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Newsline - February 22, 2008

Former Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshin, who is a State Duma deputy for the Unified Russia party and chairman of the parliament's Committee for the CIS, said on February 21 that the Pentagon's recent shooting down of a damaged spy satellite marks a "new phase in the militarization of space," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008). He added that "the destruction of this U.S. satellite was first and foremost a political demonstration of the U.S. capabilities in this sphere," and charged that the United States did not "consult" Russia on the matter. Washington maintains that it was necessary to shoot down the satellite simply because it contained toxic fuel that could have proven hazardous to people if it reached the earth. The U.S. authorities informed other countries of their intentions well in advance. Kokoshin argued, however, that the Pentagon showed by shooting down the satellite that it wants "to keep its options open with respect to the use of force in space and deployment of antisatellite weapons." He added that this is "nothing new," even though the United States has not tested an antisatellite weapon for over 20 years. PM

The daily "Vremya novostei" of February 22 quoted unnamed "sources who know what they're talking about" as saying that Colonel General Viktor Vlasov shot himself in his office on February 21 shortly before he was to have been promoted from acting to permanent head of the Defense Ministry's housing department (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008). The paper suggested that he took his life on account of "activities linked to his profession," by which the daily implied that he might have helped himself to some of the "vast sums poured into construction" of military housing. Vlasov became acting department head in 2007, following the resignation of General Anatoly Grebenyuk. "Vremya novostei" wrote on February 22 that Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov launched changes in 2007 that left Vlasov with relatively little money or power compared to what Grebenyuk enjoyed. The paper noted that a reorganization of Vlasov's department has been under way for about six months. The daily quoted an unnamed Federal Security Service (FSB) source as hinting that Vlasov might have taken his own life after being shown "compromising materials" by unnamed "powerful forces" that did not want him to become permanent head of military housing. "For the time being, however, the investigation is considering the possibility that it might have been murder camouflaged to look like suicide," the paper noted. reported on February 22 that Vlasov took his life after a meeting with Serdyukov. The website suggested that the probable topic of discussion was possible charges of corruption against Vlasov. PM

Britain's "Financial Times" reported on February 22 that the Russian Finance Ministry disclosed the previous day a list of 15 foreign "government-backed companies" in which Russia's two "sovereign wealth funds" plan to invest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007, and February 1, 4, and 7, 2008, and "Russia: Pot Of Gold At The End Of The Stabilization Fund,", January 30, 2008). Among the firms listed are the U.S. home finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as several other banks and financial agencies in the United States and EU. Pyotr Kazakevich, who is deputy head of the ministry's international finance department, stressed that Russia is seeking to make money, not to extend its political influence. PM

Russian polling agencies have released their final polls prior to the March 2 presidential election, Russian media reported on February 21 and 22. According to the state-affiliated All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) -- whose polls were uncannily accurate for the December 2 Duma elections -- First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will win the election with 72.9 percent of the vote, reported. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov will come in second with 15 percent, followed by Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky (10.9 percent) and Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov (1 percent). VTsIOM is predicting a turnout of about 70 percent, a figure which "to a startling extent" reflects a prediction in December by Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov that turnout would be 70 percent, "Vremya novostei" noted. In 2004, President Putin received 71.31 percent of the vote with a turnout of 64.4 percent. The website quoted an unnamed source within the Unified Russia party as saying that some in the Kremlin would like to see a lower rating for Medvedev: "In the political elite of Russia there are many people -- mainly representatives of the siloviki -- who would like to see Medvedev poll less than 60 percent. They want Medvedev to be a weak president." RC

Regional administrations across the country are pressuring voters to come to the polls on March 2 and to vote for First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 22. "What's the best way to show the next president that you love him? In this election, the answer is to guarantee him a good turnout so that Medvedev becomes Russia's legitimate president in everyone's eyes," an unnamed election official told the daily. Governors are reportedly eager to establish their loyalty to the new president. According to the report, officials have pressured hospitals, universities, and state factories to ensure a high turnout and solid support for Medvedev. Many large factories have been ordered to set up on-site polling stations and to insist that employees vote there using absentee ballots. The official said that in Moscow, officials have a fairly good idea of what the actual turnout will be by around 3 p.m., by which time most people will have voted. He said that if the figures are low, then officials will engineer a late surge. Central Election Commission member Igor Borisov told Ekho Moskvy on February 1 that any calls for voters to boycott the elections could result in criminal charges. "Mass appeals cannot be made without using money," he said. "The Russian Criminal Code envisages criminal liability for spending money on campaigning other than that allocated from electoral funds." He also said there are criminal penalties for "hampering the free exercise of people's electoral rights." RC

A former opposition activist, Aleksandr Novikov, has applied for political asylum in the United Kingdom, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 22. Novikov claims that he was paid 8,000 rubles ($326) a month for two years to file reports with the FSB on the activities of the United Civic Front, which is headed by opposition leader Garry Kasparov. A 1995 law forbids law enforcement agencies from carrying out covert monitoring of political organizations, but United Civic Front officials have long complained that there were spies among their ranks. Novikov claims that he is "ashamed" of his activity and he apologized to Kasparov in an appearance on Danish television. Novikov claims that he might have played a key role in scuttling Kasparov's presidential bid by informing the FSB where he planned to hold his nominating conference. Kasparov was eventually unable to find a venue for such a conference and was thus unable to register as a candidate. However, Novikov conceded that "there were other people besides me" informing the FSB. The FSB declined to comment on the allegations. RC

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin on February 21 said that Human Rights Watch (HRW) Executive Director Kenneth Roth and two other HRW officials were refused Russian visas because they provided false information on their applications, Interfax reported on February 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008). Roth and the others intended to travel to Moscow to present an HRW report that claims the Russian authorities are strangling independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Kamynin said the three applied for tourist visas, although they planned to hold meetings with NGO leaders and journalists during their time in Russia. RC

Mikheil Saakashvili met in Moscow on February 21 on the eve of the informal CIS summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Georgian media reported. Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze told that the two men discussed "all the issues that currently top the agenda" in bilateral relations. Bakradze said the most important aspect of the talks was Putin's assurance that Russia will not formally recognize as independent the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Bakradze also said that he thinks Georgia will "soon" give the go-ahead for Russian accession to the World Trade Organization, which Tbilisi has pegged for the past two years to gaining joint control of customs and border posts on the border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2005, February 22, 2006, and January 19, June 26, September 10, and October 22, 2007), and that direct flights between Russia and Georgia, suspended in 2006, will be resumed in late March. According to the Russian Transport Ministry, that resumption is contingent on payment by Georgian carriers of outstanding debts. RIA Novosti quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that Putin explained to Saakashvili the consequences for bilateral relations should Georgia join NATO, given that Moscow sees no need for NATO's further enlargement. Lavrov also again argued that Georgia should sign a formal pledge of nonresumption of hostilities against Abkhazia and South Ossetia. LF

Magomed Khazbiyev, who was tasked last week with taking over the organization of a mass meeting in Nazran on March 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008), was quoted on February 21 by the website as saying that an unnamed representative of Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov visited him at his home the previous evening and offered him considerable financial incentives to abandon that undertaking. Also on February 21, Khazbiyev wrote to Ingushetian Prosecutor Yury Turygin asking him to bring charges against the government and municipal officials who on February 18 refused to accept a formal application from the protest organizers to stage the meeting in accordance with both federal and republican legislation. A second protest organizer, Gilani Imagozhev, was summoned on February 21 to the republican Directorate for the Struggle with Organized Crime where he was subjected to a lengthy interrogation, reported. LF

Tens of thousands of people congregated on February 21 for the second consecutive day on Liberty Square in central Yerevan to affirm their support for former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's claims that he is the rightful winner of the February 19 presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. According to official returns made public on February 20, Ter-Petrossian polled only 21.5 percent of the vote compared to 52.78 percent for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Two members of the Central Election Commission representing opposition parties refused to endorse the official results, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 21. Addressing the rally, Ter-Petrossian appealed to students at all Armenia's universities to boycott lectures on February 22 and join the ongoing protest. He announced that he met the previous day with Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Manvel Grigorian, who also heads the influential Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, and that both Grigorian and a second deputy defense minister, Gagik Melkonian, have assured him that they will not permit the army to be deployed against the protest participants. The two deputy ministers have made no public statement of their intentions, and the Defense Ministry has denied Ter-Petrossian's claim, according to a Eurasia View analysis. The rally lasted over four hours, after which a few thousand Ter-Petrossian supporters began pitching tents on the square despite sub-zero temperatures. Nikol Pashinian, editor of the independent newspaper "Haykakan zhamanak" and a member of Ter-Petrossian's election staff, said the peaceful protests will be "permanent" and could include street processions and pickets of government buildings. LF

Sarkisian received messages of congratulation on his election win from the presidents of Russia, France, and Georgia on February 20, and from Turkish President Abdullah Gul on February 21, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In an interview in December 2007 with the "Financial Times," Sarkisian expressed support for Turkey's hoped-for accession to the EU, which he said could contribute to easing the "problems" between the two countries. Also on February 21, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer addressed messages of congratulation to the Armenian government. Solana expressed satisfaction that the ballot was competitive and the turnout high, according to At the same time, he expressed the hope that "after the elections all political forces in Armenia will continue working in a responsible way," and added that "the complaints and shortcomings registered by the observers must be investigated." Meanwhile, U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said on February 20 that Washington is "concerned" about some aspects of the preliminary report issued by international election observers in Armenia, specifically the description of the vote count as bad or very bad in 16 percent of constituencies, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. During the January 5 preterm Georgian presidential ballot, the corresponding figure was 23 percent of all constituencies where observers were present and during the 2003 Azerbaijani presidential election over 50 percent, according to the website of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights ( LF

Following all-night talks with parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, the opposition National Council has abandoned the proposed hunger strike by the leaders of four of its nine constituent parties and some 150 other opposition supporters that was scheduled for February 22, reported. Defeated presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze said that he has received "firm guarantees" that the authorities will meet the opposition's main demands. Those demands were enumerated in a memorandum the council addressed to Burjanadze on January 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 8, 2008). Gachechiladze said that, as the opposition demanded, political prisoners will be released; a new director of Georgian Public Television will be appointed (immediately after a new board of trustees is named on February 26); and a new chairman of the Central Election Commission will be named by March 15. Gachechiladze added that the authorities have guaranteed that parliament will pass the legislative and constitutional amendments needed to ensure that the upcoming parliamentary elections are free and fair, and that after those elections the government will resign and a new government will be formed. LF

During a visit to Astana on February 21, General Electric (GE) CEO Ferdinando Beccalli-Falco signed a sweeping agreement on energy cooperation with several key Kazakh ministries and state agencies, Kazakhstan Today reported. The agreement, which was hailed by Beccalli-Falco as "an important milestone in the development of comprehensive cooperation" that "demonstrates GE's intention to strengthen long-term partnership relations with the country," was concluded with the ministers of health, transport and communications, and the state's sustainable development fund. According to the terms of the new agreement, GE is committed to cooperating with Kazakhstan in the development of oil and natural-gas production and transport, the production of electricity, nuclear energy, bioenergy and environmentally friendly types of energy, as well as assistance in the mining, metallurgy and uranium-processing sectors. GE also pledged to provide expertise on investment management, technical assistance in the development of transport infrastructure and machinery building, and the formulation of investment strategies and business technologies in Kazakhstan. An additional element of the agreement targeted "aspects of developing the health-care sector" and implementing "joint work on developing a national health-improvement program" focusing on child and maternal health, and "preventing heart diseases, breast cancer, and tuberculosis." RG

Kazakh Minister of Culture and Information Yermukhamet Yertysbaev called on February 21 for "a civilized dialogue" with journalists and media organizations to resolve differences over a new draft media law, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Yertysbaev explained that a dialogue is necessary and extended an invitation to journalists to participate in a "roundtable meeting" set for February 25 in Astana. The current law under parliamentary consideration was drafted by several media groups, but the minister has publicly criticized the draft law's recommendations on the "issues of demonopolizing the media and journalists' responsibility for slander and insults." He also added that although he is "not against a law on the media," he opposes "a law that has not been sufficiently considered." On February 20, several Kazakh journalists' organizations proposed to set up a parliamentary commission to address Yertysbaev's criticisms of their draft. At a press conference in Almaty the same day, the head of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan, Seytkazy Mataev, defended the draft law as an important defense of the freedom of speech. RG

Addressing a meeting of senior tax officials in Astana, Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on February 21 that a decision has been adopted to abolish all production-sharing agreements when concluding new contracts in the mining sector, according to Kazakhstan Today. Masimov explained that although existing production-sharing agreements (PSAs) will not be annulled, all new mining-sector contracts will "envisage an increase in taxes" and "review the procedure for tax payments." In December, Kazakh officials announced plans to introduce a new tax on oil production, which also set to end the use of PSAs in the energy sector (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). The abolition of the PSA contracts are part of a broader, more assertive state-centered energy strategy that includes granting the government greater authority over the work of international energy companies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007) and is intended to garner a greater share for the state-owned KazMunaiGaz company in an international consortium of mainly Western oil companies developing the offshore Kashagan oil field (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). RG

President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced on February 21 the appointment of several officials, Kazakhstan Today reported. The new appointments included Markel Iogan and Mamyrbaev Rakhimbek as the new first deputy and deputy prosecutors-general, respectively, and Nurlan Danenov as deputy foreign minister. Nazarbaev also named Nurlan Balghymbaev, who served as prime minister from October 1997 to October 1999 and as president KazakhOil, as a new presidential adviser and as Kazakhstan's special representative on Caspian Sea resources, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The appointments follow an earlier announcement naming Vladimir Shkolnik as the new minister of industry and trade and National Security Council Secretary Berik Imashev as a new presidential adviser (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2008). RG

The Kyrgyz Justice Ministry announced on February 21 a decision to formally ban the unofficial "alternative parliament" that recently convened in Bishkek, AKIpress reported. Referring to "the creation of the so-called public parliament and its activities," the statement noted that "in accordance with the constitution, the people of Kyrgyzstan are the only source of state power in the Kyrgyz Republic" and that "the people" exercised "their power" in the December 2007 election for a new parliament. The Justice Ministry concluded by asserting that "it is illegal for a group of people to set up any organizations that aspire and aim, in the opinion of their initiators, to substitute for bodies of power, including parliament, which has been formed in conformity with the constitution and laws of the Kyrgyz Republic." The "alternative parliament" of opposition groups held its opening session on February 20, and 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 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008). The body was initially formed by a group of opposition parties in January as a response to the legislature elected in December. RG

Prime Minister Igor Chudinov met on February 21 in Bishkek with visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, AKIpress reported. Mottaki, on the first day of his first-ever visit to Kyrgyzstan, discussed a wide range of issues with his Kyrgyz host, including measures aimed at expanding bilateral trade and economic ties, Iran's nuclear program, and the security situation in Afghanistan. For his part, Chudinov welcomed the engagement of Iranian companies in the reconstruction of the Bishkek-Osh highway and the Papan reservoir, and stressed that Kyrgyzstan is ready to cooperate with Iran in the energy and tourism sectors. Mottaki also highlighted the decision to establish a factory in Kyrgyzstan to produce Iranian-made SAIPA cars. On the second day of his visit, Mottaki is also scheduled to meet with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev, parliament speaker Adaham Madumarov, and Finance Minister Tajikan Kalimbetova, who is also a co-chairman of the Kyrgyz-Iranian intergovernmental commission for trade and economic cooperation. RG

In an interview with Russian journalists, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev stated on February 21 that he plans to "raise the issue" of a U.S. withdrawal from the Manas air base outside Bishkek, AKIpress reported. Bakiev admitted that the U.S. operation of the air base "is economically bringing certain benefits to Kyrgyzstan," but stated that "the majority of our population" feels that the United States' use of the base should be "temporary" and that raising the issue of withdrawal is "unambiguous," although he did not specify when such a demand will be made. The U.S.-run Ganci air base at Manas airport, located about 30 kilometers east of Bishkek, accommodates some 1,000 U.S. troops along with nine refueling and cargo planes supporting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan also hosts a Russian base, the Kant air base, which is about 30 kilometers west of Bishkek. The Russian use of that base began in October 2003 and it now houses about 400 troops, as well as 20 combat and transport planes, helicopters, and L-39 trainers. As recently as December 2007, Bakiev pledged that U.S. operations at the military air base would continue until neighboring Afghanistan "stabilizes," and explained that the base is still needed for counterterrorism operations because Afghanistan "may still be a center and a source of international terrorism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). In December 2001, Kyrgyzstan agreed to host the U.S.-led coalition forces and granted them access to the air base, which serves as an essential forward operating area for coalition efforts in Afghanistan. RG

Following his arrival in Moscow to attend a CIS summit meeting, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on February 21 discussed bilateral energy and military cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ITAR-TASS reported. Rahmon highlighted the fact that some 183 Russian companies are currently operating in Tajikistan and hailed a 75 percent increase in bilateral trade since 2006, reaching an estimated $850 million. Rahmon is leading a delegation that includes Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi, Labor and Social Security Minister Shukurjon Zuhurov, and presidential adviser Erkin Rahmatulloev. The two-day CIS summit will focus on an "economic development strategy, proposals on the expansion of transportation policy, the creation of common energy and food markets, as well as a complex of measures to raise effectiveness of activities of the CIS authorized bodies," Asia-Plus reported. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov also arrived in Moscow to attend the CIS summit as an "associated member," according to Turkmen Television. During his stay in Moscow, Rahmon is also planning on meeting with representatives of the Tajik community in Russia for talks that are to include a discussion of a wave of ethnic-related killings targeting Tajik nationals in several Russian cities. RG

The European Parliament on February 21 unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the Belarusian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the imprisoned former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin and revise the three-year prison term given to journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou, Belapan reported. The resolution "takes note" of the recent release of several opposition activists, but at the same time it condemns the new arrests, jail sentences, and expulsions from universities that have followed peaceful demonstrations. The European Parliament welcomed "the recent developments on the agreements to establish the European Commission's delegation in Minsk" and called on the authorities to "implement OSCE standards in the organization of the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for September 28, 2008." The resolution also urges the international community to provide more support for civil society in Belarus and, in particular, to "increase financial aid to the independent media, to nongovernmental organizations and to Belarusian students studying abroad." AM

At a closed-door meeting on February 22, Belarus's Supreme Court shortened the three-year prison term given to journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou to three months, which should lead to his release, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Following his arrest in November 2007, Zdzvizhkou was sentenced on January 18 for publishing cartoons displaying the Prophet Muhammad in the independent newspaper "Zhoda" in 2006. The Minsk city court found him guilty of "inciting racial, national, or religious enmity or discord." Zdzvizhkou appealed against the sentence. Zdzvizhkou's lawyer, Maya Alyaksandrava, told the broadcaster that the Supreme Court took into consideration the extraordinary circumstances and that her client should be released by the end of the day. "I hoped for such a decision, but this was a very slender hope," the broadcaster quoted Zdzvizhkou's mother as saying. Zdzvizhkou, along with recently released former legislator Andrey Klimau and former presidential candidate Kazulin, is regarded by the West as having been persecuted for his political views. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko told reporters in Kyiv on February 21 that the government has reached an accord with Russian gas monopoly Gazprom to pay off debts incurred in November and December 2007 for the purchase of gas at a price of $130 per 1,000 cubic meters, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Ukraine's total debt to Gazprom amounts to $1.5 billion. On February 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko agreed that as of February 14, Ukraine will start paying off this debt, but, according to a recent statement by Yushchenko, the Ukrainian government has paid only a part of this debt so far. Tymoshenko's visit to Moscow on February 20 and 21 was intended to settle the matter. During her meetings with her Russian counterpart Viktor Zubkov and with Putin, Tymoshenko confirmed her readiness to follow up on the deal agreed earlier by the two presidents. However, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said after the five-hour talks with the Ukrainian delegation on February 21 that details of bilateral cooperation in the issue of gas supplies were not settled and that the talks will be continued at an unspecified future date. Upon her return to Kyiv, Tymoshenko also told reporters that Gazprom demands Ukraine return 4 billion cubic meters of gas that disappeared from Ukraine's balance sheet. Tymoshenko said that her government was not aware of this problem and will look into it. Tymoshenko, who is known to be strongly in favor of excluding intermediaries from Ukrainian-Russian gas deals, said that Putin supported her stance. "Yes, certainly, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin clearly stated that there is no need for any intermediaries. I have in mind RosUkrEnergo and UkrGazEnergo," she said. AM

Verkhovna Rada speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the opposition Party of Regions, agreed at a February 21 meeting that on February 25 they will hold a roundtable with all parliamentary factions in order to resolve the ongoing parliamentary crisis, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Ukraine's parliament has remained deadlocked for over a month due to protests by the Party of Regions against possible NATO membership. The Party of Regions demands the adoption of a resolution that any steps by the government toward NATO membership must be preceded by a national referendum. Yatsenyuk told Yanukovych that he is not "an intermediary between the powerful opposition and the [parliamentary] majority," but he is ready to carry out this function. "The most important thing is that you would give me an opportunity to do so. We will certainly find a consensus," Yatsenyuk said. Yanukovych praised Yatsenyuk for the his second meeting within a single week with the Party of Regions faction. "Our proposition: to find solutions that will give us opportunities to cooperate within the parliament," Yanukovych said. AM

The Security Council adopted a resolution on February 22 condemning the violence in Belgrade the previous day against the embassies of several countries that have recognized or are expected to recognize the independence of Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). The resolution said that council members "condemn in the strongest terms the mob attack against embassies in Belgrade, which have resulted in damage to embassy premises and have endangered diplomatic personnel." The members also called on the Serbian authorities to ensure the missions' safety and praised unspecified measures they have already taken to remedy the situation. Following a government-sponsored demonstration in Belgrade on February 21 against the independence of Kosova, in which over 100,000 people took part, a group of about 1,000 people, described by some media outlets as young hooligans, stormed and set fire to parts of the U.S. Embassy. An unidentified, charred body was later found on the premises. A BBC reporter at the scene said there were "few, if any, police" present. He added that this was odd, considering that the U.S. Embassy was recently targeted by similar crowds. Former U.S. General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces in the 1999 Kosova conflict, said on Canadian Television on February 21 that he considers the prospect of Serbian officials' complicity in the violence plausible and "very disturbing." The BBC reported on February 22 that several U.S. State Department officials criticized the Serbian authorities on February 21 for not providing adequate security for the embassy. Spokesman Sean McCormack said that Washington will hold Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to his pledge that the incident will not be repeated. McCormack noted that several leading Serbian officials recently made statements implying that they consider political violence justified. Among the comments he may have been alluding to was one by Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, who said that NATO "broke our whole country. What's a few windows compared to that?" PM

At the mass Belgrade rally on February 21, Prime Minister Kostunica said in reference to Kosova's independence: "is there any other nation on Earth from whom [the Western powers] are demanding that they give up their identity, to give up [their] brothers in Kosovo? Nobody in Serbia will ever have the right to agree to that," international media reported. President Boris Tadic said in Bucharest that Serbia will never accept Kosova's independence. Following the attacks on the embassies on February 21, Tadic and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, both of the Democratic Party, condemned the violence as counterproductive and as damaging to Serbia's image. Tadic said in Belgrade on February 21 that "these actions do not contribute to the defense of Kosovo, or the defense of our integrity and dignity. They only take Kosovo away from Serbia." A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman told RFE/RL on February 21 that she appreciates Tadic's remarks, as well as an appeal at the rally by Kostunica against violence. Serbian Radical Party General Secretary Aleksandar Vucic urged protesters on February 21 not to engage in violence. He added, however, that the attacks on the embassies are "a lesson for all those who have been provoking Serbs and people in Serbia on a daily basis, and who continue to do so. They are guilty as much as those who took part in the violence." Also on February 21, the independent broadcaster B92 issued a statement in Belgrade saying that "attacks and threats towards B92 have always intensified" at times of "dramatic" political developments. The statement added that "unfortunately, this is the case now.... For the last couple of days, threats have seriously escalated, both via electronic messages as well as on Internet forums, where B92 receives open threats from people who discuss their plans to set our building on fire.... They even went one step further, producing video clips in which our journalists are being shot at. On [February 17], the window of our B92 Shop downtown was broken." The broadcaster stressed that "the statements of local officials, who justify violence in Belgrade and throughout Serbia, presenting it as democratic, only stir additional violent outbursts instead of calming things down, by clearly condemning such attacks." PM

Several hundred uniformed Serbian reservists burned tires at the border crossing into Kosova at Merdare on February 21, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. They threw rocks at NATO-led peacekeepers and attempted to force their way across the border. Several hundred Czech riot police, backed by helicopters, deterred them from going further. The reservists were veterans of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's 1998-99 war in Kosova and were bussed in from Kursumlija. They avoided any direct confrontation with NATO's KFOR troops. AP on February 21 quoted veteran Kosovar Serb leader Rada Trajkovic, who is vice president of the Serbian National Council, as calling on Prime Minister Kostunica to sack Slobodan Samardzic, who is minister for Kosovo, for allegedly encouraging violent protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008). She said that Serbs from the north have created a situation in which "Serbs in Kosovo...fear for their children and their own lives. It is a very painful feeling -- the fear of what your own people might do." PM

For nearly three decades, Afghans have endured war and foreign occupation, extreme poverty, and the Taliban. Yet some suffer more than others. Not all Afghans are created equal. Fatima Nazari wants to change that.

Nazari, an Afghan parliamentarian, is the driving force behind the country's first political party dedicated to women's rights and issues. She launched National Need on February 19 at a ceremony in Kabul, saying the party hopes to put women's rights at the forefront of the national political debate. It intends to run in the next parliamentary elections, which will probably be held in three years' time.

"I believe women understand their own problems better than men would," she says, adding that National Need will seek to increase women's participation in politics and business. "We want to campaign for democracy, not only talk about democracy. In this way, we want to work with our brothers and the rest of Afghan society."

Some of Nazari's fellow deputies and officials in Kabul welcomed the creation of the country's first-ever women's political party. Some called it a step forward toward greater democracy and recognition of women's rights. Interestingly, the Afghan parliament already boasts fairly high representation by women: Twenty-three of 100 members in the upper house and 68 of 249 deputies in the lower house are women.

But in a deeply conservative Islamic country devastated by decades of war, poverty, and a lack of education, that's not enough. "I have already dealt with women's issues as a deputy," Nazari tells RFE/RL. "But I eventually felt that we Afghans needed a special party entirely focused on women to raise their profile."

Not everyone is so optimistic. Nazari says the party already boasts 22,500 registered members, men and women, not only in Kabul but also conservative areas such as Paktika, Maidan Wardak, and Helmand. Yet can a neophyte political party hope to change traditional views about the role of women in a place like Afghanistan?

Maryam Panjsheri has her doubts. A female activist in the northern Panjsher Province, she says she is "highly skeptical" about National Need's potential to forge change beyond the capital and a few bigger cities, such as Mazar-e Sharif or Herat.

"It's all for show," Panjsheri tells RFE/RL. "The party leaders will give speeches, interviews, set up seminars -- and that's all they'll do. I don't think women's organizations play a significant role in Afghan women's lives. I don't believe there is such a group that fights for their economic well-being, rights, or health care. I'm just being realistic."

Afghan women are also systematically excluded from social, political, and public life, and are often victims of domestic violence. Even Afghan officials admit that while job and educational opportunities for women have improved since the fall of the Taliban, domestic violence against women is unchanged. It might be even more common than before. According to the Ministry of Women's Affairs, over the last year more than 2,000 cases of violence against women have been registered. Yet most abuse goes unreported.

Often, very young Afghan girls are also victims of fixed marriages. Some parents force their daughters -- sometimes as young as 8-years-old -- into marriage to settle debts or family feuds.

Moreover, women usually cannot leave their families or seek a divorce, because in many parts of Afghanistan divorce is considered dishonorable. A divorced woman cannot return to her parents' family and, in an impoverished country with widespread unemployment, she cannot rebuild her life on her own, either.

Some women seek escape by self-immolation, resulting in death or disfigurement. Last year, at least 30 women committed suicide in the western Farah Province alone, most of them by setting themselves on fire, according to Afghan media reports.

Panjsheri acknowledges her hopes may seem unrealistic. "We know our goals won't be easy to implement, but they are realistic," she says. "We know it won't happen overnight. It may take many years." Panjsheri adds that the biggest challenge will be to reach the women in the most conservative families.

For now, that's a tall order. "Parents who deny education for their daughters, force their young girls into marriage, or a husband who abuses his wife, definitely would not allow rights activists to meet their daughters and wives to educate them about their rights and invite them into politics and business," she says.

But you've got to start somewhere, says Malolai Rushandil Osmani, a women's rights activist in the northern Balkh Province. Speaking to RFE/RL, Osmani acknowledges the challenges facing both women and women's rights activists. "It's a difficult task, especially in the conservative southern and eastern provinces. But one way or another, you have to try."

Osmani, who runs the women's NGO Foundation to Defend Afghan Women's Rights, has her own tactics for promoting women's rights in sensitive areas. "When we go to a village, first of all we talk to the local elderly and the local religious leader," she says. "With their approval, we can then meet with their families. Everybody accepts the fact that it would be better if women dealt with women's issues."

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, millions of Afghan girls have returned to school all over the country. Many women now have access to jobs and medical care. In the past five years, in the southern city of Kandahar alone, some 5,000 women have graduated from special literacy courses where they were taught to read and write as well as skills such as dressmaking or computer knowledge. And recently, the government announced a strategy to give nearly one-third of state jobs to women by 2012.

"Let's just hope the new party's leaders really seek to improve Afghan women's lives, and that they include every woman everywhere -- from Kabul to the most remote villages," Osmani says.

(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

On a visit to Kabul, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has asked for increased international commitment to defeat the Taliban, saying that the insurgents are intent on destabilizing the West as well as Afghanistan, AFP reported on February 21. The NATO-led countries in Afghanistan must rid themselves of the notion that the mission is failing, de Hoop Scheffer said after talks with Afghan leaders. "This is not considered by NATO as a mission of choice," he told reporters after talks with President Hamid Karzai. "It is a mission of necessity." Referring to Taliban insurgents and other rebels engaged in a violent campaign against the government, the NATO chief concluded, "The spoilers are not after destabilizing the Afghan society, killing the Afghan society, but also ruining our societies." AT

Kandahar Province Governor Asadullah Khalid said that 10 men have been arrested in connection with the bombings that killed over 100 people earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19 and 20, 2008), the Canadian Press news agency reported on February 21. Khalid said that four guns, bomb-making materials, motorcycles, and some documents were seized as well. He added that the alleged mastermind of the bombing plots is among those arrested. The arrested men were paraded in Kandahar on February 21in front of local reporters who were, however, not allowed to speak to them. Khalid said that the investigation into the bombings is continuing. AT

Former Canadian Prime Minister John Manley denied that his government is proposing him as the new UN envoy to Afghanistan, AFP reported on February 21. Manley told AFP through his law offices, "I am not a candidate and I have not consented to my government advocating for me to take on this responsibility." Since British diplomat Paddy Ashdown withdrew his name from consideration following Afghan government objections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008), other candidates to replace Germany's Tom Koenigs include Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide. AT

Ahead of the release on February 22 of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran's cooperation with its monitoring of Tehran's nuclear program, Iran warned the West against imposing further sanctions, news agencies reported. "Today the Iranian nation stands firm...and will not allow anyone to infringe on its rights even a small bit," President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by IRNA on February 21. Citing diplomats familiar with IAEA monitoring, Reuters said the report will say Iran allowed IAEA inspectors to see technological advances previously concealed, but did not fulfill a pledge to clarify all questions about past activities by mid-February. The report is also expected to say Iran is still not being open enough for the IAEA to verify there are no hidden military dimensions to the program. DW

The Guardians Council, which determines the eligibility of candidates and confirms election results, will allow another 205 previously rejected applicants to run in the parliamentary elections on March 14, the Fars news agency reported on February 21. The Guardians Council has already reinstated about 800 hopefuls initially barred by Interior Ministry agents or by the council's own supervisory boards in a strict vetting process that has prompted objections, especially among reformists who say they have been treated unfairly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and 20, 2008). The list of the names provided by Fars seems to consist mostly of undistinguished or independent candidates rather than prominent reformists. VS

Iran and Iraq agreed on February 20 to put signposts and border markings on their land and river frontiers on the basis of the 1975 Algiers Accord, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20 and 21, 2008). The two countries have had disagreements over their frontier for decades, and fought a war in 1980-88. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Reza Baqeri said in Tehran on February 20 after signing a document with an Iraqi delegation that these negotiations "are the first round of comprehensive frontier discussions...since the end of the war. There have been no discussions on the 1975 treaty itself, and the treaty is not in principle negotiable," Radio Farda reported. Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad al-Haj Hamud said after the signing that field work will now start to reposition signs or signposts destroyed or removed in past years. Another Iranian deputy foreign minister and head of the ministry's department for frontiers, Alireza Jahangiri, said that the Algiers Accord was not discussed, only its "technical and executive provisions...and protocols." He said the two sides have agreed to reopen a joint office to work on demarcation issues in the Shatt Al-Arab/Arvandrud waterway, Radio Farda reported. Iraq separately reopened a consulate in Ahvaz, in the southwestern Khuzestan Province, on February 21, IRNA reported. The ceremony was attended by the Iraqi Ambassador Muhammad Majid al-Shaykh, who expressed hope that growing trade between Iraq and Khuzestan will presage flourishing trade relations between the two countries. VS

The Association of Iranian Blogwriters, or "Penlog," ( has issued a statement condemning the recent death sentence handed down to journalist and activist Yaqub Mehrnahad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2008), Radio Farda reported on February 21. Mehrnahad was sentenced to death after being found guilty of colluding with Jundullah, a group blamed for bombings and banditry in the southeastern Sistan-va-Baluchistan Province. Penlog stated that Mehrnahad "is the director-general of the Voice of Justice youth association, which implements programs for young people in Baluchistan within the framework of" Iran's laws. The statement added that "he was arrested before a question-and-answer session in which some Zahedan officials were taking part, and no reason was given for his arrest." Zahedan is a city in Sistan-va-Baluchistan. Mehrnahad was reportedly arrested in April or May 2007. Penlog members asked all "supporters of human rights" to protest the "savage violation of human rights in Iran and merciless suppression of bloggers and freethinkers." VS

In a statement on its website, the Turkish General Staff announced on February 21 that it launched a ground offensive into northern Iraq at 7 p.m. local time. "The Turkish armed forces, which attach great importance to Iraq's territorial integrity and stability, will return home in the shortest time possible after its goals have been achieved." Press reports earlier in the day quoted eye witnesses as saying armored vehicles were deployed at the Habur border crossing, north of Dahuk. Meanwhile, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's website quoted a source inside Turkey as saying some 2,000 "fully equipped Turkish soldiers" were mobilized at a position in the Semdinli district in southeast Turkey, close to the Iraq and Iran borders. Turkey's NTV reported that some 10,000 troops crossed the Turkish-Iraqi border. Iraqi media also reported on February 21 that clashes broke out between Turkish forces based at Bamarni Airport north of Dahuk and Iraqi Kurd peshmerga forces. The Turkish General Staff issued a statement denying the clashes took place, as did peshmerga chief Jabar Yawar in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. Kurdish television did report that Turkish warplanes bombed several villages around Al-Amadiyah in northern Dahuk Governorate on February 21. KR

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on February 22 that his government is not aware of any Turkish ground offensive into northern Iraq, Reuters reported. "Until this minute, we have not received anything from the [Iraqi] border guards about Turkish forces crossing the international border," Zebari said in a telephone interview. The Kurdistan regional government's foreign minister, Falah Mustafa, also denied the incursion, the news agency reported. Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 22 that President Jalal Talabani left Baghdad on an urgent visit to Al-Sulaymaniyah because of the deteriorating situation with Turkey. Talabani's political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is headquartered in Al-Sulaymaniyah. Meanwhile, Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, traveled from Irbil to Dahuk to monitor the crisis, sources told Radio Free Iraq. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a February 21 statement that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a telephone call the same day to "respect the sovereignty of Iraq's borders and inviolability of its lands...and stressed the importance of avoiding a military solution," Reuters reported on February 22. KR

Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has officially extended his militia's cease-fire for another six months, international media reported on February 22. Aides to al-Sadr cautioned earlier this week that the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia's cease-fire could be called off (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2008). "According to an order by Sayyid Muqtada, activities of the Al-Mahdi Army will be extended...for another six-month period," al-Sadr aide Hazim al-A'raji said during a Friday Prayer sermon at Baghdad's Al-Kadhimiyah Mosque. KR

The U.S.-based CBS television network reportedly sent an appeal to Muqtada al-Sadr on February 22 seeking the cleric's continued help to release a journalist abducted in Al-Basrah on February 10, the Voices of Iraq news agency reported. Al-Sadr aide Harith al-Athari told the agency that the cleric's office "has left no stone unturned" and continues to work for the release of the journalist. Al-Athari said on February 14 that his office is in ongoing negotiations with the kidnappers to release the unidentified journalist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2008). KR

Iraqi government spokesman al-Dabbagh told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on February 21 that Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani has confirmed that Iran is not exploiting Iraq's Al-Majnun oil field. Al-Dabbagh said al-Shahristani told the cabinet that he visited the border area along with a group of journalists and found the claims baseless. "Nonetheless, Iraq actually wants to enter into negotiations with neighboring Iran and Kuwait to be a party to an agreement on the join exploitation" of fields along the border. "There is an international rule called the unitization rule, which means the joint exploitation of these resources," al-Dabbagh said. But former Oil Minister Isam Chalabi contended in a February 21 interview with Al-Sharqiyah television that the Al-Majnun field lies entirely within Iraq's borders and should not be identified as a "shared field" that traverses the border. Chalabi said the Al-Majnun field was discovered some 30 years ago, and drilled throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. During this time, "there was no talk in any way to the effect that there is something shared with Iran vis-a-vis the Al-Majnun field." He contended that Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has started to say over the past three years that there are six or seven wells shared between Iraq and Iran. "Now we kneel and say: 'Yes. Let us talk to the Iranian side and form joint committees to give the rightful owners their rights.' These wells are Iraqi wells. Iraq should be in charge of the running, operation, and production of these wells," Chalabi said. KR