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Newsline - February 15, 2008

On February 14, President Vladimir Putin said at his final annual press conference of his second term in office that he does not want a return to the Cold War, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2008). He nonetheless criticized the United States in sharp terms several times. He said that "we know how our American partners behave in Europe. They force some countries not to take our raw materials. They try to find new routes for delivery of energy resources that bypass Russian territory and correspondingly put pressure on [various] countries. All this belongs to the realm of politics. I think this is an incorrect and stupid policy, not to mention that it is unprofessional." He denied that Russia is behaving badly toward Poland, saying that "we are not acting aggressively toward Poland.... We provide Poland with all of the energy resources it needs, without any limitations, without any cutoffs...and we do not plan to cut anything off in the future." Putin said he does not want to "lecture" unnamed Central Asian presidents about what a questioner called "leaving office in a dignified way." He added that he "never lectures anyone, nor, in fact, would I stand for anyone lecturing me.... As regards the organization of government in other countries, that is a sovereign matter for the citizens of those countries. And please do not expect me to lecture my counterparts in other states." The daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" commented on February 15 that "Putin even recalled Warsaw's objections to the forthcoming construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. 'What if we are trying to diversify our energy export routes?' Putin asked. Bearing in mind how obsessed Europe is with 'energy diversification,' Putin certainly made his point." The nationalist "RBK Daily" noted on February 15 that Putin "confirmed the assumption that foreign policy will remain more or less unchanged [after he leaves the presidency in March]. By and large, the president's biting definitions and remarks reflected his statements from the previous year. Putin's arguments are difficult to refute. His policy statement made in Munich last [February] is backed by the majority in Russia." PM

President Putin said on February 14 that there is no need for Russia to spend large sums of money to "intensify" the building of warships, reported. He argued that "the best is the enemy of the good. We should provide sustainable and regular funding. Everything must be done on schedule." He confirmed that Russia will continue to build "strategic missile cruisers," but called for unspecified "certain improvements [in Russian naval plans], including the construction of more submarines and warships, alongside other means of naval warfare." On February 13, independent military analyst Aleksandr Khramchikhin of the Institute for Military and Political Analysis wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that "in 1992-99, the Russian Navy took delivery of around 50 warships and patrol boats, the construction of which began before the collapse of the USSR. They included 14 nuclear-powered submarines and the 'Peter the Great,' a guided-missile cruiser. By contrast, the navy has received only one vessel built after 2000: a Project 21630 Astrakhan small artillery ship." Khramchikhin concluded in his article that "if current trends persist over the next eight to 10 years, the Russian Federation's conventional forces will shrink to the size of the armed forces of an average European country. This would not be sufficient to maintain the Russian Federation's defense capability, especially if the Strategic Nuclear Forces deteriorate at the same time" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). PM

Officials of Germany's Lufthansa Airlines, which owns Lufthansa Cargo, announced in Berlin on February 13 that Russia has extended permission until the end of March for the carrier to fly through Russian airspace to its hub in Kazakhstan, news agencies reported. Last fall, Russia temporarily withdrew overflight rights in an apparent attempt to force Lufthansa Cargo to move its Asian hub from Astana to Krasnoyarsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31 and November 1, 2, 5, and 9, 2007). Lufthansa is negotiating with Russia for a long-term arrangement. Its current provisional agreement was set to run out at the end of February. The latest extension was made while talks are continuing. The German airline regards the Russian approach as somewhat ham-fisted and argues that Krasnoyarsk lacks the infrastructure and safety features that Astana has. PM

Speaking to the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum on February 15, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev put forward four basic directions and seven tasks that he said Russia must focus on over the next four years. "We must concentrate on four distinctive 'I's' -- institutions, infrastructure, innovations, investments," Interfax quoted him as saying. The seven tasks that must be carried out, Medvedev said, are overcoming "legal nihilism," a radical lowering of administrative barriers, a lowering of the tax burden, turning the ruble into one of the regional reserve currencies, modernizing transportation and energy infrastructure, creating the basis for a "national innovation system" and achieving a program for the country's social development. Medvedev said that a key priority in the coming years will be to guarantee the independence of the judicial system from other branches of power, as well as "fairness and equal accessibility to justice for everyone." He added: "We must extirpate the practice of unjust verdicts 'by [means of] a [telephone] call' or 'for money.' This demands resolve and responsibility -- above all, on the part of judicial society itself." Medvedev called for a system of measures aimed at compensating citizens and organizations for losses resulting from unjust verdicts and red tape in the courts, adding that a special financial fund should be set up to provide such compensation. He also said it is necessary to further humanize the administration of justice, "above all through the softening of preventive punishment prior to the passing of sentences" and "improving the living conditions for convicts in institutions of confinement." JB

Stating that "legal nihilism" is sometimes the result of "low-quality laws," Medvedev told the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum that the situation in law enforcement must be changed radically. "It is necessary to start with bureaucrats and policemen, judges and prosecutors, businessmen -- all of us," Interfax quoted him as saying. "Then the citizens will feel like the masters of their own country. They will always be able to protect their honor and dignity, freedom, and security. And they will know that the state is protecting their families, their homes [and] their businesses from arbitrariness." The principle that freedom is better than non-freedom must be the basis of state policy, he said, and quoted the words of Catherine the Great: "Freedom -- the soul of everything; without thee everything is dead! I desire to have obedience to law, but not slaves to law." Medvedev also called for ensuring real independence for mass media. "Accessibility to justice, the possibility of standing up for one's rights and enjoying freedoms, [and] success in the fight against corruption are inseparable from the right of citizens to receive reliable information," he said. "We need to protect the real independence of mass media, providing feedback between society as a whole and the power bodies." JB

Medvedev called for replacing as many permission procedures as possible with notification procedures and said it would be advisable to do away with the practice of government officials sitting on the board of directors of companies, Interfax reported. According to Reuters, he said that state officials "should be replaced by truly independent directors, which the state would hire to implement its plans." (Medvedev himself has sat on the board of Gazprom since 2000 -- serving for most of that period as board chairman of the energy giant -- and also holding for most of that period high government posts, including Kremlin administration chief and first deputy prime minister.) "Officials must in full measure realize that society is their employer and that they have responsibility before all Russian citizens," Interfax quoted him as saying. Medvedev said that all administrative procedures should be consolidated in the regulations governing the state power bodies and become maximally convenient for people. This, he added, should be done not in order to "bring forth simply more bureaucratic documents, but so that citizens know the duties of specific officials [and] have the real possibility to appeal against unlawful actions or negligence." Medvedev also called for transferring a significant part of the functions from the state to the nonstate sector and for shrinking the state apparatus. He called corruption "the most serious disease affecting our society" and said it is necessary to "do real battle" with it. JB

Medvedev said that the state should collect only the taxes it needs in order to function and that a series of changes need to be made in the near future -- in particular, the passage of a law determining the period of transition to a single reduced value-added tax rate. He also said that replacing the value-added tax with a sales tax should be considered. In the area of foreign trade, he said that while the Russian economy's "openness" is unquestionably a good thing, it also comes with risks, including the rise in food prices and drop in share prices that Russians have experienced over the last year. "These illnesses came to us mainly from abroad," he said. "The recent events, the...revolution in the financial world has presented us with the challenge of building a self-dependent powerful yet open financial system." He also called for reducing duties on energy exports to allow oil firms to invest in new facilities, and said energy exporters should in turn pledge to switch to the ruble in their dealings in order to help it become one of the world's top currencies. "Today the global economy is going through uneasy times," Reuters quoted him as saying. "People are reviewing the roles of key reserve currencies. And we must take advantage of it... The ruble will de facto become one of the regional reserve currencies." JB

Vladimir Putin's final annual press conference as president on February 14 lasted a record four hours and 40 minutes, during which time he answered 100 questions from 78 journalists, reported. In addition to declaring his eight years in office successful, praising his chosen successor First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, saying he had no immediate plans to head the Unified Russia party, reiterating Russia's development goals and calling opposition criticism "unconstructive" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2008), Putin, when asked which problem bothered him most all because it had not been resolved, replied immediately, "Corruption." Responding to another question, he said that legal and even repressive measures will help in the fight against corruption. "An anticorruption law will be passed," he said. "There are no pills against corruption; there must be a large legal system of measures and the strengthening of repressive measures, [and] the fulfillment of European conventions. Corruption always accompanies a developing market; a merging of oligarchic structures with the bureaucratic apparatus goes on." Putin said he hopes he can raise the percentage of Russians in the middle class to 60-70 percent by 2020. He also said that if he becomes prime minister, he will not hang a portrait of President Medvedev in his office. "As for my relations with Dmitry Anatolevich [Medvedev], you would agree that if I will be chairman of the government, there is a certain uniqueness in this, which lies in the fact that I was myself president for eight years and worked on the whole not badly," he said. "For me to build relations with Dmitry Anatolevich Medvedev, if he is elected president, will not require hanging his portrait." JB

"RBK Daily" on February 15 quoted Political Technologies Center Deputy Director Aleksei Makarkin as saying that Putin's February 8 speech to the State Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008) and his February 14 press conference "absolutely obviously demonstrate that Putin will keep for himself a monopoly on making strategic decisions." The paper said this state of affairs will be "reinforced by informal agreements on the distribution of powers between Putin and Medvedev." It also quoted Konstantin Simonov, president of the Center for Current Politics, as saying that while the government will formally become the center for economic decision making and the Kremlin will formally be the center for political decision making, in reality the status of the Russian White House (where the prime minister has his offices) will be higher than that of the Kremlin. "The internal political life of Russia has been adjusted, the vertical of power has been completed, and it is the economic and social problems that really interest people," Simonov said. He predicted that two departments will face radical personnel changes. "The economic part of the [presidential] administration's experts will move to the government apparatus; representatives of the power camp -- deputy [Kremlin] administration chief Igor Sechin, Putin aide Viktor Ivanov -- will leave on the heels of Putin," Simonov predicted. JB

Ingushetian Deputy Interior Minister Vadim Selivanov confirmed on February 14 that Maksharip Aushev, one of the organizers of the abortive January 26 mass meeting in Nazran, was detained earlier that day and taken, together with his brother-in-law Magomed Yevloyev, who was taken into custody on February 13, to Nalchik in Kabardino-Balkaria, where the two are being held, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28 and February 14, 2008). At his February 14 press conference in Moscow, President Putin argued that efforts to destabilize Ingushetia under the pretext of expressing support for his policies show that both the republican and the federal authorities need to work more effectively to resolve the population's social problems, Interfax reported. One of the opposition's primary criticisms of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov is that for years he has systematically lied to Putin, claiming the construction of numerous nonexistent apartment blocks and the creation of nonexistent new jobs; unemployment is estimated at 67 percent of the able-bodied population. Putin also said that the repatriation of Ingush displaced persons -- meaning those who fled neighboring North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion in late 1992 -- requires overcoming the hostility of those persons (the Ossetians) living in the districts to which the Ingush want to return. LF

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which is fielding its own candidate in the February 19 presidential ballot even though it is an associate member of the current coalition government, issued a statement in Yerevan on February 13 expressing concern that the preelection struggle "has exceeded the bounds of civilized behavior," Noyan Tapan reported on February 14. "The atmosphere of intolerance sowed in society, the violation of elementary norms of political struggle, the personal offences addressed to each other by the rival candidates and their team fellows, the...threats of reprisals, as well as the sowing of enmity and mutual hatred in society, have reached a very dangerous level," the statement continued. It further called on all forces to observe the norms of political ethics, and affirmed that the only way out of the current tense situation is the holding of truly free, fair, and transparent elections. On February 14, the OSCE Election Observation Mission released its second interim report on the election campaign, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. That report noted that Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's election campaign draws so heavily on government resources that it is difficult to differentiate between Sarkisian's campaign activities and the work of local government bodies, given that some town and villages mayors are "actively campaigning" on Sarkisian's behalf. The report further registered indications that local government employees, including in the northern town of Vanadzor, are being pressured to attend Sarkisian's election campaign rallies. LF

Georgia's ruling United National Movement unveiled on February 14 its draft proposals for "normalizing relations between political forces, restoring confidence, and bringing political processes into a civilized framework," reported. Those proposals address the issues raised late last month by the nine-party opposition National Council in a 17-point memorandum addressed to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). The National Movement document stipulates that persons detained during the November 7 clashes in Tbilisi between police and protesters will be released within one week, but rejects the release of dozens of other prisoners; it agrees to the creation of a commission to probe the November 7 police intervention, but only after the parliamentary elections that it said will take place between May 14-24; that commission will also probe the opposition's imputed collaboration with Russian intelligence in a bid to overthrow the Georgian leadership. It agrees to the creation of a new board of trustees of Georgian Public Television, on which the opposition will be represented; that board will then appoint a new director general; the opposition demands the immediate dismissal of the present director general. It further proposes creating a special council of between four and six members that will address election-related complaints. It contains no mention of the opposition demand for the dismissal of controversial Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili. LF

National Council representatives immediately denounced the National Movement's draft proposals as "shameful," "shocking, "cynical," and "a mockery," and announced the suspension of ongoing talks with Burjanadze, reported on February 14. Parliamentarian Zviad Dzidziguri (Conservative party) said the authorities "are testing us. They want to see whether people will turn out" at the protest rally scheduled for February 15. A second Conservative party member, Kakha Kukava, said the authorities' response shows that "the only way to achieve really free and fair parliamentary elections is street protest rallies, and these rallies will continue until our demands are met." New Rightists leader and defeated presidential candidate David Gamkrelidze said on February 14 that his party will no longer participate in talks with the authorities, and he called for the creation of a united opposition front that would include the National Council, together with the Labor Party, Industry Will Save Georgia, and the new Christian Democratic party established by Giorgi Targamadze, the former anchor at the independent Imedi television channel, reported on February 15. Speaking late on February 14 on the pro-government Rustavi-2 television channel, Burjanadze defended the National Movement proposals and said she hopes the dialogue with the opposition will resume after the February 15 protest rally in Tbilisi, according to on February 15. LF

Georgia has reached a tentative agreement with Russia over opening joint customs posts on the border between the two countries, including in the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced on February 14, according to Georgia has for the past two years pegged its endorsement of Russia's bid for World Trade Organization (WTO) membership to the adoption of measures to legalize and ensure the normal functioning of two border crossing and customs posts on Russia's border with the two unrecognized republics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2005, February 22, 2006, and January 19, June 26, September 10, and October 22, 2007). Saakashvili also said a tentative agreement has been reached on resuming direct flights between Russia and Georgia. Those flights were suspended in 2006. LF

Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, met in Moscow on February 14 with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin to discuss future steps in response to the anticipated declaration of independence by Kosova and its recognition by the international community, according to a statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website ( The statement said international recognition of Kosova would constitute an approach to the resolution of regional conflicts that is based on double standards, and which is therefore unacceptable to Russia. The two men also discussed the upcoming annual meeting in Geneva of the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary General for Abkhazia group of countries with UN Deputy Secretary General for peacekeeping operations Jean-Marie Guehenno, which Shamba will attend. On February 13, Shamba was quoted by as saying he will make clear at the Geneva meeting that the sole document Abkhazia is prepared to take as a basis for discussions of its future relations with Georgia is the "Key to the Future" put forward two years ago by Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh. That initiative envisages: an official Georgian apology to Abkhazia for its "state policy of assimilation, war, and isolation"; an end to Georgian political and economic pressure on Abkhazia, and to the blockade imposed by the CIS in 1996; the signing of a peace treaty guaranteeing security in the air, on the ground, and on the Black Sea; guarantees by the international community and the UN Security Council to preclude the resumption of hostilities between Georgia and Abkhazia; consultations between Bagapsh and Georgian President Saakashvili on peaceful coexistence; cooperation in the fight against organized crime; broad regional cooperation, including Abkhaz participation in multilateral cooperation within the parameters of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization and the EU's European Neighborhood Policy (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 12, 2006). LF

The upper house of the Kazakh parliament voted on February 14 to adopt a new mandatory prison sentence for drug-related crimes, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The new law imposes mandatory life imprisonment for those convicted of "drug-related crimes" involving the sale of drugs at "schools, educational establishments, the sale of drugs to minors, and the sale of drugs in especially large amounts by organized criminal groups," and for "smuggling drugs in especially large amounts." RG

In a televised address, U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway called on February 13 for opposition representation in the parliament, noting that a "one-party system" is not appropriate for the development of full democracy in Kazakhstan, according to Kazakh Television. Ordway added that Kazakhstan "needs to focus on including members of various political parties in parliament as much as possible, so that other political players can contribute to solving key issues." RG

The chief of staff of the Kazakh armed forces, Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev, told reporters in Astana on February 14 that Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov has negotiated with Russian officials in Moscow an agreement to buy an advanced Russian-made air-defense missile system, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. According to Altynbaev, Akhmetov is interested in procuring the S-300 PMU-2 Favorite and S-400 Triumph air-defense missile systems. He did not release any details on the quantity or the price of the weapon systems, however. On an official visit to Moscow, Akhmetov met on February 13 with his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, and with Anatoly Isaikin, the director-general of Russia's Rosoboroneksport state arms exporter, to open talks on the purchase of Russian weapons systems over the next two years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2008). RG

Addressing a cabinet meeting in Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbaev on February 14 strongly criticized the performance of several regional governors and senior police officials, Kazakhstan Today reported. He rebuked the governors for budgetary mismanagement, adding that "workers at budget-funded establishments and organizations do not receive their salaries on time" and stressing that the reason is "not because there is no money, but due to" incompetence among local and regional officials. Nazarbaev warned of the "need to deal with this immediately," and ordered the regional governors to pay "special attention" to problems of regional poverty, unemployment, and corruption. Turning to a review of law enforcement bodies, Nazarbaev stressed that "the government needs to raise the efficiency of the law enforcement agencies" and noted his "dissatisfaction with the current activities of the law enforcement agencies," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He further pointed to problems with a police crackdown on illegal gambling enterprises, saying that police have failed to respond to the fact that "following the decision to close down casinos, many hidden casinos have appeared in towns." At the conclusion of the cabinet meeting, Nazarbaev announced the appointment of several new officials, including presidential adviser Onalsyn Zhumabekov as the new chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council and Aset Isekeshev as a new presidential aide. RG

The Kyrgyz parliament voted on February 14 to approve Tursunbek Akun as the new ombudsman, AKIpress and the website reported. Deputies chose Akun, the former chairman of the presidential Human Rights Commission, over four other candidates, including civil-society activists Kanybek Abdykadyrov and Bubaysha Artsanbelova, journalist Salima Sharipova, and incumbent Tursunbek Bakir-uulu. The vote comes as a defeat for the opposition Erk party, which endorsed Bakir-uulu as their candidate for the post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). The parliament also approved President Kurmanbek Bakiev's nominee Svetlana Sydykova as the new chairwoman of the Constitutional Court. Bakiev initially nominated Sydykova for the post on February 6. She previously served one term as a Constitutional Court judge after securing parliamentary approval in April 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). RG

Syarhey Kastsyan, deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the lower chamber of the Belarusian legislature, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on February 14 that Belarus and Russia envisage the integration of the two states in different ways. Kastsyan was commenting on the recent announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the building of the union state between Russia and Belarus remains a priority of Russian foreign policy. "We are ready to go as far as it is desired by our Belarusian partners," Putin told the press conference. Putin said that the integration should be conducted first of all in the economic area, and he suggested that "the transition to the Russian ruble as a single currency" would bring benefits to Belarus's economy. Kastsyan said that it was Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka who five years ago said that Belarus is ready to move toward building the union state as far as can be done by the Russian leadership. "By saying this, we had in mind other things than the Russian leadership has," Kastsyan said. "They put forward conditions and tell Belarus to join Russia on the status of an autonomous republic or a province. We understand this [issue] in a different way." AM

A Belarusian plane carrying 18 passengers and three crew members crashed on takeoff in Yerevan on February 14, Belarusian media reported. Everyone on board survived the crash, but eight of them were hospitalized with burns. Representatives of the Belarusian national airline Belavia, the owner of the plane, and the Belarusian Transport Ministry intend to join the team investigating the cause of the crash. The February 14 crash is the first such accident during a passenger flight since Belarus proclaimed independence. AM

A Homel district court on February 14 told the mother of Zmitser Zhaleznichenka, a member of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front who was hastily drafted into the army after being expelled from university, that it has reversed its previous ruling to suspend Zhaleznichenka's military service, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The court said that it reversed the ruling due to the discovery of new circumstances, but did not provide further details. Zhaleznichenka, who had an excellent academic record at Homel State University, has been expelled from the university twice over violations of the university's internal regulations. The first time, Zhaleznichenka appealed against his expulsion and won. After the second expulsion, he was hastily drafted into the army. Zhaleznichenka's mother appealed against the decision of the recruitment board and the court initially suspended Zhaleznichenka's military service, but the military unit where Zhaleznichenka is deployed has not implemented the court's decision. AM

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko said on February 14 that there is not and there will not be a threat to Russia from within Ukrainian territory, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Ohryzko was responding to a recent statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said that Russia will be forced to target Ukraine with missiles if Ukraine joins NATO or the U.S. missile-defense program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). "The Ukrainian Constitution does not provide for the deployment of foreign military bases on Ukraine's territory at any time," Ohryzko said. "Ukraine on its initiative alone gave up nuclear weapons that had the third-largest potential in the world," he added. "No, Ukraine in NATO does not pose a threat to Russia." In mid-January, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk signed a request to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for Ukraine to be given a NATO Membership Action Plan at the alliance's summit in Bucharest in April. Meanwhile, the opposition Party of Regions, which for several consecutive weeks has deadlocked the parliament to protest possible NATO membership, has announced it will ask NATO's leadership to withdraw from the summit's agenda Ukraine's request. Anna Herman of the Party of Regions has said that party leader Viktor Yanukovych has signed the appropriate letter and representatives of the party intend to deliver it to NATO headquarters in Brussels at the end of February. AM

Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said on February 14 that transforming Ukraine's armed forces into a fully professional army will cost 49.5 billion hryvnyas ($9.8 billion), RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yekhanurov said that the first stage of the transition, which will be conducted this year -- "assembling the contractual army" -- requires over 11 billion hryvnyas. According to Yekhanurov, the Ukrainian Army currently has 200,000 troops, but this number will be reduced to 191,000 by the end of the year. After the switch to a fully professional army, it will comprise 143,000 troops. President Yushchenko last year issued a decree ordering the government to make the armed forces fully professional by the end of 2009, but the Defense Ministry later announced that the last military draft will be held in 2010. AM

Ljubisa Georgievski, who is the speaker of the Macedonian parliament, said in Ljubljana on February 14 that his country will take the same course of action as the EU if Kosova declares independence, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin said on February 14 at his last annual press conference as president that independence for Kosova would be "immoral and illegal," reported. He added that the EU should be "ashamed" for supporting independence for Kosova while denying it to northern Cyprus for nearly 40 years. In Banja Luka, Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said on February 14 that a declaration of independence by Kosova will not lead to unrest in the Bosnian Serb entity, adding that any disturbance of the peace there would be "counterproductive," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. As expected, the Serbian government adopted a measure on February 14 to "annul" any declaration of independence in Prishtina, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). In Prishtina, Kosovar Justice Minister Nekibe Kelmendi called the measure "nonsense" and intended for Serbian domestic consumption. The Belgrade daily "Glas javnosti" on February 14 quoted Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica as saying that "there would be no greater humiliation for Serbia if it, in any way, signed or agreed in some indirect way to this puppet state" of an independent Kosova. President Boris Tadic, who is slated to be inaugurated for his second term on February 15, said on February 14 that "a European future for Serbia has no alternative, but neither is there an alternative to the defense of territorial integrity," news agencies reported. Tadic previously ruled out any military "solution" to the Kosova question. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said in New York on February 14 that the government adopted a program of measures it will take in response to Kosova's declaration of independence and with regard to countries that recognize the new state. He said that those measures are a "state secret." Serbian Radical Party leader and defeated presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic said in Belgrade on February 14 that Tadic and Kostunica should announce a major protest rally of 1 million Serbs in the capital for the coming week. PM

Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic said at a special closed-door session of the UN Security Council on February 14 that "Serbia is going to use all political, all diplomatic, and all economic measures [against Kosovar independence]...and spread them over time in order to [first] of all impede and then ultimately reverse this illegitimate act of secession," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He nonetheless added that Serbia is prepared "to die" for Kosova. He stressed that a declaration of independence by Kosova will lead to numerous similar moves by unspecified territories around the globe. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said that "we have some members of the [UN Security] Council who are pursuing a certain policy vis-?-vis Kosovo, it is the United States and some members of the European Union. In the Security Council, among other members of the Security Council, they do not have any support at all." He argued that most members want an unspecified "negotiated solution." But U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the UN Alejandro Wolff said that the "U.S. position on this is clear.... We believe...supervised independence is the appropriate way to proceed to ensure the well being [and] future of all Kosovars and Serbs, and to see both, Kosovo and Serbia, on the path to Euro-Atlantic institutions." Wolff argued that "the Kosovo situation is unique. It has its history, and we can't forget or ignore that history. And it's the consequences of the ethnic-cleansing policies of [the late Serbian leader] Slobodan Milosevic and his government which ensured that Kosovo would never again be ruled from Belgrade." PM

President Putin has said Russia could redirect its missiles to target Ukraine if Kyiv joined NATO. According to RFE/RL's guest authors, that kind of talk is representative of an increasingly truculent foreign policy, which goes largely unchallenged by Russia's political elite.

Over the past eight years, Russia's repression of its key domestic institutions has been a defining feature of its governance. The Kremlin's manipulation of Russia's recent parliamentary elections and presidential succession are the most recent examples of an ever-tightening grip on the country's political life.

What few have fully appreciated, however, is that the growing authoritarianism of Russia's domestic politics is shaping the parameters of its foreign policy. As President Vladimir Putin has consolidated control over the country's political opposition, civil society, and news media, independent voices of consequence have been muzzled and are no longer able to challenge or temper the whims and excesses of the Kremlin. This closing of ranks among an elite that has its hands on the levers of state and commercial power has created a dangerously insular system that produces public policy that does not undergo meaningful debate and scrutiny.

Russia's leadership has left few stones unturned in its effort to assert control over critical institutions. The strengthening of the instruments of the state to maintain political dominance has been especially visible in the business sector. The Kremlin under Putin has cleansed independent players from the commanding heights of the economy -- particularly the energy sector. Meanwhile, deep interlocking interests have taken hold within the Kremlin, much of whose leadership is "double-hatted" as state policy makers and stakeholders in some of the country's largest commercial (though state-controlled) enterprises.

In February, Viktor Zubkov, now prime minister, was named the highest-ranking public official on the list of candidates for Gazprom's board, suggesting that he will become Gazprom's next chairman, replacing Dmitry Medvedev, the current chairman, who is being guided into the Russian presidency. He joins numerous other officials with key corporate positions, including deputy head of the presidential administration Igor Sechin, who serves as chairman of the board at the state oil company Rosneft. This merger of outsized strategic commercial interests with those of senior Kremlin decision makers has subtracted from the foreign-policy-making equation the sorely needed range of voices that would be heard in an open and pluralistic system.

In the wake of this reassertion of state power and now with virtually no institutional checks on its decision making, Russia's leadership is pursuing an increasingly truculent foreign policy, taking hard-line positions on issues ranging from Kosovo to Iran, and suffering progressively fraught relations with Europe. The sharp descent of Russia's relations with the United Kingdom stands out.

The rise of Putinism has been felt acutely in the countries on Russia's borders, where the Kremlin is exerting political and economic pressure on a set of vulnerable post-Soviet states.

Energy is a critical, though not exclusive, part of this approach. As energy prices have soared, Russia's leadership has played the energy card to apply pressure on supposed allies such as Belarus and Armenia, as well as countries that represent test cases for reform, like Ukraine, whose democratic aspirations have been consistently challenged by the Kremlin.

Beyond energy, a mind-set has taken hold within Russia's elite that mistrusts the outside world and sees anti-Russian conspiracies everywhere. For Putin and his security-services-driven leadership, this view places squarely in the crosshairs neighboring countries formerly under the Kremlin's yoke. Russia has reserved its fiercest attacks for democracies on its borders.

Georgia and Estonia are cases in point. Just as the Kremlin has gone after domestic opponents, it is taking a similar tack against sovereign neighboring states that are pursuing a democratic course. At home, it is relying on capricious application of law to limit the ability of independent groups to organize and using state propaganda to discredit political opposition. Internationally, Russia has shown it can also throw sharp elbows, applying a variety of economic, military, and media-related instruments to accomplish its goals.

Georgia, a country consumed by recent political turmoil, has been a prime target of the Kremlin's wrath. Along with Ukraine, Georgia represents a critical test case for democratic reform in the former Soviet Union. With a population of 4.5 million, this fragile would-be democracy in the Caucasus has suffered since 2006 under a blanket Russian blockade that seals the border between the two countries to trade and transportation, and bars sea and air travel. The Kremlin's unhelpful hand in Georgia's volatile breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has exacerbated an already fragile regional order. Last August, an aircraft -- entering from Russian airspace -- dropped a Russian-made guided missile on Georgian territory not far from its frontier with South Ossetia. The overwhelming suspicion is that the Kremlin was behind this provocative act.

Despite its membership in the European Union and NATO, Estonia likewise has been subjected to Kremlin-inspired attacks. In April 2007, this small Baltic country was hit with a coordinated assault on its national cyberinfrastructure. Known for its reliance on the Internet, the country's banking system, media, parliament, and other institutions were compromised. The attacks occurred at the time the Estonian government decided to move a Soviet-era war memorial and the bodies of soldiers buried beneath it. Kremlin-controlled state television whipped up furious anti-Estonian sentiment. Members of Nashi, a Kremlin-backed youth organization, harassed the Estonian ambassador in Moscow and blockaded border posts. Russian oil stopped flowing through Estonian ports.

At the time, Estonia's defense minister said there was not enough evidence to prove "a [Russian] governmental role, but that it indicated a possibility." The public response -- or absence thereof -- by the Russian authorities suggests that even if official Russia did not direct the cyberassault, it certainly did not view it as unwelcome.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin seems to be taking a somewhat different tack recently with Estonia's Baltic neighbor, Latvia, which has over the years been subjected to a relentless Kremlin campaign to stir up resentment among Latvia's ethnic-Russian community. In what appears to be a step back from this pugnacious approach, in recent months the Kremlin has turned down the volume on Latvia's ethnic-Russian minority and is "smothering Latvia with kindness," as Pauls Raudseps, editorial-page editor of Latvia's leading daily "Diena," has noted. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in January went out of his way to cite the "very positive dynamic" in Russian-Latvian relations.

While the precise basis for this recent Kremlin shift is unclear, Raudseps observes that "Russia could be trying to influence Latvia's position on EU policies that are of interest to the Kremlin. For instance, Latvia is one of the countries opposing the liberalization of EU energy markets, a policy which would run counter to the Kremlin strategy of controlling both the production and distribution of energy and locking in consumers with long-term contracts."

While the Kremlin has seemingly tempered the propaganda campaign in Latvia's case, the Estonian and Georgian episodes were emblematic of a Kremlin approach that relies heavily on control and manipulation of information to advance its objectives. The same propaganda machine that was revved up to spark anti-Estonian sentiment was also put into overdrive to attack the Georgian state and Georgians living in Russia. A dangerous byproduct of the Kremlin's dominance of Russia's news media is that it is able to routinely unleash harsh propaganda campaigns to shape and distort public perceptions.

Russia's resurgence on the international scene has closely tracked the rise in energy prices, which have given Russia's leadership leverage that would not exist if oil prices were at, say, the level of when Putin first came to power. The current Kremlin gambit does not, however, represent Soviet-era global ambition. Instead, Russia is pursuing a more circumscribed approach that first and foremost looks to ensure that transparent and accountable democratic systems do not succeed on Russia's periphery, where their proximity would pose the greatest threat to the controlling Putin model of governance.

The same Kremlin leadership that gives no quarter to domestic opposition likewise has little taste for democratic politics on its doorstep, and therefore will continue to devote substantial energy to prevent their advance.

(Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Robert Orttung is a senior fellow at the Jefferson Institute and author of the Russia report in "Freedom in the World," Freedom House's annual survey of politics rights and civil liberties.)

In an article published in Britain's "Financial Times" on February 13, British diplomat Paddy Ashdown wrote that unless renewed efforts are made to win over moderate members of the Taliban, defeat is a "real possibility" in Afghanistan. "We have not lost in Afghanistan...but we will lose unless we do things differently," Ashdown wrote. He warned that international terrorists are creating a new haven in Pakistan's tribal regions. Ashdown had been a top candidate for the post of UN special envoy to Afghanistan, but he withdrew his candidacy last month in response to strong opposition from the Afghan government. In the article, which outlines the strategy he would have followed had he gotten the job, Ashdown lists security, governance, and the rule of law as top priorities for Afghanistan. AT

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) has secured commitments worth $31 million from the United States, Canada, and Denmark for aid to 2.55 million hungry Afghans, IRIN reported on February 13. The WFP country representative, Rick Corsino, noted that the United States pledged wheat donations worth $19 million, while Canada offered $10.1 million and Denmark $2 million in aid. Other countries are expected to contribute over $14 million to the appeal. The government of Afghanistan and the UN have asked donors to contribute $80 million worth of humanitarian aid for February to June 2008. The first 19,000 metric tons of U.S. wheat has reached Pakistan, and the WFP has begun transporting it to southern Afghanistan. The UN has called on all parties involved in the conflict there to ensure the safe passage of the humanitarian convoys. AT

An Italian soldier was killed and another was wounded near Kabul in a clash with insurgents on February 13, AFP reported. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told the news agency that the Taliban was responsible for the ambush. The death brings the number of foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan to 14 this year. Meanwhile, three Afghan soldiers were killed and three were injured in a bomb blast in the southern province of Helmand, AFP quoted district chief Mullah Abdul Salaam as saying. Salaam is a former Taliban commander who was appointed as district chief after Musa Qala district in Helmand was retaken from the Taliban. AT

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have vowed to strengthen bilateral relations, according to a statement released by the Afghan presidential office, the Xinhua news agency reported on February 13. The leaders exchanged views on bilateral relations and the situation in Afghanistan and the Islamic world during a telephone conversation on February 12. Abdullah reassured Karzai of his government's continued support for Afghanistan, the statement concluded. AT

Iran has postponed due to "technical issues" a fourth round of talks with U.S. officials in Baghdad, which were to have been held on February 15, international news agencies reported on February 14. Iran's ambassador in Baghdad, Hasan Kazemi-Qomi, said the talks on Iraqi security will still take place, but at an unspecified time, Reuters reported. The agency quoted U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Natongo as saying that it seems Iran was not ready to hold talks at all. Agencies also reported on February 14 that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is to visit Baghdad on March 2, for talks with Iraqi officials. VS

French officials including President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris on February 14 with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei, and discussed the IAEA's ongoing scrutiny of the Iranian nuclear program. Western states suspect Iran is concealing some of its activities and may seek to make nuclear weapons at some point; Iran rejects the allegations. A statement released by the Elysee Palace after the meeting encouraged the IAEA to investigate Iran's program "at length and with determination," "The New York Times" reported. It quoted Sarkozy as telling a gathering of French Jews on February 13 that Iran's uranium-enrichment activities -- used to produce nuclear fuel -- have "no civilian use," as Iran claims. France has moved closer to the U.S. and British position of taking a tough line on Iran's nuclear program since Sarkozy succeeded Jacques Chirac as president in May 2007. AP separately quoted unnamed diplomats as saying in Vienna on February 15 that U.S. officials have in the past two weeks shared selective intelligence with the IAEA indicating that Iran sought at some point to develop nuclear bombs. The agency quoted one diplomat as saying that the United States told the IAEA it could reveal some of this evidence to Tehran to extract more information about its activities. VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed Israel on February 14 for the February 12 car-bomb killing in Damascus of senior Hizballah operative Imad Mugniyah, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2008). Khamenei wrote to Lebanese Hizballah chief Hasan Nasrallah to express his condolences for Mugniyah's death. He described Mugniyah's life as an "epic" and an example to youngsters, and blamed his assassination on "bloodthirsty and criminal Zionists," Radio Farda reported. Mugniyah is thought to have planned a number of terrorist and kidnapping operations that killed hundreds in Lebanon in the 1980s; he was sought by Western police and security agencies. Khamenei described him as a martyr who devoted his life to fighting "oppression and arrogance." Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has also written to Nasrallah to express his condolences, IRNA reported on February 14. Separately, 280 members of Iran's parliament signed a letter condemning the killing and reiterating Iran's support for Hizballah, Radio Farda reported. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki attended Mugniyah's burial in Beirut on February 14, news agencies reported; the burial coincided with a mass rally by Hizballah opponents elsewhere in Beirut to commemorate the third anniversary of the car-bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. VS

Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned the Danish ambassador in Tehran, Soren Husland, late on February 13 to protest the renewed publication in Denmark of pictures caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, Radio Farda reported on February 14, citing Iranian state television. Twelve such cartoons were originally published in September 2005 in the Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten," prompting anger and protests in Islamic countries in the subsequent months. Danish newspapers reprinted the cartoons on February 13 out of solidarity with Kurt Westergaard, who drew one of the caricatures, after Danish police reportedly arrested three people on February 12 suspected of plotting to kill Westergaard. The head of the Iranian ministry's Central and Northern European Affairs department, Hasan Baqeri, told Husland that it is "unacceptable" to insult religion and justify "blasphemous acts" by citing freedom of speech, IRNA reported. VS

At a February 14 press conference in Baghdad, the UN special envoy to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, announced that provincial elections in Iraq will be held on October 1. De Mistura made the announcement a day after the Iraqi parliament passed a law on provincial powers that paves the way for provincial elections to be held before the end of the year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13 2008). De Mistura noted that the positions of eight governorate electoral officers remain unfilled, despite a five-month search by the Iraqi government. "It is vital that all steps are taken to ensure that the Independent High Electoral Commission is in a state of readiness for future elections," de Mistura said. "We hope by ensuring transparency and professionalism in the selection processes that this can be achieved." De Mistura said that at the behest of the Iraqi parliament, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has agreed to assist in finding qualified candidates to fill the posts. The vacant posts are in the governorates of Ninawa, Karbala, Al-Najaf, Diyala, Wasit, Al-Basrah, and Baghdad, where there are two such posts. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on February 14 that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will make a historic two-day visit to Iraq starting on March 2, Xinhua reported. "The Iranian president will meet Iraqi leaders, including President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He will be accompanied by a number of ministers," al-Dabbagh said. Ahmadinejad's trip will be the first-ever visit by an Iranian president to Iraq since the creation of the Islamic republic after the 1979 revolution. Ahmadinejad's visit was agreed last month, but Iraqi officials only unveiled the date on February 14. No reason was given for delaying the announcement. SS

A South Korean consortium, led by the state-run Korea National Oil Corp (KNOC), has been awarded a contract to develop four oil fields in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, "The Korea Times" reported on February 14. The consortium signed a memorandum of understanding with Kurdistan regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, who was in Seoul to meet South Korean president-elect Lee Myung-bak. The deal also requires several Korean construction companies to help develop the infrastructure in Iraq's Kurdish region, including a $2.1 billion highway. The agreement is the second between the KNOC-led consortium and the Kurdistan regional government (KRG). Last November, the consortium signed an agreement to take over a 38 percent stake in the Bazian oil field. However, the new deal is likely to anger Baghdad, which insists all oil contracts need to be approved by the central government. In December 2007, the Iraqi government said it would halt all oil exports to South Korea if the South Korean consortium went ahead with its contract to develop the Bazian oil field (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). The Baghdad government has also said any foreign firms that sign oil contracts with the KRG risk being barred from competing for contracts to develop the huge oil fields in the south. SS

Harith al-Athari, the director of Muqtada al-Sadr's office in Al-Basrah, indicated on February 14 that a kidnapped journalist working for CBS News might soon be released, international media reported. "There are ongoing negotiations and contacts with the kidnappers. We are confident the journalist will be released soon," al-Athari said. Another member of al-Sadr's Al-Basrah office, Walid al-Quzay'i, condemned the abductions of journalists and blamed them on armed gangs. "The armed groups responsible for kidnapping journalists are mainly doing it for money, even if some of them try to justify their actions by giving political or religious reasons," al-Quzay'i said. The journalist and his Iraqi interpreter were kidnapped from Al-Basrah's Palace Sultan Hotel on February 10 by several armed men, and the interpreter was released on February 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 14, 2008). The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders said that 25 journalists and media workers were kidnapped in Iraq in 2007, while 208 have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. SS

The U.S. military announced on February 13 that it has arrested an administrator of a psychiatric hospital in Baghdad on suspicion of supplying patient information to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, international media reported on February 14. U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith said the administrator of the Al-Rashid Psychiatric Hospital was detained in connection with the "possible exploitation of mentally impaired women by Al-Qaeda." "The administrator remains in coalition-force detention and is being questioned to determine what role, if any, [he had] in supplying Al-Qaeda with information regarding patients at the Al-Rashid Psychiatric Hospital or from other medical facilities in Baghdad," Smith said. He indicated that the administrator might be linked to the February 1 bombings at two animal markets in Baghdad that killed more than 50 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). U.S. officials blamed the bombings on Al-Qaeda, and said the bombers were two mentally disabled women wearing remote-controlled explosive devices. Officials indicated that the two women might not have known they were being used as suicide bombers. SS

Police officials say unknown gunmen killed nine members of a family near the city of Tikrit in Salah Al-Din Governorate on February 14, international media reported. "Labib Ali al-Zaidan, his wife, and their seven sons were killed when unknown gunmen stormed their house before dawn in the village of Awja," a local police source said. Awja is the birthplace of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Another police source said the al-Zaidan family belonged to the al-Nasiri clan, to which Hussein also belonged. The bodies of the victims were taken to a nearby hospital in Tikrit. Police said they knew of no motive for the attack, but are conducting an investigation. SS