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Newsline - February 13, 2006

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington on 12 February that she is skeptical about the future of democracy in Russia, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 6 February 2006). "We are very concerned, particularly about some of the elements of democratization that seem to be going in the wrong direction," she said. Rice recalled what was widely seen as Russia's recent use of gas supplies as a political tool against Ukraine, as well as new legislation to establish greater control over nongovernmental organizations. She added that "the question is open as to where Russia's future development is going." Rice nonetheless stressed that the overall state of relations is "very good" and that today's Russia "is not the Soviet Union. Let's not overstate the case" for critical observations. PM

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said in Moscow on 11 February that some of his colleagues at a meeting of finance ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized countries called for more equal access to Russia's gas-export pipelines for independent producers, who account for 15 percent of the total production, Interfax and the "Financial Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 February 2006). Kudrin noted that "in the future, access to export pipelines will be equal for all [companies] that win licenses to develop new fields. I am not prepared to say when that will happen, but we are readying ourselves for it." French Finance Minister Thierry Breton stressed the need for Russia to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty to provide a legal framework for the energy business, adding that he will "use all my power to move Russia forward" in that respect. Kudrin said, however, that Russia "cannot set a date [for ratification] at the moment," "The Moscow Times" reported. U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow called Kudrin's remarks on easing access to gas pipelines "illuminating." He added that U.S.-Russian talks on Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization "are in the home stretch" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2006). PM

President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow on 11 February that Russian energy providers will rank third or fourth among the foreign suppliers to the U.S. market, up from about eighth place, within three or four years, reported. Meanwhile, Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov was surprised when his NATO colleagues at a 10 February meeting in Taormina, Sicily, questioned Russia's apparent use of energy as a political weapon in its recent dispute with Ukraine, Russian and international news agencies reported. Ivanov questioned whether the NATO forum was the right place to discuss energy-related issues. PM

Defense Minister Ivanov said that he discussed Russia's recent invitation to Hamas leaders with Shaul Mofaz, his Israeli colleague, during the recent Taormina NATO meeting, the Moscow daily "Kommersant" reported on 13 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). Ivanov told reporters that he could not provide details of the conversation. Mofaz, however, notified the Israeli cabinet on 12 February that he failed to convince Ivanov to withdraw the invitation. The Russian minister told him that Hamas won the recent Palestinian election and that the world will eventually have to talk to it, Mofaz added. PM

Aleksandr Kalugin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's special envoy for the Middle East peace process, said in Moscow on 11 February that the Hamas delegation might arrive before the end of February, Interfax reported. He added that "the delegation is likely to be led by head of Hamas' political wing, Khaled Mashaal, because he has headed the delegations that have visited Arab countries recently." Kalugin noted that his department "is already engaged in coordinating the dates and level of this visit." PM

Yevgeny Primakov, a former foreign minister and current president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as a veteran Middle East expert, told Interfax on 10 February that "Hamas...will eventually come to negotiations [with Israel], because there is no other way" if it intends to stay in power. Primakov compared Hamas to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which gradually came to recognize Israel. "It would be wrong to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel right now.... This would mean driving Hamas into a corner and unsettling the part of the Palestinian population that holds extremist views. What Hamas should do now is declare its willingness to enter into peace talks with Israel," he said. Primakov criticized the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that recently appeared in some Western newspapers, saying that it is "outrageous" and that "one must never mock people's religious feelings" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 10 February 2006). Referring to Iran's nuclear project, Primakov said that the only way for Tehran to avoid isolation is to accept Moscow's proposal for uranium enrichment in Russia. PM

An Iranian government spokesman said in Tehran on 13 February that bilateral talks originally slated for this week in Moscow on Russia's proposal to process uranium on its territory for Iran will take place at an unspecified later date, Russian and international news agencies reported. In Moscow, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Russia is waiting for official notification of Iran's decision to put off the talks, adding, however, that Russia's offer remains valid. PM

President Putin said in Moscow on 11 February that Russia will allocate $43.5 million over the period 2006-10 for the International Monetary Fund's aid program for the world's poorest countries that have suffered external shocks, RIA Novosti reported. PM

Lawyers for railway worker Oleg Shcherbinsky said in Barnaul on 13 February they have filed an appeal in the Altai Krai court against his recent four-year sentence to a penal colony in connection with an August 2005 car accident that left the region's governor, Mikhail Yevdokimov, and two others dead, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 August 2005 and 3 February 2006). Thousands of motorists took part in protests across Russia over the 11-12 February weekend on behalf of Shcherbinsky, who has become a symbol of the plight of ordinary drivers when involved in accidents with officials. PM

Dmitry Kolomytsev, a local leader of the nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party, was beaten by three unidentified men on 12 February in Volgograd, Russian media reported. Motherland leader Dmitry Rogozin said the attack was politically motivated, adding that Kolomytsev is a politician with no business interests. PM

Russian media divulged more details on 11 February of the large-scale operation in the Stavropol village of Tukui-Mekteb on 9-10 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). Up to 300 Russian special-forces troops backed by heavy armor and, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 February, by combat helicopters, participated in the battle, in which eight militants and at least seven law-enforcement officials were killed. Russian officials claimed to have identified two of the dead militants, who are believed to be Nogai Tatars and members of a Chechen resistance grouping based in Chechnya's northeastern Shelkovsky district that borders Daghestan. The Russian officials claim the militants whom they neutralized in Tukui-Mekteb were planning a large-scale terrorist attack on an unidentified target. Police also arrested four men and two women in Pyatigorsk on 10 February on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, Interfax reported. Those detainees too were identified as members of the Shelkovsky djamaat. LF

In a video statement made available to the news agency Daymohk, a transcript of which was posted on 11 February by, Chechen President and resistance forces commander Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev addressed the issue of Chechnya's Islamic orientation, which has been the subject of a recent polemic between recently dismissed Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakayev and Press and Information Minister Movladi Udugov (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 February 2006). Sadulayev stressed that the work of bringing Chechnya's constitution into conformity with the norms of Islam began under then President Djokhar Dudayev in 1995 and continued under his successor Aslan Maskhadov, who in February 1999 declared the transition to rule exclusively by Islamic law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 4, and 5 February 1999). Sadulayev said the process of amending the constitution of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria was completed during the extended session of the War Council in the summer of 2002. (It was at that session that Sadulayev was chosen as Maskhadov's successor.) He said Article 1 of the constitution now reads: "The Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) is a sovereign, independent, Islamic state based on the rule of law and created as a result of the self-determination of the Chechen people. The source of all decisions made is the Koran and the Sunna." Sadulayev further said that "fulfilling their sacred duty before Allah, the Muslims of the Caucasus are uniting around the leadership of the ChRI and waging a national-liberation struggle to de-colonize the entire Caucasus." Finally, in what could be construed as a rebuke to Zakayev, who currently lives in London, Sadulayev stressed that the Koran differentiates between those who engage in jihad (holy struggle) and those who do not, ranking the former superior to the latter. The latter should bear in mind, Sadulayev continued, that they serve as assistants and advisers to the former, not as their bosses. LF

Armenian presidential staff head Artashes Tumanian announced on 10 February the establishment of a new political party to be named Nor Yerkir (New Country), RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The party's manifesto, published simultaneously in three major newspapers, focuses on further democratization, economic liberalization, and achieving EU membership by 2015. Tumanian, 55, served as deputy speaker of Armenia's first postcommunist parliament and during the early 1990s as head of the government's tax department. LF

The imminent doubling of the price of Russian natural gas will raise production costs in Armenia's manufacturing sector by between 20-25 percent, according to Meruzhan Hakobian, an adviser to Trade and Economy Minister Karen Chshmaritian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 10 February. That price increase is scheduled to take effect on 1 April. Hakobian added that he does not think the increase in production costs will negatively affect Armenia's exports, including of synthetic rubber and other chemical products, given that Armenia's competitors in that field will have to contend with similar increases in production costs. LF

Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev met separately on 10 February in Paris with French President Jacques Chirac, and later the same day and on 11 February in Rambouillet, to discuss approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL reported. But they failed to finalize the anticipated statement on general principles that could serve as a framework for resolving the conflict (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). The two presidents met for several hours on 10 February, first in the company of their respective foreign ministers and the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, and then one-on-one; a further one-on-one meeting lasting some two hours took place on 11 February, after which the two presidents left Rambouillet without making any statement for the press. LF

U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman Steven Mann told RFE/RL in Rambouillet on 12 February that the two presidents discussed "the full range of issues," and he characterized the "personal atmospherics" between them as "good." An official Minsk Group communique quoted on 12 February by ITAR-TASS described the talks as "intensive," but added that the positions of the two sides on "some acute aspects" remain as far apart as they were several months ago. on 12 February quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov as saying that the two presidents reached agreement on seven out of nine points, not including the return to their former homes of displaced persons and the question of preserving Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. Mammadyarov did not mention the referendum that is rumored to be a key aspect of a future settlement. On 10 February, a senior Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry official told that any referendum in Azerbaijan must be nationwide, rather than confined to a specific locality. LF

Ali Kerimli, co-chairman of the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AXCP), was quoted on 11 February by as predicting that the decision two days earlier by the Musavat party to quit the Azadliq election bloc to which both parties belonged (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006) will only strengthen the authority of the AXCP. He rejected as misplaced speculation that his party's decision to boycott the work of what he termed an illegitimate parliament will lead to its isolation and loss of popularity, and pointed out that with only four mandates in the 125-deputy legislature, the Musavat party will be unable to influence political developments. Former leading Musavat member Rasim Musabekov predicted that the parties formally aligned in Azadliq may again join forces in the future if the political need arises, reported on 11 February. Meanwhile, Musavat Deputy Chairman Arif Hacili has denied that Musavat is holding talks with former Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mammadov on forming a new bloc, reported on 13 February. LF

Georgian police detained three journalists from Russia's REN-TV on 11 February on the grounds they lacked official accreditation, but released then after several hours, Civil Georgia reported on 12 February. The Russian film crew was filming facilities at the main bridge over the Inguri River that forms the internal border between the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia as part of a broader documentary on the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia. LF

Kazakh prosecutors told a briefing in Astana on 10 February that Kazakhstan now hosts between 350,000 and 1 million illegal immigrants, Khabar reported. Prosecutors said that they hope to tighten controls over the flow of unregistered migrant workers. Plans include the creation of a unified system to keep track of the number of people entering and exiting Kazakhstan. An Interior Ministry official recently opposed any moves to clamp down on illegal immigration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February 2006). DK

Industry and Commerce Minister Vladimir Shkolnik told a press conference in Astana on 10 February that Kazakhstan could join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He said, "If we finish the negotiating process this year and defend all our positions, then 2007 is a realistic date." Shkolnik noted that Kazakhstan is coordinating its WTO accession efforts with Russia. Shkolnik also stated that WTO accession will put an end to bans on fuel exports, a practice currently used to stabilize domestic prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2006). He said that export bans could be replaced by direct state subsidies for agricultural producers, whose business is heavily dependent on fuel prices. DK

Omurbek Tekebaev, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, offered his resignation on 10 February, but legislators declined to include the issue on their agenda, reported. Only 20 delegates voted in favor of putting Tekebaev's resignation to a vote. Just days before, Tekebaev harshly criticized President Kurmanbek Bakiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006), who recently accused parliament of fomenting political instability in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev later suggested that Tekebaev's comments about the president violated the law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). A majority of legislators queried by on 10 February said that while Tekebaev's 7 February remarks about Bakiev were overly emotional, Bakiev has not made sufficient efforts to conduct a dialogue with lawmakers. For his part, Tekebaev told that he considers the disagreement not a political crisis, "but rather an annoying misunderstanding." He said that the situation would "resolve itself one way or another." DK

Justice Minister Marat Kayipov announced on 10 February that Kolbai Joldoshev has been appointed acting head of Kyrgyzstan's penitentiary system, Kyrgyz Television 1 reported. The former head, Kapar Mukeev, has been suspended pending the outcome of a criminal investigation of negligence charges. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov has announced on national television that Turkmenistan intends to raise the export price of natural gas from $65 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters in the fall, AP reported on 11 February. Niyazov said, "There are fuel problems in the world, these problems exist in Europe, too. Prices for fuel are rising." A rise in the price of Turkmen gas could affect a recently announced deal between Ukraine and Russia on 2006 gas shipments, since the agreement depends on cheap Turkmen gas to allow Ukraine to pay an average price of $95 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006. Mikhail Bakulev, an analyst with Moscow-based AVK, told on 11 February, "If Turkmen gas gets more expensive, they'll definitely raise the price for Ukraine. Niyazov's decision is beneficial to Russia, since Moscow gets an additional mechanism to pressure Ukraine." Meanwhile, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yurii Yekhanurov reacted calmly, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 11 February. Yekhanurov called the reported Turkmen price hike "unofficial" and commented, "As for our relations in supplies of natural gas, this has no bearing whatsoever." DK

Uzbekistan's cabinet announced at a 10 February meeting that the country's GDP rose by 7 percent in 2005, reported. Uzbekistan's official GDP growth was 7.7 percent in 2004, according to the Asian Development Bank ( Official statistics for 2005 showed a slowdown in the growth of industrial and agricultural production, with growth in the former falling from 9 percent in 2004 to 7.3 percent in 2005, and in the latter from 10 percent in 2004 to 6.2 percent in 2005. DK

The four expected contenders in Belarus's presidential election in March have all filed the documents required for them to be registered as candidates, Central Election Commission secretary Mikalay Lazavik said on 11 February, Belapan reported. The four contenders are incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich; independent Alyaksandr Kazulin, a former rector of Belarusian State University; and Syarhey Haydukevich, a member of the House of Representatives and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. The documents include property and income declarations for each potential candidate and their families, and reports on their backgrounds. According to Lazavik, each of the potential candidates turned in more than the required 100,000 ballot signatures. Lazavik also said that "the verification of the filed income and property declarations will now be the most serious test for the contenders." AM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on 10 February that he doesn't need to resort to undemocratic steps to ensure his victory in the 19 March presidential elections, Belapan reported. "Opinion polls conducted by my rivals prove that the incumbent has a support rating of more than 60 percent," he said. "Who in my place would dare to falsify the election only to face criticism later? I absolutely do not need it." Lukashenka also said that under his rule the country has not been "sold out" like its neighbors, adding that "the West and some oligarchs have not received what they wanted in Belarus." Lukashenka advised his rivals to travel to rural areas in Belarus instead of "sitting in Brussels." United opposition candidate Milinkevich recently visited the capital of the European Union. AM

Presidential Secretariat head Oleh Rybachuk has said that Ukrainian-Russian relations should be based on international standards, Interfax reported on 10 February. "The call made by the Russian leadership, including President [Vladimir] Putin, that our relations should be grounded on international standards suits Ukraine perfectly," Rybachuk said. He noted that during the recent dispute over how much Ukraine would pay for Russian gas, Ukraine agreed to let the market dictate the price. Ukraine and Russian have long had many mutually advantageous financial and political agreements based on their traditional friendship. Rybachuk's comments come on the heels of National Security and Defense Council Head Anatoliy Kinakh's recent suggestion that the market should establish the price Russia pays Ukraine to lease the site of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. However, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin said the terms of the Russian Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea should not be revised. "If we now shift to this international [practice], we will face a lot of questions where we could hurt each other," Chernomyrdin said. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko in his annual address to the Verkhovna Rada on 9 February said that steps should be taken to ensure balance among the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the cabinet, Interfax reported. Yushchenko suggested that such a balance could be reached by granting the president the authority to create a provisional government and to initiate the dismissal of the parliament in the event of a crisis between the parliament and cabinet in the last six months of the parliament's or the president's terms, and during the first working year of the parliament that will be elected on 26 March. AM

Boris Tadic on 12 February criticized Muslims in the southern Serbian town of Novi Pazar for setting national flags on fire during a demonstration, Hina reported the same day. Muslims in Novi Pazar on 10 February held a protest against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in European papers. During the demonstration, protesters burned an Israeli, a Danish, and a Croatian flag. The Islamic community in the Sandzak region has said that it did not support the Novi Pazar demonstrations, Hina reported. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, meanwhile, a planned protest in front of the Danish Embassy was called off on 12 February after demonstrators failed to get police approval. BW

President Tadic said on 10 February that he is open to the idea of direct talks with newly elected Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu, dpa reported the same day. "My doors are open to you to start direct talks. We must begin to solve the concrete living problems of the citizens in Kosovo as soon as possible," Tadic said, according to a press release from his office. Meanwhile, Kosovar Albanian political parties from both the government and opposition have given the go-ahead for senior politicians to participate in United Nations-backed final-status talks, dpa reported on 13 February. Kosova's negotiating team will be announced this week. There have previously been no high-ranking politicians on the ethnic Albanian team, which is to be led by Lutfi Haziri, who is minister for local government affairs. BW

Kosova's President Sejdiu said on 10 February that independence for the province is "non-negotiable" as the UN-backed talks on the province's status approach, AP reported the same day. "For us it is very important that this road to independence is a quick one," Sejdiu told AP in an interview. In his acceptance speech before Kosova's parliament, Sejdiu said he will continue late President Ibrahim Rugova's policy of seeking an independent Kosova. He also pledged to make the province a country that is "at peace with itself and its neighbors," where all ethnic groups are guaranteed their rights and freedoms. BW

Montenegrin opposition leader Predrag Bulatovic on 12 February asked the European Union to define what kind of majority is necessary in a referendum on independence, AP reported the same day. Bulatovic made his comments after Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who favors independence, asked the EU to intervene in the dispute between pro- and anti-independence forces. The pro-Serbia opposition is insisting that at least half of Montenegro's 466,000 voters back independence regardless of turnout, while independence advocates say 25-40 percent of all voters is sufficient. "We have been saying for years that the necessary majority for independence is 50 percent plus one vote," Bulatovic said "If the EU thinks otherwise, it will have to say so." BW

NATO officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina are offering a reward of approximately $4.85 million for information leading to the arrest and extradition of six top war crimes fugitives, FoNet and B92 reported on 10 February. "The prize of up to 8.5 million convertible marks can be paid for information on Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Vlastimir Djordjevic, Goran Hadzic, Stojan Zupljanin, and Zdravko Tolimir," NATO announced in a statement. BW

A senior Russian official has said that Moscow will only remove a large cache of arms stored in the Transdniester region following a comprehensive settlement, Flux reported on 11 February. "Russia is ready to evacuate its munitions stored in [Transdniester] only after political terms to settle the dispute are created," Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Yury Zubakov said. On 9 February, Russian and Ukrainian officials visited warehouses in Cobasna, where 19,000 tons of munitions are stored. Removing them would require a 35-car train, according to officials at the site. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Deputy Secretary Serhiy Pyrozhkov said Kyiv is ready to assist Russia in removing the munitions. BW

Belarus will hold a presidential election on 19 March, in which incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will run for the third time in a row. Even the biggest optimists among the opposition do not dare to suggest that the Central Election Commission may announce anything else than a landslide victory for the incumbent. Why have polls in Belarus under Lukashenka become nothing more than frustrating exercises in simulated democracy?

On 8 February, Belarus's Central Election Commission said its territorial branches in Hrodna Oblast annulled ballot-access signatures collected for united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich in 10 of the oblast's 17 districts. According to the commission, more than 15 percent of signatures collected for Milinkevich in these districts were false or otherwise defective, which under electoral regulations in force disqualifies the lists altogether.

Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, Milinkevich's election team manager, said the annulment is a deliberate step by the authorities to discredit the united opposition candidate in his native region and undermine public trust in him. "We have Xerox copies of all signature lists and we are ready to check the authenticity of all the submitted signatures jointly with territorial election commissions, but have been told 'no' everywhere," he added.

Milinkevich reportedly submitted 198,000 signatures to support his presidential bid; that is, well in excess of the 100,000 required for his registration as a presidential candidate. But it's hard to say whether he is on the safe side during the ongoing checks of ballot-access signatures. If territorial commissions in Belarus's other five regions and the city of Minsk follow the example of those in Hrodna Oblast, he may simply be denied registration and eliminated from the presidential race.

The checking of signatures is only one stage of the tortuous process that opposition candidates face in order to challenge President Lukashenka. Since the opposition in Belarus has virtually no representatives in the power system, either at the central or regional level, it is completely at the mercy of the authorities, which not only set the rules of the electoral game but also interpret these rules in the way they want to. And no one can challenge these rules or their interpretations because there is no independent arbiter in the country. Belarus's judicial system is nothing more than a punishing arm of the executive.

Campaigning in Belarus is another problem. Campaigning is possible only after the registration of candidates, which is expected to take place close to 21 February, thus leaving the registered candidates only four weeks for promoting their bids among the electorate. Each of the registered candidates will obtain some $30,000 from the state to cover costs of his campaign. Exceeding this amount in campaign expenses can lead to disqualification from the race.

Each of the candidates will also be offered two 30-minute appearances on state-run radio and another two on state-run television, where they may present their pre-recorded addresses to voters. If radio and television authorities deem the addresses inappropriate, they may ban them from being aired. Given Belarus's tight antidefamation legislation and lax rules of official interpretation of what constitutes defamation, it is hardly possible for independent candidates to criticize the government of President Lukashenka during these broadcasts. There is no legal possibility for presidential candidates to place election advertisements on state-run television and radio apart from the above-mentioned appearances.

Each of the registered candidates may also publish his election platform -- not exceeding 10,000 characters -- in seven nationwide state-run newspapers. And Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna warned on 8 February that the candidates should not try to do so in non-state press. Yarmoshyna argued that giving a presidential candidate the opportunity to publish his articles in a non-state newspaper will be tantamount to providing illegal financial support, which in its turn may serve as a reason for the candidate's exclusion from the race.

And presidential candidates cannot meet with voters where they want. They may only meet at venues provided by local authorities. Of course, that's if the candidates are able to pay the rent without exceeding the authorized campaign fund.

Counting the ballots in Belarus is totally under the government's control. In theory, the electoral code allows political parties and nongovernmental organization to be represented on territorial election commissions. But during past decade, the authorities did not let any meaningful group of opposition representatives or democratic-minded NGOs to participate in these commissions. This year they were extremely uncompromising -- out of 74,107 people selected for 6,586 precinct election commissions, only two represent opposition parties.

Election observers in Belarus, either international or domestic, do not add much to making the ballot counting more transparent and reliable -- observers are not allowed into the room where the process is taking place and may observe it only through an open door from an adjacent room. It has never happened in the past 10 years of Lukashenka's rule that the authorities allowed election monitors to recount the ballots at some precinct in order to compare their result with the official one. Indeed, even obtaining information about the number of eligible voters in a given precinct frequently proves to be an impossible task.

The strict campaign rules do not apply, of course, to the incumbent president. Lukashenka may advertise his presidential bid whenever and wherever he wants -- he may always claim that he speaks on election issues as the head of state, not as a presidential candidate. And he does not need to bother himself about his election fund. He simply does not have to pay for anything. And he may habitually call his political opponents "thugs" (otmorozki) on television and describe them as mercenaries of the West, without bothering himself about defamation laws.

However, what the authorities are really concerned about is election turnout. The government does everything possible to show that Lukashenka's policies enjoy wide and enthusiastic popular support. Therefore, casting ballots in Belarus actually begins six days before the voting day, and people are encouraged by the government to vote early. And on the voting day the authorities at many polling stations offer vodka and sausages as well as other consumer goods at discount prices.

A poll taken by the Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of January found that nationwide nearly 55 percent of Belarusians want to vote for Lukashenka and just 17 percent for Milinkevich. Practically, Lukashenka could win in a fully democratic ballot. But he has his own way of handling elections. His own pollster, the Institute for Social and Political Studies, immediately reacted by saying that in a poll it held in December, 77 percent of respondents said they wanted to vote for the incumbent. According to the presidential institute, support for any other presidential candidate did not exceed 2 percent. Some Belarusian independent observers, leaning on the experience of previous election campaigns in the country, have opined that 77 percent is the minimum that Lukashenka would tolerate to see as his result in the Central Election Commission's protocol after the 19 March vote.

The deadly violence between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in the western city of Herat on 9 February that left at least four people dead was not religiously or politically motivated, Afghan Minster of Energy and Water Mohammad Ismail Khan said on 12 February, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Ismail Khan, the former strongman and governor of Herat Province, was sent by President Hamid Karzai to investigate the causes of clashes in the city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). Ismail Khan blamed a number of Shi'ite youths for sparking the incident by insulting Omar bin al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, who is revered by Sunnis and disliked by the Shi'a. Ismail Khan added that the committee will investigate the riots to reach a final conclusion on the causes of the incident. AT

Governor Sayyed Hosayn Anwari has blamed local political parties for instigating the sectarian violence in Herat city, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 12 February. Anwari did not name any specific parties, but added that an influential Sunni leader, Gholam Faruq Hosayni, gave a speech in which he encouraged Sunnis to attack Shi'a. Herat Province security commander General Ayyub Salangi told a news conference in Herat on 12 February that police have arrested 14 people on charges of involvement in the riots, Sahar Radio reported. Salangi refused to identify the detainees, saying only that two of them had hand grenades. AT

Two citizens of Nepal were kidnapped in the Afghan capital on 11 February, AFP reported on 12 February, citing an unidentified Afghan Interior Ministry source. The two men were originally reported to have worked as security guards for a nongovernmental organization; however, the Afghan government source denied the report, identifying the two as "ordinary workers." The Nepalese Foreign Ministry has asked Pakistan to help in getting the two men released, as Nepal does not have an embassy in Afghanistan, reported on 12 February. AT

Mines and Industries Minister Sediq Eishan will attend the ninth tripartite session of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas-pipeline project in Ashgabat on 13 and 14 February, Afghanistan National Television reported on 12 February. The TAP pipeline is a $3.45 billion undertaking designed to transport natural gas from the Dawlatabad field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then eventually, if the political climate between Islamabad and New Delhi permits, to India (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003). While Kabul and Islamabad have kept the TAP idea alive, and even New Delhi has hinted at possible interest, among the unknown factors is the actual size of the Turkmen gas fields. AT

The anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution was commemorated in Tehran on 11 February, Iranian news agencies reported. IRNA described a sunny but cold day, and the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, the official 24-hour news channel, showed thousands gathering at the capital's Azadi Square, where they reportedly expressed their backing for the country's nuclear program and condemned the U.S., Israel, Denmark, and the Mujaheddin Khalq Organization. They also expressed support for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the ruling system of Vilayat-i Faqih (Guardianship of the Supreme Jurisprudent). A resolution issued at the end of the Tehran rally stressed that Iran will not give in to international pressure and will pursue its "right" to use nuclear energy peacefully. The resolution condemned the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, describing them "as a sign of hostility and hard-heartedness towards Islam," and it called on Islamic states to cut relations with Denmark and expel their Danish ambassadors. Furthermore, the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections was welcomed and support for Palestinians was expressed, as the occupation of Iraq was criticized. BS

Khuzestan Provincial television showed 11 February rallies in the city of Ahvaz. Chanting in Arabic and Persian, demonstrators condemned the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in September and burned a Danish flag. They also condemned the U.S., Israel, France, and the United Kingdom. Demonstrators also expressed support for the country's nuclear program. Asked why she was at the rally, a girl responded, "To say down with America," while a man said, "I have a message for George [W.] Bush, the president of the United States: we hate you, we hate you forever!" According to the television station, rallies took place in other provincial municipalities, including Andimeshk, Behbehan, Dezful, Haftgel, Izeh, Mahshahr, Masjid Suleiman, Shush-e Danial, and Susangerd. Isfahan provincial television also described rallies in that province's cities. In Isfahan, one group of demonstrators carried an effigy of President Bush. The rally took place in the city's Imam Square and was described as bigger than in previous years. According to Isfahan TV, rallies took place in other provincial municipalities including Ardestan, Fereidunshahr, Golpayegan, Kashan, Najafabad, Natanz, and Semirom. BS

Mahmud Ahmadinejad again raised the controversial subject of the Holocaust in his 11 February speech at Tehran's Azadi Square, state television reported. Referring to the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, he said "a few disgraced Zionists" have insulted the prophet, and "some weak governments that owe their existence to the Zionists' support," are behind this case. Ahmadinejad asked why some Western governments defend insulting the prophet in this way, whereas "questioning the Holocaust myth and questioning the formation of a fake regime that has occupied Palestine is a crime." Ahmadinejad said "the usurper Zionist regime" has used the Holocaust to blackmail the West, displace and murder Palestinians, and justify its "crimes." He asked, "How is it that insulting prophets is acceptable in your country but any study or research about the myth of the Holocaust is forbidden?" Ahmadinejad added that the "real" Holocaust is taking place in Palestine and Iraq. BS

President Ahmadinejad's repeated Holocaust denial is causing discomfort among Iran's Jewish community of approximately 25,000, Reuters reported on 12 February. A letter from Jewish community leader Harun Yashyai to Ahmadinejad two weeks ago asked, "How is it possible to ignore all of the undeniable evidence existing about the exile and massacre of the Jews in Europe during World War II?" Challenging the Holocaust is causing "fear and anxiety" among Iranian Jews, the letter continued. BS

President Ahmadinejad also discussed the nuclear issue in his 11 February speech, Radio Farda and state television reported. Ahmadinejad said Iran's fossil-fuel supplies will be exhausted soon and the country wants to use nuclear technology for agriculture, medicine, and other fields. He said Iran has given international inspectors access to the country's nuclear facilities but, after roughly three years, "we finally realized that they were basically opposed to Iran's development." Ahmadinejad said that Iran has been committed to the peaceful use of nuclear energy and has operated within the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). "However," he continued, "if we see that, despite our respect for these regulations you want to violate the rights of the Iranian people, you should understand that the Iranian nation will revise its policies." BS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 12 February tried to assuage concern stemming from President Ahmadinejad's apparent threat to withdraw from the NPT, Radio Farda reported. He stressed that Iranian policy calls only for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and reiterated Iran's interest in continuing talks within the framework of international regulations. BS

Students gathered outside the French Embassy in Tehran on 12 February to protest against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, IRNA reported. The demonstrators, who were described by IRNA as "furious," chanted "Death to America," "Death to Denmark," and "Death to Britain," and they also carried banners that read "Nuclear energy is our undeniable right." According to IRNA, police were in full control of the situation and prevented the demonstrators from trespassing on French property. International news agency photographs from the evening of 10 February showed the exterior of the embassy in flames after demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices. Substitute Tehran Friday Prayers Leader Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami said in his 10 February sermon that the Europeans welcome such incidents, state radio reported. He added, "they are themselves putting gasoline cans in the basements of their embassies." This means, Khatami continued, "they deliberately want their embassies to be set ablaze so that they can cry out as if they are victimized." Therefore, he advised against attacking embassies. BS

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appeared before the Iraqi Special Tribunal as the Al-Dujayl trial resumed on 13 February, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Hussein was belligerent in the courtroom as the trial got under way. Dressed in a traditional dishdasha robe, Hussein entered the courtroom shouting, "Down with [U.S. President George W.] Bush!" He complained about being forced to attend the trial, as did his half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti. As the trial proceeded, the court heard written complaints by some 20 people. Also appearing before the court was former Hussein aide Ahmad Husayn Khudayir al-Samarra'i, who refused to testify. "I was brought here by force and I refuse to testify," he said. "I did not accept to be a witness." The court is expected to hear from other former Hussein aides in the afternoon session. KR

The Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list, which won a plurality in the parliamentary elections, has nominated outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to stay on in the incoming government, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on 12 February. Al-Ja'fari's nomination came as a surprise to many in Iraq, who had lobbied for outgoing Shi'ite Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi to assume the post. Speaking at a press conference, al-Ja'fari pledged to "expand the government, achieve national unity, and include all shades of the Iraqi political spectrum so that the new government will represent all Iraqis and all political entities." Abd al-Mahdi told reporters at the briefing that the vote within the UIA to nominate al-Ja'fari was carried out transparently, adding, "We will stand by al-Ja'fari in carrying out the huge task given to the UIA." KR

Outgoing President Jalal Talabani told reporters at a 12 February press briefing in Baghdad alongside U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that the Kurds will not participate in a government that excludes former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "I reiterated to the U.S. ambassador the position of the Kurdistan Coalition, which rejects the exclusion of any parliamentary bloc, particularly [Allawi's] Iraqi National List, from the makeup of the next government. The Kurdistan Coalition will not participate in any government that discriminates or vetoes against Iyad Allawi's bloc," he said. Without elaborating, Talabani said that two "initial agreements" were concluded with Allawi's list and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front for their participation in a national unity government. "We hope that the United Iraqi Alliance will agree with us on these basic points." Allawi's list won 25 of the 275 parliamentary seats in the 15 December elections. KR

The U.K. military police announced on 12 February that it will launch an investigation after the British tabloid "News of the World" released details of a videotape that appears to show British soldiers beating and kicking Iraqi teenagers inside a military compound in Iraq. The footage appears to show eight soldiers pulling four teenagers into the compound after the teenagers threw stones at them during a confrontation; the soldiers then proceed to beat the teenagers with batons and kick them as they lay on the ground. In the background, a man with a British accent can be heard encouraging the soldiers to beat the teenagers. The newspaper said it was given the video footage from an anonymous whistleblower. KR

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on 10 February that it is sending 70,000 doses of the drug Tamiflu to combat bird flu (avian influenza), AFP reported the same day. The news agency reported that 17 people are suspected of having contracted bird flu since the disease broke out in Iraq last month. WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said samples from the patients were taken to Baghdad and will be flown from there to WHO laboratories in Cairo and London for analysis. KR