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Newsline - February 21, 2007

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said in Warsaw on February 20 that recent vocal Russian opposition to U.S. plans for a missile-defense system with sites in Poland and the Czech Republic shows that Moscow hopes to regain a "sphere of influence" in Eastern Europe, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). He stressed that the proposed U.S. "installations do not in any way threaten Russia." He called the Russian comments "an attempt to scare" Poland and the Czech Republic. Czech Foreign Minister Karl Schwarzenberg said in Warsaw that "the Czechs will now think the [missile-defense] shield is even more necessary.... You have to make clear to [the Russians] you won't succumb to blackmail.... We have to be strong." A spokesman for Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said in Prague that Topolanek has summoned Russia's ambassador in Prague for "consultations" later in the week. Britain's "Financial Times" of February 21 quoted Poland's former Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati as saying that the missile-defense "system itself doesn't actually help Poland's security. In fact, it creates additional problems by angering the Russians. But it's always good to protect an ally, and the [United States] wants it." The "Financial Times" quoted Eugeniusz Smolar, who heads Poland's Center for International Studies, as noting that "considering the relative weakness of the EU's common foreign and defense policy, it comes down to the question [of whether] we want the Americans in...or out." It also quoted Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra as saying that "if we turn our back on this [U.S.] request, there is a threat that the [United States] will back away from Europe. If the Poles and the Czechs reject the [request], the Americans will [respond] accordingly." Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Tomas Pojar argued that the two sites could be the basis of a new Europe-wide security system. Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov, who commands the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, told a February 19 news conference in Moscow that Russia might target missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic if they agree to host the sites and if the Kremlin decides to abrogate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Washington (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 9, and 12, 2007). PM

U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley is slated to arrive soon in Moscow from Brussels for a long-planned meeting with Russian officials on a visit that has gained importance following President Vladimir Putin's bellicose February 10 speech in Munich and recent Russian statements against the proposed missile-defense system, news agencies reported on February 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, and 20, 2007). On February 20, Hadley's spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said that "if the issue comes up [during Hadley's Moscow trip] of our missile defense, our position is clear, and that's that the Russians should have no concerns ...[about a system] designed to protect [those concerned] from threats emanating from outside the region." State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said that "the [proposed] designed to counter threats from the Middle East or from other potential rogue states.... This system is not physically capable of threatening Russia, or threatening any other country for that matter. It's for defensive purposes." Casey called Colonel General Solovtsov's statements "a bit puzzling. We do think it's a little hard to believe...that he's speaking on behalf of the Russian government." PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on February 20 that "we are seriously concerned about plans to deploy elements of a U.S. missile-defense system in Europe and the critical situation that threatens the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty," news agencies reported. He added that "NATO's enlargement, which was undertaken despite the assurances we were given previously, does not help strengthen trust either. We are also concerned about the advance of the alliance's infrastructure toward the Russian border" in the form of missile defense. He said that "Russia will react to emerging threats to its national security in a balanced, adequate way, and will not allow itself to be drawn into a new confrontation or a new arms race." Lavrov was quoted in the state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of February 21 as saying that Russia will respond "without hysteria" and not "put our economic and financial well-being at risk" by launching an expensive arms race. He repeated earlier charges by President Putin and other Russian officials that a missile-defense system placed in Poland and the Czech Republic can only be directed against Russia and not at Iran or North Korea. Lavrov charged that setting up a successful missile-defense system could tempt U.S. strategists into some day "launching a first strike...[if they knew] that it would go unpunished." In Moscow on February 20, Aleksandr Pikayev of the Institute for World Economy and International Relations told RFE/RL that the Kremlin is concerned about "both a political and military danger. This would be the first time since the end of the Cold War that an extensive U.S. armament system that can potentially intercept Russian nonstrategic missiles has been deployed close to Russian borders. Concerning Russian strategic missiles, it probably won't pose any threat initially. But with time, as antimissile systems are perfected, this capability will be achieved." Russian military expert Aleksandr Golts argued instead that the proposed "system does not threaten Russia's nuclear potential. Moscow considers that what is happening diminishes its status as a great nuclear superpower, and this is why it's reacting so harshly." PM

Russian Air Force Commander in Chief Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov said recently that of the 11,000 young men drafted into the Air Force in 2006, over 30 percent are "mentally unstable," the daily "Gazeta" reported on February 20. He added that 10 percent of the conscripts have drug or alcohol problems, and that 15 percent of the total were in poor health or underweight. He noted that 25 percent of the conscripts never knew their fathers, 3 percent never knew their mothers, and an additional 3 percent grew up without either parent. The daily quoted Colonel General Eduard Vorobyov as saying recently that he has long argued "that we should abandon conscription. By drafting the dregs of society, we are only creating an illusion that all is well" in the military. Instead, Vorobyov wants a gradual transition to a professional army of contract servicemen with rigorous selection criteria. The paper pointed out that "former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov must know the data Mikhailov revealed. That knowledge, however, did not prevent him from concentrating on something else and optimistically telling the Duma [recently] that 'the numerical strength of the armed forces is now optimal [at 1.13 million]. We cannot go any lower than that." The daily suggested that this means that "sophisticated military hardware -- including 17 ICBMs -- will be controlled by young men who cannot even control themselves." PM

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov said on February 20 that he opposes the 10-year power-sharing agreement between the federal authorities and the Republic of Tatarstan, which the Duma ratified on February 9 and which the Federation Council is currently debating, and RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2006, and February 12, 2007). The treaty gives Tatarstan a degree of economic and political autonomy no other region enjoys. Mironov said that he fears that the terms of the treaty undermine "federalism" and set a precedent that unnamed other regions might seek to copy. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" commented on February 21, however, that personal and party politics might be the real reason for Mironov's opposition to the agreement. The paper noted that he is close to Rafgat Altynbaev, who represents Ryazan Oblast in the Federation Council and is prominent in the A Just Russia party. One of that party's components is the Party of Life, to which Mironov and Altynbaev belong. Altynbaev is a long-time rival of Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev of the Unified Russia party, whose position in Tatarstan is strengthened by the treaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 8, 2005). PM

Following talks in Grozny on February 21, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak has suggested three potential candidates to succeed Alu Alkhanov as republic head, reported. They are Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov; Muslim Khuchiyev, who is deputy head of the government apparatus and head of the Chechen branch of A Just Russia; and Grozny Raion head Shamil Zhamalgayev. It is not clear why Kozak failed to include Minister of Social Development and Labor Magomed Vakhayev, whom Kadyrov identified last month as the ideal candidate for the post (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 16, 2007). President Putin must now propose one of the three candidates to the Chechen parliament. On February 16, his adviser for Chechen affairs, Aslambek Aslakhanov, predicted that the parliament would automatically reject any candidate except Kadyrov, reported. LF

Speaking on February 20 in Grozny, pro-Moscow Chechen Prime Minister and acting republic head Kadyrov accused London-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky of having masterminded the killing last October in Moscow of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, reported. Kadyrov said Berezovsky's intention in doing so was to blacken the image of the Russian leadership. He denied that Politkovskaya's trenchant criticism of developments in Chechnya had any impact on the Chechen government. On February 21, the website quoted Vyacheslav Ismaylov, Politkovskaya's fellow journalist at "Novaya gazeta," as saying that Kadyrov is acting at the behest of persons within the Russian leadership who have no interest in finding and apprehending Politkovskaya's killers. On February 20, the Spanish daily "El Pais" quoted Ismaylov as saying that three separate independent leads indicate that Politkovskaya was killed by or on orders from someone close to Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). LF

Vladimir Albegov, who served as judge in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion, has been found shot dead in the republic's central Alagir Raion, three days after he disappeared, and reported on February 21. LF

Abdurashiid Bibulatov, who organized the protest on February 15 by traffic police in Makhachkala against corruption within the Interior Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007), has appealed to the Federal Security Service (FSB) for protection, alleging pressure and intimidation by his superiors, reported on February 21. Bibulatov claimed that ministry officials dismiss the most competent police officers and accept bribes to promote others. He also said that police are regularly not paid for working overtime. LF

Frank-Walter Steinmeier told journalists in Yerevan on 20 February after talks with his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian that Armenia and Azerbaijan hold similar views of the draft Karabakh peace agreement currently under discussion, which in turn creates "a good basis for continuing negotiations," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Steinmeier said the EU, of which Germany currently holds the rotating presidency, views the South Caucasus as a cohesive whole and would like to see stable economic and political development in the region, Noyan Tapan reported. Steinmeier reportedly discussed with Oskanian Armenia's participation in the EU's New Neighborhood Program, stressing that that participation will suffer if the May 12 parliamentary elections are not perceived as free, fair, and democratic. Steinmeier discussed bilateral economic ties with Markarian, who expressed satisfaction at the increase in recent years in bilateral trade and appreciation for German economic assistance to Armenia. Meanwhile, EU envoy for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby told a press conference in Baku on February 20 that the EU will allocate Azerbaijan 100 million euros ($131.4 million) over the next three years, reported. Semneby explained that Azerbaijan will receive less in aid than Armenia and Georgia because its per capita GDP is greater. LF

In a 21 February interview with the website, Ayaz Mutalibov, who has lived in Moscow since his ouster as president in 1992, deplored the ongoing infighting and mutual accusations that he said have turned the political opposition into "a laughing stock" that has lost all chances of exerting any influence on domestic politics. Also on February 21, the electronic daily quoted Arif Gajili, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat party, as criticizing Musavat's former partner, the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), for its rejection of the venues on the outskirts of Baku which the municipal authorities have made available to opposition parties for holding protest demonstrations. Only a few hundred people showed up for the last such Musavat-organized protest on February 18. AHCP Deputy Chairman Gasan Kerimov rejected Gajili's criticism as misplaced, noting that in recent months his party has staged no fewer than seven protests in central Baku, reported on February 21. LF

Deputy Defense Minister Levan Nikoleishvili told journalists on February 20 that there is no truth to Russian media reports that Tbilisi sought to acquire from Russia via Daghestan spare parts for a MI-24 military helicopter, Caucasus Press reported. He said such reports are intended to sabotage Georgia's ongoing efforts to qualify for NATO membership. Meanwhile, members of a NATO evaluation mission currently in Tbilisi were quoted on February 20 as saying that they believe it will be possible in 2009 to conclude whether and when Georgia will qualify for membership, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia, the widow of former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, told journalists in Tbilisi on Feruary 20 that his grave in the courtyard of the house he occupied while living in exile in Grozny was destroyed and the whereabouts of his remains are unknown, Caucasus Press and reported on February 20 and 21, respectively. She said she plans to collect signatures to a petition calling for the return of his remains to Georgia for reburial, and she appealed to pro-Moscow Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov to help clarify the situation. In Grozny, however, Chechen Information Minister Movasr Ibragimov said on February 20 that Gamsakhurdia's family removed his remains from Chechen territory before the outbreak of hostilities in late 1994. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili was quoted by Caucasus Press as saying on February 20 that his ministry plans to contact the Russian Foreign Ministry in order to expedite "in a civilized way" the return of Gamsakhurdia's remains to Georgia for burial. Gamsakhurdia died in late December 1993 in western Georgia in circumstances that remain unclear. The Georgian authorities claimed he committed suicide, but Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia has repeatedly said, most recently on February 20, that he was assassinated. LF

Igor Rogov, chairman of Kazakhstan's Constitutional Court and deputy chairman of a task force on constitutional changes, said in Astana on February 20 that the task force agrees with President Nursultan Nazarbaev's comments on the necessity of retaining the country's presidential system of government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Rogov said at a press conference after a task-force meeting, "The leitmotif was as follows: it is imperative to use all possible opportunities to broaden parliament's powers, but to the greatest extent within the framework of the presidential form of government." Rogov added that the task force is likely to recommend conducting future parliamentary elections on the basis of party slates rather than single-mandate constituencies. DK

The Kyrgyzstan's cabinet voted on February 20 against participation in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's (IMF) Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt-reduction program, Kabar reported. Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov cast the only vote in favor of joining the HIPC. The same day, President Kurmanbek Bakiev gave the government two weeks to develop an economic development and debt-reduction program, Interfax reported. Bakiev added, "Neither the World Bank nor the IMF are going to terminate their relations with us. There's work to be done. We have our programs. We are not going to join this HIPC program." According to Interfax, Kyrgyzstan's external debt stands at $1.4 billion, and HIPC could have led to the write-off of $1 billion. But the program sparked controversy in Kyrgyzstan, with critics arguing it would give international financial institutions too much power over domestic policy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007). DK

The press service of President Bakiev issued a statement on February 20 criticizing the recently created United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan opposition movement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007) as "not based on moral -- let alone political -- grounds," reported. The statement charged that the movement ignores positive developments that have taken place over the past two years and stated that "today is no time for political confrontation." The statement concluded, "Any manifestation of radicalism is unacceptable and cannot be supported by the healthy forces and the people of Kyrgyzstan. The authorities, whose duty is to ensure peace and tranquility in the country in line with the Kyrgyz Constitution, must and will fulfill these duties, preserving stability in the country and the security of its citizens." DK

Avaz Yuldoshev, a spokesman for Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on February 20 that the Tajik government rejects recent charges by Uzbekistan's National Security Service that drug smuggling from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan is on the rise (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). Yuldoshev noted bilateral efforts to curb drug trafficking, and said attempts to use the issue to disparage one country are unacceptable. Tajik political analyst Rahmatullo Abdulloyev told RFE/RL that the Uzbek statement could reflect an unwillingness on Uzbekistan's part to open its borders with Tajikistan in the framework of Uzbekistan's participation in the Eurasian Economic Community (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). DK

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a number of decrees appointing officials on February 20, the official news service TDH reported. Esenmurat Orazgeldiev was appointed agriculture minister, Annamukhammet Mukhadov chairman of the state cotton concern, Muratgeldi Akmammedov water minister, and Khojamyrat Geldymyradov as economy and finance minister. All of the officials must serve a probationary period of six months. DK

A district court in Minsk on February 20 handed down a two-year suspended prison sentence with two years' probation to opposition activist Kanstantsin Lukashou, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Lukashou, a researcher with the National Academy of Sciences, was found guilty of committing violence against police. The charge stemmed from a police attempt to detain Lukashou's brother, Vyachaslau Siuchyk, who took an active part in postelection protests in Minsk in March 2006. Siuchyk, who was arrested by police in Minsk on March 23 and immediately hospitalized because of injuries suffered during the arrest, escaped from the hospital six days later in a car driven by Lukashou. One of the plainclothes policemen who tried to apprehend the two men charged later that he was hit by Lukashou's car. "The court handed down the sentence on the basis of blatantly false testimony by the victim, which held no water," Lukashou told journalists after the verdict. JM

The Batskaushchyna (Fatherland) World Association of Belarusians has petitioned the Belarusian authorities against the ongoing construction of an Orthodox church in the city of Kobryn, southwestern Belarus, Belapan reported on February 20. The church is expected to be named after Russian military commander Aleksandr Suvorov (1729-1800) who helped suppress the 1794 Polish national liberation revolt led by Belarusian-born Polish and American hero Thaddeus Kosciusko. The petition, signed also by members of the Belarusian Language Society and the Union of Belarusian Writers, was sent to Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski and Minsk and Slutsk Metropolitan Filaret, head of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. "Crimes against the Belarusian people were committed under the command of Suvorov. Batskaushchyna is against the construction of the monument that will become the symbolic justification of the bloodshed," Batskaushchyna Deputy Chairwoman Yelena Makouskaya told Belapan. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said in an interview with UNIAN on February 20 that he is in favor of holding a consultative referendum on amendments and changes to the constitution. Yushchenko noted that the first stage of his initiative envisions the creation of a constitutional commission that could prepare constitutional amendments. "I think that every day society realizes more and more clearly that if we fail to organize this [constitutional] process today, six months or a year later the circumstances for this will become much worse. Then far more resolute and radical methods would be needed to organize this process," Yushchenko said. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych commented later the same day that the president's willingness to change the constitution could lead to a "harsh confrontation" in the country, Interfax-Ukraine reported. JM

The Cabinet of Ministers charged in a statement on February 20 that the opposition wants to destabilize the situation in the country, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The statement came in response to the unsuccessful efforts by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine parliamentary caucuses earlier the same day to pass bills on increasing the monthly minimum wage and on limiting utility-tariff hikes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). "Today the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine once again demonstrated the unbounded cynicism of their policy," the statement reads. "In August 2005, Tymoshenko personally decided to break the extremely favorable five-year agreement on Russian gas supplies to Ukraine at the price of $48 per 1,000 cubic meters. The doubling of the price for imported gas that followed has irreversibly brought about increased prices for foodstuffs and consumer goods as well as a hike in tariffs for electricity and other utilities." JM

A group calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) has claimed responsibility for a February 20 bomb attack in Prishtina in which three UN vehicles were damaged (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007), local and international reported the same day. The group said the attack was not intended to cause casualties but was "revenge" for the deaths of two Albanians in a clash with UN-led police at a February 10 demonstration against UN plans for the UN-administered province. The name of the group is the same as that of an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group disbanded in 1999 under NATO supervision following NATO's successful intervention to end a Serbian crackdown in the province. The attack was immediately condemned by Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku, who was himself a UCK commander during the 1998-99 guerrilla campaign against the Serbian authorities. Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu said in a statement carried by local and international media that "such criminal acts are absolutely unacceptable...and completely harmful for the process to determine the status of Kosovo." Meanwhile, consultations on the UN's proposals for the future of the predominantly Albanian-populated Serbian province are set to begin on February 21. Hopes are low of compromises by either negotiating team, with the plan's author, Martti Ahtisaari, saying he does not believe in "miracles" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). The Albanian-language daily "Koha ditore" reported on February 21 that Ylber Hysa, a member of the Prishtina negotiating team, warned the international community that any attempt to deny independence to Kosova would trigger a new war. Hysa also said Prishtina has made many compromises and "that doesn't leave much room for maneuver." AG

In another development likely to heighten tensions in Kosova, local media reported that the radical ethnic Albanian Self-Determination movement said on February 20 that it plans to hold a rally on March 3, in the middle of the consultation process about the Ahtisaari plan. Self-Determination (Vetevendosja) organized the February 10 rally that ended in the deaths of two demonstrators, and its leader, Albin Kurti, remains in detention for his role in the protest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 14, 2007). Kurti's deputy, Glauk Konjufca, said the rally will be "peaceful," news agencies reported on February 20, and he added that Self-Determination "had nothing to do" with the attack on the UN vehicles. "Koha ditore" reported on February 21 that Self-Determination will not ask the police for permission to hold the rally. The February 10 bloodshed prompted Kosovar Serbs to voice doubts about their security, a concern repeated on February 20 by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who told the Serbian news agency Tanjug that the international community must react "immediately and rigorously" to threats of violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). The bloodshed also led to the resignations of Kosova's interior minister and the UN's police chief, and raised concern that ethnic Albanians from neighboring countries are stoking tensions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 14, and 15, 2007). Confirmation that ethnic Albanian Macedonians took part in the rally came on February 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). Self-Determination is calling for immediate independence for Kosova and the withdrawal of international troops. AG

With official results still to be announced, Albania's largest opposition bloc, headed by the Socialist Party, appears to have scored significant successes in many urban parts of the country in local elections on February 18. According to local media, the Socialists have already secured control of the cities of Berat, Durres, Elbasan, Korca, Lushnja, and Vlora, as well as the capital, Tirana. Victory in Tirana would mean that Edi Rama, the party's leader, would retain the post that catapulted him into the national spotlight. This would be Rama's third term in the position. The main battle line in the elections was between the 10-party governing coalition led by Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democratic Party and the five-party opposition grouping led by Rama's Socialist Party. Estimates suggest Berisha's bloc will retain control of the north and take over several small towns from the Socialists, AFP reported on February 20. The turnout remains unknown. The Central Election Commission said on February 20 that the vote count was progressing slowly in numerous polling stations owing to "disagreements" between rival parties and "technical problems," according to a spokesman quoted by AFP. The Greek Foreign Ministry on February 20 voiced concern about alleged problems in the vote in the southwestern town of Himare, whose outgoing mayor is ethnic Greek, the Athens-based paper "Kathimerini" reported on February 20. Street fights led to arrests in the town early in the election campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). The country's 2.9 million voters were choosing mayors and councilors for 67 towns and cities and 317 other local councils. AG

Hopes that the local elections would burnish Albania's tarnished democratic reputation were dashed when, on February 19, a 400-strong monitoring team sent jointly by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe concluded that the elections "represented a missed opportunity to conduct elections fully in line with international commitments and standards for democratic elections," AP reported on February 19. Joseph Borg of the Council of Europe criticized "procedural shortcomings which disenfranchised many eligible voters." Another criticism was that the "electoral environment was marked by uncertainty and lack of trust between key election stakeholders," according to Jorgen Grunnet, head of the mission of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. "After the 2005 parliamentary elections, we said these were the best elections held in Albania, " AP quoted Grunnet as saying. "I don't think you will find it in the text this time." The team's conclusion overshadowed earlier claims by Prime Minister Berisha, who hailed the elections as "the best ever held in Albania," the ATA news agency reported on February 19. President Alfred Moisiu said after voting on February 18 that "these elections are of great importance to Albania and its integration with the European Union and NATO," and Berisha said free and fair elections were "the most precious present to Albania and to every Albanian because the nation and the country needed to dissociate itself from the undignified and primitive discussion of the electoral process." The vote was not marred by a repeat of the violence that has scarred most previous elections. However, an always bitter and sometimes fractious campaign became increasingly tense in its final days with the publication of photos of the Socialist leader Edi Rama naked and an explosion at a restaurant in Tirana that occurred shortly after Rama had left. There has been no further information about the incident, which the deputy interior minister on February 15 linked to a property dispute involving the restaurant's owner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15 and 16, 2007). AG

A senior Montenegrin military adviser has rejected reported Serbian calls for Montenegro to transfer to Serbia aircraft that were in Montenegro at the time Montenegro declared independence. Responding to Montenegrin newspaper reports citing officials in the Serbian Defense Ministry, Blagoje Grahovac, a retired general and adviser to the speaker of the Montenegrin parliament, said that some of the aircraft belong to Montenegro. In a statement reported in the February 19 issue of the "Gradanski list" newspaper, Grahovac said a number of assets were moved from Montenegro to Serbia on a number of occasions, which "created confusion, making it impossible to tell what belongs where." Montenegrin Defense Minister Boro Vucinic declined to comment. According to the Montenegrin daily "Dan," official reports indicate that 43 aircraft remained in Montenegro after it declared independence from Serbia. At the same time, Serbia is seeking to reduce its stock of hardware for its ground forces. The Defense Ministry wants to sell 347 tanks as well as 19 armored personnel carriers and 10 reconnaissance vehicles, the Serbian newspaper "Vecernje novosti" reported on February 17. AG

The head of the OSCE's Mission to Moldova, Louis O'Neill, on February 19 issued a statement on the OSCE's website expressing concern about a range of "negative developments" in the broadcasting sector. O'Neill said a Broadcasting Code adopted in 2006 created "an excellent opportunity for real progress in creating a free and vibrant broadcasting landscape," adding, "it is disappointing to see that this chance may be lost due to missteps in the way the new legislation is being implemented." One concern relates to the transformation of the Chisinau broadcasters Radio Antena-C and Euro-TV Chisinau into private companies. The OSCE said that in December 2006 it urged the new owners to ensure there would be no reduction in pluralism in the county's media landscape and no reduction in access to full and impartial information. "The immediate reduction in news and information programming at Antena-C and the change in its broadcasting schedule following privatization, as well as the decision by its new owner to dismiss the station's deputy directors and to drastically reduce the number of journalists, show a disregard for these recommendations," O'Neill said. The OSCE ambassador also criticized the pace of reforms at Moldova's national public broadcaster, saying that "Teleradio Moldova has made almost no progress towards becoming a truly independent public-service broadcaster since its formal transformation in August 2004." Another issue raised was the transparency of the licensing process. This followed the recent award of a license to a new company, rather than to the incumbent license-holder. AG

The Belarusian opposition is planning a nationwide congress for March 17-18, one year after a flawed presidential election gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka an unprecedented third term. But Lukashenka's main opposition challenger, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, says the congress will be nothing more than "internal squabbling" over leadership -- and that he doesn't intend to go.

Milinkevich was picked as the unified opposition's presidential candidate at a similar congress in October 2005. Some 800 delegates from all over Belarus were involved in the ballot that gave Milinkevich a narrow edge over United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka.

Following the March 19, 2006 presidential election -- in which he officially obtained 6 percent of the vote -- Milinkevich became the primary voice of the Belarusian opposition in the West.

Milinkevich has been regularly received by high-ranking European politicians. In October 2006, he was honored with the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.

Milinkevich's high exposure in the West may have aroused envy among fellow opposition leaders like Lyabedzka or Belarusian Party of Communists head Syarhey Kalyakin, who also unsuccessfully competed with him for the role of the unified opposition's presidential candidate.

In January of this year, the Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces -- the coordinating body of the unified opposition, which is formally chaired by Milinkevich -- proposed that the chairmanship become a rotating post open to all party leaders.

This rotational principle is expected to be approved during the March congress. Milinkevich, however, vigorously contested the idea. "I am not afraid of competition, and am ready to enter the struggle for leadership [of the opposition] once again," he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "But when the coalition decided that there would be a rotation, I immediately said that I'm not interested. Because rotation means that there is no leader, and that all are leaders, at the same time. Everyone becomes a leader for a few months and is subsequently replaced. You can be a leader once every three years. [But] you cannot beat the dictatorship with such an unclenched fist."

Milinkevich also suggested that the procedure for selecting delegates to attend the congress was far from transparent, and subject to "manipulation" by other aspirants to the role of unified opposition head.

Independent trade unionist Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, the organizer of the March congress, said Milinkevich's refusal to participate represented a "split" in the opposition ranks.

Communist Party head Kalyakin -- who managed Milinkevich's election headquarters in the run-up to the 2006 presidential vote -- has accused Milinkevich of skipping the congress out of fear of losing the leadership post. "In my opinion, the man is simply not sure he can get support at this congress," Kalyakin said. "Therefore, he's given up without even trying to compete in this matter. Anyone giving up is not right."

"It is apparent that from this moment on, the united democratic forces have neither a de jure nor a de facto leader," Lyabedzka told RFE/RL. "Milinkevich has probably decided to return to the place from which he entered politics -- the civic sector."

But not everyone in the opposition seems certain that Milinkevich's departure is the best way to resolve the leadership controversy. One dissenter is Vintsuk Vyachorka, head of the Belarusian Popular Front Party, which strongly backed Milinkevich as the single presidential challenger during the 2005 opposition congress.

Vyachorka believes the widening animosity between Milinkevich and the other members of the Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces may end up harming both sides. "We understand that a congress without Milinkevich cannot be a congress of united democratic forces," he said. "But Milinkevich without the united democratic forces is not a nationwide leader either."

To avoid such a situation, Vyachorka has proposed a compromise "for the sake of unity," whereby Milinkevich would remain chairman of the Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces and continue to serve as the opposition's key representative in the West. This position could be confirmed by the opposition congress, which Vyachorka has proposed be postponed until May.

At the same time, Vyachorka has suggested the creation of a post of chairman of a presidium to the Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces, which could be held by other party leaders on a rotational basis. According to Vyachorka, the presidium chairman could keep an eye on the council chairman, and vice versa.

It remains to be seen whether Vyachorka's proposal is viable. The council held a meeting on February 19 to discuss the idea, but failed to reach a conclusive decision.

The controversy comes at a time when the Belarusian opposition could be playing an important role in shaping the country's future. Belarus's energy-price row with Russia has prompted Lukashenka to make rare overtures toward the West. A confident opposition -- one that is able to speak with one voice both at home and abroad -- could help forge those ties.

As it stands, however, the opposition is weak and unable to significantly influence the political situation. If the rift over its leadership continues to fester, the opposition may fail at a time that could otherwise have proven its greatest political hour.

The Afghan National Assembly's Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders) on February 20 passed a resolution granting blanket amnesty from prosecution for human rights violations to all sides who participated in the fighting in Afghanistan, which lasted more than two decades, international news agencies reported. The Meshrano Jirga approved the bill by a 50-16 majority in a 102-member chamber, AP reported on February 20. The bill was initially passed by the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) in late January, prompting sharp international criticism and calls for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reject it. Karzai's office later said he asked for legal advice on the bill and that he would not take any action which went counter to the country's constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 5, and 7, 2007). Nafas Gul, a senator from the western Farah Province, said she regrets that "the majority of the lower and upper houses of the parliament are people with blood on their hands," and she called the resolution a "betrayal of the rights of the Afghans." Sam Zarifi, Asia researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, explained that according to international law, genocide and war crimes "are not subject to national amnesties." Tom Koenigs, the UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, said in Kabul on February 19 that "amnesty for gross violations of human rights and for war crimes shouldn't exist." AT

Six soldiers attached to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were injured during a suicide-bomb attack in Khost Province on February 20, an ISAF press release said. The bomber was attempting to attack a ceremony marking the opening of an emergency room at the Khost city hospital, but was prevented from carrying out his plan by ISAF soldiers. The bomber managed to detonate the explosives he was carrying as the soldiers tackled him to the ground. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- on February 20 announced that a "heroic mujahid" named Adel carried out a "sacrificial" attack in Khost, inflicting heavy losses to the "occupier" forces. AT

Protests by angry residents and religious leaders in the Kuran-wa-Munjan district of Badakhshan Province have forced officials of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) to close down their office, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on February 20. Protesters charged that some officials at the AKDN office in the district were proselytizing. Mohammad Shafi, a local mullah, asked government authorities to arrest those responsible for the "heinous" act of spreading Christianity. Mohammad Darajat, AKDN provincial chief, rejected the charges that any of his staff were involved in anti-Islamic activities. Afghanistan does not allow conversion of Muslims to other religions and converts are considered apostates and subject to the death penalty (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 3, 2006). AT

Afghanistan's Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet personally headed a raid in Kabul on February 20 in which 14 people, including nine foreigners, were arrested on charges of possession of and drinking alcoholic beverages, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Ahmad Samir Samimi, administrative affairs chief of the attorney general's office, told Pajhwak that the raid netted 750 bottles of alcohol and some obscene photographs. Constitutionally, Afghanistan is an Islamic republic and consequently the sale and consumption of alcohol is illegal. But in practice in post-Taliban Kabul, alcohol is readily available. However, lately authorities have tried to stop the open distribution of such beverages. Unlike in some other Muslim countries, there are no specific laws governing the rights of non-Muslims to purchase alcoholic beverages. AT

Mahmud Ahmadinejad told people in the northern city of Rasht on February 20 that Iran wants "fair" talks over its controversial nuclear program, and foreign powers are "100 percent mistaken" if they think they can "do something" with the dossier using "reproach," IRNA reported. He said "we are inclined toward dialogue and reason, but this dialogue must be in fair conditions." He added that "closing down nuclear fuel-making factories for talks is not a problem, but [Western countries,] too, must close down their nuclear fuel cycle for talks so we can talk in equal conditions." He said talks are "only possible in fair and equal conditions, and a [pre]condition is not acceptable in this regard." Separately, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei was quoted on February 20 as saying that Iran could be enriching uranium to make nuclear fuel on an industrial scale within months, Reuters reported, citing his remarks to the "Financial Times." El-Baradei said Iran already has fuel-making know-how, as it has been running a smaller "cascade" of enrichment centrifuges for months. He suggested talks to persuade Iran to agree to monitoring of its activities, thereby delaying an industrial-scale enrichment cycle, Reuters reported. VS

Kazem Jalali, rapporteur for the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told the press in Tehran on February 20 that Iran's ranking nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, will "in the near future" meet with his EU interlocutor, Javier Solana, to discuss Iran's dossier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). He said these talks could be a "door" allowing a resolution of the present impasse "in the framework of negotiations," IRNA reported. He said Iran needs to access "the full fuel cycle" and "our proposal is for enrichment to 4 percent." He was referring to partially enriched uranium, which can be used as fuel for power plants but not as combustible material for bombs. But "Iran's proposal during the talks must be conditional" on its dossier being withdrawn from the UN Security Council and sent back to the IAEA, he said. He also regretted the government's failure to increase defense allocations in its proposed budget for 2007-08, given "the threats that exist." A 60-day deadline set on December 23 by the UN Security Council -- before which Iran is to stop enrichment and related activities -- ends on February 21, agencies reported. VS

The Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics that selects Iran's supreme leader and oversees his work, formally began its fourth term since 1979 on February 20, agencies reported. The gathered assembly reelected incumbent assembly President Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, while ayatollahs Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi were chosen as vice presidents, Radio Farda reported. Meshkini then addressed the assembly and said the instructions or opinions of the "experts" have greater legal or moral force for believers in Iran than those attributed to the most important prophets of the Old or New Testaments of the Bible or of Islam. He said nuclear energy is a "religious" right for Iran, while the United States sees the world as a "village" and wants to be its "headman," Radio Farda reported. Iranians, he said, have been given special powers by God to defend themselves, which consist of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's leadership, Iranians' belief in God, and their expectation of the coming of a messiah, Radio Farda reported. The latter is part of the doctrine of Shi'a Muslims. Senior officials attended the opening, including the heads of the three branches of government and the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Yahya Rahim Safavi. VS

Legislators were reportedly angered on February 20 over parts of a questionnaire the Education Ministry has set for teachers in Tehran Province as part of their training, ILNA reported. The offending questions were apparently in place to test teachers' knowledge of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, though one legislator termed them superficial and "entirely insulting." Iranian civil servants are usually required to show they are Muslims. Two sample questions cited by ILNA were: which parts of a sheep did the Prophet Muhammad prefer to eat, and which characteristics of a cockerel are unlike those of the prophet? Mashhad deputy Ali Asgari, a member of the Article 90 parliamentary committee, which deals with public complaints about the government, said the ministry is moving toward "rigidity, immobility, and religious bigotry," ILNA reported. He said a verbal apology from Education Minister Mahmud Farshidi is not enough, and parliamentarians may "soon" draft a motion to summon him to parliament for a formal interpellation. Alireza Zakani, a member of parliament's Education and Research Committee, said those who drafted the questionnaire should be "dealt with" to ensure others "will not be so impudent," ILNA reported. VS

Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons on February 21 that 1,600 British troops in Iraq will be redeployed within months, but that British troops will remain in Iraq into 2008, "for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do," the BBC reported. There are currently some 7,100 British troops stationed in Iraq. Blair told BBC1 on February 18 that U.K. forces have handed over responsibility for security in Al-Basrah to local Iraqi forces. "The operation that we have been conducting in Basrah is now complete and that operation has specifically been to put the Iraqi forces in the main front-line control of security in the city. It has been successful and as a result there has been reconstruction that has come in behind it and we have been able to make real progress," he said. KR

Adil Abd al-Mahdi arrived in Turkey for a two-day visit and met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on February 20, Anatolia news agency reported the same day. The two men devoted much of their meeting to the status of the contested city of Kirkuk, with Erdogan contending that the normalization process that should precede a referendum on Kirkuk under the constitution has not been completed. Erdogan called for the referendum to be delayed. Abd al-Mahdi reportedly stressed the importance of reaching a solution that satisfies all parties to the conflict. Turkey supports ethnic Turkomans vying for control of the oil-rich province. Abd al-Mahdi also met with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Meanwhile, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer reportedly refused to meet with the Iraqi vice president, "The New Anatolian" reported on February 21. The reason for the refusal is unclear. KR

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghayt announced on February 20 that the next meeting of the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighboring states will be held in Cairo, MENA reported the same day. The announcement contradicts statements by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari that the meeting, expected to be convened in mid-March, would be held in Baghdad. Iraq has been lobbying for months for foreign ministers to meet in the Iraqi capital. Zebari told Al-Arabiyah television in a February 15 interview that convening the meeting in Baghdad would demonstrate the "backing and solidarity of these states with the efforts of the Iraqis and the Iraqi government; that [Iraq's neighbors] stand by the Iraqi people in their ordeal. This would be a symbolic gesture, a strong political message that these states agree on helping Iraq, preserving its security, stability, and unity." Abu al-Ghayt said that a meeting of "high officials" from neighboring states will convene in Baghdad ahead of the foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo. KR

Iraqi politicians have commented to reporters on February 20 on the alleged rape of a Sunni Arab Iraqi woman at the hands of Iraqi security forces, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2006). Umar al-Juburi, an adviser to Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, contended that the woman's medical report, obtained from the U.S.-run Ibn Sina Hospital, substantiated her claims of rape, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 20. Al-Juburi also disputed claims by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office that there were three outstanding arrest warrants against the woman at the time of her detention. Several other Sunni Arab politicians criticized al-Maliki's handling of the case in interviews with Iraqi and regional media outlets. Iraqi parliamentarian Izz al-Din al-Dawlah, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, claimed in an interview with Al-Jazeera television that Iraqi soldiers raped another woman in Tal Afar recently. KR

Meanwhile, al-Maliki's office released what it claimed to be the medical report on February 21, which stated in English that "no vaginal lacerations or obvious injuries" were observed during the exam, Reuters reported. When asked to comment on the release of the report, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver told Reuters: "We don't know how the prime minister's office got it, but we would not normally comment on the specifics of a medical report. We follow the same privacy rules as in the [United] States." KR

The Islamic Army in Iraq insurgent group vowed revenge for the Sunni woman's rape in a February 20 Internet statement. The group pledged to avenge "every free woman whose purity and honor was robbed." The group called on its forces to declare all operations during the Islamic month of Safar, which began this week and ends around March 20, in the name of the victim. The statement also pays homage to Abir, the 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was allegedly raped and killed by U.S. soldiers in Al-Mahmudiyah last year (see below). KR

Sergeant Paul Cortez pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of Abir Qassim al-Janabi on February 20, AP reported on February 21. Cortez said in a plea agreement that he and three other soldiers -- Private First Class Jesse Spielman, and Specialists James Barker and Steven Green -- conspired to rape Abir. The men killed the 14-year-old's parents and younger sister during the incident, which took place at the girl's home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2006). A judge has not yet accepted the plea. Barker pleaded guilty in November to rape and murder and was sentenced to 90 years in military prison. Spielman and a fifth soldier, Private First Class Bryan Howard, await courts-martial. Green is charged in federal court in Kentucky and awaits a civilian trial; he was discharged from the military before the incident came to light. A sixth soldier, Sergeant Anthony Yribe, is charged with failing to report the rape and killings. KR