Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - February 29, 2008

President Vladimir Putin on February 29 appeared on national television to urge Russians to participate in the March 2 presidential election, Russian media reported. "The movement of Russia forward must not be stopped and the changes for the better must be continued," Putin said, using the campaign slogan of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev -- "Russia, Forward!" "Who will bring to the post of head of state real benefit for millions of people, for all the citizens of our great motherland," Putin said. "In these days everyone has the chance independently to answer these questions and, at the election for the president of Russia, make their conscious choice." RC

The Communist Party intends to mobilize 500,000 people to monitor the voting in the March 2 presidential election, ITAR-TASS reported on February 28. "The party will conduct a parallel vote count using electronic means and an analysis of all the data we receive from our observers, from polling stations, and from territorial and regional commissions, and from the Central Election Commission," party leader and presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov was quoted as saying. The Communists have also organized some 150 lawyers nationwide to assist in the monitoring and analysis. The party carried out similar monitoring of the December 2 Duma elections, but all their efforts to challenge the official results of those polls were rejected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2007). Lilia Shabanova, head of the independent NGO Golos, told RFE/RL on February 28 that her organization has been barred from officially monitoring the elections, although some representatives will be allowed access to polling stations as correspondents for the NGO's small newspaper. The group plans to concentrate its monitoring in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh, and Chelyabinsk. RC

Two Russian bloggers, chemist Maksim Pshenichnikov and one who goes by the name of Podmoskovnik, have published an analysis of the official results of the December 2 Duma elections that "offer mathematical proof of either election fraud or extremely anomalous voter behavior," "The Moscow Times" reported on February 29. "It is a study that explicitly demonstrates that the results were manipulated," economist Konstantin Sonin told the daily. If the results were normal, one would expect to see a graph of the vote form a standard bell curve peaking at the official turnout figure of 63 percent. According to the latest analysis, the statistics begin to form such a curve, which peaks at 51 percent and then continues across with major spikes at 60, 70, 80, 90, and even 100 percent. In fact, more polling stations reported turnouts of 100 percent than reported the "real" average of 51 percent. The analysts believe that the unusual curve and the spikes at the round numbers are clear indications of fraud. Moreover, a graph of the percentages that each polling station reported for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party -- which according to official results won a constitutional majority in the Duma -- is nearly identical to the graph of overall turnout. According to the bloggers, Unified Russia should have won 277 seats in the Duma instead of the 315 it was awarded. The Communist Party should have had 73 (instead of 57), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia should have had 51 seats (instead of 40), and A Just Russia should have been given 49 seats instead of 38. ""Kommersant"" reported last week that officials in Primorsky Krai have been ordered to ensure a 65 percent result for First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev on March 2, while "Vyatsky nablyudatel" reported in January that officials in Kirov Oblast have been told to ensure 80 percent for Medvedev. RC

Former independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on February 29 that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev is not a representative of a new generation of Russian politicians because of his 17 years of close work with President Putin and his eight years at the highest echelons of the current administration. Ryzhkov said that as a part of that administration, Medvedev shares "its general responsibility for the destruction of freedom of speech, for the destruction of the opposition parties, for the falsification of elections, for the redistribution of private property, and, in general, for the establishment of an authoritarian political regime." Ryzhkov said Medvedev's main task will be to "maintain the status quo," and he predicted that Putin will serve as Medvedev's prime minister throughout the latter's presidency. "In my opinion, all these conversations about a thaw, about a conflict [between Medvedev and Putin]...are simply groundless." RC

U.S. President George W. Bush said in Washington on February 28 that he does not "know much about [First Deputy Prime Minister] Medvedev," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2008). Bush added that he is interested to see who will represent Russia at this year's summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries in Hokkaido, Japan, on July 7-9. At that time, Medvedev is expected to be president, while President Putin may well be prime minister. Bush said that, when he himself leaves office in January 2009, "I want to try to leave it so whoever my successor is will be able to have a relationship with whoever's running foreign policy in Russia. That doesn't mean that we have to agree all the time, and obviously we didn't agree on Kosovo." Bush stressed that "there are areas where we need to cooperate." He said that his advice to his successor is to "establish a personal relationship with whoever's in charge of foreign policy in Russia." The daily "Kommersant" wrote on February 28 that Medvedev's recent comment that he hopes the next U.S. president will be someone who does not always propagate old-style views that border on the moronic was a subtle endorsement of Senator Barrack Obama (Democrat, Illinois). PM

President Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany oversaw the signing in Moscow on February 28 of an agreement pledging Hungarian participation in Gazprom's planned South Stream gas pipeline project, which is widely seen as a rival to the EU's projected Nabucco, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28 and February 27, 2008). Under the terms of the deal, Gazprom and a yet-unnamed Hungarian state company will hold equal shares in the project. Russia will also build a 1 billion-cubic-meter gas-storage facility in Hungary. "The Moscow Times" on February 29 quoted Gyurcsany as saying that "Hungary realized that it had no alternative to cooperation with Russia." He added that Budapest has yet to receive a firm offer to participate in Nabucco. The paper noted that "Putin was derisive about alternatives to South Stream, saying that while it was possible to join another project, 'it is worse than working with Russia.... You can build two, three, or five gas pipelines. The question is what products you pump through them and where you get them.' In an even blunter put-down, Putin also said: 'If someone wants to poke the ground to bury iron there in the form of pipes, please do, we don't mind.'" He added nonetheless that Russia "is not competing with anything." The daily noted that "Nabucco is widely seen as a potential rival to South Stream because both pipelines will transit almost the same European countries, have identical capacity, and plan to come on-stream in 2013." "The Moscow Times" on February 29 quoted U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried as saying recently that "now is not the time for our attention to be diverted by South Stream, a pipeline that will be at least three times more expensive than Nabucco, and that is designed by a monopolist to stifle competition." The paper also quoted Gergely Boszormenyi Nagy, an analyst with Budapest's Perspective Institute, as saying that Gazprom wants bilateral agreements with individual countries and not with the EU as a whole (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). PM

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), who heads the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said on February 28 that Russia's conduct of the upcoming presidential election is glaring evidence of its strong democracy deficit, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on February 29. He criticized as naive and unjustifiable recent remarks by Foreign Ministry State Secretary Gernot Erler of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who said that Russia is justified in setting the terms for foreign monitoring of the presidential vote as "any other Western country" has the right to do. PM

Presidential Property Fund manager Vladimir Kozhin was quoted by the daily "Kommersant" on February 29 as saying that the Presidential Affairs Department will reconstruct the villa of former German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck near Kaliningrad as a state residency. Only four crumbling walls remain of the original villa, so the new structure will be an almost total reconstruction, he added. Kozhin said that the structure will be completed by 2009 and used for international conferences, including those involving Russian relations with the EU. PM

Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service personnel surrounded in a house in Nazran's Gamurziyevo district on February 28 and killed five suspected militants, including a woman, who had taken refuge there, reported. Later that day, police confronted three suspects, all of them women, in Altiyevo Raion to the northwest. One of them, subsequently identified as Madina Ausheva, a resident of the Kartsa district of neighboring North Ossetia, detonated a grenade, killing herself; the other two died of injuries received in the shoot-out. The website quoted the republic's Interior Ministry as having identified Ausheva as one of the organizers of the violent standoff between police and would-be rally participants in Nazran on January 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). LF.

Makhmud Sakalov told Interfax on February 27 he sees no need to install video cameras at polling stations in Ingushetia during the March 2 elections for a new Russian president and republican parliament, reported on February 28. Sakalov argued that voter turnout during elections will be adequately monitored by those persons empowered by Russian election legislation to do so, and by representatives of the four political parties competing for seats in the parliament. He added that Russian law does not provide for installing video equipment, and that it is in fact technically impossible to do so at all polling stations. Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov advocated special measures to monitor voter turnout in Ingushetia to prelude any doubts as to the accuracy of the final turnout figure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). After the Ingushetian authorities reported voter turnout of 98 percent in the December 2007 State Duma elections, over half the electorate signed formal statements saying they did not cast ballots. Meanwhile, in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic, on February 29 quoted election officials as saying they anticipate a far higher turnout for the Russian presidential ballot than the 92 percent registered during the elections to the Russian State Duma. But on February 27 reported that Karachayevo-Cherkessia has been allocated only 293,730 ballot papers, some 7,000 fewer than the current number of registered voters. LF

Daghestan's Supreme Court has acquitted Sultan Arslangereyev of the murder in February 2007 of Dagir Kachayev, the imam of one of Makhachkala's mosques, and "Kommersant" reported on February 28 and 29, respectively. The prosecution claimed that Arslangereyev was tasked with the killing by the leader of a group of Islamic radicals of which he was said to be a member. Arslangereyev told the court he confessed to the killing after law enforcement officials in May 2007 abducted him and his wife, who at that time was five months pregnant. Arslangereyev's lawyer highlighted numerous contradictions in the prosecution's case. LF

Taymuraz Mamsurov issued a formal statement on February 27 deploring the February 17 declaration by Kosova of its independence, reported. He termed the subsequent international recognition of Kosova "a demonstration of the supremacy of the law of force over the force of law," and as part of an international policy of double standards intended to discredit "those unrecognized states that, unlike Kosova, base their demands for independence" on serious historical and legal arguments. Mamsurov further argued that the campaign by Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia for self-determination was not "separatist," but geared toward "preserving the possibilities for development within a single political-legal space" with North Ossetia, which is a Russian Federation subject. He expressed concern that the argument that Kosova must not be regarded as setting a precedent for other unrecognized republics could herald new violence on the part of Georgia against South Ossetia and Abkhazia with the aim of coercing the two territories to agree to remain part of the Georgian state, and he appealed to "all sides interested in a lasting solution to the conflicts in the Caucasus" to take specific measures to avert any such violence. LF

Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who continues to insist that he won the February 19 presidential ballot with 65 percent of the vote, told tens of thousands of supporters in Yerevan on February 28 that "the fate of democracy in Armenia is in the hands of the West," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He argued that "the West, the election [observation] missions, must not display a formalistic attitude to what is happening in Armenia," but choose "whether to support the people of Armenia, democracy, and the rule of law," or alternatively "Armenia's rotten, kleptocratic regime." The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and EU election-observation mission noted irregularities during the voting, including intimidation, attempted vote-buying, and ballot-box stuffing, and also during the vote count, but nonetheless concluded that the election was "conducted mostly in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008). According to both the preliminary results made public on February 20 and the final results released on February 24, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian won the election with almost 53 percent of the vote, while Ter-Petrossian placed second with 21.5 percent. On February 27, Ter-Petrossian met in Yerevan with the EU special ambassador to the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, and told him that he intends to "fight to the end," but act exclusively within the framework of the constitution and law. Also on February 28, Armenia's National Security Service acknowledged that two of its personnel were apprehended by Ter-Petrossian supporters on Liberty Square, the center of the ongoing protests, the previous day; the two men were handed over to police. Meanwhile, Eduard Sharmazanov, a lawmaker representing Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia, told journalists that the defeated presidential candidates who have responded positively to Sarkisian's appeal for constructive cooperation include opposition Orinats Yerkir party Chairman and former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who placed third with 16.69 percent of the vote, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

On the final leg of his tour of the South Caucasus, OSCE Chairman in Office and Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva met in Baku on February 28 with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, and reported. Their talks focused on the Karabakh conflict, the Azerbaijani presidential election due in October, and a planned visit to Finland by President Aliyev in May. Kanerva described as "a priority for me" the OSCE engagement in mediating a solution to the Karabakh conflict, adding that such a solution must respect Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. He called for speeding up the negotiation process, stressing that the conflict can be resolved only by peaceful means. Kanerva said that he does not support proposals to transfer responsibility for mediation from the OSCE's Minsk Group to the UN. Kanerva also met in Baku with representatives of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party and several opposition parties to assess the progress of democratic reforms and discuss the upcoming presidential election, which he stressed must be "just and democratic," according to on February 29. LF

Two police officers were killed on February 28 and some 15-20 people injured when a television set that two men were trying to transport through a police post in the village of Dmenis in South Ossetia's Tskhinvali Raion exploded, Russian media reported. The explosion occurred after the two men, both said to be Georgians, left to retrieve missing documentation. Eduard Kokoity, the unrecognized republic's de facto president, and its Interior Minister, Mikhail Mindzayev, both described the explosion as an act of terrorism and blamed it on Georgian security services. Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili has accused the South Ossetian side of refusing access to Georgian and OSCE officials who wanted to investigate the blast, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze said on February 28 that intensive diplomatic negotiations are under way to try to secure the release of Malkhaz Basilaia, a Georgian journalist with the independent Mze television channel detained on February 26 by Abkhaz militia, apparently for entering the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia illegally, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). De facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba was quoted on February 29 by the Georgian daily "Rezonansi" as saying that after UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbor visited Basilaia in detention in Sukhum(i) on February 27 the Abkhaz authorities were about to release him, but "it became impossible" to do so after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili threatened military action against Abkhazia. Meanwhile, Kristian Bzhania, who is Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh's spokesman, told on February 29 that he finds it strange that the Georgian authorities are demanding only the release of Basilaia and not that of two other Georgians detained with him. LF

Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died suddenly of heart failure at his home in the United Kingdom on February 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13 and 14, 2008), was buried on February 28 in the grounds of his Tbilisi mansion, Georgian media reported. Reuters estimated that several thousand people congregated to pay their last respects to Patarkatsishvili, whom the Georgian authorities implicated late last year in an alleged coup plot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 28, 2007); he subsequently placed third in the preterm presidential ballot on January 5. According to Eurasia View, the mourners included U.S. Ambassador John Tefft, Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, Georgian Foreign Minister Bakradze, and Integration Minister Yakobashvili. In Israel, Patarkatsishvili's close friend, exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, accused Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of "cowardice" in light of the Georgian authorities' refusal to grant him a visa to attend Patarkatsishvili's funeral, Caucasus Press reported. LF

In Astana, the Kazakh Emergency Situations Ministry announced on February 28 the crash of a helicopter belonging to Kazaviaspas, the Kazakh air-rescue service, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The ministry statement said that the Mi-8 helicopter crashed in the Zhalagash district of the southern Kyzylorda region, killing five of the 17 passengers and crew, Kazinform reported. The helicopter was conducting an early-morning official inspection of "the ice condition on the River Syr Darya." According to local police, Kyzylorda Governor Mukhtar Kul-Muhammed was among the passengers and was transferred to the intensive-care unit of a local hospital with injuries sustained in the crash. Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Valery Petrov was named to lead the official investigation into the crash. RG

At a city council meeting in Almaty, General Nurzhan Myrzaliev, the head of the Almaty division of the National Security Committee (KNB), announced on February 27 that the espionage trial of two local residents and an unidentified "foreign citizen" has ended with their convictions, Kazakhstan Today reported. Myrzaliev added that the "two residents of Almaty...were engaged in collecting and delivering secret information to a foreign country." The closed trial, which was conducted by a special military court, handed down an 11-year prison sentence to the unidentified "foreign spy," but it was unclear if the two Kazakh citizens were sentenced. RG

The Tajik parliament adopted on February 27 a new law on the post of state human rights ombudsman, Asia-Plus reported. The new ombudsman or "human rights commissioner" law was presented by Zarif Alizoda, the presidential adviser on legal issues, and set a five-year term for the post. Deputies adopted the law in a unanimous vote that stipulated that the parliament must approve the ombudsman, but they rejected a motion by Islamic Rebirth Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri proposing that the ombudsman be elected by the parliament, rather than appointed by the president. RG

Alyaksandr Kazulin, an imprisoned former presidential candidate who was granted a three-day leave to attend the funeral of his wife, returned on February 28 to the prison near Vitsebsk as required (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2008), Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. At a press conference arranged by Belapan just before his return to prison, Kazulin made several final assessments of his short period of freedom. He said he forgives Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for everything. "My family forgives him for everything. Let it remain on his conscience what he has done," Kazulin said. "Whatever we may wish, Lukashenka is part of our history. And despite many sins that the present-day authorities have committed, they have a chance to pause and think." Kazulin also said that he no longer intends to go on hunger strike, arguing that his supporters who attended the wife's funeral asked him not to do so. "They came up to me, expressed their condolences, and said that I should not declare a hunger strike, as they need me to be alive," he said. Kazulin confirmed that he was offered a release from prison on condition that he leave Belarus and no longer be involved in politics. Kazulin said that German Ambassador to Belarus Gebhardt Weiss played a significant role in making this offer and was "very sincere in his intention to help." According to Kazulin, it was suggested at the highest government level that he should travel to Germany together with his family, where the best possible conditions would be offered to them. "It was unclear in what status I was to go to Germany," Kazulin said. "I was told that this matter would be settled later, and that there might be a new amnesty. They also said that I might be allowed to return after half a year or a year." However, Kazulin denied that his wife was offered treatment in Germany. Lukashenka previously announced that the authorities offered Kazulin the chance to accompany his wife for treatment to Germany, but Kazulin rejected the offer. Kazulin said he will not leave Belarus. "I will try to bear all the tribulations and hardships of our modern reality that our people are undergoing," he said. Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 presidential election, was arrested during the subsequent antigovernment demonstrations and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed public order. AM

At a February 28 government conference, President Lukashenka severely criticized the performance of the construction sector, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. He described the development of the sector as an utter failure. He admitted that the sector performed rather well last year, but there is still a "huge plethora of problems that are not being solved." Lukashenka noted "pricing problems" at all stages of construction, a lack of funds for modernization programs, and a shortage of skilled labor. He warned the Council of Ministers and top regional officials that 2008 should see a dramatic improvement in the performance of all sectors of the economy, and primarily the construction sector. "There are massive complaints from the population about problems in the construction sector," Lukashenka said. "We cannot be satisfied with either the pace or quality or price of construction in Belarus." AM

At least 450 participants -- state leaders, representatives of the European Union, businesses, political parties, scientific centers, nongovernmental organizations, and media -- are taking part in a second Europe-Ukraine forum held on February 28 and 29 in Kyiv, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. In an opening address to forum participants, President Viktor Yushchenko defined Ukraine's main tasks in 2008 as "associative membership" in the European Union, as well as constitutional reform, adoption of anticorruption legislation, and further economic development. Yushchenko also stressed the necessity of the diversification of routes through which energy resources are delivered to Europe, noting the significant role of the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk pipeline in this context. Yushchenko described the ongoing political crisis in the Verkhovna Rada, which has been deadlocked for several weeks, as based on "artificial circumstances" and said that it will soon be over. "The Ukrainian parliament will resume effective work and demonstrate to the market, first of all the business market, its political stability," Yushchenko told the forum. "In other words, there is no reason for dramatizing [the situation], but lessons should be learned," he added. AM

Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the opposition Party of Regions that has blocked the Ukrainian parliament for several weeks, said on February 28 in Brussels that he sees two ways to overcome the ongoing political crisis: either reforming the ruling coalition, or early parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yanukovych suggested that even if the Verkhovna Rada resumes working normally, the government's majority of two seats is insufficient to pass legislation. The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS), which formed the coalition following the early parliamentary elections in September 2007, control 227 of the 450 seats. Yanukovych also reiterated his party's warning that it will block parliament until the issue of Ukraine's possible NATO membership is resolved. Taras Chornovil of the Party of Regions recently told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the government's steps toward NATO are not the main issue for his party. He said that his party is blocking parliament in an attempt to bring about changes in the ruling coalition in its favor. AM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in an interview with Russia's state-run English-language television channel Russia Today on February 28 that Belgrade will not continue talks with the EU or accept membership in that organization unless the EU acknowledges that Kosova is part of Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He argued that "for us...[it is] clear [that] when it comes to any further negotiations on EU membership, it means for us only Serbia with Kosovo." PM

Serbia's Justice Ministry said in a statement on February 28 that it has formally asked Russia to extradite Mirjana Markovic, who is the widow of President Slobodan Milosevic, and their son Marko Milosevic, Serbian media reported. Serbia previously issued international arrest warrants through Interpol for the two, who are wanted for fraud in connection with an alleged cigarette-smuggling ring that operated during the 1990s. Also on February 28, Interfax quoted a spokesman for the Russian Federal Migration Service as saying in Moscow that "Russia has no reason...[under] international conventions and agreements to extradite them. We will not extradite them. They were granted refugee status in Russia." Officials of the Migration Service recently confirmed that the two received refugee status in 2006 on the grounds that their lives were allegedly in danger in Serbia. Marko Milosevic fled Serbia following his father's overthrow in 2000. Markovic left the country after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, which was followed by a wave of arrests. Slobodan Milosevic's brother Borislav served as Yugoslav ambassador in Russia during much of Slobodan's rule. He subsequently stayed on in Moscow to look after the family's "business interests." PM

President George W. Bush said on February 27 that the United States supports Kosova's territorial integrity, noting that its "borders have been clearly defined," news agencies reported. On February 28, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said that "we absolutely oppose the partition of Kosovo. And the great majority of countries around the world are not going to stand for [it either]." He stressed that "we would not support [or] tolerate any moves toward partition, either de facto partition or creeping partition...or de jure partition." In Vienna on February 28, Pieter Feith, who is the chief representative in Kosova of the EU and the international community, said that "there will be no partition" of Kosova. He also told the inaugural session of the 15-member International Steering Group on Kosova that "my role as an international civilian representative will be to ensure that the rights and the way of life of all communities -- particularly of the Serb community -- will be fully safeguarded in an independent Kosovo." Present were representatives of Austria, Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States. Feith noted that "if Russia wants to join the International Steering Group, I'm sure that will be considered very favorably." Meanwhile, in mainly Serbian-populated northern Mitrovica on February 28, an explosion damaged two UN vehicles in an office compound where UN police and justice officials work. Police are investigating. PM

President Vladimir Putin's two terms produced consistent, impressive economic growth. Putin leaves the presidency with the country's coffers filled, its debts paid down, and investment rising.

However, some economists are warning that the foundation of Russia's prosperity is shaky and that the government is in a poor position to cope with the changing circumstances brought on by a global downturn. "We are absolutely unprepared for complications in the financial-economic environment," Unified Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais, a Yeltsin-era first deputy prime minister overseeing the economy and privatization, said earlier this month.

Former presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov and economist Mikhail Delyagin are among those who have warned that Russia's economic growth -- driven exclusively by high global energy prices -- has not produced improvements in the country's infrastructure or even the seeds of economic diversification. "In terms of GDP, we have passed France and Italy," Delyagin told the BBC recently. "But the size of our GDP is not determined by our development. It is determined by the global price of oil, first of all, and the price of our metals exports, secondly. This isn't our doing."

He added that the volume of goods transported by rail declined in 2007, which he attributed to the "degradation" of the infrastructure. He said the extent of Russia's paved-road system has fallen steadily over the last three years.

Recent spikes in inflation have also caused considerable alarm and have spurred the government into action. A 2.3 percent rise in January was driven mostly by rises in the prices of basic foodstuffs, increases that directly and inordinately affect the poorest segments of Russian society. According to Rosstat, the cost of the government's standard basket of basic staples rose by 22.3 percent in 2007 on average, with even higher increases seen across the Far East.

The recent price increases have exposed a vulnerability that stems from Russia's dependence on imported foodstuffs and medicines. The government's response so far has been to compel wholesalers to freeze prices, although most experts see this as a stopgap solution designed to ease the country peacefully through the political transition from Putin to his chosen successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Economists are all but unanimous in the opinion that the government's 2008 inflation target of 8.5 percent is unrealistic. Officials such as Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Aleksei Ulyukayev and Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina have been deployed in recent days to assure the public, to quote Nabiullina, that "there is no need to carry out reforms with painful social consequences."

Although the Russian public is generally quite passive, when the government reformed social benefits to the needy in 2005, thousands of pensioners and others poured into the streets around the country and called for Putin's resignation.

The government was deeply shaken by these rolling protests and has since been proactive in preventing similar situations from erupting -- mostly by co-opting or sidelining the leaders of the demonstrations. The Kremlin understands how thin a veneer of legitimacy is bestowed by the country's cynically managed election system.

"Our long-term goals must be understood by everyone, supported by all the citizens of the country," Putin said in a major policy speech on February 8. Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin wrote this month that a "national" dialogue on the future of the country is essential. But given the regime's obsessive compulsion for control over the information space and its successful marginalization of independent thought in all areas, the conditions for such a dialogue are simply nonexistent in Russia today.

While the new government's economic choices will be limited on the one hand by its need to begin closing the appalling gap between rich and poor and to help the vast masses living in poverty, it will also be limited on the other hand by the new giants of the economy, the state-controlled megacorporations that have been formed aggressively over the last few years.

Even as the impoverished have been systematically deprived of their levers of influence on the government, these corporations have concentrated economic and political might to an extent that threatens to make rational economic planning impossible.

True, both Putin and Medvedev have spoken about the need to reduce the role of these companies. Medvedev told a business gathering in Krasnoyarsk this month that "the quality of the companies in which the state participates must be raised and bureaucrats must be removed from management organs."

But dismantling these behemoths, which are headed by the most influential figures of Putin's inner circle -- including deputy presidential-administration head Igor Sechin, Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Rostekhnologii head Sergei Chemezov, and others -- would seem a politically unlikely task. Even if all these people are dismissed from their government posts, their lobbying power within a cabinet headed by Putin will be formidable.

However, there is plenty of reason to doubt the sincerity of Medvedev's criticism of the state corporations. Medvedev himself, after all, is the head of Gazprom's board of directors and has apparently had no problem with his dual role or that company's "quality." Moreover, he has overseen that company's aggressive expansion both domestically and abroad. This week he inked a deal with the Siberian Coal-Energy Company that would create a $20 billion joint venture that would control more than 50 percent of the country's electrical power plants and their supplies of coal and natural gas.

Revealingly, this joint venture would seem to fly in the face of the government's stated goal of privatizing the electricity-generating system and has been opposed by Unified Energy Systems head Chubais, former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, and Energy and Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko. Analysts, not surprisingly, do not expect the government's Antimonopoly Service to block the controversial deal.

In April 2007, presidential economic adviser Arkady Dvorkovich broke ranks and publicly condemned the trend toward more megacorporations. He argued that they have so much political clout that even the Audit Chamber cannot monitor them and that their charters are constructed in ways that put them outside antimonopoly and other legislation. He said the firms have already been lobbying for tax concessions and that they are quick to use their political advantages to make up for their market shortcomings.

The power of these companies -- and the power of the government to resist them -- may be tested over the issue of corporate debt. Although Russia has dramatically paid down its state debt in recent years, it has accumulated a staggering corporate debt, estimated by the newsweekly "Itogi" at $423 billion. The lion's share of that debt is owed by state-controlled banks and state companies like Gazprom and Rosneft. Many of these companies have used their clout to have themselves placed on the government's list of "strategically vital" enterprises, meaning that the state guarantees their debts.

Such a guarantee makes it easier for these companies to attract credit in the West. Take the case of Rosneft. During the politically motivated takeover of the privately owned Yukos, Rosneft -- whose chairman is Putin insider Sechin -- took loans of $22 billion to purchase Yukos's production assets. In all, Rosneft's debt now stands at $27 billion, with payments of $5 billion due in mid-March. In January, Sechin lobbied the government to pay the debts, but was turned down.

On February 22, however, a consortium of leading Western financial institutions agreed to a $3 billion credit -- no doubt swayed, at least in part, by the company's standing with the government. Just as Western loans helped Gazprom take over the independent NTV in 2000-01, now they have helped in the dismemberment of Yukos. At the same time, Yukos's victimized Western shareholders seem unlikely to receive any compensation for their losses. In December 2007, a U.S. court ruled that Russia has "sovereign immunity and therefore could not be tried in an American court."

Even the docile Federation Council has weighed in against the state corporations. The upper chamber issued a report on the legal framework of Russia this month that described the creation of such companies as "the trademark of Russian economic policy."

According to the report, the unregulated companies create "ideal conditions" for the transfer of state property to the private sector with "minimal financial gain" for the state. The report says that the charters of these companies mean that the common legal environment is being replaced by fragmented, exceptional frameworks. Speaking to, INDEM foundation head Georgy Satarov said, "nothing more favorable to an explosion of corruption than the creation of state corporations has yet been conceived."

As Russia's post-Putin political transition unfolded through the Duma elections in December 2007 to the presidential election on March 2, market analysts were confident of one thing. For the foreseeable future, the safest investment bet in Russia is companies close to the government. But for the long term, all bets are off.

An assertion by U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell that only 30 percent of the country is under the control of President Hamid Karzai's government was denied by the Defense Ministry on February 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008), AP reported the same day. "This is far from the facts and we completely deny it," the Defense Ministry said in a statement. "All Afghan people know that in the 34 provinces and in more that 360 districts...the government has control," the ministry said. Asif Nang, a spokesman for the minister of state for parliamentary affairs, said that "tribal leaders were effective in ensuring security in their areas, and because of that we will give them opportunities and encourage them to provide security in their areas." "But this does not mean that the government is not present," he concluded. AT

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will resume the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan on March 1, China's Xinhua news agency reported on February 28. More than 2 million Afghans are still living in Pakistan as refugees. "Registered Afghans who choose to voluntarily repatriate with UNHCR assistance can approach the Voluntary Repatriation Centers in Peshawar and Quetta," a UNHCR spokesman said. Any registered refugee wishing to return to Afghanistan with UNHCR help will receive an average of $100 per person to cover resettlement costs. AT

A militant ambush of an opium-eradication force has sparked clashes in which 25 Taliban fighters and a policeman were killed, provincial police chief General Mohammad Hussein Andiwal said on February 28, AP reported the same day. The attack occurred in the Marja district of Helmand Province. Among the dead was a senior regional militant commander, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Helmand is the world's largest producer of opium. Officials estimate that up to 40 percent of proceeds for Afghanistan's drug trade -- an amount worth tens of millions of dollars -- is used to fund the insurgency. Separately, four militants died when the roadside bomb they were planting in Helmand exploded prematurely, Andiwal said. AT

Police in Kabul have closed down dozens of snooker clubs in the Afghan capital, saying that they were frequented by men involved in minor crimes, mostly gambling, AFP reported on February 27, citing police chief General Mohammad Salim Ahsas. He said that more than 200 people, including teenagers, were arrested in the crackdown, but most of them were bailed out by their families the same day. The raids were conducted after complaints by locals that the clubs were being used by criminals. Although gambling is illegal in Afghanistan, betting on dog fighting and other games is widespread. AT

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on February 28 that other countries now understand Iran has become the world's "top power," and he attacked domestic politicians who he said are exaggerating the power of Iran's enemies, Radio Farda reported, citing state broadcasting. A former nuclear negotiator and prominent centrist politician, Hasan Rohani, recently criticized the Ahmadinejad government's foreign-policy methods and confrontational style (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). Ahmadinejad told a gathering that "some people who are made of the same stuff as the enemy try and translate what [the enemies] say and implement their line, and depict the enemies as big." Ahmadinejad has several times implicitly accused proponents of foreign-policy moderation as traitors to the revolutionary regime's ideals. He said great changes are afoot in the world and "the world's caravan is nearing its final destination." It was not immediately clear if he was suggesting an imminent conflict or the resolution of Iran's problems. Iran, he added, has "overtaken" the great powers and "all the powers are under the Iranian nation's feet." The UN Security Council is currently considering the text of a third set of punitive sanctions on Iran for its refusal to heed UN demands to curb its contested nuclear program. VS

Iran's ambassador in Paris, Ali Ahani, warned France on February 25 about the economic consequences of pushing for sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council, AP reported. Ahani told reporters at the Iranian Embassy in Paris that if France maintains its "very hard line" on Iran's nuclear program and its "alignment with the Americans," Iranian officials will find it very difficult to justify to Iranians French business activities in Iran. He did not name any French firms, but said he hopes Iran and France will reach a more "reasonable" position over the issue. French President Nicolas Sarkozy separately told a press conference in Cape Town on February 28 that the world needs South Africa's help to ensure a unanimous vote for a sanctions resolution against Iran, Reuters and AFP reported. South Africa is a nonpermanent member of the Security Council, and has shown reluctance in backing punitive measures against Iran. VS

The EU Presidency asked Iran on February 26 to forego proposals to harden its laws and impose the death penalty for heresy, "witchcraft," and apostasy or the decision to renounce Islam, "Le Journal du Dimanche" reported. The EU said that executions for such offenses would contravene Iran's obligations in international rights conventions, which Iran has presumably signed. The EU communique observed that Iran has already executed people for apostasy, though this is not yet cited as a crime in its Penal Code. New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) separately asked Iran on February 27 to revoke a death sentence given to an Iranian-Kurdish teacher, Farzad Kamangar, who was active in civil-society initiatives. An Iranian court sentenced Kamangar to death on February 25 after convicting him of endangering national security, and for allegedly being a member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). That group is currently battling Turkish troops in Iraq, but is suspected of backing or working with Kurdish separatist groups in Iran's western provinces. Kamangar was arrested in July 2006 and detained variously in Tehran's Evin prison and prisons in the western towns of Kermanshah and Sanandaj, HRW said. He claims he was tortured while detained, and his lawyer says his prosecution did not follow legal due process. HRW's deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, has said the case shows how rights abuses have become routine in Iran. HRW asked the Iranian government on February 27 to investigate the allegations that Kamangar has been tortured. Amnesty International separately reported on February 28 that two women's rights activists arrested last year are being held without charges or trial. Hana Abdi and Ronak Safarzadeh, both Iranian Kurds, were involved in a campaign to change discriminatory laws and were arrested in October or November 2007. They were active in the One Million Signatures Campaign, a movement that promotes equal rights for women in Iranian society, Amnesty reported. VS

Iranian First Vice President Parviz Davudi said in Tehran on February 28 that Iran and Qatar have agreed to use the offshore South Pars gas field in a more cooperative way and exchange information on the field, which they theoretically share, IRNA reported. Davudi was speaking to the press after the departure of the visiting Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani. "It was agreed the use of the South Pars gas field should not be competitive or damaging, but would safeguard the interests of both countries," Davudi said. Iranian press and politicians have in the past pointed out that Qatar has overtaken Iran in tapping the field's gas reserves. The two countries agreed to set up a committee to discuss the implementation of agreements reached during al-Thani's visit on February 27 and 28, Davudi said. He added that the agreements are to become "operational" at the sixth meeting of the Iran-Qatar joint cooperation committee, due to meet in Doha later this year. Al-Thani also met on February 28 with Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign-policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, IRNA reported. They discussed regional affairs, and Velayati was given a message for Khamenei from the emir of Qatar. Al-Thani said Qatar wishes to boost ties with Iran and the two states could cooperate to resolve regional crises. VS

"Thousands" of Iraqis demonstrated in Diyala "and several other cities" on February 29 against the upcoming visit of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Ahmadinejad is slated to arrive in Baghdad on March 2 in what has been hailed as a historic visit by Iraq's Shi'ite-led government. According to video footage of the demonstration, protesters carried signs reading "Iraq is not for sale," and "Ahmadinejad: killer of the innocent," the pro-Sunni Arab news channel reported. KR

The Presidency Council has approved an execution order for former Hussein regime leader Ali Hasan al-Majid. Nicknamed "Chemical Ali," al-Majid, the former secretary-general of the northern bureau of Iraq's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party, was found guilty in June 2007 of crimes against humanity for his role in the killing of an estimated 180,000 Iraqi Kurds during the Anfal military campaign in 1987-88. In September, an appeals court held up the death sentence against him and two of his co-defendants in the Anfal trial, former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Ta'i and Hussein Rashid Muhammad, the former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces. The execution orders have been delayed for months because under the Iraqi Constitution, two members of the three-member Presidency Council, President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, both refused to sign off on al-Ta'i's execution, creating a constitutional impasse. It appears that al-Ta'i and Muhammad will be sentenced to life in prison. Iraqi media reported last year that al-Majid will be hanged in the Kurdish autonomous region, either in Irbil or Halabjah, where he is accused of gassing 5,000 Kurdish civilians in one day of air attacks. March 16 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Halabjah attack. KR

Turkey denied media reports on February 29 that it has ended its ground offensive in northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), according to AP. The Turkish broadcaster NTV reported earlier the same day that Turkey's ground offensive has ended, apparently after Iraqi Kurdish officials said Turkey withdrew troops from the Zap region in northern Iraq. CNN-Turk later reported that operations were continuing in the Hakurk, Rekan, and Nerwe regions. An AP photographer also reported that dozens of trucks were ferrying troops back to Turkey from the border town of Cukurca. The PKK-affiliated People's Defense Force (HPG) claimed on February 27 that its fighters have killed 108 Turkish soldiers in the Zap region and injured 18 over the course of a week, according to the "Kurdish Info" website. The HPG claimed only five of its fighters have been killed. The Turkish General Staff said in a February 28 statement that the operation "is continuing as planned on its seventh day." The military said it has killed "237 terrorists" since the beginning of its operation. "Sophisticated winter equipment used by our troops and additional measures prevented our personnel from being affected by unfavorable weather conditions," the statement added. Meanwhile, a senior PKK official told the "Awene" website on February 28 that 15 Turkish soldiers were killed in battle on Shirin Mountain near Al-Amadiyah. PKK foreign-relations head Ahmet Deniz told "Awene" that the Turkish Army tried to capture the strategic mountain location, "but the offensive was totally repulsed." Both Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish media reported on February 28 that the Turkish Army is dropping leaflets calling on the PKK to surrender. KR

The Turkish Army is reportedly laying land mines in northern Iraq, the "Peyamner" website reported on February 28. A "Peyamner" correspondent on the front lines of the fighting said the Turkish Army planted land mines as it withdrew from the areas of Chamji, Nerwe, Rekan Sarmaze, and Shirin Gorge in Dahuk Governorate. The website also quoted the correspondent as reporting: "The casualties of the Turkish Army exceeded 80 fatalities" by February 25 and the fate of 300 commandos who parachuted into the Zap area were not known, though the bodies of many have been recovered. Meanwhile, reported on February 28 that two groups of peshmerga "derinekan," or veterans, have joined the PKK to fight the Turkish military. The report noted that in doing so, the peshmerga are "bypassing the official Kurdistan regional government." KR

An estimated 10 million pilgrims were in the holy city of Karbala on February 28 to commemorate Arba'in, a record number according to Iraqi security officials, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Karbala police officials told the news channel that there were no recorded security violations. Police did say that they captured 35 supporters of supposed doomsday cult leader Ahmad Bin al-Hasan al-Yamani (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," February 8, 2008) and more than 15 other wanted persons. Police also said they confiscated several weapons and explosive charges. Al-Iraqiyah reported earlier the same day, citing Karbala Operations commander Major General Ra'id Shakir, that a would-be suicide bomber was apprehended by security forces at a checkpoint in northern Karbala. Police were able to arrest the bomber before he could blow himself up. Al-Iraqiyah also reported that some 70,000 visitors from Persian Gulf states were among the pilgrims at this year's religious festival. Iraqi military spokesman Major General Qasim Ata told Al-Iraqiyah the same day that the only real obstacle security forces expect to face will be in transporting pilgrims back to Baghdad from Karbala. KR