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Newsline - February 20, 2008

First Deputy Prime Minister and presumed presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview with the news weekly "Itogi," which was posted on on February 18, that Russia will "eventually establish a common economic zone" with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008). He noted that trying to reach any international agreement with Ukraine is a "chore" at present because of that country's domestic problems. Medvedev believes that Russia will also reach an "understanding" with Georgia, even though the "situation with Russian-Georgian relations is more complicated." Asked whether Moscow might cut off gas supplies to Kyiv or Tbilisi as a form of political pressure, Medvedev replied that "Gazprom faithfully honors its commitments. All these speculations about alleged energy blackmail we keep hearing from the West are absolutely groundless." He noted that "a Russia [on the rise] irritates many circles abroad.... Given sufficient ingenuity, one might [also] condemn the United States as a financial aggressor and economic terrorist that forced its monetary unit and free-enterprise standards on the rest of the world." Medvedev is glad that Russia takes a tougher line now in defense of its interests than it did a decade ago. Otherwise, "we'd be treated as a Third World country even now. Something like Upper Volta with nuclear missiles," he added, in an allusion to a famous remark made by former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt about the Soviet Union. Medvedev stressed that it is good for Russia "to bare its teeth" when important interests are at stake. He denied that such concerns are limited to Kosova or missile defense and stressed that Russia's current toughness over the rights of the British Council to operate in Russia is justified. Medvedev argued that "when you allow others to push you and keep pushing, these others inevitably stop taking you seriously. There are no trifles in international affairs." PM

LUKoil, which is Russia's second-largest oil company, announced on February 19 that it has stopped deliveries to Germany because of a disagreement over prices, Deutsche Welle and news agencies reported. This is the second delivery stop to Germany within 12 months. A LUKoil spokesman said the deliveries in question total some 520,000 tons. Estimates put the company's annual oil deliveries to Germany at 40 million tons. There was speculation in the German media in August 2007 that the reason LUKoil cut back its supplies of crude to Germany by one-third since June 2007 was that the company sought to pressure Western firms into selling refineries to it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 29, 30, and 31, 2007). PM

Algeria's reported demand that Russia take back about 15 MiG 29SMT Fulcrum fighter jets delivered under a deal signed in 2006 would be, if true, unprecedented in the history of Russian arms sales, the daily "Kommersant" wrote on February 18. Independent military analyst Aleksandr Khramchikhin, who is with the Institute for Military and Political Analysis, was quoted by AP as saying on February 19 that the Algerians' move is the result of the steady deterioration of the Russian military and the arms industry under President Vladimir Putin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007, and February 15, 2008). Khramchikhin argued that "the military-industrial complex has declined because of the [post-Soviet] personnel exodus and the loss of key technologies. Control over quality of manufacturing is virtually nonexistent. The number of complaints has grown sharply." "Kommersant" reported on February 19 that a much-publicized dispute with India over the timing and cost involved in Russia's modernizing the aircraft carrier "Admiral Gorshkov" for India has become so complicated that the Russian Navy might purchase the vessel instead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007). PM

Amid continuing disputes between Russia and China over the future of the recently launched East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO), the state-owned Russian Railways (RZhD) announced on February 19 that it will complete in 2008 the first stage of a planned expansion of its Siberian line to bring oil to China, Interfax reported. Construction of a second stage will begin later in the year and be completed in 2010. RZhD expects to ship 8.8 million tons of oil to China in 2008. Among the various aspects of the railway expansion project, which started in 2004, is laying a second track between Karymskaya and Zabaikalsk, which lies on the Chinese border in Chita Oblast. China wants Russia to speed up work on the ESPO because rail traffic can carry only a fraction of the oil that the ESPO could deliver (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006, and July 20 and November 6 and 7, 2007, and End Note, March 23, 2006, and September 12, 2007). Russia wants China to pay higher prices for the oil than were previously agreed. PM

Ella Polyakova, who heads the nongovernmental organization Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg, said on February 19 that the parents of the late soldier Maksim Plokhov filed a suit in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights in connection with his death in late 2005 as a result of an apparent beating by officers in the Leningrad Military District, reported. The military authorities maintain that he died of kidney failure and not as a result of any hazing injuries. Polyakova said that the parents felt they were unable to find justice in Russian courts. The German weekly "Der Spiegel" once described the Strasbourg court as a "beacon of hope" for Russians, many of whom have little confidence in their own judicial system. More Russian citizens file cases in Strasbourg than do citizens of any other country belonging to the Council of Europe. President Putin has called many of the resulting court rulings politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). PM

More foreign election-monitoring bodies have informed the Central Election Commission that they will not send teams to observe the March 2 presidential election, Interfax reported on February 19. Earlier, the Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that it would not send observers because of purported interference by Russian officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2008). Central Election Commission member Gennady Raikov told the news agency that election commissions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Germany have all officially informed Moscow that they will not observe the presidential ballot. Hungary earlier declined its invitation, as did the Northern Council. Raikov said that 95 monitors from 12 countries have already been registered to attend the election and the commission expects that 300 observers from about 40 countries will ultimately participate. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will send 30 monitors. RC

The For Putin! movement, together with the Russia, Forward! movement, the newly formed Socialist Choice of Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008), and others will hold a national forum in support of the presidential candidacy of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Nizhny Novgorod on February 27, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on February 20. Medvedev is expected to address the gathering. The event is being organized by Duma Deputy Speaker Aleksandr Babakov (A Just Russia). Leftist politician Viktor Anpilov, who was named in early press reports as an organizer of the Socialist Choice of Russia umbrella group, told on February 20 that he is not participating in the group and does not intend to support Medvedev. RC

The new head of Russian Natural Resources Inspectorate (Rosprirodnadzor), an agency of the Natural Resources Ministry, has issued an order banning his deputies from communicating with the courts, prosecutors, or the media, "Kommersant" wrote on February 20, citing Rosprirodnadzor Deputy Chairman Oleg Mitvol. Mitvol apparently spoke to the daily in violation of the new instruction. Mitvol said the order by agency head Vladimir Kirillov violated the Administrative Code, and that he is not only allowed to speak with prosecutors, but is often obligated to do so. Mitvol said the order is aimed at preventing him from filing a 4.2 billion ruble ($170.6 million) case against Norilsk Nikel, among others. Neither the agency nor the ministry would comment on the report. RC

At least five Russian regions have cancelled tenders won by Finans-Trust, the company headed by controversial businessman Oleg Shvartsman, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 20. Shvartsman made headlines in November 2007 with a "Kommersant" interview in which he charged that siloviki close to President Putin's inner circle are carrying out a "velvet reprivatization" by intimidating businesspeople into selling their assets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 20, and 28, 2007). In January, the state-owned Rosoboroneksport filed a civil suit against "Kommersant" and Shvartsman, and hearings in that case are expected to begin in April. RIA-Novosti reported on February 19 that the regions canceling deals with Finans-Trust include Volgograd, Voronezh, and Samara oblasts and the republics of Chuvashia and Bashkortostan. RC

Federal Corrections Service head Yury Kalinin on February 19 confirmed that former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan, who has been held without trial for more than two years and who is being treated in a hospital for AIDS and other illnesses, is being held under guard and being kept handcuffed to his hospital bed, Interfax reported. Kalinin says such treatment is not a violation of Russian law. Aleksanyan's lawyers have complained that they have not been able to visit their client since he was transferred to the hospital, and Kalinin said access to Aleksanyan is controlled by the doctors who are treating him. Earlier a spokesman for the corrections service, Aleksandr Sidorov, mocked the idea that Aleksanyan has been handcuffed to his bed, telling Ekho Moskvy that those spreading the reports "are laying it on thick." Aleksanyan, who is charged with embezzlement, was diagnosed with AIDS in 2006, but was denied medical treatment until earlier this year despite numerous instructions from the European Court of Human Rights that he be given medical care (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). RC

Investigators are still looking into the brazen February 13 slaying of Saratov Oblast prosecutor Yevgeny Grigorev, "Novaya gazeta" reported on February 18. Grigorev was shot dead during the evening rush hour outside his home in Saratov at point-blank range by a pistol without a silencer. Although a motive has not been established, Grigorev was known for his investigations into political corruption, some of which touched on people connected with the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. "The prosecutor's office is based on the constitution and federal law, not on party charters," Grigorev once told a local media outlet, "In accordance with federal law, prosecutors do not belong to any political parties. Our role in elections boils down to this: to ensure the observance of legality." A spokeswoman with the Prosecutor-General's Office told the newspaper that there are many possible motives in the case. She said many important criminal figures who were jailed at the end of the 1990s are now being released from prison. In addition, Saratov prosecutors in recent months have managed to gain control of some 20 properties that were illegally privatized by former Saratov Mayor Yury Aksenenko. Finally, Grigorev's investigative group has been working on a high-profile corruption case against former Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitry Ayatskov. "No matter what the Kremlin storytellers claim about how they control the situation in Russia, the criminals are making it clear who is the master in the country today," Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin (Communist) told the newspaper. RC

Konstantin Kosachyov, who is chairman of the Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, was quoted on February 19 as saying that "Russia supports the territorial integrity of Georgia" and will therefore not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, Caucasus Press reported. He said doing so "would trigger a serious crisis in the CIS." On February 18, Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov met with the de facto presidents of the two unrecognized republics, Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Koikoity, to evaluate the impact of Kosova's February 17 declaration of independence. Immediately after the December 2 elections to the Russian State Duma, Gryzlov said the new legislature would consider in January 2008 the formal requests by Abkhazia and South Ossetia to join the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). LF

According to complete but preliminary data released on February 20 by the Central Election Commission, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian won the February 19 presidential ballot with 52.86 percent of the vote; his closest challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, placed a distant second with 21.5 percent, followed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian (16.67 percent), Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun candidate Vahan Hovannisian (6.2 percent); and former Prime Minister and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian (1.28 percent); the remaining four candidates polled less than 1 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was estimated at 69 percent, compared with 61.9 percent during the first round of the 2003 presidential elections. LF

Even before polling stations closed on February 19, spokesmen for four opposition presidential candidates -- Ter-Petrossian, Baghdasarian, Hovannisian, and Manukian -- all alleged widespread government interference, including violent assaults on Ter-Petrossian's proxies, and falsification of the vote, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Ter-Petrossian's campaign spokesman Arman Musinian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that "what is happening in Armenia is not an election...[it is] an attempt to... seize power." Proxies for Manukian reported violations in the town of Abovian, including multiple voting, while a spokeswoman for Hovannisian alleged violations in three Yerevan precincts, Noyan Tapan reported. Despite the mass deployment of police in central Yerevan, several thousand Ter-Petrossian supporters congregated near the Matenadaran library on February 20 to protest the perceived falsification of the vote. LF

Following the expiry in 2012 of the current agreement under which Russia leases the Qabala (Gabala) radar from Azerbaijan, Baku may offer the use of that facility to Turkey or the U.S., and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on February 19 quoting Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov. At the same time, Azimov denied that Azerbaijan has proposed to the U.S. hosting elements of the planned missile defense system to be located in Poland and the Czech Republic. LF

Parliament deputies failed on February 19 to vote on three constitutional amendments, two of which address demands put forward by the nine-party opposition National Council in its January 30 memorandum to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, reported. They are reducing from 7 percent to 5 percent the threshold for parliamentary representation; holding parliamentary elections in the spring, not the fall of this year; and abolishing the current winner-takes-all system of electing majoritarian lawmakers. Representatives of the parliament majority blamed the failure to approve those amendments on the opposition's ongoing boycott of parliament proceedings, which reduced the number of deputies present to fewer than the 157 needed to vote on constitutional amendments, but Kakha Kukava (Conservative) pointed out that the parliament has passed 15 constitutional amendments since 2004 without relying on opposition votes. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev on February 19 appointed Vladimir Shkolnik as the new minister of industry and trade, replacing Galym Orazbakov, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Shkolnik previously served as the deputy head of the Kazakh presidential administration. In a separate decree, Nazarbaev appointed Berik Imashev as a new presidential adviser. Imashev will also retain his current post as the secretary of the National Security Council, which he has held since January 2007. RG

At a cabinet meeting in Astana, Prime Minister Karim Masimov on February 19 announced new regulations tightening safety requirements for mining companies operating in Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. Masimov added that the stricter safety requirements will also apply to foreign investors, and noted that all new mining contracts will need to include the currently required clauses on safety measures. Earlier on February 19, the Emergency Situations Ministry announced that over 1,000 safety violations have been uncovered during inspections of several coal mines, Kazakhstan Today reported. According to Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Bozhko, the violations were discovered at several mines operated by the ArcelorMittal Temirtau company in the central Karaganda region. RG

Officials of the Kazakh National Nuclear Center have proposed building small nuclear power plants in 50 small towns in remote areas of Kazakhstan, the Russian language newspaper "Ekspress-K" reported on February 19. The unnamed officials presented the project in the eastern town of Ust-Kamenogorsk. The plan involves utilizing small-capacity ABV-6 reactors with an estimated 60-year lifespan to supply a projected 25 percent of the energy needs of the country's rural areas by 2030. The first stage of the project, which would cost an estimated $240 million, calls for the construction of a small power plant with two ABV-6 reactors in the eastern town of Kurchatov. RG

The head of the Kazakh financial police, Sarybay Kalmurzaev, announced on February 18 that a corruption probe has been launched to investigate several employees of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In a press release, Kalmurzaev noted that the officials are suspected of dereliction of duty and possibly accepting bribes from unidentified foreign companies. The statement added that the ministry officials failed to fulfill their professional duties, resulting in a loss of tax revenue totaling some 40.9 billion tenges ($340.8 million) from the state budget. The financial police are subordinate to the state agency tasked with fighting economic crimes and corruption. RG

President Kurmanbek Bakiev on February 19 issued a decree appointing Svetlana Kaldarbekovna Sydykova to a five-year term as the chairwoman of the Constitutional Court, AKIpress reported. The parliament already approved Sydykova's nomination a few days earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2008). She previously served one term as a Constitutional Court judge after securing parliamentary approval for that position last April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). RG

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement suggesting that Belgrade and Prishtina should resume negotiations in order to overcome the tensions caused by the Kosova's declaration of independence, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on February 19. "The issue of the status of the province of Kosovo and Metohija should be settled within the framework of international law on the basis of the UN Security Council's 1999 Resolution 1244, which confirmed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia, as well as on the basis of key provisions of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act," the statement reads. The Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975, is among the foundations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and affirms the inviolability of state borders. The Foreign Ministry also said that "the only way of overcoming tension and achieving stability in the region is a political settlement that envisages a return to the negotiation process between Belgrade and Prishtina with the possible participation of international mediators." AM

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on February 19 warned judges and prosecutors against getting involved in politics, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Lukashenka made the statement while introducing the new head of the Constitutional Court, Pyotr Miklashevich, and new Prosecutor-General Ryhor Vasilevich. Each previously held the other's position. "Some judges and prosecutors have gone into politics," Lukashenka said. "They worry about how we may be perceived by America and the European Union. But these are not your problems. These are problems of the president of the country and, partly, of the prime minister. It is we who will be sorting out these political issues." Lukashenka did not specify what particular political involvement prosecutors and judges might seek. He also failed to explain why he reappointed Vasilevich and Miklashevich to one another's posts. AM

Two Belarusian courts on February 19 sentenced small-business activists Mikalay Charnavus and Ihar Kryval for taking part in demonstrations in defense of the rights of entrepreneurs, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Charnavus was fined 1,050,000 rubles ($489) for organizing an unsanctioned rally in Baranavichy, Brest Oblast, on February 11. Kryval was sentenced to 15 days in jail for his activities in Uzda, Minsk Oblast, where he distributed "leaflets of an antigovernment nature" that called on people to take part in a February 18 protest in Minsk. Police arrested Kryval on February 16 and kept him in a pretrial detention center, thus preventing him from traveling to Minsk to take part in the demonstration. Meanwhile, the prosecutor's office in Barysau, Minsk Oblast, has issued a warning to local small-business activist Ihar Lednik for announcing the unsanctioned February 18 demonstration in a message he posted on the Internet. AM

The Swedish partners of the Belarusian State University have announced that they are breaking their connections with the university's faculty of journalism over the recent expulsion of Franak Vyachorka, an activist of the youth wing of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on February 18. Sweden has provided the Belarusian State University with 49 million kronas ($7.7 million) in mutual training programs to date. The university authorities expelled Vyachorka, a third-year student of the journalism faculty, for failing to pass two exams. Vyachorka argued that he took his exams as soon as possible after serving a jail term. He was sentenced to jail for supporting an associate while she stood trial for participating in an unauthorized demonstration of small-business owners. The university authorities have not recognized the jail sentence as a sufficient excuse for missing exams. AM

Parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk has proposed that the parties in the Verkhovna Rada sign an agreement aimed at resuming the parliament's work, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on February 19. The parliament has been deadlocked for several weeks over the opposition's objections to the government's attempts to move Ukraine closer to joining NATO. Yatsenyuk proposed that the solution to possible accession to NATO should be based on the legislation currently in force, and particularly on the law on the fundamentals of Ukraine's security. Yatsenyuk also suggested that his signature on the letter asking NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to give Ukraine a Membership Action Plan does not reflect the consolidated stance of the Verkhovna Rada on this issue. Yatsenyuk also proposed that the official stance of the Verkhovna Rada regarding NATO membership be presented publicly after an appropriate debate in parliament itself. Yatsenyuk described the signing of the proposed agreement as "the only constructive solution" to the ongoing parliamentary crisis. AM

Six prominent members of the Our Ukraine-People's Union, the largest party in the Our Ukraine-People's Self Defense coalition caucus, announced on February 19 that they will give up their membership in the party. They are: Roman Bezsmertnyy, a member of the party's Political Council and deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat; Mykhaylo Polanych, head of the party's Monitoring Committee; Deputy Chairman Ihor Kril; lawmaker Viktor Topolov; and Oksana Bilozir and Vasyl Petyovka, members of the party's Political Council. "We have lost our conviction that the key posts in the party are occupied by people devoted to the president. We have nothing to do with those who changed their orientation," they said in a statement. All six followed Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha, who announced his exit from the party last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008). Vasyl Kyselyov, the deputy chairman of the Procedural Committee in the Verkhovna Rada, said that the government coalition is not threatened, since deputies who leave a party do not have to give up their seat. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on February 19 that Ukraine will formulate its stance over Kosova's declaration of independence after consultations with the European Union, Russia, and the United States, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko said that the decision whether or not to recognize Kosova will be made under circumstances that "have many regional nuances." Yushchenko also echoed the Foreign Ministry in saying that "the formula for the settlement of Kosova's status should not become a precedent for other countries" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008). AM

Kosovar Serbs opposed to Kosova's declaration of independence on February 19 attacked two border posts on the border with Serbia, prompting NATO peacekeepers to intervene for the first time. Up to 3,000 people were in the crowd that burned down a post at Jarinje and another thousand set fire to a border crossing at Brnjak, near the town of Zubin Potok. Makeshift buildings at both sites were toppled. No one was injured, but staff at the posts -- members of UN and Kosovo's multiethnic police and customs service -- were forced to flee and, in the case of Brnjak, to take refuge in a tunnel. The NATO-led international force, KFOR, then intervened and airlifted staff to safety. KFOR has set up checkpoints, and called in reinforcements from elsewhere in Kosova. The incidents appear to have been triggered by reports that Kosovar Albanian officials were set to assume control of checkpoints and border crossings in the area. Many of the protesters reportedly came from Mitrovica, Kosova's second city. Mitrovica has been the site of a number of other incidents in recent days, during which, according to local and international media, a number of symbols of the international presence in Kosova were also attacked, including vehicles belonging to the UN Mission and a UN courthouse in Mitrovica, at which a grenade was thrown on February 17. Two other grenades hit deserted homes. Thousands of Kosovar Serbs have protested against Kosova's declaration of independence in Mitrovica. AG

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign-policy chief, on February 19 became the first leading international politician to visit Kosova since the contested region declared independence from Serbia. Solana met in Prishtina with Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. Details of the visit remain scant, but Solana publicly urged Kosova's Albanian and Serbian communities to remain peaceful. The EU's four largest powers -- Britain, France, Germany, and Italy -- have all recognized Kosova as a state. AG

Greece's embassy in Skopje was stoned on February 19 by a crowd of several hundred Macedonians protesting Greece's insistence that Macedonia change its name. Several vehicles, including police cars, were damaged. Hours earlier, the UN envoy mandated to lead negotiations between Greece and Macedonia presented a fresh proposal aimed at ending the 17-year impasse. Details of the proposal were not made public. Over the past 17 years, Macedonia has used the formal designation "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" in many international forums, but the need for a lasting resolution of the dispute has become acute over the past year as Macedonia's bid for admission to NATO has come close to fruition. Macedonia hopes that NATO leaders will in April invite it to join the alliance, while Greece has threatened to veto its possible membership. AG

Nearly one in three aspiring candidates has been excluded from Iran's parliamentary elections next month, including current and former officials and a grandson of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Many of the thousands of disqualified candidates are known to support political reforms, echoing past elections in which authorities have silenced dissenting voices long before any voters are allowed to mark their ballots.

But the rules for vetting Iranian parliamentary candidates appear increasingly subject to political interpretation, prompting public accusations that the Guardians Council is abusing its oversight powers in order to meddle in the elections.

Through a tough, complex system of checks and balances, Iranian authorities exercise extensive control over those who want to run for parliament, or the Majlis. Candidates with "unproven loyalty" to the Islamic republic are deemed unsuitable and disqualified.

Candidates initially register with the Interior Ministry and are subject to the elaborate vetting system of its election administrative board. The board vets candidates on the basis of reports from the Intelligence Ministry, the police, and the judiciary as well as investigations in the candidates' neighborhoods. Those considered suitable by the board are subsequently vetted by the Guardians Council.

The latest disqualifications are not unprecedented. Ahead of the last Majlis elections, in 2004, the Guardians Council disqualified about one-third of the 8,000-plus prospective candidates, including incumbent legislators. Appeals eventually reversed about 1,500 of the 3,500 disqualifications.

A similar proportion of the 7,200 registered candidates has been disqualified this time, with former vice presidents, ex-ministers, senior politicians, and current Majlis deputies and the grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, among them.

With weeks to go before the vote, the appeals procedure that ends on March 5 is likely to reinstate some candidates. But they will emerge chastened by the establishment, and with slightly more than a week to campaign ahead of the March 14 polling.

Ali Eshraqi, Khomeini's grandson and a political independent, says he won't appeal to the Guardians Council and regards its decision as "an insult to the Khomeini household."

Describing the disqualification of candidates by the Interior Ministry as "catastrophic," reformist former President Mohammad Khatami said that the trend of disqualification gained momentum in the Guardians Council, a 12-member body of clerics and jurists. Senior officials of the Islamic revolution should be concerned about the extensive disqualification of candidates, Khatami stressed.

The disqualifications have even led to criticism by members of the fundamentalist camp, the right-wing faction loyal to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad known as the "principle-ists."

In a letter to the Guardians Council, Ahmad Tavakkoli, himself an influential member of the faction and the head of the Majlis Research Center, said, "the narrow-mindedness of some executive officials has undermined some [candidates'] rights and brought them into disrepute." He added that as a result, "the people are going to give the [upcoming] elections a wide berth, which will be detrimental to our achievements in Iran and abroad."

The reformist "Etemad-i Melli" newspaper, citing Masud Soltanifar, a senior official of the pro-reform National Trust Party, recently reported that the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council have disqualified 70 percent of that party's candidates. Questioning the vetting system, Soltanifar said that the "first condition for membership" in the party is "commitment to Islam" and velayat-i faqih (the rule of the supreme jurisprudence), Iran's theocratic system. "Therefore, it is surprising that some candidates who had been elected as legislators on several occasions were disqualified for not being committed to Islam," Soltanifar said.

Meanwhile, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister in the Khatami administration, suggested on the Norouz website that it might be better if the Guardians Council simply canceled the elections. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardians Council, "and his colleagues will discredit the country less if they forgo the forthcoming elections and -- like the Stalinist communist parties -- announce the names of 290 [Majlis deputies], or establish an advisory Majlis like the one in Saudi Arabia."

At the same time that candidates have been vigorously weeded out, senior commanders of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have been flexing their political muscle and openly attacking reformist rivals of the government.

Major General Hasan Firuzabadi, the chief of the armed forces General Staff who hails from the IRGC, recently vehemently criticized the reformists for seeking a rapprochement with the West and said that the "United States is counting on them." He also said that the people should not vote for those "who are moving toward the West...and, God forbid, those who are the hope of the United States should sit in the Majlis."

On February 8, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC and its Basij militia, asked members of the Basij to back the fundamentalists. He also said that "the fundamentalists are in control of the executive and the legislative branches and, God willing, the judiciary will soon follow the 'principle-ist' movement."

Likewise, Hasan Taeb, deputy commander of the Basij, has stressed that Basij members should have a "maximum presence" in the elections and promote political understanding so that the best choices are made.

The "Sobh-e Sadeq" weekly, an official IRGC publication, recently lashed out at reformists in the last Majlis and said that "those who were adding grist to the mill of the imperialists...should not be allowed to run for the elections."

In response to the open support of the fundamentalists by senior military commanders, Hasan Khomeini, another grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, has warned against the IRGC's interference in the election. Khomeini has also stressed that military men who wish to follow his grandfather's line should stay out of politics altogether.

Meanwhile, in a statement protesting against the Guardians Council's extensive vetting, ex-legislators from the Assembly of Former Majlis Representatives stated that, in line with Article 99 of the Iranian Constitution, "the Guardians Council is charged with the responsibility of supervising and not interfering in the elections, and therefore the council's power of approbation is illegal and should be abolished."

The statement was issued on February 8, the same day that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, "The law should not be bypassed," adding that "all are duty-bound to participate in the forthcoming elections and should refrain from making excuses."

(Hossein Aryan is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Farda.)

The third car bombing in as many days in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar killed one person and wounded several others on February 19, AFP reported. According to an Interior Ministry spokesman, the attack targeted a police car, but failed to damage it. Although the attack was similar to others carried out by the Taliban, it did not claim responsibility. A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, Homayun Hamidzada, told reporters, "It shows the weakness of the enemies of Afghanistan that they resort to inhuman, purely terroristic measures to show their real face." "Whether they claim responsibility or not, they are held responsible by the people and the government of Afghanistan," he added. AT

The European Union has strongly condemned the suicide bombings in southern Afghanistan on February 17 and 18, according to a statement released on February 18 by current EU president Slovenia. The EU presidency condemned the bombings in a statement posted on its website (, adding that the attacks "claimed numerous lives, including innocent civilians." The EU has promised strong support for the Afghan government in its efforts to fight terrorism and strengthen the rule of law in Afghanistan. AT

The Attorney-General's Office has ordered General Rashid Dostum, a powerful militia commander and a presidential military adviser, to appear over allegations of beating a former ally, Reuters reported on February 19. According to the police, Dostum entered the house of Akbar Bay with 50 gunmen, beat him up, and killed one of his guards (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). Until Dostum complies with the summons, the Attorney-General's Office has ordered his suspension from his symbolic position as chief of staff of the high command of the armed forces. Dostum, a onetime presidential candidate, has been warned that unless he appears, he will be arrested, officials added. AT

Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said on February 19 that Australia will send military trainers to help build up the Afghan National Army, Reuters reported. Australia will not increase its military contribution to Afghanistan, Fitzgibbon said, but will keep its reconstruction team and special forces working in Oruzgan Province. Although Australia is not a NATO member, Fitzgibbon criticized the NATO-led international operations in Afghanistan as lacking a logical strategy, as well as making poor progress in training Afghan troops and failing to control drug crops. AT

The prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktum, visited Iran on February 18 to hold talks with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iranian media reported. Iran's Ambassador to the U.A.E. Hamid Reza Asefi told the Fars news agency on February 19 that the visit was "very positive," though the ruler did not bring any specific message regarding Iran's nuclear program. Asefi said Sheikh Muhammad only told Iranian officials his country is certain Iran is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, as some governments suspect. The ambassador also said the visit showed that what he called the U.S. policy of demonizing Iran has not succeeding in alienating it from its neighbors. Asefi noted that the value of trade between Iran and the U.A.E. stands at about $14 billion and continues to rise, Fars reported. The Gulf states maintain good working relations with Iran, in spite of a longstanding dispute between Iran and the U.A.E. over three islands in the Persian Gulf. Gulf states have also expressed concerns over the safety of the Bushehr nuclear plant being built on Iran's Persian Gulf coast. VS

Iran's parliament on February 19 narrowly approved President Ahmadinejad's nominee for education minister, Alireza Ahmadi, Radio Farda reported on February 19, citing Iranian agency reports. Out of 290 members of parliament, 258 attended the February 19 session, with 133 voting for Ahmadi and 92 against, and 29 casting blank votes, Radio Farda reported. Ahmadi was rejected once before as a proposed minister of the cooperatives sector. The IRNA news agency listed some of Ahmadi's qualifications, including a Ph.D. in production management from the Tarbiat-i Modarres (Teacher Training) University in Iran, Radio Farda reported. The broadcaster added that Ahmadi is the 10th education minister since the 1979 revolution. VS

Iranian judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told the press in Tehran on February 19 that journalist Yaqub Mehrnahad has been sentenced to death for his alleged ties to Jundullah, a violent Sunni group blamed for bombings, kidnappings, and banditry in Iran's southeastern Sistan-va-Baluchistan Province, Radio Farda reported, citing agency reports. Jamshidi said Mehrnahad was not sentenced for his journalistic work or his rights-related activities. Jamshidi did not give details of the charges, but he said Mehrnahad can appeal the sentence. Mehrnahad's relatives have said that he was tried without the presence of a lawyer, a jury, or his relatives, apparently in 2007. Radio Farda reported he was one of several people, including journalists and rights activists, arrested in the province last year following bombings and other violence purportedly carried out by Jundullah. Rights activist Morteza Saniyari told Radio Farda that "Mehrnahad has been accused of collaborating with armed groups and promoting their methods through his activity in the Seda-yi Edalat [Voice of Justice] youth association." Saniyari said the youth group promotes human rights awareness in Sistan-va-Baluchistan population, traveling to villages to provide information or counseling on women's and children's rights, Radio Farda reported on February 19. VS

Iran's Guardians Council -- the 12-man body that determines the eligibility of candidates and confirms election results -- has reinstated hundreds of aspirants earlier banned as unfit to run for parliamentary seats in mid-March elections, agencies reported on February 19. Iranian parliamentary hopefuls are vetted before their candidacies are approved to ascertain their loyalty to the Iranian political system. Reformists have said their candidates have been systematically eliminated in recent weeks in a vetting process that has caused unease among many politicians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 12, 13, and 14, 2008). In the latest round of reinstatements, the council has approved 251 hopefuls who were earlier banned or whose candidacies had unclear status. A total of 831 such hopefuls have now been reexamining and approved, AFP reported. Reformists say they still will not be able to post candidates for many of parliament's 290 seats. VS

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Mohammad Reza Baqeri met with Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad al-Haj Hamud in Tehran on February 19, and agreed that the two countries will hold technical talks on border issues and the use of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, known as Arvandrud in Iran, IRNA reported. The two sides agreed to revive technical mechanisms set out in the Algiers Accord signed by Iran and Iraq in June 1975 to resolve border disputes. Al-Haj Hamud also met with Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on February 19, Fars reported, noting that Mottaki expressed Iran's support for full Iraqi sovereignty and restoring stability there. VS

Salih al-Ubaydi, a spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has said that al-Sadr in the coming days may lift the cease-fire he has imposed on his militia, AP reported on February 20. Al-Sadr declared the cease-fire in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). Iraqi media initially reported on February 7 that the cleric planned to extend the truce (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2008). Al-Ubaydi, who has indicated in recent interviews that al-Sadr may order his militia to arms, said that if al-Sadr does not issue a statement by February 23 indicating that the cease-fire remains in effect, "then that means the freeze is over." This message "has been conveyed to all [Imam Al-Mahdi] Army members nationwide," al-Ubaydi added. AP reported that a second, unnamed al-Sadr aide confirmed the plans. KR

Ahmad Abu Rishah, the chairman of the Al-Anbar Awakening Movement, the newly established political wing of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, told Al-Arabiyah television in a February 19 interview that he will continue to push to resolve disputes through dialogue, not violence. "The goal is to participate in the coming [October governorate] elections and represent the governorate. We believe that the conditions which prevailed during the previous elections in Al-Anbar Governorate were unhealthy," Abu Rishah said. Tribesmen in the governorate have complained that parties from the Iraqi Accordance Front, the major Sunni Arab front to take part in the December 2005 election, have monopolized power in the Al-Anbar Governorate Council. Abu Rishah also referred to a threat made by Al-Anbar Salvation Council chieftain Hamid al-Hayis to take up arms against the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party unless that party withdraws from the governorate council. "Sheikh Hamid al-Hayis is one of those who are running out of patience, and we have asked al-Hayis not to resort [to arms]," Abu Rishah said. "Our method is always based on dialogue until this method is exhausted." Abu Rishah also told Al-Arabiyah that the Iraqi government has encouraged and supported the Awakening Council's decision to establish a political party. Meanwhile, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, visited Al-Qa'im in western Al-Anbar Governorate on February 19, and proposed the formation of a council, including several tribal leaders, to oversee development projects and security in the governorate, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. KR

The Iraqi cabinet on February 19 approved a recommendation by the Ministry of Electricity for the construction of 17 new power stations, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. The cabinet also approved a recommendation to renovate cement factories in Kirkuk, Al-Qa'im, and Al-Muthanna, and a proposal to purchase 40 new planes and four used planes from Boeing, as well as six planes from Canadian aircraft firm Bombardier. The government will also have an option to purchase 10 additional Boeing planes at a later date, the news channel reported. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met with Agriculture Minister Ali al-Bahadili to discuss agricultural initiatives and obstacles to the development of the agricultural sector, Al-Iraqiyah reported. Al-Maliki has declared 2008 the year of reconstruction in Iraq. KR

In a February 19 interview with Al-Sharqiyah television, Ninawa Deputy Governor Khisro Goran dismissed reports that some tribes in Ninawa Governorate are opposed to the implementation of a new security plan in Mosul. "It is absolutely incorrect to say that the tribes oppose the security operation," Goran said. "We had an expanded meeting in Ninawa Governorate a few days ago with around 200 dignitaries, clerics, and tribal leaders. They all expressed support for the military operation." Goran continued: "I can safely say that the majority of Mosul citizens support the security operation because they...are fed up with terrorism and the reckless armed operations that have been going on in Mosul since 2004." Goran rejected claims, also broadcast on Al-Sharqiyah, that the upcoming security operation will be destructive, saying he cannot understand the reason for such concerns. "What is the difference between Mosul and Baghdad, or Ba'qubah?" he asked. "Why did the Baghdad Operations Command succeed in their mission and in attracting people's support? Why can't we do the same in Mosul?" KR