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Newsline - February 13, 2008

President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko reached an agreement in Moscow on February 12 to avert a threatened Russian cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine, Russian and international media reported (see Part II, and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2008). At a joint news conference, Putin warned Ukraine against pursuing membership in NATO, which the Kremlin considers a hostile alliance that seeks to encircle Russia. He said that possible membership "is of course Ukraine's internal [affair]...and we do not have the right to interfere and will not interfere in this process. [But] that raises the question for Russia of the need for retaliatory actions." Putin also cautioned Ukraine against joining the proposed U.S. missile-defense program, which Russia believes is directed against it. Putin said that "it is horrible to say and even horrible to think that, in response to the deployment of such facilities on Ukrainian territory, which cannot theoretically be ruled out, Russia could target its missile systems at Ukraine. Imagine this, just for a second." Putin and other top Russian officials have made similar threats against Poland and the Czech Republic if they participate in missile defense (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31 and February 1, 5, and 6, 2008). In response to Putin's comments on possible NATO membership for Ukraine, Yushchenko said on February 12 that "you understand full well that everything that Ukraine does in this direction is not in any way directed at any third country, including Russia." In Kyiv, Ukraine's former defense minister, Anatoliy Hrytsenko, said that "if [Putin] is afraid, then fear will prevent him from taking ill-considered steps against Ukraine. We are an independent state and will make our decisions regardless of what others say." In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on February 12 in regard to Putin's threat against Ukraine: "there he goes again," news agencies reported. This is an apparent allusion to a well-known quote by former President Ronald Reagan. PM

On February 8, President Putin said that a global battle for natural resources has begun, the nationalist "RBK Daily" reported on February 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). The paper noted that "according to him, 'many conflicts carry a whiff of gas and oil,' and this explains why many developed nations are showing increasing interest in Russia. 'Their investments in defense are not comparable to ours. Their defense spending exceeds ours by an order of magnitude.'" The daily also noted that Putin feels that NATO is "expanding, drawing ever closer to Russia's borders. 'We shut down our bases in Cuba and Vietnam. And what did we get in return? New American bases in Romania and Bulgaria. A new section of the missile-defense system seems likely to be installed in Poland soon, with another element in the Czech Republic.'" "RBK Daily" reported that Putin considers Washington's assertion that missile defense is not directed against Russia "nothing more than a media-diplomatic cover story." PM

In Brussels on February 12, NATO officials said that Putin will attend the alliance's summit in Bucharest in April, which will be the first time he has attended such a meeting since 2002, news agencies reported. It is not clear whether he will participate only in the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council or join in other sessions as well. He has been invited to a meeting of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. PM

In Washington on February 12, senior U.S. Navy and Pentagon officials discussed the significance of an incident that took place on February 9 south of Japan, in which a Russian Tu-95 (Bear) bomber training with other Russian aircraft twice flew over the deck of the aircraft carrier "USS Nimitz," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). It is not clear whether the officials reached an agreement as to whether the flight was provocative or routine. Some participants who argued that the Russian behavior was legal and "normal" also noted, however, that it is "not a good idea" to buzz an aircraft carrier. The Russian daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote on February 13 that such incidents can often lead to unforeseen consequences, even if the pilot's actions were in keeping with accepted international practice. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Geneva on February 12 that Iranian missiles do not pose a serious threat to Europe, news agencies reported. He argued that "[our] position is based on facts, and the facts are that Iran, which [Washington calls] the main source of threat to Europe and the United States, simply does not have and will not have missiles from which one has to protect itself in the long term." Lavrov added that "even if the Iranian authorities have such plans [to build long-range missiles], they will not be able to implement them within 10 years, let's say. That's why we think it is excessive to adopt such measures that have been planned by the United States to ward off nonexistent threats." Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said on February 6, however, 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, 8, and 12, 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." PM

Anatoly Isaikin, who heads the state arms exporter Rosoboroneksport, was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on February 12 as saying that "Russia exported more than $7 billion worth of weapons and military hardware in 2007. Rosoboroneksport accounted for $6.2 billion of the sum." He noted that his company "deals with more than 60 foreign countries.... Aircraft continue to top sales, accounting for nearly 50 percent of everything we sell abroad. Naval weapons follow. Air-defense equipment and weapons for ground forces come next." Isaikin said that India and China until recently accounted for "80 percent of everything we sold abroad, but that is changing now. Active expansion into the Latin American market is under way, and so is expansion into Southeast Asia -- countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia -- and the Middle East." He believes that Russians remain "world champions as far as the price-quality ratio is concerned." Isaikin argued that Russia must, however, be more mindful of individual customers' needs in its marketing and offer a full range of services as well as the weapons themselves. He said that his firm has already begun offering individually tailored packages to buyers, such as combining aircraft sales to Malaysia with "a compensatory program that also provided for the first flight by a Malaysian to the International Space Station. No other arms merchant eager to get the Malaysian contract could offer anything like that." He argued that "Russia does not put forth any political demands" in making arms deals, but implied that some NATO member states have opposed Russian sales to Greece and some other members of the alliance for political reasons. Isaikin acknowledged that Russia's "political weight" makes it an attractive supplier to some customers. "For example, Russia backs [President] Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and objects to sanctions against Iran. That is why some countries that share the vision of the multipolar world prefer to buy weapons and military hardware from Russia," he added. PM

Former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov announced on February 12 that he has suspended his membership in the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), which he co-founded. Nemtsov was speaking at a presentation in Moscow of a report that he co-authored with Vladimir Milov, the former deputy energy minister who is now president of the Institute of Energy Policy. The report, entitled "Putin. The Results," is highly critical of President Putin's eight-year tenure. "Vremya novostei" reported on February 13 that Nemtsov refused to say why he was suspending his membership in the party but said the move was not "irreversible." The daily quoted SPS leader Nikita Belykh as saying that the decision was Nemtsov's alone but that his relations with Nemtsov remain good. "The Moscow Times" on February 13 quoted SPS election strategist Anton Bakov as saying that Nemtsov "believes that this is a period of severe political repressions" and "didn't want to expose party members to attack" after the critical report on Putin's tenure was published. Andrei Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, offered a more cynical interpretation, telling "Vremya novostei" that First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's designated successor, may have indicated to Nemtsov that he will be named to a high government post once Medvedev becomes president, but only if Nemtsov breaks with the SPS. JB

In their report, Nemtsov and Milov were, among other things, very dismissive of the national projects that Medvedev has overseen as first deputy prime minister. As noted on February 12, the report states that the $10 billion the government allocated to national projects in 2007 was less than what the government paid Roman Abramovich for the Sibneft oil company. The report also says that federal spending on health, education, and the social sphere has decreased in recent years while by 2009, spending on the state apparatus and security will amount to as much as 16 percent of the federal budget's total expenditures. "The special services and Abramovich -- those are the real 'national projects of Putin'," Nemtsov and Milov wrote. The report, which "Novaya gazeta" excerpted on February 7, also states: "The authoritarian-criminal regime that formed in Russia during the years of Vladimir Putin's governing threatens the future of our country." JB

In a poll conducted February 9-10 by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), 62 percent of the respondents said they would vote for Medvedev if the presidential election were held February 17. According to the poll, the results of which were posted February 12 on the center's website,, the other candidates lagged far behind, with 8 percent of the respondents saying they would vote for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, 7 percent saying they would vote for Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and just 1 percent saying they would vote for Andrei Bogdanov of the Democratic Party. Medvedev received the support of 63 percent of VTsIOM's respondents in a poll conducted February 2-3 and of 64 percent in a VTsIOM poll conducted January 26-27. JB

Reporters Without Borders issued a press release on February 12 in which it "protested strongly" a February 6 raid by law-enforcement officers in St. Petersburg on the offices of "Minuty Veka," an opposition weekly newspaper formerly called "Novy Peterburg." All of the newspaper's computers, as well as administrative documents and its archives since 1997, were seized in the raid, preventing it from publishing the following day. According to the Reporters Without Borders press release, which was posted on the international press freedom group's website,, the raid was carried out on the pretext that the newspaper did not have computer licenses. "We deplore this increasingly common practice in Russia," Reporters Without Borders stated. "The authorities are preventing the appearance of opposition papers by claiming to fight computer piracy. Even if Minuty Veka did not have all its equipment licensed, this is no reason to close it down." One of the newspaper's founders, Nikolai Andrushenko, was arrested last November and accused of printing "dubious" and "insulting" articles and exerting pressure on legal institutions. According to Reporters Without Borders, Andrushenko was taken to a psychiatric hospital for tests on December 18 and held there until January 16. Earlier this month, he wrote to President Putin saying he wanted to renounce his Russian citizenship because he had been beaten several times in prison. JB

The daily "Kommersant" on February 12 quoted Aleksandr Dobrovinsky, a lawyer for Vladimir Nekrasov, the owner of the Arbat Prestige cosmetic chain who is in prison on charges of having failed to pay the equivalent of $2 million in taxes, as saying that his client had received an offer to sell the company in exchange for the charges against him being dropped. Dobrovinksy refused to say who made the offer but said Nekrasov rejected it. Meanwhile, the Moscow City Court refused to release Nekrasov on bail. Nekrasov was arrested last month in Moscow together with reputed crime boss Semyon Mogilevich. Both men deny the charges against them. noted on February 12 that a number of high-profile businessmen have been arrested and then offered freedom in return for their businesses, including media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other Yukos oil executives, and Mikhail Gutseriyev, who owned the Russneft oil company. Commenting on Nekrasov's arrest, Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anticorruption Committee, an advocacy group, told RBK Daily: "There are a large number of people who would like to encroach on his profitable business. In all probability, he will receive freedom in exchange for his business." Likewise, "Novye izvestia" on February 12 quoted Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization, as saying of Nekrasov's arrest: "This is simply a racket; it is possible there were some kind of violations there, but many companies have similar ones and not everyone is jailed. It is simply an attempt to take away the business.... The chain will probably get a new owner. History knows no small number of cases in which the tax authorities dropped charges against a defendant after his business was transferred." JB

Acting on a tip-off, Interior Ministry and FSB forces early on February 12 surrounded a group of militants holed up on a farm near the village of Sasatli in Daghestan's northern Babayurt Raion, Russian media reported. An exchange of fire ensued after the militants rejected a demand to surrender; three fighters and a local FSB officer were killed. It was the fourth such operation so far this year: five militants were reported killed in Tabasaran Raion and three in Makhachkala in January, and two more last week in Dokuzpar Raion on the border with Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 10, 11 and 14 and February 8, 2008). LF

Leaflets were posted at bus stops and markets in Nazran on February 10 warning gaming establishment owners, drug dealers, and money lenders to terminate their activities or risk assassination, and reported on February 11 and 12, respectively. Gaming is banned in Ingushetia, as in neighboring Chechnya and in Kabardino-Balkaria. The leaflets were issued in the name of fighters of the Caucasus Emirate proclaimed last October by erstwhile Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance forces commander Doku Umarov. An Ingushetian Interior Ministry official was quoted by as saying that some 17 gambling dens currently operate clandestinely, without a license: five in Nazran, two in Karabulak, and up to 10 in the village of Ordjonikidzevskaya, which lies slightly to the north of the main highway linking Nazran and Grozny and close to the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia. LF

Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian on February 12 deplored what he termed "lies and false reports" circulated by opposition candidates in the February 19 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He warned, as Prime Minister and presidential front-runner Serzh Sarkisian has done, that persons who make "overtly slanderous" allegations will be required to answer before the law, but did not cite examples of such allegations. Hovsepian did, however, defend the nephew of Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, whom journalists photographed and filmed participating in a scuffle on February 6 in the town of Artashat with supporters of opposition presidential candidate and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2008). Hovsepian said that footage does not show the younger Abrahamian "throwing stones or hitting anyone." Following the rejection on February 11 by the Constitutional Court of his complaint about negative media coverage of his election campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8 and 11, 2008), Ter-Petrossian flew to Moscow, where according to unconfirmed Russian media reports he met with First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A Ter-Petrossian spokesman in Moscow Smbat Karakhanian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service only that Ter-Petrossian's talks there were "very productive and important." He did not elaborate. LF

Vartan Oskanian, who has been Armenia's pointman for talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict since at least 1997, prior to his appointment in April 1998 as foreign minister, was quoted by Novosti-Armenia on February 13 as affirming that none of the three draft Karabakh peace proposals submitted by the OSCE Minsk Group to the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan since Ter-Petrossian's ouster in February 1998 contained any mention of the possibility of Armenia ceding its southernmost district of Meghri to Azerbaijan in exchange for international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenian territory. Speaking at an election rally on February 9, Ter-Petrossian alleged that his successor as president, Robert Kocharian, and also Oskanian, agreed to such a territorial exchange in 1999, and that Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian were killed because they objected to that proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2008). Oskanian pointed out that the idea of a territorial swap was the brainchild in 1992 of U.S. political analyst Paul Goble, but that what became known as the "Goble plan" never figured officially as a component of any OSCE-drafted peace proposal. Eight years ago, Kocharian was quoted as having told Armenian National Television that the OSCE mediators had proposed (at a date he did not specify) resolving the Karabakh conflict by an exchange of territory, but that he rejected that option (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2000). Oskanian on February 13 accused Ter-Petrossian, who first invited him in 1992 to come to Armenia to join the government, of acting immorally, suggesting that he "will stop at nothing to achieve his political goal of [again] becoming president of Armenia." LF

Deputy parliament speaker Bahar Muradova of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party said on February 11 that the parliament will establish a special commission to prepare a package of documentation to submit to the international community substantiating Azerbaijan's arguments that the former Erivan governorate of the Tsarist Russian empire (part of present-day Armenia) was historically Azerbaijani territory, reported on February 13. She stressed that those arguments do not constitute an irredentist claim on the territory of Armenia, but are intended only to show that Armenians have on one previous occasion established a state on Azerbaijani territory. According to the Azerbaijan Press Agency, prominent historians will be invited to join the commission. LF

Wealthy Georgian-born businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili died suddenly at his home in Surrey, southwest of London, late on February 12 at the age of 52, Georgian media reported the following day. Initial reports attributed Patarkatsishvili's death to heart failure, but his family have requested an autopsy and exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was quoted on February 13 as saying that British police have opened an investigation. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last fall accused Patarkatsishvili, who is wanted in Russia on criminal charges, of conspiring with Russian intelligence and Georgian opposition parties in a bid to overthrow the Georgian leadership; the Georgian Prosecutor-General's office later brought formal charges against him of plotting a coup and a political assassination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26 and December 3, 4, and 28, 2007, and January 10, 2008). Patarkatsishvili registered in absentia as a candidate in the January 5 preterm Georgian presidential election and placed third with some 7 percent of the vote. LF

A Kazakh Air Force fighter jet crashed on February 12 outside of Almaty, killing the pilot, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The Russian-designed MiG-29 crashed during a training exercise at the Zhetygen air base in the Almaty region's Ili district, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Although both the pilot and co-pilot were able to eject from the aircraft, the pilot was killed in the maneuver and the co-pilot was reportedly in "grave condition" at a local military hospital. A team of Kazakh military investigators, led by Air Force Major General Aleksandr Sorokin, arrived at the crash scene the same day and initiated a formal probe. RG

Kyrgyz Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiev on February 12 announced the launch of a new investigation into the murder of independent journalist Alisher Saipov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kongantiev said the new investigation was prompted by the discovery of new information concerning the murder. Saipov, who published the independent newspaper "Politika," was killed on October 24 outside of his office in Osh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). Some Kyrgyz media reports suggested that the killing was linked to Saipov's reporting on corruption within Uzbekistan. Initial speculation also pointed to the Uzbek security services. Some media reports cited the Uzbek state media's criticism of Saipov, who was an ethnic Uzbek, calling him an "enemy of the Uzbek nation" and accusing him of destabilizing the situation in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2007). RG

Speaking to reporters in Dushanbe on February 12, Mirodil Abdurazzoqov, an official at the Uzbek Embassy in Tajikistan, announced that Uzbekistan on February 11 resumed its electricity supplies to Tajikistan, Asia-Plus reported. Abdurazzoqov said that the Uzbek electricity supplies resumed at a level of 1 million kilowatt hours (kWh) on February 11, and doubled on February 12. Uzbekistan suspended energy supplies to Tajikistan on February 4 after the onset of especially severe cold weather in the region. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on February 12 that the sanctions imposed against the state-owned Belnaftakhim petrochemical company are "nothing other than economic blackmail on the part of unscrupulous competitors that seek to prevent Belarusian companies from getting into the Latin American market," Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. In November 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department froze all assets under U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Belnaftakhim and its representatives, and barred Americans from doing business with the company, which it says is controlled by Lukashenka. Lukashenka said that for several years, threats were made to freeze bank accounts belonging to him and other Belarusian leaders. "After finding nothing, they decided to cast an economic noose on state enterprises that employ thousands of people," Lukashenka said during an extensive address to a group of students at Belarusian State University in Minsk. "Such methods cannot be justified by anything. Their discriminatory nature is evident to not only us but also other countries that support us," he added. AM

President Lukashenka on February 12 told students at Belarusian State University that he regards the issue of political prisoners in Belarus as closed. "We have closed this painful page in relations with the West, and are the first to propose movement ahead," he said, adding that "now it is the turn of the European Union to show its good intentions with regard to the Belarusian people." Lukashenka said that "the early release or release on parole of some prisoners for whom the West has special feelings" was a "goodwill gesture" and he stipulated that "their release was not connected with the forgiveness of crimes they committed, but was prompted by humane considerations only." The Belarusian authorities recently released from prison youth activists Artur Finkevich and Zmitser Dashkevich, as well as businessmen Yury Lyavonau and Mikalay Autukhovich. The United States considers three other people to be political prisoners: former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, former legislator Andrey Klimau, and journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou. AM

Belarus's Supreme Court on February 12 began the trial of Alyaksandr Barouski, a former chairman of Belnaftakhim, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Barouski, who was appointed the chairman of the state petrochemical company in December 2005, was arrested in May 2007 and charged with embezzlement, abuse of office, and disclosure of secret information. Barouski is facing up to eight years in prison. Additionally, Belnaftakhim has filed suit against him, seeking $1.5 million in damages. Barouski pleaded not guilty and applied for a financial assessment of his operations while chairman. The court agreed to consider his application as well as an application by Barouski's relatives, who asked the court to annul the seizure of their property: a car, two apartments, and a plot of land. The property was seized by investigators who presumed that it was purchased with Barouski's money. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko met on February 12 in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as part of the interstate Yushchenko-Putin commission, Ukrainian and international media reported. Before the start of the talks, Putin said that "despite the domestic political processes in Ukraine...nothing is obstructing the [growth] of trade," between Russia and Ukraine. Putin added that "there are issues that require special attention" in mutual relations, such as cooperation in the aerospace sector. Yushchenko admitted that "there are issues that we have to discuss separately." "They might be very sensitive," he added, but that "our starting point is that Russia was, is, and will be our strategic partner" and in the context of this assumption Ukraine intends to develop its cooperation with Russia. AM

After a three-hour, one-to-one conversation on February 12, Presidents Yushchenko and Putin announced that they reached agreement in the ongoing gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow. The Russian natural-gas monopoly Gazprom recently threatened to cut off supplies to Ukraine unless it pays $1.5 billion owed for gas already delivered and signs agreements on further supplies. "We have heard today from our [Ukrainian] partners that the paying off of the debt will begin soon, and we have agreed on the principles of cooperation in 2008 and the coming years," Putin told a press conference. "The proposals made by the Ukrainian partners suit [Gazprom]. We hope that all the agreements will be implemented," he added. Yushchenko said that starting on February 14, Ukraine will begin paying off the debt incurred in November and December 2007. He also said that "the base price of $179 [per 1,000 cubic meters of gas] will be preserved" in 2008. The same day, Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller announced that Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's state-owned gas operator, and Gazprom agreed to set up a new company that will supply Russian gas to Ukraine. Miller's announcement apparently means the end of RosUkrEnergo, the Swiss-registered joint venture that since January 2005 was the exclusive deliverer of Russian gas to the Russian-Ukrainian border. At the border, the gas was purchased by the Ukrainian-registered joint venture UkrGazEnergo, which supplied it to Ukrainian consumers. Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko called for an end to the use of the two middleman companies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4 and 8, 2008). AM

The Verkhovna Rada in the evening of February 12 adopted a schedule of its activities during the second session, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The schedule was supported by 427 of the parliament's 450 members. The parliament has been deadlocked for four consecutive weeks due to the demand of the opposition Party of Regions to adopt a resolution that any steps by Ukraine's government toward NATO membership should be preceded by a nationwide referendum. Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, said on February 12 that his faction is ready to consider social bills without considering the NATO issue. Parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk intends to hold plenary meetings of the Verkhovna Rada on February 13, 14, and 15. AM

Macedonia's largest ethnic-Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), has called for Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska to resign over alleged police brutality, local media reported on February 11. The controversy was ignited by the airing on Macedonian television on February 10 of footage that showed a detainee covered in blood and bruises. The man, Habib Ahmeti, was one of one of 13 people arrested in November in a police operation to capture members of a group led by a man who for months had been on the run from a high-security prison in neighboring Kosova. The police operation ended in the deaths of six people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8 and 9, 2007). A police spokesman, Ivo Kotevski, told the news service Balkan insight on February 12 that "an internal police investigation carried out straight after the action has proven that all procedures were observed." The police acknowledged on February 11 that the film was genuine, but said that Ahmeti sustained his injuries while resisting arrest and not while under detention. The opposition, which filed on February 11 for a vote of no confidence to be put on parliament's agenda, sought to oust Jankulovska in September 2007 after security forces beat a journalist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 2007). AG

A senior Moldovan journalist faces prosecution after calling for Moldova to get rid not just of pro-Moscow President Vladimir Voronin and his Communist Party, but also of Russians, AP and local media reported on February 12. Constantin Tanase, managing editor of the daily "Timpul," insisted that he does not want to expel Moldova's Russian minority but only to remove Russian influence from Moldova's domestic politics and international relations. He also accused Russian journalists, who were the first to draw attention to the comments, of taking his comments out of context and of deliberately misinterpreting them. However, prosecutors said on February 12 that they are investigating Tanase on suspicion of disturbing the "peaceful cohabitation of the country's people," harming "the honor and dignity of representatives of the Russian nation, [and] endangering public security," charges that could warrant five years in prison. Tanase, who made his comments during a rally on February 3, said that the Moldovan authorities are attempting "to silence the independent media and to set an example for other journalists who do not have a good relationship with the Communist regime." Local professional organizations have expressed support for Tanase. Russians make up approximately 10 percent of Moldova's population. AG

Disputes are emerging in several Iraqi governorates between awakening councils and local administrators. The councils, formed by tribal leaders last year to fight Al-Qaeda, are demanding a greater role in the policing and governing of their areas.

In Al-Anbar, tribal leaders from the Al-Anbar Salvation Council have demanded seats on the governorate council, angering the Iraqi Islamic Party, which currently controls the council. Tribal leaders have threatened to take violent action against the party should their demand go unheeded.

The Islamic Party claims to be the only party authorized to govern Al-Anbar because of its participation in the December 2005 elections. The Al-Anbar Salvation Council contends that the Islamic Party bought votes in the election and is not truly representative of the region's population. The salvation council wants Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to intervene and force a new governorate election. Should the salvation council compete in local elections, it would probably attract significant support.

Tensions between the competing groups have been building for months, but worsened after the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), to which the Islamic Party belongs, pulled its ministers from the government in August. In an apparent bid to maintain a Sunni Arab presence in government, al-Maliki offered the posts to members of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council. Al-Tawafuq reacted harshly, disparaging the qualifications of the council members and claiming they have no base of support in the governorate.

Salvation council member Ali Hatim, a leader of the Al-Dulaym tribe, told RFE/RL in a February 7 interview that al-Maliki's intervention is necessary because the governorate council's election commission is composed solely of Islamic Party representatives. Under the constitution, Hatim said, the election commission should be composed of independents. Hatim said he and salvation council head Hamid al-Hayis sent an official complaint in this regard to Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani. If the government fails to restructure the committee, Hatim said, there will be no point in holding new elections, because they could not possibly be free and fair. "We can expect no changes," he claimed.

Regarding the Islamic Party's claim that it is the rightful representative of Iraqis living in Al-Anbar because of its election win, Hatim said "there was no voting," because the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq controlled the streets. Rather, he claimed, the Islamic Party "hired people" to vote for it in the national election. He argued that the constitution and the law will support the salvation council's claim.

Meanwhile, Al-Anbar Salvation Council head al-Hayis told RFE/RL on February 7 that the council has launched a signature campaign in the governorate to support its complaint against the Islamic Party.

Al-Hayis said the salvation council has informed al-Mashhadani that the Islamic Party should withdraw from the governorate within 30 days, or the council will forcibly remove the party and its supporters from the governorate.

Asked if the Islamic Party does not have some right to be active in Al-Anbar, al-Hayis told RFE/RL: "They don't deserve anything. We are against giving them even one vote." In an interview with the London-based "Al-Hayat" published on February 8, al-Hayis said the tribes "fought Al-Qaeda and presented our sons to protect" the people of Al-Anbar while the Islamic Party holds all the power in the local government.

The two sides have traded accusations that the other facilitated Al-Qaeda's appearance in the province. Islamic Party leader Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i told Al-Jazeera television on February 7 that the tribesmen "are nobodies who do not have a presence or roots in Al-Anbar Governorate." He further claimed the tribesmen have "a shameful history," because they gave shelter to insurgent groups before 2007.

Al-Hayis claimed to RFE/RL that the Islamic Party was responsible for the destruction that has taken place in Al-Anbar since 2003. He maintained that the dispute between the council's tribes and the Islamic Party began when the tribes took on Al-Qaeda last year. When this happened, he alleged, the Islamic Party took to the airwaves and acted as if they were Osama bin Laden's lawyers.

Islamic Party member Umar Abd al-Sattar told RFE/RL on February 8 that the salvation council is not a true salvation council. The council was closed by a decision of Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah before Abu Rishah was assassinated in September, Abd al-Sattar contended. He said nothing is known of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council except that it is led by Hamid al-Hayis.

"And we know that behind this council are many political sides interfering, [both] inside and outside the governorate. And we'd like from these political sides to announce themselves officially, rather than allowing people like [al-Hayis] to talk like this," Abd al-Sattar said. He described the dispute as politically based, adding, "But honestly after these remarks by al-Hayis, we are forced to take legal action against him." The party has filed lawsuits against al-Hayis in Al-Anbar and Baghdad, he said.

Regarding the current structure of the governorate council, Abd al-Sattar said: "The government knows, and the parliament knows, and the politicians know that this council was elected according to the constitution and reflects the will of the Iraqis who voted for the council. And now the problem is that other parts were not able to join the council, and they want to be a part of the political process. And they can have this in the coming [provincial] elections." He added: "I don't understand all this hate against the governorate council and against the [Islamic] Party, and I think that these [interfering] sides in a way have some connections inside the government or outside the government."

When asked to explicitly identify the parties he believes are interfering in the issue, Abd al-Sattar declined, but contended that "everyone knows who those parties are." He further claimed that the interfering parties are trying to usurp power and act as the "alternative to the Islamic Party" throughout Iraq. As their attempts are failing, he said, they have resorted to mudslinging and wild accusations against the party. Abd al-Sattar maintained, as have other members of the Islamic Party in press interviews, that al-Hayis is uneducated and does not possess any professional qualifications.

Abd al-Sattar maintained that the Islamic Party has achieved many good things in recent years, and he theorized that rival Sunni groups are now trying to claim those achievements for themselves and discredit the Islamic Party, which he says enjoys broad support among the Iraqi people. He said the political process is open for all and there is room for broad participation. The Islamic Party has never tried to portray itself as the only party representative of the Sunni Arab people, he said, and the ballot box should decide who represents the people.

Regarding al-Hayis's contention that the Islamic Party brought Al-Qaeda to Al-Anbar, he said: "First of all, al-Hayis is not a sheikh [tribal leader]. Not everyone who is wearing a disdasha and iqal [traditional tribal dress] should be considered a sheikh." He said al-Hayis belongs to a tribe led by Hamid al-Turk, who is also a member of the Al-Anbar administrative institution.

He said the Islamic Party is the main threat to Al-Qaeda in the governorate. While the Islamic Party was fighting Al-Qaeda, al-Hayis and his comrades were sitting in their houses, he said, and when they realized that Al-Qaeda would be defeated, they came out and claimed the victory as their own. "So, when al-Hayis says he has proof that the Islamic Party supported Al-Qaeda in Al-Anbar, we respond by saying we have thousands of documents and pictures proving that we are the enemy of Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda is our enemy," Abd al-Sattar said. "We say that the person [al-Hayis] who is talking like this, is he a government official, like a president or a prime minister or a minister of defense or the interior? Or is he even a mayor or governor of a provincial council? Or is he even a tribal leader or a political party leader? This person who said that and accused the Islamic Party of having a connection with Al-Qaeda -- this declaration is clear proof that al-Hayis has a connection to Al-Qaeda and militias, and he is the head of them. Therefore, this is inciting terrorism."

Beneath the accusations and rhetoric from competing interests in Al-Anbar, one thing is clear: the changing security landscape requires political groups that came to power through the 2005 elections to adapt to the new reality, represented by tribal councils that boycotted the elections but have since voiced a desire to participate in government. Similar power-sharing disputes, though different in shape, have erupted in governorates across Iraq, from Diyala to Al-Qadisiyah, Babil, and Kirkuk.

While the Al-Anbar Salvation Council's threat of force against the Islamic Party is counterproductive, its desire for a role in the governance of Al-Anbar needs to be understood. After all, one of Prime Minister al-Maliki's key goals is to forge national reconciliation.

Under the current governance construct, both in Baghdad and in the governorates, political and security power remain in the hands of a select group or sect that is hardly representative of the population under its control.

Under the draft governorates' law, provincial elections (which should have been held last year) are scheduled for October 1. Those elections, if held in a free and fair environment, would likely rebalance the system. However, it remains unclear whether governorate elections can be organized and executed by the end of the year.

Moreover, the anticipation of an election does not appear enough to satisfy, at least in Al-Anbar, groups hungry for a say in local governance. Should Baghdad fail to respond to the emerging crisis, it could face a severe setback to the security gains of the past year.

Two French Rafale fighter jets took off for the first time from the main NATO air base in southern Afghanistan in a show of support for international efforts against the Taliban insurgency, AFP reported on February 11. The Rafale jets have been in service for two years, and last year took part in a four-month mission in Afghanistan to support the international coalition, but at the time were based in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The French jets will operate alongside Dutch F-16s and British Harriers. France's 1,515 soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force are mostly based in Kabul, but France is in talks with coalition partner Canada about deploying reinforcements in the south of Afghanistan. Kandahar is a stronghold for Taliban fighters, who waged deadly battles there in 2007. AT

Taliban insurgents based in Pakistan are offering to exchange Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, for militant Mansur Dadullah, AKIpress reported on February 12. Azizuddin disappeared on February 11 while traveling to return to his post in Kabul. Dadullah was captured on the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2008). According to Ahmad Zaidan, the head of the Pakistani bureau of Arab TV network Al-Jazeera, local Taliban commander Beitullah Mahsoud has claimed responsibility for Azizuddin's kidnapping and has made an offer to the Pakistan government to exchange the diplomat for Dadullah. Azizuddin is reportedly the highest-ranking official to be abducted in the tribal region. The Khyber Pass, the transport route linking Afghanistan with the tribal regions of Pakistan, has been closed since Azizuddin's disappearance. AT

The Afghan Defense Ministry announced on February 12 that the threat posed by the Taliban is not as serious as sources outside Afghanistan claim, AFP reported on February 12. Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi told reporters that the threat has been exaggerated to ensure that more reinforcements will be provided to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). "We agree there are threats," Azimi said, but added after the media briefing that "the scale of the threat is not as serious as shown outside Afghanistan." Azimi said ISAF has "good reasons to show concern" and to garner additional forces from member states, but he noted that Afghanistan is "in better shape than last year." "At the beginning of last year we had about 30,000 troops. Now, as we speak, we have over 60,000. Last year, we did not have good equipment, weapons; this year we do," he said. He concluded, however, that "suicide attacks and bombings remain a threat." AT

Right-wing radicals reputedly supporting President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have chided Hasan Khomeini, a mid-ranking cleric and grandson of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for advising the military to stay out of politics, Radio Farda reported on February 12, citing Iranian media. Khomeini recently told a magazine that his grandfather forbade the military to interfere in politics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). The Islamic Revolution Documents Center, a body run by conservative cleric Ruhollah Hosseinian, has issued an article stating that the organization supports anyone, "whatever their garb," who follows the "ideals" of the Islamic revolution. The article, quoted on several right-wing websites, was written in defense of recent remarks by the head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari, stating that the IRGC supports the ideas of fundamentalism, not just a particular faction. Radio Farda observed that there has been a series of hostile writings directed toward the Khomeini family, which seems to have distanced itself from parts of the conservative faction in Iran. In another purported blow to the family, Ali Eshraqi, another grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, was recently disqualified from running in the coming parliamentary polls (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2008). Radio Farda separately reported on February 12 a more direct attack on Hasan Khomeini by a right-wing website Nosazi (Modernization), which accused Khomeini of supporting the 1997-2005 reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, and of receiving an expensive BMW as a gift from the government. In another article, the website's writers asked him why he did not speak out against the "propaganda bombardment" directed at Islamic beliefs during the reformist government, Radio Farda reported. Hasan Khomeini's office issued a statement on February 12 that he has never owned a BMW or any luxury car, and observed it might take legal action to put an end to "the tradition of lies and calumny against eminent persons in Iran," ISNA reported. Former leftist parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi on February 12 condemned the "shamelessness" of certain websites, and said insults to the late ayatollah's family are unacceptable, ISNA reported. VS

Morocco's ambassador in Tehran, Muhammad al-Wafa, met on February 12 with Iranian Expediency Council Chairman and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and invited him on behalf of King Muhammad VI to visit the kingdom, IRNA reported. The two discussed bilateral ties and the benefits of mutual visits by the two countries' officials. The agency did not state whether Hashemi-Rafsanjani will go to Morocco. Separately on February 12, Iranian prosecutor-general Hojjatoleslam Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi urged the creation of a collective security regime for southwest Asia to resolve regional problems and prevent foreign intervention, IRNA reported. Dorri-Najafabadi told an international relations seminar in Tehran that the absence of a collective security regime causes or exacerbates problems in states like Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories. He said the increasing interaction between regional populations needs a legal and political framework, and the first step should be enhanced cooperation between regional judiciaries. He suggested the southwest Asia region could move toward a single parliament, building on current intermittent meetings between regional lawmakers. VS

Iran's ranking Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh-Attar said in Tehran on February 12 that Iran will maintain a long-term "eastward" stance in its foreign policy, which he said has brought it financial benefits, Fars reported. "Our banks today have executive relations from Africa to Japan," Sheikh-Attar said, noting that Iran exports technical and engineering services to 35 countries thanks to its "look east" policy. He said the government of President Ahmadinejad has not neglected the West, but Iran will not give into Western countries' "exploitative" conduct. Commenting on past Iranian talks with the United States over Iraqi security, he said that "America understood...Iran has a decisive role in Iraq," and that it will have to deal "rationally" with Iran to receive a rational response. "What we have...concluded is that the level and subject of negotiations should not go beyond the limits set before," Sheikh-Attar said. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the same day in Tehran that Iranian and U.S. diplomats will resume talks on Iraqi security in Baghdad, but a date has not been set for the next meeting, ISNA reported. VS

The Guardians Council, the body of clerics and jurists that supervises Iranian elections, has reinstated 280 hopefuls previously banned from competing in mid-March parliamentary elections by the Interior Ministry or electoral supervisory boards, Iran's Fars news agency reported on February 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11 and 12, 2008). Electoral supervisors have given various reasons for rejecting thousands of hopefuls so far, but the Guardians Council has the final say on the eligibility of candidates and the validity of voting results. Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai told Fars the names of the reinstated candidates have been sent to the Interior Ministry, but he did not cite them. He added that the Guardians Council may in the coming days approve more hopefuls who were previously rejected or whose status was uncertain. Thousands of rejections have led to public criticism from Iranian politicians -- mostly reformists but also some right-wingers -- and warnings that the disqualifications will affect voter turnout in the March 14 elections. VS

Iraqi legislators passed three draft laws on February 13, a day after dozens of parliamentarians walked out of a session after clashing with rival politicians. The vote on the 2008 budget and amnesty and provincial powers draft laws was apparently held without incident. Lawmakers on February 12 agreed to vote on all three drafts as a package, but squabbling later broke out over the ordering of the vote. The Kurdistan Coalition refused to allow the draft amnesty law to be voted on first, fearing rival parties would vote and then walk out of the session before the draft budget could be voted on. The budget allocates 17 percent of the budget to the Kurdish region, which some political blocs considered too high. The provincial powers law pertains to governorates that are not part of a region, and will pave the way for governorate elections to be held in October. The amnesty law pardons thousands of detainees in Iraqi custody, but excludes those sentenced to death, or convicted of killings, terrorism, kidnapping, corruption, and drug-related crimes. It does not apply to detainees in U.S. custody. KR

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on February 12 that the cabinet has allocated $40 million to the Ministry of Displacement and Migration to provide aid to refugees and internally displaced people, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Dabbagh said the government is committed to helping Iraqis overcome what he described as temporary conditions. Al-Iraqiyah also reported that Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi received a call from Jordanian Prime Minister Nadir al-Dhahabi, who said King Abdallah has agreed to exempt Iraqis from financial penalties in order to facilitate their return to Iraq. The Jordanian government earlier said it would fine Iraqis for overstaying their visas. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continues to discourage Iraqi refugees from returning home, citing continuing insecurity. KR

Jordan's King Abdallah and government officials met with UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres in Amman on February 12, and told him that Iraqi refugees have cost the Hashemite Kingdom $2.2 billion over the past three years, "Jordan Times" reported on February 13. Guterres said the UNHCR will maintain, if not increase, its support for Jordan in 2008. The UNHCR launched an emergency appeal last month for $261 million to fund its 2008 operations aiding Iraqi refugees and displaced people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). More than $54 million will be allocated to operations in Jordan. Jordanian Planning Minister Suhair al-Ali said the country's resources, particularly electricity and water, are being strained by the influx of refugees. Meanwhile, Education Minister Taysir al-Nu'aimi said there are approximately 24,000 Iraqi students attending school in Jordan. Minister of Higher Education Umar Shdayfat told Guterres that universities are open to Iraqi students and professors, "Jordan Times" reported. Health Minister Salah Mawajdah said Iraqis are receiving subsidized medical treatment at public health institutions. KR

A spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said on February 13 that al-Sadr's office in Al-Basrah is working to negotiate the release of two journalists employed by U.S.-based CBS News (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2008). "We have held talks with the kidnappers to release" the men, Harith al-Athari said. Interior Ministry spokesman Abd al-Karim Khalaf said on February 12 that the ministry has identified the "gang" responsible for the abductions, and it appears the gang was aided by police, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on February 13. Meanwhile, police in Baghdad found the body of another journalist, Hisham Majud Hamdan, on February 12. Hamdan, who worked for several newspapers, disappeared on February 10 on his way to work. Reporters Without Borders said in its 2008 Annual Report on press freedom, released on February 13, that 25 journalists were kidnapped in Iraq in 2007. While most were freed, some 14 journalists kidnapped since 2006 remain unaccounted for. At least 47 journalists and nine other media workers were killed in 2007. KR