PUTIN SEEKS TO BOOST RUSSIAN TIES WITH HUNGARY...
President Vladimir Putin arrived in Budapest on 28 February for a two-day visit, the first by a Russian leader since 1992, Russian and international media reported. In his talks with President Laszlo Solyom and Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, Putin stressed that Russia is a reliable energy supplier and dynamic economic partner and investor. He noted that the history of Russian-Hungarian relations "is not cloudless," but stressed the importance of taking the best from the past and working toward a joint future in the context of European integration. Putin added that "we...would be happy to see Hungarian businessmen in Russia. We know them as predictable and reliable partners. Russia and Hungary equally need stronger and open relations. Such cooperation cannot be ensured by the governments alone. Therefore, direct contacts between citizens, as well as cooperation at the level of the civil society, must be encouraged." Referring to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, which Soviet tanks crushed nearly 50 years ago, Putin said that "today's modern Russia is not the same as the Soviet Union used to be. I have to say, sincerely, that we all feel in our souls the moral responsibility for those events." He hailed Hungary as a country that has preserved its identity and language, and with which Russia has been linked "for 1,000 years." PM
...WHERE WELCOME MAT IS OUT
Putin also said in Budapest on 28 February that Russia might be interested in establishing gas storage facilities in Hungary as well as a "big logistics center" to supply Asian goods to Europe, RIA Novosti reported. Gyurcsany noted that "we have agreed on the project of building a new gas pipeline under the Black Sea to Turkey and are now looking into extending this project into Southern Europe. We see Hungary as playing an important role in increasing the reliability of the gas supply to Europe," Russian and international media reported. Hungary gets about 80 percent of its gas supplies from Russia and was one of the first countries to call for a greater diversification of sources after Gazprom cut off gas shipments to Ukraine on 1 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2006). For his part, Solyom hailed Russia's recent return of 134 rare books that the Red Army took from the Sarospatak Calvinist College after World War II. Hungary nonetheless had to pay a $400,000 "storage fee" for the volumes, dpa reported. PM
PUTIN HEADS FOR PRAGUE...
Putin left Budapest for Prague on 1 March on the first trip by a Russian leader to the Czech Republic in 13 years, Russian and international media reported. Presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko told RIA Novosti that Putin's talks with President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek "will focus on pressing international problems, such as the fight against global terrorism, the Middle East, and the Iranian nuclear program." Economic relations are also expected to play a big role in the meetings. On the eve of the visit, Paroubek told Interfax that "the issues of the past are no longer a political problem in our relations. Historians are studying them, and archives are being opened." He noted nonetheless that "it took us a while to cope with the burden of the 1968 Prague Spring," which was ended by Soviet tanks. Paroubek stressed the importance of Czech-Russian economic and cultural links, noting that "relations between people [of both countries] have improved over time, and our society, including the younger generation, has a positive attitude toward Russia and the Russians today." Paroubek pointed out that "more than 200,000 Russians visit out country annually. Young people in the Czech Republic have started to show a strong interest in the Russian language. Russian is the most popular foreign language after German and English. Russian culture has always been [appreciated here].... Our goal is to ensure that the Czech Republic's accession to the [EU's] Schengen zone does not affect today's favorable trends in Czech-Russian relations." PM
...WHERE HE FACES CRITICISM...
Some Czech lawmakers protested Putin's visit on the eve of his arrival on 1 March, Czech media reported. The parliamentarians drew attention to Putin's KGB background and the growing centralization of power in the Kremlin under his rule. The daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" published an appeal by former President Vaclav Havel and several international dignitaries calling on the world not to overlook Russia's policies in Chechnya. The signatories asked: "How long will the world ignore the fact that the Russian government, under the pretext of the threat of Chechen terrorism, is liquidating the freedoms acquired after the  split of the Soviet empire?" Havel and his associates compared the Russian government's fight against terrorism to the work of a "pyromaniac who spreads the fire of terrorism further." The authors stress that the world must help the Russian government out of the trap into which it has fallen, threatening not only Chechens and Russians, but also other parts of the world. It is "unacceptable" to exclude Chechen issues from the agenda of the Group of Eight summit to be held in Russia in June, the document says. PM
...AND TOUGH APPRAISALS
Several commentators in regional and international media stressed on 1 March that the purpose of Putin's visit to Hungary and the Czech Republic was to expand Russia's clout, influence, and economic importance there, particularly in the energy sector. Those authors also noted that Putin's trip did not include Poland, which has been much more critical of Russia than the other two countries have been. Some observers suggested that Putin had Poland in mind when he said in Budapest on 28 February that "maybe some people still feel that they are in a camp, and that is why their behavior is still characterized by a circle-the-wagons mentality.... I am very pleased to see that problems of the past are not politicized in Hungary." When Putin spoke those words, Polish President Lech Kaczynski was in Ukraine, where he reassured President Viktor Yushchenko of his country's support for Kyiv's pro-Western policy goals. PM
OLIGARCH REMAINS FIRM ON PUTIN DESPITE U.K. WARNING
Embattled oligarch Boris Berezovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service by telephone from London on 28 February that he is preparing a response to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's recent warning to him that he could lose his refugee status if he continues to call for President Putin's ouster. "Right now I am preparing a letter to...Straw clarifying my position. I am hoping to finish this letter today," Berezovsky said. He added that "maybe not everyone is trying to speak out as loudly as I am and criticize Putin and his already unconstitutional, in my opinion, and illegitimate regime. In fact, I know that millions of people in Russia share my point of view. And secondly, nothing will sway my position and, fortunately or unfortunately, nobody has yet convinced me that Putin's regime is [not] destroying Russia. I'm deeply convinced that it is and I will make every effort to destroy that regime before it destroys itself." Berezovsky told Ekho Moskvy radio that he has not broken U.K. law by speaking out. PM
MOSCOW DECRIES LITHUANIAN SUPPORT FOR GEORGIA
Lithuanian Ambassador to Moscow Rimantas Sidlauskas was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry on 27 February to hear a formal protest against a statement released on 22 February by the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, according to a statement posted on 28 February on the Russian Foreign Ministry website (http://www.mid.ru). The Lithuanian statement expressed support for Georgia's proposal to replace the Russian peacekeepers currently stationed in the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia with an international force and called on Russia to cease "unfriendly actions" directed against Georgia, according to Civil Georgia on 22 February. Meeting with Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava on 20 February, Lithuanian Ambassador to Tbilisi Richards Degudas similarly expressed support for Georgia's proposals for a peaceful solution to the South Ossetian conflict, Caucasus Press reported. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement of 28 February deplored the Lithuanian statement as a willful distortion of the facts and as "inadmissible interference" in Russian-Georgian relations. LF
INGUSHETIAN PRESIDENT'S FATHER-IN-LAW ABDUCTED
National Assembly deputy Magomed Chakhkiev, who is the father-in-law of both Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov and republican Prosecutor Makhmud-Ali Kalimbetov, was abducted in Nazran during the evening of 27 February, ingushetiya.ru reported. Unidentified men opened fire on Chakhkiev's car, which hit a fence. The men then beat the driver unconscious and drove off, taking Chakhkiev with them. President Putin telephoned Zyazikov on 28 February, according to the republic's official website ingushetia.ru; it is not clear whether the abduction was discussed. On 1 March, Ingushetia's parliament appealed to the kidnappers to release Chakhkiev, who is 70. Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel told journalists in Yessentuki on 28 February that police believe Chakhkiev was snatched either for ransom or in order to exert pressure on the republican leadership, RFE/RL reported. LF
BIRD FLU REPORTED IN KABARDINO-BALKARIA
Laboratory tests conducted in Vladimir have ascertained that wild ducks shot in an eastern district of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) two weeks were infected with avian influenza, KBR head veterinarian Rezuan Tlupov told regnum.ru on 28 February. He did not say whether the birds were infected with the H5N1 virus of the disease that is also dangerous to humans. Also on 28 February, it was reported that some 2,000 poultry have died of bird flu in the village of Nadezhda in Stavropol Krai's Shpak district, while a further case of the disease has been registered in Kislovodsk, close to the border with the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, regnum.ru reported. LF
ARMENIAN EX-MINISTER'S WIFE ACCUSES PUBLIC BROADCASTER OF SLANDER
Armine Hovannisian, whose husband Raffi Hovannisian served from 1992-1993 as Armenian foreign minister under then President Levon Ter-Petrossian, dismissed on 28 February as "slander" a report aired on 15 February by the H1 channel of Armenian Public Television, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The H1 report alleged that funds from the Junior Achievements of Armenia NGO that Armine Hovannisian heads are being diverted to finance her husband's political activities. Raffi Hovannisian founded the Zharangutiun party three years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2003), and has already declared his intention of participating in the presidential election due in 2008. In late 2005, he addressed an open letter to President Robert Kocharian implicitly accusing him of various crimes, including condoning political killings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 December 2005). Armine Hovannisian said she believes the 15 February TV report was the authorities' response to those allegations. Also on 28 February, Public Television and Radio Board Chairman Aleksan Harutiunian implicitly challenged the Hovannisians to sue H1 for slander, Noyan Tapan reported. LF
AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT MEETS WITH DISPLACED PERSONS
Ilham Aliyev toured the Agdam district, located on the eastern border of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, on 1 March, day.az reported. Aliyev met with displaced persons who fled their homes during the fighting for Karabakh and informed them that 13 new settlements capable of housing a total of 3,860 families will be inaugurated soon. The construction of such settlements for displaced persons implies that Azerbaijan is not prepared to make any concessions that would expedite a settlement of the conflict. But Aliyev nonetheless told residents of Agdam's Banovshalar village that it is Armenia that is delberately delaying a swift solution to the conflict, day.az reported. He said that as the "victim" of the conflict, Azerbaijan "has the right to resolve this issue by any means [we choose]." LF
DISSIDENT QUITS AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTY
The progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) released Djemal Gasanli on 28 February from the post of party deputy chairman, echo-az.com reported the following day. Gasanli announced his intention to quit the AHCP after formally accepting his mandate as a deputy to the parliament elected on 6 November in violation of an AHCP decision to boycott the new legislature (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2006). LF
GEORGIAN PRESIDENT DENIES PRICE FOR IRANIAN GAS WAS EXORBITANT
Mikheil Saakashvili has denied in an interview with Ekho Moskvy that Georgia paid $250 per 1,000 cubic meters for the gas it imported from Iran in late January while gas supplies from Russia were temporarily disrupted after the main Russia-Georgia gas pipeline was blown up, Caucasus Press reported on 28 February. Georgian Energy Minister Nika Gilauri and Economic Development Minister Irakli Chogovadze both declined on 1 February to specify the exact price paid for the Iranian gas; they and other government ministers ignored a subsequent request from parliament to clarify the issue, "Akhali taoba" reported on 17 February. Saakashvili said in his Russian radio interview that the price was lower than the $110 Tbilisi previously paid for Russian gas. LF
GEORGIAN PRIME MINISTER REJECTS RUMORS OF IMMINENT CABINET RESHUFFLE
Zurab Noghaideli dismissed on 28 February as misplaced media speculation of an imminent cabinet reshuffle, Caucasus Press reported. That speculation anticipated the dismissal of Irakli Okruashvili as defense minister and his appointment as interior minister, the post he held in 2004. Current Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili would replace Kote Kemularia, who was hospitalized on 26 February with a heart attack, as National Security Council chairman, and Irakli Alasania, chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile, would replace Okruashvili as defense minister, journalists predicted. LF
GEORGIAN INTERIOR MINISTER UNDER PRESSURE OVER BANKER'S MURDER
Merabishvili was summoned to parliament on 28 February to answer questions about the investigation into the killing of Sandro Girgvliani, an employee of United Georgian Bank, Caucasus Press reported. Girgvliani was found dead on the outskirts of Tbilisi on 28 January following a public argument the previous evening in a Tbilisi bar with men believed to have been Interior Ministry personnel. On 24 February, Georgian ombudsman Sozar Subar called on Merabishvili to dismiss ministry spokesman Guram Donadze for having attributed the murder to a dispute among the "Svan mafia" (Girgvliani's surname clearly identifies his family as originating in Georgia's northwestern Svaneti region), but Merabishvili refused, Caucasus Press reported. Opposition parliament deputies, some of whom have called on Saakashvili to dismiss Merabishvili over the murder, walked out of parliament on 28 February to protest Merabishvili's refusal to answer questions about the murder investigation, Caucasus Press reported. Elene Tevdoradze, who chairs the parliament Human Rights Commission, argued on 27 February that the Prosecutor-General's Office should take over the investigation into Girgvliani's death. LF
KAZAKH DEMONSTRATION ORGANIZERS JAILED, FINED
A court in Almaty on 28 February sentenced the organizers of an unsanctioned 26 February demonstration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006), activists from the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan, to fines and short jail terms, Russia's "Vremya novostei" reported the following day. Tolen Tokhtasynov and Asylbek Kozhakhmetov were sentenced to 15 days in jail, Amirzhan Kosanov and Marzhan Aspandiyarova to 10 days, and Bulat Abilov and Petr Svoik to five days. Gulzhan Ergalieva was fined $300, while For a Just Kazakhstan head Zharmakhan Tuyakbai and Oraz Zhandosov were fined $200 each. The report noted that all those who received jail time were placed in detention immediately after sentencing despite a stipulated 10-day period in which they are legally allowed to appeal. The unsanctioned demonstration was held to honor the memory of slain opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). DK
KAZAKH PRESIDENT'S SON-IN-LAW DENIES INVOLVEMENT IN MURDER
Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, who is also the son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, issued a statement on 28 February condemning various reports alleging that he was involved in the killing of opposition leader Sarsenbaev, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Aliev called the reports a "stage-managed smear campaign to accuse me and other well-known people in Kazakhstan of purported involvement in the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev." Aliev said that the reports are a "hideous lie" and "a part of the overall plan that began with the murder of this well-known politician." The aim of the campaign, Aliev said, is to "destabilize our society." He stated that his lawyers are readying suits against the "authors and disseminators of this libel." DK
COMMANDER OF KAZAKH SPECIAL FORCES UNIT OFFICIALLY QUITS
The resignation of Seitzhan Koibakov, the head of the National Security Committee's (KNB) Arystan special-forces unit, has been accepted, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 28 February, citing the KNB's press service. Koibakov submitted his resignation on 22 February after five Arystan members were arrested in connection with the murder of opposition leader Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2006). DK
INDEPENDENT KAZAKH COMMISSION FAULTS MURDER INVESTIGATION
The independent commission investigating Sarsenbaev's murder issued a statement on 28 February expressing concern over the preliminary investigation results made public by Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov on 27 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2006), Navigator reported. The commission, which is headed by For a Just Kazakhstan leader Tuyakbai, stated that the investigation's conclusion that Erzhan Utembaev -- head of the administration of the Senate (upper chamber of parliament) -- ordered the killing suggests that "other versions will not be investigated further" even though "the number of people with an interest in the death of Altynbek Sarsenbaev is much larger." Warning that highly placed officials may try to "send the investigation on a false trail," the commission concluded that there is "a real threat" to the integrity and completeness of the investigation. DK
KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT FAILS TO ELECT NEW SPEAKER
Kyrgyzstan's parliament on 28 February failed to elect a new speaker in the wake of speaker Omurbek Tekebaev's recent resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2006), akipress.org reported. Legislators held three rounds of voting, narrowing a field of four candidates to deputy Kubatbek Baibolov after two votes. But Baibolov fell short of majority support in the third vote, with 34 deputies voting in favor of his candidacy and 25 against, with three defaced ballots. Baibolov needed 38 votes to become speaker. Parliament will now begin the process of selecting a speaker anew. DK
TAJIK PARTY TO FIELD PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda, spokesman for Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), has announced that the IRP will run its own candidate in the November presidential election, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 28 February. IRP leader Said Abullo Nuri had said previously that the IRP might support the candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party, presumably incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2005). Sayfullozoda did not say who the IRP candidate might be. DK
UZBEK PROSECUTOR SEEKS NINE-YEAR PRISON TERM FOR RIGHTS ACTIVIST
The prosecutor in the trial of rights activist Motabar Tojiboeva on 28 February asked an Uzbek court to sentence her to nine years in prison, ferghana.ru reported. Tojiboeva was arrested in October 2005 after an employee filed extortion charges against her (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 October 2005). In a 13 October press release, Human Rights Watch called Tojiboeva's arrest part of "the Uzbek government's campaign to silence independent voices after Andijon," and called for her immediate release. DK
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION CANDIDATE WARNED AGAINST HOLDING RALLY IN DOWNTOWN MINSK
Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik said on 28 February that the rally which opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich is planning to hold on Liberty Square in downtown Minsk at 6 p.m. local time on 2 March would be illegal, Belapan reported. Lazavik stressed that by law, anyone wanting to hold a rally first needs to obtain permission from local authorities. Earlier in February, Milinkevich appealed to his supporters to meet with him on Liberty Square on 2 March, arguing that there will be nothing illegal in such a "meeting with voters." Last month the Minsk City Executive Committee approved a list of some 30 places across the city where presidential candidates would be allowed to hold meetings with voters. Liberty Square is not on the list. Meanwhile, on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka orders, the so-called Third All-Belarusian People's Assembly will convene in Minsk on 2-3 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006). The assembly will be held in a building located near Liberty Square. JM
POLLSTER DENIES BELARUSIAN TELEVISION'S REPORT ON EXIT POLL FALSIFICATION
Rasa Alisauskiene, director of the Vilnius-based Gallup/Baltic Surveys, has denied a Belarusian Television report on 26 February accusing the pollster of preparing to falsify an exit poll in the upcoming presidential election in Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006), Belapan reported. Belarusian Television alleged that law-enforcement agencies had discovered pre-prepared protocols of an exit poll by Gallup/Baltic Surveys which reportedly handed victory to opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. "We have nothing to do with what was shown," Alisauskiene told Belapan. Alisauskiene noted that Gallup/Baltic Surveys does not plan to conduct an exit poll on the main voting day, 19 March. She added, however, that the pollster may help Belarusian sociological organizations conduct and analyze surveys dealing with the coming election. JM
UKRAINIAN, POLISH PRESIDENTS DISCUSS ODESA-BRODY PIPELINE
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski, pledged in Kyiv on 28 February to pursue talks on extending the Odesa-Brody oil pipeline across Poland to the Baltic Sea, Ukrainian and international media reported. However, Kaczynski suggested at a joint news conference after his meeting with Yushchenko that they have not achieved any progress on the project. "If Poland does not build [its] section of the oil pipeline, Ukraine naturally is entitled to choose whatever option suits it best," Reuters quoted Kaczynski as saying. "The Odesa-Brody project, [extended] subsequently to Gdansk, may become one of the most interesting projects of Europe's wholesale oil market," Yushchenko told the news conference. Ukraine completed the 674-km Odesa-Brody pipeline in 2002. Failing to find both oil suppliers and buyers, Kyiv decided to reverse the pipeline flow in 2004 to take Russian oil south. JM
UKRAINIAN MINISTER WANTS RUSSIAN GAS DEAL CANCELED
Finance Minister Viktor Pynzenyk, who is on leave to campaign for the 26 March parliamentary elections, said on 28 February in an online news conference that Kyiv should back out of a deal increasing the price of imported gas in 2006 to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters and restart talks on the issue with Russia, Reuters reported. "The country must go back to the starting point. We have all the objective conditions to achieve a proper balance of interests between Ukraine and Russia," Pynzenyk said. "Russia has the gas, but doesn't have the pipelines. We have the gas transport system without which it's impossible to export gas to Europe. That gives us the opportunity to defend our interests in our talks on gas," he added. Pynzenyk's Reform and Order Party is running for the parliamentary elections in a bloc with the youth organization Pora. According to most surveys, the bloc is well below the 3-percent voting threshold qualifying for parliamentary representation. JM
DATE SET FOR MONTENEGRIN REFERENDUM
Montenegro's government and opposition agreed on 28 February on the date and conditions for a referendum on independence, B92 reported the same day. The agreement must be confirmed by parliament, which is scheduled to vote on the matter on 1 March. According to the agreement, the referendum will be held on 21 May and -- as the European Union has recommended -- 55 percent of those casting ballots must approve independence for it to pass (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22, 23, and 24 February 2006). A 50 percent turnout is also required. "Both sides have shown that they are aware of their responsibilities and do not wish to lead the state into instability," Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's envoy to the referendum, said. BW
SERBIAN PRESIDENT VOWS NEVER TO SIGN OFF ON KOSOVA INDEPENDENCE
Serbian President Boris Tadic told lawmakers on 27 February that he will not sign any document that grants Kosova independence, B92 reported the next day. "I will not even consider signing an agreement for the independence of Kosovo and I am certain that no other politician in Serbia will consider this either," Tadic said at a session of Serbia's parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006). "Is that enough? Unfortunately, it is not, and that is why we have arrived at a situation where not only the citizens of Serbia and their institutions, but the international institutions as well must make a decision on its future status," Tadic added. BW
UN ENVOY SETS AGENDA FOR NEXT ROUND OF KOSOVA TALKS
UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari said on 28 February that cultural heritage, minority and human rights, and economic issues will be the subjects of the next round of talks on Kosova's final status, dpa reported. The next round of talks is scheduled for 17 March. "I have full confidence that the Serbian delegation will take an active and constructive part in the negotiations," Ahtisaari said during a visit to Belgrade. Ahtisaari, who is scheduled to visit Prishtina next, said the purpose of his trip is to assure cooperation from both sides. BW
MILOSEVIC DEFENSE ASKS HAGUE TRIBUNAL TO CALL FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT AS WITNESS
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's defense attorney Steven Kay has asked the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to subpoena former U.S. President Bill Clinton as a witness, B92 reported on 28 February. Kay said Milosevic's defense wants to question Clinton about passages in his book "My Life" that deal with the Yugoslav conflicts. The defense believes that these passages demonstrate an anti-Serbian bias that led the United States to view Belgrade as the main aggressor in the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Kay said Clinton would also be questioned about "the involvement of the U.S. government in enabling Islamic countries, such as Iran, and organizations close to...Al-Qaeda to offer the Bosnian government soldiers and weapons." It is not clear when the ICTY will consider the request. BW
BOSNIAN SERB PARLIAMENT ELECTS NEW GOVERNMENT
Republika Srpska's parliament approved a new government headed by Prime Minister Milorad Dodik on 28 February, international news agencies reported. Dodik's government replaces one headed by the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), which lost power in a no-confidence vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January and 6 February 2006). "Economic development is the highest national interest and that's why it would be our main goal," Dodik, widely viewed as a pro-Western moderate, told lawmakers before the vote. Lawmakers approved the new cabinet by a vote of 46-5 with four abstentions in the 83-seat parliament. Members of the nationalist SDS walked out of the chamber in protest before the vote. Dodik, who served as prime minister from 1998-2001, pledged to fully cooperate with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. BW
TIHIC TAKES OVER AS CHAIRMAN OF BOSNIAN PRESIDENCY
Sulejman Tihic, the Muslim member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's collective presidency, took over the eight-month chairmanship on 28 February, Hina reported the same day. Tihic, who is also head of the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), assumed the post following a ceremony in Sarajevo. He succeeds Ivo Miro Jovic, who is the Croatian member of the presidency. Tihic said he hopes that he will be the last chairman of a collective presidency after proposed constitutional reforms do away with the post and establish a single president, Hina reported. BW
MOLDOVAN DELEGATION LEAVES TRANSDNIESTER TALKS CITING LACK OF PROGRESS
The Moldovan delegation to negotiations on Transdniester left the talks on 28 February, citing a lack of progress, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova said his government suggests meeting again on 7 March. "We are particularly concerned about the lack of progress in the provision of free passenger and cargo traffic in the safety zone of the [Transdniester] conflict," he added. Transdniestrian Foreign Minister Valery Litskai accused Moldova of trying to sabotage the talks, which were being held in Tiraspol. "We have witnessed what is called an urgent situation even in diplomacy and is always regarded as an extremely unfriendly act," ITAR-TASS quoted Litskai as saying. BW
WHEN BREAD IS SWEETER THAN FREEDOM
According to a January poll by the Vilnius-based Gallup/Baltic Surveys, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka enjoys the support of some 55 percent of Belarusians, thus being practically able to win the upcoming presidential election in an absolutely fair vote. Why do so many people in Belarus support Lukashenka apparently of their own will?
One of the possible answers to this question may lie in the country's economy, which officially enjoyed robust growth in the past four years. For many Belarusians, Lukashenka's economic policies appear to outweigh his heavy hand in subduing political dissent and curtailing human rights and personal freedoms in the country.
Speaking to workers of the Minsk Automotive Plant in 1998, Lukashenka gave a memorable definition of the democracy he claimed he was building in Belarus.
"We don't need democracy with hullabaloo," the Belarusian leader said nearly eight years ago. "We do need the type of democracy where people work and get paid, even if not much but enough to buy bread, milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, and sometimes a piece of meat in order to feed their children and so on." After a short pause, Lukashenka added, "Well, as regards meat, let's not eat too much of it in summer."
However one looks at Lukashenka's 12 years in power, one must admit that he has remained largely true to his words. He has all but eliminated the possibility of any uncontrolled "hullabaloo" from the opposition on the streets. And he has ensured that the overwhelming majority of Belarusians have jobs and get paid regularly, "even if not much."
According to official data, registered unemployment in Belarus stands currently at 1.5 percent. In neighboring Poland, unemployment is around 20 percent. The average monthly wage in 2005 was $205, up from $150 in 2004; the average monthly pension in 2005 was $98, up from $63 the previous year. The country's gross domestic product (GDP) doubled in U.S. dollar terms between 2002 and 2005, growing respectively by 4.7 percent, 6.8 percent, 11 percent, and 9.2 percent year-on-year in the past four years.
It makes little sense comparing the above-mentioned figures with their equivalents in other countries, since the cost of living in Belarus is much lower. But it is instructive to look at how Belarusians themselves feel about their economic well-being.
A poll conducted in Belarus by two Slovak nongovernmental organizations in January found that 24 percent of Belarusians assessed their economic situation as "very good" or "good," 59 percent deemed it "fair," and just 13 percent declared it to be "bad" or "very bad." According to 70 percent of respondents, the economic situation in Belarus has not changed in the last month, 13 percent said it has improved, while 7 percent said it has worsened.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that the same poll found that there was a prevailing feeling of political stability among Belarusians. According to 65 percent of respondents, the political situation in Belarus was "calm," while 12 percent found it even "positive." On the other hand, for 15 percent of respondents the political situation was "tense" and for 1 percent "critical."
No less revealing were the findings of the Slovak pollsters regarding the preferred values and goals that Belarusians attribute to the ideal president. According to 97 percent of respondents, the president should put primary emphasis on decent living standards (81 percent fully and 16 percent partly subscribed to this view); 91 percent said the president should predominantly be concerned with the preservation of state sovereignty (60 percent fully and 31 percent partly); and 86 percent deemed the president should primarily develop democracy (51 percent fully and 36 percent partly).
Assessing the chance of mass protests against a potential fraudulent presidential election on 19 March, 17 percent of respondents said they are possible, while 70 percent were of the opposite opinion.
Quite a few independent Belarusian economic experts predict that the current political stability in the country, which was coupled in recent years with palpable economic growth, is unsustainable in the longer term. They basically argue that Belarus's economy has already exhausted its administratively incited potential for growth and without deep restructuring and foreign investments may soon enter a phase of stagnation or even decline, thus triggering wider public discontent.
Lukashenka himself seems to be aware of such an unpleasant scenario looming. "We have already squeezed practically everything out of what we have inherited from the Soviet era and what we have built in recent years," he said in a television interview in January. "Practically all of our production sector is working at 100 percent capacity, apart from some small and medium-sized enterprises."
Another serious problem that Belarus will inevitably have to deal with in the future is the country's dependence on -- or as some put it, "addiction to" -- cheap Russian oil and gas supplies, which can be seen as indirect subsidies by the Kremlin to Lukashenka's "socially oriented" economy and are estimated at $3 billion-$4 billion annually.
The Russian energy-related subsidies have helped Lukashenka not only keep his economy afloat but also expand its existing production capacities. At the same time, however, they have done little to adapt Belarus's command economy to the conditions of genuine competition. When Belarus eventually moves to embrace some market-economy methods and give entrepreneurs more economic freedom, many Belarusians may find that their country's economic stability in the Lukashenka era was hardly a real asset.
PAKISTANI PRESIDENT LASHES OUT AT AFGHAN LEADER...
In an interview with U.S. ABC television on 27 February, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf defended his country's efforts in the war on terror and spoke in the strongest terms yet against Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government. Musharraf said a list of former members of the Taliban regime allegedly hiding in Pakistan that Karzai handed over to Musharraf during his 15 February visit to Islamabad contained a "ridiculous" number of names and that two-thirds of them were "a waste of time." Musharraf added that the list included dead telephone numbers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 23 February 2006). Kabul has also alleged that former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is living in Pakistan. Musharraf told ABC that he has ordered his intelligence agencies to take foreign intelligence agents to the addresses supplied by the Afghans "so that their lies are once and for all nailed down." Musharraf called Afghan accusations against the Pakistani authorities "nonsensical." Karzai's main stated grievance is that Musharraf is, at best, unable or, at worst, unwilling to curtail the activities of the neo-Taliban inside Pakistan and to break up the support network created by Pakistani religious and military groups for the militants. AT
...AND REPEATS PROPOSAL TO FENCE BORDER BETWEEN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN...
In his 27 February interview with ABC News, Musharraf acknowledged that there are terrorist elements in his country despite Pakistan's best efforts to stop terrorist activities along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Musharraf called on the United States and Afghanistan to "fence" and "mine" the border in order to stop possible infiltrations by terrorists into Afghanistan. The Pakistani leader said it is "not difficult" to fence the border, which is approximately 2,400 kilometers in length, and said that Pakistan will do so. However, during his 15 February visit to Islamabad, Afghan President Karzai proposed that his country and Pakistan adopt an open-border policy as a prelude to other confidence-building measures. That proposal is diplomatically sensitive in part because it is Afghanistan's longstanding policy not to recognize the Durand Line, the disputed boundary between the two countries (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" 7 August 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline, 17 February 2006). AT
...AS AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER CRITICIZES MUSHARRAF
In a 28 February interview with Reuters, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah called the remarks made by Musharraf "extremely disappointing," saying that the Pakistani leader had questioned and "ridiculed in public" the reliability of the "intelligence" provided by Afghanistan. Abdullah said Musharraf's remarks were part of a "PR strategy" to deflect criticism that Islamabad is not doing enough in the war on terror. Abdullah dismissed Pakistan's accusations that Kabul is allowing India to use Afghan territory for anti-Pakistani activities. AT
KABUL PRISON STANDOFF CONTINUES, NEO-TALIBAN, AL-QAEDA BLAMED
The standoff between rioting prisoners at Pol-e Charkhi Prison and security forces continued for a fifth day on 1 March. Negotiations to end the standoff appeared to have yielded no fruit, as violence flared up on 28 February. Afghan Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasem Hashemzai blamed the prisoners. "It seems that they don't respect what they had agreed during negotiations," AFP quoted him as saying on 28 February. Hashemzai claimed that the new round of violence has been coordinated from outside the prison and that the prisoners acted on orders received via mobile phones. The violence at the high-security prison, which lies on the outskirts of Kabul, broke out on 26 February and has claimed four lives and injured 20 people, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 28 February 2006). The commander of the rapid-reaction police force in Kabul, Mahbub Amiri, told AFP that "around" 100 Al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, together with "some criminal prisoners," have been identified by police as instigating the riots. Initial reports indicated that seven people were killed in the riots, but the authorities have now reduced that number to four. AT
SIX AFGHAN SOLDIERS MISSING FOLLOWING NEO-TALIBAN ATTACK IN SOUTHWESTERN AFGHANISTAN
A force of roughly 100 neo-Taliban attacked a battalion of the Afghan National Army (ANA) on 27 February in Nimroz Province, the official National Afghanistan Television reported on 28 February. The attackers engaged the ANA battalion for an hour before withdrawing. The militants also set fire to around 20 vehicles belonging to an Indian road-building company working in the area. Six ANA soldiers remain missing after the attack. In November, neo-Taliban abducted and later killed an Indian driver working for the Indian government-owned Border Roads Organization in Nimroz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 23 November 2005). AT
TEHRAN ASSESSES IAEA REPORT POSITIVELY
Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on 28 February in Tokyo that the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report emphasizes the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2006), AFP reported. About half the report, Mottaki continued, calls for Iranian assurances that the peaceful nature of the program will not change. The IAEA report, which was distributed to members of the IAEA's governing board on 27 February, notes the agency's desire for more information on the nuclear program and for greater cooperation from Tehran. It also calls for Iran to resume its suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities, to halt plans to build a heavy-water reactor, and to immediately ratify the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which is intended to strengthen safeguards against the development of nuclear weapons. BS
TOP IRANIAN OFFICIALS HEAD FOR MOSCOW TALKS
The secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, his deputy Ali Husseinitash, and Atomic Energy Organization head Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi are scheduled to arrive in Moscow on 1 March, an anonymous source told Interfax the previous day. The talks should expand on meetings held on 26 February, when the head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, visited Iran to discuss Moscow's proposal that Russia would on Russian soil enrich uranium for use in Iran ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006). BS
IRAN TO PRESS AHEAD WITH URANIUM ENRICHMENT
Foreign Minister Mottaki said in Tokyo on 28 February that, regardless of the outcome of negotiations in Moscow, Iran will not stop its current uranium-enrichment activities, Kyodo World Service reported. Moreover, he said, Iran intends to commence full-scale enrichment activities eventually. In the short term, he continued, Iran could settle on a compromise that might result in the enrichment of Iranian uranium on Russian territory. The country's "final target," he said, is uranium enrichment in Iran. Mottaki said the Russian deal must be specific about where and how long it will take. The suggestion that Iran suspend enrichment activities for 10 years is "too long," he said. Mottaki insisted in a speech to Iranians living in Japan that Iranians see enrichment as a right, IRNA reported, and that the country's officials will not compromise on this issue. BS
IRANIAN SUPREME COURT CONFIRMS BOMBERS' DEATH SENTENCES
Amir Hayat Moqaddam, the governor-general of the southwestern city of Ahvaz, said on 28 February that two people involved in January bombings in the city will be executed in the next few days, Fars News Agency reported. Judiciary official Hojatoleslam Raisi announced the same day that the Supreme Court has confirmed the bombers will be hanged, ISNA reported. Mehran Rafii, a provincial public affairs official, said on 20 February that state television will show all seven bombers by the end of the week, Mehr News Agency reported, but that has yet to happen. The Ahvaz public prosecutor, Iraj Amirkhani, said investigations into bombings carried out in the city in June and October 2005 are continuing, ISNA reported on 28 February. BS
TRAVEL BAN FOR IRANIAN KURDISH ACTIVISTS
A Revolutionary Court in the northwestern Iranian city of Sanandaj has imposed travel bans on three Kurdish activists, Radio Farda reported on 28 February. The three are the journalist Jalal Qavami and two civil rights activists, Said Saedi and Roya Tolui. The authorities had previously held Qavami for 65 days for his alleged involvement in unrest in July 2005 that followed the shooting by security forces of a young Kurd named Shavaneh Qaderi ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 August 2005). Qavami's attorney, Nemat Ahmadi, told Radio Farda that he objects to the travel ban. BS
VIOLENCE CONTINUES ACROSS IRAQ
Violence continued across Iraq on 1 March with two car bombs exploding in Baghdad, international media reported. A car bomb exploded near an Iraqi police checkpoint in eastern Baghdad, killing 20 and wounding 40 others, Reuters reported. A second car bomb detonated near the central bus station in the capital, killing at least two. Some 60 Iraqis were killed in violence across the country on 28 February, following a week of violence that erupted after the 22 February bombing of Samarra's Golden Mosque (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2006). Sunni and Shi'ite leaders continue to trade accusations over responsibility for the bombing. Meanwhile, militant groups have accused Shi'a of bombing their own shrine in order to spark sectarian violence. In a 28 February joint statement signed by the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Mujahedin Army, the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades, and the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance, the groups said they were not responsible for the bombing, but suggested that the real perpetrators were the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari or the Iranian government. The groups pledged to protect Sunnis from further attacks. KR
IRAQI PROSECUTORS REVEAL DEATH ORDERS SIGNED BY HUSSEIN
Prosecutors at the Al-Dujayl trial presented documentary evidence on 28 February showing Saddam Hussein signed execution orders for 143 Al-Dujayl residents following a failed assassination attempt on him there in 1982, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Ninety-six of those sentenced to death by Hussein co-defendant and Judge Awad al-Bandar were hanged in Abu Ghurayb Prison, while 46 died under torture. Ten youths sentenced to death were later executed in 1989, according to a document which suggested they be executed secretly in coordination with the Mukhabarat intelligence agency because of their age. Prosecutor Ja'far al-Musawi claimed a handwritten note on the document approving the measure was written by Hussein. The prosecutor also presented a 1982 Revolutionary Command Council document ordering the confiscation of orchards in Al-Dujayl. Prosecutors on 1 March entered into evidence a 1991 audiotaped recording in which Hussein discusses with a commander what to do with land in Al-Basrah following the Shi'ite uprising there, in an attempt to show a pattern practiced by the regime for the destruction and confiscation of land. KR
IRAQI PRIME MINISTER VISITS TURKEY...
Prime Minister al-Ja'fari met with Turkish officials in Ankara during a one-day visit to the Turkish capital on 28 February, international media reported. Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan both called on al-Ja'fari to uphold political unity, drive terrorists from Iraq, and preserve the demographic composition of Kirkuk. Erdogan called on Iraq to grant the city special status in the constitution. Kirkuk is an ethnically mixed city of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans; the latter two groups have accused the Kurds of trying to change the demographic nature of the city by moving in thousands of Kurds. Kurds claim the city is historically Kurdish, and they want to incorporate it into the Kurdistan region. Al-Ja'fari pledged to implement the articles of the constitution "meticulously," Anatolia news agency reported on 1 March. Al-Ja'fari was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, Transport Minister Salam al-Maliki, and Electricity Minister Muhsin al-Shalash. KR
...AS IRAQI PRESIDENT CRITICIZES TRIP
Jalal Talabani issued a statement on 28 February criticizing al-Ja'fari for not informing his office of the trip, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. The statement contended that al-Ja'fari is obliged under the Transitional Administrative Law, "which is still in effect," to inform the Presidential Council, the Council of Ministers, the chairman of the National Assembly, and the Judicial Council before he travels abroad. The statement also claimed that the current government is a caretaker government that is not authorized to conclude agreements with foreign governments that the incoming government might not be able to fulfill. "In view of this, the Iraqi government will not adhere to any agreement that could be reached between the prime minister and Turkey," the statement said. The statement further criticized al-Ja'fari's "unilateral approach and [for] ignoring others" even though his appointment to retain his post has not been approved by parliament. It added that al-Ja'fari's behavior is not representative of the various national components. Al-Ja'fari responded to the criticism, telling Turkey's "Milliyet" newspaper: "What he says is of no concern to me. My visit to Ankara is entirely legal," the daily reported on 1 March. KR
IRAQI SHI'ITE LEADERS PROPOSE UNITY MEASURES
Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), called on Kurdish leaders to help form a national-unity government in a statement posted to the SCIRI website on 28 February. The statement was issued following a 27 February meeting with President Talabani and Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani. Meanwhile, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for the unification of the Sunni and Shi'ite Waqf (Endowment) offices during a 28 February speech in Karbala, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Al-Sadr called on the heads of both foundations to hold consultations on his proposal. KR