|Thursday, 24 September 2020|
RFE/RL Newsline, 03-05-06
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 U.S. RENEWS PRESSURE OVER RUSSIA'S NUCLEAR COOPERATION WITH IRAN...U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton held talks in Moscow on 5 May aimed at, among other things, persuading Russia to rethink its nuclear cooperation with Iran, Reuters reported on 5 May. Bolton met with Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev and two deputy foreign ministers -- Georgii Mamedov and Aleksandr Losyukov. The main topics of discussion were Iran, North Korea, and nuclear-weapons proliferation, Interfax reported. Later on 5 May, Bolton told reporters he had expressed to Rumyantsev his concerns about information indicating that Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles -- something that is not, Bolton added, in Russia's interest. The Russian side expressed its view, and "we saw where our points of view coincide and where they diverge," Bolton was quoted by Interfax as saying. JB
 ...BUT DOUBTS IRAQ WAR WILL SPOIL THE BUSH-PUTIN SUMMITUndersecretary Bolton also said on 5 May that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will soon meet to discuss the upcoming summit between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Interfax reported on 5 May. Bolton said he does not think the war in Iraq will cast a shadow over the summit. Ivanov, who was visiting Bucharest on 5 May, said Powell will be in Russia for meetings on 14-15 May, Interfax reported. Presidents Putin and Bush will meet in St. Petersburg on 1 June, ITAR-TASS and other media reported on 6 May, citing an unidentified U.S. diplomatic source who characterized bilateral relations as being in "a rejuvenation phase." JB/RC
 DEFENSE MINISTER WEIGHS IN ON KOREAN SITUATION...Russia is counting on negotiations to ensure the non-nuclear status of the Korean Peninsula, Sergei Ivanov said in Stockholm on 5 May. Russia's "principled position" is that it is unimportant whether such negotiations are carried out bilaterally between the United States and North Korea or multilaterally. "What is important is the result," Ivanov said, according to Interfax on 5 May. "One should not exaggerate Russia's capacity to have an influence on that conflict or on the North Korean leadership," Ivanov said. "Russia is not the Soviet Union." At the same time, he said Moscow would like the crisis to be resolved, given that Russia borders North Korea and that "everything that happens on the Korean Peninsula one way or another has an impact on our security." Ultimately, Ivanov said, the resolution of the crisis will depend on the position of North Korea and, "to a significant degree," on the position of the United States, Interfax reported on 5 May. JB
 ...AND ON AFGHANISTANDuring his press conference in Stockholm on 5 May, Defense Minister Ivanov also addressed the situation in Afghanistan, which, he said, has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, Interfax reported. The Taliban, far from having been destroyed, have become "more brazen" in recent days, Ivanov said. The number of attacks and explosions in Afghanistan is increasing along with "the quantity of heroin produced," he said. "The situation in Afghanistan does not arouse optimism on the part of the Russian side," Ivanov added. JB
 NEW DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER HOLDS HIS FIRST PRESS CONFERENCE...Boris Aleshin, the newly appointed deputy prime minister for industrial policy, held his first press conference on 5 May, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 6 May. Aleshin said his overall goal is "to bring Russia up to a worthy level on the world's markets by the end of the decade." By that time, he predicted, Russia will have an annual economic-growth rate of 7-8 percent. Aleshin also said that within two-three months he will present measures designed to stimulate further industrial growth as part of a medium-term, socioeconomic-development program. Priority will be given to space, scientific equipment, atomic energy, offshore programming, and special metallurgy, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. JB
 ...AND STRESSES THE IMPORTANCE OF ARMS EXPORTSDuring his 5 May press conference, Deputy Prime Minister Aleshin made it clear that his main focus will be on military-defense exports, gazeta.ru reported. "The export of products, including defense-related [exports], is supported above all by the creation of a competitive system.... My task is to concentrate precisely on that," the website quoted Aleshin as saying. "And a special place here, of course, is held by defense, which will be a subject of my daily activity." This focus, gazeta.ru suggested, is necessitated by the fact that while Russia set a record last year for military exports -- $4.8 billion -- the trend lines are not promising, given that China and India are the main customers for Russian military hardware, and they will be "saturated" in two-three years. This means that to prevent a drop-off in defense-related exports, creative solutions are needed, several of which Aleshin mentioned. First, young employees of private defense enterprises will be offered deferments from military service in return for several years of work "strengthening the country's defense potential," "Izvestiya" reported on 6 May. Second, efforts will be made to attract private capital to finance projects involving defense-related exports, gazeta.ru reported on 5 May. JB
 SAKHAROV MONUMENT UNVEILED IN ST. PETERSBURGThe first Russian monument to physicist and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov was unveiled on a square between the main building of St. Petersburg State University and the library of the Russian Academy of Sciences on 5 May, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day. The monument is the work of sculptor Levon Lazarev, who began pushing the project after the square on which the statue stands was named after Sakharov in 1996. State Duma Deputy Grigorii Tomchin (Union of Rightist Forces), a "first-wave democrat" who became involved in politics during the era of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, remarked with pleasure that the idea for the monument originated with "the citizens" and that "the authorities had nothing to do with this event." Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner, did not attend the unveiling and told "Kommersant-Daily": "Now is not the time to deal with monuments in Russia. The mass enthusiasm for monuments attests to a superficial, unserious relationship to those to whom the monuments are dedicated." Bonner recently objected to plans to erect a Sakharov monument in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2003). LB
 SUPREME COURT REDUCES SENTENCE OF VOLOSHIN ADVISERThe Supreme Court has reduced the sentence of Prominvest head Vyacheslav Aminov, an unofficial adviser to presidential chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, but has denied a request to overturn his conviction, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 6 May. Aminov was convicted in September of paying a $50,000 bribe to arrange a meeting with Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev. He was given a suspended sentence of 1 1/2 years in prison. The Supreme Court concluded that Aminov was guilty not of bribery but of attempted bribery, a lesser crime, and consequently reduced his sentence to one year. In February, the State Duma requested that the Prosecutor-General's Office investigate Aminov and the large archive of compromising material on Russian politicians and businesspeople that was found in his office at the time of his arrest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2002). LB/RC
TRANSCAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA
 PRO-GOVERNMENT PARTY CALLS ON ARMENIAN PRESIDENT TO HONOR CAMPAIGN PROMISEA prominent party aligned in the pro-government coalition urged Armenian President Robert Kocharian on 5 May to honor his campaign promises, according to Yerkir and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. The leadership of the pro-government Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) warned the president that it will withdraw its support if he fails to enforce the rule of law, to combat widespread "injustice" in the country, and to remove incompetent and corrupt officials. The ARF reminded Kocharian that it has "supported the president in the hope that he will achieve those objectives." The statement reflects the growing division within the pro-government camp and demonstrates a serious rift with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 May 2003). Actively engaged in campaigning for the 25 May parliamentary election, the ARF has strongly advocated the need for a more effective and thorough commitment to fighting government corruption. RG
 CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION CHAIRMAN SAYS ARMENIA 'NOT YET READY' FOR WESTERN-STYLE DEMOCRACYArtak Sahradian told a Council of Europe-organized seminar in Yerevan on 5 May that Armenia is not mature enough to hold elections meeting Western standards of democracy, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. The statement sought to justify the serious voting irregularities and ballot-box stuffing that marred the country's recent two-round presidential election. Sahradian's comments follow recent statements by President Kocharian defending his re-election by contending that Western observers are "too strict" in their assessments. Kocharian noted "numerous" voting irregularities, but dismissed their impact on Armenian democracy. Sahradian recently angered election-monitoring officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) by refusing to use transparent ballot boxes that were donated in order to forestall fraud (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 5 May 2003). RG
 RUSSIAN INVESTORS TAKE CONTROL OF ARMENIAN CHEMICAL PLANTA group of Russian investors on 5 May announced plans to purchase control of Armenia's largest chemical plant, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The new, as yet unidentified Russian owners have already installed new management at the Nairit chemical plant, which was recently declared bankrupt under the weight of $27 million in overdue debts. The Nairit plant was one of Armenia's leading strategic-industrial assets during the Soviet era, but has been idle for much for the past decade. In early 2002, the British-registered Ransat Group concluded a management agreement with the Armenian government, promising to invest more than $25 million in the plant in a deal that later faltered over a dispute over specific contractual terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April 2003). The government announced in January 2003 that the plant will be modernized by a prominent businessman close to President Kocharian, although that deal also collapsed soon thereafter. The 5 May announcement is only the latest in a series of Russian purchases of Armenia's few strategic assets and follows the more controversial $100 million "debt-for-assets" arrangement reached between Yerevan and Moscow, which provides for the Russian takeover of several firms -- including control of the country's sole nuclear-power plant -- in exchange for the cancellation of Armenia's outstanding debt to Russia. RG
 AZERBAIJANI AMBASSADOR TO TURKEY REPORTS ON PRESIDENT'S HEALTHMammad Aliev announced in a televised interview on 5 May that President Heidar Aliev "feels well and continues to improve," adding that there is "no reason for anxiety," according to ANS and Turan. Mammad Aliev (no relation to the president) added that the president remains in full control of the Azerbaijani government and is "receiving information" and "giving corresponding orders" to officials in Baku. The Azerbaijani president left Baku unexpectedly on 3 May for medical care in Turkey, leading to intense speculation over his medical condition in the wake of his collapse during an official ceremony on 21 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April and 5 May 2003). RG
 OPPOSITION AZERBAIJANI NEWSPAPER OFFICE ATTACKEDA group of 30-40 unidentified attackers forced their way into the editorial offices of the opposition "Yeni Musavat" newspaper on 5 May, Turan, ITAR-TASS, and ANS reported. The attackers threatened the few staff in the office during the late-night incident and broke furniture and windows before moving on to ransack files. Witnesses told police that the attackers were searching for Editor Rauf Arifoglu, who was not in the office at the time. The head of the OSCE office in Baku, Peter Burkhart, visited the office after the attack and decried the incident as an "an attack on the free media and a violation of freedom of speech." The newspaper is the official organ of the opposition Musavat (Equality) Party. Baku police have launched an investigation and are reportedly questioning four suspects. RG
 NATO DELEGATION ARRIVES IN GEORGIA FOR ANNUAL INSPECTION...A NATO delegation of four military experts arrived in Tbilisi on 5 May to conduct an inspection of Georgian military facilities and to review the state of Georgia's military reforms, according to RIA-Novosti and "Civil Georgia." The NATO delegation is to conduct the latest inspection in a series initiated in 1999 in accordance with the Georgian government's stated goal of eventually joining NATO. The 5-7 May inspection will review the course of military reform and help coordinate Georgian conformity to NATO standards. The inspection is also a prelude to the pending visit of NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, scheduled for 14 May. RG
 ...AS GEORGIAN MILITARY HIGHLIGHTS PEACEKEEPING CAPABILITIESGeorgian Defense Military officials announced at a 2 May press conference that they are eager to brief NATO on their new peacekeeping contingent, which is part of a broader effort to form an entire such battalion with German military assistance, "Civil Georgia" reported. A smaller number of Georgian troops have been serving as peacekeepers in Kosova under a Turkish battalion since 1999. The company of peacekeepers is currently undergoing training in Germany for later deployment in Kosova with a German brigade. Georgia has been accepted as a NATO aspirant following President Eduard Shevardnadze's official bid for Georgian membership at the November 2002 NATO summit in Prague, although NATO officials have stated that Georgia still has a "very long road ahead" before acceptance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2001 and 5 February 2003). RG
 DATE SET FOR GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONSGeorgian officials confirmed on 5 May that President Shevardnadze has set 2 November as the date for the country's parliamentary election, "The Georgian Times" reported. RG
 GERMAN DELEGATION MEETS WITH GEORGIAN OFFICIALSA delegation of the German Constitutional Court arrived in Tbilisi on 5 May for two days of meetings with President Shevardnadze and other senior Georgian officials, "The Georgian Times" reported. The three-member German delegation, led by Constitutional Court Chairman Hans Papier, is seeking to expand cooperation between the two countries' court systems and to provide advanced training to Georgian judges. The visiting Germans also met with parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze and Georgian Constitutional Court Chairman John Khetsurian. RG
 ABKHAZ, RUSSIAN OFFICIAL DISCUSS SOCHI-ACCORDS IMPLEMENTATIONRussian Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin met with Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khajimba on 4 May to discuss the implementation of several key points of the agreement reached in Sochi in March by the Russian and Georgian presidents, according to RIA-Novosti and "The Georgian Times." The discussion centered on the reestablishment of the railway line from Sochi to Tbilisi via Abkhazia, the reconstruction of the Inguri Hydroelectric Station, and the repatriation of internally displaced persons to their homes in the southern Gali Raion of Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003). RG
 GEORGIAN PRESIDENT PARTICIPATES IN EBRD FORUMPresident Shevardnadze traveled to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on 3 May to attend a meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's (EBRD) board of governors, "The Georgian Times" and AFP reported. The 4-5 May EBRD forum focused on developing more extensive trade links and expanded economic cooperation among CIS states. Participants also discussed the postconflict reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Shevardnadze joined the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan at the meeting. RG
 KAZAKH OPPOSITION MOVEMENT CALLS FOR REFERENDUM ON PRIVATE LANDOWNERSHIPThe leadership of the opposition Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) movement told a press conference in Almaty on 5 May that the draft Land Code now before the upper house of the Kazakh parliament should be put to a national referendum, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The new Land Code, drawn up and submitted to the parliament by the government, would introduce private ownership of agricultural land, and it has been the subject of impassioned debate among Kazakh politicians for several months. Many opposition figures argue that the privatization scheme envisioned by the government would favor the wealthy. Chairman of the DVK Political Council and Majilis (lower house) deputy Tolen Tokhtasynov was quoted as telling the press conference that there must be a general public discussion of the implications of the proposed code, adding that the disagreements generated by the privatization issue demonstrate "how acute the crisis in the country's political system is." The Majilis adopted the code last week with so many amendments that the government claimed its draft has been gutted. The government is now seeking the advice of the Constitutional Council on whether to call for a parliamentary vote of confidence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May 2003). BB
 KAZAKHSTAN WANTS TO CHAIR OSCEKazakhstan's Ambassador to the OSCE Rakhat Aliev told a news conference in Almaty on 5 May that the country has proposed itself as the organization's chairmanship in 2009, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The chairmanship rotates annually, and no Central Asian member has yet held the post, although some have inquired privately of OSCE representatives if a Central Asian chairmanship would be possible. Aliev reportedly speculated that Kazakhstan's proposal might be considered next year by the OSCE membership, which makes decisions by consensus. Aliev added that Kazakhstan will have to more fully implement its commitments to OSCE principles in order to obtain the chairmanship. The Interfax report noted that Sweden has promised to back Kazakhstan's candidacy. BB
 KAZAKHSTAN CLOSES BORDER WITH CHINA TO STOP SARSKazakh Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmaghambetov on 5 May ordered that Kazakhstan's border with China be closed until 20 May to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the same day. He also instructed the Foreign Ministry to bring the families of staff members at the Kazakh Embassy in Beijing and other Kazakh citizens back to Kazakhstan until the health situation in China normalizes. Several ministries were told to compile a list of Kazakh citizens registered with the Kazakh Embassy in Beijing and submit it to the Health Ministry within three days so that an organized return home can be organized. Regular air, rail, and road communications with China will be suspended within three days, although flights bringing Kazakh citizens home from China will reportedly not be affected. Tasmaghambetov also ordered the suspension of tourist trips to China. Kazakhstan has not registered any SARS cases, but has had at least one SARS scare (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2003). BB
 INDEPENDENT KYRGYZ NEWSPAPER TO BE DISTRIBUTED IN UZBEKISTANThe independent Uzbek-language newspaper "Dustlik" (Friendship), published in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, will be distributed in neighboring Uzbekistan, according to the publication's Editor in Chief Barno Isakova, who said she has reached an agreement with the relevant Uzbek authorities, oshmedia.kg and Deutsche Welle reported on 5 May. The copies of the newspaper for distribution in Uzbekistan will be printed in Andijan for the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley and in Tashkent, Isakova was quoted as saying. She added that the Uzbek authorities have demanded that any articles that offend official Tashkent be replaced by advertisements in the Uzbekistan version. Oshmedia.kz noted that this is the first time the Kyrgyz press will be distributed officially in Uzbekistan. BB
 TURKMEN AMBASSADOR TO BRITAIN ASKS FOR POLITICAL ASYLUMTurkmen Ambassador to the United Kingdom Chary Babaev has been ordered to return to Ashgabat after it became known that he has asked Great Britain for political asylum, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 5 May, quoting AP. The report quoted the British Foreign Office as saying that it does not know Babaev's present whereabouts. Babaev is the latest Turkmen diplomat to choose to defect rather than obey an order to return home. Such orders are usually issued in connection with major national holidays, at which Turkmenistan's ambassadors abroad are expected to be present. According to the report, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has created a new post at Turkmen embassies abroad for an official who monitors embassy staff. In addition, families of Turkmen diplomats posted abroad are required to remain in Turkmenistan. BB
 EBRD ANNUAL MEETING ENDS IN TASHKENT WITH CALLS FOR REFORMThe annual meeting of the EBRD's board of governors ended in Tashkent on 5 May with a closing speech by board Chairwoman Clare Short, the U.K. secretary for international development, in which she listed what the bank sees as the key steps to be taken to attract international investment to the region, uzreport.com reported on 6 May. These steps include creating a favorable investment climate, developing regional cooperation, reducing poverty, eliminating excessive bureaucracy, combating corruption, establishing rational and predictable rules and regulations, and respecting human rights. Short noted that the EBRD meeting was open to representatives of civil society, at the bank's insistence, adding that the real test will be whether respect for civil society and freedom of expression continue after the meeting. Short has criticized the EBRD, according to uzreport.com, for not devoting more attention to the social welfare of the populations of countries where economic transition has been slow. BB
 EBRD CHIEF ECONOMIST NOTES SLOW GROWTH IN UZBEKISTANAt a news conference on 5 May in connection with the EBRD annual meeting, EBRD Chief Economist Willem Buiter presented the latest version of the bank's report on the progress of countries with transition economies, focusing particularly on the situation in Uzbekistan, Interfax reported. Buiter noted that foreign investment in Uzbekistan is the lowest -- $6 per capita -- of the Central Asian countries where the bank is active. The EBRD report projects a growth rate of 2.5 percent for the Uzbek economy in 2003 and an inflation rate of 18.4 percent. Quoting these figures, Buiter noted it is difficult to expect progress in the economy without radical reforms. Among the elementary market reforms needed in Uzbekistan, Buiter listed the unification of the currency-exchange rates and the creation of a free market in currency, trade liberalization, the reduction of customs duties, and the development of cross-border trade. He was quoted as saying that the Uzbek state needs to provide social guarantees to its citizens and to develop trade in agricultural products. BB
 JAPANESE MINISTER SEES PARTNERSHIP WITH UZBEKISTAN IN AFGHAN RECONSTRUCTIONJapanese Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa, in Tashkent to attend the EBRD meeting, met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on 5 May to discuss bilateral relations, Interfax reported, quoting the Uzbek presidential press service. Shiokawa was quoted as saying that Japan would like to exploit Uzbekistan's infrastructure and resources in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Karimov assessed the relationship between Uzbekistan and Japan as having become a strategic partnership. The report noted that 18 Japanese companies have opened offices in Uzbekistan, and that seven Japanese-Uzbek joint ventures are operating, as are three enterprises set up with Japanese investments. In addition, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japan External Trade Organization have opened offices in Tashkent. BB
CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE
 ANOTHER BELARUSIAN NGO THREATENED WITH LIQUIDATIONCivic Initiatives, a leading nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Homel Oblast, has come under threat of closure, Belapan reported on 5 May, quoting Civic Initiatives leader Viktar Karnyayenka. Civic Initiatives was informed last week by the Homel Oblast Executive Committee of the results of a recent inspection. The correspondence says Civic Initiatives "is subject to judicial liquidation." According to state inspectors, the organization used incorrect letterheads and violated internal procedure by admitting new members and nominating observers to local-election commissions at the same board meetings. "These allegations are just ridiculous and are not substantiated with any material evidence," Karnyayenka said. "This is the Belarusian authorities' insolent response to the 17 April UN resolution on human rights violations in Belarus" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2003). Last month, the Justice Ministry filed lawsuits aimed at banning three prominent NGOs in Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2003). JM
 UKRAINIAN TROOPS INVITED TO PARTICIPATE IN IRAQ STABILIZATIONForeign Ministry spokesman Markiyan Lubkivskyy told journalists on 6 May that Ukraine has been invited to send troops to Iraq to join stabilization forces there, Interfax reported. "We have received relevant proposals on this matter, [and they] are being studied thoroughly," Lubkivskyy said. "We are also summarizing the proposals and determining the opportunities for our participation. In this context, intensive consultations with the U.S. side are under way," he added. International news agencies reported that last week Ukraine offered to contribute troops to stabilization forces in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 6 May 2003). JM
 ESTONIAN PRIME MINISTER PAYS FIRST FOREIGN VISITPrime Minister Juhan Parts paid a working visit to Copenhagen on 5 May, during which he discussed the future of the European Union with his Danish counterpart Anders Fogh Rasmussen, BNS reported the next day. Rasmussen supported the view that the 10 EU candidate countries should have the same rights as current EU members of the EU Convention on the Future of Europe. The premiers also discussed the very good relations between Estonia and Denmark and said they expect to develop further bilateral relations following Estonia's accession to the EU. Parts invited Rasmussen to visit Estonia this fall. Shortly after becoming prime minister, Parts said Finland would be the first country he would visit, but he changed this in view of the planned visit to Tallinn next week by the new Finnish Prime Minister Anneli Jaatteenmaki. SG
 LATVIAN PRESIDENT SAYS INTRODUCTION OF PRIMARY LANGUAGE IN SCHOOLS WILL BENEFIT STUDENTSIn an interview in the Russian-language newspaper "Vesti segodna" of 5 May, Vaira Vike-Freiberga called on parents and teachers to avoid overdramatizing the situation regarding the education reform planned for 2004 that will make Latvian the official language of instruction in all Latvian schools, LETA reported. The measure is expected to primarily affect Russian-speaking students. She said the goal of the reforms is to guarantee that every child in Latvia, regardless of ethnicity, is fluent in Latvian upon graduating from school and thus has equal career opportunities. "The purpose of the reform is not to assimilate children of other nationalities," Vike-Freiberga said. "No one has ever forced national minorities in Latvia to give up their language, culture, or national heritage." She said the 1 1/2 years remaining until the main phase of the reform is implemented will provide enough time to prepare for the changes. SG
 LITHUANIA'S COUNCIL OF NATIONAL COMMUNITIES SUPPORTS EU MEMBERSHIPThe Council of National Communities, representing some 20 nationalities living in Lithuania, issued a statement on 5 May urging the people to vote "yes" in the country's EU-membership referendum on 10-11 May, BNS reported. The statement said Lithuanian EU membership would secure possibilities for all residents to preserve their national identities and cherish their cultures, as EU member states have proven their success finding ways to "curb national egoism, secure political stability, and protect human rights." The Central Election Commission announced that the number of eligible voters is slightly more than 2.6 million, or some 100,000 fewer than in the presidential elections in January. President Rolandas Paksas on 2 May vetoed a bill that would have allowed the removal from the list of some 200,000 people who unofficially traveled abroad, ELTA reported. Although polls indicate that almost two-thirds of the population support EU membership, some fear that voter turnout might be less than the 50 percent-plus-one-vote needed to validate the referendum. SG
 U.S. REPORTEDLY TO SPONSOR POLISH STABILIZATION TROOPS IN IRAQ...Citing a statement by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Polish Radio reported on 6 May that the U.S.-led coalition's budget will finance the deployment of Polish stabilization troops to Iraq. The decision is among the results of Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski's current visit to Washington (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 6 May 2003), the station said. The Polish deployment will cost an estimated $90 million per year. Deputy Defense Minister Janusz Zemke said on 6 May that he was headed to Washington later in the day to discuss the details of the Polish stabilization mission in Iraq. "Such preparation involves selecting people as well as their training, vaccination, insurance, and other services," Zemke said. "These activities will have to be carried out fairly quickly. As far as we are concerned, we must find resources for some personal services. I cannot imagine, for example, us not paying [troops'] insurance or servicemen having to pay for their vaccination or bearing other personal costs." JM
 ...WHILE POLAND WANTS TO INVOLVE GERMANS, DANESSzmajdzinski suggested in Washington on 5 May that the "Polish stabilization force" in Iraq comprise Polish, Danish, and German troops and be commanded on a rotating basis by officers from those three countries, Polish media reported. The rotating command would reflect Polish-Danish-German cooperation in a joint NATO corps with its headquarters in the Polish port of Szczecin, Szmajdzinski added. However, Copenhagen reportedly has pledged to commit its troops to the British stabilization sector, while German Defense Minister Peter Struck said on 4 May that Berlin will not send any troops to Iraq. Szmajdzinski proposed 54-year-old General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, deputy commander of Polish ground troops, to command the stabilization force in the Polish sector in Iraq. Szmajdzinski also proposed that Professor Marek Belka, a former Polish finance minister, be appointed a deputy chief of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Postwar Iraq (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 6 May 2003). JM
 CZECH DEPUTIES IN BIND OVER NEW EUROPARLIAMENTARY STATUSIn an effort to muster sufficient support in a number of key votes slated for mid-May, Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla is seeking to ban foreign travel by coalition deputies in the lower house during sessions of the Czech parliament, the daily "Pravo" reported on 6 May. The three-party coalition has a one-seat majority in the Chamber of Deputies, and nine ruling-party deputies are among 17 lower-house representatives with observer status in the European Parliament (EP), according to CTK. "In the current political situation, it is impossible to attend all EP sessions because the Chamber of Deputies would not be able to function," Freedom Union-Democratic Union Deputy Pavel Svoboda said in Brussels on 5 May. The senior opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) also recently abandoned the practice of "pairing," whereby opposition deputies sit out in equal numbers when coalition representatives are away on government business, in an effort to exert greater pressure on the Social Democratic Party-led government. AH
 CZECH COURT TOSSES OUT MEDIA MOGUL'S DEFAMATION SUITA Prague city court on 5 May rejected a libel suit brought by TV Nova Director and Senator Vladimir Zelezny against a former subordinate who has since opposed Zelezny in an ongoing legal battle for control of the station, CTK reported. Citing procedural grounds, Judge Jaroslava Lobotkova ruled that Zelezny may not sue Jan Vavra as an individual in the case, since he was identified as the director of rival CNTS in an opinion piece Vavra contributed to the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" of 27 November 2001. Zelezny alleged that Vavra wronged him personally and denied him the presumption of innocence in that article and was seeking some 100,000 crowns ($3,630) in damages and a published apology. The judge also said Zelezny did not specify which information in the article was untrue. Vavra, a former news director under Zelezny, joined forces with Ron Lauder's Central European Media Enterprises (CME) after Zelezny ousted those investors in 1999. A lawyer for Zelezny, who faces six charges of defrauding a creditor and tax evasion in connection with the station, vowed to appeal the ruling. AH
 EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER HAILS SLOVAK GOVERNMENT'S PRO-EU CAMPAIGN...European Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen suggested during a visit to Bratislava on 5 May that the broad pro-EU consensus in Slovakia makes it all right for the government to gloss over any negative aspects of EU accession, TASR and CTK reported. He added that the center-right government, parliament, and political parties are not neutral in their assessments, and a majority of the Slovak public is in favor of accession. "If I thought that membership had a negative impact, I would not be here," Verheugen responded to opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia deputy Diana Dubovska when asked how he would best explain the negative aspects of the EU to the public, according to CTK. Verheugen urged Slovaks to turn out for the 16-17 May referendum on EU accession, which he said is probably the most important decision that Slovaks will face this century. AH
 ...AND KEEPS HIS DISTANCE FROM SLOVAK-HUNGARIAN SQUABBLE OVER STATUS LAWVerheugen also said in the Slovak capital on 5 May that the European Commission is playing no role in the current effort to resolve Slovak-Hungarian differences over the Hungarian Status Law, CTK reported. The commission has already publicly criticized the Status Law, but is not party to the lingering dispute, Verheugen told a meeting of Slovak parliamentarians. The European Commission has warned that the Status Law, in which the Hungarian government seeks to grant benefits to ethnic Hungarians abroad, may not be applied outside of Hungary without the agreement of the relevant governments, CTK reported. Roughly 10 percent of the 5 million Slovak citizens are of Hungarian descent. AH
 SLOVAKS LIKELY TO PULL NBC UNIT FROM PERSIAN GULFDefense Minister Ivan Simko said on 6 May that Slovakia will probably withdraw its anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) troops from the Persian Gulf, possibly by the end of May or early June, TASR reported. The roughly 70 Slovak NBC troops are currently engaged in the humanitarian effort in and around Al-Basrah, in southern Iraq, and thus are not carrying out tasks related to their specialization, TASR added. Simko said Slovak officials would prefer to deploy troops trained for the type of operations in which they will participate. AH
 HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER RESHUFFLES CABINETPeter Medgyessy announced in parliament on 5 May that he will replace three cabinet ministers and create a new ministerial post, saying new dynamics must be brought into the government process, Hungarian media reported. Medgyessy said his senior adviser, Ferenc Gyurcsany, will succeed Youth and Sports Minister Gyorgy Janosi; the Education Ministry's political state secretary, Istvan Hiller, will replace Culture Minister Gabor Gorgey; Budapest Zoo Director Miklos Persanyi -- who was an environmental-protection adviser to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development -- will succeed Environment Minister Maria Korodi; and Katalin Levai will assume the newly created post of minister without portfolio responsible for enhancing equal opportunities for women and Roma. All the new ministers are expected to take up their posts on 19 May. MSZ
 HUNGARY'S FIDESZ REJECTS ARMED PEACEKEEPING ROLE IN IRAQHungary's largest opposition party, FIDESZ, made it clear during parliamentary debate on 5 May that it will not support the deployment of Hungarian peacekeepers to Iraq unless such a mission has UN or NATO authorization, "Nepszabadsag" reported. FIDESZ also proposed that Hungary play a role in peacekeeping through a medical or technical contingent rather than an armed military unit. The smaller opposition Democratic Forum also said military participation should be based on international authorization. Those two opposition parties voted down a government motion to fast-track the debate, so general debate on a possible Hungarian role in Iraq was expected to begin on 6 May. Parliament on 5 May approved transit and overflight rights through 2004 for the armed forces of countries that are taking part in Iraq peacekeeping duties and humanitarian operations. MSZ
 WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL INDICTS TWO SERBIAN FORMER SECURITY CHIEFSJim Landale, a spokesman for the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, said on 5 May that indictments were issued four days earlier for Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic "Frenki" on five counts of crimes against humanity during the 1991-95 conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia, Reuters and RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Stanisic is a former head of the State Security Service (SDB), while Simatovic headed the recently disbanded elite Special Operations Unit (JSO) within the SDB. Police arrested both men as part of the crackdown following the 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 26 March 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March 2003). Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said the authorities will extradite both men to The Hague after receiving a formal request, adding that the extradition process could take up to two weeks. PM
 SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER CALLS ON COURTS TO ACTZoran Zivkovic said in Belgrade on 5 May that the police crackdown is over, adding that the time has come for the courts to bring the indicted individuals to justice, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2003). He stressed that the government "will not interfere" with the work of the judiciary but warned: "I expect justice to be on the level." In recent weeks, authorities fired dozens of judges believed to be linked to organized crime, but many Serbs believe that other judges on the criminals' payroll are still on the bench (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 21 and 26 March 2003). PM
 STABILITY PACT HEAD SAYS SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO STILL HEADED FOR THE EUErhard Busek, who heads the EU-led Southeastern Europe Stability Pact, said in Vienna on 6 May that Djindjic's assassination has not set Serbia and Montenegro back in its efforts to join the EU, dpa reported. Busek added, however, that it is unclear when Serbia and Montenegro and its western Balkan neighbors might realistically expect to join the Brussels-based bloc. He argued that the status of Kosova is the biggest problem facing the countries of the region in their quest for membership. Observers note that joining the EU is important to the western Balkan states because membership means financial assistance, a role in European decision-making, and the prestige of belonging to what is still regarded in the Balkans as "the rich man's club." PM
 MACEDONIAN INTELLIGENCE CHIEF QUITSDosta Dimovska announced her resignation in Skopje on 5 May in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions between President Boris Trajkovski, who pardoned her for her role in an earlier wiretapping scandal, and the government, which has been critical of the pardon, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 April 2003). She added: "My resignation is the result of an improper campaign against me as a politician and head of intelligence agency. [The resignation should nonetheless] bring relations between the government and the president back to normal." Both Trajkovski and Dimovska belong to the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE). PM
 KOSOVA EXPORTS ELECTRICITY TO ALBANIAA spokeswoman for the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) said in Prishtina on 5 May that the Obilic electric power plant has begun supplying power to Albania, which provided electricity to Kosova the previous winter, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. She added that Kosova produces 526 megawatt hours of electric power daily but needs only 400 megawatt hours. It is unclear why electricity is not yet supplied to all homes in Kosova for 24 hours each day. PM
 IS THE CROATIAN PRIME MINISTER DELAYING ON CALLING ELECTIONS?Prime Minister Ivica Racan said in Zagreb on 6 May that his Social Democratic Party (SDP) has neither begun its election campaign nor decided on when it wants to call parliamentary elections because it is too busy concentrating on preparations for EU membership, Hina reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 April 2003). The government is legally obliged to call elections by April 2004 at the latest, but some members of the governing coalition -- such as the Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) -- want them as early as this fall. Racan and the SDP is believed to favor a later date. PM
 ROMANIA, RUSSIA APPROVE TEXT OF BASIC TREATYVisiting Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and his Romanian counterpart Mircea Geoana on 5 May approved the text of the Romanian-Russian basic treaty, Romanian media reported. President Ion Iliescu is to sign the document in Moscow in July. The treaty was negotiated for 10 years. Ivanov said the document marks a new phase of bilateral relations that looks to the future and not the past. Geoana said bilateral relations can "return to normalcy" after a "complicated decade." The treaty avoids the issue of the repatriation to Romania of gold and cultural items confiscated by the Soviet Union after World War II. That issue is to be settled by a joint commission of experts and Ivanov said it must be resolved through diplomacy and not by emotions. Ivanov also promised to support Romania's candidacy for a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council, an RFE/RL correspondent in Bucharest reported. ZsM
 ROMANIAN PRESIDENT OFFERS ADVICE TO U.S. AMBASSADORPresident Iliescu said in an interview with Berlin's "Die Tageszeitung" that ambassadors should not intervene in the internal affairs of the countries where they are stationed, Romanian media reported on 5 May. In an apparent reference to comments U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest made in which he warned that Romania must step up its fight against corruption lest it endanger its relations with the United States and the European Union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2003), Iliescu said no ambassador should "give us lessons regarding the fight against corruption." He concluded it is "first of all" Romania's problem to fight corruption. ZsM
 BRITISH PRIME MINISTER EXPRESSES SUPPORT FOR ROMANIA'S EU-ACCESSION BIDTony Blair has said in a letter to his Romanian counterpart Adrian Nastase that he "fully" supports Romania's bid for EU accession, according to a press release issued by the Romanian government on 5 May. Blair said the two countries "are closer than ever," and the two premiers share a "common vision" of both the European Union and the world. Blair concluded his letter by saying he wants Romania and the United Kingdom to become "equal partners -- strong and dedicated to an expanded European Union." ZsM
 MOLDOVAN AMBASSADOR TO ROMANIA HAILS BASIC TREATYEmil Ciobu said on 5 May that the agreement on the terms of a basic treaty between Romania and Russia (see above) represents a "victory" for Romanian diplomacy, which adopted a pragmatic approach to bilateral relations, an RFE/RL correspondent in Chisinau reported. Ciobu said the treaty will have positive effects on Moldova. Popular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca said he hopes that with the improvement of relations between Bucharest and Moscow, the ruling Communist authorities in Chisinau will also decide to improve relations with Romania. ZsM
 BULGARIA EXPRESSES INTEREST IN HOSTING U.S. MILITARY BASESForeign Minister Solomon Pasi said in an interview with bTV on 5 April that Bulgaria will "do its best" to convince the United States to set up military bases on its territory, novintite.bg reported. The United States is considering reducing its military presence in Western Europe and setting up new military bases and facilities in Eastern Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). Pasi said such a move would "guarantee the peace, security, and economic development of the region." Pasi was expected to fly on 6 May to Washington, where he will attend a meeting at the White House with the ministers of seven NATO candidate states and U.S. President George. W. Bush on 8 May. MES
SOUTHWESTERN ASIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
 FORMER HEAD OF IRAQI MILITARY'S BIOLOGICAL LABS IN COALITION CUSTODYHuda Saleh Mahdi Ammash, a U.S.-trained microbiologist dubbed "Dr. Anthrax" by international media for her presumed role in Iraq's biological-warfare program, was taken into custody by U.S. forces on 4 May, Reuters reported the next day. Ammash served in the Ba'ath Party as chairwoman of the youth and trade bureau, according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). She was 53rd on CENTCOM's list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Ammash holds a doctorate from the University of Missouri and headed the Iraqi Military Industrial Organization's (MIO) biological laboratories in the mid-1990s. Ammash is the daughter of a former Iraqi minister, Saleh Mahdi Ammash, who was killed in the 1980s, reportedly on Hussein's order. U.S. officials believe Ammash might have valuable information on Iraq's biological-warfare (BW) program. "She has intimate knowledge of the workings of Iraq's BW program and the nature and the extent of that program, as well [as being] in a position to know possible locations of where material or production facilities might be located," an unnamed U.S. official told Reuters. KR
 DEPOSED PRESIDENT'S SON WITHDREW $1 BILLION BEFORE CONFLICTDeposed President Hussein's son Qusay reportedly withdrew almost $1 billion in cash from the Iraqi Central Bank just hours before the U.S.-led attack on Iraq began, "The New York Times" website reported on 5 May (http://www.nytimes.com/). The withdrawal was ordered by President Hussein, according to an unidentified Iraqi official who held a senior position in the bank, the daily reported. Qusay Hussein and Abid al-Hamid Mahmud, the deposed president's personal assistant, reportedly took the money at 4 a.m. on 18 March, using three tractor trailers to transport some $900 million in U.S. $100 bills and nearly $100 million worth of euros, "The New York Times" reported. The Iraqi official said the money equaled around one-quarter of the Central Bank's hard-currency reserves. A U.S. Treasury official reportedly corroborated what "The New York Times" described as "one of the largest bank robberies in history." KR
 DELEGATES ELECT MAYOR, COUNCIL IN MAJOR NORTHERN IRAQI CITYFormer Iraqi Major General Ghanim al-Bassu was elected mayor of Mosul in Iraq's first post-Hussein election on 5 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 May 2003), Al-Jazeera reported the same day. Al-Bassu had served in the Iraqi Army under the Hussein regime that also killed his brother. He told Al-Jazeera after the vote that all Iraqis were represented in the voting. "All the people in Ninawa [Governorate] were represented in the elections.... No faction, religion, or person was excluded," he said. "We are all united to emerge from this crisis. The elections were conducted in a democratic and fair manner." Speaking on the U.S. presence in Iraq, he said: "Our country is currently occupied. We believe that the occupiers are our friends.... The coalition forces did not intervene in the democratic process, which took place in their presence." In addition to al-Bassu's election, delegates also elected a 24-member city council. KR
 HEAD OF RECONSTRUCTION SAYS FIVE OPPOSITION MEMBERS FORMING IRAQI LEADERSHIPJay Garner, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Postwar Iraq (ORHA), told reporters during a 5 May visit to the southern city of Al-Basrah that five opposition leaders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 May 2003) are currently working on the formation of an interim Iraqi government, Reuters reported the same day. "The five opposition leaders have begun having meetings, and they are going to bring in leaders from inside Iraq and see if we can't form a nucleus of leadership as we enter into June," Garner said. It was also announced on 5 May that Danish diplomat Ole Wohlers Olsen will serve as the southeast regional coordinator for ORHA. His appointment transforms ORHA's previously reported three-region administrative division into four regions, according to Reuters. KR
 IRAQ TELEVISION BUILDING ATTACKEDThe building that temporarily houses Iraq Television was attacked by unidentified gunmen who destroyed the studio and stole equipment, according to a 5 May Al-Jazeera report. The channel was to begin six hours of daily transmissions after several weeks off the air. An unidentified man told Al-Jazeera that television employees had requested protection for the building. "We want only an approval by the U.S. forces to arm some young men who have expressed their readiness to volunteer for free to protect this institution," he said. Al-Jazeera reported that employees and managers had to collect equipment in order to operate Iraq Radio. KR
 MARTYRED IRAQI CLERICS TO BE COMMEMORATED IN IRAN...Hojatoleslam val Moslemin Javad Shahrestani, who represents Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Qom, said on 4 May that the Shi'a sources of emulation in Qom and in Lebanon have agreed that seminaries will hold a day of mourning on 7 May in honor of 130 clerics who were martyred by the Ba'athist regime, ISNA reported. Shahrestani said an afternoon ceremony will be held at Qom's Azam Mosque and an evening ceremony will take place at Tehran's Arg Mosque. Moreover, Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad Fazel-Movahedi-Lankarani, Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, Hussein Vahid-Khorasani, Javad Tabrizi, Safi-Golpayegani, Ardabili, and Musa Shobeyri-Zanjani expressed their indignation at the Ba'athists' atrocities and announced that they will not teach any classes on 7 May, Tehran television reported. BS
 ...AS SUPREME LEADER ASSIGNS BLAMESupreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a message of condolence on 4 May that noted that the religious figures represent just a small portion of those killed by Iraq's rulers, Iranian state television reported. Khamenei said, in the report's words, "The arrogant powers who helped the Iraqi regime with their biased silence will be as accountable as the Iraqi criminals in the altar of God." Khamenei offered his condolences to judiciary head Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, whose three brothers died in Iraqi prisons, and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, 18 of whose relatives died in Iraqi prisons. Former Iraqi President Hussein "did things that would even put savage beasts to shame," Shahrudi told ISNA the next day. "Acting under the guise of disingenuous populist slogans, Saddam committed savage acts." BS
 SCIRI HEAD PREPARES FOR POLITICAL ASCENDANCYSCIRI leader al-Hakim intends to resign from his post once he returns to Iraq so he can concentrate on Islamic scholarship as a source of emulation, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported on 5 May, citing London's "Al-Hayat" newspaper. This would transform al-Hakim from an opposition figure into a senior religious figure and pave the way for his political leadership, according to ILNA. However, al-Hakim is not known as a source of emulation in Iran, where he has spent the last 20 years, and he therefore has not had much interaction with the ulama (Islamic scholars) of Iraq, where he supposedly is going. According to the "Al-Hayat" report, SCIRI jihad bureau head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim is the top candidate to succeed Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. BS
 SCIRI OFFERS TO PLAY SECURITY ROLE IN SOUTHERN IRAQSCIRI leader al-Hakim said in the 5 May issue of London's "Al-Hayat" that "the Iraqi people are now demanding U.S. and British withdrawal. This is also a regional and international demand and all the neighboring countries share it with us." In a recent meeting with British military personnel during their visit to the SCIRI office in Basra, the SCIRI expressed its readiness to provide security in southern Iraqi cities, SCIRI official Salah Musavi told IRNA on 4 May. Al-Hakim also told "Al-Hayat" that the SCIRI will participate in an interim or transitional government if it is created within the framework of the December London conference or the February conference in Salah Al-Din. The December framework called for a 65-member "Follow-Up and Coordination Committee" that would "liaise between the various groups and represent them in talks with world and regional leaders." Some reports of the committee's membership indicate that about 35 percent of the 65-member committee would be individuals or groups that represent an Islamist stance, while 25 percent would be parties or individuals with a secular leaning. Another 25 percent of the members represent minority/autonomy interests, and 15 percent represent military groups, minority organizations, or are independents (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 2 May 2003). BS
 TOP IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY OFFICIALS SLATED FOR AMBASSADORIAL POSTSForeign Ministry Spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi is to be appointed ambassador to Canada, Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Ali Ahani will be ambassador to Belgium, and Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs Hamid Reza Adeli will be named ambassador to Britain, the Baztab website reported on 5 May, citing Iran's Fars News Agency. SF
 IRAN'S CIVIL-SERVANT SALARY COLAS LIMITEDIranian economist Bahman Partovi has said that Iran's State Management and Planning Organization (SMPO) will limit salary increases for government employees to 14 percent, which is the inflation rate the SMPO predicted for the current Iranian year that started on 21 March, IRNA reported on 4 May. That rate is somewhat higher than the 12.61 percent that Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Safdar Husseini announced the same day, as reported by "Iran Daily." Partovi said the SMPO was "optimistic" in its estimate of the inflation rate, which he said might top 20 percent. A parliamentary commission has projected the rate will exceed 21.7 percent, he said. SF
 INFERIOR TECHNOLOGY SAID TO BE CAUSING PROBLEMS IN IRAN'S ENERGY SECTORDavud Yusefi, the head of the National Iranian Gas Company's Department for Investigation of Resources and Projects, told IRNA on 5 May that Iran is wasting some 6 trillion cubic meters of the country's gas resources due to the "inferior standards of domestic technology." He said only about 20 trillion out of 26.6 trillion cubic meters are being exploited. He added that a project is under way to lay a fourth nationwide gas pipeline. Meanwhile, a member of parliament's Energy Commission, Mohammad-Reza Esmaili-Moqaddam, told IRNA on 4 May that the country's worn-out refineries are in need of renovation and optimization if Iran is to reduce its need for imported gasoline. SF
 BARBIES INVADE MASHHADThe conservative daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" complained on 29 April that the bazaar in the city of Mashhad has been flooded with "foreign dolls named 'Barbie.'" The paper said that "no supervision is exercised" on the advertisements for the dolls, which "teach bad lessons to children" and are so pervasive that they even appear on food wrappings and clothes. In recent years the Islamic Republic expended great effort to develop a properly veiled "Sara" doll, who along with her friend "Dara" were meant to compete with Barbie and Ken. But, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" rued, the Iranian pair is not to be found anywhere in the shops of Mashhad. SF
 U.S. TO RELEASE MORE THAN 20 GUANTANAMO PRISONERSU.S. Pentagon officials have said the U.S. government is preparing to free 15-30 terrorism suspects from its high-security prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, AP reported on 5 May. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 4 May that releasing suspects imprisoned in Cuba is a process that is "complicated and slow." Prisoners are first subjected to a series of questionings by various U.S. agencies, including the FBI, the Defense, Justice, and State departments, the Central Intelligence Agency, and U.S. immigration services. The detention by the United States of more than 660 prisoners from about 42 countries, who have been held without formal charges being levied against them and without access to legal assistance, has been widely criticized. Rights groups continue to criticize the policy, arguing that the proposed release of the 15-30 prisoners is "too little, too late," according to AP. Since the prison was opened in January 2002 during the U.S-led military operations in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, 23 people have been released officially, according to AP. KM
 G-8 SAYS AL-QAEDA THREAT STILL SERIOUSJustice and interior ministers of the Group of Eight industrialized nations (G-8) on 5 May issued a new warning about Al-Qaeda, saying the terrorist network remains a "serious" threat in spite of the destruction of most of its bases in Afghanistan, international news agencies reported. At a meeting in Paris, representatives from Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States issued a statement warning of the dangers of terrorism as a "pervasive and global threat," AP and AFP reported. The statement singled out Al-Qaeda as the foremost threat. The group also raised a red flag regarding potential terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, arguing that G-8 states must be prepared for such attacks. The meeting was held ahead of the summit of G-8 leaders that is to be held in France on 1-3 June. KM
 AFGHAN CHAIRMAN TRAVELS TO SOUTHERN AFGHANISTANAfghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and a delegation of government ministers traveled from Kabul on 6 May to meet with a number of leaders and elders in southern Afghanistan, including the volatile Khost Province, Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Khost reported the same day. The security and stability of the region, which has been plagued by attacks against Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops, were expected to be the topic of discussion. Last week, Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim traveled to northern Afghanistan to meet with leaders there. These efforts to reach out to leaders and elders in the provinces, where the transitional government has had little administrative control, could signal a new effort by Karzai to establish central authority over the entire country. Such control is seen as a necessary precondition for future stability that would facilitate the election of representatives for the Constitutional Loya Jirga in October and the general elections to be held in 2004. KM
 WILL LUKASHENKA EVER START REFORMS?By Vital Silitski
Economic reforms in Belarus have been under consideration for the past two years at every level of the government, including the presidency. The trend was set during the 2001 presidential election, when President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made generous promises concerning the liberalization of the economic activities and the privatization of big industry. Later, the authorities declared their intention to streamline the country's Soviet-style social-security system, and talks about agricultural reform resulted in a plan to restructure the collective-farm system. But with the passage of time, one can see few, if any, signs of progress. Now, the circle seems to be closed as Lukashenka reiterates his adherence to his decade-long market-socialism policies.
This can be concluded from Lukashenka's 16 April annual address to the National Assembly, in which he claimed yet another success for his economic model. "GDP growth was 104.7 percent in 2002. Compared to the 1 percent growth in European countries like France and Germany, our development has a good dynamic," he declared in that address.
Not even the integration with Russia will be used to justify changing the president's economic-policy course. "A part of the Russian economic and political elite is trying to condition the union by our adoption of the Russian neo-liberal economic model," Lukashenka said. "But the claim that the difference of economic systems hampers the creation of a single economic space is incorrect. A convincing evidence is the example of China and Hong Kong, united according to the principle 'one country, two systems.'"
The record of economic policy making in the past few months might confirm that the long-awaited economic liberalization has turned into a never-ending story that has hardly any substantial chance of being realized. Thus, grandiose privatization talks have so far ended in a sell-off of the government's minority share in the Slavneft oil company. At the same time, however, the government completed the process of corporatization (i.e., transformation of a state enterprise into a joint-stock company, initially with 100 percent state capital) of the Beltranshaz gas-transportation network and much of the petrochemical giants, which technically paves the way for their privatization. But Lukashenka still insists that the government will maintain control over every privatized enterprise in the initial stage, irrespective of investors' proposals or conditions.
This reluctance to surrender control over property became absurd in the case of the beer industry, where several companies in Belarus received investment offers from large beer manufacturers in Russia and the United States. The list includes the Krynitsa brewery in Minsk (offers from the St. Petersburg-based Baltika), as well as breweries in Brest, Slutsk (offers from Ochakovo in Moscow), and Babruysk (offers from the U.S. Detroit-Belarus Brewing Inc.) All of them have now postponed or abandoned their investment plans, and Baltika had to withdraw after investing about $10 million in Krynitsa. Lukashenka offered no apologies for the confiscation of the investment, declaring to students at Belarusian State University in March: "Oh, they [the Russian press and opposition] started to moan that, you see, Lukashenka has robbed the Russian oligarchs. Say thanks that there is at least one president who robbed them!"
Lukashenka played a similar role when he invited the president of Detroit-Belarus Brewing for talks and expressed interest in an investment. The next day, however, he held a meeting with the heads of all major beer manufacturers, at which he declared that the country needs no foreign investment in this industry and ordered one of the country's largest commercial banks, Priorbank, to administer a three-year investment program instead. Ironically, a share in Priorbank was purchased by the Austrian Raiffeisen Bank just weeks before. Moreover, Lukashenka set new production targets for the enterprises, ordering them to double output and threatening severe punishment if these targets are not met. "I warn you that I will not tolerate this even if you are a privatized company, I don't care. Since your enterprises were built by our people, the state has the right to interfere in them," Lukashenka said.
In the agricultural sector, another sphere where ambitious transformation plans have been drafted, reform remains on paper as the government refuses to consider the abolition of collective farms as the main units of economic activity in the countryside. The current "reform" plans foresee their transformation into agricultural "cooperatives" that generally preserve the old system with some minor modifications. Most importantly, the issue of recognition of private property rights to land is not even on the table. Moreover, the current plan gives heads of collective farms authority regarding the final decision on whether or not to undergo any transformation plan. It is very unlikely that this group will have any motivation to change the current status quo while the survival of "kolkhozes" (collective farms) is still guaranteed by government subsidies. Every third ruble invested in agriculture currently comes from the state budget. So far, merging kolkhozes with industrial enterprises -- which subsequently cover their losses -- remains the most widespread form of "reforming" the collective-farm system. Over the last year, this was done with at least 300 collective farms.
This only seems to aggravate problems in the industrial sector, where, according to the Statistics Ministry, the share of loss-making companies reached 48 percent or some 4,000 companies. However, bankruptcy mechanisms are still defunct as maintaining full employment, not promoting the financial revitalization of enterprises, remains the authorities' primary concern. Last year, courts considered only 90 bankruptcy cases for public companies (compared to more than 1,000 for private ones), while most disputes are settled out of court. In practice, such cases result in debt write-offs, as a majority of creditors represent state-owned entities as well, and a debt-for-property swap is impossible in this case.
Finally, some of the reform measures introduced in the last several months are at the brink of reversal. Thus, Lukashenka ordered his control bodies to check the "adequacy" of pricing policies in the housing and utility sector after partial liberalization of tariffs resulted in their tripling in the past several months.
Lukashenka's "reformism" can be summarized in the formula "one step forward, two steps back." Most of the reform plans were drafted -- and partial measures to implement them taken -- under severe pressure from Russia (as in the case of the privatization plans) or were forced by changing circumstances (as happened with price liberalization). But reforms are curtailed each time Lukashenka faces the final step, when he is faced with surrendering control over state assets or allowing reforms fraught with potential political costs to unwind fully.
Moreover, Lukashenka has demanded the government fulfill his economic-development forecasts by any means. In particular, he wants economic growth in 2003 accelerated to 8 percent, while investment should be boosted by 18 percent. There is a good chance the government might resort to the inflationary stimulation it used to boost economic growth in 1997-98. But it is highly unlikely that it will be able to find a sponsor ready to finance such an "economic miracle." Therefore, such growth might be realized only through cooking up official statistics, with the population hardly noticing a thing.
Vital Silitski is an associate professor at the Economics Department at European Humanities University in Minsk.