti" reported on 25 February that Fradkov has proposed using the stabilization fund to enable the government to reduce the value-added-tax (VAT) rate from the current 18 percent to 13 percent next year. RC

Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko promised on 24 February to curtail sharply the number of military departments in institutions of higher education, RIA-Novosti reported. Fursenko told students at Moscow State University that the few remaining military departments will be upgraded and oriented toward students who genuinely intend to serve in the military. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently criticized the departments, saying that students enroll in them primarily to avoid serving in the military (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). Fursenko added that he is opposed to drafting students in the middle of their studies and that no one in the government has proposed doing so. RC

Presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko has forwarded the names of Yurii Zelenskii, chairman of the Saratov branch of the Central Bank and chairman of the local branch of Unified Russia, and Balakovskii nuclear power-plant Director Pavel Ipatov for the Kremlin's consideration to serve as governor of Samara Oblast, RBK reported on 24 February. Incumbent Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov is not being considered for the post, Kirienko said. Kirienko said he has recommended that Ipatov be given the nomination but emphasized that the decision is up to President Putin. RC

Russia's representative to the European Court of Human Rights Pavel Laptev said on 25 February that the government is likely to appeal a 24 February court decision awarding compensation in three separate cases to six residents of Chechnya whose relatives died at the hands of Russian troops or who suffered as a result of Russian military action in 1999 and 2000, reported. The court ruled that the Russian government had violated the human rights of the plaintiffs and that Russian forces in Chechnya had killed innocent Chechen civilians without being prosecuted, "Vremya novostei" reported on 25 February. The court ordered Russia to pay a total of 135,000 euros ($178,000) to the six plaintiffs, who said their relatives had been killed by federal troops. "The main thing for us is that the European court has acknowledged that the Russian government actually has violated human rights in Chechnya," Oleg Orlov, a lawyer for the Memorial human rights organization who helped the plaintiffs file the case, told the daily. He said there are currently about 150 analogous appeals pending at the court. The court the same day awarded 3,000 euros each to the families of two Russian servicemen killed in Chechnya and one serviceman who was wounded there, ruling that the Russian government had failed to pay them the benefits for which they are eligible, "Vremya novostei" reported. RC

Robert Simmons, NATO's recently appointed special representative to the South Caucasus and Central Asia, met on 24 February with President Robert Kocharian and senior Armenian officials in Yerevan to discuss the expansion of relations between the military alliance and Armenia, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Arminfo reported. The NATO official noted Armenia's "very active relationship" with the alliance and welcomed the forthcoming "individual partnership action plan" (IPAP) currently being drafted by the Armenian government that formalizes the Armenian role within NATO. The Armenian government established a special interagency working group to work with NATO staff to finalize the IPAP. Simmons added that Armenia "is contributing to NATO activities in the struggle against the threats we face together: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, [and] failed states." RG

NATO special envoy Simmons told Armenian officials on 24 February that while the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an impediment to greater NATO engagement in the region, NATO does not seek any mediating role, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. Simmons also noted that although both Azerbaijan and Georgia have already completed similar partnership plans, NATO does not intend to launch ascension talks with them any time soon, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau added. RG

A spokesman for the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office announced on 23 February that the state will initiate a thorough reorganization of the Finance Ministry, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. The announcement follows the recent arrest of Levon Shahinian, a former head of the Finance Ministry's oversight department, on corruption charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). The reorganization plan will create a new oversight body, the Department of Internal Audit Assessment and Financial Oversight, enhanced with added powers to regulate Finance Ministry operations. RG

Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian was accused of "treason" by members of a militant Armenian nationalist group on 24 February, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The Public Initiative to Defend the Liberated Territories (ATP), comprising veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, condemned Sarkisian's assertion that Armenia is willing to return Armenian-held districts of Azerbaijan beyond Nagorno-Karabakh as part of a future peace deal. The defense minister's comments, made in an online interview with the "Yerkir" weekly newspaper, included an assertion that "a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem can only be based on mutual compromise," and added that the return of Azerbaijani territory would be in exchange for uncontested Armenian control of Nagorno-Karabakh. The defense minister also stressed that Nagorno-Karabakh "can never be subordinated to Azerbaijan" and "must have a land border with Armenia." RG

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev left Baku on 24 February to start a two-day state visit to Italy, "Baku Today" reported. The Azerbaijani president is to meet with the Italian president, prime minister, and senior Italian officials to finalize several bilateral agreements. Aliyev is also to preside over a bilateral trade and investment forum in Rome. RG

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili arrived in the United States on 24 February to begin a two-day working visit, ITAR-TASS reported. Merabishvili, to meet with FBI Director Robert Mueller and other senior U.S. officials, said he will hold talks aimed "at strengthening and expanding cooperation between relevant agencies," according to ITAR-TASS. Merabishvili added that "we are cooperating traditionally actively with the FBI and the CIA, and I hope that this cooperation will expand further." The Georgian parliament approved a law on 22 February incorporating the State Security Service into the Interior Ministry. RG

The president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, announced on 24 February the formation of a new cabinet, Caucasus Press reported. The new Abkhaz cabinet is led by recently appointed Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab and consists of three deputy premiers, 12 ministers, and the heads of seven state committees, 15 departments, and eight state funds. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba retained his post and is joined by Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya, Beslan Kubrava as deputy prime minister and finance minister, Otar Khetsia as interior minister, and Nerses Nersesian as the head of the State Committee of Standards, Metrology, and Certification. RG

The Georgian parliament voted on 23 February to extend the length of obligatory military service from 12 to 18 months starting in the spring of 2005, ITAR-TASS reported. The extension, to remain in effect until January 2008, is an element of the country's broader military-reform effort, which includes a sweeping reorganization of the Defense Ministry and is tied to the longer-term strategic plan for closer integration with Western security institutions. RG

Omarkhan Oksikbaev, who heads Kazakhstan's Audit Committee, announced in Astana on 24 February that audits of the 2004 budget revealed violations totaling 15.3 billion tenges ($118 million), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Oksikbaev provided a further breakdown, detailing 9.6 billion tenges in expenditures involving violations of legislation, 1.2 billion tenges in misused funds, and 3.7 billion tenges in inefficient spending. Oksikbaev noted that the audits resulted in the "return and restoration" of 2.3 billion tenges, as well as administrative measures against 98 officials, including 12 dismissals. Audits also revealed falling excise revenues, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Oksikbaev stated that revenues from excise taxes, which made up 3.4 percent of the state budget in 2003, accounted for just 2.2 percent of the budget in 2004, while other CIS countries like Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan were in the 5-percent range. DK

Oksikbaev also noted on 24 February that the results of a Russian Audit Chamber review of Russia's $65 million payment for the use of the Baikonur launch site in 1999 have been handed over to the Prosecutor-General's Office and the financial police, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Queried about allegations that Kazakhstan's national rail company used the money, which came in the form of a credit, to buy overpriced equipment in Russia, Oksikbaev replied that "this is indeed the case." He added that the equipment that was delivered was priced nearly three times higher than it would have cost at the factory. The materials were made available to prosecutors in early February. The allegations of wrongdoing that led to the investigation surfaced in letters from Russian and Kazakh parliamentarians that appeared in a Kazakh opposition newspaper in August 2004 (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 14 September 2004). DK

A court in Kokshetau, located in central Kazakhstan, has meted out prison terms to five activists of the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, "Kazakhstanskaya pravda" reported on 24 February. Two defendants received five-year sentences and three received three-year suspended sentences. The men were detained in September. They were found guilty of distributing literature calling for the overthrow of the constitutional system. DK

Supporters of Beishenbek Bolotbekov and Akylbek Japarov took over the regional administration in the city of Kochkor after the Supreme Court let stand on 24 February an earlier decision rescinding the two men's candidacies, reported. The two had been pulled from 27 February parliamentary elections for vote buying on 21 February, sparking large-scale demonstrations in Kochkor district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). Popular dissatisfaction over late-breaking decisions to remove a number of candidates from parliamentary races has led to large demonstrations in other areas as well, including Talas and Issyk-Kul. In the Tong district of Issyk-Kul Province, 2,000 supporters of Arslan Maliev demonstrated on 24 February, demanding the reinstatement of his candidacy and the resignation of Tong district head Nurbek Aliev, reported. DK

Against a backdrop of large demonstrations in the lead-up to 27 February parliamentary elections, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told journalists on 24 February that the protests could harm the investment climate in the country, Kabar news agency reported. "I would like to appeal to the candidates to be patriots," Tanaev said. "Compete honestly, and don't blame everything on the authorities. The flow of investments into the country depends directly on this." Tanaev suggested that the standoff over the removal of candidates Bolotbekov and Japarov was a dispute among vying candidates and said they should not blame the authorities for their troubles. Tanaev also charged that demonstrators impeded a group of Chinese businessmen in Naryn Province. Also on 24 February, the Interior Ministry placed police throughout the country on heightened alert to maintain order in the run-up to elections, reported. DK

An independent printing house in Bishkek resumed operations on 24 February with the help of a generator after a two-day power outage, reported. The printing house, which is supported by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, had lost power on 22 February, and earlier reports had indicated that power was restored on 23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). The printing house prints a number of opposition newspapers. Also on 24 February, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service was taken off the air by the state-run broadcasting authority on the grounds that it would hold a tender for the frequencies. DK

Tajik opposition parties stated on 24 February that they continue to face harassment in the final days before 27 February parliamentary elections, agencies reported. Rahmatullo Valiev, deputy head of the Democratic Party, told a news conference on 24 February that the party's television advertisements have been shown with central elements of the party's program removed, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Rahmatullo Zoirov, leader of the Social Democratic Party, charged that more ballots than there are registered voters have been delivered to a number of districts, raising fears of possible fraud, the BBC's Persian Service reported on 24 February. Central Election Commission officials denied the charges. Also on 24 February, Latif Hadyazoda, head of the Public Center for Election Observation and Monitoring, warned that local election commissions across the country are making efforts to turn out the vote for the ruling People's Democratic Party, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. DK

The OSCE held a seminar in Dushanbe on 24 February for more than 100 foreign observers who will monitor 27 February parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The session covered Tajikistan's election legislation, election commissions, and administrative and political structure. Peter Eicher, who heads the OSCE observer mission to the Tajik elections, said: "There are more than 3,000 polling places in Tajikistan, and foreign observers will definitely not be able to monitor all of them. But we expect that we will be able to monitor 10-25 percent of polling places on election day." DK

Speaking to Slovaks in Bratislava on 24 February, U.S. President George W. Bush also mentioned Belarus, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. "Inevitably, the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the countries of democracy," Bush said. "Eventually, the call of liberty comes to every mind and every soul, and one day freedom's promise will reach every people and every nation." JM

The Central Election Commission on 24 February denied registration in an election district in Hrodna to Yaraslau Ramanchuk, deputy chairman of the United Civic Party, and former dissident lawmaker Syarhey Skrabets, Belapan reported. A repeat election, which will be held on 20 March, is to fill the only vacant seat in the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives. Skrabets was removed from the race after 81 individuals withdrew their signatures in support of his ballot access request. Ramanchuk was denied registration for failure to mention a fee of 7,000 Belarusian rubles ($3.50) in his income statement. The politicians can contest the decision in the Supreme Court. JM

Ukrainian Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz has called on Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun to accept the so-called Melnychenko tapes as evidence in the official investigation of the kidnapping and murder of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000, Interfax reported on 24 February. Former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko reportedly made hundreds of hours of secret recordings in the office of former President Leonid Kuchma. Some of these recordings suggest that Kuchma and other former top officials might have had a role in Gongadze's murder. The Ukrainian authorities have never corroborated the authenticity of the Melnychenko tapes. Melnychenko has recently declared that he does not trust Piskun and will not pass the tapes on to him. Melnychenko also said he could cooperate with Ukrainian Security Service chief Oleksandr Turchynov on the Gongadze case. JM

Former premier and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych said in Zaporizhzhya on 24 February that the question of whether Ukraine should be a member of NATO must be decided in a referendum, Interfax reported. The same day in Dnipropetrovsk, Yanukovych declared that he is ready to vie for a parliamentary seat in a by-election. JM

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has been looking for a Strela-3M portable air-defense launcher and two missiles that disappeared from a Ukrainian Navy depot in Crimea, Ukrainian media reported on 24 February. "It's an emergency situation for the Armed Forces," Interfax quoted Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko as saying. The Strela-3M launcher can be manned by one person. Its missile is reportedly capable of hitting flying targets within a range of 4.5 kilometers and at an altitude of up to 30 kilometers. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko has signed a decree pardoning 50 convicts sentenced to prison terms and other punitive measures, Interfax reported on 24 February. It was Yushchenko's first clemency decree. JM

Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), told the UN Security Council on 24 February that talks on the province's final status could begin later in 2005 provided that a mid-year review of progress on implementing the international community's standards is positive, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004, and 7 January and 18 February 2005). "My evaluation is that we have good chances of keeping this timetable and that the process leading to status talks could therefore begin in the second half of this year," he said. In response, Nebojsa Covic, who is Belgrade's point man for southern Serbia and Kosova, argued that such views are "unjustifiably unrealistic." Jessen-Petersen called some of Covic's opinions "totally out of touch with the reality on the ground." The UN diplomat also stressed that " simply not a realistic option [and] would betray European values of integration and coexistence." Reflecting the opinion of many foreign diplomats, U.S. envoy Stuart Holliday noted that "it is important that more be done, particularly in securing the rights of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes, ensuring security for all communities, and reforming local government." PM

The Serbian government announced on 25 February that former Bosnian Serb General Radivoje Miletic will go to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal voluntarily in the coming week, Reuters reported. If he does so, he will be the fifth indictee to turn himself in in recent months as part of the Serbian government's program to persuade indictees to go of their own volition rather than be arrested and extradited (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November and 7 December 2004, and 8 February 2005). The tribunal indicted Miletic in connection with Serbian "ethnic cleansing" campaigns in Srebrenica and Zepa in 1995. PM

High Representative Paddy Ashdown ordered the Bosnian Serb Defense Ministry on 24 February to provide him with information by 15 March that unspecified individuals who kept leading war crimes indictee and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic on the payroll until March 2002 are no longer in the military, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1, 6, and 17 December 2004). In related news, Ashdown told the BBC that he doubts that all war crimes indictees, including the best-known ones, will ever be caught. He cited examples from Northern Ireland and Borneo earlier in his career to show that terrorists who have efficient support networks and are regarded by many locals as heroes can remain undetected for years. PM

Macedonian leaders began marking the first anniversary of the tragic death of Macedonia's President Boris Trajkovski in a plane crash near Mostar in Herzegovina on 26 February, MIA news agency reported. At the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 24 February, Trajkovski's widow Vilma participated in a commemorative ceremony. A delegation led by Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski unveiled a commemorative plaque on the site of the plane crash on 25 February. The main commemorative ceremony will take place on Skopje's Butel cemetery on 26 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March 2004). UB

EU negotiators told their Albanian counterparts in Tirana on 25 February that Albania must improve its conduct of elections if it wants to proceed towards a Stabilization and Association Agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 May and 16 September 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 May and 10 September 2004). Elections are expected later in 2005. EU representative Reinhard Priebe said: "we expect... Albania [to show] that it is able to carry out elections in conformity with international standards, and that the parties who have not been successful are able to recognize the results and the winner." PM

Romanian Prosecutor-General Ilie Botos has reportedly filed a complaint with President Traian Basescu's office, accusing Justice Minister Monica Macovei of interfering in the work of the Prosecutor's Office, "Ziua" and the BBC's Romanian Service reported on 24 February. Macovei denied the charges. Macovei had ordered a legal investigation against two prosecutors involved in a probe into the son of Ion Tiriac, who is a wealthy and influential businessman. Macovei's move was triggered by reports that evidence had been removed from the files following political pressure from the previous government. UB

Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu held talks with German politicians and government officials in Berlin on 24 February, RFE/RL's Romanian Service reported. The talks focused on Romania's desire to help resolve the Transdniester conflict in neighboring Moldova. Markus Meckel of the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD), who was the last foreign minister in the democratically elected government of the German Democratic Republic, told RFE/RL's Romanian Service that the democratic forces in Moldova must be supported. At the same time, the Moldovan government should be pressed to implement its pro-European declarations, Meckel said. UB

Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan told a news conference in Brussels on 24 February that the EU, the United States, Ukraine, and Romania have signaled their readiness to support Chisinau in resolving the Transdniester conflict, highlighting an announcement by the EU to name a special representative for Moldova, Interlic reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 23 February 2005). Stratan also said Moldovan representatives discussed the Transdniester conflict in detail in meetings with the Ukrainian delegation that was in Brussels at the same time. According to Stratan, Ukraine has agreed to efficiently control the flow of goods and persons on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, including in the Transdniester region. UB

In his speech in Bratislava on 25 February, U.S. President George W. Bush recalled the recent peaceful revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and the general elections in Iraq. Looking head, Bush said he is convinced that eventually "freedom's promise will reach every people and every nation." He specifically mentioned Moldova. "In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls," Bush said. UB

Victor Osipov, the spokesman for the opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD), said on 24 February that the governing Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) is trying to fabricate evidence that its political opponents are preparing a coup d'etat, the BBC's Romanian service reported. Osipov said the security forces are responsible for producing evidence such as the Molotov cocktails found in an apartment close to the presidential palace in Chisinau on 23 February or the allegation that police found some $40 million in the possession of Russian citizens who allegedly supported the BMD (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 14, 23, and 24 February 2005). All this fits into a scheme of destabilization in Moldovan society that includes the accusations against the BMD and the opposition forces in general, Osipov said. UB

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel told the EU-U.S. summit in Brussels on 22 February that trans-Atlantic cooperation in the western Balkans is real success story. Where things go from here remains to be seen.

Schuessel argued that cooperation between the EU and the United States in the Balkans in recent years has constituted one of the "most spectacular successes" of joint efforts between the trans-Atlantic partners, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. He noted that "the last three wars fought on the European continent took place in the Balkans," the most recent of which was in Kosova barely five years ago. Schuessel stressed that neither the EU nor the United States wants to see conflicts renewed there, adding that offering the countries of the region the prospect of possible EU membership provides all of them with a "perspective" for the future.

In recent years, Schuessel continued, all countries in question except Serbia have made remarkable economic progress. Serbia has only now returned to the level of economic performance it enjoyed in 1999, but the other countries have recently witnessed annual growth rates of up to 50 percent. Schuessel noted that foreign direct investment in the western Balkans has grown from about $3.5 billion at an unspecified recent date to over $30 billion today, adding that these figures are proof that the current Western strategy there is working. Speaking to reporters after making his presentation, the Austrian leader noted that U.S. President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair especially were interested in the investment figures.

As to security matters, Schuessel told the summit that the EU "takes its obligations" very seriously. There are currently 19,000 EU troops serving in the western Balkans, compared to 1,800 from the United States, he noted. He stressed that these figures show how well trans-Atlantic cooperation is working in the Balkans.

Turning to the specific question of Kosova, the Austrian leader recalled that the UN has the leading role there. Schuessel called for progress on implementing the international community's standards and proceeding to work on defining Kosova's final status. He appealed for a multiethnic Kosova that includes freedom of movement for all its citizens and security for their religious buildings. "It is clear that Belgrade must be included [in talks to resolve the status issue], and one must not exclude it," the chancellor added. He stressed that offering Serbia closer ties to the EU will be an important theme of the Austrian EU Presidency, which will last from January 2006 until that June.

The Vienna daily "Die Presse" noted on 22 February that Austria has much expertise in Balkan affairs and is particularly qualified to implement an EU agenda in which that region figures prominently. The paper recalled that Austria's Erhard Busek has served for several years as head of the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact, which acts as a clearinghouse for a wide variety of aid-development projects. Busek himself, moreover, is a senior Austrian political figure with years of experience in Balkan affairs. "Die Presse" noted, however, that Busek did not play a role in preparing Schuessel's latest remarks in Brussels.

Also on 22 February, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" ran a commentary by EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana on the "effective partnership" between Washington and Brussels. Like Schuessel, Solana held up the Balkans as an example of successful trans-Atlantic cooperation, including the recent transfer of responsibilities for peacekeeping in Bosnia from NATO to the EU. He urged the Western partners to pay particular attention in 2005 to what he called "Serbia-Montenegro-Kosovo," a formulation that is not particularly popular among Kosovar Albanians and pro-independence Montenegrins, who do not want their future linked to that of Serbia.

A commentary on Kosova and Serbia by former EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten appeared on 23 February in London's "Financial Times." Patten, too, noted that the EU and United States can claim a good record in cooperating in the Balkans, at least in recent years. He stressed, however, that his worry "is that much of that progress could be wrecked unless we get off the fence on the subject of the future of Kosovo." Patten argued that "last year's deadly [March interethnic] violence...showed that time is running out" for deciding on the province's final status. This is also a central theme in a report recently issued by the International Crisis Group (ICG), of which Patten is co-chairman.

He believes that the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) is a "stopgap measure...[that] can no longer hold." To replace it, Patten wants an international conference to be held in 2005 following "a successful UN review" of the Kosovar authorities' progress in meeting international standards. That gathering will complete work on an accord that would include a constitution to be approved by Kosovar voters in a referendum.

"That accord would not be a free ride for Kosovo Albanians," Patten stressed. International judges would sit on Kosova's supreme and constitutional courts, and international monitoring would guarantee fair implementation of rights for Serbs and other minorities. To allay Serbian fears of a Greater Albania, Kosova's constitution will rule out unification with Albania, much as the 1955 Austrian State Treaty forbids setting up a joint state with Germany.

The former EU commissioner hopes that "realists in Serbia" will see the advantages of settling the Kosova dispute. Patten added, however, that "Serbia has no veto on the question of Kosovo's final status...[and] will have to start living in the present, not the past."

In a report published on 23 February, Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) recommends that the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) needs to be revamped in order to give Kabul the ability to extend its authority throughout Afghanistan and establish the rule of law ( The report, titled "Afghanistan: Getting Disarmament Back on Track," says that while the DDR process has managed to decommission or reduce most of the "officially recognized militia units" in the country and has collected the bulk of their heavy weapons, it has failed to "make significant inroads in disarming the powerful Tajik-dominated units in" Kabul and Panjsher provinces. The report also warns that the DDR process has failed to "tackle the threat posed by unofficial militias" which are maintained by most "contending regional and local forces, including registered political parties." ICG estimates that 850 militias with "an excess of 65,000 members" remain outside the scope of the current DDR process. The often-lethargic DDR process has been cited as one reason for not holding Afghanistan's parliamentary elections alongside presidential polls in October 2004. AT

Governors of two southern Afghan provinces are holding talks with members of the neo-Taliban militia inside Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 24 February. Ghazni Governor Hajji Asadullah Khaled, confirming the report, told Pajhwak on 24 February that at this juncture he cannot "reveal the names of the people who are involved in the talks or give any further details." Zabul Governor Khial Mohammad Hosayni has told the news agency that he also has commenced talks with the neo-Taliban in his province. However, Khaleq Ahmad Khaleq, a spokesman at the presidential press office, said he was unaware of any talks between the neo-Taliban and provincial authorities in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). AT

Afghan security forces killed seven neo-Taliban militiamen on 24 February in Khost Province, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Khost security commander Brigadier-General Mohammad Ayyub said that the neo-Taliban had first ambushed Afghan border security forces, wounding three. AT

The Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry on 24 February inaugurated the deployment of 15 teams to verify plans led by provincial governors to eradicate opium poppy crops, a ministry statement indicated. The teams are set to visit the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar in the south, Nangarhar in the east and Balkh in the north. "There have been widespread reports of governor-led poppy eradication in the main poppy growing province," Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi said. These teams would provide the ministry with "accurate record and extent of this eradication," Qaderi added. The teams have been trained by specialists from the United Kingdom, the lead country in the counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 February 2005). AT

A 23 February commentary on Mashhad radio denounced U.S. regional activities the day after an American legislator called for a "long-term strategic partnership" with Afghanistan that would include "permanent bases." Senator John McCain explained while visiting Kabul, "We mean by that economic assistance, technical assistance, military partnership -- including, and this is a personal view, joint military permanent bases," RFE/RL reported. Mashhad radio accused the U.S. of seeking control over China, India, Iran, and Russia. American forces have been in Afghanistan for 3 1/2 years, Mashhad radio exaggerated, but they have failed in fighting terrorism and have actually seized the country. Security has deteriorated, and "the U.S. troops' presence in Afghanistan has created social and cultural problems for the Muslim community." Mashhad radio warned that U.S. use of bases in Afghanistan to implement its plans against neighboring states will have a "negative impact on ties between Afghanistan and neighboring countries." Reports of possible U.S. basing on Iran's border in Herat province also elicited an Iranian response (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2004). BS

Pakistani Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Amanullah Jadoon said on 24 February that India, Iran, and Pakistan will discuss plans for a proposed natural gas pipeline on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation energy forum that is to take place next month, IRNA reported, citing "Dawn" newspaper. Jadoon added that Islamabad will do its utmost to assuage Indian concerns over the five-year project. Meanwhile, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has returned to Islamabad after a three-day trip to Iran, PTV World reported on 24 February. Aziz visited Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad, PTV World reported. Aziz reportedly prayed at the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shi'a Imam. BS

Hamid Purmand, a pastor in the Assemblies of God and a former officer in the Iranian army, has received a three year jail sentence, reported on 17 February. Purmand was tried by a military court and found guilty of "deceiving the armed forces" because he did not declare that he is a convert to Christianity. Not only are Muslims considered apostates if they leave the faith, but Purmand also faced allegations of espionage. Purmand reportedly presented documents that showed his military superiors knew of his Christian beliefs, but the court rejected these documents as forgeries. Not only will Purmand be jailed, he will be discharged from the military and lose his pension and housing for his family, reported. BS

"Iran," the official Islamic Republic News Agency's daily newspaper, reported on 24 February that survivors of the Kerman Province earthquake demonstrated in front of the governorate in the town of Zarand, the epicenter. They were reportedly protesting insufficient tents, which is important given the cold and rainy conditions in the area. Provincial governor Mohammad Ali Karimi pledged that distribution of tents, blankets, and lights would be complete before the end of the day. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said during a visit to the area that 700 billion rials (about $8.75 million) has been earmarked for reconstruction. "Iran" reported that truckloads of rice, cots, and blankets, as well as medical teams, came from the provinces of Khorasan Razavi and Chahar Mahal va Bakhtiari. Discussing fatalities, Kerman Province coroner Masud Ghadi-Pasha said the majority died of suffocation rather than head injuries. This indicates that they were buried when mud-brick buildings collapsed around them. Personnel from international agencies based in Bam -- such as Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF -- also came to the region, the "Christian Science Monitor" reported on 24 February. BS

"We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon," President George W. Bush said in Bratislava on 24 February after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Reuters reported. "I appreciate Vladimir's understanding on that issue. We had a very constructive dialogue on how to achieve that common goal." Bush also said that he and European leaders are "on the same page" on the issue of not letting Iran develop nuclear weapons. Bush said he would consider European efforts to persuade Iran to forsake some nuclear activities. "I was listening very carefully to the different ideas on negotiating strategies," Bush said. "I'm going to go back and think about the suggestions I've heard and the ways forward." Tehran seems unenthusiastic about this prospect, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi saying in Tehran, "Iran sees no reason for America to interfere in Iran-Europe negotiations," state radio reported. He accused the U.S. of "trying to insinuate that Europe is incapable of conducting nuclear negotiations with Iran." On the other hand, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said in Berlin on 25 February, "We would welcome help from the U.S.," Bloomberg reported. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Rohani were discussing possible concessions if Tehran forsook some of its nuclear activities. "Both sides are convinced that dynamism must be injected into the discussions," Rohani said. BS

Militants in Iraq attempted to assassinate Ninawah Governor Durayd Kashmula on 24 February, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Kashmula was at a meeting place in central Mosul offering condolences for the death of a relative at the time of the attack. Gunmen stormed the building and engaged his bodyguards, wounding two of them. The governor was moved to a safe area when the fighting broke out, Al-Sharqiyah reported. Militants earlier attacked Kashmula's Mosul office on 18 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2004). Militants also attempted to assassinate the head of the Baghdad Municipal Council, Fadil Awdah, in an attack on his vehicle on 24 February, Al-Arabiyah television reported. Awdah reportedly sustained several gunshot wounds, but survived the attack. Two of his bodyguards were killed. In Kirkuk, the head of emergency police, Colonel Khattab Umar Arif, escaped assassination on 24 February, Al-Sharqiyah reported. The attack occurred when an explosive charge went off as he was leaving his home. At least two policemen assigned to protect him were killed, and two wounded. KR

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan head Jalal Talabani told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in an exclusive interview on 24 February that Kurds would work to bring all parties together in the transitional government. "We hope that there will be consensus between the main forces in the parliament on the choice of candidates qualified for the tasks they will be in charge of. There are debates and there are names but till now there are no serious discussions or decisions," he said. Regarding the type of government Kurds would like to see, Talabani said: "We believe in a united and independent Iraq that will be pluralistic, federal, parliamentary, democratic, respecting the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people, and acknowledging Islam as one of the sources of legislature in Iraq." KR

Asked about Kurdish demands, Jalal Talabani told RFI: "It is a right of the Kurdish people to demand that the region of Kurdistan, as it is known in terms of geography and history, become the region over which the Kurdish people would exert their federal rule. We believe that these [currently] existing problems can also be solved by consensus and dialogue, in a brotherly political way. There is no problem in Iraq that would be unsolvable, in our opinion." Regarding the Kurdish position vis-a-vis the city of Kirkuk, Talabani said: "We believe that Kirkuk [city], in terms of geography, is situated in Kurdistan region. That means that we must respect the rights of all so that the coexistence in Kirkuk is a brotherly one, based also on the principle of consensus between [various] communities of the society in Kirkuk." KR

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) head Mas'ud Barzani told Berlin's "Die Welt" in an interview published on 24 February that Kurdish leaders have agreed that he will function as president of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, while his nephew Nechirvan Barzani will preside over the Kurdistan Regional Government, which will remain divided for the time being, with two 'capitals' in Al-Sulaymaniyah and Irbil. Asked about the unofficial poll taken on election day by the Kurdistan Referendum Movement about Kurdish autonomy, Barzani said: "Many peoples...have achieved their independent statehoods since the end of the Cold War -- Slovaks and Slovenes, Latvians, Estonians, and so on. Obviously we are dismayed by the fact that we as Kurds of all people are refused the same right. The desirable can be desired, but only the attainable can be attained. We Kurds live in a particularly complicated situation as a people. Our neighbors, on whom we are also mutually dependent, and with whom we both wish for and must have good relations, are vehemently resistant to a Kurdish state. If we now hopefully succeed in at least safeguarding our autonomy within Iraq, then we Kurds will have made more progress than ever before." KR

Muhsin Abd al-Hamid told Jeddah's "Ukaz" in an interview published on 23 February that his party made a mistake by boycotting the election, but placed the blame on others. "It is the saboteurs who are responsible for our failure to participate in the elections because they carried out terrorist attacks and flooded Iraq streets with explosives. Furthermore, our brothers in the Muslim Scholars Association were not aware of the true nature of the conflict within Iraqi society and therefore rushed to issue a statement saying that elections cannot be held under occupation. The bomb attacks in Al-Fallujah and Al-Ramadi left citizens unwilling to participate in the elections," he said. Had they participated, Sunnis would have won the majority of parliamentary seats because, he wrongly contended, "60 percent of the Iraqi people are Sunnis." Abd al-Hamid said that his party wants Islam to be identified as the primary source of legislation in the constitution. Asked about the party's status in the political arena, he said: "We will fill the opposition...with our Islamic ethics and we will stand in the way of any opinion which promotes sectarianism or doctrinism. We will not constitute the opposition as understood by the west, but as defined in Islam." KR