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Newsline - February 21, 2008

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on February 21 that Russia hopes that Pakistan's two main opposition parties, which won the February 18 parliamentary elections, will form a broad coalition, Interfax reported. He added that "we also hope that the new government will resolve [unspecified] major problems in order to ensure an effective response to terrorism, which is the key threat to Pakistan, and create socioeconomic conditions for strengthening the nation. This is important not only for Pakistan, but also for regional and international security." Also on February 21, Aleksandr Maryasov, who heads the Foreign Ministry's Second Asian Department, told a Moscow press conference that Pakistan's "main task is to create a broad alliance of political parties and a government that will tackle not only internal conflicts, but also social economic problems and extremism." He stressed that any "further destabilization of the situation in Pakistan will do no good to anyone." Maryasov argued that "cooperation between Russia and Pakistan was greatly affected by recent events [there], including the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto." PM

President Vladimir Putin said at the aircraft test-flight center at Zhukovsky outside Moscow on February 20 that "it's not acceptable" that Russia exports its most modern aircraft while its own air force receives mainly upgraded versions of older planes, the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 21. He called for changes in the State Program on Armaments to provide for "the purchase of modern aircraft for the country's defense." Putin also said that he has signed a decree to set up a National Aircraft Construction Center in Zhukovsky to help make the state-owned United Aircraft Company (OAK) more competitive on the world market. Recent media reports indicated that Algeria asked Russia to take back 15 freshly delivered MiG jets on the grounds that they are defective or out of date (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19 and 20, 2008). Russian media noted that even some traditional Russian arms customers, such as Algeria, are now looking to France and other Western suppliers as an alternative. AP reported on February 20 that, at one point during his visit to Zhukovsky, Putin took the pilot's seat in a military plane and had First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is his designated successor, take the co-pilot's chair. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who is responsible for OAK and was widely seen as a rival to Medvedev for Putin's job, arrived with other officials only later. When he followed Putin and Medvedev to the front row of seats at a meeting, there was no free chair next to them for Ivanov, the news agency noted. PM

RIA Novosti and Interfax reported on February 21 that Colonel General Viktor Vlasov is dead, having apparently shot himself in his Moscow office. He was the acting head of the Defense Ministry's housing department, in which one specific program alone had a budget of $530 million in 2007. Inadequate housing is one of many problems facing current or retired military personnel. RIA Novosti said that Vlasov launched investigations into unspecified irregularities he discovered within the department since becoming acting head in 2007, following the resignation of General Anatoly Grebenyuk. Interfax reported on February 21 that military prosecutors have opened a "criminal case" into Vlasov's death. The news agency suggested in a separate report that his death "may have been related to his professional activity," and noted that Vlasov was under consideration to become permanent head of his department. Interfax added that the Defense Ministry and the prosecutors will not comment on the case for the time being. reported that it is not clear whether Vlasov left a suicide note, but added that he did not appear to have any personal or family problems. PM

Moldovan journalist Natalya Morar, who was refused permission to enter Russia in December on national-security grounds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2008), has filed suit against the Federal Security Service (FSB), RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on February 21. Morar believes she was barred from Russia in retaliation for articles she wrote in "Novaya vremya" about alleged corruption within the Kremlin. Morar's lawyer, Yury Kostanov, told RFE/RL that the suit seeks to have the FSB's action overturned so that Morar can return to work in Russia. He added that if Russian courts fail to satisfy Morar's demands, she will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. "Unfortunately, our jurisprudence is such that it not possible to ensure a proper legal decision," Kostanov said. RC

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), was denied a visa to travel to Russia in order to present his organization's latest report on Russian civil society, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other Russian media reported on February 21. An HRW press release said it is the first time a representative of the organization has been denied a Russian visa since the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991. The Russian Foreign Ministry has declined to comment on the case. HRW presented its 72-page report on February 20, in which it argues that recent legislation has increased the government's ability to pressure and close down nongovernmental organizations. The new laws give the government the power to refuse or rescind registration for even the most minor infractions. According to Roth, organizations working in the North Caucasus, those promoting freedom of speech, and those documenting human rights violations have come under the most pressure. In addition, political organizations, especially those associated with the Other Russia opposition coalition, are under threat of closure. Allison Gill, director of HRW's Moscow office, told RFE/RL that her organization hopes things will improve if First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev becomes president. "Recently, presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev spoke about the importance of nongovernmental organizations and civil society," she said. "If he is elected, we hope that he will not forget his words" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). Analyst Lidia Andrusenko, writing in "Politichesky zhurnal" (No. 2) earlier this month, noted that President Putin said in a 2001 speech: "Civil society cannot be formed at the initiative of the authorities, at its desire or order.... Civic institutions that are sharply opposed to the authorities on fundamental matters of government policy are not only a normal phenomenon but are extremely beneficial in a democracy." RC

In a commentary published on the "Yezhdnevny zhurnal" website on February 21, opposition figure and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov argued that many politicians, economists, journalists, and human rights activists are acting immorally by not opposing the authoritarian regime of President Putin. Kasparov compared these people with Nazi German Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who argued at his Nuremberg war crimes trial that his role in the Hitler regime was merely "technological and economic." Kasparov said that in Russia today "there are those who perfectly well understand all the destructive consequences of the chekist-mafia clan ruling Russia and who nonetheless do not consider it shameful to work for this regime." Kasparov particularly named Unified Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais, who is formally a member of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces party; Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who claims to be an oppositionist, but whose participation in the presidential campaign Kasparov said legitimizes the regime; nationalist politician and former oppositionist Dmitry Rogozin, who was recently named Russian ambassador to NATO; and human rights activist Leonid Roshal, who is campaigning for First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev. RC

Former Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison on February 20 following his conviction on charges of embezzlement during his time in office, Russian media reported. Adamov's lawyers said the verdict is "cruel and unjust" and pledged to appeal it. Two former colleagues of Adamov -- Vyacheslav Pismenny and Revmir Fraishtut -- were also convicted and given four-year prison terms. Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence Adamov to nine years' imprisonment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008). RC

One Kyrgyz man and one Azeri were stabbed to death in separate incidents in Moscow on February 19, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 21. The incidents bring the number of fatal attacks on dark-skinned people in Moscow to six within the last week and 16 since January 1. According to an editorial in the daily, all six victims were men and none of them was robbed. Moscow police chief Vladimir Pronin told "Komsomolskaya pravda" on February 18 he believes the killings are random acts of violence and that there "is no organized skinhead movement" in Moscow. RC

Interior Ministry and FSB personnel detained two suspected militants late on February 20 in the village of Gimri in Daghestan's Untsukul Raion, where a so-called counterterrorism operation has been under way for the past two months, and reported on February 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 18, and 28, 2007, and January 7 and 17, 2008). Daghestan's Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov subsequently identified one of the two men as Bammatkhan Sheikhov, the head of the Buynaksk jamaat. According to Magomedtagirov, Sheikhov sought to unify all militants fighting in Daghestan under his command. His son Gadjimurad was one of the fighters killed in a special operation in Makhachkala five weeks ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). LF

Meeting on February 20 in Grozny with legislators, pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov announced that he has written to President Putin proposing that the State Duma declare a further amnesty for resistance fighters, according to the Chechen government website, Kadyrov recalled the "positive role" Putin played in "resolving the crisis in Chechnya," including by persuading the Duma to declare an amnesty in September 2006, in the course of which some 546 fighters reportedly turned themselves in (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and September 22, 2006, and January 16, 2007). He explained that many young men in the 18-20 age group have been "deceived" by "extremists of all persuasions" into joining the armed resistance, and argued that an amnesty would not only lessen "the sufferings of hundreds of mothers," but would contribute to "civil harmony" not only in Chechnya but elsewhere in the North Caucasus -- a tacit acknowledgment that the armed resistance is no longer a purely Chechen phenomenon. LF

The preliminary hearings, scheduled to resume on February 20, of 58 men charged with participating in the October 2005 attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, have been postponed until March 5 due to the illness of two lawyers representing the accused, reported. The hearings opened in late October 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15 and 30, 2007). One of the original 59 defendants, Vyacheslav Bolov, died last week of cirrhosis of the liver. LF

Tens of thousands of supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian staged a rally and march through Yerevan on February 20 to the headquarters of the Central Election Commission to protest the official results, announced earlier that day, of the February 19 presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Those results gave Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian a clear win with 52.86 percent of the vote, as opposed to only 21.5 percent for Ter-Petrossian. Ter-Petrossian claimed that the official results, and the official voter turnout figure of almost 70 percent, were falsified, and that he was in fact the winner. He called for repeat elections, pledging to "fight to the end," but in "a very restrained, calm and confident manner," even if his supporters abandon him. Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who polled third with 16.67 percent of the vote, similarly challenged the official results and called for a recount of votes at more than 200 polling stations, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, which opted at the last minute to support Ter-Petrossian's candidacy after its own candidate was refused registration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2008), similarly condemned the vote results as rigged. By contrast, a representative of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) commented to RFE/RL that "one thing is clear: we have lost." HHD candidate Vahan Hovannisian polled only 6.1 percent of the vote, although the HHD placed third in the May 2007 parliamentary elections with 13 percent of the vote. LF

The joint election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament released on February 20 an 11-page assessment of the previous day's election, which it described as "conducted mostly in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards." It noted that voters had "a genuine choice" between nine candidates, and that "the authorities made efforts to provide a permissive campaign environment," but it also registered the "extensive negative coverage" given by the media to "one candidate," meaning Ter-Petrossian. The assessment characterized voting as positive in a "large majority" of polling stations visited despite tensions or violent incidents in a very few, and noted "isolated cases" of "serious problems," including intimidation of voters, vote buying, and multiple voting. It assessed as "bad" or "very bad" the conduct of the vote count in some 16 percent of the polling stations at which observers were present (see also End Note below). LF

At the trial in Baku's Yasamal district court of Ganimat Zaxid, editor of the opposition newspaper "Azadlyq," the prosecution on February 19 demanded a five-year prison term for Zaxid on charges of "hooliganism" and causing bodily injury, and reported on February 19 and 20, respectively. Zaxid was arrested last fall after an altercation on the street with a passerby (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and 20, 2007). Reporters Without Borders has expressed "shock" at the prosecutor's "severe" demand, for which it could discern no logical grounds, reported on February 21, quoting Turan. LF

Speaking to the Mze independent television channel, Temur Yakobashvili, who was named last month as Georgian State Minister for Reintegration, gave a positive assessment of what he termed the "constructive role" played by Russian representatives during the meeting in Geneva on February 18-19 between UN Deputy Secretary-General for peacekeeping operations Jean-Marie Guehenno, Georgian and Abkhaz government officials, and diplomatic representatives of the five countries (the United States, Britain, Russia, France, and Germany) that comprise the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group, reported on February 20. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry's website,, however, the "Group of Friends" stressed the need to sign as soon as possible a formal agreement on the nonresumption of hostilities, which Georgia has consistently refused to do (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). Yakobashvili also said the Georgian delegation put forward unspecified new initiatives, some of them economic, in which the Abkhaz representatives showed "keen interest." LF

A summit meeting of the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec) opened on February 20 in Kazakhstan, attended by the justice ministers from the organization's nine member and observer states, Asia-Plus reported. The summit, convened in Almaty, is the 10th summit of Eurasec's council of justice ministers grouping, and delegates reviewed the "progress of the implementation of resolutions adopted at the previous session of the council," as well as a draft "plan of action" for 2008-09. Eurasec was first launched in October 2000 as a successor to the CIS Customs Union, with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan signing a founding treaty on economic and trade cooperation, and in May 2001, it became a formal organization with the ratification of that treaty. The initial five-member group was further expanded in May 2002, when Moldova and Ukraine were granted observer status, and again in April 2003, when Uzbekistan and Armenia joined as observers. Uzbekistan later joined the organization in 2006. RG

On the sidelines of the Eurasec ministerial summit in Almaty, Kazakh Justice Minister Zagipa Balieva on February 20 signed an agreement with her Russian counterpart Vladimir Ustinov, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The bilateral agreement provides Kazakh courts with primary criminal jurisdiction over any crimes committed by Kazakh citizens on the territory of the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome. Prior to this agreement, the handling of any crimes committed within the facility was treated as a violation of Russian law, with Moscow holding legal jurisdiction instead of the host country. Moscow has leased the Baikonur facility from Kazakhstan since 1994, relying on it for space launches. RG

An "alternative parliament" of opposition groups on February 20 convened its opening session in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and the website reported. The participants elected Abdygany Erkebaev, a former parliament speaker and a leader of the Taza Koom (Clean Society) opposition party, as chairman and Asiya Sasykbaeva as deputy chairwoman. The body was formed by a group of opposition parties in January as a response to the legislature that was elected by the controversial December 2007 parliamentary elections, which the opposition denounced as unfair and fraudulent. According to opposition leaders at the time of its formation, the "alternative" or "public" parliament is empowered to "discuss and propose alternative viewpoints on the most important issues relating to the country's public, political and economic life," AKIpress reported. RG

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has told Russian media that the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom is threatening to double its gas price for Belarus this year, Belapan reported on February 20. Lukashenka said that Belarus's economy experienced difficulty in 2007 after Gazprom raised its price and the Russian government imposed a duty on crude oil exported to Belarus. "We had to withdraw some $3 billon in real money from the economy and pay," Lukashenka said. "Natural gas became twice as expensive.... Frankly speaking, I was astonished that we managed to find a way out of that situation. But now they are threatening to double the gas price for Belarus." Lukashenka did not say who made that threat or when. Belarus currently pays $119.5 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas. Russian Ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov said earlier this month that the gas price for Belarus will rise by no more than 10 percent in 2008, starting on April 1. RFE/RL's Belarus Service on February 21 quoted Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov as saying that the company does not know anything about the alleged twofold increase mentioned by Lukashenka. AM

Andrey Papou, a spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, has dismissed as "absurd" media reports that Belarus is building "visa walls" by increasing the cost of visas for citizens of the United States and the European Union, Belapan reported on February 20. "Only not quite decent journalists or simply incompetent people can speak about 'visa walls' on our side," Papou said. He admitted that Belarus increased visa fees for citizens whose countries recently joined the Schengen zone, but he said that Belarus requires only 25 euros ($36.81) for a single-entry visa for visitors from its neighboring countries -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Papou also said that Belarus no longer requires an invitation letter for EU and U.S. citizens applying for a visa, adding that neither the United States nor the European Union has taken reciprocal steps that would allow Belarusians to obtain single-entry visas without invitations. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her Russian counterpart Viktor Zubkov confirmed on February 20 in Moscow that their governments will stick to the gas agreement reached a week ago by the presidents of the two countries, Ukrainian and international media reported. "We have confirmed our absolute commitment to the agreement reached by our presidents," Zubkov told reporters after meeting with Tymoshenko. "I can firmly say that we have outlined constructive and effective ways of settling every single issue," Tymoshenko said. On February 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko agreed that as of February 14, Ukraine will start paying off the debt it incurred to Russian gas giant Gazprom in late 2007. Yushchenko and Putin also agreed to preserve the base price of $179 per 1,000 cubic meters for gas delivered by Gazprom to Ukraine in 2008. After the presidents' meeting, Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller announced that Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's state-owned gas operator, have agreed to set up a new company that will supply Russian gas to Ukraine. However, the two governments have made contradictory statements on the planned new scheme for gas supplies. Gazprom currently supplies Ukraine with gas through two intermediary companies: Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo, which delivers gas to the Russian-Ukrainian border, and Ukrainian-registered UkrGazEnergo, which delivers gas directly to Ukrainian consumers. Before Tymoshenko's visit to Moscow, reports indicated that she might challenge the deal agreed by Yushchenko and Putin. Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov said on February 19 that Tymoshenko will have to start gas talks "from scratch," but the Presidential Secretariat immediately rejected that statement as "incorrect and unacceptable." AM

Russian President Putin on February 20 told Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko at his residence in Novo-Ogarevo that Russia's main priority is that Russian investors in Ukraine to be given conditions not worse than others, including Ukrainian investors, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Putin recalled that during his recent meeting with Ukrainian President Yushchenko they agreed that there are neither unresolved issues nor deep discrepancies in relations between Russia and Ukraine. Tymoshenko told Putin that she discussed in detail with Russian Prime Minister Zubkov the Ukrainian-Russian action plan approved by both presidents, and she confirmed that her government wants to take fully advantage of the cooperation between Ukraine and Russia. AM

President Yushchenko said on February 20 that the group of politicians who recently quit the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Union party did so in protest against their bloc's failure to unite as a single party as promised, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) comprises nine political forces, the largest of which is the Our Ukraine-People's Union. The NUNS bloc and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) comprise the ruling coalition in the Ukrainian parliament. The NUNS leadership last year announced plans to form a single political party by the end of 2007. Seven prominent members of Our Ukraine-People's Union recently gave up their membership, claiming that they had exhausted the possibilities for change within the ranks of the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19 and 20, 2008). Yushchenko said that a discussion to be held at the party's highest level might help reverse the lawmakers' decision to quit. AM

The London-based nongovernmental organization Amnesty International said in a February 20 press release that it calls "on the Serbian authorities and specifically Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic to urgently condemn attacks on human rights activists and on ethnic minorities in the country." The statement noted that "during protests on 19 February in all major cities in Serbia, attended by hundreds of people, demonstrators reportedly called for the murder of ethnic Albanians" and attacked several businesses run by members of ethnic minorities. Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia program director, said that "if the authorities fail to act now, people's lives may be put at risk as more protests against Kosovo's declaration of independence are being scheduled," including a major government-sponsored rally in Belgrade on February 21. Duckworth appealed to the Serbian authorities to "strongly condemn any attempts to victimize members of Serbian society. [The authorities] should ensure that any attacks on human rights activists and minorities are promptly and meaningfully investigated, and those responsible are brought to justice." The press release pointed out that leading Serbian rights activist Natasa Kandic, who is director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade and attended the Kosovar legislature's independence declaration ceremony on February 17, has been strongly attacked in the media in a way that implied a threat to her physical safety. Deutsche Welle reported on February 21 that several officials of Serbia's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which calls on Serbs to accept the loss of Kosova, said that their Belgrade offices and businesses were ransacked by nationalist thugs on February 17. One LDP official said that the political atmosphere in the Serbian capital is beginning to recall the intolerance typical of the era of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Enver Hoxhaj, who is Kosova's minister of education, science, and technology, told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on February 19 that Serbia now appears to be characterized by "post-hegemonistic frustration among the people who take to the streets and among elites who live in the past" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 15, 19, and 20, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). PM

Bertrand Bonneau, who is a spokesman for NATO's KFOR peacekeepers, said on February 19 in Prishtina that the burning that day by Serbian crowds of two frontier posts on the border between Kosova and Serbia is "simply unacceptable," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2008). The BBC said on February 20 that the attacks on the customs points were "carefully planned and coordinated actions," but did not specify who bussed the demonstrators in from Serbian communities in northern Kosova. Slobodan Samardzic, who is Serbia's minister for Kosovo and Metohija, said in a televised interview on February 19 that the attacks were "legitimate...even if they weren't nice," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. French Lieutenant General Xavier de Marnhac, who commands the 17,000-strong KFOR, said on February 20 regarding the attacks that "I just want everybody to be fully aware of my determination to maintain and restore a safe and secure environment wherever in Kosovo," news agencies reported. He added that "some local leaders took a huge responsibility yesterday. The leaders should think deeply of their responsibility when they trigger this type of demonstration." Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith, who is the EU's special representative to Kosova and also the international civilian representative there, said in Prishtina on February 20 that the EU's new EULEX mission will be active throughout Kosova, including in the mainly Serbian-populated areas of the north, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service reported. He stressed that he wants the Serbian minority to understand that EULEX, which seeks to promote the rule of law, is no threat to them and will work for the benefit of all of Kosova's citizens. EULEX will be headed by Yves de Kermabon, a French former commander of KFOR. PM

Following his country's recognition of Kosova on February 20, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the German parliament that there was no alternative to Kosova's independence after the collapse of months of fruitless talks in late 2007, German media reported. He added that he views with mixed feelings many recent events in the western Balkans, such as the violent demonstrations in Belgrade and the burning of the Albanian flag by protesters there. He also appealed to Russia to "remain calm." The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on February 20 that "numerous Russian diplomats ran around through the corridors" of NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 18 to impress upon alliance personnel how "terrible" Kosova's declaration of independence was. On February 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the new EU mission to Kosova is in "violation of the highest [levels of ] international law," Russian news agencies reported. In Belgrade, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said on February 20 that his country's relations with those states that have recognized Kosova are "permanently damaged," news agencies reported. He noted that Belgrade has recalled "for consultations" its ambassadors in Germany and Austria as well as those in the United States, Britain, France, and Turkey following each of those countries' respective announcements that they recognize Kosova. The German Foreign Ministry said on February 20 that Belgrade's move does not mean that German-Serbian relations are frozen, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on February 21. Deutsche Welle argued on February 20 that Germany should now join with its partners in EULEX and with the United States to ensure that Kosova's independence is a success. The German international broadcaster called on Germany and all those countries that have recognized Prishtina to offer Kosova's Serbian minority a brighter future and better security "than do the demagogues in Belgrade, who are trying to keep tensions going for [their own] domestic political reasons." PM

The outcome of the February 19 Armenian presidential ballot and the reaction of the defeated major opposition challenger to the officially proclaimed election returns show striking similarities with the preterm presidential ballot in Georgia seven weeks earlier.

In both cases, the opposition alleged harassment and intimidation of voters and flagrant procedural violations (multiple voting, ballot-box stuffing) during the voting and irregularities during the vote count and tabulation. And the final results were remarkably similar to exit polls conducted on polling day in Georgia, and to an opinion poll conducted in Armenia by a British pollster in the run-up to the election. But international election observers nonetheless delivered not unfavorable preliminary assessments, describing both ballots as "mostly" in line with OSCE and Council of Europe standards, while noting further "challenges" to be addressed.

In Georgia, where seven candidates participated in the ballot, preliminary returns announced on January 6 gave incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili 52.1 percent of the vote followed by businessman Levan Gachechiladze, who was backed by the nine-party opposition National Council (24.98 percent), and U.K.-based oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili (6.9 percent). In Armenia, preliminary returns gave Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian 52.76 percent of the vote, compared with 21.5 percent for former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, 16.7 percent for populist former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, and 6.1 percent for Vahan Hovannisian, the candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun.

In Georgia, exit polls had given Saakashvili 53.9 percent of the vote and Gachechiladze 28.3 percent. An opinion poll conducted in Armenia by the British pollster Populus, the findings of which were summarized by Armenian Public television on February 6, predicted 50.7 percent for Sarkisian, with Baghdasarian in second place with 13.4 percent, closely followed by Ter-Petrossian (12.6 percent); Hovannisian was in fourth place with 7.6 percent.

Both Gachechiladze and Ter-Petrossian rejected the official returns as rigged and convened mass protest rallies of their supporters in Tbilisi and Yerevan, respectively. Gachechiladze called for a runoff between himself and Saakashvili, who he alleged received fewer than the 50 percent-plus-one-vote needed for a first-round victory; Ter-Petrossian has demanded repeat elections. "Taking into account widespread falsifications and violence, which totally distorted the expression of the people's will, the campaign team of Levon Ter-Petrossian does not recognize the official results of the elections published by the [Central Election Commission] and demands the holding of a new election," his election staff said in a statement read out at the February 20 rally in Yerevan.

But in both instances, the joint Election Observation Mission deployed by the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament, while noting shortcomings both during the voting and the vote count and tabulation, concluded that the ballot largely met international standards. In both cases, observers assessed voting as good to very good in 93 percent of polling stations visited (in Georgia) and 95 percent (in Armenia).

The vote count was evaluated less positively in Georgia, with "a significant number" of observers assessing it as bad or very bad; the mission's first interim report, made public some two weeks after the ballot, noted that "a significant 23 percent of counts observed were assessed as bad or very bad. Observers reported that in 8 percent of counts observed, they had witnessed tampering with results protocols. In 21 percent of counts observed, they reported significant procedural errors or omissions." In Armenia, the conduct of the count was assessed as "bad" or "very bad" in some 16 percent of polling stations where observers were present.

The close parallels between the official results in the two ballots raise the question: assuming that the Armenian authorities, as a vast number of Armenians suspect, fully intended from the outset to ensure a smooth handover of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian (who opted to abide by the article of the Armenian Constitution that barred him from seeking a third consecutive term) to his chosen successor Sarkisian, did they then monitor closely the Georgian elections, and tailor the Armenian results to duplicate closely an outcome in Georgia that the international community, albeit with some reservations, had pronounced legal and valid?

Whether Ter-Petrossian will prove more successful than was Gachechiladze in seeking to have the outcome of the vote overturned is debatable: RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted him as vowing at the February 20 rally to "fight to the end." Some observers with long memories may argue, however, that Ter-Petrossian is on shaky moral ground, given that, according to one of his former close aides, the outcome of the September 1996 presidential ballot was rigged to preclude a runoff between Ter-Petrossian and his major challenger and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian. On that occasion, the official results gave Ter-Petrossian just 51.75 percent of the vote -- less than Sarkisian is said to have polled on February 19.

Speaking ahead of his arrival in Kabul on February 20, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer denied that tensions over the mission in Afghanistan will destroy NATO, although many of the states with troops there refuse to let them serve in the most dangerous areas in the south, the BBC reported on February 19. Canada has already indicated that unless more NATO troops are sent to Kandahar, it will pull its troops out next year. De Hoop Scheffer told the BBC that he is "following the Canadian debate with great interest." He added that in his "long career, NATO has been declared terminally ill or dead" several times. "I am not worried about that, I am also not worried that we are losing in Afghanistan.... The challenges are huge, but we are making tremendous progress." He stressed the importance of training the Afghan troops and police, as well training NATO troops in counterinsurgency warfare. AT

U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops have arrested 22 insurgents and discovered almost half a ton of heroin during separate operations in southern Afghanistan, AP reported on February 21. Another 11 suspected insurgents along with 450 kilograms of heroin were detained near Musa Qala in Helmand Province, the coalition said in a statement. A heroin-processing lab was destroyed as well. According to a coalition spokesman, U.S. Army Major Chris Belcher, Afghan forces found six of the detainees, one of whom was identified as a Taliban leader, in a mosque. The coalition did not identify the detainees. AT

An Afghan journalist working with Canadian Television (CTV) has been held by the U.S. military for three months because of his Taliban contacts, AFP reported on February 20. A U.S. military officer at the base in Bagram, north of Kabul, confirmed that the reporter, identified as Jawad Ahmad, is in detention. In a statement, the Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders said that Ahmad has been accused of having the telephone numbers of Taliban leaders in his mobile phone and of interviewing them. "The lack of legal procedures and material evidence confirms that his detention is unjustified," the statement added. AT

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a crowd in southern Iran on February 20 that Iran has brought the great powers to their knees with its determination to pursue its nuclear program, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian agency reports. Speaking in Bandar Abbas, Ahmadinejad said Iranians have ignored Western powers' demands that Tehran curb its nuclear program, and that those governments have therefore lost their credibility. "You have no credibility in the world," Ahmadinejad said, addressing his Western critics. "Assuming you want to enhance your reputation with this issue, do you have anything better than the [International Atomic Energy Agency] report?" He was referring to a report from the UN nuclear watchdog, due to be released later this month, on Iran's nuclear activities and its level of cooperation with the IAEA in recent months. Iranian officials hope the report will confirm its claims that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful. Ahmadinejad said the IAEA confirmed in previous reports that Iran has only a civilian nuclear program. "You can blame the agency all you like, but if you are going to start some new game, you will be dealing with these same people," he said. The IAEA stated in Vienna on February 20 that it is aware of a recent claim by an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance, that Iran is researching the development of nuclear warheads at a facility in Khojir, outside Tehran, AFP reported. IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the IAEA is examining the credibility of the claim. This is not the first such claim or alert regarding Iranian government activities to be made by the National Council of Resistance. The group is a front for the left-wing Mujahedin Khalq Organization, considered a terrorist organization by Iran, the EU, and the United States. VS

The Iranian authorities executed 10 prisoners on February 20 in Tehran and the northwestern city of Zanjan, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian agency reports. Six men convicted of armed robbery were hanged in the Islamabad prison in Zanjan, and four convicted of murder were hanged in Evin prison in Tehran, Radio Farda reported. The broadcaster added that five teenagers accused of murder are waiting for a judgment from judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi. VS

A panel of judiciary officials at Iran's Supreme Court has ruled that several Iranians killed by state vigilantes in 2002-03 for alleged immorality were not "outlaws," as ruled earlier, ISNA reported on February 20, quoting a lawyer for some of the victims' relatives, Nemat Ahmadi. The decision may help bring the killers to justice. Members of the Basij militia killed several people in Kerman, alleging they had engaged in immoral activities, were in "illegitimate" relationships, or sold drugs. Their legal defense and opinions presented by senior clerics effectively absolved them of any criminal responsibility; the clerics argued that the victims' moral transgressions made them outlaws, and that in theory they could be killed with impunity. Ahmadi told ISNA that he and another lawyer, Gholam Ali Riahi, on February 12 spoke before the panel, which rejected the earlier Supreme Court decision identifying the victims as outlaws. The panel has sent the dossier back to Branch 31 of the Supreme Court so it can consider penalties for the killers (see "Iran: Supreme Court Upholds Principle Of Morality Killings," April 23, 2007). Ahmadi called for the killers -- who apparently have not faced any legal penalties -- to be sentenced to prison time or other appropriate punishment. He noted that the relatives of two of the victims are seeking the executions of the purported killers. He VS

An unnamed Iranian official told ISNA in Tehran that Iranian and Iraqi officials have begun discussing the implementation of the 1975 Algiers Accord delineating the countries' border, but that "no particular proposal has been received" in recent talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2008), the news agency reported on February 20. Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad al-Haj Hamud is in Tehran to discuss the treaty. The unnamed official said talks are proceeding "positively and the parties are pursuing the matter with interest," adding that officials of both countries are eager to see the accord implemented swiftly. The border has been a source of longstanding disagreements between Iran and Iraq. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in December 2007 reportedly suggested that the Iraqi government is reluctant to recognize the Algiers Accord, signed by the last shah of Iran and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. VS

U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told a February 20 press briefing that attacks across Baghdad have dropped significantly since the Baghdad Law Enforcement Plan began more than a year ago, but he cautioned that Al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed special groups remain a threat to security. Smith gave a long list of statistics detailing security improvements in the capital; he stated that 1,087 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Baghdad in February 2007, while in January of this year, 178 people were killed. "Despite a decline of more than 75 percent...the number of deaths is still too high," he said. In February 2007, ethnic and sectarian violence accounted for nearly 800 deaths in Baghdad, but "this past month the number of ethno-sectarian-related deaths dropped below 40...a decrease of 95 percent in the past 11 months," Smith said. In the same period, suicide attacks declined by 66 percent, and attacks involving improvised explosive devices decreased by 45 percent. Smith said there are currently 48,000 Iraqi troops and police on patrol in the capital, as well as 34,000 coalition forces, 31,000 tribal awakening forces, and 18,000 "additional local Iraqi police." He added that there are 50 joint security stations, 22 combat outposts, and 109 police stations, and that more joint security stations and outposts are planned. KR

An Iraqi police officer from Diyala Governorate claimed in a interview published on Al-Arabiyah's website on February 20 that Diyala police chief Ghanim al-Qurayshi ordered his arrest in 2007 and stood by as fellow officers raped him. The website claimed it received a case file about the policeman, Captain Hisham Ibrahim Mahdi, from a parliamentary fact-finding commission. Mahdi is a Sunni who served as a special forces commander in Diyala. Al-Qurayshi is a Shi'a. Mahdi told Al-Arabiyah that in July, he carried out an operation targeting Iranian Quds Force members, arresting five. He alleged that after he refused to release the five, al-Qurayshi had him arrested. Mahdi was in police custody for 10 days, during which time he claims to have been tortured, and that his toenails were pulled out and his skin was burned. "They also raped me more than three times and stabbed my right ear, resulting in a fracture on the right side of my skull. They pulled out three of my teeth and extinguished cigarettes on my hand," Mahdi said. The file on Mahdi reportedly contains a U.S. military medical report that corroborates the claims. Parliamentary commission member Muhammad al-Dayini, a member of the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, said al-Qurayshi cannot provide a satisfactory response to the allegations. Al-Dayini said Mahdi is now under the commission's protection, and that the commission is investigating the arrest of 13 other officers, 11 of whom ended up dead and two of whom are missing. Sunnis in Diyala have in recent weeks accused al-Qurayshi of corruption and a number of sectarian-related crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). KR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Lebanon, Stephane Jaquemet, on February 20 praised a decision by the Lebanese government to recognize thousands of Iraqi refugees previously considered illegal immigrants, the UNHCR said in a press release on its website. "Beginning this week, Lebanon's Directorate-General of the General Security will give Iraqis who have entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas three months to regularize their status," the press release states. The decision will benefit thousands of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and allow for the release of hundreds currently in detention as illegal immigrants. The UNHCR said some 584 Iraqis were in detention in Lebanon as of October. "The Lebanese decision is of particular significance given that it has been taken at a time when the country has been facing political turmoil and volatile security. This is a courageous decision," Jaquemet said in Beirut. There are some 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, 77.5 percent of whom are believed to have entered the country illegally, according to a 2007 survey by the Danish Refugee Council. The UNHCR has registered 9,939 Iraqis in Lebanon, and last year referred 1,462 refugees there for resettlement in third countries. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres praised the Lebanese decision while visiting Jordan on February 18, saying it will create a protective space in Lebanon for Iraqis who have fled security threats. Guterres announced on February 16 that the UNHCR will increase its presence on the ground in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008). KR

Sweden and Iraq signed an agreement on February 18 to send Iraqis denied asylum in Sweden back to their home country, Swedish media reported on February 19. Under the deal, Iraq will facilitate the return of failed applicants, the first wave of whom comprises some 400 people. There are about 13,000 Iraqis in the Swedish asylum system, 11,000 of whom have not yet had their applications processed. Under the agreement, the Iraqis are expected to return voluntarily, but press reports indicate that the agreement is thought to pave the way for Iraqis to be deported against their will. Sweden is also offering cash payments to those Iraqis who return home willingly. KR

The Australian government on February 21 confirmed its plans to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by mid-year, AFP reported. The 550-strong force, stationed in southern Iraq, will be withdrawn in close consultation with the United States and United Kingdom in order to minimize disruption to the coalition, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said. The withdrawal "in no way disturbs the fundamental nature of our alliance relationship," he added in an address to parliament. Australia will still have some 1,000 military personnel in and around Iraq, including a 110-strong security detachment in Baghdad. It will also have personnel on Hercules and Orion aircraft based outside Iraq, as well as a warship in the Persian Gulf, AFP reported. KR