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Newsline - February 5, 2008

State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov warned on February 4 that Russia could target components of the U.S. missile-defense system if they are deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. Kosachyov said that if the leadership of Poland and the Czech Republic agree to deploy elements of the U.S. missile-defense system, they should realize they will be making a "strategic choice and a choice that will affect the security of those countries," reported. "Because the respective American installations, naturally, can become an object of control and possibly, in the worst case, a target for corresponding Russian defense systems. That circumstance must be clear to the utmost to the inhabitants of Poland [and] the inhabitants of the Czech Republic." On February 1, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski announced following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington that Poland has agreed in principle to deploy elements of the U.S. missile-defense system after he received assurances the United States would help Poland strengthen its security. Rice said in a joint news conference with Sikorski that the United States supports modernizing Poland's air defenses, Reuters reported. Washington wants to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar installation in the Czech Republic. On February 3, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, warned Poland against deploying elements of the U.S. missile-defense system. "I would like to remind [my] Polish colleagues of their recent history, which testifies to the fact that attempts to make Poland a state 'on the line of confrontation' have always led to tragedies -- thus, the Poles lost nearly a third of their people during World War II," Rogozin told Interfax. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk will arrive in Moscow for talks on February 8. JB

Russian news agencies reported on February 5 that representatives of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) election-monitoring arm, are set to leave Russia without having reached any agreement with the Central Election Commission over conditions for monitoring Russia's March 2 presidential election. reported that Gerald Mitchell, head of the ODIHR's Election Department, and Mats Lindberg, an ODIHR election adviser, held talks on February 4 with Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov, talks which the website characterized as "tough." Interfax quoted ODIHR spokesman Curtis Budden as saying that no talks are planned for February 5 and that the two ODIHR representatives would leave Moscow to return to ODIHR's headquarters in Warsaw that evening. quoted Central Election Commission member Igor Borisov as saying the commission has agreed to allow ODIHR to send up to 75 observers and begin its monitoring mission on February 20 rather than on February 28, as the commission had previously demanded. AP on February 4 quoted Budden as saying ODIHR will not send an observer team if it is not allowed into Russia before February 28. According to, Russian media reported on February 4 that the Central Election Commission has found "Orange revolutionaries" among the OSCE experts who planned to observe Russia's presidential election and that these names have been handed over to Russia's Foreign Ministry. On February 1, Foreign Ministry official Sergei Rybakov accused the OSCE of "a continuing, open sabotage...[of] our proposals on adopting a collective, consensus-based agreement on election monitoring," RFE/RL reported. Rybakov added that Russia is therefore "doing what we must do in accordance with the principle of the sovereign equality of states." JB

"The Sunday Telegraph" on February 3 quoted the former chief science adviser to the British government, Sir David King, as charging that President Vladimir Putin was behind the 1999 apartment-building bombings that killed hundreds of people and were blamed on Chechen terrorists. "I can tell you that Putin was responsible for the bombings," the British newspaper quoted King as saying. "I've seen the evidence. There is no way that Putin would have won the election if it wasn't for the bombings. Before them he was getting 10 percent approval ratings. After, they shot up to 80 percent." According to "The Sunday Telegraph," King, who stepped down as the British government's chief science adviser in late December after seven years in that post, played a key role in the investigation into the murder of former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died in London of radiation poisoning in November 2006. The British prosecutor's office has accused Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB operative and current State Duma deputy, of murdering Litvinenko. JB

The board of directors of state-controlled Gazprom has approved a list of candidates to form the next board, Russian media reported on February 4. Contrary to some earlier media reports, President Putin is not on the list of candidates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). Among the 19 candidates named for the 10-member board, Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov seems the most likely candidate to succeed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as chairman of the natural-gas monopoly. Medvedev cannot serve as chairman if, as is widely expected, he is elected president in the March 2 poll. Political analyst Aleksandr Shatalov told that Zubkov is a good choice because he has no ties to the business elite and is "personally loyal" to Putin. Among other names on the list are Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina, Deputy Industry and Energy Minister Andrei Dementev, and Higher School of Economics Director Yevgeny Yasin. Former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, who now heads the Sberbank state savings bank and who sits on the current Gazprom board, is not among the candidates under consideration. The new board will be confirmed at a shareholders meeting on June 27. RC

Aleksandr Kosvintsev, a journalist from Kemerovo, has been granted political asylum in Ukraine, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other Russian media reported on February 4. He applied for asylum in February 2007, saying that he had become a target of law-enforcement officials after a series of publications critical of Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleyev. In addition to being editor of "Rossiisky reportyor," Kosvinstev was an activist with the opposition United Civic Front. He also worked for the national newspaper "Novaya gazeta." He is now working as editor in chief of the Ukrainian daily "Vecherniye vesti." Kosvintsev told RFE/RL that he had been threatened by security personnel, who warned him that he could be beaten or that a false case of narcotics possession could be engineered against him. "I think a journalist is always in a minefield," he said. "Therefore, he can never feel completely safe and it is necessary to take precautions. But I have felt much better since last February when I applied [for asylum] and I received powerful support in the mass media." RC

Human-rights lawyer Boris Kuznetsov has applied for political asylum in the United States, claiming that the FSB is persecuting him for his "active defense" in a number of high-profile cases, and other Russian media reported on February 5 (see "Russia: Prominent Lawyer Flees Country, Fearing Prosecution,", July 13, 2007). Kuznetsov's lawyer, Robert Zinovev, told "Kommersant" on February 4 that Kuznetsov made the application because of a criminal case pending against him on charges that he revealed state secrets while defending former Federation Council member Levon Chakhmakhchyan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). During the trial, Kuznetsov uncovered a document proving that the FSB had illegally eavesdropped on Chakhmakhchyan while he was a legislator. Kuznetsov was also involved in cases relating to the August 2000 sinking of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine and the defense of political scientist Igor Sutyagin, who was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for revealing state secrets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2005). RC

The Communist Party on February 5 filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against the Central Election Commission, charging it has done nothing to prevent First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev from receiving the lion's share of state-media election coverage, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported the same day. According to monitoring by the party, Medvedev received 70 percent of election coverage in December and 88 percent in January, compared to 11 and 2 percent for Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Following the party's analysis, two Communist Duma deputies sent an official request to the commission for a ruling, which the commission refused to make. The party also filed two suits against the main state television channels, Channel One and Rossia, in Moscow courts, charging them with violating the provision of the election law that ensures all parties equal access to the media. Zyuganov, meeting with journalists on February 4, claimed that he is the main defender of democracy in Russia, "Vremya novostei" reported on February 5. "I want you to know the real situation in the country and to understand that there is one remaining defender of freedom of speech, of dignity, of the individuality and rights of citizens," Zyuganov said. "There is no one else in Russia who will defend these democratic values." RC

The liberal Yabloko party has been barred from participating in local legislative elections in Altai Krai and Ingushetia, reported on February 4. Officials refused to register the lists of the local Yabloko branches because they failed to collect the necessary number of signatures to support their lists. Under election law, parties that are not represented in the Duma must gather signatures in order to participate in local elections. RC

President Putin on February 4 signed a decree establishing December 3 as Legal Professionals Day (Den yurista), "Vremya novostei" reported on February 5. The purpose of the professional holiday is to "promote the professional and human consolidation of the legal community," according to a resolution passed last month by the Association of Lawyers of Russia. According to the Audit Chamber, there are currently 1,165 institutions of higher learning that are issuing law degrees, compared with just 52 in the entire Soviet Union before its collapse. Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin said on January 11 that the quality of legal education at many of them needs to be improved. RC

The Chita Oblast legislature on February 5 confirmed Chita Oblast Governor Ravil Geniatulin as the governor of the new Zabaikal Oblast, which will be formed on March 1 by the merger of Chita Oblast and the Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug, reported the same day. Interfax reported that Geniatulin received 38 votes from the 40-seat chamber. Later the same day, the legislature of the Agin-Burat Autonomous Okrug is also expected to confirm Geniatulin. The new oblast will hold legislative elections for a combined 50-seat legislature on October 12. RC

Accompanied by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, and local officials, President Putin on February 4 inspected the Russian military base in Botlikh, central Daghestan, where the 33rd Mountain Motor Rifle Division is permanently stationed, Russian media reported. Local residents have repeatedly protested against construction of the base, which boasts such facilities as a bowling alley and a billiard hall, and Putin last fall appealed to residents to desist from such protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 25, 2005, and August 22 and October 19, 2007). On February 4, Putin assured residents that local schools and the highway linking Botlikh with the republic's capital, Makhachkala, will be rebuilt and he gave orders to provide funds from the federal budget for extending mains gas supplies to both Botlikh and the neighboring Tsumadin Raion. Also on February 4, Putin inspected an Interior Ministry Internal Troops barracks in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, and the 34th Mountain Motor Rifle Division base, which is located in Zelenchukskaya, in Karachayevo-Cherkessia. The Botlikh and Zelenchukskaya bases were established to secure Russia's southern border following the closure of the Russian bases in Georgia. LF

Some 300 Ossetians who fled Georgia in the late 1980s and early 1990s to escape reprisals at the hands of Georgian nationalist groups embarked on February 4 on a planned three-day protest in Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russia's Republic of North Ossetia, reported on February 5. The refugees complain that after 17 years, they have still not been offered acceptable permanent accommodation in North Ossetia. North Ossetia's Minister for Nationality Affairs Taymuraz Kesayev proposed to the refugees that they nominate representative to discuss their grievances with the republican government. LF

Speaking on February 3 at a campaign rally in Yerevan, former parliament speaker and Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party Chairman Artur Baghdasarian, one of the nine registered candidates in the February 19 presidential election, claimed that he received a murder threat the previous night, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on February 4. Baghdasarian said that "if something happens to me, the current authorities will be to blame." Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, widely regarded as the inevitable winner of the ballot, dismissed Baghdasarian's statement as a campaign ploy, while the Prosecutor-General's Office has asked police to conduct an investigation. LF

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Dmitrij Rupel, foreign minister of Slovenia, which currently holds the EU rotating presidency, met on February 4 in Baku with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijani media reported. Issues discussed included Azerbaijan's role as an alternative supplier of hydrocarbons to European and other international markets, and the political climate in the run-up to the presidential elections due in October 2008. Ferrero-Waldner acknowledged some improvements in economic development, especially the business climate, but at the same time she stressed the need for the more efficient use of the revenues from the export of oil and gas to alleviate poverty. She also called for speeding up the process of democratization, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Rupel for his part noted such positive signals as President Aliyev's recent pardoning of several journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 2008), and termed the upcoming presidential ballot an opportunity for Azerbaijan to demonstrate its commitment to European values. Every single national election held in Azerbaijan over the past 13 years has been slammed by the international monitors for blatant procedural violations that helped secure victory for the party of power. LF

Ukraine has not made any formal offer to Azerbaijan to participate in the White Stream gas export pipeline project, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim told on February 4. Speaking in Brussels on January 28, and in an interview published on January 30 in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko lobbied for construction of the so-called White Stream pipeline to transport gas from Turkmenistan via the Caspian, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and under the Black Sea to Crimea, and thence to Europe. The Turkmen Foreign Ministry promptly disclaimed any knowledge of such a project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2008). In a commentary posted on February 4 on the website, Cingiz Veliyev observed that Tymoshenko has declared a "gasavat" (a pun on the Arabic "ghazavat," "military aggression") against Russia's Gazprom. LF

Opposition parliamentarian Zviad Dzidziguri of the Conservative party, one of nine aligned in the opposition National Council, told journalists in Tbilisi on February 4 that on February 5 opposition activists will begin collecting signatures from voters in Tbilisi affirming that they did not cast ballots for Mikheil Saakashvili in the January 5 preterm presidential election, reported. The action is named "I didn't vote for Saakashvili." The opposition claims that contrary to official returns, Saakashvili did not poll the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a second round runoff. Also on February 4, opposition representatives met to prepare for a second meeting, scheduled for February 5, with representatives of the parliamentary majority to discuss the 17 demands contained in the council's manifesto unveiled last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). The first such meeting took place on February 1. Meanwhile, parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze said on February 4 that she sees no need for further rallies and demonstrations, and called on opposition representatives instead to "continue working in a constructive manner," reported. LF

Former diplomat and think-tank fellow Temur Yakobashvili, named last month by Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze to head the renamed State Ministry for Reintegration, has argued in interviews published in the daily "Rezonansi" on January 29 and by on February 4 against seeking to reduce the Russian role in resolving the conflicts with the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yakobashvili warned against equating statements by "irresponsible" Russian State Duma deputies with official Russian policy. He said that the Russian peacekeepers in Georgia should be "one of the guarantors of peace, but not the only one," stressing that they could play a positive role but should fully comply with their mandate. He called for direct dialogue not only with the de facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but with the Abkhaz diaspora, with Russia, and with the international community, on approaches to resolving the conflict. He acknowledged that Abkhaz reservations about both his appointment and the renaming of the ministry he heads are "probably justified, because we have been offering them various things for 15 years already without ever following through" on those promises. At the same time, Yakobashvili reiterated Tbilisi's categorical rejection of repeated proposals that Georgia sign with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia a formal agreement on the non-resumption of hostilities. LF

Unidentified officials of Kazakhstan's state-owned Kaztransgaz energy company on February 4 announced a decision to increase the tariff rate for natural-gas shipments through Kazakh territory, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The price rise, which will mainly affect gas exports by the Russian Gazprom company, rose to $1.40 for the transit of 1,000 cubic meters of gas per 100 kilometers. The previous tariff rate, first set in 2006, was $1.10. Gazprom plans to ship about 47 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas through Kazakhstan in 2008. Kazakhstan also serves as a strategic transit route for other gas shipments from Central Asia, which are expected to surpass 54 cubic billion meters of gas this year. RG

Thirteen employees of the Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Broadcasting Corporation (UTRK) in Bishkek continued a hunger strike on February 4 demanding the resignation of the corporation's director, Melis Eshimkanov, AKIpress reported. The hunger strike, now in its fifth day, was triggered by what the staff says were "discrediting activities" and unprofessional journalism by Eshimkanov. Doctors examined the participants several times a day and persuaded two of the hunger strikers to check into a local hospital on February 3 after their physical conditions worsened. The protesters claim that some 90 percent of the staff supports their demand for the dismissal or resignation of Eshimkanov, a former opposition politician whom President Kurmanbek Bakiev named to the position in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007). RG

Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Solehov vowed on February 4 to ensure that a thorough and objective investigation is carried out into the circumstances of a deadly attack on a special police unit in Tajikistan's Rasht district two days earlier, according to Asia-Plus and the Avesta website. Speaking to reporters after the Dushanbe funeral for Oleg Zakharchenko, the fallen commander of the police unit, Solehov said that the Prosecutor-General's Office will head a criminal investigation into the attack and pledged that "the murderers will be found and punished." The special police unit was attacked on February 2 after it was dispatched to the Rasht district headquarters of the regional state body empowered to combat organized crime. The police unit was seeking to arrest the head of the state body, Mirzokhuja Ahmadov, but was fired upon by gunmen loyal to Ahmadov. The 40-year old commander of the unit was the only person killed, although several policemen sustained injuries in the shoot-out. Ahmadov was a prominent member of the United Tajik Opposition during the country's civil war in the mid-1990s but was later appointed to a senior police post as part of a broader attempt at reintegrating former rebel leaders. Police officials reported that the arrest warrant for Ahmadov stemmed from his involvement in unspecified "past crimes." RG

Belarusian opposition politicians and civil-society activists on February 4 set up a civic committee for the defense of Andrey Kim, against whom the authorities recently began criminal proceedings, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Kim was sentenced to 10 days in jail for his participation in a unsanctioned January 21 demonstration against the government's restrictions on businesses activities, but has not been released after serving his term. The authorities have charged Kim with hitting an officer during police attempts to take control over the crowd of protesters on January 21. The article under which Kim is charged provides for a prison sentence of up to six years. "Kim's case is politically motivated," said Andrey Bondar, one of the committee's members, adding that this is "the revenge of the government and of Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau in particular for the scare that the entrepreneurs' protest gave them." Politician Pavel Sevyarynets said that the authorities launched the criminal proceedings against Kim even as "statements [were made] about a softening of the regime in Belarus." "Such statements are false.... The intimidation of society in Belarus has actually gotten worse and the so-called thaw is merely window-dressing for other countries," Sevyarynets said. "I believe that truthful coverage of the case of Andrey Kim and other opposition activists will help them avoid criminal conviction," he added. AM

French Ambassador to Belarus Mireille Musso said on February 4 in Minsk that the EU is hopeful that Belarus will develop along the path toward democratic changes in 2008, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "Both President [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka and the government of the country wish [for] the development of the independent Belarusian state and closer relations with the European Union," Musso said. She also said that "the EU is ready to assist Belarus in democratization, the strengthening of independence, and the modernization of the state," but Minsk should fulfill the EU's 12 requirements in order to join the European Neighborhood Policy and fully enjoy its benefits, including lowering fees for Schengen visas for Belarusian citizens. Musso welcomed the recent releases of "three prisoners" in Belarus and expressed hope that "more releases will follow." Musso said that the German ambassador to Belarus played a role in these releases, but did not provide further details. AM

Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko said on February 4 that Ukraine considers itself to be an integral part of Europe, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Ohryzko said that Ukraine has a clear plan of cooperation with the EU. "We realize that it is impossible to jump over some steps leading to the common European home," he said. The consecutive stages of Ukraine's integration into the EU, according to Ohryzko, are: fulfillment of the Ukraine-EU Action Plan, successful talks on a new enhanced agreement between Ukraine and the EU, securing the effective implementation of the new agreement, creating a free-trade zone, introducing a visa-free regime, and obtaining full membership of the EU. Ohryzko said that, in contrast with the thesis put forward by some Western analysts, "Ukraine has always had, has, and will have a clear and invariable goal in its foreign policy: the course toward the EU and NATO that is stipulated in Ukrainian legislation." AM

In the wake of his victory in the presidential runoff held on February 3, Boris Tadic declared that "this is Serbia's victory. I think we have proven both to Europe and everywhere else in the world what kind of democracy we have in Serbia." In keeping with his preelection assertion that the vote would be a referendum on Serbia's relationship with the EU, Tadic particularly stressed the message the election sent the EU. "We showed Europe what our potential really is," Tadic told a postelection rally. Now is "not a time for a celebration, but time for work." His message was in stark contrast with that of his rival, the nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, who explained away his defeat by saying, "fear overcame the electorate." Nikolic also made clear his differences with Tadic on the key issue of relations with the EU: "My message to the EU is to stop blackmailing Serbia and stop putting impossible conditions, and that we are ready to be within the EU, but there are some conditions we cannot fulfill," a reference to his argument that Serbia should only join the EU if it retains sovereignty over Kosova. Nikolic also reiterated his belief that Russia is a "closer" and less problematic partner for Serbia than the EU. Tadic will be sworn in on February 15. His second term in office will last five years, rather than four years, as was the case in his first term. Tadic won by a margin of about 100,000 voters in an electorate totaling 6.7 million people. AG

Tadic's argument that his victory will boost Serbia's bid for EU membership faces its most immediate challenge within the governing coalition itself, which has been split by the decision of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and his party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), not to endorse Tadic's bid for reelection. The most senior figure to voice concern is the second-most-senior figure in Tadic's Democratic Party (DS), Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic, who has, according to an AFP on February 4, warned that the government will "collapse" if Kostunica's side turns its back on a coalition agreement on Serbia's "full integration into the European family." That possibility has been echoed in commentaries across the Serbian media. Kostunica and the DSS decided not to endorse Tadic's bid for reelection because Tadic refused to agree to an ultimatum issued by Kostunica, in which he told the EU that Serbia would only take the first step toward EU membership -- completing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) -- if the EU agreed not to deploy a mission to Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, and February 1, 2008). The EU is now offering a watered-down, interim agreement that would, for example, ease trade and end visas for Serbs. However, Kostunica has yet to say he is willing to sign even that restricted agreement. On February 4, Serbian media reported that Education Minister Zoran Loncar of the DSS accused the EU of "blackmail" by simultaneously pursuing closer ties with Serbia and advocating independence for Kosova. The EU is hoping the agreement will be signed on February 7. AG

The European Commission has greeted President Tadic's reelection as a green light for Belgrade to forge closer ties with the EU. According to international media, the commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, called Tadic's win "a victory for democracy in Serbia and for the European values we share," while the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, declared that "the results -- for me at least -- signaled the wish of the majority of the people in Serbia who want to continue the path towards Europe, and I'd like to say Europe is very happy with that." Barroso also declared that the EU would now like "to accelerate Serbia's progress towards the European Union," while Solana said, "we will continue working with Serbia and we'd like Serbia to get as close as possible as rapidly as possible toward the European road." Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn even suggested that Serbia could within months become a candidate for membership, even though it has yet to take even the first step towards membership by meeting the conditions for the formal completion of an SAA. "I am looking forward to working together with Tadic and the Serbian government and parliament, in order to facilitate, quite soon, Serbia's candidate status in the European Union, maybe in [the] course of this year, in 2008," Rehn said. The possibility of an SAA was on the table at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on January 28, but was nixed by the Netherlands and Belgium, which insisted that Serbia must meet a long-standing precondition, the arrest of suspected war criminal Ratko Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). Faced with opposition both from within Serbia and the EU to the formal adoption of an SAA with Belgrade, the EU offered a scaled-down agreement on January 28. Unnamed EU diplomats quoted by international news agencies have described the agreement as being a "three-quarters SAA." AG

Tadic's victory over his nationalist rival was greeted with evident relief by Serbia's neighbors. The Bosnian Serbs' political leader, Milorad Dodik, said that "Tadic's victory will contribute to stability not only in Serbia but also in the Republika Srpska and the whole region." Dodik actively campaigned for Tadic, warning Serbs that their democracy could collapse if Nikolic were elected and raising the specter of renewed instability across the region. Croatian President Stjepan Mesic said Serbs' decision to elect "a politician who sees the country's future not in isolation and radicalization but in unity with other democratic countries in the region, Europe, and the world" is evidence of "Serbia's determination to continue to the future." In a congratulatory note sent to Tadic, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski wrote that he and his country are "glad" at Tadic's victory and promised that Macedonia will "strongly" support Serbia's bid to join the EU. Macedonia has been a candidate for membership of the EU since 2005. In Montenegro, where 30 percent of the population are ethnic Serbs, state television chose to place the results third in the evening news, behind reports on a labor strike and on preparations for Montenegro's presidential election, which will be held on April 6. AG

President Fatmir Sejdiu met Pope Benedict XVI on February 3 in the latest effort by Kosovar leaders to secure international support for the UN-administered region's bid for independence from Serbia. Sejdiu's account of the 20-minute private audience to Kosovar media indicated that the meeting focused on Kosova's status, rather than on the position of the 65,000 Catholics who live in Kosova. Sejdiu said the pope gave his "full support for political developments in Kosova," Kosovar media reported. A Vatican press statement made clear that the pope has not adopted a position on Kosova's final status and will be guided by "the international community's direction." The same statement said the pope granted Sejdiu an audience "primarily in order to express closeness with its people who live in this region." According to Kosovar public television, Sejdiu assured the pope that Kosova "will be a free country for all its communities, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion." AG

In a sign of the Albanian government's belief in the strength of the country's economy, Prime Minister Sali Berisha announced on January 31 that Albania is set to issue the first government bond denominated in a foreign currency. The bond issue, which will be worth 200 million euros ($297 million), is slated for May, Bloomberg reported. Berisha said, though, that details still need to be discussed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A bond issue of that size would mean that Albania's international borrowing would have exceeded a ceiling of 680 million euros ($1.1 billion) set by the IMF for 2006-08. In an interview with Bloomberg, Berisha said Albania was once the "North Korea of Europe" but is now an increasingly popular destination for investors as well as tourists. Berisha predicted that foreign investment, tourism, and a growth in exports will ensure that in 2008 Albania's economy will expand by more than the 6 percent projected for 2007. Albania's credit rating is currently on a par with Ukraine's and Pakistan's. AG


President Hamid Karzai's office has expressed concern about a death sentence given to an Afghan journalist for allegedly insulting Islam (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2008), RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on February 5. Karzai spokesman Homayun Hamidzada said the same day that Karzai will not intervene in the blasphemy case against journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh until an appeals court makes a ruling. "Of course the president is concerned," Hamidzada said. "And we are watching the situation very closely. We will follow the judicial process in consultation with the Ulema Shura [local clerical council] as well. And then, in light of those decisions and the Afghan Constitution -- as well as our international obligations and respect for human rights -- the Afghan government will make a decision." Kambakhsh was charged with blasphemy after he took an opinion piece from the Internet written by another man, an Iranian exile living in Western Europe, and distributed it to students. The author of the article had questioned interpretations of the Koran dealing with the treatment of women. The death sentence, which was issued by a lower court in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, must be approved by the Afghan presidency before it can be legally carried out. RS

Interior Ministry-appointed executive boards have rejected large numbers of registered hopefuls ahead of Iran's parliamentary polls on March 14, and reports from Iran suggest that supervisory boards appointed by the powerful Guardians Council are rejecting even more, including some approved by the executive boards, Radio Farda reported on February 4, citing Iranian media. The Guardians Council is a body of clerics and jurists that must validate all legislation and elections in Iran; most of those rejected are apparently reformists or unknown hopefuls, though the Guardians Council insists people are not disqualified for their views, but over legal issues. Those approved by the executive boards and reportedly disqualified by the supervisory boards include sitting members of parliament Mohammad Reza Tabesh and Shamseddin Vahabi of the minority reformist faction. However, the supervisory boards overturned the disqualification of a former reformist education minister, Morteza Haji. Prominent reformist and former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref has described the disqualifications as unprecedented in their rigor, and said they have effectively made it impossible for reformists to compete in the mid-March elections with the dominant conservatives. Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai said in Tehran on February 2 that rejected applicants could appeal when they receive their rejection letters, from February 3-5, the daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on February 3. VS

The conservative deputy speaker of parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, said in Tehran on February 4 that he and another deputy speaker, Mohammad Hasan Abutorabifard, have held "positive" talks with members of the Guardians Council, in the hope of reducing the number of disqualified potential candidates, IRNA reported. "We shall and try minimize the disqualifications," he said. He added that 270 of 290 sitting parliamentarians have registered as candidates for the next parliament, and that 250 have been approved so far. Separately, Fars, a conservative news agency close to Iran's judiciary, published on February 4 what it described as a "possible" list of right-wing candidates for Tehran for the March elections; it observed that the list may be subject to "minor" changes. The list was headed by parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, followed by Ali Larijani, the supreme leader's representative on the Supreme National Security Council. Also on the list were deputy speaker Bahonar, parliamentary research center head Ahmad Tavakkoli, and Tehran representative Mehdi Kuchakzadeh. The list is thought to include members of various conservative factions such as traditionalists or more radical presidential sympathizers. VS

Parliament speaker Haddad-Adel returned from a six-day trip to Egypt and the Sudan on February 4, IRNA reported. He said he had positive talks there with the countries' parliament speakers and presidents. Haddad-Adel said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expressed support in their conversations for Iran's "positions" over continuing a "peaceful" nuclear program. Haddad-Adel discussed regional and international affairs during his trip, IRNA reported. VS

A court in Karaj, outside Tehran, has sentenced two women to be stoned after they were convicted of adultery, Radio Farda reported on February 3. Zohreh and Azar Kabiri are already in detention and have been whipped in the Rajaishahr prison in Karaj for "illegitimate" relations, apparently a lesser offense than adultery. Their lawyer Jabbar Solati has told Radio Farda that provincial courts have not strictly followed procedures in this case, and effectively tried and sentenced the sisters twice for the same offense. The basis of the accusation was a complaint by Zohreh Kabiri's husband, Nader Abbasi, who Solati said heard about a year ago from his son and neighbors about "suspect" meetings between Zohreh and strangers at her sister Azar's house in Karaj. He himself left his wife to go and live with his parents in Tehran, Solati said. But he added that he returned to install a camera at Azar's house and produced footage of happenings there, which he presented as evidence to the local courts. Solati said that "they have arrested these two without arresting any man in the case." His remarks indicated the court handling the case sentenced them once for "illegitimate" relations and again for adultery. Solati expressed regret that he does not have access to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, because "if he is informed of the matter, he will react immediately. He knows it is illegal to process a case twice," Radio Farda reported on February 3. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad presided at the firing of an "exploratory" space rocket on February 4, intended to precede the launching of an Iranian satellite, news agencies reported. The Safir (Envoy) rocket was launched from a base called the Iran Space Launch Base, and is intended to identify the precise location of the satellite, Fars reported. It added that the rocket consisted of 10,000 varied components developed in Iran over the past 10 years. Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said the same day that an Iranian-built satellite called "Omid" (Hope) is to be launched from the base in May or June, Fars reported. IRNA described Omid as an "advanced research satellite" on February 4. VS

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on February 4 that all ministries and government institutions will hoist the new Iraqi flag on February 5. The flag was approved last month after Kurdish leaders refused to fly the Saddam Hussein-era flag in Kurdistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). The new flag will fly for only one year, after which the government is expected to adopt a new flag designed through a public contest. KR

The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue headed by Salih al-Mutlaq will merge with the so-called Independent Arab Bloc in parliament under the new name Arab Bloc for National Dialogue, al-Mutlaq announced on February 4, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Mutlaq said the merger is part of a Sunni plan to eliminate sectarianism. Meanwhile, Abd Mutlaq al-Juburi, a member of the Independent Arab Bloc, reportedly denied he will join the new bloc. Al-Juburi left the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) in January 2007 and formed the Independent Arab Bloc with 11 other parliamentarians. At the time, he cited frustration with the leaders of political blocs, saying decisions were being made by the heads of blocs only, while parliamentarians were unable to play a role in the political process. KR

Salah al-Ubaydi, a spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said that al-Sadr may not extend a self-imposed cease-fire by his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, Al-Sharqiyah television reported February 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). According to al-Ubaydi, several prominent leaders in the militia, as well as parliament deputies aligned with the cleric, have called on al-Sadr to end the cease-fire. The leaders pointed to the targeting of militiamen by police in Al-Diwaniyah as one of the reasons for taking up arms again (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2007). Al-Ubaydi further claimed that al-Sadr may not make an official announcement regarding the end of the cease-fire. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki attended a reconstruction ceremony in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Kut on February 4, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. The ceremony included the opening of a new bridge, the Sheikh Sa'd Al-Jadid Bridge, which will link Al-Kut to the southern governorates. Swarms of people could be seen crossing over the bridge and cheering from beneath it at the ceremony. In his address to attendees, al-Maliki said that Wasit has been one of the governorates that has managed to launch a high number of reconstruction projects. He also touched on the issue of corruption. "Reconstruction needs honest people who would proudly and boldly stand against corrupt ones," al-Maliki said. "We have inherited corrupt people from the former regime in the state departments and institutions. Those people deliberately crippled projects and services." He called on the people in Wasit Governorate to continue reconstruction projects. Al-Maliki has declared 2008 the year of reconstruction in Iraq. KR

Iraqi citizens in Diyala Governorate demanded the resignation of police chief Ghanim al-Qurayshi in a February 3 demonstration in Ba'qubah, Iraqi media reported on February 4. The demonstration followed the attempted assassination of Husayn al-Zubaydi, the governorate's head of security and a rival of al-Qurayshi. Protesters also said al-Qurayshi has done nothing to protect local women from kidnapping after several abductions took place outside a local police station. Al-Qurayshi is further accused of dismissing some 4,000 officers who hail from the governorate. The dismissed have been described in the media as being locals from a various religious and ethnic backgrounds. Al-Qurayshi reportedly replaced the policemen with Shi'ite policemen loyal to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, formerly the SIIC), headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. A source in Ba'qubah told RFE/RL this week that al-Qurayshi is loyal to Hadi al-Amiri, who heads ISCI's Badr Forces militia. The source said the governor of Diyala, which is mostly Sunni Arab, is also a non-local Shi'a. A February 5 U.S. military press release said police broke up a peaceful demonstration on February 3. The statement praised the fact that Iraqis can carry out demonstrations, since under the former regime no such action was permissible. Similar complaints against the ISCI-infiltrated police have emerged from other governorates in recent weeks. A Shi'ite seminary spokesman in Al-Basrah told Al-Sharqiyah television on February 4 that abductions and killings in Al-Basrah go unreported in the media. He contended local police chief Abd al-Jalil is "not fit to lead the Al-Basrah police." KR

The Iraqi Oil ministry has suspended oil exports to Austria's OMV, a leading oil and gas group, after it failed to pull out of an oil-exploration agreement with the Kurdistan regional government (KRG). Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani vowed last year to sanction companies that concluded deals with the KRG, saying such deals are illegal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2007). The federal government halted exports to South Korea last week in protest of deals signed between South Korean firms and the KRG. According to Vienna's "Die Presse" on February 4, only 144,000 of the 19 million tons of oil OMV gets from some 15 states will be affected by the suspension. KR