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Newsline - February 26, 2008

In the continuing war of words with the West over Kosova, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on state-run Vesti-24 television on February 25 that "we have information that the EU mission [in Kosova], while attempting to deploy in Serbian enclaves [despite Serbian objections], is trying to draw the NATO [KFOR] forces for Kosovo onto its side," news agencies reported. He added that "the question of using force to hold back Serbs who do not want to remain under Pristina's being seriously discussed." Lavrov noted that "there is information that NATO contingents are trying to use force" to close the frontier between Kosova and Serbia, but did not elaborate. He claimed that "this will only lead to yet another 'frozen conflict'" (see Part II, "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008, and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). In response to Lavrov, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels on February 25 that "NATO forces in Kosovo have a clear mandate from the UN Security Council to establish a safe and secure environment for all residents, majority and minority alike." He added that KFOR troops have carried out "that task in a neutral and impartial way since the day they deployed in Kosovo and...will continue to do so." The EU's established position is that its new civilian mission will operate throughout Kosova. On February 25, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that "we are going to continue to try to work with both the Russians and the Serbs on [Kosovo], but I think that it ought to be clear to everybody at this point that Kosovo is never going to be a part of Serbia again." On February 26, the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" criticized recent statements on Kosova by Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin and the recent attacks on foreign embassies by Belgrade mobs. The paper noted that "defeated in the battle for Kosovo, Moscow and Belgrade had better concentrate on preventing primitive behavior. Attacks on foreign embassies and acts of plain vandalism in Belgrade, coupled with Rogozin's statements in Brussels, weaken their positions in the issue." The daily suggested that Russia in the future should not doggedly defend causes that have little chance of success. The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on February 26 that Kosova "is rapidly turning into an international crisis." PM

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany told Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is the presumed successor to President Vladimir Putin, in Budapest on February 25 that Hungary will take part in Gazprom's planned South Stream pipeline project, which is seen as a rival to the EU's projected Nabucco pipeline, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26 and December 10, 17, and 19, 2007, and January 28 and February 25, 2008). Gyurcsany denied that participation in South Stream will preclude Hungary's involvement in Nabucco, adding that it is in his country's interest to have both pipelines crossing its territory. Medvedev also said that the two pipelines are unrelated projects. South Stream will transport gas along the floor of the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, and eventually to Austria and Italy. Bulgaria and Serbia recently signed agreements with Russia to take part in South Stream. Gazprom holds a 51 percent stake in the Serbian project, but Hungary and Russia will share ownership equally in the Hungarian segment of the pipeline. Britain's "Financial Times" on February 26 quoted an unnamed "U.S. official" as saying that Hungary should have developed its links to Nabucco first because it needs to reduce its 70 percent dependency on Russian gas supplies as its top priority. "The Moscow Times" argued on February 26 that Gazprom is winning the competition with the EU over pipeline development. Russia's "RBK Daily" wrote on February 26 that it was in Russia's interest to clinch the deal with Hungary while Gyurcsany is still in office, because the opposition strongly opposes closer ties to Russia. PM

President Putin will address the country on national television on February 29, reported on February 26. Putin is expected to express gratitude for the support he received during his two terms as president and to urge voters to turn out for the March 2 presidential election, according to sources within First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev's campaign. RC

Long-time human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov spoke with RFE/RL's Russian Service on February 25 to comment on an open letter he published that was harshly critical of the state of democracy in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Asked why he wrote the letter, Kovalyov said, "it seemed to me unnatural and a little shameful that everyone understands that we are being led around by the nose, that the highest people in government are systematically and endlessly lying to us, but everyone is silent." He said that the country is "at a dead end from which there is no escape by means of democratic processes," noting the widespread manipulation and falsification of elections. He said the only path open is one similar to the Polish Solidarity movement. RC

Lyov Ponomaryov, executive director of the For Human Rights NGO, faces slander charges for comments he made in a 2006 interview about Russia's prison system, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 26. In the interview, Ponomaryov said that Federal Corrections Service head Yury Kalinin is "the author of a sadistic system of torture" and described Russia's network of 40 strict-regime prisons as "torture zones." Ponomaryov told the daily that he has been required to sign a pledge not to leave the capital while the case is investigated. If convicted, he could face three years in prison. According to the daily, human rights ombudsman Viktor Lukin called prison conditions "close to torture" in an interview earlier this month. RC

The Russian advertising market grew by 28 percent in 2007, reaching $2.36 billion, reported on February 22. Experts interviewed by the website predicted continued rapid growth through 2010. Growth in the sector was high despite a ban last year on outdoor advertising of tobacco products and reductions in the number of billboards available in Moscow and other cities. Radio and Internet advertising were also up, as was advertising in the Russian regions. RC

Five minutes before a midnight deadline, the Supreme Court of Yakutia on February 25 barred A Just Russia from the region's March 2 legislative elections, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on February 26. The court ruled in favor of a complaint from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) alleging irregularities in the local A Just Russia party list. Zoya Kornilova, who was the No. 1 candidate on the A Just Russia list, told RFE/RL that that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party was actually behind the case, seeking to remove its strongest competitor. Kornilova said the party will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Russia. RC

Lawyers for former Tolyatti Mayor Nikolai Utkin have filed an appeal with the Supreme Court against Utkin's February 12 conviction on corruption charges, "Gazeta" reported on February 22. Utkin was sentenced by a regional court to seven years' imprisonment for extorting money from a local businessman in connection with a real-estate deal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 17, 2007). Local human rights advocate Aleksandr Lashmankin told RFE/RL's Russian Service on February 25 that the case, which dates back to 2001, is the result of a "power vacuum" that emerged in Samara Oblast after the 2007 resignation of long-time Governor Konstantin Titov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). He said that a new mayoral campaign is under way now in the city, which is home to AvtoVAZ. Lashmankin said Utkin was an ally of Boris Berezovsky, formerly a major AvtoVAZ shareholder, and that his removal marks the culmination of a campaign to end the former oligarch's influence in the city. Political observer Yevgeny Mogilevich told RFE/RL that the Titov era was "deeply liberal." "Now we have normal -- from the point of view of a Soviet person -- methods of management, familiar to everyone, of the bureaucratic-Soviet type." RC

Ramzan Kadyrov and other senior officials, including Grozny Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev, met in Grozny on February 22 with several members of the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial, including its leader, Oleg Orlov, the Chechen government website and reported. Kadyrov was quoted as saying that he is ready to assist in the investigation of rights violations and to consider any request put forward by human rights organizations, but as adding that he thinks "we should tackle these problems jointly." Memorial staffers for their part reportedly hailed Kadyrov's recent proposal that the Russian State Duma should declare a new amnesty for resistance fighters and persons currently serving prison terms for their activities during "the active phase of the counterterrorism operation." Kadyrov also complained that his own human rights are constantly violated by media outlets that publish unsubstantiated allegations about him. Memorial staffer Nataliya Estemirova was subsequently elected to chair the Grozny Public Council to support human rights, reported on February 25. Meeting on February 21 in Grozny with visiting students from Ingushetia, Kadyrov expressed support for embattled Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, who, according to Kadyrov, "devotes all his efforts to the development of the republic," reported. Kadyrov criticized those Ingush who have organized demonstrations to demand that Zyazikov be dismissed for condoning high-level corruption and deliberately misinforming the Russian leadership about the situation in Ingushetia; he said those Ingush are out to "dismember Russia." LF

An Ingushetian parliament commission released on February 24 a report on the human rights situation in the republic that was summarized the same day by The report cites examples of killings, abductions and disappearances since 2002 (when Zyazikov replaced Ruslan Aushev as president) and argued that "the illegal methods of fighting terrorism" adopted by the power ministries have triggered a stream of complaints to the republican authorities, including the parliament. It enumerates the following proposals for improving the situation: proposing to the Russian Federation Prosecutor-General sending to Ingushetia a team to investigate the "mass violations by law enforcement agencies of citizens' constitutional rights;" holding before the end of this year hearings in the Republic of Ingushetia parliament on those violations; and asking Russian Federation Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev to take measures to preclude violations of the Legal-Procedural Code by courts in the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia. Meanwhile, on February 22 some 200-250 members of the Kozdoyev teyp (clan) met in Nasyr-Kort on the southeastern outskirts on Nazran and adopted a vote of no confidence in Zyazikov, a statement condemning human rights violations, and a second statement rejecting the lists of candidates registered for the March 2 election to a new Republic of Ingushetia parliament, reported. Some 100 members of the Kotiyev clan convened on February 23 and adopted analogous statements affirming no confidence in Zyazikov, condemning corruption and human rights violations, and naming as their parliamentary candidate a member of the Kotiyev clan, Akhmed Magomedovich Kotiyev. They further declared their intention to boycott the March 2 elections if the list of candidates is not amended to include Kotiyev, reported. The Aushev, Nalgiyev, Sultygov, Kartoyev, and Khalukhayev clans have already held similar meetings (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 8, 2008 and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). LF

Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian met in Yerevan on February 25 with Slovak Foreign Minister Jan Kubis, who is also president of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers, to discuss the aftermath of the February 19 presidential election in which Ter-Petrossian claims victory, Armenian media reported. The preliminary and final official results released by the Central Election Commission named Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian as the winner with almost 53 percent of the vote followed by Ter-Petrossian with 21.5 percent. Meeting the same day with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Kubis termed the February 19 presidential ballot "a step forward" compared to earlier elections and noted that the Armenian authorities responded "with restraint and in a responsible way" to mass protest rallies by Ter-Petrossian supporters, reported. As of February 24, police began closing and sealing Ter-Petrossian's election campaign offices in towns across the country. They also detained two Ter-Petrossian supporters -- Democratic Homeland party Chairman Petros Makeyan and Ashot Zakarian, head of a local chapter of the Yerkrapah union of veterans of the Karabakh war -- late on February 24 for allegedly having obstructed the work of local election officials during the voting on February 19. The two men were released within 24 hours, reported on February 25, but three more Ter-Petrossian supporters -- opposition Hanrapetutiun party board member Suren Sureniants, Homeland and Honor party Chairman Garnik Markarian, and former Goris Mayor Samvel Harutiunian -- were detained late on February 25, Noyan Tapan reported on February 26. Also on February 25, Ter-Petrossian aides announced that two department heads at the Trade and Economic Development Ministry, Vahagn Ghazarian and Zohrap Hovannisian, have affirmed their support for Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

Hrant Bagratian, who served under Ter-Petrossian as prime minister from February 1993-November 1996, appealed at a pro-Ter-Petrossian rally in Yerevan on February 25 to the president, prime minister and Archbishop of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh -- Bako Sahakian, Ara Harutiunian and Pargev Srbazian, respectively-- to join the ranks of Ter-Petrossian's supporters, Noyan Tapan reported on February 26. Bagratian argued that Serzh Sarkisian is unfit to be president of Armenia because he grew up in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) when it was still part of the Azerbaijan SSR and "has fawned on the authorities of Azerbaijan." Bagratian did not lodge any similar objection when Ter-Petrossian appointed Robert Kocharian, who was similarly born and brought up in the NKAO, prime minister in 1997. The Yerevan municipal authorities on February 25 issued a statement calling on the organizers of the rallies in support of Ter-Petrossian to desist from further unauthorized protests that "disrupt" life in the city, Noyan Tapan reported. In Washington, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said on February 25 that the U.S. administration believes that the postelection disputes "need to be settled within the confines of Armenia's constitution and political system." LF

Members of the nine-party opposition National Council resumed on February 25 talks with representatives of the ruling United National Movement, including parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, reported. The National Council abandoned on February 22 plans for a protest hunger strike after receiving assurances from Burjanadze late the previous day that the key demands contained in its 17-point memorandum of January 29 would be met (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and February 22, 2008). New Rightists party leader Davit Gamkrelidze said after the February 25 talks that agreement was reached on the procedure for selecting a shortlist of 27 candidates from the 235 applicants for nine seats on the board of trustees of Georgian Public Television. Parliamentarian Gia Tortladze of the For a United Georgia party established last fall by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said the 27 have been selected, but "some details" remain to be clarified. The new board will select a new general director of Public Television to replace Tamar Kintsurashvili, whose dismissal is of the National Council's primary demands. It is not clear whether one seat on the board has been earmarked for a representative of one of Georgia's ethnic minorities, in line with a request by representatives of those minorities addressed to Burjanadze and President Mikheil Saakashvili on February 24, reported. The talks on February 25 also yielded agreement on the release by February 27 at the latest of four people taken into custody for their participation in the violent clashes between police and protesters in Tbilisi on November 7. LF

Sergei Shamba, the de facto foreign minister of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, has questioned Georgian claims that Georgia and Moscow have reached an agreement under which the two countries will jointly control the customs posts on the border between the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Russian Federation, reported on February 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). Shamba said that Russia could not and would not make any such concession without the Abkhaz' consent, and that the Abkhaz would never agree to the presence on their territory of Georgian customs officials and border police. South Ossetian Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzayev was similarly quoted by on February 25 as having told the Georgian television channel Rustavi-2 that "nobody will be able to control the Roki tunnel [that links the unrecognized republic with the Russian Federation.]" If the Russian and Georgian sides want to establish a border post, they can locate it on the border between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, Mindzayev continued. LF

A Chechen Republic parliament delegation headed by speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov held talks in Sukhum(i) on February 25 with members of the parliament of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia and with de facto President Sergei Bagapsh, and reported. Abdurakhmanov told journalists that the talks focused on a major draft cooperation agreement between the two legislatures that encompasses economic cooperation and investment, political dialogue, and cooperation in the fields of culture, science, and sport. Abkhazia is a member of the Interparliamentary Assembly of the Southern Federal District of the Russian Federation; the overwhelming majority of its population have Russian passports. LF

Several hundred people on February 25 attended the funeral of a Kyrgyz migrant laborer killed in what is suspected to be an ethnically motivated murder in Moscow last week, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The funeral of 28-year-old Tayir Jarkynbaev was held in his hometown of Kochkorata in the Jalal-Abad region. The funeral is likely to further aggravate public feeling over a recent wave of ethnically motivated killings of Kyrgyz nationals in Russia. A lawmaker from the ruling Ak-Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party, Melisbek Myrzakmatov, on February 22 threatened to force the eviction of the Russian military from the Kant air base outside of Bishkek in retaliation for the killings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). RG

The National Agency for Corruption Prevention on February 15 identified Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources, and Processing Industry as the "most corrupt" of all state agencies and ministries, according to AKIpress and ITAR-TASS. The announcement was the result of a survey aimed at cataloguing the state bodies most flagrantly tainted by corruption. That survey recorded over 218 corruption-related cases within the ministry, a level reported to be far ahead of the Education and Science Ministry, which took second place on the corruption list. The results of the survey, which utilized data obtained from law enforcement agencies and the media, are to be formally submitted to the president's office, cabinet, and parliament for their review and consideration. RG

A two-day meeting of the CIS heads of border-guard agencies opened on February 25 in Dushanbe to review efforts designed to coordinate counterterrorism and counternarcotics measures, Regnum reported. The delegates, representing CIS members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Russia as well as the Tajik hosts, also examined the need to bolster border security and agreed to enhance training facilities for border guards. The issue of border security has become an increasingly serious challenge in Central Asia due to an upsurge in the flow of drugs being smuggled through the region from Afghanistan. RG

Rashid Gulov, an official of the Tajik state-owned energy company Barqi Tojik, announced in Dushanbe on February 25 that Uzbekistan unexpectedly cut off exports of electricity the previous day, Asia-Plus reported. Gulov said that Uzbek energy officials informed their Tajik counterparts that the cutoff was due to unidentified "technical problems" in their thermoelectric power plants. He added that the delivery of electricity from Uzbekistan will not resume until March 1 at the earliest. Until the February 24 cutoff, Uzbekistan was supplying Tajikistan with roughly 5 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity daily. But Gulov also stressed that Tajikistan is also able to import increased amounts of electricity from other neighboring states, including 10.7 million kWh daily from Turkmenistan and another 200,000 kWh daily from Kyrgyzstan to the northern Sughd region. The UN's World Food Program also announced on February 25 plans to issue an appeal for an additional $8.3 million in emergency aid to help alleviate the ongoing energy crisis in Tajikistan, according to the Avesta website. RG

Alyaksandr Kazulin, an imprisoned former presidential candidate, was given overnight on February 25-26 a three-day leave to attend the funeral of his wife Iryna, who died on February 23 after a long fight with breast cancer, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Vital Ahnistsikau, the chief of the correctional facility near Vitsebsk where Kazulin is incarcerated, drove Kazulin home to Minsk shortly after midnight. Ahnistsikau announced on February 25 that he was not going to grant Kazulin a temporary release due to several violations by Kazulin of the correctional facility's regulations, but he later changed his mind. ""You can't imagine what it was like in the colony at that point," Kazulin told reporters about the moment when Ahnistsikau produced his release order. "It was surrounded by riot police. Inside there were security guards everywhere. No one was allowed to move," he said. Kazulin suggested that the authorities felt forced to grant him temporary release in order to prevent mass demonstrations. The previous day, several hundred people in central Minsk gathered to commemorate the death of Kazulin's wife and demand the release of the imprisoned politician. The funeral of Iryna Kazulina is scheduled for February 27. Kazulin was arrested during antigovernment demonstrations that followed the March 2006 presidential election and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed public order. The West regards Kazulin as a political prisoner and he is probably the most significant figure to be jailed in recent years in Belarus. AM

Alyaksandr Kazulin said on February 26 in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service that some Belarusian officials contributed to the death of his wife. Kazulin said that the first stage of this contribution was his illegal arrest and prison sentence in 2006. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka "knew well that she was already sick at that time," Kazulin said. Once he was sent to jail on charges related to the antigovernment rallies that followed the election, Iryna "lost the strength she needed to fight her illness." Kazulin also said that the final blow was the deal, about which Lukashenka told reporters a week ago in Vitsebsk. Lukashenka said then that Kazulin was offered the opportunity to accompany his wife on a trip for treatment in Germany, but they refused. Kazulin's daughter said later that the the authorities' main intention was to expel Kazulin from Belarus. Also, Kazulin's wife, who was no longer able to talk, wrote in a statement that the conditions of the proposal were unacceptable. "If I had asked them to give me a million dollars, they would have, if it had meant getting me out of Belarus," Kazulin told RFE/RL. AM

Representatives of all factions in the Verkhovna Rada on February 25 held a roundtable aimed at resolving the ongoing parliamentary crisis, Ukrainian media reported. The parliament has been deadlocked for several weeks due to protests by the Party of Regions against possible NATO membership. Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the Party of Regions, recalled at the roundtable that the parliamentary crisis began with the signing by parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk of a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Yatsenyuk, along with President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, asked de Hoop Scheffer to give Ukraine a Membership Action Plan at the alliance's summit in Bucharest in April. Yanukovych said that Yatsenyuk had not coordinated his signature with the Verkhovna Rada and therefore the parliament should hold a debate on the issue, giving all legislators an opportunity to express their attitude to Ukraine's possible NATO membership. Mykola Tomenko of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) told reporters that representatives of four of the blocs in the Verkhovna Rada have created a working group that within a week will prepare a draft agreement aimed at enabling the parliament to resume its work. The Communist Party has not joined the group. Tomenko said that the agreement will propose approving either an agreed single resolution on the NATO issue or all resolutions that have been submitted to the parliament so far. Tomenko also said that the draft agreement will propose as priority issues for consideration by legislators: approval of the government's working program, a bill on state purchases, hearings on monetary and credit policy, changes to regulations on the parliamentary opposition's activities, and staff-related issues. The signing of the agreement is scheduled for March 3. "If the working group and leaders of the factions are still able to find compromises, the Verkhovna Rada will resume its work on March 4," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( quoted Tomenko as saying. AM

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on February 25 that "Serbia will do everything to implement its jurisdiction and state prerogatives for all loyal citizens in Kosovo -- Serbs and non-Albanians," regional and international media reported. He added that "there cannot be a normalization of relations with the states that have recognized the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo until they annul that decision" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22 and 25, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13 and 25, 2008). Kostunica also noted that "the latest protests [against Kosovo's declaration of independence] have encouraged us. These protests, around the world and here, will not stop until the illegal declaration of independence is annulled." He and President Boris Tadic met with Russian President Vladimir Putin's presumed successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who reiterated Russia's support for Serbia's position on Kosova. Medvedev stressed that "the main purpose of our brief visit, of course, is to express support for Serbia at the time of illegitimate actions and a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo. Our position is that Serbia is a single state whose jurisdiction covers all of its territory." Medvedev added that he and his hosts "agreed to continue coordinating our efforts to find a way out of this very complicated situation and resolve the Kosovo problem." The Russian and Serbian leaders witnessed the signing of an agreement including Serbia in Gazprom's planned South Stream gas pipeline project (see Part I and "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). Details of the broader package deal, which also includes selling Serbia's state oil monopoly NIS to a Gazprom-led consortium at far below its market value, remain secret. The energy package is widely seen as recompense by Serbia for Russia's support over Kosova. Medvedev noted on February 25 that "Serbia needs this kind of support, particularly under the current conditions. And it needs not only moral and legal support, but also support based on international agreements that we signed today, which will in the end help us strengthen our ties and improve the social and economic standards of living in our countries." PM

The Serbian Foreign Ministry demanded on February 23 that Russia's state-run Rossia television apologize for recent remarks denigrating the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in 2003, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 26. On February 21, Konstantin Syomin, who anchors the "Vesti plus" news program, called Djindjic a "Western puppet" who "destroyed the legendary Serbian Army...[and] got a well-deserved bullet." According to on February 25, the ministry called Syomin's remarks "offensive" and "absolutely unacceptable," adding that he appeared to "justify the murder of the democratically elected prime minister." The Foreign Ministry is led by allies of Djindjic. PM

Joachim Ruecker, who is special representative of the UN secretary-general with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), told Slobodan Samardzic, who is Serbia's minister for Kosovo, outside Prishtina on February 25 that the "condoning of violence, and direct or indirect support for violence, are totally unacceptable," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Ruecker added that he "specifically referred to...Samardzic's [recent] statement [in which] he said that the destruction of the UNMIK customs premises in the north [by organized Serbian mobs on February 19] was unfortunate, but legitimate" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 25, 2008). Ruecker reminded Samardzic that UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999 places UNMIK and NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers "in charge of the whole territory of Kosovo." Samardzic said later in Uglare on a visit to several Serbian enclaves that Serbia will do all it can to maintain peace and order "in the areas that it controls, where Serbs live.... We will keep [trying to convince] Serbs to cooperate with the UN mission." He added that Kosova's Serbian minority "must enjoy life in the Serbian state as all other citizens of Serbia enjoy that life. Serbia will do everything to achieve that." He stressed that "we don't support the use of force and violence, and we condemn it. But we said openly [to Ruecker]... that the violence was done by those who broke international law [by recognizing the independence of Kosova]. This is violence against the law which begets other forms of violence, and UNMIK should bear this in mind." In northern Mitrovica on February 25, more than 1,000 Serbian demonstrators burned an EU flag and pictures of Serbian President Tadic and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Speaking in Prishtina the same day, Hajredin Kuci, who is Kosova's deputy prime minister, called Samardzic's visit a "provocation." He called on Serbia to accept that Kosova is now independent, and to build bridges rather than increase tensions. PM

The Kremlin rarely makes concessions, particularly if no one in a position of strength is asking for them. But that is exactly what seems to be happening in an otherwise unsurprising, strictly scripted presidential succession.

Both President Vladimir Putin -- who seems all but certain to become prime minister after his term expires in May -- and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev -- who seems all but certain to replace Putin as president -- have stressed in recent weeks the need to help the country's destitute. Both have commented on the need to raise pensions and state-sector wages (particularly for the military) and to close the appalling and growing gap between the richest and the poorest. More than that, the State Duma has already begun transforming their promises into deeds, passing legislation that will put cash in the hands of pensioners and soldiers in short order.

Under Putin, Russia has evolved a political system in which the direct tie between voters and legislators in the Duma has been severed. Likewise the tie between voters and their regional leaders. Moreover, the media and most public organizations, including labor unions, have been brought under the Kremlin's control. In short, the beneficiaries of the Putin/Medvedev social largesse have no remaining levers of political pressure.

The explanation would seem to lie with the Kremlin's desire to create some impression of legitimacy and strength for Medvedev, who was a relatively unknown and colorless bureaucrat just a few weeks ago. Although there has never been any doubt that Putin's choice would win the election, the presidential administration has taken great pains to ensure the highest possible voter turnout and a solid showing for Medvedev, one that rivals or exceeds the percentage Putin himself received in 2004.

For years, the common wisdom in Russia has been that Putin was able to navigate among the various factions in the political elite in large part by inflating the impression of his popularity among the general public. This impression is also important on the international stage, where the illusion of popularity is often taken for reality and thereby blunts foreign criticism of the Kremlin's domestic authoritarianism. As the country's political transition proceeds, it seems evident that Putin intends to transfer this aspect of his political power to Medvedev.

Russian analysts speculate that the so-called siloviki -- those with ties to the defense, law enforcement, and security organs -- are interested in limiting Medvedev's showing in the March 2 presidential poll. Although they are not interested in forcing a second round (as it would require considerable manipulation to push the vote under the 50 percent required for a first-round victory), they reportedly would like him to poll rather closer to 60 percent than to 70 percent or above. "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," an unnamed election official told "Vremya novostei" this month. "They want Medvedev to be a weak president."

Medvedev's greatest ally against such designs -- in addition to the Kremlin's total control of the national media and the election commissions -- are the regional administrations. Since 2005, governors have been appointed by the president, severing their tie to the constituents they purportedly represent. The December legislative elections, in which the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party was awarded a constitutional majority in the lower chamber, showed how local officials pulled out all the stops to demonstrate their loyalty to the central authorities.

In the presidential poll, most of Medvedev's local election campaign offices are headed by senior officials in the regional administrations. "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 Moscow Times" this month. According to the daily, 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. Undoubtedly, the Kremlin's efforts to boost pensions and state-sector wages will help lubricate this process.

The result of this situation is a unique attribute of Russia's pseudo-democratic system: Medvedev will be granted the illusion of broad popularity through a tacit alliance with the bureaucracy, the force in Russia that is generally seen as the most daunting obstacle to significant reform. According to economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, the bureaucracy had ballooned to 1.45 million people by the end of 2006. He estimates the bloated bureaucracy costs the economy some 2-3 percent of GDP per year, not counting the huge sums lost to official corruption.

Given the structure of Russia's "managed democracy" system, dependence on a huge team of "managers" is inevitable. Medvedev's accession to the presidency is based on a closed network of mutual self-interest among officials from the Kremlin down to the smallest state factories and schools. The system is geared primarily toward the process of insulating itself from outside pressures and influences. Despite the liberal rhetoric in Medvedev's speeches -- rhetoric that sounds a lot like vintage 2000-01 Putin -- it is hard to imagine this system ever being redirected toward doing anything else.

The Taliban on February 25 threatened to attack mobile-phone facilities in Afghanistan, claiming the equipment is being used to locate their hideouts, AFP reported the same day. According to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed, the phone companies have been given three days to respond to Taliban demands to cut down nighttime operations or face attacks, mostly on antennas all over the country. According to the Telecommunications Ministry, over 5 million Afghans currently possess mobile phones. Should the Taliban carry out the threat, they would be hampering their own operations, as they are using mobile phones for communication themselves, ministry spokesman Abdul Hadi Hadi concluded. AT

Government spokesman Asif Nang said that President Hamid Karzai took his ministers to eastern Afghanistan on February 25, AP reported. Karzai chaired the first of a series of mobile cabinet meetings in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar Province. Karzai and his ministers met with over a hundred tribal leaders and provincial-council members. Nang added that similar meetings will be held each month in a different province. AT

The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governors was shown evidence on February 25 gathered by intelligence agencies purportedly demonstrating Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons after 2003 -- the year U.S. intelligence has said it believes Tehran stopped its suspected weapons program, news agencies reported. A report by several U.S. intelligence agencies concluded late last year that Iran halted its attempts to produce or access weapons in 2003, though some states like Israel remained skeptical. Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, angrily dismissed the evidence shown at the meeting in Vienna, Western news agencies reported. Citing unidentified diplomats who attended the meeting, AP reported that the board was shown quite specific documentation or videos concerning the initial development of nuclear warheads. Reports suggested this is some of the evidence that the IAEA has shown Iranian officials during a program of cooperation and clarification in recent months. Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazai, told AP in New York on February 25 that the evidence was fabricated by a "terrorist group," the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), a militant group opposed to Iran's government that has made revelations about its nuclear activities in the past. The MKO are considered terrorists by Iran, the United States, and the EU. Britain's envoy to the IAEA, Simon Smith, told AFP in Vienna that the evidence was "from multiple sources" and indicated "detailed" investigative work relating to the development of nuclear warheads and their placement into Iran's own long-range missiles. VS

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai told the Fars news agency in Tehran on February 25 that information relating to Iran's ballistic-missile program cited in the February 22 IAEA report is the "start of a new move against Iran." He expressed satisfaction that Iran has answered the six main questions the IAEA has sought to have clarified in recent months, but he said outstanding issues are a bid to prevent the closure or normalization of Iran's file. The IAEA report concluded that the agency could not definitively qualify Iran's program as exclusively civilian as Iran claims it is. Rezai said Iran's ballistic-missile programs have nothing to do with the IAEA. Separately, the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization for international affairs, Mohammad Saidi, told Iranian state television on February 24 that Iran will "normalize" relations with IAEA and the inspection routine for its sites, following the IAEA's recent "fair" report. Saidi said Iran does not count on any state to support on its nuclear program, but he urged UN Security Council members China and Russia "to play their international and regional role as friendly countries," the Mehr news agency reported. VS

Residents of Tabriz in northwestern Iran were alarmed by a loud explosion on February 25, which the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) later said was caused by the "disposal of waste ammunition" outside the city, Fars and IRNA reported. The IRGC issued a statement the same day explaining that it safely disposed of the material at an unspecified place outside or in the suburbs of Tabriz. The city's residents initially suspected there was an earthquake, the BBC reported. Most of Iran is prone to earthquakes. VS

Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, ordered on February 25 the detention of the editor or head of a website that recently angered Iranian politicians by harshly criticizing Hasan Khomeini, the grandson of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Radio Farda reported. Hasan Nobakhtian, the editor of "Nosazi" (Innovation or Modernization), was summoned to a Tehran court dealing with offenses by state-sector employees, where he was charged and sent to jail, Radio Farda reported. It did not specify what the charges -- which were brought by the Tehran judiciary -- were, though they were probably related to defamation. Weeks ago, "Nosazi," among other allegations, criticized the younger Khomeini for his alleged life of luxury and acceptance of perks from the reformist government of former President Mohammad Khatami. Many reformists and revolutionary veterans voiced outrage at the allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 19 and 20, 2008). The government distanced itself from the website after reformists said "Nosazi" was a right-wing website supporting the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Radio Farda reported. It quoted journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin on February 25 as saying, "they always arrest the weakest person" in Iran following any such controversy, and the judiciary seeks "the shortest and simplest" response to problems -- namely to arrest people. He suggested the authorities should have asked Khomeini if he wanted to press charges against Nobakhtian. VS

An Iraqi news editor and manager of programming at the Shi'ite television channel Al-Furat has been detained along with his son due to his possible knowledge of Iranian special groups' activities, the U.S. military announced on February 26. Hafidh al-Bishara was detained after an unauthorized machine gun was found in his home. Al-Bishara's son, who has not been identified, is a suspected intelligence operative for the special groups -- Iranian-backed cells that the United States accuses of carrying out attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces. U.S. military spokesman Major Brad Leighton told Reuters on February 26 that "coalition forces assessed [al-Bishara] to have key information on Iranian-sponsored criminal activity and he was detained." Leighton said if there is not probable cause linking him to criminal activity, he will be released. Al-Furat is owned and operated by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. KR

The Kurdistan National Assembly convened an extraordinary session on February 26 to discuss the recent Turkish ground incursion into northern Iraq. The session was broadcast live on KurdSat television. Deputy speaker Kamal Kirkuki opened the session by criticizing the Iraqi government for not raising the incursion with international bodies. "The Iraqi government should have used its constitutional, political, and diplomatic influence before and during the current events, but unfortunately this has not happened," Kirkuki said. He also insisted the Kurdistan regional government demand the closure of all Turkish military bases inside the Iraqi Kurdish region. According to media reports, there are about six Turkish bases in northern Iraq. Kirkuki has been quite critical of the government's handling of the incursion in recent days, saying it should have raised the issue with the European Union, UN Security Council, and other international bodies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). KR

State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters at a February 25 press briefing in Washington that the U.S. government considers the Turkish-Kurdish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a threat to security. "Our well-known. The PKK is a threat to the United States, to Turkey, and to Iraq as well. We continue to urge cooperation between Turkish and Iraqi authorities on this. We are conducting diplomacy towards that end. We certainly want to see and make sure that the Turks continue with their stated policy, which is to make sure that any of these military actions minimize the impact and take very serious account of the concerns of civilian populations in the area," Casey said. Asked about remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Turkey should offer greater political and economic initiatives to its Kurdish population, Casey said: "The PKK is a common enemy and I think all Secretary Gates is doing is stating the obvious...this is a problem that requires more than just a military solution." Commenting on the PKK issue in Australia on February 25, Gates told reporters, "The kinds of military activities that they have been engaged in should be complemented with initiatives to try and address some of the concerns of those who are reconcilable among the Kurds, to win their loyalty to Turkey if they are living in Turkey and to try and eliminate whatever popular base exists that supports the terrorist activities of the PKK," Reuters reported. KR

An Arab League delegation headed by league Assistant Secretary-General Ahmad bin Hilli arrived in Baghdad on February 25 for a three-day visit to discuss political developments in Iraq and national-reconciliation initiatives, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on February 26. Bin Hilli met with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, and National Dialogue Minister Akram al-Hakim. Bin Hilli told reporters following the meeting: "The visit comes in reflection of the Arab role, which we are keen to maintain. The least we can do at the Arab League level is to stay in touch with...Iraqi officials. Another point is the fact that the Arab League will continue with its efforts to promote reconciliation, particularly given the Iraqi government's endeavors in this regard," Al-Iraqiyah television reported. The Arab League is expected to sponsor a national-reconciliation conference for Iraq in Cairo later this year. KR

Two tribal fighters belonging to the Al-Abbasiyah Awakening Council were gunned down at a checkpoint in Hawijah district, some 70 kilometers southwest of Kirkuk, on February 26, the Voices of Iraq website reported. A security source said the attack was carried out by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq. The Al-Abbasiyah Awakening Council is the first awakening council -- coalitions of local tribesmen established to fight Al-Qaeda-linked elements -- to be formed in Kirkuk, according to the report. Elsewhere, gunmen stormed the Baghdad home of Brigadier General Khamis Ali al-Zawba'i on February 24 and shot dead al-Zawba'i and his son, Iraqi media reported on February 25. Al-Zawba'i was the uncle of Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i and head of the Al-Mikanik Awakening Council, which is located in the Durah district of southern Baghdad. Several family members were wounded in the attack. KR

Iraq's crude exports rose by 6 percent in January from the previous month to 59.6 million barrels, the Oil Ministry announced on February 26, AP reported. Production averaged 2.4 million barrels per day in January, and exports averaged 1.92 million barrels per day, according to the ministry. December's exports averaged 1.81 million barrels per day. Exports sold at an average price of $80 per barrel in January, and grossed $4.813 billion -- a 2.6 percent increase from December's oil revenues, which stood at $4.689 billion. Total oil exports in 2007 reached nearly 600 million barrels, an average of 1.6 million barrels per day. The majority of 2007 exports went through the southern port of Al-Basrah, while some 40 million barrels were exported from the north. Last week, some 70 international oil firms registered with the ministry to compete for tenders to help develop Iraq's oil sector. KR

Insurgents from Ansar Al-Islam reportedly attacked Kurdish peshmerga forces in the Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate on February 24, according to the Peyamner website. The report said the insurgent group attacked peshmerga positions in the Kulara Mountains in the Penjiwin region. The clashes resulted in no casualties, and the insurgents fled "to an unknown destination." The report did not say how many insurgents were involved in the attack. Ansar Al-Islam was based in the region at the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Their bases were bombed by coalition forces in March 2003 and the group subsequently scattered to areas south of the Kurdish region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2003). KR