|Thursday, 5 December 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 04-02-04
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 YUKOS AND SIBNEFT AGREE TO A DIVORCE...The core shareholders of oil majors Yukos and Sibneft have signed a protocol on reversing their companies' merger, Russian media reported on 4 February. Yurii Beilin, Yukos's deputy CEO, confirmed that representatives of the companies' majority shareholders have signed a protocol on executing an agreement to separate the companies, RBK reported. David Davidovich, managing director of Millhouse Capital, which represents the interests of Sibneft's core shareholders, said the shareholders have agreed to conclude a separation deal in the near future, "Vedomosti" reported on 4 February. The newspaper reported that neither Davidovich nor Anton Drel, the lawyer for jailed Yukos former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii who represented Yukos's core shareholders, would provide additional details about the agreement. In October, Yukos received 92 percent of Sibneft's stock in exchange for $3 billion and 26.01 percent of its own shares, but the company did not get operational control over Sibneft. The following month, Millhouse Capital halted the merger and the former owners of Sibneft -- Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich and various Sibneft managers -- decided to take the company back, "Vedomosti" reported. JB
 ...BUT IT MIGHT NOT HELP YUKOS"Kommersant-Daily" on 4 February quoted an unnamed source close to Yukos's "top management" as saying that Khodorkovskii agreed to negotiate a reversal of the Yukos-Sibneft merger because Yukos needs to get back the $3 billion it paid for the Sibneft stake in order to deal with exigencies like the Tax Ministry's demand for $3.4 billion in putatively unpaid taxes. The newspaper added, however, that there is no guarantee Sibneft will return the $3 billion. "Kommersant-Daily" also quoted investment analysts as saying the agreement to call off the merger might make the authorities less zealous in prosecuting Khodorkovskii and another jailed major Yukos shareholder, Menatep Chairman Platon Lebedev. But the paper's source close to Yukos's management said law enforcement pressure on the company only increased with the start of the de-merger talks. The paper suggested that Yukos deputy CEO Beilin might be the next target of a criminal investigation. JB
 PUTIN COMPLAINS ABOUT WAGE ARREARSPresident Vladimir Putin on 3 February took Labor Minister Aleksandr Pochinok to task over the issue of wage delays, ITAR-TASS reported. Putin asked Pochinok why "the whole package of laws, including the Labor Code, envisaging...sufficiently harsh measures" against wage arrears has not been used against managers who cause them. Pochinok insisted that the average wage delay for public-sector employees is only two hours, and that delays exist in only "literally a handful of districts." The city with the worst wage delays, he said, is the Rostov Oblast coal-mining town of Novoshakhtinsk. Most wage delays, Pochinok said, involve Russia's estimated 300,000 bankrupt enterprises and fly-by-night companies, which the Tax Ministry has trouble tracking down. He said that over the last year, workers have won more than 1.5 million cases involving wage delays. Putin, however, was apparently not assuaged. "There should not be any more [such cases]," Putin said. Pochinok also told Putin that real incomes rose 14.5 percent last year. JB
 CHIEF UN ARMS INSPECTOR MEETS WITH RUSSIAN OFFICIALSDeputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov said on 3 February that Russia believes the mandate of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) should be extended, RIA-Novosti reported. Fedotov made his comments after meeting in Moscow with UNMOVIC's acting head, Demetrius Perricos. Fedotov said the fact that the United States' Iraq Survey Group, formerly headed by David Kay, had reached the same conclusions as UNMOVIC -- that there are no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq -- vindicates Russia's opposition to military action against Iraq. "Russia has always insisted that the problem should be solved by way of carrying out inspections rather than starting a war," Fedotov said. Perricos said he and his Russian counterparts agreed in principle to incorporate Russian laboratories into UNMOVIC's network for analyzing chemical and biological samples from Iraq. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko, meanwhile, said Russia has urged the UN Security Council to resume consideration of the mandates for UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iraq and to make an appropriate decision. JB
 EXPERT DISMISSES PROPOSED U.S. COMMISSION ON IRAQ INTELLIGENCE FAILURESAleksei Arbatov, political analyst and former deputy chairman of the State Duma's Defense Committee, called U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to set up a commission to investigate the performance of the U.S. intelligence community in Iraq "absurd" and an attempt to justify the war in Iraq, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 February. "This gives rise to serious doubts about the way President Bush and his aides operate," said Arbatov, a disarmament and WMD-proliferation specialist who was a member of UNMOVIC when Hans Blix headed it. Arbatov also said the United States will not benefit from putting deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on trial, because he could reveal details of U.S. involvement in Iraq's chemical weapons program in the early 1980s. According to ITAR-TASS, Arbatov will be among UNMOVIC's new members. JB
 RUSSIA STILL THINKING ABOUT PSIAn unnamed Defense Ministry source told ITAR-TASS on 3 February that Russia has not yet decided whether to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the U.S.-proposed anti-WMD-proliferation program. Russia will make a decision in the next two or three months, the source said, adding that the decision will be based on the extent to which the PSI corresponds to Russia's national interests and international law, including the UN Charter, and the Geneva and Vienna conventions. Referring to recent talks in Moscow with U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, the source said there are "a whole bunch of inconsistencies in the U.S. initiative," but the Russian side "managed to remove many of the disputed issues" after "verifying and correcting" the U.S. position. "We are currently studying the political and practical aspects of this initiative," the source added. All of the Group of Eight's members except for Russia have joined the PSI, which proposes the interception, seizure, and inspection of aircraft and ships suspected of transporting WMD components (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January and 2 February 2004). JB
 NEW CAPTAIN AT THE HELM OF PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION EFFORTPresident Putin's re-election campaign headquarters officially opened on 3 February, Russian media reported. First deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitrii Kozak will head Putin's re-election effort. Kozak will take a leave from his official duties when the campaign officially begins on 12 February. "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal," No. 54, suggested that Kozak's star has been rising for some time within the presidential administration, and he was chosen over fellow deputy administration head Vladislav Surkov. Surkov is widely credited with Unified Russia's success in the 7 December State Duma elections. However, the weekly quoted an unidentified source as saying that Surkov's "usefulness is being questioned now." He is reportedly being blamed for the fact that Union of Rightist Forces Political Council member Irina Khakamada and Motherland faction leader Sergei Glazev have been conducting highly independent presidential campaigns. Surkov's days are reportedly numbered. The weekly concluded that the era of political consultants and skilled manipulators of public opinion is coming to a close because their skills are no longer needed in a land of triumphant centrism. JAC
 MOTHERLAND BLOC LEADERS PROMISE TO STOP EXCHANGING BRICKBATS IN PUBLICThe three political parties that formed the Motherland bloc -- the Russian Regions party, the Unified Socialist Party, and People's Will -- will hold congresses in this month to elucidate their positions on tensions within the bloc, RosBalt reported on 3 February. State Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin (Motherland) made the announcement after a 3 February meeting of Motherland's Supreme Council. Rogozin and Motherland faction leader Glazev have recently been exchanging sharp words in the press (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2004). In an interview with "Novye izvestiya" on 3 February, Glazev accused Rogozin of being a Kremlin lackey, noting that he has "no doubt that all the bursts of activity on the part of my colleague are inseparably linked with messages sent by senior Kremlin officials in charge of the election campaign." However, the public airing of grievances should cease, as Rogozin said the council declared a moratorium on public statements about developments within the bloc. JAC
 MERGER OF BUSINESS LOBBYING GROUPS IMMINENT..."Nezavisimaya gazeta" concluded on 3 February that no one doubts that the three largest business associations in Russia will merge in the near future. Interros Chairman and board member of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) Vladimir Potanin first suggested merging the RSPP with Business Russia and Support of Russia on 29 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004), and the daily says that according to its sources in the Kremlin, the presidential administration fully supports the proposal. Business Russia represents medium-sized businesses, and Support of Russia is a small-business association. "Vedomosti" on 30 January quoted an unnamed Kremlin source as saying that Potanin is trying to free the RSPP from "certain political risks." Former State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Shokhin told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the RSPP needs "to get rid of its image a trade union for oligarchs and change its brand name, even if that damages the ambitions of certain representatives of large business." JAC
 ...SEEN AS BROADER TREND TOWARD CONTROLLING PUBLIC LIFEHowever, Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov (independent) expressed reservations about the pending merger and the Kremlin's desire to unify public life, the same 3 February "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. "This is characteristic of authoritarian governments. I am afraid that this will be a tame, administered structure, which will not fulfill its main function of defending the interests of entrepreneurs," Ryzhkov said. JAC
 RUSSIAN WEBSITES KEEPING PACE WITH VIOLENT TRENDS IN THE WESTAccording to data from the U.S.-based Center for the Analysis of Conflict Situations, there are more than 900 Russian-language websites that advocate aggression and violence, "Izvestiya" reported on 3 February. England has around 1,000 such sites, and the United States more than 1,400. On 2 February, Russian sociologists, psychologists, and educators held a roundtable to look at ways to make the Russian-language Internet more tolerant and less aggressive. Diana Mirolyubova, director of the network program Federatsii, told the daily that her organization has a database of all sites that advocate violence and has informed law enforcement officials and Internet service providers about their existence. "After [receiving] our appeals, providers closed 12 sites," she said. "This is a drop in the ocean, but if we do nothing, then the Internet will become very aggressive." Sociologist Vladimir Sobkin, who analyzed the websites of skinhead groups, found them to contain only dry information about the movement written in proper Russian. JAC
 RED GOVERNOR HANGS ON TO COMMUNIST SUPPORT DESPITE NEW ALLEGIANCE WITH PARTY OF POWERAt least five candidates are seeking to compete in the 14 March gubernatorial election in Altai Krai, Interfax reported on 3 February, citing the krai election commission. The potential candidates include incumbent Governor Aleksandr Surikov, Altaienergo General Director Sergei Shabalin, krai Foreign Economic Relations Department Deputy Director Vladimir Nikullin, former State Duma Deputy Vladimir Semenov, and Novosibirsk Humanitarian Institute deputy rector Aleksandr Rusanov. All have registered their intention to run, but need either to submit the necessary signatures or to pay an election deposit to ensure their registration. Nikullin is head of the local branch of the Motherland bloc. Surikov was elected with the support of the Communist Party, but has subsequently aligned himself with Unified Russia. Local Communists, however, still support him, according to strana.ru on 3 February. "We nominated Surikov," former Communist State Duma Deputy Vitalii Safronov told reporters in Barnaul. "And now Unified Russia is trying to privatize him." JAC
 FORMER LEGISLATORS CONFRONT HOUSING QUESTIONMoscow's Nikulskii Raion Court began a preliminary hearing on 3 February to evict several dozen members of the previous State Duma who were not re-elected from their government-owned Moscow apartments, ITAR-TASS reported. The former legislators were supposed to move out by the end of January. Of the 447 legislators elected in December, 237 of them are new to the chamber, "Izvestiya" reported on 22 January. JAC
 TWO KILLED BY NORTH OSSETIA CAR BOMBTwo people were killed and eight wounded on 3 February when a car bomb exploded in the center of Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, Russian media reported. The republic's Interior Ministry believes the blast, in the vicinity of the Gamid Bank, was either the work of terrorists or part of a criminal dispute. The car used for the bombing carried the license plates of a vehicle reported stolen last year. LF
 12 ARRESTED IN CHECHNYA FOR MURDER OF SECURITY DETACHMENTPro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov's security guards have arrested 12 men in connection with the 1 February shooting of five of its members, Interfax reported on 3 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2004). Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, who heads his father's security service, declined to specify whether those detained are suspected of participating in the attack or of organizing it. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN OPPOSITION ANNOUNCES BOYCOTT OF PARLIAMENT SESSIONSThe Artarutiun bloc and the National Unity Party (AMK) -- which are represented in parliament by 17 and nine deputies, respectively -- announced on 3 February a joint boycott of parliamentary proceedings to protest what they termed the majority's "illegal" refusal to debate proposed constitutional amendments that would pave the way for a referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004). While leaders of the two opposition factions pledged to work together to oust the present leadership, AMK Chairman Artashes Geghamian reaffirmed his rejection of Artarutiun's planned campaign of street protests, saying such actions would play into the hands of the authorities by furnishing a pretext for a crackdown. LF
 FINANCE FOR AZERBAIJANI EXPORT PIPELINE FINALIZEDA package of four agreements was signed in Baku on 3 February in the presence of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and senior energy officials from the United States, Turkey, and Georgia, Azerbaijani and Russian media reported. The agreements finalize loans to be provided to finance construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export pipeline for Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan and, possibly, also from Kazakhstan. The total cost of the project is estimated at $3.6 billion. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Finance Corporation will each provide $250 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 12 November 2003). A syndicate of 15 commercial banks -- including ABN Amro, Citigroup, Mizuho, and Societe Generale -- will provide $1.2 billion; and the consortium formed to build the pipeline, $900 million. To date, more than half of the 1,760-kilometer pipeline has been laid, and the project should be completed early next year, according to "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" on 3 February. Azerbaijan State Oil Company President Natik Aliyev (no relation to President Aliyev) said following the signing ceremony on 3 February that Azerbaijan will not reduce from the present level of 2.5 million tons per year the amount of crude it exports via the Baku-Tikhoretsk-Novorossiisk pipeline, ITAR-TASS reported. LF
 AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT WARNS MONOPOLISTSIn an address to the Businessmen's Council, President Aliyev has warned unnamed senior officials who currently enjoy a monopoly on the import of certain categories of goods that they should abandon such business activities, Interfax reported on 3 February. Aliyev further pledged that bureaucratic interference in domestic firms will be reduced, and equal conditions created for foreign and domestic companies engaged in business in Azerbaijan. LF
 AZERBAIJANI PARLIAMENT DEPUTY ACCUSES OSCE OF PLANNING 'COUP'Meeting on 3 February with a visiting delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, parliament deputy Eldar Ibragimov accused the OSCE, and specifically Ambassador Peter Eicher, the head of the group of international observers who monitored the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election, of plotting a coup d'etat, zerkalo.az reported on 4 February. Ibragimov was referring to consultations between the OSCE observer mission and supporters of defeated presidential candidate and opposition Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar on the night of 15 October and the clashes in Baku on 16 October between police and opposition supporters protesting the apparent falsification of the election outcome. LF
 POLICE ROUND UP 'CRIMINAL GANGS' IN WESTERN GEORGIAGeorgian Interior Ministry forces under the personal supervision of Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze launched a special operation early on 4 February in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi, arresting 30 people and confiscating huge quantities of weaponry, Georgian media reported. Baramidze said the target of the operation was people engaged in criminal activities -- such as kidnapping and smuggling -- under the pretext of conducting guerrilla operations in neighboring Abkhazia. Baramidze also accused the Russian peacekeeping force deployed since 1994 under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone of collaborating with both Georgian and Abkhaz criminals in the area, Caucasus Press reported. Tamaz Nadareishvili, former chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament in exile, who is rumored to have connections with the Georgian guerrilla organizations operating in Abkhazia, said he believes the operation is aimed against criminals, not guerrillas, and is therefore justified, Caucasus Press reported. The UN Security Council has repeatedly called on the Georgian leadership to neutralize Georgian guerrillas operating in Abkhazia. LF
 GEORGIAN ANTICORRUPTION CAMPAIGN TARGETS FORMER TRANSPORT MINISTER...Merab Adeishvili, who served as minister of transport and communications under former President Eduard Shevardnadze, was detained at the State Chancellery on 3 February on suspicion of having misappropriated at least 500,000 laris ($241,000), and possibly as much as 13 million laris, from the state budget, Caucasus Press reported. Adeishvili's brother, Gia, was also taken into custody but later released. The Transport Prosecutor's office told Caucasus Press on 4 February that Merab Adeishvili is being questioned as a witness in connection with the deliberate reduction of rail transport tariffs, and that he will be formally charged on 5 February. Former State Railways Director Akaki Chkhaidze was arrested last month on charges of embezzlement and is currently being held in pretrial custody (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). LF
 ...AND DEFENSE MINISTRYThe Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office has begun an investigation into suspected violations within the Defense Ministry, including corruption, embezzlement, and murder, Caucasus Press reported on 4 February. LF
 AZERBAIJANI DIES IN STABBING IN SOUTHERN GEORGIAA 68-year-old Azerbaijani died on 3 February after being stabbed in the throat by a Georgian neighbor in an altercation over ownership of land, Georgian media reported. The incident took place in southern Georgia's Dmainisi Raion, one of several in which Azerbaijanis constitute the majority of the population. Interior Minister Baramidze admitted that tensions exist between the Azerbaijani and Georgian communities in southern Georgia, but vowed that he will prevent such tensions from erupting into interethnic conflict. LF
 MERGER OF LEADING GEORGIAN PARTIES POSTPONED INDEFINITELYThe merger, planned for 4 February, of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement and the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc jointly headed by parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and Minister of State Zurab Zhvania has been postponed indefinitely, Caucasus Press reported on 3 February. Earlier that day, parliament deputy Koba Davitashvili, a leading National Movement member, threatened to quit the party if the merger went ahead. He also accused Zhvania of acting counter to national interests and exerting a pernicious influence on the president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004). Zhvania responded by accusing Davitashvili of acting out of personal ambition. He said that now "is not the time for [indulging in personal] resentments and creating problems for one another," the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported on 3 February. LF
 U.S. CALLS ON KAZAKHSTAN TO MEET ALL ITS OSCE COMMITMENTSResponding to the semi-annual report by Anton Rupnik, head of the OSCE Center in Almaty, Deputy Chief of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Douglas Davidson said the United States approves of Kazakhstan's desire to serve as the OSCE's annual chairman in 2009, but the country must meet all its OSCE commitments, gazeta.kz reported on 4 February. Among the areas needing attention, Davidson said, are reported violations of election legislation, government persecution of political opponents during election campaigns, and government harassment of the independent media. A decision on Kazakhstan's candidacy for the OSCE chairmanship will be made at the organization's annual foreign ministers' meeting in 2006. No other Central Asian state has sought the chairmanship. BB
 OPPOSITION WEEKLY BANNED IN KAZAKH PARLIAMENTKazakh Mazhilis (lower house) member Serikbai Alibaev has called on Mazhilis Chairman Zharmakan Tuyakbai to look into a ban on the circulation of the opposition weekly "Respublika Assandi Times" in parliament and has demanded that measures be taken against whoever imposed the ban, the paper reported on 30 January. Alibaev told the Mazhilis that "Respublika Assandi Times" has frequently been harassed by the authorities because of its critical reporting, and its distributors have been persecuted by the police. Mazhilis officials have told parliamentarians that they may not bring copies of the paper into the parliament building. Alibaev said this violates his constitutional right to receive information. The day that Alibaev's demand appeared in the newspaper, a member of its editorial staff was detained and beaten up by three men in police uniform, Deputy Editor in Chief Galina Dyrdina told a news conference in Almaty on 3 February, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. BB
 ICRC OPENS OFFICE IN KYRGYZSTANThe International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is opening an office in Bishkek, Sergei Katkov, who heads the Justice Ministry's department for reform and development of the penal system, told kabar.kg on 3 February. The ICRC has worked actively with Central Asian governments through its regional representation in Tashkent for many years. The Bishkek office will open following an agreement between the Kyrgyz Justice Ministry and the ICRC on assistance to the medical facilities of the penal system. The Red Cross will also provide dieticians to help penal-system employees provide inmates with adequate nutrition on the amount supplied by the state for feeding of prisoners, officially 36 soms (about $0.84) per day. BB
 RISE IN VALUE OF TAJIK CURRENCY ATTRIBUTED TO REMITTANCES FROM ABROADInternational Monetary Fund (IMF) mission head Robert Christiansen said after a meeting with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov on 3 February in Dushanbe that the amount of remittances from Tajik citizens working outside the country was so large in 2003 that it caused the Tajik national currency, the somoni, to strengthen against the U.S. dollar, ITAR-TASS reported. Remittances from labor migrants were estimated at $240 million -- comparable to the revenues portion of the state budget. The IMF official said that fluctuations in the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar in Tajikistan are not only normal, but could be a sign of healthy market functioning. BB
 TAJIKISTAN NEEDS ADDITIONAL FUNDS TO REMOVE LAND MINESTajik Mine Action Center head Jonmahmad Rajabov told a news conference in Dushanbe on 3 February that Tajikistan needs an additional $13.6 million to remove all the land mines in the country by 2008, Interfax and other Russian media reported. About 365,000 euros ($458,000) has been provided already by donor countries through UN Development Program and the OSCE. Rajabov also gave what he said was the official figure -- 62 -- for the number of Tajik civilians killed by Uzbek land mines since the Uzbek military mined the Tajik border in 2000 to prevent incursions by Islamist militants. Rajabov noted that not a single international terrorist has been killed or wounded by the mines, saying all the victims were Tajik civilians. In addition to the Uzbek land mines, the Tajik Defense Ministry estimates there are some 16,000 mines, shells, and unexploded bombs throughout the country left over from the 1992-97 civil war. BB
 TAJIK PARTIES REPORTEDLY INCREASING ACTIVITIES IN RUN-UP TO ELECTIONSThe country's major political parties are increasing their media activities in preparation for elections scheduled in 2005, the independent newspaper "Asia Plus" reported on 29 January. The State Television and Radio Committee has acquired a dynamic, young chairman, Abdujabbor Rakhmonov, who intends to launch a second state television channel this spring. Long-time presidential spokesman Zafar Saidov has been appointed to turn the state news agency Khovar into a challenger to the country's independent news agencies. The newspaper of the ruling People's Democratic Party has a new chief editor who told "Asia Plus" that he has been instructed by President Rakhmonov to liven up the publication in preparation for the election. The opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, Social-Democratic, and Communist parties are also reported to be stepping up their media presence. BB
Central And Eastern Europe
 BELARUSIAN GOVERNMENT CITES 'QUALITATIVE IMPROVEMENT' IN ECONOMYThe Belarusian government on 3 February summed up last year's economic results by citing a "qualitative improvement" in the country's economy, Belarusian Television reported. Belarus's GDP increased by 6.8 percent year-on-year in 2003, the overall profitability of enterprises was 12.1 percent, and the portion of loss-making companies in the economy decreased to 31 percent from 41 percent in 2002. The network quoted unidentified analysts as saying that Belarus saw the beginning of the formation of a middle class in 2003. The network also quoted a recent poll by the government-controlled Institute of Social and Economic Studies, according to which 43 percent of Belarusians enjoy "medium prosperity." JM
 IS BELARUSIAN KGB DUCKING PROBE OF DISAPPEARANCES?Belarus's State Security Committee (KGB) has not responded within the prescribed 10-day term to an appeal by the families of missing Belarusian opposition politicians Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, and Anatol Krasouski requesting that it open criminal investigations into those disappearances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2004), RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 3 February. The appeal points to Prosecutor-General Viktar Sheyman, former Interior Minister Yury Sivakou, current Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau, and former Combined Rapid-Reaction Force (SOBR) commander Dzmitry Paulichenka as individuals who might have been behind the disappearances. "We have learned that the [appeal] was not formally registered in the KGB chancellery but was passed directly to KGB Chairman Leanid Yeryn," lawyer Hary Pahanyayla, who helped draft the appeal, told RFE/RL. "They declined to answer either positively or negatively [to the appeal] and chose a third, unlawful scenario -- to put the paper in some drawer and procrastinate." JM
 OUR UKRAINE URGES DEBATE OF CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS...Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party said in a public statement on 4 February that it welcomes the Verkhovna Rada's decision to exclude a clause envisaging presidential elections in parliament from the constitutional reform bill that was backed by 304 votes the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004), UNIAN reported. The statement also claimed that the bill, which was preliminarily approved with that and other presidential clauses on 24 December, was adopted through an illegitimate vote. "We will never agree...when the Verkhovna Rada votes without debating the bill, without familiarizing deputies with proposed changes, without taking into account the positions of political forces, just in a show of hands and not even attempting to count them," the statement read. Our Ukraine has proposed returning to debate all three constitutional-reform drafts submitted to the Verkhovna Rada last year (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 23 December 2003) and conducting a new vote on all of them. JM
 ...AS YULIYA TYMOSHENKO BLOC WANTS TO TURN TO THE COURTS OVER REFORMSYuliya Tymoshenko said in the Verkhovna Rada on 4 February that her parliamentary caucus will challenge the constitutional-reform bill endorsed by deputies on 3 February before the Constitutional Court and a court of general jurisprudence, Interfax reported. "[Our caucus] will consistently act to prevent this reform from becoming a reality, not because we are against democratization but because we are against giving power forever to the [oligarchic] clans," Tymoshenko said. She added that if the constitutional-reform bill is adopted in a final reading by parliament, the president elected in 2004 "will have no powers." She claims that after passing the constitutional reforms, the oligarchic clans will continue to wield de facto power in Ukraine through control of the Verkhovna Rada and that chamber's election of a prime minister, who would inherit many powers currently vested in the president. JM
 ESTONIAN UNIONS REJECT SOCIAL-DIALOGUE BILLThe Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (EAKL) sent a letter to Social Affairs Minister Marko Pomerants on 2 February stating that it cannot endorse a proposed social-dialogue bill because it would create more problems than it solves, BNS reported the next day. The EAKL noted that the bill does not fulfill its aim to apply European Union directives to Estonian labor law, and suggested that the bill be divided into two parts. One would establish rules for informing and consulting employees of large pan-European firms on Estonian law, and the other would establish rules for domestic firms that would be based on proposals from trade unions and employers. SG
 ARENA DEVELOPERS WANT LOAN GUARANTEE FROM LATVIAThe Multihalle company, which has signed a contract with the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation to build a multi-use arena in Riga, has asked the state for a 13 million euro ($16.3 million) loan guarantee for the project, BNS reported on 3 February. Latvia's winning bid to host the 2006 World Ice Hockey Championship was contingent on the construction of the new arena. Prime Minister Einars Repse told a cabinet meeting the same day that banks would not be demanding that the state guarantee the loans if the project was well-prepared and bankers were confident of its success. He said the government will thus insist on complete transparency before granting any guarantee and asked the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation to submit by 12 February a detailed plan for holding the event, including required infrastructure, estimated costs, etc. The arena project is far behind schedule, as the contract signed in November 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 2002) called for construction to begin in June 2003. SG
 EMBATTLED LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT DISSOCIATES HIMSELF FROM RADICALSRolandas Paksas denied during a 3 February press conference broadcast live on Lithuanian state radio that he has any association with radicals who have recently been attending his public appearances. "I categorically condemn and dissociate myself from persons propagating ethnic discord, anti-Semitism, or even fascism," he said. Paksas's remarks were prompted by the frequent presence of known radicals as he visits all of Lithuania's districts to present his case regarding his possible impeachment. When asked whether he will comply with the Prosecutor-General's Office recent request that he provide testimony on three issues, Paksas responded that he has informed the office he has nothing to add to his previous testimony regarding Yurii Borisov, who helped finance his presidential campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2003). He did not answer whether he will provide testimony regarding alleged pressure he received from private companies or possible leaks of classified information. The parliamentary commission formed to investigate the possibility of impeaching Paksas has stated that it might not be able to meet its 13 February deadline for announcing the conclusions of its investigation, as it cannot publicize materials collected during the investigation until the president testifies. SG
 AUDIT REVEALS IRREGULARITIES, POOR PROGRESS IN POLAND'S ROAD BUILDINGPoland's state Supreme Audit Chamber (NIK) said on 3 February that considerable state funds earmarked for the construction of motorways were misused in 2002, PAP reported. NIK requested that prosecutors launch a criminal investigation into the actions of the chief financial officer of the General Management of State Roads and Highways, who reportedly is suspected of inflicting a loss of some $650,000 on the state. The NIK audit also revealed that just 136 kilometers of highway were completed in 2000-03, while the Infrastructure Ministry promised in 2002 to build 250 kilometers annually. JM
 CZECH FINANCE MINISTER DEFENDS NEW TAX PROPOSALFinance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka claimed on 3 February that a new tax-cut proposal discussed by coalition leaders on 1 February might help offset recent hikes for which the government has come under intense criticism, dpa reported. The proposal envisages lowering the standard value-added-tax (VAT) rate from 22 to 19 percent in May and paying one-time benefits to families with children and pensioners in June. Many goods and services were reclassified from the discount VAT rate (5 percent) to the standard rate just four weeks ago in an attempt to stem the country's record budget deficit. Parliament is expected to debate the new proposal later this week. Sobotka also suggested that the reforms introduced in January, which included a corporate-tax reduction, could lower the tax burden on foreign investors by 30 percent in two years and thus make the Czech Republic more competitive with its neighbors. MS
 ANTIMONOPOLY OFFICE FINES CZECH TELECOM FOR PRICE-FIXINGThe Czech Antimonopoly Office (UOHS) slapped state-owned Czech Telecom with the largest fair-trade fine ever imposed on a Czech company, dpa reported. The former monopoly was fined 81.7 million crowns ($3.1 million) for "repeatedly" using its dominant market position to illegally fix customer prices and undermine liberalization efforts. UOHS Chairman Josef Bednar said that nearly 3,000 companies that signed multiyear contracts with Czech Telecom last year were victims of price-fixing. A spokesman for Czech Telecom said the company will appeal the decision. MS
 SLOVAK PREMIER, FREE FORUM LEADER FAIL TO REACH AGREEMENTA meeting between Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and Free Forum leader and former Defense Minister Ivan Simko on 3 February failed to produce an agreement on the conditions under which the Free Forum would agree to support the cabinet in parliament or join the four-party coalition, TASR reported. Dzurinda offered the Free Forum -- most of whose senior members came from Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) in a recent defection (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004) -- the vacant post of deputy parliamentary speaker and the creation of a parliamentary committee for monitoring the impact of economic reforms. Simko, who previously conditioned his fledgling party's membership of the coalition on Dzurinda's departure, said after the meeting that the Free Forum is less interested in posts than in "keeping a check on power." The ruling center-right coalition currently controls just 68 seats in the 150-member parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2003 and 9 and 15 January 2004). MS
 TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL QUESTIONS SLOVAK WILL TO FIGHT CORRUPTIONA report issued on 3 February by Transparency International in Slovakia said there was "no visible progress" in combating corruption there in 2003, CTK reported. According to the report, anticorruption measures planned by the Supreme Audit Office (NKU) have met with a lack of political will for their implementation. The report also notes that Slovak lawmakers intend to expand their own parliamentary immunity, which Transparency International describes as excessive already. Transparency International also criticized the placement of political appointees at the head of state-owned companies and said foreign aid granted to Slovakia should be placed under stricter control. The group's country director, Emilia Sycakova-Beblava, said Slovak politicians are "lukewarm" toward envisaged anticorruption measures because those measures might affect political interests. "New rules for the financing of political campaigns and political parties have not been introduced," she emphasized. MS
 SERBIAN PARLIAMENT ELECTS A SPEAKERWith the help of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the Serbian parliament elected Dragan Marsicanin of Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) speaker on 4 February, thereby ending a six-week deadlock that could have forced new elections, Serbian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). Kostunica called the election "a great leap forward." Marsicanin received 128 votes from among the 245 deputies present. Besides the legislators from the DSS and SPS, deputies from the G-17 Plus party and the coalition of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and New Serbia party voted for Marsicanin. The speaker has the authority to name a prime minister, who can then form a government. The SPS is not expected to enter the cabinet but will support a minority government in return for concessions on privatization and cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. PM
 KOSOVA'S PRIME MINISTER SAYS AMERICANS MUST STAYKosova's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 4 February that he recognizes that Serbia and Kosova's other neighbors are concerned with developments in Kosova, adding, however, that Serbia has no right to "torpedo" the ongoing process aimed at achieving independence. He said he is willing to continue talks with Serbian officials but does not expect much to come of them. Rexhepi stressed that if any former guerrilla leaders are indicted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, his government will cooperate with the tribunal in bringing them to justice. He argued that the EU does not have the military capacity to ensure security in Kosova, adding that he and most ethnic Albanians believe that only the United States can fulfill that role (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 13 November 2003 and 28 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September and 19 December 2003). PM
 WAR CRIMES TRIAL OF FORMER BOSNIAN SERB LEADER BEGINSAt the Hague-based war crimes tribunal on 3 February, former Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momcilo Krajisnik pleaded not guilty to eight counts of genocide, complicity in genocide, crimes against humanity, and violating the laws or customs of war, international and regional media reported. He was the right-hand man of indicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic during the 1992-95 conflict and is widely believed to have had a key role in planning the "ethnic cleansing" of non-Serbs from territory seized by Serbian forces. Prosecutor Mark Harmon called Krajisnik "a politician, a shrewd and calculating man, a committed and unrepentant Serb nationalist, who along with Radovan Karadzic was one of the chief policy makers of the Bosnian Serbs." Along with former Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic, he is the highest-ranking Bosnian Serb leader to appear before the tribunal. Plavsic, who was sentenced in February 2003 to 11 years in prison, turned herself into the tribunal voluntarily and expressed remorse for what she did in the war. Krajisnik, however, was seized by NATO peacekeepers at his home in 2000 and remains firm in his beliefs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 28 February 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January 2004). PM
 ONE STRIKE CONTINUES, ANOTHER CALLED OFF IN MACEDONIAOn 3 February, a Macedonian government spokesman said the government will not hold any talks with representatives of striking teachers as long as their strike continues, RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters reported. Dojcin Cvetanovski, who heads the teachers and cultural-workers' union, said this amounts to an ultimatum, which his union will not accept. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Hixhet Mehmeti signaled readiness for talks with the union representing discontented employees of the state administration and the judiciary, thus averting a possible strike (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 29 January 2004). UB
 IS CROATIA'S MOST-WANTED WAR CRIMES INDICTEE LIVING IN FRANCE?The Paris daily "Le Monde" reported on 3 February that former Croatian General Ante Gotovina, who has been indicted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, has been living openly for some time at an unspecified location in southeastern France. The French Interior Ministry has not commented on the report. Gotovina is a former member of the French Foreign Legion who took French citizenship in 1979. Croatia's failure to find and arrest Gotovina, whom the tribunal has charged with war crimes against Serbs in 1995, has been a major obstacle in Zagreb's bid to join the EU by 2007 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003 and 16 January 2004). PM
 EP RAPPORTEUR JOINS CALLS TO SUSPEND NEGOTIATIONS WITH ROMANIA...Baroness Emma Nicholson on 3 February clearly supported a proposed amendment to the country report she is preparing for the European Parliament that calls for the suspension of Romania's EU-accession negotiations, Mediafax reported. Nicholson, the European Parliament's rapporteur for Romania, earlier formulated her support for Dutch Europarliamentarian Arie Oostlander's amendment proposal in more ambiguous terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2004). "Romania has certainly made progress in many directions, and many good things happened," Nicholson told Romanian Television on 3 February. "But as long as you do not have in place an efficient, uncorrupted justice system [and] a parliament that approves legislation instead of having the government legislate by ordinance, the Romanian people will not have that democracy which it deserves. Maybe now, long before the [fall 2004 presidential and parliamentary] elections, is a good time to focus on deficiencies." MS
 ...AS BUCHAREST DISPATCHES CROSS-PARTY DELEGATION TO BRUSSELS IN SALVAGE ATTEMPT...A parliamentary delegation comprising lawmakers from the ruling Social Democratic Party, its parliamentary ally the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania, and the opposition National Liberal Party was dispatched to Brussels on 3 February in an attempt to convince members of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee to reject Oostlander's proposal, Mediafax reported. In Bucharest, Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu accused Nicholson and Oostlander of harboring an "incorrect" attitude toward Romania, and said the two are campaigning for new terms in the European Parliament. MS
 ...AND BELGIAN PREMIER RULES OUT SUSPENDING NEGOTIATIONSBelgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said in Bucharest on 3 February that "there is no viable reason to suspend accession negotiations with Romania now," Mediafax reported. Verhofstadt said after meeting with Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase that Romania has made progress in judicial and public-administration reform, adding that he is confident that Romania's EU-accession negotiations will be successfully closed this year. The two prime ministers signed a program of bilateral political, economic, judicial, and public-administration cooperation for 2004-06. MS
 MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT DISCUSSES AMENDED FEDERALIZATION PLAN WITH OSCE MISSION CHIEFPresident Vladimir Voronin and OSCE mission chief in Moldova William Hill met in Chisinau on 3 February to discuss new proposals for a federalization plan, ITAR-TASS and Moldovan media reported. The proposals are apparently the "compromise plan" worked out in Sofia last week at a meeting of the three Transdniester conflict mediators -- Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004). Voronin and Hill also discussed the peacekeeping framework that is to follow the implementation of the federalization plan. No further details have emerged from the meeting. MS
 MOLDOVAN AUDIOVISUAL COUNCIL SUSPENDS MUNICIPAL BROADCASTERS' LICENSESThe Audiovisual Coordinating Council (CCA) on 3 February suspended the broadcast licenses of Chisinau municipal Radio Antena C and the municipal Euro TV station, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The council said the measure was imposed due to the fact that the two broadcasting companies are not registered as independent judicial entities, as required by Moldovan law. The council said the two stations and the Chisinau municipality to whose public-relations department the two stations are subordinate failed to heed repeated warnings to register the stations within three months. Municipality representatives told members of the council that the failure to act was prompted by political divisions within the municipal council, which has failed to meet as a result. Petru Grozavu, deputy chairman of the municipal public-relations department, called the CCA decision a "political act undertaken at the order of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists." MS
 BULGARIAN SOCIALISTS TO PUSH FOR EARLY ELECTIONS...Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev said while addressing the BSP's Supreme Council on 3 February that the party's primary task in 2004 is to prepare for parliamentary elections, mediapool.bg reported. Stanishev said the BSP, the country's largest opposition party, will do everything in its power to ensure these elections are held as early as possible, including a vote of no confidence in the government, if necessary. The elections are currently slated for mid-2005. Stanishev also said that if it is necessary for his party to seek coalition partners, suitable candidates might be the governing ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) or smaller parties such as Krasimir Karakachanov's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) or the Citizens' Party for Bulgaria headed by former Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev, vsekiden.com reported. Stanishev did not rule out a possible coalition with the governing National Movement Simeon II (NDSV). UB
 ...TO WHICH THE GOVERNING PARTY RESPONDS WITH CYNICISMDeputy Daniel Valchev of the governing NDSV responded to Stanishev's 3 February prediction that the BSP will take power following the parliamentary elections by asking to what country the party chairman was referring -- Bulgaria or Iraq, mediapool.bg reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 and 30 January and 3 February 2004). Valchev's comment was an apparent reference to the scandal triggered by the recent publication in an Iraqi daily of a list naming the BSP among individuals and entities that allegedly received payments from the former Iraqi regime in exchange for political support, mediapool.bg reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 and 30 January and 3 February 2004). Deputy Prime Minister Plamen Panayotov said his government will survive a vote of no confidence if the BSP calls for one, adding that the Socialists helped the previous government of Ivan Kostov survive its term by repeatedly initiating such votes. UB
 BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCES PROGRAMS TO INTEGRATE ROMANY MINORITYMinister Without Portfolio Filiz Hyuzmenova on 3 February announced an internationally sponsored program that will train 100 Bulgarian Roma to work as assistant teachers in ethnically mixed schools and an additional 100 to work in the public administration, the government's official website (http://www.government.bg) reported. UB
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 U.S. COMMANDER REJECTS AFGHAN REPORT ON DEATHSThe commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, rejected on 3 February an Afghan report claiming that approximately 10 civilians were killed in a U.S. air strike on 18 January in the central Afghan province of Oruzgan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January and 2 February 2004), AP reported. Barno said the Afghan report was inadequate, adding that he has asked the U.S. military for more information and is waiting for "detailed reports...that would indicate the investigation has been complete." Barno added that he has "seen nothing [in the Afghan report] that would" cause him to change the initial report, which claimed that five militants were the only people killed in the incident. Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai said on 31 January that an Afghan investigation of the incident indicated that there were "casualties unfortunately...of civilians, of children and men and women." AT
 U.S. GENERAL VOWS TO CAPTURE AL-QAEDA, TALIBAN LEADERSLieutenant General Barno said he hopes to capture Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar by the end of 2004, "The New York Times" reported on 4 February. Speaking about the two men, General Barno said that "their day has ended, and this year will decisively sound the death knell of their movements in Afghanistan." A spokesman for the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan issued a similar message on 28 January, adding that a new military operation is aimed at capturing those two men, along with Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2004). AT
 HERAT GOVERNOR SAYS AFGHAN NATIONAL UNITY IS BASED ON ISLAMHerat Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan said on 2 February that Afghans can achieve national unity through belief in Islam, Herat Television reported. Afghans should "stick" only to Islam, leaving "no need for national unity and so forth," Ismail Khan added. Ismail Khan added that all issues dealing with nation building are addressed within Islam. One of the former resistance leaders against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Ismail Khan is also favors a radical application of Islamic doctrine. AT
 TRIPARTITE COMMISSION DISCUSSES AFGHAN-PAKISTANI BORDER SECURITYThe Tripartite Commission comprising military and diplomatic representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States held its sixth meeting at Bagram's Camp Phoenix on 31 January, the Afghan Foreign Ministry announced. Participants discussed recent developments concerning security along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including practical measures to counter cross-border infiltration and terrorist activities, and ways to enhance the security relationship between Kabul and Islamabad. The commission is next scheduled to meet in March in Pakistan. AT
 IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER VOWS TO MAINTAIN ELECTION DATE...Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a 4 February speech rejected the possibility of postponing the parliamentary elections that are scheduled for 20 February, ISNA reported. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and speaker of parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi met with Khamenei on 3 February and urged him to delay the elections so the Guardians Council can reinstate more disqualified candidates, "The New York Times" reported on 4 February. Supervisory boards affiliated with the council initially rejected the candidacies of 3,533 of 8,144 individuals, although 1,160 of those candidates were later reinstated (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 2 February 2004). BS
 ...BUT A COMPROMISE FORMULA IS FOUNDAlthough Khamenei refused to delay the parliamentary vote, his meeting with the Khatami and Karrubi produced a compromise ostensibly aimed at breaking the impasse, Al-Jazeera television reported on 3 February. Under that purported compromise, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) would be the final arbiter on the eligibility of candidates. The MOIS is one of four governmental organizations that provided initial information on prospective candidates, and it is generally considered to be favorably disposed toward the reformists. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh refused to comment on the subject at a 4 February news conference, ISNA reported. BS
 IRANIAN QUITTERS THREATENED WITH PROSECUTIONSupreme Leader Khamenei said in his 4 February speech, "Refusing to shoulder the burden of responsibility by threatening to resign or by any other means, is contrary to the law and forbidden by sharia [religious law]," state radio reported. So far, 125 members of parliament, all 27 provincial governors-general, the presidential cabinet, and many other officials have submitted their resignations as a protest against the disqualification of parliamentary election candidates. BS
 TEHRAN REPORTS AEROSPACE ADVANCESIranian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Ahmad Motamedi said on 3 February that the Mesbah miniature satellite will be launched into space within 16 months, IRNA reported, and Iran's Aerospace Industries Organization will be in charge of the project. Turning to the Zohreh communications-satellite project, he said that it has not reached a dead end but has simply encountered some problems that will be resolved in the future. The Iranian legislature opposed building Zohreh with Russian assistance for financial reasons (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 May, 3 June, and 16 September 2002 and 4 August 2003). Meanwhile, General Ahmad Vahid, managing director of the Aerospace Industries Organization, said on 3 February that Iran has made major advances in achieving self-sufficiency in aerospace technology, state television reported. Vahid attributed this to reliance on God, local expertise, and experience. BS
 IRANIAN NATIONALIST ACTIVIST CALLS FOR ELECTION DELAYAhmad Hakimipur, who is secretary-general of the Will of the Nation party and an associate of the Freedom Movement, said on 3 February that the key to resolving Iran's current political crisis is to "review criminal and political behavior, to postpone the elections, and to grant the rights of those parties that have not been able to operate," ILNA reported. He said the people who are behind disqualifying the candidates see themselves as better than many other Iranians and added that they have a hidden agenda. BS
 IRANIAN STUDENTS PLEDGE TO DEMONSTRATEThe Islamic Students Union of Tehran University announced on 3 February that it wants to hold a rally in front of the university's main gate on 8 February, ISNA reported. Tehran Governorate-General's Political-Security Affairs Directorate official Ali Talai said earlier in the day that the student's application to hold a rally on 4 February was rejected because it would have disrupted traffic, ISNA reported. The student organization asked why, if traffic is such a concern, the conservatives are allowed to hold rallies in the same location after every Friday prayers. BS
 IRAQ ESTABLISHES COMMISSION ON PUBLIC INTEGRITYThe Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq on 28 January established the Commission on Public Integrity, which will enforce anticorruption laws and set public-service standards, according to a 3 February press release posted on the CPA website (http://www.cpa-iraq.org). The Iraqi Governing Council will nominate a commissioner to head the body, who would then be appointed by CPA head L. Paul Bremer to a five-year term. A chief executive of Iraq would appoint subsequent commissioners from nominees submitted by the Council of Judges, the press release stated. The commission is authorized to receive anonymous complaints from individual citizens, to investigate allegations of corruption, and to refer violations of corruption laws to the Iraqi criminal courts. The body can also propose legislation "to strengthen standards of ethical conduct for public officials and employees." According to the press release, all government workers will be required to sign a written pledge that they will adhere to the public-employee Code of Conduct. KR
 UN SECRETARY-GENERAL MEETS WITH BUSH TO DISCUSS IRAQKofi Annan met with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on 3 February to discuss the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, according to a press release posted on the UN website (http://www.un.org/news). Annan told reporters after the meeting that he hopes the electoral team he is sending to Iraq will "be able to play a role getting the Iraqis to understand that if they could come to some consensus and some agreement on how to establish that government, they're halfway there." Speaking to reporters, Bush termed the meeting "a really constructive dialogue." He added that he and Annan discussed "ways to make sure that by working together the Iraqi people can be free, and their country stable and prosperous, and an example of democracy in the Middle East." KR
 U.K. ESTABLISHES COMMITTEE TO REVIEW WMD INTELLIGENCEJust two days after the Bush administration announced it will launch an investigation into possible intelligence failures in Iraq, the U.K. government announced its own inquiry into the issue, the 10 Downing Street website (http://www.number-10.gov.uk) announced on 3 February. The committee, to be chaired by Lord Butler of Brockwell, will work closely with the U.S. inquiry and the Iraq Survey Group, the website reported. The committee will specifically investigate the intelligence coverage available on weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs of "countries of concern," and on the global trade of WMD. It will also investigate the accuracy of intelligence on Iraq's WMD programs leading up to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, and "examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated, and used by the [U.K.] government before the conflict, and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraqi Survey Group since the end of the conflict." KR
 U.S. PAYS $1 MILLION TO IRAQI INFORMANTThe U.S. government has paid an Iraqi informant $1 million for information he gave that led to the 11 January capture of Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, a former Karbala Ba'ath Party regional commander and 54th on the coalition's list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the deposed Hussein regime, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) senior adviser Dan Senor told reporters during a 3 February Baghdad press briefing, according to the briefing's text posted on the CPA website (http://www.cpa-iraq.org). According to Senor, the information led to the capture of al-Muhammad the following day. "Al-Muhammad was organizing, facilitating, and financing attacks against the coalition and the efforts of the Iraqi people," Senor said. "His capture is a significant step forward." U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told the same press briefing that an informant using the Baghdad tips hotline in January provided information on local weapons dealers, terrorist cells, and air-defense missiles for sale to anti-coalition organizations in Baghdad. The information led to the arrest of two individuals and an array of weapons. KR
 KAZAKHSTAN'S PRESIDENT AT A CROSSROADSBy Mark Berniker
As disturbing revelations about the harassment of journalists in Kazakhstan continue to surface, direct pressure -- both at home and abroad -- is increasing on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to moderate his government's purported direct involvement in the country's media affairs. As a new draft media law moves to the upper chamber of the Kazakh parliament, domestic and international critics charge that Nazarbaev is exerting too much control over Kazakhstan's media sector.
"The president of Kazakhstan has yet to give a clear indication that he's committed to improving the country's appalling press-freedom record," said Alex Lupis, program coordinator for the Europe and Central Asia division of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The New York-based CPJ is drafting a formal letter of complaint to Nazarbaev about the draft media law, just as several other groups -- including Internews, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Article 19 -- have already done.
However, there are indications that Nazarbaev's inflexibility might be softening somewhat in the wake of a highly critical letter from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that was written on 17 November but only made public on 7 January.
Powell's letter praised Kazakhstan for its support in the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan and applauded Nazarbaev's "public commitment to accelerate the building of democracy." However, Powell expressed concern that several government actions are belying the president's statements. Powell particularly questioned the draft media law, saying: "It is my understanding that the draft under consideration is being discussed widely and that strong reservations have been expressed about the draft both within the OSCE and in the mass media." Powell asked Nazarbaev to reconsider "whether a new law on the mass media is warranted at this time."
Powell also called on Nazarbaev to release journalist Sergei Duvanov, who was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl. His detention and sentencing followed the publication of several reports by Duvanov alleging that officials in Nazarbaev's government -- possibly including the president himself -- accepted bribes from U.S. oil companies for energy concessions in Kazakhstan.
Powell also reminded Nazarbaev that he made promises to U.S. President George W. Bush in December 2001 "to promote freedom and pluralism in Kazakhstan's media environment, including the right of the media to criticize the country's elected leaders."
On 15 January, a Kazakh court revised Duvanov's sentence from imprisonment to house arrest, and on 22 January, RFE/RL reported that Duvanov had been released from prison and granted "semi-free" status by the government. On 19 January, the Russian newspaper "Kommersant-Daily" reported the release was the result of Western pressure, citing in particular Powell's pointed letter to Nazarbaev.
However, many human-rights activists say the sudden release of Duvanov doesn't mean the Kazakh government has really reversed its alleged policy of controlling the country's media.
"The Kazakh government has been encroaching on the media for several years. Kazakhstan claims to be a democratic society, but has a terrible record on freedom of expression and media freedom," Rachel Denbar, acting director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, told RFE/RL.
It is not just international observers who are crying foul. Many parliamentarians, journalists, and even Nazarbaev's daughter are speaking out against the government's treatment of the media, the draft media law, and a recent decision by KazMunayGaz, the state natural-gas company, to enter the media business.
The draft media law was adopted by the lower house of parliament (Mazhlis) in December and could potentially be passed by the upper house some time in February. The law would give the government the power to dismiss reporters or shut down media outlets for insulting "the honor and dignity of a citizen or a state organ or other body."
On 20 January, Darigha Nazarbaeva, who is director of the Khabar television channel and chairwoman of the Executive Committee of the Congress of Kazakhstan's Journalists (CKJ), said she believes the country's journalists should have their own lobby in the lower house of the parliament. Nazarbaeva is also the leader of the recently created Asar party. In an address to the 10th external session of the CKJ in Karaganda earlier this month, she said the provision in the draft media law that gives the government the right to order media companies to shut down for three months for coverage it considers objectionable could lead to the bankruptcy of many small media enterprises.
Just as pressure is building on Nazarbaev to reform his government's policies toward the media, his state natural-gas company has decided to aggressively enter the television business. KazMunayGaz, which holds lucrative rights to the vast energy reserves located on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shelf, recently said it has ambitions to be one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the world. KazMunayGaz President Uzakbai Karabalin has spoken broadly about the company's plans to create a newspaper, television, and radio group following the model of Russia's NTV. NTV and several other media outlets were seized by Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly, in 2001 after a controversial and, many say, politically motivated business dispute with former oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii's Media-MOST. The KazMunayGaz project will be called NTV-Kazakhstan.
KazMunayGaz's media plans aren't going over well with Alikhan Baimenov and Bulat Abilov, two prominent members of the opposition Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan. They object to the use of state funds to finance the new media firm. On 20 November, RosBalt Consulting reported that Yerasyl Abylkasymov, a deputy in the lower house of the parliament, wrote a letter arguing that Kazakhstan's "small television channels will be doomed" with the creation of NTV-Kazakhstan.
Asar's Nazarbaeva shares those concerns. The new channel will presumably put competitive pressure on Nazarbaeva's Khabar network and potentially cut into their advertising revenues. While the president's daughter has become more outspoken in recent months about developments in the Kazakh media, Denbar questioned the problem of nepotism in Kazakhstan. According to the BBC, Nazarbaeva's Khabar group is "privately held but publicly funded" and controls an influential news agency; the Khabar, Khabar 2, and ORT-Kazakhstan television channels; the Europa Plus, Russkoye radio, Hit FM, and Radio Karavan radio stations; and the newspapers "Karavan" and "Novoye pokolenie."
Moreover, Timur Kulibaev, the husband of another Nazarbaev daughter, Dinara, is a deputy president of KazMunayGaz and has been named to the management team of NTV-Kazakhstan. KazMunayGaz's new media group has also asked the government to grant NTV-Kazakhstan broadcast frequencies without compelling it to go through the legally required tender process.
"The odds are that NTV-Kazakhstan will be a pro-government station that will shy away from controversial coverage," Denbar said.
The Kazakh government's flurry of moves in the country's media market comes just months ahead of parliamentary elections -- which are scheduled for October -- and raises concerns about the government's motives in trying to shape public opinion.
Clearly, the country is at something of a crossroads. The latest developments seem to indicate that Nazarbaev, like many of his counterparts in the region, remains firmly committed to taking Kazakhstan down an antidemocratic path. There is still time to change direction, but that time is rapidly running out.
Mark Berniker is a freelance journalist who writes about Eurasian political and economic affairs.