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Newsline - February 11, 2008

Speaking to the 44th annual Munich Conference on Security Policy on February 10, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia expects to be among the world's five biggest economies by 2020, but insisted that Russia's bid to raise its global profile does not pose a security threat to other countries, RFE/RL reported. In his speech, delivered in English, Ivanov said Russia will defend its national interests but is not seeking confrontations. "We do not intend to meet this challenge by establishing military blocs or engaging in open confrontation with our partners," he said. Ivanov also said Moscow will continue to fulfill its commitments regarding energy and called for the United States and Russia to lead new discussions on controlling and reducing nuclear weapons and replacing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-1). "Proliferation is out of the tube," he said. "And I am sure the United States and Russia should be the leaders in making the new rules of the game -- much stricter -- concerning weapons of mass destruction and missile technologies." Ivanov warned that a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova's ethnic-Albanian leadership would "open a Pandora's box." However, he said later that a declaration of independence from Serbia by Kosova would not prompt Moscow to recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia "the next day," the "Financial Times" reported on February 11. During last year's Munich security conference, President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of trying "to implement a unipolar concept of the world" and "unilateral, often illegitimate actions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). JB

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk met in Moscow on February 8 with President Putin and other Russian officials in talks that were conciliatory in tone but apparently produced no breakthroughs. "Despite all the problems in our bilateral relations, I won't overdramatize them," AP quoted Putin as saying. "Despite all our efforts to spoil these relations, we have failed to do so." According to AP, Tusk said Putin acknowledged Poland's right to host defense facilities but said Russia would like to monitor the U.S. missile-defense site Poland has agreed in principle to host in order to make sure it does not threaten Russian interests. "We said that it is a topic open to discussion, so that the tension around this installation, if it is built, is as small as possible," Tusk said. Prior to his trip to Moscow, Tusk told Interfax that Poland, if it joins the U.S. missile-defense system, has no intention of threatening Russia or hosting a NATO military base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 5, 6 and 8, 2008). In a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, Tusk reaffirmed Poland's opposition to the Nord Stream project, a Russian-German plan to build a natural-gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that would bypass the current route through Poland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). Zubkov insisted Nord Stream will not harm Poland. Still, Zubkov said relations with Poland have improved since Tusk took office. Russia lifted its ban on Polish meat exports in December and Tusk said Poland may soon lift its veto on the EU-Russia talks. Tusk also met with First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, AP reported. JB

In a February 8 speech to an expanded meeting of the advisory State Council on the theme of "Russia's development strategy through to 2020," President Putin devoted a significant amount of time to the putative ills of the 1990s. According to a transcript of the speech posted on, Putin described Russia in the 1990s as a country ravaged by inflation, devaluation, and default; by "terrorists" who "unleashed a large-scale civil war...insolently invading Daghestan and blowing up homes in Russian cities"; and by "outside forces" who "openly" incited "separatists" in order to weaken Russia. State power was "ineffective," he said, with much of the economy "in the hands of oligarchs or openly criminal organizations" and Russian media outlets often acting "in the interests of particular corporate groups." Putin claimed that since he came to power in 2000, the war in the North Caucasus has been ended and "a common legal space" has been reestablished in the country. He also claimed that "a clear delimitation of powers between the federal, regional, and local authorities" has been established, with a "large part of the responsibilities for social and economic development" being transferred "to the regional and local authorities," marking "a substantial decentralization of power." Putin also took credit for ending "the harmful practice that saw state decisions made under pressure from commodities and financial monopolies, media magnates, foreign political circles, and shameless populists." Meanwhile, "Russia has returned to the world stage as a strong state, a country that others heed and that can stand up for itself," he said, while its economy has been "growing steadily," with GDP growing 8.1 percent last year and real incomes growing 2 1/2 times during the past eight years. JB

Still, Putin said Russia must not "become complacent," and he stressed the need to move beyond an economy based on natural resources and commodities to "a path of innovative development based on one of our biggest competitive advantages -- realization of our human potential." He called it "a disgrace" that one in every two Russian men dies before the age of 60 and said that "everything in our power" must be done to raise the average life expectancy to 75 by 2020. He also said that the middle class "should make up at least 60 percent and perhaps even 70 percent of our society by 2020," that the "unacceptable" gap between rich and poor must be narrowed by 2020, that the Russian economy's main sectors "need to achieve at least a fourfold increase in labor productivity over the next 12 years" and that Russia ultimately "must become one of the world's financial centers." He conceded that "the state system today is weighed down by bureaucracy and corruption" and that one of the biggest problems in state management is "excessive centralization." He called for doing away with "excessive administrative pressure on the economy" and for establishing "competitive conditions for attracting the best and the brightest into the civil service" and making them "more accountable to society." In the area of defense, Putin said Russia in the coming years will start producing "new types of weapons" that are "just as good and in some cases even surpass those of other countries," but will ensure defense spending is not "to the detriment of our social and economic-development priorities." JB

"Vedomosti" on February 11 quoted Pavel Kudyukin of the Higher School of Economics as saying that the ambitious nature of the goals President Putin put forward in his speech suggests that Putin sees himself remaining "national leader" regardless of what post he occupies in the future. Kudyukin said this may lead to "contradictions" if Putin becomes prime minister, with responsibility over mainly "operational tasks." As to the substance of the speech, Aleksandr Golts noted in a commentary posted by the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" website on February 8 that the 1990s now occupy "in the official propaganda the place that the 'cursed Tsarist past' occupied in Soviet propaganda." Golts added: "Our present, as usual, is splendid. And the picture of the future is simply cribbed from the program of the KPSS [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], which promised that the current generation of Soviet people will live under communism." Putin "judiciously did not define concretely the miraculous means by which he will manage to curb the exorbitant appetites of the bureaucracy he has created," Golts wrote. "Having acknowledged the need to improve state management, he did not consider it necessary to explain how he plans to fight corruption, how to overcome excessive centralization, which is the meaning and essence of the vertical of power created by him." "Vedomosti," it should be noted, printed seven excerpts from Putin's speech side-by-side with strikingly similar excerpts from a 1967 speech by then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. JB

Former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan has been transferred from Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina remand prison to a civilian clinic, "Kommersant" reported on February 11. However, according to the newspaper, the transfer was carried out secretly so that Aleksanyan's own lawyers were only able to find out to which clinic he had been transferred after several days of searching. As of February 10, however, they were not yet able to see their client, who is suffering from AIDS, terminal lymphoma, and possible tuberculosis. RIA Novosti on February 11 quoted Yunus Amayev, head of the penitentiary service in the Siberian region of Chita, where Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion, as saying that Khodorkovsky has not yet ended the hunger strike he began almost two weeks ago in support of Aleksanyan. Meanwhile, former Yukos co-owner Leonid Nevzlin wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon claiming that people from Yukos "have become political hostages without rights, overtly discriminated against by the Russian government," Israel's "Jerusalem Post" reported on February 11. In the letter, dated February 7, Nevzlin wrote that since Khodorkovsky's arrest in 2003, "over 40 people were either arrested on fabricated charges or forced to leave the country, and are under constant threat of physical elimination." Nevzlin himself evaded arrest in Russia by fleeing to Israel. With the Aleksanyan case, he added, Russian authorities have "now advanced to the next stage [from] hostage taking: killing hostages." JB

Russia's fractious democrats may attempt a new round of negotiations aimed at uniting their ranks this spring, "Vedomosti" reported on February 11. A decision to form a new democratic coalition may be made at a large conference of democratic forces in St. Petersburg on March 22. On February 7, Nikita Belykh, head of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov spoke in favor of convening such a meeting. According to Belykh, a group of people, including SPS political council member and former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin and Maksim Reznik of Yabloko, former State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, former chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov, and veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, has been meeting regularly since December's State Duma elections. The idea of holding a large conference came up during these meetings and invitations were sent to Yabloko members and associates of Ryzhkov, Kasparov, Kasyanov, and various human rights activists. While Yabloko's leadership announced it will not participate in such a conference and said its members should likewise boycott it, Yashin said Yabloko members will nonetheless participate. However, Yevgeny Minchenko of the International Institute for Political Expertise told "Vedomosti" that the democrats should "adjourn" rather than unite, given that the classical liberal electorate in Russia has "died" -- with some of its voters becoming government supporters and others becoming marginalized. JB

Abdul-Malik Dishni, commander of the Urus-Martan sector of the North Caucasus resistance, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on February 8 that his fighters have killed a Russian Interior Ministry contract servicemen whom they captured on January 30. Dishni said the slaying was carried out in retaliation for the abduction, torture, and killing of two Chechen sisters in Grozny. In a similar statement posted the same day on, Dishni said that the resistance is prepared to pay for information about any "betrayer of Islam" ("murtad") known to have killed a Muslim woman. LF

An extensive probe undertaken by the Chechen Prosecutor-General's Office has failed to confirm that inmates at the infamous Chernokozovo prison are being subjected to beatings and torture, spokeswoman Khava Dugayeva was quoted as telling on February 9. She said a thorough inspection of the facility failed to identify any of the over 100 prisoners who Ruslan Kutayev, head of the International Committee for Problems of the North Caucasus, said last month signed a collective complaint about conditions in Chernokozovo. An earlier investigation undertaken by the office of Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev similarly failed to identify any prisoners willing to admit they signed the collective letter of complaint Kutayev said he received (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 16 and 17, 2008). Dugayeva admitted, however, that some prisoners complained that they were sentenced unjustly or that courts fail to react promptly to their appeals. She also confirmed that HIV-infected prisoners share cells with those who are healthy, but pointed out that legislation on prison conditions does not make provision for the two categories to be housed separately. LF

Meeting in Nazran on February 9 and 10 respectively, over 700 members of the Sultygov clan (teyp) and 600 members of the Nalgiyev clan affirmed their official rejection of the planned March 2 elections to a new republican parliament, in which all 27 deputies are to be elected under the party-list system, and selected their own candidates to represent them in the new legislature, the independent website reported. The two men chosen are Magomed Khazbiyev (representing the Nalgiyevs) and Magomed-Bashir Sultygov. The Nalgiyev clan also adopted a formal vote of no confidence in Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov on the grounds of his "betrayal of the Ingush people." At a meeting on February 10 in the village of Inarki in Malgobek Raion, the Kartoyev clan similarly selected Akhmed Kartoyev as its parliamentary representative. The Kartoyevs also adopted an appeal to President Zyazikov in his capacity as head of the republican chapter of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party to include a clan representative on the Unified Russia party list for the March 2 ballot. They warned that if that request is rejected, they will not vote on March 2. The Khalukhayev clan held a meeting on February 10 in Nasyr-Kort on the southeastern outskirts of Nazran, also with the aim of selecting a parliamentary representative; no details of that meeting are yet available. The Aushev clan selected its parliament representative on February 2 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 8, 2008). LF

Six participants in the January 26 fighting in Nazran with police and Interior Ministry troops who intervened to prevent a planned mass meeting have been formally charged with organizing and participating in mass unrest, reported on February 8. The website reported on February 8 that dozens of persons apprehended on January 26 remain in detention, and their relatives plan a protest to secure their release. But the office of Ingushetia's prosecutor, Yury Turygin, denied that dozens of people are still detained, while human rights activist Aslambek Apayev of the Moscow Helsinki Group was quoted by on February 8 as saying he believes the number is no higher than seven, although he does not know their names. LF

Kalmykia's election commission registered on February 8 the list of Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) candidates for the elections to a new republican parliament to be held on March 2, concurrently with the Russian presidential ballot, reported. Half the 30 candidates on the list are not party members, but the KPRF hopes by including candidates from other parties in opposition to President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to win at least 30 percent of the mandates in the new 24-member legislature. But political analyst Andrei Serenko pointed out on February 10 that presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Grigory Rapota visited Kalmykia on February 6 and held two high-profile meetings to which Elista Mayor Rady Burulov, Ilyumzhinov's main political rival, was not invited, reported. Serenko construed that snub as an expression of President Putin's unequivocal support for Ilyumzhinov in his ongoing standoff with Burulov, who called on him last month to resign as president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11 and 30, 2008). LF

The roof and the top two stories of the Justice Ministry building in Yerevan were badly damaged by fire early on February 9, Armenian and Russian news agencies reported. A large amount of documentation and records, some concerning suits filed against the Republic of Armenia in the European Court of Human Rights, was destroyed in the blaze, reported on February 10, quoting Armenia Today. The building dates from the 1930s; no one was injured in the blaze, which was apparently caused by an electrical fault. LF

Azerbaijan has no choice but to raise the price it charges for natural gas to bring it into line with world prices, Industry and Energy Minister Natiq Aliyev told journalists in Baku on February 11, and reported. Aliyev noted that Azerbaijan currently charges $120 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, but plans to raise the price to between $180-$200. He said the price Georgia will be charged for gas supplies in 2008 is currently under discussion; Georgia receives approximately 1.3 million cubic meters of gas per day from the offshore Shah Deniz field. Similar talks will also be started with Turkey. Russia's Gazprom last month registered an interest in buying gas from Shah Deniz, but those purchases would begin only when the second stage of exploitation gets under way, which is unlikely before 2012 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). LF

Leaders of the nine parties represented in the opposition National Council decided late on February 10 not to resume talks on the 17-point memorandum the council has addressed to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008) until the Georgian authorities meet three key demands, Georgian media reported. Those demands are the release of 43 prisoners, including five detained during the standoff between police and opposition supporters in Tbilisi on November 7; and the immediate dismissal of Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili and of Tamara Kintsurashvili, the general director of Georgian Public Television. The National Council has held two meetings with Burjanadze to discuss the memorandum; a third was scheduled for February 11 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 8, 2008). Burjanadze was quoted by as terming the opposition's decision "strange" and "incomprehensible," given that the first two rounds of talks were "actually very constructive." LF

British Ambassador to Georgia Denis Keefe met on February 8 in Sukhum(i), capital of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, with de facto Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba and Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, and the following day with President Sergei Bagapsh, and reported. Britain is one of the five members of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group that seeks to mediate a solution of the Abkhaz conflict. Keefe was quoted as referring to the most recent report to the UN Security Council by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which noted that efforts to resolve the conflict are virtually deadlocked (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 1, 2008). But both Shamba and Bagapsh made clear that a resumption of talks is contingent on full compliance by Georgia with the 1994 UN-mediated cease-fire and disengagement of forces agreement, which Abkhazia claims Georgia has violated by deploying Interior Ministry troops to the Kodori Gorge. Speaking on February 9 at the 44th annual Munich Conference on Security Policy, Konstantin Kosachyov, who is chairman of the Russian State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed the recent call by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for Georgia to sign a formal pledge of nonresumption of hostilities with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). Kosachyov reasoned that doing so would demonstrate that President Mikheil Saakashvili is sincere in saying he hopes for improved relations with Russia. He added that Russia "could make some reciprocal steps" in response to such a legally binding international agreement, but did not elaborate. LF

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov met on February 8 in Astana with his visiting French counterpart Francois Fillon and discussed measures designed to expand bilateral trade and boost energy cooperation between the two countries, Kazakh Television reported. They signed a set of four bilateral agreements, including a broad "strategic partnership" accord and others covering cooperation in the tourism and transportation sectors. Masimov told reporters after the meeting that France is particularly interested in securing projects to develop Kazakhstan's railway network and energy infrastructure, including "boosting cooperation in the nuclear industry." For his part, Fillon said that he sees "a great potential for the further development of bilateral relations" and noted that "many French companies are carrying out investment projects," adding that France intends to expand investment in Kazakhstan, and he pledged to deepen ties during France's upcoming chairmanship of the European Union later this year. During his stay in Kazakhstan, Fillon also met with the speaker of the upper house of parliament, Qasymzhomart Toqaev, and promised to work on the "development of Kazakh-French interparliamentary ties," as well as extending an invitation to the speaker to visit France. Industry and Trade Minister Galym Orazbakov announced that some 12 French companies have expressed interest in operating and investing in new companies dealing in pharmaceuticals, construction, and construction materials. Fillon's visit coincided with the opening of a new French embassy and the holding of a business forum. RG

In a statement in Bishkek, U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Marie Yovanovitch on February 8 criticized the Kyrgyz Constitution as "a step backwards" in contributing to a "policy of decentralization of power," according to the website. Speaking during a conference on local self-government, Yovanovitch explained that "the new Kyrgyz Constitution is a step backwards in this area," adding that "instead of directly electing" local leaders, the new constitution will allow the president to freely appoint and dismiss district-level officials, which "undermines the notion of local governance itself." She went on to add that "experience shows that without an effective control on the part of the public, the vertical chain of power increases the likelihood of making bad decisions." Instead, the ambassador affirmed that the United States hopes that draft laws on self-government, and administrative and territorial arrangements will address this problem and "clearly divide the functions of the local and central authorities." RG

After meeting with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Emomali Rahmon on February 10 concluded a two-day state visit to Iran, ITAR-TASS reported. Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Tehran following his meeting with the senior leadership, Rahmon said that Ahmadinejad proposed to construct a new hydroelectric power station in southern Tajikistan. He added that his talks with the Iranians focused on expanding bilateral cooperation in the areas of "transport, energy, joint investment, and culture." The Tajik delegation also reportedly reiterated the need for the "speeding up" of the Iranian construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station, warning of a recent energy crisis involving a serious decline in the availability of electricity in Tajikistan, Asia-Plus reported. RG

For the first time in a decade, drivers in Turkmenistan on February 9 waited in long lines at gas stations in an attempt to stock up on gasoline prior to a planned price increase set to be introduced on February 11, Turkmen Television and ITAR-TASS reported. According to the terms of a presidential decree introduced on February 8, gasoline prices are to increase by some eight times, from the current level of about 400 manats ($.02) per liter to 3,100 manats ($.15), although drivers will also be provided with a monthly coupon-based allowance of 120 free liters of gas. The monthly ration system also provides 200 liters of free gas to drivers of trucks and buses, and 40 liters for motorcycle owners. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree on February 8 appointing Ryhor Vasilevich to replace Pyotr Miklashevich as prosecutor-general and for Miklashevich to replace Vasilevich as chairman of the Constitutional Court, Belapan reported. Miklashevich has served as prosecutor-general since November 2004, and prior to that he was first deputy chairman of the Supreme Court. Vasilevich headed the Constitutional Court from January 1997 to January 2008, when his term expired. The appointments must be approved by the Council of the Republic, the upper chamber of Belarus's legislature. AM

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has expressed alarm about Warsaw's plans, under a law called the Polish Charter, to grant extensive privileges to people of Polish origin who live in post-Soviet states, Belapan reported on February 8. Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou said the previous day that the enforcement of the law could "seriously destabilize interethnic relations in our country, spark tensions in Belarusian society, disrupt its stability, and give rise to mistrust between Belarusian nationals of different descent." The Polish Charter was adopted by the Polish parliament in September 2007 and will take effect in March. The law grants people of Polish origin free multientry visas, a 37 percent discount on rail travel in Poland, and rights to employment, setting up a company, and studying in Poland similar to those enjoyed by Polish citizens. Charters will be issued to applicants for a 10-year period with a possible further extension of another 10 years. According to Polish official statistics, 900,000 people of Polish origin live in Belarus, though Belarus's 1999 census registered only 400,000. AM

A Homel district court has suspended the military service of Dzmitry Zhaleznichenka, a member of Belarusian Popular Front, who was recently expelled from Homel State University and hastily drafted into the army, Belapan reported on February 8. The court upheld an appeal filed by Zhaleznichenka's mother against the Homel district military recruitment board. Meanwhile, Zhaleznichenka remains with his military unit, since the recruitment board that drafted him dissolved after fulfilling its mission and now it is unclear who should carry out the court's ruling. Zhaleznichenka on February 9 refused to take the military oath, insisting that his recruitment was unlawful. "I did not take the oath, so that they will not be able to accuse me of losing some gun and prosecute me," Zhaleznichenka said. "I do not refuse to serve my people, but I will do this legally, when, for instance, I am drafted upon graduation from university," he said. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko on February 8 asked Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to ensure that supplies of natural gas to Ukraine are not interrupted, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko was reportedly responding to a telegram sent to him by Aleksei Miller, the CEO of Russian gas giant Gazprom, in which Miller asked Yushchenko to help resolve Ukrainian-Russian gas-delivery issues. Miller accused Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's state-owned gas company, of the unsanctioned pumping of gas from Russian arterial pipelines and delays in payments for gas already delivered to Ukraine. Miller threatened that Russia will cut off gas supplies to Ukraine on February 11 unless Naftohaz Ukrayiny pays its debts and signs the necessary agreements on gas supplies. First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov denied on February 10 that Ukraine pumps Russian gas in an unsanctioned way and said Naftohaz Ukrayiny is ready to pay debts incurred by the former government in exchange for direct contracts on gas supplies with Gazprom. Under the current gas-delivery scheme, Gazprom supplies gas to Ukraine through the RosUkrEnergo and UkrGazEnergo intermediary companies. AM

Viktor Yanukovych, former Ukrainian prime minister and the leader of the opposition Party of Regions, said on February 9 that there are two ways to resolve the ongoing parliamentary crisis: either hold early parliamentary elections again, or change the makeup of the ruling coalition, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "How would the [450-seat] parliament, whose majority comprises 227 deputies, be able to work?" Yanukovych told Ukrainian television channels. Yanukovych said that the answer "is lying on the surface" and consists of repeat preterm elections, but "when and how it would be conducted -- this is a question for lawyers." Responding to a question on possible changes in the coalition, Yanukovych said that he does not exclude them but added that it is only speculation. AM

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on February 9 detained former Transportation Minister Mykola Rudkovskyy on charges of abuse of office during his term, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The SBU said that the prosecutor investigating the case asked the court to detain Rudkovskyy and the court upheld the request. The SBU also said that Rudkovskyy's detention was in line with legislation, in response to claims by Viktoria Butenko, Rudkovskyy's spokeswoman, that Rudkovskyy was taken from the hospital by unidentified masked men. The claims prompted Rudkovskyy's family to notify the Kyiv prosecutor about a possible kidnapping. AM

Kosova will declare independence within days, Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, said on February 8. In a written statement, Samardzic said that "the government of Serbia is receiving more and more relevant information" that Kosovo's government will "illegally declare the unilateral independence of Kosovo on Sunday, February 17." According to the "Los Angeles Times" on February 8, unnamed "European and U.S. diplomats at the UN" have also said the same, as did unnamed "EU officials" quoted in a report by Kosovar public television on February 8. Samardzic issued his statement after meeting in Belgrade with a senior EU official, Stefan Lehne, to discuss the EU's plan to deploy a mission to Kosova, a plan that is at the core of Serbia's current political crisis. Samardzic gave no indication that Lehne spoke with him about a date for a declaration of independence, which most EU states are expected to support. It is also unclear whether Samardzic reflects majority opinion within the Serbian government: he represents the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which is in the throes of a dispute with the government's other main party, the Democratic Party (DS), about signing an agreement with the EU. Like other DSS members, Samardzic opposes any accord with the EU at this stage, arguing that it would amount to a "signature for the independence of Kosovo," local and international media reported. European foreign ministers on January 28 established the legal, financial, and operational basis for the deployment of a mission, which will be called EULEX. AG

The date of a Kosovar declaration has been the subject of speculation for months, with estimates made by Kosovar leaders and Western diplomats suggesting any date between now and late March. Kosova's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, said on February 8 -- after a meeting with the head of the UN Mission in Kosova, Joachim Ruecker -- that "independence is very close," local and international media reported. Kosovar leaders have long talked of a declaration being made soon, culminating in January with Thaci stating that a declaration would be made "within days." He then said, on January 31, that a declaration was "not imminent" and that Kosova's new constitution and state symbols should be in place first (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). The Kosovar speaker of parliament, Jakup Krasniqi, said on February 7 the "proclamation" will be made in February, local media reported. The notion of February 17 as a date has gained currency because it would come after the inauguration of Boris Tadic as Serbia's president, on February 15, and would immediately be followed, on February 18, by a meeting of EU leaders. Thaci predicted on February 8 that "about 100 countries are ready to recognize Kosova's independence immediately after we declare it. We will have a powerful and massive recognition." All of this shows, he said, that Kosova's independence "is now a done deal." Thaci claimed to have received "confirmation" from all those countries. Thaci supplemented his comments on February 9, saying, according to KosovaLive, that "Western countries are competing to be the first to recognize the state of Kosova." AG

The most powerful ethnic-Serbian politician in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, said on February 8 that if Kosova becomes a state, "the ultimate solution should end with northern Kosovo joining Serbia." Most of Kosova's ethnic Serbs live in the north of Kosova, which remains a Serbian province but has been administered by the UN since 1999. However, Dodik, who is the prime minister of the Republika Srpska, reiterated his opposition to independence for Kosova. Dodik's comment distances him from the position of Serbia's leading politicians, all of whom refuse in public to countenance anything other than continued Serbian sovereignty over the whole of Kosova. In 2006, Dodik threatened to hold a referendum on the possibility of the Republika Srpska seceding from Bosnia, and in August 2007 he warned that nobody should expect there to be no further territorial changes in the Balkans should Kosova gain independence, a warning that prompted the international community's high representative in Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak, to threaten him with sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). Dodik also indicated in December that he would favor partition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007). AG

An exhibition of Kosovar Albanian art in Belgrade was canceled on February 7 after roughly 100 Serbian nationalists tried to break into the gallery. AFP reported that they were prevented only by riot police. However, one protester managed to enter the gallery and destroy one of the exhibits. The demonstrators, who belong to the radical group Obraz (Pride), lionize two of the most notorious figures of the Balkan wars, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Milorad "Legija" Lukovic-Ulemek, a onetime leader of a paramilitary group now in jail for his role in, for example, the assassinations of Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. The aim of the exhibition, which showed the work of 11 young artists, was to improve relations between the groups. The exhibition was previously shown in Serbia's second-largest city, Novi Sad. No incidents were reported there. AG

It isn't hard to find examples of Russian First Deputy Prime Minister and all-but-certain presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev making sweeping affirmations of liberal values.

"Today we are building new institutions based on the fundamental principles of full democracy," Medvedev told the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2007, making a point of speaking this paragraph of his speech in English. "This democracy requires no additional definition. This democracy is effective and is based on the principles of the market economy, supremacy of the law, and government that is accountable to the rest of society. We are fully aware that no undemocratic country has ever become truly prosperous, and this for the simple reason that it is better to have freedom than not to have it."

For those who missed the message the first time around, this excerpt is featured prominently at the top of the English-language page of Medvedev's campaign website ( So, too, is a translated version of a July 2007 interview with "Ekspert," in which Medvedev opines that "adding words to further define the term 'democracy' creates an odd aftertaste and gives rise to the thought that perhaps what is meant is some kind of different, unconventional democracy."

Observers often note that Medvedev's advocacy of a democracy that "requires no additional definition" would seem to be a rejection of the semiofficial ideology of "sovereign democracy" that is the brainchild of President Vladimir Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, and that is seen as the philosophical justification for the rapid-fire consolidation of government power within Putin's power vertical.

When Medvedev was anointed as Putin's successor in January, many were cautiously optimistic that a new political trend could be in the offing, although no one believed the heir would stray far from Putin's line. The naming of the relatively liberal technocrat was welcomed as a favorable alternative to silovik Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov or other hard-line presidential also-rans. headlined its coverage of Medvedev's christening simply: "100 Times Better Than Ivanov."

Leaders of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces were harshly critical of the Byzantine way in which Medvedev is being brought to power, but offered relatively little criticism of the man himself.

Medvedev won plaudits again last month with his first major campaign event, a speech before Kremlin-friendly civil-society activists. During that address, Medvedev -- a lawyer by training -- lamented Russia's tradition of "legal nihilism," a curse that "goes back to the dawn of time in Russia." Medvedev noted that Russia exceeds all European countries in terms of "disregard for the law," both on the part of citizens and of officials.

However, he offered no solutions to the problem, saying merely, "We need to understand clearly: if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one." In a subsequent speech to the Association of Lawyers of Russia, Medvedev said the key to overcoming legal nihilism lies in organizing "a system of legal education that reaches out to schools, universities, and the media, getting them all involved." In the speech to civil-society advocates, he paid lip service to the idea of "a powerful and independent media," but speaking to the lawyers he said a key component of his legal-education system will be a new state-controlled television channel, Law TV.

Expanding the state media sector to combat legal nihilism shows a distinct lack of imagination that could ultimately doom Medvedev's efforts, even if he is sincere. Fundamentally, however, there's good reason to believe he's not. Medvedev was right to note in his speech to civil-society activists that legal nihilism is a product of deep-seated public cynicism, a cynicism that has been cultivated by centuries of inept, closed, and unaccountable government. But he seems unwilling or unable to accept that he has now become a key component of that unaccountable system, and a key beneficiary of it. As a result, his declarations -- to the extent that anyone pays attention to them in the context of a political system where everything is predetermined -- merely add to the public's distrust.

In democratic systems where the electorate bestows legitimacy on the elected, politicians must state their positions publicly before they are elected. Medvedev, however, is taking a different tack, playing by the rules of a corrupted system. He has declined to participate in election debates. He has failed to speak out against the state media, which are giving him exponentially more coverage than they are granting his opponents. He has watched silently as rigged election laws have been used to sideline former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and others who sought to participate in the presidential election. He has said nothing as opposition figures have been harassed and jailed and rallies violently broken up. He has, in short, accepted the advantages of an undemocratic, nihilistic system as if they were his due.

Of course, it is too much to expect that, prior to assuming power, Medvedev would break with the current system, even if he were secretly bent on, as he said in Davos, "building new institutions based on the fundamental principles of full democracy." But he has clearly passed on many opportunities to make forceful declarations in favor of those principles.

And there are signs that the public, although resigned to Medvedev's ascendancy and pleased with the prospect of continued stability, is not convinced by his democratic pronouncements. A poll last month asked voters to characterize Medvedev. About 40 percent of respondents mentioned his "intellect," while the same number touted his "professionalism." Just 11 percent, however, cited his "honesty."

Speaking at the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy on February 10, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned European allies that ignoring Afghanistan's Taliban insurrection will enhance Islamic extremism around the world, AFP reported. "I am worried that this continent may not realize the importance of the direct threat to European security," Gates said. Troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force have been fighting a growing Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan. Gates warned that success for the Taliban would be a real threat to European countries. "Imagine if Islamic terrorists had managed to strike your [European] capitals on the same scale as they struck in New York," Gates said. "Imagine if they had laid their hands on weapons and materials with even greater destructive capability, weapons of the sort all too easily accessible in the world today." Gates also warned that Islamic extremists worldwide would receive a huge morale boost if NATO's efforts to stamp out Islamic extremists from Afghanistan falter. AT

Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Kristin Melsom said on February 10 that Norway has closed its embassy in Kabul, AP reported, and it will stay closed until further notice. Norway has been singled out by Al-Qaeda because of its deployment in Afghanistan and the promise made by Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strom-Erichsen that Norway will add 200 extra troops to its 500 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. AT

Some 3,000 young Afghans marched through the streets of Kabul protesting the government's ban on GoldQuest, an international money-making scheme, AFP reported on February 10. The protesters marched to the gates of the presidential palace in Kabul and demanded that the government lift the ban on the Afghan version of the Internet-based QuestNet pyramid scheme. Najmudin Fayaz, the head of the Afghan Quest Union, told reporters the union started two years ago with 600 members, which has grown to 21,000. "We have been active for two years and we have a legitimate license," Fayaz added. "If you cannot provide us jobs, don't take our jobs," one banner held up by demonstrators said. AT

The strict vetting and extensive disqualifications of hopefuls ahead of Iran's March parliamentary elections has discouraged reformists, and even prompted objections by conservatives who have generally been immune to disqualifications, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 6, and 7, 2008). Most of the disqualified have been reformists or unknown applicants in provinces, who -- according to vetting agents appointed by the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council, a body of jurists and clerics -- had problems with their application forms, records, or reputations that made them ineligible to run for parliament. Ahmad Tavakkoli, a prominent conservative lawmaker and head of the parliamentary research center, has said a flawed registration process and inexperienced ministry agents have resulted in the violation of the rights and reputations of respectable people, Radio Farda reported on February 10. This, he said, will affect turnout in the elections, scheduled for March 14. On February 7, Hasan Khomeini, the grandson of the late revolutionary leader and founder of Iran's postrevolutionary regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, also expressed regret at the elimination of hopefuls; he was speaking after meeting with members of the Participation Front, a relatively outspoken reformist party whose members are usually systematically excluded from elections. He has told the weekly "Shahrvand-i Emruz" that the late Ayatollah Khomeini banned the military from entering politics, and urged all the ayatollah's self-declared followers to be "sensitive" to any military role in politics, Radio Farda reported on February 10. He was apparently responding to recent remarks made by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, and the head of the armed forces joint headquarters, Hasan Firuzabadi, both of whom have made clear their antipathy to reformists. VS

The spokesman for the Guardians Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, said in Tehran on February 9 that some 3,000 disqualified applicants have so far objected to their rejection, Radio Farda and Iranian newspapers reported on February 10. Kadkhodai said the Guardians Council will review the disqualifications and "accept" any mistakes or legal violations executive boards or supervisory boards might have made, but "we have to be careful the state's rights are also not violated and unsuitable not enter parliament." A number of former parliamentarians have issued a statement asking for the vetting process to be abolished, and reminding the Guardians Council that its constitutional task is to supervise the electoral process, not interfere in it, Radio Farda reported on February 10. The association of former deputies, which mainly includes reformists or former leftist lawmakers, has stated that only 34 of 909 reformist hopefuls have been approved so far. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former reformist deputy interior minister in the government of former President Mohammad Khatami, has likewise told the website "Noruz" that Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati "and his colleagues" would discredit the country less if they simply named 290 people as members of the next parliament or "form a consultative chamber like Saudi Arabia and forego elections," instead of holding "disgraceful elections," Radio Farda reported on February 10. Tajzadeh, a member of the Participation Front, is one of those disqualified from the elections. VS

On the occasion of the February 11 anniversary of the victory of the 1979 revolution, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pardoned over 4,800 prisoners on February 10, IRNA reported. Khamenei pardons convicts -- mostly common criminals -- on important state occasions. This pardon followed a written request by the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, for pardons or mitigation of sentences handed down for a variety of offenses, IRNA reported. VS

Iran halted natural-gas exports to Turkey on February 8, this time citing technical glitches rather than the domestic shortages that led to the last interruption, Radio Farda reported on February 9, citing comments by Iranian and Turkish officials. Exports resumed at a limited rate on February 9, ISNA quoted officials of both countries as saying. Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler expressed concern at the cut during a reception in Ankara on February 8 or 9; while Iran's acting ambassador or charge d'affaires in Ankara Gholamreza Baqeri-Moqaddam cited technical problems and said Iran needs time to solve them. Iran resumed the flow of gas to Turkey on February 9, Reuters and other media reported, at a rate of 2 million cubic meters a day. Iran is contractually obliged to supply Turkey with 29 million cubic meters of gas a day; the amount fell to about 4 million-5 million cubic meters on January 1 and then stopped on January 7, resuming on January 20, Radio Farda reported, citing CNN Turk. Iran is Turkey's second-biggest gas supplier after Russia. VS

Past and present members of the Office to Consolidate Unity (DTV), Iran's most prominent umbrella student grouping, have issued a statement denouncing the continued detention of leftist students, Radio Farda reported on February 9. Unusually, the statement was signed by former and present members of the group since the 1979 Iranian revolution. The signatories were referring to dozens of protesting students arrested in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5 and 10, 2007, and January 23, 2008); they urged Iran to respect its international rights obligations and warned that the continued repression of students will widen the rift between Iranians and the state. Radio Farda quoted former DTV member Mehdi Aminizadeh as saying that he has heard disconcerting reports of the detainees being tortured in prison. Those students who have been released have spoken of mistreatment or being subject to "psychological and physical torture," he told the broadcaster. He added that all "these students have been kept in solitary confinement." VS

Awakening councils in Diyala Governorate suspended their cooperation with U.S. and Iraqi forces on February 9 because of an ongoing dispute with Ba'qubah police chief Ghanim al-Qurayshi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). The awakening forces, formed last year by tribes in the governorate to fight Al-Qaeda, have issued three demands: the dismissal of the police chief, the formation of a balanced Sunni-Shi'ite security force, and that police facilitate the return of displaced Sunni families to their homes. Al-Qurayshi has been accused of firing thousands of Sunni police officers and replacing them with Shi'a. He has also been accused of helping return Shi'ite families to their homes in Ba'qubah while not providing the same assistance to Sunnis. Al-Qurayshi told Al-Sharqiyah television on February 10 that not all awakening forces have suspended their cooperation, only those affiliated with political parties. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf, who heads the Interior Ministry's Operations Center, confirmed on February 10 that an investigative commission has been formed to look into allegations against al-Qurayshi, Al-Iraqiyah state television reported. Commenting on the feud, U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told reporters at a February 10 press briefing in Baghdad: "It's a purposeful attempt on the part of the awakening groups to make their voices known. And I think that's an encouraging sign [rather than resorting to arms]. I do believe these things will get worked out." KR

Legislators appear to have reached agreement on the draft budget and the draft law on the governorates, and are expected to vote on the two issues on February 11, Iraqi media reported on February 10. Parliamentarians from the Kurdistan Coalition and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) walked out of the February 7 session, reportedly because they objected to clauses in the governorates law that would place too much power in the hands of the central government. Both groups prefer a decentralized system, with the governorates exercising greater control. Meanwhile, Ali al-Adib, a parliamentarian for the Al-Da'wah Party, reportedly accused the Kurdish Coalition and ISCI of conspiring to walk out on the vote in order to force the government to agree to the Kurds' demands for their share of the central budget, which Kurdish lawmaker Fu'ad Ma'sum denied on February 9. Iraqi officials have said the prime minister's office has agreed to the Kurds' demand for 17 percent of the budget to be allocated to the Kurdish region. Detractors have argued that the figure is far too high, but left the decision to the prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2007). Parliamentarian Sami al-Askari told Al-Sharqiyah television on February 10 that the government intends to carry out a national census this year, and will base next year's budget on the results of the census. KR

Several lawmakers have voiced support for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's plan to streamline the number of ministries, Al-Iraqiyah television reported February 10. Al-Maliki has called for reducing the number of ministries and placing competent technocrats in ministerial positions rather than dividing up the ministries along sectarian lines. Kurdish deputy Azad Umar Bamarni told the news channel: "We welcome any...reduction plans of the government or the formation of a new cabinet that has a smaller number of ministers. This will help with the administrative aspect of the ministries. To tell the truth, having 40 ministers is unbelievable. France itself has 16 ministers. We do not need such a large number." Meanwhile, Sunni Arab parliamentarian Salih al-Mutlaq said: "I think this is a positive step.... It has become evident that today's ministers are more affiliated with their parties than with their ministries or country. We urge the prime minister to form a government of independent and competent ministers rather than a government based on party or sectarian quotas." Iraqi media also reported on February 10 that the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front has nearly reached a deal with the government that will pave the way for ministers from the front to end a boycott and return to work (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). The Iraqi National List headed by Iyad Allawi has reportedly formed a delegation to begin talks with the government that would return their ministers to work. KR

Iraqi and U.S. forces discovered 1,000 land mines in a weapons cache in Al-Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, on February 3, a U.S. military press release reported on February 11. The operation also uncovered 25 kilograms of "unknown bulk explosives" and various weapons and artillery rounds in two weapons caches. Three other weapons caches were uncovered, which contained "lesser amounts of munitions and improvised explosive device-making materials." Meanwhile, in Mosul, Iraqi and U.S. forces discovered more than 200 kilograms of homemade explosives in a large cache on February 10, the military announced the same day. The cache was found inside a house. The explosives included pressure-plate explosive devices, TNT, blasting caps, an unknown liquid, ball bearings, and other materials used to make improvised explosive devices, the statement noted. The cache had to be destroyed on-site, due to the instability of the structure and the amount of explosives. The blast damaged five adjacent homes. Residents will be compensated for the damage. KR