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Newsline - February 28, 2008

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is President Vladimir Putin's chosen successor as president, took one day of unpaid leave on February 27 to campaign in Nizhny Novgorod, Russian media reported. Officially, that is the only day that Medvedev has spent campaigning for the presidency. He taped a 10-minute address to the nation that was broadcast repeatedly on the national television channels as news, in which he said the country needs "political stability" and pledged to "ensure the reliable protection of Russia's sovereignty and to protect citizens' freedoms." "Vedomosti" reported that the commercial violated numerous laws. An unnamed source within the Medvedev campaign told the daily that nothing had been paid to run the material, which the daily estimated should have cost about $800,000 each time it was aired, if commercials were allowed during newscasts. In addition, under the law on advertising, it is not legal for television channels to show more than nine minutes of advertising per hour. A spokesman for Rossia television told the daily that "under the law on the election of the president, we are obligated to provide free coverage of campaign events." Central Election Commission member Maia Grishina told the daily that the national television networks have repeatedly covered campaign events by the other three candidates and that the February 27 appearance was Medvedev's first as a candidate. A spokesman for Channel One told the daily: "If the other candidates appeared in such an interesting format -- meeting with voters from all around the country and making non-banal statements, the company would be happy to cover them as well." RC

The Central Election Commission on February 27 declined to hear a Communist Party complaint charging that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev has been given illegal advantages in election coverage by the state media, reported the same day. Commission member Grishina told journalists that it had been determined that the complaint -- which was signed by numerous Duma deputies and which documented that Medvedev received more than 80 percent of the total election coverage in the first three weeks of January -- is unfounded and does not merit consideration by a working group or by the entire commission. The commission's official response to the deputies merely stated that the coverage of Medvedev was based on his status as a government official, without noting that his coverage in that status has increased exponentially in recent weeks compared to his years as first deputy prime minister prior to the election campaign. Communist Party Deputy Valery Rashkin told the website the commission's refusal to even consider the deputies' complaint was a brazen slap in the face for the Duma. "In a law-based state, this sort of thing is impossible," he said. Medvedev, a lawyer, has based part of his campaign on the need to overcome Russia's ingrained culture of "legal nihilism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2008). RC

The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations on February 27 presented the results of its monitoring of media coverage of the presidential election campaign, Russian media reported. The experts asserted that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, the Kremlin's favored candidate, has received far more coverage than the other three candidates on all television networks. They added that legal changes since 2005 and the opacity of the administrative and legal systems have made it easier for the Kremlin to extend and justify these advantages. Medvedev's greatest advantage was on NTV, where he received 17.3 times more coverage than the other three candidates combined during the period from February 2 to February 25. NTV is owned by a subsidiary of Gazprom, of which Medvedev is chairman of the board of directors. His advantage was 5.5 times on TV-Tsentr, 4.2 times on Channel One, and 1.8 times on Rossia. The relatively independent REN-TV -- which is in the process of being taken over by pro-Putin oligarch Yury Kovalchuk -- provided roughly equal coverage of the three main candidates, Medvedev, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Democratic Party head and rank outsider candidate Andrei Bogdanov received about 30 percent less coverage on that channel. Medvedev's advantage was despite his refusal to participate in campaign debates on the grounds that his official duties did not allow him time to do so. Lilia Shibanova, head of the independent Golos election-monitoring group, told "The Moscow Times" on February 28 that by avoiding the debate and conflating his campaigning with coverage of his official duties, Medvedev has deprived the campaign of all political discussion. RC

The Central Election Commission has set up a subcommission to oversee the counting of the votes in the March 2 presidential election, "Vedomosti" reported on February 27. The subcommission includes only Election Commission members who represent the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. The subcommission is charged with preparing the final vote protocol and with serving as first instance for complaints related to the voting. Commission member Yevgeny Kolyushin, who represents the Communist Party, voted against the new commission, recalling that election commission members who were not on the vote-tally subcommission in the December 2 Duma elections were not even allowed to inspect the original voting protocols despite widespread charges of falsification. RC

A group of economists from the Russian Academy of Sciences has issued a report describing the problems with implementing the economic-development plan, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on February 28. The experts say the government has failed to make progress on diversifying the economy. Academy economist Ruslan Grinberg said economic development is also threatened by the absence of a political opposition, something that he said contributed to aggravating the economic crisis that struck Russia in 1998. "The only rational path for changing the economic course is the presence of an opposition party...with new principles of economic policy." Academy economist Viktor Polterovich criticized the continued creation of state corporations, projects which he said "only lead to the redistribution of resources." RC

Natalya Morar, a journalist with Moldovan citizenship who was barred from entering Russia in December on national-security grounds, remains in a Moscow deportation detention area after being refused admission a second time on February 27, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on February 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2008). Morar was married to a Russian citizen, Ilya Barabanov, on February 23 and both work as journalists at "Novoye vremya." Barabanov is also in the detention area, RFE/RL reported. Morar told RFE/RL that she has so far refused to board a return flight to Moldova. Barabanov told RFE/RL the couple intends to remain in the detention area until an official from the economic-security service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) comes and explains the grounds for refusing admission to Morar. On March 13, a Moscow court is expected to begin hearing a case filed by Morar against the FSB's order. Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, told RFE/RL that Morar is persecuted for her journalistic work, adding that her treatment "is virtually the same as what has been happening practically since 2000 with many foreign journalists whom the Russian authorities consider bad journalists for writing 'incorrectly' about Russia." RC

Students in institutions of higher education in Tver have reported that they are being compelled to participate in the March 2 presidential election, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on February 27. According to the report, instructors have been ordered to keep track of who votes, as well as when and where, and to submit this information to their institute administrations. In case of failure, they have been threatened with unspecified unpleasantness. An official with the Tver State Technical University denied the report and told RFE/RL that nothing more than "informational work" is being carried out with the students. Students at the Tver State Medical Academy told RFE/RL they have been threatened with expulsion if they fail to vote on March 2. There have been earlier media reports that regional officials are pressuring the managers of hospitals, schools, and state enterprises to make sure the voter turnout is high (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). RC

Vitaly Churkin, who is Russia's ambassador to the UN, said on February 27 that Russia is willing to support a draft resolution on Iran that includes new sanctions because the proposals do not involve any use of force (see Part III), Interfax and international media reported. He stressed that "if Iran does not stop its uranium-enrichment activities in the next few days...Russia will support the new resolution." He noted that the document "will act as an additional guarantee that Iran's activities do not develop into an unacceptable danger for the international community. Iran has ignored UN demands to terminate its nuclear program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 13, 2008). PM

U.S. President George W. Bush and Czech Prime Minister Miroslav Topolanek came close on February 27 to concluding an agreement in Washington on Czech participation in the proposed U.S. missile-defense project, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2008). Topolanek said that "there are only three words remaining [to be resolved]. Sometimes one word is so important it can ruin everything, but these [remaining words] are not key issues, and we will resolve them." Bush noted that "there's a will to get this done for the sake of mutual security and for the sake of peace." He stressed that "Russia is not a threat to peace. Regimes that adhere to extremist ideologies, which may have the capability of launching weapons at those of us who love freedom, they are the threats to peace. And the missile-defense system is aimed to deal with those threats." Bush also reiterated U.S. support for Kosova's territorial integrity, noting that its "borders have been clearly defined" (see Part II). PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, who is President Putin's designated successor, suggested in Nizhny Novgorod on February 27 that the United States masterminded Kosova's recent declaration of independence despite the dangers it poses for European security, Russian news agencies reported. He argued that "such decisions, which are unfortunately very much supported or, if we're frank about it, even incited from across the ocean, put Europe in a very difficult position. It's clear that America doesn't have much to risk here because it's far away, but Europe could once again be set ablaze." Medvedev added that Russia "will support Serbia's demands to liquidate the illegal decision on Kosovo and not only from the UN rostrum. [Serbia can] count on us..., [and for] economic support as well. For example, Serbia's joining such a large gas system as South Stream will help it to resolve many economic problems. Humanism in the area should be not only moral, but also practical" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25 and 26, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). Under President Putin, Moscow has sought not only to split the United States from Europe but also to force a division within the EU between its older and newer members, most of whom were formerly under Soviet domination and are deeply distrustful of Russia. British scholar Timothy Garton Ash warned in "The Guardian" of February 28 that Europe must be united in its approach to Russia if it is to be taken seriously in the Kremlin. He argued that "the Russian wolf has run rings around the free countries of the world in general, and European ones in particular. Deploying gas pipelines, banks, and embargoes instead of tanks and missiles, it has intimidated, or tried to intimidate, many of its neighbors. A Swedish researcher has identified 55 cases of energy cutoffs or threatened cutoffs between 1992 and 2006. While 'technical' reasons were usually cited, most of the cutoffs just happened to occur when Moscow wished to obtain some political or economic advantage, such as influencing an election or letting state-controlled companies like Gazprom buy into energy infrastructure." Garton Ash noted, too, that Russia "calls itself a sovereign democracy. But the difference between a democracy and a sovereign democracy is like that between a jacket and a straitjacket." PM

The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on February 27 that Colonel General Viktor Vlasov, the acting head of the Defense Ministry's housing department who was found dead in his office on February 21, left a suicide note (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 22, 2008). The alleged document has been seen by few and is in the possession of military investigators, the paper added. The daily did not shed any light on the content of the note. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" nonetheless suggested that Vlasov killed himself as a result of disputes over privatization with some members of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov's inner circle, who come from St. Petersburg, the home base of President Putin. According to the paper, Vlasov resigned his post shortly before killing himself. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote that the St. Petersburg group "ate Vlasov alive" and wanted him out of the way so that they could sell off "choice morsels" of ministry property before Putin leaves office. Other accounts published recently in the Russian media suggested that Serdyukov wants to clean up corruption in the ministry and confronted Vlasov with unspecified "evidence" shortly before the latter took his life. RIA Novosti reported on February 27 that Vlasov might have suffered a nervous breakdown that affected his mental stability before he committed suicide. Officially, the case is still under investigation and shrouded in secrecy. PM

Indian Defense Secretary V. K. Singh said in New Delhi on February 28 after returning from Moscow that India has agreed to pay a higher price for the Russian aircraft carrier "Admiral Gorshkov" than was agreed in 2004, and will take delivery of the ship in 2011, AFP reported. He added that the new agreement will not be made public before the cabinet has approved it. The document is expected to be signed by the end of March following visits by unspecified Russian negotiators to India, he added. The daily "Kommersant" reported on February 19 that the much-publicized dispute with India over the timing and cost involved in modernizing the carrier for that country has become so complicated that the ship might be purchased by the Russian Navy instead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and 27, 2007, and February 20, 2008). In New Delhi on February 28, Singh denied that India ever considered backing out of the deal or that Russia expressed any interest in keeping the 30-year-old ship. In an apparent first in Moscow's foreign arms sales, Algeria recently demanded that Russia take back 15 MiG fighters that it says are substandard. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on February 26 that Norway's "Odfjell ASA announced the cancellation of a contract with the Sevmash [shipyard in Severomorsk] for 12 chemical transport tankers, citing delays and price increases." The paper added that "the Norwegian case is the latest in a series of contract-related complaints against Russia from other major clients such as India, Algeria, and China." PM

The chairman of Russia's Central Election Commission (TsIK), Vladimir Churov, has issued orders to his republic-level counterpart in Ingushetia, Musa Yevloyev, to take all possible measures, including installing video cameras at polling stations and conducting a parallel count of the number of people casting ballots, to preclude the slightest doubt arising over the accuracy of the reported voter turnout during the March 2 elections for a new Russian president and Republic of Ingushetia parliament, according to and ITAR-TASS on February 27 as reposted by the independent website In the December 2007 elections to the Russian State Duma, the Ingushetian authorities claimed 98 percent voter participation, of whom 98.9 percent purportedly voted for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party; the website subsequently collected signed statements from 88,112 voters (approximately 55 percent of the republic's total electorate) affirming that they did not participate in the ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 4, 11, and 28, 2007, and January 10 and 15, 2008). Of 952 respondents to an electronic poll conducted by this month, 88 percent said they do not plan to vote in the March 2 presidential ballot; only 17 percent said they will do so. LF

Ingushetia's Supreme Court acceded on February 26 to an appeal against the detention on February 23 of oppositionist Magomed Yevloyev and ordered his immediate release, reported the following day. But the authorities in Nalchik, the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) capital, where Yevloyev was taken after his detention and is being held in a pretrial facility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and 27, 2008), had not released him as of late on February 27. LF

Some 600 people attended a rally on February 26 in Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, to demand political change, reported. The protest was organized by the local chapter of the Communist Party and nonpartisan politicians; participants demanded, among other things, an end to pressure from the authorities to vote on March 2 for First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev as Russian president and for candidates from Unified Russia in the simultaneous elections for a new khural (republican parliament); compliance with Russian election law, which on paper guarantees equal rights for all competing parties; and an end to the policies of incumbent republican President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, which they claimed have brought Kalmykia to the verge of bankruptcy. The Russian Federation Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal by former Kalmykia parliament deputy Nikolai Odizhev to annul the decision by the republic's election commission to hold new legislative elections, reported on February 19. Odizhev argued that the vote by deputies in December to dissolve the existing parliament was illegal. LF

Tens of thousands of people rallied on February 27 for the eighth consecutive day in support of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who continues to claim that he won the February 19 presidential ballot with 65 percent of the vote, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Final results announced by the Central Election Commission on February 24 put Ter-Petrossian in second place with 21.51 percent of the vote after Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian with almost 53 percent. Ter-Petrossian on February 27 rejected the warning issued the previous day by outgoing President Robert Kocharian that the authorities will not tolerate indefinitely the ongoing unauthorized mass rallies in Yerevan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2008). Ter-Petrossian claimed that "Robert Kocharian's authority has been illegal right from the beginning. Under the constitution, he was not even eligible to run for president either in 1998 or in 2003." Ter-Petrossian said the ongoing protests will continue, but did not specify for how long. Also on February 27, the Interior Ministry announced that at least three detained Ter-Petrossian allies, including former Military Prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian, have been charged with criminal offenses, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Jahangirian was detained, together with his brother and driver, late on February 23 and has been charged with illegal possession of arms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). LF

Prime Minister Sarkisian told journalists on February 27 that "a few" of the eight defeated presidential candidates have responded positively to his February 26 appeal to "constructive forces" to "cooperate" and possibly form a coalition government, but he refrained from naming the candidates involved, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said talks with those persons have already begun. Ter-Petrossian, however, on February 27 ruled out any such cooperation, declaring that "either Serzhik or the [Armenian] people will leave this country. There can be no other solution" to the ongoing standoff, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, and Foreign Minister David Bakradze all protested on February 27 the detention by Abkhaz militia the previous day on the border between Georgia and the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia of Malkhaz Basilaia, a journalist with the Mze independent television channel, Caucasus Press reported. Basilaia reportedly sought to enter Abkhazia to report on the early voting there in the Russian presidential ballot. Saakashvili claimed to have "incontrovertible evidence" that Basilaia is being tortured in detention and warned de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh that Georgia will resort to military force unless he is released; Bakradze described the detention as an act of terrorism. Bagapsh for his part was quoted as telling visiting UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbor on February 28 that to date, the Abkhaz authorities have routinely released all Georgians detained for violating Abkhazia's borders, but that since the Georgian authorities failed to reciprocate these "goodwill gestures," the Abkhaz will in future bring them to trial, reported. "Kommersant" on February 28 noted that the Abkhaz claim to have detained two journalists from Mze and identified the second as David Tsotsoria. A spokesman for the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the conflict zone denied on February 27 that the Russian peacekeepers played any role in detaining the Georgians, reported. LF

Visiting Tbilisi on February 27, Finnish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Ilkka Kanerva said that the Georgian authorities and opposition "must continue a constructive dialogue," Caucasus Press reported. He further stressed the importance of improving the electoral system, strengthening democratic institutions, and "translating existing reforms into practical implementation on the ground." Kanerva also called on the Georgian authorities to resume talks with the breakaway republic of South Ossetia within the existing format for negotiations, within which the OSCE has observer status, and he noted that "improving the security situation on the ground would be helpful" to that process. LF

In an announcement released by the Kazakh Defense Ministry, the Karaganda region's deputy military prosecutor, Vladimir Moroz, said on February 27 that a military probe has resulted in criminal charges being lodged against the unidentified commander of the Karaganda military garrison, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Moroz said that the probe, which was initiated following reports of fraud at the army base that first surfaced in November 2007, revealed that the garrison commander allegedly engaged in a series of fraudulent acts, including falsifying military travel and supply records. Although the scale of the fraud was relatively minor, estimated at totaling only about 1 million tenges (about $8,000), Moroz stressed that the duration of the crimes negatively affected unit morale at the garrison. He also noted that the formal criminal charges have been submitted to the central district's military court, with an initial court hearing scheduled to begin next week. Last month, a senior official in the military prosecutor's office, Colonel Nurlan Sisimbaev, identified corruption as a "key problem" within the Kazakh Army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). RG

Addressing a meeting of the ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party in Almaty, General Nurzhan Myrzaliev, the head of the Almaty division of the National Security Committee (KNB), listed on February 27 the achievements of the security body over the past year, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Myrzaliev highlighted KNB security efforts that resulted in the dismantling of several criminal groups, including an active "network" linked to human trafficking to the Caucasus, which posed threats to "security and stability in Kazakhstan. He also noted success in combating extremism in the region that resulted in the arrest of several suspects affiliated with foreign Islamist groups in Pakistan and Chechnya. Myrzaliev concluded by saying that as part of broader effort against "illegal migration," the KNB "detected nine trafficking channels, launched 13 criminal cases, and on the basis of rulings issued by administrative courts 729 foreign nationals were deported from Kazakhstan, including citizens of China, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan." Most notably, he added that the KNB was also able to foil attempts to sell radioactive substances, reportedly uranium-235, in a covert operation in Almaty last year. RG

Prime Minister Igor Chudinov met on February 27 in Bishkek with a delegation of officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), led by Ron van Ruden and accompanied by David Owen, a senior official from the IMF's department of the Middle East and Central Asia, Kabar and AKIpress reported. After Chudinov briefed the IMF officials on the course of economic reforms, they discussed the implementation of the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility program for the country, with an added focus on the social impact of continued economic reforms and the danger of increased inflation. Chudinov also presented an overview of the details of the recently adopted 2008 state budget and said that his government has set a growth rate of 6 percent of GDP as a specific target for 2008. RG

A group of roughly 100 demonstrators on February 27 staged a protest in Dushanbe to draw attention to the cutoff of power and water in the city, Asia-Plus reported. The demonstrators complained that municipal government officials are not doing enough to help city residents deal with the effects of the country's now severe energy crisis. In August 2007, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon warned the public to "prepare" for major energy shortages through the coming winter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007), exacerbated by a shortfall this winter in supplies from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where reservoirs were so low that the output of hydroelectric power stations was seriously affected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2007). Over the past few years, Tajikistan has endured a severe energy crisis stemming from a chronic production shortfall in its own electrical generation and has turned to purchasing electricity from neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Dushanbe, Amriddin Shamsiddinov, the head of the labor-market monitoring and assessment department within the Tajik Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, promised on February 27 that the government will create over 240,000 new jobs by next year, Asia-Plus reported. Shamsiddinov explained that the implementation of the national employment program for 2008-09 will result in creating more than 185,000 jobs and "state-run enterprises" will create another 40,500 new jobs. He also asserted that since 1998, some "821,500 new jobs have been created in Tajikistan." Tajikistan's populaton is approximately 7 million. RG

Nearly 1,000 people attended on February 27 a requiem mass in a Minsk church in tribute to Iryna Kazulina, the wife of imprisoned former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Several hundred people attended her burial in the village of Tarasava near Minsk. Those present included many prominent figures, such as politicians Stanislau Shushkevich, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Syarhey Kalyakin, and Yury Khadyka, as well as U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart. The family wanted to bury Kazulina -- who died after a long fight with breast cancer and during her life contributed much to organizations working with cancer -- at the Minsk cemetery reserved for prominent figures, but the authorities did not give permission. For Kazulin, who was granted a three-day leave to attend his wife's funeral, the short period of freedom also became an occasion to relax and give the public his assessment of ongoing political processes. At an online conference arranged by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Kazulin confirmed that he has not been broken by prison and that he is ready to withstand even more pressure. 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 the public order. "Earlier, I was not a politician, but I have turned into one now after passing all these ordeals," Kazulin said the conference. "My goal is to serve my people and my Belarus. I will not spare anything for this, including my life. And these are not hollow words," he said. Kazulin suggested that the Belarusian authorities, if they consider his early release at all, will not release him before March 25, when the opposition intends to mark the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, which is regarded by pro-democratic Belarusians as a key event in the formation of Belarusian statehood in the 20th century. AM

A Minsk district court on February 27 fined small-business activists Alyaksandr Tstatsura and Viktar Kryval 1.75 million rubles ($817) each for allegedly disobeying "lawful orders of police officers," Belapan reported. The court also fined Tsatsura's wife and son 1.05 million rubles ($490) each on the same charge. The four were traveling on January 10 in Tsatsura's car to Minsk to take part in a demonstration against the presidential decree limiting the activities of certain small-business owners. The police stopped the car for violating traffic rules and took away Tsatsura's driving license. When they attempted to continue their trip on foot, the police arrested them and took to the police department in Minsk. Kryval's sentence was passed in absentia since he is serving a 15-day term for distributing "leaflets of an antigovernment nature." Meanwhile, the authorities are holding in pretrial detention Andrey Kim, a youth activist who was detained on January 21 and later sentenced to 10 days in jail for participation in an unsanctioned demonstration of small-business owners. After serving his term, Kim was not released but moved to pretrial detention and accused of threatening the police officer who detained him during the breakup of the January 21 demonstration. Investigator Zmitser Luhin has told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that on March 3 Kim will hear the evidence in his case. AM

Homel tax authorities have ordered opposition activist Kanstantsin Zhukouski to report his entire life's earnings, Belapan reported on February 27. The authorities are investigating the sources from which Zhukouski has bought his house and car. "To provide for my family, I traveled to work in Russia for several years. Now someone does not like the fact that I have a house. Would the government like it better if my wife, child, and I were homeless?" Zhukouski said. The authorities earlier fined Zhukouski 1.75 million rubles ($817) for failing to declare $2,000 in cash that was presented to him as a wedding gift from Ukraine in March 2005, declaring that he violated a presidential decree that requires "foreign gratuitous aid" to be registered with the presidential administration's humanitarian assistance office. "What if authorities discover that my aunt presented a baby carriage on my birth and I failed to declare it?" Zhukouski said. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on February 27 that tensions in Ukrainian-Russian gas relations have been eased for the time being, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The same day, Yushchenko was informed by First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov that Ukraine has paid in full gas debts incurred to the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom in 2007. Turchynov told Yushchenko that the government has settled the issue of debts incurred in 2006 and 2007 and that "as of January 1, 2008, there is no debt of the Ukrainian side to intermediaries [in gas supplies]." Turchynov also said that the government transferred the previous evening 2.2 billion hryvnyas ($435 million) to the intermediary companies as payment for natural gas delivered to Ukraine in 2007. "The only sum that was recognized by neither the Cabinet of Ministers nor Naftohaz Ukrayiny [the state-owned gas operator] are 414 million [hryvnyas ($82 million)] that we were fraudulently charged for gas consumed in 2006 at the price of 2007," Turchynov said. However, Gazprom, which recently threatened to reduce gas supplies to Ukraine by 25 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2008), regards the issue of gas supplies unregulated. "We cannot consider Ukraine's statements that it has paid its 2007 debts as a positive step for several reasons," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said on February 27. "First of all, the very fact that debts are paid back only after a threat to reduce supplies is not normal. Secondly, the payment of last year's debt is hardly an extraordinary measure. It is something that should be done unconditionally and regardless of the situation with the current gas supplies," Kupriyanov said. "The undocumented consumption of Russian and Central Asian gas in Ukraine continues to grow at this time. As for the current year, a number of contracts have not been signed yet and relations are still unregulated," he added. AM

President Yushchenko said on February 27 that he is neither ready nor willing to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada if it fails to meet within 30 days, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The opposition Party of Regions has blocked the parliament since Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk in mid-January sent a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer asking him to give Ukraine a Membership Action Plan at the alliance's summit in Bucharest in April. The Party of Regions has demanded the adoption of a resolution that any step by Ukraine toward membership in NATO should be preceded by a national referendum. The Verkhovna Rada in practice has remained deadlocked for more than 30 days, but formally, according to Ukrainian media, its last effective meeting was held on February 13. "I would not want to see again the Ukrainian parliament closed for several months. It would be a loss to the nation," Yushchenko said. Four parliamentary factions recently created a working group in order to sign a political agreement on March 3 and resume the work of the Verkhovna Rada the next day. AM

On February 27 in Brussels, Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych described the current political situation in Ukraine as "a dialogue aimed at the preservation of European values," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yanukovych also reiterated his party's position that the issue of Ukraine's possible NATO membership can be resolved only through a national referendum. Anna Herman of the Party of Regions announced in January that the party's representatives will formally ask NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer to withdraw from the agenda of the upcoming alliance summit in Bucharest the request by President Yushchenko, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, and speaker Yatsenyuk to give Ukraine a Membership Action Plan. However, NATO has not confirmed the meeting between Yanukovych and de Hoop Scheffer. AM

Serbian Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic said in Belgrade on February 27 that "we are planning to have our local police in Serbian [populated] towns in Kosovo," news agencies reported. He added that the planned move is part of the secret "action plan" that the government approved shortly before Kosova declared independence on February 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and 28, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). All Serbian security forces withdrew from Kosova in 1999 as part of an agreement between Belgrade and NATO. Milan Ivanovic, who is leader of the Kosova-based Serbian National Council, said in northern Mitrovica on February 27 that his group "calls on Russia to return its KFOR contingent, to stabilize the situation in areas where Serbs are in the majority," news agencies reported. Russia supplied a contingent of troops to KFOR from 1999-2003. In Gjilan, Ismet Hashani, who is regional spokesman for the multiethnic police force, said on February 27 that "the majority of Kosova Serb police officers in the Gjilan region have not shown up for work this morning." He did not elaborate. In Brussels on February 27, NATO spokesman James Appathurai described the situation in Kosova as "obviously tense and volatile, but...relatively calm." He stressed that NATO has "the necessary forces in place, and forces have been moved into the deal with what is obviously a particularly sensitive situation in that area." PM

' Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica sent a message on February 27 to Serbian protesters in northern Mitrovica expressing support and solidarity, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He said that Kosova's declaration of independence was "worse" than the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia under the 1938 Munich agreement. Kostunica also said in Belgrade on February 27 that "as a nation and a state, we will put up resistance every day until the United States is convinced that the rule of international law must be reestablished in the Balkans and the illegal declaration of the fake state [of Kosova] is annulled," news agencies reported. He added that "it is possible that America thought...[that] Serbs are a minor nation. But Serbia will prevail, step by step, and it will win in the end" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). PM

The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade reopened on February 27 after being stormed by a mob and partially damaged by fire on February 21, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 25, 2008). Spokeswoman Rian Harris said 50 out of 75 staff remain in the building, the remainder and many dependents having been evacuated to Croatia. She added that the embassy will not issue visas because the part of the building where the consulate was located was destroyed. She said that it's "also a matter of safety. We have to be sure that not only our American and local staff are going to be safe, but also the visa applicants when they come to the consular section." Serbian citizens wanting U.S. visas can apply at the U.S. Embassy in Zagreb. The German news agency dpa reported from Belgrade on February 27 that the German Embassy closed its consulate and will not issue visas again until told to do so by Berlin. The reasons for the German decision are unclear, nor is it clear if Serbian citizens will be able to seek German Schengen visas at German embassies in third countries. Up until the end of the communist era, Yugoslavs had what was arguably the most enviable passport in Europe because they could travel to both the East and the West without visas. The visa requirements currently in force for almost all European countries constitute possibly the most painful proof of what many former Yugoslavs regard as their second-class status in today's Europe and have become an important political issue in the successor states. PM

The international Peace Implementation Council for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which includes the EU, United States, and Russia, agreed in Brussels on February 27 to extend the mandate of the high representative, who currently is Slovakia's Miroslav Lajcak, until Bosnia meets certain key conditions, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The goals it must meet are determining the status of state and military property, attaining fiscal sustainability, and more firmly establishing rule of law by instituting judicial reform, laws on asylum, and a coherent strategy for dealing with war crimes. Lajcak said in Brussels on February 27 that "Kosovo does have an impact [on Bosnia], at least in creating an atmosphere throughout the region. At the same time, Bosnia is not a hostage to Kosovo, and there is no excuse to use Kosovo [as a blueprint] for Bosnia's own problems or setbacks. Bosnia's destiny is in the hands of Bosnia-Herzegovina's [own] representatives." PM

Bobomurod Mavlonov quickly joined his family in the central Uzbek city of Navoi after spending 2 1/2 years in an Uzbek prison for charges that he says were politically motivated. He says his release was a big surprise. "I returned to my family on the same day" that prison authorities told him of his release. One of them accompanied me -- he brought me home. I am resting now. I should get some medical treatment."

The 62-year-old Mavlonov was one of more than two dozen human rights activists who had criminal charges brought against them in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown against protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005, when security forces shot dead hundreds of demonstrators.

He was convicted of corruption and abuse of office. Mavlonov, a member of the Erk opposition party, said the charges were trumped up. But he and four other activists -- Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, Dilmurod Muhitdinov, Ikhtior Hamraev, and Bahodir Mukhtarov -- were freed from prison on February 2-4, on the eve of a key meeting in Tashkent between European Union and Uzbek officials on February 5.

Umida Niyazova, who was serving a suspended prison term, was also amnestied on February 3. Niyazova links her amnesty with international pressure exerted on the Uzbek government and a current "thaw" in relations between Uzbekistan and the West. "I was amnestied, although a month earlier I received a formal refusal" from the authorities, she says. "Therefore I am absolutely positive that there is a direct link between my amnesty and international relations."

But other activists are skeptical about the releases, saying they are merely window dressing and that they don't signal any true change in the Uzbek government's abysmal human rights policy.

Dadakhon Hasan is a dissident singer and poet who was given a three-year suspended sentence in 2006 for writing and performing a song about the events in Andijon. He says the release of other prisoners whom Uzbek President Islam Karimov considers his "enemies" is highly unlikely. "They will not release those who they consider dangerous [for the regime]. Many are set free after they beg [Karimov's] pardon," Hasan says. "Others refuse to ask for a pardon. Their release is out of sight in my opinion."

The EU welcomed the move to release the prisoners. It also noted that a number of other human rights defenders are still jailed in Uzbekistan and it called for their immediate release.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called for the further release of more than a dozen activists. Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW's advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, says the release of the six rights activists is "extremely significant" and demonstrates that sustained international pressure on Tashkent works. "These releases show that international pressure sustained over time on the Uzbek government can be effective in securing concrete progress in human rights," Goldston says. "This proves that the sanctions policy that the EU has in place has the potential to trigger positive change."

Goldston points out that more than a dozen other rights activists remain behind bars and "there is more that needs to be done." She continues: "These are significant initial steps that really show that the sanctions work as an effective leverage on the Uzbek government and it sends a message that the EU needs to maintain pressure and secure the release of all the other prisoners who are behind bars on account of their human rights work." Goldston says the EU should maintain the pressure on Tashkent and "not give away the leverage prematurely."

Some observers believe the arrest on February 19 of Deputy Prosecutor-General Anvar Nabiev -- who was responsible for the prosecution of many of those imprisoned after the Andijon events -- is also the result of EU pressure.

The release of the jailed activists was one of the EU's demands outlined in a declaration adopted by EU foreign ministers in October 2007. The EU came under fire after it suspended a visa ban on top Uzbek officials in October. Uzbek and international human rights groups accused Brussels of being "too soft" and also putting energy and geopolitical interests ahead of human rights and democracy.

The EU imposed the visa ban and a weapons embargo on Uzbekistan in October 2005 in response to the bloodshed at Andijon. The suspension of the visa ban came with a list of tough conditions attached to it.

Among the conditions the Uzbek government has yet to meet are full access by international bodies to the remaining prisoners, access to Uzbekistan for UN special rapporteurs, and the ability of nongovernmental organizations -- including HRW -- to operate freely in the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been trying to get access to Uzbek prisons for years. The committee's representative -- who spoke to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity -- said the ICRC has been engaged in negotiations with the Uzbek government but has not yet been granted access to the prisons.

There is speculation that the EU will not reinstate the visa ban when EU foreign ministers review it in late April, despite the Uzbek government's failure to meet most of the conditions needed for the ban to be waived.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted its own initiative report on an EU strategy for Central Asia on February 20. The report noted "the slowness of implementation" of the EU's 2007 strategy for Central Asia. Members of the European Parliament also called on the European Council and the European Commission to "ensure that human rights issues should carry equal weight with the EU's robust approach to energy, security, and trade."

(Gulnoza Saidazimova is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

In testimony before the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee on February 27, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said that the resurgent Taliban controls about 10 percent of Afghanistan's territory, AFP reported the same day. McConnell added that more than six years after U.S. forces toppled the Taliban government in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government controls just "30, 31 percent" of the country and the rest is under the control of local tribes. Lieutenant General Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, added, "We believe that Al-Qaeda has expanded its support to the Afghan insurgency." Maples added that Pakistani efforts to assert control over the border region where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are thought to train and regroup have had "limited effect." AT

Two Polish soldiers patrolling in eastern Afghanistan were killed on February 26 by a roadside bomb, AP reported on February 27. They were killed in the Sharan district of Paktika Province, according to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. The two soldiers were identified as Corporal Szymon Slowik and Private Hubert Kowalewski. Despite the latest deaths, which bring the number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan to 21 this year, U.S. military officials insisted the province has made great progress since the deployment of foreign troops. Roads have been built and more children go to school, officials said. Meanwhile, according to unconfirmed information received by her employer, a U.S. aid worker and her Afghan colleague have been killed, AFP reported on February 27. A statement posted on the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation's website on February 26 said, "We are deeply grieved to report the apparent deaths of Mohammad Hadi and Cyd Mizell, who were kidnapped on January 26 in Kandahar, Afghanistan." Their disappearance has remained a mystery as no group, including the Taliban, has claimed to have abducted them. AT

Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel survived a rocket attack and ambush on February 27 by suspected Taliban insurgents east of Kabul, Reuters reported the same day, citing a ministry official. Moqbel was traveling through the Tangi Abrishim area of Laghman Province when his convoy was attacked with a single rocket, followed with small-arms fire. Moqbel's guards returned fire, but there were no reports of casualties. AT

Former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hasan Rohani sharply criticized the foreign-policy stance and diplomatic style of the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on February 27, and called for "flexibility" on Iran's part instead of "slogans," Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Rohani is a moderately conservative cleric and was Iran's chief international negotiator on its nuclear program for several years until the start of the Ahmadinejad presidency in mid-2005. He now represents Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the Supreme National Security Council, as does Ali Larijani, another former nuclear negotiator. Rohani said foreign policy "does not mean slogans. [Iran] cannot build a wall around itself, and has to show flexibility in foreign policy." Radio Farda observed that his criticism came a day after Khamenei publicly thanked Ahmadinejad for his contribution to advancing Iran's nuclear program. Rohani said there seem to be many contradictions in the foreign-policy stances of Iranian politicians. "One day," he said, politicians say that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Muhammad el-Baradei is right in everything he said about Iran, and "another day" they argue that he should not be let into the country. Rohani said there is no consensus in the political class in some policy areas. "At one point they were saying, 'you are sitting talking to the infidel West, do not talk to them, they are traitors,' and another day they were saying, 'these Western spies are so good, what a good report they have given.'" He was referring to the U.S. intelligence community's collective report in December 2007, which concluded that Iran probably halted its suspected nuclear weapons program in 2003. Rohani said that states are interconnected, and "we cannot say we want to make progress and then say we will have nothing to do with the world." He was likewise critical of the government's implementation of middle- and long-term development plans: "some officials want power, not development," he said. This is not the first such criticism of government policies by Rohani or other prominent former officials, while Ahmadinejad has responded with his own accusations against officials of preceding administrations -- ranging from "passivity" in foreign policy and alleged submission to Western demands in the nuclear sector, to corruption and cronyism at home. Like his ally, former President and now Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Rohani is a conservative who has in the past three years moved to the political center -- and into the ranks of the Ahmadinejad government's critics. VS

An unidentified diplomat told AFP in New York on February 27 that UN Security Council members are still discussing details of the proposed text of a third set of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. The diplomat said amendments may be needed to win the support of all council members (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26 and 27, 2008). Iran has ignored two resolutions and demands by Western powers to stop uranium enrichment, which they suspect could be used to produce weapons. The diplomat told AFP the Security Council will not vote on the text on February 29, but probably in subsequent days, and indicated that council members Indonesia, Libya, South Africa, and Vietnam have reservations about the current draft. The five permanent members of the Security Council are agreed on the text and reportedly confident of getting the nine votes required to pass the resolution, in the absence of a unanimous vote. VS

Russia -- with which Iran has good working relations, including in its nuclear program -- has stated it will back sanctions if Iran does not halt work on uranium enrichment within days (see Part I), news agencies reported on February 27. Uranium enrichment is part of the nuclear fuel-making process. Russia's ambassador at the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said in New York that Russia has committed itself to support sanctions if Iran continues uranium enrichment. The new sanctions will likely slap travel bans and asset freezes on an increased number of Iranian officials and firms thought to be involved in the nuclear and ballistic programs. Churkin said that "it's not punishment" but a "strategy to express" the international community's displeasure "at the lack of political reaction from Iran," AFP reported. VS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili told Japan's NHK television in an interview in Tehran on February 27 that Iran will not bow to UN sanctions resolutions and will "continue its uranium-enrichment program," IRNA reported. He said the IAEA has agreed to supervise Iran's program, and Iran would respond with unspecified measures to another round of sanctions. Jalili said the economies of countries imposing sanctions on Iran would suffer, and he asked Japan not to follow U.S. moves to impose sanctions on Iran. VS

Ayatollah Khamenei said in Tehran on February 27 that "the language of the superpowers and America is the language of threats and intimidation," and he called for unity among Islamic states to counter this intimidation, IRNA reported. Khamenei told visiting Senegalese President Abdulaye Wade that the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have earned it "the hatred of nations," and it has found out that military victory "is not really a victory, and the Americans are in the true sense of the world stuck and helpless in the region." Khamenei said Islamic states should stop thinking that they need Western powers' help for their progress. VS

Iraqi Director of Intelligence Muhammad Abdallah al-Shahwani has accused Iranian intelligence of trying to abort the formation of awakening councils in Iraq, Iraqi and pan-Arabic news channels reported on February 27. Al-Shahwani said in a statement released the same day that Iraqi intelligence information confirms that Iranian agents were sent to Iraq to obstruct the formation of awakening councils, coalitions of local tribesmen established to fight Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents. Al-Shahwani called on Iraqi security personnel to treat information provided by the public regarding Iranian interference with patriotism and professionalism. Al-Shahwani previously accused Iran of assassinating 20 Iraqi intelligence officers, according to Al-Arabiyah television. Meanwhile, Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad al-Wa'ili has reportedly retracted a claim that Iranian agents were plotting to assassinate him and his brother, Iraqi media reported on February 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Al-Wa'ili told reporters in Al-Basrah on February 27 that he welcoms next week's visit by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, which he predicted will improve relations. KR

Iraqi officials, including President Jalal Talabani, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi, met with Turkish envoy Ahmet Davutoglu in Baghdad on February 27 to discuss the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, Iraqi media reported. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Zebari said Iraq has "made it clear that we do not want the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] to poison the relations between the two governments and two peoples.... However, the foreign military presence of a neighboring country in our territory and the violation of our sovereignty are unacceptable under international law. We understand all of Turkey's pretexts and justifications...but the presence of military troops in Iraqi territories is unacceptable." Davutoglu told reporters that no timetable will be set for the withdrawal of Turkish troops. The Turkish government said last week the operation would last 15 days. Meanwhile, several demonstrations in support of the Kurds are planned in cities across Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria between February 28 and March 6, according to Kurdish websites. Each of those European countries has a sizeable Kurdish and Turkish population. KR

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Turkish military and political leaders in Ankara on February 28. Speaking to reporters following a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Vecdi Gonul, Gates said: "The United States believes the current offensive should be as short and precisely targeted as possible." Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit told reporters that Turkey's fight against the PKK is long-term, AP reported. "Short-term is a relative notion. Sometimes it is a day, sometimes it is a year," NTV and CNN-Turk quoted Buyukanit as saying. He said Gates reacted to the Turkish position with "understanding." "We have been struggling against terrorism for 24 years. That is why our struggle against terrorism will continue. The United States is also struggling against terrorism. It has been in Afghanistan for years," Buyukanit said. KR

The Presidency Council vetoed the governorates law on February 27, sending it back to parliament for amendment, Iraqi media reported. According to a statement issued by the council, the three members, President Talabani and Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashimi and Adil Abd al-Mahdi, could not reach a unanimous decision on the law. The council asked that the parliament address the articles in question, which the council said may contradict the constitution. At issue are provisions in the law that allow the prime minister to remove governors from office. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), to which Abd al-Mahdi belongs, wants more power to rest in the hands of governorate councils. Detractors say the veto is a ploy to delay governorate elections, currently slated for October. It is expected that both Shi'ite and Sunni parties currently in power will lose control over governorate councils in those elections to newer parties. The parties took control over the governorate councils in 2005, although few can claim any real support on the ground. In governorates like Diyala, where there is a mixed Sunni-Shi'ite Arab population, the governorate council is controlled by Shi'ite parties, though the population is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. In Al-Anbar, tribesmen -- who until recently boycotted the political process -- are expected to win a majority in the October elections and displace the Iraqi Accordance Front from the council. In the south, representatives of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are expected to displace rival Shi'ite parties, such as the ISCI, from governorate councils. The Presidency Council said on February 27 that it does not expect elections to be delayed in light of the veto, but "The New York Times" reported on February 28 that even if the law is approved, parliament must fill vacant election commission seats and approve an elections law before they can organize the vote. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki returned to Baghdad on February 27 after medical tests in London determined he is in good health, Iraqi media reported the same day. Aides to al-Maliki said cardiac tests went well. Health Ministry Director-General Adil Muhsin told Reuters, "The doctor told [al-Maliki] that he could now do anything, including playing sport," the news agency reported on February 28. KR

Salih al-Ubaydi, an aide to Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr, told the London-based "Al-Hayat" this week that al-Sadr intends to turn his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, into a humanitarian organization, the daily reported on February 27. The group intends to follow the example of the ISCI, which transformed its armed wing, the Badr Corps, into the humanitarian-oriented Badr Organization in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2003). "The interest at this time requires the Al-Mahdi Army to turn into a civilian humanitarian organization that serves society," al-Ubaydi said. "The Al-Mahdi Army was originally an ideological organization but took up arms to defend itself." He said that the organization will consider anyone carrying weapons to be outside the organization. Al-Sadr announced last week that he will extend the decision to freeze the activities of the Al-Mahdi Army for another six months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). KR