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Newsline - February 9, 2007

Russian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov wrote in the German daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" of February 8 that Russia feels threatened by the projected U.S. missile-defense shield, which could possibly include installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, by NATO expansion along Russia's frontiers, and by the policies of some of the Baltic states toward their ethnic Russian minorities and Soviet-era war memorials on their territory. He also warned his German readers that the U.S. defense shield is an attempt to bind Europe to the United States and thwart any plans to create a EU military structure independent of the United States and NATO. Ivanov sought, as has President Vladimir Putin, to portray Russia as Europe's necessary and reliable partner, noted. Ivanov's remarks came shortly before the opening of the 43d annual Munich Conference on Security Policy, whose many participants are scheduled to include Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ivanov's comments also appeared shortly after he himself unveiled a record military-spending package that includes plans to acquire 17 intercontinental ballistic missiles, among other things (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 7, and 8, 2007). His remarks recall the classic approach of Soviet diplomacy of claiming to be the victim of aggressive behavior and of seeking to split the United States from its European allies. Putin has pursued this divide-and-rule approach since at least 2003, when he joined French President Jacques Chirac and Germany's then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in actively opposing U.S. policy toward Iraq. Ivanov's article also suggests an attempt to divide some of the older EU members from the newer ones, particularly the Baltic states, as Putin sought to do at the October 2006 EU-Russia summit in Lahti, Finland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006). PM

On February 9, the Russian daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" and the website interpreted recent remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates regarding uncertainty in Russia as a call for the United States to prepare itself for a possible armed conflict with that country. Other Russian media suggested that, at the very least, Gates sought to announce the start of a new Cold War. Mayak Radio, however, argued that Gates did not call directly for preparing for a war with Russia, reported. The radio stressed that Gates meant that Americans should get ready not only to fight terrorism, but also to conduct large-scale military operations with mass regular armies like Chinese or Russian ones. Gates told reporters on the margins of the NATO meeting in Seville, Spain, on February 8 that he met Defense Minister Ivanov there and that the two had a "lively" discussion on security issues, reported. On February 9, Ivanov told NATO leaders in Seville that granting independence to Kosova will open a "Pandora's box" of territorial disputes "in the post-Soviet region and also in some areas of Europe." U.S. and EU officials have rejected that analogy as ignoring the special legal status that Kosova enjoyed under the 1974 Yugoslav and Serbian constitutions. In Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" of February 8, U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), who clashed with Ivanov over numerous issues at the 2006 Munich security conference, wrote that Russia can become a full-fledged partner for the Western democracies only when it makes democratic values its own. He warned of what he described as aggressive Russian behavior toward several of its neighbors, which has also prompted many in the EU to realize that they should reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies. McCain called Russia a necessary partner for the United States and Europe but one which should behave in a responsible manner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2006, and January 29, 2007). PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists for the German weekly "Der Spiegel" recently that the EU continues to rebuff Russian demands for visa-free travel to the bloc, Interfax reported on February 9. He added that "we are prepared for [lifting mutual visa requirements]. However, our European partners are not.... There are absolutely no facts suggesting that visa-free travel is a threat to the European Union" because there have been very few cases of Russian citizens illegally immigrating to the EU. He noted that under a current "readmission agreement" with EU-member Lithuania, Russian citizens could "flee" to that country if they wanted to, but noted that this has not happened. Lavrov called fears in the EU of illegal immigration of Russian citizens "exaggerated and artificial." German media have repeatedly noted that the EU's main concern in keeping the visa requirement is preventing the migration of criminals and thwarting possible human trafficking. PM

On February 8, Vladislav Surkov, who is one of several deputy heads of the Kremlin's administration and an exponent of the theory of "sovereign democracy," told a Moscow conference marking the 125th anniversary of the birth of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt that "in the 20th century, Roosevelt was our military ally, and in the 21st, he is our ideological ally," RIA Novosti reported. President Putin's chief ideologue noted that Roosevelt understood democracy as granting power to the people and not to oligarchs or bureaucrats and added that "Russia is slowly moving in the right direction." Surkov argued that "like Roosevelt during his presidency, Putin has to consolidate administrative control and use presidential power to the maximum to overcome a crisis.... In the first three years of the Great Depression, per capita incomes in America nearly halved. In Russia in the 1990s, about 50 percent of the population called themselves poor." The Kremlin aide said that Roosevelt believed in state intervention to solve social and economic problems, but also knew that such intervention has its limits. Surkov hailed Roosevelt as a champion of "multilateralism" in international relations, adding that Roosevelt "and his America" were among the people and societies that have inspired Russia over the years. PM

The press service of pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov issued an official denial on February 8 that German Vok has resigned as secretary of the Council for Social and Economic Security, and reported. Alkhanov's press service added that Vok is currently on vacation. "Yuzhny federalny," the newspaper of the Southern Federal District, also formally denied that Vok has stepped down. Interfax and reported Vok's alleged resignation on February 7, together with that of two other unnamed Alkhanov aides (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2007). LF

The residents of 11 villages in Daghestan's Kizilyurt Raion staged a protest on February 7 against unspecified arbitrary and corrupt actions by the republican government and local officials, the Chechen website reported on February 8. The website posted photos of the protesters who carried placards in Russian calling for "justice" and for their elected representatives to the republic's National Assembly to "defend us." The website did not specify how many people participated in the protest or elucidate their precise grievances. LF

The branch in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) of the influential political organization Adyghe Khase, which seeks to defend the interests of Adygs and Cherkess in Adygeya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and the KBR, has written to KBR President Arsen Kanokov, asking him to grant the request by the parents of young men killed during the fighting in Nalchik on October 14, 2005, to release their bodies for burial, according to as reposted on February 8 by Kanokov has rejected earlier appeals by the dead men's families to release the bodies, referring to Russian legislation on the struggle against terrorism. Adyghe Khase also urged Kanokov to consider permitting the reopening of mosques in Nalchik that were "illegally closed," and it stressed the need for an objective evaluation of the role of unnamed KBR law enforcement officials whose activities it said impelled young Muslims to take up arms against the authorities. Former KBR Interior Minister Lieutenant General Khachim Shogenov, currently an adviser to Kanokov, is believed to have condoned, if not encouraged, indiscriminate police brutality against young men suspected of "Wahhabism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006 and February 2, 3007). LF

Armenian President Robert Kocharian signed a decree on February 8 endorsing the country's new national-security strategy, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Mediamax reported. The strategic document, which identifies five core principles -- independence, the security of the state and its population, peace and international cooperation, and prosperity -- defines democracy and good governance as priorities and reaffirms the country's "complementary" foreign policy, which seeks to balance simultaneous relations with Russia and the West. The 27-page document was formulated by a commission led by National Security Council Secretary and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian in November 2006. RG

Armenian police responded on February 8 to a violent clash in Yerevan between supporters of rival factions within the opposition Union for Constitutional Rights (SIM) party, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The incident, involving a dispute between two rival leaders of one of the oldest Armenian opposition parties, arose when nearly two dozen activists led by Hrant Khachatrian, the former SIM chairman, attempted to forcibly enter the party's Yerevan headquarters to confront Hayk Babukhanian, the current SIM chairman and his associates. SIM has been hindered by internal division since its long-time leader Khachatrian was forced to resign in September in a dispute with rival Babukhanian over party finances and its "Iravunk" newspaper (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2006). The opposition SIM party holds one seat in parliament and is one of nine parties aligned in the opposition Artarutiun bloc. RG

Speaking at a Yerevan press conference, former Armenian parliamentary Chairman Arthur Baghdasarian vowed on February 7 that his Orinats Yerkir party will not seek any alliance with other opposition parties and will contest the country's parliamentary elections alone, Armenpress reported. Baghdasarian, who emerged as a vocal critic of the Armenian government since his resignation as speaker in May 2006 after a dispute with President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 5 and 25, 2006), added that the May 12 election "will be a test for the country" and called on the opposition to "join our efforts to thwart vote fraud." He explained that the decision was reached in a meeting of the party's governing board the day before and added that the party will announce its list of nominated candidates later this month. RG

In comments to reporters in Yerevan, Armenian Deputy Parliamentary Chairman Vahan Hovannisian reiterated on February 7 Armenia's opposition to the signing in Baku earlier the same day of an agreement on the construction of a railway linking Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan but excluding Armenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16 and February 8, 2007), according to the Armenpress news agency. Hovannisian vowed that Armenia would continue to oppose the railway project, dismissing it as a "political scheme" without economic merit. He reaffirmed the Armenian preference for the reopening of the existing Soviet-era railway line from the Turkish city of Kars to the northern Armenian city of Gyumri, which has been closed since Turkey imposed a transport blockade of Armenia in 1993. RG

Speaking to reporters in Baku, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Chairman Goran Lennmarker hailed on February 8 the "economic progress" achieved from the reforms under way in Azerbaijan, according to the Azertac news agency. Lenmaker met earlier in the day with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and was briefed on the recent signing of a new agreement on regional cooperation by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2007). RG

Azerbaijani Health Minister Ogtay Sireliyev briefed journalists on February 8 in Baku on the situation regarding a possible outbreak of bird flu in the country, according to the website. Sireliyev said the World Health Organization is expected to announce within the next two days the results of the tests of samples from Azerbaijani resident suspected of contracting bird flu. He called on people to be "vigilant" in dealing with poultry. He added that "hygienic procedures should be strongly obeyed" when coming into contact with birds, stressing that "even simple measures can help to prevent bird flu." A 38-year-old resident of the Neftcala region was hospitalized on February 2 for conditions similar to bird flu and died on February 6. Azerbaijan suffered an earlier outbreak of bird flu that resulted in the death of several people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14 and 22, 2006). RG

President Kurmanbek Bakiev on February 8 completed his appointment of the last of 14 ministers and two deputy ministers comprising the country's new cabinet, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Kabar reported. The latest appointments included the return of Ednan Karabaev as foreign minister (he previously held that job in 1992-94); Kanybek Osmonaliev as the new education and science minister; Igor Chudinov as the head of the newly established Ministry of Industry, Energy, and Fuel Resources; and Sabyrbek Moldokulov as the minister for economic development and trade. Talant Uzakbaev was named as the minister for agriculture, water resources and reprocessing industry, and Janysh Rustenbekov was appointed as the new emergency situations minister, according to the website. Bakiev also announced that he will chair the first meeting of the new cabinet on February 9. Bakiev made his first appointments to the new government, led by Prime Minister Azim Isabekov, on February 6 after the Kyrgyz parliament approved a new governmental structure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 7, and 8, 2007). Other changes include the appointment of Toygonbek Kalmatov as the new director of the State Agency for Religious Affairs, replacing Dzholbors Dzhorobekov, AKIpress reported. RG

Kyrgyz opposition parliamentarian Temir Sariev turned down an offer on February 8 to serve as the new minister of economic development and trade, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Sariev said he rejected the offer, saying that "it would be politically wrong" to serve as a member of a government that he criticizes. He added that his participation would serve no purpose "because one person can do nothing." RG

President Imomali Rakhmonov met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on February 8 and signed several new bilateral agreements, Asia-Plus reported. The new agreements include accords calling for bilateral economic and scientific cooperation, cultural exchanges, and cooperation in the energy, tourism, and technology sectors, as well as an agreement on the mutual protection of investment. Following a discussion on regional security in the Middle East, Rakhmonov told Syrian journalists that Tajikistan is opposed to "military confrontation and the use of force in the settlement of regional conflicts and we are supporters of the political settlement of disputes on the basis of international standards." Rakhmonov's Syrian visit follows a recent meeting with President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007). RG

A joint operation between the Tajik police and the Sughd regional prosecutor's office resulted in the arrest on February 8 of an unspecified number of customs workers at the Khujand regional airport for corruption, according to the Avesta website. The specific details of the operation and arrests are expected to be released at a special news conference in Dushanbe planned for February 9 with officials from the Sughd prosecutor's office, the head of the airport customs service, and border-guard representatives. The operation was part of a broader effort by Tajik police and prosecutors to crack down on corruption within the state customs and border-guard services. RG

The trial of seven suspected members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) opened on February 8 in Tajikistan's Sughd province, Asia-Plus and ITAR-TASS reported. The defendants, including three Uzbek citizens, face criminal charges of organizing a criminal group, terrorism, and other crimes and face 20-year prison sentences if convicted. The group was arrested in Khujand in July, allegedly in possession of forged documents, arms, and "extremist literature" calling for the overthrow of the constitutional system to create an Islamic caliphate in Tajikistan. Presiding Judge Mahmud Ashurov said the defendants are accused of illegally entering Tajikistan in 2004 and recruiting Tajik nationals to join the IMU. Tajik security forces in the same region uncovered an underground bunker late last month reportedly linked to extremists from both the banned IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir groups (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2006). RG

A group of foreign journalists toured two main polling stations in Ashgabat on February 8, according to ITAR-TASS, ahead of Turkmenistan's presidential election set for February 11. The journalists, including some from Turkey and China, were each officially accredited by the Turkmen authorities and were escorted by officials from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry. The group, which also included Turkmen citizens working for foreign news agencies, is expected to attend all media-related events throughout the election period. A delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly led by its chairman, Goran Lennmarker, was scheduled to arrive in Turkmenistan on February 9 but will have no role in the coming election. Although the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) dispatched an election-support team to the country, there will be no OSCE election observers present for the contest mission and no public report is expected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2 and 8, 2007). Despite the fact that six presidential candidates are formally registered for the election, all are former government officials. RG

European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering on February 8 called on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to immediately release all political prisoners, Belapan reported. Poettering was speaking at a European Parliament session devoted to Belarus. He said that Lukashenka's regime has been corned in the wake of an energy dispute with Russia, adding that the EU is ready to engage in dialogue with Minsk under strict conditions. But Poettering also stressed that the EU should continue its policy of isolating the Belarusian regime while supporting Belarus's civil society, independent media, and students. Meanwhile, Rene van der Linden, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, argued that the policy of isolation has not had the desired effect and called for gradual EU moves toward Belarus. JM

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou on February 9 called on the Russian Transportation Ministry to resolve a recent controversy over cargo shipments through talks, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. "Millions of tons of cargo goes from Russia to Europe and back via Belarus. It is necessary to sit down [at a negotiating table] and remove mutual problems," Papou said. Moscow has recently barred Belarusian trucking companies from carrying third-country shipments to or from Russia in response to Minsk's move to tighten control over the movement of goods from Russia's Kaliningrad exclave to mainland Russia. Moscow says Belarusian customs officers now inspect each truck originating from Kaliningrad Oblast and bound for Russia, with each shipment escorted from border to border. Minsk claims that these measures are needed to counter duty-evasion schemes, in which trucks arriving from Kaliningrad and officially destined for mainland Russia are in fact unloaded in Belarus. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on February 8 approved Mykola Tomenko from the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc as deputy parliament speaker. Tomenko was backed by 340 lawmakers. The Ukrainian parliament is headed by Oleksandr Moroz from the Socialist Party. Until Tomenko's appointment, Moroz had just one deputy -- Adam Martynyuk from the Communist Party. The same day, the Verkhovna Rada also reelected Nina Karpachova as its plenipotentiary for human rights (ombudsman) and approved Viktor Slauta as deputy prime minister for agrarian issues. Karpachova has been in the post of ombudsman since 1998. Slauta served as agrarian policy minister in Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet in 2004. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on February 8 that Ukraine will continue to meet its obligations under the Energy Charter, including secure gas and oil transit to Europe, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. "Ukraine understands its important role in the formation of Europe's energy-security policy and is conscious of its responsibility. I know that last year's story perhaps wasn't always presented [in the media] with complete objectivity, but I want to stress that Ukraine fully complies with its obligations under the Energy Charter," Yushchenko said at a joint news conference with Merkel. Speaking at a business forum in Berlin later the same day, Yushchenko said he has not authorized anyone to talk with Russia about the joint use of the Ukrainian gas-transportation network. Earlier this month Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed that Kyiv has made a "revolutionary" offer to unify both countries' gas-transportation systems in exchange for a share in Russia's gas-drilling sector. JM

The Serbian official responsible for cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal, Rasim Ljajic, said on February 8 that EU leaders have indicated Serbia may be allowed to resume preaccession talks even before war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic is captured, AP reported the same day. The EU suspended talks in May 2006 after Serbian authorities missed a deadline to arrest Mladic, whose alleged war crimes include responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). Ljajic was among the Serbian officials who on February 7 met an EU delegation in Belgrade to discuss issues including the UN blueprint for the future of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2007). Ljajic said the EU's precondition for talks is now the formation of a pro-democracy government, but added that the capture of Mladic "would remain a precondition for signing the final agreement." The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party won the largest number of votes in elections on January 21, but appears unlikely to enter government. Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel of Slovenia, which assumes the rotating EU Presidency in January 2008, recently said he does not think the EU will demand Mladic "be brought to Brussels in chains" before reopening talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007).

Russia's Foreign Ministry on February 8 denied claims by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) that an indicted former Serbian general is in hiding at an address in Moscow, Russia media reported. Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin told the RIA Novosti news agency that the ICTY gave the Russian authorities an address that does not exist. On January 30, the ICTY's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said she holds out little hope that Vlastimir Djordjevic will ever be arrested, owing to a lack of cooperation by Russia. Kamynin said Russia is continuing to search for Djordjevic but said the ICTY has no "serious grounds to claim that Djordjevic is in Russia." Djordjevic is accused of war crimes committed in Kosova in 1999, when he headed the Serbian Interior Ministry's Public Security Service. He disappeared in 2001, shortly after the discovery of mass graves containing the bodies of ethnic Albanian civilians. Kamynin said Russia has always cooperated fully with the ICTY. In June 2006, Russia extradited a former Serbian policeman, Dragan Zelenovic, who is currently on trial in The Hague for rape and torture. AG

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on February 8 issued a report saying that 155,000 children in Serbia live in poverty. Another 155,000 are at risk of falling below the poverty line, according to a February 8 press release. The survey found that children living in the countryside or large families and children from refugee families or minority groups are particularly vulnerable to poverty and social exclusion. The report found that over 80 percent of children living in Romany settlements are poor and malnourished, with the result that the percentage of Romany children whose growth is stunted is four times the national average. Mortality rates in Romany communities are triple the average. Lack of adequate local welfare services to support poor or dysfunctional families or foster families often lead to institutionalization, the report noted. UNICEF found that children with disabilities face exclusion from health care, education, and local communities. Serbia has a population of 9.4 million. AG

The speaker of the Montenegrin parliament, Ranko Krivokapic, says Montenegro should pay Croatia reparations for damage caused in the 1991-92 war. In an interview published on February 8 by the Croatian daily "Vjesnik," Krivokapic said that "even though it [Montenegro] did not make any political decisions in this dirty war, Montenegro was used in various ways, and I believe we should make a deal that would not be financially unbearable for Montenegro and that will give moral and material satisfaction to the Dubrovnik area." Montenegrin soldiers were among the Yugoslav forces that bombed the UNESCO-listed town of Dubrovnik during a siege that lasted from October 1991 to May 1992. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic apologized for their role in 2001. In January, Ivo Sanader became the first Croatian prime minister since 1992 to visit Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, though Croatian President Stjepan Mesic has visited Montenegro several times in the past three years. AG

Five Serbian parties and a Bosnian Muslim party refused on February 8 to join Montenegro's political leaders in signing a commitment to incorporate Council of Europe principles into the country's constitution, Radio Montenegro reported the same day. Montenegro voted to end its union with Serbia in mid-2006, but talks on a new constitution have stalled over a range of issues. Critically, the Serbs want the constitution to define Montenegro as a community of nations, which other parties fear the Serbs could use as the basis for a bid to secede. Instead, they want Montenegro defined as a community of sovereign citizens. Bosnian Muslim demands include acknowledgment of Montenegro's Muslim tradition. Language is also an issue, since the country's state language is defined as Montenegrin. In the February 8 declaration, the prime minister, parliament speaker, and other political leaders said the constitution should refer to a civic state, separate the judiciary and politics, and offer human rights protections at least as strong as those in the constitution of the former Serbia-Montenegro union. Montenegro needs to agree on a constitution before it can join the Council of Europe. The draft constitution needs the support of two-thirds of parliament to come into force or else, if it secures only a simple majority in parliament, the constitution would need to be approved in a national referendum. Serbs and Muslims together make up about 40 percent of the country's population. AG

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn used a February 8 visit to Skopje to urge the Macedonian authorities to speed up reforms. "We had higher expectations from Macedonia after it gained the candidate status in December 2005," the MIA agency quoted Rehn as saying. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski on January 30 that Brussels believes the pace of reform slackened in 2006 and that the EU is not yet prepared to set a date for the start of formal membership talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). Rehn was in Skopje to attend a conference on the 2001 Ohrid agreement, which ended fighting between ethnic Albanian separatists and the Macedonian security forces and provides a political framework for ethnic relations in the country. Rehn expressed concern at "constant political tensions in Macedonia," saying they are stymieing reform, MIA reported. Rehn also met the leaders of two ethnic Albanian parties that in late January began a boycott of parliament on the grounds that parliament is undermining the Ohrid agreement, in part by marginalizing them and violating a principle that says laws need the support of a minimum number of representatives of ethnic-minority parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). Other tensions led recently to a breakdown in contacts between the governing Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) and the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, though Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has since helped to restore dialogue. AG

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is famous among state leaders for his idiosyncratic pronouncements and verbal meltdowns. Many of his sayings -- like "I will not lead my nation after the civilized world" -- have earned a place in the pages of post-Soviet political folklore. Hardly one among them can be commended for its wisdom or wit. But many are inadvertently funny because of their bizarreness, silliness, or even unintended obscenity.

Some of them, taken at face value, are terrifying -- such as the one in which Lukashenka, in a 1995 interview with Germany's "Handelsblatt" newspaper, praises Hitler's Third Reich as an example worthy of emulation for other nation builders.

"Not everything connected with Germany and a certain Adolf Hitler was bad," he said. "The German order had been formed throughout centuries. Under Hitler this formation reached its peak. This is what conforms to our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of a president in it."

"Handelsblatt" prudently opted to remove this passage from the published text of the interview. But Belarusian Radio twice broadcast the recorded conversation in its entirety, raising a cry of indignation in some domestic and international media for the extreme callousness of his remark.

Did Lukashenka really mean what he said? Did he want to build a fascist state in Belarus? Many journalists were quick to say yes. But another explanation, odd as it may seem, is more plausible: Lukashenka, wanting to please his interviewers, had thought it right to praise German "order." Through the simplicity of his soul or lack of exposure to the West, it may be the Belarusian president simply did not realize that Hitler's contributions to that "order" were beyond mention, in Germany and elsewhere.

Even more disturbing is the fact that Lukashenka afterward flatly denied ever making such a statement. The Belarusian president does not like to admit his mistakes. This denial, along with the Hitler quote, was recalled by Russia's Channel One television in a January program portraying Lukashenka as a brazen liar.

Another odd move came in November 2006. While giving an interview to a group of Ukrainian journalists in Minsk, Lukashenka suddenly floated the idea of creating a Ukraine-Belarus union -- adding that such a project had a better chance of success than the languishing Russia-Belarus union state.

Lukashenka clearly sensed trouble ahead. Anticipating problems with energy deliveries from Russia, he was eager to send a signal to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko -- himself no stranger to the strong arm of Russian energy politics -- that it was time for the two of them to get together for a talk. Chances are, however, that the pro-Western Yushchenko was as stupefied by the proposal as the journalists in Minsk.

More recently, in a January interview with the German daily "Die Welt," Lukashenka suggested Belarus was ready to be an "eager pupil" of the West and that he personally envisioned his country someday following the model of Germany or Sweden. His comments appeared to be a fleeting overture to the West. A week later, meeting with Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Lukashenka was back in traditional form -- pledging that Belarus will continue to serve as Russia's "outpost" in the West.

His most recent foreign interview, to the Reuters news agency, finds him not trying to make friends with anyone in particular. Neither Russia nor Europe are essential to Belarus's survival, he said in classically bullish mode.

The erratic nature of Lukashenka's public pronouncements defy literal interpretation. Building any hopes on his words is a senseless task. As long as Lukashenka eludes the pinch of an acute economic necessity, he'll stay in one place and won't lead his nation anywhere -- neither to Sweden, nor to Russia.

It is his narrow-mindedness, and not his shrewdness, that presents the biggest obstacle to easing Lukashenka onto a more democratic path. The president has a clear vision of his role in Belarus -- he is a provider who carefully attends to the concerns of the common people, and severely punishes those who do them harm. It is hard for him to envision a Belarus without Lukashenka. It is hard for him to envision a world in which other people feel differently.

The stagecraft behind Belarusian elections -- routinely criticized by observers -- is an exercise in simulated democracy that Lukashenka appears convinced is precisely what the people need. He drove this point home in comments following the March 2006 presidential vote handing him an unprecedented third term.

"How can a normal, reasonable, good, decent man -- I've told this to [election] observers -- say that this [election] process was undemocratic? We have made a festival out of this election," he said. "Do you know why I did this? [Because] polling stations were visited by my people, who some time ago supported me so stunningly and unexpectedly, when I was [a novice in politics], you remember, 10 years ago. And I will do everything possible to make more festivals of this sort for my people."

Lukashenka may be right when he asserts that for "his people" nationwide elections and referendums have so far been "festivals." On election day, many polling stations offer vodka, sausages, and other commodities at discounted prices, and most people rightfully enjoy taking advantage of such opportunities. As long as such discount prices are possible, the festival may go on.

But some of the perks -- including substantial oil and gas subsidies -- have already begun to dry up. The festival atmosphere may come to a sudden end once Belarusians are made to pay in full for everything they now buy at discount rates.

The reality is that Lukashenka has failed to build a self-sustaining economy or functional state institutions. Belarus under his rule looks like a failed state. Lukashenka's bizarre public boast that he falsified the 2006 presidential vote in order to give the opposition at least some of the votes only underscores his profound political failure.

"Yes, we falsified the last election. I have already told the Westerners about this," he told Ukrainian journalists in Minsk on November 23. "As much as 93.5 percent voted for President Lukashenka. But they say this is not a European figure. So we made it 86 [percent]. That was true. If we were to start recounting ballots now, I don't know what we would do with them. The Europeans told us before the election that if there were approximately European figures in the election, they would recognize our election. [So] we tried to make European figures."

Making election figures look more "European" appears to be an easy task for Lukashenka. Making Belarus look more "European" seems to be totally beyond his ability.

(Part 1 appeared in yesterday's "RFE/RL Newsline.")

Visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Kurshid Mahmud Kasuri said in Berlin on February 8 that his country will put off a plan to lay land mines along its 2,600-kilometer border with Afghanistan, Reuters reported on February 9. "We wanted to mine the border so that there would be no movement [of militants] across the border. But as a mark of respect to the sensitivity of our European colleagues, we have decided that we will not mine the border for the time being," Kasuri said. Islamabad will still build a fence along portions of its boundary with Afghanistan, he added. Pakistan recently announced it would implement its plan -- which has been discussed since 2003 -- to partially fence and mine its border with Afghanistan as a measure to stop militants from going back and forth between Afghanistan from Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 29, 2006, and January 5, 2007). Afghanistan has consistently objected to such plans and the EU has objected specifically to the laying of land mines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 2007). AT

U.S. General John Craddock, who assumed command of NATO in December, has presented a list of military requirements for Afghanistan during an informal meeting of NATO defense ministers in Seville, Spain, on February 8, the "Los Angeles Times" reported. According to an unidentified European official familiar with Craddock's proposal, the plan calls for around 2,000 additional troops and helicopters. German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung urged NATO to focus more on economic and reconstruction programs rather than solely on military options. "I do not think it is right to talk about more military means," Jung said, adding that when the Soviets "were in Afghanistan, they had 100,000 troops and didn't win." U.S. Defense Secretary Roberts Gates has indicated that the "spring offensive" in Afghanistan should be NATO's offensive, not the offensive of the neo-Taliban and their allies. AT

The Afghan Interior Ministry announced a plan on February 8 to introduce birth and death certificates in the country for the first time, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Deputy Interior Minister Abdul Malik Sediqi said the initial preparations for the registration programs are in place and the practical phase of the plan is due to begin by April in six provinces: Balkh, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Konduz, and Nangarhar. The registration program is being implemented with help from a grant by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which estimates that only around 10 percent of Afghan babies are being registered. AT

Speaking before the Security Affairs Committee of the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), Kabul police chief Esmatullah Dawlatzai said on February 8 that a number of police officers under his command are involved in crimes, including abductions, armed robberies, and corruption, Tolo TV reported. "A low-ranking chief of my department, with his men and government weapons, vehicles, and uniforms, surround a person's home. He may do this for an abduction, a killing, or a robbery," Dawlatzai told the committee. According to Dawlatzai, he was unable to bring any improvement in this area to his department because of the existence of illegal armed groups, private security firms, and an inexperienced police force. AT

Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in Qom on February 8 that he doubts the United States will take the "stupid" step of attacking Iran, but any attack would have "a heavy cost" for the United States, IRNA reported. Similar remarks were made the same day by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who threatened a tough response to any attack by the United States. "Given America's serious problems in...Iraq and Afghanistan, it will not be easy for them to attack" Iran, Rafsanjani said. Iran, he added, should nevertheless be prepared. "We have to be careful inside the country and not [provoke] the enemy with our statements, nor underestimate them." He said all Muslims must reject discord between their Shi'ite and Sunni branches, even if "certain radical and extremist Shi'a and Sunnis" strike at Muslim unity with their "ignorant" conduct and "armed actions." He accused the United States of forming "artificial" Israel to help it dominate the Middle East, but said its "confining chain" has now been broken. He wondered how the United States can accuse Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs when "they have full control of Iraq," IRNA reported. VS

Speaking the same day in Tehran to air force officers of the regular army, Ayatollah Khamenei dismissed threats of sanctions or strikes against Iran as "the old...method of imperialists" for weakening "the will...of nations and looting [their] resources," ISNA reported. Iran, he said, will confront threats to illustrate the "divine promise" that God stands by "pious nations." He said, "the enemies know full that any aggression will provoke [Iran's] all-out response to aggressors and their interests all over the world," ISNA reported. He said that "we believe" nobody would make "this mistake and endanger their country and interests." Israel's "admission" that it has nuclear weapons, he said, seeks to inject "a termite-like fear" into the "structure of the life of nations," ISNA reported. He urged Islamic countries to show their "rejection and hatred" of ongoing excavation work near the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which Muslims have said will damage the revered building (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2007). In Washington on February 8, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said he hopes Khamenei's statements are not "directed at the United States because President [George W.] Bush has made it clear we have no intention of going to war with Iran," Reuters reported. VS

Speaking in Tehran on February 8, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini rejected as "bold" and undiplomatic remarks by British Prime Minister Tony Blair criticizing Iran's regional and nuclear policies, ISNA reported. Blair told a House of Commons committee on February 6 that Iran's attempts to "prevent reconciliation" in the Middle East are "very shortsighted and very foolish," and that it would be "of immense help" if Iran could help stabilize Iraq, AP reported. He said the option of military strikes is not "off the table," but nobody is presently discussing or "planning" strikes on Iran. Husseini said Blair's views derive from "extremist ideas," and he accused Great Britain of having played a disruptive role in Iran's nuclear-dossier talks with the EU in past years, ISNA reported. He said, "the British prime minister alongside America and with the participation" of Israel has imposed "three wars" on regional peoples, which have led to increasing insecurity and hatred of those states. He said Blair's "racist and warmongering" policies are also leading to "increasing pressures" on Muslims in Britain, and "Muslims in that country are daily insulted and imprisoned on illusory pretexts," ISNA reported. VS

New York-based Human Rights Watch objected in a February 8 statement to the travel restrictions Iranian authorities have imposed on political activists or writers in recent months, Radio Farda reported. The group said the restrictions isolate these writers from civil society abroad, Radio Farda reported. The statement referred to the most recent case, when activists Hashem Aghajari and Abdullah Momeni were prevented from leaving Tehran to fly to the United States on February 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). Momeni told ISNA on February 7 that he and Aghajari went on February 6 to the Presidency Passports Affairs Office in Tehran -- as they had been instructed -- and were shown a January 28 letter by the security department of the Tehran Prosecutor's Office banning their travel abroad. They were told the reason for the ban, "is the file that has been opened [on them] because of the trip to America, when this trip has not taken place," Momeni told ISNA. He said they have to go to the prosecutor's office "next week." VS

Iraqi and U.S. forces on February 8 raided the Iraqi Health Ministry and arrested Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili, international media reported the same day. In a statement, the U.S. military did not refer to al-Zamili by name, but said a leading ministry official was arrested on suspicion of trying to infiltrate the ministry with Shi'ite militia elements and using the ministry to carry out sectarian attacks. "These militia members are reported to target Iraqi civilians using MoH [Ministry of Health] facilities and services for sectarian kidnapping and murder," the statement said. The U.S. military also accused al-Zamili of corruption and of funneling millions to "rogue elements" of the Imam al-Mahdi Army. Al-Zamili is a member of the political bloc of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the al-Sadr movement is known to control the Health Ministry. Health Minister Ali al-Shammari condemned al-Zamili's arrest, describing it as an "abduction" and a violation of Iraq's sovereignty, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on February 8. The head of the al-Sadr bloc in parliament, Nasar al-Rubay'i, told Al-Jazeera satellite television that the arrest was "unlawful and illegal because there is no warrant." Al-Jazeera also reported on February 8 that Health Ministry officials have threatened to go on strike unless al-Zamili is released. SS

U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell announced on February 7 that the Baghdad security plan to curtail the worsening security situation in the Iraqi capital has been set in motion, Voice of America reported the same day. "The implementation of the [Iraqi] prime minister's plan has already begun and will be fully implemented at a later date," Caldwell said. He said the operation will broaden once more troops are available. "Portions are already being put in place, and we will continue to put more into place as the forces arrive and the assets become available," he said. The U.S. military also announced that General William Petraeus will officially take over command of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq on February 10. SS

Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Uthman announced on February 8 that no Arab will be forced to leave Kirkuk, "Al-Zaman" reported the same day. He said that approximately 7,000 Arab families have voluntarily decided to leave Kirkuk without coercion. "They have made the decision to leave on their own. The decision to return to original places is voluntary and no one can force those families to leave," he said. On February 4, the Higher Committee for the Normalization of Kirkuk decided that Arabs who came to live in Kirkuk as a result of the former regime's "Arabization" policies will be returned to their places of origin in central and southern Iraq and given appropriate compensation, including a plot of land and $15,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). Meanwhile, hundreds of Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkish Turkomans demonstrated in Kirkuk on February 7, denouncing the normalization committee's decision, "Al-Zaman" reported the same day. Demonstrators held signs and yelled slogans such as: "No to dividing Iraqis! Yes to national unity!" SS

Iraqi Turkoman Assembly Secretary-General Yunus Bayraktar escaped an assassination attempt in Kirkuk on February 7, "Anatolia" reported on February 8. According to the Iraqi Turkoman Front (ITF), a roadside bomb exploded as Bayraktar's car passed, injuring him slightly. The ITF released a statement condemning the attack and stressing that "these attacks will not daunt and divert us from our path." On January 31, ITF leader Sadettin Ergec survived an assassination attempt when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy on its way to a Turkoman village in Kirkuk to participate in Ashura festivities, the Cihan news agency reported on February 1. The ITF said no one in the convoy was injured. SS

During a meeting with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres on February 8 in Damascus, Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara blamed the current Iraqi refugee crisis on the United States, the SANA news agency reported the same day. "The invasion of Iraq has led to an outpouring of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees to Syria and neighboring countries," al-Shara said. He said the influx of refugees has "imposed a lot of security, social and economic burdens, and the U.S. has the basic responsibility of this humanitarian catastrophe." Guterres thanked Syria for hosting a large numbers of Iraqi refugees and for its efforts to ease their suffering. On February 7, Guterres urged the international community to assist Jordan and Syria in dealing with the huge flow of Iraqi refugees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2007). The UN estimates that since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, 750,000 Iraqi refugees have fled to Jordan and nearly 1 million to Syria. SS

The U.S. military announced that it had killed 13 suspected terrorists in an air strike in Al-Amiriyah on February 8. The military said it launched the strike after intelligence indicated that suspected insurgents were gathering in two safe houses in the town. The statement also said that coalition forces "detained five suspected terrorists and found a cache including armor-piercing ammunition." However, local officials gave a conflicting account of the attack, saying that the air strike hit the village of Al-Zaydan south of Abu Ghurayb, killing 45 civilians, including women and children, AP reported on February 8. Thamir al-Dulaymi, a doctor with the Fallujah Public Hospital, said 20 civilians from Al-Zaydan were being treated, while a highway patrol officer said civilian cars were being used to bring the wounded to the hospital. Al-Jazeera satellite television also reported the same day that dozens were killed and injured in a U.S. air strike near Abu Ghurayb. SS