RUSSIA SAYS IRAN DEAL WILL NOT HARM U.S.-RUSSIAN RELATIONS...
An agreement signed between Tehran and Moscow on 26 February regarding the provision by Russia of nuclear fuel to Iran (see "Iran" section) will not harm U.S.-Russian relations, Duma International Relations Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Unified Russia) told ITAR-TASS on 27 February. Kosachev said that the agreement, under which Iran pledged to return all spent nuclear fuel to Russia, "responds to complaints from the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and the United States" and means that "we can now go even further in our cooperation." Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Aleksandr Rumyantsev said that U.S. President George W. Bush's statement in Bratislava on 24 February that Moscow and Washington share a common view of Iran's nuclear program means that "the Americans have recognized that our cooperation [with Iran] meets all international rules," ITAR-TASS reported on 27 February. Rumyantsev said Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant will come on line at the end of 2006 and that supplies of nuclear fuel will begin about six months prior to that. RC
...WHILE U.S. SENATOR RENEWS CALL TO SUSPEND RUSSIA'S G-8 MEMBERSHIP
U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) said on 27 February that the United States should exclude Russia from the July meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized countries in Scotland, Reuters reported. "This latest step of the Russians vis-a-vis the Iranians calls for sterner measures to be taken between ourselves and Russia," McCain said. "It has got to, at some point, begin to harm our relations." McCain accused President Vladimir Putin of acting "like a spoiled child" and carrying out "aberrational" policies, both internationally and domestically. RC
PUTIN MEETS WITH ADVISERS TO DISCUSS G-8 SUMMIT
President Putin met in St. Petersburg on 26 February with his Security Council to discuss the July G-8 summit, as well as the 2006 G-8 summit that is scheduled to be held in Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. Putin arrived in St. Petersburg directly from Bratislava, where he held talks with U.S. President Bush on 24 February. RC
KHODORKOVSKII TESTIFIES, DENIES ALL CHARGES
Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii testified on 25 February for the first time in his trial on tax-evasion and embezzlement charges, Russian and international media reported. Khodorkovskii denied all charges against him, calling them "fantasies and conjectures." "I am proud of having headed for 15 years a number of successful companies and having helped other companies rise from their knees after the fall of the [Soviet] Union," he said, according to "The Moscow Times" on 28 February. After Khodorkovskii spoke for three hours, state prosecutor Dmitrii Shokhin declined a judge's invitation to question him. "The state prosecution understands that everything that has been said by Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovskii] is untrue and concocted by his lawyers," Shokhin said. RC
MOSCOW MAYOR APPEALS TO PUTIN TO STOP BENEFITS REFORM...
Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov on 25 February sent a letter to President Putin asking him to "suspend the implementation of social reforms" and "to reconsider the new delimitation of authority between the center and the regions," gzt.ru reported on 28 February. According to the report, Putin forwarded Luzhkov's letter to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and several other key ministers and asked them to discuss it at the 28 February cabinet session. Luzhkov has opposed the government's social-benefits reforms from the beginning and has preserved in-kind benefits for pensioners and the handicapped in Moscow while in many cases also providing cash compensation payments. He has said he will file a case against the reforms with the Constitutional Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005). Gzt.ru speculated that many within the presidential administration share Luzhkov's opinions and that they will use the mayor's letter as part of their purported campaign against Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref. RC
...AS PUBLIC DISSATISFACTION WITH REFORMS SEEMS TO BE WANING
The percentage of Russians who are unhappy with the government's social-benefits reform has fallen from 53 percent to 43 percent in recent weeks, returning to the level expressed when the reforms first began being discussed last autumn, Interfax reported on 27 February, citing a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation. Thirty-two percent of respondents said they are satisfied with the reforms. A few demonstrations against the reforms were held on 27 February. In Perm, about 200 protesters burned effigies of President Putin, acting Perm Oblast Governor Oleg Chirkunov, and Perm Mayor Arkadii Kamenev. RC
UFA DEMONSTRATORS DEMAND OUSTER OF BASHKIR PRESIDENT...
About 3,000 people demonstrated in Ufa on 26 February outside the republican presidential-administration building, RIA-Novosti reported. Demonstrators carried orange banners in imitation of recent successful demonstrations in Ukraine, the news agency reported. After the six-hour protest, organizers announced that there will be another demonstration at the same site on 25 March. "We need at least 100,000 people here in order to get what we want," one speaker told the crowd. The demonstrators circulated a petition addressed to President Putin asking for the removal of Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov. RC
...AS SOME THINK UNREST MIGHT WORK IN PRESIDENT'S FAVOR
Some of the recent protest actions in Bashkortostan and in Moscow might have been organized by President Rakhimov's administration in order to convince the Kremlin that the situation in the republic is unstable and only Rakhimov's firm rule can prevent further unrest, "Kommersant-Daily" wrote on 28 February. Bashkir activist Aleksandr Arinin told the daily "it is possible that the situation is being deliberately heated up by the authorities." Local Communist Party leader Valentin Nikitin, however, told the paper that the demonstrations show that "Rakhimov is quickly losing control over the situation in the republic." RC
BASHKIR PRESIDENT EXPOSES PLOT PURPORTEDLY HEADED BY HIS SON
President Rakhimov told a State Council meeting on 24 February that certain "deputies representing the fuel and energy complex" had been conspiring to oust republican legislature Chairman Konstantin Tolkachev, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 February. Rakhimov did not name any names, but experts cited by the paper believe the effort to remove Tolkachev was incited by Rakhimov's son, deputy Ural Rakhimov. According to the daily, Ural Rakhimov heads "the oil lobby" in the republican legislature. Analysts cited by the paper said that President Rakhimov might have staged the incident in order to demonstrate to the Kremlin that he does not put family interests above the good of the republic and to show that he has the situation in Ufa under control. RC
SENIOR POLICE OFFICIALS DISMISSED IN INTERIOR MINISTRY REORGANIZATION
Six senior Interior Ministry officials, all of them lieutenant generals or colonel generals, were dismissed on 28 February, RIA-Novosti reported, citing the presidential press service. Among those fired were Lieutenant General Sergei Verevkin-Rakhalskii, head of the Federal Economic- and Tax-Crime Service; Lieutenant General Vitalii Mozyakov, head of the ministry's investigations department; Deputy Interior Minister and Colonel General Yevgenii Solovev; and Deputy Interior Minister and Colonel General Sergei Shchadrin, head of the ministry's internal-affairs department. Shchadrin has in recent days been investigating complaints against police in Blagoveshchensk, who are accused of illegally detaining and assaulting hundreds of locals during an operation in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). According to the press release, the dismissals are part of a reorganization within the ministry. RC
DOCUMENTS SUBMITTED IN CASE AGAINST RYAZAN GOVERNOR
Duma Deputy Igor Morozov (independent) has submitted to the authorities more than 2,000 documents relating to the successful 2004 gubernatorial campaign of Ryazan Oblast Governor Georgii Shpak, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 28 February. Morozov, who lost the race against Shpak, has asked officials to annul the results of the race because of allegations from Shpak's former campaign manager that spending on the campaign exceeded by many times the official maximum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). Morozov said the documents had been provided by the former campaign manager, Ryazan businesswoman Natalya Suchkova, and that they show that Shpak illegally paid to collect signatures; to produce campaign materials, including "black public-relations" materials directed at his opponents; paid off demonstrators and observers; and bribed voters. RC
CHECHEN PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY, RUSSIAN 'SOLDIERS' MOTHERS' OUTLINE STEPS TO END WAR...
A delegation from the Russian Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers met in London on 24-25 February with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy Akhmed Zakaev, Reuters and Russian agencies reported. Council of Europe representatives also attended the talks. The meeting was originally planned for November 2003 in Brussels, but the Belgian authorities declined at the last minute to issue visas to the Russian delegation. The participants at the London talks signed a five-point memorandum, posted on the Chechen website chechenpress.com on 26 February, on ending the conflict in Chechnya. It advocates an immediate and unconditional cease-fire and participation of the Chechen resistance forces in the international fight against terrorism; the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya, disarmament of all volunteer armed groups, and total demilitarization; the formation of a provisional coalition government under international control, in line with the Russian-Chechen treaty signed in May 1997; the holding of direct democratic elections under international supervision; and a program of economic reconstruction, for which the European Union would seek funding. LF
...BUT PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN OFFICIALS REMAIN SKEPTICAL
Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev told Interfax on 25 February that the meeting between Zakaev and the Russian delegation "is pointless" because Zakaev "does not have the authority to impose his terms." Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov similarly told Interfax on 25 February that he considers the London meeting simply a public-relations exercise on Maskhadov's behalf. Dzhabrailov too claimed that neither Maskhadov nor Zakaev exercise any control over events in Chechnya, but that it is radical field commander Shamil Basaev who issues commands to the resistance. LF
RESISTANCE FIGHTERS REPORTEDLY SURROUNDED IN EASTERN CHECHNYA
Chechen Interior Ministry forces launched a major operation on 24 February, surrounding a group of between 70-90 Chechen resistance fighters in the Nozhai-Yurt district of eastern Chechnya and killing at least 10 of them, Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov told Interfax on 25 February. Alkhanov added that similar operations were under way in the Vedeno, Itum-Kale, and Kurchaloi districts. On 26 February, Alkhanov said Russian federal troops have joined in the operation, and that police in Daghestan have blocked the border with Chechnya to prevent the militants entering Daghestan. Alkhanov also said he has "irrefutable information" that the militants include Daghestan-born field commander Rappani Khalilov and Maskhadov's security chief, Akhmed Avdorkhanov. LF
INGUSHETIAN PRESIDENT'S POPULARITY PLUMMETS
A poll of users conducted from 12 January to 26 February by the independent Ingush website ingushetiya.ru determined that former President Ruslan Aushev is by far the most popular politician in Ingushetia. Of the 3,064 respondents, 45.2 percent designated Aushev as the politician most capable of heading the republic. In second place (12.2 percent) was Ingushetian parliament deputy Musa Ozdoev, who has repeatedly written to President Putin to criticize irregularities and corruption in Ingushetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April, 21 June, and 27 October 2004). Former government Chairman Beslan Khamchiev ranked third with 7.8 percent, followed by Bashir Kodzoev, who represents Ingushetia in the Russian State Duma (7.4 percent). Incumbent President Murat Zyazikov ranked fifth with only 6.6 percent. Meanwhile, the number of signatures to an Internet petition calling on Zyazikov to resign (http://www.zyazikov.ru) has risen from 300 in early September 2004 to 850 on 27 February. LF
AIDES DOWNPLAY ROW BETWEEN LEADING ARMENIAN POLITICIANS
Close associates of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian sought on 25 February to downplay the former's criticisms of the latter, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a 22 February interview with "Haykakan zhamanak," Markarian criticized Baghdasarian for exceeding his mandate by creating new parliament commissions that he himself chairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2005). Baghdasarian rejected that criticism as unfounded. Deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, who heads the parliament faction of Markarian's republican Party of Armenia, said on 25 February he does not consider Markarian's criticism harsh, but that the issue should nonetheless not have been raised in the media. Samvel Balasanian, who heads the parliament faction of Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir party, told RFE/RL that "there are no differences" between Baghdasarian and Markarian. The two men belong to different generations: Markarian, 53, joined a dissident movement in the 1960s and was sentenced to two years in a Soviet prison camp. Baghdasarian is 14 years younger and began his political career after the collapse of the USSR as a member of the then-ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement, which he represented in the parliament elected in 1995. LF
AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONIST, EDITOR HARASSED
Mansum Bayramov, a leading member of the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party and a close associate of its Chairman Ali Kerimli, was assaulted and beaten in Baku late on 24 February by men who followed and then halted his car, Turan reported on 25 February. Late on 25 February, Ganimat Zahidov and Azer Ahmedov, the editor and technical director, respectively, of the independent newspaper "Azadlyg," which is sympathetic to Kerimli, were forcibly abducted and taken to a Baku restaurant where they were stripped naked and photographed with two naked women, and then beaten and threatened for printing materials criticizing Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The two journalists were released on 26 February, after being robbed of $800, 200,000 manats ($40.76), and their cell phones. The independent Press Council has formally asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate the incident, Turan reported on 28 February. LF
GEORGIA, RUSSIA CONTINUE SPARRING OVER BASE CLOSURES
Echoing earlier remarks by parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Givi Targamadze, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze warned on 26 February that Georgia may declare the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia illegal unless a firm date is set very soon for their closure, Caucasus Press reported. In Moscow, Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian State Duma's International Relations Committee, dismissed Burdjanadze's statement as "threats" and an attempt to pressure Russia, Interfax reported, citing Ekho Moskvy. Kosachev said that the two sides will try to reach an agreement within the next two months on closing the bases, and that it would be "uncivilized" for Georgia to resort to such moves as blocking access roads to the bases or cutting off water and electricity supplies as Targamadze has proposed doing. On 26 February, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the Georgian authorities' refusal to issue visas to Russian naval personnel who hoped to participate in a 22 February meeting in Tbilisi of the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Force (BlackSeaFor), ITAR-TASS reported. LF
GEORGIAN PRESIDENT TASKS GOVERNMENT WITH OVERCOMING ENERGY CRISIS
Speaking at a government session on 25 February, Mikheil Saakashvili gave Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli a period of a few months to ensure normal energy supplies nationwide, Caucasus Press reported. On 23 February, Noghaideli termed the energy sector the most difficult problem he inherited from his predecessor, Caucasus Press reported. At the same 25 February government session, Energy Minister Nika Gilauri outlined his two-year program for improving energy supplies by means of renovating existing facilities and the construction of new power stations and transmission lines. Saakashvili's spokeswoman Alana Gagloeva denied on 25 February rumors of Gilauri's imminent dismissal, Caucasus Press reported. LF
GEORGIAN TRADE-UNION OFFICIAL AGAIN DETAINED
Lasha Chichinadze, deputy chairman of the Association of Trade Unions of Georgia, was taken into pretrial detention again on 25 February on orders from the Prosecutor-General's Office, two days after being released, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2005). Chichinadze faces charges, unrelated to his trade-union activities, of embezzlement of mortgage funds. Also on 25 February, the Association of Trade Unions formally ceded 90 percent of its property to the state. At the same time, the association released a statement protesting government pressure and mass dismissals of workers, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 25 February, the Georgian parliament adopted in the first reading amendments to the law on trade unions that will require the reregistration of all trade-union members, Caucasus Press reported. LF
SCO FOREIGN MINISTERS MEET IN KAZAKHSTAN
The foreign ministers of the member states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO; China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) met in Astana on 25 February, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The session resulted in memorandums of understanding with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the CIS Executive Committee. Participants also discussed agreements reached at the 17 June 2004 summit of SCO heads of state in Tashkent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2004), as well as preparation for the planned July 2005 summit of heads of state in Astana. A joint communique noted that the Central Asian states plan to sign an agreement on a nuclear-free zone in Central Asia at the July meeting, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who met with the SCO foreign ministers on 25 February, stressed that Kazakhstan "places great significance on the SCO." DK
KYRGYZSTAN HOLDS PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS...
Kyrgyzstan held elections to its 75-seat unicameral parliament on 27 February, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. According to Central Election Commission Chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev, turnout was 59.91 percent, or 1,587,139 out of 2,649,425 registered voters, akipress.org reported. The preliminary figures indicated that turnout was somewhat lower than in the 2000 elections, which drew 64.5 percent of registered votes. The highest turnout was in Talas, Jalal-Abad, and Bakten oblasts, which all topped 65 percent, and the lowest in the capital, Bishkek, which registered 46.44 percent turnout. DK
...AMID DISPUTES OVER FAIRNESS
A group of prominent Kyrgyz opposition figures including Roza Otunbaeva, Muratbek Imanaliev, Ishengul Boljurova, and Topchubek Turgunaliev stated at a news conference in Bishkek on 27 February that numerous violations placed the legitimacy of the elections in doubt, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Turgunaliev, head of the Erkindik party, said that the opposition is still gathering information on violations, and he promised to make preliminary information available on 28 February. On 26 February the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan condemned official invective against the opposition, attacks on independent media, and refusals to register former diplomats as candidates, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. On 25 February, Markus Muller, head of the OSCE Center in Bishkek, expressed concern over the recent shutoff of power to an independent printing house in Bishkek and the denial of local broadcasting capability to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. For its part, the Foreign Ministry responded to Muller's statement on 27 February, calling his comments "rash" and disputing his version of events, akipress.org reported. DK
VOTING POSTPONED, REGIONAL HEAD REMOVED IN ONE KYRGYZ DISTRICT
The Central Election Commission announced on 26 February that parliamentary elections in the protest-stricken Tong district will be postponed until 13 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The district has witnessed mass demonstrations in the days leading up the election since the removal of candidate Arslan Maliev from the ballot. On 26 February, 2,000 protesters in the district dispersed only after Maliev addressed them and convinced them to return to their homes. Also on 26 February, President Askar Akaev removed Tong regional head Nurbek Aliev by decree, satisfying one demand protesters had advanced. DK
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT AFFIRMS DECISION NOT TO RUN AGAIN
President Akaev announced on 27 February that he will not change the constitution to extend his term in office, akipress.org reported. As he cast his vote in parliamentary elections, the president said, "I personally, President Akaev, have not had and do not have any intention of changing the constitution with the aim of extending my term in office." DK
KYRGYZ FOREIGN MINISTRY OBJECTS TO U.S. ENVOY'S COMMENTS
Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry announced in a 27 February press release that it delivered an official note to the U.S. Embassy on 26 February terming recent comments by U.S. Ambassador Stephen Young "impermissible," akipress.org reported. In an interview with "Lemon" on 25 February, Young said that "difficulties in the development of democracy will have a significant influence on [Kyrgyz-U.S.] relations, but those relations will be continued. However, significant problems in the conduct of elections will harm the image and reputation of Kyrgyzstan as a country that is a leader in conducting democratic reforms." The Foreign Ministry press release stressed "the impermissibility of such statements by the head of a diplomatic mission of a friendly state" and described them as "an attempt to interfere in the country's internal affairs." DK
TAJIKISTAN HOLDS PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS...
Tajikistan held elections to its 63-seat lower chamber of parliament on 27 February, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Muhibullo Dodojonov, head of the Central Election Commission's secretariat, announced at 8:00 p.m. Dushanbe time on 27 February that overall turnout was 87 percent of registered voters. Dodojonov said that preliminary results will be announced on 28 February. DK
...AS SOME OPPOSITION LEADERS DECRY ELECTION VIOLATIONS
A number of Tajik opposition leaders stated on 27 February that parliamentary elections took place with numerous violations, news agencies reported. Rahmatullo Valiev, deputy head of the Democratic Party, told Avesta that "there have been many violations, and tomorrow we are going to issue a special statement to this effect." Rahmatullo Zoirov, leader of the Social Democratic Party, told Avesta, "The violations during the voting in the elections that have been registered so far by observers from the Social Democratic Party are significant and they will certainly influence the voting results." But Said Abdullo Nuri, leader of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service: "The level of democracy and transparency in this election is different from the previous election. All election rules were obeyed by authorities of the Central Election Commission in cities and [regional] centers." DK
BELARUSIAN COMMUNIST PLANS TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT
Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the Belarusian Party of Communists (BCP), is considering a bid to run in the 2006 Belarusian presidential elections, Belapan reported on 27 February. The secretary of the BCP's Central Committee, Uladzimir Ukhnalyow, made the announcement at a press briefing in Minsk on 27 February. "The regime is afraid of the consolidation of pro-democracy forces and is trying to destroy the existing political configurations within the opposition," Ukhnalyow was quoted as saying. RK
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SAYS FOREIGN EMBASSIES FUND OPPOSITION
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told a government conference in Minsk that he is aware of the source of funding for the Belarusian opposition, Belapan reported on 26 February. According to Lukashenka, "huge amounts are brought into the country through various channels" to support the opposition, including through "foreign diplomatic missions." Lukashenka suggested that authorities tax money allegedly brought in to help the opposition. "I believe that the security services, the customs service, Interior Ministry, KGB, our military agencies, and the Foreign Ministry, should inform the tax authorities so that the latter could take prompt measures." RK
FORMER UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT LOSES PERKS
The Ukrainian cabinet on 26 February revoked Leonid Kuchma's state benefits as a former president, "Interfax" reported. A special, unpublished cabinet decree passed on 19 January had granted Kuchma the benefits. They included a monthly pension of 8,293 hryvnyas ($1,560), bodyguards, personal assistants, one adviser, lifetime use of a government dacha, two cars, four drivers, one cook and two maids and free medical services for himself and his wife and free travel within Ukraine. Interfax reported that as there is no law on benefits for former presidents, Kuchma would receive those given to former President Leonid Kravchuk. Upon leaving office in 1994, Kravchuk was given a monthly pension of 4,000 hryvnyas ($755), free medical care, six bodyguards, and a car. RK
UKRAINE'S DONBAS INDUSTRIAL UNION LOSES BID FOR POLISH STEEL MILL
The Donetsk-based Industrial Union of the Donbas (IUD) has lost a bid to buy the Polish steel mill Huta Czestochowa, Interfax reported on 26 February. The news agency quoted the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza," which reported that U.S. company Mittal Steel won the exclusive right to continue its bid for the giant steel mill, which is being privatized by the Polish government. The Polish newspaper quoted Ukrainian deputy Anatoliy Matvienko as saying that the decision on Huta Czestochowa may cause a storm in Ukraine, given that President Viktor Yushchenko has supported the Industrial Union of Donbas in this tender. RK
TRIBUNAL INDICTS ANOTHER BOSNIAN SERB GENERAL...
Prosecutors of the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal have indicted former Bosnian Serb General Zdravko Tolimir in connection with the 1995 mass killings of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and Zepa, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 25 February. Tolimir is charged on five counts, including murder and forceful deportation of civilians. Prosecutors say Tolimir, who was the deputy head of the Bosnian Serb secret service, knew of and was involved in the operations in Srebrenica and Zepa (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 8, 22, 24, and 25 February 2005). UB
...AS HIGH REPRESENTATIVE SAYS WAR CRIMES SUSPECTS CAN NOW BE TRIED IN BOSNIA
Paddy Ashdown, the international community's high representative for Bosnia, told a news conference on 25 February that the Bosnian government "filed a reply sent to the [war crimes tribunal on 25 February] confirming that [Bosnia] has all the legal and institutional pre-requisites in place to handle the processing and trial of Hague indicted war criminals here in [Bosnia]," according to the official website of Ashdown's office (http://www.ohr.int). Ashdown said the tribunal has formally recognized Bosnia's ability to try war crimes suspects on its own. The trials will take place at the newly established War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina and will be prepared by a special department of the national Prosecutor's Office. Ashdown noted that Bosnia is the first country in the region to try Hague indictees under entirely domestic auspices. UB
KOSOVAR GOVERNMENT CALLS FOR RETURN OF 'ALL CITIZENS'
The Kosovar government issued an appeal on 25 February calling on Kosovar Serbs and members of other ethnic groups from Kosova living outside the province to return to Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kosovar government spokesman Arben Qirezi said Kosovar citizens and institutions should work to create the conditions for the return of Serbs and other citizens in this crucial phase. Qirezi added that the Kosovar Albanian majority has special obligations toward the Serb minority, stressing that Serbs must be able to move freely throughout the whole territory of Kosova. The government called on the refugees to return to their homes and properties, and to participate in the reconstruction of Kosova. Kosovar citizens should respect property rights and leave the occupied houses of refugees, which would be the best way to demonstrate the rule of law in Kosova, Qirezi said. Randjel Nojkic, a lawmaker in the Kosovar parliament for the Serbian List for Kosovo and Metohija, welcomed the government's appeal, but added that it remains to be seen whether it will be implemented. UB
KOSOVAR PRESIDENT RELINQUISHES PARTY LEADERSHIP
Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova stepped down as chairman of the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) on 23 February, dpa and ISN Security Watch reported. Rugova's move follows demands by the international community to give up his party leadership, which was regarded as an obstacle to democratization. Rugova himself has cited his numerous obligations as president. He has chaired the LDK since its foundation in 1989. In October 2004 parliamentary elections, voters confirmed the LDK as the internationally administered province's strongest party (see End Note "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 October 2004). UB
FORMER MACEDONIAN MINISTER OFFICIALLY CHARGED WITH MURDER
Prosecutors in the Croatian town of Pula on 25 February officially charged former Macedonian Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski with murder, A1 TV and the "Southeast European Times" reported. The prosecutors argue that Boskovski was involved in the killing of one Indian and six Pakistani citizens outside Skopje on 2 March 2002. Boskovski -- who holds Macedonian as well as Croatian citizenship -- was arrested in Croatia on 31 August 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May and 1 September 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 May 2004 and 14 January 2005). The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal is also investigating whether Boskovski was responsible for a police operation in August 2001, in which about 10 ethnic Albanians were killed in the village of Ljuboten (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January and 8 February 2005). UB
EU ENLARGEMENT COMMISSIONER SAYS ROMANIAN ACCESSION COULD BE DELAYED
In a report appearing in the 28 February edition of Berlin's "TAZ," Otto Rehn said that "certain serious problems" have arisen regarding Romania's reform efforts that could delay the country's joining the European Union, dpa reported on 27 February. Rehn pointed to problems with reforms in the areas of justice, law enforcement, environment, and state finances. He said the date of Romania's accession to the EU could be postponed "by a year if all the conditions are not met." Romania has targeted 1 January 2007 as its EU entry date. DW
MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT PROCLAIMS OPENNESS TO RUSSIA, TALKS WITH PUTIN...
Vladimir Voronin said on 26 February that he is committed to friendship with Russia and wants to resolve the Transdniestrian issue together with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ITAR-TASS reported. He added that he may meet with Putin during the 9 May celebrations in Moscow marking victory in World War II, but he is ready to meet with him at "any time." Voronin told Ekho Moskvy radio the same day: "We will resolve the Transdniestrian issue and other questions together with the Russian people. There is no other way to do it," ITAR-TASS reported. DW
...OPPOSITION TO FEDERATION, RUSSIAN AS STATE LANGUAGE
However, President Voronin said he objects to the Russia's proposal of a federation to reunite the separatist region of Transdniester with Moldova, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 February. "The idea of a federation in Moldova, which is supported by the Russian Foreign Ministry, is a trick so that Transdniester could then become an independent state," he said. He also said that there is no need to make Russian the second official language in Moldova. "If we make Russian a second state language, the position of Russians in Moldova will deteriorate because they will have to study two languages," he said. "All documents are in two languages, Russians are nominated for senior positions, and we have a multiethnic parliament. The question of Russian as a state language is not on the agenda," he added. DW
BALKANS DIVIDED OVER OIL-PIPELINE PROJECTS
At the end of 2004, the prime ministers of Albania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia -- Fatos Nano, Simeon Saxecoburggotski, and Vlado Buckovski, respectively -- met in Sofia to sign a memorandum on the importance of cross-border cooperation to improve the regional infrastructure.
Their signatures provided a major impetus for an oil-pipeline project from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas through Macedonia to the Adriatic Sea port of Vlore in Albania. This pipeline project is commonly known as the AMBO pipeline -- named after the company that has designed the project in 1996, the New York-based Albanian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian Oil Corporation. As a major infrastructure project in the Balkans, the pipeline is also part of the so-called European transport corridor No. 8, also connecting the Black Sea coast and Albania.
After the signing of the memorandum, AMBO CEO Edward Ferguson, said construction could begin within the next 12 months. It is estimated that the $1.2 billion project could be operational within three years of the start of construction.
The main purpose of the AMBO pipeline is to cut the transport time for crude oil from the oil fields in the Caspian Sea region via the Russian Black Sea ports to Rotterdam, the main oil harbor in Europe, and to the United States. At present, the oil tankers usually lose a lot of time sailing through the Bosphoros and the Dardanelles, which can take up to 10 days, depending on traffic through the straits and weather conditions. With the planned AMBO pipeline, oil companies could save both time and money, as chartered oil tankers cost roughly between $30,000-$100,000 per day, depending on the size of the ship. The shorter transport time could also help minimize possible losses due to price changes on the oil market.
Moreover, Turkey has repeatedly warned over the past decade that for safety reasons, it cannot allow any further increase in the number of oil tankers passing through the straits. That threatened prohibition means that producers of Caspian oil need to find alternative routes to transport their crude oil to international markets.
For Albania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia, the AMBO pipeline project is a welcome investment and also a source of additional income. Although the project is expected to be largely sponsored by private investors, the three countries will also get an equity stake in the pipeline.
In addition to the transport tariffs and a share in profits from their stake in the pipeline, the countries will also benefit from the positive side effects from the pipeline's construction. Albania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia hope to profit from technology transfer, as well as from expected job creation. Thus, the countries hope to capitalize on the pipeline project without having to invest much of their own money.
Under these circumstances, one might ask why it took almost 10 years and a number of bilateral and trilateral agreements for the three countries to sign the memorandum of understanding on 28 December.
The delay in the project was partly due to the fact that Bulgaria is also involved in a second pipeline project, which will link Burgas with the Greek Aegean Sea port of Alexandroupolis. This project has the same purpose as the AMBO pipeline -- to avoid the Bosphoros and the Dardanelles. However, this pipeline is much shorter and possibly easier to construct. Apart from Greece and Bulgaria, Russian oil companies also showed a great interest in this pipeline project.
But despite Greece's growing nervousness and increased lobbying in Moscow and Brussels for the Burgas-Alexandroupolis project, Athens is still waiting for a memorandum similar to the one signed by Albania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. At the end of January, Greek Deputy Development Minister Giorgos Salagoudis said the three governments will sign the agreement before 15 March, possibly during a meeting in Moscow scheduled for 9-10 March. Salagoudis said Russia "shows a great interest in the project, and LUKoil, Gazprom, Transneft, and Rosneft may take part in it."
For Athens, the Burgas-Alexandropolis pipeline is also a project of geopolitical importance. Many comments in the Greek press indicate that the AMBO pipeline is widely regarded as a project supported by the United States. Thus, the Greek daily "Ethnos" pointed to the fact that an engineering company owned by Halliburton was involved in the planning of the pipeline. And from there, it was only a small step to the assumption that Halliburton's former CEO, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, is interested in the construction of the AMBO pipeline. Therefore, the daily argued, the United States will be responsible if for some reason the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline remains on the drawing board.
Skopje too is keenly aware of the political importance of both pipeline projects. While Greece may wish to limit the United States' influence in the southern Balkans, some Macedonian analysts, like former Macedonian Foreign Minister Ljubomir Frckovski, say it is Greece's influence that should be limited. In any case, it is clear that both Macedonia and Albania certainly have a greater interest in the realization of the AMBO project than Bulgaria. Not least because these two countries do not have alternative projects at hand.
But even if Russia, Greece, and Bulgaria also sign a memorandum of understanding on the construction of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline, it is clear that the southern Balkans do not need two pipelines. Thus it will be the investors who will decide which of the two projects will be implemented. Whoever they are, they will have the last say as to which project they believe to be viable and profitable. This is also clear to the political players. "The [Burgas-Alexandroupolis] project must produce a return and be economically expedient," Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said in Sofia on 19 October.
KABUL SAYS IT'S COMMITTED TO 'CREDIBLE PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS'...
A statement released on 26 February by the office of the presidential spokesman stated that Afghanistan is "committed to the holding of credible parliamentary elections as soon as possible." According to the statement, the exact date of the elections will be determined by the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), which consists of members of the Independent Electoral Commission and the United Nations. The Afghan government is committed to providing full support to the JEMB so "that adequate preparations are in place" for the "complex undertaking" of holding the elections. The Afghan cabinet, the statement said, has decided to refer the issue of constituency boundaries to the Afghan parliament, as there are "a significant number of disputes about the number and boundaries of districts." Afghanistan has already delayed parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in the month of Saur in the Afghan calendar (20 April-21 May). According the election law, district boundaries should have been set at least 120 days before the polls. That deadline has already passed. AT
...AS AFGHAN POLITICIANS ARE CONCERNED ABOUT ELECTION DELAYS
Former Education Minister and presidential candidate Mohammad Yunos Qanuni said the government should quickly announce the date for holding parliamentary elections, Kabul-based Tolu television reported on 27 February. Former Commerce Minister Sayyed Mostafa Kazemi echoed Qanuni, saying the postponement of the polls was due to technical reasons rather than political ones. While no exact date has been set for the polls, the vote is expected to take place in the summer or in September (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 January 2005). AT
INTERIOR MINISTRY CLARIFIES KILLINGS IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
In a statement released on 26 February, the Afghan Interior Ministry clarified recent media reports regarding the alleged killing of nine Afghan soldiers in Helmand Province. News reports had indicated that on 24 February, nine government security officers and 11 neo-Taliban members were killed in a shoot-out. The Interior Ministry stated that the nine men killed were not government officers. Its statement confirmed a gun battle in Helmand and the killing of nine people, but speculated the fighting might have been between rival drug trafficking groups. The statement denied any fighting took place between government forces and the neo-Taliban in Helmand. AT
U.S. SIGNS 50-YEAR LEASE WITH AFGHANISTAN
The United States and Afghanistan on 26 February signed a lease for land in Kabul to be used for the U.S. Embassy, a press statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul indicated. "After the Soviet departure [in 1989] the U.S. disengaged from Afghanistan before the hard work of building a nation was done. We will not make that mistake again. This lease is a visible sign of our commitment to staying the course in Afghanistan for a long time," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said. AT
NEW REVELATIONS EMERGE ABOUT IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors is scheduled to begin discussing Iran's nuclear program on 28 February. "The Washington Post" and the "Los Angeles Times" on 27 February carried reports about the clandestine and possibly weapons-related aspects of that nuclear program. They both traced its origins to 1987, when representatives of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, offered to sell the components of a nuclear weapon to Iran. The Iranians bought "a starter kit for uranium enrichment" and centrifuge designs, according to "The Washington Post," but they reportedly turned down the equipment necessary for a bomb. Instead, they took the Pakistanis' list and in the early 1990s bought the equipment for less money from Chinese, European, and Russian dealers. BS
RUSSIA SIGNS DEAL TO PROVIDE IRAN WITH NUCLEAR FUEL
Russian Atomic Energy Agency chief Aleksandr Rumyantsev and his Iranian counterpart, Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, signed an agreement on the provision of fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear facility on 27 February during a visit to the site, international news agencies reported. Under the agreement, the spent fuel must be returned to Russia for reprocessing and storage. This measure is intended to eliminate the possibility that the materials will be used for making nuclear weapons. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told Interfax that delivery of the fuel would not necessarily start right away. He said the fuel will be delivered when the Bushehr power plant is "ready for operation and fuelling." Iranian official Mohammad Saidi said the Russians' proposed schedule is too slow, IRNA reported, "but we will try to reach an agreement on time schedule." ITAR-TASS reported that Bushehr completion is scheduled for 2006. BS
EXPEDIENCY COUNCIL CHAIRMAN TESTS THE WATERS
Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has communicated indirectly with the White House, as well as with European and Arab leaders, in an effort to determine their views on the possibility of his running for president, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 24 February. He also asked his close professional and family associates to test public sentiments. According to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat," Rafsanjani's associates have contacted reformist leaders and members of the national-religious movement, and they promised media elites that suspended newspapers would be allowed to resume publication. Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had a serious argument recently, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported, citing an anonymous source close to Khamenei. The newspaper did not provide a reason, but it did say that "Kayhan" newspaper, which is run by an appointee of the supreme leader, has been critical of Hashemi-Rafsanjani in recent weeks. BS
TEHRAN PLEDGES EARTHQUAKE AND SNOW RELIEF FUNDS
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said on 26 February in Tehran that the government has earmarked $250 million to help victims of heavy snowfall in Gilan Province in early February and a 22 February earthquake in Kerman Province on, IRNA reported. Washington has offered to provide assistance for the earthquake victims, with Assistant Secretary of State William Burns telephoning the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on 23 February to make the offer. According to Reuters, Zarif rejected the offer. A spokesman for Zarif, however, said, "Iran did not refuse the help but said we can handle it domestically." In response to a reporter's question, Khatami agreed that the U.S. should unfreeze Iranian assets in the U.S. if it wants to help the earthquake victims. BS
CAR BOMBING IN IRAQ KILLS SOME 100 PEOPLE
A car bombing near a government complex housing the Al-Hillah district commissioner's office and the social security department killed as many as 100 people on 28 February, international media reported. The blast occurred as civil servants lined up outside a medical center, AFP reported. CNN reported that Iraqi police recruits queuing for medical checks were targeted in the blast. Firdos al-Abadi, an Iraqi Red Crescent spokeswoman, told Reuters that a Red Crescent branch office located close to the attack site reported more than 100 dead. "We finished now transporting the bodies from the site. There were 105 people dead and 130 wounded," a health directorate official, Mahmud Abdul Ridah, told Reuters. "We've called on people to donate blood and have opened a center for that. We've called on doctors from Karbala, Diwaniyah and Najaf to come and help and they have started to arrive," he added. KR
HUSSEIN'S HALF-BROTHER ARRESTED IN IRAQ
Sab'awi Ibrahim al-Tikriti, the half-brother of deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, has been arrested, Iraqi officials announced on 27 February. Interim government spokesman Tha'ir al-Naqib said in a statement that al-Tikriti was arrested on the Syrian-Iraqi border, Al-Arabiyah television reported. "He was involved in killing and torturing Iraqis during the era of the defunct regime of Saddam Hussein. He is still carrying out these actions," the statement said. Asked about the circumstances of al-Tikriti's arrest, interim Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i and Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib declined to comment on 27 February in interviews with the media. Falah al-Naqib told Al-Arabiyah on 27 February: "Sab'awi was behind funding many criminal acts inside Iraq. He and his group funded terrorists and killed and slaughtered many Iraqis in different areas in Iraq. He had already committed huge crimes against the Iraqi people when he was the former Iraqi chief of security. After he fled Iraq [in 2003] and tried to disappear, he also funded criminal acts." Al-Jazeera television reported on 28 February that al-Tikriti was arrested by Syrian security forces in Al-Hasakah and handed him over to Iraqi authorities. Syrian officials have not commented on the arrest. KR
IRAQI DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS CLOSING IN ON AL-ZARQAWI
Hazim al-Sha'lan told London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in a 26 February interview published the following day that Iraqi security forces are tightening the noose around fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. He said the Defense Ministry believes it is very close to apprehending al-Zarqawi. Regarding the security situation in Iraq, he said: "Facts are starting to speak for themselves and to emerge. All that I have talked about, in terms of security violations in Iraq that Syrian and Iran were behind, is being reinforced by the confessions of the terrorists that we have arrested. And this is my answer to those who blamed me for holding Iran and Syria largely responsible for the deteriorating security conditions in Iraq." Al-Sha'lan has routinely accused Iran and Syria of aiding terrorists in Iraq in recent months. The interim government has in recent weeks released videotaped confessions of alleged terrorists in custody who confirmed involvement by the two neighboring states. KR
UNITED IRAQI ALLIANCE DELEGATION VISITS GRAND AYATOLLAH AL-SISTANI
A delegation from the winning Shi'ite list, United Iraqi Alliance, met with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Al-Najaf on 27 February, Arab satellite channels reported. The Shi'ite authority recommended that the transitional government select individuals based on their ability to respond to the country's needs in terms of security and services, Al-Manar television reported on 27 February. Alliance member Husayn al-Shahristani told Al-Manar that the alliance has not decided whom it will support for president in the transitional government. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir are both vying for the post. Shi'ite leader Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Arabiyah television on 28 February that al-Sistani "stressed the need for all parties to obtain their full rights, especially the parties which were not able to participate in the elections." He said that al-Sistani told the delegation, "These Sunni brothers are not only your brothers, but they are you yourselves," noting that it is the responsibility of the Shi'a to ensure that Sunnis obtain their full rights under the transitional government. KR
AL-IRAQIYAH TELEVISION EMPLOYEE FOUND DEAD IN MOSUL
The body of Al-Iraqiyah presenter Ra'idah al-Wazzan was reportedly found in Mosul on 26 February, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. She had been shot dead, according to the report. Al-Iraqiyah is a U.S.-funded television channel. Al-Wazzan was abducted in Mosul on 20 February, along with her 10-year-old son. The boy was released after three days in captivity, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (http://www.rsf.org) said in a 26 February statement. The organization criticized the killing, saying, "After this latest killing, it needs to be repeated once again that journalists are neither involved in the fighting, nor are they bargaining chips." The organization said that al-Wazzan is the 33rd journalist to be killed in Iraq since March 2003. KR