Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - February 15, 2007

During a foreign-policy debate in Sweden's parliament on February 14, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt expressed disappointment over certain developments in Russia, according to dpa. Bildt praised increased "business activity and human contacts" with Russia but said there have been some "steps backwards," dpa reported. "The political climate and the media climate [in Russia] alike have become less free," he said. "Sometimes we have seen examples of the language of force being used against neighboring states that have led us to react. We are still seeing breaches of human rights in Chechnya." According to the German news agency, Bildt also mentioned the unsolved murders of Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya and former security service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko. Bildt told reporters after the debate that he expects to host Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later this year, and that the controversial Russian-German Nord Stream natural-gas pipeline is likely to be a topic of their talks. Meanwhile, the SR International-Radio Sweden website ( reported on February 14 that "Swedish defense chiefs want to increase military resources inside the country after changing their assessment of the potential threat posed by Russia." It added: "The armed forces insist there is no sign that the risk of an attack has risen dramatically, but say factors like Russia's new economic strength and European energy issues must be taken into consideration." The Finnish parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee has issued a report that similarly expresses concern about developments in Russia. The committee's chairwoman, Liisa Jaakonsaari, said Russia cannot yet be considered a "law-based state with a full-fledged democracy," reported on February 14. "There is a lack of respect for human rights and various minorities, the judicial system is not independent, the activities of the mass media are restricted," she said. "Many murders of journalists and businessmen remain unsolved." JB

The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on February 15 that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has prepared a kind of "loyalty test" for Kremlin opponents in the form of a Charter on Counteracting Extremism that it is trying to persuade the country's political parties to sign. According to the daily, the charter, while only "declarative" in character, calls on signatories not to use slogans that could provoke "interethnic, interconfessional, and other social-political conflicts that could develop into extremist actions," and, at the same time, to "condemn publicly any manifestations of extremism, Nazism, racism." Any "mass media giving the floor to persons or organizations making such statements" must also be publicly condemned, the charter states. It also forbids any party that is a signatory from accepting people connected to extremist activity as party members or including such people on their lists of candidates. The charter urges signatories to refuse to work with organizations that incite ethnic, religious, or social discord, or that recruit minors to commit extremist acts. The charter also states that the leaders of political parties are responsible for the actions of party members involved in extremist activity. JB

According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the Communist Party (KPRF) views the Charter on Counteracting Extremism as "a mine under the opposition," and both KPRF lawyers and those of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) are particularly disturbed by the charter's references to "social discord." The daily quoted Vitaly Novoselov, an aide to SPS leader Nikita Belykh, as saying, "The bureaucracy is also a social group, so will the fight against it be considered extremism?" KPRF Central Committee Secretary Vadim Solovev noted that authorities in Orel and Kurgan oblasts recently tried to prevent members of his party from participating in regional legislative assembly elections by trying to get them prosecuted on charges of engaging in extremist activity and provoking social discord. Orel Governor Yegor Stroyev (who, ironically, is a former member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Politburo) demanded that the KPRF's candidates be disqualified, accusing party leaders of abetting a KPRF member who, in Stroyev's opinion, tried to stir up extremist sentiments on January 20 by condemning him and the Russian government in front of 300 people. The antiextremism charter is interesting against the backdrop of President Vladimir Putin's speech last month calling on the Federal Security Service (FSB) to halt the spread of extremism and racism in Russia ahead of the December 2007 Duma elections. "It is not only important to ensure the rule of law and order, but also to safeguard society from attempts to inject extremist and racist ideas," Reuters quoted Putin as telling senior FSB officials on January 31. JB

KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov said his party will choose a candidate for the 2008 presidential election in secret balloting at a party congress in September, Interfax reported on February 14. "We will form our team, on which there will be both a presidential candidate and candidates for members of the future government," Zyuganov said, noting that he previously ran for president and that "half the country voted for me." Zyuganov lost to Boris Yeltsin in 1996 and to Vladimir Putin in 2000, and did not run in the 2004 presidential election. The KPRF leader said that the main contender to become the presidential candidate of the "party of power" in 2008 is Putin himself. "I have the impression that he has not made a decision," Zyuganov said, referring to the possibility that Putin will serve a third presidential term. Zyuganov said that according to KPRF assessments, the popularity ratings of Putin's perceived two possible successors, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, do not exceed 12-15 percent. Zyuganov added, however, that the Kremlin has several secret "reserve" candidates, all of whom "put in an appearance" at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. JB

St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputies submitted a draft law to the State Duma proposing that Federation Council members be popularly elected, RIA Novosti reported on February 14. The Federation Council currently consists of two representatives from each Russian region, one elected by that region's legislature and the other appointed by the regional governor or chief executive and confirmed by the regional legislature. According to the bill, Federation Council senators would be elected by regional residents from among candidates nominated by a region's legislative or executive body. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov said he welcomes the bill, but that it is unlikely to pass. However, the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 15 that the St. Petersburg legislators introduced the bill at the initiative of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, and that while Mironov himself once pushed the idea of electing Federation Council members, he and the recently formed pro-Kremlin party that he heads, A Just Russia, have decided not to back the bill. The daily "Vremya novostei," meanwhile, published an article on February 15 detailing additional evidence of growing friction between the two pro-Kremlin parties. It reported that during a public meeting in the southern Russian town of Mineralnye Vody on February 12, Stavropol Mayor Dmitry Kuzmin, who heads A Just Russia's regional branch, was pelted with eggs and packets of dirt hurled, according to some eyewitnesses, by youths wearing T-shirts of the Young Guards (Molodaya Gvardia), Unified Russia's youth movement. JB

Inteko, the giant construction firm owned by Yelena Baturina, Russia's richest woman and the wife of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, announced on February 14 that it is suing the publisher and editor of "Forbes" magazine's Russian edition over a December cover story about the company, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 15. Inteko said in a statement that the lawsuit against the publisher, Axel Springer Russia, says the story contained erroneous information about company activities and incorrectly said it enjoyed the support of government agencies. The lawsuit against "Forbes" editor Maksim Kashulinsky says he subsequently damaged Inteko's reputation by saying in an interview that the company "violated media legislation that banned censorship" when it demanded that "Forbes" change a headline on the cover of its December issue, which "Forbes" did. Inteko is seeking only 106,500 rubles ($4,040) from each defendant. However, "The Moscow Times" quoted the author of Russia's current media law, Mikhail Fedotov, as saying that the lawsuits could further discourage journalists from writing about sensitive topics involving large corporations. JB

On February 14, two days after pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov harshly criticized the "personality cult" surrounding his arch rival, Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007), the electricity, telephones, and Internet access in the Grozny offices of Alkhanov's aides were cut off, according to on February 15. The Chechen resistance website on February 14 quoted unidentified Russian sources as saying that the services were restored after the Federal Security Service intervened, while members of Kadyrov's entourage attributed the interruptions to "technical glitches." Also on February 14, Kadyrov's spokesman Abdul-Kakhir Israyilov, released a statement rejecting as untrue Alkhanov's February 8 denial that German Vok has resigned from the post of Economic and Social Security Council secretary to which Alkhanov named him last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8 and 9, 2007). In a statement posted on, Israyilov claimed to have in his possession a February 7 decree signed by Alkhanov releasing Vok from his post. Vok is widely seen as one of the embattled Alkhanov's few remaining allies. LF

Eduard Khidirov, who heads the Daghestan chapter of Gennady Semigin's Patriots of Russia party, was seriously injured late on February 14 when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his car in Makhachkala, and reported. At the time of the attack, Khidirov, a former Komsomol official and member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, had just participated in an campaign broadcast in the run-up to the March 11 elections to a new republican parliament. LF

Arriving in Yerevan on February 14 for a three-day visit, Russian Air Force Commander in Chief Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov said a gradual reequipment of the Russian military base near Giumri has already begun, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He did not divulge any further details. LF

The UN has issued a press release summarizing the talks that took place in Geneva on February 12-13 between the ambassadors to Georgia of the friends of the UN secretary-general for Abkhazia group of countries (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia) and government delegations from Georgia and Abkhazia under the chairmanship of UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean Marie Guehenno, reported on February 15. According to the press release, the UN and the Group of Friends again affirmed their support for a negotiated solution to the Abkhaz conflict within the framework of UN resolutions, including that adopted in October 2006. That resolution insists on the withdrawal from the upper Kodori Gorge of all Georgian troops deployed there; Georgia apparently does not interpret that resolution as extending to all the Interior Ministry troops it deployed to Kodori in July 2006 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 5, 2007). They also called for a resumption of dialogue in order to expedite the return of displaced persons to Abkhazia and improve the socio-economic situation. They stressed in particular the need to address security concerns in the Kodori Gorge and throughout the conflict zone, and called on both sides to take into consideration the "sensitivities" of the other, and to cooperate with a view to defusing tensions. The Group of Friends met separately with the Georgian and then the Abkhaz delegation. The Georgian daily "Rezonansi" on February 15 claimed the Abkhaz delegation rejected the Georgian side's invitation to face-to-face talks. LF

The authorities of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia handed over to his relatives on February 14 at the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia Levan Mamasakhlisi, whom an Abkhaz court sentenced in 2002 to 14 years' imprisonment on charges of illegally entering Abkhazia and unauthorized possession of arms and explosives, reported. Mamasakhlisi was hospitalized in Gagra in August 2002 after losing one hand in an explosion; he was suspected of preparing a terrorist attack. The Abkhaz authorities hope that in return for Mamasakhlisi's release, the Georgian side will hand back two Abkhaz officials abducted over the past two months from Gali Raion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006 and February 7, 2007). LF

John Ordway, U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, told a press conference in Astana on February 14 that the U.S. position on Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009 is that "a country presiding over the organization must serve as an example of how to uphold the existing democratic values," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Ordway said that he hopes Kazakhstan will undertake reforms in the first half of 2007, adding that, if this happens, "I think very good conditions will be created" for Kazakhstan to gain the chair. A decision on the Kazakh bid is to be made in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2006). Ordway also said that the United States will probably reduce funding for assistance programs to Central Asia in the future, although he stressed that the United States still considers the development of democratic institutions, civil society, and free media priorities. DK

Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov told a news conference in Bishkek on February 14 that he will join the opposition to President Kurmanbek Bakiev, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kulov, who lost his post when Bakiev failed to reintroduce his candidacy to parliament after two negative votes, harshly criticized the current political situation. "Most of the [Kyrgyz] television channels are already controlled by people close to one family," Kulov said. "Crime is raising its head again. Worst of all, crime is penetrating power and politics. Threats are being made again and people who disagree with the so-called ruling course are being persecuted. I have information that attempts on the lives of people close to me are being planned." Kulov also accused Bakiev of violating the "tandem" agreement under which Kulov gave up his presidential bid and supported Bakiev for the presidency in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006), AP reported. Kulov was not specific about the form his opposition activities will take, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. "I have taken the decision not to lock myself within the boundaries of only one political party, Ar-Namys (Dignity), but to unite and lead the divided but close in spirit social and political forces that want radical, positive changes, that wish to work for the good of society, and not only to serve select people," Kulov said. DK

Opposition leaders offered both support and criticism for Kulov's February 14 announcement that he will join the opposition, news agencies reported. Omurbek Tekebaev, a leading member of the For Reforms opposition movement, said, "What Feliks Kulov has done is a principled act by an honest man," news agency reported. Melis Eshimkanov, also of For Reforms, commented, "Kulov has totally rehabilitated himself in the eyes of the opposition," Interfax reported. But Almazbek Atambaev said, "As chairman [of For Reforms], I will most probably come out against [an alliance with pro-Kulov forces], because I find it difficult to believe Kulov," ITAR-TASS reported. Edil Baisalov, head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, told, "There is a very large group of people who are disappointed with Kulov, and we have our reasons." DK

Newly inaugurated Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov met with a number of regional leaders and high-ranking officials in Ashgabat on February 14, news agencies reported. Berdymukhammedov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev stressed that they hold close positions on global issues, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Nazarbaev also invited Berdymukhammedov to Kazakhstan. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Berdymukhammedov agreed that Turkmenistan will remain a strategic supplier of natural gas to Ukraine, Interfax reported. Berdymukhammedov told Iranian First Vice President Parviz Daoudi that Turkmenistan wants to deepen ties with Iran, while Daoudi said that Iran would like to invest in the Turkmen energy sector, Iranian radio and IRNA reported. Berdymukhammedov told Ismail Amat, deputy chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and envoy of Chinese President Hu Jintao, that Turkmenistan will honor all of its bilateral agreements with China, Xinhua reported. DK

Leaders in attendance at Berdymukhammedov's inauguration also held meetings in Ashgabat on February 14, news agencies reported. Yushchenko met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to discuss Ukrainian investment in the Tajik energy sector, with Tajikistan also asking Ukraine to provide free military and technical assistance to help Tajikistan guard its borders, Korrespondent reported. Nazarbaev met with Richard Boucher, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, and they both expressed the hope that Turkmenistan "will move along the path of greater openness, and that the policy of self-isolation will be to a certain degree rethought," Kazinform reported, quoting a spokesman for the Kazakh president. Nazarbaev also met with Rakhmonov to discuss bilateral relations, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. DK

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a press release on February 14 praising the conduct of Turkmenistan's February 11 presidential election, Interfax reported. "All the election procedures met the requirements of Turkmen law, were well organized, and took place in a calm atmosphere," the news agency quoted the press release as saying. And in a telephone conversation with Berdymukhammedov, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered congratulations, ITAR-TASS reported. "Your convincing victory in the election is evidence of the great trust the Turkmen people has place in you," Putin said. "I am convinced that the election and the consolidation of Turkmen society will mark an important phase in the further development of your country and the strengthening of its standing in the international arena." DK

Jizzakh Province Governor Ubaydullo Yomonqulov stepped down from his post for health reasons on February 14, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Musa Anarbaev, head of the province's Mirzachul District, has been appointed acting governor in his place. DK

Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the candidate of the united opposition for the March 2006 presidential election, said in a statement on February 14 that he does not intend to participate in the congress of pro-democratic forces being prepared by the opposition for March 17-18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007), Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Milinkevich said he does not want to participate in "internal squabbling," adding that the Political Council of United Pro-Democratic Forces has failed to unify opposition parties following the March 2006 election. "Instead of organizing joint work, some party leaders began to compete for leadership and started months-long preparations for the congress," Milinkevich said in the statement. Milinkevich told RFE/RL on February 14 that he personally objects to the idea of a rotating chairmanship in the coalition of opposition forces that is expected to be approved at the March congress. "I am not afraid of competition and am ready to enter the struggle for leadership [in the opposition] once again," Milinkevich said. "But when the coalition decided that there would be a rotation [of leaders], I immediately said that I am not interested. Because rotation means that there is no leader and that all are leaders at the same time. Everyone becomes a leader for a few months and is subsequently replaced. You can be a leader once in every three years. [But] you cannot beat the dictatorship with such an unclenched fist." JM

Volodymyr Kornilov, director of the Ukrainian branch of the Institute of CIS Countries, told journalists in Kyiv on February 14 that he believes Moscow has a blacklist of Ukrainian politicians who cannot enter the Russian Federation, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Kornilov was commenting on an incident last week in which Ukrainian lawmaker Petro Poroshenko, former secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, was declared persona non grata and barred from entering the Russian Federation at an airport in St. Petersburg. Russian Foreign Ministry officials said the move was a retaliatory measure against Ukraine's entry ban on a number of Russian politicians and political analysts in the past year or so. JM

The State Statistics Committee reported on February 14 that Ukraine's population continued to decrease throughout 2006, falling by 22,000 in December to reach 46.646 million at the beginning of January, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The same day, the committee said the country's gross domestic product in January grew by 9.3 percent year-on-year. JM

Serbia's parliament used its first session since elections on January 21 to reject on February 14 the UN's draft proposal for the future of the UN-administered province of Kosova. Of the 270 members of parliament who voted, 255 supported a resolution condemning the UN blueprint as "illegally laying the foundations for the creation of an independent state on the territory of Serbia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). Similar views were restated in parliament, with Serbian President Boris Tadic saying the proposal breaches the UN Charter, "which guarantees the inviolability of internationally recognized states," and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica declaring that the plan would "dismember Serbia and grab 15 percent of its territory," international and local media reported. Serbian representatives are currently preparing for what may be their last chance to amend the proposal drafted by the UN's special envoy for Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). However, the overwhelming opposition in the Serbian parliament to the proposed settlement suggests Belgrade is unlikely to accept any major compromises when its representatives meet Ahtisaari in Vienna on February 21. Ahtisaari himself has effectively dismissed as unlikely the possibility that either side will reach an agreement, and has urged the UN to have the courage to impose a solution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007). Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku dismissed the Serbian vote, saying, "what matters is what the European Union and the international community are saying, and not what Belgrade is saying," AP reported on February 14. AG

Stephen Curtis, the head of the 1,800-strong UN police force in Kosova, has resigned following the death of two protesters in a February 10 rally against the UN's plan for the province. Curtis told journalists that "we are at a critical juncture in the history of Kosovo and nothing must be allowed to interfere in the confidence of those involved in this process," adding, "My resignation today, I hope, will allay some of the fears that the public have about the police and the policing of Kosovo." International and local media reports quoted the head of the UN Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, as saying he "asked the police resign from his post with immediate effect." Curtis's deputy, Trygve Kalleberg, said a police investigation will focus on the decision to use rubber bullets. The deputy head of UNMIK, Steven Schook, previously praised Curtis for "doing a great job," but Prime Minister Ceku said publicly that "the fact that two citizens died is sufficient proof that police might have used excessive force" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). Curtis is the second official to resign as a result of the violence. Kosovar Interior Minister Fatmir Rexhepi stepped down on February 12, saying he felt a "moral responsibility" for the deaths (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). The impact of the clashes on the delicate security situation and on Serbian attitudes was highlighted on February 14 by a moderate Kosovar Serb leader, Oliver Ivanovic, who said, in comments carried the same day by the Serbian news agency FoNet, that the protests show Kosova's institutions cannot control the masses. "The latest events show that there could be even more violence, if NATO forces are reduced -- and they will be reduced if the status is solved in a hasty manner," Ivanovic said. The Albanian-language daily "Koha ditore" reported on February 15 that NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on February 15 will visit Prishtina and Mitrovica, an ethnic flashpoint and the focus of bloody violence in 2004. AG

Political leaders in Albania have publicly expressed concern at the violence in Prishtina. On February 13, UNMIK deputy head Schook said that foreigners -- probably from more than one state -- were involved in the clash (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). The UN police force has not identified the citizenship of the suspected foreign participants, but Albania and Macedonia, with its large ethnic Albanian population, are likely countries of origin. After a February 13 meeting with Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu, Albanian Foreign Minister Besnik Mustafaj said, "the political class in Kosova should not fall prey to provocations... intended to destabilize the situation in Kosova and the region," the Albanian news agency ATA reported on February 14. The agency also reported that Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha on February 13 condemned the violence as "shocking" and warned Kosovar Albanians that violence would harm Kosova as it moves toward "the absolutely inevitable realization of its great project, independence." There have been no comments from Macedonian ministers about the possible involvement of Macedonian citizens. Macedonian security forces fought ethnic Albanian separatists for six months in 2001, and Macedonia's political system is founded on a delicate attempt to accommodate the ethnic tensions in the country, the Ohrid agreement, which ended the violence in 2001. The deaths in Prishtina come at a time of heightened political tensions in Macedonia, as several ethnic Albanian parties are currently boycotting parliament, accusing it of undermining the Ohrid agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and February 14, 2007). The website of Macedonia's A1 television on February 13 reported that an ethnic Albanian political leader "braggingly told some Kosovo newspapers that [his nephew] used his fists against the UNMIK policemen" in Prishtina. AG

NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer on February 14 expressed concern about the "lack of political dialogue" in Macedonia, the Macedonian news agency MIA reported the same day. Two ethnic Albanian parties are currently boycotting parliament and a boycott by the largest opposition party was narrowly averted on February 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and February 14, 2007). "Lack of dialogue won't solve the problems, but it will diminish the contribution to the Euro-Atlantic integration processes," de Hoop Scheffer said after meeting with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Macedonia hopes to be invited to become a member of the alliance in 2008, but de Hoop Scheffer gave no assurances, saying that an invitation depends on Macedonia's progress. "A lot has been done, but a lot more needs to be done" by Macedonia, he said. Gruevski said the country hopes to complete the reform of its military in 2007. According to a NATO press release, de Hoop Scheffer said he expects all countries in the region eventually to become NATO members, adding, "When, I don't know." Gruevski's visit to NATO's headquarters, just 16 days after a similar visit by Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski, came on the last day of a two-day visit to Brussels, during which EU officials reiterated concerns about a perceived slowdown in reforms and about the country's tense political situation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 9, 2007). AG

According to local media in Albania, over 40 incidents have been reported in the run-up to local elections to be held on February 18. The incidents have chiefly involved attempts to prevent rallies being held and the destruction of campaign material. Albania's State Election Commission says over 4,300 local and international observers will monitor the elections. The opposition Socialist Party, the second-largest in parliament, has accused the Democratic Party headed by Prime Minister Berisha of running a "violent campaign." In one incident reported by the daily "Gazeta Shqiptare" on January 29, Socialist and Democratic party workers in the town of Gjirokaster brawled and hurled objects at each other. Political tensions in an area heavily populated by ethnic Greeks, Himare, resulted in clashes and arrests on January 20, shortly after the official election campaign began. Commentators have argued during the campaign that the elections are important not just for municipalities, but also for Kosovar Albanians, as their case for independence from Serbia has been hampered by Albania's image as a problem state with conflictual politics and weak institutions. AG

For years, young activists in Belarus have been sending Valentine's cards to Europe. And for years, they've been getting no replies. Since 1997, opposition-minded young people have gathered in Minsk on February 14 to show their support for joining the European Union.

In recent weeks, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has made a number of comments to the press about increasing ties with Europe. But European officials say such overtures are not enough: they want Lukashenka to match his words with political reform.

Their numbers this year in Minsk were small -- probably several dozen -- but the atmosphere was heavy with symbolism. An RFE/RL reporter in Minsk said that police detained five activists earlier on February 14 and cordoned off the central Liberty Square, although some activists broke through.

Barys Haretski, an activist from the opposition youth group Youth Front, which is organizing this year's parade, said the event in Minsk's central Liberty Square would look like a theatrical show. "Activists will personify the countries of the EU, dressed in the costumes of these countries," he said. "They will form a burning circle. They will light these Bengal lights [a signal flare] and at a certain point the person representing Belarus will enter the circle. At that moment, the circle will turn into a burning heart. After that we plan to parade through the center of town stopping at European embassies."

There, parade participants plan to drop off Valentine's cards. Given President Lukashenka's recent comments in the Western press calling for greater dialogue with the EU, Haretski was hopeful. "The Youth Front does not consider this to be a day of romantic love where people gather to exchange kisses, but a true day of love for our country and love for Europe," he said. "We approach this holiday through the prism of love for Belarus and love for Europe and demand love, freedom, change and the inclusion of Belarus in the European community."

Last week, the Belarusian government appealed for foreign investors, hoping to attract up to $1 billion to make up for diminishing Russian subsidies. And on February 13 in Minsk, Lukashenka, receiving the credentials from a group of new foreign ambassadors, spoke of mutually beneficial cooperation with Europe.

But European officials seem unconvinced that such comments reflect a genuine change of heart from a leadership that has long been staunchly anti-Western. Bogdan Klich, chairman of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Belarus, said he doesn't believe that "behind those political messages there is a real willingness of the authoritarian system to begin the road to democracy."

Recent events in Belarus tend to support Klich's view. On February 4, Belarusian security services broke up a meeting of the Youth Front, detaining many of the activists. And a week later, police and KGB officers rounded up 26 activists of the Association of Belarusian Students who were meeting at a private house near Minsk.

These types of events will do little to ingratiate Belarus with the European Union. The EU has made it plain to Minsk -- start to democratize and we will help you. In November 2006, Brussels outlined what Belarus needed to do to receive Brussels' help.

Despite Lukashenka's recent overtures, the European Commission's external-relations spokeswoman, Emma Udwin, said those requirements still stand. "The kind of things that we [the European Commission] are looking for are rather concrete. We would like to see the release of Mr. [Alyaksandr] Kazulin and other political figures, for example. That would be a very strong signal," Udwin said. "Cooperation with the Council of Europe, granting visas to OSCE representatives on freedom of the media, for example, or even actually approving our request to open a [European] Commission delegation in Minsk."

If Belarus did show some progress, Brussels says it would make travel to EU countries easier for Belarusians, increase trade cooperation, and offer Belarusian students scholarships at European universities. And with further democratic development, Belarus could move closer to the EU through gradual economic integration.

For now, though, the direction of Lukashenka's regime remains unclear. A president who has forged his career on Soviet nostalgia, he has suddenly started sending mixed signals.

While attempting to woo Europe, Lukashenka has said he wishes to continue to be Russia's outpost in the West. And he is also fomenting closer ties with Iran at a time when that country is increasingly at odds with Europe and the United States.(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in London on February 14 for an official visit to the United Kingdom, where he held talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair, state-run Radio Afghanistan reported. A statement published on 10 Downing Street's website said Blair and Karzai "spoke about the progress being made in Afghanistan and the importance this has for the rest of the world." Prior to his trip to London, Karzai voiced dissatisfaction with London's perceived policy of not pushing Pakistan to stop terrorist and militants from infiltrating into Afghanistan, while some of Karzai's advisers blamed Britain for ignoring infiltrations from Pakistan into Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). AT

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) launched an aerial attack in an area between the Musa Qala and Kajaki districts of Helmand Province on February 14 in which a "known senior Taliban leader" was killed, an ISAF press statement reported. "We have removed yet another Taliban enemy leader," said Lieutenant Colonel Angela Billings, an ISAF spokeswoman. The Taliban leader was not identified in the ISAF statement, but is said to have been "linked" to the takeover of Musa Qala by the Taliban in early February and an attack on Kajaki Dam on February 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and 14, 2007). A local resident said the ISAF bombing destroyed a house in which a Taliban commander, identified as Mullah Abdul Rahman, had taken refuge, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on February 14. AT

Residents of northern Helmand, where ISAF conducted a predawn aerial assault on February 14, claimed that 43 people, including 11 women and children, were killed during that attack, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the same day, citing Hajji Sarfaraz, a local tribal elder. Sarfaraz said a number of Taliban fighters were also killed. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- announced on February 14 that bombings carried out by "coalition forces" in Musa Qala "martyred" neither Taliban fighters nor a Taliban commander but killed "defenseless people, including women and children." The website claimed that the "invading coalition forces" have been unable to recapture the Musa Qala and Kajaki districts. In a separate press release on February 14, ISAF asserted that its forces struck "a single building in an assessed Taliban compound in Helmand" and carried out their mission using precision, laser-guided munitions, killing an "extremist leader and several of his associates." The statement claims that there is no evidence to support "allegations in the media that noncombatants were killed in the attack." Colonel Tom Collins, speaking for ISAF, said the NATO-led force "takes allegations of civilian casualties very seriously" and takes all possible measures to prevent such injuries. Collins stressed that ISAF remains "confident" that "only enemy forces were killed" in the attack in Helmand. AT

Afghan and ISAF forces have arrested six suspected Taliban members, including Mullah Daud Turabi, in separate operations conducted in Khost and Paktiya provinces on February 14, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Turabi served as a senior official within the Taliban regime's religious police -- known as the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue Department. The department's activities -- including banning women from most activities outside their homes, ordering Hindus to wear distinctive yellow patches, measuring the length of men's beards, and banning music and other entertainment -- became a symbol of the Taliban's draconian rules and regulations. Turabi was arrested in Khost, while five unidentified Taliban members were apprehended in neighboring Paktiya. AT

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani was in Saudi Arabia on February 14 for "a brief and unofficial visit," IRNA reported. The agency quoted "Saudi sources" as saying that Larijani probably discussed Iran's nuclear dossier and regional developments with "political and security officials." IRNA observed separately on February 14 that Saudi Arabia has displayed a "rational" attitude concerning the Iranian nuclear issue, and noted how Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has in the past publicly spoken of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program. Al-Faisal has reminded international bodies and Western states concerned with proliferation not to overlook Israel's purported nuclear weapons, IRNA reported. The news agency reported that the Saudis have resisted efforts by U.S. officials to persuade them that Iran's nuclear program is a threat to regional states. Separately, Iran's ambassador in Muscat, Morteza Rahimi, met with Omani Deputy Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr bin al-Abu Saidi on February 14, discussing regional affairs and the planned formation of an Iran-Oman joint higher strategic committee, IRNA reported. He gave him an invitation for Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah to attend the seventh ministerial meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), to be held in Tehran on March 7-8, IRNA reported. The grouping, including 19 states, promotes trade and investment. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad met with a special envoy of Libya's Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in Tehran on February 13, discussing bilateral ties and the current U.S. role in the Middle East, ISNA reported on February 14. Ahmadinejad alleged to Saad Mujbir that the United States is fomenting conflict between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. "The main reason for divisions and conflicts in the region is the presence of American forces, and if the American occupiers leave...the region will see peace and stability, and...problems will disappear," Ahmadinejad reportedly said. "Few people believe there is war between Shi'a and Sunnis," because these were fighting "the imperialist system" in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, he said. Mujbir, who handed the president a congratulation message from Qaddafi for the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution, said Libya is "prepared to work [with Iran] to prevent...discord and the penetration of arrogant powers in the region." VS

More than 200 environmentalists and members of heritage nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) gathered outside parliament in Tehran on February 14 to protest a planned dam that they claimed threatens ancient sites in the southern Fars Province, Radio Farda reported. The authorities are to build a dam in Sivand, but activists say that would flood local archeological sites and subsequently damage -- by increasing local humidity -- the mausoleum nearby of the Persian monarch Cyrus, dating from the 6th century B.C. The province was the heartland of two pre-Islamic Persian empires. Alireza Rohani, secretary of the Isfahan-based Cultural Heritage and Tourism Federation, told Radio Farda on February 14 that the authorities did not carry out proper studies to determine the likely impact of the dam on the local climate. He said protesters and the NGOs they represented wanted the authorities to assure them that the damming project is carefully studied first. The protesters met with two legislators -- Imad Afrugh, the head of the parliamentary Cultural Committee, and Amir Reza Khadem, who promised them their concerns will be considered. They also issued a statement explaining their concerns, Radio Farda reported. VS

The head of the Iranian police's criminal investigations department, Ali Asghar Jafari, said in Tehran on February 12 that 1,904 murders have taken place in Iran in the 10-month period from March 2006, down from 2,304 for the same period the previous year, "Etemad-i Melli" daily reported on February 13. Jafari said the provinces with the highest murder rates were Fars, Kerman, Sistan va Baluchistan, and Khuzestan, all in southern Iran. He said the most frequent motives were marital or family-related disputes. Jafari said police are considering recruiting "honorary policemen" to help them in their work -- civilians acting as police liaisons and doing specified duties, including looking for missing persons or corpses. Separately, the Friday congregational prayer leader in Mianeh, a town in the northwestern East Azerbaijan Province, was stabbed to death on February 13, apparently in his home or office, Fars reported. Rafatullah Hamedi, a cleric, was stabbed by a man who had been given a visiting appointment, Fars reported, adding that the man was arrested, but his motives were not specified. VS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told supporters at a February 14 rally in Karbala that it is the duty of all Iraqis to help rebuild their country, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Al-Maliki also discussed the launch of the Baghdad security plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006), saying terrorists cannot break the will of the people who will unite to reclaim their country. He also addressed corruption in government institutions, saying that those who steal from the government are no less dangerous than the terrorists. Al-Maliki criticized civilian and military slackers, who he said do not work in a decent manner or aim to achieve anything. Their only goal, he said, is to look for more benefits, such as money and travel. Al-Maliki said the government will give benefits only to those who deserve them. KR

The Iraqi Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, reopened on February 14 after 17 years, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry announced the same day. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on Saudi Arabia to open an embassy or consulate in Iraq during a ceremony marking the occasion in Riyadh, saying that 50 diplomatic missions are now open in Baghdad, the Jeddah-based Arab News website reported. Zebari also noted the need for Iraq and Saudi Arabia to exchange wanted criminals held in each country. "Some of the persons wanted by Iraq have been found in the kingdom, while some others wanted by Saudi Arabia have been arrested in Iraq," he said. "Due to lack of cooperation and lack of coordination, the two countries have not been able to help one another in this matter," Zebari added. KR

Major General William Caldwell, the spokesman for U.S. troops in Iraq, told reporters at a February 14 press briefing in Baghdad that the Iraqi government has made a "clear political commitment" to achieve success in the Baghdad security plan, which the government has dubbed Operation Law and Order. "A resolution supporting this new strategy was unanimously endorsed by the Council of Representatives. Prime Minister [al-]Maliki has instructed his security forces that there will no longer be any political interference in military operations. Iraqi commanders have also been assured [that] no neighborhood and no target is off-limits," Caldwell said. He added that General David Petraeus has said that if the conflict is to be won, the public must be protected during the operation. "Consequently, Iraqi army, police, and coalition forces will actually live together in joint security stations throughout Baghdad in order to be closer to the Iraqi people that they are protecting," Caldwell said. He also highlighted the "nonmilitary" aspects of the Baghdad plan, which include an allotment of $10 billion in this year's Iraqi national budget for economic development programs. KR

The United States will help resettle some 7,000 refugees currently living in Jordan and Syria, Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky told reporters in Washington, D.C., on February 14. The U.S. government will also contribute an immediate $18 million toward the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) emergency appeal for Iraq, Dobriansky said, noting that the contribution represents 30 percent of the $60 million sought by the commission. "This is on top of the more than $76 million provided by the State Department to UNHCR over the past four years," she added. The United States has contributed a total of $185 million for Iraqi refugees and conflict victims through international humanitarian organizations since 2003, Dobriansky said. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has recently contributed $5 million to nongovernmental organizations assisting internally displaced Iraqis, and the aid agency's supplemental request for 2007 seeks another $45 million to assist the displaced. In total, USAID has contributed $192.2 million to assist internally displaced persons in Iraq, she noted. Dobriansky also announced proposed legislation to help Iraqis who have worked with coalition forces and now face danger to emigrate to the United States. KR