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Newsline - March 7, 2006

PUTIN SIGNS 'ANTITERRORISM LAW'...
President Vladimir Putin signed the controversial antiterrorism law on March 6, which critics charge is sufficiently vague to be used against civil society, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 22, 2006). RIA Novosti reported that the bill provides a "regulatory framework for measures to deal with terrorism and its [consequences and] empowers Russian secret services to tap telephone conversations and control electronic communications in areas where counterterrorism operations are carried out. It also [enables] air-defense forces to shoot down hijacked planes to prevent attacks on strategic facilities or public places." The measure also bans organizations "whose purposes and actions include the propaganda, justification, and support of terrorism." PM

...AND AN NGO SAYS PASSENGERS SHOULD BE WARNED
The nongovernmental organization Civic Control announced in St. Petersburg on March 6 that it will urge the government, parliament, and airlines to warn air passengers that a flight might be shot down under the new antiterrorism legislation, Interfax reported. Yury Vdovin, who heads the NGO, told the news agency that citizens must be made aware of the risks if they travel by air. "Of course the fight against terrorism is necessary, but citizens' rights must not be eroded," he added. PM

AEROFLOT REPORTEDLY SET TO TAKE OVER COMPETITORS
Russia's national airline Aeroflot plans to take over Pulkovo, Rossia, Krasair, and Sibir airlines by acquiring the state's share in them through share swaps, the Moscow daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). A shareholders' meeting is expected to approve the move on June 17. Aeroflot is 51 percent state-owned and is the country's largest airline, followed by Sibir and Pulkovo. PM

GOVERNMENT REPORTEDLY PLANS 'VERTICAL INTEGRATION' OF NUCLEAR POWER INDUSTRY
State Duma Deputy Viktor Opekunov (Unified Russia), who heads the legislature's Atomic Energy Committee, said on March 6 that the government wants to consolidate the nuclear power industry and turn it into a "vertically integrated holding" under state control, "The Moscow Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). The new holding would possibly be called Rosatomprom and include three components, dealing with power stations, uranium, and equipment, respectively, "Vedomosti" reported. The proposed consolidation would be in keeping with President Putin's plans to greatly expand the role of nuclear power in domestic use and make Russia an international energy superpower. The project also reflects his policy of consolidating strategically important sectors of the economy and placing them firmly under state control. PM

PRO-KREMLIN PARTY HAS OVER ONE MILLION MEMBERS
Boris Gryzlov, who heads the Unified Russia party, said in Moscow on March 6 that membership has passed the 1 million mark, RIA Novosti reported. About 500 people join the pro-Kremlin party each day, he added. About 57 percent of the members are women, almost 40 percent of the total have a higher education, and about 45 percent of all members are under 40 years of age. PM

'UNANIMOUS' VOTE RETURNS KARELIA'S PRESIDENT FOR A NEW TERM
The 53 members of Karelia's parliament voted "unanimously" in Petrozavodsk on March 3 to reelect Sergei Katanandov out of a field of three candidates for a second four-year term to head that republic, regnum.ru reported. He has been Karelia's leader in fact since 1998 and has held the top elected post since 2002. At the suggestion of the Unified Russia party, the vote was conducted openly by a show of hands. Katanandov told the legislators that his top priority is raising the standard of living. He noted that the real incomes of Karelia's inhabitants rose by 20 percent over the past five years. Opposition leader Vasily Popov said that he and his supporters will work together with the authorities for the common good rather than oppose Katanandov. He nonetheless cautioned those in power against "returning the republic to the rule of the strong hand." PM

LAKE BAIKAL PIPELINE GETS THE GREEN LIGHT
The Federal Service for Ecological, Technological, and Atomic Monitoring (Rostekhnadzor) approved on March 6 the proposed route of the Siberia-Pacific oil pipeline, which critics charge threatens the ecology of Lake Baikal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 3 and 7, 2006), Russian and international media reported. The critics argued that the recent decision of an expert panel in favor of the project, after previously turning it down, was the result of outside manipulation and political pressure. Simon Vainshtok, who heads the state-run pipeline building company Transneft, told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" recently that various environmental groups including Greenpeace are being used by unnamed foreign "puppet masters" who fear that Russian oil imports will help China become strong. Opposition to the pipeline also includes some Russian nationalists, such as writer Valentin Rasputin. PM

DANGEROUS COAL MINES TO CLOSE?
Valentin Mazikin, who is first deputy governor of southwest Siberia's Kemerovo Oblast, said in Kemerovo on March 6 that coal companies and mine owners should consider closing down mines that have become dangerous for those who work in them, RIA Novosti reported. His remarks came in response to a methane explosion on March 4 that killed one man at a mine in Kiselyovsk. An investigation is under way. It was the latest in a series of fatalities in Siberian mines. PM

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PARTY ALLEGES GOVERNMENT HARASSMENT
Members of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian have accused the Armenian authorities of instigating the replacement of locks on entrance doors to the building in Yerevan that houses the party's offices, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 6. Zharangutiun activists claim that move, which has effectively denied them access to the party's headquarters, was deliberate retaliation for Hovannisian's December 2005 open letter to President Robert Kocharian implicitly accusing him of condoning political murders and other crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 13, 2005 and March 1, 2006). They also claim their office was broken into and the door subsequently sealed. The director of a theater that leases premises in the same building told RFE/RL that the building has recently been transferred to the government Department of State Property Management, and that he repeatedly advised Zharangutiun to negotiate a new lease with that agency. LF

ARMENIA ACCUSES AZERBAIJAN OF VIOLATING CEASE-FIRE
Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian accused Azerbaijani forces on March 6 of repeatedly violating the cease-fire along the western section of the two countries' shared border over the previous week, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Shahsuvarian said one Armenian serviceman was killed by Azerbaijani fire on March 3. No cease-fire violations were registered during a routine inspection by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on February 28 on the Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces east of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Noyan Tapan reported on March 1. Also on March 6, Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian told Russian journalists he believes recent Azerbaijani threats against Armenia were intended primarily as blackmail. Sarkisian asked rhetorically why, if Azerbaijan indeed intends to start a new war, it has publicly announced that intention and thus given the Armenian side the opportunity to strengthen its defenses. LF

AZERBAIJANI HEALTH MINISTRY DENIES REPORTS OF BIRD FLU DEATHS
No cases of bird flu have been diagnosed among the population of Azerbaijan to date, according to a Health Ministry statement of March 6 quoted by day.az. The statement added that a woman from the southern district of Salyany who died last week was suffering from influenza, not bird flu (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). LF

AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST ASSAULTED
Fikret Huseynli, a journalist for the independent newspaper "Azadliq," was attacked on the evening of March 5 by three unknown men who bundled him into a car, drove him to a former bus terminal on the outskirts of Baku, then beat him up and stabbed him in the neck, zerkalo.az and day.az reported on March 7. "Azadliq" editor Ganimat Zahidov told fellow journalists on March 6 that Huseynli had received telephone threats over the past month and that the attack was probably connected to Huseynli's journalistic activities, as he reported on corruption cases. A recent public opinion survey established that the overwhelming majority of Azerbaijanis regard state television rather than the print media as their primary source of information. That survey did not rank "Azadliq" among Azerbaijan's three most popular Azeri-language newspapers, none of which was read by more than 3 percent of survey respondents. As of January 2005 "Azadliq" had a print run of 3,700. LF

GEORGIAN INTERIOR MINISTER SAYS BANKER'S MURDER SOLVED
Vano Merabishvili told journalists in Tbilisi on March 6 the names of four members of his ministry's Department of Constitutional Security who he claimed were responsible for the January murder of United Georgian Bank employee Sandro Girgvliani, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). Merabishvili said the four men have been arrested and are testifying, but he failed to clarify their motive for the killing. Opposition parliamentarians and Girgvliani's family believe that four other, more senior Interior Ministry officials, with whom Girgvliani got into an argument at a Tbilisi cafe the night he was killed, were behind the murder. Merabishvili dismissed one of those four officials, ministry spokesman Guram Donadze, on March 7, Caucasus Press reported. Opposition parliament deputies convened a press conference on March 6 in the wake of Merabishvili's disclosure, at which they argued that Merabishvili should resign, Caucasus Press reported. LF

ABKHAZ AUTHORITIES ARREST GEORGIAN FILMMAKERS
The State Security Service of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia has opened a criminal case against three Georgian journalists who entered Abkhazia in avoidance of border procedures, apsny.ru reported on March 6. Georgian media reported that the three, who were detained on March 1, planned to shoot a film about churches and monasteries, but Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said on March 6 that they filmed railway stations and bridges instead. The Georgian Foreign Ministry and Georgia's ombudsman, Sozar Subar, condemned the journalists' arrest in separate statements on March 6 and called for their immediate release, Caucasus Press reported. LF

FORMER SENIOR GEORGIAN OFFICIAL'S SENTENCE REDUCED
Georgia's Court of Appeal reduced on March 6 the sentence handed down last year by the Tbilisi City Court to Sulkhan Molashvili from nine to eight years' imprisonment, Caucasus Press reported. Molashvili, who served as Audit Chamber chairman under former President Eduard Shevardnadze, was found guilty of embezzling 3 million laris ($1.64 million). His lawyer Soso Baratashvili said the initial sentence was reduced as the court could not prove Molashvili had appropriated 1 million laris of that total. Molashvili, who was arrested in April 2004 and sentenced in September 2005, has repeatedly claimed the charges against him were politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 8 and November 8, 2005). Baratashvili told journalists on March 6 he will contest the Court of Appeal's ruling in Georgia's Supreme Court and, if the Supreme Court leaves the ruling unchanged, in the European Court of Human Rights. LF

KAZAKH LEGISLATOR WARNS OF ATTEMPT TO MISLEAD PROBE INTO OPPOSITION LEADER'S MURDER
Serik Abdrakhmanov, a deputy to Kazakhstan's Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament), warned in a statement dated March 3 and published in media outlets on March 6 that the investigation of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev's murder is following a "false path," "Kazakhstan Today" and Navigator reported. Abdrakhmanov stated that Erzhan Utembaev, the administrative head of the Senate who has been charged with organizing the murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006), is merely "the modest shadow of his highly placed masters." Echoing statements by opposition figures, Abdrakhmanov suggested that Utembaev could not have organized the killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 24, 2006) and that Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov "knows this well." Noting that some suspects have already been arrested, Abdrakhmanov warned that "those who really stand behind them are trying to direct the investigation along the lines they need." Abdrakhmanov also warned President Nursultan Nazarbaev that "people are worried that your entourage may deceive you once again." Stressing that the president's entourage is cutting him off from the people, Abdrakhmanov warned the president directly that "The people believe you and are waiting for you to restore JUSTICE." DK

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT POSTPONES DISCUSSION OF HOLIDAY TO MARK AKAEV OUSTER
Kyrgyzstan's parliament decided on 6 March to postpone its debate on a law to make March 24, the anniversary of President Askar Akaev's ouster, a national holiday, Kabar reported. Deputies Jantaro Satybaldiev, Avazbek Momunkulov, and Damir Oskombaev argued that a cabinet resolution is needed to include a new non-working day in the official calendar. Other deputies raised the issue of unpaid compensation for the looting that followed the unrest of March 24, 2005, in Bishkek. Murza Kaparov, the prime minister's representative in parliament, said the cabinet is prepared to share its views on the proposed holiday with parliament and deputies decided to put off their discussion until the cabinet responds. President Kurmanbek Bakiev recently announced that he plans to sign a decree making March 24 a public holiday (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). DK

CSTO SECRETARY-GENERAL MEETS WITH TAJIK PRESIDENT
Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, which comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan), met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on March 6, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Bordyuzha said that their talks focused on preparation for the upcoming CSTO summit in Minsk. "In the future, we want to transform the CSTO from a military and political organization into a structure that performs multiple activities," Bordyuzha said. Discussing a recent visit to Uzbekistan, Bordyuzha said Uzbekistan has not applied to join the CSTO, but is making efforts to establish closer ties with that organization. DK

IRAN REPORTEDLY AGREES TO HIGHER PRICE FOR TURKMEN GAS
In a telephone conversation with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on March 6, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad gave Iran's consent to pay a higher price for Turkmen gas, Turkmen official news agency TDH reported. The two sides agreed that Iran will pay $65 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas it purchases from Turkmenistan effective February 1, 2006. Previously, Iran had paid $44 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas. The two sides also agreed that Iran will increase its annual gas purchases to 14 billion cubic meters in 2007. Iran is set to import 8 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan in 2006. DK

COURT SENTENCES UZBEK OPPOSITION MEMBER TO 10 YEARS...
A court in Tashkent on March 6 sentenced Sanjar Umarov, head of the opposition Sunshine Uzbekistan coalition, to more than 10 years in prison and fined him over $8 million for a variety of economic crimes, ferghana.ru reported. Three other members of what was described as the "organized crime group" that Umarov allegedly formed received prison terms ranging from three to 10 years. Vitalii Krasilovskii, Umarov's lawyer, told journalists, "I believe that not a single charge was proved. We will appeal." Nodira Hidoyatova, the coordinator of the Sunshine coalition, was sentenced to a 10-year prison term on March 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006). International rights groups have charged that both cases were politically motivated. DK

...AS COURT DECISIONS EVICT NGOS
A court in Tashkent ruled on March 6 that the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House must leave Uzbekistan, ITAR-TASS reported. The organization had lost an earlier appeal of a ruling suspending its activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2006). Branka Sesto, Freedom House director in Uzbekistan, told AP, "We don't see any sense in appealing." The court also ruled on March 6 to suspend the activities of the Eurasia Foundation, ITAR-TASS reported. The court concluded that Eurasia Foundation violated legislation governing the activities of NGOs, in part by encouraging NGOs to pursue "democratic changes" instead of providing them with "financial assistance for market reforms," as the organization's charter stated. Jeff Erlich, the director of Eurasia Foundation in Uzbekistan, announced earlier that the organization decided to halt its activities upon learning that Uzbek authorities intended to shut it down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). In a March 6 press release on its website (http://www.eurasia.org), Eurasia Foundation confirmed that it will close its Tashkent office. It disputed the Uzbek government's charges, and stated, "The Foundation hopes that in time the authorities of Uzbekistan will realize that programs designed to strengthen the self-reliance of the Uzbek people are in the interests of Uzbekistan as a whole." DK

BELARUSIAN CENSORS EDIT OPPOSITION CANDIDATES' CAMPAIGN BROADCASTS
Censors removed seven minutes from presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin's campaign address broadcast by Belarusian Radio on March 6, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported, quoting Kazulin's spokeswoman Nina Shydlouskaya. Shydlouskaya said that missing from the original address were quotes about elite police unit commander Dzmitry Paulichenka, who is suspected of involvement in high-profile disappearances in Belarus; remarks about the personal history of incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his sons; Lukashenka's 1995 quote praising Hitler; and a passage concerning Kazulin's beating and detention by police on March 2. Censors also removed a comment from the same day's radio address of united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, in which he mocked Lukashenka, who holds a college degree in history, for his ignorance. Milinkevich recalled Lukashenka's erroneous assertion at the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk last week that prominent Belarusian printer and Bible translator Frantsishak Skaryna (1490-1552) lived in St. Petersburg in Russia. St. Petersburg was founded more than 150 years after Skaryna's death. JM

BELARUSIAN PROSECUTORS WANT OPPOSITION CANDIDATE TO BE TRIED
The Belarusian Prosecutor-General's Office said on March 6 that presidential candidate Kazulin should be subject to criminal prosecution, Belapan reported. The office said Kazulin is guilty of committing "unlawful acts," first on February 17, when he held a news conference at the National Press Center in Minsk without official permission; and again on March 2, when he tried to register as a delegate for the All-Belarusian People's Assembly held that day in the Belarusian capital. According to the prosecutor's office, Kazulin's offenses include insulting and using physical violence against police officers. Police have already instigated criminal proceedings against Kazulin under Criminal Code articles relating to hooliganism. Meanwhile, Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik said on March 6 that Kazulin has so far not committed any violations of electoral regulations that would provide grounds for removing him from the presidential race. JM

BELARUSIAN POLICE SEIZE CAMPAIGN LEAFLETS OF OPPOSITION CANDIDATE
Police officers in Homel Oblast on March 6 seized 28,000 campaign leaflets from Viktar Karniyenka, a member of presidential candidate Milinkevich's election staff, who was carrying them in his car from Minsk to Homel, Belapan reported. "Apart from confiscating the materials, which had been printed absolutely legally, they [police] also drew up a charge sheet, alleging that the statement in the leaflets saying that Mr. Milinkevich is the future president is an offense," Karniyenka told Belapan. JM

UKRAINE, UNITED STATES SIGN PROTOCOL ON MARKETS ACCESS
Ukrainian Economy Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman signed a protocol on mutual access to commodity and services markets in Washington on March 6, Ukrainian media reported. The signing is seen as a major stage on Ukraine's path toward joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). "This is a decisive victory," President Viktor Yushchenko said, welcoming the signing of the document in a television interview the same day. According to Yushchenko, Ukraine's accession to the WTO will help the country in the short term increase its trade turnover by 10 percent and its gross domestic product by 1.5 percent-1.9 percent. JM

KYIV 'SURPRISED' BY LUKASHENKA'S ALLEGATIONS ABOUT FUNDS FOR HIS OUSTER
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is "surprised by both the form and the content" of Belarusian President Lukashenka's allegations last week that Ukraine is involved in channeling funds to the Belarusian opposition in order to topple him, Interfax-Ukraine reported on March 7, quoting Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasyl Filipchuk. "Hundreds of millions are coming via Ukraine, the Baltic countries, and Poland. We know what embassies receive cash and bring it here, and later distribute the money," Lukashenka said at the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 2. Filipchuk noted that Lukashenka's charges are untrue and at variance with Ukraine's position oriented toward developing good-neighborly relations with Belarus. JM

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO PRESIDENT PLANS TO OPENLY CAMPAIGN FOR MONTENEGRIN INDEPENDENCE
Serbia and Montenegro's President Svetozar Marovic said on March 6 that he plans to campaign openly and actively for independence, B92 reported the same day. According to B92, Marovic told the daily newspaper "Danas" that he will continue to serve as president, but would not be able to hide the fact that he is pro-independence. "One part of the Serbian public, and part of the Montenegrin [public], expects me to resign and leave the position of the federal union's president. Some are even radically suggesting that I should be chased out," Marovic said. "I am not asking for a great amount of understanding, or forgiveness for the ambivalence of my situation, nor am I mad at my critics. I will repeat, as long as I am at this position, I will continue to take care of my business as responsibly as I can. At the same time, I cannot, nor do I wish to, hide the fact that I am from Montenegro and that I belong to the democratic majority of Montenegro," he added. BW

UN HEAD IN KOSOVA SAYS HE WILL NOT BLOCK CEKU'S ELECTION
Soeren Jessen-Petersen, the head of the United Nations Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said he will not attempt to prevent the election of former guerilla leader Agim Ceku as the province's prime minister, B92 reported on March 6, citing an interview with Voice of America. In the interview, Petersen said that Ceku "has many positive sides...and Serbian officials could change their opinions about him with time." The Serbian government has asked Jessen-Petersen to prevent Ceku from being elected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). BW

BIRD FLU IN SERBIA CONFIRMED AS H5N1 STRAIN
Serbian health authorities have confirmed that two dead swans were infected with the lethal H5N1 strain of the bird-flu virus, AFP reported on March 6. "Based on results from tests we have carried out, it is H5N1," Dejan Krnjaic, director of the Veterinary Institute of Serbia, said. "Both tested swans from the northern locality of Backi Monostor and from the western village of Bacevci were positive for H5N1," Krnjaic added. One of the swans was found at Backi Monostor on March 3 in a swampy area less than 10 kilometers from the Serbian border with Croatia and Hungary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). Another swan was discovered near Bacevci on the River Drina, which is the natural border between Serbia and Bosnia. Krnjaic said that samples from the swans have also been sent to a laboratory in Britain for corroboration. BW

EU CONSIDERS TROOP REDUCTIONS IN BOSNIA AFTER ELECTION
Austrian Defense Minister Guenther Platter said on March 6 that the European Union (EU) may make substantial cuts in its peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina later this year, Reuters reported the same day. "It is conceivable that we can go from 6,700 to 6,000 in the short term...Then we will have to consider whether in the medium term we will reduce from 6,700 to 2,500 troops," he told a press conference at a meeting of EU defense ministers. Austria currently holds the EU's rotating presidency. Platter added that Brussels is committed to keeping troop levels at the current 6,700 at least until elections in Bosnia, which are scheduled for October. BW

BOSNIAN WAR CRIMES COURT INDICTS THREE
Bosnia-Herzegovina's War Crimes Court issued indictments on March 6 against three Serbs accused of committing atrocities during the 1992-95 war, AFP reported the same day. "Radenko Todorovic, Dusan Spasojevic and Mirko Pantic were indicted of war crimes committed against civilians and war prisoners...including murder, inhumane treatment, and beatings," said Jasna Subotic, spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office of the War Crimes Court. The three were arrested last week and accused of committing the crimes in 1993 while serving as guards at an improvised prison in Zvornik. BW

BACKED BY EU AND UKRAINE, MOLDOVA DEFENDS NEW TRANSDNIESTER CUSTOMS RULES
Moldova, Ukraine, and the European Union on March 6 denied allegations that new customs regulations designed to eliminate smuggling constitute an economic blockade against the breakaway region of Transdniester, Reuters reported the same day. The rules require that all goods bound for Ukraine that move through the Transdniester portion of the border clear Moldovan customs and have a Moldovan stamp. Russia and Transdniester's leader Igor Smirnov have both criticized the move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). "Russia is being hasty in its judgment or has been misinformed. There is not, nor will there be an economic blockade of [Transdniester]," Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said. "Companies in [Transdniester] want to legalize their business and work in a legal framework in Moldova. Only criminal groups oppose an end to smuggling across the border with Ukraine." EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana praised the new rules as "very important for the establishment of an orderly regime on the Ukrainian-Moldovan border." Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov accused Transdniester officials of making "political statements" about the new rules "that we view as groundless." BW

THE PECULIARITIES OF POLITICAL DISCOURSE IN BELARUS
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made a nearly four-hour-long televised speech to some 2,500 handpicked loyalists at a gathering called the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 2. The speech was very distinctive of Lukashenka's oratorical skills and fully reflected the authoritarian character of official political discourse in Belarus, where only one individual -- the incumbent president -- is allowed to know and publicize answers to all imaginable questions from all walks of life.

Lukashenka's speechmaking is based to a considerable extent on the Soviet-era tradition of Communist Party congresses, when first secretaries delivered lengthy reports on virtually all aspects of life over which the party extended its control. Lukashenka's presidential addresses are similarly protracted, all-embracing, overloaded with statistical data, and indigestible to listeners after the first 30 minutes -- as were those by his antecedents in the Soviet Communist Party.

Here is a typical example of this style: "With satisfaction, I report to this high assembly," Lukashenka said at the very beginning of his speech. "The country has achieved major indicators of the Program of Socioeconomic Development of the Republic in the years 2001-2005 of the 21st century. The development course we worked out has proven correct. The confirmation of this can be found in high rates of economic development demonstrated by our economy in the past 10 years. Compare: our average annual economic growth in the past five years was 7.5 percent, versus 3.5 percent in the world as a whole."

However, there is one feature that makes Lukashenka's lengthy orations lively for his listeners even after two or three hours -- the Belarusian president often strays from the text prepared by his speechwriters and inserts impromptu passages, sometimes pages-long and usually emotionally loaded. Take, for example, the following phrase in which the Belarusian president, beginning the third hour of his address with criticism of the United States and Western democracies in general, expressed in passing his displeasure with the "colored revolutions" in the CIS.

"There has been a sequence of various revolutions of various colors in the former republics of the Soviet Union, including with support from those democratic -- I would rather say -- dung-ocratic states," Lukashenka said.

The play on the sound similarity between the word "demokaraticheskii" (democratic) and the neologism "dermokraticheskii" (dung-ocratic) is hardly an ingenious oratorical device, but his listeners usually are not lovers of a lofty or subtle literary style. The people listening to the president on March 2 woke up at this point, preparing for more. And Lukashenka did not fail to meet their expectations. He immediately delivered a 30-minute impromptu diatribe, in which he branded Western democracies as being "covered in blood."

But Lukashenka is not consistent in his vision of the West. In another passage -- some 60 minutes after his "dung-ocratic" comparison -- he portrayed the West as "the developed countries toward which we are getting orientated."

Finding a generally accepted socioeconomic measure under which Belarus could compare favorably with Western states is still an unachievable task for Lukashenka, so he occasionally proposes criterion that are not immediately verifiable or perhaps unknown in the West. This time the Belarusian president claimed that Belarus is the only country in the world that created a system of "social standards" for the population and asserted that his government would observe no fewer than 44 such standards.

"Who else, which other country has taken such responsibility upon itself?" Lukashenka asked rhetorically. "Name it! There are no such countries! And we, I do not doubt it, will make this system work!"

Apart from publicizing plans for the future, Lukashenka also likes to touch upon a broad variety of topics either serving as illustrations of his economic theses or emphasizing his self-imposed stature as considerate "father of the nation."

During the All-Belarusian People's Assembly on March 2, the Belarusian president in particular gave Belarusian sportsmen advice on how to fight for Olympic medals, briefed publicly his ministers on how to sell Belarusian fertilizers abroad with profit, and instructed Belarusian men and women in general on how to keep a good physical and sexual form and overcome a demographic crisis in the country.

"The average life expectancy of our men is 10 years lower than that in developed countries," Lukashenka said. "Soon [our] women will bear children of Western men, my dear ones.... There are several reasons for this [situation], but two of them are the most important. First, this is nonobservance of the healthy style of life: lack of physical exertion and overeating, particularly late at night. This is the main thing. And then we groan and moan and cannot breathe, weigh 130-150 kilograms and cannot walk, while women applaud Western men."

Lukashenka is also known for using highly offensive language with regard to his opponents, whether specific people or political organizations. This time was no different. He referred to his political opponents in Belarus as "otmorozki" (which can be translated as "bastards" or "thugs") and "soplivye" ("the snotty ones"). And he publicly advised the defense minister to draft opposition politicians and their children into the army, in order to "clean out [their] brains."

Taken as a whole, Lukashenka's address on March 2 was rather typical for him, in both content and style. But it was evidently more emotive than on other occasions, which can be explained by his stress connected with the upcoming presidential election on March 19 and the political stake involved in it. This, incidentally, was admitted by Lukashenka himself.

"This election campaign costs our armed forces, our security forces a lot of nerves and health," he noted at the end of his speech. "The tension is so high, you cannot even imagine."

AFGHAN PARLIAMENT CALLS PAKISTANI LEADER'S COMMENTS OFFENSIVE INTERFERENCE
In a session on March 6, The People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) of the Afghan National Assembly called remarks by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf the previous day offensive interference in Afghan affairs, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. In a CNN interview, the Pakistani leader said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is "totally oblivious of what is happening in his own country," where Musharraf alleged that elements of Karzai's own government are conspiring against Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). The People's Council lamented that Musharraf's remarks came at a time when Afghanistan and Pakistan should be consolidating their relations and cooperating against the common threat facing both countries. Calling the remarks a breach of diplomatic norms, the lower house of the Afghan parliament said the remarks could be misused by terrorists and other subversive elements in both countries. The People's Council called on Musharraf to refrain from making similar remarks about Afghanistan in the future. AT

OFFICIAL AFGHAN NEWS AGENCY DENOUNCES MUSHARRAF'S 'SOPHISTRY'
In a commentary published on March 6, the official Bakhtar News Agency equated Musharraf's criticism of Karzai with the "sophistry" employed by former Pakistani ruler General Mohammad Ayyub Khan (1958-69), who was "removed from the military and political scene" despite his attempts to turn attention from his own problems. At a time when "the internal situation in Pakistan is extremely tense," Bakhtar charged, Musharraf is trying to use a "foreign issue and a foreign leader to divert the attention of the Pakistani nation" from the realities at home. Bakhtar suggested the Pakistani leader is upset over the realization that the United States has started "all-around cooperation with India." Bakhtar's description of Musharraf as "no more than a military dictator and his regime nothing but a regime that has usurped democracy," is among the harshest to have appeared in Afghanistan in the ongoing war of words between officials in the two neighboring countries (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 28, 2006). AT

AFGHANS, PAKISTANI ARRESTED ON CHARGES OF PLANNING SUICIDE ATTACK IN WESTERN AFGHANISTAN
Afghan security forces in Farah Province arrested three Afghans and a Pakistani on March 5 on charges of intending to carry out suicide attacks, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on March 6. Provincial security commander Sayyed Agha Saqeb told AIP that the security forces stopped a vehicle near the city of Farah and discovered "six cannon shells, explosives, and petrol" and arrested the passengers, who included a Pakistani national. The unnamed Pakistani is from Karachi, Saqeb told AIP, adding that the suspect admitted receiving "military training in a camp in Pakistan." AT

AFGHAN ENGINEER WORKING FOR UN IS KILLED IN FARAH PROVINCE
An Afghan engineer working for UN Habitat, an organization building settlements, was shot by unidentified assailants in the Bala Buluk district of Farah on March 5, AIP reported the following day, quoting Farah security commander Saqeb. AT

EARLY INDICATORS SHOW INCREASE IN POPPY CULTIVATION IN 13 AFGHAN PROVINCES
A Rapid Assessment Survey carried out jointly by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry suggests an increasing trend in poppy cultivation in 13 provinces, a stable trend in 16 provinces, and a decrease in three provinces, according to a ministry press statement of March 6. The survey, conducted in December and January, shows that among the 13 provinces where poppy cultivation is on the rise, seven are seeing "a strong increase" -- namely Helmand, Ghor, Oruzgan, Zabul, Nangarhar, Laghman, and Badakhshan provinces. Outside of Helmand Province, stable trends are seen in provinces that saw high cultivation levels in 2005 -- namely Kandahar, Farah and Balkh. Three provinces -- Nuristan, Samangan, and Sar-e Pol -- appear to show lower cultivation levels. "We are concerned about these trends," Doris Buddenberg, the UNODC representative in Afghanistan, was quoted as saying, "but they do not come as a complete surprise. It cannot be emphasized enough that counternarcotics is a long-term process." A UNODC survey for 2005 revealed that the amount of land under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan fell by 21 percent in 2005, however, the expectations are that there will be an increase in poppy cultivation for 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2005). AT

TEHRAN SAID TO HAVE EXTRADITED PKK MEMBERS TO TURKEY
Anonymous Turkish sources were quoted by the Anatolia news agency on March 6 as saying that the Iranian government has extradited seven members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to Turkey. The seven, one of whom is a woman, were reportedly handed over at the southeastern city of Hakkari. BS

IAEA'S EL-BARADEI URGES COMPROMISE AS WATCHDOG'S BOARD CONVENES TO CONSIDER IRANIAN CASE
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said on March 6 that a compromise on the Iranian nuclear controversy remains possible, Reuters reported. El-Baradei said Iran has offered not to enrich uranium on an "industrial scale" for two years, he said, and it may be willing to extend that period if it is allowed to enrich uranium on a small scale for research. Indicating his optimism, el-Baradei said, "I am still very much hopeful that in the next week or so an agreement could be reached." Anonymous "diplomats" quoted by Reuters asserted that the IAEA chief believes that reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council could harden Tehran's stance and strengthen the country's political hard-liners. "Confrontation could be counterproductive and would not [give] us a durable solution," el-Baradei said. BS

IRANIAN, PAKISTANI, INDIAN OFFICIALS TO MEET OVER GAS PIPELINE PROJECT
Officials from Iran, Pakistan, and India are scheduled to discuss construction of a natural-gas pipeline connecting those three countries in Tehran on March 13-15, IRNA reported, citing "The News" from Islamabad. In light of the recent U.S.-India nuclear agreement, some Pakistani observers have expressed skepticism that the project will come to fruition. U.S. President George W. Bush said on March 4 that Washington does not object to construction of the pipeline but rather to Iran's nuclear ambitions, India's "Financial Express" reported. "Our beef with Iran is the fact that they want to develop nuclear weapons," Bush reportedly said. "I believe a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Iranians would be very dangerous for all of us. It would endanger world peace." Bush stressed that he understands Pakistani natural-gas requirements. The pipeline project was initiated in the mid-1990s but construction has not gotten under way, initially due to mistrust between Islamabad and New Delhi and later due to disputes over eventual gas prices and transfer fees. BS

WESTERN HOSTAGES HELD IN IRAQ SEEN IN NEW VIDEOTAPE
Three of a group of four Westerners taken hostage in Iraq in November were seen on a new videotape obtained by Al-Jazeera television on March 7. Al-Jazeera reported that the hostages, who were members of a team of Christian peace activists, appealed in the videotape, dated February 28, to Arab Gulf leaders to help secure their release. The men, who all sported long beards in the videotape, appeared in good health. They could be seen speaking to the camera, but no audio was heard. The hostages' captors, the Swords of Righteousness Brigades, had demanded in December that Iraqi and multinational forces release all Iraqi prisoners in exchange for the men's release (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2005). KR

VIOLENCE CONTINUES IN IRAQI CITIES
Four explosions detonated on March 7 in Al-Hillah, located some 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, international media reported. At least three of the explosions were thought to be booby-trapped cars. Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the first car exploded near the Marjan hospital; a second car exploded near a petrol station, located two kilometers from the hospital. A third car detonated in a parking lot in another part of the city. Casualty figures were not available. Meanwhile, one civilian was killed and another wounded on March 7 when a booby-trapped car exploded in western Baghdad. Four Iraqis were wounded in southern Baghdad when another booby-trapped car detonated. Insurgents attacked a police checkpoint and detonated a car bomb as a police patrol was passing in separate incidents in Ba'qubah on March 7, killing one policeman and one civilian and wounding two others, Al-Arabiyah television reported. In Al-Basrah, four civilians were injured when gunmen clashed with British forces, the news channel reported. KR

IRAQI PARLIAMENT SESSION MAY BE DELAYED
Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 7 that the opening session of parliament, set for March 12, may be delayed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). Citing an unidentified high-ranking government official, the news channel reported that Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi has not signed a presidency council document calling for the parliament to convene. The source said that the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), to which Abd al-Mahdi belongs, has requested a postponement of the opening session. According to Al-Sharqiyah, all three members of the presidency council -- Abd al-Mahdi, Vice President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, and President Jalal Talabani -- must sign the document calling the parliament to session. Reuters on March 7 cited an unnamed member of the Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as saying the UIA list has asked that the opening session be delayed for a few days. KR

OVER 300 IRAQI TEACHERS, 64 STUDENTS KILLED IN PAST FOUR MONTHS
Some 311 teachers and 64 students under the age of 12 have been killed in the past four months, according to the Ministry of Education, azzaman.com reported on March 6. The ministry said in a statement obtained by the website that attacks on schools and other educational facilities are on the rise, prompting many parents to keep their children out of school. The ministry said more than 400 schools have been attacked in the past four months, and many have closed as a result. Meanwhile, the ministry said that high numbers of professors and students failed to return to university campuses following the start of the academic semester last week, forcing the ministry to call a one-week delay in the resumption of classes. According to an October 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, more than 60 professors were killed between March 2003 and June 2005. KR

BRITAIN ANNOUNCES FOUR-STAGE DISENGAGEMENT PLAN FOR IRAQ
Lieutenant General Nick Houghton, the most senior British army officer in Baghdad told the "Daily Telegraph" that Britain will begin implementing a four-staged disengagement plan beginning this spring that will see British forces pulled from Iraq by 2008, the paper reported on March 7. The first movements could begin within weeks, said Houghton. He said the plan calls for a smooth transfer of authority to Iraqi forces in four governorates under British control, beginning with Maysan and Al-Muthanna, while maintaining the capacity to reinstate troops quickly, if needed. Houghton added that the withdrawal needs to begin soon in order to build confidence among Iraqis. "There is a fine line between staying too long and leaving too soon," he said. "A military transition over two years has a reasonable chance of avoiding the pitfalls of overstaying our welcome but gives us the best opportunity of consolidating the Iraqi security forces," he added. Britain currently has some 8,000 servicemen in Iraq. KR

AUSTRALIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS HIS FORCES WILL STAY IN IRAQ INTO 2007
Brendan Nelson said that Australian forces will remain on the ground in Iraq into 2007, AFP reported on March 7. Speaking to Australian troops during a March 6 visit to southern Iraq, Nelson said that the Australian troops, currently assigned to protect Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces (GSDF), will remain in Iraq regardless of whether the GSDF pulls out of Iraq or not. Nelson said the Australian troops will likely continue training Iraqi soldiers and provide a "security overwatch" should Japanese forces withdraw. About 460 of Australia's 1,300 troops in Iraq are assigned to protect about 600 Japanese GSDF forces stationed in the Al-Muthanna Governorate. KR

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