|Tuesday, 12 November 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 03-02-19
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 PUTIN SUPPORTS EUROPEAN UNION ON IRAQ...President Vladimir Putin met on 18 February with European Commission President Romano Prodi, who came to Moscow to brief the Russian president on decisions regarding Iraq made at the summit of European Union leaders held on 17 February in Brussels, Russian news agencies reported. Putin said he "agrees in general" with an EU resolution adopted at the summit that does not exclude the possibility of military action against Iraq but describes such a measure as the "last resort" to solve the problem. VY
 ...AND DISCUSSES NON-VISA STATUS FOR RUSSIANS IN EUForeign Minister Igor Ivanov told journalists that President Putin also discussed with Prodi the possibility of granting non-visa status to Russian citizens in the EU and "received a positive reaction to this proposal," polit.ru reported on 19 February. The two men decided to form a joint commission to consider the issue, Ivanov added. Ivanov also said that Putin expressed his concern "about problems linked to EU expansion, especially the creation of artificial barriers to the movement of Russian citizens and products." "Moscow is generally positive about EU expansion but does not want it to have negative consequences for Russia," Ivanov quoted Putin as saying. VY
 PROFESSOR GETS EIGHT-YEAR SUSPENDED SENTENCE FOR ESPIONAGEThe Moscow Municipal Court on 18 February convicted Professor Anatolii Babkin of spying for the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2002 and 12 February 2003) and handed down an eight-year suspended sentence, plus five years' probation, "Izvestiya" and other Russian news media reported on 19 February. The court also banned Babkin from conducting any research or working as a professor for three years, banned him from holding any administrative posts at his research center, and stripped him of his academic honors. Babkin's lawyers deny that he engaged in espionage and say he merely authorized the transfer of certain scientific papers to an American university under the terms of an approved contract. Babkin, 72, was arrested in May 2000 and accused of handing over classified information about the Shkval high-speed, liquid-fueled, rocket-propelled torpedo to U.S. naval specialist Edmund Pope. Pope was convicted of espionage and given a 20-year prison term but was pardoned by President Putin in December 2000. In a letter to the editor published in "The Moscow Times" on 19 February, Pope writes: "Throughout the time we worked together -- always with the oversight and supervision of higher authorities -- Professor Babkin was at all times sensitive to avoiding any infraction of rules or classification authority. At no time in my presence did he ever intimate or otherwise offer any classified information. Indeed, on several occasions he became angry when one of my colleagues would ask him for technical details that he considered too sensitive." VY
 PRESIDENT URGES LEGISLATORS TO MAKE POLITICAL SYSTEM 'MORE STABLE AND PREDICTABLE'President Putin on 18 February attended a meeting of the newly established Council of Legislators, a group composed of the heads of the country's regional legislatures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 May 2002), Russian news agencies reported. According to ORT, Putin urged the legislators to enforce strictly the law requiring that half of the members of regional legislatures be elected under party lists. Putin said that the system "is not being introduced to suit someone's interests," but "to make Russia's political system more stable and predictable" and "to ensure that when our people go to vote they elect not just a good person but a good person with understandable political convictions." Putin also commented that the gap between federal and local regulations has been closing, according to TV-Tsentr. However, on the same day, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that a group of lawmakers from the Volga Federal District have drafted new federal legislation that would leave the number of seats reserved for political parties within regional dumas up to the discretion of the regional lawmakers. In contrast to current federal legislation, the percentage of party-list seats under the proposed bill would range from 15 percent to 50 percent. JAC
 PRIME MINISTER BACKS RUBLE AS EES COMMON CURRENCYSpeaking at a session of the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth (EES) in Moscow on 19 February, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said he supports the idea of using the Russian ruble as the organization's common currency, strana.ru reported. The idea was proposed earlier at the session by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who said, "It is nonsense that businessmen in these countries make deals in foreign currencies and part of their profits goes God knows where," ITAR-TASS reported. Kasyanov also proposed the creation of a Eurasian natural-gas consortium, which would create uniform trade and transit conditions for all members. Kasyanov stressed that Ukraine and Moldova -- which participated in the session as observers -- are especially interested in the gas-transit issue. VY
 PRO-KREMLIN PARTY FAILS ANOTHER TESTMany analysts consider regional elections held during the same year as State Duma elections to be a kind of "primary" for the national race. Therefore, the failure of the Unified Russia-supported candidate, Magadan Mayor Nikolai Karpenko, to win the 16 February Magadan Oblast gubernatorial election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2003) is being seen as a significant failure for that party, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 18 February. Georgii Satarov of the INDEM Foundation told the bureau that this election was an "important [indicator] for the party of power, which intends to obtain more than 50 percent of the vote in the [December 2003] State Duma election." According to Satarov, the prospects for achieving such a goal were "problematic" even before this race but now the party "should seriously consider whether such a task is beyond its strength." JAC
 CORRECTION:An "RFE/RL Newsline" item on 18 February entitled "Dogged By Scandals, State Fisheries Head Is Dismissed" repeated an erroneous Interfax report. State Fisheries Committee Chairman Yevgenii Nazdratenko has been "temporarily suspended," not dismissed, from his position.
 SUSPENDED FISHERIES HEAD APPEALS TO PUTIN...Suspended State Fisheries Committee Chairman Yevgenii Nazdratenko told Ekho Moskvy on 18 February that he has sent a letter to President Putin asking him to weigh in on Prime Minister Kasyanov's decision to suspend him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2003). Nazdratenko said he would be willing to return to the committee if asked and that Putin has the last word in the matter. JAC
 ...BLAMES 'FISH MAFIA' FOR HIS OUSTER...In the same 18 February interview with Ekho Moskvy, Nazdratenko said that the so-called fish mafia is behind Prime Minister Kasyanov's decision to suspend him. He alleged that Primorskii Krai Governor and controversial businessman Sergei Darkin is leading the effort and said that it is "not accidental" that his suspension occurred while Darkin was visiting Moscow. Nazdratenko said he opposes the present system of distributing fishing quotas, under which more than 50 percent of the catch goes to a handful of privileged operators with just a few fishing boats. ORT on 18 February broadcast footage of Darkin in the company of several alleged figures from the Far East's criminal world. Before becoming governor of Primorskii Krai, Darkin was reputed to have close ties with criminal structures and was allegedly given the nickname "Sergei the Mangy." VY
 ...AND SAYS RUSSIA'S NEIGHBORS WILL CELEBRATE HIS DEPARTUREAt a Moscow press conference on 18 February, Nazdratenko also commented that if the State Fisheries Committee leadership is restructured, then "the Japanese will have a holiday, because they will be able to get more of our resources illegally," RosBalt reported. He also noted that the committee has been restructured 11 times in the past seven years and that during this period, Russia's fish catch has declined from 11.5 million tons to 3 million tons. At the same time, China's fishing volume has grown from 9 million tons to 44 million tons. JAC
 HUNGER STRIKE CONTINUES AT NORILSK NICKELA hunger strike by about 25 union leaders at Norilsk Nickel's Arctic Division entered its 13th day on 18 February, regions.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). Arctic Division Director Vitalii Bobrov appealed to the leaders to take part in a conference to be held between workers and management on 12 March. In Bobrov's opinion, any means of ending the hunger strike would be worthwhile. Earlier, Bobrov described the hunger strike as "blackmail," promising that "company management will spare no effort to guarantee the stable and uninterrupted work of all units in the Arctic Division" (see "RFE/RL Business Watch," 11 February 2003). JAC
 ORTHODOX CHURCH DEMANDS CLOSURE OF GAY CLUBTwo Russian Orthodox priests in Yekaterinburg intend to go on a hunger strike beginning 1 March until the city's first "official" gay club, Klon, is closed down, regions.ru reported on 18 February. Since the club first opened on 4 February, the church has gathered more than 1,200 signatures on a petition to close the club, and a group called the Orthodox Student Brotherhood organized a picket of the city administration, which gave the club its permit, the agency reported. According to a press release from the Yekaterinburg Orthodox eparchy, the brotherhood is upset by the "populist" attitude of city authorities toward the "shameful plan to open a club for gays and lesbians in the center of the city of St. Yekaterina." The eparchy's building was itself later picketed by a group of about 20 young people "in support of the club and the defense of freedoms guaranteed by the Russian Constitution." JAC
 BASHKIR JOURNALIST MAKES CLAIM OF POLICE HARASSMENT...ITAR-TASS's Ufa correspondent Rawil Tokhwetullin has said he was detained on the street on 13 February by two policemen who held him for an unspecified time despite the fact that he presented his press card, an RFE/RL Ufa correspondent reported on 16 February. The officers also reportedly threatened to arrest Tokhwetullin. Tokhwetullin said some forces in the republic are unhappy with a recent publication about a lawsuit filed by an Ufa resident against the Bashkir government to protest VIP motorcades (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2003). JAC
 ...AS DISTRIBUTION OF CENTRAL NEWSPAPERS RESTRICTEDLast week, journalists from the opposition newspaper "Otechestvo" and representatives of National Television and Radio Research Center held a press conference in Ufa to condemn restrictions placed by the Bashkir government on the distribution of the latest issues of central newspapers "Kommersant-Daily," "Novye izvestiya," and "Trud," RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported on 17 February, citing "Tribuna." Those dailies reportedly featured critical materials about republican authorities. "Tribuna" also reported that Sergei Fufaev, a former correspondent for "Vechernyaya Ufa," alleges that he was fired recently after reporting about a State Duma deputy's conference dedicated to Russia's Independence Day in June. In his report, Fufaev claimed that this national holiday has not been celebrated in Bashkortostan for a long time, and after the article was published, the paper's editor allegedly received an order from the staff of Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov to dismiss Fufaev. JAC
 MOSCOW AGAIN INVITES INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS TO MONITOR CHECHEN REFERENDUMSpeaking on Radio Rossii on 18 February, Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said Russia would welcome monitoring by international observers of the 23 March referendum on a new draft Chechen constitution and election legislation, Russian news agencies reported. He said that only those Russian servicemen permanently stationed in Chechnya are eligible to vote in the referendum, adding that they account for less than 7 percent of the republic's 537,655 registered voters. Yastrzhembskii also said that elections for a new Chechen president could take place "several months" after the constitution is approved. He said law-enforcement agencies will do their best to ensure security for the referendum, noting that not a single act of violence was registered during the election in August 2000 of a deputy to represent Chechnya in the Duma. LF
TRANSCAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA
 VOTING GETS UNDER WAY IN ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONVoters in Armenia braved snowfall and sub-zero temperatures on 19 February to vote in the presidential elections, international media reported. Mediamax, as cited by Groong, reported on 18 February that the Central Election Commission would post preliminary information on turnout among the country's 2.3 million registered voters on its website http://www.elections.am, updating that data at three-hour intervals throughout the day. The website could not, however, be accessed from RFE/RL headquarters in Prague. "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on 19 February that opposition parties have already made preparations to convene a protest demonstration on 20 February in anticipation that the authorities will resort to falsification in order to ensure incumbent President Robert Kocharian's re-election to a second term. Stepan Demirchian, who is regarded as the most serious of Kocharian's eight challengers, told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 19 February: "Nobody is naive enough to think that these authorities can hold elections without irregularities. But we will do everything to prevent those irregularities." More than 1,000 observers from the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the CIS Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, and Iran are monitoring the vote. LF
 OSCE OFFICIAL CONCERNED BY KARABAKH CEASE-FIRE VIOLATIONSAndrzej Kasprczyk, who is the special representative of the OSCE chairman-in-office for the Karabakh conflict, has expressed concern that violations of the 1994 cease-fire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces are becoming more frequent, according to the Azerbaijani newspaper "Zaman" on 18 February, as cited by Groong. Also on 18 February, an Azerbaijani serviceman taken prisoner by Karabakh Armenian forces was handed back to the Azerbaijani side, Turan reported. LF
 RUSSIAN DUMA OFFICIAL SUGGESTS RUSSIA, AZERBAIJAN COORDINATE STRATEGY VIS-A-VIS EUDmitrii Rogozin, who heads both the Russian State Duma's International Affairs Committee and the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), held talks in Baku on 17 February with Ilham Aliev, who heads Azerbaijan's PACE delegation, and on 18 February with Azerbaijani parliamentary speaker Murtuz Alesqerov and with Ilham Aliev's father, President Heidar Aliev, Turan reported. Rogozin proposed to President Aliev that Russia and Azerbaijan jointly assess how the EU is likely to develop over the next five to 10 years and craft a joint strategy aimed at countering any problems that enlargement might create for their respective countries. He suggested that, as a first step, CIS states should bring their legislation closer to that of the EU. President Aliev expressed approval of that proposal. LF
 AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT CRITICIZES ARMENIA, KARABAKH MEDIATORSDuring his talks with Deputy Rogozin on 18 February, President Aliev implied that further progress toward a settlement of the Karabakh conflict is contingent on Armenia admitting that it is partly to blame for that conflict, Turan reported. As on numerous previous occasions, Aliev criticized the OSCE's Minsk Group, which for 11 years has tried to mediate a settlement of the conflict, for urging him to reach a compromise agreement with Armenian President Kocharian. He accused both the OSCE and the UN of being unwilling to assess the Karabakh conflict "objectively." LF
 GEORGIAN, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS DISCUSS PEACEKEEPERSIrakli Menagharishvili met in Moscow on 18 February with his Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov, Caucasus Press and Russian agencies reported. Ivanov commented that Georgia's recent consent to extend the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone will have a positive impact upon the situation in the region. The two ministers agreed on the need to expedite the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons to their abandoned homes in Abkhazia's Gali Raion. Also on 18 February, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze discussed the Abkhaz conflict in a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Caucasus Press reported. The two presidents agreed to meet during the first week in March to continue their talks. LF
 GEORGIA WARNS IT WILL INTERCEPT SHIPS BOUND FOR ABKHAZ PORTSGeorgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze told Interfax on 18 February that Georgia intends to intercept and inspect vessels bound for Abkhaz ports in order to prevent trafficking in weapons and drugs. Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Gari Kupalba reacted to a similar statement by Georgian Border Guard Department official Korneli Salia last week. Kupalba warned that any attempt by Georgia to interfere with free navigation could lead to armed clashes at sea, according to Interfax on 12 February. LF
 COUNCIL OF EUROPE MONITORS CRITICIZE GEORGIA...A Council of Europe delegation that visited Georgia last week expressed concern over religious extremism, violent attacks on religious minorities, widespread corruption, and the failure to amend election legislation to ensure the parliamentary elections this fall are free and fair, Caucasus Press and Russian news agencies reported on 13 and 14 February, respectively. Delegation head Matyas Eorsi noted "numerous violations" during the 1999 parliamentary and 2000 presidential elections and warned that if Tbilisi fails to implement the council's recommendations by June 2003 it might be expelled, according to ITAR-TASS. LF
 ...PROMPTING OFFICIALS TO CONDEMN VIOLENCE AGAINST RELIGIOUS MINORITIESAddressing a government session on 15 February, President Shevardnadze attributed the Council of Europe's negative assessment of the situation in Georgia partly to the activities of defrocked Georgian priest Basil Mkalavishvili, whose followers have with impunity systematically attacked Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptist communities on numerous occasions in recent years (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 18 July 2002). "Mkalavishvili's conduct is outrageous. I don't understand why the prosecutor's office and police take no measures," Caucasus Press quoted Shevardnadze as saying. Shevardnadze expressed similar criticism of Mkalavishvili in his Monday radio address on 17 February, Caucasus Press reported. On 18 February, Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze formally apologized to the minister of the Tbilisi Baptist church, which was targeted by Mkalavishvili and his followers on 24 January, Caucasus Press reported. LF
 KAZAKHSTAN REJECTS EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT CRITICISMThe Kazakh Foreign Ministry has issued a statement rejecting as "untrue" and "based on biased information" the resolution adopted on 13 February by the European Parliament criticizing human rights abuses in Kazakhstan, Interfax reported on 18 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2003). The statement said the government of Kazakhstan considers the resolution nonbinding and contradictory to the provisions of the partnership and cooperation agreement between Kazakhstan and the EU. LF
 KAZAKH PRESIDENT VISITS MOSCOWNursultan Nazarbaev attended the formal inauguration in Moscow on 18 February of the Year of Kazakhstan in Russia, Russian and Kazakh media reported. Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin described Kazakhstan as a "reliable" and "strategic" partner. Putin also expressed the hope that ongoing cooperation will be strengthened and broadened by new ideas and initiatives, closer ties between small and medium businesses, and direct cooperation among regions. Among future economic projects, Putin singled out the joint construction of a nuclear-power station near Lake Balkhash, Interfax reported. Putin further noted that bilateral cooperation, including coordination in the struggles against international terrorism and organized crime, is a key component of regional stability. Nazarbaev, for his part, affirmed Kazakhstan's interest in continued trade and political, economic, and cultural cooperation with Russia, noting specifically the new "oil alliance" between the two countries, ITAR-TASS reported. He stressed that the two countries have no mutual debts or unresolved problems. LF
 KYRGYZ PRESIDENT ENDORSES CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTSThe new, amended Kyrgyz Constitution came into force on 18 February after Askar Akaev signed the relevant decree, akipress.org and RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Akaev stressed during the signing ceremony that the new constitution will help protect human rights and promote the building of a democratic society and a free-market economy, Interfax reported. He called on the opposition to help implement the planned reforms and "prove that it is capable of strengthening the country, rather than undermining it." LF
 TAJIK PARLIAMENTARY DEPUTIES PROPOSE AMENDING CONSTITUTION...The lower chamber of the Tajik parliament discussed on 17 February a proposal by a group of deputies from both chambers to amend and add to the country's constitution, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 18 February. The deputies reasoned that such changes are needed now that peace and stability have become irreversible and major transformations have taken place in political, social, and economic life. The proposed amendments would increase the role and powers of the parliament, strengthen mechanisms for protecting human and civil rights, and promote the development of a market economy. LF
 ...AS OPPOSITION ENUMERATES SHORTCOMINGS IN CURRENT SYSTEMAt a 14 February roundtable co-sponsored by the Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan and the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), political analysts and opposition party leaders focused on perceived weaknesses in the country's political system, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 17 February. Among those weaknesses, political scientist Suhrob Sharipov listed the unitary state system, the existence of rival "clans," the absence of clear ideological differences between opposition parties, the low level of political and legal culture, and the financial problems plaguing opposition parties. At the same time, Sharipov pointed out that those problems do not prevent the functioning of opposition parties. Muhidin Kabiri -- deputy chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which under the 1997 peace agreement that ended the civil war was allocated one-third of all government posts and national and local level -- complained that the people who gained those posts promptly disassociated themselves from the IRP, which, he claimed, is not represented in government and has only two deputies in parliament. Speakers representing the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Tajikistan criticized widespread nepotism and regionalism, the government's personnel policy, and shortcomings and corruption in the privatization process. Democratic Party of Tajikistan representative Rahmatullo Valiev made the point that many people are afraid of the very concept of "opposition," which they associate with armed militants intent on overthrowing the existing regime. LF
 TURKMENISTAN, ITERA DISCUSS OIL, GAS PROJECTSDuring talks in Ashgabat on 18 February, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov agreed to a proposal from visiting Itera head Igor Makarov to increase the volume of Turkmen gas Itera will purchase for export in 2003, Russian media reported. The size of the increase and the price Itera will pay was not reported. Under an agreement signed in November, Itera undertook to purchase and export 10 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas in 2003. Niyazov and Makarov also discussed the envisaged exploitation by the Zairit consortium of oil and gas deposits in Turkmenistan's sector of the Caspian shelf and on the right bank of the Amu-Darya River. Itera's subsidiary, Gazkhiminvest, and Rosneft each have 37 percent stakes in Zairit. Zarubezhneft owns the remaining 26 percent. Niyazov held similar talks last week with Gazprom head Aleksei Miller (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). LF
 UZBEK PRESIDENT REVIEWS 2002 ECONOMIC RESULTSAddressing a cabinet session on 17 February, Islam Karimov expressed concern at ongoing efforts to smuggle huge quantities Chinese-manufactured consumer goods of dubious quality into Uzbekistan via Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, uzreport.com reported on 18 February. He urged Uzbek manufacturers of consumer goods to boost production and complained that domestic products worth some $3 million are waiting to be transported to stores. Karimov said that GDP in 2002 grew by 4.2 percent compared with the previous year, industrial output rose by 8.5 percent, and agricultural production by 6.1 percent. At the same time, he criticized unnamed local officials for "betraying" the rural population by seeking to prevent the establishment of a free market in agricultural products. LF
CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE
 EU CANDIDATES BACK EU DECLARATION ON IRAQ...Thirteen EU candidate countries on 18 February endorsed a toughly worded declaration approved by the 15 current EU members the previous day and aimed at compelling Iraq to disarm, international news agencies reported. The statement, issued after heated negotiations on 17 February that excluded the aspiring countries' representatives, warns Baghdad that it must disarm "fully and completely," but it also backs granting UN weapons inspectors more time, according to AP. The document warns Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he has "one last chance" to disarm and vows to "avoid new lines of division" over European policy, "The New York Times" reported. British Prime Minister Tony Blair followed the EU compromise statement by sending a letter to candidate countries to express his views on the declaration in what some perceived as a snub of the Greek EU Presidency. Aside from calling for "solidarity between Europe and the United States," Blair stressed his disagreement with the Greek Presidency's decision to exclude new members from the 17 February discussion, AP reported. AH
 ...DESPITE BLAST FROM FRENCH PRESIDENTIn a statement made in Brussels on 17 February after a special EU summit on Iraq, French President Jacques Chirac launched a diatribe directed at the Central and Eastern European candidates for EU membership, international news agencies reported. Chirac branded letters signed by the Vilnius 10 group and by Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom as "childish" and "dangerous," saying the Central and Eastern European countries "missed a great opportunity to shut up," Reuters reported. "These countries have been all at once, let's say, not too well behaved and a little unaware of the dangers of an excessively rapid alignment with the American position," "Le Monde" quoted him as saying. "When you are in the family, after all, you have more rights than when you are asking to join and knocking on the door," he said, Reuters reported. Chirac singled out Romania and Bulgaria, saying, "If they wished to diminish their chances of entering Europe, they could hardly have found a better way [of doing it]," "Le Monde" reported. UB
 BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT PLEDGES TO KEEP COUNTRY UNDER TOTAL CONTROLPresident Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 18 February said Belarus neither has nor will have any government agencies immune from "the people's" control, Belapan reported, quoting the presidential press service. Lukashenka was addressing a conference assessing the performance of the Interior Ministry and law enforcement bodies in 2002. According to the president, those agencies' performance was far from satisfactory. He noted that last year the crime rate rose by 18.5 percent, more than 1,000 people were reported missing, and more than 3,000 criminals were on the run. "The authorities in Belarus are the people's authorities," Lukashenka said. "We should evaluate ourselves not only from the viewpoint of our neighbors. Why should we heed the neighbors that have been lagging half a century behind Belarus in [installing a popular government]? We need to evaluate ourselves according to how [our] people see us. You should protect your citizens as your kin." JM
 WILL SADDAM HUSSEIN VISIT BELARUS?Iraqi Ambassador to Belarus Salman Zeidan told journalists in Minsk on 18 February that he does not rule out the possibility of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein visiting Belarus, Belapan reported. Zeidan claimed that Hussein will come to Belarus as soon as he receives an invitation from his Belarusian counterpart. The ambassador denied rumors that Hussein might seek political asylum abroad. Zeidan said his embassy is arranging for Belarusian journalists to visit Baghdad, where, he added, "they could get the true picture." JM
 WASHINGTON ASKS KYIV TO ASSIGN ANTICHEMICAL UNIT TO IRAQU.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual told journalists in Kyiv on 18 February that he delivered a note from the U.S. government to President Leonid Kuchma and Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko inquiring about the possibility of sending a Ukrainian antinuclear-, antibiological-, and antichemical-warfare (NBC) battalion to the Persian Gulf, Interfax reported. The diplomat noted that such a unit need not take part in any military operations and could be put into action only in the event that weapons of mass destruction are used in any possible conflict. Premier Kuchma has recently signaled that Ukraine might contribute an NBC unit to a UN-authorized mission targeting Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). JM
 UKRAINIAN COMMUNIST LEADER OPPOSES FIELDING SINGLE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE FROM OPPOSITIONCommunist Party leader Petro Symonenko told journalists in Kyiv on 18 February that "the idea of putting forward a single candidate from the opposition forces in the future presidential election is fallacious," UNIAN reported. According to Symonenko, both Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Block are "bourgeois parties" that represent "rightist-bourgeois and nationalist-bourgeois forces" in Ukraine. "One needs to take a realistic look at things: It's impossible to propose a single candidate from such different forces," Symonenko said. JM
 BALTIC STATES REACT TO CHIRAC CRITICISMEstonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas told reporters on 18 February in response to French President Chirac's comments regarding EU candidate countries (see above) that "everyone has the right to his own opinion. We have pronounced our position and I'm not regretting it," BNS reported. Lithuanian Foreign Ministry Secretary Rytis Martikonis, who is in charge of his country's EU integration efforts, described Chirac's statement as "part of family relations" that Martikonis believes will "not have any influence over the admission of new members into the EU." Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gediminas Kirkilas described Chirac's statement as "a little nervous and rather undiplomatic," while also noting that other EU states such as Great Britain, Spain, and Italy also support the U.S. position on Iraq. Latvian President Vaira Vike Freiberga told CNN on 17 February that Latvia supports the disarming of Iraq, stating that "Latvia, because of its past, is particularly aware of the price of not containing tyranny since we paid for it with half a century of totalitarian rule." SG
 BALTIC FOREIGN MINISTERS DISCUSS FUTURE REFORMS OF EUMeeting in Brussels on 18 February on the sidelines of an informal meeting of EU state heads on the Iraq issue, Foreign Ministers Antanas Valionis (Lithuania), Sandra Kalniete (Latvia), and Kristiina Ojuland (Estonia) agreed that equality, balance between institutions, and effectiveness should be the key principles to be followed in discussing the future reforms of the EU, BNS reported. They stressed that the EU candidate countries should have equal status with that of member countries of the ongoing European Convention on the future of the EU so that all members would have equal possibilities to influence its final document, which they said should be approved only after the candidates become full-fledged EU members in May 2004. The ministers expressed support for continuing the current practice of a six-month rotating EU Presidency and highlighted the need to strive for closer cooperation on the basis of the convention among small and like-minded countries that are members or striving for membership of the EU. SG
 STANDARD & POOR'S UPGRADES LITHUANIA'S CREDIT RATINGSStandard & Poor's (S&P) has upgraded Lithuania's currency ratings, BNS and ELTA reported on 18 February. The country's long-term foreign-currency rating was increased from BBB to BBB+, the short-term foreign currency rating from A3 to A2, and the long-term local-currency rating from BBB+ to A-. The outlook for both local- and foreign-currency ratings is stable. "The upgrade reflects Lithuania's progress in consolidating public finances and its very healthy economic growth, while successfully containing external imbalances," S&P credit analyst Moritz Kraemer said. Among the favorable statistics mentioned were economic-growth rates of 5.9 percent in both 2001 and 2002 despite the global economic downturn, as well as Lithuania's good prospects for keeping its national debt at about 23 percent of GDP. After arriving in London for meetings with potential investors, Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite commented that the higher ratings "showed once again the increase of international markets' confidence in our financial system." SG
 POLISH MINISTER WANTS FRANCE TO RESPECT WARSAW'S VIEWS...Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said on 18 February in Brussels that Poland respects France's right to express its views and expects similar respect from France for Poland, Polish Radio reported. Cimoszewicz added that Europe is not divided into better and worse states. JM
 ...WHILE FRENCH MINISTER ADVISES WARSAW TO REMAIN SILENTFrench Defense Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie, who met with her Polish counterpart in Warsaw on 18 February, added to Chirac's criticism of EU candidate countries by saying "it was better to keep silent when you don't know what is going on," Polish Television and "The New York Times" reported. Alliot-Marie compared the stance toward Iraq of those EU invitees to disloyalty in a future daughter-in-law. "This is a similar situation to the case where a future daughter-in-law, although she is not yet part of the family, is already starting to cause conflicts inside it," she said, according to Polish Radio. "In a family, things will always somehow sort themselves out, but those who try to intervene from outside can count on having to pay for it." "If there are too many words, then it becomes very difficult to pull back from these words," Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski retorted. "This principle should be taken into consideration in every political statement. And just as there should be no formulations about a division of Europe into 'old' and 'new,' there should be no lecturing about good manners or thoughtlessness, since this, unfortunately, means adding fuel to the fire," Szmajdzinski added. JM
 WITNESS IN 'RYWINGATE' COMPLAINS OF PHONE THREATWanda Rapaczynska, president of the Agora publishing house, testified on 18 February before a special parliamentary commission dealing with the Lew Rywin bribery scandal, Polish media reported. Rapaczynska told the commission that she received a phone call in which the anonymous caller said he had been paid to kill her. Interior Minister Krzysztof Janik said later the same day that police will investigate the alleged threat and take protective measures if necessary. Rapaczynska was reportedly the first person whom Rywin allegedly approached with an offer to lobby the government over a media law for a bribe of $17.5 million (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 14 January and 18 February 2003). JM
 CZECH LEADERS DISMISS CHIRAC REMARKSPrime Minister Vladimir Spidla said on 18 February in Brussels that President Chirac's remarks concerning EU candidate countries that expressed support for the U.S. effort to disarm Iraq -- by force, if need be -- were "neither balanced nor correct," CTK reported. Spidla said he disagrees with both the content and the form of what Chirac said, but he considers this to be "a mere incident" that is now closed. Reuters cited Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda as saying in reaction to Chirac's remarks: "We are not joining the EU so we can sit and shut up." Deputy Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the U.S. Alexander Vondra said, according to "The New York Times" of 18 February, "We thought we were preparing for war with Saddam Hussein and not Jacques Chirac." MS
 CZECH COURT REHABILITATES FORMER DISSIDENT ROCKERSThe Supreme Court on 18 February annulled a 26-year-old verdict handed down by a communist court against four rock musicians whose jailing triggered protests that fostered Czechoslovakia's human rights movement, CTK and international news agencies reported. The court ruled that the 1976 sentences of members of the Plastic People of the Universe and the DG 307 rock bands, ranging from eight to 18 months, were illegal because witnesses for the defense were not allowed to testify. Ivan Jirous, Vratislav Brabenec, Pavel Zajicek, and Svatopluk Karasek were jailed for allegedly "using vulgar words" at their concerts. The sentencing indirectly led to the drafting of the Charter 77 human rights manifesto and fueled the dissident movement. MS
 POLL SHOWS CZECHS MORE WARY OF EU THAN POLES, HUNGARIANSA comparative public-opinion poll conducted by the Central European Opinion Research Group indicated that Czech voters are far more skeptical of EU membership than Poles or Hungarians, dpa reported on 18 February. If a referendum on EU accession were held now, according to the same study, just 42 percent of Czechs would "definitely" vote for membership, while 67 percent of Hungarians and 63 percent of Poles would do so. Thirty-seven percent of Czechs said they would "probably" vote for accession, compared to 10 percent of Poles and Hungarians. MS
 SLOVAK PREMIER DOWNPLAYS CHIRAC DIATRIBEPrime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, speaking in Brussels on 18 February, said in reference to President Chirac's remarks vis-a-vis the EU candidate countries that supported the U.S. position that "everyone is entitled to his opinion," TASR and CTK reported. Dzurinda added that he is not inclined to see Chirac's statement as "very dramatic." He said it is far more important that the EU members agreed on a resolution warning Iraq that it risks war as a last resort if it does not cooperate fully with UN inspectors. Dzurinda said the fact that the EU has now said the use of military force is not excluded represents a clear shift and a signal that cannot be ignored by Saddam Hussein. MS
 HUNGARIAN PREMIER REBUFFS FRENCH PRESIDENTPrime Minister Peter Medgyessy joined other leaders among EU candidate countries in dismissing French President Jacques Chirac's harsh criticisms of their stated support for the U.S. stance on Iraqi disarmament. Speaking in Brussels on 18 February, one day after Chirac upbraided those countries for "childish" and "dangerous" dilettantism, Medgyessy said no country should be stigmatized for seeking a stronger partnership with the United States, Hungarian television reported. Medgyessy told reporters -- "in impeccable French," according to Reuters -- that he is too well-behaved to respond to such comments. MSZ
 HUNGARIAN DEFENSE MINISTER, U.S. AMBASSADOR VISIT TASZARDefense Minister Ferenc Juhasz and U.S. Ambassador Nancy Goodman Brinker on 18 February visited the Taszar military air base where Iraqi-opposition personnel are being trained to serve as liaisons between U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens in the event of war in Iraq, Budapest dailies reported. Referring to NATO's recent request to transport military hardware to Turkey through Hungary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003), Brinker said she assumes that Hungary will make a contribution to assist Turkey, but added that she will not comment on domestic-policy decisions, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Juhasz told reporters that Hungary must contribute to the peaceful resolution of the Iraq crisis by the means it has available to it. U.S. General David W. Barno, commander of the U.S. training team, said the trainees do not include anyone who could become a member of any future Iraqi government. He said the arriving Iraqi volunteers are meticulously screened by both U.S. and Hungarian staff, adding that there is no danger of the camp being infiltrated by spies. MSZ
 HUNGARY'S GRIPEN OFFSET AGREEMENT EXPANDEDThe offset agreement connected with the lease of 14 British-Swedish Gripen fighter jets has been expanded to total 191 billion forints ($830 million), 55.7 billion forints of which will represent Gripen International's capital investments in Hungary, Economy Ministry State Secretary Gabor Szalay announced on 18 February. Hungary will lease the fighter jets for 174 million forints, so the offset represents 110 percent of the lease. Szalay said the ministry expects the agreement to create 13,000-15,000 new jobs in Hungary, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. The scope of the offset agreement has also been widened to include road, rail, and airport construction and hotel construction in the countryside, and preference will be given to investments in Hungary's less-developed regions. Parliament is widely expected to approve the modified Gripen contract, concluded with the BAE Systems-SAAB consortium, in early March, Szalay said. MSZ
 SLOVENIA AND CROATIA BACK EU STATEMENT ON IRAQSlovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop said in Ljubljana on 18 February that he "regrets" French President Chirac's remarks and hopes "there will be no such statements in the future," Hina reported. Rop called the remarks "unusual" and said Chirac was most likely tired after long hours of tough negotiations. "It is especially important that such statements will not be possible in the future because we shall be an equal country in the EU," Rop added. For its part, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement endorsing the EU joint declaration, noting that the declaration says the UN Security Council bears the chief responsibility for disarming Iraq, dpa reported. In Zagreb, authorities issued a similar statement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). President Stipe Mesic, who is visiting Russia, told "Jutarnji List" of 19 February that he is not upset by Chirac's remarks and does not feel they were directed at him personally. PM
 MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT DECLINES COMMENT ON CHIRAC STATEMENTPresidential spokesman Borjan Jovanovski said on 18 February that President Boris Trajkovski will not comment on Chirac's remark about the "childish" behavior of the so-called Vilnius 10 group, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Jovanovski described Chirac's statement as an "emotional outburst after hours of intensive work." The spokesman added that Trajkovski believes the "misunderstandings" between the trans-Atlantic partners on the Iraq question will soon be overcome and will not affect the historical enlargement process of Euro-Atlantic institutions. UB
 FOURTH INDICTED KOSOVAR ON HIS WAY TO THE HAGUEFatmir Limaj, a member of the Kosovar parliament and a former guerrilla close to Hashim Thaci, is in police custody and will be sent shortly to The Hague-based war crimes tribunal to face charges along with three other men recently arrested in Kosova, Reuters reported from Belgrade on 18 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). It is unclear where Limaj was arrested or under what circumstances, but some Slovenian media reported that police there arrested him in Kranjska Gora. Limaj is a senior official of Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) and the most prominent of the arrested Kosovars. But in Podgorica, Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, slammed KFOR peacekeepers for failing to arrest Limaj on 14 February and allowing him to leave Kosova on a scheduled airline flight. "It escapes all understanding that Fatmir Limaj, a member of parliament, a public figure, could be allowed to leave Kosovo with that ease two and a half weeks after KFOR had been in possession of the indictment and arrest warrant," Del Ponte added. PM
 KOSOVAR PRESIDENT STRESSES COOPERATION WITH WAR CRIMES TRIBUNALPresident Ibrahim Rugova told Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service in Prishtina on 18 February that the arrests and trials of the indicted Kosovars are a matter for the tribunal because Kosova is a state based on the rule of law. He stressed that justice must take its course without any political interference. Rugova added that Kosova, like all states in the region, is obliged to cooperate fully with the tribunal. PM
 MACEDONIAN ETHNIC ALBANIAN PARTY CRITICIZES POLICE CONDUCTAgron Buxhaku, a spokesman for the governing Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), condemned the recent use of "force by criminal bands in Struga," Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported from Skopje on 17 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). He added, however, that police subsequently behaved with unnecessary brutality. Buxhaku noted that the police units involved were ethnic Macedonian and called for the introduction of ethnically mixed units in the area, which has a large ethnic Albanian population. He argued that mixed units in Tetovo and Gostivar work well with the local population. Buxhaku urged better cooperation between Interior Minister Hari Kostov and his ethnic Albanian deputy, Fatmir Dehari. PM
 SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO WILL SOON HAVE A LEGISLATUREOutgoing Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica announced in Belgrade on 17 February that the separate Serbian and Montenegrin legislatures will elect the new joint state's parliament on 25 February, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The 126-member body will meet by 3 March at the latest. The Serbian parliament will select 91 deputies, of whom 37 will belong to the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition, 17 to the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), 12 to the Socialists (SPS), eight to the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), five each to the Social Democrats and the Party of Serbian Unity, two each to the Christian Democrats and Democratic Alternative, and one each to three smaller parties. Of the 35 Montenegrin deputies, 19 will belong to the governing coalition, 14 to the opposition coalition, and one to the Liberals. The ethnic Albanian parties refuse to participate in the new parliament in order to protest a passage in the preamble of the joint Constitutional Charter that refers to Kosova as part of Serbia. But about half of the ethnic Albanian electorate, primarily Roman Catholics, vote for Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) rather than for the ethnically based parties. PM
 BIG WEAPONS SHIPMENT AT BELGRADE AIRPORTPolice found 17 tons of weapons aboard a Bulgarian aircraft at Belgrade airport and are investigating whether the cargo is legal, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 18 February. PM
 ROMANIAN PRESIDENT HOPES CHIRAC'S REMARKS REFLECT PASSING OVERREACTION...Commenting on French President Chirac's remarks in Brussels (see above), President Ion Iliescu said on 18 February that they appear to reflect a "personal reaction" to a tense "specific moment." In an interview with Romanian Radio, Iliescu said, "We do not reproach others for making declarations without consulting us beforehand, and this should be mutual, unless some have more rights than others." Mediafax quoted Iliescu as saying that the era when one could state "Whoever is not with me, is against me" is over. Iliescu also expressed the hope that Chirac's remarks do not herald a change in French policy toward Romania and its support of Romania's EU accession, but avoided answering a reporter's question on whether a planned visit by Chirac to Romania later this year will take place. He said the visit has yet to be scheduled and tense international situations always affect politicians' agendas, Mediafax reported. He stressed that Romania continues to regard France as its closest ally. MS
 ...WHILE PREMIER DRAWS DOMESTIC PARALLEL"Every time I have a dispute with my wife, I shout at my sons. So the problem of Mr. Chirac apparently is with the Americans, and not with Romania and Bulgaria," Prime Minister Adrian Nastase was quoted as saying in response to Chirac's remarks, Reuters and Romanian Radio reported. MS
 ROMANIAN LOWER HOUSE REJECTS OPPOSITION MOTIONOne day after the Senate rejected a motion by the opposition Greater Romania Party (PRM), on 18 February it was the lower house's turn to reject a PRM motion to debate the situation in the health care system. The motion was rejected by a vote of 179 against to 95 in favor, with nine abstentions, Mediafax reported. Some deputies representing the other two opposition parties -- the National Liberal Party and the Democratic Party -- voted in favor of the motion. MS
 MOLDOVAN OPPOSITION LEADERS CRITICIZE PRESIDENT'S INITIATIVE TO DEVELOP NEW CONSTITUTIONPopular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca said on 18 February that President Voronin's recent initiative to develop a new constitution together with the Transdniester authorities cannot be put into practice. A referendum on the proposal, Rosca said, is unthinkable as long as the Russian military contingent remains in the separatist region and as long as separatist leader Igor Smirnov's military and paramilitary forces have not been disarmed, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. In turn, opposition Braghis Alliance Chairman Dumitru Braghis said Voronin's proposals should have been debated by parliament before they were dispatched to Tiraspol. MS
 COUNCIL OF EUROPE EXPERTS BACK INTENTION TO REPLACE 'HISTORY OF ROMANIANS' IN MOLDOVAA team of Council of Europe experts said in Chisinau on 18 February that the authorities' intention to replace the teaching of the "History of Romanians" with "General History" is likely to ultimately contribute to the strengthening of Moldova's statehood, Flux reported. The experts said experience in several European countries shows that teaching history courses with a "multicultural approach contributes to defusing interethnic tension and tension with neighbors." The authorities' intention to replace the "History of Romanians" with "General History" in the national school curriculum has been criticized by the Moldovan Historians Association (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2002). President Voronin on 18 February met with Alison Cardell, head of the European Council team of experts, and told him the authorities wish to introduce genuine European standards in teaching history in schools, and that those courses must be "neither politicized, nor falsified, not distorted" by "a genuine history of Moldova." MS
 BUSH NAMES NEW U.S. ENVOY TO MOLDOVAPresident George W. Bush on 13 February announced he has chosen Heather Hodges to be the next U.S. ambassador to Moldova, AP and AFP reported. Hodges is now deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid and served previously in Guatemala and Venezuela. Her nomination must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. MS
 BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS SIGNIFICANCE OF CHIRAC STATEMENT SHOULD NOT BE EXAGGERATEDSpeaking before he left for Brussels on 18 February to attend a special EU summit on Iraq, Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said the significance of French President Chirac's criticism of Central and East European countries (see above) seeking EU membership should not be exaggerated, BTA reported. Asked whether Bulgaria will change its pro-U.S. position under pressure from France, Saxecoburggotski told RFE/RL: "It is pointless to speak about change in the Bulgarian position on Iraq." European Integration Minister Meglena Kuneva earlier complained that she was "surprised to find a connection being made between positions on Iraq and membership talks with the EU. Entry talks are held under strictly set rules announced in advance," Reuters reported. UB
 CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION DEMANDS RESIGNATION OF BULGARIAN INTERIOR MINISTERThe conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) demanded on 18 February that Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov resign, mediapool.bg reported. The SDS charged that the Interior Ministry breached the law in the so-called Gnom case, in which journalists' and politicians' telephones have allegedly been wiretapped (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002 and 6 January 2003). Speaking on 18 February to the parliamentary group of the governing National Movement Simeon II, Petkanov said his ministry committed only a minor mistake in the case, when it began the wiretapping prior to approval by the responsible institutions. The SDS also protested the ministry's nomination of former communist secret-service members to high-ranking positions within the National Security Service (NSS) and the counterintelligence service, where they have access to classified information. UB
SOUTHWESTERN ASIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
 NANGARHAR GOVERNOR SAYS HIS PROVINCE READY TO REPEL TERRORIST INFILTRATIONS FROM PAKISTAN...Nangarhar Province Governor Haji Din Mohammad said in an interview with the Kabul daily "Arman-e Melli" on 17 February that security organs in his province have taken special measures to stop the infiltration of Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Din Mohammad added that in addition to these security measures, the citizens of Nangarhar and "leaders of the tribal areas" in the tribal areas bordering Pakistan have pledged to strengthen peace and security and not allow any "subversive acts" to take place. In recent months, members of terrorist groups and Taliban supporters have reportedly crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan, particularly via the tribal belt stretching from Konar and Nangarhar southward to Paktika Province. AT
 ...AND SUPPORTS A STRONG CENTRAL GOVERNMENT IN KABULDin Mohammad told "Arman-e Melli" that he supports the policies of President Hamid Karzai's Transitional Administration and favors the restoration of democracy and the establishment of a parliamentary system of government. Din Mohammad emphasized that while he wants people to participate in the creation of the new Afghan political system, he would like to see a strong central government in Afghanistan. He added that 27 consultative councils have been established in Nangarhar Province to pave the way for the establishment of a democratic system of government and to "remove the distance between the people and the government." Din Mohammad's assertion that he favors a strong central government differs drastically from views expressed by Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan and northern Afghanistan strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who favor a loose federal system that would allow them to control their areas with little interference from Kabul. AT
 NANGARHAR PROVINCE TO REMOVE CABLE-TV BAN WHEN KABUL DOESNangarhar Province Governor Din Mohammad said in his 17 February interview with "Arman-e Melli" that he imposes no restrictions on what he termed "sound pastimes and cultural activities," and he indicated that the ban imposed in Nangarhar on cable television was not his choice but came at the order of the Afghan Supreme Court. Din Mohammad added that Nangarhar Province will resume all broadcasts "under regulations -- similar to Kabul" if the Supreme Court changes its position. On 21 January, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mulla Fazl Hadi Shinwari ordered a ban on cable-television broadcasts in Afghanistan, calling it "against Islamic laws and values" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2003). The ban is still technically in effect, but is not followed by all Afghan provinces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2003), is still technically in effect. AT
 U.S. FORCES AMBUSHED IN AFGHANISTANColonel Roger King, a spokesman for U.S. armed forces stationed in Afghanistan, said a number of U.S. troops were ambushed on 18 February by unidentified attackers in Konar Province near the Afghan-Pakistani border, Radio Afghanistan reported on 18 February. King said U.S. forces did not sustain any casualties. AT
 AFGHAN VILLAGERS UNDER ATTACK FROM UNKNOWN ANIMALSUnidentified animals in the Kalakan, Qarabagh, and Mirbachakot districts of Kabul Province have mauled several people, "Arman-e Melli" reported on 17 February. Locals are terrified, the report added. Some regional elders have said the animals resemble leopards, although not a species native to the area. AT
 WESTERNERS WORRIED ABOUT NEW AFGHAN CONSTITUTIONDiscussing the new Afghan constitution due to be adopted in October (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2003), an unidentified Western diplomat in Kabul said the "role of sharia [Islamic jurisprudence] already appears to be the main issue at stake in the new constitution; however, this doesn't please certain Western countries," AFP reported on 17 February. Another diplomat said that "Afghanistan is one of the most Muslim countries in the world -- Islam and sharia are unavoidable. The question is to understand to what extent they will be included in the constitution," AFP reported. A senior diplomat said that if Afghanistan adopts a constitution based solely on the sharia, similar to that used in Saudi Arabia, Western countries "will not want to finance such a regime," AFP reported. The issue of the new Afghan constitution is bound to cause major rifts within Afghanistan, but if the Western powers interfere in the process the results could be even more divisive (for analysis of the current constitutional process, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 January 2003). AT
 IRAN WANTS MORE NUCLEAR REACTORS TO FULFILL ELECTRICITY DEMANDParliamentarian Ali Yari, who serves on the Energy Committee, said in a 17 February interview with "Seda-yi Idalat" that demand for electricity in Iran could reach 60,000 megawatts in the next decade, and preliminary talks have been held with Russia on building several nuclear-power plants to fulfill such a requirement, "Iran Daily" reported on 18 February. Yari added that the nuclear facility at Bushehr is expected to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity when it begins operating. A combined-cycle electricity-generation plant that was inaugurated in Kerman by Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi and Energy Minister Habibullah Bitaraf on 18 February, according to IRNA, could help fulfill the demand for electricity. Power Development Organization chief Hussein Mahmudzadeh said this new facility will increase the country's overall electrical output by 9 percent and it would feed the power networks in Hormozgan, Sistan va Baluchistan, and Yazd provinces. The eight gas turbines have a nominal capacity of 1,272 megawatts, and the introduction of four steam-power units will increase the plant's output to 1,912 megawatts. Mahmudzadeh said the equipment was purchased in Italy, and the Islamic Development Bank provided financing. BS
 ATTORNEY DENIES BLASPHEMY CHARGES AS AGHAJARI RETRIAL APPROACHESJustice Minister Hojatoleslam Ismail Shushtari said after a 18 February ceremony introducing Justice Department officials in northwestern Ardabil Province that the verdict against political activist and university Professor Hashem Aghajari was revoked because of flaws in the case, ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). That is why it was returned to the same court that issued the original verdict, he said, adding, "We are waiting for another investigation." A Hamedan court sentenced Aghajari to death, a flogging, and imprisonment for giving an allegedly blasphemous speech in July 2002. Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, on 18 February again rejected the accusations of blasphemy against his client, IRNA reported. "My client has been accused of apostasy and denying the basics of the [Islamic] religion," he said, adding that the charge of apostasy is only relevant "if one denies God and the prophets...and my client has not made any statement to this effect." BS
 REFORMIST JOURNALIST ARRESTEDMohsen Sazgara, who was the managing editor of several banned newspapers and now runs the alliran.net website, was arrested on 18 February, his son Vahid Sazgara told ISNA. Vahid said he does not know which organization had his father arrested or why it did so. A friend who was with Sazgara has also disappeared. An 18 February Reuters report makes a possible link between Sazgara's arrest and his public letter last year to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he questioned Khamenei's lack of accountability, and an 18 February article on the alliran.net website that criticized Iran's theocratic system. BS
 HEALTH MINISTRY ANNOUNCES HIV/AIDS FIGURESMohammad Mehdi Guya, who heads the Health, Treatment, and Medical Education Ministry's infectious-diseases department, said on 18 February that 4,424 people with AIDS have been registered and an estimated 22,000 people have HIV, ISNA reported. He added that in the year March 2001-March 2002, 1,298 HIV-positive people developed AIDS, but so far this year only 744 cases have been reported. Approximately 95 percent of the AIDS patients are men, 54.3 percent contracted the virus through intravenous drug use, 19 percent contracted it through tainted blood transfusions, 15 percent contracted it through intercourse, and 3 percent are infants who contracted the virus from their mothers. Guya said his organization's current budget of 1.3 billion tomans ($1.6 million) is insufficient. One of Guya's Health Ministry colleagues in December said 4,237 Iranians have AIDS (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 February 2003). BS
 U.S. PLAN FOR IRAQ WORRIES SCIRIRepresentatives of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) have spoken out against a U.S. plan to appoint an American military officer to run Iraq for two years after the ouster of President Saddam Hussein, according to Iranian news agencies. Abdulaziz al-Hakim, who heads the SCIRI's "Jihadi Office" in Tehran, on 14 February voiced concern about the U.S. plan, IRNA reported. Al-Hakim said the American plan runs counter to the ideals of the opposition and challenges U.S. claims of respect for the Iraqi nation's will. Hamid al-Bayati, SCIRI's London representative, said on 17 February that an imposed government would be unacceptable because this is an issue that concerns "the Iraqi nation and opposition," Fars News Agency reported. Al-Bayati added that this would cause regional instability and would create problems for Iraqis and for the United States. Al-Bayati expressed regret that "regional countries have not and do not support us. The Islamic Republic of Iran is the only country that has cooperated with us." BS
 SCIRI FORCES MOVE INTO NORTHERN IRAQA 5,000-man armed force of SCIRI personnel has moved some 24 kilometers across the Iranian border into northern Iraq, the "Financial Times" reported on 19 February. Iranian officials say the force is there to counter any threats from Baghdad's forces. Iranian sources also told the "Financial Times" that the U.S. government told SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim that the SCIRI's military unit, the Badr Corps, should not intervene if there is a U.S. invasion, but the SCIRI would have a role in a democratic Iraq. The British daily noted that the Pentagon is concerned about excessive State Department encouragement of an Iranian role. In an example of the State Department's attitude toward Tehran, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the "Los Angeles Times" of 14 February that a new kind of "liberal thought" has developed in Iran. "There's already a good bit of liberal thought," he said. "It's relatively liberal -- not the way you or I would describe it, but liberal thought already exists." Armitage also described Iran as a "democracy." BS
 IRAQ'S FOREIGN MINISTER CAUTIONS TURKEY...Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri warned Turkey on 18 February that despite U.S. pressure it should "look after its own interests," Istanbul's NTV reported. "Turkey's national interests lie in its respect for the security of its neighbors," Sabri said. "Any damage to the security of its neighbors or of Iraq will immediately spread to Turkey." SH
 ...AS KURDS SPRING INTO ACTIONThe Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) regional government's interior minister, Faraydun Abd-al-Qadir, described the PUK's contingency plans in the event of war, Al-Sulaymaniyah's "Kurdistani Nuwe" reported on 17 February. The PUK's Interior Ministry has established a joint committee consisting of security, police, and civil-defense forces to expedite emergency procedures that include providing emergency shelter to refugees from Baghdad and southern Iraq. Camps in Bazian and Maydan have been proposed for this purpose, and camps for refugees from areas adjoining Iraqi-controlled regions are being prepared in Qaradagh, Penjwin, and Mawat, according to Abd-al-Qadir. Emergency plans for Kurdish cities, including al-Sulaymaniyah, Irbil, and Kirkuk, include the establishment of centers that will have "the necessary equipment and tools such as shovels, buses, and ambulances...[and] will be responsible for the protection of the citizens' lives and property," Abd-al-Qadir stated. He added that 600 people have recently begun to receive civil-defense training. SH
 IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER TO HEAD DELEGATION TO NAM SUMMIT...Foreign Minister Sabri is expected to lead the Iraqi delegation to the Non-Aligned Movement's (NAM) summit to be held in Kuala Lumpur on 20-25 February, Iraqi Ambassador to Malaysia Kais S. A. al-Yacoubi told Kuala Lumpur's Bernama news agency on 18 February. Ten Iraqi officials, including Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, will be in the delegation headed by Sabri. Ramadan is expected to discuss the economic sanctions on Iraq and its efforts to disarm and comply with UN resolutions. "Iraq is working on all positions and possibilities to avoid a war," al-Yacoubi stated. Iraq is an active member of NAM, which has 114 members, 50 of whom are also members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), according to Bernama. SH
 ...AS ARAB LEAGUE DELEGATE COMMENDS REPORT TO UNThe Iraqi delegate to the Arab League, Muhsin Khalil, praised the reports presented on 27 January and 14 February to the UN Security Council by UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) Executive Chairman Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammad el-Baradei, MENA reported on 18 February. Khalil said the reports confirmed that U.S. allegations of Iraq harboring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are false and that "no violations were made on [the] part of Iraq with regard to possessing banned weaponry." The reports were "fair to a great extent," according to Khalil, and any "outstanding issues pertaining to providing more information and responding to queries raised by inspectors" will be resolved. SH
 IRAQ ACCUSED OF HIDING 'THOUSANDS OF TONS' OF WEAPONSThe former chief adviser of Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission, Husayn al-Shahristani, claimed that Iraq's nuclear facilities were destroyed by U.S. and British bombing and UN inspectors from 1991-95, "The Philippine Star" reported on 19 February. Al-Shahristani alleged that although Saddam Hussein failed to develop an atomic weapon, he has still not accounted for "thousands of tons" of chemical and biological weapons, including mustard gas and sarin. These nerve agents and other chemical and biological weapons are still used on Kurds and Shiites, according to al-Shahristani, who is now the head of the London-based Iraqi Refugee Aid Council (IRAC). Al-Shahristani was arrested on suspicion of sabotage at Iraq's Al-Tuwaythah atomic-research center in 1979, and he was imprisoned and tortured for 11 years for allegedly failing to cooperate in Iraq's development of a nuclear bomb. He escaped in 1991 and fled Iraq. SH
 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT SUPPORTS EUROPEAN UNION ON IRAQPresident Vladimir Putin met on 18 February with European Commission President Romano Prodi, who came to Moscow to brief the Russian president on decisions regarding Iraq made at the summit of European Union leaders held on 17 February in Brussels, Russian news agencies reported. Putin said he "agrees in general" with an EU resolution adopted at the summit that does not exclude the possibility of military action against Iraq but describes such a measure as the "last resort" to solve the problem. VY
 RUSSIA LOOKS TO STRASBOURGBy Vladimir Kovalev
The Russian court system was dealt a slap in the face in January when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg agreed to hear the cases of six Chechen citizens alleging human rights violations by Russian soldiers.
The court's decision to hear the cases was resoundingly ignored by the national media in Russia. As a result, Russian society is missing an opportunity to discuss the extent to which the courts are independent of government officials, the secret services, and the military and their ability to protect citizens' constitutional rights.
In all, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that 20 cases from Russia are admissible, but the cases of the six Chechens seems the most compelling indictment against the Russian legal system.
Each of the cases presents interesting aspects. Two complainants, Magomed Khashiev and Rosa Akaeva, have been ignored by the Russian courts since May 2000, when they first filed allegations of the torture and extrajudicial execution of their relatives by Russian soldiers in Grozny at the end of January 2000. Although the bullet-riddled bodies of two of Khashiev's sons, his brother, his sister, and that of Akaeva's brother would seem to be stark evidence, the Russian courts brushed aside the complaint and refused even to hear the case.
Medka Isaeva, Zina Yusupova, and Libkan Bazaeva faced the same stone wall regarding their allegations related to the 29 October 1999 bombing of civilian targets by Russian warplanes. In that incident, Isaeva was wounded, and two of her children and a daughter-in-law were killed. Yusupov was also wounded in the bombing, and a car containing all of Bazaeva's family's possessions was destroyed. Again, the Russian courts refused even to hear the case.
The sixth complaint accepted by the Strasbourg court was filed by Zara Isaeva, who endured a similar bombing raid on her village, Katyr-Yurt, on 4 February 2000. Her son and three of her nieces were killed in the attack. Russian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the incident in May 2000, but the case was quietly closed without ever being brought to trial.
One can understand that Russia's courts have pragmatic reasons for refusing to hear such cases, which could easily snowball into the thousands in a very short time. Although the military is keeping a tight lid on information about the number of civilian casualties incurred during its "antiterrorism operation" in Chechnya since 1999, it is clear that the European Court of Human Rights could easily find itself facing many thousands of similar applications now that a precedent has been set. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHFHR) and other organizations continue to stress the danger that civilians in Chechnya face.
"While the Russian state takes steps to push displaced Chechens out of [displaced persons] camps and has organized a constitutional referendum in Chechnya for 23 March 2003, promoting the notion that the situation is being 'normalized,' civilians continue to be abducted, beaten, tortured, and murdered by Russian military and security forces," reads a 22 January IHRHR press release that further alleged that 11 men disappeared from a single district in Grozny during the first two weeks of January.
"Mutilated bodies of disappeared persons continue to be found, some in graves and others left apparently to intimidate the population. On 13 January, 10 corpses were discovered, all of which had been mutilated by explosives. Several could be identified as persons who had been abducted by federal forces about three weeks earlier, according to numerous witnesses. But the prosecutor-general of Chechnya stated that the victims had been executed by Chechen rebels," the federation's press release alleged.
With such an approach to the problem, the Strasbourg court has come to be seen as the last hope for the people caught up in the violence. But can it reasonably be expected to cope with this responsibility, and is the Russian legal community ready to make full use of this tool? Since Russia signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998, its citizens have filed 12,887 applications, according to statistics published recently in "The Moscow Times." Of those, 8,500 were registered as having been properly submitted, but about 4,700 were rejected summarily, primarily because they refer to events that occurred prior to Russia's ratification of the convention. Of the remaining 3,700, 120 stem from the fighting in Chechnya. According to Anatolii Kovler, the Russian judge on the European Court of Human Rights, most of the Russian complaints concern social and economic matters, including applications from victims of the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant, complaints about conditions in Russian jails, and cases regarding the country's many questionable investment schemes.
Many Russian activists are concerned that too little is being done to help Russian lawyers submit applications that are likely to be accepted. "[The court has] no desire to talk directly to applicants during the consideration process and it prefers to hear what the authorities from their countries are saying," said Ruslan Linkov, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Democratic Russia party, who has assisted in filing several complaints to the court. "People just do not know what [the court] demands, and it is simply because there is no information in Russian on which documents are necessary in order to make a successful appeal."
As a result, the vast majority of appeals from Russia are simply thrown out. Human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov has repeatedly urged the creation of a state-sponsored program to train Russian lawyers about the Strasbourg court, but the government has rejected these initiatives. To the average Russian, such rejections seem a lot like the stonewalling that they are already getting from the legal system at home and do little to bolster the hope that the European Court of Human Rights can compel Russia's courts to do more to protect the rights of Russian citizens.
Vladimir Kovalev is a reporter for "The St. Petersburg Times" in St. Petersburg, Russia.