RUSSIAN-IRANIAN TALKS TO BE RESUMED...
An Iranian delegation is expected to leave Moscow on 21 February "as planned" after conducting two days of talks on Russia's uranium-enrichment offer, Interfax reported, citing unnamed official sources (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 15 February 2006). Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, said that the negotiations will continue in Tehran, where he is slated to go on 23 February, RIA Novosti reported. Seyyed-Ali Hosseini-Tash, who led the Iranian team, said that the two sides reached an "agreement on the fundamentals of [a] general formula," but did not elaborate, ITAR-TASS reported. PM
...AS STAKES REMAIN UNCLEAR
State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov told reporters on 21 February that the bilateral talks are the best hope for a diplomatic solution to the impasse over Iran's nuclear program, Interfax reported. He warned that should the negotiations fail, "we may see a repeat of the North Korean scenario, whereby Iran will isolate itself and withdraw from the Treaty [on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons] and will cease cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency." Several Western and Russian commentators suggested, however, that the meetings are little more than a political charade, which each side is playing for its own reasons. Those analysts argued that the Iranians are simply stalling for time and noted that the delegation in Moscow was not authorized to make decisions. Some Russian commentators suggested that Moscow wants to maintain its good name with Tehran in hopes of selling it some additional nuclear reactors. PM
SWEDEN DETAINS RUSSIAN ON SUSPICION OF ESPIONAGE
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Stockholm told ITAR-TASS on 21 February that the embassy is "is taking all the necessary measures to secure the release" of an unnamed Russian citizen, whom Swedish police detained on 15 February on unspecified charges. The 30-year-old man is an agricultural research scientist who was working at Uppsala University, RIA Novosti reported. In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "we have asked for details on the incident from the Swedish authorities. Russian Embassy officers in Stockholm have met with the detained man and provided him consular assistance." The statement added that Russia is "treating the incident as a serious matter. Such incidents cannot but influence our relations with Sweden." Anders Thornberg, who is press spokesman for Sweden's counterespionage service (SAPO), told RIA Novosti on 21 February that the Russian is being held on suspicion of espionage but did not specify for which country. PM
RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPERS TO LEAVE FOR SUDAN
General Sergei Shevchenko, who is deputy commander of the Russian Air Force, said in Moscow on 20 February that about 200 peacekeepers will begin departing for Sudan on 15 April, RIA Novosti reported. The operation will take 40 flights to complete. He noted that the peacekeepers will bring their own "airfield equipment, munitions, and communications equipment," which will not be coordinated with that of troops from other countries. PM
SERGEANT RECEIVES FOUR-YEAR SUSPENDED SENTENCE FOR HAZING
A military court in Chelyabinsk gave a four-year suspended sentence on 20 February to an unnamed sergeant who was convicted of a hazing attack on an unnamed private, RIA Novosti reported. The alleged incident took place at the same tank school where Private Andrei Sychyov was the reported victim of a New Years' Eve hazing attack, but the two cases are said not to be directly related. The sentence was the first to be passed in a series of cases involving hazing at the school, which is slated for closure. In related news, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told "Izvestiya" of 21 February that the ministry has paid Sychyov nearly $8,000 in insurance money for the incident that led to the amputation of his legs and genitals. Ivanov also noted that the soldier's family has received a three-room apartment in Yekaterinburg. He recently said that the problem of hazing is rooted in society and criticized the media for paying too much attention to it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 30 January, and 8 and 15 February 2006). PM
FANFARE SURROUNDS SIGNING OF 'ANTIFASCIST PACT'...
Representatives of at least 10 political parties signed an "antifascist pact" on 20 February in what "The Moscow Times" described as "a display of pomp in a Soviet-style ceremony at the Poklonnaya Gora memorial." The signatories included representatives of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, as well as Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and the pro-business Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), led by Nikita Belykh. Belykh told reporters that Unified Russia organized the "pompous ceremony...in order to make people believe they are fighting against fascism." He added that his party signed the agreement nonetheless "because we share the antifascist ideology. Even so, I don't understand what Zhirinovsky is doing here." For its part, Unified Russia issued a statement calling for "a public and information vacuum to be formed around those who promote fascism, racism, nationalism, and xenophobia," RIA Novosti reported. The State Duma is slated to vote shortly on President Vladimir Putin's "antiterrorism law." Critics charge that the legislation is sufficiently vague to be used against the civil society (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005 and 7 and 8 February 2006). PM
...BUT SOME ARE NOT IMPRESSED
Conspicuously absent from the list of signatories of the "antifascist pact" on 20 February were the nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), and the liberal Yabloko party, Russian media reported. Yabloko's First Deputy Chairman Sergei Ivanenko said that the pact is a publicity stunt aimed at the run-up to the 2007 parliamentary elections, and he added that Unified Russia itself has not taken "any concrete steps aimed at combating fascism and xenophobia," lenta.ru reported. Several officials of Motherland and the KPRF said that they will not add their names to a document whose signatories include Zhirinovsky. Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Oleg Kulikov stressed that his party does not need to prove its antifascist credentials to anyone. Motherland leader Dmitry Rogozin called the pact a "farce" engineered by Unified Russia and Zhirinovsky. Gazeta.ru described the document as "the nationalization of antifascism." PM
JOURNALISTS PROTEST CLOSURE OF VOLGOGRAD DAILY...
The International Federation of Journalists on 20 February called "shocking" the closure of the Volgograd daily "Gorodskiye vesti" following its recent publication of a cartoon that allegedly "incited ethnic hatred" by showing Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, and Muhammad watching angry militants on television and telling them, "We did not teach you [to do] this," RFE/RL's Russian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 17 February 2006). Andrei Doronin, who is acting mayor of the city, signed the decree closing the paper. PM
...AS A VOLOGDA WEEKLY CLOSES VOLUNTARILY
Mikhail Smirnov announced in Vologda on 20 February that he has decided to close his small weekly "Nash region," which is reportedly the first newspaper in Russia to publish 12 of the original Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, "The New York Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2006). Several local and other officials have criticized the publication of the cartoons. The Prosecutor-General's Office planned to file charges of inciting religious animosity against Anna Smirnova, who is the paper's editor and Smirnov's wife. Smirnov told the U.S. daily that he published the cartoons together with commentaries by religious and human rights leaders. He said that he closed the paper lest further legal charges be brought against his employees. In Moscow, Aleksei Simonov, who heads the Glasnost Defense Foundation, told the New York daily that journalists are likely to practice greater self-censorship as a result of the closure of the two papers. He stressed that legislation banning promotion of religious hatred is vague and could lead to prosecution on dubious pretexts. "You start to think what might happen," he said. "Think of [writer Anton] Chekhov. His works are full of funny stories about priests." PM
OLIGARCH TO SELL LAST OF HIS RUSSIAN HOLDINGS
Embattled oligarch Boris Berezovsky told "The Moscow Times" by telephone from London on 17 February that he is selling the remnants of his Russian business empire, including the daily "Kommersant," to his longtime business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili to "help reduce the risks" to his assets from a vengeful Kremlin. "Nothing is ever safe in today's Russia," he said, adding that "the authorities can take away property whenever they like." PM
DAGHESTAN'S PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW PRESIDENT
Daghestan's State Council endorsed on 20 February by 101 votes in favor and one against the candidacy of its speaker Mukhu Aliyev as president of the republic, Russian media reported. Deputies also elected as the new parliament speaker Magomedsalem Magomedov, the son of Magomedali Magomedov, who stepped down last week as head of Daghestan's collective presidency four months before his term was due to expire (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2006). Magomedov cited his age -- he is 75 -- as the rationale for that decision, but he has reportedly been offered a new post in Moscow. Aliyev is an Avar, the largest of the republic's 14 official ethnic groups; Magomedov is a Dargin, the second largest nationality. Aliyev, who is 65, made his career as a Komsomol and Communist Party functionary: he was elected first secretary of the Daghestan Oblast Party Committee in 1990, Supreme Soviet first deputy chairman in 1991, and parliament speaker in 1995, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 21 February. Aliyev was one of three candidates to succeed Magomedov proposed to President Putin by presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak; the others were Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov (a Dargin) and Saidgusein Magomedov (an Avar), head of the federal chancellery's Daghestan branch. "The Moscow Times" on 20 February quoted Daghestani sociologist Enver Kisriev as describing Aliyev as loyal to Moscow, reputedly not corrupt, and not aligned either with nationalist groups or wealthy oligarchs. LF
INGUSHETIA REJECTS KOZAK PLAN AS 'PRO-OSSETIAN'
Ingushetia's parliament has rejected a detailed plan proposed by presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Kozak for enabling those Ingush who fled or were expelled from North Ossetia's Prigorodny district in 1992 to return to North Ossetia, according to the daily "Kommersant" on 20 February as cited by ingushetiya.ru. North Ossetia has reportedly endorsed the plan, which Kozak unveiled at a behind-closed-doors meeting on 7 February. It provides for Ingush displaced persons to resettle in a new township built specifically for that purpose in North Ossetia, rather than to return to their abandoned homes in Prigorodny district. An unknown number of Ingush parliamentarians have written to President Putin denouncing Kozak's proposal as pro-Ossetian. The two republics are at odds over the number of Ingush entitled to return to North Ossetia; North Ossetia gives the figure as 7,000, of whom 4,000 allegedly have no legal claim on property in North Ossetia, and a further 1,200 are undecided whether to return or remain in Ingushetia; Ingushetia estimates the number of displaced persons at closer to 14,000. Rustam Archakov, head of the opposition Youth Movement of Ingushetia, which suspended its protests against President Murat Zyazikov last year to enable him to fulfill his pledge to return Prigorodny district to Ingushetia's jurisdiction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 May 2005), told ingushetiya.ru on 20 February that his movement will launch a new wave of protests and civil disobedience if Zyazikov agrees to Kozak's proposal. LF
INGUSH DISPLACED PERSONS APPEAL TO UN OFFICIAL
Ingushetian parliament Chairman Makhmud Sakalov and members of organizations representing the Ingush displaced persons met on 20 February in Nazran with visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and solicited her help in expediting their return to North Ossetia, strana.ru reported. The displaced persons conveyed their collective rejection of Kozak's resettlement proposal, saying they have no wish to live in "reservations." Arbour also visited a camp on the outskirts of Nazran for displaced persons from both North Ossetia and Chechnya, whose inmates complained about their living conditions and pointed out that the 120,000 rubles ($4,255) compensation to which they are entitled is far less than the 350,000 rubles paid to families who lost their homes during the Chechen war. LF
ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER ELECTED HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN
After a failed first attempt, parliament deputies overwhelmingly voted on 17 February to endorse President Robert Kocharian's proposed candidate for the post of human rights ombudsman, his legal adviser Armen Harutiunian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Harutiunian received 87 votes compared with 28 for his rival, opposition Union of Constitutional Rights leader Hrant Khachatrian. Eight days earlier, Harutiunian failed to garner the required 79 votes, a failure that reportedly impelled an angry Kocharian to summon the leaders of the three-party coalition on 14 February and impress on them the need to secure Harutiunian's election. Harutiunian for his part told parliament on 17 February that he is prepared to defy both the president and the legislature in cases where human rights have been violated. In a statement released on 20 February, Kocharian called for "considerable progress in the area of human rights protection" in order to increase public confidence in the law, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF
EU COMMISSIONER VISITS ARMENIA
On the final leg of her tour of the South Caucasus, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner met in Yerevan on 17 February with President Kocharian, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The talks focused primarily on Armenia's Action Plan for cooperation within the parameters of the EU's New Neighborhood Policy, democratization and human rights, energy policy, and easier access for Armenian exporters to EU markets (the EU is Armenia's largest trading partner). Ferrero-Waldner said the EU is prepared to assist Armenia in reducing its energy dependency on Russia. She also said that the EU does not support plans for a new railroad linking Turkey with Georgia and Azerbaijan that bypasses Armenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 May and 21 October 2005 and 17 January 2006). LF
AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION REALIGNS
The two remaining members of the Azadliq bloc formed to participate in the 6 November parliamentary elections -- the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) progressive wing and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan -- joined forces on 17 February, together with the National Unity movement headed by Lala Shovket Gadjieva and the wing of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party led by Ali Aliyev, in a new, permanent political movement, also named Azadliq, echo-az.com reported on 18 February. AHCP leader Ali Kerimli told day.az that while Azadliq is open to other opposition parties, it would be illogical for the Musavat party to join. Musavat was one of the three founding members of the Azadliq election bloc but quit earlier this month following a dispute over participation in the new parliament and in repeat elections to be held in 10 constituencies in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 10 February 2006). LF
RUSSIA PULLS OUT OF VIENNA TALKS ON SOUTH OSSETIA
Russian Foreign Ministry officials told Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava on 17 February in Moscow that Russia would not after all send a delegation to the upcoming session of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring developments in the South Ossetian conflict zone, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 February. That session was scheduled to take place on 20-21 February in Vienna; instead government delegations from South and North Ossetia traveled to Moscow on 20 February to discuss with Russian officials the implications of the Georgian parliament's 15 February demand that the Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in the conflict zone be withdrawn and replaced by an international police force (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 17 February 2006). LF
GENERAL STAFF CHIEF DENIES U.S. COULD USE GEORGIAN TERRITORY FOR STRIKE AGAINST IRAN
Colonel General Levan Nikoleishvili dismissed on 20 February as "absurd" and "disinformation" the suggestion floated in that day's issue of "The Jerusalem Post" that Washington has evaluated the suitability of military bases in Georgia for launching a strike against Iran, Caucasus Press reported. The Israeli paper cited an anonymous Georgian government official as saying Georgia could place its air bases at Washington's disposal in the event of a military attack on Iran. Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Chechelashvili similarly told journalists in Tbilisi on 21 February that such speculation "belongs to the realm of fantasy," Caucasus Press reported. LF
INTERNATIONAL TRADE UNION INTERCEDES WITH GEORGIAN PRESIDENT ON BEHALF OF STRIKING TEACHERS
Fred van Leeuwen, who is general secretary of the Brussels-based international trade union Education International, has written to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Education Minister Sandro Lomaia expressing support for teaching staff at schools in Poti, western Georgia, who last week went on strike to demand payment of their wages for December 2005, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2006). Noting that local authorities have threatened to dismiss the strikers, van Leeuwen pointed out that all workers have a fundamental right to strike, and he urged that the wage arrears be paid immediately. LF
KAZAKH POLICE ARREST SIX FOR OPPOSITION LEADER'S MURDER
Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov told a news conference in Almaty on 20 February that Kazakh police have arrested six suspects in connection with the recent slaying of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006), Khabar reported. Five of the suspects were reportedly directly involved in committing the crime, while one played an organizing role, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. "The organizer ordered the perpetrators to arrange the abduction of a certain businessman and deliver him to an agreed location," Mukhamedjanov said. "He offered to pay them a $25,000 reward after the job was completed." Mukhamedjanov continued: "We cannot yet give you the names of those detained. They have been arrested and are being interrogated now. They have already confessed." Mukhamedjanov also announced that an agent of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has arrived in Kazakhstan to aid in the investigation, Khabar reported. He said that the FBI agent will help to determine which specialists will be required for the investigation. DK
KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTY DENIED REGISTRATION
Talgat Manaev, an official at Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry, told Interfax-Kazakhstan on 20 February that the ministry has denied registration to the opposition party Alga. Manaev said that the ministry questioned the authenticity of the membership materials Alga submitted. In order to receive official registration, a political party must have a minimum of 50,000 members. Alga said that it has more than 60,000 membership applications, noting that the Justice Ministry invalidated fewer than 500 of them. Alga said that it will appeal the decision. Alga is the successor party to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which was closed by court order in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2005). DK
SPEAKER'S RESIGNATION FAILS TO PASS KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT
Kyrgyzstan's parliament rejected the resignation of speaker Omurbek Tekebaev in a vote on 20 February, akipress.org reported. The resignation, which would have required 38 votes to pass, garnered 34 votes in favor and 26 against. Tekebaev tendered his resignation after a harsh personal attack on President Kurmanbek Bakiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006) that Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev later described as defamatory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). Tekebaev, who said that he would stay on if parliament did not vote in favor of his resignation, said afterward that the 34 votes in favor of his resignation will serve as a cautionary reminder to him. Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO Coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, told Kabar after the vote that he hopes parliament's decision will put an end to the "quarrel" between Tekebaev and Bakiev. DK
TAJIK PRESIDENT INAUGURATES IRAN-FUNDED POWER PLANT PROJECT
On 20 February, President Imomali Rakhmonov attended a ceremony to mark the start of construction work on the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power plant, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Iran is investing $180 million into the project, while Tajikistan is putting up $40 million. Rakhmonov said that the 220-megawatt plant will be able to produce 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, and that construction will take three to 3 1/2 years. The plant, which will provide power exports to Afghanistan and Iran, will initially belong to Iran, eventually becoming Tajik property in 2018, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. The ceremony was attended by Iranian parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Iranian Energy Minister Parviz Fattah, and Afghan Water and Energy Minister Mohammad Ismail Khan, IRNA reported. DK
TURKMEN PRESIDENT SAYS UKRAINE MUST PAY GAS DEBTS...
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov told Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in a telephone conversation on 19 February that Ukraine must pay off its debts for natural-gas shipments as soon as possible, turkmenistan.ru reported. According to Niyazov, Ukraine's debt stands at $158.9 million, including $143.3 million for 2005. The conversation followed talks in Ashgabat on 17-18 February between Turkmen Oil and Gas Minister Gurbanmurat Ataev and a Ukrainian delegation headed by Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov and Naftohaz Ukrayiny head Oleksiy Ivchenko. A press release by Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry described the Ukrainian delegation's position on the debt as "unconstructive," News Central Asia reported. Niyazov told Yushchenko that future cooperation between the two countries depends on Ukraine's willingness to settle the debt, turkmenistan.ru reported. Yushchenko promised to take up the issue in the near future, the report stated. DK
...AS RUSSIA READIES JOINT ENERGY PROJECTS IN TURKMENISTAN
Aleksei Miller, head of the Russian state-run gas company Gazprom, met with Niyazov in Ashgabat on 17 February, ITAR-TASS reported. Miller said that their talks focused on Gazprom's future purchases of Turkmen gas as well as the role for Gazprom in Turkmen gas production, Turkmen television reported. "Kommersant" reported that Gazprom will help Turkmenistan to develop gas fields on the Caspian shelf, receiving in return Turkmen guarantees that it will sell Gazprom 60-70 billion cubic meters of gas in 2007, 63-73 billion cubic meters in 2008, and 70-80 billion cubic meters per year in 2009-2028. DK
PROSECUTOR ASKS FOR 12 YEARS FOR JAILED UZBEK OPPOSITION LEADER
The prosecutor in the trial of Nodira Hidoyatova on 17 February asked an Uzbek court to sentence Hidoyatova, coordinator of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, to 12 years in prison, ferghana.ru reported on 18 February. Hidoyatova, who stands accused of a variety of economic crimes, maintains her innocence. Sentence is due to be passed on 24 February. DK
BELARUSIAN CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION REGISTERS FOUR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES...
The Central Election Commission (TsVK) on 17 February registered four contenders for the 19 March presidential vote, Belapan reported. They are Liberal Democratic Party leader Syarhey Haydukevich; Alyaksandr Kazulin, former rector of Belarusian State University; incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; and united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. The TsVK registered Lukashenka with 1,903,069 validated signatures in his support; Milinkevich with 183,179, Haydukevich with 144,663, and Kazulin with 143,382. AM
...WHO LAUNCH THEIR CAMPAIGNS
The four registered candidates launched their presidential campaigns by making short speeches in the TsVK office immediately after their official registration on 17 February, Belapan reported. Lukashenka emphasized that "only the Belarusian people will elect its president, without any pressure from outside." Milinkevich noted that his decision to run for president was not easy because "opponents of the government disappear and there are political prisoners in our country." Kazulin urged the Constitutional Court to hold an emergency session in order to examine the legality of Lukashenka's presidential bid. Haydukevich said his strategic goal is to preserve stability and order in Belarus. AM
BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES BAN POLISH JOURNALIST
Belarusian border guards on 19 February barred Waclaw Radziwinowicz, a correspondent of the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza," from entering Belarus, Belapan reported, quoting Radio Polonia. Border guards told Radziwinowicz, who had a valid Belarusian visa, that he was on an entry ban list and had to return to Poland. Radziwinowicz, who reportedly intended to interview Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, told Polish media that the Belarusian Embassy in Warsaw had been aware of the objective of his trip. Belarusian authorities similarly turned away Polish Television correspondent Agnieszka Romaszewska on 13 December 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2005). AM
FOUR BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONISTS JAILED FOR 'SOLIDARITY DAY'
Courts in Minsk have sentenced Aleh Myatselitsa to 15 days in jail and Aleh Korban, Pavel Fihuryn, and Barys Haretski to 10 days in jail each for standing on a street on 16 February holding lighted candles in sign of solidarity with political persecution victims in Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2006), Belapan reported on 17 February. Opposition activists in Belarus have been observing a so-called Day of Solidarity on the 16th day of each month since 16 September 2005, the sixth anniversary of the disappearance of opposition politician Viktar Hanchar and his friend, businessman Anatol Krasouski. JM
U.S. GRANTS UKRAINE MARKET-ECONOMY STATUS
Deputy U.S. Commerce Secretary David Sampson announced in Kyiv on 17 February that the United States has designated Ukraine a market economy, Interfax reported. "We are pleased to announce that Ukraine has been granted market status as a result of economic, legal, and institutional reforms," Sampson said, adding that the designation took effect as of 1 February. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said the U.S. decision shows the world a high level of strategic partnership between the two countries and is evidence of U.S. support for reforms in Ukraine. AM
FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER URGES PRESIDENT TO CHALLENGE UKRAINE-RUSSIA GAS DEAL
Yuliya Tymoshenko said on 17 February that the January Ukrainian-Russian gas deal that raised the gas price to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters is contrary to "Ukrainian legislation and international standards," Interfax reported. "Under former agreements, the Ukrainian state has every legal reason to continue buying gas at $50 [per 1,000 cubic meters]," Tymoshenko said, adding that Ukrainian President Yushchenko should dispute January's deal at the Stockholm Court of Arbitration. Tymoshenko told journalists on 20 February that she could rebuild an Orange Revolution coalition with Yushchenko if he renounced the January gas deal, Reuters reported. AM
FIRST ROUND OF KOSOVA TALKS BEGINS IN VIENNA
UN-backed talks on Kosova's final status began on 20 February in Vienna, international news agencies reported. The first round of negotiations, focusing on decentralization of power to local communities, are scheduled to wrap up on 21 February. Overall, the talks are expected to last until late 2006. "It went well," Reuters quoted an official close to the talks as saying. "There were disagreements, but they were to be expected. Everyone was very frank, but constructive." Citing Kosovar media, Hina reported on 20 February that Serbian negotiators are proposing a decentralization scheme similar to the Dayton agreement that ended Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1992-95 war and divided the country into two ethnic-based entities. Kosovar negotiators, according to the reports, are proposing a scheme similar to the 2001 Ohrid peace plan that ended Macedonia's ethnic conflict. BW
HAGUE PROSECUTOR CRITICIZES UN'S KOSOVA MISSION
International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte on 20 February accused the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) of not cooperating with the Hague-based tribunal, Beta and B92 reported. Specifically, Del Ponte said the UNMIK has failed to provide adequate assisstance for protection programs for witnesses in war crimes trials. "It is not at the level that it should be. We are concerned because UNMIK is not prepared to help us," she said. She also said former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who has been indicted for war crimes, should be remanded back to custody until his trial. "Haradinaj is politically active again, and I am bewildered by the international support that he is receiving," Del Ponte said. "That is unacceptable," she added. "The problem is that the trial must begin as soon as possible, and we need to receive evidence because some of our witnesses have been threatened." BW
AS DEADLINE APPROACHES, SERBIAN OFFICIALS SAY EFFORT UNDER WAY TO CATCH MLADIC
Top Serbian officials insisted on 20 February that they are doing everything in their power to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, B92 reported the same day. "The Security Information Agency, police, and military are working, searching, surrounding, and gathering information," Interior Minister Dragan Jocic said. "A man can hide in Serbia and be very hard to find for the government. We are not talking about an average person, [but] rather a soldier who was at war all of his life, who has specific logistics." According to media reports, the Serbian government has promised ICTY prosecutor Del Ponte that it will arrest Mladic by 21 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 9 February 2006). Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said on 17 February that Belgrade has until the end of the month to extradite Mladic, Hina reported the same day. BW
KARIC BROTHER SAYS OTHERS WILL RETURN TO SERBIA WHEN CONDITIONS RIGHT
Dragomir Karic, the deputy leader of the Force of Serbia Movement, said at a rally in Nis on 20 February that his brothers will return to Serbia when they are certain to receive a fair trial, Beta and B92 reported the same day. Bogoljub, Sreten, and Dragomir Karic were charged with tax evasion on 7 February (see RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2006). Sreten and Bogoljub Karic, who is one of Serbia's wealthiest businessmen, are still abroad and will return when their attorneys advise them it is all right to do so, Dragomir Karic said. "Bogoljub will come back, that is not a problem, he will appear before the courts, but let us create conditions for a fair trial," he added. BW
FIRST CASE OF BIRD FLU REPORTED IN BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA
Bosnia-Herzegovina on 20 February reported its first case of bird flu after tests on two dead swans, international news agencies reported. Veterinary officials said that further tests in a British laboratory are needed to determine if the swans were infected with the deadly H5N1 strain. "It is H5," Reuters quoted veterinary office head Jozo Bagaric as saying. Bagaric added that samples have been sent to a European Union laboratory in England, and that results are expected by the end of this week. The birds were found at Malo Plivsko Jezero, a lake near the western Bosnian town of Jajce, on 17 February. More than a dozen swans at the lake have since been culled and an area within a radius of 3 kilometers has been cordoned off, Reuters reported. Authorities also disinfected the area and the lake, the water of which is used for drinking in Jajce, Bagaric said. Approximately 4,420 chickens from nearby households are scheduled to be culled on 21 February. BW
BOSNIAN SERB WAR CRIMES INDICTEE EXTRADITED FROM ARGENTINA TO THE HAGUE
A Bosnian Serb man accused of leading a paramilitary group that killed dozens of Muslims during the 1992-95 war has been extradited from Argentina to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, Reuters reported on 20 February. Milan Lukic, who led a paramilitary group alternatively called "The Avengers" and the "White Eagles," was arrested in Buenos Aires on 8 August. He was on the run for nearly five years. The paramilitary group Lukic led is blamed for the killings of at least 100 Bosnian Muslims. The tribunal's charges against Lukic include beatings, mass executions, and barricading groups of Bosnian women and children into houses and setting them on fire. BW
IRANIAN TELEVISION CONTROVERSY REVEALS POLITICAL STRUGGLE
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to office with a reputation for social conservatism, and he has tried to clean up what he and his supporters see as the permissive social atmosphere that emerged during the administration of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. A conflict between the executive branch and the state broadcasting agency over a popular television series demonstrates that Ahmadinejad's policies do not have unanimous approval -- not even among the groups in Iran known for their conservative viewpoints.
Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Safar-Harandi said in mid-November that the government will censor some of the current programs that are being broadcast. "We shall not permit the broadcasting of films that blatantly contradict the wishes and goals of a religious people," he said. He went on to criticize the previous administration's efforts in this regard, saying the supervisors of movie-making "needed to be reformed" and accusing them of not accepting that "this is a country shaped by the lord of the age."
In December, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, which is headed by President Ahmadinejad, instructed the state radio and television agency -- the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) -- not to play Western or "decadent" music. It was not only music that concerned Ahmadinejad. The Supreme Cultural Revolution Council also instructed the IRIB to bring all its programs in line with the new cultural policies.
It was during this time that Ahmadinejad spoke out against what is arguably the most-popular television show in Iran: "The Nights of Barareh," a nightly comedy that is set some 70 years ago in a fictional village. Its clever writing addresses issues that viewers relate to, such as government corruption, bogus elections, and women's rights, and there is a grim-faced gendarme who censors the local newspaper. Even "enrichment" comes up as a topic when a Westerner persuades the locals that he is able to enrich their chickpeas but, in fact, he only soaks them in water to increase their weight. The program also touches on social issues, with the village divided into upper and lower halves that resemble the class divisions of Tehran. It also includes a prominent homosexual character.
Coming at the same time as the executive branch decrees on media content, and in line with the political conservatism of IRIB and its leadership, one could reasonably expect "The Nights of Barareh" to be dropped from the schedule. Instead, IRIB chief Ezatollah Zarghami visited the show's set on 21 December and praised the show and its cast. This visit and Zarghami's comments -- all of which featured prominently on that evening's newscast -- were a slap in the president's face.
Ahmadinejad's supporters reacted angrily. Fatemeh Rajabi, the wife of government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham, protested that the IRIB gave more attention to Zarghami's visit to the Barareh set than it gives to the president's activities. She accused IRIB of distorting and censoring news about the president, and she warned Zarghami and other IRIB managers to prepare to face public wrath. Rajabi's accusations appeared on several websites as well, and she added vague accusations that unnamed websites were connected with the Israeli secret service agency Mossad and the U.S.'s Central Intelligence Agency.
An editorial in a hard-line daily also expressed outrage over "The Nights of Barareh," which it accused of having "populist implications and demagogic repercussions" ("Jomhuri-yi Islami," 10 January 2006). The editorial criticized Zarghami's visit to the program's set, and it expressed shock and horror that not only is the program being transmitted on IRIB's international Sahar network, but it is even being shown with subtitles in foreign languages. The editorial said people are using state resources to "wage war on the revolution and carry out the evil plot of 'derevolutionizing.'"
Zarghami is an unexpected source of opposition to the Ahmadinejad administration's cultural policies. Appointed in May 2004 as a successor to the long-serving Ali Larijani, Zarghami is a veteran of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), as are Ahmadinejad and many other top government officials. Moreover, the Interior Ministry accused IRIB of favoring hard-line candidates during the 2005 presidential campaign and, in his speeches, Zarghami does not come across as anything but a hard-liner.
Although Zarghami is an IRGC veteran and a political conservative, he does not appear to be politically linked with Ahmadinejad and his political allies in the Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society (Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami) and the Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami). Zarghami was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Larijani probably backed the appointment. Larijani is associated with more old-school conservatives in the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, and it is likely that this is where Zarghami's sympathies lie. The conflict over Barareh reflects these divisions.
This may be a conflict that the Ahmadinejad administration cannot win, but it shows no sign of going back on its policy objectives. And, in the case of culture, according to Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Safar-Harandi, the president's policy is based on a reversion to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution.
The budget submitted by Ahmadinejad in January is a manifestation of this emphasis on revolutionary ideals and an Islamic revival, with the amount of money allocated to religious institutions and outreach entities increasing and the amount dedicated to political parties actually decreasing. Among the entities enjoying a budget increase in excess of 100 percent is the Center for Computer Research and Islamic Sciences, the Islamic Encyclopedia Foundation, and the Institute for the Encyclopedia of Shi'ite Religious Jurisprudence. Also enjoying a more-than-100 percent budget increase are the Islamic Culture and Thought Research Center, the Center for Seminary Services, the Sisters' Seminary, and the World Assembly of the Prophet's Family, the daily "Etemad" reported on 15 February.
Legislators are already beginning to register their unhappiness with the way the money is being allocated in the budget.
ISLAMABAD SAYS IT RECEIVED NO LIST OF TALIBAN WANTED BY AFGHAN GOVERNMENT
Pakistan has denied reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai presented Islamabad with a list of wanted members of Al-Qaeda when he visited Pakistan recently, the state news agency Associated Press of Pakistan reported on 20 February. Pakistani Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasneen Aslam told a weekly news briefing in Islamabad on 20 February that "the Interior Ministry had also confirmed that it had not received any such list before the arrival" of Karzai or during "his visit." During Karzai's three-day visit to Pakistan, which began on 15 February, a spokesman for the Afghan president said that Kabul handed over to Islamabad a list of 150 Taliban members allegedly living in Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2006). "So far we have not been able to confirm to whom this list was handed over and whether there was such a list," AFP quoted Aslam as saying. While Afghan officials say the list related to Taliban members living in Pakistan, Pakistani officials have in their comments referred primarily to Al-Qaeda members. Karzai was in Pakistan primarily to voice his concern over the recent increase in violence in Afghanistan, for which authorities in Kabul hold Islamabad partly responsible. AT
INDIA TO JOIN TAP PIPELINE PROJECT
New Delhi has decided to join the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline, the news agency PTI reported on 20 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 to India (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003 and 25 February 2005, and "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2006). India now has three months in which to gain the "necessary official approval" to join TAP, Indian Petroleum Minister Murli Deora told PTI. He added that the pipeline will be renamed TAPI, to stand for Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, once the Indian cabinet approves the decision. Officials in New Delhi have said that a pipeline from Turkmenistan would be less problematic than a planned new pipeline to transport natural gas from Iran, a project that runs the risk of being blacklisted by U.S. and European financers, the report added. While India is not looking at Turkmen gas as an alternative to gas from Iran, New Delhi believes the TAP project has a better chance of being implemented. AT
NEO-TALIBAN CLAIMS KILLING OF FOUR AFGHAN POLICEMEN
A man claiming to speak for the neo-Taliban, Qari Mohammad Yusof, said on 19 February that neo-Taliban militia attacked a security post in the Marja area of the southern province of Helmand on 19 February, killing four policemen, the Peshawar-based news agency Afghan Islamic Press reported. An unnamed Afghan police official confirmed to Pajhwak Afghan News on 19 February that three policemen were killed in an attack in Marja by unidentified assailants, who then fled the scene. AT
THIEVES TARGET BANK VEHICLE IN KABUL
A gang of thieves on 19 February seized $50,000 from a car belonging to Pakistan-based Habib Bank, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The thieves, who were dressed as policemen, injured the driver and one security guard and reportedly killed another security guard who tried to stop the heist. The daylight robbery in center of Kabul comes at a time when the Afghan government is trying hard to lure foreign investors to Afghanistan, Pajhwak commented. AT
ALLEGED BOMBERS IN SOUTHWESTERN IRAN SENTENCED TO DEATH...
Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr announced on 20 February that seven people responsible for a deadly double bombing in the southwestern city of Ahvaz in January have been tried, Mehr News Agency reported. Their identities will be made public soon. Prosecutor-General Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi said the same day that two of the alleged bombers have been sentenced to death, Fars News Agency reported. Mehran Rafii, a provincial public affairs official, added that state television will show all seven bombers by the end of the week, Mehr News Agency reported. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei said on 19 February that the Iranian government has documentary evidence of British support for the groups responsible for the Ahvaz bombings, Al-Alam television reported. Mohseni-Ejei said Iranian policy is to infiltrate these groups. BS
...AS ANOTHER BOMB EXPLODES
An explosion occurred on the evening of 19 February in the northwestern part of Ahvaz, ISNA and IRNA reported. Nobody was injured but some windows were broken. Mohsen Farokhinejad, the Khuzestan governor-general's deputy for political and security affairs, told ISNA that nobody has been arrested yet. BS
IRANIAN LEADER ENCOURAGES FUNDING FOR HAMAS...
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei received visiting Hamas political bureau chief Khalid Mashaal on 20 February, Mehr News Agency reported. Khamenei said Palestinians voted for Hamas because they want to resist Israel. Khamenei praised Hamas's "red lines," which Mashaal described as a refusal to recognize Israel, the right of return for Palestinians, and a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Khamenei urged the global Islamic community to work on solving the Palestinian problem, and he encouraged Muslims to contribute financially. Mashaal thanked Iran for its continuing support, and reiterated that Hamas will never retreat from its red lines. Mashaal said he and his colleagues are on a regional tour to consult with Arab and Muslim countries and discuss the Palestinians' needs. Mashaal and other Hamas officials had arrived in Tehran the previous evening, IRNA reported. BS
WASHINGTON QUESTIONS TEHRAN'S WILLINGNESS TO FULLY FUND PALESTINIANS
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed doubt on 17 February that Iran will be able to fund Hamas fully, "Al-Hayat" reported on 18 February. Israel and the United States have refused to fund the Palestinian government as long as Hamas refuses to renounce violence or to recognize Israel. Rice said the Palestinian Authority needs at least $1.9 billion annually and questioned Tehran's willingness to meet this need. "We will wait and see whether Iran will provide aid of this magnitude," she said. BS
IRAN-EU NUCLEAR TALKS A BUST...
Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, Supreme National Security Council official Javad Vaidi, and a number of other Iranian officials arrived in Brussels on 20 February to discuss Iran's nuclear program with the European Union, IRNA reported. In a speech to the European Parliament, Mottaki said Iran is determined to continue its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as it is seeking to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Mottaki said Iran is willing to provide guarantees that its nuclear program is peaceful. Mottaki also complained about a Danish newspaper's publication of images of the Prophet Muhammad, and praised Hamas's victory in Palestinian elections held in late January. Mottaki said Iran has a free press and freedom of expression. EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said on 20 February that Mottaki brought nothing new to the debate about Tehran's nuclear program, AFP reported. Solana said he had hoped Iran would modify its position, and he still hopes this will happen before a 6 March IAEA meeting. BS
...AND MOSCOW TALKS UNPRODUCTIVE
Iranian officials and their Russian counterparts discussed the issue of Iran's nuclear program in Moscow on 20 February, international news agencies reported, but the talks ended with no result. Moscow has offered to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian soil, and then take back and store the spent fuel. BS
FOWL KILLED IN IRAN TO PREVENT SPREAD OF BIRD FLU
Iranian State Veterinary Organization chief Hussein Hassani said on 18 February that 200,000 local fowl were purchased and killed in order to prevent the spread of bird flu (avian influenza), state television reported. He stressed that all chickens in the country are free of the disease. BS
U.K. FOREIGN SECRETARY VISITS IRAQ
Speaking to reporters in Baghdad following a meeting with President Jalal Talabani on 21 February, U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that election results show that "no party, no ethnic or religious grouping, can dominate the government in Iraq and this therefore gives further impetus to what Iraqis tell us they want, which is a real government of national unity, binding together all the different elements of Iraqi society," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Talabani told reporters that the discussions focused on the need for British forces to remain in southern Iraq until Iraqi security forces are prepared to take over. Straw also discussed the controversy regarding British soldiers in Al-Basrah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). "Altogether we've probably had nearly 100,000 British soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel through Iraq over the last three years. And the numbers against whom there've been any allegations has been less than 0.005 percent and that's very tiny," he said. KR
U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ WARNS OF SECTARIAN RULE
Zalmay Khalilzad warned the incoming Iraqi government on 20 February that it could face strained relations with the United States should it fail to form a national unity government, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Speaking to reporters at a Baghdad press briefing, Khalilzad said that Iraq must overcome sectarian strife or else it will become a nation dominated by warlords, similar to what Afghanistan went through. "The ministers of interior, defense, national intelligence, [and] the national security adviser have to be people who are nonsectarian, broadly acceptable, non-militia-related that will work for all Iraqis." he said. Regarding the U.S. military presence in Iraq, he said the United States does not plan on having permanent bases inside Iraq. Khalilzad blamed Iranian interference for much of the militia problem, saying Iraq's eastern neighbor gives training and weapons to extremist groups. KR
U.S. OPTS TO WORK WITH TRIBAL LEADERS RATHER THAN DIALOGUE WITH INSURGENTS
The United States has abandoned dialogue with insurgent groups operating in the Al-Anbar Governorate and is instead funding the establishment of local security forces run by low-level tribal leaders, London-based daily "Al-Hayat" claimed in a 20 February report. Other tribesmen identified as close to the resistance told the daily that the United States made a "grave error" by entrusting security in the governorate to tribal chieftains with no real power. Tribal leader Sheikh Khalaf al-Ulayyan, who is a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, called the deal with tribal leaders "bogus," adding: "The Americans were tricked.... The tribal chiefs who signed the deal have nothing to do with the governorate; they are even being hunted down by their own tribesmen and have not been in Al-Anbar for years." Sheikh Farhan al-Sudayid of the Al-Shammar tribe told the daily that the tribal chiefs involved in the deal "have absolutely no authority over the tribes they belong to." The daily cited a 19 February report in "Al-Sabah" that said U.S. forces have already distributed some $20 million out of $250 million earmarked for local tribal militias. KR
IS IRAQI SHI'ITE ALLIANCE WOOING KURDS?
The Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) has reportedly extended an offer to grant extensive authority to the president and to implement Article 58 of the constitution, which deals with repatriating Kurds to Kirkuk, in exchange for Kurdish support for the nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari as prime minister, Iraq's Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 21 February, citing informed sources. According to Al-Sharqiyah, UIA member Ali al-Adib presented the offer in a recent meeting with outgoing President Jalal Talabani, who is widely expected to retain his post in the incoming government. The Kurds, along with Sunni Arab and secular Shi'ite parties, are opposed to the al-Ja'fari nomination (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 17 February 2006). Meanwhile, al-Ja'fari met with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Al-Najaf on 20 February, Radio Free Iraq reported. KR
ARAB LEAGUE ENVOY ARRIVES IN IRAQ TO BEGIN PLANNING NATIONAL ACCORD CONFERENCE
Mustafa Uthman, an envoy of Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa, arrived in Iraq on 19 February to begin preparations for the convening of a national accord conference, Iraqi media reported the same day. Speaking to reporters in Baghdad alongside Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari, Uthman said the conference, slated to be held in Baghdad by early March, will most likely be delayed. "All the [Iraqi] political forces are preoccupied with consultations to form the government. Therefore, it might be difficult to hold this conference as scheduled on the first of March," Al-Sharqiyah television quoted Uthman as saying. He said the conference will focus on unity and stability, setting a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces, debt forgiveness, and reconstruction. Asked whether the conference will include the participation of armed groups, Uthman said: "Our contacts here are limited to the political forces that participated in the Cairo conference.... If there is any discussion or dialogue with the armed factions or others, this will take place at the conference, which will convene when a date is set for it after the formation of the government." KR