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Newsline

Newsline - February 25, 2008

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR SAYS U.S. SEEKING TO 'DIVIDE AND RULE'
Dmitry Rogozin, an outspoken nationalist politician whom President Vladimir Putin recently named ambassador to NATO, said on state-run Vesti-24 television that Kosova's recent declaration of independence from Serbia is an example of U.S. policy to "divide and rule" the world. He argued that the "atomization" of larger states could lead to various largely Turkish-populated areas of Berlin declaring their independence. Rogozin said that U.S. backing of independence for Kosova without UN approval helps create a world in which "there will be only one rule: he who has brute physical power is strong and is right." He noted that Russia has no intention of intervening militarily "far from our borders" and stressed that Russia will advance its beliefs by "moral" and diplomatic means. He condemned "shadowy structures that stand behind Kosovo's independence. This is first of all a 'narcomafia' that long ago turned Kosovo into...a gigantic laboratory for the production of heroin and cocaine for all the countries of Europe." Portrayal of ethnic Albanians as drug dealers has long been a key component of Serbian anti-Albanian propaganda. On February 22, Rogozin was widely quoted by news agencies as saying that Russia might have to resort to "brute military force" to restore "respect for international order" in Kosova. Also on February 22, Putin warned Western countries that have recognized Kosova or intend to do so that their actions will come back to haunt them by unleashing a "chain of unforeseen consequences." PM

FOREIGN MINISTRY SLAMS STATE DEPARTMENT OVER KOSOVA
On February 23, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said in a televised interview that "the Russians have...pursued a fairly cynical policy" regarding Kosova, news agencies reported. He noted that the Russians are "not in Kosovo, they're not doing anything to help the Kosovars. So they're kind of on the sidelines, contributing mostly unhelpfully." On February 24, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a sharp rebuttal to Burns, claiming that it is Western countries that are "cynical" because they allegedly seek to offer Serbia the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration in return for Belgrade's agreeing to the loss of Kosova, mid.ru reported. The ministry added that it is cynical to back Kosova's independence "on grounds of political expediency" while consigning its Serbian minority "to a ghetto." The statement noted that "no sober-minded person doubts Russia's contribution to the Kosovo settlement. A Russian peacekeeping contingent was in Kosovo as part of KFOR from 1999 to 2004, which was the hardest period that involved the greatest risks." On February 25, Putin's presumed successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, arrived in Belgrade for talks with President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, and other top officials, which are expected to center on Kosova and energy issues, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). Reuters quoted Medvedev as saying that Moscow will continue to back Belgrade in the dispute over Kosova. PM

PUTIN TELLS CIS LEADERS THAT CURRENT POLICIES WILL CONTINUE
President Putin told an informal summit of CIS leaders in Moscow on February 22 that Russia's policies toward the CIS will not change under his presumed successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, Russian media reported. He noted that "it was together with [Medvedev] that I have made crucial decisions, including those in the most important area of foreign policy for us, the CIS. Essentially, he is one of the authors of Russia's policy in this area. I don't believe we should or will have any revolutionary changes here because [Medvedev] is one of the authors of Russia's [CIS] policy." Medvedev told the CIS leaders that "relations with the CIS countries have been and will remain Russia's main political and economic priority. We have no alternative to good-neighborly relations and the development of long-time cooperation." Uzbek President Islam Karimov said to Medvedev that "we are sure that the Russian people will support you and wish you victory." Meeting with Putin in Moscow earlier this month, Karimov praised First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as having done much for Russian-Uzbek relations, but was less enthusiastic in his comments about Medvedev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2008). The summit was widely seen as an opportunity for the CIS leaders to meet with Medvedev. PM

NORTH KOREA SEIZES RUSSIAN FREIGHTER
On February 23, North Korean Coast Guard officials took control of the Russian freighter "Lidiya Demesh," which was transporting a load of used cars from Japan to Vladivostok, and brought the ship to the port of Kimchaek on the Sea of Japan, Russian and international media reported. Yevgeny Valkovich, who is the Russian consul in the city of Chongjin, was quoted by Interfax on February 24 as saying that he hopes the standoff will be resolved soon. He added nonetheless that North Korean officials will not let him meet with the crew until their own investigations are completed. North Korean officials claim the ship strayed into their country's territorial waters during a storm. Valkovich noted that Pyongyang has a military testing ground in the area. The company Kamchatmorflot, which owns the ship, appealed to Russian and North Korean officials to obtain the crew's release before their five-days' supply of food runs out. Newsru.com reported on February 25 that Valkovich expects to meet with the crew soon. PM

WESTERN BANKS BAIL OUT STATE OIL PRODUCER
Rosneft, the state-owned oil giant of which presidential-administration deputy head Igor Sechin is chairman of the board of directors, has taken a $3 billion loan from a consortium of Western financial institutions, newsru.com reported on February 22. The loan will be used primarily to make $5 billion in payments due in March on some $22 billion in loans that Rosneft took in 2007 in order to buy up the main production assets of Yukos. At the end of 2007, Rosneft's total indebtedness amounted to $27 billion. In January, Rosneft tried to borrow the funds needed for the March payments from the government, RBK reported on January 31. In 2007, Rosneft was included on the list of "strategically important" Russian companies, meaning that the government promised to insure the company's debts. According to newsru.com on January 31, the total indebtedness of Russian state companies is more than $100 billion. RC

LDPR BACKS OUT OF ELECTION-CAMPAIGN PROTEST
Representatives of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) have withdrawn their signatures from a letter of protest addressed to the Central Election Commission, gazeta.ru reported on February 22. The complaint -- a joint effort with the Communist Party that was signed by a total of 31 Duma deputies -- charges that access to the state media has been heavily skewed toward First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev. An LDPR representative told the website that the deputies withdrew their signatures because Communist Party leader and presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov did not sign the petition. From the Communist Party, the petition was signed by Duma faction leader Igor Lebedev. A spokesman for the Central Election Commission confirmed to gazeta.ru that the commission has received the petition and will review it as early as February 26. RC

RESPECTED ACTIVIST SLAMS STATE OF DEMOCRACY IN RUSSIA
Sergei Kovalyov, a former Soviet-era political prisoner who is a leading human rights advocate, has sent an open letter to President Putin, Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decrying the state of the electoral process in Russia, Russian media reported on February 24. The complete letter is posted at http://www.hro1.org. Kovalyov said it is not possible for one party to poll over 99 percent of the vote -- as the Unified Russia party did in numerous districts in the December 2 legislative elections, according to official results -- in a fair, transparent, democratic system with "honest and scrupulously accurate election commissions." Kovalyov described the December elections and the upcoming March 2 presidential election as "a tasteless farce played out by untalented directors." Kovalyov said Russia is currently in the "paradoxical situation" when leaders "lie and their listeners know they are lying and [the leaders] know that they don't believe you and are only acting as if they do." He said the culture of expecting lies from political leaders produced "general cynicism" and creates a situation in which leaders are unable to communicate with the electorate at all. He said the public now sees First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev's statements in support of democracy, civil society, and a free press as "a continuation of your lies." He said the current situation in Russia is "a dead end from which not one path leads to democracy." Kovalyov ended his letter by saying that he was addressing his complaint to the wrong people and that he lives in hope that someday "smart, brave, and very good leaders" will come to power in Russia, although he says that will be harder than it was "in Poland or in Czechoslovakia, or even in Ukraine." He signed his letter "with the most sincere and unalterable disrespect." RC

CHECHEN DEPORTATION ANNIVERSARY MARKED
Doku Umarov, the former Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) president and resistance commander who last October proclaimed himself emir of the North Caucasus, issued a statement on February 23, posted on kavkazcenter.com, to mark the 64th anniversary of the deportation on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin of the entire Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia. Umarov characterized the deportation as part of an ongoing Russian policy of genocide that "assumes ever more sophisticated and devious forms." He called upon supporters to be patient and place their trust in God, stressing that victory is granted not to those who are militarily superior, but to those who are devout believers. The chairman in exile of the ChRI parliament elected in 1997, Zhaloudi Saralapov, likewise issued a statement to mark the anniversary; that statement was posted on February 23 on chechenpress.info. Saralapov said that the firsthand accounts of the deportation that every Chechen has heard from his parents or elders serve to underscore the crucial truth that they should not trust Russia and its rulers, and that the war unleashed against the ChRI in late 1994 is further proof that the future of the Chechen people and their hopes for national revival are contingent on the existence of a sovereign Chechen state. LF

SENIOR OFFICIALS, PARLIAMENTARIANS DEFECT TO FORMER ARMENIAN PRESIDENT'S CAMP...
Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Jahangirian on February 22 affirmed his support for former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's ongoing protest against the official preliminary results of the February 19 presidential election, which identified Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian as the winner with 52.78 percent of the vote compared with 21.5 percent for Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Speaking at a rally in Yerevan on February 22, Jahangirian said, "the scale of fraud, violence, beatings, intimidation perpetrated in these elections was unprecedented." On February 23, Jahangirian, his brother Vartan, and their driver were intercepted and detained on the outskirts of Yerevan and taken to a police precinct, where Jahangirian was charged with illegal possession of arms found during a search of his vehicle, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. As chief military prosecutor in 1999-2000, Jahangirian oversaw the investigation into the October 1999 parliament shootings, and allegedly initially considered, but later ruled out, the possibility that outgoing President Robert Kocharian may have been behind them, as Ter-Petrossian claimed during the presidential campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2000, January 15, 2001, January 25, 2002, and January 19, 2006, and "Armenia: Will Murder Allegations Impact on Presidential Vote?" rferl.org, February 15, 2008). Five lawmakers from Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia and two from its coalition partner, Prosperous Armenia (Bargavach Hayastan, BH), were reported on February 22 to have defected to the Ter-Petrossian camp; Ter-Petrossian construed those defections, and that of Jahangirian, as evidence of "deepening cracks" within a "state machine" that is "falling apart." But on February 23, the two BH parliamentarians denied having transferred their support to Ter-Petrossian. Also on February 23, up to 35,000 people rallied in Yerevan in support of Ter-Petrossian and to demand the resignation of the chairman of Armenian Public Television and Radio, Aleksan Harutiunian, arminfo reported. According to Reuters, the turnout was the largest since the daily protests began on February 20. LF

...AS DO SENIOR ARMENIAN DIPLOMATS
Deputy Foreign Minister Armen Bayburtian and Armenia's ambassadors to Italy, Spain, and Portugal; Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; and Ukraine and Moldova (Ruben Shugarian, Levon Khachatrian, and Razmik Khumarian, respectively) all resigned their posts and announced on February 23 their support for Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Six more senior Foreign Ministry officials, including chief spokesman Vladimir Karapetian, followed suit on February 24, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a joint statement read at a rally in support of Ter-Petrossian, they expressed collective "outrage" at violations that they said prevented the February 19 vote from being "civilized, free, and fair." LF

OUTGOING ARMENIAN PRESIDENT WARNS AGAINST UNCONSTITUTIONAL ACTIONS
Robert Kocharian convened a series of meetings on February 23 of senior police, National Security Service, and army commanders and ordered them to "take all necessary measures to ensure law and order" and prevent what he termed an attempt by Ter-Petrossian "to seize power by illegal means," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a possible allusion to the rumored defection to Ter-Petrossian's camp of two deputy defense ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008), Kocharian was quoted as telling army commanders that he "will not allow anyone to play a shadowy role" in the postelection standoff. "No structure can place itself beyond the law and engage in illegal activities," he asserted. On February 24, the Central Election Commission made public the final results of the February 19 ballot, according to which Sarkisian polled 52.82 percent of the vote, Ter-Petrossian 21.51 percent; former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian 16.69 percent; deputy parliament speaker Vahan Hovannisian (Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, HHD) 6.18 percent; National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian 1.29 percent; National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian 0.46 percent; Arman Melikian, foreign-policy adviser to former Nagorno-Karabakh Republic President Arkady Ghukasian, 0.27 percent; and National Accord Party Chairman Aram Harutiunian 0.18 percent, Noyan Tapan reported. Ter-Petrossian told supporters on February 24 he will appeal those results to the Constitutional Court, arminfo reported on February 25. LF

ARMENIAN DEPUTY PARLIAMENT SPEAKER STEPS DOWN, OFFERS TO MEDIATE
Meanwhile, Hovannisian stepped down on February 22 as deputy parliament speaker, Noyan Tapan reported. Arguing that "we have no right to endanger our frail and long-awaited statehood by imprudent steps," he offered in a speech broadcast by the Yerkir TV channel on the evening of February 23 to mediate between "all sides" involved in the current standoff in order to "restore solidarity." In December 1994, Ter-Petrossian ordered the arrest of Hovannisian and some 30 other HHD members on suspicion of maintaining links with a clandestine terrorist organization and declared the HHD illegal. Hovannisian was sentenced in December 1997 to four years' imprisonment on charges of calling for the violent overthrow of the Armenian leadership, and released just days after Kocharian took over as acting president in February 1998 following Ter-Petrossian's resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 1997, and February 11, 1998). LF

PARLIAMENTARIAN SAYS OSCE SHOULD NOT BE INVITED TO MONITOR AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
Zahid Orudj of the small pro-government Ana Veten party told fellow parliament deputies on February 22 that he plans to ask the Azerbaijani leadership not to invite the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to send a mission to observe the presidential ballot due in October, day.az and zerkalo.z reported on February 22 and 23, respectively. Orudj said he was amazed that the international monitoring mission gave a positive assessment of the February 19 Armenian presidential election in light of the reported violations, and he suggested that the positive evaluation, which he described as tantamount to "recognizing Armenia's right to occupy our territory," was written before the voting even took place. Orudj further argued that if the OSCE "expressed such an opinion about the Armenian election, they have no right to demand that we amend our election law." LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION JOURNALIST ASSAULTED, INJURED
Two unidentified officials assaulted Agil Xalil, a staffer of the opposition newspaper "Azadliq," during a photo session in Baku on February 22, hitting him in the face and breaking several fingers of his right hand, day.az reported. The paper's editors have lodged a formal complaint with the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the Press Council. Also on February 22, two opposition parliament deputies, Panah Husein and Jamil Hasanli, denounced the five-year prison term demanded by the prosecution for "Azadliq" journalist Qanimat Zahid, day.az reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008). They protested that the charges of assault brought against him were fabricated. LF

DIVERS SALVAGE PILOTS' BODIES, BLACK BOX FROM CRASHED AZERBAIJANI FIGHTER
Divers succeeded on February 24 in salvaging the bodies of the two pilots killed when their MiG-29 fighter crashed into the Caspian on a training flight on January 29, day.az reported. The black box has also been recovered. The plane was purchased from Ukraine, and some observers have suggested it may have been obsolescent. LF

U.S. AFFIRMS SUPPORT FOR PLANNED GAS PIPELINE
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told journalists in Brussels on February 22 after talks with EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs that Washington unequivocally supports the EU's planned Nabucco pipeline that will transport natural gas from the Caspian, including Azerbaijan, via Turkey to the EU, bypassing Russia, Reuters reported. Bryza argued that the export of Caspian gas via the Nabucco pipeline would be 40-50 percent cheaper than through the Russian-backed alternative, South Stream, which would run from Russia to Bulgaria and thence to Central Europe. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT HAILS ROLE OF OSCE AS 'DIALOGUE PLATFORM,' URGES CIS TO ADDRESS 'ECONOMIC INSTABILITY'
In an interview with the Russian newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta," Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on February 22 hailed the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a "dialogue platform" and as a "bridge" between East and West, Interfax reported. Speaking during his visit to Moscow to attend a CIS summit, Nazarbaev stated that Kazakhstan's priority when it assumes the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 will be to inject a "fresh view and new breath" of reform in the "balanced development" of all areas of the organization's work. He also noted that the decision to award Kazakhstan the chairmanship was a reflection of the country's "regional leadership in ensuring security and stability." He further vowed to work to make the dialogue within the OSCE "a uniting factor for the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian zones of OSCE countries." In his address to the CIS summit in Moscow, President Nazarbaev on February 22 urged the CIS to "develop a common mechanism" and "coordinate action" to respond to economic instability and "fluctuations on world financial markets," ITAR-TASS reported. Nazarbaev also urged the CIS leaders to take steps "to prevent destabilization of their countries' economies." RG

KYRGYZ ESPIONAGE TRIAL ENDS WITH CONVICTION ON LESSER CHARGES
A Kyrgyz district court in Bishkek acquitted on February 22 a former parliament staff member of espionage charges, AKIpress reported, though she was sentenced on a lesser charge. Defense attorney Nina Zotova said that the espionage charges against her client, Jypargul Arykova, were dismissed for lack of evidence, but that Arykova received a three-year sentence after being convicted of lesser charges related to the unauthorized disclosure of "official secrets." The court also sentenced Ismail Usek, a Chinese national, to a 12-year prison term. Arykova has already served nearly nine months in detention after her trial was delayed several times. She was first arrested in Bishkek in June 2007 together with Usek "in the act of passing classified information" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22 and 25, 2007). She was suspected of secretly working for "a foreign intelligence service" for several years throughout her career in the Kyrgyz parliament. RG

KYRGYZ PREMIER HAILS ARMY AS GUARANTOR OF SECURITY
Speaking at a ceremony commemorating Fatherland Defenders' Day in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov on February 22 hailed the country's army as the guarantor of security, Kabar reported. Pointing to the threats to Kyrgyz security from terrorism and extremism, Chudinov noted that the government is "obliged to take measures that will make the military service and military professions attractive," and the country needs an "efficient" army capable of countering "modern challenges and threats." Chudinov also said that the state will "continue to pay close attention to social guarantees for servicemen and their families," and he promised to increase their pay and "provide officers, warrant officers, and other categories of servicemen with houses and to improve their medical service." RG

KYRGYZ LEGISLATOR THREATENS TO EVICT RUSSIAN MILITARY FROM AIR BASE
In an address to the Kyrgyz parliament, ruling Ak-Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party deputy Melisbek Myrzakmatov threatened on February 22 to force the eviction of the Russian military from the Kant air base outside of Bishkek, AKIpress reported. The threat was a response to a recent wave of ethnically motivated killings of Kyrgyz nationals in Russia. Referring to a recent parliamentary debate over the killings and an appeal to the Russian State Duma over the incidents, Myrzakmatov said that the Kyrgyz state is being "too lenient" with the Russians and called for more resolute steps. RG

TAJIK PRESIDENT COMMEMORATES ARMY DAY
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on February 23 led a ceremony in Dushanbe commemorating the 15th anniversary of the army, unveiling a new long-term plan to develop it, Tajik Television reported. According to the details of the plan, the Tajik Army is set to receive substantial increases in funding and investment to finance increased pay and social allowances, as well as improved training and equipment. The plan, to cover a projected period from 2009-20, was developed on the assumption of U.S. aid and assistance including a recent agreement with the United States for specialized training of the Tajik Army's peacekeeping force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2007). RG

IMPRISONED BELARUSIAN POLITICIAN THREATENS HUNGER STRIKE UNLESS ALLOWED TO ATTEND WIFE'S FUNERAL...
Alyaksandr Kazulin, an imprisoned former presidential candidate, has announced that he will go on a dry hunger strike if the authorities fail to allow him to attend the funeral of his wife Iryna, who died on February 23 after a long fight with breast cancer, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on February 24. "If I am not let out within the next two days, I will declare a dry hunger strike on February 26 and then my wife and I will be buried together in six or seven days," he said. Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 presidential election, was arrested during antigovernment demonstrations that followed the polls, and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed public order. Kazulin, along with several recently released persons -- youth activists Zmitser Dashkevich and Artur Finkevich, former legislator Andrey Klimau, and journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou -- is regarded by the West as having been persecuted for his political views and is probably the most significant figure to be jailed in recent years in Belarus. Kazulin's daughter, Volha, applied early on February 24 to the Prosecutor-General's Office to allow her father to attend the funeral of her mother. AM

...WHILE JOURNALIST DESCRIBES RELEASE AS PART OF 'POLITICAL CAMPAIGN'
Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou, whose prison sentence was reduced by the Supreme Court on February 22 from three years to three months and who was released the same day, has said that his release was a part of the government's political campaign to free political prisoners, Belapan reported. "The article under which I was convicted and the proceedings in particular were purely political and that is why my release also was part of a political campaign for the release of political prisoners," he said. Zdzvizhkou was sentenced on January 18 for publishing cartoons displaying the Prophet Muhammad in the independent newspaper "Zhoda" in 2006. The court found him guilty of "inciting racial, national, or religious enmity or discord." The Supreme Court then drastically shortened his sentence, taking into account his health problems and the poor health of his elderly mother. Because Zdzvizhkou was arrested in November 2007 and held in a pretrial detention center since then, the court also ruled that he had already served his shortened sentence. Zdzvizhkou told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the three-year term would have destroyed him in both a physical and mental sense. AM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAYS NEW CONSTITUTION COULD BE ADOPTED WITHOUT PARLIAMENT
President Viktor Yushchenko has said that the Ukrainian nation, as the only source of power in Ukraine, is able to determine its constitutional order by approving the constitution, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on February 23. Yushchenko said that the new constitution should first be approved by the Verkhovna Rada and then proposed by the president to a national referendum. "I believe that the current Verkhovna Rada...will adopt by a constitutional majority the new version of the constitution before it will be proposed for a referendum," he said. However, Yushchenko did not exclude the possibility that a constitutional referendum could be held on civic initiative if the parliament fails to agree on the entire and integral version of the new constitution. In late December 2007, Yushchenko initiated the creation of the National Constitutional Council in order to prepare a new constitution. Last week, he approved the personal composition of the council, which includes nearly 100 representatives of local governments, parliamentary factions, scientists, and human rights defenders. Yushchenko, who himself heads the council, insists that the new constitution should strengthen the authority of the president, whose mandate comes from being directly elected, and shift the role of parliament toward participating in the distribution of power, rather than operating with the status of "the most important institution of state power." AM

UKRAINE TO OFFER GAZPROM LONG-TERM ACCORDS ON GAS SUPPLIES
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on February 22 that the government believes that strategic accords "will have to arise between [Ukrainian gas operator] Naftohaz and [Russian gas monopoly] Gazprom or its descendant companies for the lasting prospect of 25 or 30 years without introducing any additional intermediaries" into the gas-supply scheme, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "Ukraine has to receive stable contracts, unlike the legacy we are now dealing with, when contracts are signed or not once a month by those corrupted intermediaries," Tymoshenko said. She said that during her recent talks in Moscow, Russia and Ukraine agreed to exclude the UkrGazEnergo company from the gas-supply scheme by April. Tymoshenko also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to exclude in the future all intermediaries from the Russian-Ukrainian gas market. Meanwhile, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said the same day that Ukraine will be able to receive gas on the basis of direct contracts only during the first three months of 2008. According to agreements signed in 2006, Gazprom supplies Ukraine with gas through the Swiss-registered joint venture RosUkrEnergo and the Ukrainian-registered company UkrGazEnergo. AM

SERBIAN MINISTER BLAMES U.S. FOR 'TROUBLES'
Slobodan Samardzic, who is Serbia's minister for Kosovo, said on February 23 that the United States has only itself to blame for the violent attack on its embassy in Belgrade on February 21 because "the United States is the major culprit for all troubles since February 17," when Kosova declared its independence, regional and international media reported. The Serbian government position is that "isolated vandals" attacked several foreign embassies (see End Note below, "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 22, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). On February 24, the Belgrade daily "Novosti" wrote that "nobody has the right to equate the built-up anger of the people with hooliganism.... The U.S. Embassy was set on fire. It was not set on fire by Serbian nationalists, as some media say. It was set on fire by U.S. policy and contemporary fascism." On February 24, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica "invited" the United States to "annul" its recognition of Kosova's independence. On February 22, Belgrade cultural sociologist Ratko Bozovic told RFE/RL that "someone didn't want to provide protection to the embassies, and someone wanted to send this picture of destruction to the world." He also suggested that "an invisible hand appeared to be running the show." On February 22, the U.S. Embassy began evacuating dependents and nonessential personnel to Croatia in a automobile convoy. On February 24, U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Cameron Munter said of the attacks: "I'm very angry at what happened. It had better not happen again," AP reported. In an apparent reference to some of Kostunica's recent remarks, Munter argued that "it is never helpful when irresponsible senior leaders of a country use inflammatory language, when [they] choose to call for violence in response to anything that happens in the diplomatic world." On February 22, a White House spokesman said that "we don't believe that this is the face that Serbia wants to present to the world, and...don't believe that this is the face of Serbia." U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on February 22 that the Serbian authorities "had an obligation to protect diplomatic missions.... The police presence was either inadequate or unresponsive at the time. We've made very clear to the Serbian government that we don't expect that to happen again." Police in Belgrade arrested about 200 people after the February 21 riots, which also involved the looting of about 100 shops. PM

KOSOVA'S LEADER SAYS SERBIAN RIOTS 'ARE OUT OF THE PAST'
Kosova's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said in Prishtina on February 22 that "the images we saw last night in Belgrade are out of the past," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He added that the riots were "not only a reaction to the declaration of independence by Kosova, but a reaction to the whole democratic world. I think the Serbian people in Serbia do not need another confrontation with the civilized world. The responsibility, therefore, lies with the people who [actually] did such things." In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on February 22 that "what we saw on the streets of Serbia last night is unacceptable. We hope this will remain a single event and such actions will not be repeated in the days to come." He added that the EU still "wants to see Serbia on the European path." Britain's "Financial Times" on February 25 quoted Pieter Feith, who is the EU's and international community's chief representative in Kosova, as saying that the recent withdrawal of international staff from the mainly Serbian north of Kosova was "temporary." He stressed that Kosova "should not be partitioned. It should not end up even with soft partition and the creation of an entity [in the north] which would be [in practice] severed [from] the central government." Feith said that his mission's main aim is the creation of a "multiethnic state." On February 22, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic criticized the Belgrade riots, saying that "he who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. On February 22, U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina Charles English announced the temporary closure of the consulate in Banja Luka following an attack on it the previous night. PM

SERBIA SENDS MIXED SIGNALS
The Belgrade violence of February 21 provides fresh evidence that Serbia has yet to come to terms with its past and a political culture steeped in blame and denial -- nearly a decade after former President Slobodan Milosevic's lost wars against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosova.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on February 22 condemning the violence in Belgrade the previous day against the embassies of several countries that have recognized or are expected to recognize the independence of Kosova. The resolution said that council members "condemn in the strongest terms the mob attack against embassies in Belgrade, which have resulted in damage to embassy premises and have endangered diplomatic personnel." The members also called on the Serbian authorities to ensure the missions' safety and praised unspecified measures taken by the authorities to remedy the situation.

By UN standards, this is strong stuff. The attacks took place after a mainly peaceful rally in central Belgrade was over. At that gathering, more than 100,000 people participated in a government-organized demonstration against the independence of Kosova. Students and pupils were given the day off to attend, and free train transportation to the capital was provided. The opposition nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which is easily the country's largest single party, made its own arrangements to bring in large groups of its supporters.

Following the rally and a Serbian Orthodox church service, a group of about 1,000 people, described by some media outlets as young hooligans, stormed and set fire to parts of the U.S. Embassy. Belgrade has two soccer clubs, both of which have organized supporters who are well-known for their violent and nationalist proclivities, particularly when alcohol is involved. Other embassies targeted included those of Germany, Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey, and Britain.

An unidentified, charred body was later found on the premises of the U.S. Embassy. A BBC reporter at the scene said there were "few, if any, police" present when the hooligans arrived. He added that this was odd, considering that the U.S. Embassy was recently targeted by similar crowds. Former U.S. General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces in the 1999 Kosova conflict, said on Canadian Television on February 21 that he found the prospect of Serbian officials' complicity in the violence plausible and "very disturbing."

Several U.S. State Department officials criticized the Serbian authorities for not providing adequate security for the embassy. Spokesman Sean McCormack said that Washington will hold Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to his pledge that the incident will not be repeated. McCormack noted that several leading Serbian officials recently appeared to justify political violence. Among the comments he may have been alluding to was one by Kostunica-ally and Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, who said that NATO "broke our whole country. What's a few windows compared to that?" Furthermore, Slobodan Samardzic, who is Serbia's minister for Kosovo, said that attacks on two customs posts on the frontier with Kosova on February 19 were "legitimate...even if they weren't nice."

At the mass rally on February 21, Prime Minister Kostunica said in reference to Kosova's independence: "is there any other nation on Earth from whom [the Western powers] are demanding that they give up their identity, to give up [their] brothers in Kosovo? Nobody in Serbia will ever have the right to agree to that," international media reported. President Boris Tadic said in Bucharest that Serbia will never accept Kosova's independence. In fact, most leading Serbian politicians take a tough line on Kosova, not least because early general elections are widely expected later in 2008.

But following the attacks on the embassies on February 21, Tadic and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, both of the Democratic Party, condemned the violence as counterproductive and as damaging to Serbia's image. Tadic said that "these actions do not contribute to the defense of Kosovo, or the defense of our integrity and dignity. They only take Kosovo away from Serbia." A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman told RFE/RL that she appreciates Tadic's remarks, as well as an appeal at the rally by Kostunica against violence.

SRS General Secretary Aleksandar Vucic also urged protesters not to engage in violence. He added, however, that the attacks on the embassies are "a lesson for all those who have been provoking Serbs and people in Serbia on a daily basis, and who continue to do so. They are guilty as much as those who took part in the violence."

Observers both in Serbia and abroad have long feared that Serbia's hard-core nationalists might turn on local moderates in order to vent their frustrations over Kosova. In fact, the Belgrade independent broadcaster B92 issued a statement on February 21 in which it said that "attacks and threats towards B92 have always intensified" at times of "dramatic" political developments. The statement added that "unfortunately, this is the case now.... For the last couple of days, threats have seriously escalated, both via electronic messages as well as on internet forums, where B92 receives open threats from people who discuss their plans to set our building on fire.... They even went one step further, producing video clips in which our journalists are being shot at. On [February 17], the window of our B92 Shop downtown was broken." The broadcaster stressed that "the statements of local officials, who justify violence in Belgrade and throughout Serbia, presenting it as democratic, only bring on more additional violent outbursts, instead of calming things down by clearly condemning such attacks."

On February 22, the Belgrade daily "Danas" warned Serbs against emotional responses to Kosova's independence. The paper noted that small countries in general should recognize that their options are limited in making their views felt abroad. "Danas" recalled that West Germany tried for its first 20 years to deal with East Germany by cutting off ties to any countries that had relations with the east, only to realize later that engagement was the best course for West Germany -- and its economy. The paper said that Serbia should avoid following the negative example of Hungary between the two world wars, which in vain subordinated its foreign policy entirely to promoting the cause of regaining its 1914 frontiers.

AFGHAN GOVERNOR SURVIVES BOMB BLAST
Kandahar Province Governor Asadullah Khalid's convoy was hit by a roadside bomb on February 24, AFP reported the same day. Although the blast did not damage the vehicle carrying Khalid, it killed three policemen and injured two others. Khalid was on his way to a meeting to discuss an opium-poppy-eradication campaign with tribal elders in Garmabak district, some 100 kilometers west of Kandahar. There was no claim of responsibility for the blast, but the attack was similar other recent roadside and suicide bombings in the southern province carried out by the Taliban insurgency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19 and 20, 2008). Also, seven security guards died on February 23 when their car hit a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan, AP reported the same day. According to police chief General Abdul Jalal, the guards were working for a road-construction company, in the Sarkano district of Konar Province, close to the border with Pakistan. Also in Konar, a gunman killed the police chief of Chawkey district on February 22. Jalal said that one man was arrested in connection with this case. AT

THREE AFGHAN POLICEMEN SENTENCED FOR SEXUAL ABUSE
A judge on February 23 sentenced three policemen for sexually assaulting a 55-year-old man and his 12-year-old son, AP reported the next day. The trial, held inside Kandahar Province's police headquarters and attended by about 60 police officers, was a rare accounting for abuses carried out by the police, who are paid very little and are often accused of corruption. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Ritz, a U.S. military official who helps train Afghan police, commended the trial as "police policing their own." While sexual abuse of boys is said to be widespread, such crimes are very rarely brought to trial. "It is a good thing to have an open trial. After this, those bad police characters will not do these things," said General Nasrullah Zarif, chief of the police academy in Kandahar. AT

SWITZERLAND ENDS MILITARY MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN
Switzerland has ended its four years of cooperation with the NATO-led international force, the Swiss Defense Ministry announced on February 23, and the last two officers came home from the northeastern Konduz Province two weeks ago, swissinfo.ch reported. The ministry said in a press release, "In areas where the Taliban have stepped up their presence, it has become practically impossible to carry out reconstruction work." The Swiss officers were working with a German team. AT

IAEA SAYS QUESTIONS ABOUT IRAN'S NUCLEAR PROGRAM REMAIN...
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei issued a report on February 22 on Iranian cooperation in clarifying the nature of its nuclear program, and said there has been "quite good progress" in this regard, but that key questions remain unanswered, international news agencies reported. El-Baradei told reporters after issuing the report that Iran has answered the UN's questions on the scope of its nuclear fuel-production activities, but he more generally asked for greater access to Iranian installations and full implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows for close inspection of Iranian sites. A key aspect Iran has yet to clarify to the UN's satisfaction is its past and suspected bid to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has hailed the report as confirmation that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful. The IAEA report stated it is still not in a position to determine "the full nature of Iran's program," AFP reported. El-Baradei said on February 22 that there remains a "confidence deficit" between the international community and Iran over its nuclear program. "I hope...Iran will continue to work closely with the Security Council, to create the conditions" leading to a "durable solution" to the impasse over Iran's nuclear program, he said. The report is to be discussed at a meeting of the IAEA's board of governors on March 3. VS

...AS IRAN DISMISSES U.S. EVIDENCE OF ITS ARMS BID
The IAEA revealed on February 22 that it has shown the Iranians evidence provided by U.S. intelligence concerning its past bid to produce nuclear weapons -- which Tehran dismissed as fake, Reuters reported on February 22. The United States presented the evidence to the IAEA in 2005, but only authorized it to present it to Iran in January of this year, to protect information sources in Iran. The IAEA stated that Iran has dismissed the evidence, reportedly obtained from a laptop computer, as baseless and fabricated. The IAEA report observed that Iran has so far failed to explain evidence or documents indicating Iranian efforts to "weaponize" nuclear material by linking the fuel-making process to military designs or ballistic activities. The IAEA report cited tests Iran has undertaken with a 400-meter firing shaft, which the report considered "relevant" to nuclear weapons research, and a design found for a missile cone "quite likely to be able to accommodate a nuclear device," Reuters reported. VS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT REMAINS FIRM ON NUCLEAR 'RIGHTS'
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Iranian state television on February 23 that another set of sanctions imposed on Iran would not halt its nuclear program, and that Iran will prove to opponents of its nuclear program that acting against Iran would be a mistake, Radio Farda reported on February 24. Representatives of the great powers are to meet on February 25 to discuss their response to Iran and the IAEA report. Ahmadinejad said Iran would give a fitting response to any punitive measures the UN Security Council might decide to impose against it, "and there will be no difference between Europeans and non-Europeans in this case." He may have been referring to the degree of flexibility various major powers have shown over Iran's nuclear program. He said Iran's "red line" remains its "rights" in the nuclear sector, and "we will not surrender one bit.... Even if they issue resolutions for 100 years." The IAEA's stated reservations on Iran's full cooperation or its past activities are "like the papers the Americans hand over against us, and have no legal value for us," he said. Ahmadinejad wrote to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 23 declaring the February 22 IAEA report to be a "historic victory" for Iran in its confrontation with "domineering powers," news agencies reported. VS

IRANIAN BANK CHIEF WORRIED BY INFLATION
Central Bank chief Tahmasb Mazaheri expressed concern in Tehran on February 23 at inflationary trends he said threaten Iran's aim to reduce the inflation rate to 8 percent, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Mazaheri said on the sidelines of a meeting of the Tehran trade chamber that "reaching an inflation rate of 20 percent is worrying when the country's goals are set on the basis of an 8 percent inflation rate." A recent Central Bank report put the inflation rate for the 12 months to December 22, 2007, at about 17.5 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008). Mazaheri cited investment or correct investment as a possible solution to the inflation problem. He said money earned from economic growth is being used for other purposes than productive investment, though he did not specify places or sectors. Many Iranians invest in assets such as property, U.S. dollars or other foreign currencies, or gold. Iranian officials occasionally say investment must be used to boost domestic production and manufacturing and absorb cash and "liquid" assets. Mazaheri said forceful or restrictive measures cannot be used today to fight inflation, and "we have to use economic instruments to increase investment," Radio Farda reported. V

TURKISH INCURSION INTO NORTHERN IRAQ CONTINUES...
The Turkish Army continues to battle Turkish-Kurdish separatists from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Iraqi media reported on February 25. The incursion, which began on February 21, is expected to last some 15 days. At least 22 PKK fighters and eight Turkish soldiers were killed on February 24, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on February 25, citing Turkey's military. Meanwhile, the PKK claimed that as of February 24, it has killed 47 Turkish soldiers and shot down a Turkish Cobra helicopter. The PKK also claimed on February 24 that only two of its fighters were killed in the previous four days of fighting, and eight wounded. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told "Der Spiegel" in an interview posted to the weekly's website on February 25 that the situation is serious and could escalate if Turkish troops continue with plans to advance on Iraqi territory. Both Zebari and Kurdistan regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani have accused Turkey of destroying Iraqi infrastructure after it bombed at least three bridges in northern Iraq. Istanbul's Kanal 7 reported on February 24 that the Turkish Army has advanced some 35-40 kilometers inside Iraq, and established a 35-kilometer buffer zone. The Turkish daily "Cumhuriyet" reported on February 24 that the army plans to advance 50 kilometers inside Iraq. Nechirvan Barzani told reporters on February 24 that regional President Mas'ud Barzani telephoned U.S. President George W. Bush to ask him to intervene directly in the issue. Bush apparently replied that the military operations will go on for a short time, Peyamner website reported. KR

...AS KURDISTAN PRESIDENT QUESTIONS TRUE INTENT OF TURKISH MOVE
In a statement on the Turkish incursion released on February 23, Mas'ud Barzani said he visited the Dahuk Governorate on February 21 and 22 to meet with security and military officials. "It was emphasized that the Kurdistan region will not become a side in the fight between the PKK and Turkey. However, necessary orders were given for a full-scale uprising against any attacks on any citizen of the Kurdish region or residential areas, and all due preparations [were] made," the statement noted. "We doubt the true intention behind the Turkish attacks, which target the Kurdistan region and not the PKK. Otherwise, what has the destruction of bridges in the middle of residential areas [that are] used by citizens to do with the PKK?" KR

IRAQI PREMIER GOES TO LONDON FOR CHECKUP
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki traveled to London on February 24 for a medical checkup, Iraqi media reported on the same day. According to Al-Sharqiyah television, the visit is a follow-up to a December visit in which he reportedly underwent a cardiac catheterization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the visit is a routine six-week follow-up. State-run Al-Iraqiyah television showed al-Maliki making a brief statement to reporters on February 24, in which her said he will be outside Iraq for "a brief period." KR

WHEELCHAIR BOMBER KILLS IRAQI DEPUTY POLICE CHIEF IN SAMARRA
A suicide bomber in a wheelchair killed the deputy police chief in the Iraqi city of Samarra on February 25, international media reported. The bomber entered the police operations center asking to speak to Major General Abd al-Jabbar Rabi Falih. The bomber then detonated his explosives vest, killing Muttar and wounding two other policemen. The former police chief of Samarra, Major Muhammad Muzaffar, was gunned down on a city street in January 2005. KR

SUICIDE BOMBING TARGETS IRAQI SHI'ITE PILGRIMS
A suicide bomber blew himself up amid a procession of Shi'ite pilgrims in Al-Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, on February 24, international media reported. A U.S.-led coalition press release said the bomber entered the crowd of pilgrims on a two-lane road between Al-Iskandariyah and Al-Musayyib. The pilgrims were heading to Karbala for the Arba'in observance, which marks the 40th day of the mourning period that follows the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. AP reported that the bombing occurred at a roadside tent where pilgrims had stopped for refreshments. At least 56 people were killed in the attack and 68 injured. A second attack in Al-Iskandariyah on February 25 left three dead and 15 wounded. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a joint statement with the U.S.-led coalition on February 24 condemning that day's attack on "innocent citizens participating in an important religious commemoration." "This indiscriminate violence further reflects the nature of this enemy who will target even those practicing their religion in an effort to reignite sectarian strife in Iraq," it added. KR

AL-SADR AIDE ACCUSES PRIME MINISTER OF BLOCKING WARRANTS
An aide to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has accused Prime Minister al-Maliki of blocking arrest warrants for corruption and for criminal attacks against al-Sadr's followers, the London-based "Al-Hayat" reported on February 24. Salih al-Ubaydi told the daily: "There are arrest warrants against several figures that have infiltrated the security and administration organs in Karbala. [These men] are charged with murder and forgery, but these warrants [against them] have not been enforced." Continuing, he claimed: "When the judiciary issues a warrant to arrest a counterfeiter or an accused official, no one -- neither the Interior Ministry nor the Prime Ministry -- enforces the law." He said al-Sadr's office has complained several times to al-Maliki about the issue. Al-Ubaydi further contended that government security forces are using revenge tactics against Imam Al-Mahdi Army loyalists who are detained and released from Iraqi custody, by handing them over to the U.S. military for rearrest. Moreover, the security forces have evicted more than 1,000 families from the Al-Muthanna, Al-Qadisiyah, and Karbala governorates on the grounds that they are the families of "wanted men," he said. "In the second half of last year, about 3,000 followers [of al-Sadr] were held in government jails," he noted, adding the number does not include those in U.S. detention. Al-Ubaydi also told "Al-Hayat" that the groups splitting away from the Al-Mahdi Army are receiving support from a variety of backers, including Iran, Arab, and regional states, "the occupation," Sunni and Shi'ite parties, and the Iraqi government. He further contended that the U.S. military "established" awakening councils to create a balance of fear between the Sunnis and Shi'a in Iraq. KR

AL-BASRAH GOVERNOR SAYS IRANIAN CONSULATE PLOTTING HIS ASSASSINATION
Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad al-Wa'ili told reporters at a February 23 press briefing that the Iranian government is plotting to assassinate him and his brother, Isma'il, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Wa'ili said that a security guard working for him said he was paid a "large sum" of money by the Iranian Consulate in Al-Basrah in return for information on al-Wa'ili and his brother's whereabouts. In an interview the same day with Al-Arabiyah television, al-Wa'ili said that several Iraqi security organs have confirmed a plot by persons linked to Iranian security services to assassinate the two men. "On February 22, the Iranian Consulate told one of the leading figures in the Al-Fadilah Party in Al-Basrah that there is an assassination attempt against the Al-Basrah governor led by one of the Iranian parties," he said. "The consulate [blamed] Mujahedin-e Khalq," an Iraq-based Iranian opposition group. "I think this group has no interest in assassinating me and it is far away from Al-Basrah," al-Wa'ili said. He claimed the plot to assassinate him was hatched by Iran and would be carried out by the consulate. Al-Wa'ili demanded in both the press conference and the interview that the Iraqi government close the consulate. Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Muhammad al-Askari told Al-Arabiyah in a separate interview on the same day that al-Wa'ili should leave the investigation to the Iraqi government, adding that the governor should submit any evidence he has to substantiate his claims. KR

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