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Newsline - January 25, 2007

EU MINISTER FEARS RUSSIAN-LED GAS CARTEL
EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said in Berlin on January 24 that the signing over the past year of several cooperation agreements between top-level Russian and Algerian energy officials has given rise to concern that those two countries could create a gas cartel, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on January 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, October 31, and November 14 and 25, 2006, and January 22, 2007). "The context of these meetings between Russia and Algeria makes us nervous," Piebalgs added. He has repeatedly called on the EU to diversify its sources of energy supplies and to press Russia to allow greater liberalization of its energy market. Russia supplies about one-fourth of the EU's natural-gas supplies, while Algeria accounts for roughly 10 percent. Some Russian officials have periodically raised the idea of setting up a "gas OPEC," a possibility that some other Russian officials have denied. Piebalgs said of Russia on January 24 that "we, Europe, are their biggest customers. We want to have a fair price. This is not only about commercial interests. It is about transparency, too." Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research, argued that a gas cartel on the model of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) "would be extremely dangerous for Europe. Europe must quickly react by diversifying its energy resources." Russia has repeatedly refused to ratify the EU's Energy Charter, which Moscow signed in 1994, and whose Transit Protocol would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines. Gazprom now effectively controls them as a monopoly, while seeking greater access to European markets for itself. Piebalgs noted on January 24 that Gazprom is eager to invest in Europe, but that few Europeans are buying into Russian energy projects. PM

GERMAN LEADER HOPES TO 'CONVINCE' RUSSIA ON ENERGY ISSUES
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the annual Davos World Economic Forum on January 24 that she will place great emphasis on energy issues during Germany's current EU Presidency and presidency of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, following the recent Russian energy dispute with Belarus, German media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 19, and 22, 2007). She argued that "the last few weeks, in particular, have shown that energy supply is an issue of security and political framework. I discussed this from a European point of view [on January 21] with Russian President [Vladimir Putin]. We agreed that, when there are problems, communication must be improved. And let me add that it can be improved. And that is why we, as the European Union, will try to lay down economic rules and convince Russian partners to do so, too." Russia has a large business-oriented delegation in Davos, headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref. On January 25, former Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec wrote in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" that no European country can by itself conduct a serious energy policy in relationship to Russia. He argued that it is in the interest of the EU and each of its member states to form a coherent joint energy policy and thereby limit Russia's ability to play European countries off against each other to Moscow's advantage. PM

RUSSIA TO BUILD FOUR MORE REACTORS IN INDIA
Top Russian and Indian nuclear officials signed a memorandum of understanding in New Delhi on January 25, according to which Russia will build four new nuclear reactors in India, news agencies reported. They will be located at Kudankulam and other, unspecified locations. No timetable or other specifics were provided, iht.com reported. Earlier, Russian Ambassador to India Vyacheslav Trubnikov said that nuclear cooperation is "the most important issue on the agenda during President Putin's [two-day] visit," which began earlier on January 25. Russia is eager to reassert its role as India's main nuclear partner in the wake of a 2006 pact between Washington and New Delhi. Putin met earlier on January 25 with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after which both also said in a statement that their countries will pursue a "strategic partnership." Putin will be guest of honor at Republic Day celebrations on January 26 and is accompanied by a large economic delegation. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has already been in India for several days to prepare new arms agreements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). India's "The Hindu" on January 25 quoted Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, as suggesting that Russia might sell additional arms to Pakistan if India moves away from Russia as its main arms supplier. PM

SEAMAN SENTENCED AFTER CANNABIS BUST
A military court in the Arctic submarine base town of Severodvinsk near Arkhangelsk sentenced seaman Aleksandr Panov on January 24 to two years in a labor camp for growing cannabis plants on base and distributing the final products to his colleagues, Reuters reported. Panov served on the nuclear-powered Typhoon-class submarine "Dmitry Donskoi," which carries up to 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles. PM

THOUSANDS IN SIBERIA PROTEST UTILITY-RATE HIKES
About 5,000 people demonstrated on January 24 in Barnaul, the capital of Altai Krai, to protest hikes in utility rates and transportation prices, Interfax reported. The protesters were mainly elderly. The organizers were primarily from opposition parties, such as the Communist Party (KPRF) and the liberal Yabloko. One speaker argued that "rising pensions compensate for inflation, but not price and rate hikes," while another called for a "women's rebellion" if the latest increases are not withdrawn. PM

ARMENIAN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENTS MEET
Robert Kocharian met on January 24 with President Putin at the latter's dacha in Sochi, one week after what was termed a private visit by Kocharian to Moscow on January 17 for an "informal" meeting with Putin, Russian media and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Neither side issued any formal statement after the January 17 meeting, but sources in Moscow told RFE/RL that the two presidents discussed the Armenian parliamentary elections due in May and next year's presidential ballot, in which Kocharian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term. The two presidents told journalists after their Sochi meeting that they discussed energy-sector cooperation and other aspects of economic ties, and also the unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus, which Putin said he will do all in his power to resolve. The daily "Kommersant" reported on January 25 that the possibility of building an oil refinery in southern Armenia to process crude oil from Iran was also discussed. Overall, Putin concluded that "it seems there are no unresolved problems or controversial issues" clouding bilateral relations. LF

SPS CALLS FOR POSTPONEMENT OF DAGHESTAN ELECTIONS
The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) has appealed to Aleksandr Veshnyakov, chairman of Russia's Central Election Commission, to postpone the Daghestan parliamentary elections scheduled for March 11, RIA Novosti reported on January 24. Boris Nadezhdin, who is a member of the SPS political council, told journalists in Moscow on January 24 that the SPS was excluded from the ballot "on a fabricated pretext." He said only three political parties -- the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia, A Just Russia, and Patriots of Russia -- are likely to remain on the ballot. Daghestan's Central Election Commission has barred both the SPS and the Communist Party (KPRF) from fielding candidates, adducing the article of the republic's election law that stipulates that parties' lists must include at least one candidate in each of the 53 raions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). Russian State Duma deputy Oleg Kulikov (KPRF) told the Duma on January 24 that the exclusion from the ballot of his party and the planned exclusion of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia sets "a dangerous precedent in an explosive region," regnum.ru reported. Daghestan's Supreme Court rejected on January 22 an appeal by three KPRF candidates who initially withdrew their candidacies to be reinstated on the party's list. LF

ADYGEYA COURT RULES ON NATIVE-LANGUAGE EDUCATION
Responding to a statement from the republic's deputy prosecutor general, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Adygeya has annulled a provision of the republican law on education that calls for all Adyg students to study the Adyg language, which is designated as the republic's state language, regnum.ru reported on January 24. The deputy prosecutor-general argued that such a mandatory ruling violates the Russian Constitution. The court ruling was based on the law On the Languages of the Peoples of Russia, which grants students the right to choose in which language they wish to be taught. LF

MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRMEN MEET WITH AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT
The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group met in Baku on January 24 with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss "basic principles" for resolving the Karabakh conflict, zerkalo.az reported on January 25. The U.S. and French co-chairmen, Matthew Bryza and Bernard Fassier, were both quoted as describing the talks, which also focused on unspecified energy issues, as "constructive." Bryza said that several problems remain to be solved, but there is hope an agreement could be signed by the end of this year. LF

ONE AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTY GRANTED PERMISSION TO STAGE PROTEST, WHILE RIVAL REFUSED
The Baku municipal authorities have granted the opposition Musavat party permission to stage a rally in Baku on January 28 to protest the price increases for gas, electricity, and gasoline announced earlier this month, day.az reported on January 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10 and 11, 2007). But the opposition Azadliq block which Musavat quit one year ago was refused permission to hold an analogous protest on January 26 at any one of eight locations it suggested, day.az reported. The citiy authorities proposed several alternative venues, all of which Azadliq has rejected. LF

FATE OF EMBATTLED AZERBAIJANI TV STATION REMAINS UNCLEAR
Nushiravan Magerramli, chairman of Azerbaijan's National Television and Radio Council, said on January 24 that the outcome of the tender for the frequency on which ANS television broadcast will almost certainly be annulled and a new tender held, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on January 24 and 25, respectively. Magerramli explained that the law on tenders requires the submission of a minimum of three bids, but only ANS-TV submitted a bid for the permanent right to broadcast on the frequency it is currently using. ANS-TV was closed two months ago due to alleged violations of broadcasting legislation and a tender announced for its frequency, but was then permitted to resume broadcasting until the outcome of the new tender was made public. ANS-TV was the only broadcaster to submit a bid in that tender (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27 and 29, and December 1 and 12, 2006). Meanwhile, a criminal case for large-scale tax evasion has been brought against another member of the ANS group of companies, ANS-Commerce, day.az reported on January 25. LF

GEORGIAN AUTHORITIES INTERCEPT CONSIGNMENT OF ENRICHED URANIUM
Working in cooperation with the U.S. CIA and FBI, the Georgian authorities apprehended in a sting operation last year Oleg Khinsagov, a resident of Vladikavkaz, who offered for sale weapons-grade uranium, according to AP on January 24 and "The New York Times" on January 25. Khinsagov had 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium in his possession when he was arrested, the provenance of which remains unclear. He has been sentenced in a secret trial to 8 1/2 years' imprisonment. LF

CHINA OFFERS TO REBUILD KAZAKH TRANSPORT CORRIDOR
China Road Bridge Corporation has offered to rebuild a 2,309-kilometer stretch of roadway in Kazakhstan, Interfax reported on January 24, citing a January 23 press release from Kazakhstan's Transportation and Communications Ministry. The road is part of an 8,500-kilometer transportation corridor linking China and Russia. The reconstruction project is expected to cost $2.3 billion, the press release said. "As far as Kazakhstan, as a transit route, is concerned, [this project] means transit revenues and the development of its roadside infrastructure," the ministry commented. The report did not say whop would finance the project. DK

KAZAKH PARLIAMENT REJECTS NEW LIBEL LAW
Kazakhstan's Mazhilis on January 24 rejected changes to the libel law proposed by the Interior Ministry, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Deputies argued that the changes -- which would impose criminal penalties for defamatory leaflets, posters, drawings, and audiovisual materials -- might violate the country's constitution. Deputy Interior Minister Alik Shpekbaev told deputies that the amendments are necessary to eliminate mudslinging during election campaigns, Khabar reported. Lawmakers did not agree, however, and returned to the amendments to committee for changes to be made. DK

KAZAKHSTAN PREPARES FOR TRANS-CASPIAN OIL TRANSIT
National oil company KazMunaiGaz announced in a press release on January 24 that it has signed a memorandum of understanding to deliver oil by tanker across the Caspian Sea for further shipment through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, AP reported. The $3 billion Kazakh Caspian Transport System (KCTS) project is slated to launch operations in 2010-11, with an initial capacity of 25 million tons a year and eventual capacity of 38 million tons a year. "The memorandum is the first step in setting up the KCTS for oil, which will further diversify hydrocarbon export sources," KazMunaiGaz head Uzakbai Karabalin commented. The memorandum was signed by the Chevron-led consortium, Tengizchevroil, and the Eni SpA-led consortium, Agip KCO. DK

KYRGYZ LAWMAKERS AGAIN REJECT KULOV NOMINATION
Kyrgyzstan's parliament on January 25 rejected Presidential Kurmanbek Bakiev's repeat nomination of Feliks Kulov as prime minister, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kulov's nomination was backed by just 25 deputies in the 75-member parliament, with 38 deputies voting against. Representatives of the presidential administration said after the vote that Bakiev will not resubmit Kulov's name to parliament, and said has been offered to high-level positions in the government. Bakiev officials and lawmakers are scheduled to meet on January 26 to try to resolve the deadlock, which follows Kulov's resignation announcement in December and Bakiev's unsuccessful first attempt to nominate him in mid-January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2006, and January 19, 2007). There is still disagreement over whether Bakiev has the right to submit the same nominee on multiple occasions or the right to dissolve parliament if lawmakers reject such a nominee a third time. AH/PB

U.S. OFFICIALS TOUT HIPC BENEFITS FOR KYRGYZSTAN
Pamela Spratlen, director for Central Asia at the U.S. State Department, told a news conference in Bishkek on January 24 that U.S. businesspeople are more likely to come to Kyrgyzstan if the country joins the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt-relief initiative, Kabar reported. Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, noted that membership of HIPC, which has generated considerable debate within Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007), is a decision for the Kyrgyz government and people to make. Also on January 24, Spratlen met with acting Prime Minister Kulov, to discuss bilateral relations. Both stressed the high priority their respective countries' place on ties. DK

U.S. ENVOY SAYS BASE WILL STAY FOR DURATION OF AFGHAN OPERATION
Ambassador Yovanovitch told journalists that the U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan will remain in use for the duration of the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, Kabar reported on January 24. "The airbase is extremely essential as an auxiliary element in the operation in Afghanistan, and as a partner of the antiterror coalition forces, Kyrgyzstan plays a key role," Yovanovitch commented. Referring to the armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan by Islamic militants in 1999-2000 before the base's establishment, Yovanovitch said, "One can say confidently that security has improved." DK

TAJIK OFFICIAL SLAMS RUSSIAN ALUMINUM COMPANY
Energy and Industry Minister Serhali Gulov told a news conference in Dushanbe on January 24 that Russian Aluminum (RusAl) has failed to observe the terms of its October 2004 agreement to expand aluminum-production capacity in Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2004), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Gulov noted that various other companies, which he did not identify, have offered to complete the construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power station. President Imomali Rakhmonov said earlier that Tajikistan will complete the construction of Roghun using its own resources (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2006). Gulov said that work will begin in three months, adding that an international conference on Roghun with the participation of foreign companies will be held in Dushanbe in late February. DK

BELARUS TO ADJUST 2007 BUDGET AFTER OIL, GAS-PRICE HIKES
Finance Minister Mikalay Korbut has informed President Alyaksandr Lukashenka about planned budgetary adjustments in connection with recent energy-price hikes, Belapan reported on January 24, quoting official sources. According to Korbut, the price hikes will not entail a revision of budgetary decisions concerning the alleviation of the tax burden, the prioritization of social programs, the modernization of production facilities, and the establishment of new manufacturing enterprises. Korbut said that the budget will be adjusted to increase projected revenues by 900 billion rubles ($420 million) and expenditures by 1.3 trillion rubles ($607 million). The 2007 budget bill passed by the Belarusian legislature in December projected consolidated budget revenues at 40.4 trillion rubles ($18.8 billion) and spending at 41.8 trillion rubles ($19.5 billion), with a deficit equal to 1.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). JM

UKRAINIAN LAWMAKER URGES TOP OFFICIALS TO REACH COMPROMISE ON CABINET BILL
Anatoliy Kinakh, head of the parliamentary Committee for National Security and Defense, has called on President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz to work out a compromise on a controversial cabinet bill at trilateral talks, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) reported on January 25. The bill, which was passed by the Verkhovna Rada in December, extends the powers of the cabinet and the parliament at the expense of the president. Yushchenko vetoed the bill earlier this month, saying that it "distorted the essence of the constitution," and reportedly proposing more than 80 amendments to it. Lawmakers overrode his veto on January 12. Yushchenko then vetoed the bill once again, claiming that deputies have slightly changed the wording of the bill from the text approved last year, thus giving the president the right to send it back to parliament again. Yushchenko's point of view is not shared by Yanukovych and Moroz, who have both urged Yushchenko to sign the controversial bill into law and have promised to consider Yushchenko's proposed amendments immediately after it is signed. JM

SERBIAN MEDIA SAY CABINET DEAL IMMINENT
Media in Belgrade have reported that Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica are close to agreement on forming a new government, AKI reported on January 24. According to a report in the daily "Kurir," Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) would retain the post of prime minister, but would have to cede several important ministries to Tadic's Democratic Party (DS). The daily "Vecernje novosti" reported that as part of a deal to retain the premiership, Kostunica would be obligated to pledge support for Tadic in presidential elections expected later this year. Neither the DSS nor the DS have commented publicly on the alleged deal. Both say they will formally begin government negotiations after official election results are released on January 26. BW

NAZI HUNTER CRITICIZES SERBIA FOR FAILING TO EXTRADITE WORLD WAR II SUSPECTS
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office, criticized Serbia on January 24 for failing to seek the extradition of three men suspected of crimes against Jews, Serbs and Roma during World War II, AP reported the same day. Zuroff said Belgrade has done little to bring to justice Croats Ivo Rojnica and Milivoj Asner, and Hungarian Sandor Kepiro. "Sadly, we have heard a lot of nice words, but there was no concrete action," Zuroff said. He was speaking after attending a memorial service for some 1,400 victims of the Nazi occupation in Novi Sad. Kepiro, who is 93, lives in Hungary. He is alleged to have participated in the deportation of Jews in northern Serbia to Auschwitz. Rojnica, 92, is believed to be in Argentina. Asner, 91, is thought to be in Austria. The two served in Croatia's World War II pro-Nazi regime and allegedly took part in the deportations of hundreds of Jews, Serbs, and Roma to death camps. BW

UN ENVOY TOUTS KOSOVA STATUS PLAN AS FAIR...
Addressing the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) on January 24, UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari said his proposal for Kosova's final status is fair, B92 and Beta reported the same day. "My proposal focuses on securing the rights of minorities," Ahtisaari said. "It enables the functioning of a democratic and multiethnic Kosovo and provides all its citizens with equal rights, which are guaranteed and institutionally protected by the rule of law. Civic and military bodies of the international community will still operate in Kosovo," he added. Ahtisaari is scheduled to present the plan to the contact group -- which comprises Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States -- on January 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2006). He is then scheduled to travel to Belgrade and Prishtina to present the proposal to Serbian and Kosovar officials, B92 reported on January 24. BW

...AND WILL SEEK BELGRADE-PRISHTINA CONSENSUS
EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said that before presenting his status proposal to the UN Security Council, UN envoy Ahtisaari will try to forge a deal between Belgrade and Prishtina, B92 reported on January 24. "Mr. Ahtisaari will probably submit a report [to the Security Council] at the end of February, after talking to both sides," Solana said. He added that he expects the issue to be resolved without facing a veto in the Security Council. Russia has threatened to veto any final-status proposal for Kosova that does not meet Belgrade's approval (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6 and 12, 2006). BW

MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT WARNS OF POSSIBLE KOSOVA INSTABILITY
President Branko Crvenkovski said on January 23 that there is still a risk of instability in Kosova, AP reported the same day. "The capacity of Kosovar institutions is weak. We must not underestimate the risks and our institutions will remain vigilant and will closely monitor the developments in the region," Crvenkovski said, adding that many extremists and criminals are still at large in the province. BW

BOSNIAN ALUMINUM PLANT SALE TO GO AHEAD
Vahid Heco, industry and energy minister for Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim-Croat Federation, announced on January 24 that an international tender for the country's only aluminum plant will be ready by the end of February, Reuters reported the same day. Heco said the government and Aluminij Mostar have agreed to hold a public tender for an 88 percent stake in the plant, Bosnia's largest exporter. "I think that the process of Aluminij's privatization will resume very soon...and expect that the tender will be ready for publishing by the end of February," Heco told Reuters. Heco halted Aluminij Mostar's privatization in December, saying bid invitations to several selected companies contravened the privatization law. He also said the plant was valued too low (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). Earlier this month, the government annulled Heco's decision to block the sell-off, Reuters reported. BW

IS BELARUS A PAWN ON RUSSIA'S GLOBAL CHESSBOARD?
While policymakers in the EU fret about Russia's reliability as an energy supplier, their counterparts in Russia interpret the recent conflict with Minsk differently. Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin argue that the rise of oil and gas tariffs for Belarus has more of an economic than political meaning.

They point out that Russia's forthcoming entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) requires the Kremlin to raise domestic prices to world market levels by 2011. This is impossible to do without first raising energy-export prices, which is precisely what Russia has been doing -- increasing gas and oil prices for its CIS neighbors.

However, another group of domestic analysts, many of them nationalist, interpret rising energy-export prices, at least for a customer such as Belarus, differently. They accuse "Western agents" within the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov of undermining the Russia-Belarus Union state agreement signed in 1997. One such critic, Mikhail Remezov, president of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute, wrote on km.ru on 12 January that "the energy conflict makes the building of a Russia-Belarus Union state both impossible and meaningless."

One of the most provocative analyses of the Russian-Belarusian relationship has been put forth by Sergei Pereslegin, a specialist on alternative-future analysis who heads the St. Petersburg-based research center Modeling the Future. Pereslegin, who is reputed to have earned Russian President Vladimir Putin's attention and respect, argues that the Kremlin has in fact revised its entire strategy toward Belarus.

The main tenets of Pereslegin's argument can be found in his book "A Do-It-Yourself Guide To Playing On The World Chessboard," published in 2006. The book was intended as a Russian response to Zbigniew Brzezinski's "The Grand Chessboard" of 1997.

According to Pereslegin, the Kremlin has refused to fully incorporate Belarus into the Russian Federation -- but not because this is not its ultimate goal. Rather, the Kremlin is merely biding its time. Kremlin policymakers believe that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's policies are bringing the country to a political and economic dead end. Russia only has to wait for "the fruit to ripen and fall into its hands."

Belarus is completely economically and politically dependent on Russia, according to Pereslegin. The Belarusian economy cannot exist independently of Russia's raw materials, which provide energy for Belarus's own industrial production. And Russia provides the only market for these finished products.

Moreover, cheap Russian oil helps Lukashenka's internationally isolated regime maintain its political stability. Belarus imports and refines annually about 17 million tons of Russian oil, but consumes only 4 million tons. The rest Minsk sells to the West at market prices. The revenues from these sales underwrite Belarus's generous social-welfare programs. In this way, not only Belarus's economic but also its social order depends on Russia.

Pereslegin also notes that Lukashenka's regime has no "national project" comparable to that of neighboring Ukraine, which has been building its own independent state for more than a decade.

Belarus's leadership, on the other hand, has relied on tactics without a strategy or a strategic objective, such as an independent state. Lukashenka has backed himself into a tight corner: He has no other option than to push for the quickest union with Russia conditional on the preservation of his own status as president of an "independent Belarus."

"For the Kremlin it is clear that Belarus eventually cannot avoid joining Russia and the only agenda to discuss is the details of the integration," Pereslegin writes. Pereslegin suggests the Kremlin has in mind only one scenario: full reintegration through the incorporation of all six of Belarus's administrative areas plus Minsk as new oblasts of the Russian Federation.

Under this arrangement, Belarus would not even have the same status as the republics of Tatarstan or Bashkortostan. According to Pereslegin, Putin bluntly made this offer to Lukashenka in 2004, who angrily rejected it. "One can understand [Lukashenka's] position, since it would not only mean the inglorious end of the 'Republic of Belarus' but harshly upend the position of the Belarusian elite, including that of Lukashenka himself, " Pereslegin comments.

But Putin remains firm, unmoved by Lukashenka's growing discomfort. According to Pereslegin, Putin knows Belarus has no choice. In fact, Russia will win more concessions the longer it delays the "acquisition" of Belarus. The more time that passes, the more "profitable" the Union Treaty will be for Russia, whose businesses will be able to come in and replace the owners of Belarusian assets.

At the present time, Russia would pay too high a price to absorb the unreformed, paternalistic economy of Belarus, according to Pereslegin. The Russian economy is more open and market oriented than the Belarusian economy, which responds to the decrees of Lukashenka rather than market forces.

Another problem is that the 10 million-strong Belarusian population has an average annual income lower than that of Russia. Well educated and technically proficient Belarusian workers earn lower wages than their Russian counterparts. They are now employed mostly in the machine-building sector, whose products are exported to eager Russian industrial enterprises.

Full integration could trigger a massive influx of migrants from Belarus to Russia, which could trigger both social tension and a reduction of Belarusian industrial exports to Russia because of labor shortages.

However, Kremlin policymakers may eventually decide that political gains will offset the economic costs of absorbing Belarus. The Putin leadership could score a big political success by retaking "lost Russian lands." What's more, Russia-Belarus integration could "create momentum for further integration and political pressure on Ukraine and the Baltic states," Pereslegin suggests.

Pereslegin notes that timing is the critical issue. The conditions have to be right. First and foremost, the United States and European Union must not be allied against the project. Second, Russia would need to quickly generate additional economic growth from the absorption of Belarus to offset the costs of the incorporation of new territories. These criteria relate not only to Belarus but also to any further efforts to reintegrate former Soviet republics.

These conditions, in Pereslegin's view, do not yet exist, but they are achievable in the medium-term. In the meantime, it will be expedient for Russia to delay formation of the union state, leaving Lukashenka dangling as if over a precipice.

AFHGAN INDEPENDENT TV JOURNALIST DETAINED BRIEFLY...
Sharif Hasanyar, a reporter and editor for Kabul-based Tolu Television, was detained by Afghanistan's National Security Department on January 22 but released the next day, Tolu reported. Hasanyar said he received a letter from the department requesting that he come for an hour of questioning, but he was then detained before going there and held in custody for 30 hours. Hasanyar said the department objected to his contacts with Mohammad Hanif, a spokesman for the Taliban who was arrested recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007). "I contacted Hanif to reflect their [Taliban] views," Hasanyar told Tolu. AT

...TO OUTRAGE OF PARLIAMENTARIANS
A number of Afghan parliamentarians and media personalities have condemned the detention of Tolu Television journalist Hasanyar by the National Security Department, Tolu Television reported on January 23. Sayyed Fazel Sangcharaki, head of Afghanistan's National Journalists Union and a former deputy minister in charge of publications at the Information and Culture, said detentions of journalists by the department "on charges of broadcasting true or untrue reports are a serious threat to the freedom of expression and a violation of the mass media law" in Afghanistan. Sayyed Mustafa Kazemi, a member of the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) of the Afghan National Assembly and a former minister of commerce, charged that as a result of failure of the Afghan government, certain official departments "are violating the laws under the pretext of serving the people." Such violations "will lead Afghanistan to a disaster," Kazemi warned. Wolesi Jirga deputy Shokria Barakzai said that the Afghan government "can be counted as one of the dictator governments against the mass media." Information and Culture Ministry adviser Mohammad Halim Tanwir called the decision to detain Hasanyar illegal. "We have to act in the line with the constitution and the media laws," Tanwir told Tolu. AT

AFGHANISTAN'S WOLESI JIRGA OPENS SECOND ANNUAL SESSION
The Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga began its second year in session on January 24, the state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported. Wolesi Jirga speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni said the agenda for the current session of the lower house will include debate on the national reconciliation program; internal procedural guidelines; the appointment of the administrative body of the Wolesi Jirga; the 1386 (March 2007-March 2008) budget; and presidential decrees. Presidential decrees include the Mass Media Law, which President Hamid Karzai decreed in December 2005, days before the inauguration of the National Assembly. AT

HEAD OF STATE-RUN AFGHAN RADIO AND TV STATIONS RESIGNS
Najib Roshan, the director-general of Afghanistan's National Radio and Television Department, has resigned over alleged interference by Information and Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khorram in the internal affairs of his department, Tolu Television reported on January 24. AT

LEBANESE, AFGHANS EXPRESS FEARS OF IRANIAN INTERFERENCE
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has blamed Iran and Syria for fueling nationwide demonstrations in Lebanon that have demanded his government's resignation, AFP reported on January 24, quoting remarks he made the previous day in Beirut to Kyodo News. The demonstrations are largely led by Hizballah, the Shi'ite group with strong ties to Iran. Siniora said "the decisions made by the opposition...are...coming from outside, like Iran and Syria." A Hizballah-led nationwide strike in Lebanon on January 23 provoked clashes and led to three deaths, news agencies reported. Radio Farda quoted Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal as telling "Le Figaro" on January 24 that Iran should not meddle in Arab affairs. He reportedly told the daily that France's plan to send a senior envoy to meet with Iranian officials looks like implicit approval of Iran's meddling. Meanwhile, AFP reported on January 24 that Sunnis in Herat in western Afghanistan are concerned over suspected Iranian support for local Shi'a. AFP quoted a local Sunni, Mullah Farouq Husseini, as saying that "the Iranians and their Shi'ite allies want to destroy us through...propaganda in the media." Shi'a constitute some 20 percent of Herat's population, which has long had linguistic and cultural affiliations with Persia, AFP reported. VS

IRANIAN EX-PRESIDENT URGES TALKS ON NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Former President and current Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told British Ambassador to Tehran Geoffrey Adams on January 24 that Iran is not looking to be "adventurous" over its nuclear dossier and "advises others not to look for adventures," IRNA reported. He accused the West of trying to be "oppressive" in imposing its demand that Iran curb its atomic program, but added that if "the matter is pursued the right way," Iran would be ready for any inspections by "responsible authorities" to prove its nuclear program is peaceful. Hashemi-Rafsanjani rejected preconditions for resuming talks. He deplored increased poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, which he ascribed to the country's "occupation" by foreigners, and said that Iraqi ethnic or religious groups should have a share of power in Iraq proportionate to their size. "But some foreign actors on the Iraqi scene do not approve of that," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. He said Iran wants peace and stability in the region, as shown by its "approach in Afghanistan and Iraq," adding that "the occupiers know this better than anyone." Adams said Iran and the international community have similar wishes regarding Iraq and Afghanistan but not Palestine, and that efforts could be made to bring their views closer, IRNA reported. VS

U.S.-BASED ACADEMIC, LOBBYIST CONCERNED OVER BUSH REMARKS ABOUT IRAN
Academic and American-Iranian lobbyist Houshang Amir-Ahmadi told Radio Farda on January 24 that while President George W. Bush's State of the Nation address the previous day was moderate in tone, he remains concerned about the president's repeated association of Iran with Shi'ite and Sunni extremists, including the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. Wherever "Mr. Bush spoke of Shi'ite and Sunni extremism, he placed Iran as a supporter of Shi'ite extremism next to Al-Qaeda, [placing] a government next to a stateless organization." Amir-Ahmadi said Iran was frequently mentioned in relation to nuclear nonproliferation and the fight against terrorism. While he said Bush sought not to use an excessively "military tone...I think in this speech, it was not a good night for Iran." Radio Farda quoted him saying that Bush used some "disconcerting" vocabulary regarding Iran. Amir-Ahmadi is an academic at the Rutgers University, in New Jersey, and chairman of the American-Iranian Council, a lobbying group. VS

IRANIAN LAWYERS COMPLAIN OF PERCEIVED PRESSURE
Lawyers from southern Iran's Fars Province have written to the nationwide Iran Lawyers Society to protest "the daily increasing pressure on lawyers" and the threatened "independence of this group," advarnews.com reported on January 23. The 186 signatories expressed dissatisfaction with the Center for the Affairs of Judiciary Counselors and Lawyers (Markaz-i Omur-i moshaveran va vokala-i Qovve-yi Qazaiyeh) -- apparently a judiciary-formed body -- which they said took court action against lawyers who allegedly broke judiciary rules, interfered in selections for presiding boards of provincial lawyers' societies, set legal fees without consulting lawyers, and duplicated the activities of the Iran Lawyers Society but with a pro-government bias. The signatories protested the prosecution or convictions of some lawyers who defended people in cases against state-affiliated plaintiffs. They identified several lawyers who they said have been imprisoned or had their licenses revoked due to their involvement in such cases. The signatories observed that the judiciary's conduct suggests it considers lawyers "bothersome" and would rather have prosecutors and judges deal entirely with any prosecution process. VS

U.S., IRAQI FORCES LAUNCH MAJOR OPERATION IN IRAQI CAPITAL...
The U.S. military announced that Iraqi and U.S. forces launched a major military operation dubbed Operation Tomahawk Strike 11 on January 24 in a bid to eradicate insurgents and militia elements in the restive Haifa Street area in central Baghdad. In a statement, the U.S. military said that the "mission is not an operation designed to solely target Sunni insurgents, but rather aimed at rapidly isolating all active insurgents and gaining control of this key central Baghdad location." An Iraqi security source and local residents told Kuwait's KUNA news agency that U.S. helicopters began bombing the area in the early morning and the most intense clashes were near Al-Sheikh Cemetery. The Iraqi Defense Ministry said two terrorists have so far been killed and 11 suspects of varying nationalities detained. SS

...AND LEADING IRAQI SUNNI GROUP DENOUNCES IT
The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on their website on January 24 condemning the joint Iraqi-U.S. military operation in the Haifa Street area in central Baghdad, describing it as campaign of "eradication." The group said several buildings were demolished and dozens of civilians have been killed. "The residents of Haifa Street in Baghdad and the surrounding areas of Al-Sheikh Ali, Al-Mashahidah, and Al-Fahhamah are being subjected to a campaign of annihilation carried out by government and occupation forces." The group said residents in the area are suffering and demanded that the operation end. SS

U.S. SENATE PANEL REJECTS PRESIDENT'S IRAQ PLAN
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 24 rejected U.S. President George W. Bush's plan to send 21,500 U.S. forces to Iraq, international media reported the same day. In a vote of 12 in favor and nine against, the committee dismissed Bush's plan as "not in the national interest." Although the vote is nonbinding, supporters of the proposal hope that it will convince Bush to reconsider his plan. "We better be damn sure we know what we're doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder," said Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, the only Republican to oppose Bush's plan. The panel's chairman, Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware), said the resolution is not meant to embarrass Bush, but "it's an attempt to save the president from making a significant mistake with regard to our policy in Iraq." SS

IRAQI MINISTER SURVIVES ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Higher Education Minister Abd Dhiyab al-Ajili survived an assassination attempt on January 24 when gunmen attacked his convoy in the southern Baghdad district of Al-Daura, international media reported the same day. "We came under fire at different points along the highway. One of my guards was killed and another was shot in the head and seriously wounded," al-Ajili said. He expressed dismay that there were no security forces in the area at the time of the attack. "I was surprised. There were no police, no army, and no U.S. soldiers. It was as if the area was empty," he said. On November 14, gunmen allegedly wearing police-commando uniforms abducted up to 150 employees and visitors from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2006). Although the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government said many of the hostages were soon released, a ministry spokesman said as late as January 23 that 50 hostages are still missing, Reuters reported on January 24. SS

KURDISH OFFICIAL SAYS TURKEY BEHIND TERRORIST ACTS IN KIRKUK
Najit Hassan, a leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Kirkuk, told the Peyamner news agency on January 22 that Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has been conducting terrorist operations in Kirkuk. "Kirkuk security forces have enough reliable evidence that proves MIT's involvement in the terrorist activities in Kirkuk and we have informed the related sides regarding this," Hassan said. He said that it is unlikely that many of the attacks that took place in Kirkuk in 2006 were caused by Iraqi organizations and groups acting alone, and that there is a "high possibility that a foreign government was behind the attacks." On January 23, the Kurdish paper "Awene" reported that based on police reports, 2006 was a relatively violent year in Kirkuk. According to police sources, 319 people were killed, 1,383 were wounded, and 69 unidentified bodies were found. SS

'CHEMICAL ALI' DENIES ANY WRONGDOING IN OPERATION AGAINST IRAQI KURDS
During the January 24 session of the Anfal trial, Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and former secretary-general of the northern bureau of the Arab Ba'ath Party, said he does not regret any of the decisions he made in suppressing a Kurdish uprising in the 1980s, international media reported the same day. "If I have committed any wrongdoing against any Iraqi, then I am ready to apologize to him," al-Majid said. "If you asked me why have you done this, my answer is that we were compelled to do so to stop the shedding of Iraqi blood that was running for more than 25 years." He stressed that the military operations were aimed against Kurdish insurgents in northern Iraq who were cooperating with the "Iranian enemy, with which we were at war." SS

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