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Newsline - February 17, 2006


RUSSIA EXPECTS HAMAS IN MARCH
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on 16 February that "an agreement has been reached for [a] Hamas delegation to visit Moscow in the beginning of March," Interfax reported. General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian armed forces General Staff, told reporters in Ryazan that any decision on arms sales to the Palestinians will be made jointly with them, after the negotiations in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 16 February 2006). But Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow on 17 February that such deliveries are being considered "only provisionally" and will not be made without Israel's approval. Arms shipments to the Palestinians would have to pass through Israeli territory, he added. PM

RUSSIA'S TOP GENERAL DOES NOT RULE OUT MILITARY ACTION IN IRAN
General Staff head Baluyevsky said in Ryazan on 16 February that a military confrontation could develop out of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program, RIA Novosti reported. "I do not rule out [a clash], but military action is not the best option," he said. Baluyevsky added that "the...military capabilities of Iran and the United States cannot be compared." Referring to possible reactions elsewhere in the Muslim world to such a confrontation, he said that the response would be "hard to predict...but such a development of events may inflame the entire world, and this is something that must not be allowed to happen." PM

DEFENSE MINISTER STANDS BY DRAFT
Defense Minister Ivanov said in Naro-Fominsk, Moscow Oblast, on 17 February that Russia will maintain military conscription and even expand the size of its conscript army, Interfax reported. "We do not plan to abolish our army draft in the future. On the contrary, the number of conscripts will be increased," he said. Ivanov added that "by 2008, frontline units will be manned by 140,000 soldiers and sergeants serving under contracts. This will allow us to switch to a 12-month-long period of army service for conscripts and stop sending them to hot spots." In the course of the ongoing controversy over hazing in the military, many critics have called for replacing conscription with a professional army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2006). PM

PUTIN WANTS LAW ON DIGITAL SIGNATURES
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Nizhny Novgorod on 16 February that "it is necessary [to have a law]...on electronic digital signatures" as soon as possible, RIA Novosti reported. Current legislation on giving electronic signatures the validity of written ones dates from 2002 and has been amended in ways that gave rise to legal challenges. PM

TEMPEST IN VOLGOGRAD TEAPOT?
Volgograd Deputy Mayor Konstantin Kalachyov said on 17 February that a decision by the city authorities on closing the daily "Gorodskiye vesti" is expected in the course of the day, RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 February 2006). Acting Mayor Andrei Doronin has repeatedly said that the paper has already been shut down. Pressure to close it built up when the local chapter of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party asked prosecutors to investigate the paper after it published a cartoon that the party claimed offended religious believers. Kalachyov and Tatyana Kaminskaya, who is the editor of "Gorodskiye vesti," suggested that the local chapter of Unified Russia was engaged in a publicity stunt at the daily's expense. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent reported that the paper has in fact long been slated for closure as part of a formal restructuring that would alter nothing of substance in its operations, which will continue to be funded by the municipality. Unified Russia has been losing support in the polls at the rate of about 1 percentage point each month and the local branch reportedly decided to launch a publicity stunt at the expense of the daily. The ruse allegedly spun out of control when federal authorities became involved in the case. PM

PUTIN SAYS INTERIOR MINISTRY NEEDS TO BE PURGED OF CORRUPT OFFICIALS...
President Putin said on 17 February that the Russian Interior Ministry needs to be purged of corrupt officials, Interfax reported. "There is a need to firmly and uncompromisingly get rid of bribe-takers, people who have turned their professional duties into a lucrative business," Putin said at a meeting of Interior Ministry personnel. "An effective civilian system is needed to control the functioning of law enforcement agencies, particularly with regard to the observance of citizens' constitutional rights and legal interests. Measures to prevent extremism and crime in general are impossible without support from the population and civil society institutes," he added. BW

...AND SAYS LAW ENFORCEMENT UNDERESTIMATING EXTREMIST THREAT
Speaking at the same Interior Ministry meeting on 17 February, Putin said law enforcement agencies have underestimated the threat from religious, racial, and ethnic extremists, Interfax reported. "The activity of extremist groups is becoming more and more aggressive and acquiring serious forms," Putin said. "We have to admit that the law enforcement agencies have underestimated the danger of this fact, and still have not managed to react adequately, by constructing effective and systematic work for the prevention of ethnic and religious conflicts," he added. BW

FORMER LOCAL LAWMAKER IN ST. PETERSBURG GIVEN LIFE SENTENCE
The St. Petersburg City Court on 17 February sentenced a former local legislator to life imprisonment for his role in a criminal gang that carried out contract killings, RIA Novosti reported. Yury Shutov, 53, and four accomplices were found guilty of carrying out a series of high-profile contract murders. The remaining members of the 12-man gang were convicted of kidnapping, robbery, and illegal possession of arms. They received prison sentences ranging from seven to 18 years. BW

DAGHESTAN'S 'GRANDFATHER' BOWS OUT
Magomedali Magomedov, aka "the grandfather," who has headed Daghestan's State Council (the collective presidency) since 1994, announced his resignation from that post on 16 February, Russian media reported. Magomedov cited his age -- he is 75 -- as the rationale for his decision, which he said was approved by Russian President Putin during a meeting in Moscow the previous day. But Magomedov failed to explain why he chose not to remain in office until his present term expires in June. The State Council reviewed Magomedov's annual address on 15 February, riadagestan.ru reported. Magomedov is a Dargin, the second-largest of Daghestan's ethnic groups. LF

POLICE IN DAGHESTAN KILL TWO MILITANTS
Police surrounded and killed two militants on 16 February in an abandoned school building in a village in Daghestan's northern Nogai district, Russian media reported. RIA Novosti quoted senior Interior Ministry official Sergei Solodovnikov as telling journalists the dead men may well have been survivors from the group of Nogai militants against whom Interior Ministry troops launched a major offensive in the Stavropol Krai village of Tukui-Mekteb on 9-10 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 13 February 2006). Also on 16 February, Daghestan's Interior Ministry announced that Isa Madjidov, who was apprehended two days earlier in the village of Osmanyurt in Khasavyurt district, has confessed to the murder of a police officer and to blowing up a freight train in December 2005, according to RIA Novosti as cited by kavkazweb.net. LF

PROSECUTOR-GENERAL'S OFFICE EXONERATES KABARDINO-BALKARIA POLICE
The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office has informed its branch office in the Southern Federal District that it has investigated complaints from the relatives of young men killed during the fighting between police and militants in Nalchik last October, and has concluded that police did not act unlawfully, according to kavkazmemo.ru on 16 February as cited by kavkazweb.net. Relatives of some of the victims allege that police executed them in cold blood; that the wounded were not given first aid; and that some young men apprehended were beaten in custody or died as a result of torture. A lawyer for relatives of the victims said the response received from the Prosecutor-General's Office duplicated that given earlier by the republican prosecutor. On 15 February, senior Kabardino-Balkar Interior Ministry official Albert Sizhazhev told journalists that 95 militants were killed during the Nalchik fighting, which is three more than the death toll cited to date, kavkazmemo.ru reported. He said 70 people have been arrested in connection with the attack and a further 21 are on the wanted list. LF

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENTARY OPPOSITION DEMANDS 'TRANSPARENT' VOTE ON OMBUDSMAN
Members of the opposition Artarutiun parliament faction argued on 16 February that transparent ballot boxes should be provided for the 17 February parliament vote on two rival candidates for the post of human rights ombudsman, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Artarutiun deputy Victor Dallakian claimed that the outcome of last week's vote, in which President Robert Kocharian's proposed candidate Armen Harutiunian failed to win the required minimum 79 votes, was falsified, and that Harutiunian garnered only 52 votes rather than the reported 69. LF

EU EXTERNAL AFFAIRS COMMISSIONER VISITS AZERBAIJAN...
On the first leg of a trip to all three South Caucasus states, Benita Ferrero-Waldner met on 16 February in Baku with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, echo-az.com reported on 17 February. The two discussed Azerbaijan's cooperation with the European Union within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy, energy security, the recent cases of bird flu discovered in Azerbaijan, and the Karabakh conflict. In a statement released on the eve of her visit, Ferrero-Waldner expressed hope that progress will be made in 2006 toward resolving all conflicts in the South Caucasus. Ferrero-Waldner also met on 16 February with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev; no details of that meeting were made public. LF

...AND GEORGIA
EU External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner travelled on 16 February from Baku to Tbilisi, where she met the same day with Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili subsequently told journalists the talks focused on rule of law and the development of democratic institutions, reform of the judiciary, a possible EU role in resolving the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and energy security. Ferrero-Waldner for her part explained in response to a journalist's question that participation in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) does not automatically entail EU membership at some future date, but should be regarded as a means of approaching EU standards, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. On 17 February, Ferrero-Waldner met with Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli to discuss Georgia's Action Plan for cooperation with the EU within the framework of the ENP, Caucasus Press reported. LF

SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADER SLAMS GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT RESOLUTION...
Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, told regnum.ru on 16 February that the Georgian parliament's unanimous vote the previous day to demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone was the result of the "hysteria and psychosis" prevalent in Tbilisi and shows that Georgia is becoming "a failed state" that is incapable of complying either with international agreements or its own constitution. He noted that the 1996 Moscow Memorandum that Tbilisi signed designates Russia the guarantor of earlier agreements on resolving the conflict. Kokoity described the mixed Georgian-Russian-Ossetian peacekeeping force deployed in the conflict zone as "one of the most successful in the history of peacekeeping," and argued that it should be continued. Kokoity predicted Georgia will unleash a new war if the Russian peacekeepers pull out of South Ossetia. Meanwhile, the parliament of the Republic of North Ossetia released a statement on 16 February urging Moscow not to withdraw its peacekeepers from South Ossetia as doing so would trigger an escalation of tensions across southern Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

...AS OSCE CALLS FOR 'MEASURED RESPONSE'
In a statement released on 16 February and posted on the OSCE's website (http://www.osce.org/regions/13001.html), OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht called for a "measured response" by the Georgian government to the parliament's demand that it take steps to secure the replacement of the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia with an international force. De Gucht said he hopes Tbilisi will begin talks "at the highest level" with Russia and that all sides will "refrain from any actions or statements that could raise tensions on the ground." He reaffirmed the OSCE's willingness to "provide support...and work actively" with all sides to the conflict. Meanwhile, Georgian parliament Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Kote Gabashvili told a press conference in Tbilisi on 16 February that what Georgia wants is to change the format of the peacekeeping operation to make it a police operation that would not necessitate the presence of heavy weaponry in the conflict zone, Caucasus Press and regnum.ru reported. Gabashvili did not rule out Russian participation in such an operation. In Moscow, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava argued on 16 February for including the maximum possible number of countries in that operation, including members of the OSCE and EU, Caucasus Press reported. Khaindrava noted that both organizations have offered to finance postconflict reconstruction programs in South Ossetia. LF

KAZAKH MINISTER SAYS FBI TO HELP IN INVESTIGATION OF OPPOSITION LEADER'S KILLING...
Interior Minister Bauyrzhan Mukhamedzhanov told Khabar on 16 February that Kazakhstan is arranging for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to take part in the investigation of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev's killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). Mukhamedzhanov said that FBI involvement is intended "to rule out all manner of speculation about the motives for the murder and to make the investigation as transparent as possible." He also noted that the investigation has already determined that Sarsenbaev, his driver, and bodyguard were all killed by shots from a single gun. Five bullets and a number of other pieces of evidence were recovered from the crime scene. DK

...AS OPPOSITION GROUP CALLS FOR CIVIL, GOVERNMENT ACTION
In an appeal published by Navigator on 16 February, the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan addressed Kazakh citizens, parliament, and President Nursultan Nazarbaev in the wake of Sarsenbaev's killing. The appeal calls on citizens "not to remain indifferent and to express their decisive opposition to the political terror unleashed by destructive forces in power." It asks parliament "to conduct an emergency session with the participation of all political forces in connection with the situation in the country." And it asks Nazarbaev to "deliver without delay a public accounting before Kazakhstan's people of the tragic events in the country and the state's inability to defend the lives and rights of citizens." Sarsenbaev was a political ally of For a Just Kazakhstan head Zharmakhan Tuyakbai. DK

RUSSIAN COMMANDER CONFIRMS PLANS TO BOOST KYRGYZ BASE
The commander of Russia's air forces, General Vladimir Mikhailov, confirmed in Bishkek on 16 February that Russia intends to boost its military presence in Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2006), but Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov said that the issue did not come up in talks between them, ferghana.ru and akipress.org reported. RIA Novosti quoted Mikhailov as saying, "Russians will stay forever at the air base in Kant.... The number of aircraft will be tripled." Isakov told journalists, however, that the issue of increasing the Russian military presence was not on the agenda in his talks with Mikhailov, akipress.org reported. Isakov said that the Russian command agreed to allow the takeoff and landing of Kyrgyz military aircraft at the Russian base, and that Russia will pay a fee for utilities it uses above a certain limit. Isakov stressed that Russia will not have to pay for the base itself. Isakov called a question about the number of planes at the base "incorrect." "What difference does it make if there's one plane or five. The more the better," he said. "That's not the issue; the issue is how they're going to train our pilots." Isakov and Mikhailov signed a protocol altering the Kyrgyz-Russian basing agreement to provide for the training of Kyrgyz pilots at Kant, Kabar reported. The report noted that under the basing agreement, increases in manpower and equipment at the Russian base are "Russia's prerogative." DK

CSTO HEAD SAYS UZBEKISTAN WILL NOT REJOINING YET
Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO; comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia), told a news conference in Bishkek on 16 February that Uzbekistan has not applied to rejoin the CSTO, which it quit in 1999, akipress.org reported. Bordyuzha, who recently visited Uzbekistan, said, "We didn't expect [that Uzbekistan will apply to rejoin the CSTO]. I think that if we arrive at a mutual understanding on addressing comprehensive security issues, this issue will be resolved in the future." In an address before Uzbekistan's parliament only days ago, Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov urged Uzbekistan to rejoin the organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2006). DK

KYRGYZ SUPREME COURT DENIES TWO JAILED UZBEKS REFUGEE STATUS
Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court hascleared the way for the extradition to Uzbekistan of two Uzbeks currently detained in Kyrgyzstan, akipress.org reported. The Supreme Court upheld on 16 February a Bishkek court's earlier decision denying the two men refugee status, The two men, Odiljon Rahimov and Jahongir Maqsudov, fled to Kyrgyzstan after they were freed from a prison in Andijon, Uzbekistan, in the course of May 2005 unrest, ferghana.ru reported. Khurnisa Makhidinova, a lawyer representing the two men, told akipress.org that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has already granted them, as well as two other Uzbeks jailed in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, the status of "mandate refugees." Kyrgyzstan's Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society warned that the four men's extradition to Uzbekistan "threatens an enormous international scandal that will inflict irreparable damage on the reputation of a democratic Kyrgyzstan." DK

BELARUSIAN POLICE ARREST PARTICIPANTS OF SOLIDARITY DAY
Police in Minsk on 16 February arrested around 20 people and dispersed the 100 remaining participants in a gathering marking "Solidarity Day," Belapan reported. The stated goal of Solidarity Day is to demonstrate support for imprisoned opposition politicians and the families of prominent figures who disappeared in Belarus in 1999 and 2000. The action was initiated by opposition youth activist Mikita Sasim, journalist Iryna Khalip, and Iryna Krasouskaya, the wife of "disappeared" businessman Anatol Krasouski, on 16 September 2005, the sixth anniversary of Krasouski's disappearance and that of his friend, opposition politician Viktar Hanchar. Krasouskaya suggested that Solidarity Day sympathizers should turn off the lights in their homes and place a lighted candle in a window at 8 p.m. local time on the 16th day of each month for 15 minutes. AM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION BARRED FROM ATTENDING REGISTRATION CEREMONY
The Central Election Commission has denied opposition party leaders permission to attend the 17 February official registration of presidential contenders for the 19 March vote, Belapan reported on 16 February. Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the head of the Central Election Commission, said that the procedure provides only for the presence of people whose applications are under consideration, candidates, foreign and international observers, reporters, and the commission's staff. "The presence of other people at sessions of the Central Commission is not provided for," Yarmoshyna said. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the united opposition candidate, described this decision as more than strange. "The Electoral Code suggests that any electoral process should be transparent and open," he said. AM

BELARUSIAN EXILED UNIVERSITY RECEIVES OFFICIAL STATUS IN LITHUANIA
Vilnius announced on 15 February it is granting official status to the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, Belapan reported. EHU, a private institution funded largely by European educational foundations, national budgets, and the United Nations, was previously based in Minsk but was closed by Belarusian authorities in July 2004, officially due to the lack of buildings for classes. The "unofficial" reason was believed to be the pro-Western orientation of the institution. EHU had around 1,000 students. "Realizing the importance and special position of the university in exile, the Ministry of Education and Science proposed backing the re-establishment" of EHU, a Lithuanian government statement reads. EHU has the right to legally operate in Lithuania until conditions provide for its return to Belarus. AM

POLAND INCLUDES UKRAINIAN PIPELINE PROJECT IN SECURITY STRATEGY
Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz and his Ukrainian counterpart Yuriy Yekhanurov signed on 16 February in Warsaw a joint declaration on government assistance to the Odesa-Brody-Plock pipeline project, Interfax reported. Marcinkiewicz said the project will be a part of Poland's energy security strategy, and that within the next two months the Polish government will take all necessary measures to ensure the venture is profitable. Yekhanurov said the agreement opens the way to stop within 90 days the pumping of oil toward, rather than away from, the port in Odesa. The extension of the Odesa-Brody pipeline to Poland is meant to help transport Caspian crude oil to Europe and to aid Poland in diversifying its energy supplies. AM

UKRAINE SEEKS REPLACEMENT FOR ROSUKRENERGO IN GAS SUPPLIES
Prime Minister Yekhanurov said on 16 February the government is seeking an agreement with Russia in order to replace the Swiss-based company RosUkrEnergo as the intermediary in the current deal to ship Russian gas supplies to Ukraine, Interfax reported. Yekhanurov said he has sent a request to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, and that if the Russian side also finds RosUkrEnergo unsuitable, "we are anticipating its replacement with pleasure, and Gazprom would be the best replacement." U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst the same day expressed surprise that RosUkrEnergo was playing a significant role in such an important agreement, adding that the United States views it as a suspicious organization. According to open data, RosUkrEnergo's revenue in 2005 was around $3 billion, and yet its staff consisted of just 12 employees. "It would be better if this $3 billion were in the coffers of Ukraine or Russia," Herbst said. AM

UKRAINE RULES OUT PRESENCE OF RUSSIAN FLEET IN CRIMEA AFTER 2017
Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko said on 16 February in Sevastopol that Russia's Black Sea Fleet will remain in Ukraine after 2017, Interfax reported. Hrytsenko, who was attending a Ukrainian naval ceremony for a new Ukrainian-made corvette, a small antisubmarine ship, added that the withdrawal of the Russian fleet should be a planned action that "will not cause damage to the combat capacity of the fleet" and "will settle social and economic issues." However, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's former prime minister and the leader of the popular Party of Regions, said the same day that Ukraine will improve its relations with Russia after the 26 March parliamentary elections and "make a carefully weighed decision on the Black Sea Fleet." AM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT ASKS FOR INVITATION TO NATO SUMMIT
Ukrainian First Deputy Foreign Minister Anton Buteiko said on 16 February that NATO members will soon receive a letter from Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko expressing Ukraine's hope of being invited to join the alliance's Membership Action Plan at a meeting between Ukrainian and NATO officials in Sofia in April, Interfax reported. Buteiko said Ukraine, if invited, will be ready to implement the first stage of the plan this autumn. He also noted that Ukraine hoped to be invited to become a full-fledged NATO members at the alliance summit in 2008. AM

EU ENLARGEMENT CHIEF WARNS BELGRADE ON MLADIC...
European Union Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn warned on 16 February that all negotiations between Belgrade and Brussels could be stopped if war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic is not arrested soon, B92 reported the same day. "If Serbia and Montenegro does not achieve complete cooperation with The Hague [tribunal] quickly, this will have negative consequences in the near future as far as the discussions for stabilization and association are concerned, and the European future of Serbia-Montenegro," Rehn said during a visit to Belgrade. "Last year, before we started the discussions for the agreement, we clearly said that significant progress must be made in cooperation with the tribunal and complete cooperation must be achieved," he added. "We are not only interested in taking responsibility, we want results, not just words, we want actions and we expect that now from your nation and its leaders." BW

...AS EUROPEAN COMMISSION PRESIDENT ADDRESSES SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO PARLIAMENT AMID PROTEST
As European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso addressed Serbia and Montenegro's parliament on 16 February, members of the Serbian Radical Party protested by wearing white shirts depicting party leader Vojislav Seselj, Hina and B92 reported. Seselj is currently on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Like Rehn, Barroso urged Belgrade to satisfy the ICTY so that negotiations with the EU can move ahead. "It is of extreme importance that the progress made so far in the discussions overcomes the problem of the lack of cooperation with the Hague tribunal. We need to have Serbia-Montenegro as a credible partner which makes the right decisions and is in the position to fulfill its international obligations," Barroso told the lawmakers. BW.

EU ENVOY URGES CONSENSUS ON MONTENEGRIN REFERENDUM
Miroslav Lajcak, the European Union's envoy to Montenegro's independence referendum, said on 17 February that the independence referendum will lack legitimacy if it is boycotted by the opposition, B92 reported. Lajcak also said on 15 February that 55 percent of those casting ballots must support independence for the vote to be valid, B92 reported the next day. The EU envoy added that the vote should be held on 14 May, together with regularly scheduled local elections. Opposition parties opposing independence are seeking to have the referendum structured so that a majority of all registered voters must support independence regardless of turnout (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, and 16 February 2006). The Montenegrin parliament is scheduled to debate the issue on 25 February. BW

OSCE CHIEF CALLS FOR CLEAR DECISIONS ON KOSOVA
Karel de Gucht, chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called for a clear decision on Kosova's status during a visit to Prishtina on 16 February, dpa reported the same day. "It is very important that we should have an overall agreement, not an agreement on status and afterward one on the implementation of standards within the new Kosovan entity," de Gucht said after meeting Kosova's newly elected president, Fatmir Sejdiu. De Gucht, who is Belgium's foreign minister, also urged a clear decision on how much authority would be decentralized to local communities, a key demand of minority Serbs in Kosova. "We stand ready as the OSCE to stay for longer terms in Kosovo and implement this, and assist the government of Kosovo in establishing a clearly democratic and pluralistic state," he said. BW

SERBIAN PRESIDENT SLAMS COUNTRY'S POLITICIANS
Boris Tadic harshly criticized Serbia's politicians on 17 February, accusing them of putting short-term political advantage over the national interest, Beta and B92 reported. Tadic said Serbia's most pressing problems remain unsolved because of the attitudes of politicians. "Politicians in Serbia are pompous without cause. This goes for me as well, because I cannot remain proud when I see all these problems," he said. Tadic said that Serbia's main goal is to join the European Union by 2013. BW

EU EXTENDS TRAVEL BAN AGAINST TRANSDNIESTER OFFICIALS
The European Union has extended a travel ban against top officials from Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, Infotag and dpa reported on 16 February. Citing separatist leader Igor Smirnov's unwillingness to discuss reunification with Moldova, Brussels in February 2003 imposed a three-year ban on 17 top officials in Transdniester from visiting EU member states. The EU extended the ban because of Transdniester's continued unwillingness to discuss reunification and its refusal to address the issue of smuggling. BW

PANEL ASSESSES IMPACT OF BAKU-TBILISI-CEYHAN PIPELINE
The transportation of Azerbaijani oil and gas reserves to world markets via Georgia and Turkey promises huge returns for all three countries. But, as a report released in Brussels on 15 February warns, Azerbaijan and Georgia in particular may have a hard time coping with the huge pressures involved with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. The report is authored by an independent panel commissioned by the British oil company BP, which is leading the BTC venture. It urges Western investors to contribute more to the development of Azerbaijan and Georgia, but concludes that the final responsibility lies with those countries' own governments.

The imminent completion of the BTC oil pipeline, together with that of an accompanying gas pipeline, will have a huge impact on the region. It will set into motion a chain of oil and gas extraction and transit in which an international consortium headed by the British energy giant BP has invested $22 billion.

Jan Leschly, a Danish business executive, chairs an independent panel set up by BP to assess the implications of the project. Presenting the panel's latest report in Brussels on 15 February, Leschly stressed the huge scale of the undertaking. "These are huge projects, both in scale and in strategic importance," he said. "And if you think about the scale of the BTC pipeline, it is expected that pipeline will carry 1 million barrels per day and the SCP [South Caucasus Pipeline], the gas pipeline, will carry about 7 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year."

Leschly and other members of the panel emphasized that the $22 billion invested by BP and other Western companies is a large sum on a global scale. But given the world's increasing thirst for energy, there is little doubt of the project's profitability over its scheduled 40-year lifespan.

The investment also dwarfs the economies of both Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to the CIA World Factbook, Azerbaijan's estimated gross domestic product (GDP) in 2005 was less than $11 billion; Georgia's was $5.1 billion.

Both countries stand to reap some of the profits, but they will be going down a road strewn with pitfalls. The record of oil-rich countries is so poor that a World Bank study recommended in 2003 that no more money should be made available to them to fund oil extraction. The study was shelved, however, and the report by the BP panel argues that its conclusions are too gloomy.

However, the panel warned that Azerbaijan, which will reap most of the gains by providing the oil and the gas, is particularly vulnerable to the so-called oil curse. Mohamed Sahnoun, an Algerian diplomat on the panel who has held a series of high-profile appointments at the United Nations, offered a brief overview of the dangers facing countries like Azerbaijan.

"The 'oil curse,' as it is known, can take many forms," Sahnoun said. "As an economic phenomenon, its symptoms can include rapid inflation, the stagnation and sometimes even the collapse of the non-oil sector, and dependence on imports. In its more advanced form, the 'oil curse' can have also devastating social and political effects, including rampant corruption, bad governance, tensions between different communities within the country, sometimes between the central government and local government, and leading often to civil war, to internal conflict."

The report says that the danger to Azerbaijan has become more imminent in recent months, with oil and gas prices reaching unprecedented heights. It says, however, that the final responsibility of handling the pressure rests with the Azerbaijani government, which should do all it can to promote economic and political reforms, ensuring democratic participation, development of civil society, respect for human rights, and transparent financial management.

BP and its fellow investors can only play a supportive role. But, as the report notes, the companies could be held responsible if things go wrong with the pipeline project. The report recommends that BP and others should reinvest part of their profits into the region.

Stuart Eizenstat, another panel member and formerly a high-ranking U.S. official, said BP's Regional Development Initiative (RDI), which invests $20 million a year into the region, is a good start, but is not enough. "We are impressed with this progress, but, being an independent panel, we believe that improvements need to be made if BP is going to have the kind of long-term impact in the region they have indicated they want to have with greater [regional] coherence of the various programmes across the three countries," he said.

"And they need to integrate environmental objectives across the entire RDI program," Eizenstat added. "To date, for example, there are no substantial environmental programs in RDI beyond a biodiversity program -- which, while important, is not complete. In addition, we have recommended in this report that BP dramatically increase its financial commitment to the RDI."

The report also expresses concerns that governments in the region could commit human rights abuses in the name of pipeline security. The commitments assumed by Azerbaijan and Georgia in this respect are voluntary. The report says that BP "may need to press" Azerbaijan and Georgia to promote good governance and sound economic development.

With regard to Azerbaijan, the report says it is particularly important that the Oil Fund set up by the government remains transparent and subject to international accounting standards. The report says BP should encourage transparency in Azerbaijani government expenditure. It praises Azerbaijan's voluntary participation in an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, but notes that more needs to be done. The panel on also noted that Azerbaijan came in 137th in a recent corruption study involving 159 countries.

The report says BP and its Western partners themselves should make public all payments made to the Azerbaijani government.

In Georgia, BP has announced a $14.5 million-a-year grant program, which the report finds sufficient. However, it notes a very large number of grievances related mostly to property issues along the routes of the pipelines. The report says BP and its partners have not been able to convince the local population of the impartiality of the appeal bodies they have set up. Environmental concerns also persist.

A particular challenge with regard to Georgia is what the report terms the "incongruity" of more than 1 million barrels of oil and equally significant amounts of gas flowing through or near villages and towns where houses have no heat or electricity. It notes such a situation is not sustainable. The report suggests BP can help develop Georgia's internal gas-distribution network. Also, it says, Azerbaijan and Turkey could assist Georgia with sales of natural gas, and, in the case of Turkey, provision of electricity.

The report did not address Armenia, which was excluded from pipeline routes. Stuart Eizenstat said this was partially due to Yerevan's dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, but went on to suggest the existence of the pipelines could contribute to its solution.

"I can't say that the pipeline itself necessarily has led to this, but there are now some discussions which I hope will be promising between Azerbaijan and Armenia to try to deal with that issue," Eizenstat said.

Eizenstat said the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline has already contributed to regional cohesion, citing Azerbaijan's decision to help Georgia after this winter's disruption in Russian gas supply. Such cohesion, Eizenstat said, "will be to the benefit of Armenia as well."

Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.

AFGHAN LEADER PROPOSES OPENING BORDER WITH PAKISTAN...
In Islamabad on the second day of his official visit to Pakistan, President Hamid Karzai on 16 February proposed an open-border policy between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2006). "I would like the two countries not to have passports any more, like the European Schengen visa," Karzai told reporters at the National Defense College. He rejected the idea floated by the Pakistani government to fence the border between the two countries as a measure to stop cross-border traffic by terrorists and drug traffickers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2005). "Fencing is separation. We need to jointly strike at the roots of terrorism," Karzai added. Kabul has voiced its concern at Islamabad's reluctance to stop the infiltration of militants into Afghanistan and the alleged support provided to some militants by official and unofficial circles in Pakistan. Afghanistan is opposed, however, to measures that would make the Durand Line -- the disputed boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- more formal. The Durand Line has never been officially recognized by Afghanistan and has been at the core of disagreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 August 2003). AT

...AND KABUL HANDS LIST OF TALIBAN MEMBERS TO ISLAMABAD
During Karzai's visit to Pakistan, Afghanistan gave Pakistan a list of 150 Taliban members who are allegedly living in Pakistan, the BBC reported on 16 February. An unidentified Karzai spokesman said that some of the names on the list have addresses attached to them. Kabul has asked Islamabad to apprehend those named on the list. AT

PAKISTAN TO RECEIVE TURKMEN GAS
At the conclusion of a meeting on the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas-pipeline project in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan in principle agreed to supply 90 million cubic meters of gas per day to Pakistan for a period of 30 years, the official Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported on 16 February. A memorandum of understanding was signed in Ashgabat between representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan after the meeting, which India attended as an observer. The participants discussed the size of the Turkmen gas reserves; the security, route, and structure of the pipeline; gas pricing; and financial aspects of the project. India expressed its willingness to join the project sometime in the future. The pipeline is a $3.45 billion undertaking designed to transport natural gas from the Dawlatabad field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and then eventually, if the political climate between Islamabad and New Delhi permits, to India (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003). The enthusiasm of Kabul and Islamabad for the project may prove to be premature, as most observers in the region still regard the project, which was first mooted in the mid-1990s, as more of a pipedream than a pipeline. AT

TWO ITALIANS HELPING REFORM AFGHAN JUDICIAL SYSTEM DIE IN KABUL
The two Italians identified as Iendi Ianneli and Stefano Siringo were found dead in their residence on 16 February, international news agencies reported. The two men apparently died of carbon-monoxide inhalation. Italy has been the lead country in reforming the Afghan judicial sector, working mainly through the Rome-based International Development Law Organization (IDLO). Ianneli worked for IDLO while Siringo was an employee of the Italian Foreign Ministry. AT

NEW UN ENVOY ARRIVES IN KABUL
Tom Koenigs, the newly appointed special envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Afghanistan, arrived in Kabul on 16 February to assume his position, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Koenigs, from Germany, replaces France's Jean Arnault, who has held the position since February 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004). "This is the first time I've visited Afghanistan and I think the situation is good," Koenigs said upon his arrival. AT

FRANCE DECRIES IRAN'S 'MILITARY' NUCLEAR PROGRAM...
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in an interview broadcast on France 2 TV on 16 February that the only explanation for Iranian behavior is that the country is pursuing a military nuclear program, Radio Farda reported. "Today, it's very simple: no civilian nuclear program can explain Iran's nuclear program," he said. "So it's a clandestine, military, Iranian nuclear program." Tehran's failure to heed the world's message to "see reason, suspend all nuclear activity and uranium enrichment," Douste-Blazy continued, explains international unity on the issue. An unidentified French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the same day that France does not oppose Iran's having a civilian program, according to the ministry's website, but "the sensitive nuclear activities currently being carried out in Iran in conversion and enrichment cast doubt on their peaceful and civil nature." She said it is up to Iran to reduce tensions and restore confidence by completely and fully suspending its reprocessing and enrichment activities. BS

...AND SURPRISES TEHRAN
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told France Inter Radio on 16 February that Paris should speak from a position of leadership rather than echoing Washington's views. Unlike the United States and United Kingdom, he continued, France is very popular with the Iranian people. Larijani appeared to call on France to serve as a mediator, saying, "Instead of heightening the tension, diplomats should look for a solution to the problem." He continued: "I consider France to have a positive role. I think France is capable of entering on the scene, but not with such statements." BS

IRANIAN PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER VISITS CUBA
Parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel arrived in Cuba on 16 February, after spending four days in Venezuela. Upon his arrival in Havana, Haddad-Adel praised Cuban resistance to U.S. pressure for 47 years, IRNA reported. His Cuban counterpart Ricardo Alarcon said the two countries are at the vanguard of the battle with "U.S. imperialism" and advised that they continue to support each other. Alarcon, whose country voted against reporting Iran to the UN Security Council for its allegedly suspicious nuclear activities, also condemned efforts to prevent a people from using nuclear energy peacefully, "Prensa Latina" reported. Alarcon described Iran as a long-suffering victim of imperialist provocation, like Cuba. Haddad-Adel praised Cuban leader Fidel Castro and then toured the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. BS

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS RELIGIOUS, POLITICAL LEADERS IN BEIRUT
On the second day of his Lebanese visit on 16 February, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki met with leading Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, IRNA reported. Fadlallah addressed the so-called Shi'ite Crescent that some observers fear will stretch from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon, saying that it should be seen as a "Welfare Crescent" that will have widespread support, rather than an "Evil Crescent." Fadlallah reportedly praised Iran's scientific accomplishments and condemned alleged U.S. efforts to impose dependency on the Muslim world. President Emil Lahud met Mottaki on 16 February, the Lebanese National News Agency reported, and told him that Lebanese unity, combined with "the support for Lebanon by fraternal and friendly countries, chiefly Syria and Iran," is essential in successfully resisting international pressure. Lahud said the promotion of democracy in the region is actually a pretext for controlling countries. Mottaki and Lahud also discussed economic issues, IRNA reported. BS

LEBANESE HIZBALLAH LEADER ADDRESSES ALLEGATIONS AGAINST IRAN
Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizballah in Lebanon, discussed recent allegations about Iran's regional role in a 16 February speech in Beirut, Al-Manar television reported. Discussing the "resistance" against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, which ended in 2000, Nasrallah thanked Iran and Syria for their support. He then alluded to allegations that Syria created the Shabaa Farms issue as a pretext for undermining stability and peace in Lebanon, and that the country is being manipulated by Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. "Some may accuse us and say we speak at the request of Syria or Iran or to serve their motives," he said. "I say we are not doing so." Nasrallah said Hizballah is not part of any coalition, and it has been consistent in its stance on numerous issues. BS

IRAQI INTERIOR MINISTRY LAUNCHES INVESTIGATION INTO ALLEGED DEATH SQUAD...
Iraq's Interior Ministry announced on 16 February that it has launched an investigation into the alleged existence of death squads operating under the cover of ministry personnel, international media reported the same day. The announcement came after the U.S. military said the Iraqi army arrested 22 highway patrolmen disguised as military commandos at a checkpoint last month after the patrolmen said they intended to kill a Sunni Arab in their custody. "We have found one of the death squads. They are a part of the police force of Iraq," said U.S. Major General Joseph Peterson, who commands the civilian police-training teams in Iraq, chicagotribune.com reported. "We continue to believe that there's more of these out there," Peterson added. He said he believes Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr had no previous knowledge of the existence of the death squad. Four suspected ringleaders of the group appear to be members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Organization; they are being held at Abu Ghurayb Prison in Baghdad. The other 18 are in an Iraqi jail. The Sunni man is also in Iraqi custody, charged with murder in a separate incident. KR

...AS GUNMEN WEARING IRAQI POLICE UNIFORMS KIDNAP BANK DIRECTOR, SON
Gunmen wearing Iraqi special-forces uniforms kidnapped the director-general of the Al-Basrah International Bank in Baghdad on 16 February along with his son, Iraqi police said on 17 February, international media reported. The gunmen reportedly arrived at Ghalib Abd al-Husayn Kubba's home in a minibus, and gunned down five guards before seizing Kubba and his son Hassan, who is a senior staffer at the bank, Major Falah al-Muhammadawi told AP. "We think it is a criminal case because the bank director was not killed," al-Muhammadawi said. Police said the kidnappers have yet to issue any demands. According to AP, Kubba headed the Al-Basrah Chamber of Commerce for nine years under Saddam Hussein. Following the 2003 war, he relocated to Baghdad to head the bank's office in the capital. Criminal gangs in and around Baghdad have regularly kidnapped Iraqi businessmen or their family members for ransom since 2003. KR

SOME IRAQI SHI'A MAY JOIN KURDS, SUNNIS IN VOTING AGAINST AL-JA'FARI NOMINATION
Some Iraqi Shi'a are in talks with Kurdish and Sunni leaders about voting against the United Iraqi Alliance's (UIA) nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for another term when the vote goes to parliament, Knight-Ridder reported on 16 February. Al-Ja'fari was widely criticized for his poor performance as head of the transitional government. Fractures within the UIA have become increasingly apparent in recent months; several people left the alliance ahead of the 15 December parliamentary elections. Al-Ja'fari narrowly secured the UIA nomination this week, defeating Deputy Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi by one vote. "All this emanates from the fact that we need a government of national unity. We can't have a religious government," former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said. "It has to be an all-Iraqi government. It has to be liberal...and everybody is incorporated." Al-Ja'fari has openly opposed Allawi's participation in a national unity government; the latter's list won 25 parliamentary seats in the elections. President Jalal Talabani reminded reporters in Baghdad on 16 February that al-Ja'fari's nomination must still be approved by parliament, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. KR

IRAQI OIL MINISTRY REACHES DEAL WITH TURKEY FOR OIL DELIVERIES
The Iraqi Oil Ministry has reached an agreement with Turkey over the payment of some $1 billion in debt that will allow Turkey to restart its deliveries to Iraq, international media reported on 15 February. Turkey cut off oil exports to Iraq last month, citing the mounting debt (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 February 2006). "A large delegation from the Oil Ministry has agreed with the Turkish side to schedule Iraq's debts and continue the import of oil products from Turkey," said ministry spokesman Asim Jihad, Baghdad's "Al-Furat" reported. "Large quantities of oil products have arrived in Iraq, including liquid gas, following this agreement," he added. Kuwait's KUNA news agency reported on 14 February that Kuwait was shipping fuel to northern Iraq to help compensate for the fuel shortage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2006). KR

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