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Newsline - February 12, 2008

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov submitted to the 65-member Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on February 12 a treaty jointly drafted by Russia and China on "preventing the deployment of arms in space and the use of force or threats of force in relation to the space-based objects," news agencies reported. He added that "recently, the scale and significance of research and use of outer space has increased substantially. The interests of the further dynamic development of international space cooperation strongly require adopting measures aimed at not allowing turning space into an arena of confrontation, ensuring it remains free of weapons of any kind." Lavrov said that "the proposed agreement seeks to eliminate the current blank spots in international space law and to create conditions for further research into and use of space, to ensure the integrity of common space ownership, and to strengthen general security and control over weapons." He added that "the nuclear arms race began with the calculation that a monopoly would be retained on this type of weapon. But this monopoly lasted only four years. And even this period was enough to set world politics on a Cold War track, in which it remained for over four decades, entailing enormous expenditures and use of resources that could have instead been invested in development. Must history be repeated?" The "International Herald Tribune" noted on February 12 that the proposal is a "challenge" to the United States, which has described the draft as "a diplomatic ploy by the two nations to gain a military advantage." Washington also believes that the proposal is directed against U.S. technology and would still allow Moscow and Beijing to "fire ground-based missiles into space or use satellites as weapons of war." PM

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in Moscow on February 12 that "doors are open" in Iraq for Russian business on the basis of fair competition with other companies, news agencies reported. On February 11, Zebari and Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin agreed to write off most of Iraq's $12.9 billion debt to Russia, primarily from Soviet-era sales of military equipment. A further $900 million in debt will be restructured to give Russia an extra $1.1 billion in interest. The two ministers also signed a separate agreement paving the way for $4 billion in Russian investments in Iraq. Zebari said on February 12 that the write-off and the prospects for Russian companies in Iraq are "two totally unrelated things." He told reporters that his government is "not hiding from existing problems, such as the old contracts" won by Russian companies before 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20 and 21, 2007). LUKoil wants to develop the West Qurna II field, for which it had a $3.7 billion contract dating from 1997 under the previous regime. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on February 12 that Foreign Minister Lavrov told Zebari the previous day that "we expect new joint projects." Kudrin said that "it is in our interests to see the Iraqi economy restored," adding that Tekhnopromeksport, Interenergoservice, Zarubezhneft, Mashinoimport, and LUKoil are ready to expand into the Iraqi market. The paper noted that its unnamed Russian "government sources claim that the political decision to write off Iraqi debts was made at President Vladimir Putin's meeting with the cabinet on January 14. By and large, it is like this: the more oil Iraq produces, the more debts its rival Russia writes off." "The Moscow Times" on February 12 quoted LUKoil spokesman Dmitry Dolgov as saying that "we are literally sitting on our suitcases. If the Iraqis give us the nod today, we would be ready for exploration and production within a year." PM

The daily "Kommersant" wrote on February 12 that recent "missile tests in Iran and Tehran's statements and [apparent] intentions weaken the Kremlin's stand in the dispute with Washington over the U.S. national missile defense in Europe." The paper noted that Russia recently "joined the chorus" of Western critics of Iran, although President Putin and numerous other top Russian officials said repeatedly in 2007 that Washington is exaggerating Iran's potential nuclear threat and its ability to develop long-range ballistic missiles. Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said on February 6 that Iran's recent test launch of a missile raises "suspicion" about the real nature of Tehran's nuclear program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007, and February 7 and 8, 2008). First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov argued on February 10 that "these planned launches do not exactly heighten the international community's trust in the Iranian missile programs." "Kommersant" noted on February 12 that "all in all, Tehran once again put Moscow behind the eight ball.... Russia has always stressed that Washington's arguments are wrong concerning the [alleged] Iranian missile threat and the supposed need for protection against it. Tehran's latest escapades are truly a godsend for Washington, proof that the Iranian ballistic missiles might leave the realm of myth soon to become a hard fact of life." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested on February 12 that "Tehran is trying to blackmail Russia by threatening to support [proposed] alternative gas pipelines," namely White Stream, which is backed by Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko "to spite Moscow." The paper noted that "Tehran sprang another nasty surprise on the Kremlin. Last Saturday, the Iranian ambassador in Azerbaijan allowed for the possibility of joining White Stream.... Barely a fortnight ago, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said Iran was prepared to export gas through Nabucco, [the EU's proposed] rival to the Russian South Stream." PM

Britain's "The Guardian" reported on February 12 that "the Kremlin was yesterday accused of mounting an unprecedented attack on academic freedom after one of Russia's top universities was closed. The European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP) has been forced to suspend its teaching after officials claimed that its historic buildings were 'a fire hazard.' On Friday a court ordered that all academic work cease, classrooms be sealed, and the university's library shut." The daily noted that "academics at the EUSP said the move was politically motivated and followed a row last year over a program funded by the European Commission to improve the monitoring of Russian elections. The university accepted a three-year, nearly $1 billion EU grant to run a project advising Russia's political parties on matters such as how to ensure elections are not rigged." A St. Petersburg spokesman for the liberal Yabloko party was quoted by "The Moscow Times" on February 12 as saying that the fire-safety argument "was just an excuse" to shut the university for political reasons. In October 2007, Putin called the EUSP "an agent of foreign meddling" in Russian affairs. PM

RBK Daily reported on February 12 that the presidential administration is preparing to carry out "structural and personnel changes in the government even before the inauguration of the new head of state." The business daily reported that this may mean either that the cabinet will be dismissed as soon as February 20, or simply that certain ministries and agencies will be "reformatted." According to RBK Daily, in carrying out this "preterm restructuring of executive power," President Putin, who has agreed to serve as prime minister under his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is seeking to ensure that he has a "capable" government built under him before transferring power to Medvedev. However, Dmitry Badovsky, deputy director of the Institute for Social Systems, told RBK Daily that while Putin has questioned the efficacy of the system of executive power formed in 2004, and although "in the new system there will be other principles for coordinating ministries, federal services, and agencies," it would be risky in terms of political stability to "shake up" the government during an election campaign. Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told the newspaper that rumors about "reforming" the government have been disseminated by "people close to Dmitry Medvedev's staff and the entourage of Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Cherkesov." According to Belkovsky, Cherkesov "is not averse" to seeing the position of siloviki in the government weakened. Cherkesov is said to be part of a Kremlin group involved in a turf war with another faction of siloviki that includes deputy Kremlin administration chief Igor Sechin and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev. JB

In a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center on behalf of RFE/RL and the Washington-based InterMedia Survey Institute, 46.4 percent of the respondents said they are certain that following the March 2 presidential election Putin will become prime minister, 11 percent said they see Putin in the role of "national leader," 8 percent said he will somehow or another become president again, and 18 percent said that he, rather than the formally elected president, will run the country. Asked whether he agrees with the 46.4 percent of the respondents who believe Putin will settle for the role of prime minister after the March 2 presidential election, Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center told RFE/RL's Russian Service: "Although earlier I shared a different opinion -- that Putin might become the head of the [Kremlin's] Security Council with expanded powers -- on reflection it seems to me that the position of prime minister is rather opportune, because it will not only give Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin a formal basis to maintain or strengthen his authority in a whole series of spheres, but it will allow him to take the place of the president quickly, since, according to the constitution, the premier takes the place of the president in the event of the temporary or permanent absence of the latter. What is more, that position [prime minister] allows the transfer of power to be replayed absolutely legally if...something doesn't go as is now planned." JB

The "Novyi region" information agency reported on February 11 that during a conference held at the Central House of Journalists in Moscow, Vladimir Pozner, host of the "Vremena" program on the state's Channel One, said he had been told that several people were not to be invited to appear on his show. Pozner denied Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky's claim that he is on a so-called "stop list" of people banned from appearing on Channel One: the veteran talk-show host said he has invited Yavlinsky to appear on his show several times but the Yabloko leader did not come. However, according to "Novyi region," Pozner later on in the conference said that Channel One's general director, Konstantin Ernst, has named three specific people who are not to be invited to appear on "Vremena." Pozner initially refused to name the three people, but subsequently said that "if Kasparov is invited, there will be trouble" -- a reference to former chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov. Pozner did not name the other two blacklisted people. According to "Novyi region," the subject of "the infringement of freedom of speech in Russia" is increasingly discussed among journalists, with many saying that "internal censorship" has been imposed in their editorial offices and that "stop lists" forbidding "the mention of individual public figures and some socially significant events" are "gaining ground." JB

In an interview with "The New Times" published on February 11, Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly Chubais said that Russia will soon face a financial crisis. According to Chubais, Russia's trade balance is deteriorating sharply as a result of global financial problems and the country will lose its trade surplus not in five to seven years, as some experts predict, but in two or three years at the latest, resulting in the disappearance of its "motor of growth." Chubais said he fears that the financial problems will spill over into the political sphere, presenting Russia with a choice. On the one hand, he said, Russia can blame the crisis on "imperialists in the West" who are trying to make Russia dependent, and then maximally close off the country's economy, increase state support for domestic commodity producers, and increase overall state budget expenditures. The consequences of such a policy would be "catastrophic," Chubais said. The alternative, he said, is to restore "the bedrock principles of liberal economic policy." Last month, Chubais said that Russian foreign and domestic policies are "absolutely unprepared" to take advantage of the latest developments in world financial markets and that Russians "need to ask ourselves a question: How much does its foreign policy cost Russia and can we pay that price?" He added that Russia's foreign policy, which is widely perceived in the West as aggressive, prevented it from being allowed to participate in an unspecified "rescuing of U.S. banks" hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). JB

Chechen human-rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev has condemned as "an affront to everyone in Chechnya" the three-year suspended sentence handed down last week to Russian Interior Ministry troops Lieutenant Colonel Aleksei Korgun, who in March 2007 ordered his men to open fire on three Chechen women, killing one of them and wounding the other two, reported on February 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007 and February 8, 2008). Nukhadjiyev earlier criticized the acquittal of Captain Eduard Ulman, who in 2000 shot five Chechen civilians in cold blood; he claimed last year that the Chechen authorities only with difficulty averted mass protests in the wake of the shooting of the three women. LF

Armenia's nine Constitutional Court judges convened on February 11 to discuss the formal complaint lodged four days earlier by former President and opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Ter-Petrossian alleged insurmountable obstacles to normal election campaigning, specifically the overwhelmingly negative coverage of his political activities by state-controlled Armenian Public Television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2008). In the event that such obstacles are not removed, election legislation requires the postponement of the election by two weeks. The court ruled after four hours of discussions that while Ter-Petrossian's complaints were "legitimate" and require action by the regulatory National Commission on Television and Radio and by the Central Election Commission, the actions he cited do not constitute an insurmountable obstacle to his campaign, and there are therefore no grounds to postpone the election, which is scheduled for February 19. LF

The opposition Zharangutiun party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian released a statement on February 12 calling on its members to vote for Ter-Petrossian, whom it described as "the most popular candidates," in the February 19 presidential ballot, Noyan Tapan reported. The statement also appealed to voters to not to ignore the ballot and not to accept bribes or other inducements to vote for a specific candidate. On February 9, tens of thousands of people attended a Ter-Petrossian election rally in Yerevan, the largest number to turn out for such a meeting since the election campaign began last month, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Ter-Petrossian claimed at that rally that in 1999 President Robert Kocharian agreed to a territorial exchange with Azerbaijan that would have deprived Armenia of its land border with Iran in exchange for international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenian territory. He implied that parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian were gunned down in the Armenian parliament in October 1999 because they objected strongly to that proposal. The documentation pertaining to the official investigation into those killings was destroyed during the fire that damaged the Armenian Justice Ministry building during the night of February 8-9 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). Armenian President Robert Kocharian disclosed in February 2000 that international mediators had again proposed the prospect of a territorial exchange to resolve the Karabakh conflict, and that Kocharian discussed that possibility during one of his meetings with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heydar Aliyev. But both Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian subsequently said repeatedly that the Armenian side rejected such a territorial exchange out of hand (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 8, 2000). Kocharian's spokesman Viktor Soghomonian dismissed Ter-Petrossian's allegations as "a cheap preelection ploy." LF

Ilham Aliyev on February 11 addressed a conference on implementation of the state program for development of Azerbaijan's rural regions, and reported. He said implementation of the program was a major factor in doubling GDP since 2004 and in reducing poverty. Aliyev also noted that in line with his 2003 election campaign promise, some 650,000 new jobs have been created over the past four years. He stressed the need to develop the non-oil-and-gas sector, and pledged that government support for small businesses will continue, as will the process of providing permanent accommodation for persons forced to flee their homes during the fighting over Karabakh in 1992-93. Also on February 11, Ali Gasanov, who chairs the State Committee for Work with Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons, said those persons will be moved to better accommodation over the next three to four years, reported. Gasanov said 11,000 displaced persons are still housed in schools and 6,000 in military barracks. He added that the daily subsistence allowance for displaced persons will be raised to nine manats ($10.66) and the state will provide 67 million manats this year to cover those costs. LF

Meeting late on February 11, representatives of the Georgian parliament majority and the opposition National Council reached agreement on drafting over the next few days a joint formal memorandum that will clarify the timeframe for implementing the demands contained in the opposition's January 29 memorandum to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, reported on February 12. She said agreement is possible on "most" of the opposition's 17 demands; other negotiators from the parliament majority put the figure at 13 out of the 17. The opposition on February 8 decided to suspend participation in the talks, complaining that the authorities were playing for time by agreeing to demands that cannot be implemented without amendments to existing legislation while rejecting those demands that could be resolved immediately (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 8, 2008). The latter category includes the dismissals of Interior Minister Vano Merabishili, Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili, and Georgian Public Broadcaster Director General Tamara Kintsurashvili, and the release of some 40 people whom the opposition considers political prisoners. Meanwhile, the Labor Party, which did not sign the opposition memorandum, on February 11 declared a campaign of civil disobedience on the grounds that both President Mikheil Saakashvili and the government lack legitimacy, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Former Economy Minister Vladimir Papava, now an independent parliament deputy, questioned on February 12 why, at a time of worldwide financial volatility triggered by the U.S. mortgage crisis, the Georgian government plans to proceed with a $500 million eurobond issue, reported. Papava argued that those plans are "incomprehensible and unclear," especially in light of repeated government claims of a huge budget surplus. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev met on February 11 in Astana with visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher and discussed the expansion of bilateral relations in the economic, trade, and energy sectors, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Boucher noted Washington's support for Kazakhstan's successful bid to assume the rotating chair of the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, but warned that the Kazakh government must fulfill its pledge to advance a set of political reforms, including "a number of commitments to bring its legislation" into conformity with international standards for "elections, media activities, and registration of political parties." Boucher also met with Prime Minister Karim Masimov and Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin earlier in the day, and promised that the United States will support the Kazakh government's "Road to Europe" program, a new strategic framework to deepen the its integration with European economic, political, and security structures. RG

President Nazarbaev on February 11 appointed Ural Mukhamedzhanov as the head of the parliamentary faction of the ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party in the Mazhilis, or lower chamber of parliament, Interfax Kazakhstan reported. The Nur Otan faction was previously led by deputy parliament speaker Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov. In a separate decree the same day, Nazarbaev also named Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov as a new presidential adviser. RG

Speaking to reporters in Dushanbe, the director of Tajikistan's state-owned Sharq-i Ozod printing house, Manzurkhon Dodokhonov, confirmed on February 11 that many of the country's newspapers will be unable to print editions due to the impact of a mounting energy crisis in Tajikistan, Asia-Plus reported. In the latest in a series of crises exacerbating an already severe shortage of power, a record cold snap recently froze a key river feeding the lake that drives the key Norak hydroelectric power station. With cuts in power supplies from neighboring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, nearly all of the 80 sets of traffic lights in Dushanbe were not functioning during the daytime. Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev has also introduced restrictions on electricity supplies throughout the network, with serious power cuts for residents and businesses, according to the Avesta website. RG

Russian Ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov said on February 11 in Minsk that starting on April 1 Russia will increase the price for natural gas supplied to Belarus by no more than 10 percent, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Belarus currently pays $119.5 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas. Under a five-year contract signed in December 2006, Belarus and Russia are transiting toward market relations in gas supplies. The price of Russian gas is to gradually increase to the European market level by 2011, reaching 67 percent of the market level in 2008, 80 percent in 2009, 90 percent in 2010, and 100 percent in 2011. AM

A Minsk city court on February 11 rejected an appeal filed by the newspaper "Novy chas" against a December ruling by the district court to pay 50 million rubles ($23,225) in damages to Syarhey Charhinets, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Charhinets, a deputy in the upper chamber of the Belarusian legislature, accused "Novy chas" and journalist Alyaksandr Tamkovich of publishing in September 2007 an article that insulted his honor and dignity. Alyaksey Karol, editor in chief of "Novy chas," said that 50 million rubles is more than the newspaper's annual budget and that the court ruling is yet another step toward the liquidation of the independent press in Belarus. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on February 11 that her cabinet is willing to admit to some debts for Russian natural gas, but she said that the debt was incurred by the former government, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko also said, citing Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, that Ukraine does not face a cutoff in the supply of gas from Russia's Gazprom. Gazprom has claimed that Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's state-owned gas operator, owes $1.5 billion for gas delivered to Ukraine and threatened to cut off further supplies if Ukraine fails to pay or sign agreements on gas supplies. According to Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha, Naftohaz has not paid for gas delivery since October 2007, and in connection with the government's intention to change the gas-delivery scheme to direct contracts it also has not concluded agreements on gas supplies with intermediary companies. Gas supplies are expected to be the main issue of the meeting between Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on February 12 in Moscow. AM

A Kyiv district court on February 11 ruled against continuing former Transportation Minister Mykola Rudkovskyy's house arrest and ordered him to be remanded into pretrial detention, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The court ruled that Rudkovskyy has not complied with the conditions of his house arrest. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) detained Rudkovskyy the previous day in connection with several investigations into misuse of state funds in the Transportation Ministry during his term. Nestor Shufrych, a lawmaker of the opposition Party of Regions, said that Rudkovskyy's arrest could be a provocation aimed at complicating the situation in parliament. AM

The EU will this week give the final go-ahead for the deployment of an EU mission to Kosova, Reuters reported on February 11, citing unnamed diplomats and EU officials. The mission, EULEX, will assume oversight of Kosova from a UN mission, but, unlike the UN mission, which has administered Kosova since 1999, EULEX will focus on policing and the judicial system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4 and 11, 2008). According to a senior EU diplomat quoted by Reuters, the timing of a deployment does not need to decided by ministers as national leaders agreed in principle in December to send the mission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). In the latest public statement on the timing of a deployment, the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, on February 10 restricted himself to saying that a decision will be made soon, Kosovar and Serbian media reported. The Reuters report adds substance to recent reports that Kosova will declare independence on February 17, and the leaders of most EU states will recognize Kosova as a state at a summit on February 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). According to a leaked report on discussions between U.S. and Slovenian officials, Washington believes it has "guarantees" from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon not to prevent the deployment of an EU mission to replace the UN mission. The report, whose authenticity has not been questioned, also claimed that Ban believes it would be easier first to deploy the EULEX mission in Kosova and then to discuss its establishment in the UN Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). Serbia and Russia, which has veto powers in the Security Council, both believe that EULEX can be established only with the authorization of the Security Council. The EU has so far failed to unify national positions on Kosovar statehood, with diplomats indicating that as many as five countries -- Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain -- may not immediately recognize Kosova as a state. That does not mean, however, that they oppose the EU mission: Greece, for example, has indicated that it would back an EU mission, the Greek daily "Ta Nea" reported on February 5, as have Kosovar Albanian media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2008). AG

The leader of Serbia's largest parliamentary party, Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), said on February 11 that he would back a declaration of a state of emergency in Serbia if Kosova were to declare its independence, local media reported. Nikolic touted the possibility of a state of emergency in May 2007 after he briefly became the speaker of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and 14, 2007). The ensuing backlash is viewed as helping to bring together into a coalition the parties of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic. The government has made no public statement that a state of emergency might be possible. It has developed a plan to respond to a declaration of independence by Kosova, but most of the details remain secret (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). Serbian television reported on February 11 that the National Security Council, which Tadic heads, will review the plan on February 12 and that, on February 14, the cabinet will meet to decide on legal efforts to annul a declaration of independence. AG

Around 2,000 Serbs rallied in central Belgrade on February 11 to urge the government to sign an agreement with the EU, local and international media reported. The deal was due to be signed on February 7, but the EU postponed the ceremony and accused Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica of obstructionism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, and February 6 and 7, 2008). Kostunica objected to the agreement on the grounds that it would be a de facto recognition of the EU's plans to send a mission to Kosova and to recognize Kosova as a state. Kostunica's stance has effectively frozen the mandate to press ahead with EU membership that President Tadic believed he gained when he won Serbia's presidential election on February 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4, 2008). Tadic portrayed the election as a referendum on Serbia's relationship with the EU. The demonstration took on a strongly anti-Kostunica character, with some banners likening Kostunica to Slobodan Milosevic, the authoritarian and nationalist leader of Yugoslavia/Serbia through the war-torn 1990s. AG

EU citizens and companies will soon be allowed to buy property in Macedonia, Macedonia's government announced on February 10. According to the news service Balkan Insight, Deputy Prime Minister Zoran Stavreski said the planned changes lift almost all current restrictions on EU citizens. There is, however, one major exception: agricultural land will not be open to sale to foreigners. No indication was given when the proposed changes are expected to come into effect. Stavreski also said that these and other planned chances will boost foreign investment in Macedonia. EU companies are currently allowed to buy property in Macedonia if they are registered in Macedonia. The EU granted Macedonia candidate status in 2005, but its bid for membership has languished since then. Macedonia hopes to open membership talks this year. That appears unlikely, but EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on January 17 that the EU might be able this year to decide on the starting date for membership talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). AG

Several thousand Croats gathered in central Zagreb on February 9 to demand the renaming of one of the city's central squares, Marshall Tito Square. According to local media reports, the demonstrators denounced the longtime Yugoslav leader as a murderer and demanded that the square revert to its pre-Word War II name, Theater Square. Tito led Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death, in 1980. A counterdemonstration rallied around 200 Tito supporters. Speaking on national radio on February 9, President Stjepan Mesic criticized the demonstration. "The problem is not with Tito," he said. "The problem is with some circles that are nostalgic for the times of the pro-Nazi Croatian regime." AG


Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has said the movement he leads is not a threat to the world, and is only fighting to drive the foreign troops out of Afghanistan, Reuters reported on February 11. The Taliban leader made the remarks in response to a U.S. statement that Afghanistan will become a "failed state" if the fight against the Taliban is lost. "We are not a threat to anyone, we want legitimate relations with all countries," said a statement allegedly signed by Omar and published by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press. "America portrays the Taliban as a threat to countries of the world, and with such propaganda, wants to use the countries and governments of the world in pursuit of its own interest. If the foreign troops leave Afghanistan, that will be a victory for the people of Afghanistan," Omar said. More than 6,000 people were killed in Afghanistan last year. The Taliban's strategy of guerrilla attacks is aimed at undermining foreign governments' political determination to continue the war. AT

Ambassador to Afghanistan Tariq Azizuddin has been kidnapped in Pakistan, close to the Afghan border, the BBC reported on February 11. Azizuddin was traveling to Afghanistan by road through strongholds of pro-Taliban militants. Recently, four Pakistani Red Cross workers disappeared from the same area. Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said, "We are looking into the matter, at this point, we cannot confirm or deny the kidnapping of the ambassador." Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed hope that "our dear friend" Azizuddin "is safe and our brotherly neighboring country Pakistan can free him from the hands of terrorists as soon as possible." AT

Mullah Mansur Dadullah and three of his accomplices have been captured by Pakistani security forces in the Gawal area on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Karachi-based Aaj TV reported on February 11. The police have taken the four men -- identified as Dadullah, Mullah Khoda Dad, Mullah Khaleq Dad, and Reza Mohammad -- to an unknown location for interrogation. AT

Asadullah Khaled, the governor of the southern province of Kandahar, has escaped unhurt from a roadside bomb explosion, the BBC reported on February 11. The explosion injured three unidentified people. The governor's group was visiting some reconstruction sites around the city of Kandahar. Although the police have arrested two men, it is not clear if they are members of the Taliban. AT

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Tehran on February 11 that the Western powers can do nothing about Iran's nuclear program except "play with bits of paper" and engage in hostile "publicity," RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media reports. Speaking to a rally of thousands marking the 29th anniversary of the 1979 revolution in Iran, Ahmadinejad said Iran's nuclear program is complete "as far as we are concerned," and the world has confirmed that Iran has a right to that program. He said Western powers have incorrect information on Iran's program and have imposed their mistaken views on the UN Security Council, pushing it to make "baseless decisions" against Iran. He was referring to two sets of Security Council sanctions the council has passed against Iran for refusing to halt nuclear fuel-making activities that have potential uses for weapons production. VS

Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, a deputy chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in Tehran on February 11 that Iran will talk to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but not to the 5+1 powers -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany -- or the United States, about its nuclear program, ISNA reported. He said IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei's proposal that direct talks between Iran and the West replace sanctions are realistic, but Iran will only talk directly to the IAEA and "we see no room for direct talks with America." The report indicated he was responding to comments el-Baradei made at the Munich Conference on Security Policy on February 10. ISNA quoted another, unnamed member of the parliamentary committee from Tehran as saying on February 11 that the IAEA's various reports on Iranian nuclear activities are undermining the likelihood of a "a serious resolution against Iran or the creation of a current of sanctions." VS

Unnamed diplomats said on February 11 in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, that the agency's report on months of cooperation with Iran may be delayed because of disagreements between el-Baradei and his staff, AFP reported. The report was expected by some on February 20, but may come out at the end of February, one diplomat said. The agency quoted another diplomat as saying that concern remains that in spite of appearances, some "big issues" of concern to the IAEA have not been resolved. Iran has played up its cooperation since August as another indication that it runs a lawful, open, and strictly civilian nuclear program; Western powers suspect it may be hiding some of its activities. The report is to be presented to the IAEA board of governors on March 3-7, and may well be taken into account by the Security Council, which is currently examining a third set of sanctions against Iran. VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on February 11 that President Ahmadinejad will visit Iraq before the end of the Persian year to March 20, ISNA reported. He was speaking to the press after a meeting between the Iranian and Tajik presidents. Mottaki said conditions and preliminaries have to be in place before Ahmadinejad's trip, ISNA reported. VS

A panel of judges at a Tehran provincial penal court is to reexamine "soon" the case of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who died in custody in Tehran in 2003, apparently from beatings received during interrogation, and for which no one has been convicted, ISNA reported on February 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). The case was reopened after lawyers protested against the initial acquittal of a defendant they suggested was merely a scapegoat, and after they persisted in pointing out procedural flaws in the initial prosecution of the case. VS

The Iranian Interior Ministry has written to right-wing lawmaker Ahmad Tavakkoli to defend the registration and vetting processes it has implemented ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for March 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008), ISNA reported on February 11. Tavakkoli criticized the ministry for introducing what he termed a flawed registration process for hopefuls, who have had to register on the Internet first and then complete their registration in person with local authorities. Tavakkoli said the inexperience of some ministry staff led to unjustified disqualifications harmful to the public reputations of many hopefuls. The ministry responded that "there is no rational relationship between Internet registration and damage to people's rights and reputations," ISNA reported. It added that if by inexperienced officials Tavakkoli meant provincial and district governors or local administrators, these have already passed the test of organizing two simultaneous elections in December 2006. Many applicants have already been disqualified, though officials reject allegations that they were barred for their reformist or dissenting views. The ministry affirmed in its letter to Tavakkoli that "no member of parliament or hopeful has been rejected...for criticizing or objecting to the government." Separately on February 11, Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Hussein Musapur accused "some" in Iran of "playing the role of the enemy's fifth column" in coming elections. Musapur told IRNA that while "the people, groups, and parties" are preparing for the polls, others are trying to undermine public confidence in the voting process. He may have been referring to reformists who have publicly said the elections will not be fair or competitive, following the disqualification of most of their would-be candidates. Musapur said the elections will be "lively and competitive" and the Guardians Council -- the clerical body supervising elections -- may yet reverse some disqualifications. VS

Sunni Arab tribal leaders from Al-Anbar Governorate were apparently targeted in two booby-trapped car attacks outside their Baghdad compound on February 11, Iraqi media reported. Ali Hatim al-Sulayman, a leader of the Al-Dulaym tribes, blamed "Al-Qaeda and those behind it" for the bombings. Hatim and the Al-Anbar tribal leaders are currently engaged in a bitter struggle with the Iraqi Islamic Party for control over Al-Anbar. Speaking with Al-Arabiyah television on February 11, Hatim said: "We have been attacked several times by explosive belts and car bombs, but not only by Al-Qaeda. There are those who stand behind Al-Qaeda who are bigger and who know how to run these things and tactics," he said, which appears to be a veiled reference to the Iraqi Islamic Party or the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), the Sunni front to which the party belongs. Al-Anbar Salvation Council head Hamid al-Hayis claimed in a February 7 interview with RFE/RL that the Islamic Party supports Al-Qaeda. Al-Hayis has given the party 30 days to leave the governorate or else the Al-Anbar tribes will take armed action against Islamic Party members. Hatim apparently supports the plan. He told Al-Arabiyah, "The subject now has become one of revenge." He added that the government cannot be counted on to intervene in the situation. KR

Parliamentarian Abd al-Hamid al-Mu'allah has denied media reports that the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) wants to replace Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, "Al-Zaman" reported on February 12. Al-Mu'allah said there is no will within the ISCI to change the leadership. ISCI is aligned with al-Maliki's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party in the United Iraqi Alliance. Rumors have been circulating that ISCI wants to replace al-Maliki with one of its members, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, who currently serves as deputy prime minister. President Jalal Talabani from the Kurdistan Coalition has also denied the rumors. Talabani told reporters in Al-Najaf following a meeting with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on February 9: "There is consensus [among political party leaders] to keep Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister. There is also consensus on making changes in the government, as I said, by reducing the number of ministers by half and forming a new government headed by Nuri al-Maliki." KR

The Red Cross launched an appeal on February 12 to raise $19 million to provide food, health care, and other emergency aid to Iraqis in need, AP reported. The aid will be distributed through the Iraqi Red Crescent to the 900,000 most vulnerable over the next year. The announcement said the UN estimates up to 6 million people in Iraq are in need of some form of assistance. The current appeal will benefit the poorest families, including single-parent families and widows. The Red Cross said the Iraqi Red Crescent is best placed to distribute the aid because it has more than 3,200 employees and 10,000 volunteers in Iraq. KR

A Western journalist and his Iraqi translator were abducted on February 10 from a hotel in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah, international media reported February 12. A police report states that eight SUV vehicles arrived at the hotel earlier in the day and the occupants of the vehicles demanded to see the hotel's guest list, the "Los Angeles Times" reported. When the two employees of CBS News left the hotel later in the day, two SUVs were waiting for them and took the pair away. CBS did not release the names of the abducted, but said in a statement that it is exerting all efforts to locate the pair. It asked that news outlets not attempt to speculate on the identity of the journalists for obvious security reasons. Iraq remains the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, with more than 125 journalists killed since 2003 and more than 50 kidnapped. KR

Liwa Sumaysim, a spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has denied any relationship between al-Sadr and the newly established Iraqi National Gathering, a pro-Sadr website reported on February 11. "This gathering does not represent the al-Sadr trend; the gathering used to have a connection to the al-Sadr trend, but this link has been severed for a while now," Sumaysim said. He added: "The al-Sadr bloc belongs to the al-Sadr trend and sticks to the directives of His Eminence Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and [the Martyr] al-Sadr's office. There is no insurgency, other directives, or disobedience to the directives issued by [Muqtada] al-Sadr." The report says that a number of former al-Sadr loyalists formed the Iraqi National Gathering. The founders were identified as Adnan al-Shahmani, Rahim al-Ukayli, and former Health Minister Abd al-Mutalib Mahmud, "who embarrassed the al-Sadr trend by mismanaging the Health Ministry." KR

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in Moscow on February 12 that "doors are open" in Iraq for Russian business on the basis of fair competition with other companies, news agencies reported. On February 11, Zebari and Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin agreed to write off most of Iraq's $12.9 billion debt to Russia, primarily from Soviet-era sales of military equipment. A further $900 million in debt will be restructured to give Russia an extra $1.1 billion in interest. The two ministers also signed a separate agreement paving the way for $4 billion in Russian investments in Iraq. Zebari said on February 12 that the write-off and the prospects for Russian companies in Iraq are "two totally unrelated things." He told reporters that his government is "not hiding from existing problems, such as the old contracts" won by Russian companies before 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20 and 21, 2007). LUKoil wants to develop the West Qurna II field, for which it had a $3.7 billion contract dating from 1997 under the previous regime. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on February 12 that Foreign Minister Lavrov told Zebari the previous day that "we expect new joint projects." Kudrin said that "it is in our interests to see the Iraqi economy restored," adding that Tekhnopromeksport, Interenergoservice, Zarubezhneft, Mashinoimport, and LUKoil are ready to expand into the Iraqi market. The paper noted that its unnamed Russian "government sources claim that the political decision to write off Iraqi debts was made at President Vladimir Putin's meeting with the cabinet on January 14. By and large, it is like this: the more oil Iraq produces, the more debts its rival Russia writes off." "The Moscow Times" on February 12 quoted LUKoil spokesman Dmitry Dolgov as saying that "we are literally sitting on our suitcases. If the Iraqis give us the nod today, we would be ready for exploration and production within a year." PM