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Newsline - February 26, 2007

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a television interview on February 25 that there is a deliberate, anti-Russian "campaign" in some unnamed Western media circles, the daily "Kommersant" and ITAR-TASS reported on February 26. He added that the campaign gained momentum "exactly when Russia has begun to grow stronger, when it has become financially independent.... The stronger we become, the greater, perhaps, is the number of those willing to fight for influence and...prevent us from getting stronger." Lavrov believes that the purpose of this anti-Russian campaign is "to keep us tense and provoke some irritation." Lavrov said that "intricate diplomatic techniques are no longer good for resolving problems. A modern diplomat has to be disciplined and creative." He added that "sometimes the world mistakes firm protection of one's interests for cruelty. We never do that and never fall into a confrontation." Writing in "The Washington Post" of February 25, Lavrov argued that President Vladimir Putin's February 10 speech in Munich is being used by unnamed people in the United States to "look for a treat Russia as a hostile nation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, and 23, 2007). Lavrov said that "what Putin said in Munich was not new. He said nothing that we have not discussed directly with the [President George W.] Bush administration and that is not whispered in political circles in Europe and elsewhere. He made these statements at a conference because he wanted to get the world's attention to begin a dialogue.... Putin believes, as do many others, that the world cannot be dictated to by a single country." Lavrov added that "Putin was neither attacking the United States nor proposing Russia as a counterbalance to U.S. unilateralism.... Observers make a grave error when they mistake the honest and open airing of concerns as some sort of casus belli." Echoing recent remarks by Putin and several Russian civilian and military leaders, Lavrov asked: "Why does NATO still spread toward Russian borders? What should Russia believe when the United States seeks to place antimissile systems in Eastern Europe?" PM

Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, said in Windhoek, Namibia, on February 23 that Russia has offered to build a floating nuclear reactor there, which would be its first in Africa, news agencies reported. He noted that "today Russia is present on all continents in the sphere of atomic energy, but we had left out Africa. Here there is a big potential market, and we must be successful in this market." He added that the Russian firms Renova, Vneshtorgbank (VTB), and Tekhsnabeksport will form a joint venture to mine uranium in Namibia. Russia is currently building or committed to building nuclear power plants in Iran, China, India, Bulgaria, and Vietnam. Russia itself has 31 nuclear reactors at 10 plants, many of which are old. President Putin has endorsed plans to build an additional 11 reactors in the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). Kiriyenko has argued that Russia must start work on two new reactors each year beginning in 2007 if it is to meet its goal in raising the share of nuclear power in the national total from 16 to 25 percent. Kiriyenko has also said that Russia needs to build a total of about 40 additional nuclear reactors in order to meet that goal. PM

Officials at the Prosecutor-General's Office questioned former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on February 26 in connection with a case that is assumed to involve embezzlement charges against Andrei Vavilov, Interfax and reported. Kasyanov told reporters that he is willing to answer the prosecutors' questions and that "everything is all right," but did not divulge any details. The case is believed to involve charges that Vavilov embezzled $231 million as part of a fighter-jets deal with India in 1997, when he was a deputy finance minister. Vavilov denies the charges. He is currently a member of the Federation Council and thus enjoys immunity from prosecution. Kasyanov, whom President Putin sacked in 2004, heads a small liberal movement and has declared an interest in the 2008 presidential race (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006). He has been investigated for fraud and abuse of office, charges that he says are politically motivated. PM

Russia's AirBridge consortium, which includes KrasAir and is owned by billionaire Boris Abramovich, signed a contract in Budapest on February 23 to buy Hungary's state-run airline Malev, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 26. Under the terms of the deal, made public by Hungary's state privatization agency, KrasAir will pay $1 million for the airline, with a commitment to invest another $65 million into the debt-ridden carrier. A state-owned asset management firm will take over some of Malev's key assets as collateral for the debt. PM

In a statement posted on February 23 on the resistance website, Doku Umarov recalled that in 1994 former Chechen President Djokhar Dudayev designated February 23 -- the anniversary of the mass deportation of Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia in 1944 on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin -- the Day of Rebirth of the Chechen Nation. Umarov noted that the Chechens continue to withstand Russian efforts to exterminate them as a nation both by the use of physical violence and by the imposition of "dirty customs and laws and moral degradation," including the undermining of Islam as one of the sources of Chechens' collective spiritual strength. He affirmed that "the jihad is continuing.... We shall not grow weary and our patience will not give out.... The number of mojaheds is growing." LF

Police and security forces in Nazran cordoned off a square in the town center on February 23 to prevent people congregating there to commemorate the anniversary of the 1944 deportation, the website reported. The website dubbed that prohibition part of a deliberate campaign by the republican authorities to undermine national consciousness, adding that over the past four years the Ingush national hymn has not once been performed in public. The deportation anniversary was marked by rallies in several other Russian cities, including Moscow. LF

Ramzan Kadyrov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on February 23 that allegations that he has become the subject of a Soviet-style personality cult are misplaced. Kadyrov said that "what some people are calling a personality cult is basically a response to citizens' requests. It is a way for them to express their gratitude for what I have done for them as a Chechen." Kadyrov's portraits are prominently displayed in towns and villages across Chechnya. Three days before his forced resignation on February 15, former pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov criticized, without naming Kadyrov directly, "the cult of personality and idealization of one person" that he said has arisen in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). LF

The Chechen resistance website posted on February 23 a statement by the Daghestan jamaat warning that in the event that Russia is chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, its fighters will target the athletes of any country that "is fighting against Islam and Muslims." The jamaat likewise warned the Israeli government that it will attack the synagogue in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan, if excavations close to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem are not halted. The jamaat further claimed responsibility for recent attacks on the car of a local police chief in Khasavyurt and on a column of Russian trainee tank drivers near Buynaksk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7 and 12, 2007). LF

Police surrounded a house in the village of Pervy in Daghestan's Kizlyar Raion on February 24 and in an extended exchange of fire killed two men identified as militants from Daghestan's Tsunta Raion and two more believed to be Chechen militants, and reported. Two of those killed are believed to have escaped during a similar operation in the Kizlyar village of Kosyakino in late January. LF

Four Armenian opposition parties -- Stepan Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia, Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun, Vazgen Manukian's National Democratic Union and Raffi Hovannisian's Zharangutiun -- are continuing to discuss the possibility of aligning to form a bloc to participate in the May 12 parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on February 23. Hovannisian told journalists in Yerevan on February 23 that a decision will be made within one week; nomination of candidates for the election opens on February 26, according to Noyan Tapan on February 23. Media reports say Demirchian and Manukian cannot reach agreement on the composition of the parties' joint list of candidates to contest the 90 parliament mandates to be allocated under the proportional system, or on who should head that list. LF

Armenia's Court of Appeal upheld on February 23 the ruling by a lower court remanding Zhirayr Sefilian in pretrial custody for a further two months, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sefilian, who was born in Lebanon, was arrested in December 2006 and charged, together with a former comrade in arms from the Karabakh war, Vartan Malkhasian, with plotting to overthrow the Armenian leadership in the run-up to the May 12 parliamentary ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 12, and 20, 2006, and January 3 and 24, 2007). LF

President Ilham Aliyev addressed the people of Azerbaijan on February 24 in connection with the 15th anniversary of the killing of some 613 Azerbaijani civilians in and near the village of Hodjaly by Russian troops and Karabakh Armenian forces, reported. As he has done in previous years, Aliyev branded the killings a genocide, and he called on the Azerbaijani people to lobby for international condemnation of what he termed Armenia's anti-Azerbaijani policies, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2004). Visiting Baku last week, Ambassador Peter Semneby, who is EU special envoy for the South Caucasus, described the Hodjaly killings as "a vicious crime against Azerbaijan," but added that he considers the term genocide "very strong" in that context, reported on February 20. On February 22, a former resident of Hodjaly captured by Armenian forces as he tried to flee with his family was quoted by as claiming that he later recognized an Armenian fighter who interrogated and beat him as Armenia's current President, Robert Kocharian. LF

Akhmed Zakayev, who is the London-based foreign minister of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, told Georgia's Imedi television channel on February 22 that the grave in Grozny of former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia was not destroyed during the war, and that Gamsakhurdia's remains, together with those of former Chechen President Djokhar Dudayev, have been reinterred, according to as reposted on February 23 by Zakayev appealed to Georgian officials to desist from any further claims that Gamsakhurdia's grave has been destroyed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2007). LF

During a press conference on February 23 broadcast live on Abkhaz state television, Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, fielded questions on domestic politics, the resumption of talks with Georgia, and Kosova, reported. Bagapsh rejected as untrue rumors of a conflict between himself and Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab. He said he agrees with those candidates for the March 4 parliamentary elections who argue that the electoral system should be changed to a mixed proportional/majoritarian system. Bagapsh reiterated that the Abkhaz authorities will not resume talks with Tbilisi until all Georgian troops and the so-called Abkhaz government in exile are withdrawn from the Kodori Gorge, and two Abkhaz officials currently held in Georgia are released. He said whatever solution the international community finally proposes with regard to the status of Kosova should be universal, and apply also to Abkhazia. Bagapsh also admitted that the demographic situation in the unrecognized republic is "catastrophic," and said that when he visits Turkey in April, he will seek to persuade ethnic Abkhaz living in that country to return to Abkhazia. Meanwhile, in recent days a hitherto unknown Georgian paramilitary group calling itself Patriots for Abkhazia has burned 12 homes in Abkhazia's Gali Raion of Georgians whom the group suspects of "collaborating" with the Abkhaz authorities, Caucasus Press reported on February 23. LF

The OSCE will hold the 17th session of its Parliamentary Assembly in Kazakhstan in 2008, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on February 23. The decision came at an OSCE meeting in Vienna on February 22 that was attended by Qasymzhomart Toqaev, speaker of Kazakhstan's Senate (upper chamber of parliament). Toqaev said that the decision indicates growing trust in Kazakhstan's commitment to democratic reform in the lead-up to the country's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009, Khabar reported. A decision on Kazakhstan's bid for the chairmanship is to be made in December 2007. DK

Up to 700 car owners staged a protest procession in Bishkek on February 24 to express their opposition to a ban on right-wheel cars that is set to become law in 2010, ITAR-TASS and reported. Protest participants directed an appeal to President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev arguing that the ban violates property owners' rights. In accordance with a law that Bakiev signed on February 11, right-hand-drive cars will be illegal starting in 2010. DK

President Bakiev signed an amnesty on February 22 that will free 185 prison inmates and reduce sentences for 5,600 convicts, reported the next day. The amnesty, which was initiated by lawmaker Kanybek Imanaliev, commemorates the 16th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan's independence. DK

A group of approximately 300 people seized the administration of Kyrgyzstan's Karasuu market on February 24, demanding a change of director, reported. The protesters asked that the brother of Ryspek Jooshbekov be appointed director in place of current director Manas Usenov. Ryspek Jooshbekov is the market's former director; he was shot dead on January 19. The previous director, Abdalim Junusov, also died a violent death on September 5, 2005, and the murder of parliamentary deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22, 2005) is believed to be linked to Erkinbaev's involvement in the market, which supplies much of the Ferghana Valley with consumer goods from China. DK

Tajik Finance Minister Safarali Najmuddinov told reporters in Dushanbe on February 22 that a Tajik delegation is currently holding talks in the United States to find investors to finance the Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric power station and finish the construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power station, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Najmuddinov said that U.S.-based AES Corporation is a potential investor. The construction of Roghun has been stalled due to an apparent dispute between the Tajik government and Russia's RusAl, which had signed an agreement in 2004 to finish the construction of Roghun. DK

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov signed decrees on February 23-24 appointing ministers of interior, defense, state security, and justice, news agencies reported. Agageldi Mammetgeldiev was reappointed defense minister, Geldimukhammet Ashirmukhammedov national security minister, Akmammet Rakhmanov interior minister, and Mukhammetguly Ogsukov prosecutor-general, Turkmen TV reported. Murat Garriev, who previously chaired the presidential commission on human rights, was appointed justice minister. Berdymukhammedov also appointed Gurbannazar Ashirov deputy prime minister, simultaneously removing him as head of the state river- and sea-navigation company. Berdymukhhamedov also removed Tachberdy Tagiev as head of state gas company Turkmengaz, appointing him deputy prime minister as well. The third deputy prime minister is Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. DK

About 80 traders at a market in the city of Sharikhon, in Uzbekistan's Andijon province, staged a protest on February 22, independent news site reported, citing information from the Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan. Rights activist Abdullo Tojiboy told the news agency that traders protested against police harassment and extortion. "The Shahrikhon city authorities, instead of listening to [the traders] and helping them, sent in about 50 policemen to break them up armed with guns and billy clubs," Tojiboy said. DK

The family of Dzyanis Dzyanisau, an activist of the opposition United Civic Party, does not know what has happened to him after he was detained in Homel on February 16, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on February 26, quoting his mother, Raisa Dzyanisava. Dzyanisava said she was told by police that after his detention in Homel, her son was sent to a facility in Vitsebsk to undergo investigation. However, Dzyanisava has so far not been able to confirm this information. "I have written complaints to both Homel and Vitsebsk prosecutors. Why did they arrest him? But nobody has told me anything, they do not want to give any information at all," she told RFE/RL. JM

The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine on February 24 signed an agreement on the creation of a "united opposition," Ukrainian media reported. The signatories pledge to vote in harmony on legislation in the Verkhovna Rada and coordinate coalition-building activities in the event of their victory in potential early parliamentary elections. The agreement creates a Coordinating Council as the leading body of the united opposition, on which each bloc will be represented by six people. Yuliya Tymoshenko said in a television interview on February 25 that the agreement does not oblige the two blocs to put forward a single list of candidates in parliamentary elections. The next parliamentary elections in Ukraine are due in 2011. JM

Raisa Bohatyryova, coordinator of the parliamentary majority, has called on President Viktor Yushchenko to meet with leaders of all parliamentary caucuses and discuss the danger of a "deepening national split," UNIAN reported on February 24. "The opposition forces, which have unfortunately been joined by the pro-presidential Our Ukraine, destabilize the work of [the Verkhovna Rada] and pursue an obvious goal -- to undermine the work of the legislature and the government at the same time in order to provoke a nationwide political crisis," Bohatyryova told journalists, adding that the opposition is seeking early parliamentary elections. "We are ready for any early elections, both ideologically and financially, but is the country ready for them? I am sure that the elections won't change anything," she noted. Last week, the ruling majority rejected Yushchenko's nominees for the posts of foreign minister and Security Service chief in a tense standoff between ruling-coalition and opposition lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2007). JM

In a landmark ruling announced on February 26, the International Court of Justice in The Hague found that Serbia neither committed nor conspired to commit genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, international media reported. "The court finds that the acts of genocide at Srebrenica cannot be attributed to the respondent's state organs," the court's president, Rosalyn Higgins, said as she read out the judgment, which also cleared Serbia of complicity in genocide. But the court found Serbia in breach of international law in failing to prevent the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica and to punish those responsible for it. The lawsuit was filed by the Bosnian government in 1993, at the height of the 1992-95 war, and was among the most complex and lengthy cases in the court's 60-year history. It was also the first genocide lawsuit brought by one government against another. The systematic killing of thousands of men and boys from Srebrenica in 1995 has been recognized as genocide by another UN court in The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which convicted two Bosnian Serb officers for their role in it. Higgins called on Belgrade to take immediate and effective action to extradite fugitive war crimes indictees wanted by the ICTY. Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency, told Bosnian state television that "in order to reverse the results of genocide, we need to change the setup and the [Bosnian] constitution." This is a clear reference to the abolishment of Republika Srpska, something Silajdzic has long advocated. He also said that Bosnia should outlaw genocide denial. Silajdzic said the ruling was not complete, but contained a recognition that genocide did take place in Bosnia. TV

The third day of consultations on the UN plan for the future of Kosova centered on the issues of debt and property, with no signs in reports in local and international media that Belgrade and Prishtina are any closer to an agreement. The principal stumbling block appears to be the issue of sovereignty over the region. The leader of the Kosovar Albanian team, Skender Hyseni, said that "Kosova has agreed to claim its part of international debt which would be bilateral talks with Serbia according to the agreement of 2001 on the succession [sic.] of states," according to media in Kosova on February 23 and 24. However, the Belgrade team ruled out the possibility of Kosova seceding and assuming the debt, Radio Television Serbia reported on February 23. At present, Belgrade continues to pay interest on debt inherited from the former Yugoslavia even though Serbia has lost de facto control over Kosova and the UN-administered province is governed by a Kosovar Albanian coalition. According to Radio Television Serbia, Belgrade says Yugoslavia took on debt worth $1.2 billion to invest in Kosova and that Serbia is currently paying $100,000 a day to service that debt. Though his plan for Kosova avoids the word "independence," UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari based his proposal on the principles of debt settlement established when Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia became independent states. Ahtisaari is also proposing that Kosova should be able to join financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, enabling it to tap the international and financial communities for money to help rebuild its economy. Belgrade also believes that Serbia should be considered the owner of public companies in Kosova. AG

According to local media, Serbia has expressed anger after former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj met with the head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) just days before heading for The Hague, where he will stand trial on March 5 for war crimes. Haradinaj, who leaves for The Hague on February 26, is accused by prosecutors for the ICTY of "the forcible, violent suppression of any real or perceived form of collaboration with the Serbs by Albanian or Romany civilians" between March and September 1998, when he was serving as a senior commander in the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). A NATO air campaign in 1999 forced Serbian troops to withdraw from Kosova and end a crackdown on the UCK and the local ethnic Albanian population. Haradinaj resigned as prime minister in March 2005 after being indicted by the ICTY, but was allowed to remain in Kosova, where he remains a powerful figure as president of a coalition party. However, under conditions set by the ICTY, Haradinaj was allowed only limited exposure in the media. According to reports in the Serbian media, the ICTY on February 22 urged the head of the UNMIK, Joachim Ruecker, not to meet with Haradinaj. Ruecker's meeting with Haradinaj prompted a sharp condemnation from Serbian President Boris Tadic, who also said, Serbian and Kosovar media reported, that he will lodge a protest with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Haradinaj used his February 23 press conference to urge Kosovar Albanians not to resort to violence, local and international media reported the same day. Two Kosovar Albanians were killed on February 10 after a rally against the Ahtisaari plan degenerated into violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, 15, and 20, 2007). AG

The chances of Haradinaj being convicted appear to be receding after two more witnesses have at the last minute refused to testify against him, Serbian media reported on February 22. The Belgrade broadcaster B92 said on February 22 that the ICTY announced on February 22 that the witnesses feared for their safety. The ICTY has on several previous occasions said that it is having difficulties persuading witnesses to give testimony. B92 reported on February 16 that its sources indicate the prosecution has fewer than 10 witnesses. The latest news reports underscore questions about Ruecker's decision to meet with Haradinaj, as, according to Serbian media reports, the ICTY believed a meeting would suggest to witnesses that the UNMIK supports Haradinaj's claims of innocence and that it would be unwilling to protect them. These latest reports follow unconfirmed claims in the Montenegrin and Serbian media in mid-February that the victim of a car accident in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, was a witness at the Haradinaj case. A cousin of the victim, Kuitim Berisha, said Berisha was due to give evidence of crimes in the trial, but the Serbian news agency Tanjug reported on February 17 that the ICTY stated that Berisha's name does not figure in any public documents. Haradinaj faces life in prison if convicted. The ICTY indictment against Haradinaj alleges that "as a commander...he established a system whereby individuals were targeted for abduction, mistreatment, and murder, and whereby a systematic attack on vulnerable sections of the civilian population was carried out." AG

A Bosnian Serb member of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee, a human rights watchdog, was gunned down on February 22, B92 reported on February 23. Dusko Kondor, one of the founders of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee in Bosnia's autonomous ethnic Serbian region, was killed in a hail of machine-gun fire in his home in the northern Bosnian town of Bijeljina. Bosnian Serb media reported that Kondor notified the police two days before his death that he had received a series of threats this year. The content of the threats was not disclosed, and the motive of the killing is unclear. The managing board of the PEN of Bosnia-Herzegovina issued a statement on February 23 describing the killing as "an attack on the freedom of speech and all positive achievements of democratic dialogue in a fragile postwar society in Bosnia-Herzegovina," the Croatian news agency Hina reported the same day. Kondor's daughter was also injured in the incident. The Croatian news website reported on February 24 that two men, aged 25 and 22, have been arrested. It also reported that neighbors believe the reason for the attack was the infatuation of one of the arrested men with Kondor's daughter. AG

A member of the U.S. National Security Council, Bertram Brown, has said there will be no imposition of reform on Bosnia-Herzegovina's police, Bosnian public radio reported on February 24. The report cited as its source the office of Igor Radojicic, speaker of the parliament of Bosnia's Republika Srpska, who met with Brown in Washington on February 23. Police reform is proving one of the most contentious issues in relations between Bosnia's two autonomous regions, as was underlined when the latest round of talks collapsed on February 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2007). The international community's high representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, has extensive powers to intervene in Bosnian politics and force through legal changes. However, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has warned the international community against trying to impose a solution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2007). Dodik, who has also said he would accept police reform only after holding a referendum in the Bosnian Serb republic, reiterated in an interview published in the newspaper "Dnevni avaz" in February 22 that he will not accept the abolition of the region's police force. The controversy over police reform has been reinforced by the failure to capture war crimes indictees and by the possibility that failure to agree on reform will delay the start of preaccession talks with the EU. AG

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin on February 24 accused Romanian officials of intolerance toward Moldovans in Romania, local media reported the same day. In an interview with Moldpress, Voronin criticized Bucharest for not recognizing Moldovans as an "ethnic minority," which he said, "represents the main obstacle in the way of legalizing Moldovans and their culture in Romania." Voronin put the number of Moldovans in Romania at 10 million. Romania's total population is estimated at 22.3 million. The Romanian region of Moldavia, with which Moldova has historically been united, has a population of roughly 4.7 million. Voronin's comments, which came a day after Moldovan officials met with a delegation of the Community of Moldovans in Romania, underscore a long-running argument about the distinctions between Romanians and Moldovans. Voronin is a leading figure in a school of thought that maintains that Moldovan is a language distinct from Romanian and emphasizes differences in the history of the two countries and their constituent parts. That school of thought is traditionally associated with pro-Russian politicians, of which Voronin was a leading example. He is now a strong proponent of EU membership for Moldova. AG

The Moldovan Foreign Ministry on February 23 condemned a February 20 ruling by a Romanian court that the country's wartime ruler was not guilty of the charges that resulted in his execution, the Basa news agency reported the same day. Marshal Ion Antonescu, who ruled Romania from 1940 to 1944, was shot in 1946 as a traitor for his cooperation with Nazi Germany. The February 28 ruling upholds a ruling in December 2006 that cleared Antonescu. "This decision was met with indignation by the whole of Moldovan society, by all those who remember the horrors of the Holocaust between 1941 and 1944," the Moldovan Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that "everybody knows" that under Antonescu's rule "more than 300,000 Jews and representatives of other nationalities were exterminated." It also said that the ruling "seriously questions Romanian justice's capacity to act in accordance with the standards and values of a united Europe." "It is amazing how Romanian justice is capable of revising not only the actions of odious people, but also of creating the legal grounds for rehabilitation in cases unanimously described by the entire international community as invasion, aggression, and occupation," which is how Chisinau describes Antonescu's recapture from the Soviet Union of northern Bukovina and Bessarabia, parts of which now lie within Moldova. AG

Chisinau on February 22 formally accused Moscow of seeking to legitimize the government of the breakaway region of Transdniester, AP reported the same day. Chisinau was responding to a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 21 that referred to Igor Smirnov as the "president" of Transdniester. The Moldovan Foreign Ministry said that by using titles normally reserved for representatives of independent states, Russia "is trying to artificially create the appearance of legitimacy and mislead the public opinion and the international community." In January, Russia referred to the head of Transdniester's foreign policy as "foreign minister." Chisinau said that "such propaganda raises questions and suspicions regarding Russia's a mediator in the settlement negotiations in the Transdniester conflict." The diplomatic spat comes at a particularly sensitive time, as talks on the final status of Kosova have thrown a spotlight on Russia's position on the future of regions, like Transdniester, that broke away from the states that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Controversially, Russia still has around 1,500 troops stationed in Transdniester. AG

The Afghan National Assembly's passage of a resolution granting blanket amnesty for human rights violations to all sides in more than two decades of fighting in Afghanistan has presented President Hamid Karzai with a dilemma. The explosive debate over the bill could lead to a constitutional confrontation.

Tens of thousands of Afghans rallied at a Kabul stadium on February 23 to show support for the measure -- many of them carrying placards of prominent warlords and former mujahedin -- indicating the highly charged nature of the topic.

The Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders) passed the controversial "National Stability And Reconciliation" resolution by a 50-16 majority on February 20, three weeks after the lower house, the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), approved it on January 31, sparking calls at home and abroad for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reject it.

The 12-point resolution contains four primary clauses dealing with the amnesty issue.

First, it calls on all "opponents who fought each other for different reasons in the last 2 1/2 decades" to forgive each other and consider the Karzai-backed national-reconciliation process. Such "opponents" technically include communists, mujahedin, and the Taliban antagonists and their allies. They are then offered immunity from any "legal or judicial" proceedings. Also, those involved in the jihad or resistance to protect Afghanistan's religion or territorial integrity are to be lauded by Afghanistan's "history and people." The draft law goes on to prescribe that such people "should not be subjected to any criticism."

Second, the resolution rejects reporting by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW has recommended that Afghan authorities hold accountable a number communist and mujahedin figures accused of major human rights abuses since 1979. The draft calls HRW reports "inaccurate" and based "on malicious intentions."

Third, the resolution invites "all parties that are against the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" -- without exception -- to join the national-reconciliation process by abiding by constitutional and other laws. If they do that, all "opposition parties and armed groups" will be granted the blanket amnesty.

Fourth, the resolution appears to attempt to circumvent Afghanistan's international obligations. It says that following the establishment of the Afghan National Assembly in 2005, "all laws and international principles should be compared with constitutional and other" Afghan legislation to avoid local norms being superseded by Afghanistan's international obligations. Those obligations include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The clause also stipulates that laws approved by the National Assembly should be respected by the government of Afghanistan -- perhaps a subtle hint to Karzai not to oppose the current bill.

The sweeping resolution not only grants blanket amnesty from prosecution -- or even criticism -- to all parties and individuals involved in gross human rights violations; it also extends a similar reprieve to the current groups who are terrorizing parts of Afghanistan.

Nowhere in the resolution is there any mention of human rights, the suffering of the Afghan people, or any public aspirations of justice -- even if merely symbolic. The bill grants full pardons to those who murdered, raped, and maimed their countrymen -- and then goes on to laud them as heroes.

Karzai faces a thorny dilemma over the resolution. On the face of it, he must approve it -- thus making it part of his country's laws -- or reject it -- inviting opposition from powerful elements within and outside his own government.

The Afghan Constitution (Article 94) says a bill becomes law after approval by both houses of the National Assembly and endorsement by the president "unless the Constitution states otherwise." If the president rejects a bill approved by the National Assembly, he "can send the document back with justifiable reasons to the Wolesi Jirga" within 15 days. The lower house (Wolesi Jirga) can override presidential objections with a two-thirds majority vote. But if the president takes no action on a bill for 15 days, the document becomes law.

The New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice noted in a press release on February 3 that Karzai has endorsed the recommendations of a 2004 report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission that urged the prosecution and removal of "war criminals from positions of power."

HRW, whose work is attacked in the new resolution, said in a brief on December 12 that the Karzai administration signed on to a 2005 "Action Plan On Peace, Reconciliation, And Justice." The group added that the plan pledged five "key actions" to implement and complete a transitional justice process by 2009. They include publicly commemorating public suffering during the three decades of war, vetting the civil service to exclude serious human rights abusers, documenting past events to establish accountability, promoting reconciliation and national unity, and establishing a mechanism for justice and accountability.

After the Wolesi Jirga approved the amnesty bill, presidential spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi told reporters on February 6 that Karzai had sent the document to legal experts for review. Rahimi did not say how Karzai planned to act on the bill, but he said that Afghan and Islamic law dictate that no one has the right or authority to forgive a criminal, apart from the victim or others harmed by the crime. Rahimi went on to "assure [the public] that the president will not take any action against the constitution." He added that the "government will never surrender to pressure in implementation of the constitution," Pajhwak News Agency reported.

Karzai now has less than two weeks to influence the fate of a resolution that appears to run counter to the wishes of the Afghan public and the country's international obligations.

Karzai can choose to reject the bill based on constitutional grounds -- which his experts can arguably find in Article 7 and in Article 6, which obliges the state to create a society "based on social justice, protection of human dignity, [and the] protection of human rights." HRW Asia researcher Sam Zarifi has noted that international law prohibits the extension of national amnesties to genocide or war crimes.

Basing a rejection argument on Afghan law, experts could conceivably turn to Islamic jurisprudence -- under which neither the state nor its organs has the right to forgive the perpetrator of a crime like murder.

Karzai's rejection of the bill would surely alienate some in his immediate circle, including powerful members of both houses of the National Assembly. And in the end, the Wolesi Jirga might muster enough votes to overturn his veto, further eroding the president's public standing.

Former warring parties have tried to flex their muscles -- including through the February 23 rally by tens of thousands of supporters of the controversial bill.

The "amnesty" bill and the ensuing presidential quandary are ultimately a result of expediency measures -- endorsed by Karzai himself -- that allowed persons accused of gross rights violations to escape accountability and even assume positions of power.

The bill is based on just one of the five key points of the Action Plan that Karzai's administration endorsed -- namely the "promotion of reconciliation and national unity."

Karzai might do well to remind the resolution's backers of the other four key points of that plan -- and fulfill his 2005 pledge to implement them.

Some would argue that as the head of a Muslim state, Karzai's first responsibility is to uphold justice. That suggests that the temporary loss of support among a few powerful individuals might be outweighed by the gains of defending the rights of victims of past violence and the broader public. Karzai must be wondering whether such an approach could turn the amnesty dilemma into a presidential panacea.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Afghan counterpart, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, in Kabul on February 23, according to a statement from the Afghan Foreign Ministry. Lavrov attended a reopening ceremony for the restored Russian Embassy, Moscow's Channel One Television reported on February 23. Lavrov said that one of the "common tasks" for Kabul and Moscow -- and the whole international community -- "is the fight against terrorism and the trafficking of drugs." He added that Russia and Afghanistan have maintained contacts "through the appropriate agencies" and agreed during his meeting with Spanta "to intensify" such contacts. Lavrov said that Moscow and Kabul also reached agreement on resolving the issue of Afghan debt. Russia has largely remained on the sidelines in Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, while demanding the repayment of around $9.8 billion owed by Afghanistan on loans dating from the 1980s, when the former Soviet Union sent an invasion force to support successive communist governments in that country (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," September 25, 2003). During his visit to Kabul, Lavrov also met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. AT

President Karzai has called on Italy not to withdraw its forces currently serving in Afghanistan with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Kabul-based Tolo Television reported on February 23. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi submitted his resignation to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on February 21 after his coalition government failed to win a vote in the Italian Senate to extend the mandate of Italian forces serving with ISAF (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). Napolitano has declined to accept Prodi's resignation, allowing Prodi to seek a vote of confidence in the Senate, but opposition remains strong within his center-left coalition to keeping Italian forces in Afghanistan. AT

Slovak Foreign Minister Jan Kubis has accepted NATO's request that the Slovak engineering unit currently deployed with ISAF in Kabul be moved to Kandahar Province, CTK reported on February 25. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico previously conditioned the relocation of his country's forces on limiting their operation to the defense of Kandahar's airport. As ISAF has prepared for a spring offensive against the neo-Taliban, reports suggest the force has faced troop shortages as some NATO member states have not honored their pledges. A number of NATO states contributing troops to ISAF have limited their usefulness by placing restrictions on their area or mode of operations. AT

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told police officials in Tehran on February 25 "we have thrown away the brakes and reverse gear" for Iran's "nuclear train" and "are not going back," Fars news agency reported. He said the hostility of Western states in the past 28 years "has always been focused on some point," and today, it is the nuclear program. This "is the confrontation of the world of arrogance with the revolution's political capabilities and management," Ahmadinejad said. "They are not worried about our [uranium] enrichment or...number of machines, but...the revolution itself." He added that Western powers will have to "clear themselves away from the entire world" if they do not succeed in their confrontation over Iran's nuclear program, Fars reported. He referred to unspecified elements inside Iran counseling "surrender, collaboration, and humiliation," and said Western powers are in vain pinning their hopes on such people. He implied in his speech that neither sanctions nor forceful methods can thwart Iran. "The volume of contracts signed since" the December 23 UN resolution against Iran "is unprecedented in the history of the [1979] revolution," he said. VS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Johannesburg on February 25 that Iran's response to "the conduct of those countries trying to exacerbate" the nuclear dispute "will be reciprocal," IRNA reported. The agency reported that Larijani was in South Africa to discuss Iran's dossier and economic and political ties with President Thabo Mbeki. Larijani told the press at Johannesburg airport that pressure on Iran "will have outside consequences" and "others must know that these moves are not one-sided." He suggested that "this issue is not essentially very complicated, and Iran is ready to resolve existing differences through constructive and precise talks. Iran is willing to resolve existing concerns over [its program] through negotiation." But these require "negotiating parties" to refrain from "irrational demands," Larijani said. He added that perceptive people can see that "harsh" attitudes will merely delay a solution. He urged Western powers due to meet in London on February 26 to "learn from their past conduct" and abandon "hostile" attitudes. Larijani said Iran is "ready to play a constructive role" in resolving Middle East affairs or problems, IRNA reported. VS

Mohammad Saidi, the deputy head of the Iranian Iran Atomic Energy Organization for international affairs, told IRNA on February 24 that the February 22 report by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei "reported the realities of Iran's" activities, which Western states must "accept." The report concluded that Iran failed to comply with UN Security Council request (Resolution 1737) that it halt fuel-making and related activities within 60 days. Saidi said this is "in some people's view" a negative part of the report, but Iran has not implemented that request as it contravenes "international regulations." Iran says the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which it has signed, allows it to make atomic fuel for what it says is a peaceful nuclear program. He said there is no legal basis for IAEA requests -- raised in the report -- to install "online" cameras in its installations in order to allow IAEA officials in Vienna to view what is happening there in real time. "There is no law [nor are there] rules on remote-control cameras," and these do not exist in any uranium-enrichment installation "even in countries that have signed the Additional Protocol" to the NPT that tightens UN checks, Saidi said. Iranian officials can answer UN inspectors' questions on earlier footage or photos from Iranian installations, he said. "The [IAEA] needs to provide clear and legal arguments for the installation of remote-control cameras," Saidi said. VS

Orumieh representative Javad Jahangirzadeh, a member of the Iranian parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, claimed to Fars News Agency on February 25 that Director-General el-Baradei's ambivalent reports on Iran have become a "serial" and the IAEA chief is trying to avoid "potential accusations" by Western states that he favors Iran while he tries to persuade Iran to continue cooperation. "El-Baradei is on the one hand concerned with criticism" that "he has moved to Iran's side," and "on the other, wishes not to lose Iran [for] cooperation with the [IAEA]," Jahangirzadeh said. He said "essential changes and a serious resolution" of the dispute is unlikely "with the approach [the IAEA] is pursuing." Jahangirzadeh said the "activity of the Americans" over Iran's dossier is "more than [of] all the permanent members of the Security Council." Russia, China, France, and Germany were inclined to stop U.S. preponderance, he said, but "will not or cannot take effective measures in similar dossiers." He said recent tough talk about international affairs by Russian President Vladimir Putin should lead to a firm response to moves by the United States on "dossiers" like Iran's, "but in practice we shall not see any such thing." VS

Tehran bus-drivers-union leader Mansur Osanlu went to court on February 24, accused of engaging in publicity against Iran's government and acting against domestic security, and was told not to talk about the private court session to the media, Radio Farda reported, quoting Osanlu. The trial concerns Osanlu's activities regarding Tehran bus drivers' rights and working conditions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20 and December 14, 2006). He told Radio Farda on February 24 that he believes the matters raised in the court session are discrepant with charges, cited above, in his indictment sheet. The court told him he should present his defense "within five days" and the judge will issue a verdict two days after hearing his defense, Osanlu said. He questioned the pace of the process, since the file is 1,300 pages long. Radio Farda reported that 70 to 80 unionists or supporters protested the incipient trial outside the court, Branch 14 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court in downtown Tehran. VS

Iraq's Shi'ite vice president, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, escaped an apparent assassination attempt in Baghdad on February 26 when a car bomb exploded outside the Municipalities Ministry in the Al-Mansur neighborhood, international media reported. Abd al-Mahdi was giving a speech at the time of the attack, and sustained non-life-threatening injuries. He was rushed to the hospital. At least 10 people were killed in the attack and another 18 wounded, AP reported. KR

President Jalal Talabani was flown from Dukan to Amman, Jordan, for medical tests after complaining of fatigue on February 25, international media reported the same day. A statement by former Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Health Minister Muhammad Khoshnaw, who traveled with Talabani to Jordan, said initial medical tests were "reassuring," the PUK's website reported on February 26. Khoshnaw, who is a medical doctor, said Talabani suffered from extreme fatigue, dehydration, and low blood pressure. He added that the results of all medical tests are expected on February 27. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki pledged during a visit to the command center for the Baghdad security operation on February 24 to rein in all violators of the law, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Maliki remarked that the government is solely responsible for ensuring citizens' security, adding that there can be no state, stability, or security unless the law prevails. Regarding sectarian militias, he said there will be no pardons, leniency, or discrimination between one outlaw and another. He said that an even-handed application of the law will help win over the confidence of leaders from all sects, and eventually the Iraqi people, the news channel reported. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi announced that the second phase of the Baghdad security plan has begun, Al-Iraqiyah reported on February 24. He did not give details, but noted there has been a noticeable decrease in terrorist attacks in the capital. KR

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association has criticized the Baghdad security plan, claiming in statements posted on its website on February 24 that U.S. forces have killed scores of civilians in security sweeps in Sunni Arab neighborhoods. The association pointed to one such operation in the Al-Mashahidah district, calling the bombing of a house there a "barbaric massacre" of civilians; Iraqi Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf said the operation targeted members of the insurgent group Islamic Army in Iraq. The association also claimed that Iraqi security forces, in collaboration with militiamen from Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, are carrying out what it called sectarian displacement operations. One statement implied that the Iraqi government is aware of such operations, but chooses to remain silent. The association also claimed that Interior Ministry forces targeted the Al-Amil neighborhood in a series of raids, pointing out that the neighborhood is the home of a Sunni Arab woman who claimed she was raped by Interior Ministry forces (see next item). KR

An investigating committee appointed by Prime Minister al-Maliki's office has released information on the identity of the woman who alleged earlier this month that she was raped by Iraqi security forces, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on February 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). The committee identified the woman as Zaynab al-Shammari and said that the investigation into her identity revealed that she was married to two men at the same time, which is illegal under Iraqi law. It is unclear whether she is still married to both men; initial media reports identified her as a 20-year-old married woman. Al-Shammari was previously identified under the pseudonym of Sabrin al-Janabi. The news channel quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying that the woman has one daughter. KR

The Sunni Arab Iraqi Islamic Party posted a statement on the investigation into the rape on its website on February 25, saying Sabrin al-Janabi, whose real name is Zaynab Abbas Husayn, is a Shi'a, not a Sunni Arab. The statement said that Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who heads the party, ordered an investigation into the attack on the woman, and it was concluded on February 22. The initial medical report neither denies nor confirms the sexual assault, the statement said, adding: "However, it confirms a strong physical assault on her on the front parts of the thighs and in the vaginal area through the existence of several bruises. Swipes were taken to see if there was semen and DNA to categorically prove the assault." The statement added that the victim and her husband accompanied the investigating committee to the scene of the alleged crime and easily identified the room in which the purported attack occurred and one of the suspects, as well as one of the witnesses to the crime. The case has now been sent to the courts. "The role of the vice president's office ended here," the statement noted. KR