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Newsline - February 14, 2005

The Communist Party, the Communist Workers Party, Yabloko, the Pensioners Party, and several public organizations and trade unions organized authorized rallies across Russia on 12 February to protest the monetization of in-kind social benefits such as free public transportation and medicine, and reported. At the same time, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Unified Russia organized rallies in support of President Vladimir Putin and the reforms. Almost 250,000 people participated in these events, according to, citing Interior Ministry statistics. The Central and Volga federal districts had the highest participation, with more than 85,000 and 83,000 protestors, respectively, compared with just 4,500 in the Siberian Federal District. In Kaluga Square in Moscow, around 200 LDPR activists held a rally supporting the reforms not far from where protests were being held, while Unified Russia organized a meeting in support of Putin, in which up to 40,000 people participated, according to RTR and Interfax. JAC

According to Ekho Moskvy on 12 February, several participants in the pro-Putin rally in St. Petersburg admitted that they were following instructions from their bosses, while students were promised passing grades on their exams. An Ekho Moskvy correspondent in Moscow reported that many demonstrators told him that they took part in the rally because their companies were given quotas of people who should attend. RTR's correspondent, on the other hand, reported that pro-Putin rally participants in Moscow "were each in their own way eloquent and but unanimous: they said they had come here for the whole of Russia to witness what support President Putin now has. People said they backed his every initiative and reform, but most of all, it goes without saying, the cash-for-benefits law." JAC

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists in Munich on 12 February that Russia continues to improve the quality of its nuclear arsenal, RIA-Novosti and other media reported. He said the country expects to deploy new nuclear-missile complexes "relatively soon." Ivanov emphasized that Russia's nuclear deterrent is not aimed at any particular country or bloc. Interfax-AVN reported on 14 February that Ivanov said "we do not rule out the possibility of research and production cooperation with other countries, including NATO members, in creating contemporary models of weapons." RC

Speaking in response to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comments last week that Russia must do more to show its commitment to democracy, Defense Minister Ivanov told reporters in Munich on 13 February that "democracy occupies a normal position" in Russia, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2005). "We are ready to move peacefully further down this path, but in doing so we prefer to remain masters of our fate," he continued. "Democracy is not a potato that can be transplanted from one garden to another." JAC

On 12 February at the 41st global conference on international security in Munich, Defense Minister Ivanov complained that Russia "is being asked to ignore how international terrorists are greeted and harbored and given visas without any sort of hindrances in several European states," RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported. At the same time, he noted that the world community continues to call "terrorists who are operating in Chechnya 'rebels.'" JAC

Speaking on 12 February at the Munich International Conference on Security Policy, Defense Minister Ivanov again alleged that foreign mercenaries are entering Chechnya from Georgia to fight with the Chechen resistance, Reuters reported. "We have killed many foreigners in Chechnya with a Georgian tourist visa in their pockets," Ivanov said. On 13 February, Ivanov told journalists in Munich that Moscow will not condone the resumption of OSCE monitoring of Georgia's borders with Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Daghestan, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. He said the OSCE monitors deployed along that border in recent years turned a blind eye to the infiltration of "terrorists" from Georgia into Chechnya. In an interview last week with "Vremya novostei," First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin claimed that Georgian officials are aware that Chechen militants remain in the Pankisi Gorge, although they deny any such Chechen presence. LF

President Putin recently told a group of Federation Council members that the 50 senators whose terms expire this year should not be reappointed, "The Moscow Times" reported on 14 February. "I am convinced that the personnel should be reshuffled to make the chamber's work and personnel more stable," Putin said. An unnamed Federation Council staffer told the daily that "the president is well aware of what happened in Ukraine and is frightened of the prospect of an Orange Revolution at home. The Kremlin is now trying to avoid even the smallest possibility of the emergence of a potential opposition." Many Federation Council members owe allegiance to the financial structures that financed their appointments, and members linked to LUKoil, Sibneft, Rusneft, and the Alfa Group are among those whose terms expire this year. Analyst Vladimir Pribylovskii told the daily that it is likely that the Kremlin wants to increase the representation of the so-called siloviki in the upper chamber. "In this way, they will make sure that everything is under their control," Pribylovskii said. RC

President Putin has called on the government to redouble its efforts to reduce the country's foreign debt, "Vremya novostei" reported on 14 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2005). Putin reportedly told Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin recently that "it is economically desirable to pay off the foreign debt as quickly as possible." Putin reportedly added that he believes the country can repay its debts, estimated at $115 billion, and cope with its domestic obligations as well. Kudrin told the daily that Russia currently spends about $7 billion per year servicing its debts. RC

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told reporters in Moscow on 13 February that her commission plans to open a bureau in Russia that will use its extensive contacts with the Russian government to draft programs that are expected noticeably to improve the human rights situation in Russia," Interfax reported. According to Arbour, "the situation in Russia causes concern, both as regards legislative initiatives and as regards the conduct of counterterrorism operations and their conformity with legislative norms," RIA-Novosti reported. Arbour noted that there should be strict observance of the rule of law during antiterrorism operations. "One cannot equate the crimes committed by terrorists with the actions of law enforcement officers that break the law. Though having said that, both should be prosecuted under the law," she said. JAC

Meanwhile, 36 residents of Blagoveshchensk left Bashkortostan for Moscow on 12 February to ask federal Interior Ministry officials for a second investigation into the police raids of 10-14 December, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 11 February 2005). Human rights workers allege that 500-1,000 people were detained during the raids and that many were beaten or raped at police stations. Lyudmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group charged "there has not been such a mass violation of human rights anywhere in Russia outside of Chechnya" in the post-Soviet period (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 20 January 2005). For Human Rights movement coordinator Vyacheslav Bikbulatov told the agency that police have tried to hamper the Blagoveshchensk residents' journey, detaining their bus at various checkpoints for more than two hours. Police at Naberezhnye Chelny said they inspected the bus as part of an antiterrorism operation. Police said they had received an intelligence report about the possible entry into Tatarstan of people with links to Wahhabist groups. JAC

Party of Pensioners head Valerii Gartung has left Unified Russia's State Duma faction, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 12 February. However, Unified Russia faction is maintaining that they expelled him. Igor Demin, director Unified Russia's press service, said that Gartung frequently voted counter to the majority of the faction. Most recently, Gartung supported the Communist Party's vote of no confidence in the government. According to the daily, Unified Russia continues to have a majority in the Duma, with 305 members. According to ITAR-TASS, Motherland party leader Dmitrii Rogozin unexpectedly showed up at a Party of Pensioners congress on 12 February and offered Gartung a spot in the Motherland faction. Gartung declined, although he left open the possibility for the future. JAC

Gartung gave an interview with "Chelyabinskii rabochii" on 4 March 2004, in which he explained that "everything in the Duma is decided by [Unified Russia party leader Boris] Gryzlov after agreement with the Kremlin and probably with the government." "There are people who give out instructions before a session on how one must vote," Gartung said. "It is possible not to go to the sessions because all issues are already decided. One shows up only out of a desire to show off before the television cameras." JAC

"Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 11 February that the Unified Russia faction was ordered to abstain from participating in the no-confidence vote held on 9 February because "according to the party leadership's calculations, around one-third of Unified Russia deputies would have ignored an instruction" to support the government. The newspaper also alleged, without reference to sourcing, that according to "secret" party data, the party's popularity has fallen by half since the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, NTV reported on 13 February that the Unified Russia party in Saratov Oblast has split during the run-up to the April expiration of Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov's current term. According to the network, the Unified Russia faction in the oblast legislature has filed a lawsuit against one of its former members, who allegedly called his fellow faction members "political terrorists." One member of the faction said that group categorically opposes the reappointment of Ayatskov to another term. However, Ayatskov is a member of Unified Russia's central political council. JAC

State Duma deputies voted on 11 February to approve a bill in its first reading amending the Criminal Procedure Code to ban card games in prisons and jails, RosBalt and RIA-Novosti reported. Violations of the ban would be punishable by up to 15 days in solitary confinement. The bill was supported by 346 deputies. JAC

Pro-Moscow Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov and Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev told Interfax separately on 11 February that they could not confirm reports that Chechen Vice President Vakha Arsanov was apprehended in Grozny in mid-January. Chechen OMON and FSB officials, however, confirmed the initial report of Arsanov's capture last month, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 17 January and "Gazeta" on 18 January. "Kommersant-Daily" quoted Aleksandr Potapov, deputy director of the Chechen directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB), as confirming the capture of Arsanov and saying that he was in the hands of Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. "The Moscow Times" on 14 February quoted a Chechen website as saying Arsanov is being tortured at an unofficial prison run by Kadyrov's security forces. But Interfax on 13 February quoted Kadyrov as denying that Arsanov has been arrested or is being held in Tsentoroi, Kadyrov's native village. Arsanov and Aslan Maskhadov were elected vice president and president, respectively, in January 1997, but Arsanov has played no role in the Chechen resistance to the Russian invasion of October 1999. LF

Alu Alkhanov ordered the Chechen government on 13 February to draft within one week programs to counter radical Islamic propaganda and to deter young men from joining the ranks of the Chechen resistance, ITAR-TASS and reported. He pointed out that if two young men from each of Chechnya's 500 villages join the resistance each year, "that adds up to an entire battalion." Speaking the previous day in the town of Urus Martan, southwest of Grozny, Alkhanov called on residents to try to persuade relatives and friends who are fighting with the resistance to surrender, and he promised to provide any fighters who do so with either alternative employment or the opportunity to study, Interfax reported. LF

Speaking on 13 February at the government meeting in Grozny, First Deputy Prime Minister Kadyrov warned he will take legal action against human rights activists who implicate him in abductions, ITAR-TASS reported. He said such accusations are without foundation and that they play into the hands of the resistance. In an interview with Interfax last week, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow said "it is important that Chechen security forces operating on the ground avoid steps that only drive members of the civilian population" to join the Chechen resistance. Alkhanov responded on 9 February that Kadyrov's "security service...has nothing to do with kidnappings" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 February 2005). LF

Georgii Ivanov, a lawyer for "Kommersant-Daily," told Interfax on 11 February that the paper plans to contest an official warning from the Federal Service for the Enforcement of Media Legislation that it violated antiterrorism legislation by publishing on 7 February an interview with Chechen President Maskhadov. It was at least the third time that "Kommersant-Daily" has done so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April and 25 September 2000). "Kommersant-Daily" received an oral warning on 8 February in connection with last week's interview, but Ivanov said on 11 February the paper does not yet have the printed version. LF

Larisa Alaverdian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 11 February that Justice Minister David Harutiunian, a close associate of President Robert Kocharian, has proposed amending the law on the ombudsman to prevent that official "interfering" in court cases and to abolish the requirement that judges make available any documents requested by the ombudsman's office. Alaverdian said that at a cabinet meeting the previous day, Kocharian refused to listen to her objections to those amendments. Judges in Armenia are nominated and dismissed by the president. LF

The Defense Ministry of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic rejected on 11 February as untrue an Azerbaijani report that a private soldier was seriously wounded in a cease-fire violation near the village of Shikhlar in Agdam Raion the previous day, according to Arminfo as cited by Groong. Earlier on 11 February, Turan reported, quoting ATV television, that Armenian forces opened fire on Azerbaijani positions on 10 February for the fifth time this year. LF

Addressing a conference in Baku on 11 February to mark the first anniversary of the launch of his five-year program to promote the socioeconomic development of Azerbaijan's rural regions, Ilham Aliyev called on district administrators to assist local businesssmen rather than create problems for them through repeated needless inspections, Azerbaijani media reported. He warned that local administrators who continue to harass businessmen will lose their jobs. He also instructed local bosses to respond swiftly to complaints by local residents. Aliyev said that over the past year 90,000 new permanent jobs have been created in rural areas. He said that in 2005, 200 billion manats ($40.76 million) will be made available in grants for local businessmen, which is double the amount allocated in 2004. LF

Two days of talks in Tbilisi on 10-11 February between Russian and Georgian government officials failed to make any progress either on the terms and timeframe for closing Russian military bases in Georgia and establishing a joint antiterrorism center in their place, or on the terms of the framework treaty of friendship and cooperation that has been under discussion since 2001, Russian and Georgian media reported. Russian Ambassador Igor Savolskii, who headed the Russian delegation, told journalists on 11 February that the Georgian side has retreated from an earlier tentative agreement on creating the antiterrorism center. Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze for his part said on 12 February that while Georgia was ready to make unspecified compromises, Russia refused to make any concessions. Antadze implied that Russia simply wants to redesignate its two bases as part of the antiterrorism center, without reducing military personnel or the amount of military equipment. Georgian parliament deputy Giga Bokeria told the independent television station Rustavi-2 on 12 February that if Moscow refuses to close the bases, Georgia will declare them illegal, Caucasus Press reported. On 11 February, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze said work on the framework treaty is deadlocked due to disagreement over Georgia's right to "strategic partnership" and military cooperation with other countries, Caucasus Press reported. Russia apparently wants a clause written into the treaty under which Georgia pledges that it will not host military bases from a third country on its territory. Georgian officials have repeatedly said that Georgia has no interest in doing so, but that it is inappropriate to include such a clause in the bilateral treaty with Russia. LF

Sergei Bagapsh was formally sworn in as president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia on 12 February at a ceremony in Sukhum attended by the heads of several North Caucasus republics, Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev, and senior officials from the similarly unrecognized republics of South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian media reported. Bagapsh was elected with over 90 percent of the vote in a repeat ballot on 12 January after the outcome of the 3 October 2004 presidential election was annulled (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 January 2005). In his inauguration address, Bagapsh reaffirmed his commitment to closer integration with Russia and pledged to bring the unrecognized republic's legislation into line with that of the Russian Federation in order to facilitate the increased Russian investment that he hopes for. In an interview published in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 14 February, Bagapsh said Abkhazia has traditionally regarded Russia as its "defender" and may call on Russia to assume that role again in the event of new aggression on the part of Georgia. LF

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow on 11 February that Russia is not supporting Kyrgyzstan's opposition in the lead-up to parliamentary elections there on 27 February, ITAR-TASS reported. Lavrov met earlier the same day with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov. "We do not make bets against the legitimate authorities and we maintain relations with the country's legally elected government," Lavrov said. The issue arose after former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, now head of the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, met with Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov before Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's January visit to Russia. Lavrov also stated that Kyrgyzstan's authorities are not hindering the opposition. "Nothing is being done to hamper the opposition. A huge number of observers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the CIS have been invited to monitor how the elections are being held," he said, according to RIA-Novosti. DK

Kyrgyzstan's First Deputy Foreign Minister Talant Kushchubekov told a roundtable in Bishkek on 11 February that the Foreign Ministry wants the 27 February parliamentary elections to meet international standards, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The roundtable was attended by Lubomir Kopaj, head of the OSCE's observer mission in Kyrgyzstan, as well as representatives of Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and Kyrgyz NGOs. Kushchubekov noted that election preparations are nearly complete, and that almost all polling stations have transparent ballot boxes and materials for marking voters to prevent repeat voting. But Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, said that the Central Election Commission's refusal to post lists of registered voters at polling stations casts doubt on the transparency of the upcoming elections. DK

Peter Eicher, head of the OSCE observer mission to Tajikistan's 27 February parliamentary elections, said on 11 February that some aspects of the election process in Tajikistan give cause for concern, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The remarks came after a meeting with representatives of political parties in Khatlon Province. "Representatives of some [political] parties have found themselves without the right to participate in elections because they were unable to pay the deposit [for registering candidates] and because criminal cases have been opened against the leaders and officials of some political parties. Moreover, the publication of several independent newspapers has been stopped, which is a serious issue in the lead-up to elections and is sure to influence the campaign," Eicher said. The closed-door meeting was not attended by representatives of the ruling People's Democratic Party, Socialist Party, and Communist Party, Avesta reported. DK

The military court of Tajikistan's Supreme Court on 11 February sentenced Abduvali Begmatov, former deputy commander of the Presidential Guard and former deputy defense minister, to 15 years in prison with confiscation of property for embezzlement and abuse of office, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The court also ordered Begmataov to pay back more than $700,000 in damages to the state. Begmatov was arrested in August 2004, shortly before the arrest of former Presidential Guard head Ghaffor Mirzoev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2004). Mirzoev currently faces charges of corruption and attempting to organize a coup (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004 and 25 January 2005). DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov on 11 February called for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the standoff with Iran over its alleged nuclear ambitions, Tajik Television First Channel reported. The remark came after a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland. According to Hoagland, the meeting focused on economic cooperation, including U.S. financial assistance for the construction of a bridge over the Panj River, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Hoagland also noted that the U.S. Embassy has submitted a list of 24 U.S. monitors to Tajikistan's Central Election Commission to observe 27 February parliamentary elections. DK

Twenty-three members of the Akramiy religious group went on trial in Andijon, Uzbekistan on 10 February on charges of forming a criminal organization and attempting to undermine the constitutional system, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported the next day. Nearly 100 relatives of the accused came to the courthouse, but only two relatives of each defendant were allowed in. No journalists or human rights activists were allowed to enter the courtroom. DK

The opposition Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (PBNF) on 12 February proposed Alyaksandr Milinkevich, 57, as its candidate to run in the 2006 presidential election against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service and Belapan reported. Milinkevich is not a member of the party. PBNF leader Vintsuk Vyachorka characterized Milinkevich as a man able to unite Belarusian democratic forces behind his candidacy in the 2006 ballot. "He served with state and pro-democracy organizations, worked as [opposition candidate] Syamyon Domash's campaign manager in the 2001 presidential election, has managerial skills and, with a doctoral degree in physics and mathematics, has a clear mode of thinking," Vyachorka said. Milinkevich was deputy head of the Hrodna City Executive Committee in 1990-96; since then he has been involved with the NGO sector in Hrodna. Half a dozen opposition candidates have already declared their intention to run in the 2006 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2005). JM

The Supreme Court on 11 February sentenced Yahor Rybakou, 34, to 11 years in a high-security labor camp, finding him guilty of large-scale corruption, embezzlement, and organizing ways to launder and legalize illegally acquired equipment, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Rybakou was additionally ordered to pay 213 million Belarusian rubles ($98,000) to cover the Belarusian State Television and Radio Company (BDRTK) losses caused by his illegal activity. If he fails to pay, the amount will be deducted from the reportedly $500,000 that was confiscated from him when he was arrested a year ago. Rybakou worked as deputy head of the BDRTK during the 2001 presidential election campaign and was generally credited for contributing considerably to Lukashenka's "elegant victory" that year. Lukashenka showed his appreciation for Rybakou's contribution by appointing him to the post of BDRTSK head shortly after the 2001 presidential election. JM

Miklos Haraszti, OSCE representative on freedom of the media, urged the Belarusian authorities to adopt a more liberal media law during his three-day visit to Belarus last week, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 11 February. According to Haraszti, the current media law is suppressive, as it stipulates a complex procedure for registering new media outlets as well as imprisonment for slandering the Belarusian president. "Unfortunately, the law in Belarus not only stipulates imprisonment for public statements but also includes another element that does not agree with democratic principles," Haraszti told journalists in Minsk on 11 February. "It provides state officials with excessive protection from critical statements." JM

Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko told journalists in Kyiv on 12 February that her cabinet decided earlier that day to liquidate 14 state committees and other offices, Interfax reported. The functions of the liquidated bodies will reportedly be passed to ministries and other committees. The abolished bodies will include the State Committee for the Chornobyl Disaster, the State Aviation Service, the State Committee for Natural Resources, the State Committee for Religions, and the State Committee for Sports. According to official sources, the Ukrainian government currently comprises 17 ministries and 45 other bodies of state control. JM

The Ukrainian cabinet on 12 February canceled the previous cabinet's decision and instruction that led to the controversial privatization of the Kryvorizhstal metallurgical giant last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 February 2005), Interfax reported. "This [cancellation] removes the legal grounds that were illegally approved by the [previous] government to start the privatization of this facility [Kryvorizhstal] in the past," Prime Minister Tymoshenko commented. "The process is moving on: In the next few weeks we will adopt all resolutions necessary to return Kryvorizhstal to the state." JM

The Ukrainian cabinet on 12 February decided to draw up a register of the previous cabinet's resolutions on long-term land and forest leases as well as on tax preferences, Interfax reported. Prime Minister Tymoshenko told journalists on 12 February that her cabinet wants to know the resolutions that "illegally leased the best land resources in Crimea, around Kyiv, and in all of Ukraine for 49 years to absolutely specific persons from the former president's entourage." Tymoshenko said her cabinet has already canceled two cabinet resolutions on leasing 114 hectares of forests near Kyiv and 11 hectares of land near Sevastopol. "Both resolutions were adopted in favor of structures [controlled by former President Leonid Kuchma's] son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk," Tymoshenko added. JM

Prime Minister Tymoshenko also told journalists in Kyiv on 12 February that Justice Minister Roman Zvarych will soon propose a resolution on some benefits for former President Kuchma after his departure from office, Interfax reported. Tymoshenko said the former cabinet exceeded its powers in January when it granted Kuchma the right to continue drawing his presidential salary, use a state dacha and two cars, and have three assistants paid from the state budget for the rest of his life (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2005). JM

President Viktor Yushchenko visited an unidentified dermatology clinic in Switzerland on 12-13 February, Ukrainian media reported on 14 February, quoting the presidential press service. Yushchenko's face remains visibly disfigured and pockmarked following his poisoning by dioxin in September, which was diagnosed by doctors from an Austrian clinic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004). Yushchenko claims to be in good health but has not ruled out treatment to improve his appearance. JM

Serbian President Boris Tadic told hundreds of local Serbs in the enclaves of Hoca e Madhe, Shillova, and Shterpce in Kosova on 13 February that "this is Serbia" and that independence for the 90-percent ethnic Albanian province is "unacceptable" to Belgrade, international and regional media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 7 and 28 January, and 11 February 2005). He said to his audiences that he does not "have a magic wand to fix all the problems [but will] do everything possible to make sure that you have the right to live and survive here." In Prishtina, Tadic argued that "we have a history of hate and destruction in the Balkans, including Kosova, and it must stop once and for all." Tadic is the first Serbian head of state to go to Kosova since Slobodan Milosevic in 1997. On 7 January 2005, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica marked Serbian Orthodox Christmas together with Patriarch Pavle in the western Kosovar town of Peja. Tadic and Kostunica are rivals who are sparring in anticipation of elections widely expected later this year. PM

Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said in a statement after meeting with Serbian President Tadic in Prishtina on 13 February that he hopes Tadic will "use his [two-day] visit to obtain a complete view of the current situation" in Kosova, the UNMIK website reported ( The UNMIK leader stressed that he hopes Tadic will have a "dialogue with representatives of all communities and send positive signals on Belgrade's willingness to build bridges of trust." Jessen-Petersen called on Kosova's Serbian minority to participate fully in "the political and democratic process in order to ensure that maximum progress [can] be made on issues important to them" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 August 2004 and 4 February 2005). In contrast to most Serbian leaders, Tadic had urged Kosova's Serbs to participate in the 23 October 2004 parliamentary elections in the province. PM

Seven Serbian NGOs issued a statement on 12 February calling on the officials of Serbia and of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro to confirm whether one Branislav Puhalo is still on active duty in the army, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Vladimir Popovic (aka Beba), who was a press spokesman in the government of the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, recently charged that some high government officials knew about Djindjic's killing in advance. Popovic also said Puhalo had personally protected leading war crimes indictee and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic on Serbian territory. Popovic's statements have received a mixed reception because he is a controversial figure who filed lawsuits against several journalists during his time in the government. On 5 October 2004, two conscripts were killed under mysterious circumstances at Belgrade's large Topcider military facility. Some critics have suggested the soldiers were shot because they had discovered the presence of one or more indicted war criminals on the base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June and 7 July 2004, and 10 February 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 November 2004). A new public opinion poll released on 13 February suggests that Serbs' confidence in the army is at an all-time low, with only 38 percent of respondents having a favorable attitude toward the military. PM

A court in Banja Luka on 11 February freed 11 Bosnian Serb policemen for lack of evidence on charges of involvement in the killing of a Roman Catholic priest and his parents, Reuters reported. The Rev. Tomislav Matanovic and his parents were reported missing near Prijedor on 19 September 1995 after having been detained by Bosnian Serb police. The bodies of the three Bosnian Croats were found in a well in 2001 with close-range gunshot wounds. Branko Todorovic, an NGO official who first called attention to the deaths, said faulty investigation procedures apparently resulted in the cases being thrown out. He also suggested the policemen might have been scapegoats and that the people responsible for the killings might have been unnamed higher officials. PM

Speaking at Munich's international Conference on Security Policy on 12 February, Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva said more foreign aid and direct foreign investments are necessary in the Balkans, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. "Development and investments will make the Balkans more stable and contribute to its integration into NATO and the [European Union]," Mitreva said. On the sidelines of the conference, Mitreva also met with the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, and Erhard Busek, the coordinator of the EU-led Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, MIA news agency reported. UB

Two months after the 28 November presidential and parliamentary elections, Romania's governing Justice and Truth alliance -- which consists of the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party (PD) -- led an opinion poll carried out by the CSOP polling agency between 26 January and 2 February, "Evenimentul zilei" and other Romanian media reported on 14 February. If elections were held now, the Justice and Truth alliance would garner almost 48 percent. In November, the alliance won 31.33 percent in the vote for the parliament's lower house. The opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) would garner about 30 percent (from about 36.61 percent in the November elections, together with the Humanist Party). The extremist Greater Romania Party (PRM) would garner about 11 percent (from 13.63 percent in November 2004), while the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) would get 6 percent of the vote (from 6.23 percent in November 2004) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November and 1 December 2004). UB

Former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase of the PSD told the private Pro TV television channel on 13 February he does not believe his party will return to power soon, "Ziua" daily reported. Commenting on media speculation that the governing coalition of the PNL and the PD could capitalize on current approval ratings by seeking early elections to ensure a stable parliamentary majority, Nastase said early elections would not be good for Romania because the country would enter a period of political instability and thus remain "frozen" for foreign investors. Nastase argued the PSD could profit if elections were held in fall 2005 because by then the effects of the reforms announced by the government will be felt. UB

The leaderships of the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party (PD) chose on 10 February PD member and Deputy Prime Minister Adriean Videanu as their joint candidate to run in the upcoming Bucharest mayoral election, "Evenimentul zilei" daily reported. The post has been vacant since the election of Mayor Traian Basescu as president on 6 December. The date for the election has yet to be set by the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2005). UB

In a joint statement, the embassies of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden rejected on 11 February allegations that the international community is supporting particular candidates or parties in the 6 March parliamentary elections, according to a press release by the U.S. Embassy to Moldova ( The statement was also supported by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Mission to Moldova and the special representative of the secretary-general of the Council of Europe. The statement came in response to accusations contained in an open letter on 9 February by Victor Stepaniuc, the chairman of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) parliamentary group, that Coalition 2005 -- an alliance of 152 NGOs supported by the international community and founded to ensure free and fair elections -- had engaged in a "disinformation" campaign, Infotag reported. Stepaniuc and President Vladimir Voronin had accused Coalition 2005 of being biased in favor of the opposition Democratic Moldova bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 10 February 2005). UB

The Moldovan Interior Ministry announced on 11 February it has expelled five Russian citizens for their involvement in "illegal activities" in connection with the 6 March parliamentary elections, Interlic news agency and Flux reported. Moldovan authorities said the Russian citizens did not have residence or work permits, according to Interlic. Flux reports the Russian citizens were affiliated with Gleb Pavlovskii, a Russian political strategist and head of the Foundation for Effective Policies, who announced last week that Russian experts were working for and with different Moldovan political parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005). The Interior Ministry did not specify for which parties the Russian citizens were working, Moldpress reported. UB

Montenegrin Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic said at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on 10 February that Montenegro wants to join the European Union (EU) and NATO as an independent country and not remain a "hostage" of Serbia's reluctance to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. He argued that Montenegro is "patient" and willing to discuss any number of possible political formulas regarding its statehood, providing that they do not compromise its "right to international recognition." He said he believes that Serbia and Montenegro can find a better basis for understanding in a union of independent states than in the current "non-functioning" joint state.

Rejecting arguments that Montenegrin independence would have a destabilizing effect on the western Balkans, Vlahovic stressed that Montenegrin independence would defuse long-standing tensions in both regional affairs and Montenegrin internal politics.

Vlahovic's remarks come at a time when the future of Montenegrin statehood continues to be the top political issue in that republic. With a population of about 650,000, Montenegro has more inhabitants than Luxembourg (480,000), which currently holds the rotating EU chair.

At the heart of what historians call the "Montenegrin question" is the fact that there has never been a consensus among Montenegrins in modern times as to whether they are a separate, distinct people or a special branch of the Serbian nation. In 1918, led by the young and educated urban classes, Montenegro opted for union with Serbia. Today, those same social groups tend to favor scrapping the joint state with Serbia, which was set up in 2002-03 under EU pressure. The government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic is committed to independence, particularly through a referendum. A recent poll suggests that about 44 percent of the population would vote for independence, while 40 percent are opposed.

Speaking at RFE/RL, Vlahovic addressed a number of issues relating to Montenegro's role in the Balkans and its future as an independent state. He stressed that independence "will not change anything" in practical terms for ordinary people, noting that the union "does not function" at present and would be best done away with for everyone's sake. Asked about Serbian arguments that Serbian voters should also participate in the referendum on the grounds that an independent Montenegro would deprive Serbia of its access to the sea, Vlahovic said that only Montenegrin citizens can determine Montenegro's political course, as is the case in virtually every democracy. He argued that Serbia does not use the Montenegrin port of Bar, anyway, but does most of its shipping through Thessaloniki in Greece. The minister stressed that Montenegro's future is as part of the "European family" as an independent country "and not as somebody's access to the sea."

Vlahovic added, however, that some form of a "union of independent states on the model of the EU" could be set up between Belgrade and Podgorica in which everyone would benefit. He warned against a "Balkan zero-sum game" approach in which there would be only winners and losers, stressing instead that "we could stay together with Serbia while being independent" in a way that would help bridge the divisions within Montenegrin society as well as between the two republics. Vlahovic nonetheless said that Serbia must treat Montenegro seriously as a partner and agree to its international recognition, otherwise Podgorica will have no choice but to go its own way.

Asked about any impact of Montenegrin independence on Kosova's future, Vlahovic argued that the two issues are unrelated. He said relations between Belgrade and Podgorica have "different dynamics" from those between Belgrade and Prishtina, adding that Kosova "is not Montenegro's problem" and that his country is not involved in resolving the Kosova dispute.

That having been said, Vlahovic noted it is important for internationally recommended standards to be enforced in Kosova, especially "individual and collective rights" for the non-Albanian minorities. He pointed out that Montenegro itself is determined to remain a "functioning multi-ethnic and multi-cultural which we are very dedicated." The minister said Montenegro's Albanian minority enjoys some benefits, such as "positive electoral discrimination." As proof the Albanians are integrated into Montenegrin society, he noted that two of the Albanian deputies in the parliament come from ethnic Albanian parties, while two others belong to "civic parties" that embrace all ethnic groups.

While arguing that Montenegro must become an "independent European state...with the political and cultural capacities to solve all our problems in a peaceful and democratic way," Vlahovic also stressed the importance of his country joining the EU and NATO, starting with the U.S.-sponsored Adriatic Charter that includes Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania. He feels Montenegro can achieve these goals more quickly without being tied to Serbia. He argued for what in Croatia is known as the "regatta principle," in which each EU applicant proceeds at its own pace irrespective of what others do or do not achieve.

Montenegro has a proud military tradition, and no discussion of Montenegro's future would be complete without a reference to its fighting capacities. Vlahovic referred to the current military of Serbia and Montenegro as a bloated, "old-fashioned, and costly army without any reforms or civilian control." He noted that the current "ineffective" navy includes 2,500 men, while that of Croatia, which has a much longer coastline, consists of 700 men in what is essentially a modern coast guard operation.

Stressing that Montenegro is a peaceful country that does not plan to use its military, Vlahovic called for a "small, democratically controlled, multi-purpose army not exceeding 3,000 men," fully integrated into the Adriatic Charter and NATO and advised by experts from Europe and the United States. He said it might be possible to form a joint military with Serbia, but only if each state controls the forces on its own territory and if the joint force is integrated into NATO.

In a ceremony in Kabul on 13 February, Turkey assumed command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for a period of six months, Anatolia news agency reported. Lieutenant General Etham Erdagi is leading the force, which consists of 8,500 troops. Turkey commanded ISAF between June 2002 and February 2003. Erdagi said ISAF's mission will remain the same, namely to "provide security in Afghanistan and to provide a safe and secure environment in which the government of Afghanistan can run the country," RFE/RL reported on 13 February. The main challenge now facing ISAF is the upcoming parliamentary election. German General Gerhard Back, commander of the Allied Joint Force Command in Afghanistan, said reinforcements ISAF is planning for the polls will "go along the line of those for the presidential election [in October 2004], except with more emphasis on air mobility, to get more flexibility to move forces around in the country, if there is need." Afghan parliamentary elections, which were scheduled to occur between April and May, are expected to be delayed until summer. AT

Speaking in Kabul on 13 February, Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi warned militia commanders who have not yet joined the UN-led Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program to do so, Radio Afghanistan reported. Azimi said if these commanders do not join the DDR program, their units will not qualify for the privileges currently being offered to militias joining the program. According to Azimi, 75 percent of the DDR program has been completed thus far, totaling around 39,000 militia members and other armed men. Azimi put the strength of the Afghan National Army, which will replace the various armed groups, at 25,000 troops. While Azimi did not name any militias, the weekly DDR report covering 31 January to 6 February indicated the "DDR process has slowed down during the past week due to weather conditions and a lack of commitment from commanders within Kabul region." AT

Pakistani Commerce Minister Humayun Akhtar Khan said in Islamabad on 12 February that his country is proposing to work out a preferential trade agreement with Afghanistan, leading to a free-trade agreement, the Lahore-based "Daily Times" reported. Khan made his comments after meeting with visiting Afghan Finance Minister Anwar al-Haq Ahadi, who was in Pakistan to attend the joint Ministerial Commission between the two neighbors. Ahadi said that while the volume of trade between the two countries is "rising rapidly," there is a need for a further increase. Pakistan's bilateral trade with Afghanistan increased from $192 million in 2001-2002 to $540 million in 2003-2004. AT

Iran's ambassador to India, Siavash Yaghoubi, handed a check for $1 million to India's Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar on 11 February, IRNA reported. The money is for tsunami relief. The Indian official subsequently told reporters that on 14 February the two countries will conclude an agreement regarding construction of a natural gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan. Initial talks on this issue began in 1996, but conclusion of the agreement has been hindered by poor India-Pakistan relations and related security concerns. Aiyar reportedly said the pipeline agreement will be concluded independently of India-Pakistan relations. He added that he will go to Iran in June. The India-Iran agreement relates to the delivery of gas and is not connected with construction, maintenance, or operation of the 2,775-kilometer pipeline, AP reported. Pakistan could earn approximately $600 million in transit fees. India's Oil Secretary S.C. Tripathi said work on the pipeline could start in about two years, and that gas should reach India by 2009, Schlumberger Limited ( reported. BS

Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral has informed the Argentinian Foreign Ministry that international warrants it issued in 2003 for the arrest of several Iranians remain in force, Panama's ACAN-EFE news agency reported on 12 February. The Iranians are wanted in connection with the bombing in July 1994 of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 86 people. The wanted individuals are former Intelligence and Security Minister Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani, former Ambassador to Argentina Hadi Suleimanpur, former Deputy Chief of Mission Ahmad Reza Asghari, former cultural attache Mohsen Rabbani, former official Ali Akbar Parvaresh, former diplomatic courier Ali Balesh-Abadi, and several other diplomatic couriers. The judge also asked Italy, Lebanon, and Paraguay for information regarding the case, and he again contacted Interpol to ask Brazil, Israel, Lebanon, Paraguay, Syria, and the United Kingdom to supply the same. BS

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps announced on 12 February that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's religious decree (fatwa) calling for the killing of British author Salman Rushdie remains in effect, ILNA and IRNA reported. Khomeini issued the fatwa on 14 June 1989 on the grounds that Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" insulted the Prophet Muhammad. The state-connected 15th of Khordad Foundation subsequently offered a multimillion-dollar bounty for Rushdie's death. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said during a 1998 trip to the United Nations in New York that the issue should be considered "finished," but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said otherwise, IRNA reported. BS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi warned the United States on 13 February about its stance toward Iran, state radio reported. He said: "In our talks with the Europeans, we clearly told them to tell their American allies not to play with fire." Assefi went on to denounce Washington's statements about Iran. He said: "The very essence of the remarks made by American officials indicates American interference in the affairs of other countries, including Iran. The very essence of the remarks and the reports prove that the Americans have violated the Algiers Accord, according to which America had pledged not to interfere in the domestic affairs of Iran. This again shows the violation of international law by America." The January 1981 Algiers Accord concluded the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis. According to that agreement, the U.S. agrees "not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs" (see Congressional Research Service, "Iran: U.S. Policy and Options," 14 January 2000; BS

Nuclear talks between Iran and the European Union in Geneva ended on 11 February with an agreement to meet again in March, Reuters reported. "Etemad" newspaper reported on 13 February that the Europeans have proposed constructing a light-water reactor for Iran because this would be difficult to use for military purposes. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 13 February that Iran will not agree to the substitution of a light-water reactor for its heavy-water facility, state television reported. Assefi said Iranian negotiators tried to convince their European counterparts that Iran needs to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle for economic reasons. BS

The United Iraqi Alliance, a bloc supported by key Shi'a clergy, won Iraq's first elections since Saddam Hussein's overthrow, international news agencies reported on 13 February. According to results released by the Iraqi Electoral Commission on the same day, the United Iraqi Alliance, drawn up with the blessing of leading Shi'a cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, won 48 percent of the vote. The Kurdish Unity List, a coalition of the two leading Kurdish parties, came in second with 26 percent of the vote. The Iraqi List, headed by pro-U.S. interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, took third place with 14 percent of the vote. Some 8.5 million Iraqis cast ballots in the 30 January elections, representing 58.3 percent of eligible voters. BW

The United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Unity List have reached an understanding that a Shi'ite will be Iraq's prime minister and a Kurd will be president, Reuters reported on 13 February. "We are not playing a role of siding with one bloc against another," Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), told Reuters at his headquarters. "But without reaching agreement, there is some kind of understanding, yes. The Shi'ites are insisting on having the post of prime minister, and they are supporting Kurds to have the post of president." Talabani's PUK and Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party were rivals for a decade but forged a joint ticket to contest the 30 January election. BW

Talabani also said he believes Kurds could play a constructive role in unifying Iraq by engaging the marginalized Sunnis, Reuters reported on 14 February. Kurds "can play this role of reconciliation. We have good relations with Arab nationalist movements...[and] with many small Sunni groups and Sunni tribal chiefs," Talabani said. He added that he thought Sunnis made a "big mistake" in not lending more support to the U.S.-led coalition and U.S.-backed interim government, although he added they should not be excluded from Iraq's emerging political order. The first task of the new Iraqi parliament, called the National Assembly, will be to draft a new constitution, which will be put to a referendum in October. And while Sunnis may be marginalized in the drafting of the constitution, they can effectively veto it. If two-thirds of voters in any Iraqi province reject the constitution in the October referendum, it must be redrawn. BW

A leading Sunni Iraqi said he will work to persuade Sunnis to participate in greater numbers in elections later this year, Reuters reported on 13 February. Adnan Pachachi, a secular Sunni elder statesman, said the election results did not truly reflect the will of the nation because millions of Sunnis did not vote. "In a way, the result was expected to a large extent, because millions of Iraqis didn't vote," Pachachi told Reuters. "Those who voted are around 8 million only, but around 14 million were eligible to vote." Iraq's Sunnis, who make up approximately 20 percent of the population, are scrambling to find a place in Iraq's new political order after a weak showing in the elections. The most successful Sunni list was led by interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, a senior member of one of Iraq's largest tribes. It won just 150,000 votes, less than 2 percent of those cast. While Shi'ites are expected to hold about 170 of the National Assembly's 275 seats, and Kurds around 70 seats, Sunni Arabs may struggle to get more than 10. New elections will be held in December after the incoming parliament drafts a new constitution. BW

Turkomans and Arabs in the divided city of Kirkuk denounced the strong showing by the Kurdish Unity List and alleged it was the result of irregularities, Reuters reported on 14 February. "We denounce the results. We have already informed the electoral commission of our objections to the irregularities the Kurds made in Kirkuk," said Farouq Abdullah, head of the Iraqi Turkoman Front. Kirkuk, a city of about 800,000 located about 150 miles north of Baghdad, sits on some of Iraq's richest oil reserves. In an attempt to alter the city's ethnic composition, Saddam Hussein forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds from the area and moved in Arabs. Since Hussein's overthrow, hundreds of thousands of Kurds have returned. It was initially unclear whether the Kurds, who are not yet official residents, would be allowed to vote in the 30 January election, but the Independent Election Commission ultimately decided they could. BW

Neighboring Turkey said Iraq's election failed to produce a representative parliament because of low voter turnout and manipulation of the vote, international news agencies reported on 14 February. "The low level of participation in the elections among certain groups, the lack of voting in a series of provinces, and manipulation in certain areas including Kirkuk have created imbalance in the results," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued late on 13 February and quoted by Reuters the next day. "These factors must be treated seriously," it said. The ministry statement added that some groups had made "unfair" gains, an apparent reference to the Kurds. Turkey has long feared the Kurds will win control of Kirkuk, which could lead to them establishing an independent state in northern Iraq. Such a development, Ankara fears, could incite separatism among Kurds in Turkey. Talabani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader, has dismissed calls for an independent Kurdish state. "Independence is impractical," he said on 13 February, according to Reuters. "I don't see any possibility for an [independent] Kurdish state." BW

Militants attacked oil and gas pipelines near Kirkuk on 14 February, international news agencies reported the same day. "Firefighters are at the site trying to control the blaze," Reuters quoted an unidentified official at the North Oil Company as saying. According to Reuters, two blasts -- one late at night on 13 February and one in the early morning on 14 February -- struck a pipeline running west of Kirkuk. In other unrest on 14 February, one U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded in an attack on a military base near Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, international news agencies reported the same day. And Al-Arabiyah television reported on 14 February that insurgents have kidnapped the leader of an unidentified Christian party in Iraq and are demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Reuters reported on 14 December. BW