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Newsline - February 19, 2008

The Defense Ministry said in a statement on February 16 that Moscow is not convinced of Washington's claims that it plans to shoot down a damaged spy satellite simply because it contains toxic fuel that could prove hazardous to people if it reached the earth, news agencies reported. The ministry added that the Pentagon did not provide "enough arguments" to prove that its concerns are primarily about human safety. The statement noted that Russia believes that "there is an impression that the United States is trying to use the accident with its satellite to test its national antimissile defense system's capability to destroy other countries' satellites." The ministry stressed that "behind the words that the satellite poses a danger, there are preparations for sophisticated tests of antisatellite weapons. Such tests mean in essence the creation of a new strategic weapon" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13 and 14, 2008). Speaking in Washington on February 16, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack denied the charges, saying that "this particular action is different than any actions that, for example, the Chinese may have taken in testing an antisatellite weapon. The missions are quite different, and the technical aspects of the missions are quite different." The satellite, which weighs over 2,200 kilograms, is expected to reach earth during the first week of March and leave debris over an area several hundred kilometers in length. Some Western commentators suggested that Washington might also want to destroy sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment on board the satellite lest it fall into the wrong hands. China used a missile to destroy one of its own satellites in January 2007. According to Reuters, "it will be the first time the United States has conducted an antisatellite operation since the 1980s. Russia also has not conducted antisatellite activities in 20 years." PM

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk wrote in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of February 18 that the EU needs to develop a joint strategy in dealing with Russia as part of the bloc's aspirations to establish a common foreign and security policy. He pointed out that European states and companies now pursue their own interests in a way that often puts them at loggerheads with each other. Tusk argued that Russia, for its part, acts according to its own rules and does not aspire to adhere to a "European model." He recalled that Moscow refuses to ratify the EU's Energy Charter Treaty, which it signed in 1994 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and 18, 2006, and January 7, 2008). Tusk urged the EU to insist on clear, transparent rules in its dealings with Russia, which must be based on mutual benefit. He called on the bloc to hold open at least the prospect of membership for countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and possibly Belarus over any Russian objections. PM

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika began a two-day visit to Moscow on February 18, news agencies reported. He was accompanied by Chakib Khelil, who is both president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Algerian minister of energy and mines. The possibility of creating an organization on the model of OPEC for gas producers is expected to be on the agenda, Reuters reported. Some Russian officials have periodically raised the idea of setting up such a grouping, a possibility that other Russian officials have rejected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, October 31, and November 14 and 25, 2006, and January 22, 2007). Russia supplies about one-fourth of the EU's natural-gas supplies, while Algeria accounts for roughly 10 percent. An energy deal between Gazprom and Algeria's Sonatrach collapsed in late 2007 without either side giving an explanation. Also overshadowing the latest visit are reports such as the one carried by the daily "Kommersant" on February 18 that Algeria wants Russia to take back 15 MiG 29SMT Fulcrum fighter jets delivered to Algeria under a deal signed during President Vladimir Putin's March 2006 visit. Under the agreement, Moscow wrote off Algeria's $4.7 billion Soviet-era debt in return for new arms contracts worth $7.5 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). Algeria has since complained about the quality of the Russian aircraft, according to some reports. "Kommersant" quoted unnamed government sources as attributing the problems to Algerian "domestic conditions and third-country issues." The paper added that Russia offered to replace the defective aircraft with more modern ones in order to keep Algeria's business. "Kommersant" wrote that the return of the jets would be unprecedented in the history of Russian arms sales. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister and presumed presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview with the newsweekly "Itogi," which was posted on on February 18, that "it's known that state-financed structures like the British Council...conduct a mass of other activities that are no so widely advertised. Among other things, they are involved in gathering information and conducting intelligence activity." He warned that "if someone allows you into their home, act decently." Medvedev added that Russian NGOs have problems operating in Britain. "Try registering one of our NGOs in London. A headache is guaranteed," he said. The ongoing dispute over the right of the British Council to operate in Russia is widely seen as part of the continuing row stemming from the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 18, 22, and 24, 2008). PM

In an interview with the newsweekly "Itogi" (No. 8), First Deputy Prime Minister and presumed presidential successor Medvedev said Russia can only be governed by a "strong presidential power." "If Russia is turned into a parliamentary republic, it will disappear," he said. "This is my profound conviction." Medvedev said Russia is a federative structure and must be based on "a firm executive vertical." Medvedev's comments come amid speculation that the balance of power between the president and the prime minister could shift after the March 2 election, if -- as expected -- Medvedev is elected president and President Putin becomes prime minister. "Those who consider Medvedev just a puppet are deeply mistaken," analyst Dmitry Orlov told on February 19. "Medvedev is a serious, strong politician with his own views. Putin will dominate in the Putin-Medvedev tandem, but Medvedev will carry out the presidential functions without limitations and his role in Russian politics will grow, just as Putin's did." Former presidential-administration head Aleksandr Voloshin, who is now chairman of the board of directors of Unified Energy Systems (EES), has said the prospect of Putin-Medvedev tandem is fraught with "potential intrabureaucracy conflicts," "Kommersant" reported on February 19. "I personally can't say that I understand how this is going to function," Voloshin said in a speech in Moscow on February 18. "It is genuinely a new situation that has never before arisen in our bureaucratic tradition." He said, however, that he is certain there will be no usurpation of presidential powers. "The president of Russia will have the complete range of his constitutional powers," he said. RC

Sixty-three percent of Russians are convinced that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev will be under the influence of President Putin if he becomes president, a Levada Center poll has found, "Vedomosti" reported on February 18. Nineteen percent said Medvedev will act independently. Forty-two percent said Medvedev will act in the interests of the Putin-era elite, while 19 percent said he will protect the interests of ordinary citizens. Forty-one percent of survey respondents agree with the statement that "the entourage of Vladimir Putin is united." Levada Center analyst Boris Dubin said this is not surprising, since analytical pieces on the conflicting clans within the Kremlin have appeared only in the print media, which has no impact on public opinion. Seventy-four percent of respondents said Putin will retain his current influence "virtually completely." RC

A group of left-leaning organizations under the umbrella organization called the Socialist Choice of Russia has been formed to back First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev for president, reported on February 18. The group includes radical former Duma Deputy Viktor Anpilov, "Zavtra" Editor in Chief and nationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov, and a number of former members of the Communist Party. According to the website, the group will hold a press conference on February 21 to announce its support of Medvedev. An unidentified source within the new organization told the website that Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is running against Medvedev, has prevented the left wing of Russian politics from uniting but said that process will occur regardless of Zyuganov's role. RC

"Finans" magazine has published a list of 101 Russian billionaires, "The Moscow Times" and other Russian media reported on February 19. Heading the list is Kremlin-connected oligarch Oleg Deripaska, whose main holdings are in metals, automaking, and construction. His wealth increased from $21.2 billion in 2006 to $40 billion now, the magazine estimated. Deripaska replaces last year's No. 1, Roman Abramovich, who fell to the second spot with an estimated worth of $23 billion. Metals tycoons Vladimir Lisin ($22.2 billion) and Aleksei Mordashov ($22.1 billion) placed third and fourth. Yelena Baturina, wife of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, was the only woman on the list, ranking 27th with a worth of $7 billion. RC

The State Duma on February 15 passed in the second and third readings a bill that will raise wages for state-sector workers and military personnel and will increase welfare benefits, "Gazeta" reported on February 18. The increases are retroactive to February 1. State employees will see their wages rise on average 14 percent. Military personnel will get a raise of 9 percent, followed by another 9 percent beginning October 1. Pensioners will see an increase of 8.5 percent. Deputies from A Just Russia and the Communist Party spoke against the bill in its first reading and proposed amendments that would have introduced larger increases. The amendments were rejected and both factions ended up voting in favor of the bill. On February 18, the Duma voted to take an unexpected recess until after the March 2 presidential election, Russian media reported. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on February 19 speculated that the purpose of the recess is to prevent deputies from the Communist and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia factions from using the legislature as a tribune to complain about campaign irregularities. RC

Yevgeny Adamov, who served as atomic energy minister from 1998 to 2001, was convicted by a Moscow district court on February 19 of embezzling some $30 million during his time in office, and other Russian media reported the same day. Prosecutors asked the court to sentence Adamov to nine years in prison. Adamov denied the charges and said his actions were strictly within the limits of the law. Adamov has been in custody since he was arrested in Berne, Switzerland, on May 2, 2005, on a U.S. arrest warrant. He was subsequently extradited to Moscow. RC

Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow on February 15 with Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, de facto presidents of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, according to a press release posted the same day on the ministry's website, The three men exchanged opinions on the ongoing search for solutions to the two regions' conflicts with Georgia "in the light of plans for the unilateral declaration by Kosovo of independence and the declared intention of a number of states to recognize the legitimacy of that act." They expressed concern at the potential "destructive consequences" of Kosova's formal recognition as an independent state, and concluded that such formal recognition would "entail a reassessment of universally accepted norms and principles of international law, [a reassessment that] could lead to the undermining of entrenched rules and ethics of international behavior." The statement said that the declaration and recognition of Kosova's independence must be taken into account when considering the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, it stressed Russia's unchanged commitment to expedite a solution of both conflicts "within the existing formats [for talks]" and to prevent any efforts to resolve them by military force. Speaking on February 18 at a press conference in Moscow, Bagapsh argued that "there is nothing unique" about the Kosova conflict, and that there should be a "universal approach" to all such conflicts, RFE/RL reported. He added that whether or not Kosova is formally recognized as independence is irrelevant to Abkhazia. Kokoity for his part affirmed at the same press conference that "I want to stress that both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have more political, legal, and historical grounds for independence than Kosovo." Boris Chochiyev, the South Ossetian representative on the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, was quoted on February 18 by as arguing that in contrast to Kosova, South Ossetia complied with existing legislation in declaring its independence. He said that South Ossetia opted to remain a constituent part of the USSR at the time Georgia announced its independence from that country, and thus ceased to be a part of the new independent Georgian state. LF

In a statement released on February 17 and posted on, Usman Ferzauli, who is foreign minister of the unrecognized Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI), hailed the declaration of state independence by Kosova, adding that the ChRI "does not question the right of the people of Kosova to distance themselves from a state that engaged in terror against them." The statement went on to make the point that the people of Chechnya have waged an analogous struggle for 14 years against "the most aggressive and militarized state in the world," and in which 25 percent of Chechnya's prewar population has been killed. It noted that Russia has undertaken punitive action outside its borders against representatives of the ChRI, assassinating former ChRI Vice President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar four years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17 and 20, 2004). The statement reaffirms the aspiration of the ChRI leadership to freedom and independence, but also its commitment to abiding by the laws of war and its readiness for peaceful dialogue. In a veiled allusion to the proclamation by former ChRI President and resistance leader Doku Umarov of a Caucasus emirate, the statement continues: "we unequivocally distance ourselves from any extremist views and also from any radical alignments or organizations." The statement concludes by arguing that the confrontation between Russia and the Chechen people has become irreversible, and that it is "immoral and criminal" even to entertain the thought that Chechnya could be reintegrated into the Russian Federation, given that "it is impermissible to sacrifice universal human rights to political expediency." In a February 18 interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Ferzauli differentiated clearly between Chechnya, on the one hand, and the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other. He claimed those two territories "do not want to be free. They want to annex territory from Georgia and join Russia. We know that 80 or 90 percent of those people have Russian passports, so this would be nothing other than the classic annexation of Georgian territory, and of course we are against that." LF

Inaugurating the "Year of the Family" on February 16, pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov warned that parents of young men who join the armed resistance will be held responsible for their failure to bring their children up "properly" and "in accordance with Islamic values," reported. He argued that such parents are morally bound to persuade their sons to give up the armed struggle and return home. LF

During a roundtable discussion of the Russian law on the rehabilitation of victims of political repression, Chechen parliament deputies called for it to be amended to provide an addition 8 billion rubles ($324.9 million) for the victims of such repression, the head of the relevant parliament committee, Musa Ibragimov, was quoted by as saying on February 16. Ibragimov noted that in contrast to the neighboring republics of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia and Daghestan, implementation of the law has not yet started in Chechnya, and that the Russian government rejected an earlier request by the Chechen parliament to increase to 100,000 rubles the amount of compensation due to individual survivors of the February 1944 deportation. Discussion participants appealed to republic head Kadyrov to take the issue under his personal control. LF

Some 45 members of the informal committee that organized the abortive January 26 mass meeting in Nazran met on February 15 to discuss convening mass protests against the arrests on February 13 and 14, respectively, of opposition activists Magomed Yevloyev and Maksharip Aushev, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, February 14 and 15, 2008). But on February 16, quoted Magomed Khazbiyev, who has been designated coordinator pending Aushev's release, as saying that the planned protest has been postponed until February 19 in light of the authorities' pledge to release six people taken into custody for their role in the January 26 protest. Then on February 18, the organizing committee decided to stage a new protest on March 4, immediately after the Russian presidential elections and the simultaneous vote for a new Ingushetian parliament, reported. But representatives of the republican government, the Nazran municipal authorities, and the local council of the district of Nasyr-Kort on the southeastern outskirts of Nazran all declined on February 18 to accept a written request submitted by Khazbiyev for permission to stage that protest meeting, the independent website reported. The same website claimed on February 18 that in a random survey of 12,000 residents of Ingushetia, some 90 percent said they would like to see Aushev become president of Ingushetia. LF

Members of the organization Voice of Beslan that represents the survivors of, and families of those who died during, the school siege in Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004 congregated on February 18 outside the republican prosecutor's office in Vladikavkaz to demand a meeting with republican prosecutor German Shtadler to request that he take steps to end the legal pressure on them, reported. Specifically, they demanded that criminal charges brought against three of their leaders be dropped. A meeting with Shtadler, who was not in his office on February 18, has been scheduled for an unspecified date. On February 15, a district prosecutor formally charged the three women -- Ella Kesayeva, Svetlana Margiyeva, and Emiliya Bzarova -- with assaulting and causing bodily injury to seven judges and jury members during a court hearing on February 7 to clarify Voice of Beslan's legal status. The local office of the Federal Jury Service denied on February 13 that any such assault took place. LF

Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian told a crowd of some 50,000 supporters in Yerevan on February 16 he is confident of winning the February 19 presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He called on incumbent President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisiain --- widely regarded as the favorite to win the February 19 ballot -- to leave office "with dignity," reported. He appealed to supporters to congregate at 3 p.m. local time on February 20 on the square adjacent to the Matenadaran library of ancient manuscripts (where he worked for years as a researcher) to celebrate his victory, and affirmed that in the event that the authorities try to rig the outcome of the vote, "we...shall make use of...all possible legal means to dispute, demand and ensure a revision of those [falsified] results." In a separate interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 17, Ter-Petrossian added that he will not resort to violence to protest vote rigging, and he doubts that the authorities will "resort to serious violence" either. He also said that during talks in Moscow last week with Russian politicians he declined to name he secured support for his presidential bid. "Russia clearly differentiates between the Armenian state and the Armenian regime.... Russia needs a partner befitting it. Russia needs a partner that enjoys the trust of its people, [and] does not regard Armenia's current regime as such a partner," Ter-Petrossian said. Also on February 17, quoted Ter-Petrossian as pledging that if elected president, he will step down after three years once he succeeds in totally dismantling the existing "corrupt" government apparatus. LF

Prime Minister Sarkisian was quoted by AFP on February 15 as predicting that he will garner the required 50 percent-plus-one vote needed for a first round election victory. Addressing a campaign rally in Yerevan on February 17, Sarkisian similarly told supporters "We will win.... I will be the president of all the people," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He also pledged to make every effort to ensure that the February 19 vote takes place "in accordance with democratic standards and laws.... We shall not let some people discredit the elections," he warned. Meeting on February 18 with the ambassadors to Yerevan of some two dozen OSCE member states, outgoing President Robert Kocharian, who is barred by the Armenian Constitution from running for a third consecutive presidential term, assured them that the Armenian authorities will ensure the ballot is free and fair, RFE/RL's Armenian Service. he predicted that the vote will proceed calmly, and "without incidents." A total of 602 international observers have been deployed to monitor the vote and vote count. LF

The Armenian Foreign Ministry said on February 18 that it is monitoring international response to the previous day's declaration by Kosova of its independence from Serbia, and will not comment for the time being, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Speaking in Yerevan on February 16, Karabakh-born Armenian Prime Minister Sarkisian, widely regarded as the likely winner of the February 19 Armenian presidential election, said international recognition of Kosova's independence would create "a rather favorable position for us" insofar as if other countries recognize the independence of Kosovo but then fail to recognize that of Nagorno-Karabakh, "we'll think of double standards," Reuters reported. In Stepanakert, capital of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, parliament speaker Ashot Ghulian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that what is currently happening in Kosova parallels developments in Karabakh in September 1991, when the Karabakh parliament adopted a declaration of its independence from Azerbaijan in accordance with the provisions of the USSR Constitution; the Karabakh population then voted three months later overwhelmingly to support that independence declaration. Ghulian said international recognition of Kosova "could create some kind of precedent." Asked whether the NKR will formally recognize Kosova, Ghulian said that "nothing should be ruled out. But I think the discussions going on in international organizations right now will allow us to make the right decision." In Baku, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim branded Kosova's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia illegal and a violation of international legal norms, reported on February 18. He further argued that there are numerous differences between the conflicts in Kosova and Nagorno-Karabakh, the former being an internal Serbian conflict and the latter an international one. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Baku on February 18, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Ibragim said the international community should "take seriously" media reports that Israel's Mossad intelligence service has confirmed the existence on the Lachin and Fizuli districts of Azerbaijan of PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) military bases, and reported on February 18 and 19, respectively. Both those districts have been under the control of Armenian forces since the early 1990s. The Armenian Foreign Ministry has over the past decade systematically denied all Azerbaijani allegations of a PKK presence either in Armenia, or Nagorno-Karabakh, or the districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that are currently occupied by Armenian forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31, 1997, May 23, and October 29, 2002, and December 5, 2007). LF

Between 10,000 and 20,000 people attended a rally in Tbilisi on February 15 convened by the opposition National Council, Georgian and international media reported. Levan Gachechiladze, who according to official election returns polled second in the January 5 preterm presidential election in which incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili was reelected for a second term, warned that if the Georgian authorities fail to meet the demands contained in its January 29 memorandum to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 8, 2008), the opposition will mobilize supporters as of February 22, launch a mass hunger strike, and turn the entire country into "a town of tents," reported on February 15. The initial deadline set by the opposition for compliance with those demands was February 15; the authorities unveiled on February 14 what they described as alternative compromise proposals that the opposition immediately rejected out of hand as "cynical" and "a mockery" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2008). On February 18, in what Burjanadze termed "a serious step" toward meeting the opposition's demands, the Georgian authorities released from detention six people detained for their role in the violent clashes in Tbilisi on November 7 between police and opposition demonstrators, reported. Burjanadze said the authorities are still prepared to try to reach agreement with the opposition, but stressed this entails each side meeting the other halfway, Caucasus Press reported on February 18. LF

In Tbilisi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on February 16 denounced the official audience granted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to persons "engaged in encouraging illegal terrorist acts" and ethnic cleansing, meaning the de facto presidents of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, reported. Saakashvili termed such encouragement "playing with fire." Visiting Kakheti on February 18, Saakashvili commented that "we know that very many countries are expected to recognize Kosovo today and tomorrow," the pro-government television channel Rustavi-2 reported. He added: "No one must be able to make us deviate from our path no matter what international situations may emerge.... We are ready and we have the power to answer every step taken against Georgia in this context with much more effective steps. We will nip all acts of provocation in the bud and react appropriately.... We want to resolve all issues peacefully and unrest is the last thing we need today, but Georgia will not turn back." Parliament deputy Giga Bokeria and State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service separately on February 18 that Georgia has no plans to recognize Kosova. Yakobashvili added that he does not envisage that Russia will recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. LF

Talgat Musabaev, the head of the Kazakh national aerospace agency, Kazkosmos, announced on February 16 that Kazakhstan is ready to consider Russian proposals on the number of Proton rocket launches from the Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome that Moscow leases from Kazakhstan for some of its space launches, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Musabaev said that he expects the Russian proposal to introduce a "gradual reduction" in the number of planned launches of rockets utilizing the toxic heptyl rocket fuel. He also reiterated Kazakhstan's "principled position" of demanding "at least some reduction in the number of launches" by the second half of 2008. n December, Anatoly Perminov, the head of the Russian Space Agency, promised that Russia would reduce the number of Proton rocket launches (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). The Kazakh demand for fewer launches of the rockets stems from the September 2007 crash of a Russian rocket (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 11, 2007), which caused considerable environmental damage from falling debris and subsequent contamination from the Proton's fuel. Two other Proton rockets crashed at Baikonur in 1999, leading to the imposition of a suspension on all launches at that time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7 and 8 and November 3, 1999). The Baikonur facility is one of the world's leading space facilities and is regularly used to launch commercial and military satellites, as well as supply missions for the International Space Station. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Almaty, Sergei Duvanov, the administrator of the Kazakh opposition's website, on February 18 protested against the sudden blocking of access to several opposition websites to users in Kazakhstan, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Duvanov added that despite new investment in web technology following an earlier interruption of access, several opposition websites were "blocked again." The Kazakh authorities have repeatedly monitored and curtailed independent and opposition websites for several years, with the most publicized incident involving the Internet provider Nursat, the largest in Kazakhstan, which was accused of blocking access at the behest of the authorities to websites maintained by the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9 and 15, 1999). RG

Meeting in Astana, the Kazakh and Kyrgyz foreign ministers, Marat Tazhin and Ednan Karabaev respectively, on February 18 discussed "prospects for bilateral cooperation," according to Kazakhstan Today. Briefing journalists following the meeting, Tazhin reported that the central issues discussed included the need to implement the joint Kazakh-Kyrgyz investment fund, and the strategic priority of improving the "efficient use of water and energy resources." In a separate meeting in Astana the same day, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov and Karabaev reviewed plans for "developing trade and economic cooperation" between the two countries. The meetings were part of the formal countries' Council of Foreign Ministers, which met for only the second time since its inception in April 2007 as a body to streamline bilateral cooperation, AKIpress reported. RG

Following the slaying of a Kyrgyz citizen in Moscow on February 16, Kyrgyz National Security Council Secretary Tokon Mamytov expressed concern on February 18 over recent hate crimes targeting Kyrgyz nationals living in Russia, according to AKIpress. In a telephone conversation between Mamytov and his Russian counterpart, acting Russian National Security Council Secretary Valentin Sobolev, Sobolev promised that Russian authorities are ready to ensure the security of Kyrgyz nationals and noted that the Russian law enforcement agencies are actively investigating the recent killings of Kyrgyz citizens in Russia. Adding that the Russian authorities are undertaking "all necessary measures" to prevent such incidents in the future, Sobolev further stated that such hate crimes also "damage the interests of Russia's national policy" and pledged "to provide all possible support to Kyrgyz nationals who work and live in Russia." In a subsequent telephone conversation with Mamytov later that day, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev said that he is assuming "direct personal control" of the investigation into the recent killings. During the last month alone, five Kyrgyz nationals were slain in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The leader of the Kyrgyz nongovernmental organization Demo Lux, Kanybek Abdykadyrov, also announced on February 18 plans to stage a public rally outside of the Russian Embassy in Bishkek in the coming days to protest the killings of Kyrgyz nationals in Russia. Abdykadyrov explained that the planned rally seeks to "draw Russia's attention to murders of our nationals in Russia." RG

Marc Danzon, a regional director of the World Health Organization (WHO), arrived on February 18 in Dushanbe to conduct a tour of the country in preparation for an appeal for urgent aid to help alleviate the effects of its severe energy crisis, Asia-Plus reported. Briefing Danzon, the local WHO representative in Tajikistan, Santino Severoni, warned that roughly 50 percent of medical facilities in the country are currently experiencing serious shortages of water and electricity. Deputy Health Minister Sohib Rahmonov also noted that the shortage of electricity has contributed to "a tendency towards an increase in acute respiratory diseases among children." The local representative of the UN's World Food Program, Zlatan Milisic, also highlighted the fact that about 50 percent of the Tajik population is now suffering from malnutrition, with "over half of their earnings" being spent on food as prices continue to soar. RG

Speaking to reporters in Dushanbe, unidentified officials of the Tajik Drug Control Agency announced on February 18 a record seizure of over 100 kilograms of drugs in a joint operation with Uzbek and Kazakh police units, the Avesta website reported. The trilateral counternarcotics effort, codenamed Operation Typhoon, involved coordinated surveillance, raids, and seizures by Tajik, Kazakh, and Uzbek security forces first launched in May 2007. The operation targeted the activities of several groups of drug traffickers transporting narcotics from Afghanistan into Kazakhstan and Russia. RG

Andrey Klimau, an opposition politician who in August 2007 was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the president and calling for revolution in an article posted on the Internet, was unexpectedly released on February 15, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Klimau told journalists on February 16 in Minsk that he was released in pursuance of the February 11 decree issued by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Klimau said his release came to him as "complete surprise," since his hopes for freedom had been dashed by Lukashenka's recent statement that "the issue of political prisoners in Belarus is closed." Klimau, who was a legislator in the Supreme Soviet of Belarus in 1995-96, was jailed twice before: for four years of six-year sentence he received in February 1998 on charges of embezzlement and forgery, and in June 2005 for 18 months of "restricted freedom" over participation in organizing an opposition demonstration in Minsk. Along with former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin and journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou, Klimau is regarded by the West as a person persecuted for political reasons. AM

President Lukashenka said on February 15, while visiting the Vitsebsk region where former presidential candidate Kazulin is incarcerated, that he offered Kazulin the opportunity to accompany his wife Iryna, who is suffering from cancer, to Germany for medical treatment, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported, citing government sources. "European Union ambassadors appealed to me, saying that the state of his wife had deteriorated," Lukashenka said. "OK, we all are human and anything can happen in life. I agreed for him to take his wife [to Germany] for treatment. We helped her as far as we could, offered her treatment in Germany. But, as far as I have been informed today, Kazulin refused her treatment," Lukashenka said. However, Kazulin's daughter Volha denied this. She said that if her father had really been given such an offer and she was just unaware of it, the objective was to expel him from Belarus. "Our father will never leave the country in any case," she added. Iryna Kazulina also described the circumstances of her husband's possible release as unacceptable. "The things that his [Lukashenka's] messenger told us were unacceptable. That would be a disgraceful flight from the country," she wrote in an open letter posted on the Internet. Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 presidential election, was arrested during antigovernment demonstrations that followed the polls and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed public order. AM

While commenting on Kosova's declaration of independence the day before, President Lukashenka said on February 18 that Russia should have defended Yugoslavia and then there would not have been such an issue, Belapan reported. "I can say today to those who regretted and opposed the air strikes on Yugoslavia: aren't we too late to tackle this?" Lukashenka asked. "It was then necessary to prevent the partition of the Balkan region. It was then necessary to defend Yugoslavia. Then we and Russia had everything for that. It is too late today to 'sing songs.' The process began long ago. It is under way," he said. "We lost our influence there long ago. We should not have allowed that and then there would not have been independence issues," Lukashenka added. AM

Around 50 small-business owners and their associates on February 18 held an unsanctioned demonstration in central Minsk to protest recent restrictions on the activities of small businesses, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Protesters demanded the reversal of the presidential decree forbidding them from hiring employees other than three family members, as well as unbiased coverage of their activities on state television. After an hour and a half, riot police dispersed the demonstrators, detaining several people. Among those detained were Movement For Freedom leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich. After spending several hours at the police station, all were released without charges. Two days before, during an unrelated event police detained at least 30 members of the unregistered organization Youth Front who gathered in a private house outside Minsk to hold a meeting of the organization's council. All of them were released several hours later the same day without charges. The Justice Ministry has rejected the Youth Front's applications for legal status five times, though it was recently registered in the Czech Republic. AM

Meeting with parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, President Viktor Yushchenko said on February 18 that the ongoing parliamentary deadlock should be solved within the walls of the Verkhovna Rada, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Ukrainian legislation gives the president the right to dissolve the parliament if it fails to sit for 30 consecutive days. Yatsenyuk said that the Verkhovna Rada exceeded such a deadline on February 13. The opposition Party of Regions has been blocking the parliament for weeks in protest against the letter signed by Yushchenko, Yatsenyuk, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko requesting a Membership Action Plan at NATO's upcoming summit in Bucharest. The Party of Regions demands the adoption of a resolution that any steps by the government toward NATO membership must be preceded by a national referendum. AM

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko has said in Brussels that Kosova should not set a precedent for resolving other frozen conflicts, in particular, conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on February 18. Ohryzko said that Ukraine's stance on Kosova's declaration of independence is not yet finally formulated, but it will be announced soon. Opposition leader Yanukovych said that "Kosovo's declaration of independence without Serbia's consent has in fact destroyed the order that was established in terms of inviolability of borders after World War II." Yanukovych added that the precedent of Kosova might "worsen the challenges and risks that we know Ukraine is facing." AM

Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha announced on February 15 that he will give up his membership in the Our Ukraine-People's Union, the largest party in the Our Ukraine-People's Self Defense coalition caucus, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Baloha said that all possibilities connected with his membership in Our Ukraine were exhausted, but he stipulated that he will stay active in Ukraine's political processes. "Regardless of circumstances, my participation in political processes will be always linked with the person of [President] Viktor Yushchenko," he said. It is widely believed among Ukrainian politicians that Baloha intends to create a new pro-presidential party in connection with the upcoming presidential election. AM

The breakaway region of Kosova on February 17 declared independence from Serbia, a long-expected move that set off boisterous celebrations across Kosova, international media reported. In an evident bid to allay the concerns of the Serbian minority and of the international community, Kosova's leaders and parliament vowed in their declarations to abide by recommendations made in March 2007 by the UN's special envoy to the region, Martti Ahtisaari, emphasizing, in particular, their commitment to protect Kosova's ethnic minorities. The declaration was greeted with fireworks, prompted spontaneous rallies across Kosova by tens of thousands, and was celebrated with a concert in Prishtina whose centerpiece was Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the anthem of the EU. In their statement, members of parliament underscored the European aspirations of Kosova's population, saying that, by declaring independence, they are "answering the call of the people to build a state that will reaffirm the people's will, sworn in painful and hard history, and in the willingness to promote and respect the diversity of people who seek to integrate in European bodies." Kosova's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, spoke of the contribution made by Kosovar Albanians who took up arms against the Serbian authorities in the 1990s, saying, "we will remember all those who fell for this day to come, the heroes as well as our friends and allies who helped us achieve this day." Prime Minister Hashim Thaci sought, however, to allay international concerns that Kosova's move could stoke similar secessionist sentiment around the world. "Kosova is the last station of Yugoslavia's disintegration and it does not pose any precedent for other regions elsewhere in the world," he stated. AG

Serbia's leaders responded immediately to Kosova's declaration of independence by denouncing Prishtina's move and insisting that they will do whatever they can, short of violence, to retain sovereignty over Kosova. Speaking on national television shortly after the Kosovar parliament endorsed the declaration, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called on Serbs "to come together and show the whole world that we do not acknowledge the creation of a fake state on our territory." The Serbian people will never stop fighting for their freedom, he said. "As long as the Serbian people exist, Kosovo will be Serbia." Later, on February 18, Serbia said it will try to stop Kosova being recognized by other states, and recalled its ambassador from the United States, which has recognized Kosova, and threatened to recall ambassadors from any other countries that might follow suit. In his address to the nation, Kostunica was damning in his criticism of the United States, claiming that Washington is "ready to violate the international order for its own military interests." His comment echoes his repeated claims that the United States wants to create a NATO "puppet state" in Kosova. He also depicted Europe as a puppet of the United States, arguing that "America humiliated and forced the European Union to discard its basic principles. Europe bowed before America, and it will be held responsible for all the consequences that will arise from Kosovo's independence." The Serbian government has in the past couple of months drawn up plans for a response to a Kosovar declaration of independence, but there has been no indication yet what steps Serbia will take. Among the widely reported possibilities is an embargo. AG

The U.S. government has recognized Kosova as a sovereign and independent state, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced on February 18. Both Rice and Bush, who is on an official trip to Africa, welcomed Prishtina's commitment to implement the plan drawn up by UN envoy Ahtisaari and "to embrace multiethnicity as a fundamental principle of good governance, and to welcome a period of international supervision." In a written statement, Rice also talked of "the special ties of friendship that have linked together the people of the United States and Kosovo." U.S. flags were among those waved by Kosovars during the celebrations that followed Kosova's declaration of independence. Rice also dismissed Russia's argument that Kosova's secession from Serbia would provide a precedent for separatists around the world. "The unusual combination of factors found in the Kosovo situation -- including the context of Yugoslavia's breakup, the history of ethnic cleansing and crimes against civilians in Kosovo, and the extended period of UN administration -- are not found elsewhere and therefore make Kosovo a special case," she said. "Kosovo cannot be seen as a precedent for any other situation in the world today. " Rice also argued that "in light of the conflicts of the 1990s, independence is the only viable option to promote stability in the region." AG

The EU's largest states -- Britain France, Germany, and Italy -- have all said they will back the creation of a new state in Kosova, international media reported. However, a number of other EU states -- Cyprus, Romania, and Spain -- have said they reject Kosova's right to statehood, international media reported. Senior political figures from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have all said that their countries will recognize Kosova. Speaking on February 18, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband estimated that over half of the EU's 27 states will back Kosova's independence over the next week. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on February 18 "this is not a race" to recognition, a statement that mirrors a general expectation that EU states will recognize Kosova as a state in waves over the coming days and weeks. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner described Kosova's emergence as a state as "a great success for Europe, a great success for the Kosovars, and certainly not a defeat for the Serbs." Like Kouchner, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described Kosova's independence as an inevitability. Britain's Miliband said that Kosova's move is the "end [of] the violent and bloody conflict that has marked the western Balkans for the last 20 years." AG

Hundreds of Serbs enraged by Kosova's declaration of independence clashed with police on the streets of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, on February 17. Roughly a dozen shops, a McDonald's restaurant, the Slovenian, French, and Brazilian embassies, and the offices of the Liberal Democratic Party were attacked and damaged in the protests. The U.S. Embassy was cordoned off, but it too was the target of stone-throwing demonstrators. Slovenia's embassy appears to have been attacked because it currently occupies the rotating presidency of the EU, while the Liberal Democratic Party is the only major Serbian party that does not argue that Serbia should retain sovereignty over Kosova. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. In all, about 50 protesters and police officers were injured. Media reports typically described the protesters as skinheads, hardcore supporters of Belgrade's leading soccer clubs, and nationalists. Some chanted support for the Bosnian Serbs' military commander in the Bosnian civil war, Ratko Mladic, who is wanted by the UN for war crimes. Reports suggest that officials of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which is headed by Prime Minister Kostunica, were among demonstrators at a largely peaceful rally in Serbia's second city, Novi Sad. AG

At Russia's insistence, the UN Security Council met on February 17 and 18 to discuss Kosova's declaration of independence, but the two-day meeting followed predictable lines, with the three Western powers among the council's permanent members -- Britain, France, and the United States -- rejecting Russia's effort to annul Kosova's move. The fifth permanent member of the council, China, said it was "deeply concerned" at Kosova's move and called for a fresh round of bilateral talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. A similar impasse in the council last year prevented the adoption of the recommendation by UN envoy Ahtisaari that Kosova be granted "supervised independence." Among those who addressed the Security Council's emergency session were Serbian President Boris Tadic, who also met briefly with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "If you cast a blind eye to this illegal act, who guarantees to you that parts of your countries will not declare independence in the same illegal way?" Tadic told the Security Council. "Who can guarantee that a blind eye will not be cast to the violation of the charter of the United Nations, which guarantees the sovereignty and integrity of each state, when your country's turn comes up?" That argument was reportedly echoed to varying degrees by a number of other states. Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya told reporters that Kosova's move posed a "serious challenge to the fundamental principles of international law," and the ambassadors of South Africa and Vietnam also voiced concern. AG

Boris Tadic was sworn in on February 15 for a second term as Serbia's president. According to local and international media, in his inauguration speech to parliament, Tadic underscored his commitment to ensure that Serbia retains sovereignty over Kosova "as well as to protect human and minority rights and freedoms." Tadic won reelection on February 3, beating, as he did in 2004, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Tomislav Nikolic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4, 2008). AG

The ink has hardly dried on Kosova's independence declaration. The celebrations have barely abated in the streets of Prishtina. And already, reactions are flowing from frozen conflict zones in the former Soviet Union as if on cue.

Eduard Kokoity, the leader of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, said he intends to petition the United Nations and the CIS for independence from Georgia, arguing that his separatist enclave has "a stronger case" for statehood than Kosova. Sergei Bagapsh, president of a second Georgian breakaway region, Abkhazia, said he plans to make a similar appeal, adding "the situation with Kosovo is a precedent."

The two appeared at a joint press conference in Moscow on February 18 to make their case. The parliament of Moldova's separatist Transdniester region is widely expected to make a similar announcement.

"It is our firm belief that there should be a universal approach to all these conflicts," Bagapsh said. "And if anybody thinks that Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Transdniester will stop this process [toward independence] after the issue of Kosovo's recognition has been resolved, they are wrong."

Separatist leaders in Georgia and Moldova, as well as their backers in Moscow, have long said that Kosova's independence would set a precedent for them to achieve statehood as well. Do they have a point? Can the Kosova model be repeated in South Ossetia, Chechnya, Transdniester, or elsewhere?

Analysts point out that the specifics of the Kosova case make it a very poor model for other regions. "I think that it is extremely difficult to compare the former Yugoslavia with any other part of the world. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia was unique in itself," says Sabine Freizer, Europe program director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Freizer adds that the era of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, with "the atrocities, the ethnic cleansing, the massive displacements, [and] the massive human rights violations" was "very specific" in its brutality.

The cases are also different from the standpoint of international law, due to the 1999 NATO air war against Serbia, and the United Nations resolution that followed the conflict. "We have a UN Security Council resolution, Resolution 1244, which opens the possibility for a change of status in the Kosovo case," Freizer says. "We don't have any resolution that calls into question the territorial integrity of Georgia, for example. So this makes the case very different."

Freizer says the one important lesson other breakaway territories can learn from the Kosova experience is that it pays dividends to cooperate with the international community and make oneself appear worthy of independence. Since becoming a UN protectorate in 1999, Prishtina has labored to develop democratic institutions and to respect international norms.

"The one lesson that I would maybe take from the Kosovo experience is that the best that [these territories] can do to get their case understood internationally is to show that they are responsible and to not make any excessive moves. To work on trying to build up their own structures, their own institutions and, most importantly, to defend the rights of minorities that are living on their territories," Freizer says. "In some ways the Kosovars have done that."

It isn't only pro-Moscow separatists that are raising the issue of Kosova in defense of their own causes. Chechen separatist officials have been more than happy to raise it as well. "We welcome the declaration of sovereignty and independence by Kosovo, and we will never question Kosovo's right to be free under any circumstances," Usman Ferzauli, foreign minister in the separatist Chechen government in exile, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service by telephone from Copenhagen. "Enormous bloodshed and cruelty inflicted by the Serbs...[have resulted] in Kosovo becoming a new, free, and independent state on the world map."

The Chechen situation places Moscow uncomfortably between two contradictory sentiments. While it has done little to dampen separatist sentiments in territories affecting its neighbors, it has staunchly rejected the Kosova model for its own breakaway conflicts like that in Chechnya.

Indeed, analysts have pointed out, the Kremlin is entering perilous and unpredictable territory by raising the issue of a Kosova precedent. For this reason, Freizer says she does not expect Moscow to press the issue very hard. "Russia is taking a risk by saying that Kosovo is now a case that is going to set a precedent in other parts of the former Soviet space," Freizer says. "They risk having this go beyond Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester -- and perhaps even Nagorno-Karabakh -- to their own territory of the Russian Federation, to Chechnya or other parts of the North Caucasus."

Officials of other CIS states with breakaway conflicts are, not surprisingly, far from enthusiastic about the Kosovo declaration. In Georgia, authorities have rejected any comparison between its breakaway enclaves and Kosova, adding that they have no plans to recognize the former Serbian territory.

"Georgia is not planning to assume any position in relation to Kosovo, nor is it going to recognize it," Temur Iakobashvili, Georgia's state minister for reintegration, tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "This process has evolved independently from us, and it's important that we stop looking for parallels between Kosovo and conflicts that exist in Georgia. Such parallels don't exist, and the sooner we forget the word 'Kosovo' the better it will be for us, as well as for the Abkhaz and the Russians. Georgia is not going to recognize Kosovo -- this is not in our interests -- just like I think Russia is not going to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

Then there is Azerbaijan, which has spent a decade-and-a-half engaged in a protracted conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian enclave located within Azerbaijani territory that functions as a de facto independent republic with its own provisional government.

Baku fears Yerevan may use the Kosovo precedent during talks on Karabakh to upset the ongoing peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. To that end, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Khazar Ibrahim said Baku will not recognize Kosova, calling Prishtina's move "against the principals of international law and illegal."

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani, North Caucasus, and Georgian services contributed to this report.)

A suicide car bombing killed 38 Afghans in a crowded market in Kandahar on February 18, a day after an attack in the southern city killed more than 100, AP reported. The earlier explosion, which went off in the midst of a crowd at a dog fight, is thought to have been the deadliest attack since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Most insurgent attacks in Afghanistan have targeted Afghan and foreign security forces, but the two Kandahar bombings appear to have targeted civilians. The Taliban denied being behind the February 17 attack, but claimed responsibility for the market explosion. Three Canadian soldiers were wounded in the second attack, according to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Kandahar is among Afghanistan's major opium-producing regions, and risks once again becoming a flashpoint in the insurgency. In Washington, the White House condemned the February 17 bombing. AFP quoted national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe as saying the bombing is "a reminder that the extremists offer nothing but violence and death. The Afghan people will not allow them to stop the march to democracy and security." AT

Pakistan's former intelligence chief Hamid Gul has told the "Times of India" that the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan must be solved with political tactics, and not by the use of force. In an interview published on February 18, Gul, the former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, said it is time for policymakers in the West to find political solutions in both countries. "There is nothing more that NATO or the ISAF or the Americans can do in Afghanistan. NATO will be defeated," Gul said, adding that it is time to strike a deal with insurgents. He said it is impossible to close the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent militants from moving between the two countries. The 2,400-kilometer border "is impossible to seal," Gul said. "The Russians could not seal it. The British could not seal it in 98 years of their rule over the area." AT

Norwegian Defense Minister Anne-Grete Storm Erichsen said on February 18 that Norwegian and other NATO forces may have to stay in Afghanistan until 2015, UPI reported. Erichsen said that unless the Afghan National Army begins to "function well," NATO cannot leave before that date. She added that the 40,000-member Afghan National Army must double the number of its forces before it will be able to take over security operations in Afghanistan. Norway has approximately 500 troops in Afghanistan. AT

The head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari, has stated that Lebanon's Hizballah militia will soon destroy the state of Israel, Radio Farda reported on February 18. Jafari made the comment in a letter to Hizballah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah, in which he also expressed condolences for the death of Hizballah operative Imad Mugniyah in a February 12 car bombing. Hizballah has blamed Israel for the bombing, but Israel denies it was involved (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and 15, 2008). Jafari wrote that the "cancerous tumor" of Israel will be destroyed at the hands of Hizballah in the near future. The Lebanese militia, which is backed by Iran, has vowed open war with Israel. In Jerusalem on February 18, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said that "we are not harboring any illusions about the Tehran regime's true intentions [and] extremist agenda," AFP reported. VS

Reformist former President Mohammad Khatami went to the Hizballah office in Tehran on February 17 to express his condolences over the death of Hizballah operative Mugniyah, and said his "martyrdom" shows the injustice being imposed on "a nation," the Fars news agency reported. It was not clear from the agency report whether he meant the Lebanese or the Palestinians. Mugniyah was sought by Western security agencies for his suspected role in various terrorist plots or violent attacks on Western forces in Lebanon in the 1980s. Khatami said assassination is part of the "logic of those who have no logic and are afraid of truth and justice." He said that Mugniyah's goals were freedom, an end to the denigration of nations, and "defense of justice," and added that he hopes "this martyr's" path will continue, Fars reported. VS

Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Tavassoli, a member of the Expediency Council, died of a heart attack while engaging in heated debate at a February 16 meeting of the council, the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on February 17. The 77-year-old cleric, who was a former student and reputed close associate of late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was reportedly angered by "recent insults to the Imam's household." Those insults referred specifically to Hasan Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson, who recently said soldiers should keep out of politics in Iran, prompting vituperative replies from right-wing media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11 and 13, 2008) The daily quoted Expediency Council member Mohammad Hashemi as saying that Tavassoli began to address the council and read out a letter written by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1982, in which he predicted that his relatives would run afoul of "rigid-minded" and "pseudo-religious" elements. Hashemi said Tavassoli collapsed upon uttering the word "reactionaries." He was attended by another council member, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and physician by training, and an ambulance was called. Tavassoli died within an hour of his collapse, the daily reported. Tavassoli was a reformist candidate for the mid-term elections to the Assembly of Experts, due to be held with parliamentary polls on March 14, Mehr reported on February 16. He was buried near Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum outside Tehran on February 17 at a funeral attended by prominent politicians and clerics, Mehr reported. VS

Lawmaker Ahmad Tavakkoli, the head of the parliamentary research center, said in Tehran on February 18 that "it seems we have ratified" an inflationary budget for 2008-09, which, he warned, will worsen economic stagnation, ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2008). He said the new budgeting format presented by the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is a step toward a shortened and simplified version of previous drafts, but he warned that the budget has grown 20 percent above the inflation rate. Iranian officials differ on the inflation rate, but rates given in recent years have oscillated between 13 and 25 percent. Tavakkoli noted a particularly dramatic rise in figures for the development or large-scale construction budget, which he said was just over $13 billion in 2006-07, rose by $1 billion the next year, and is set to rise to over $24 billion in 2008-09. The government plans to draw more than $13 billion of that money from Iran's petrodollars reserve fund, Tavakkoli said. The expenditure of "this amount of money cannot be absorbed" by the economy, he said. He added that the injection of so much oil money into the economy will cause inflation, "unless we increase imports" to absorb cash, but he also speculated that there may be an imbalance in the distribution of the money among state-sector projects. VS

Deputy Finance Minister for Economic Affairs Mohammad Zahedi-Vafa on February 18 expressed doubt over the recently reported inflation rate of 17.5 percent, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on February 19. The Iranian Central Bank announced on February 4 that the inflation rate for the 12-month period to December 22, 2007, was equivalent to 17.5 percent. Zahedi-Vafa said he thinks the rate is higher, but could be brought down to 17.5 percent by spending discipline. Iran could even bring its inflation rate below 15 percent for the Persian year to March 20, 2009, he said. Zahedi-Vafa said that "financial indiscipline and the transfer of inflation due to the import of some goods...have prompted price increases for some products." Zahedi-Vafa said the ministry has price-adjustment policies to fight "seasonal" price rises, but a fundamental reduction of inflation depends on "the government's long-term policies." VS

At a February 17 press conference, U.S. military spokesman Real Admiral Gregory Smith said the military has evidence that Iranian-backed "special groups" in Iraq are increasingly using secret arms depots to launch attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces. The United States uses the term special groups to describe rogue elements, backed by Iran, of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "In just the past week, Iraqi and coalition forces captured 212 weapons caches across Iraq, two of those coming from here inside Baghdad, with growing links to the Iranian-backed special groups," Smith said. He stressed, however, that there is no evidence that Iran has increased arms shipments to Iraq to arm these groups. "What we're seeing is an increase, I think, in the use of weapons by special groups, Iranian-backed special groups," Smith said. "Many of these caches have been in Iraq for some time now. And through, I guess, the vigilance of both our operations and that of the tips by local citizens, we're uncovering more and more of these caches." SS

The U.S. military acknowledged on February 17 that its forces attacked a group of fighters belonging to an awakening council in the Jarf Al-Sakhr area of the central Babil Governorate, AFP reported. Three members of the group were killed, the military said. U.S. military spokesman Major Brad Leighton said that members of the awakening council on February 16 mistakenly fired on U.S. forces in the area, who then promptly returned fire. Immediately after the incident, Salah al-Janab, a leader of the awakening council in Jarf Al-Sakhr, accused U.S. forces of deliberately killing the three men. He also said that a total of 19 council members have been killed and 12 injured in coalition operations in February. Al-Janab said the council will immediately suspend all cooperation with U.S. forces to protest what he described as "organized assassinations by coalition forces," Awakening councils are coalitions of local tribesmen that have been established in eight governorates in an effort to root out Al-Qaeda-linked elements. SS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on February 15 that since the launch of the Baghdad security plan in February 2007, Iraqi and U.S. forces have virtually driven Al-Qaeda in Iraq out of the capital, state-run Al-Iraqiyah reported. He stressed that the success of the security operation in Baghdad means that Al-Qaeda in Iraq will be defeated throughout the country. "Thank God, we have destroyed the cells of Al-Qaeda. They have been chased out of Baghdad and this has opened the way for their defeat throughout Iraq," al-Maliki said. "Today our forces are locked in battle against outlaws in Ninawa [Governorate] and we are chasing them," he added. Al-Maliki was speaking at a ceremony in Baghdad marking the first anniversary of the start of the security operation, dubbed Fardh al-Qanun (Imposing Law). He thanked all the brave Iraqis who have assisted in the security operations to save the country from "a miserable situation" caused by "violence and terrorism led by Al-Qaeda." SS

The Turkish military is preparing a comprehensive ground offensive against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters based in northern Iraq, the Turkish daily "Today's Zaman" reported on February 18. Turkish military sources indicated that previous air strikes against the PKK have severely disrupted the organization, and the ground operation, scheduled to be launched in the middle of March, is viewed as the final strike against the rebels. The paper reported that Turkish special forces based in the Turkish provinces of Bolu, Kayseri, Isparta, and Manisa have been trained for the specific purpose of eliminating the PKK presence in northern Iraq. The military indicated that the spring operation will be carried out not only along Turkey's borders with Iran and Iraq, but also within the Turkish provinces Tunceli, Bingol, Siirt, and Diyarbakir. SS

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres said on February 16 that his agency will increase its presence in Iraq in an effort to support millions of internally displaced Iraqis, international media reported. Speaking at a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Guterres said the agency will boost its international staff in Baghdad from two to five, and the new country representative, whose name has been submitted to the Iraqi government for approval, will be moved to the Iraqi capital from Amman. "It is here that the essential work needs to be done in close cooperation with the government," Guterres said. "We are going to intensify our actions first of all in support of the Iraqi displaced inside the country." The UN moved most of its operations to Amman after a August 2003 truck bombing at its Baghdad headquarters killed 22 people, including the UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. For his part, Zebari welcomed the increased commitment by the UNHCR. "I think it is very good news. We are prepared as a government to work very closely," he said. SS

Kurdistan regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani met with Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani in Doha on February 17 to discuss ways to improve bilateral ties between the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) and Qatar, the KRG website reported on February 18. Barzani briefed al-Thani on the current situation in Iraq and the KRG's active role in advancing Iraq's political process. The two men also discussed ways in which Qatari firms can assist in developing the infrastructure in the Kurdish region, as well as improving educational ties between the two governments. "My meeting with Prime Minister al-Thani was very productive and it will enhance closer ties between the KRG and Qatar. We are keen to further develop these ties, and see many avenues of possible future cooperation," Barzani said. Al-Thani welcomed closer ties with the Kurdish region, and expressed support for the KRG's contribution to Iraq's political and economic development. SS