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Newsline - February 8, 2007

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in the State Duma on February 7 that his ministry plans "to purchase 17 intercontinental ballistic missiles [and] four military spacecraft with the same number of launch rockets for them," the daily "Vremya novostei" reported on February 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). He noted that his $189 billion budget for 2007-15 includes replacing 45 percent of the equipment in the current arsenal and preparing to fight "wars of the future." Ivanov also said that Russia retains the right to launch a preemptive, conventional strike, and he ruled out any personnel cuts. He added that plans will be finalized by 2009 for the construction of an unspecified number of aircraft carriers. Ivan Safranchuk of the Center for Defense Information was quoted by "The Moscow Times" on February 9 as saying that the buildup is evidence that Russia seeks to "expand its military-political influence across the globe." PM

Navy commander Admiral Vladimir Masorin said in St. Petersburg on February 8 that half of the navy's budget will be spent "on developing sea-based strategic nuclear forces," Interfax reported. He noted that "this is a matter of special responsibility for the developers of strategic armaments...[and] clearly reflects the need for deterrence, as well as the [specific] tasks of warding off threats to Russia's security, as documented in the [official] military and naval doctrines." He added that the remaining funds will go to "the navy's general forces, whose role in the national security framework is not being neglected in any way." PM

On February 8, the Norwegian Defense Ministry confirmed Russian media reports that a woman identified as Ingjerd Kroken was declared persona non grata on her arrival at an unspecified Moscow airport on February 7 and immediately expelled, Reuters and RIA Novosti reported. The ministry is consulting with the Norwegian Foreign Ministry on the matter. She works for the Norwegian Defense Ministry on a joint project with Russia on the Kola Peninsula to decommission old nuclear submarines. Since 1993, Norway has spent nearly $200 million on the project, known as Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Ali-Akbar Velayati, an adviser on international affairs to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Moscow on February 8 that a negotiated solution to the international standoff over Tehran's nuclear program is a priority, news agencies reported. Velayati also met the head of the Russian Security Council, Igor Ivanov, who visited Tehran recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29 and February 1, 2007). PM

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who heads the stockholders' oversight body for the projected Russo-German Nord Stream gas pipeline, said in Brussels on February 7 that an environmental-impact study on Nord Stream, which is expected to begin operating in 2010, should be completed in the summer of 2007, dpa and Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 2007). He added that "all the sensitive points will be properly reviewed. I...assure you that the company has no political goal. We are a company implementing a project. Concurrently, we deal with environmental and political problems. We want to explain that the project is absolutely safe and politically unbiased, and we'll try to do this." Poland and the Baltic states oppose the project on political and economic grounds. Sweden is against it for environmental reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24 and December 20, 2006, and January 9, 2007). On February 7, Schroeder noted that the EU will have to import 70 percent of its gas by 2015, up from about half at present. He stressed that "there is no more reliable supplier than Russia." He met with EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who is also a member of Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD). Verheugen described the pipeline project as an EU priority. But on February 8, European Investment Bank chief Philippe Maystadt said in Brussels that the bank is unlikely to agree to Schroeder's request for it to fund Nord Stream because of opposition to the pipeline by several EU member states, Reuters reported. He stressed that "we need unanimity" in order to agree to provide funding. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov urged Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at a Moscow gathering on February 7 to help improve Russia's image abroad and work to fight extremism and xenophobia, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 7, 2007). President Vladimir Putin and other top officials have said in recent months that Russia is the victim of an orchestrated campaign to tarnish its image abroad, particularly over some well-publicized killings of his critics and Russia's energy conflicts with some of its neighbors. PM

Self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service in London on February 6 that his friend Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was fatally poisoned in November 2006, implicated a fellow former security officer, Andrei Lugovoi, in his death (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007, and "Russia: Berezovsky Breaks Silence On Litvinenko,", February 7, 2007). Berezovsky stressed that he finds Litvinenko's suspicion plausible, adding that Lugovoi would have nothing to fear from British justice if he came to London to clear his name, which he has not done. Berezovsky noted that Litvinenko believed that, after President Putin signed a decree in July allowing the security forces to strike at "enemies" of the regime abroad, he, Berezovsky, and London-based Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev topped the "hit list." Berezovsky said that he is suspicious of the Russian request to question about 100 people, including himself, in London regarding the case. He said that "it is clear that the [Russian] Prosecutor-General's Office is an absolutely criminal, gangster organization that serves as an instrument of suppressing people. [It is made up of people who have] essentially the same mentality as Putin and others sitting in the Kremlin. This is exactly what can help you understand the purpose of their request and their inquiry." Berezovsky added that he is nonetheless prepared to meet with Russian officials if it will help Scotland Yard in its investigation of the case. PM

President Putin submitted on February 7 to the Murmansk Oblast parliament the candidacy of incumbent Yury Yevdokimov to serve a fourth consecutive term as governor, Interfax and the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 7 and 8, respectively. Yevdokimov was previously elected in 1996, 2000, and 2004; his current term expires only in 2009, but on January 24 at the urging of presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Ilya Klebanov he asked Putin for a vote of confidence. The Murmansk Duma will vote on Yevdokimov's candidacy on February 14; elections to a new parliament are scheduled for March 11, and Yevdokimov heads the list of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in that ballot. LF

Vadim Dubrivny, a former mayor of Saratov's Volzhsky Raion, rejected on February 7 as a "misunderstanding" and "totally unfounded" the public supposition by Saratov police that he was the planned victim of a poisoning attempt the Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed earlier on February 7 to have thwarted, the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 8. The FSB claimed it was alerted to the plot by Ruslan Satabayev, a Chechen militant apprehended in Grozny who claimed to have received a telephone call last year from two brothers, Zelimkhan and Lom-Ali Artsuyev, who offered him $11,000 to prepare poison and send it to fellow Chechens in Saratov. The Saratov police then identified Dubrivny as the probable target of the planned murder on the grounds of his disagreements with local Chechens over two casinos in Volzhsky Raion. "Kommersant" identified the Artsuyevs as Chechen President and resistance commander Doku Umarov's representatives in Azerbaijan and Turkey, respectively. LF

German Vok has submitted his resignation from the post of chairman of the Chechen Security Council to which he was appointed last summer by pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, Interfax and reported on February 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 2006 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 18, 2006). Vok headed Alkhanov's election campaign in 2004. Alkhanov tasked the council under Vok with focusing on the shortcomings of police and security organs subordinate to Alkhanov's powerful rival, Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. Two unnamed advisors to Alkhanov have also resigned, Interfax reported on February 8. "Izvestia" reported on February 8 that Alkhanov is currently in Moscow, but has failed to secure a meeting with President Putin, a failure that has only fuelled rumors that his dismissal is imminent. LF

FSB personnel opened fire on February 7 on a car parked opposite the main road police traffic post in Nazran, killing both passengers on the assumption that they were militants, reported. Relatives of the dead men deny they had any connection to the resistance. Also on February 7, police arrested three suspected militants in Karabulak, reported. Additional police and armored vehicles have been deployed at key intersections in Nazran and on approach roads to the capital, Magas, reported. Police in Nazran initially attributed two explosions in the city in the early hours of February 8 to a gas leak, but subsequently said one of them was caused by a hand grenade thrown into the yard of the home of Khizir Tsoloyev, the imam of Nazran's central mosque, and reported. LF

Law enforcement organs in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) believe that some militants still wanted on suspicion of participating in the raid on Nalchik in October 2005 may also have been involved in the murder five months earlier of Artur Zokayev, mayor of the predominantly Balkar-populated village of Khasanya on the outskirts of Nalchik, reported on February 7 citing a press release from the KBR prosecutor's office (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 6, 2005). The press release described Zokayev as enjoying the respect of the local population and as opposing religious extremism and "Wahhabism." LF

A Yerevan district court extended on February 7 for a further two months the pre-trial detention of Zhirayr Sefilian and Vardan Malkhasian, Noyan Tapan reported. The two men, leading members of the Union of Armenian Volunteers that represents veterans of the Karabakh war, were arrested in December and charged with plotting to overthrow the Armenian leadership in the run-up to the May 2007 parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 12 and 20, 2006 and January 3, 2007). They both reject those charges as politically motivated. LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who is the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution of the Karabakh conflict, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 7 that he believes Armenia and Azerbaijan are "very close" to such a settlement. Bryza said the two sides are "very close" to agreement on the "basic principles" of a settlement, although many "technical details" still need to be addressed. He said the agreement could be finalized after the Armenian parliamentary elections in May 2007 and before the Armenian presidential elections due in February 2008. The Azerbaijani online daily on February 8 quoted Bryza as saying in Baku that reaching a settlement is contingent on the "political will" shown by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Bryza also said the plan for the final status of Kosova unveiled earlier this month by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari should not be regarded as a possible precedent for resolving the Karabakh conflict, as each conflict is unique. LF

Samir Mamedov, an Azerbaijani serviceman taken prisoner by Armenian forces on the frontier between Armenia and Azerbaijan in December, has asked to be handed over to the United States or a European country, reported on February 8 quoting an appeal by Mamedov that the Armenian authorities passed to the International Red Cross. The president of the Azerbaijani Society of the Red Crescent, parliament deputy Novruz Aslanov, was quoted by on February 8 as saying Armenia is violating the Geneva Conventions by refusing to repatriate Mamedov. Vusal Garadjayev, an 18-year-old Azerbaijani serviceman taken prisoner by Armenian forces on December 7, 2006 and released two weeks later, has been arrested on charges of treason and violating sentry procedures, reported on February 2 quoting the Military Prosecutor's Office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and 6, 2007). LF

The first gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz offshore Caspian field will be exported to Georgia only in the second quarter of this year, on February 7 quoted Azerbaijan State Oil Company (SOCAR) President Rovnag Abdullayev as saying. Abdullayev explained that exports are conditional on the second Shah Deniz well coming on stream, which is scheduled for late February. Britain's "The Guardian" on February 5 quoted a spokesman for BP, operator of the Shah Deniz project, as admitting that there are unspecified technical problems with the first Shah Deniz well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). Abdullayev said the first well may not resume operation before the summer. Georgia was hoping to receive gas from Shah Deniz in January-March 2007 to obviate the need to buy Russian gas for heating purposes at the hugely increased price of $235 per 1,000 cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 5, 2007). LF

The presidents of Azerbaijan and Georgia, Ilham Aliyev and Mikheil Saakashvili, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed in Tbilisi on February 7 a Declaration on a Shared Vision of Regional Cooperation, Caucasus Press and reported. In addition, the three countries' transport ministers signed an agreement on construction of the planned Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku rail link (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2007), and the three energy ministers signed an intergovernmental memorandum on mutual understanding and cooperation. Saakashvili described the rail project as being of geopolitical significance in that it will link Europe with Asia, and as the foundation of future cooperation between the three countries in question. In Yerevan, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian downplayed widespread fears that the planned railway will isolate Armenia even further and preclude its participation in the Asia-Europe transport network, Noyan Tapan reported on February 7. Oskanian stressed that the United States and the EU have both declined to provide financing for the project. LF

The Georgian veterans of the wars in Afghanistan or Abkhazia who for several days picketed the parliament building in late January to protest the partial abolition of the privileges to which they were entitled have written to President Saakashvili outlining their grievances, Caucasus Press reported on February 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). They also appealed to the opposition Democratic Front and New Rightists parliament factions for assistance in filing suit against the government. LF

Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a presidential decree on February 6 appointing more ministers to the parliament's recently approved new government, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports. The latest appointments include Kanybek Osmonaliev as education and science minister, and the reappointment of Culture Minister Sultan Raev, Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov, Health Minister Shailoobek Niyazov, and State Customs Committee Chairman Salaydin Aydarov, according to the website. The previous day, Bakiev named two deputy prime ministers, a new interior minister, and retained the ministers for defense and justice, as well as the chairman of the National Security Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). Another round of appointments in expected, as several ministerial positions remain vacant, including the posts of foreign minister, agriculture, emergencies minister, and the minister for economic development and trade. RG

Saidjafar Ismonov, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, announced on February 6 that the Justice Ministry denied his party's application for official registration, the Avesta website reported. Ismonov vowed to resubmit the party's application and threatened a court appeal if the party is denied a second time. Commenting on the rejection, Davlat Sulaymonov, the Justice Ministry official responsible for the registration of political parties and public associations, reported that the party's original application was rejected due to "clauses contradicting the party statute." The Justice Ministry had earlier denied Ismonov's request to be recognized as the leader of the Democratic Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). RG

Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Solehov announced in Dushanbe on February 7 a reorganization of the ministry, including the dismissal of several department heads, Asia-Plus reported. Solehov announced the creation of a new agency, the Migration Service, to oversee the country's visa system and to supervise the legal status of foreign workers. That new agency is to be headed by Deputy Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimov. Additional appointments include the promotion of the Interior Ministry Organizational and Supervisory Department's chief inspector, Rajabali Mahmadaliyev, to head the Department for Combating Organized Crime, replacing Rahmatullo Nazarov, who in turn replaced Jurakhon Zohirov as the head of the transport police department, and the appointment of Muhammadi Muhammadiyev as the new head of the Interior Ministry's investigation department. RG

Dushanbe prosecutor Qurbonali Muhabbatov announced on February 7 that three Tajik police officers were arrested on February 5 on suspicion of having used torture to coerce a confession from a teenage suspect, according to Asia-Plus. Muhabbatov noted that the case stems from the detention of 15-year-old Nodir Nabiev on suspicion of theft last month, and stated that the preliminary investigation established that the officers used torture and "beatings to extort a confession from the teenager." He further added that "it cannot be ruled out that they have also used electric shock during interrogations." The three police officers, formally charged with criminal "abuse of office," face prison sentences of between five and 10 years if convicted. According to the Dushanbe prosecutor's office, a dozen officers from the same Dushanbe police directorate were convicted last year on similar charges. RG

In a February 7 interview with RFE/RL's Turkmen ServiceMember of the European Parliament Albert Jan Maat, who is also the Dutch chairman of the European Union's Interparliamentary Delegation to Turkmenistan, said Turkmenistan's presidential election set for February 11 will not be a "real" election. He said that "these elections, only with candidates from the former government -- you can't call them real elections -- is not a start for a more open society." He added that he favors delaying the election to allow for the registration of opposition candidates and for the dispatch of international observers to monitor the polls. Although six presidential candidates are formally registered for the election, all are former government officials. The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) sent an election support team to the country but recently announced that it is unable to deploy an election observer mission due to "time constraints" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). RG

The Uzbek Justice Ministry threatened to take unspecified "measures" against some 10 foreign organizations operating in Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on February 7. In a statement posted to the official website, the Justice Ministry announcement said the 10 groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, are violating Uzbek law by failing to submit detailed reports on their activities and their sources of funding. RG

Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich has called on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in an open letter to establish good and friendly relations with the European Union, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported on February 7. Milinkevich also stressed that Minsk will be invited for talks with the EU only if it engages in a dialogue with the opposition. In a recent interview, Milinkevich pledged to help Minsk obtain aid from the EU if the Belarusian government embarked on a path of democratization. "If the authorities start fulfilling certain conditions, then both Europe and we, pro-democracy forces, are open for cooperation. I'm ready for joint, coordinated actions, but the regime should first start releasing political prisoners, give freedom to the media, political parties, and nongovernmental organizations," Milinkevich's press office quoted him as saying. "Milinkevich took advantage of the situation developing around Belarusian-Russian relations and possible contacts in the European direction. I don't think that there will be any serious consequences from his letter," lawmaker Anatol Krasutski told RFE/RL. JM

Anatol Rubinau, deputy head of the Belarusian presidential administration responsible for ideological issues, said at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences on February 7 that Russia's recent increase of energy prices for Belarus was neither friendly nor honest, Belapan reported. "Now our products will become more expensive and won't be able to compete with Russian ones," Rubinau said, adding that Moscow wants to drive Belarusian goods out of the Russian market and effectively "strangle our economy." According to Rubinau, Russia as the legal successor to the Soviet Union bears responsibility for Belarus's industries because decisions on the construction of large production facilities in the Soviet Union were made in Moscow. Therefore, Rubinau continued, Belarus should have been granted the same access to Russian hydrocarbon resources as the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic enjoyed in the Soviet economy. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on February 7 approved in the first reading a bill that would ban the hypnosis of a group of people for any purpose, Interfax-Ukraine and dpa reported. The bill was supported by 392 lawmakers. In particular, the postulated ban reportedly targets the use of hypnosis at mass events for healing purposes and religious practices. JM

Javier Solana, the European Commission's foreign-policy chief, on February 7 told Serbian leaders that the EU believes it is "acceptable" if consultative talks on the future of Kosova, slated to be held on February 13 in Vienna, are delayed. Solana talked of a delay of "maybe a week or something like that," Reuters reported. The Serbian authorities asked for about 10 days to allow the country's new parliament to convene and select representatives for the talks. Solana, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, and Portuguese European Affairs Minister Manuel Lobo Antunes were in Belgrade in a bid to persuade the Serbian government to accept a UN-mandated proposal on the future status of the predominantly Albanian-populated, UN-administered Serbian province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). Serbian President Boris Tadic reiterated that Serbia believes independence for Kosova is "absolutely unacceptable," local media reported. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica conveyed a similar message to Britain's Minister for Europe Geoffrey Hoon during a February 7 meeting in Belgrade. The Kosovar government on February 7 rejected any delay to the Vienna talks, the independent news agency KosovaLive reported the same day. The plan put forward by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari does not mention independence but, if accepted, would confer on Kosova many of the symbols and institutions of a state and also the right to apply to join international organizations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). AG

Vuk Draskovic has denied telling his Slovak counterpart, Jan Kubis, that the turnout in October's constitutional referendum was falsified. The Slovak daily "Sme" reported on February 7 that Kubis told Slovakia's parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee that Draskovic told him privately that turnout fell far short of the 50 percent needed for the result to be valid. In a Serbian government statement published by "Sme" on February 8, Draskovic denied the claim, saying "various supporters of independence for Kosovo assert that turnover was lower than 50 percent, because they wish through these formulations to cast doubt on the stance that the province of Kosovo-Metohija is part of the Serbian state." The referendum approved a new constitution that included a clause that declares Kosova to be an "integral part of the territory of Serbia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2006). Kubis downplayed the incident, saying, in comments published in "Sme" on February 8, that his exchange with Draskovic was "in a spirit of hyperbole" and that "there is no need to draw conclusions" from his comment. A member of the Slovak parliament committee, Rudolf Bauer, rejected Kubis's interpretation of the incident, saying Kubis clearly indicated there had been manipulation and that Draskovic told him the real turnout was just 42 percent, "Sme" reported on February 8. Kubis appeared before the committee to explain the Slovak government's stance on Kosova. Kubis, a former secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said he views independence for Kosova as an inevitability and that trying to stop the process "could even be dangerous," "Sme" quoted Kubis on February 7 as saying. He reiterated that view in comments to news agencies on February 7. AG

An OSCE mission on February 7 ended a three-day visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina by voicing concern at the impact of a political boycott of public television on democracy and the independence of the media in the country. In a statement, the OSCE's representative for freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, called on politicians to use the country's legal complaints mechanism and "not [to] send a message of arbitrary tampering with individual parts of the media system." Several weeks earlier, political leaders in the Serb-dominated autonomous region, Republika Srpska, announced they would stop giving interviews and providing information to the country's public-service television, BHT-1. Among those with whom Haraszti met was Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, but he did not meet with the region's president, Milan Jelic. The controversy began when BHT-1 journalists were denied access to a press conference with Jelic on January 17, and continued when other Bosnian Serb leaders, including Dodik, said they would boycott BHT-1. Haraszti said he has received assurances that the dispute will be an "isolated incident." A media organization grouping senior journalists from the Balkans, the Southeast Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), condemned the boycott as "a clear attempt to exert political pressure on the editorial independence of a public broadcaster," Serbia's Radio B92 reported on February 6. AG

Albania on February 5 signed a strategic cooperation agreement that, subject to ratification by Albania's parliament later this year, will facilitate the exchange of intelligence and skills with police across Europe. "This agreement is a welcome development and underlines the will of the Albanian government to fight without compromise all forms of organized crime," Europol Director Max-Peter Ratzel said in a press release on February 5. Among the latest successes of Europol, which was set up in 1999, was the arrest on January 30 of a group of counterfeiters operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Southeastern Europe, Europol has agreements with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and EU member states. Albania has become notorious as a conduit for trafficking and as a base for criminal groups that have extended their operations across Europe. Corruption also remains a significant challenge, though the regional director of the World Bank, Orsalia Kalanzopoulos, recently called Albania's battle against corruption "a success story," the Albanian newspaper "Albania" reported on January 30. AG

Slovenian Foreign Minster Dmitrij Rupel has defended sending an official protest at the Croatian government's decision to grant a Croatian company rights to explore for oil in disputed waters. Rupel on February 7 dismissed charges that he was stoking tensions, saying that a protest was "necessary [and] the only logical move considering Croatia's actions," the STA news agency reported the same day. The dispute over the maritime border of the two countries has lingered unresolved since the two countries declared independence from Yugoslavia, but it has flared up again in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007) and was then fueled by Croatia's decision to allow the INA oil company to explore in the Piran Bay. Rupel's protest prompted Croatian President Stjepan Mesic and Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek on February 4 to agree to meet on February 15. Rupel said he hopes a solution will be found, but said, "we have too many opponents to understanding." He added that this incident could strengthen Slovenia's case if the dispute is taken to international arbitration. Croatia's president maintains that Slovenia is resisting mediation, an assertion Rupel denies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). The Croatian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on February 7 criticized Slovenia's handling of the current spat, Croatian Radio reported the same day. AG

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently made headlines by disrupting Russian oil supplies to Europe during a row with Moscow over energy price hikes. The standoff capped a season that saw Lukashenka throw his weight behind a number of proposals certain to damage ties with Moscow -- a union state with Ukraine, a transit-country alliance meant to counteract Russian pressure, and even eventual eurozone and EU membership for Belarus. What motivates "Europe's last dictator" to taunt a massively powerful neighbor that is also one of his few remaining allies?

Anybody seeking to understand Lukashenka's political behavior could get a good start by reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterful 1975 novel, "The Autumn of the Patriarch." Although Garcia Marquez based his fictional hero on a number of real-life autocrats from Latin America, the resulting picture is that of an archetypical dictator and patriarchal nation suffering the consequences of concentrating all possible power in a single man.

Lukashenka's life and career appear to emulate those of Garcia Marquez's protagonist in a number of ways -- some deeply fearsome and some irresistibly comic. By a strange twist of fate, the only Russian-language translation of "The Autumn of the Patriarch" was made by two Belarusian writers in 1978. It was as if fate decided that, of all the Soviet nationalities, it was Belarusians who needed most to look into the mind-set of people living under dictatorial oppression.

The similarities between Garcia Marquez's creation and the real-life Lukashenka begin, fittingly, with their fathers -- or lack thereof. Lukashenka's official website ( is laconic on the topic, saying only that the president "grew and was brought up without a father."

In fact, the identity of Lukashenka's father has never been disclosed. The president's patronymic, Ryhoravich, indicates his father was called Ryhor, or Grigory in Russian. One somewhat questionable account maintains the mysterious Ryhor may have been a one-eyed married man who saw his son as a small boy just a handful of times.

Details about Lukashenka's mother, Katsyaryna Trafimauna Lukashenka, have been somewhat easier to uncover. Journalists in the 1990s reported that Katsyaryna spent the early 1950s working in a flax-processing factory in the city of Orsha. She then returned to her native village of Aleksandria in eastern Mahilyou Oblast, her 2-year-old son, Sasha, in tow.

Lukashenka would later refer to Aleksandria as his birthplace. His official biographers have since offered a third version, saying he was born in nearby Kopys, in Vitsebsk Oblast.

Young Sasha -- the boy destined to become Belarus's first president -- was reported to have had a difficult childhood. He was deeply disliked by his peers in the village, who tormented and mocked him as an extramarital scion and a bastard. Sasha repeatedly pledged to take revenge on all of them as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

As an adult, Lukashenka has been prompted to describe his childhood only on rare occasions. Apart from his mother, he has never mentioned the name of a single friend or relative from that time. "In my childhood I grew up among animals and plants," he once confessed, and recalled helping his mother, a farm worker, to milk cows.

In his early years, Lukashenka dreamed of becoming a tractor driver. His thoughts later turned to a musical career after his mother bought him an accordion. In a propaganda film meant to boost his image in Russia in the second half of the 1990s -- when he still nurtured dreams that a Russian-Belarus union would propel him to the post of Russian president -- Lukashenka is shown in casual dress, amateurishly playing an accordion and singing a sentimental tune.

In 1971-75, Lukashenka studied history at the Pedagogical Institute in Mahilyou. After graduating, he married Halina Zhaunerovich, a childhood acquaintance, and fathered two sons, Viktar and Dzmitry. (His wife, who has never served in the capacity of first lady, was eventually dispatched to a lonely home in the country. Lukashenka is believed to have spent his recent years living with a mistress, with whom he reputedly has a child. "I'm not a family man," he has confessed, "because I've devoted my life to my work.")

Despite his teaching diploma, Lukashenka never pursued a teaching career. He went on to graduate from the Belarusian Agricultural Academy and from there took up a number of low-profile, politically flavored jobs in the provinces. He alternately worked as a Komsomol instructor; a "politruk," or political propaganda officer in Belarus's KGB border-troop unit; deputy director of a construction-materials factory; and deputy director and party secretary of a series of collective farms.

A point of contention on Lukashenka's resume is whether he ever worked as a prison warden. Opponents are fond of the theory, perhaps because of the president's appetite for incarcerating political opponents. Lukashenka, however, vigorously denies he ever held such a post.

In sum, the early, provincial years of Lukashenka's career gave the future president invaluable insight into the character of ordinary Belarusians -- collective-farm laborers and industrial workers -- who now form the backbone of his support. He mastered their natural idiom, a plebian version of Russian mixed with Belarusian syntax and pronunciation.

All this made it easy, when the time came, for him to appeal directly to the people's hearts, without bothering himself much about their minds. No other politician in Belarus -- in either the elite or the opposition -- has ever had such a forceful, almost hypnotizing, grip on an audience as Lukashenka.

Lukashenka also shared two more traits with those on the low end of the Soviet social spectrum: he was ashamed of his rural origins, and, as a result, loathed everything that was traditionally associated with them. In Belarus, this meant the native Belarusian language and indigenous culture. At the same time, however, he felt a deep-seated resentment toward the Russian-speaking urban nomenklatura, whose ranks were firmly off-limits to ambitious but insignificant country bumpkins like himself.

When he became president in 1994, the Belarusian language and the local nomenklatura both fell victim to his sense of vengeance. "The people who speak the Belarusian language cannot do anything else apart from speaking the Belarusian language, because it's impossible to express anything great in Belarusian," Lukashenka famously declared -- in Russian -- in 1994. "There are only two great languages in the world -- Russian and English."

In May 1995, Lukashenka called a referendum which overwhelmingly backed his policy of integration with Russia and made Russian the second official language in the country. Belarusian, which enjoyed a brief revival in the early '90s, was enthusiastically abandoned once again by the very people who were expected to cherish it as the key component of their national identity.

The country's post-Soviet nomenklatura, meanwhile, proved indispensable -- or, more accurately, highly dispensable -- to Lukashenka during his first term. He routinely staged public humiliations of cabinet ministers and other officials, settling scores during televised conferences that showed him berating his victims for perceived economic and political errors. Often he pinned blame on them for his own fallacious decisions. At one such public display of opprobrium, Lukashenka went so far as to stage a minister's "spontaneous" dismissal, complete with handcuffs and immediate arrest.

Ordinary Belarusians watched such live programs with tremendous excitement. Lukashenka came over as a fantastic hero-leader, brandishing a sword of retribution over the heads of those they saw as their real oppressors. It was during this period that Belarusians first began to refer to their president as Batska, or "father" in Belarusian. His tough-guy approach to politics had strong appeal for a society craving authority and a firm hand -- the same society that had been overwhelmingly rural and patriarchal only a half-century ago.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Belarusians were subjected to a merciless social and cultural uprooting through the dual forces of industrialization and urbanization -- accompanied by forced Sovietization and Russification. Lukashenka lacked qualified expertise in the social manipulation of people, but he compensated with keen political instinct and a deep understanding of the national psyche. He assumed the role of father figure to a people who had lost their orientation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has been that genuine popular support, reinforced by generous Russian energy subsidies, that has allowed Lukashenka to avoid any major economic or social upheaval during the past 12 years.

Now that the subsidies seem to be over, Lukashenka's Soviet-style leadership techniques may become worthless. His recent flurry of contradictory political ideas and statements -- including a union with Ukraine and other energy-transit countries to balance Russia's increasing assertiveness in energy policies -- may be a sign that his political instinct has begun to fail him as well.

Another factor that bodes ill for Lukashenka's future is his isolation from the ruling class in Belarus. In January, at the height of his energy pricing dispute with Russia, Lukashenka appointed his 31-year-old son, Viktar, to the Security Council, granting the politically inexperienced young man a status equal to that of the KGB chief or the interior minister.

Some analysts have speculated that Lukashenka may be priming his son to serve as his successor. But the reason for the appointment actually seems to be much simpler -- the solitary president lacks qualified and trustworthy candidates to fill senior state positions and replace the battered and exhausted political veterans who have managed to remain in government.

(Part 2 will appear in tomorrow's "RFE/RL Newsline.")

The Nangarhar Provincial Council began a four-day work stoppage on February 7 after a cleric was killed, allegedly by foreign troops, to protest operations by foreign forces in the area, AFP reported. The 19-member council said in a statement that President Hamid Karzai's administration is "weak and scared of foreign forces." Provincial Council deputy Mawlawi Abdul Aziz said the work stoppage is intended as a protest against "the continued house searches and arrests of mostly innocent people and disrespect [for] Afghan culture by foreign forces." A mullah was killed in Jalalabad, the provincial capital, overnight on February 7, allegedly by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF media sources in Kabul said they are unaware of involvement by NATO troops in the Jalalabad incident. An unnamed security official in Jalalabad said that while conducting "a military operation, foreign troops entered the home of Mawlawi Hayatullah in [the] Najm al-Jihad" area of the city and "shot and killed" the mullah, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on February 7. AT

A mine blast in the Shindand district of Herat Province on February 7 reportedly killed three Afghan security officers, Herat-based Radio Sahar reported. The station said the men were trying to defuse a land mine when the explosion occurred. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- posted a statement on February 7 referring to those three deaths and claiming that four soldiers of the "mercenary army" -- a term insurgents use for the Afghan National Army -- were killed as well. The website claimed that "mujahedin" laid the land mine the previous night. AT

Three Afghan National Police officers were killed and three others were wounded in a suicide attack on their post in Kandahar Province on February 7, AIP reported. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. AT

Two security guards were killed and six others were wounded in Kandahar Province when their vehicle stuck a roadside explosive device on February 7, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The guards were reportedly employed by a U.S.-based firm called United States Protection and Investigations. Abdul Khaleq, a local representative of the firm, told Pajhwak that the blast was caused by an explosive device attached to a parked motorcycle. AT

A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- posted a statement on February 7 claiming that 12 mortar rounds were fired on the "Hindus' base" in Konar Province. No casualty report was available, the website noted. It is unclear what the "Hindu's center" refers to, but the former Taliban regime persecuted Afghanistan's religious minorities and ordered Hindus to wear distinctive yellow patches to distinguish them from Muslims. AT

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in Tehran on February 7 that the Islamic world must respond to Israel's "insult" to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, referring to excavations undertaken near that holy place, IRNA reported. He told visiting Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Ramadan Abdallah that Israel should be made to "regret" its move. He also expressed regret at recent fighting between the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah movements, calling that an enemy "plot." Muslims, he said, must stand firm against "intimidation and temptations" by Israel and the United States. Abdallah reported on his group's attempts to stop recent fighting among Palestinians. He said Israel is in its weakest condition yet following its "defeat" last summer at the hands of Lebanon's Hizballah and because of "internal conditions." He said "the people of Palestine will not remain quiet before Israel's new plot to violate the dignity of the Al-Aqsa...and will respond to this insult," IRNA reported. The digging and rebuilding of an entry ramp near the mosque has been undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority, AFP reported on February 7. Abdallah also met with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad the same day. VS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran on February 7 that Iran is working to release its "kidnapped diplomats" in Iraq, but said U.S. "adventurism" in Iraq would undermine that country's government, ISNA reported. He told the press after meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee that "if America's aim is to back the [Nuri] al-Maliki government and create security, these actions will weaken the Iraqi government," referring to the January 11 arrests of Iranians in Irbil and the February 4 kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad (see Iraq below). Larijani said that "there are no tracks to indicate this was done by terrorists, and our conclusion is that the Americans did this." The United States denies any involvement in the Baghdad incident, in which four suspects have been arrested. Larijani also commented on the nuclear dossier, and said Iran welcomes more talks to resolve current differences. Soon, he said, "with the [International Atomic Energy] Agency's (IAEA) cooperation, the direction and method of supervisions [of Iran's installations] will take a more precise form." He said the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, allows Iran access to technology and help for its program from the IAEA, ISNA reported. These are to be restricted following a December 23 UN resolution asking Iran to halt nuclear fuel-making activities. VS

Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) tested recently-delivered Russian surface-to-air missiles on February 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17 and 23, 2007), AFP reported, citing Iranian agencies. These were Tor-M1 antiaircraft missiles, which Iranian television showed being launched from vehicles in the desert and hitting targets, AFP reported. AFP and ISNA cited IRGC air force commander Hussein Salami as saying that the use of the missiles is part of Iran's strategy of deterrence and they will boost defensive capacities. Iran signed the contract to buy 29 Tor-M1 missiles in 2005; the deal went ahead in spite of U.S. opposition and they were delivered this January. Salami said the missiles have a minimum range of 12 kilometers, can strike "small" and fast-moving aircraft as well as cruise missiles, and are not diverted by radar or diversionary equipment, AFP reported. Reuters, citing Iranian state television, separately reported the start of two-day maneuvers by the IRGC on February 7 in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman. It was not immediately clear if these were the same maneuvers or related. The naval maneuvers are to boost defensive and missile-interception readiness, agencies reported. VS

Iranian authorities announced on February 6 the arrest of two suspected members of the Al-Qaeda network, who reportedly sought to enter the country through Iraq, Radio Farda reported on February 7, citing Iranian television and AP. The two were arrested in the western Ilam Province and interrogated, Radio Farda cited Iranian state television as reporting. Separately, Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar said in Tehran on February 7 that the September 11 attacks in Manhattan were a "suspect" event that have given the United States a "pretext" in its bid "to dominate the region," ISNA reported. "Because the Americans gained nothing from the slogan of democracy in Iraq and Palestine, they will once more cite the war on terrorism to implement their policies," he said. He referred to U.S. "plots" inside Iran, and said the United States "wants to show the Iranian government as ineffective by highlighting certain problems and they think" this can be done "if the price of a few items rises," ISNA reported. He was referring to recent complaints about consumer price rises in Iran. VS

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced at a news conference on February 7 that four Iraqi military officers were arrested in connection with the kidnapping of Jalal Sharafi, an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad, international media reported the same day. "Those detained are [Iraqi] military officers. But there is some questioning about their affiliations and who is ordering them to do these things," Zebari said. "There are doubts that the four are affiliated with government entities," he added. Sharafi was seized by a group of 30 gunmen reportedly wearing Iraqi Army uniforms in Baghdad's Al-Karradah district on February 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). Iran has blamed U.S. forces for the kidnapping, saying it was carried out by Iraqi forces linked to Iraq's Defense Ministry, which works under the supervision of U.S. forces. The U.S. military denied Iran's claim. SS

The U.S. military announced on February 7 that a U.S. Chinook helicopter crashed north of Baghdad, killing all seven people on board, international media reported the same day. U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell confirmed the crash: "We have a CH-46 that is down. There is a quick-reaction force on site. It would be inappropriate for me to talk about casualties." Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported the same day that the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq claimed responsibility for shooting down a U.S. helicopter in the Al-Karmah region, saying that the aircraft was "completely burned." The U.S. military acknowledged that it has lost four helicopters due to hostile fire in the last two weeks. Twenty-one U.S. soldiers and private security contractors were killed in the four separate incidents. The military announced on February 4 that it will alter its tactics in response to the current rash of attacks on its aircraft. SS

The Iraqi government on February 7 accused Al-Jazeera satellite television of helping to "spread death and destruction" in Iraq, Reuters reported the same day. The Iraqi cabinet called on the parliament to take legal action against the satellite channel's perceived negative coverage of Iraq. "Al-Jazeera broadcasts programs that try to create a state of confusion, distort facts, and distract the international public opinion from the disastrous crimes committed by gangs," the cabinet said in a statement. "We call on parliament to take a strict and clear attitude towards this channel and use the legal methods to sue it and deter it from its hostility to the aspirations and ambitions of the Iraqi people and the national government." It is unclear what brought on the new criticism, but one Shi'ite lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the issue was a talk show broadcast on February 6 that criticized the Iraqi government and ruling Shi'ite parties. Al-Jazeera Editor in Chief Ahmad Sheikh called the accusations "unjustified, baseless, and ridiculous." "The Iraqi government is looking for a scapegoat to justify their failure in bringing security and stability to Iraqis," he added. Al-Jazeera has been banned in Iraq since August 2004, although it still reports from the Kurdish region. SS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on February 6 called on Muslim and Christian religious leaders to search for ways to bring Iraqis of different religious backgrounds together for the sake of the country's future, "Al-Sabah al-Jidid" reported on February 7. During a meeting with religious figures at his office, al-Maliki said, "What brings us together is greater than what divides us, and religious leaders are the ones who can offer the best advice and sound ideas to help rid us of our troubles." He said the role of Muslim and Christian leaders is to offer "light in the middle the darkness that the enemies of Iraq want to spread with their campaign of killing innocent civilians." SS

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on February 7 condemning the campaign of "ethnic cleansing" being carried out in Kirkuk. The group said that actions by certain parties eager to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution are displacing a large number of citizens in Kirkuk from a specific ethnic group, and these actions will lead to an escalation of the current conflict. The statement was an apparent reference to the recent decision by the Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalization of Kirkuk to deport thousands of Arabs who moved to Kirkuk as a result of the former regime's Arabization policies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). The Muslim Scolars Association also warned that what is going on in Kirkuk will push "the country in the direction of a new crisis that would serve the enemies of Iraq." SS

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said on February 7 that the international community must help Jordan and Syria deal with the huge influx of Iraqi refugees, international media reported the same day. "I want to strongly appeal to the international community to support the countries that are making such a huge sacrifice, particularly Jordan and Syria," Guterres said. "The sacrifices made by these countries are remarkable and the international community needs to assume full responsibility in supporting them," he added. The UN estimates that 2 million people have fled Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with 750,000 settling Jordan and nearly 1 million in Syria. Guterres stressed that the huge flow of Iraqi refugees has increased pressure on the resources of Iraq's neighbors, particularly Jordan and Syria. On January 9, Guterres' agency appealed for $60 million in emergency aid from the international community to assist displaced Iraqis. So far, the organization said it has received only $9.1 million. SS