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Newsline - February 1, 2006

Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his 31 January news conference broadcast live on RTR state television that "switching to a market-based [gas] price system for our closest neighbors can [not] in any way harm our policy on post-Soviet territory" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006). He added that "on the contrary, I am sure that it will help us achieve our foreign-policy goals.... [Russia has been using] nonmarket pricing methods, or in fact subsidizing the economies of the former Soviet republics, at the expense of Russian consumers, Russian citizens, for 15 years. Subsidies to the Ukrainian economy alone cost Russian citizens $3.5 billion annually. For comparison, as far as I remember, the U.S. provided $174 million worth of aid to Ukraine last year." The president argued that "we have our own economy, our own country, our own citizens, our own pensioners, our own military servicemen, health workers, teachers, and other government-employed workers. And we have been talking about switching to a market-based price system for a long time.... We've been talking to Ukraine about it for several years." PM

Among the messages that President Putin delivered during his 31 January press conference was that the state is not "planning to introduce any restrictions [on the media] on the pretext of increasing media responsibility," Russian news agencies reported. He added, however, that "there should be internal restrictions by [Internet] providers. People who do business on the Internet, people who use the Internet as a form of mass media...should [be the ones to] develop the rules that Internet communities must observe," he said. Putin stressed that "rumors that the independent press has ceased to exist are greatly exaggerated." "The independent press has always faced resistance from the authorities everywhere. It should decide whether to fight this resistance and remain independent, or get tips from the authorities and forget independence," Putin said. "We at the federal level will try to guarantee the independence of the mass media, including in the regions." This, he argued, can be achieved primarily through economic independence. PM

President Putin said during his 31 January news conference broadcast on RTR that the government does not plan to nationalize any major oil companies or monopolize the oil and gas business. "There are about a dozen large private oil companies in Russia, including LUKoil, TNK-BP, and Surgutneftgaz. The government is not going to nationalize them or interfere in their operations," he said. The president nonetheless noted that many members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), as well as Norway and some other non-OPEC states, have government control of the oil and gas sector. Putin argued that Russia will continue its own policy of "balance," which includes joint ventures between the government and private companies. PM

President Putin said during his 31 January news conference broadcast on RTR that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, has earned a good place in history. "You can describe that period any way you like, and you can assess the work of the first president of the Russian Federation any way you like. But one thing is beyond any doubt: it was precisely during that period, when Boris Yeltsin was in charge of Russia, that the people of our country, the citizens of Russia, gained the main thing for the sake of which all these transformations were taking place -- freedom. And this is Boris Yeltsin's enormous historic contribution," Putin said. Yeltsin marks his 75th birthday on 1 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006). PM

President Putin told his 31 January press conference that there is a need for "universal principles" to settle "frozen" conflicts such as the one in Kosova or those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian news agencies reported. "We need common principles to find a fair solution to these problems for the benefit of all people living in conflict-stricken territories.... If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?" he said. "I am not speaking about how Russia will act. However, we know that Turkey, for instance, has recognized the Republic of Northern Cyprus. I do not want to say that Russia will immediately recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, but such a precedent does exist," Putin added. PM

Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, hailed Putin's call for applying "universal principles" in the search for solutions to the Kosova conflict and similar conflicts in the former USSR, reported. Kokoity said that Putin's "new approach" signals a break with "double standards" that ignore the universally accepted right of peoples to self-determination and divide peoples into "good and bad," of whom the "good" are considered "more equal." Also on 31 January, Boris Chochiev, first deputy prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, told that Putin's statement is a "timely" signal "to those countries that continue to ignore the will of states that have exercised the right to self-determination." Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, told that Abkhazia has even weightier arguments to bolster its claims to independence than does Kosova. Vahram Atanesian, who heads the parliament commission on foreign relations of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, was more cautious. He told that while Karabakh hails Moscow's "active interest" in resolving the Karabakh conflict, it will hardly prove possible to find a universal principle applicable to all conflicts, given that "each conflict has its own ethno-political and religious history." He said the Karabakh conflict requires "a unique approach." Yevgeny Shevchuk, chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Moldova's breakaway Transdniester Republic, told that the international community's proposed solution for Kosova "will serve as an algorithm" for solving the Transdniester conflict. He added that there are numerous analogies between the two. LF

Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies that has close ties to the Kremlin, pointed out on 31 January that while Russia opposes independence for Kosova because Serbia is Russia's ally, it is prepared to agree to independence for Kosova provided that the precedent becomes universal and is then extended to the four deadlocked CIS conflicts, reported. Markov predicted that the international community will try to impose independence on Kosova "from a position of force," and likewise from a position of force similarly will seek to prevent the unrecognized states from achieving independence. He warned that failure to extend the Kosova precedent to post-Soviet conflicts would only destabilize the situation in the regions in question. Serbian observers have adduced the same argument when rejecting independent status for Kosova. Institute of the Countries of the CIS Director Konstantin Zatulin similarly predicted on 31 January that while the international community, in particular the United States, has all but signed off on independence for Kosova, it will not agree to extending the same principle to post-Soviet conflicts, reported. LF

Russian military prosecutors in Novosibirsk charged Sergeant Stepan Khodorov on 31 January with beating up Private Valery Makhnovsky on 14 January, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. If found guilty, Khodorov could face up to 10 years in prison. Their commander faces disciplinary action for failing to report the incident. PM

Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Lekhtusi in Leningrad Oblast on 31 January that he wants officers to be held more accountable for incidents of hazing, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006). "Orders have been issued [to increase] officials' responsibility for hiding information about crimes in the army," he said. Ivanov added that he responded to the recent brutal hazing incident involving Private Andrei Sychyov "as a father and a normal person." The minister noted that "serious changes will be introduced in the work of educational structures in the Defense Ministry" in response to that incident, and he did not exclude the possibility of amending the Criminal Code and other legislation. PM

Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a frequent RFE/RL contributor who heads the nongovernmental organization Moscow Helsinki Group, said in Moscow on 31 January that she will sue "the first and second television networks, the journalist Arkady Mamontov, and the head of the parliament's security committee...who have [recently] accused me of taking money from foreign spies," reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006). "This is exactly like [the times of] the Soviet Union, when I was accused of receiving money from the CIA.... We will defend all [NGOs] that are being put under pressure by the authorities," she added. The chairman of the State Duma Security Committee is Colonel General Vladimir Vasilev of the Unified Russia party. PM

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on 31 January that Russia should pay more than $300,000 in damages to former traffic policeman Aleksei Mikheyev, who badly injured his spine by jumping out of a Nizhny Novgorod police station window to escape torture during a 1998 criminal investigation, the "International Herald Tribune" reported. Mikheyev, who is confined to a wheelchair and lives on a pension of under $100 per month, said of the verdict: "This would not have been possible in Russia." The number of Russians seeking justice at the Strasbourg court rose from 15 in 2004 to 83 the following year. PM

One of the militants detained during a special police operation in Derbent on 29 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006) is Chechen field commander Akhmed Yunusov, an aide to radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, reported on 31 January, quoting a Daghestan Interior Ministry official. Yunusov reportedly tried to commit suicide, shooting himself in the chest rather than be captured alive. LF

National Democratic Union (AZhM) Chairman Vazgen Manukian told a roundtable discussion in Yerevan on 31 January that unless radical changes in the political situation create more equal conditions for the opposition to continue its struggle for further democratization, it would be "meaningless" for the AZhM to participate in next year's parliamentary ballot, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Manukian deplored the creation by the Armenian authorities of new political parties created by loyal oligarchs, and denied that the AZhM will align with the most recent of those new formations, Gagik Tsarukian's Prosperous Armenia party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 17 January 2006). LF

Speaking to journalists in Tbilisi on 31 January, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili claimed that "most" of the states engaged in mediating a settlement of the Kosova conflict do not agree with the argument adduced during by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his televised press conference earlier that day, reported. Putin argued that there is a need for "universal principles" to find a "fair solution" to "frozen" conflicts like the one in Kosova or those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?" he asked rhetorically (see "Russia" section above). Bezhuashvili said that the Kosova settlement requires "a very delicate, very cautious approach" that cannot be applied universally to other conflicts. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli similarly argued that "the Kosova solution cannot be applied to Georgia" because solutions to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts must preserve Georgia's territorial integrity, Caucasus Press reported on 31 January. LF

The UN Security Council voted on 31 January to extend the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), for two months, until 31 March, rather than for the usual six-month period recommended by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to a UN statement ( The Security Council will review the situation in the conflict zone before the renewed mandate expires. In his 13 January report to the Security Council, Secretary-General Annan stressed the key role played by UNOMIG in maintaining stability in the conflict zone, but he also reiterated his concern for the safety of UNOMIG personnel, who are unarmed. The Georgian parliament last year set a deadline of mid-June 2006 for the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone to demonstrate its effectiveness (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 October 2005). Also on 31 January, the Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement rejecting Abkhaz allegations of a resurgence of activity by Georgian guerrilla formations operating in Gali, Caucasus Press reported. The Georgian statement branded those Abkhaz claims as an attempt to justify the continued presence of the Russian peacekeeping force in the conflict zone. LF

The Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia issued a statement on 31 January implicating Georgia in the recent murder of a local resident, Caucasus Press reported. South Ossetian members of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone issued an analogous condemnation the same day. The Ossetian side claims the dead man was abducted on 26 January in the Georgian village of Kekhvi, close to a Georgian police post, brutally beaten, and then publicly executed. Local Georgian officials say he froze to death. On 1 February, South Ossetian President Kokoity accused Georgia of deploying 500 servicemen to the conflict zone later on 31 January with the aim of provoking an armed clash with the Russian peacekeeping contingent there, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. LF

Members of the pro-presidential majority and the opposition Labor faction came to blows on 31 January during a session of the Tbilisi municipal council, Caucasus Press reported. A similar fist fight took place in December during the debate on the city budget for 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2005). LF

Marat Pistaev, head of the migration police in Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry, told journalists in Almaty on 31 January that he opposes efforts to tighten legislation on migrant workers, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "In Russia now, they want to legalize labor migration, they want up to legalize up to 1 million people who have entered legally and are working illegally," Pistaev said. "We want to study their experience and then make our proposals to the Labor Ministry." Pistaev said the Interior Ministry estimates that 300,000 illegal migrants from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were employed in Kazakhstan in 2005. He said he disagrees with estimates that put the number of migrant workers in Kazakhstan at 1 million, although he admitted that illegal labor migration is on the rise. DK

Approximately 30 employees of the state-run Kyrgyz newspaper "Kygyz Tuusu" held a demonstration in front of the parliament building in Bishkek on 31 January to protest the dismissal of Editor-in-Chief Bakyt Orunbekov, reported. The journalists addressed an appeal to President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov asking that Orunbekov, whom Kulov dismissed with a 27 January decree (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006), be reinstated, reported. The statement alleges that "behind this decision [to dismiss Orunbekov] stand destructive forces that with to take control of the newspaper and use it for their own purposes." DK

A meeting at the Kyrgyz Economy and Finance Ministry on 31 January noted that the country's GDP (calculated without results from the Kumtor gold mine) rose 1.4 percent in 2005, reported. This compares with 4.3 percent in 2003, and 7.5 percent in 2004. Foreign direct investment for the first nine months of 2005 totaled $136.4 million, a 33 percent year-on-year increase. Ministry officials said the country's main economic achievement of 2005 was avoiding a sharp economic downturn in the wake of the political turmoil that toppled President Askar Akaev in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 25 March 2005). DK

Kyrgyzstan's "Agym" newspaper published poll results on 31 January showing that 74 percent of respondents said they distrust President Kurmanbek Bakiev, reported. The telephone poll queried 3,416 Kyrgyz citizens in Bishkek and a number of other cities. Asked whether they trust Bakiev, 74 percent replied "no," 17 percent said "yes," and 9 percent said they did not know. Asked whether they expect a second revolution in Kyrgyzstan, 58 percent said "yes," 30 percent said "no," and 12 percent did not know. DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov introduced a number of staff changes at a 31 January meeting reviewing the results of the past year's work, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Matlubkhon Davlatov, formerly head of the Financial Oversight Committee, was appointed presidential adviser for economic affairs, replacing Fayzullo Kholboboev. Kholboboev was made Tajikistan's permanent representative to the Eurasian Economic Community. Deputy Foreign Minister Abdunabi Sattorzoda and Deputy Communications Minister Sherali Najmiddinov, both of whom had been appointed as part of a power-sharing agreement that gave the opposition 30-percent representation in government, were retired for age reasons. Mirzo Anvarov was removed from his position as head of the state-run airline Tojikistan and replaced by Hokimsho Tilloev, formerly deputy tax minister. Nuralishoh Nazarov, former commander of border troops, was appointed deputy minister of emergency situations. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov met with Turkish Ambassador Hakki Akil and U.S. Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson in Ashgabat on 31 January to discuss energy cooperation, reported. The report noted that Turkmenistan is examining "all possible routes for bringing its energy sources to international markets given the demand for them in the modern world." The report also claimed the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan will soon meet to discuss a planned pipeline to transport Turkmenistan's natural gas through Afghanistan. DK

Representatives of the political parties supporting the presidential bid of opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich complained on 31 January to Uta Zapf, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly's Working Group on Belarus, about the lack of equal campaigning conditions in the ongoing presidential race, Belapan reported. "We told her about instances of pressure on members of nomination groups in the ballot-signature collection process, about the way territorial election commissions were formed, with nearly all representatives of pro-democracy parties and nongovernmental organizations barred. The same situation [is occurring] now, when precinct commissions are being formed," said Valery Ukhnalyou of the Belarusian Party of Communists. Zapf, who arrived in Minsk on 30 January, has also met with Uladzimir Kanaplyou, chairman of the Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house. JM

Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the united opposition forces' candidate for the 19 March presidential election, appealed in Brussels on 31 January to EU lawmakers and politicians to travel to Belarus for the election, RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent reported on 31 January. Milinkevich was speaking to the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. "It would be good if you could set aside some time toward the end of March and travel to Belarus as international observers," Milinkevich said. "You will be obstructed, prevented from carrying out observation work, but [nevertheless] your arrival in our country for the elections will have a great significance for democratically oriented Belarusians, especially in the countryside. They must see that Europe is not turning away from us." Milinkevich stressed that the presence of EU politicians and officials would act as a shield for the protesters he expects will take to the streets a day after the poll. "I would ask for the help of all those who want to help us, to arrive [whether as observers or not] before [the elections] and stay on for a few days after 19 March. It could soften the blow that Lukashenka has already promised," he added. JM

Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his televised news conference in the Kremlin on 31 January that his frequent meetings with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka can be explained "not by my support for the regime...but by support for our brotherly Belarusian people," Russian and international media reported. "We are pursuing our balanced policy aimed at developing relations with states and, in this particular case, with the Belarusian state," Putin added. "Special relations between Russia and Belarus have been developing for centuries. There is no comparison between them and the relations Belarus has with France or any other Western European country. Please don't forget that. We remember that now and will remember that in the future." JM

The Antimonopoly Committee of Ukraine (AKU) has given its go-ahead for the creation of UkrgazEnergo, a joint venture between Naftohaz Ukrayiny and the obscure Swiss-based gas trader RosUkrEnergo to sell gas to Ukrainian consumers, UNIAN reported on 31 January. A controversial 4 January deal between Gazprom, Naftohaz Ukrayiny, and RosUkrEnergo made RosUkrEnergo the monopolist of gas supplies to Ukraine and obliged Naftohaz Ukrayiny and RosUkrEnergo to set up a joint venture on a parity basis for selling imported gas in Ukraine. Last month the Ukrainian parliament sacked the cabinet, charging that the 4 January gas deal is disadvantageous to Ukraine. Some Ukrainian opposition politicians and media have demanded the disclosure of information about RosUkrEnergo shareholders. The AKU said on 1 February that it has received sufficient information about RosUkrEnergo for approving the creation of UkrgazEnergo. However, the AKU added that it cannot make this information public since the law obliges it to remain silent on commercial secrets. JM

The Property Fund of the Crimean Autonomous Republic has charged that the Russian Back Sea Fleet illegally occupies 96 facilities in Crimea, Interfax-Ukraine reported. According to the fund, these properties are not mentioned in a Russian-Ukrainian agreement on the division of belongings of the former Soviet Navy. The fund also charged that the fleet command has sublet 25 properties it leases in Crimea without seeking the approval of the Ukrainian side, as stipulated by the agreement. JM

Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his 31 January news conference in the Kremlin that Ukraine must pay for using more than its agreed quota of Russian gas from the gas flowing in transit across Ukraine to Europe, Russian and international media reported. Putin explained that during the recent cold spell Ukraine has siphoned off up to 70 million cubic meters of gas a day. Putin also noted that by selling gas to Ukraine for $50 per 1,000 cubic meters in the past, Russia effectively subsidized the Ukrainian economy. "Subsidies to the Ukrainian economy alone cost Russian citizens 3.5 billion dollars annually," Putin said. "For comparison, as far as I remember, the U.S. provided [$]174 million worth of aid to Ukraine last year." Putin praised the 4 January deal on a new gas price for Ukraine as "very positive both for our bilateral relations and for world and European energy supplies." JM

German diplomat Christian Schwarz-Schilling formally took over as high representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina in a ceremony in Sarajevo on 31 January, succeeding British politician Paddy Ashdown, dpa reported the same day. Speaking after taking office, Schwarz-Schilling said Bosnia's future "lies in European and Euro-Atlantic integration," adding that he hopes to see the country sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union and join NATO's Partnership for Peace program in 2006. Depending on Bosnia's progress toward the EU and NATO, Schwarz-Schilling said he could be the country's last international administrator. "This function and this office will disappear in the near future," he said. "This should not be a cause of concern. We should all embrace this change as a reflection of the fact that a new chapter has opened in this country's relationship with the wider world and in particular with the rest of Europe." Schwarz-Schilling is Bosnia's fifth high representative, and the first German to fill the post since it was created within the Dayton peace accords ending the 1992-95 war. BW

Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, called on the EU to halt talks with Serbia and Montenegro to pressure Belgrade into arresting war-crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, Reuters reported on 31 January. "If the negotiations are suspended, the Serbs will have to arrest Mladic," Del Ponte said in an interview with the French newspaper "Le Figaro." "If Europe gave itself a way to demand Mladic's arrest from Belgrade, the Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica would do it." European officials have threatened to halt talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step toward membership in the union, if Belgrade doesn't hand over Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006). Del Ponte said the way the EU handled Croatia prior to the arrest in December of Ante Gotovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2006) could be a model for Serbia. "The EU refused to open talks with Croatia because Zagreb hadn't arrested General Ante Gotovina," she said. "I want the EU to adopt the same attitude with Belgrade, which is not cooperating with the tribunal." BW

Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Zoran Stankovic has acknowledged holding secret talks with Mladic's relatives but denied they were over his potential surrender, the BBC reported on 30 January. Stankovic added that he does not know Mladic's whereabouts and denied reports that he is being aided by Serbia's military. Stankovic did not reveal details of the talks with Mladic's family, including his son Darko, which took place just before New Year's Eve. "I spoke with Darko and his mother just before New Year's Eve, in this office. I can't talk about it for obvious reasons," Stankovic said. "As you know, while something is still in progress any comment will be inappropriate. It would only interfere with the ongoing investigation." BW

The Russian energy giant Gazprom is planning to buy a majority stake in Serbian gas supplier Jugorosgas, Hina reported on 31 January, citing a report in the daily "Politika." Gazprom already owns a 50 percent stake in Jugorosgas, which was formed in 1996. The other half is owned by three companies: Oil Industry of Serbia (NIS) and the state-run gas importers Progres and Progres Gas Trading. According to the "Politika" report, which has not been independently confirmed, Gazprom plans to buy a 23 percent share owned by Progres and Progres Gas Trading for 4.5 million euros ($5.44 million), which would give the Russian company a 73 percent stake. NIS, which holds 27 percent of Jugorosgas, is also reportedly interested in buying Progres and Progres Gas Trading's 23 percent stake. But the "Politika" report said the stake is likely to be sold to Gazprom, partially to cover a debt. BW

A majority of Croats oppose an EU proposal to form a free-trade zone in the Balkans, according to a poll published on 31 January in the newspaper "Vecernji list," Reuters reported the same day. According to the survey, 56 percent of Croats, wary of associations reminiscent of Yugoslavia, oppose a Balkan free-trade zone. Some 45 percent deemed it an attempt to recreate Yugoslavia. Only 14.4 percent supported the idea. The idea of establishing a free-trade zone in the western Balkans -- including Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro -- was proposed in Brussels last week by EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. BW

Albania on 31 January tried to persuade international donors to put more investment into the country's electricity sector to ease an energy crisis that has been causing power cuts, AP reported the same day. Present at the meeting in Tirana were representatives from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the European Investment Bank. Also present were representatives from the United States, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and France. Prime Minister Sali Berisha said Albania needs "a significant improvement of the systems of generation, transmission, and distribution." When hydroelectric power stations failed due to a drought last year, the Albanian power company Kesh was forced to impose power cuts on all consumers except hospitals, water supply stations, police and emergency services, and embassies. BW

On 10-11 February, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev, are due to meet on the outskirts of Paris for talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement. Some observers have speculated the two sides may be approaching a breakthrough in the 15-year conflict. Ahead of the Rambouillet talks, Hrair Tamrazian, director of RFE/RL's Armenian Service, and Kenan Aliyev of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service conducted a joint interview with Steven Mann, the American co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is mediating the peace process.

RFE/RL: Ambassador, what are you planning at the Paris talks? What can we expect from this meeting of the presidents? Many expect a breakthrough. What's your opinion?

Steven Mann: First of all, the co-chairs are going to be going to Baku and Yerevan this week for further meetings with the foreign ministers [Azerbaijan's Elmar Mammadyarov and Armenia's Vartan Oskanian] and with the presidents as part of our preparation for France. And then, next week, at the invitation of President [Jacques] Chirac, the presidents will be coming to France, and there will participate in discussions under the umbrella of the OSCE co-chairs. So that's what we have looking forward.

What I would say is this: We have been working in the context of the Prague process [promoting direct contact between the two foreign ministers] for almost two years now, where we have had serious and detailed discussions and negotiations between the two sides. And the presidents themselves have met a number of times for talks on Karabakh.

I think all of us recognize that we are at the stage where we have to turn the corner from negotiation to decision. And speaking from the American perspective, we believe that the possibility for a deal exists in the months ahead. So I think the meetings that are coming up in the next two weeks are a very important opportunity. And again, speaking from the American side, we do not want the sides to fail to take advantage of this important opportunity.

RFE/RL: What exactly will you be discussing there in Paris, and what exactly will the presidents be discussing under your supervision?

Mann: What exactly, of course I can't say, because we don't want to violate the confidentiality of the negotiations. But I expect that the full range of issues related to a Nagorno- Karabakh agreement will be under discussion.

RFE/RL: Almost every institution that is directly or indirectly involved with these peace talks says there is an option on the table of the return of the occupied territories and a possible referendum -- an expression of the will of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. What can you tell us about this?

Mann: In a word, nothing. Because I don't want to go into any of the substance of the negotiations. But I will say that the process has been moving in the right direction, it has been moving in the right direction for some time, and there are extremely substantial benefits that we could look forward to for each side in this. Any agreement has to have a win-win outcome. There has to be something in it for each side. And I believe that the discussions have been moving in that direction.

Now, the issues are very difficult issues. If the subject were less difficult, it would have been solved years ago. Even with the best of will on each side -- and we do have good will, on the part of each foreign minister and each president -- but even with the best of will, these are very, very difficult issues. So I do not minimize the task. But that said, I believe that with dedication, some flexibility, and political will, 2006 can be the year for a Karabakh agreement.

RFE/RL: Are any promises being made to the sides that if they come to an agreement, there will be full international support, for example on the issue of reconstruction, rebuilding the occupied territories. Will there will be any financial support?

Mann: Oh, I think absolutely. Without going into the details, I think major international support and reconstruction for all sides that have been affected in this must be a part of a deal.

RFE/RL: What will be the format of the Paris meeting? Will the two presidents meet with Chirac and then stay with him in his residency? Or will all of you get together there?

Mann: I must refer any questions about the substance, the framework, of the visit itself to my French colleague [Bernard Fassier].

RFE/RL: One thing that is known already, Mr. Ambassador, is that Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian has said himself there is a paper on the table -- it's not an agreement or a formal document -- but there is a paper on which both sides outline the basic principles of an agreement, and they might sign that. What can you tell us about this paper?

Mann: I don't want to get into any of the issues of the substance of the talks, so I'm going to have to leave that to the side.

RFE/RL: What is your message to both sides at this important moment?

Mann: I don't think I have a sound bite to give you. But what I've said reflects accurately the way the American government is looking at this.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told participants in a two-day conference on Afghanistan co-hosted by Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006) on 31 January that while Afghanistan "faces immense challenges," the country has made "tremendous progress" since late 2001, when the Taliban regime was ousted from power. Blair highlighted the illicit-drug problem and the continuing security challenges facing Afghanistan and pledged to send British forces to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. He also committed more than $800 million over the next three years to Afghan reconstruction. Blair said the international community's assistance to Afghanistan aids not only Afghans but also helps to guard against extremism in the donor countries. The London conference is intended to help Afghanistan implement a five-year plan by creating conditions for sustainable economic growth and development; strengthening state institutions and civil society; combating the remaining terrorist threat and meeting the challenge of counternarcotics; rebuilding capacity and infrastructure; reducing poverty; and meeting basic human needs. AT

President Hamid Karzai told a news conference in London on 31 January that, having successfully completing the steps outlined in the Bonn agreement of December 2001, Afghanistan is committed to a compact based on four pillars: security; governance, rule of law, and human rights; economic and social development; and counternarcotics, Radio Free Afghanistan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006). Karzai predicted that the total eradication of illegal drugs from his country will take at least a decade. He estimated that his country requires an annual state budget of $4 billion. The World Bank places Afghanistan's revenue-to-GDP ratio among the lowest in the world, at 5 percent. As such, the country would remain heavily dependent on foreign aid and assistance. AT

Speaking at the London conference on Afghanistan on 31 January, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Afghanistan's ongoing transformation a "monumental achievement" of the 21st century, according to the U.S. State Department's website ( Rice lauded Afghans and their leadership, as well as international efforts, for the transformation of Afghanistan "from tyranny to democracy." The first day of the conference produced some $2 billion in pledges for Afghanistan, including the U.S. administration's plan to ask Congress for $1.1 billion in new funding in 2007, BBC reported. AT

People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) deputy Ramazan Bashardost told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 31 January that he believes the London conference will include talk of billions in aid but result in very little real achievement on the ground. Bashardost blamed corruption within the administration of President Karzai, which he characterized as "illegal." Sayyed Ishaq Gailani, another member of the People's Council, told Radio Free Afghanistan that the London conference is bound to bring prestige and assistance to his country. AT

Speaking at a news conference while attending the London conference on 31 January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country continues to view the neo-Taliban as collaborators with Al-Qaeda, Interfax-AVN reported. Any change in the international community's view of the neo-Taliban as an element of international terrorism "would be a significant step backward" in the antiterrorism coalition's efforts, Lavrov said. Lavrov expressed concern over the election of several members of the former Taliban regime to the Afghan National Assembly, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 January. Moscow has maintained that there are no moderate Taliban members, and has opposed Kabul's policy of seeking reconciliation with most members of that former regime. AT

Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted "reliable Palestinian sources close to Hamas" as saying on 31 January that European and U.S. diplomats have met with Hamas leaders both secretly and publicly. At least five such meetings have taken place since Hamas won last week's Palestinian elections, IRNA reported, including one between three former U.S. ambassadors and Hamas leader Shiekh Nayef Rajoub. European and U.S. leaders have consistently demanded that Hamas renounce violence. "We're looking to Hamas to renounce violence," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on 30 January in Brussels. "We also want to see Hamas recognize the reality of the two-state solution endorsed by the Security Council of the United Nations." U.S. President George W. Bush said in Washington on 30 January, "The Hamas party has made it clear that they do not support the right of Israel to exist. And I have made it clear, so long as that is their policy, that we will not support a Palestinian government made up of Hamas," RFE/RL reported. BS

During a visit to the southern city of Bushehr on 1 February, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad reacted to the previous day's decision to report Iran to the UN Security Council (see next item) and to U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union address. "We consider the nuclear energy the right of the Iranian nation. And as servant of the nation, we shall stand firm until the full realization of this right," state television quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. "One of the arenas in which the enemies oppose the progress of our nation is the arena of science and technology." Regarding Bush's annual speech to a joint session of Congress, Ahmadinejad said, "[Bush] accused the Iranian people of violating human rights. He accused the Iranian nation of opposing freedom. Those whose arms are smeared up to elbow into the blood of other nations...are today accusing our nation of violating human rights and freedom. God willing, we shall drag you to trial in the near future at the courts set up by nations." BS

Foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), plus Germany, concurred after an all-night meeting in London on 30 January that Iran should be "reported" to the council for its nuclear activities, international news agencies reported. "Reporting" is not as harsh as "referral" to the Security Council, and the action reportedly will be delayed until after the March meeting of the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said on 31 January that there are no grounds for referring Iran to the Security Council, ISNA reported. Ali Larijani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said on 31 January that although this is not "referral" to the Security Council, "I believe they should be more careful in what they do," state television reported. Larijani said Iran is pursuing a "dialogue" with the Europeans, thus proving that Iran is "exploring all peaceful means to achieve nuclear technology, which is Iran's right in the framework of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]." Larijani also called on the Europeans to continue their negotiations with Iran because a Security Council referral would mark the end of diplomacy. BS

Reporting Iran to the Security Council would be a "tyrannical act," Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said on 31 January, and trying to restrict Iranian access to the peaceful use of nuclear energy is a "vice," ISNA reported. "We must not allow bullying powers to use sacred terms such as freedom, people's rights and combating terrorism to attain their illegitimate aims," he said. Tehran University professors gathered at the Allameh Amini Hall on 31 January and protested against Western propaganda about the nuclear program, IRNA reported. One of the speakers, identified as Dr. Karami of Allameh Tabatabai University, claimed that the West objects to Iranian nuclear pursuits because it wants to retard the country's development and progress. A statement released after the event called on the IAEA to help developing countries. In the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province, scholars gathered at Shahid Chamran University to participate in a similar protest, provincial television reported. In a letter to IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei, they said all countries should have equal access to nuclear technology and accused the West of applying double standards. BS

The 1 February session of the Al-Dujayl trial was delayed by what the court termed "procedural issues" after defense attorneys refused to attend the session, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Khalil al-Dulaymi, lead attorney for Saddam Hussein, left for Amman, Jordan, following the explosive 29 January session, saying the defense team will not return until newly appointed chief Judge Ra'uf Rashid Abd al-Rahman resigns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006). When the trial was finally broadcast, those missing from the court included Hussein, his half-brother Barzani al-Tikriti, former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, former Revolutionary Court chief Judge Awad Hamad Bandar Sa'dun, and former local Ba'ath Party member Mizhar Abdallah al-Ruwayid. Judge Abd al-Rahman informed the other three defendants that court-appointed lawyers will represent them in the courtroom until their lawyers return to defend them. The court will pay for their defense, he added. KR

At least eight people were killed and 50 injured when a bomb detonated near a group of day laborers in eastern Baghdad on 1 February, international media reported. Police chief Colonel Ahmad Abbud told AP that the attack came when an unidentified man placed a bag of explosives near a cart selling tea to the workers. It is not known whether the perpetrator died in the explosion. Also, the bodies of 11 Iraqis were found in the back of a truck in Baghdad's Al-Ghazaliyah district on 31 January, all shot in the head, according to Iraqi media reports. Some of the bodies bore apparent signs of torture. Gunmen also killed the wife and two sons of Sunni cleric Qasim Daham al-Hamdani in the Al-Miqdadiyah area of Ba'qubah on 30 January. Al-Hamdani was not at home at the time of the attack. KR

Hoshyar al-Zebari summoned Danish Ambassador Christian Oldenburg to protest a Danish daily's depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006), according to a 31 January Iraqi Foreign Ministry press release. Al-Zebari reportedly called on the Danish government to "rectify" the situation. President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari also strongly criticized the cartoon, as did Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who urged the Danish government to take action against those who blaspheme Islam or the prophet. KR

In a 31 January statement posted to its website (, the Muslim Scholars Association criticized the Danish government for failing to take action against "Jyllands-Posten" after the newspaper blasphemed against the Prophet Muhammad. The association claimed that the government was providing false protection to the newspaper under the guise of freedom of expression. The association "sees this position as proof that the politicians of these [Western] countries are still hostage to the dark ages of their history and that they are not yet culturally mature," it said. The organization called for a diplomatic boycott of Denmark and Norway (a Norwegian newspaper reprinted the cartoons) unless the two countries issue an official apology and "admit their mistake." KR

The commander of the Interior Ministry's Scorpion Forces has concluded an agreement with tribal sheikhs south of Baghdad to hunt down armed groups taking refuge in the area known as the Triangle of Death, London's "Al-Hayat" reported on 1 February. Scorpion Forces spokesman Lieutenant Fa'iz Hasan told the daily that commander Colonel Salam Tarrad reached agreement with sheikhs from the Al-Gharir, Al-Shujayriyah, Al-Sa'id, Al-Janabiyin, Humayyir, Al Bu Alwan, Al Bu Mustafa, Khafajah, Al-Shibl, Al-Awwadiyin, and Al-Kuray'at tribes. The plan calls for the establishment of popular committees that will include locals and members of intelligence, which will hunt down the insurgent groups and dismantle their networks. "Al-Hayat" reported that the Scorpion Forces agreed to secure weapons and funding to implement the plan, and will place armed forces in the areas to provide backup to the committees. The daily also reported that committee "volunteers" will be financially compensated, but did not elaborate. KR

The U.S. military handed over a military base in Baghdad's Green Zone to Iraqi security forces on 31 January, international media reported. The base, known as Forward Operation Base Honor, is viewed as the first step toward the handover of larger areas of central Baghdad. U.S. commanders said those areas will likely be handed over in the coming weeks. Further north, an Iraqi army division took control over 150 square kilometers south of Mosul on 30 January, announced in a same-day press release. Some 800 Iraqi soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, and 2nd Army Division will man the area, located west of the Tigris River and east of the Mosul-Baghdad highway. "The terrorists are taking their last breaths and the end is near...there is no place for them" to hide, said unit commander Iraqi Brigadier General Ali Mullah during the transfer ceremony. KR

U.S. President George W. Bush said during his 31 January State of the Union address that the military, not U.S. politicians, will decide on the appropriate time to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. Bush linked the war in Iraq to the war on terrorism in the annual speech, saying: "We are in this fight to win, and we are winning." He also stressed that the United States must keep its pledges to Iraq. "A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, would put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country, and show that a pledge from America means little," Bush said. Addressing members of Congress, he added, "However we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in this vital mission." The U.S. Congress has become increasingly divided over the U.S. presence in Iraq in recent months. KR