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Newsline - February 22, 2006

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 22 February calling on Japan not to make any "unacceptable" statements regarding a prospective peace treaty to formally end the state of war that has existed between Moscow and Tokyo since August 1945, Interfax reported. The statements in question are those that "could be viewed as interference in Russian domestic affairs," which means statements reasserting Japan's claim to the southern Kurile Islands, which are known in Japan as the Northern Territories, or islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri, and Etorofu (see The Red Army occupied them after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in the last weeks of World War II in the Pacific. In the latest round of periodic verbal exchanges between Moscow and Tokyo reflecting the territorial dispute, the ministry statement rebuked Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso for allegedly saying that his country will not agree to any peace treaty without the return of the four islands. PM

Ivan Malakhov, who is governor of Sakhalin Oblast, announced in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on 21 February that the oblast authorities have imposed a ban on "low quality and unreliable foreign information in international information exchanges," Interfax reported. A regional government spokesman told the news agency that "unfriendly information [practices] have been reported recently at trade and industrial exhibitions in the Sakhalin region. Some firms circulate booklets, catalogues, audio cassettes, and other materials that distort the Russian state border, Russia's state symbols -- the national flag and state [coat-of-arms] -- as well as Sakhalin's regional symbols." He added that "foreign organizations disseminating untrue information are a threat to Russia's information security." The allusion is apparently to Japanese publications showing Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri, and Etorofu as Japanese. PM

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on 21 February merging all Russian civilian and military aircraft producers into a single holding company, the United Aircraft Construction Corporation (OAK), in which the state will own at least 75 percent of the equity, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 7 February 2006). A press release said that the purpose of the move is "to preserve and develop the research and production potential of the Russian aviation construction industry, to ensure the state's security and defense capabilities, and to pool the intellectual, industrial, and financial resources for implementing prospective programs to create technical equipment used in aviation," reported. London's "Financial Times" noted that the move is one of several aimed at consolidating "industrial assets under state control." The daily added that this is "the latest attempt by the Kremlin to revive the national [aviation] industry while keeping it under tight state control." The government is reportedly considering a similar move in the motor vehicle sector to unite the car industry's AvtoVAZ and the truck maker KamAZ under the leadership of the arms export firm Rosoboroneksport (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January and 3 February 2006). PM

The "Financial Times" quoted Axel Krein, who is Airbus's senior vice president in charge of strategic development, as saying in Moscow on 21 February that his company is negotiating with the Russian government "to create a $25 billion 'lifetime' partnership to develop a new aircraft." He reportedly added that "this is not a program for two or three years. We are speaking here about a lifetime partnership. It's like a marriage." According to the London-based daily, "the proposal includes ordering parts for [the Airbus] A-350 airliner, converting passenger jets to carry cargo, and financing a new generation aircraft program." Aeroflot, the Russian national airline, will reportedly decide soon whether to buy the A-350 or Boeing's 787 as it moves to acquire at least 22 long-haul aircraft. Boeing and Airbus are competing to sell Russia new aircraft and "scoop up engineering and design talent that might leave Russian companies following the setting up" of the OAK, "The New York Times" reported. PM

Russian prosecutors said on 21 February they have charged 13 people in connection with the racially motivated killing of Peruvian student Enrique Arturo Angeles Hurtado in Voronezh last October, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 October 2005). Regional chief prosecutor Aleksandr Ponomaryov said that 12 of the 13 are in custody. He said one of them, who was accused of knifing the student, faces murder charges. Three others are accused of robbery, and the others are charged with hooliganism, RIA Novosti reported. PM

The State Duma voted on 22 February to pass President Putin's "antiterrorism law," which critics charge is sufficiently vague to be used against the civil society, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005 and 7, 8, 16, and 21 February 2006). The legislation sailed to approval in a 408-1 vote, with five abstentions. The State Duma is scheduled to vote on the measure again in a third and final reading on 26 February. RIA Novosti reported that the bill provides a "regulatory framework for measures to deal with terrorism and its [consequences and] empowers Russian secret services to tap telephone conversations and control electronic communications in areas where counterterrorism operations are carried out. It also [enables] air defense forces to shoot down hijacked planes to prevent attacks on strategic facilities or public places." The measure also bans organizations "whose purposes and actions include the propaganda, justification, and support of terrorism." The bill was first submitted to the State Duma in 2004 and subsequently was "almost forgotten" while the security structures jostled for control of the war on terrorism, "Vedomosti" reported. On 16 February, Putin set up a national counterterrorism committee under Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB), to "fine-tune government regulations in fighting terrorism." PM

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in a statement on 21 February that commanders who quickly report abuses by their subordinates will not be held criminally responsible for those incidents, "The Moscow Times" reported. In related news, Lyudmila Vakhnina of Memorial, which is Russia's main human rights nongovernmental organization, said that the use of conscripts as virtual slave labor in commercial enterprises remains widespread despite promises of reform (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2006). PM

Continuing her tour of the North Caucasus, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour met in Grozny on 21 February with pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, acting Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, and republican Prosecutor Valery Kuznetsov, Russian media reported. Arbour expressed concern over what she termed credible reports that people arrested in Chechnya may be forced to testify under torture, and she suggested to Kuznetsov that Chechen courts should consider only videotaped testimony. She also advocated engaging independent agencies to investigate reported human rights violations. Ella Pamfilova, who heads the presidential Council on Civil Institutions and Human Rights and who accompanied Arbour to Grozny, asked Alkhanov to permit the Danish Council for Refugees to resume its work in Chechnya, Interfax reported. But Kadyrov, who announced a ban on the council's work two weeks ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006), responded that due to security concerns it is not expedient to do so. LF

During his meeting with Arbour on 22 February, acting Chechen Prime Minister Kadyrov accused exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky of channeling millions of dollars to Chechen resistance fighters in the late 1990s, Interfax reported. Kadyrov alleged that Berezovsky proposed to unnamed field commanders that they kidnap Russian civilians in Chechnya, for whom Berezovsky would then pay a ransom. In November 1998, Berezovsky admitted to having negotiated the release of Russians taken hostage in Chechnya, but he categorically denied having paid even one kopeck in ransom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November 1998). Also during his meeting with Arbour, Kadyrov accused Akhmed Zakaev, minister of culture in the Chechen resistance government, of financing the explosion in Grozny on 9 May 2004 that killed Kadyrov's father and Alkhanov's predecessor, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 May 2004). LF

Speaking at a press conference in Makhachkala on 20 February following his election by parliament as Daghestan's first president, Mukhu Aliyev announced that his first priority will be to expedite and fine-tune the ongoing administrative reform, according to as cited by (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). One of Aliyev's rivals for the post of president, Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, criticized the republic's government last month for failing to expand the autonomy of local councils (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). Aliyev pledged to bring new blood into the republic's leadership by promoting "young, talented people...with a nonstandard approach to resolving problems." He also vowed to make the entire system of government more transparent, a pledge that presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak construed as targeting corruption to ensure that budget funds are spent more effectively to the greater benefit of the population at large. LF

Two organizations representing Adygeya's Adyg and Cherkess minorities, the Cherkess Congress and Adyge Khase, appealed on 21 February to Yury Khut, chairman of the Republic of Adygeya's Central Election Commission (TsIK), to strike the regional organization of the United Industrial Party of Russia from the parliamentary ballot scheduled for 12 March, according to "Kavkazsky uzel" on 22 February as cited by Referring to statements made in December by members of the Union of Slavs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 29 December 2005 and 17 January 2006), the two organizations accused that party, on whose list many representatives of Adygeya's Slavic majority are participating in the elections, of inciting ethnic hatred. They argued that "people and parties with such ideas should not participate in elections to the highest legislative organ of the republic, on whose work stability and calm in Adygeya depends to a large degree." Also on 21 February, Adygeya's TsIK requested that the republic's Supreme Court annul the election registration of the party lists of the Motherland (Rodina) and Patriots of Russia parties, the "Caucasus Times" reported. TsIK Deputy Chairman Fanyus Kazykhanov explained that one member from each list has pulled out of the ballot, leaving each with fewer than the minimum six candidates. LF

The UN is reviewing some of its programs in Armenia and has suspended an anticorruption program that got under way in 2003, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 21 February. Visiting the UN's Yerevan office in mid-December, Armenian President Robert Kocharian reportedly took issue with criticism expressed by UN experts of corruption in the education and health-care sectors, according to Armenian media reports. But Aleksandr Avanesov, deputy head of the UN office, denied on 21 February that anticorruption measures were discussed during Kocharian's visit. LF

Ambassador Steven Mann, who is the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on 21 February that "2006 is the year for [achieving] a solution" to the long-standing Karabakh conflict. Mann acknowledged that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents failed to "move forward" during their talks in Rambouillet earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 February 2006), and he warned that "it will be a true tragedy" if the two sides fail to take advantage of "so much positive work" over the past two years. Mann said he has the impression from talking to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis that neither side wants a new war, but he added that both countries must find "the will to push forward and close the gaps" between their respective negotiating positions. Meanwhile, Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that further progress towards resolving the conflict is contingent on Azerbaijan agreeing to hold direct talks with Karabakh officials. Ghukasian suggested that in order to achieve this it is necessary for Armenia to opt out of further talks with Azerbaijan (see End Note). LF

Vladimir Putin arrived in Baku on 21 February, accompanied by a sizeable delegation, to participate in ceremonies to launch the Year of Russia in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani and Russian media reported. Putin is to meet one-on-one with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev on 22 February. Also on 21 February, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko and Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov co-chaired a session of the intergovernmental commission for economic cooperation, reported on 22 February. Abbasov declared that the record $1 billion bilateral trade turnover in 2005 could be surpassed this year. He also noted that in 2006 Azerbaijan will export no less than 3 million tons of oil via the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline, and that it is hoped to conclude an agreement between Gazprom and Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR on long-term oil exports. Under an agreement signed 10 years ago, SOCAR was permitted to export a maximum of 5 million tons per year through the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline. Abbasov further hailed Russia's consent to allow an unspecified number of Azerbaijani vessels to transit the Volga-Don canal. LF

Addressing a session of the National Security Council on 21 February, Mikheil Saakashvili argued that Georgia should not be provoked by Russia, but should engage with that country "as an equal," defending its independence and territorial integrity, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili further alleged that Russian Air Force planes have violated Georgian air space in recent days. LF

Eduard Kokoity, who is president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, accused Tbilisi on 21 February of preparing a military strike with the aim of eliminating the South Ossetian leadership and seizing strategically vital facilities, Interfax reported on 21 February. Also on 21 February, South Ossetian Minister for Special Assignments Boris Chochiev accused Georgia of seeking to expel the Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in South Ossetia. LF

In a 21 February letter to the head of the OSCE Mission in Georgia, the co-chairmen of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, and the commander of the Joint Peacekeeping Force in South Ossetia, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava expressed concern at the rising tensions in the conflict zone and at Russia's decision not to attend a JCC session scheduled for 20-21 February in Vienna, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). He called for convening a JCC session as soon as possible. Khaindrava dismissed as unfounded South Ossetian fears of an imminent Georgian attack and reaffirmed Tbilisi's commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully. Meanwhile, the Georgian Foreign Ministry made public on 20 February its proposed measures for demilitarization of the conflict zone, reported. LF

The consular department of the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi has suspended issuing visas to Georgian citizens except in humanitarian emergencies, Caucasus Press reported on 21 February. The rationale given for that suspension was Georgia's recent insistence that members of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone should have valid Georgian visas. LF

Echoing comments by Georgian Minister of Economic Development Irakli Chogovadze three months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005), Georgian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Chechelashvili told ambassadors to Georgia of states that are members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that while Tbilisi is not setting conditions for Russia's accession to the WTO, it insists that Russian should comply with existing agreements on bilateral economic relations and trade, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. Chechelashvili further briefed the assembled ambassadors on Georgia's policy towards the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia measures it is undertaking to demilitarize the South Ossetian conflict zone. LF

The Tbilisi branch of the Samartlianoba (Justice) party of which fugitive former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze is chairman held a conference in Tbilisi on 21 February at which delegates called for preterm parliamentary and presidential elections, Caucasus Press reported. They affirmed that the party enjoys enough popular support to come to power in a democratic ballot, and that if the Georgian authorities seek to rig the next elections Samartlianoba will oust them in what Giorgadze has termed a "nettle revolution." Giorgadze left Georgia in the fall of 1995 after being accused of masterminding the August 1995 car-bomb attack on then Georgian parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, accusations which he rejects as fabricated. His current whereabouts are unknown, although he has given numerous interviews to Russian media outlets. LF

Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) announced on 21 February that five of the six suspects arrested in connection with the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006) are members of the KNB's Arystan special forces unit, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported, citing the press service of the KNB. The bodies of Sarsenbaev, his driver, and bodyguard were discovered on 13 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006); the KNB said that the driver's and bodyguard's cell phones were later used, making arrests possible. The KNB said that it is taking active measures to unmask rogue elements and to punish officials who failed to prevent the involvement of KNB officers in crimes. Oraz Zhandosov, a member of the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan, told Reuters that the involvement of KNB officers in the Sarsenbaev killing "takes our country to an entirely new level, a level where elite security officers can just seize people in broad daylight." DK

President Nursultan Nazarbaev commented on the Sarsenbaev murder on 21 February, calling for the guilty parties to be subjected to "harsh punishment," Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev described the killing as "a challenge to our country's image," adding: "Order and stability in our home are very much not to someone's liking." Nazarbaev stated, "Whoever stands behind this crime, be they a perpetrator, organizer, or person who ordered the crime, they will all come before the court and receive the harshest punishment." DK

An accounting commission in Kyrgyzstan's parliament determined on 21 February that an "extra" vote was cast on 20 February when deputies voted down the resignation of speaker Omurbek Tekebaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006), reported. Acting on a request from deputy Ziyadin Jamaldinov, the committee found that 61 ballots were issued, but 62 deputies voted. Deputy Akhmatbek Keldibekov told Kyrgyz Television that the vote should be repeated to remedy the irregularity. But Melis Eshimkanov told that since one vote would not have changed the outcome, parliamentary regulations do not require a revote. Tekebaev's resignation failed to pass, as 34 deputies voted in favor and 26 voted against, while 38 votes would have been needed to approve the resignation. The commission is to reach a conclusion on the voting irregularity by 24 February. DK

A court in Khujand on 21 February sentenced Fayzinniso Vohidova, a member of the presidium of Tajikistan's Social-Democratic Party, to a two-year suspended sentence, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Vohidova was acquitted on criminal charges of fraud and forging documents, but found guilty of tax evasion, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Vohidova was freed in the courtroom after the sentencing. DK

Tajik Finance Minister Safarali Najmuddinov and Cevdet Denizer, World Bank country director for Tajikistan, signed agreements in Dushanbe on 21 February for the World Bank to provide Tajikistan with $32.5 million in grants, Tajik Television First Channel reported. One $16 million grant will go to improving health care, while $16.5 million is earmarked for municipal services. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 21 February called on law-enforcement agencies to step up security measures in the runup to the 19 March presidential election, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belarusian Television reported. Lukashenka was speaking at a conference in Minsk with leaders of the Defense and Interior Ministries, the Committee for State Security (KGB), the State Border Troops Committee, and the State Customs Committee. "You know in detail what pressure has been exerted on Belarus -- from overt blackmail to attempts to interfere in [our] domestic affairs on the part of the West, and from petty provocations to threats and extremist manifestations on the part of the opposition," Lukashenka said. "Realizing the lack of chances for a legal win, opponents of the authorities sweat their guts out to fuel tensions in the country, loosen the foundations of the state and society, and blacken our spiritual values. Therefore, our main task is to hedge the Belarusian people against imposing the alien will, lies, and violence [on them].... Now in the first place it is necessary to act preemptively, to take the most optimal and efficient measures." JM

Presidential candidate Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, appeared on Belarusian Television on 21 February with a prerecorded address to voters, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Each of the four registered candidates has the right to two 30-minute appearances on state-run television and another two on state-run radio to present their election platform. Haydukevich criticized the government's economic policies as well as his contenders from the opposition, Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kazulin, although he did not mention their names. "We in Belarus have the political forces that have been literally fed by the West...and set by their guardians toward accomplishing the sole task -- ruining the Belarus-Russia Union," Haydukevich said. "This is a repetition of the mendacious propaganda that is being poured on all of Belarus's democratic-minded citizens from the state media," Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, Milinkevich's campaign manager, commented on Haydukevich's television address. JM

President Lukashenka on 21 February gave up his right to a 30-minute television appearance offered for his reelection campaign, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Belarusian Television's Channel 1 was expected to air Lukashenka's prerecorded address to voters immediately after Haydukevich's campaign appearance. Instead, the channel broadcast an episode of a documentary series, called "The Theory of Conspiracy," about political revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. JM

The Crimean Supreme Council on 22 February decided to stage a local consultative referendum on giving Russian the "status of a second state language" in the peninsula, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The plebiscite is to be held on 26 March, simultaneously with the parliamentary elections. The motion was supported by 53 deputies in the 100-seat Crimean legislature. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Justice Ministry has announced that giving state status to a language belongs to the so-called constitutional-system issues in Ukraine and cannot be resolved in a local referendum, but requires a nationwide plebiscite. The Crimean Prosecutor's Office has immediately said it will appeal against the parliamentary resolution on the referendum. The Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych collected more than 300,000 signatures in support of this referendum in Crimea. JM

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk on 21 February rejected Turkmenistan's claim voiced last week that Kyiv owns Ashgabat $158.9 million for gas deliveries in 2004-05, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Tarasyuk said Ukraine's debt Is considerably smaller, adding that Turkmenistan is trying to break the contract it signed with Ukraine for gas deliveries, because it is unable to fulfill its terms. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasyl Filipchuk said the same day that Ukraine owes Turkmenistan $77 million for past gas deliveries and that the reason for the holdup in payment were constant delays by the Turkmen customs service in processing Ukrainian goods sent to Ashgabat as barter payment for gas. Filipchuk added that despite an existing contract for 2006 gas deliveries, which Ukraine has prepaid in the sum of $88 million, "not one cubic meter of Turkmen gas contracted for sale to Ukraine has reached the Turkmen-Uzbek border." Ukraine is prepared to turn to Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce in its dispute with Turkmenistan over gas deliveries, Naftohaz Ukrayiny head Oleksiy Ivchenko told Interfax-Ukraine on 22 February. Ivchenko suggested that Turkmenistan's refusal to ship gas that had been prepaid by Ukraine in January 2006 was linked to Saparmurat Niyazov's threat to raise the price of gas from $50 per 1,000 cubic meters for the first six months of 2006 and $60 in the second half, to $100. RK

The Serbian government on 21 February denied reports that war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic has been arrested, international news agencies reported the same day. "The news about Ratko Mladic is not correct," Reuters quoted government spokesman Srdjan Djuric as saying. "It is a manipulation which damages the government and does not contribute to its efforts to fully complete its cooperation with The Hague," Djuric added. The official Serbian news agency Tanjug cited TV BN in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska as reporting that Mladic was arrested in Belgrade and was being transferred to The Hague via the Bosnian city of Tuzla. An earlier report by Belgrade's Studio B television said Mladic was located "in the area of Tuzla," Reuters reported. BW

Milo Djukanovic on 21 February criticized as unrealistic a European Union proposal to require a 55 percent majority in an independence referendum, Beta and B92 reported the same day. "It is not realistic to expect the bloc that supports the independence of Montenegro to be left without a state if 54.9 percent of voters support the referendum," he said. "No one can realistically expect or ask this of the majority." Opposition parties opposing independence are seeking to have the referendum structured so that a majority of all registered voters must support independence regardless of turnout. Pro-independence forces want a simple majority of those casting ballots to be sufficient for independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, 16, and 17 February 2006). The Montenegrin parliament is scheduled to debate the issue on 25 February. BW

Pero Petrasevic, a former member of the infamous Bosnian Serb Scorpions paramilitary unit, admitted on 21 February to killing Muslim civilians, Beta and B92 reported the same day. On trial since 25 December 2005 for his part in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Petrasevic had refused to testify in his own defense. He confessed on 21 February to the murders of six Srebrenica civilians, adding that he was following direct orders from his superiors. BW

The government of Bosnia-Herzegovina on 21 February approved a draft agreement regulating the country's relations with the Vatican, Hina reported. The draft, which has been in the works since 2001, calls for nationalized church property to be restituted over a 10-year period. In cases where the state is unable to restitute church property, it will provide fair compensation. The draft also affirms the separation of church and state, but calls for the two to cooperate to promote spiritual development and general well-being. BW

Momcilo Mandic, a former Republika Srpska justice minister, pleaded not guilty on 21 February to charges of abuse of office, organized crime, and aiding war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic, Reuters reported. Mandic and three other Bosnian Serb officials, including former Presidency member Mirko Sarovic, have been charged on 14 counts in Bosnia's State Court. The group is accused of transferring depositors' funds in Privredna Banka -- which Mandic owned -- to political-party accounts, causing the bank to go bankrupt. Some of the funds are alleged to have abetted Karadzic. BW

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and his Macedonian counterpart Branko Crvenkovski agreed on 21 February to cooperate in their respective efforts to join the European Union, Makfax reported the same day. "Although no great distance lies between the two countries, they know very little of each other, and the cooperation is far below the potential," Crvenkovski and Voronin said in a joint statement after a meeting in Skopje. Crvenkovski noted that annual trade between the two countries totals just $400,000. Voronin said he is grateful that Macedonia is prepared to share its experience with Chisinau in the Euro-Atlantic integration process. BW

In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 18 February, Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), said that Baku's refusal to hold direct talks with members of the Karabakh leadership is slowing down mediation efforts on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ghukasian construed Azerbaijan's rejection of such direct talks as reflecting a lack of interest in reaching a negotiated solution. "The negotiating process that was going on within the Minsk Group framework is nonexistent today...." he told RFE/RL. "We can find a way out of this situation only in a real negotiating format involving Nagorno-Karabakh.... When Azerbaijan talks only to Armenia without Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan engages only in propaganda. Once Azerbaijan starts talking to Karabakh, for me it will be a signal that Azerbaijan is looking for a solution to the issue."

Nagorno-Karabakh, a region within Azerbaijan, is predominantly ethnic Armenian. Following the unilateral 1991 declaration of Nagorno-Karabakh's independence from Azerbaijan, hitherto sporadic fighting escalated into a full-fledged war in which Armenian forces took control of swathes of neighboring Azerbaijani territory.

The three sides -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic -- signed a cease-fire agreement in May 1994.

The Minsk Group was created in 1992 to mediate a solution to the conflict, and Nagorno-Karabakh representatives regularly participated in talks with Armenia and Azerbaijan under its aegis until 1996. But following the appointment of then NKR President Robert Kocharian as Armenian prime minister in early 1997, the enclave was excluded from such talks.

Ghukasian, who was elected Kocharian's successor in 1997, told RFE/RL on 18 February that he sees only one way to change that: Armenia should opt out of further talks and let Stepanakert make its own case with Baku. "There is only one way Karabakh can enter the negotiating process: Armenia's refusal to negotiate with Azerbaijan," Ghukasian said. "There is no other way out. As long as Armenia talks to Azerbaijan without [the involvement of] Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan will refuse to negotiate with Karabakh. It's as simple as that."

At the same time, Ghukasian acknowledged that tactic is not without risks. Azerbaijan might be tempted to take advantage of the Armenian refusal either to delay a settlement indefinitely or to launch a military campaign to bring Karabakh back under its control.

Azerbaijan has doubled and even trebled military spending in recent years, and senior officials, including President Ilham Aliyev and Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev, have repeatedly hinted that if negotiations fail to yield a settlement on Baku's terms, Azerbaijan would be justified in resorting to arms.

Armenian officials, for their part, have repeatedly called for the inclusion of Karabakh representatives in talks under the Minsk Group aegis, but have not shown any sign of willingness to relinquish their role in the peace process.

The Minsk Group co-chairs said in December 2005 and January 2006 that talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in 2005 yielded progress towards a solution to the conflict, and hinted that 2006 might bring a major breakthrough.

Those predictions raised hopes that at their summit in Rambouillet, France on 10-11 February, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Kocharian and Aliyev, might actually sign a short declaration of basic principles that would serve as the foundation for a more detailed and comprehensive settlement.

In the event, the two presidents failed to do so. A diplomat involved in the talks later told RFE/RL that the two key sticking points are Karabakh's future status and the time frame for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijan's Kelbacar district, which lies between the NKR and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

Ghukasian suggested that in the event that no progress is made in the peace talks, the Karabakh leadership might seek to pressure the Armenian leadership to recognize the NKR as an independent state. "I think that if all goes on like this, if we see that Azerbaijan is really unprepared for concessions we will have to raise the issue of Armenia's recognition of Karabakh," he said.

Successive Armenian leaderships have insisted that Yerevan will not be the first state to acknowledge Karabakh's independence, although it would follow suit immediately after another state sets the precedent. The Karabakh leadership's claims to independence derive from a referendum held in November 1991 in accordance with Soviet legislation still in force at that time that granted autonomous formations the same theoretical right to secede from the union republics of which they were a part that the union republics enjoyed vis-a-vis the USSR.

Ghukasian's interview coincided almost to the day with the 20 February 1988 appeal by the local Soviet of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to the USSR Supreme Soviet to designate the region part of the Armenian Soviet republic. It was that appeal that served as the catalyst for a conflict that has lasted 18 years, and has polarized the populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan. On 18 February -- the day of Ghukasian's interview -- the online daily reported that some Azerbaijanis now support the idea of building a "great wall" along the border between the two countries -- not so much for defense, but as a reminder to future generations of Armenia's "aggression" and "inherent hostility."(RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report)

Afghan deputy presidential spokesman Siamak Herawi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 21 February that he is surprised by Islamabad's announcement that it does not have a list of wanted fugitives from the Afghan government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that during his recent trip to Islamabad, he gave his hosts a list of enemies of Afghanistan in Pakistan, but Pakistani Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasneen Aslam denied receiving such a list (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). According to Herawi, the Afghan delegation presented Pakistani officials with evidence of activities aimed at destabilizing Afghanistan, including the names of Taliban members allegedly living in Pakistan. Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Nawid Ahmad Moez told Radio Free Afghanistan on 21 February that Kabul related "at the highest level" to the Pakistani authorities specific information on people believed to be involved in terrorism in Afghanistan. Moez said the information did not include an alphabetical list of names, but rather the names of the people of concern for Afghanistan were included as part of the evidence presented to the Pakistanis. AT

Afghan Information, Culture, and Tourism Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin said in Kabul on 21 February that his government has sent a request to Pakistan asking it not to name its missiles after historic Afghan rulers, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Rahin described the request as a "suggestion based on principles." Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswomen Tasneen Aslam, however, told Pajhwak that her country has not received Rahin's request, adding that Islamabad will give its "reaction as and when" it receives the request. Pakistan has named some of its ballistic missiles after Afghan rulers such as "Abdali" or historical figures whose empires were based in what is currently Afghanistan such as "Ghaznawi" and "Ghori." Kings from these dynasties invaded India. The established Afghan historiography traces the origins of the country to historic periods before 1747, when the basis of modern Afghanistan was established by Ahmad Shah Abdali. AT

The Afghan National Assembly's People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) on 21 February finished setting up its committees, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Kabul Province representative Shokria Barakzai said that the selection process for the 18 committees was based on political maneuverings rather than on members' expertise. Hajji Mohammad Mohaqeq, head of the committee on religious, educational and cultural affairs, who also represents Kabul, said that the Afghan parliament suffers from a lack of specialists. He expressed the hope that the Afghanistan's international backers will help in raising the capabilities of the parliamentarians. AT

The Pakistani Commission for Afghan Refugees (CAR) has decided to deport Afghans who were allegedly involved in riots in Peshawar on 15 February over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in the Western press, Islamabad daily "The News" reported on 21 February. According to a CAR press release, all Afghans who were involved in damaging public and private property will be deported to Afghanistan and all Afghan refugees should be restricted to camps. According to the Peshawar police, a number of Afghan refugees were involved in the riots that left three people dead and caused major property damage. AT

Kurdish students at the University of Tehran staged a brief demonstration on 21 February, ILNA reported. Chanting in Kurdish, the demonstrators called for political prisoners to be freed. In the northwestern town of Urumieh on 19 February, four policemen were killed when the Eastern Kurdistan Hawks of Freedom (TAK) bombed a police station, Turkish language Roj Television from Copenhagen reported on 20 February. Roj TV added that Iranian security forces are continuing to detain Kurds after shooting a number of them in the town of Maku. The shootings allegedly occurred on 15 February, when Kurds protested against the detention of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Roj TV reported on 18 February that the Iranian forces killed eight people and wounded at least 20 others, and at least 700 people were detained in Maku and Poldasht. Protests took place in Mahabad as well. Suleiman Jafarzadeh, the parliamentary representative from Maku, on 17 February said 200 people supporting Ocalan tried to start a riot near the city of Bazargan, Fars News Agency reported. Jafarzadeh said armed Ocalan supporters shot two locals, and added that the provocateurs were arrested and the situation is calm. BS

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, who was in Brussels on 20 February, said in Tehran the following day that Iran and Europe have different concerns regarding the nuclear issue, IRNA reported. Mottaki explained: "Europeans fear that Iran would probably deviate from its peaceful nuclear program towards building atomic bombs whereas Iran is seeking ways to act upon its indisputable right for acquiring peaceful nuclear technology." While in Brussels on 20 February, Mottaki said the Islamic Republic will no longer confine discussion of the nuclear issue to the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), international news agencies reported. Mottaki said that in the future Iran will deal with countries bilaterally, and he added that Iran no longer trusts Europe. Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said "I have not seen any opening for negotiations," the parliamentary website reported on 21 February ( During his speech at the parliament, Mottaki complained that Germany and France failed to fulfill promises to help Iran with nuclear technology, and then he complained about the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He did not explain the connection between nuclear weapon usage during World War II and Iran's current nuclear program. BS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told visiting Hamas political branch chief Khalid Mish'al on 20 February that Palestinians are in a very strong position regarding the Mideast peace process, IRNA reported. This is at least the third time the two men have met -- they met when Mish'al visited Iran in December, and again when Ahmadinejad visited Damascus in January. Mish'al was interviewed by Iranian state television on 21 February, and he expressed gratitude for Tehran's long-standing support. "Iran has always supported the Palestinian people and will support them in the next phase," he said. "Our nation is genuine and will never let us down and we are faithful to this nation." BS

Mohammad-Mehdi Mofatteh, rapporteur for the parliamentary Budget Committee, announced on 20 February that the budget for completing the Bushehr nuclear facility has been increased by 1.9 billion rials ($208,350), IRNA reported. The miniature reactor at the Isfahan research facility, which reportedly produces 30 kilowatts of power, has yielded data for 500 scholarly articles, state television reported on 21 February. The chairman of the Miniature Reactor Section, identified only as Shahabi, described research projects with environmental, industrial, and medical applications. The Isfahan nuclear center's deputy director for research, identified as "Dr. Malekpur," described the analysis of biological, botanical, and zoological samples, as well as the evaluation of minerals and metals. BS

Armed gunmen dressed as police commandos stormed the Imam Ali al-Hadi Mosque in Samarra on 22 February, tied up five guards, and planted two explosive charges before fleeing, Iraqi media reported. The charges, timed three minutes apart, blew the golden dome off the roof of the shrine, considered one of the most important Shi'ite shrines. Two of the 12 Shi'ite imams -- Imam Ali al-Hadi who died in 868 A.D. and his son Imam Hasan al-Askari, who died in 874 A.D. -- are buried at the mosque. Shi'a also believe that Imam Mahdi, the 12th imam, went into hiding through a cellar in the mosque complex in 878, and is expected to return on Judgment Day. Angry demonstrations quickly broke out in Samarra. Demonstrators reportedly raised Imam Ali al-Hadi's turban, sword, and shield that were kept in the shrine, chanting: "We sacrifice our soul and blood for you," Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Demonstrators also chanted, "God is Great," and "Death to America for bringing terrorism to Iraq," from Samarra mosque speakers, the news channel reported. Some 2,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Al-Najaf to protest the bombing, chanting "Rise up Shi'a, Shi'a take revenge," Reuters reported. KR

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani declared a seven-day period of mourning after the attack, and called on Iraqis to carry out peaceful demonstrations condemning the attack, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. In Baghdad, outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari announced a three-day mourning period. National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told Al-Arabiyah television in a telephone interview that takfiris (those who consider other Muslims infidels) were responsible for the attack. "We do not have any doubt that the takfiris represented by Al-Qaeda, Ansar Al-Sunnah [Army], and the terrorist groups active in those areas are the ones behind such an act. The objective is very clear. It is to provoke the Shi'ite Muslims into carrying emotional reactions and to drag Iraq into a civil and sectarian war. I believe they will fail," al-Rubay'i said. Both the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army and the Mujahedin Shura Council -- an alliance of terrorist groups that includes Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated group (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 January 2006) -- have claimed responsibility for attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces in Samarra in recent weeks. KR

Ibrahim al-Ja'fari criticized U.S. pressure on Shi'a to form a national unity government on 21 February, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Speaking to reporters following a press conference with U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, al-Ja'fari said: "We don't need anyone to remind us.... The citizens have enough awareness and they can decide on this. We totally reject this. We will not allow any interference in our affairs and sovereignty by any country in the world. We have our own vision, too." Al-Ja'fari added that any decision to form a national unity government will not be done "in compliance with a demand by an ambassador or something like that," but rather because Iraqis choose so. Both U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Straw stressed the need for a unity government in remarks to the media in Iraq this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). Al-Ja'fari also told reporters that he considers the remarks interference in Iraqi affairs. The prime minister's nomination by the United Iraqi Alliance for another term has been widely criticized by Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who consider his performance in the outgoing transitional government ineffectual. KR

Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary of the Iraqi Islamic Party and member of the Iraqi Accordance Front list, told Al-Jazeera television in a 21 February interview that talks on forming a government have stalled over the issue of how to assign cabinet positions. "The main problem obstructing the formation of the government lies in these two controversial criteria: one is based on the election obligations and another on national partnership. No agreement has thus far been reached about which criterion should be the basis for the formation of the government," al-Hashimi said. He said Shi'a want ministerial portfolios to be distributed according to the election results, thereby securing their hold on power, while Sunni Arabs and Kurds are calling for a more even distribution of power in order to promote national unity. KR

Mahmud Sa'idat, a driver for the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, has been released by his captors in Iraq some two months after he was kidnapped outside his home in the capital, international media reported on 22 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005). Jordanian Prime Minister Ma'ruf Bakhit made the announcement on 21 February, saying efforts by King Abdullah helped secure Sa'idat's release. Bakhit thanked "Jordan's friends, brothers in the Iraqi government and some Iraqi notables, who exerted considerable efforts to secure" Sa'idat's release, reported on 22 February. KR