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Newsline - February 6, 2008

In a wide-ranging interview with Interfax in Warsaw on February 6, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that Poland has no intention of threatening Russia if it joins a planned U.S. missile-defense system, which would comprise 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 5, 2008). In apparent contrast to recent remarks by Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Tusk also said Poland has no intention of hosting a NATO military base. Tusk reiterated his goal of wanting to improve strained Polish-Russian ties. In recent weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the state-run media have praised Tusk's government for its willingness to discuss missile defense with the Russian authorities. Tusk is due to hold talks in Moscow on February 8. President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian civilian and military leaders have threatened to target Poland and the Czech Republic with missiles if they agree to the U.S. missile-defense plan, which Sikorski did in principle in recent talks in Washington. Tusk said in his interview on February 6 that he is "personally very anxious that a Polish-American agreement on the issue will not arouse either doubts or concerns on the part of third countries.... It is funny for anyone to think that Poland poses a threat to Russia. We do not want this project to arouse negative worries for our neighbors." The Russian daily "Novye izvestia" wrote on February 4 that Tusk and Sikorski are insincere in saying they want to improve relations with Russia, because they are simultaneously pursuing an agreement with Washington on missile defense. The daily added that "the foreign policy of Poland has been a destabilizing factor in Europe all through the existence of the Polish state.... The policy promoted by the new democratic Poland worries united Europe even now -- and that is putting it mildly. European capitals do not rule out the possibility that Warsaw, with its obsession with [regional] domination while remaining Washington's lackey, may become the worst trouble-maker on the continent." PM

In his interview with Interfax on February 6, Polish Prime Minister Tusk called on Russia to reconsider the planned Nord Stream pipeline project, which he has long opposed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28 and December 18 and 19, 2007, and January 8 and 31, 2008). The pipeline will transport Russian gas to Germany across the floor of the Baltic Sea. Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to Nord Stream on political or ecological grounds or both. Many Polish critics believe that the pipeline will enable Gazprom to continue to supply Western European customers if Russia cuts off deliveries to Poland for political reasons. Tusk argued that a land pipeline across Polish territory would be far cheaper to build. "Why build a gas pipeline twice as expensive, and some even think three times as expensive" as the Polish land route, he asked. "It looks like everybody is going to lose something on this." Tusk added that he does not "think the [February 8] meeting in Moscow will lead to the settlement of this issue. But, before spending a lot of money, wouldn't it make sense to talk about the optimization of gas transportation to the West?" He stressed that he can "guarantee that Poland, with its interests taken into account, can and will be a very good and responsible partner in possible future projects." But Reuters reported from Moscow on February 6 that Viktor Baranov, president of the Russian union of independent gas producers, said that Nord Stream will go ahead as planned. He added that Russia is very keen to bypass transit countries, noting that "even if [the Russians] have to build the thing running across the sky at an even higher cost, they would go for it." PM

Sergei Markov, a State Duma deputy for Unified Russia and the director of the Institute of Political Research, was quoted by Interfax as saying on February 6 that it does not matter greatly to Russia who wins the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, but a victory for Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) would be the "worst-case scenario." Markov argued that a victory for the Democrats "would indicate the abandonment of the mad policy of the national leader's putting all money not into education, the social sector, or the development of peaceful trends on the planet, but into the effort to surpass the entire planet in terms of military might." He noted that "U.S. and Russian political analysts wonder why McCain hates Russia so much. There are different views here. Some believe he cannot overcome his wounds suffered in Vietnam, for which he blames the Soviet Union. McCain is the last Cold Warrior." Markov said that New York Democratic Senator "Hillary Clinton poses a slightly less dramatic option for Russia, because, while she criticizes Russia as well, she does this more pragmatically and coherently" than McCain. But Markov argued that a victory for Clinton would give the State Department "back to the people who bombed Belgrade" in NATO's Kosova campaign of 1999. He concluded that "Barack Obama is the most preferable option for us. First, his coming to power would mean a turnaround in American foreign policy and closer links between the United States and the EU. Obama symbolizes a renewal of American political life in general and generates hope for the future, no matter how illusory it might be." McCain has called for dropping Russia from membership in the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries on the grounds that it is not a democracy. He also advocates setting up a League of Democracies, which would exclude Russia until it becomes fully democratic. PM

The daily "Kommersant" reported on February 5 that some officials of NATO member states are concerned by Hungary's decision to name Sandor Laborc of its National Security Office as head of NATO's special committee dealing with intelligence issues, including terrorism, a post that Hungary now holds as part of a normal rotation. Laborc studied from 1983-89 at the KGB's Moscow academy, named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky, who founded the Bolsheviks' secret police, the Cheka, in 1917. The paper notes that Laborc's appointment, which the socialist-led Hungarian government made despite protests by the conservative opposition, has led to discussion in some NATO governments about possible Russian intelligence penetration of the Atlantic alliance. "Kommersant" quoted an unnamed Western diplomat as saying that "Laborc was trained by the KGB. I don't think he changed his views" since then. The daily also cited an unnamed "high-ranking Western European diplomat" as remarking that "I'll wager any sum that what information Bulgaria was made privy to as a NATO member went directly to Moscow. The old Communist nomenclature and secret services wield a great deal of clout in Romania and Bulgaria even now." The diplomat added that "still, this Hungarian episode is more than just disturbing.... The U.S. ambassador to NATO had to make but a single phone call to prevent it from happening. It would have become a signal to other countries that might be entertaining the illusion that they will get away with anything." Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on February 5 quoted an unidentified NATO diplomat as arguing that "all" security experts from the former Warsaw Pact countries "went to school in Moscow" and that Laborc's biography is nothing unusual. PM

The Supreme Court on February 5 rejected an appeal by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov against a Central Election Commission decision not to register him as a candidate in the March 2 presidential election, and other Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). Kasyanov may appeal the courts ruling to the Appeals Board of the Supreme Court, but it is extremely unlikely that that body will reverse the court's decision. RC

A Moscow district court on February 6 rejected a request from former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan, who was seeking to be admitted to a hospital, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported. Aleksanyan, who has been jailed for over two years without trial on embezzlement and money-laundering charges that he denies, has been diagnosed with AIDS. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly asked the Russian authorities to guarantee him effective medical treatment. Medical experts from Moscow's Botkinskaya Hospital told the court that Aleksanyan has AIDS, lymphoma, and, possibly, tuberculosis, saying that he requires immediate hospitalization. The Moscow court ruled that Aleksanyan should continue to be held in pretrial detention in the Matrosskaya Tishina remand prison, but that he should be given medical assistance in that facility. The court ruled that Aleksanyan is a flight risk and that he might seek to tamper with evidence relating to the case. It also ordered that hearings of his case, which began last week, be halted. Former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is in prison in the Far East, has launched a hunger strike in sympathy with Aleksanyan's plea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2008). RC

Political and personal allies of President Putin have begun securing themselves positions on major corporate boards, ensuring their influence over the country for at least the first year after the end of Putin's presidency, "Vedomosti" reported on February 6. The daily estimated that the companies involved control some 40 percent of the Russian economy. This week the government has made public its nominees to the boards of some 22 major companies, all of whom must be confirmed by shareholders before June 30. The lists reconfirm the positions of major Putin allies: presidential-administration deputy head Igor Sechin as head of Rosneft's board, presidential aide Viktor Ivanov as head of Aeroflot's board, presidential aide Igor Shuvalov as head of Sovkomflot's board, former presidential-administration head Aleksandr Boloshin as head of Unified Energy System's board, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as head of the United Aircraft Corporation (OAK) board, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin as head of Channel One's board, and others. The daily noted that, except for the expected decision of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to stand aside as the head of Gazprom's board, not a single major change was made on any of the government's lists of nominees. Presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko was also nominated to retain positions on two boards in the military-industrial complex. RC

The new state megacorporation Rostekhnologii, headed by Putin insider Sergei Chemezov, has asked the government to provide $500 million from the state budget to purchase a 66 percent stake in VSMPO-Avisma, the world's leading producer of titanium, "Kommersant" reported on February 6. The daily reported that President Putin has sent an order to Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov asking him to look into Chemezov's request. It also reported that the VSMPO-Avisma shares are already owned by Rosoboroneksport and its subsidiaries. Chemezov headed Rosoboroneksport before being named head of Rostekhnologii late last year. Chemezov said Rosoboroneksport spent $1 billion on the shares, including a $500 million loan that now must be repaid, and he requested that it be paid "by additional revenues from the federal budget." RC

Local authorities in Tolyatti have seized the computers of the independent newspaper "Tolyattinskoye obozreniye," alleging the paper was using pirated software, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported on February 5. Newspaper staff claim the move came in retaliation for the paper's endorsement of an opposition mayoral candidate. Officials in other regional cities have used a similar pretext to close down independent newspapers in recent months. The paper's editor reported that a recent print run was impounded by the authorities and that the paper was undergoing a surprise tax inspection. In August 2002, "Tolyattinskoye obozreniye" Editor in Chief Valery Ivanov was shot dead outside his home; in October 2003, his successor, Aleksei Sidorov, was stabbed to death. Those cases remain unsolved. RC

Union of Journalists Chairman Vsevolod Bogdanov told "Novye izvestia" on February 6 that there is "practically not a single region [of Russia] where you won't find people suffering or killed for their professional work as reporters." "While 80 percent of all murders in our country are solved, when it comes to the murders of journalists, less than 20 percent are solved," Bogdanov said. RC

Ten organizations representing ethnic Kyrgyz living in Russia on February 5 expressed their concerns over the continuing rise in hate crimes that have specifically targeted Central Asians in several Russian cities, the website reported. The Kyrgyz groups pointed to the murder of four Kyrgyz nationals in Russia in January 2008, and said that "the Kyrgyz diaspora in Russia has been following these bloody events with extreme anxiety and concern." The groups also appealed to Russian "state bodies and law-enforcement agencies to ensure the security of all people" in Russia. They also expressed their readiness to "closely cooperate with the federal and local state bodies and law-enforcement agencies" to combat hate crimes and to promote "interethnic dialogue." RG

Police and security forces on February 5 cordoned off a district of the coastal town of Derbent in southern Daghestan where two suspected armed militants had taken refuge in a private home, Russian media reported. One of the militants was killed in an exchange of fire, and an officer from the Interior Ministry OMON special forces was wounded. The second militant escaped. Two days earlier, on February 3, police and Interior Ministry forces pursued a group of four or five armed militants from Suleiman-Stalsky Raion to the village of Tselegyun in the neighboring Mageramkent Raion on the southeastern border with Azerbaijan. On February 4, two police officers were reported wounded in the course of the operation, according to On February 6, reported that one militant has been apprehended in Tselegyun and a search of the village is under way for his companions. LF

The Irkutsk Oblast legislature on February 5 rejected by a vote of 34 in favor and three against the veto imposed by Governor Aleksandr Tishanin on the combined 2008 budget for the new federation subject that came into existence on January 1 as a result of the merger of Irkutsk Oblast and the Usta-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on February 5 and 6 respectively. The two parliaments approved the budget on December 20, but Tishanin rejected it on the grounds that it did not take into account a planned salary increase for state sector employees and that deputies had made unauthorized changes between the first and second readings. Deputies, and also Acting Prosecutor Igor Melnikov, who according to was confirmed in that post on February 6, countered that those objections were unfounded. LF

Azerbaijani President Ilham Alyev was formally presented on February 5 with the Person of the Year 2007 award bestowed on him jointly by the ANS television channel and the Fuad Mustafayev National Hero of Azerbaijan Fund, and reported on February 5 and 6, respectively. In his acceptance speech, Aliyev noted that the successes Azerbaijan registered in 2007 would not have been possible had it not been for the signing in 2004 by his father and predecessor as president Heydar Aliyev of the so-called contract of the century with a consortium of Western oil companies to develop Azerbaijan's offshore oilfields. He noted that Azerbaijan has now become an exporter of natural gas and thus plays a key role in energy security. He said the continuation of Azerbaijan's harmonious relations with many foreign countries is contingent on their noninterference in Azerbaijan's domestic affairs. "If we need advice, we shall ask for it," quoted him as saying. Aliyev further affirmed that "I bear responsibility for everything [that happens] in Azerbaijan, both the good and the bad." He said all preconditions exist to resolve all remaining problems and ensure "a good life" for the population. LF

A spokesman for Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security told the Azerbaijan Press Agency on February 5 that jailed former Economic Development Minister Farxad Aliyev has been examined on numerous occasions by various doctors who have concluded that his health has not deteriorated noticeably since 2003, reported. The spokesman said there is therefore no need for him to be taken to a Justice Ministry medical facility. Aliyev, who was arrested in October 2005 and sentenced two years later to 10 years' imprisonment, ended on February 4 a hunger strike he began two days earlier to demand his transfer from a cramped, cold, damp cell and given treatment for a heart condition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4, 2008). Also on February 4, Aliyev received a visit from Azerbaijan's human-rights ombudsman Elmira Suleimanova, whose assistance he requested in securing his hospitalization, reported on February 5. LF

Four Georgian NGOs, including the Georgian branch of Transparency International and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, on February 5 unveiled a list of 10 conditions they consider must be met to ensure that the parliamentary elections to be held early this summer are free and fair, Caucasus Press and reported. Those conditions include amending election legislation, a process in which NGOs and opposition parties should participate; revision and computerization of voter lists; an effective ban on the use of so-called "administrative resources" by the authorities on behalf of the ruling party; and increasing the transparency of campaign financing and the effectiveness of monitoring of the vote count and tabulation. LF

European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, and EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby attended the opening in Tbilisi on February 5 of a two-day conference to review Georgia's progress in compliance with its obligations under the European Neighborhood Policy. The EU officials also met separately with Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, Euro-Integration Minister Giorgi Baramidze, human-rights ombudsman Sozar Subar, and opposition representatives, but apparently not with President Mikheil Saakashvili, although they met the previous day in Baku with President Aliyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). Ferrero-Waldner last month drew attention to "important irregularities" during the January 5 preterm ballot in which, according to official returns, Saakashvili was elected for a second presidential term with over 53 percent of the vote, shortcomings she said "need to be addressed" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008), but Rupelj told Georgian Public Television later on February 5 that after reading the OSCE report on the conduct of the ballot he has "no doubts" that Saakashvili is the legitimate president. Ferrero-Waldner told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the EU remains prepared to assist the Georgian government, if asked, in finding solutions to the unresolved conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on February 6 delivered his annual "state of the nation" address, focusing on a central theme of improving the welfare of the Kazakh people, Khabar Television reported. In his televised address, Nazarbaev also stressed the need to ensure the transparent sale of land and the development of Kazakhstan's private sector. He also urged his government to increase efforts in new resource exploration and development. RG

Speaking to reporters in Astana, Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov announced on February 5 that the month of March is the target time to launch the country's newly bolstered navy, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Akhmetov said a special Naval Directorate within the Defense Ministry has been tasked with leading efforts to develop and modernize a naval force in the Caspian Sea. The newly bolstered navy is expected to handle a wide range of counterproliferation duties as well as providing maritime security in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian. Akhmetov added that the ministry has yet to select its main source of equipment, adding that a special group has been set up to conduct "serious scientific analysis" to determine the type of naval systems it will procure. Kazakhstan has been involved in negotiations with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and French naval weapons producers since October 2007. RG

Unidentified officials of the Kyrgyz state financial police on February 5 announced the reopening of a criminal investigation against former Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, the website reported. Tanaev faces a number of criminal charges, including abuse of office and corruption, allegedly dating from his tenure as prime minister under ousted President Askar Akaev from May 2002 to March 2005. Up until the announcement, Tanaev was a key figure in six separate criminal cases, but was never formally charged due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Tanaev lives in Russia and is the director of the Gazprom-affiliated Neftprom Oil Investment Company. RG

Speaking at a meeting of senior Interior Ministry officials in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Elmurza Satybaldiev on February 5 expressed "serious concern" about the performance of the country's police force, citing several cases of police "illegally pressing criminal charges against citizens," the website reported. Satybaldiev accused the police of seeking to artificially inflate police statistics and record an unrealistic number of solved criminal cases. Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiev also complained about a lack of systemic reforms within the police force, and criticized rising crime rates in the regions of Osh, Chuy, and Talas over the past year, which he attributed to "police officers' poor performance." Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov instead stressed the successes of the Interior Ministry, which he hailed as "one of the most capable law-enforcement agencies," Kyrgyz Radio reported. RG

Artur Finkevich, a leader of the unregistered Youth Front organization, was unexpectedly released on February 5 after a Mahilyou City Court shortened his prison sentence, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Finkevich was arrested on January 30, 2006, and sentenced to two years of "restricted freedom" in a correctional facility for writing political graffiti. In October 2007, the authorities brought new charges against Finkevich, accusing him of misconduct and violating the internal rules of the correctional facility, and he was sentenced to another 18 months of restricted freedom. On February 5, the court considered Finkevich's appeal and found the 18-month term too harsh, shortening it to six months and releasing Finkevich immediately. Finkevich has been held in a pretrial detention center since October 26, 2007, and each day spent there by someone sentenced to restricted freedom is counted twice, therefore the court ruled that Finkevich has already served his shortened term. AM

Belarus's Supreme Court announced on February 5 that Syarhey Marozau, Valery Harbaty, and Ihar Danchanka, sentenced in 2006 to death for running an organized crime group, have been executed by shooting, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Belarus is the last European country where death sentences are handed down and carried out. In late November 2007, Rene van der Linden, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), appealed to the Belarusian authorities to commute the three death sentences to milder punishments. Van der Linden also called for introducing a moratorium on the death sentence, arguing that it is a precondition for joining PACE. According to a lawyer who requested anonymity, Marozau used many legal tricks to defer his execution in the hope that Belarus would introduce such a moratorium under Western pressure. AM

The General Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on February 5 approved the terms of Ukraine's accession, Ukrainian media reported. WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said that Ukraine's membership "will strengthen the multilateral trading system and provide this country with a stable and predictable trade environment that will boost its growth and prosperity." Lamy also said that Ukraine has been given a five-year transitional period to adjust to WTO regulations. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko described Ukraine's joining of the WTO as an "historic moment" and vowed at the meeting of the WTO's General Council in Geneva that the Ukrainian government, parliament, and he himself will do everything necessary to obtain full membership as soon as possible. Ukraine has to ratify the accession agreement within five months and its full membership in the WTO will take effect 30 days after the ratification. Ukraine's negotiations with the WTO have lasted for over 14 years. AM

The Verkhovna Rada intended to begin its second session on February 5, but due to the discrepancy between the opposition's and majority's attitude to Ukraine's possible accession to NATO, it did not manage to do so, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The opposition Party of Regions continued to block the rostrum, demanding the adoption of a resolution that Ukraine can take steps toward joining NATO only after a nationwide referendum. The Party of Regions also demands the dismissal of Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko after the recent incident between him and Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). President Yushchenko on February 5 intended to deliver his annual address to the Verkhovna Rada on the state of Ukraine's internal and foreign policy, but he postponed it indefinitely. AM

The EU's member states on February 4 approved funding, legal guidelines, and an operational framework for a 1,800-strong mission to Kosova, international media reported. According to the Serbian broadcaster B92, Christina Gallach, the spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, called the decision "very procedural" and "just one step in a long process that will in the end result in deploying the union's staff in Kosovo." However, the timing of the decision -- just a day after Serbia's presidential runoff -- indicates both the EU's sense that there is an urgent need for movement toward settling Kosova's future and that it feared the decision could have affected the presidential election, which Serbian President Boris Tadic depicted as a referendum on the EU. Agreement within the EU was reportedly achieved only after one opponent of Kosovar independence, Cyprus, decided to abstain. The mission, which was recently given the title EULEX, will consist of prosecutors, judges, and police officers and will be charged with ensuring that the Kosovar government complies with standards set out in March 2007 by the UN's special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4, 2008). Ahtisaari's plan also included a recommendation that Kosova be granted "supervised independence," causing the whole plan effectively to be vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia. No date has been given for the mission to be deployed, and its duration also still has to be decided. The date may be set when EU foreign ministers meet on February 18. The February 4 decision needs to be formally approved the EU's Council of Ministers, which consists of the leaders of the EU's 27 countries. According to AP, some EU governments still want the UN Security Council approve the mission. Approval seems unlikely, however, given Russia's stated opposition to the mission. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he is weighing the legal aspects of an EU deployment, but has also said that he believes the EU should take "primary responsibility" in resolving Kosova's status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28 and 29, 2008). AG

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica lashed out at the EU on February 5, arguing that "this decision to send a mission means that the EU, together with Albanian separatists, is creating a false, Albanian state on Serbian territory." He also accused the EU of "trickery" and of seeking to bribe Serbia into accepting Kosova's claim to statehood, citing the offer made on January 28 by EU foreign ministers to sign a "political agreement" with Serbia that would boost trade, end visa requirements, and ease educational exchanges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). "The EU's proposal to sign a political agreement with Serbia while at the same time sending a mission to break apart our state is a deception aimed at getting Serbia effectively to sign its agreement to Kosovo independence," Kostunica declared. Underlining his argument, Kostunica contended that, by signing the agreement, Serbia would "thus become the first state to indirectly recognize an independent Kosovo." Kostunica also filed a motion on behalf of his party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), for an emergency session of parliament to be held to discuss issues related to Kosova and the planned political agreement with the EU. The EU made the offer of a "political agreement" to Serbia after its members failed to agree to offer Serbia a substantially more significant pact, a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). That move also appeared to sidestep Kostunica's warning to the EU that Serbia would only sign an SAA if the EU did not deploy a mission to Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4, 2008). While the political agreement has been described as equivalent to "three-quarters" of an SAA, it is not -- unlike the SAA -- a formal, standard part of the EU's membership process. AG

Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica's strong opposition to the signing of an accord with the EU has opened up a major rift within the governing coalition, and members of the government are themselves now warning that the government could collapse over the issue. On February 5, a cabinet meeting on Kosova and the EU was aborted after a DSS minister -- Slobodan Samardzic, the minister for Kosovar affairs -- walked out, and Kostunica's call for an extraordinary session of parliament has not been backed by the DSS's two coalition partners, the Democratic Party (DS) and the G17 Plus alliance. New Serbia (NS), the junior partner in the DSS's alliance, has backed the motion. Its leader, Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, said on February 5 that the differences will come to a head within days. February 7 is "D-day," Ilic said, AP reported. February 7 is the day that the EU would like to sign the interim political agreement with Serbia. "If they [the DS and G17 Plus] sign, anything can happen with the government," Ilic continued. In the wake of the presidential election, which Tadic called a referendum on the EU, Kostunica seems extremely unlikely to convince the DS and G17 Plus not to sign the EU accord. "After the referendum confirmation of our country's European orientation, not a single party or politician can prevent what our citizens want and that is that we sign this agreement and join the EU as soon as possible," Bozidar Djelic, a DS member and deputy prime minister, said on February 5. Mladjan Dinkic, the economy minister and leader of G17 Plus, said the same day that "there could not, and would not, be any compromise on Serbia's European future," international and local media reported. Unnamed government sources quoted by local and international media have predicted that one possibility is that the government, which was cobbled together only in May 2007 after 16 weeks of talks, could collapse, paving the way for new elections. That would increase the possibility of the hard-line nationalists, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), forming a government. The SRS is the largest party in parliament, and its leader, Tomislav Nikolic, managed in the February 3 election to come within 3.9 percentage points of ousting Tadic from the presidency, a margin of defeat that was smaller than the 7.8-point gap in their battle for the presidency in 2004. With the possibility of the government collapsing, there is now speculation that the DSS could link up with the SRS. That speculation has been fed by the DSS's refusal to endorse Tadic in his presidential battle with Nikolic, and by the SRS's support for the DSS's call for an extraordinary session of parliament. AG

Bosnia's War Crimes Chamber on February 4 jailed two Bosnian Serb brothers, Ranko and Rajko Vukovic, to 12 years each for killing two Bosnian Muslim civilians near the town of Foca in May 1992, local media reported. Ranko Vukovic was cleared of an additional charge of rape. Foca was the scene of numerous war crimes, including systematic rape, enslavement, torture, and murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, February 20, June 14, September 5, and November 2, 2007). In another, unrelated war crimes trial, a former prime minister of the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, Gojko Klickovic, on January 31 entered a "not guilty" plea. Klickovic was handed over by Serbia in June 2007 to face charges that he "ordered, planned, prepared, aided, and abetted in murder, deportation, forcible transfer, and imprisonment of civilians" in the northern municipality of Bosanska Krupa between 1990 and 1992 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007). Klickovic served as prime minister of the Republika Srpska from May 1996 to January 1998. He also served in the Bosnian Serbs' wartime administration, under Radovan Karadzic. AG

An ethnic Serb who served as a captain in the army of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina in the 1990s was arrested on February 5 for his alleged role in the killing of ethnic-Croatian civilians. Milan Letica, who was the subject of an international arrest warrant, was captured shortly after crossing Croatia's eastern border with Serbia. AFP reported that, according to local media, film shot by soldiers under Letica's command shows Letica standing beside the bodies of civilians killed in 1991 in the village of Glina. AG

Serbian police have detained the vice president of Serbia's soccer association as part of a broader bid to root out corruption in Serbian soccer, local media reported on February 5. Dragan Dzajic, who himself represented Serbia 85 times, was questioned over the embezzlement of 5 million euros ($7.3 million). Two officials from one of Serbia's top teams, Red Star Belgrade, were also detained: Vladimir Cvetkovic and Milos Marinkovic. Dzajic was once the president of Red Star. In late January, police detained Ratko Buturovic, the president of another first-division team, Vojvodina. Buturovic was one of five people questioned by Novi Sad police over their suspected involvement in bribery and match fixing. Two of the suspects are referees. AG

A dispute in Kabul over whether a powerful Afghan militia commander should face trial on criminal charges is exposing the weaknesses of the central government and the rule of law in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's attorney general says he wants to file criminal charges against Abdul Rashid Dostum -- the chief of staff of Afghanistan's armed forces and a powerful ethnic Uzbek militia commander who allegedly abducted his former election campaign manager on February 2.

But Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabit says bringing Dostum to court will be difficult because it probably would lead to renewed factional fighting in northern Afghanistan, where Dostum's militia holds sway. With some Dostum supporters threatening to take up arms if he is brought to trial, the case underscores the absence of the rule of law in parts of the country where warlords still reign.

In an exclusive interview, Sabit told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Dostum will be charged with kidnapping, breaking and entering, and assault.

"In this case, these are not political accusations. It is a criminal case," Sabit said. "According to the results of the police investigation, Dostum and [about 50 of his] militia attacked the home of [his former election campaign manager] Akbar Bay. They illegally entered his home. According to the Afghan constitution, it is an illegal act to break into somebody's home."

"The police reports say [Dostum] beat Akbar Bay and members of his family, and even insulted women in the family. Then [Dostum] abducted Akbar Bay," Sabit said.

But Sabit says Dostum is such a powerful commander in northern Afghanistan that, in the current security environment, he may be above prosecution.

"The law gives me the authority" to prosecute Dostum, Sabit said. "Everybody who commits a criminal act must be brought to justice. But in reality, I must admit that there will be some difficulties. In this war situation, in many cases, it is difficult for us to implement the law. Because of the war there is no law, and you cannot implement the law, in the south of the country or in many districts. Even in those places where the rule of law does exist, sometimes we cannot enforce the law over some people."

Dostum has changed sides and alliances many times during Afghanistan's 30 years of war. He has been a key ally of U.S. forces since late 2001 in the fight against the Taliban. Dostum also became an adviser in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's transitional administration after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

After the presidential election of 2004, Karzai kept Dostum in the central government without appointing him as a minister. Instead, Karzai named Dostum as a special aide and gave him the title of chief of staff of Afghanistan's Armed Forces.

That move was generally regarded as an effort to avoid friction ahead of parliamentary elections in September 2005. But it also has helped reduce clashes between Dostum's militia and rival factions in northern Afghanistan.

The current governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Noor, is among those rivals whose own militia clashed periodically with Dostum's fighters in the struggle to control territory after the Taliban was driven from the north. Noor told Radio Free Afghanistan that some political factions might try use the dispute over the case against Dostum as a pretext for partitioning the country and transforming the Islamic republic into a federation.

"We will not allow anybody to speak on their own as though they represent all of northern Afghanistan," Noor said. "The north is part of Afghanistan. For me, there is no issue of north versus south. Justice is justice. The rule of law is the rule of law. Whenever the rights of people are violated, we will be on the side of the people to defend their rights. But we will not allow anyone to make deals on behalf of the north or to compromise the north [for their own political goals] in the name of federalism or division. The division of this country is an unattainable goal for those people who try to take advantage of this situation."

Meanwhile, Dostum's allies and supporters have threatened violence if he is brought to trial.

On February 3 in Kabul, after Afghan Interior Ministry police surrounded Dostum's house, Dostum's spokesman Mohammad Alem Sayeh rejected the accusations against the militia commander and suggested that some northern areas could slide into a civil war over the dispute.

"If General Dostum is surrounded and someone touches even one of Dostum's hairs, they must know that seven or eight provinces of the north will turn against the government," Sayeh said.

An opposition political movement that Dostum belongs to also has threatened "catastrophic consequences" if he is put on trial. Sayed Hussain Sancharaki is the spokesman for the United National Front of Afghanistan -- a political group formed in 2005 by factional commanders and politicians who once fought against the Taliban regime as the former Northern Alliance.

"General Dostum has a high profile among his people and is one of the famous political and military figures of Afghanistan," Sancharaki said. "He is [President Karzai's] chief of staff for the armed forces. And he is a senior member of the United Front of Afghanistan. It is natural that any kind of action against him will have repercussions. The consequences will be very dangerous -- catastrophic -- for the stability of Afghanistan."

Experts say Dostum is one of several factional militia commanders in northern Afghanistan who have been using the threat of a resurgent Taliban during the past year to procure new weapons and more forcefully protect their interests.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch and a field researcher in Afghanistan who has monitored UN and Afghan government programs to disarm the factional militias, recently told RFE/RL that "what is happening in the north is really the growing Balkanization of the country. It has been an ongoing trend in Afghanistan for warlords who are ostensibly allied with the government to entrench themselves even more fully," Zia-Zarifi said. "A lot of them are now swollen with the narcotics trade -- profits from the sale of poppy and heroin. They have a lot of political clout because many of them have allies in the parliament, if they are not directly members of the parliament. And the next step is to openly flex their military muscle."

Zia-Zarifi says illegal ethnic-Tajik and Hazara militias in the north also appear to be hoarding weapons. He concludes that divisions and mistrust between regional commanders and the central government could exacerbate tensions at a time when the security situation already is on a razor's edge.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to London on February 6 to consult with British leaders about Afghanistan, news agencies reported. She is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband, ahead of meetings with NATO defense and foreign ministers over the next few weeks and a NATO summit in Bucharest in April. Before her arrival, Rice said efforts to coordinate the NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan remain "bumpy," and that the alliance still must "mature" in the relations between members, AP reported. "It's true, and we've made no secret about it, that there are certain allies that are in more dangerous parts of the country, and we believe very strongly that there ought to be a sharing of that burden throughout the alliance," AP quoted Rice as saying. On February 5, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a blunt warning that Canada will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan unless NATO sends reinforcements to the south of the country, where the battle against the Taliban is in full swing. Canada's 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan have shouldered much of the burden and have suffered many casualties. Rice also referred to British diplomat Paddy Ashdown's decision to decline the role of international envoy in Afghanistan, in light of Afghan concerns that the position would undermine the Afghan government's sovereignty. "There's still a desire to have an international figure who can better coordinate the international effort," Rice said, "but we want to be very clear this is a sovereign Afghan government and it has to take its own decisions. But it has a heavy reliance on international support." OR

The United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime (UNODC) says in a report released February 6 that opium production in Afghanistan continues at a strong rate, and that the cultivation of opium poppies is likely in 2008 to be similar to or slightly lower than the record harvest of 2007. UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa said in a statement, quoted by AFP, that it appears the amount of Afghan opium cultivation in 2008 will be "shockingly high." Costa says Europe, Russia, and countries along the Afghan heroin routes should again prepare for major health and security consequences among their populations as a result of Afghan opium production. The report notes that Taliban militants tax opium farmers, mainly in Afghanistan's south, to finance their fight against Afghan government and foreign forces. The BBC quoted the report as stating that Nimroz Province, next to Helmand, is the greatest concern for 2008, with opium cultivation set to rise sharply. PW

Iranian reformists say there will be little competition in the March parliamentary polls, due to the extensive disqualification of hopefuls by Interior Ministry executive boards and supervisory boards appointed by the Guardians Council, a body of clerics and jurists that must validate legislation and elections, Iranian media reported on February 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). Reformist former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi wrote on a website about a "heated" meeting on February 4 or 5 at which reformists and former President Mohammad Khatami discussed the most recent disqualifications, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on February 6. Khatami was informed at the meeting that another 180 reformists have been disqualified by supervisory boards, in addition to those eliminated by executive boards. Abtahi wrote that reports indicate that of 909 prominent reformists who have registered to run in the polls, 138 have been approved so far, and that those candidates are running for just 31 of 290 parliamentary seats, while no reformists are competing for the vast majority of seats. "In some provinces, in order to have a serious contest, they have approved several reformists, to reach the number 138," Abtahi wrote. VS

Reformist campaign coordinator Morteza Haji on February 5 told ISNA that reformists will not have a competitive position in the elections, and that the reformist front is "no longer in a hurry" to present any candidates. Haji also rejected reports that he was initially disqualified and then approved by the Guardians Council, suggesting that he has been definitively disqualified. He said "competition means nothing to us anymore, though we shall complain to the Guardians Council so it becomes clear which body is responsible." He said he believes the Guardians Council has made up its mind about who will stand for election in March. Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai told Fars on February 5 that the current figures on disqualifications and approvals are not definitive, as the council will eventually review decisions made by its own supervisory boards. He said about 30 percent of some 7,500 hopefuls have been approved so far. Many have been disqualified because of flaws in their registration forms or uncertainty over their educational qualifications; Kadkhodai suggested that applicants disqualified for those reasons should submit amended documents to the Guardian Council directly. He said Interior Ministry executive boards initially barred 25 sitting members of parliament from running again, but that that number has been reduced to 20 and might be reduced further. The disqualified parliamentarians are seen as reformists or outspoken critics of the government, though that has not been cited as a reason for their disqualification. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told France's "Le Monde" daily in Tehran on February 1 that "if there were free elections in the United States, if the American people had various choices, not just two, we think they would opt for a different policy than the one implemented now by the United States," the newspaper reported on February 5. Ahmadinejad said he hopes U.S. leaders will "receive the message of the American people, who want change." When the "Le Monde" correspondent suggested that Iranians want greater democracy, Ahmadinejad responded that they want that and "something more elevated...human dignity...justice...purity." When asked about Iranian support for radical groups like Hizballah or Hamas, and Iran's failure to back international efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or stabilize Lebanon, he said Iran has good relations with all Lebanese groups and opposes foreign intervention in its affairs, though "we shall help all those who act in line with justice." Ahmadinejad described the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip as the "legal government of Palestine," while Iran, he added, "is the only country" that backs it. He accused the great powers of helping "the Zionists," who, he said, oppress the Palestinians. "It is not European or American initiatives that will help resolve the problem," Ahmadinejad said. "One has to the source of the conflict...if we wish to sort out this problem." He continued: "UN recognition of [Israel] does not make that recognition legitimate. An artificial, invented nation will not last. They have to leave that territory," Ahmadinejad said. VS

A Tehran provincial court has sentenced a 22-year-old man named Mohsen to death for drinking alcohol, which is banned by Iran's religious authorities, Radio Farda reported on February 5, citing Iranian agency reports. The judge, Jalil Jalili, told ISNA on February 5 that this was the fourth time Mohsen was caught drinking, and the law allows a death sentence after a third case of drunkenness or consumption of alcohol. In the previous cases, Mohsen in 2006 was sentenced three times to be whipped, Radio Farda stated. His lawyer, Aziz Nokandei, told ISNA he was arrested for the fourth time, at an unspecified date, when he came out of his house drunk and started shouting in the street. Rights activist Abdolkarim Lahiji told Radio Farda on February 5 that the sentence is cruel but theoretically legal, though a higher court must still approve it. He said a number of recent harsh court sentences indicate the current dominance in Iran of hard-line religious elements. VS

Ali al-Dabbagh told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on February 5 that attacks across Baghdad were significantly lower in January 2008 than in January last year. While nearly 1,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in January 2007, only 16 died in similar attacks in January, he said, while the number wounded in terrorist attacks dropped from 2,200 to 50. Al-Dabbagh credited better cooperation between civilians and Iraqi police and security forces for the improved security environment. He added that security forces are far better equipped to carry out their jobs than they were a year ago. Asked when Iraqi forces will assume responsibility for security at the Baghdad airport, al-Dabbagh said sometime this year. As for the Iraqi government taking responsibility for security across Baghdad Governorate, al-Dabbagh said that Iraqi and U.S. officials are continuously reviewing the situation on the ground. He said when it becomes clear that Iraqi forces are capable of handling security in Baghdad, the issue will be discussed with multinational forces. KR

Al-Arabiyah television aired a video on February 5 showing children under the age of 12 training at an Al-Qaeda camp near Khan Bani Sa'd in Diyala Governorate. According to the television report, the children, all Iraqis aged 10 to 12, are trained to attack, beat, rob, and possibly kill people. Reacting to the video, Defense Ministry spokesman Muhammad al-Askari asked Al-Arabiyah if Al-Qaeda "calls this a new strategy? What kind of strategy is this? Are these the weapons of Al-Qaeda? Is this the new generation of mujahedin?" Al-Askari said the Iraqi public has better goals for its youth. The pan-Arab satellite news channel also aired footage of a security operation that freed a child who was kidnapped in Kirkuk. The boy's captors had threatened to behead him unless they received $100,000. KR

The Iraqi Islamic Party said in a February 5 statement on its website that an eight-person Iranian intelligence group has entered Diyala Governorate. The party quoted an unidentified source as saying the Iranians arrived with four covered trucks via the Naft Khaneh border crossing south of Khanaqin. The source speculated that the trucks were loaded with weapons and explosives. The statement further contended that the trucks entered Diyala with the knowledge and aid of the governorate's police chief, Ghanim al-Qurayshi, and called for him to be prosecuted as a war criminal. Sunnis in Diyala have accused Al-Qurayshi, who is a Shi'a, of exploiting his position to the advantage of Shi'a residents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). Meanwhile, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 5 that al-Qurayshi escaped an attempted assassination in Ba'qubah the same day. The police chief was reportedly targeted in a roadside bomb attack. KR

Abu Zaynab al-Qar'awi, the spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Al-Qadisiyah Governorate, has accused local media of failing to report attacks on Sadrists by rogue security forces, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 5. Al-Qar'awi said media outlets in the provincial capital of Al-Diwaniyah repeat the anti-Sadr rhetoric spouted by local government officials, but fail to report the arrest and torture of al-Sadr loyalists by the security forces. Al-Qar'awi alleged that security forces in the governorate also displace families, burn homes, and use torture against detainees. KR