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Newsline - February 1, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said at his televised marathon press conference of over 1,200 journalists on February 1 that citizens will have a "free and fair democratic choice" for president when his term runs out in 2008. He added that he will make his own choice known only when the campaign begins and "there will be no successor." Putin pointed out that the potential candidates currently have jobs and are busy with them. He reminded reporters that he still has more than one year left to serve in his own term, adding that he will not depart from the political scene entirely after he leaves office. Putin noted that he helped found the Unified Russia party and said that "mutual understanding" between the party and government has enabled the authorities to achieve a great deal. He said that Unified Russia is right of center, whereas the new A Just Russia party is more in the social democratic tradition. He called the emergence of two such ideologically different parties a natural and healthy development, but expressed the hope that the 2007 parliamentary campaign will not be too acrimonious. Putin said of himself: "I'm not governing, I'm just working." He denied rumors that he uses an electronic device to connect him to prompters armed with facts and statistics during his press conferences. He said that he is able to handle all manner of questions efficiently because he knows figures and statistics from being constantly exposed to them during his daily work. He added that he deals with fatigue by consulting with his Labrador dog Koni, "who gives me good advice." PM

President Putin said at his February 1 televised press conference that since taking office at the start of 2000, "we have managed to restore the territorial integrity of this country, to strengthen the political system, and to speed up economic growth through diversification." Putin said in response to a question from Al-Jazeera that his upcoming trip to the Middle East is not linked to any competition with the United States or other countries there. He noted that Russia has well-established interests in the region and is actively involved in international diplomacy there. Referring to recent suggestions of a possible gas cartel involving Russia, Iran, and perhaps other states, he said that "it is an interesting idea, and we'll think about it." He stressed, however, that Russia is now concentrating its efforts on meeting its obligations to deliver gas. It also consults with other producers. Responding to a question from a Finnish journalist, Putin argued that possible Finnish NATO membership will not enhance "security in the world" because Finland is already embedded in various Western structures. Bringing NATO to Russia's borders will not promote good relations with Russia, but the choice lies with the Finnish authorities and people. He noted that there is excellent cooperation between Moscow and Helsinki in combating terrorism and drug trafficking. Answering a question from a Belarusian reporter, Putin told her that any Union State based on the "Soviet model," as some in Minsk have suggested, would necessarily be highly centralized, which many Belarusians might not like. He suggested that a "liberal shape and form" for bilateral relations, similar to those between EU member states, might be a more practical approach to future links. He stressed that Russia is open to any possibility as long as it does not lead to "chaotic conditions" in the two countries. PM

During his February 1 televised press conference, President Putin rejected as "spiteful" accusations that Russia is using its vast energy resources for political aims. He said Russian energy policy is based on market rules, and he reiterated Russia's assertion that it is fully fulfilling its obligations as an energy supplier. Putin stressed that Russia has enough social problems of its own that demand attention and cannot afford to "subsidize" neighboring former Soviet republics with cheap fuel. He argued that "we still have a lot to do in the social sphere... including achieving our main goal, which is to reduce the gap between the highly paid groups of the population and those citizens of our country who still live in very modest conditions." Putin noted that there is widespread concern in Russia over the rise of xenophobia. He argued that one reason for the growth of extremism is a "certain confusion and ideological vacuum" following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He called on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and mass media to join state bodies in combating this and other underlying causes of xenophobia. Putin said of the planned Gay Pride demonstration in May in Moscow and Mayor Yury Luzhkov's intention to ban it that his own view of sexual minorities is shaped by his knowledge of the extent of the demographic crisis in the country. Putin added, however, that he "will continue to respect human freedom in all its forms." He also noted that he does not interfere with the prerogatives of local officials to deal with local issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and 31, 2007). PM

Asked on February 1 about the 2006 killings of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former employee of the Federal Security Service (FSB), President Putin said that only the prosecutors and courts of law can determine who was behind these and other well-publicized murders. He stressed: "I don't believe in the conspiracy theories. The stability of the Russian state system allows us to take a detached view." He added that the government will do what it can to protect journalists. He complimented Politkovskaya for her "sharp criticism of the authorities" and stressed that murdered journalist Paul Klebnikov was particularly effective in promoting democratic development in Russia. Putin was critical of Litvinenko, saying that he was fired from the security forces for "criminal abuse of his position" by beating citizens in detention. Putin added that Litvinenko did not need to flee Russia and did not possess any important information. He concluded that only the ongoing investigation will be able to determine the facts of the case. He described those "hiding from prosecution" for crimes committed in the Russian Federation as "oligarchs on the run," but did not identify such individuals, except to say that they are living in unnamed West European countries or the Middle East. Putin told a reporter from Vladivostok that regional leaderships need to be rejuvenated and renewed, but not replaced with direct rule from Moscow, as a way to combat corruption. He called on the mass media and local citizens to help fight corruption. Referring to a recent well-publicized case in which a school teacher was prosecuted for using pirated computer software, which is a very widespread practice in Russia, Putin stressed that it is senseless to single out a teacher who was simply using the product. He called on the authorities to concentrate their attention on those producing and selling pirated goods instead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). PM

President Putin also told journalists on February 1 that the ongoing process of merging federation subjects to create larger territorial entities will not impact on nationality policy with regard to Russia's small ethnic groups, reported. Putin stressed that regional mergers are based on the preference, as reflected in a referendum, of the population of the regions involved. There are currently 86 federation subjects, compared with 89 when Putin became president, and a referendum is scheduled for March 11 on merging Chita Oblast and the Agin-Buryat Autonomous Oblast to form Zabaykal Krai. Referring to Russia's diverse ethnic composition as "our wealth," Putin recalled that a special federal law exists to protect the interests of the Peoples of the North. He further stressed the importance of preserving ecological stability when developing natural resources in those regions. LF

Korea expert Aleksandr Losyukov, who was recently named to a second posting as deputy foreign minister and Russia's chief negotiator in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, said in an interview with Interfax on February 1 that no agreement is likely to be reached when the talks reopen in Beijing on February 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007). He noted that North Korea's recent nuclear tests have "really complicated the situation in the region and thrown the six-party talks process back. It seems like we are wasting time, and the process of the nuclearization of the [Korean] peninsula is continuing." He added that if North Korea stages any new tests, "there will be a very negative response from the international community, and perhaps tougher measures will be taken. I don't know if our North Korean partners need this." Referring to Pyongyang's nuclear program, Losyukov said that "it is obvious that that these operations are not being conducted in a way which Russia and other states and parties to the talks desire. It is in our interests that there are no nuclear arms on the Korean peninsula. Since one of countries of the peninsula has become a nuclear power, this means that our interests are endangered." PM

Mikhail Prokhorov, who is CEO of the mining giant Norilsk Nickel and ranked 89th on "Forbes" latest list of the world's richest people, announced on January 31 that he is leaving Norilsk, news agencies reported. The move is part of a split with longtime partner Vladimir Potanin, together with whom Prokhorov controlled billions of dollars in assets through Interros, Norilsk's parent company. Interros will remain Potanin's property. Prokhorov made headlines in January when he was briefly detained in France in connection with a suspected prostitution ring (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12 and 16, 2007). PM

The lawyer for Levon Chakhmakhchyan, who represented Kalmykia in the Federation Council until his effective expulsion from that body in June, 2006, said on February 1 that his client has been taken from a hospital to the Prosecutor-General's Office in Moscow, where he is being detained, reported. Chakhmakhchyan has not been formally arrested or charged, the lawyer added. Kalmykia's parliament revoked Chakhmakhchyan's mandate in June after Federal Security Service (FSB) agents allegedly caught him accepting $300,000 in extorted money in a sting operation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7 and 23, 2006). Chakhmakhchyan denies any wrongdoing. PM

Addressing members of youth organizations in Grozny on January 31, Ramzan Kadyrov announced a new economic strategy to restore the republic's war-shattered infrastructure completely over the next three years, and the official website reported. He further pledged that over that timeframe unemployment, currently at 76 percent, will be reduced to nil. Kadyrov rejected as inappropriate in Chechen conditions criticism that his government has adopted the wrong methods in seeking to accelerate economic development. LF

Unidentified gunmen opened fire in Nazran during the evening of January 31 on Isa Khamkhoyev's car, slightly injuring him and seriously injuring his son, reported. The gunmen managed to escape. Khamkhoyev's predecessor Magomed Albogachiyev expressed outrage at the attack, which he suggested may have been the work of Islamic radicals intent on undermining what he termed the "stabilizing role" played by the traditional clergy. LF

Responding to an appeal by three leading members of the small Union of Constitutional Rights (SIM), the Appeals Court ruled on January 31 that the election four months ago of Hayk Babakhanian to succeed Hrant Khachatrian as SIM chairman was illegal, Noyan Tapan and Armenpress reported. Khachatrian stepped down as SIM chairman after an acrimonious exchange with Babakhanian at the party's 17th congress in September, but insisted on retaining its sole parliamentary mandate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2006). Khachatrian told journalists on January 31 that the court ruling was "a big surprise." He said he will try to restore a healthy atmosphere within the party, but expressed doubts that it will participate in the May 12 parliamentary elections. LF

Minister of Communications and Information Technology Ali Abbasov told journalists in Baku on January 31 that insofar as Azerbaijan's technical and financial resources far exceed those of Armenia, the ongoing "electronic war" in which hackers from both countries seek to disable websites of the other will damage Armenia more than Azerbaijan, and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23 and 31, 2007). He proposed that both countries accede to the Council of Europe Convention On Cybercrime. LF

Vyacheslav Kovalenko, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin recently sent back to Tbilisi after a four-month hiatus, presented his credentials to President Mikheil Saakashvili on January 31, one day after meeting with Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 2007). Kovalenko assured Saakashvili of Russia's interest in stability in the Caucasus and "in resolving conflicts which are holdovers from the past," Caucasus Press reported. Noting that Russian rhetoric with regard to Georgia "has been toned down," Saakashvili in turn said that once the existing restrictions Russia has imposed on Georgia have been lifted, Georgia will be ready to "build relations and deepen dialogue" on issues of mutual interest, including regional security and bilateral relations. Among the issues Kovalenko discussed with Bezhuashvili on January 30 was the need to restructure the work of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, RIA Novosti reported. Georgian Conflict Resolution Minister Merab Antadze and Russian Foreign Ministry official Yury Popov said separately on January 31 and 30 respectively that an informal meeting of the four JCC co-chairmen (one each from Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia) will take place in Tskhinvali during the second half of February, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, a Georgian police post in the South Ossetian conflict zone was subjected to mortar and automatic fire for one hour late on January 31, according to Caucasus Press, but no casualties were reported. LF

The State Veterinary Service of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia rejected on February 1 as untrue a report broadcast the previous day by the Georgian television station Rustavi-2 that cases of bird flu have been registered in Abkhazia's Gudauta Raion, reported. The Abkhaz agency said that controls have been established on Abkhazia's Psou border crossing with Russia to minimize the chances of bird flu spreading from southern Russia. LF

Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) announced on January 31 in Astana that it has unmasked 30 foreign spies since the country gained its independence in 1991, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. A KNB press release stated that the committee's "military counterintelligence bodies...uncovered three agents who were sentenced to various prison terms and 27 officers and agents of foreign special services who were also identified." The same military counterintelligence units also seized 597 firearms, 997 grenades, 240,000 pieces of ammunition, and 600 kilograms of explosives during the period. DK

Newly appointed Kyrgyz Prime Minister Azim Isabekov met with the chairmen of parliamentary committees on January 31 to discuss a new government structure submitted to parliament by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, reported. The new structure would replace the Ministry of Economics and Finance with a Finance Ministry and establish a new Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. It would also eliminate the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Tourism, and set up a new Ministry of Energy and Fuel Resources. The new structure would also add committees for taxes, customs, and security to the two existing committees for migration and employment and management of state property. Isabekov stated that legislators spoke out in favor of retaining the Industry Ministry. Parliamentary committees are slated to discuss the proposed government structure on February 1. DK

President Bakiev told journalists on January 31 that he is ready to offer former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov "any position" in the government that is not subordinate to parliament, Kabar reported. Bakiev explained the offer by saying that Kulov "did not get on well with parliament," Interfax reported. He added, "There is no sense in giving him an office which reports to the parliament." Bakiev described himself as being on "good terms" with Kulov, whose candidacy for prime minister was rejected twice by parliament, after which Bakiev successfully submitted Isabekov's name for approval (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 25, 26, and 29, 2007). DK

Valentin Vlasov, Russia's ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, told a news conference in Bishkek on January 31 that "the only question" about the U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan is "when the antiterror operation in Afghanistan will end, and the United States will fulfill its commitment to close the base," reported. Vlasov stressed that the U.S. base at Manas Airport outside Bishkek "poses no threat to Russia's interests in the country." DK

A Turkmen court on January 31 sentenced jailed ecologist Andrei Zatoka to a three-year suspended prison term and allowed him to go free, reported. An unidentified source described as close to the defendant told Reuters, "Today at 3 p.m. Zatoka was freed in the courtroom. The sentence was three years, suspended. It's not known yet for what charges he received the sentence." The December detention of Zatoka, an environmental activist, prompted the International Helsinki Federation and Amnesty International to issue statements on his behalf (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006, and January 12, 2007). DK

Nurmukhamed Akhmedov, the head of the Uzbek national oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz, told journalists on January 31 that Singapore's Temasek Holdings intends to invest $1.5 billion in the Uzbek oil and gas sector, Interfax reported. Akhmedov said that Uzbekneftegaz will discuss five investment projects with Temasek Holdings in 2007. Uzbek President Islam Karimov recently visited Singapore. DK

Former Belarusian opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich said at a meeting of the German Bundestag's Committee on Foreign Affairs in Berlin on January 31 that Europe will not manage to bring a democratic change in Belarus through dialogue with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belapan reported, quoting Milinkevich's press service. "The belief of some European politicians that Europe could reach agreement with Lukashenka and bring a democratic change to Belarus thanks to him is naive and dangerous. Lukashenka will use all contacts for the sole purpose of preserving his hold on power," Milinkevich reportedly said in Berlin. Milinkevich stressed that Europe should engage in dialogue with the Belarusian authorities only on condition that they release all political prisoners and stop the crackdown on the independent media. Belarusian human rights defender Ales Byalatski told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on January 31 that there are currently seven political prisoners in the country. JM

Following the resignation of Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007), the Cabinet of Ministers endorsed First Deputy Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko as acting foreign minister, Ukrainian media reported. "There cannot be any changes in the foreign-policy sphere," Ohryzko told journalists in Kyiv later the same day. Ohryzko refused to speculate on possible candidates for the post of foreign minister, saying that this appointment is the president's prerogative. JM

The political bloc led by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has warned of "serious consequences" for any country that recognizes the UN-administered province of Kosova as an independent state, AP reported on January 31. "This de facto means that the next government would have to sever all ties with states which recognize an independent Kosovo," an unnamed official of Kostunica's Popular Coalition told AP. The demand is reportedly a precondition for the bloc's entry into a new government. Kostunica has refused to meet UN special envoy to Kosova Martti Ahtisaari, who is expected in Belgrade on February 2 to present his proposal for the future of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). The center-right Popular Coalition came third in elections held on January 21, but it is widely expected to form a government with the Democratic Party, which won the second-highest number of seats in parliament. AG

Oliver Ivanovic, a leading figure in the ethnic-Serbian community in Kosova, warned on January 31 that Serbs may break away if the UN-administered province declares its independence from Serbia, according to reports carried the same day by local media. Ivanovic, who heads moderate Serbian List for Kosovo, said Serbs in northern Kosova "have their own infrastructure and institutions and it would be easy for them to declare 'independence from independence,'" AP reported. The Montenegrin news agency Mina quoted Ivanovic as saying he expects Ahtisaari to send an "unclear message" about the status of Kosovo, but he warned that, "should Kosovo be granted independence, then Serbs who are the majority in the northern part of the province will react immediately and proclaim their own independence." He also warned that independence would give ethnic Albanians a "green light for a violent breakthrough, similar to what happened in Croatia in 1995 during Operation Storm and Operation Flash, and the result would be the mass exodus of Serbs south of the Ibar River," Mina reported. Ivanovic called for the EU to make Kosova a protectorate, arguing that "only in this way could a balance be sustained." In a January 31 report, Reuters said a copy of the proposals that it has seen contains no reference either to Serbian sovereignty or to independence for Kosova. AG

The Commission on Missing Persons of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation says 12,000 suspected victims of the 1992-95 war remain unaccounted for, "Dnevni Avaz" reported on January 31. Commission head Amor Masovic said the remains of some 18,000 people have been exhumed over the past 10 years, of whom 14,000 have been identified. Some 2,251 bodies were exhumed in 2006, including 1,153 from a mass grave near the eastern Bosnian-Serb town of Zvornik. The commission plans to work on 15 new sites in 2007. The war in Bosnia is estimated to have resulted to the deaths of 100,000-110,000 soldiers and civilians. AG

Ministers from Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania on January 31 signed an agreement opening the way to the construction of a pipeline to carry oil from the Black Sea to Europe via the Balkans, according to a January 31 report by the Macedonian news agency Makfax. After the trilateral meeting in Skopje, the head of the corporation building the pipeline, Ted Ferguson, said "we expect construction to begin by late 2008 and to see the first oil shipments flowing through the pipeline by the end of 2010 or early 2011." Talks about a pipeline began in the mid-1990s. The volume of oil expected to flow each year through the pipeline is put at 35 million tons. The pipeline will run for 917 kilometers from the Bulgarian port of Burgas to Vlora in Albania. The purpose of the pipeline, which will be built by the U.S.-registered Albanian Macedonian Bulgarian Oil Corporation (AMBO) and is backed by the United States, is to relieve the growing pressure on sea transport through Turkey's Bosphorus Straits. AG

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on January 30 it is too early to set a start date for talks on Macedonia's eventual membership of the EU. In a joint press conference in Brussels with Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski, a transcript of which was posted on the website of the European Commission, Barroso said that "the pace of progress slowed down" in Macedonia in 2006 and that "I cannot commit myself or the commission to a precise date for the start of negotiations." "Substance is more important than speed," he added. "Quality matters more than a schedule." Crvenkovski said the European Commission's assessment is fair and that Macedonia "did not do as much as it could or as it should in 2006." But he added that "there is a will in Macedonia to double the work and effort and to make up for everything that has been slowed down in the past." Barroso specifically highlighted the need for police and judiciary reform, the news service EUObserver reported on January 31. Earlier in January, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa told the European Parliament that his government will "try to help this candidate country [Macedonia] to get a date" for the start of accession talks when Slovenia assumes the EU's rotating Presidency in 2008. AG

Macedonia began on January 31 to pay debts inherited from the communist era to the Paris Club of creditor countries. Finance Minister Trajko Slaveski told local media on January 29 that the first $50 million will be paid to the United States and Kuwait, which is not a member of the Paris Club but is a significant creditor. Under a deal reached with the Paris Club, Macedonia can repay up to $104 million by April 30, the Dow Jones financial news service reported on January 24, the day the deal was announced. Early repayment will reduce the strain on Macedonia's public finances by reducing the cost of servicing its debt. Macedonia's debt to the 13 members of the Paris Club plus Kuwait amounts to 13.7 percent of the country's external debt. AG

Since the May 1994 cease-fire that effectively froze hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan has paid scant attention to reforming its armed forces. Consequently, despite a pronounced and dramatic spike in the defense budget, which is projected to surpass $1 billion this year, the Azerbaijani military remains hostage to earlier sporadic, haphazard, and incomplete efforts at modernization and reform.

Yet there are recent signs that the Azerbaijani government has finally resolved to implement an assertive and ambitious effort aimed at forging a new and robust military.

The first such sign was the decision to create a modern defense industry. Established back in 2005 by presidential decree, the new Defense Industries Ministry, headed by Yavar Jamalov, incorporated the State Departments for Military Industry and for Armaments and the Military Science Center, each of which was formerly a separate agency within the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. It is endowed with between $60-70 million in state funding, and has emerged as an autonomous entity with a growing defense production capability. The new ministry is cooperating with the defense sectors of Ukraine and Pakistan.

Recent reports in both the Turkish and Azerbaijani press of the imminent appointment of a senior Turkish military officer to a post within the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry constitute further proof that Baku is getting serious about upgrading its armed forces. According to the Turkish daily on January 8, senior Turkish military leaders are said to have selected an unnamed Turkish Army general to assume the position of a deputy minister within the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, reportedly as the first part of a formal program to last through 2011. That Turkish general would reportedly be granted significant and sweeping powers and authority within the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, including direct and sole control over a team of lower-ranking Turkish military officers serving as military instructors and advisers.

The plan constitutes a restoration of a direct Turkish military role in Azerbaijan, marking a reversal of the deterioration in Azerbaijani-Turkish military ties over the past few years and a return of Turkish military advisers following their departure from Baku in 1995. It also serves to reaffirm Baku's strategic orientation towards Western security structures in general, and NATO in particular.

The Azerbaijani move seems patterned on the experience of Lithuania's defense reform, the successful implementation of which paved the way for that country's eventual accession to NATO. Under the Lithuanian model, a retired U.S. officer, Colonel Ionas Kronkaytis, was appointed as chief of staff in 2002 and granted the authority to oversee and direct military reform through 2003. The Azerbaijani plan is even more realistic, as it would be both bolstered by the country's earlier military relationship with Turkey and stands a greater chance of success, insofar as the ultimate objective is revamping the armed forces, rather than full NATO membership.

But there is also a second significant aspect to such a scenario. The resumption of a Turkish role in reforming, and enhancing the professionalization of, the largely underdeveloped Azerbaijani armed forces could herald the departure of Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev. The longest-serving defense minister in the entire Commonwealth of Independent States, Abiyev has been repeatedly subjected to criticism for his imputed tolerance of endemic corruption within the military.

And he owes his survival more to his personal loyalty to the president than to any credible military competence, given that his tenure as defense chief has been defined by a long period of neglect, underinvestment, and marginalization of the Azerbaijani armed forces. It is thus logical to assume that the onset of a new and sincere effort at defense reform under Turkish patronage will be followed by the dismissal of the current defense minister.

True, rumors of his impending dismissal have surfaced several times in the past, but it now seems inevitable that Abiyev will either soon retire, or possibly be shifted to another post. According to the online daily on December 28, Abiyev's successor will be a civilian, and the respective functions of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff will be clearly delineated.

On one level, Baku's renewed commitment to developing a more formidable military capability seem in accordance with its long record of aggressive and bellicose threats to resort to military action in the event that ongoing efforts to mediate a peaceful political solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict fail. But that commitment should also be seen in the broader regional context, specifically, of a larger shift in the overall balance of power in the South Caucasus, as Georgia too seeks to raise the effectiveness of its armed forces to comply with NATO standards as part of its bid for NATO membership.

In the short term, however, the key question raised by Baku's new determination to enhance its military potential is the possible political impact of a powerful new military within the national context, as the Azerbaijani political elite has long equated domestic stability with the absence of any perceived threat emanating from its armed forces. In this respect, the Azerbaijani Army was long seen by former Azerbaijani strongman Heidar Aliyev as the sole viable threat to his authority.

It remains to be seen whether his son and successor, President Ilham Aliyev, has miscalculated in possibly giving the military both power and a platform, especially given the Turkish record of repeated military intervention in domestic politics since 1960. The danger, however remote, it may seem at present, of a new powerful politicization of a resurgent Azerbaijani military, has until now not been a factor when assessing the prospects for security and stability in Azerbaijan.

Speaking at a coordination meeting in Berlin on January 31 of donors to Afghanistan's reconstruction, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta argued that most of the aid earmarked for his country should be given directly to the Afghan government, state-owned Afghanistan National Television reported. Spanta argued that providing such assistance through Kabul would enhance central-government prestige in the eyes of the public. The Berlin meeting was part of the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, established after a London conference in 2006 at which international donors agreed on a five-year plan to coordinate development efforts in Afghanistan -- dubbed the "Afghanistan Compact" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 8, 2006, and "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). A statement issued ahead of the Berlin meeting's conclusion acknowledged that Kabul's wish "for accelerated Afghanization of the national army and police, as well as in the area of economic development," was a "prominent" proposal, AFP reported. However, in their concluding statement, participants offered no specific commitment to channel more aid directly to the Afghan government. Many donors reportedly fear that Afghanistan still lacks the capacity to absorb aid directly, and there are serious concerns about perceived corruption within the Afghan government. AT

The Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) on January 31 approved a national stability plan designed to bring peace through national reconciliation, Tolo TV reported. The 11-point scheme says the "jihad, [or] the resistance and legitimate fight" to protect Afghanistan's religion and land is an historic achievement that should "be praised" and "should not be subjected to any criticism." All factions that participated in the successive wars of the past 25 years "should be attracted to the national-reconciliation process and should forgive each other, and they should not be dealt with through legal [or] judicial channels." In its third point, the plan rejects as "baseless" a recent report issued by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticizing the actions of "the jihadi leaders and national figures." In December, HRW recommended the removal from civil service of "serious human rights abusers," some of whom are current members of the National Assembly or the Afghan government. The Wolesi Jirga plan also extends an olive branch to "entire opposition armed groups of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan," inviting them, without exception, to join the peace and reconciliation program. Point 11 of the plan calls on the "mass media" to "take into consideration the national reconciliation charter and try to strengthen peace and national reconciliation." AT

Three Afghan National Police officers were killed and two others were injured in an attack on a police checkpoint in the Barmal district of Paktika Province on January 31, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Paktika Governor Mohammad Akram Khpolwak accused the "Taliban" of responsibility for the attack. "The Taliban also suffered casualties and losses when police carried out a reciprocal operation," Khpolwak said, adding that he was not aware of the number of Taliban casualties. AT

A suicide bomber blew himself up near Torkham at the border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan on January 31, AIP reported. Officials in Torkham said a number of Afghan and foreign service personnel were in the area moments before the bomber struck. One report suggested that no one but the bomber was killed in the attack, but other, unconfirmed reports suggested that two people might have been killed and a military translator injured. AT

Nosratollah Tajik, the former Iranian ambassador to Jordan, appeared in a London court on January 30 on charges of illegal arms trafficking, though proceedings were postponed until March 20, Radio Farda reported, citing AFP. Tajik is accused of trying to buy high-tech military equipment for Iran, and the court was apparently processing a request for his extradition to the United States, Radio Farda reported. He was the Iranian ambassador to Jordan from 1999-2003 and later taught at Durham University. Tajik was arrested in Durham, England, on October 26 and -- according to U.S. intelligence sources -- was involved in a bid by Iran to purchase nocturnal vision binoculars. It was not clear if that equipment is American, but Radio Farda stated that the sale of such equipment to Iran is forbidden. His wife, Massoumeh Sadeqinia, said from England that Tajik is stressed and suffering from depression and chest pains, Radio Farda reported. Meanwhile in Iran, former parliamentarian Abdullah Sohrabi has been summoned to a court in Sanandaj, Kurdestan Province, on unspecified charges, reported on January 28. Sohrabi represented Marivan in the last parliament, and is also the editor of the banned weekly "Rojhelat" (East) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). VS

General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the head of Iran's Goods and Currency Antismuggling Headquarters (Setad-i mobareze ba qachaq-i kala va arz), said in the Tehran airport on January 31 that Iran has cut its fuel consumption in the Iranian calendar year ending in March 2007 thanks to a clampdown on fuel smuggling, Fars agency reported. Naqdi said the country has saved $1.3 billion in fuel during that year compared to the previous Iranian year, thanks largely to countertrafficking efforts. He estimated that there are an extra 30,000 heavy vehicles, an unspecified number of train engines, 650,000 cars, and 700,000 motorcycles in Iran this year, but said fuel consumption has not increased proportionately to the increase in vehicles, Fars reported. Naqdi said Iranian customs are determined to fight trafficking. He accused unspecified "big-time" traffickers of trying to influence courts to abandon their legal cases, though he gave no details. Separately, Iranian Deputy Police Chief Hussein Zolfaqari said in the western city of Hamedan on January 31 that Iran "is safe," but he urged vigilance against "enemy" moves to disrupt security. "Guns, drugs, banditry, insecurity, and vulgar cultural products are the products sent into the country," he said, IRNA reported. VS

Hojjatoleslam Ali Saidi, who represents Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), told ILNA in Tehran on January 31 that the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad has an "offensive" diplomacy but that Iran should avoid paying "useless costs" in pursuing its relations with other states. "We have to act very intelligently in the realm of diplomacy. We can...avoid tensions and hostility, and act to help the Islamic current grow while maintaining [our] principles," he said, adding that if the United States ends its "selfish" conduct, Iran "can also play a role and help resolve regional issues." He said the United States needs "Iran's opinion" now more than at any other time because of the pressure "neoconservatives" face from "internal and foreign circles." Saidi added that "[Americans] consider Iran effective in reducing regional tensions. Even [Henry] Kissinger...has admitted this." He said U.S. attempts to "provoke regional states against us" are effectively another admission by Washington of Iran's importance. Iran, he said, "has announced that it is ready in equal conditions to help the West, and assure Iraq's security because, as opposed to America, we want security in Iraq" and the region. VS

Reza Talai-Nik, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Fars on January 31 that the continued detention of five Iranians -- arrested by U.S. forces in Irbil on January 11 -- would undermine the credibility of the Iraqi government and international laws and raise doubts about the security of foreigners in Iraq. Talai-Nik, who represents the Bahar and Kabudarahang constituency, also urged the Iranian Foreign Ministry to consider the Iranians' release a "fundamental, essential, and primary duty." He said the United States is making "provocations and false pretexts" to incite opinion against Iran and Shi'a Muslims, and accused it of giving "indirect support to terrorist operations against the Shi'a" as part of its "new strategy." The continued detentions, he said, are intended to pressure Iran over its nuclear dossier and "create a diversionary dossier" linking Iran and Shi'a to unrest in Iraq, Fars reported. VS

A quarterly audit by U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen, released on January 31, found that corruption and mismanagement continue to hamper the reconstruction effort in Iraq, international media reported the same day. The 579-page report established that tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid have been wasted. It reported scores of unaccounted-for weapons and a never-used camp for housing police trainers. In addition, the report indicated that the ongoing violence is a huge impediment to the reconstruction process. "The security situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, hindering progress in all reconstruction sectors and threatening the overall reconstruction effort," the report said. SS

U.S. officials suspect that Iran was directly involved in a January 20 attack on a U.S. military base in Karbala that killed five U.S. soldiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007), CNN reported on January 31. U.S. officials said the attackers, wearing uniforms resembling those worn by U.S. forces and traveling in vehicles often used by U.S. security contractors, entered the secure U.S. military compound. Officials believed that considering the sophistication of the operation, it was doubtful that Iraqis could have carried out the attack alone, indicating that a foreign country was probably involved. "We believe it's possible the executors of the attack were Iranian or Iranian-trained," an unnamed U.S. official told CNN. "This was beyond what we have seen militias or foreign fighters do." A senior Iraqi official told "The New York Times" on January 31 that the attackers also carried forged U.S. identity cards, U.S.-style M-4 rifles, and had used stun grenades of a kind used only by U.S. forces in Iraq. The Defense Department said it is conducting an investigation. SS

The Muslim Scholars Association released a statement on its website on January 31 claiming that heavy shelling in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Al-A'zamiyah, Al-Kazimiyah, and Al-Sulaykh killed or wounded dozens of civilians. The group said the aim of the attackers was to incite sedition throughout Iraq, and it criticized the United States and the Baghdad government for not putting an end to the attacks. "The Muslim Scholars Association condemns these violations against our people and holds the occupation and the current Iraqi government responsible for them, because they are in charge of security responsibilities across Iraq," the statement said. Previously, the group denounced the joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation along Haifa Street, describing it as a campaign of "eradication" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2007). SS

During a meeting with Muslim Scholars Association leader Harith al-Dari on January 31 in Damascus, Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a reaffirmed Damascus' support for Iraq's national-reconciliation process, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported the same day. "The need to achieve national reconciliation and the participation of all the Iraqis in the political process is the key guarantee for the success of this process, the unity of the Iraqi land and people," al-Shar'a said. Al-Dari issued a statement praising Syria's support for the Iraqi people and their right to resist the occupation. "It [Syria] rejected the occupation before and after it took place. It is against terrorism, but it does not reject resistance because resistance is a legitimate right. We appreciated these positions, which placed Syria ahead of others," al-Dari said. U.S. officials have repeatedly accused the Damascus government of allowing insurgents based on Syrian territory to cross into Iraq. On January 30, incoming Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte remarked during a Senate confirmation hearing that Syria is "allowing 40 to 75 foreign fighters to flow into Iraq through Syria every month." SS

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced on January 30 that nearly 700 Palestinians who want to leave Iraq have been stranded along the Iraqi-Syrian border, living for months in inhuman conditions, international media reported the same day. UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said ongoing violence and persecution in Baghdad is causing increasing numbers of Palestinians in Iraq to seek refuge in Syria, despite Damascus's refusal to admit them. Pagonis said 356 Palestinians have been living in a "no-man's land" between Iraq and Syria since May 2006 and a second group of 340 is trapped on the Iraqi side of the border. She urged the international community "to help find a humane solution for these refugees who are persecuted inside Iraq and have nowhere to go." The agency said the estimated 15,000 Palestinian refugees still in Iraq have increasingly become targets of kidnappings and killings. Opponents of the former Iraqi regime resent the refugees because they believe the Palestinians have been given preferential treatment. On January 23, armed men abducted 17 Palestinian men from a house in Baghdad see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007). SS

The Arab League announced on January 31 that it will continue to have a presence in Iraq, despite the resignation last week of Muktar Lamani, the organization's envoy to that country, international media reported. The organization said in a statement that Secretary-General Amr Musa is considering candidates to replace Lamani. "The secretary-general stressed the Arab League's determination to continue its efforts to support Iraq to achieve reconciliation," the statement said. In a letter sent to Musa last week and acquired by AFP on January 28, Lamani said he will resign at the end of February because of what he called a lack of "Arab vision" to end the conflict in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). SS