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Newsline - January 31, 2007

Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov said in Moscow on January 30 that Russia is not planning to launch a "gas OPEC" but wants to "hold active talks with other gas producers to agree our policy on the international gas market without harming anyone," news agencies reported. He added that "as far as I know, no concrete talks on the creation of some kind of OPEC-like institution are under way now.... This idea has been voiced, but not as a topic for talks, but rather as a general thought that gas producers should look for ways of cooperation to best ensure their interests. It is quite natural for gas producers to show interest in exchanging opinions on what the international situation looks like and what the main trends in energy transit and prices are." During Ivanov's recent visit to Tehran, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the formation of such a cartel. The EU and NATO have expressed apprehension at the possibility of Europe's gas suppliers forming a cartel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2006, and January 25 and 29, 2007). Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to the EU, told reporters in Moscow on January 30 that the idea of a gas cartel is the creation of malevolent foreign media. He said that "it's one of the Western media's favorite games: to look for evil in Russia. Any talk about such alliances is part of this game." PM

On January 30, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote of a possible gas cartel that "statements made by politicians are a long way from economic realities. There are objective reasons that make it impossible to establish a gas cartel at present. Gas is different from oil in that most gas contracts are signed for a period of a year or longer, and gas is mostly transported via pipelines; so prices and delivery routes cannot be changed quickly." The daily quoted Mark Urnov, president of the Ekspertiza Foundation, as saying that "for Russia, even seriously discussing such a plan -- let alone acting on it -- would simply be fatal. We risk dropping out of the context of civilized nations, especially since our positions in that regard are already shaky. All this is entirely in the realm of fairy tales, so beloved in Iranian culture." The paper added, however, that "Russia has already announced that it will attend the gas producer country forum scheduled to take place in Qatar this April. What a perfect venue for unification! And while the idea of a gas cartel may seem like a fairy tale at present, who knows what might happen two or three years from now?" PM

Security Council Secretary Ivanov told a Moscow press conference on January 30 that the situation in Iraq is "intolerable," news agencies reported. He called for a timetable for the withdrawal for foreign troops from that country and the launching of talks between Washington and Baghdad to that end. He also demanded what he called the "transfer of power to the Iraqi people." Also on January 30, the Kremlin announced that President Putin will travel to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan between February 11-13. PM

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov said in Moscow on January 30 that Russia will appeal at the February 2 meeting of the Middle East negotiating Quartet -- consisting of Russia, the United States, the EU, and the UN -- for a lifting of international sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29 and 30, 2007). "The Jerusalem Post" wrote on January 31, however, that unnamed U.S. and EU officials have told its reporters that there is "no intention in Washington or Brussels to water down the three criteria that the international community has set for granting legitimacy to the [Palestinian Authority] government, namely forswearing terrorism, recognizing Israel, and accepting previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements." Russia believes that the international community should negotiate with Hamas because it won the January 2006 elections and hence is a legitimate political force in the region. A Hamas delegation visited Moscow in March of that year but did not show signs of willingness to revise that group's hard-line stance towards Israel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 8, and 15, and April 19, 2006). PM

Venezuelan Defense Minister Raoul Baduel said in Caracas on January 29 that the government of President Hugo Chavez wants to buy Russian Tor-M1 short-range air defense missile systems, like those which Russia recently sold to Iran, the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on January 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007). The daily added that unnamed Venezuelan sources put the value of the deal, which Chavez first broached in July 2006, at about $290 million. At that time, he signed several arms deals with Russia valued at about $3 billion, an amount that Washington believes is far in excess of Venezuela's legitimate defense needs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28 and August 8, 2006, and January 24, 2007). The Russian paper suggests that Caracas has raised the subject again at this time to increase friction between Moscow and Washington. PM

The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on January 31 that constructing sufficient housing for those serving in the military remains a "work in progress" despite five years of efforts by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. At present, 68,500 Army personnel remain without proper quarters, the paper added. Ivanov said on January 2, 2006, that housing for military personnel is the Army's most serious problem and can only be resolved over time and with strong support from the state budget. On March 28, he pledged to end the shortage in military housing by January 1, 2011. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4 and March 29, 2006). Also in 2006, President Putin ordered construction efforts to be concentrated in the five areas where he deemed the military housing problem to be most acute: Moscow, Moscow Oblast, St. Petersburg, Leningrad Oblast, and Kaliningrad Oblast. Affordable housing is a serious problem for many Russians outside the military as well. A recent poll of Russian citizens suggested that it is their most important concern (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25 and 26, 2006). PM

The government approved long-planned draft legislation on January 31 to restrict foreign investors' access to sectors of the economy that the government classifies as strategic, ITAR-TASS reported. If the measure becomes law, the new rules will apply to oil and gas fields and mineral deposits, as well as military hardware, aviation, and atomic energy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). PM

President Putin told top officials of the Federal Security Service (FSB) on January 31 that spending on that agency increased by 27 percent in 2006 and will increase at a similar rate in 2007, Interfax reported. He added that "special attention will be paid to resolving the housing problems of security agencies' current and retired officers." He argued that "Russia is pursuing an active and multifaceted foreign policy. Our integration with the global economy is becoming increasingly steady. It is therefore important to prevent 'leaks' of protected political and economic information.... Russia's foreign policy positions and competitiveness on global markets depend on this." Putin also stressed that "the business climate in the country must be reliably protected from corruption and crimes in the economic sphere.... What is important in this matter is not concrete losses," but the potential damage to Russia's reputation. PM

The security department of the Voronezh-based aircraft company VASO is investigating how 15 photographs of the interior of President Putin's Ilyushin Il-96 jet found their way onto the Internet, reported on January 30. The aircraft was built by VASO for President Boris Yeltsin in 1996 and used by Putin after he succeeded Yeltsin at the start of 2000. It is not clear when the photos were taken or why they should be considered a security issue. They show a lavish interior with much gold and medieval-style artwork (see PM

A Toyota belonging to Suren Baghdasarian, editor of the weekly "Football Plus," was destroyed by fire early on January 30 outside Baghdasarian's Yerevan apartment, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Baghdasarian told RFE/RL he believed the vehicle was deliberately targeted, but refrained from naming any suspects. When the car was damaged by a Molotov cocktail in February 2006, Baghdasarian accused Ruben Hayrapetian, a wealthy businessman who heads the Armenian Football Federation, of what he termed "a cheap act of revenge" for his paper's criticism of the refusal by Armenian soccer champions Pyunik Yerevan to play a top Azerbaijani team in Moscow. LF

An Azerbaijani hacker nicknamed "Bacioglu" (Nephew) claimed on January 29 to have "destroyed" four Armenian websites, reported. In a message he posted to those sites, addressed to Armenia's National Security Service, Bacioglu warned that "you will never be able to stop me... I will fight you and all the Armenians on Earth as long as I am alive." Ten days earlier, hackers disabled the website of Azerbaijani Public Television, posting on it a statement in the name of the Armenian National Security Service (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). Bacioglu further warned that he plans to crack Armenian President Robert Kocharian's webpage (, but a member of Kocharian's presidential staff expressed confidence that he would not succeed in doing so, according to Arminfo on January 30 as reposted by Groong. LF

Yury Merzlyakov, who is the Russian co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, told APA news agency that he and his fellow co-chairs hope to schedule a further meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers during the second half of February, the online daily reported on January 31. The two ministers met in Moscow last week on the eve of a trip by the Minsk Group co-chairs to Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007). Tahir Tagizade, who heads the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry press department, told the daily that the precise date and venue of the meeting has not yet been decided. LF

In a January 30 statement summarized by Armenpress, Armenia's National Security Service denied any connection with Ariz Khalilov, an ethnic Azerbaijani citizen of Georgia sentenced by Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes to 14 years' imprisonment on charges of spying for Armenia. According to on January 27, Khalilov began cooperating with Armenian intelligence in 2004, and was ordered to assess the chances of committing terrorist acts targeting Azerbaijan's oil infrastructure and the Baku metro system. He was arrested on March 11, 2006. LF

The New Rights Party released a statement on January 29 designating the recent expropriation of apartments in Tbilisi by the municipal council and the Prosecutor-General's Office a violation of the Georgian Constitution and reminiscent of similar actions by the Bolshevik regime in the 1920s. The statement called on President Mikheil Saakashvili to intervene to halt such expropriations, and on parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, and Western ambassadors and representatives in Georgia of international organizations to take a public stand on the issue. Also on January 30, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association publicly offered legal assistance to those whose apartments have been summarily confiscated, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Representatives of 11 Georgian human-rights organizations have addressed a written appeal to President Saakashvili to launch an independent and objective investigation of the killing one year ago of banker Sandro Girgvliani, Caucasus Press reported on January 30. Girgvliani was found murdered on the outskirts of Tbilisi on January 27, 2006, hours after an altercation in a Tbilisi bar with senior Interior Ministry personnel. Four lower-level employees of that ministry were subsequently arrested in connection with the killing, and received prison sentences of between three and eight years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 14 and July 7, 2006). LF

The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office denied in a statement on January 30 that it ignored a request from its Russian counterpart to provide information concerning the confiscation in a sting operation last year from a Russian citizen identified as Oleg Khintsagov of a consignment of weapons grade uranium, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2007). Also on January 30, the Tbilisi Appeals Court rejected Khintsagov's appeal against the eight-year sentence handed down to him last year, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, said in a statement on January 31 that he is ready for direct talks with Georgian President Saakashvili on condition that "mutual trust" between the two sides is restored, reported. Bagapsh said there is no point in such talks if agreements on the demilitarization of the Kodori Gorge are not implemented and if "terrorist acts" in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion continue. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili responded that President Saakashvili would agree to meet with Bagapsh only if the latter drops those preconditions, Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili quoted Saakashvili as saying that any dialogue with Abkhazia "should be pragmatic and result oriented." LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on January 30 to discuss ways of broadening economic ties between the two countries, Kazinform reported. Khabar reported that the two signed a number of agreements but did not provide details. Germany currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, and Merkel commented, "Central Asia is a focal point of the German presidency of the European Union, and we support the European Union in that we are developing more intensive relations in that region, especially with Kazakhstan." Merkel also voiced support for Kazakhstan's desire to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009, although she stressed that such backing was conditional on continued political reforms in the country. DK

Ramazan Abdulatipov, Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan, said in Dushanbe on January 30 that Russia is better placed than other countries to complete the construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power station, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. A high-ranking Tajik official recently criticized Russian Aluminum (RusAl) for failing to observe an agreement on the construction of Roghun and said that other companies are interested in the project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2007). Abdulatipov stressed that RusAl is a private company and disagreements between it and the Tajik government should not cause problems in bilateral relations. Russian ministries are preparing a new bilateral agreement on Roghun, Abdulatipov said, for presentation to their Tajik colleagues and ratification in the first half of 2007, reported. Abdulatipov commented, "Our presidents are in charge of the project to build this power station, and it will happen." DK

Former Andijon Governor Qobiljon Obidov has received a one-year suspended sentence in a closed, secret trial, the independent reported on January 29 citing anonymous sources. The report stated that Obidov, who was removed as governor in May 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26, 2004), was charged with negligence that contributed to unrest in Andjion in May 2005. Official Uzbek news sources did not carry reports confirming Obidov's trial or sentencing. DK

Uzbek authorities have accused jailed rights activist and journalist Umida Niyazova of ties to the banned Islamic group Akromiya, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on January 30. Niyazova's lawyer, Abror Yusupov, told RFE/RL, "Now [the Uzbek authorities] are starting to connect [Niyazova] and charging her with being part of Akromiya." Yusupov continued," They are charging her under a contraband law -- Article 246, section 1 [of the criminal code]. On the computer that was confiscated from her there was information about Akromiya and interviews with family members of Akromiya supporters." Niyazova is already in detention on charges of illegally entering Uzbekistan and possession of banned literature. She was detained in December when she returned from Kyrgyzstan, and her computer and some discs were confiscated. Rights groups have condemned her detention and called for her release (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). DK

Serik Primbetov, deputy secretary-general of the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), said in Almaty on January 30 that Uzbekistan has fallen behind schedule on joining agreements required by its membership in the group, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Primbetov said, "By January 1, 2007, for example, [Uzbekistan] was obliged to join 20 [agreements], but signed only 16." Primbetov called the four remaining agreements the "most difficult ones," noting that one of them involves visa-free travel. The EEC comprises Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, which joined formally in March 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2006). DK

The Belarusian petrochemical concern Belnaftakhim has signed an accord with a number of Russian oil companies on oil deliveries in 2007, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on January 30. The price of Russian oil for Belarus in February will be some $240 per ton, that is, roughly the same as Belarus paid last year. This price will include the oil export duty of $53 per ton introduced by Russia earlier this month, meaning that the duty will actually be paid by Russian oil suppliers. According to "Kommersant," the deal will be profitable for Russian oil companies even after they pay the new export duty. "The Belarusian government and [our] authoritarian leader [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka have shifted [the Russian oil export duty] onto Russian oligarchs. We have fooled them -- [Russian Prime Minister Mikhail] Fradkov and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. They have done nothing to us," Belarusian independent economic expert Leanid Zaika commented on the 2007 oil supply deal to RFE/RL. Belarus is to receive 21.5 million tons of crude oil from Russia in 2007, the same amount as last year. JM

Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a meeting with Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in Minsk on January 30 that the Kremlin is trying "to choke and crush Belarus," international news agencies reported, quoting Belarusian official sources. "We are simply being abused. You can see what is going on now in the media. But they are doing this under instructions from the Kremlin. This I can tell you for certain," Lukashenka said. On January 28, Russia's ORT television broadcast an eight-minute feature portraying Lukashenka as hostile to Russia and a liar. Lukashenka also hinted on January 30 that he may review his relations with Europe. "We recognize that our policy of developing in multiple directions has been turned into a single direction. It is very important for us to sort out our relations with the West.... Europe has seen that it, too, depends on Belarus in terms of energy supplies. Europe now views Belarus in a new way. A new situation has emerged," Lukashenka noted. JM

President Lukashenka also said during his meeting with Zyuganov in Minsk on January 30 that "Belarus has always been and will continue to be with the Russian people," Belarus's official news agency BELTA ( reported. "If you want to call us Russia's outpost in the West, please do. We have never rejected this [label]," Lukashenka added. In an apparent reference to his interview with the German daily "Die Welt" last week, where he pledged to cooperate with the West, Lukashenka told Zyuganov that he does not "flirt" with the West. "If we had conducted a pro-Western policy, NATO troops would have been here long ago. They would have been here earlier than in any other country. But we have always been with Russia," Lukashenka stressed. JM

The Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BKhK), which had to vacate its office in Minsk on January 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007), was informed by the Presidential Property Management service on January 30 that it may remain in the office on the same conditions as last year, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. BKhK Chairwoman Tatsyana Protska told RFE/RL that the prolongation of the rental lease became possible due to protests against the BKhK eviction voiced by the U.S. State Department and the European Union. JM

Borys Tarasyuk resigned on January 30, accusing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of usurping power and returning to authoritarian methods of governance, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. "I refuse to make the Foreign Ministry a hostage to unlawful actions of the government. As a diplomat with 30 years of experience in diplomatic work, I cannot agree to outright abuses of the diplomatic service," Tarasyuk told journalists in Kyiv on January 30. Tarasyuk was dismissed from his post by the Verkhovna Rada on December 1, 2006, but President Viktor Yushchenko ordered Tarasyuk to keep his job, arguing that his dismissal should have been preceded by a presidential motion. Yanukovych banned Tarasyuk from attending cabinet meetings following the dismissal vote. Under the Ukrainian Constitution, the foreign and defense ministers are nominated by the president and approved by parliament. The constitution does not oblige lawmakers to seek the president's consent in dismissing these two ministers. JM

Carla Del Ponte confirmed on January 30 that she will leave her post as chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes tribunal in September, international media reported the same day. In Europe, Carla Del Ponte is best known for her role in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where she spearheaded the case against the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. During a press conference in The Hague, Del Ponte repeated her assertions that Serbian authorities know the whereabouts of leading war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic. She urged the EU, which in May 2006 suspended the first stage of accession talks with Serbia over its failure to cooperate with the ICTY, to maintain its pressure on Belgrade. She warned, however, that a number of EU countries -- headed by Austria, Italy, and Spain -- are pushing for a resumption of talks. Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel told the Brussels-based newspaper "European Voice" on January 30 that he does not think the EU will demand Mladic "be brought to Brussels in chains" before it reopens accession talks with Serbia. The ICTY is due to complete its last trials in 2008 and to be shut down in 2010. AG

The commander of NATO troops in Kosova, Lieutenant General Roland Kather, told Reuters on January 30: "If something happens in the north, we will have something like a domino effect. We'll have the same problems in the Presevo Valley." His comments echo concerns that a decision to grant Kosova independence from Serbia could prompt violence by ethnic Serbs in the north of Kosova and in the neighboring region of Presevo in Serbia, and lead to the involvement of Albanians in northern Macedonia. The UN is due on February 2 to present proposals on the future status of Kosova, which has been under UN administration since 1999. Albanians make up 90 percent of the province's population, but Serbs enjoy a majority in the north. Kather said NATO has "no indicators that there will be any violence" in northern Macedonia, but said NATO is watching the area "very closely" because of its Albanian population's traditionally strong links with Albanian Kosovars. There are currently 16,500 NATO-led troops in Kosova. AG

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov said on January 31 that Russia and China both believe the "separation" of Kosova from Serbia would set a "very negative precedent" if it takes place without Serbia's consent, Interfax reported. Titov, who was speaking after a January 31 meeting with Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, said Moscow and Beijing "advocate a search for a compromise" and that a decision on Kosova's future "must not be locked into any time frames." Russia and China are both permanent members of the UN Security Council and are expected to veto any UN resolution backing imposed independence for Kosova. Proposals for the future status of Kosova presented by Martti Ahtisaari, the UN's special envoy to Kosova, in Vienna on January 26 have in recent days won the backing of NATO and some of Serbia's neighbors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). The issue of Kosova will also feature on the agenda of an EU-Serbia meeting in Belgrade on February 7. Germany, which currently holds the EU's rotating Presidency, promised on January 29 to deepen its engagement with Kosova considerably once the status of the region is resolved, the news agency dpa reported the same day. AG

In an interview posted on January 30 on the website of the German publication "Der Spiegel," Christian Schwarz-Schilling has said his relations with Washington were "the main factor" behind his decision to resign as the international community's High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Schwarz-Schilling announced on January 23 that he will step down on June 30. The United States had "become increasingly concerned and impatient about the situation in Kosova and the logjam in Bosnian institutions," he told the German magazine. The 76-year-old German diplomat, who took up his post in June 2006, said international frustration at the lack of progress in Bosnia despite substantial financial aid is "an excuse used by the international community, which prefers to spend its money on military measures rather than on a peaceful postwar policy." He said reconciliation is being complicated by the "negative influence of some neighboring countries," including Serbia. He also said it is now likely the international mission to Bosnia will be extended beyond June. Washington now "seems in favor" of such a policy, though it "originally opposed [it] and wanted to enable reforms by the end of June through a policy of stronger intervention." Schwarz-Schilling met with U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns in Washington on January 30 to discuss the future of his current post. AG

Macedonian police are investigating allegations of corruption against leaders of an ethnic-Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), the Makfax news agency reported on January 30. Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska said on January 30 that the investigation was launched in response to claims by local businessman Sabri Aliu that he paid a member of the BDI 250,000 euros ($323,882) in an unsuccessful effort to win an airline license for his company, Air Vardar. BDI leader Ali Ahmeti told a local television station that he has never asked for money from anybody, Makfax reported. The investigation comes at a delicate time politically, as the BDI and a coalition partner announced a boycott of parliament on January 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). Local leaders of the BDI have so far hesitated to cut ties with central government. The minister for local government, Zoran Konjanovski, on January 30 wrote to BDI mayors urging them to continue cooperation, noting that decentralization is "an important political requirement for membership of the EU and NATO," Makfax reported the same day. AG

Moldova banned the import of poultry, eggs, and other poultry products from Hungary on January 30 following an outbreak of bird flu at a Hungarian farm, Moldovan state radio reported on January 30. The head of Moldova's state veterinary inspectorate, Grigore Porcescu, said Moldova has halted poultry imports from the Russian region of Krasnodar for the same reason. Imports from Hungary account for 30 percent of Moldova's total poultry imports. Croatia and Serbia banned Hungarian poultry on January 24, and Romania and Bulgaria imposed restrictions on January 29. The EU confirmed on January 29 that the birds died of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which is potentially deadly for humans. Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia all reported cases of bird flu in 2006. AG

Following Russia's more than twofold increase in gas prices and imposition of a sizable duty on crude oil supplies to Belarus in 2007, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears utterly confused and at a loss to decide what course he should take now.

Lukashenka has made a number of politically incoherent statements recently, thus reinforcing the general feeling that without Russia's political and economic support his autocratic regime is vulnerable and insecure. According to his own estimate, because of the new energy prices, Belarus will have to pay $3.5 billion more in 2007 than last year. Some Russian estimates say Russia's energy and trade subsidies and benefits for Belarus in 2006 amounted to as much as $7 billion. Belarus's gross domestic product is roughly equal to $35 billion.

In the January 25 issue of "Die Welt," Lukashenka pledged to open the Belarusian economy for Western investors and expressed his desire to cooperate with Europe. He also publicized his idea to "consolidate" energy-transit countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the three Baltic states into a sort of formal alliance, presumably to counteract Russia's increasing assertiveness in using gas and oil deliveries as political weapons.

While firmly rejecting the adoption of the Russian ruble in Belarus, Lukashenka did not rule out that his country might join the euro zone in the future. He called in "Die Welt" on European leaders for an "open dialogue" and urged them to lift a travel ban on Belarusian officials, which he compared to "medieval savagery."

On the day following the publication of his interview in "Die Welt," Lukashenka said in a speech to recipients of doctoral diplomas and professorial chairs in Minsk that there will be no "radical change" in Belarus's foreign policy, adding that he will not "rush toward the United States or wherever."

This week Belarusian media reported that Lukashenka had sent an invitation to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and that the invitation was promptly accepted.

His statements and moves regarding Russia have been no less disjointed. While paying lip service to his unwavering desire to build an "equal" Belarus-Russia Union State, which was conceived as a bureaucratic phantom by himself and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, Lukashenka simultaneously announced two steps that appear to be in stark contrast with his integration rhetoric.

Last week, Lukashenka instructed his government to consider charging Russia rent for the use of land under its gas and oil pipelines crossing Belarusian territory. And he announced that Russian oil companies will have to pay new, higher duties on oil transit across Belarus if they continue to demand prices "higher than those on world markets" for their oil deliveries to Belarusian refineries.

These steps, if actually taken, might escalate the current energy-price row between Belarus and Russia into a full-scale trade war and lead to the reestablishment of a full-fledged customs border between both countries. For many unreformed Belarusian industries this would probably mean the loss of the only market in which they can still be competitive and, as a result, their unavoidable collapse.

Therefore, Lukashenka's threats regarding Russia seem to be more of a propaganda exercise than a real intention.

But these threats, as well as Lukashenka's overtures to the West, demonstrate clearly that the Belarusian president has understood something: Not only his self-styled "market socialism" in Belarus but the very foundations of his regime may be eroded by the Russian termination of discount gas and oil supplies.

Most Russian political analysts openly admit that the Kremlin has finally become fed up with Lukashenka's lip service to integration with Russia and has decided to goad him into action. And the recent tone of the Russian media commenting on Belarus indicates that the Kremlin's new approach toward Lukashenka is a calculated and well-coordinated campaign.

"Izvestiya" wrote on January 18 that Russia needs "an ally, not an arrogant parasite" in Belarus. This assessment was obliquely echoed by President Putin during his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel a few days later, when the Russian leader noted that in its relations with energy-transit countries, Moscow says "'yes' to cooperation and 'no' to parasitism."

Sergei Karaganov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy think tank, wrote last week that the Russian policy with regard to Lukashenka -- which he labeled with the well-known political aphorism, "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch" -- has suffered a total failure.

According to Karaganov, Russia's unequivocal political and economic support for Lukashenka allowed him to consolidate his regime and reduce Russia's influence in Belarus almost to nothing. Karaganov said that by taking advantage of "gigantic preferences" provided by Moscow, Lukashenka has managed to form a political class that does not want any rapprochement with Russia.

Like other Russian analysts, Karaganov does not specify what the ultimate goal of such rapprochement could be. But it should be recalled that the only coherent and realistic scenario for Belarus's integration with Russia voiced by the Kremlin was President Putin's suggestion in August 2002 that Belarus give up its sovereignty and join the Russian Federation as a single federation subject or as six separate oblasts.

Stopping short of an outright call to oust Lukashenka, Karaganov urged the Kremlin not to stop "halfway" and "to swiftly finish the business" of increasing the energy prices for Belarus to European levels.

At the same time, Karaganov proposes that the Kremlin start developing a truly pro-Russian political elite in Belarus. He even went so far as to suggest that Moscow should "take notice" of the human rights situation in Belarus, something it has not done even once during Lukashenka's more than 12-year rule.

For a number of reasons, the West -- in particular Europe -- might decide to give a helping hand to Lukashenka if Moscow attempts to politically absorb Belarus.

First, the disappearance of Belarus -- an independent state and a UN member -- from the political map of the world would set a dangerous precedent for any other attempts at such "integration" in the future.

Second, Europe needs secure and uninterrupted gas and oil supplies from Russia. Belarus as a transit country is an essential link in this supply chain. And Lukashenka, in his attempts to oppose the political incorporation by Russia, may disrupt these supplies more than once.

Therefore, it might well be in Europe's interest to enter a dialogue with the erratic Belarusian leader and try to persuade him that Belarus could remain a sovereign country without playing the role of a highwayman.

It is doubtful that Lukashenka could accept Western rules of the game in politics. But he may listen to some economic arguments. He might be persuaded that the best way to counteract Russia's recent "integration" push is to launch market reforms and build his country's independence on a sound economy, which would not be as vulnerable to Russia's malevolence or benevolence to such a degree as now.

The political system built by Lukashenka in Belarus, unshakable as it appears at first glimpse, is very precarious. The machinery works solely due to the absolute loyalty of government officials to the "father of the nation." And this "father" has behaved so far as though he plans to rule Belarus forever.

The West might be able to convince the Belarusian president and his compatriots that there is life after Lukashenka and that "afterlife" may not be so costly to them -- and Belarus -- after all.

A man drove his explosives-laden car into an Afghan National Army vehicle in Herat Province on January 30, injuring two army officers, their driver, and two civilians, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Qari Mohammad Yusof, speaking for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. "A Taliban fighter -- namely, Ahmad, a resident of Farah Province -- carried out the suicide attack...killing 11 [Afghan] soldiers," Mohammad Yusof told AIP. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- claimed on January 30 that a suicide attack carried out by a "mujahid of the Islamic Emirate" named Ahmad Sa'id, a resident of Herat Province, resulted in the death of all occupants of a vehicle belonging to the "mercenary army" -- a term used by the Taliban for the Afghan National Army. Taliban spokesmen and their website often speak in unison, but sometimes provide contradictory information. In the case of the attack in Herat, the two sources differed in usage of terms, the name and residence of the attacker, and number of casualties. AT

General Aminullah Amarkhayl, who until recently served as the top police and customs official at Kabul International Airport, is seeking political asylum in the United Kingdom, AP reported on January 29. Attorney-General Abdul Jabar Sabet suspended Amarkhayl from his position in October for charges then defined as "defiance" of Afghan law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 13, 2006). Kabul subsequently accused Amarkhayl of corruption and has requested his return to Afghanistan for questioning. "If I was corrupt, I wouldn't be here [in London] now," Amarkhayl told AP. "If I accepted the money the [narcotics] smugglers offered me, I would be a very rich man today. One thing is clear: I am here because I didn't deal with them [smugglers]." Afghan Deputy Attorney-General Mohammad Aloko claims that Amarkhayl fled the country in the face of "strong evidence" against him; Amarkhayl contends that he fears death at the hands of people involved in the narcotics business, and claims that he answered questions posed to him by the Attorney-General's Office. At the time of his suspension, Amarkhayl's colleagues supported him as an honest man caught in the dangerous web of the Afghan narcotics business. AT

Afghan prosecutors ordered the arrest on January 30 of three people suspected of corruption in Paktiya Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The three include Sher Mohammad, the head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society; Colonel Janan, the military prosecutor in the Pakiya capital, Gardayz; and an unidentified contractor working with the Red Crescent. Paktiya police chief Brigadier General Abdul Rahman Sarjang said the three suspects are under arrest, adding that his department will cooperate fully with the Attorney-General's Office. The Afghan Attorney-General's Office has already dismissed or arrested a number of officials across Afghanistan in apparent response to President Hamid Karzai's public call to stamp out corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 6, 13, and 17 and December 1, 2006). AT

President Karzai has appointed Sharifa Sharif as an adviser on international affairs, state-run Afghanistan National Television reported on January 30. Karzai said in the related decree that the appointment was made "in order to improve" matters in the sphere of foreign affairs. Prior to her appointment, Sharif worked at RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Prague. AT

The man who until recently served as the governor of Afghanistan's Farah Province abutting Iran, Abdul Samad Stanakzai, has accused Iran of interfering in Afghanistan's internal affairs, Herat-based Radio Sahar reported on January 30. The former governor reportedly told Sahar that "Iran's interference is aimed at influencing" Afghanistan's "national identity and destroying it in the long term." Stanakzai accused Tehran of training "a large number of political opponents" of the Afghan government at a refugee camp called Shamsabad, located on the Iranian side of the border. Officials at the Iranian consulate in Herat -- north of Farah -- rejected the charges. Farah's security commander, Sayyed Aqa Saqeb, told Sahar that there is no evidence of Iranian interference in Afghanistan's domestic affairs. AT

Kazem Jalali, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told IRNA on January 30 that a suggestion by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to form a natural gas producers' cartel, similar to OPEC, could be "the source of a great cooperation" between producers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). Khamenei proposed this when he met Russia Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov on January 28, and IRNA reported on January 30 that Russian officials have welcomed the idea. Jalali said Iran and Russia, which reportedly have half of the world's gas reserves, could play a very important role in this respect. Jalali said foreign companies are eager to invest in Iran, in spite of U.S. opposition, and see their interests as "opposed to the political outlook of the great powers." He said representatives from Shell and Repsol-YPF companies signed on January 27 a "project to expand phases 13 and 14 of the South Pars gas field," though he did not say where they signed the deal. He added that Iran, India, and Pakistan also held successful talks in Tehran late "last week" over a proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, IRNA reported. VS

Ali Farahbakhsh, a journalist arrested several weeks ago when returning from a foreign conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007), has been charged with spying, Radio Farda reported on January 30, citing Farahbakhsh's lawyer, Morteza Alizadeh-Tabatabai, and Iranian agencies. The broadcaster stated that Farahbakhsh was arrested "about 50 days ago" upon returning from an economics conference in Thailand, though it is not clear for which state he had allegedly spied. His parents recently wrote to Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi to inform him of his poor health, saying that he has been in solitary confinement and unable to sleep in prison, and has not been granted access to his lawyer, Radio Farda reported. Separately, Ahmad Batebi, a former student detained since 1999 for his part in Tehran student demonstrations, has been charged with evading prison while on leave (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30 and October 19, 2006), reported on January 28. He is accused of evading jail for 16 months, though he has maintained he was on leave and had not been told to return, reported. The website added that he and Mehrdad Lehrasbi are the only activists still in connection with the 1999 demonstrations. VS

Hojjatoleslam Hasan Rohani, the former Supreme National Security Council secretary and now Supreme Leader Khamenei's representative in that body, told a congregation in Tehran on January 30 that the government must include "all those" devoted to Ayatollah Khamenei and the late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini "under the same tent" and not create "another front" of opponents beside "the strong enemy front" that Iran faces, ISNA reported. The "enemies" he referred to are Western powers and Israel, which he said "want to block the spread of Iran's Islamic values in the region." He said the West has seen that wherever it has sought to turn states into democracies, "everywhere becomes Iran." Inside Iran, he added, "groups should not have their mouths shut. Let [them] speak, and answer them rationally. Unity and solidarity will only come about when people are convinced. If you seek unity...let everyone" play a part in the decisions, ISNA reported. Legitimacy, he said, is "the most important pillar and foundation" of any system. VS

Hojjatoleslam Rohani added that Iran should not underestimate its enemies, but he elaborated on how "our enemies are not in a good situation today," ISNA reported. He said "the Americans have many problems in Afghanistan." Five years since their invasion, he stated, the Taliban are back "and there is no security in the country. The Americans...used to say Pakistan is at the forefront of the war on terrorism. Today they cannot handle Pakistan anymore, and have changed their mind on this." In Iraq, he said, U.S. forces are killed daily and "there is no solution to their problem" there. Thus, he said, they have decided to blame Syria and Iran. Rohani said the United States is using all available means to pressure Iran: "sowing discord among Shi'a and Sunnis, uniting pro-American states and [Israel] against [Iran], making full use of the United Nations, starting a psychological war [against Iran]...and moving to reduce oil prices." He said the United States has moved "new fleets" into the Persian Gulf to "create fear" among regional states and Iran. "Every day they bring Patriot and antiballistic missiles to regional states" so those states "live in fear and anxiety," ISNA reported. He said "it would not be right for us to respond to enemy plots by saying [they] are nobody, and despise them." He urged "suitable strategies" in response to any "hostilities," ISNA reported. VS

In an interview with the London-based daily "Al-Hayat" on January 30, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he hopes to eliminate armed militias in Iraq within a few months. Al-Maliki said he will focus on two main issues: "the need to end the presence of armed militias and transform them into political organizations, and the national-reconciliation process." He stressed that his reconciliation initiative is open to all interested parties and that there has "been a continuing dialogue with armed factions and former Iraq Ba'ath Party members." Al-Maliki also said Al-Qaeda in Iraq is nearing its end because of a major split within its leadership, particularly between the Iraqi and the non-Iraqi factions. SS

Baha al-A'raji, a high-ranking member of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc, announced on January 29 that the bloc and the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party have agreed to form a working committee to maintain security in Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Al-A'raji said that he met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Vice President and head of the Iraqi Islamic Party Tariq al-Hashimi on January 27 to discuss security issues, as well as to work for the return of displaced people from both sects. In a statement released on January 29, al-A'raji described the formation of the committee as "a welcome step," "Al-Zaman" reported the same day. "If all goes well and our proposals are taken into account, the campaign to secure Baghdad will constitute a historic move that will undoubtedly lead to an improvement in security conditions," al-A'raji's statement said. "Al-Zaman" also reported on January 29 that al-Sadr has ordered his followers to open a dialogue with the Muslim Scholars Association. SS

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih on January 29 rejected Turkey's threats regarding the future of Kirkuk and reiterated the Iraqi government's condemnation of the recent Kirkuk 2007 conference, held in Ankara on January 15, the Kurdish paper "Aso" reported. "The Kirkuk issue is a domestic Iraqi affair that will be determined in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution," Salih said. "Any foreign interference in Iraq's internal affairs will become a dangerous precedent that could prompt Iraq to interfere in others' business too -- a move that is neither in the interests of Iraq nor of its neighbors." Salih called for cooperation and coordination. SS

Kurdish Regional President Mas'ud Barzani met with General Joseph Ralston, the U.S.-appointed mediator to talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), on January 29 in Salah al-Din, Kurdistan satellite television reported January 30. The meeting was also attended by Kurdish Regional Vice President Kosrat Rasul Ali, Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Umar Fattah, Minister of Peshmerga Affairs General Umar Uthman, and Interior Minister Karim Sinjari. Ralston and Barzani agreed the crisis between the Turkish government and the PKK should be resolved through dialogue and other peaceful means, rather than militarily. Ankara contends that thousands of PKK fighters are based in northern Iraq and have been carrying out cross-border raids into Turkey. The Turkish government has called on the United States to rein in the PKK, and Turkish leaders have threatened to send in Turkish forces into northern Iraq unless Washington acts urgently against the PKK. SS

U.S. Navy Admiral William Fallon, President George W. Bush's nominee for CENTCOM commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 30 that "new and different actions" are needed to improve security and promote national reconciliation in Iraq, international media reported the same day. "One of the things in the back of my mind that I'd like to get answered is to meet with the people who have been working this issue -- particularly our ambassadors, our diplomats -- to get an assessment of what's realistic and what's practical," Fallon said. "And maybe we ought to redefine the goals here a bit and do something that's more realistic in terms of getting some progress and then maybe take on the other things later." Outgoing CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid, is scheduled to step down in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). SS

The U.S. aid group International Medical Corps (IMC) warned on January 29 that the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq is rising at an alarming rate, particularly in Baghdad, Reuters reported the same day. "It is a very tough situation. There is a terrible security situation there with an increasing number of people who are displaced," said Nancy Aossey, president of the IMC. Aossey warned that if the violence continues at its current rate, more than 1 million more people will leave their homes in Baghdad within the next six months, with most of them staying inside Iraq rather than leaving the country. Unlike earlier reports of mass displacement, the current exodus appears more permanent, with people abandoning or selling their homes. "Regardless of what anyone thinks of the war, people are suffering. It is a brewing humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions," she said.