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Newsline - February 15, 2006

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told Ekho Moskvy radio on 14 February that Russia's recent decision to invite the leaders of Hamas for talks provides that Palestinian organization with a "historic opportunity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 13, and 14 February 2006). "Hamas should recognize its responsibilities and the opportunity that it is being offered," he stressed, adding that Hamas must also recognize Israel's right to exist. France is the first EU country to back the controversial Russian initiative, dpa reported. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin said that the Franco-Russian talks provided an opportunity to "synchronize watches" on a number of international issues. PM

French Prime Minister De Villepin and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Fradkov said in a joint communique in Moscow on 14 February that Iran should suspend the enrichment and processing of uranium, although they recognize Iran's "legitimate right" to develop a civilian nuclear program, Interfax reported. They endorsed the nuclear nonproliferation regime as the cornerstone of the multilateral security system and called for a treaty banning the production of weapons-grade fissile materials. PM

Russian Prime Minister Fradkov told a Moscow press conference on 14 February that commercial advantage and the equality of all bidders are the operating principles in Gazprom's negotiations with foreign companies in the development of the Shtokman field in the Barents Sea and the construction of the North European Gas Pipeline, and ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 12 December 2005). Gaz de France and Total are seeking to become Gazprom partners in some projects, he noted. French Prime Minister De Villepin said that France attaches particular importance to ensuring regular uninterrupted oil and gas supplies and regards cooperation with Russia as means to that end. PM

Officials of the Russian Federal Space Agency and France's Arianespace agreed in Moscow on 14 February to make the first four launches of Soyuz-ST rockets from Kourou in French Guiana after November 2008, when the two countries will begin operating a joint launching pad, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). Federal Space Agency head Anatoly Perminov called France "our closest partner." At present, the Starsem joint venture between Russia and France launches rockets from Baikonur. There have been 15 successful launches to date, and another six are scheduled for 2006-07. Elsewhere, Perminov and the president of the French space agency CNES, Yannick D'Escatha, signed a protocol for developing medium and heavy Ural rockets, which France plans to utilize when its Ariane-5 series is no longer usable. PM

Unnamed senior officials from Russia and Indonesia signed an agreement recently to build a rocket-launching station on Biak Island in northeastern Indonesia, reported on 14 February. The site is attractive to Russia because it is near the equator, which enables rockets to utilize the planet's greater rotational speed there to save on fuel and carry payloads that are up to 25 percent greater than those that could be launched elsewhere. Russia's initial investment in the facility will be about $25 million. The deal is slated to be finalized when the presidents of the two countries meet in Moscow in June. It is part of a diversification effort in the Russian space program that also includes Australia as well as France and Indonesia. PM

Iranian officials have posed a series of preconditions that could cripple the negotiations slated for 20 February in Moscow before they even begin, the daily "Kommersant" and Deutsche Welle reported on 15 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). Tehran reportedly wants to limit the joint uranium-enrichment venture with Russia to two years, during which time Iranian experts would have free access to the Russian facilities. After two years, the project would reportedly be transferred to Iran. In the meantime, Tehran would expect Moscow to veto any UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions against it. PM

Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the State Duma on 15 February that Private Andrei Sychyov, whose legs and genitals were amputated following beatings he received from fellow soldiers at the Chelyabinsk tank school on New Year's Eve, did not sustain his injuries because of beatings and rape but because he was forced to sit for a prolonged period of time, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2006). Ivanov said that "whereas previously we encountered mainly instances of physical abuse [in the military], more sophisticated forms [of hazing] have appeared recently. As far as...Sychyov is concerned, the preliminary investigation suggests that serious damage was caused to Sychyov's health because he was forced to sit idle for a very long period of time." The minister added that "media reports claiming that Sychyov was beaten by a group [of servicemen] and raped are not true. Of course, it is fully justified to describe a situation where a person is forced to sit without moving as an instance of hazing." Ivanov also said that his ministry is "working on" introducing a system of "professional sergeants...who will serve on a contract basis." PM

Defense Minister Ivanov told the State Duma on 15 February that the phenomenon of hazing has its roots "in the kindergarten" and will not be easily eradicated, RIA Novosti reported. He argued that "the Chelyabinsk [incident] and several other cases cannot be grounds for sweeping accusations against all generals, sergeants, and warrant officers. Punishment should be applied to those who are directly responsible for [infringements of the rules]. Those guilty are being punished and will be punished." Ivanov argued that some Russian media have, in fact, called "for disobedience and a boycott of the spring conscription campaign." He added that those responsible for the offending articles could face prosecution for violating the constitutional order. PM

The Chief Military Prosecutor's Office has sent the Defense Ministry its draft law on introducing chaplains into the armed forces, the daily "Kommersant" reported on 14 February. Supporters of the measure say it will deter hazing and strengthen discipline and patriotism. About 2,000 priests are now attached to the military as guests but lack any formal rank. They will be sergeants with their own department in the Defense Ministry under the proposed legislation. But Aleksei Sigutkin, who heads the Russian State Duma's Defense Committee, told the daily that he sees "a danger of increasing interethnic hostility through the introduction of chaplains." He added that the new system would give the Russian Orthodox Church "priority" over other faiths because of the preponderance of Orthodox among the population at large. Nafigulla Ashirov, who is co-chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, told the daily that introducing chaplains would detract from the central role of civic principles in the military. An unnamed source in the Defense Ministry added that in the interest of keeping church and state separate, clerics should not have military ranks. PM

A spokesman for Russia's media supervisory body, Rosohrankultura, said on 14 February that "if any Russian media publish materials insulting religious feelings, they will immediately face measures provided by law, including withdrawal of their registration," reported. The warning came after Volgograd's "Gorodskie novosti" published a cartoon depicting religious figures to illustrate an article on fighting nationalism and xenophobia. The local branch of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party accused the paper of inciting religious hatred and called for a boycott of the daily. The newspaper denies the accusations. The cartoon shows Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, and Muhammad watching angry militants on television. The four say, "We did not teach you to do this." Local prosecutors said they are looking into the possibility of launching a criminal investigation. PM

Djabrail Abdurazakov, head of a detachment of some 15 resistance fighters based in the village of Avtury in Shali Raion, southeast of Grozny, was surrounded and killed in a shoot-out with police in Urus-Martan Raion, southwest of Grozny, RIA Novosti reported on 14 February, quoting a Chechen Interior Ministry official. That official added that Abdurazakov was directly subordinate to radical field commander Shamil Basayev, and that he was responsible for the killing in November 2005 of Avtury administration head Ibragim Umpashayev and his son Isa. Abdurazakov's men reportedly include three relatives of Chechen Culture Minister Akhmed Zakayev. LF

In accordance with an announcement by acting Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov at a 11 February press conference, all newspaper articles and television footage are to screened before publication or broadcast to ensure that they do not violate the ethical norms of the Chechen national mentality, according to on 13 February. The screening procedures are to take effect immediately. LF

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki met in Yerevan on 14 February with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian to assess bilateral ties, especially in the sphere of energy, transportation, and trade, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. At a subsequent press conference, Oskanian stressed that bilateral relations are becoming "deeper and more comprehensive" and transcending the bilateral framework to acquire regional significance. He said he and Mottaki focused specifically on the ongoing construction of a pipeline to supply Armenia with Iranian natural gas and the possibility of building a new rail link between the two countries. Oskanian ruled out any Russian intervention in the pipeline project. Mottaki expressed gratitude for Armenia's support for Tehran's argument that it has the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes, and he reaffirmed Iran's readiness to help mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict. Meeting later on 14 February with Defense Minister Sarkisian, Mottaki said Iran hopes that expanded bilateral cooperation will also extend to the spheres of defense and security. LF

Vartan Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on 14 February that the failure of President Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev to reach agreement during their talks in France on 10-11 February on basic principles for resolving the Karabakh conflict neither negates the progress made in 2005 toward that end, nor does it mean that there will be no further progress in the course of this year, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Oskanian said the two presidents faced "a difficult task" and "one should not have expected that those issues would be resolved at once." Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told journalists on 11 February that the two presidents reached agreement on seven of nine issues, not including preserving Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and the repatriation of displaced persons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2006). But a source close to the Rambouillet talks told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that the remaining sticking points are the future status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and the time frame for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the district of Kelbacar, sandwiched between the NKR and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. That official said Armenia wants to retain control of Kelbacar until a referendum is held on Karabakh's status, whereas Azerbaijan insists the Armenia should cede control of Kelbacar prior to that referendum. LF

Meanwhile, in a statement released in Strasbourg, Rene van der Linden, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, expressed "great disappointment " on 14 February that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents failed to reach any formal agreement during the Rambouillet talks, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He urged "all parties to resume their discussions as soon as possible and with renewed determination." Oskanian said he and Mammadyarov will probably resume their ongoing talks "soon," but did not specify a date; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairmen are to meet in Washington in early March to consider their next move. Also on 14 February, U.S. Ambassador to Baku Rene Harnish said Washington too is disappointed at the failure of the Rambouillet talks, to which it had pegged "great hopes," according to Trend news agency as cited by LF

Mikheil Saakashvili delivered an extensive state-of-the-nation address to the Georgian parliament during the evening of 14 February, but failed to touch on the parliamentary debate scheduled for the following day on the future of the Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflict zones, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili predicted that Georgia will receive an official invitation to join NATO by the end of 2006 and be accepted into the alliance in 2008. He claimed that although the Georgian army is the smallest in the South Caucasus, with 20,000 men, it is the best-trained, -disciplined, and -equipped, and is capable of preserving Georgia's territorial integrity in the face of the strongest conceivable threats. At the same time, he pledged to resolve the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts peacefully. He warned that Georgia will in future take a tougher stand on crime and abolish suspended prison sentences for minor offenses: "thieves, robbers and all kinds of criminals must go to jail," he argued. Saakashvili warned that any forces outside Georgia who plan to topple him in a new revolution and install a new leadership headed by former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze will fail. He said that Georgia's economy is growing swiftly, and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) will increase to $1,670 in 2006 and $2,400 by 2009. GDP grew by over 9 percent in 2005 despite the large rise in world oil prices, he noted, and foreign trade turnover grew by 33 percent over the same period. LF

Opposition deputies criticized Saakashvili's state-of-the-nation address, Caucasus Press reported on 14 February. Democratic Front faction leader Levan Berdzenishvili said Saakashvili exaggerated the country's economic achievements. Berdzenishvili's brother and fellow faction member David and Conservative party leader Zviad Dzidziguri both said they were left with the impression Saakashvili was speaking of a totally different country. But all three men noted as positive the fact that Saakashvili abstained from criticizing the opposition. LF

Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze told a plenary parliament session on 14 February that the parliament has two options during its 15 February debate on the Russian peacekeepers, Civil Georgia reported. She said the legislature can either demand, in accordance with its resolution of 11 October 2005, that the peacekeepers withdraw immediately, or can adopt a new resolution on the issue. Parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Givi Targamadze told Civil Georgia on 13 February that the new resolution would in all likelihood instruct the government to prepare within one month a detailed plan for the peacekeepers' withdrawal. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said on 14 February that he will unveil in Vienna on 20 February a new plan for the demilitarization of the conflict zone that requires the peacekeepers' continued presence there (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). Meanwhile, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava met on 14 February with Western ambassadors in Tbilisi and sought to reassure them that Georgia intends to use only peaceful means to resolve the South Ossetian conflict, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Members of Kazakhstan's political elite reacted on 14 February to the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006), whose body was discovered the day before, agencies reported. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the leader of the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan and an unsuccessful candidate in the country's December 2005 presidential election, told a news conference in Almaty, "There were neither personal, domestic, nor business reasons for [Sarsenbaev's] life to end like that," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "We are confident that this is clearly politically motivated," he concluded. Bulat Abilov, co-chairman of the opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol, told Navigator that Sarsenbaev, who was also a co-chairman of Naghyz Ak Zhol, "was never involved in business." Abilov seconded Tuyakbai, saying, "We consider this a political murder." The Asar Party, headed by Darigha Nazarbaeva, daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, issued a statement calling the killing a "cause for serious concern," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The pro-presidential party stated, "Law-enforcement agencies must take all measures to solve this crime as quickly as possible, or else the heads of these agencies should resign." A number of pro-presidential legislators stressed the need to await the outcome of an investigation and suggested that a business dispute may have been involved, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. And a group of prominent business leaders issued an appeal for the authorities to "conduct the most thorough possible investigation of this crime with the involvement of our country's best crime solvers and foreign specialists," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. DK

Prime Minister Feliks Kulov told in an interview on 14 February that he did not tell parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev to resign. He said that Tekebaev, whose resignation will be put to a vote in parliament on 20 February, made the decision to resign of his own volition. Kulov said that Tekebaev's recent comments about President Kurmanbek Bakiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006) were "an insult," but he counseled against "dramatizing" the situation. Responding to Tekebaev's allegation that the Bakiev-Kulov tandem has failed to keep its promises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006), Kulov said that Bakiev is holding up his end of their agreement on dividing up power within the executive branch. DK

Security forces in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, stopped a charter flight to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) on the evening of 13 February, reported. The plane's passengers included 61 young women -- one Kyrgyz citizen, one Turkmen citizen, and 59 Uzbek citizens -- suspected of traveling to engage in prostitution. The women were removed from the flight and an investigation is ongoing. A BBC Uzbek Service correspondent who spoke with some of the women reported that one, a resident of Samarkand, said that she was traveling to work in a restaurant in Dubai. But another woman, a 17-year-old from Ferghana, said that she was going to the U.A.E. to work as a prostitute. The woman cited a lack of alternative employment opportunities in Uzbekistan as the reasons for her decision. DK

Seven officials from a Dushanbe orphanage where a fire recently killed 13 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2006) now face criminal charges, ITAR-TASS reported on 14 February. Dushanbe Prosecutor Habibullo Vohidov told the news agency that three staff members, including orphanage director Sadullo Yatimov, are under arrest. The charges they face include negligent homicide. DK

Gurbanmurat Ataev, Turkmen deputy prime minister for oil and gas, told a meeting of the steering committee for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline project in Ashgabat on 14 February that Turkmenistan's Davlatabad gas field has reserves of 4.5 trillion cubic meters, Prime-TASS and NewsCentralAsia reported. Ataev said that the data come from an audit by the U.S.-based firm DeGolyer and MacNaughton. The two-day meeting, which began on 14 February, is being attended by ministerial-level delegations from all three countries, with an Indian delegation participating as observers. DK

In an address to the lower chamber of Uzbekistan's parliament on 14 February, Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said that Uzbekistan should rejoin the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO; it's made up of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia), ITAR-TASS reported. Gryzlov said that Russia would like the CSTO, which Uzbekistan left in 1999, to "be more efficient and react more quickly to problems of member countries, but that can be done only by joint efforts." In the course of his two-day visit, Gryzlov also met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and toured the Chkalov aircraft factory in Tashkent, UzA and Uzbek television reported. DK

Belarus's Supreme Court on 14 February sentenced former opposition lawmaker Syarhey Skrabets to 2 1/2 years in a correctional facility, Belapan reported. Skrabets was accused of attempted bribery, involvement in defrauding a bank of more than $500,000 in loans, and illegal business activities, but the court found him guilty only on the fraud charge. Skrabets' brother, Alyaksandr, who was also accused of involvement in defrauding Belarusbank, received a suspended two-year prison sentence with one year of probation. Skrabets was arrested on 15 May 2005 and has been in custody since then. In early September 2005, he declared a bid for president, but his campaign failed to collect the 100,000 signatures required for registration. AM

A district court in Minsk on 14 February sentenced opposition Zubr activist Yauhen Afnahel to 15 days in jail, Belapan reported. According to human rights activist Iryna Toustsik, the police, who detained Afnahel and 21 other youths in downtown Minsk on 13 February, accused them of "having shouted obscenities in central Minsk." The police photographed and fingerprinted all of them, but released all except Afnahel, who spent the night in jail. The court reportedly only heard the officers' testimony, without calling witnesses for the defense. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has said that Ukraine should have a clear strategy for defending its national interests in talks with Moscow on terms for Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Interfax reported on 14 February. "All lease terms should be guided by the appropriate international agreements and take account of international experience and today's trends on the real estate market," he said. Hryhoriy Lutsai, a representative of the Sevastopol administration, suggested on 14 February that the annual rent for the naval base in Crimea should be raised to $200 million from $97 million, as set by a 1997 agreement. However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said on 14 February, after meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Ohryzko, that Ukraine should stop "speculation" on the issue and comply with the 1997 agreement. "There will be no speculation, there will be pragmatic relations," Ohryzko said for his part. AM

President Yushchenko said on 14 February that Ukraine will not allow nontransparent activities in its gas sector, Interfax reported, citing the presidential press service. Yushchenko also said that he shares the concern expressed by the NGOs, political and business groups, and international organizations, including the EU, over the lack of information on the Swiss-based company RosUkrEnergo, which holds a monopoly on gas supplies to Ukraine through Russia. The government, if necessary, will look for alternative approaches to the gas sector and cooperation with Russia, Yushchenko added. He also ordered the government to gather complete information on RosUkrEnergo and to make it public in order to ensure transparency in Ukraine's gas supplies. AM

Boris Tadic on 14 February suggested a 20-year waiting period before Kosova's final status is decided, Reuters reported the same day. Tadic's comments, made before the UN Security Council, were rejected out of hand by Western powers and by Kosova. "I believe that this is the appropriate moment where we have to end and close the Kosova question," Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi said. "I do not think that we should leave room for other periods to deal with the Kosova question. Simply, we need to give the people of Kosova their chance to create their own lives and live in freedom." Tadic and Andrei Denisov, Russia's ambassador to the UN, both warned that independence for Kosova could influence the resolution of other conflicts. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that if Kosova wins independence, then pro-Moscow breakaway provinces, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, would be justified in seeking independence as well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February 2005). BW

Also in the Security Council on 14 February, UN envoy to Kosova Soren Jessen-Petersen urged Kosovar Prime Minister Kosumi to take steps to protect the rights of minority ethnic Serbs in the province, Reuters reported the same day. "The message is clear. The sooner and the faster that we institute in Kosovo implemented standards, the sooner we will have a decision on the status in Kosovo," Jessen-Petersen said. His comments were echoed by British envoy Adam Thompson. "Any settlement should conclude during 2006. And it clearly cannot disregard the aspirations of 90 percent of the population of Kosova, so independence is a realistic option," Thompson said. But Kosovar leaders, he added, "must understand they need to demonstrate they are genuinely committed to minority rights." BW

Speaking at a press conference in Washington on 14 February, Albanian Foreign Minister Besnik Mustafaj called for an independent Kosova and insisted that his government is not seeking to create a Greater Albania in the process, dpa reported the same day. Saying that the Kosova negotiations are in a "crucial time," Mustafaj added that in order for people to return safely to the region it is essential that Kosovar officials respect minority rights. Mustafaj was speaking in Washington, where he was with the Croatian and Macedonian foreign ministers for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. BW

The European Union has asked both Belgrade and Podgorica to clarify the steps to be taken should Montenegrins vote for independence in a referendum, Reuters reported on 14 February. Belgrade has rejected the EU request, saying it does not want to prejudice the proposed referendum. An unidentified EU official told Reuters that Belgrade suggested that both Belgrade and Podgorica make clear what steps they will take to adhere to a vote for independence. "We believe the more concrete the rules, the less space for manipulation," the official said, adding that it is important that Serbia avoid the appearance of pressuring the Montenegrins. "For the time being, Belgrade is not willing to adhere to certain commitments, saying this would be prejudging the result of the referendum," the official said. BW

Miroslav Lajcak, the EU envoy to Montenegro's independence referendum, said on 14 February that Brussels will suggest either 55 percent of voters who participate or 41 percent of all registered voters should be sufficient for the measure to pass, Beta and B92 reported the same day. "What I am to tell my colleagues in Podgorica is what the EU believes will be the formula that will give the referendum its legitimacy. However, we will not impose anything, and this has to be the decision of the two political blocs in Montenegro," he said. The pro-Serbia opposition in Montenegro is insisting that for the referendum to be valid a majority of Montenegro's 466,000 registered voters back independence regardless of turnout, and asked Lajcak to clarify the EU position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 February 2006). The Montenegrin parliament is scheduled to debate the terms of the referendum on 25 February. BW

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on 14 February that UN war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte complained to him about Serbia and Montenegro's lack of cooperation with the Hague tribunal, Beta and B92 reported the same day. Following her most recent visit to Belgrade on 6 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 February 2006), Del Ponte said Serbia and Montenegro's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia has gotten worse since the summer, Rehn said. The EU's Council of Ministers is scheduled to meet on 21 February to decide whether to continue negotiating a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia and Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 9 February 2006), and Rehn said cooperation with the tribunal will be a key factor in Brussels' decision. "Completing the agreement essentially depends on the nation's ability to achieve full cooperation with the Hague tribunal, its progress in reforms, and finishing the technical discussions regarding the Agreement for Stabilization and Association." Rehn said. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) said on 14 February that nearly 58 million euros (about $70 million) was laundered in the country in 27 separate transactions in 2005, Hina reported the same day. According to a statement released by SIPA, police have pressed charges against 52 people for money laundering. SIPA denied, however, claims that there are 4,000 fictitious companies in Bosnia involved in money laundering. BW

For a glimpse into Russian President Vladimir Putin's views on energy and foreign policy, one need look no further than his years in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. The key players in Russia's energy industry today, in fact, are Putin's former colleagues and mentor from that time.

Putin, who had already spent more than 15 years as a Federal Security Service (FSB) agent, returned to school, studying at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute. One of the most prestigious academic institutions in Russia, it traces its history back to 1773. Since 1994 its rector has been Vladimir Litvinenko, who also serves as a member of the government's newly created fuel and energy commission.

Litvinenko was rector when a 44-year-old Putin in 1997 defended his doctoral dissertation examining how natural resources can contribute to regional economies and strategic planning.

Two years later, Putin, then the director of the FSB, wrote an article for the Mining Institute's journal titled "Mineral Natural Resources In The Development Strategy For The Russian Economy."

In it, Putin posited that hydrocarbons were key to Russia's development and the restoration of its former power. He argued that the most effective way to exploit this resource was through state regulation of the fuel sector, and by creating large and vertically integrated companies that would work in partnership with the state.

Putin formulated most of his energy views while working in the St. Petersburg mayor's office, where he headed the Foreign Economic Relations Department.

His colleagues in that office included: Aleksei Miller, now chief executive of the state-controlled Gazprom monopoly; Dmitry Medvedev, the head of the presidential administration, a deputy prime minister, and chairman of the board of directors at Gazprom; and Igor Sechin, a man with ties to the former KGB, who is currently the deputy head of Putin's administration as well as the chairman of the board of directors at the state-owned oil company Rosneft.

As the St. Petersburg team rose in prominence, so too did the influence of the Mining Institute and its director, Litvinenko. The institute is now a compulsory stop for Russian and Germany energy leaders visiting St. Petersburg. The institute's official website notes that it has received delegations from Germany's Wintershall gas company -- a close Gazprom ally -- as well as the board of directors of Gazprom subsidiary Surgutgazprom, and Vagit Alekperov, the head of LUKoil.

Litvinenko is also believed to have played a role in the drafting of Russia's 2003 energy strategy, which defined the role of energy as a tool of Russian state policy. Some observers have even suggested Litvinenko would be an appropriate candidate to replace Miller at the helm of Gazprom.

But it is not only Putin's former classmates and mayoral coworkers who have found a role in the current government. Former agents of the KGB, the predecessor to the FSB, also enjoy crucial influence in the Kremlin, and are known as the "siloviki," or "power men." These men have an impact on both government energy policy and the way in which it is implemented.

One of these men is Aleksandr Ryazanov, the deputy chairman of Gazprom and reportedly the head of the "siloviki" faction within the gas giant. Ryazanov became CEO of the Sibneft oil company after it was purchased by Gazprom in 2005. He has also been appointed head of UkrGazEnergo, the newly created Ukrainian-Russian joint venture to act as an intermediary between Ukraine's state-run Naftohaz Ukrayiny and the Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo.

Another is Viktor Ivanov, another deputy head of the presidential administration. Ivanov has a colorful history. A graduate of the Leningrad Bonch-Bruyevich Electrical Technical University, Ivanov worked as an engineer before reportedly joining the KGB in 1977 and fighting with Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Upon his return, he rose to the head of the anticontraband department of the Leningrad Oblast KGB. He retired from service in 1994 with the rank of colonel and was appointed by Putin to head the administrative departments of St. Petersburg city hall.

The two groups of men surrounding Putin -- the "siloviki" and the St. Petersburg's mayor's office group -- have become what one could call an informal "board of directors" of the new Russia. As such, they set the agenda for Russian energy policy and in fact control the country's vast energy resources. Their influence should not be underestimated.

Four alleged terrorists arrested by security officials in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar Province have provided details of their planned missions upon entering Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on 14 February. Two of the arrestees have been identified as Afghans and the other two as Pakistanis. One of the Pakistanis, speaking in Pashto, said that they entered Afghanistan to carry out "suicide attacks." The other man, speaking in Urdu, said that he was impressed by the preaching of religious scholars and an audiotape to wage "jihad against America" as a way to get to heaven. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is traveling to Pakistan on 15 February to discuss, among other matters, the rise in suicide attacks in his country, which most Afghan officials say is linked to Pakistan. AT

Hizb-e Islami head and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar rejected reports that a number of his followers have joined the government of President Karzai, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 14 February. In a statement, Hekmatyar said, "We will never surrender to the U.S.-backed government; we have fought against Soviet troops and now will never join the U.S. invaders." According to Hekmatyar, those commanders who have surrendered to the Afghan government have no links to his party. AT

Speaking at a ceremony commemorating the 17th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 14 February that while there have been "repeated attempts" to "play down the heroism of the servicemen who fought in Afghanistan," he and the other heads of the Defense Ministry regard such attempts as "immoral," Russia's RTR television reported. Ivanov, while giving awards to former Soviet soldiers, said that some 3,000 orders and medals will be awarded to those veterans who, for various reasons, have not received their awards. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and withdrew its troops in 1989, by which time the Soviets lost an estimated 15,000 troops while nearly a million Afghans were killed. AT

A 14 February State Veterinary Organization statement confirmed the first case of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in Iran, Mehr News Agency reported. This was determined following lab tests after the deaths of 135 swans in the northwestern Anzali Marsh. Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani said on 14 February that avian flu has not been detected in flocks of domestic birds or in the poultry industry, and the Anzali cases occurred in isolated areas. In order to prevent the spread of the disease, Baqeri-Lankarani called on people not to hunt in the marshes and not to sell dead birds. He reassured people that cooking kills any contamination so eating prepared chicken and eggs is safe. BS

Supreme National Security Council official Javad Vaidi confirmed in Tehran on 14 February that activities at the Natanz nuclear facility have commenced, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). He was adamant that uranium-enrichment activities will take place on Iranian territory, but added that Iran is still willing to alleviate concerns about possible military applications of its nuclear program. He said Iran is willing to negotiate with any international actor. On the same day, Atomic Energy Organization chief Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi told state television that Tehran has advised the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union that Iran has only started nuclear research. At this stage, he continued, there is no intention to begin industrial-scale enrichment activities. The research that is taking place, he said, does not have industrial applications. BS

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on 14 February that nuclear discussions with Iran will take place in Moscow on 20 February, RIA Novosti reported. Tehran had postponed talks that were scheduled for 16 February. The Iranian ambassador to Moscow, Gholamreza Ansari, said the Iranian leadership believes Moscow's proposal for the enrichment of uranium for Iranian use on Russian soil is encouraging, ITAR-TASS reported. He hoped that "shortcomings" in the proposal will be addressed at the upcoming meeting. In Yerevan, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki described Moscow's proposal as a good start that needs some fine-tuning, Interfax reported. He added, according to RIA Novosti, that Iran is willing to provide guarantees that it will use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. Mottaki insisted on Iran's right to use nuclear energy. He complained that the United States was the first country to use nuclear weapons, but does not want other countries to use the atom for peaceful purposes. BS

The attorney for Major General Jamil al-Sayyid, the Syrian-allied former director-general of general security in Lebanon, on 14 February rejected allegations that the Shabaa Farms issue reflects Syrian manipulation of international borders, the Lebanese National News Agency reported. The previous day, Druze leader and parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt contrasted a 1962 Lebanese Army map that shows the Shabaa Farms outside Lebanon's borders with a 2001 map provided by al-Sayyid, which showed the farms within Lebanese territory. Attorney Akram Azzuri explained on behalf of his client that the last agreement on the issue was reached in 1966 and approved by the governors of the Bekaa region and of rural Damascus. "This agreement specified the location of the farms within the Lebanese property ownership borders," he added, and maps drawn after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon reflect this. Also on 14 February, prospective president candidate Michel Aoun, who has just entered an alliance with Hizballah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006), also addressed the map issue, the Lebanese National News Agency reported. "We must open an investigation into these maps," Aoun said. He added that the identity of the Shabaa Farms is determined by whoever issued the title deeds -- Lebanon or Syria. Regarding suspicions about his alliance with Hizballah, Aoun said, "We were criticized and we were tied to Iran and Damascus and they spoke about negative things that do not exist." BS

The Al-Basrah Governorate Council cut ties with Denmark on 14 February to protest the cartoons published in a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and with Great Britain after a videotape surfaced in British media that appears to depict British soldiers beating Iraqi youths, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 15 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2006). In a statement, the council warned Danish soldiers to stay off the streets of the city and gave troops 72 hours to pull out of the governorate. The council said that it cut ties with Britain because earlier demands on British forces have not been met, including the release of prisoners, the forwarding of the security file to Iraqis, and a withdrawal of British forces from the city center, RFI reported. "No department of Al-Basrah city or the governorate [will] cooperate or deal with [Britain]. This series of aggressions [by British forces] aired by the satellite channels including the humiliations and attacks on unarmed demonstrators have pained us," said Governorate Council member Baha al-Din Jamal al-Din, Al-Manar television reported on 14 February. KR

The influential Muslim Scholars Association criticized the behavior of British forces in a 14 February statement posted to the association's website ( The association declared that the videotaped "incident represents a policy adopted by British forces and [was] not just a passing accident as [U.K. Prime Minister] Tony Blair claimed. What is [going on] behind the scenes is far worse. Once the truth is revealed, the world will see scandals that humanity would recoil at." The association called for an Iraqi investigation into the incident, claiming "occupation forces" are trying to cover up such scandals. KR

Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Ja'fari pledged in a 14 February press briefing in Baghdad to improve security and encourage broader participation of political groups outside the main Shi'ite alliance, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Al-Ja'fari acknowledged the weaknesses of the outgoing transitional government but pledged that the incoming administration will be marked by a qualitative leap in performance. He added that any failure by his ministers will be considered a mark against the government. Al-Ja'fari also said the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) will consider all parties when forming the cabinet. Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties have concerns that the UIA will continue its what they see as its monopolization of power in the next government. KR

Kuwait is supplying fuel to northern Iraq to help ease fuel shortages resulting from insurgent attacks and a Turkish delivery stoppage (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 February 2006), KUNA reported on 14 February. The news agency cited a source at the North Oil Company as saying that Kuwait will deliver fuel to the three Kurdish governorates. The source said the first convoy of 22 tanker trucks has delivered gasoline to filling stations in Kirkuk. The city is south of the Kurdistan region, but Kurds hope to incorporate it into the Kurdistan region. President Jalal Talabani warned Shi'ite leaders on 14 February that the implementation of articles of the constitution regarding Kirkuk will be the Kurds' key demand in the formation of the incoming government, AP reported on 15 February. KR