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Newsline - February 2, 2007

President Vladimir Putin argued at his marathon televised press conference on February 1 that the planned U.S. missile-defense system is a threat to Russia, a point recently made by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 24, and 26, 2007). Putin said on February 1 that "the U.S. plans to deploy missile-defense systems [in Poland and the Czech Republic] are in no way connected with the growth of Russia's military might because they were announced long before we began displaying this might. And in general, I have to say...that Russia's military expenditures are still 25 times -- 25 times -- lower than those of the United States." Putin stressed that "our military experts do not believe that the missile-defense systems to be deployed in Eastern European countries are intended to counter the threat from Iran or some terrorists. What do ballistic weapons have to do with terrorists? Are there really terrorists with ballistic weapons? The trajectory of missiles that might be fired from Iranian territory is also very well known. And [Iran] doesn't even have any ballistic missiles." Putin added that "we consider such claims [to support the deployment of missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe] unfounded. And, of course, this directly concerns us, and naturally there will be an adequate reaction [from Russia]. As I have already said, this reaction will be asymmetrical but highly effective." He noted that Russia's latest Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles are able to penetrate missile defenses and that Russia is developing even more advanced weapons. Putin argued that "we will have next-generation systems immune to any prospective missile defense," and able to change the altitude and direction of their flight en route to their target. He stressed that "missile-defense systems are helpless against that." PM

The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on February 1 that Washington emphasizes that the purpose of the proposed missile defense system is not to neutralize Russian arsenals. The paper also noted that U.S. officials have invited Russia to play an active role in the system's development. Many media outlets in Poland and the Czech Republic interpreted President Putin's February 1 statement on the U.S. missile defense as an implicit threat toward their respective countries. The Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" on February 2 highlighted Putin's remarks dealing with the effectiveness of Russia's own missile systems, including those still being planned. The daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" noted his comments about the U.S. missile defense being of no use in dealing with terrorists or Iran. It also recalled his remarks to a Finnish journalist to the effect that joining NATO does not enhance a country's security (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). The Czech daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" said in its February 2 front-page headline: "Putin threatens: 'We have missiles [pointed at] you.'" The paper suggested that Putin's remarks were also intended for a Russian domestic audience "that likes to see an uncompromising president." The daily argued that Putin's "bragging" about Russia's missiles might only serve to convince Czechs that they really do need a U.S. missile defense base. It quoted Jiri Sedivy, who is a former head of the Czech General Staff, as saying on February 1 that Putin's statement reflects a Russian inferiority complex toward NATO's more advanced technology. Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra said on February 1 that the government will continue its efforts to explain to Russia that the missile defense system is not directed against it. PM

President Putin told his February 1 press conference that "the people of Iran should have access to modern technologies, including nuclear ones, but... they should choose a variant that will guarantee Iran access to nuclear energy, while complying with its commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty not to build nuclear weapons." He added that he hopes that "the recent visit of Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Mr. [Igor] Ivanov to Iran will help us align our positions and will help convince our Iranian partners to make decisions that will improve the situation in a healthy way, unfreeze relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and remove all suspicions in the international community about Iran's alleged plans to create nuclear weapons." Many Western media outlets drew attention to Putin's comments that seemed to leave the door open to the possible formation of a "gas OPEC," which was recently proposed to Ivanov by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). Putin said on February 1 that forming a cartel of natural gas producing countries "it is an interesting idea, and we'll think about it." PM

Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on February 1 that President Putin's press conference is a means for him to "give signals [of what he wants or expects] to what is referred to as the 'Russian bureaucracy,' and to foreign partners and opponents alike, which is extremely important." Mark Urnov, the head of the Ekspertiza think tank in Moscow, believes that Putin's generally upbeat tone might have to do with the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2007 and March 2008, respectively. Urnov argued that the press conference "was a typical preelection speech, organized maybe not for himself but for the person who will succeed him. The emphasis was on successes, and almost all the difficult issues facing the country were only briefly mentioned. This is the classical logic of a preelection speech. I think any politician in any country would have presented it precisely in this manner." Urnov argued that Putin generally avoided problematic areas, such as the recent conflict with Georgia. Urnov said that "the Georgian issue was addressed in this way: 'Yes, we had several practical difficulties that are being resolved, we are doing everything to normalize the situation.' Concerning relations with the West, an American journalist noted that relations have hit their lowest point since 1985. Of course, the president failed to comment on the state of these relations." Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow office of the Carnegie Center, also believes that Putin's annual media event bears little resemblance to a traditional press conference. She said that "this event shouldn't be regarded as a press conference in the strict sense, because press conferences are part of the arsenal used by journalists to call the authorities to account on behalf of society. In the format of this annual event -- which I would rather call a gala-presentation by the head of state -- it's impossible to ask questions about current political decisions and current affairs in the country, because it happens once a year and there are simply too many people present." PM

A statement issued in Strasbourg on February 1 announced that Russia has become the 44th country to join the Council of Europe's anticorruption body, known as GRECO, news agencies reported. The statement said an evaluation team will go to Moscow later in 2007 to deal with issues related to corruption in public administration and the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by certain holders of public office. GRECO members commit to fighting corruption by agreeing to take part in a mutual evaluation process. PM

On February 2, the Moscow City Court sentenced three men to life in prison for organizing two Moscow subway bombings in 2004, which left a total of 49 people dead and about 300 injured, Interfax reported. The three men were convicted of terrorism, murder, and banditry, among other charges. Prosecutors charged that two of the men, Maksim Panaryin and Tamby Khubiyev, belonged to a terrorist group based in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic. The third man, Murat Shavayev, is reportedly a former Russian Justice Ministry official. Prosecutors and lawyers of the victims say they are satisfied with the verdict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). PM

Speaking on February 1 in Moscow at his annual press conference, President Putin expressed satisfaction that the standoff with Georgia over gas prices has been resolved, and at the return to Tbilisi late last month of Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 2007), but he implicitly rejected the Georgian interpretation of Kovalenko's return as a victory for Georgian diplomacy, Russian media reported. Putin said the Russian military base in Armenia "is not aimed against any country in the region, including Azerbaijan." He added that it would be counterproductive for Russia to attempt to impose on Azerbaijan and Armenia solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as doing so would risk damaging relations with either or both countries "for centuries to come." He proposed that Armenia and Azerbaijan jointly resume production of the cheap fortified wine from the Azerbaijani district of Agdam that was popular throughout the USSR in the 1970s and early 1980s. Agdam, which borders on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, is currently occupied by Armenian forces. Azerbaijani politicians have repeatedly ruled out any economic cooperation with Armenia until Armenian forces are withdrawn from Agdam and other occupied districts and a political solution to the conflict is reached. LF

In the course of his February 1 press conference, Putin also lauded the work of the Chechen government and of Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian media reported. At the same time, Putin called for more intensive efforts to reduce unemployment in Chechnya, and he noted that the 23 percent of all budget subsidies go to republics in the Southern Federal District, with Chechnya receiving proportionally the largest share. (Chechnya relies on federal subsidies for 80 percent of its budget, according to on January 23.) Speaking in Grozny later the same day, Kadyrov expressed appreciation of Putin's evaluation. He vowed that the Chechen economy will continue to expand at a faster rate than that of Russia as a whole until it reaches a level of socio-economic development superior to that of other federation subjects, reported. Commenting on Putin's condemnation of nationalism and xenophobia, Kadyrov expressed regret that "many citizens of Russia [rossiyane] still regard their fellow citizens of Chechen nationality as enemies and terrorists." LF

Speaking at a press conference in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Interior Minister Yury Tomchak said that "wahhabism is not a crime, it's a religious tendency," according to "Gazeta yuga" as reposted on February 1 on In a clear reference to the indiscriminate reprisals against young Muslims carried out by his predecessor, Lieutenant General Khachim Shogenov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006), Tomchak said that his ministry's efforts to apprehend Islamic militants out to "overthrow the existing system " should not be seen as a struggle with a specific religious tendency, but as an attempt to redress "the damage inflicted by our colleagues." LF

Artashes Geghamian, chairman of the opposition National Accord Party, has failed to submit to the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office any evidence to corroborate his claims at a January 15 press conference that Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian plotted to assassinate wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, quoted Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian as telling journalists in Yerevan on February 2. Hovsepian said he twice asked Geghamian to provide evidence of his claim that it was as a result of learning of his planned murder that Tsarukian founded his Prosperous Armenia party in late 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2007). A spokesman for the Republican Party of Armenia, of which Sarkisian is a leading member, rejected Geghamian's allegations on January 15 as "absolutely ridiculous," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

The price of seven Azerbaijani dailies -- "Azadliq," "Yeni Musavat," "Gyundelik Azerbaijan," "Bizim yol," "Ekspress," "Sharq," and "24 saat" -- rose as of February 1 by 50 percent, from 20 to 30 gyapiks ($0.35), reported on February 2. Announcing the imminent price increase on January 29, the "Azadliq" director attributed it to the recent 50 percent increase in rent for office space in the Azerbaijan publishing house, reported on January 30. That rent increase was in turn occasioned by the price hikes for gas, water and electricity approved by the government Tariff Council earlier in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10 and 11, 2007). The dailies "Ayna," "Zerkalo," and "Ekho" raised their prices immediately after that announcement. LF

As of February 1, the last day for nominating candidates for the March 4 parliamentary elections in the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, the number of would-be candidates to fill the 35 parliament seats stood at 136, reported. The majority are men, and Abkhaz, but Civil Georgia on January 21 quoted Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh as saying that while there are no formal quotas for representatives of other ethnic groups, a "gentleman's agreement" exists under which if a Russian is nominated in a specific constituency, the rival candidates in that constituency should also be Russians. That agreement is intended to ensure a multiethnic parliament. Twenty-six nominees are deputies in the outgoing parliament. The formal registration process ends on February 21.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier signed a military-transit accord in Berlin on February 1, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry issued a press release stating that "an agreement was signed between the governments of Kazakhstan and Germany on the transit of military equipment and personnel through [Kazakhstan's] territory in connection with the participation of German armed forces in the Afghanistan stabilization and reconstruction effort." The signing took place on the last day of a visit to Germany by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. DK

Judge Ziyadinkhan Pirniyaz announced in Shymkent on February 1 that the trial of 21 people in connection with an outbreak of HIV/AIDS among children in southern Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006) will now be open to the public, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The trial was closed to the public when it began on January 19 to protect the identities of the children involved. Pirniyaz stressed, however, that the children's identities must be protected and that no photographs or moving images of them will be permitted. The infection of more than 80 children, which has so far led to eight deaths, is believed to have taken place through tainted blood transfusions. DK

Prime Minister Azim Isabekov has recalled from parliament a proposed overhaul of the structure of Kyrgyzstan's government in response to criticisms from legislators, Kabar reported on February 1. Iskhak Masaliev, head of parliament's Constitutional Law Committee, commented after committee discussions on February 1 that "it doesn't look good for the draft bill." Isabekov will consult with President Kurmanbek Bakiev on changes recommended by lawmakers and resubmit the revamped government structure on February 5, reported. DK

President Bakiev has signed a law ratifying an October agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on visa-free travel between the two countries, reported on February 1. The agreement will allow citizens of the two countries to cross the border without a visa and stay for a period of up to 60 days, reported. The agreement will come into force within 30 days of an exchange of notes between the two governments; reports did not state when this would take place. DK

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) announced in a January 31 press release on the organization's website ( that it will not observe Turkmenistan's February 11 presidential election. The press release stated that the "deployment of an election observation mission was not possible because of time constraints." ODIHR has deployed an Election Support Team led by Slovak Ambassador Lubomir Kopaj at the invitation of Turkmen authorities. "This should be considered as a first step of a renewed dialogue with the Turkmen authorities on electoral processes and a range of other issues," ODIHR Director Christian Strohal commented. DK

Russia's Gazprom plans to acquire a majority stake in the Swiss-registered Uzbek company Zeromax, reported on February 1, citing Interfax. A source at Uzbek national oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz reportedly told the news agency, "It is presumed that Gazprom will enter as a strategic partner both into the joint ventures created by Zeromax in the Uzbek oil and gas sector and into the core affiliates of the Swiss company that work in this sector." The report noted that Zeromax declined comment on the matter. DK

The Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces has decided to hold the Second Congress of Pro-democratic Forces on March 17-18, Belapan reported on February 1. The first congress, held in August 2005, elected Alyaksandr Milinkevich as the opposition's candidate to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the March 2006 presidential ballot. Rumors have recently surfaced that other opposition leaders want to diminish Milinkevich's political clout. In January, the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces decided to switch over to a rotating chairmanship in the coalition of opposition forces, which is now chaired by Milinkevich. "If we had developed democracy, I wouldn't object to the rotational principle, but we live in Belarus, under the conditions of a dictatorship, and no one has ever managed to defeat a dictatorship without a single leader," Milinkevich told Belapan. In addition, the opposition scheduled a mass demonstration in Minsk for March 25, the anniversary of the short-lived independent Belarusian People's Republic that was crushed by Bolshevik forces in 1918. Opposition leader Vintsuk Vyachorka told Reuters that the March 25 demonstration will be in support of the country's independence. Vyachorka suggested that the opposition could help President Lukashenka in his recent bid to mend fences with the West, following an energy row with Russia. JM

The Committee on Education, Culture, and Science in the Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house, has approved a new draft bill on higher education, Belapan reported on February 1. The draft bill includes a provision authorizing the education minister to appoint rectors of privately owned institutions of higher learning. "The decision is final and may not be debated," Uladzimir Zdanovich, chairman of the committee, said at a news conference in Minsk on February 1. Zdanovich stressed that the provision does not run counter to either the constitution or the Labor Code. He explained that the move was proposed after rectors of some private universities "violated laws and inflicted damage on students." Belarus currently has 12 private institutions of higher learning with some 58,000 students. JM

In its annual report on press freedom released on February 1 (, Reporters Without Borders said Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has managed to silence nearly all opposition and independent media during his 12-year-old rule. "The free media has almost disappeared or been forced underground as in Soviet times," the report notes. JM

Parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz on February 2 published a controversial bill on the cabinet adopted in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2007) in "Holos Ukrayiny" and "Uryadovyy kuryer," the official press organs of the legislature and the government, respectively. The publication means that the bill goes into effect. President Viktor Yushchenko vetoed the bill earlier this month, saying that it "distorted the essence of the constitution." Lawmakers overrode his veto on January 12. Yushchenko refused to sign the bill, claiming that deputies have slightly changed the wording of the bill from the text approved last year, thus giving him the right to send it back to parliament again. Presidential Secretariat deputy head Ivan Pukshyn said on February 1 that Yushchenko deems the cabinet bill illegal and will request that the Constitutional Court rule on its constitutionality. The bill extends the powers of the cabinet and the parliament at the expense of the president. In particular, Yushchenko objects to the provision that the parliamentary majority shall appoint the prime minister and the foreign and defense ministers, if the president fails to submit their candidacies "within 15 days." JM

Kostyantyn Borodyn, spokesman for the Ukrainian oil and gas monopoly Naftohaz Ukrayiny, said on February 1 in Kyiv that "political agreements" have been reached on Ukraine's access to gas drilling industries "in neighboring countries," Interfax reported. Earlier the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed at his marathon press conference in Moscow that the Ukrainian government has suggested unifying the two countries' gas-pipeline networks and asked for permission to drill gas in Russia in exchange. "What is being suggested is that assets should be pooled, and our Ukrainian partners would not only like to set up a gas-transmission consortium, but would also like to take ownership of some of the production assets on the territory of the Russian Federation. We normally don't do this. But if we have gone as far as that in building up our relations with our European partners, why not do this [in our relations] with Ukraine?" Putin said. Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said on February 1 that the two sides are now discussing "intentions" regarding this new gas deal. "If we switch to discussing the pooling [of assets], it will only be on a par, on a 50-50 basis," Yanukovych noted. JM

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said on February 1 "there is still much room for a compromise and to satisfy the [ethnic-] Albanian demand to run Kosovo without any kind of interference from Belgrade, while preserving the territorial integrity of Serbia." He was speaking on Radio Television Serbia on the eve of a visit to Belgrade by UN special envoy for Kosova Martti Ahtisaari to present his proposals for the future status of the Serbian province. Kosova has been under UN administration since 1999, when NATO forces halted a Serbian campaign against ethnic-Albanian separatists. Ahtisaari will meet with Serbian President Boris Tadic in Belgrade, and in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, with representatives of the Kosovar government and of the Serbian community. AG

A copy of the report seen by Reuters reportedly contains no references to Serbian sovereignty or to independence for Kosova. However, the report is widely expected to outline a transfer of power to the Kosovar government under EU supervision, and Pristina is then expected to push for independence. Serbia's leading political parties all argue that Kosova should remain part of Serbia, and Leon Kojen, a member of Serbia's negotiating team, told Radio Television Serbia on January 31 that "Ahtisaari's proposal is just that: it is one of the views regarding the solution of the issue of future status of Kosovo." He added that "the resolution of the problem will then be transferred to New York [the seat of the United Nations] and to some other places." AG

Oliver Ivanovic, the leader of the moderate Serbian List for Kosovo, warned in a February 1 interview with the Bosnian newspaper "Oslobodjenje" that Kosova will descend into war "sooner or later." "It only depends on the moment when favorable political conditions will be met in order to start the war," he said. "I am afraid that we are faced with this danger." Ivanovic previously warned that Kosovar Serbs would seek "independence from independence," breaking away from predominantly ethnic-Albanian areas if the province declares independence from Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). The commander of NATO forces in the province, Lieutenant General Roland Kather, warned on January 30 of a "domino effect" into neighboring Serbia and Macedonia if violence breaks out in the Serb-dominated north of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007). NATO's 16,500-strong force in the province is currently in a state of heightened alert. The 1999 violence created hundreds of thousands of refugees. A February 1 press release issued by the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) said 16,000 have returned since 1999, local media reported. UNMIK estimates that more than 220,000 displaced persons and refugees are still living in Serbia and Montenegro. AG

A February 1 report in the Bosnian daily "Oslobodenje" says the fugitive Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is in Russia. The source of the report was an unnamed member of the Bosnian security services, who said Karadzic was located through wiretaps. Karadzic is wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Officials at the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo and in the Federal Migration Service in Moscow said they have no knowledge of Karadzic being in Russia, Interfax reported on February 1. The new secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, on February 1 urged Karadzic and his fellow fugitive, the indicted Bosnian-Serb commander Ratko Mladic, to give themselves up, international media reported that day. Russia is the home of the wife and son of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in ICTY custody in March 2006. Both are wanted by the Serbian authorities, but not by the Hague-based ICTY. In 2005, Russia extradited a former Bosnian-Serb police officer, Dragan Zelenovic, to stand trial in The Hague for raping and torturing Bosnian-Muslim women during the war. A former Serbian security head, Vlastimir Djordjevic, is thought to be hiding in Russia. The ICTY's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, criticized Russia on January 31 over its cooperation with the ICTY. AG

Bosnia's war crimes court on February 1 indicted one Bosnian-Muslim wartime commander and launched investigations into the activities of another. Sefik Alic, 38, was indicted for instigating the "physical and mental abuse" of four Croatian-Serb prisoners of war. The four were later killed by soldiers under his command. The court accuses Alic of failing "to take measures to punish the perpetrators." Alic was arrested in November after he was recognized in an amateur video that showed ethnic Serbs fleeing Croatia after Operation Storm, a Croatian Army offensive in August, 1995. The court also launched an investigation into Alic's commander, Atif Dudakovic, on February 1, according to local media reports. Chief Prosecutor Marinko Jurcevic reportedly gave no further details about the Dudakovic case. Dudakovic has dismissed the accusations as politically motivated, Reuters reported on February 1. Bosnia's war crimes court was established in 2005. AG

The Podgorica-based MBC TV station and the Cetinje-based Svetigora radio station have been shut down for failing to pay their bills, the newspaper "Vijesti" reported on January 31. The two stations were taken off the air on January 28, the paper reported. Dragan Krkeljic, the head of the Montenegrin Radio Broadcasting Center, which transmitted the stations' broadcasts, said the two stations had unpaid bills totaling 50,000 euros ($65,000) each. "We cannot have double standards, some companies paying their debts and others owing money. We have to honor the law and the contract we, as a public company, signed with them," Krkeljic said. The director of MBC TV, Milutin Radulovic, said the Radio Broadcasting Center did not give the station any notice. Svetigora also complained about the manner in which the case was handled. AG

The long-standing dispute between Slovenia and Croatia over their maritime border in the Piran Bay has returned to the spotlight following public exchanges between the Slovenian foreign minister and the Croatian president and prime minister. Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader on February 1 renewed calls for international arbitration in comments reported that day by Croatian Radio. Croatian President Stjepan Mesic on January 31 also accused Slovenia of avoiding arbitration and, in fresh comments broadcast by Croatian Radio on February 1, said that, as "a very wise man," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel should see no danger in seeking arbitration. "If people cannot solve a dispute, they go before a court," Mesic continued. "That does not mean that they are no longer friends." Croatia argues that the maritime border should be set based on the countries' land border, which it says is not in dispute. In a January 31 interview with TV Slovenia, Rupel rejected the accusation that Ljubljana is avoiding arbitration and the claim that the two countries agree where their land border touches the sea. "Croatia needs us more than we need Croatia because Slovenia is also one of those making decisions about Croatia's future in the European Union," Rupel also said. AG

Energy-rich but democracy-poor former Soviet republics are wielding newfound clout in ways that pose difficult new challenges to the European Union and the wider community of democratic states. Drawing on massive energy windfalls, these post-Soviet petrostates -- first and foremost Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia -- are becoming increasingly repressive at home.

With oil prices spiking in recent years, the petrostates' windfall is staggering, and this sort of wealth should be a godsend for impoverished, post-Soviet countries. However, a salutary impact is by no means a given when one is speaking of unaccountable governing systems where small groups of elites control a large part of the resources. With the exception of Norway, which enjoyed the advantage of having accountable institutions in place when it began to develop its hydrocarbon wealth, the track record of lands rich in energy resources is rather poor.

Much of the study concerning energy-rich states and democratic accountability has focused on the Middle East. However, the recent rise high oil prices have focused attention on the energy-rich lands of the former Soviet Union. Whether the post-Soviet petrostates can escape the poor development outcomes of the earlier generation of countries that relied on oil and gas as their principal economic engine remains a significant question.

No less important, and indeed directly linked to domestic-development issues, is how these countries choose to exert their growing international influence.

While there is no ironclad definition of a resource-based economy, one frame of reference is those for which natural resources account for more than 10 percent of GDP and 40 percent of exports. This threshold is easily met in the cases of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. More than half of Azerbaijan's current GDP and 90 percent of its exports are accounted for by oil and gas. In the Kazakh case, GDP is 30 percent and nearly 60 percent of exports come from oil. Oil and gas exports account for about 60 percent of Russia's federal budget revenues and two-thirds of its exports.

The "resource curse" -- along with associated pathologies of energy-led development -- may in fact already be rearing its head. In each of these post-Soviet countries, there is an increasing dependence on energy as the chief economic driver, as well as a growth of the state bureaucracy and official corruption.

With so much money flowing into these countries, the stakes are raised for powerful elites who dominate these countries' politico-economic systems and control these formidable resources. To protect their positions, they limit scrutiny of their activities by silencing the press and intimidating political opposition, civil society, and other independent institutions.

The crackdown on the press in all three countries has been particularly systematic. Journalists' murders, increasing media takeovers by regime-friendly concerns, and the careful selection of broadcast news to control what ordinary citizens can and cannot see have become standard operating procedure. In 2006 in Azerbaijan, for example, there were a host of measures imposed by the authorities to exert greater control over the media. These included a decision by the National Television and Radio Council to require Azerbaijani broadcast companies to acquire a license to re-broadcast programs from such news sources as the BBC and RFE/RL, effectively taking them off the air as of January 1, 2007.

The Russian authorities too have targeted the local affiliates that broadcast programming from RFE/RL. Meanwhile, Gazprom-Media, a branch of the state-controlled gas conglomerate, has expanded its share of the Russian print-media market. The Internet is coming under greater scrutiny from the authorities.

The increasingly tight control of the information sector serves as a barometer of sorts for the entrenchment of the petrostate and the corruption that is one of its hallmarks. A recent paper produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) emphasizes the point that in resource-based economies restricted press freedom is among the critical factors enabling corruption to flourish.

The Kremlin, having already effectively muzzled independent organizations and voices at home, is now pursuing an international dimension to its anti-democratic campaign. Russia's leadership has apparently set its sights on limiting the ability of organizations such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to scrutinize its conduct. In 2005, Russia launched a campaign to limit the election-monitoring capacity of the OSCE, whose Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has set the standard for evaluating the conduct of elections in Europe and the Eurasian region. That campaign may be aimed at limiting these organizations' ability effectively to monitor upcoming elections in Russia (in 2007 and 2008) and in Kremlin-friendly autocratic states.

In its immediate neighborhood, Russia has also played the energy card to exert pressure on countries that represent the critical test cases for democratic reform in the CIS -- Georgia and Ukraine -- as well as on supposed allies including Armenia and Belarus.

The energy stakes are particularly high for Europe. EU imports of Russian energy, for instance, are expected to grow from 50 percent to 70 percent over the next decade and a half. However, with these petrostates' coffers already swollen with cash and no significant declines in energy prices in sight, the West is likely to confront increasingly assertive petro-diplomacy for the foreseeable future. These factors suggest that the community of democratic states should devise a coordinated response to the challenge, including the pursuit of a serious policy of energy independence.

Meanwhile, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan all have ambitions to be more deeply integrated into the global economy, to expand business with the EU and the Western community, and to be accepted as "normal" countries. They seek the prestige and benefits of membership of Western, rules-based organizations, while typically offering up only the trappings of accountable democratic institutions. All three countries belong to the OSCE, which Kazakhstan hopes to chair in 2009. Russia and Azerbaijan are members of the Council of Europe. Both Russia and Kazakhstan hope to join the WTO by the end of this year.

Those aspirations suggest that these countries should at a minimum be required to live up to the commitments they have made to these rules-based organizations and adhere to their accepted standards both at home and internationally.

Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. He is co-editor of Freedom House's annual survey of democratic governance, "Countries at the Crossroads."

A decision by the Afghan National Assembly's lower house, the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), on January 31 to grant full amnesty to all parties involved in the country's 2 1/2 decades of conflict was being debated by Afghans from all walks of life, according to reports by Kabul-based news agencies on February 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). Panghar Nurani, a political analyst, said the amnesty was unrelated to the security situation in Afghanistan but was rather an attempt to exonerate those accused of committing war crimes, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. A Kabul resident identified as Sakhi told Tolo Television that he "will never forgive those involved" in the civil war in his country, adding that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death for the death of few hundred people, while Afghan war criminals have killed thousands, the Kabul-based broadcaster reported. Wolesi Jirga member Abbas Nawiyan said that he will not forgive those responsible for killing his family members. Another Wolesi Jirga member, Mohammad Mohaqeq, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan from Kabul on February 1 that the bill, which was "approved with an absolute majority of votes,... mainly says that all those who were involved in the 2 1/2 decades of war, should [work] together and join in national reconciliation." Nader Naderi, spokesman for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told Tolo Television that his organization backs "any kind of step taken toward reconciliation and strengthening peace and security." However, Naderi added, the AIHRC believes that granting amnesty or exemptions to alleged war criminals "is beyond the authority" of governmental bodies and "relates to the people of Afghanistan." The Afghan people "can make the final decisions, not institutions," Naderi added. AT

Rahimullah Samandar, who heads Afghanistan's Independent Journalists Association, said in Kabul on February 1 that 2007 "began with full media censorship," and he lamented that the situation might deteriorate further, Tolo Television reported. Samandar listed cases involving Tolo's Sharif Hananyar, who was briefly detained by the National Security Directorate, and the arrest of Tawab Niazi, an independent journalist, in the eastern city of Jalalabad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2007). Samandar said journalists have been threatened by "provincial governors, police chiefs, officials of the National Security Directorate, and the Afghan National Army," and "by coalition and NATO forces." The Taliban have also warned journalists to avoid reporting on specific events, he said. Samandar said the Afghan government has not addressed complaints from journalists in cases involving governmental agencies. In its 2007 annual report for Afghanistan, released on February 1, Reporters Without Borders called press freedom "one of the few achievements of the five years since the fall of the Taliban regime," but warned that this freedom "remains fragile as journalists feel the effects of deteriorating security, threats from warlords, conservative religious leaders and an increasingly hard-pressed government." AT

The United Kingdom is planning to increase the size of its force serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in southern Afghanistan from 5,000 to 5,800 by summer, the BBC reported on February 1. The plan calls for reassigning 500 British troops currently stationed in Kabul to southern Afghanistan, as well as adding 300 troops. AT

U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan are preparing to reoccupy the town of Musa Qala in Helmand Province several months after British forces abandoned it, the London daily "The Times" reported on February 1. U.K. forces left Musa Qala in October after suffering higher than expected casualties. At the time, British officers held that an agreement was struck with local elders and that they did not simply withdraw from the town. The Taliban claimed victory, however, vowing that the Afghan flag would no longer fly over Musa Qala (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). Under the October agreement, the Taliban were banned from entering Musa Qala, but "The Times" quoted locals who said the Taliban were in fact operating inside the exclusion zone. Afghan Defense Minister General Rahim Wardak said in Kabul on January 31 that his ministry was not "involved in the decision on Musa Qala," adding that he thinks it was "premature to judge whether it was a good pilot project." Musa Qala and most of Helmand are zones where the Taliban operate, but they are also some of the most important trade and agricultural areas for Afghanistan's booming narcotics trade. AT

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told reporters on February 1 that he agrees with a proposal by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei that talks would resolve the impasse over Iran's nuclear program, but he said specific proposals are needed on how talks should proceed, IRNA reported. Larijani said el-Baradei did not say "anything about details of negotiations" when he met with him on January 29. Responding to a question on Iran's willingness to suspend uranium-enrichment and related activities, which the West wants halted, Larijani said Iran has taken no "wrong path" so there is no reason to change its course. He said the installation of new centrifuges -- for uranium enrichment -- is "among the research and development programs" in Iran's "peaceful nuclear activities." Larijani was speaking after meeting in Tehran with Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi. He added that he discussed security in Iraq and the atomic dossier with al-Mahdi. "Tehran and Baghdad have common viewpoints" on the nuclear issue, IRNA quoted Larijani as saying. VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Addis Ababa on February 1 that the "hidden policies" of Great Britain and the United States to "divide religious groups" in Iraq are "palpably evident," IRNA reported. Mottaki was in Ethiopia to attend the Eighth Ordinary Session of the Conference of the African Union. He said that "this plan is targeting Muslim unity," while Iran follows the opinion of its late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that "whoever pursues divisions between Shi'a and Sunnis is neither Shi'a nor Sunni," IRNA reported. Mottaki said governments, religious leaders, "intellectuals," and the media must all work to prevent religious discord. "America has added to problems wherever it has stepped in to resolve" them, he said, adding, "We can see this in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine." He said a meeting of the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors could help bring security to Iraq, although he gave no date for the meeting. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani separately stressed the importance of unity among Iranians and Muslims in an address to a crowd in the mausoleum on February 1, ISNA reported. "We must not allow ourselves to become the instruments of foreigners and American plots, and must avoid...divisions among Shi'as and Sunnis, Muslims and Christians," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. VS

Iranian leaders marked the start of the "Ten Days Of Dawn" (dahe-yi fajr) -- commemorating the last days of the Persian monarchy and culmination on February 11 of the 1979 revolution -- by visiting the late Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb on February 1, news agencies reported. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prayed over the tomb, inside a large mausoleum south of Tehran, early in the day, ISNA reported. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad also visited the mausoleum, and he told reporters that Iran's nuclear program is "a matter of conviction" for Iran, although it does not seek weapons. "Iran is fast becoming a superpower," he said, but "not based on weapons or...economic capacities. We are a cultural and human superpower" affecting "hearts and minds." Western powers "are very afraid of this," Ahmadinejad claimed, according to ISNA. He said that if Iran's enemies "mobilize all their capabilities," they might cause harm "in some corner" but cannot "take any effective and decisive measure" against Iranians. VS

Abbas Lisani, who was imprisoned in Ardebil, northwestern Iran, for his alleged role in unrest last year among Iranian Azeris, is in a poor state, Radio Farda reported on January 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2006). Lisani ended a month-long hunger strike on January 30 at the request of local activists, but his relatives report that he is unwell. He is currently serving a one-year jail sentence for his alleged involvement in civil disturbances and has been denied prison leave, local activist Akbar Lakestani told Radio Farda. Lakestani accused international rights bodies of neglecting Lisani's condition. Khalil Bahramian, a lawyer, currently faces legal action over the alleged treatment of prisoners. Bahramian is to appear in court on February 4, charged with making false allegations and "acting against national security," apparently for remarks he made about the death of Akbar Mohammadi, one of his former clients who died in prison in July, ILNA reported on January 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2006). VS

During an interview with NPR on February 1, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns called on Iran to stop aiding Shi'ite insurgents. He said the United States has been tracking Iranian involvement for about two years and has found increasing evidence of Iranian assistance to armed Shi'ite groups in southern Iraq. "We have picked up individuals who we believe are giving very sophisticated explosives technology to Shi'ite insurgent groups, who then use that technology to target and kill American soldiers," Burns said. "It's a very serious situation. And the message from the United States is, Iran should cease and desist." On January 31, CNN reported that U.S. officials suspect Iran of being directly involved in the January 20 attack on a U.S. military base in Karbala on that killed five U.S. soldiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). Burns also indicated that Iran has expanded its operations throughout Iraq, including into Baghdad, and is seeking to extend its influence in the region. "Iran is seeking a position of dominance in the Middle East. It's very clear. Iran has a regional agenda, which is very much at odds with that of the United States," he said. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on February 1 that Iraq desires good relations with both the United States and Iran, international media reported the same day. "Any attack against multinational forces is an act against the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government would not allow any attack," al-Dabbagh told reporters. "But at the same time, we want to maintain good relations with our neighbors, especially Iran. We have long borders with them; we have local interests with [them], and we would like to have our relation not in the shadow of the others." On January 31, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on CNN that he has told both Iran and the United States "to solve your problems outside of Iraq." SS

The Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on February 1 refuting the government's claim that the Army of Heaven planned to attack Shi'a during Ashura and accusing Iraqi forces of launching an unprovoked attack on a Shi'ite tribe near Al-Najaf on January 28. The group accused the Iraqi government of massacring innocent civilians from the Al-Hawatimah tribe because they refuse to support the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad. "The government's story that there is a group calling itself Jund al-Sama [Army of Heaven] that pursues subversive goals is baseless, and the whole issue was merely an attack against Arab tribes that did not show allegiance to the current government or to the forces and militias that stand behind it," the statement said. The group called for an international inquiry into the purported massacre. SS

The Muslim Scholars Association on February 1 said a weeklong U.S. blockade of the town of Al-Hadithah has led to the deaths of 16 Iraqi civilians, the Al-Quds Press reported the same day. The accusations were based on a medical report issued by the General Hospital of Al-Hadithah. "The report, which was circulated among journalists in the city today, Thursday, February 1, adds that six pregnant women, four prematurely born infants, two boys, and four elderly people died as a result of the blockade clamped on the city since last week, as U.S. troops banned entry into and out of the city, cut off power and drinking-water supplies, and completely banned vehicular traffic," the group said in a statement. SS

Twin suicide bombings at a crowded marked in the town of Al-Hillah on February 1 killed 61 people and wounded 150, international media reported the same day. Local police officials said a suspicious looking man was stopped and frisked at the Al-Maktabat market in the center of town. The man then detonated his explosives while a second bomber nearby did the same shortly thereafter. In the Baghdad district of Al-Karradah, another suicide bomber blew himself up on a minibus, killing six people and wounding 12, international media reported the same day. Meanwhile, data released on February 1 by the Iraqi Interior Ministry show civilian deaths rose to a record level in January. Some 1,971 people died from attacks in Iraq in January, up from the previous high of 1,930 deaths in December 2006. SS

During testimony before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on February 1, the outgoing commander of Multinational Forces-Iraq, General George Casey, said Iraqi forces are a year away from being fully developed, KUNA reported the same day. Casey said Iraqi forces so far have been challenged by sectarian tensions that have shaken the confidence of the Iraqi population. "And for the Iraqis to successfully assume and sustain security responsibility, their security forces must emerge as the dominant security forces in the country," Casey said. "To do this, political and militia influence over the security forces must be eliminated, and levels of sectarian violence, particularly in the capital, must be brought down substantially." He said the struggle in Iraq is winnable, but it requires time and patience. SS