|Saturday, 7 December 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 04-02-18
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 SEA-LAUNCHED MISSILE FAILS AS PRESIDENT OBSERVES EXERCISES...President Vladimir Putin went aboard the nuclear-powered "Arkhangelsk" ballistic-missile submarine on 16 February to observe large-scale naval exercises in the Barents Sea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). But while the head of state was supposed to witness, among other things, a test firing of an RSM-54 sea-launched ballistic missile from the "Novomoskovsk" submarine, that part of the exercises reportedly went wrong. The launch of the strategic rocket, which was supposed to take place on 17 February at 10 a.m., Moscow time, reportedly did not take place, and AP quoted an anonymous government official as saying that the "automatic safety system blocked the launch for unspecified reasons." Gazeta.ru reported that the missile blew up as it came out of the water immediately after its launch. "Kommersant-Daily" on 18 February quoted an unidentified Defense Ministry source as stating categorically that the missile did not explode. The source did not know exactly what went wrong, but said the launch's failure led to the scrubbing of a second planned RSM-54 test firing from the "Novomoskovsk." JB
 ...WHILE OFFICIALS AND MEDIA PLAY DOWN THE SNAFUA spokesman for the Northern Fleet told Interfax on 17 February that "no unforeseen situations" occurred during the naval maneuvers in the Barents Sea. Navy commander and Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov claimed that "simulated," not real, launches were planned, even though the navy announced prior to the exercises that they would include real missile launches, "Vremya novostei" reported on 18 February. ITAR-TASS, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported on 17 February that a satellite "blocked the signal" for the planned missile launches, with RIA-Novosti and Interfax later reporting that "technical problems" prevented the launches. RIA-Novosti subsequently quoted Admiral Kuroedov's claim that only "simulated" launches were scheduled, and later reported that the "Novomoskovsk" returned to base "having carried out electronically simulated ballistic-missile launches." State-run ORT and RTR television made no mention of the failed launches during their evening news programs, "The Moscow Times" reported on 18 February. JB
 MOTHERLAND CO-LEADER WANTS TERRORISTS SUMMARILY EXECUTEDState Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin (Motherland) said on 17 February that terrorists should be dealt with extrajudicially, Interfax reported. "We discussed the issue of toughening criminal legislation for terrorism and came to the conclusion: it is necessary to place terrorists outside the law," Rogozin said. "They must be destroyed the moment they are discovered, without talk, without any pieces of paper." Rogozin said his faction will put this idea before the Duma on 18 February, when it takes up proposed amendments to the Criminal Code toughening punishment for terrorism. Unified Russia has put forward amendments that would increase the punishment for some acts of terrorism to life imprisonment. Currently, the maximum punishment for such crimes is 25 years' imprisonment. Rogozin called the proposed amendments laughable, saying the issue must be approached in a cardinally different way. Following the 6 February Moscow subway explosion that left at least 39 people dead, Rogozin called for lifting the moratorium on the death penalty in relation to terrorists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). JB
 DUMA DEPUTY SPEAKER CALLS FOR NEW ANTITERRORISM BODYState Duma Deputy Speaker Georgii Boos (Unified Russia) said that among the antiterrorism measures presently under consideration is the creation of a new independent antiterrorism agency along the lines of the State Antidrug Committee, Interfax reported on 17 February. Boos said that such a committee could provide the basis for creating an "equipped mobile structure" that would be able to "react operationally to any manifestation of terrorist activity." JB
 SHOIGU BLAMES POOR CONSTRUCTION OR MAINTENANCE FOR WATER PARK'S COLLAPSEEmergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said on 17 February that the 14 February collapse of the Transvaal Park water complex's roof was probably caused by poor construction or maintenance of the Moscow water park, not shaky ground beneath the building's foundation, Russian news agencies reported. For his part, Deputy Moscow Prosecutor Vladimir Yudin said explosives experts took samples from the complex's collapsed columns and ruled out that a bomb was responsible, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, the Turkish company that built Transvaal Park, Kocak Insaat, issued a statement calling on officials and media not to make "premature sensational statements about the reasons for the catastrophe," newsru.com reported on 17 February. In the early hours of 18 February, rescuers found the body of a 13-year-old boy in the ruins of the complex, bringing the total number of deaths in the accident to 26, newsru.com reported. Shoigu said on 17 February that 12 people might still be buried beneath the wreckage. JB
 NEW CHARGE AGAINST MENATEP CHAIRMANAn official with the Prosecutor-General's Office told Interfax on 17 February that Menatep Chairman and key Yukos shareholder Platon Lebedev was presented with "a new, expanded formulation" of the charges against him that includes "one new episode." Lebedev, who has been in jail since his arrest last July on fraud charges, is now charged with having embezzled $30 million from the sale of apatite-concentrate fertilizer. Lebedev, who was originally charged with fraudulently obtaining a stake in the state-owned Apatit fertilizer company, was also recently charged with large-scale tax evasion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004). Meanwhile, Yukos's jailed former CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, has rejected a proposal put forward by another key Yukos shareholder, Leonid Nevzlin, that the key Yukos shareholders who remain free negotiate a deal with the state to give up their stakes in exchange for the release of Khodorkovskii, Lebedev, and Aleksei Pichugin from jail. Khodorkovskii spokeswoman Irina Yasina said that while he understands Nevzlin's concern, Khodorkovskii will "defend his good name...only in an open process," Interfax reported on 17 February. JB
 NTV DOESN'T WANT TO LOWER RATINGS BY AIRING ELECTION DEBATES...The Central Election Commission refused on 17 February to register Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii as a campaign agent for the party's presidential candidate Oleg Malyshkin, Russian news agencies reported. According to Ekho Moskvy, Zhirinovskii was hoping to become a campaign agent so that he could participate in televised election debates on behalf of Malyshkin. In a debate that was aired on 12 February on ORT, Malyshkin had to step in as a replacement and missed all but the last 15 minutes of the debate after Zhirinovskii showed up at the network for the taping of the debate but was not allowed to participate, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 12 February. Meanwhile, NTV management announced on 17 February that it has decided not to air election debates or set aside special blocks of time during evening broadcasts for campaign programming, regions.ru reported. NTV Deputy General Director Aleksandr Gerasimov said the decision was made because President Putin's refusal to take part in the debates has lowered viewer interest. JAC
 ...AS NOVOSIBIRSK PROSECUTOR WANTS TO PULL LICENSES OF INDEPENDENT TV STATIONSNovosibirsk Oblast prosecutor Aleksandr Averin has appealed to Russia's Arbitration Court to cancel the broadcasting licenses of Novosibirsk television stations NTN-4 and NTN-12, gazeta.ru reported on 17 February. According to the website, during the lead-up to the December State Duma elections these stations criticized Unified Russia's candidates, and as a result no candidate from that party won in the oblast's four single-mandate districts. Yakov London, the owner of the stations, is now running for mayor of Novosibirsk. JAC
 EXTREMIST ACTIONS PROLIFERATE IN ST. PETERSBURGUnidentified vandals have painted swastikas on the granite slabs near the Eternal Flame commemorating the Bolsheviks and their supporters who died during the revolution and civil war, NTV reported on 17 February. Two days earlier, a Jewish cemetery in the city was desecrated when swastikas were painted on 50 tombstones. Vice Governor Andrei Chernenko told reporters on 17 February that the recent acts of vandalism are not connected to the slaying of a 9-year-old Tajik girl by a group of skinheads, jewish.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). "We have a case of fools who are trying to attract attention to themselves," he said. However, Jewish community leaders in the city are linking all of the events and are calling on city residents to join in the struggle against "neofascism," the website reported. JAC
 RYBKIN DRUG TEST PROVES NEGATIVE...Ksenia Ponomareva, campaign manager for presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin, told Ekho Moskvy on 17 February that preliminary results of medical tests performed on Rybkin have not shown any traces of narcotic or psychotropic substances. Medical specialists will continue to study the samples for substances that are not easily identified. Rybkin has claimed he was lured to Kyiv under false pretences and then drugged as part of a "special operation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). Meanwhile, a Moscow tourist company has made inquiries to Rybkin asking to use his name of on a new package tour running between Moscow and Kyiv, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 16 February. The package would include one-way travel by train to Kyiv with a return to Moscow by airplane through the VIP hall of the Boryspil airport, two nights in a Ukrainian hotel, and two nights in a private apartment. Tea and sandwiches are included. The daily also reported that a feature film about Rybkin is also being considered. Producer Arkadii Shvartser said he envisions a scene in the film in which U.S. President George W. Bush calls President Putin to ask, "Where's Rybkin?" JAC
 ...AS ANALYST SAYS REACTION TO DISAPPEARANCE REVEALINGDmitrii Furman, writing in "Moskovskii novosti," No. 5, argued that the reaction to Rybkin's disappearances has been even more interesting than the event itself. According to Furman, the "liberal" media favored the theory that Rybkin was being punished for his disclosure of President Putin's secret financial dealings. "Why did such a thought immediately come to mind?" he asked. "Because it is the most natural theory in post-Soviet countries -- it comes from the biographies of our political elite." All of the presidents of CIS countries, possessing uncontrolled power, "divided up billions of dollars worth of property," he wrote. "Could they really not have a million dollars or so in their own pocket? ...It is as unlikely as the director of a Soviet store not bringing home a piece of defective sausage." However, he concluded that life, as it frequently happens, turns out to be more absurd than the logically constructed versions of events: "Rybkin, thank God, simply ran out on his wife to Kyiv." JAC
 SQUABBLING OVER MOTHERLAND CONTINUESPresidential candidate Sergei Glazev told reporters on 17 February that he has prepared an appeal to the Justice Ministry requesting that it not bestow the name Motherland on any political structure without the agreement of the Motherland election bloc or the Motherland faction in the State Duma, RIA-Novosti reported. The appeal was signed by other members of the State Duma's Motherland faction, including People's Will party leader Sergei Baburin. The Russian Regions party under the leadership of State Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin held a congress on 15 February at which delegates agreed to rename their party Motherland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). Meanwhile, members of the Motherland faction in the State Duma who support Rogozin boycotted a meeting of the faction on 17 February, Interfax reported. However, Rogozin told reporters that there was no boycott, although he did not explain why more than half of the faction's deputies failed to show up. Rogozin said that he was "sick of it all," and that he "would no longer even pronounce the name Glazev." Later, according to gazeta.ru, Baburin told reporters that Rogozin's supporters did not attend the faction meeting for "technical reasons." JAC
 BULGARIAN, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS HOPE FOR IMPROVED BILATERAL RELATIONSBulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov in Moscow on 17 February that the countries endured a difficult period in their relationship, mediapool.bg reported. Pasi said he hopes the countries' economic ties will be successfully restored. Asked by journalists to comment on a recent newspaper commentary written by former Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov in which he said Russian President Putin has concentrated too much power and therefore presents a threat to Eastern Europe and Bulgaria, Ivanov characterized Kostov as a person who is "apparently thinking in terms of the Cold War," "Sega" reported. Ivanov added that people like Kostov damaged the countries' bilateral relations. UB
 GRYZLOV RULES OUT CEDING CONTROL OF CHECHEN CAMPAIGNState Duma Speaker and former Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov dismissed on 17 February as "premature" the proposal by pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov that responsibility for the ongoing "antiterrorism" operation in Chechnya be transferred from the federal to the Chechen Interior Ministry, ITAR-TASS reported. Speaking in Grozny on 16 February, Kadyrov said he is certain the Chechen police force is capable of conducting that operation, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 17 February. Kadyrov intends to make a formal proposal at a Russian Interior Ministry meeting on 19 February that command of the Chechen operation be handed over to the Chechen Interior Ministry. The federal Interior Ministry took over control of operations in Chechnya from Russia's Federal Security Service on 1 September 2003. LF
 KHAKAMADA CALLS FOR CHECHEN PEACE TALKSRussian presidential hopeful Irina Khakamada said at an Open Forum meeting on terrorism on 17 February that the Russian leadership's aberrant approach to containing Chechen demands for independence has "driven Chechen separatism into the embrace of international terrorism," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 18 February. She advocated decisive measures to end the ongoing Chechen conflict, including the introduction of direct presidential rule in Chechnya, peace talks with Chechen resistance leaders under direct guarantees from President Putin, and the establishment of a parliamentary republic in Chechnya. In mid-January, Khakamada argued that it is necessary to distinguish clearly between Chechen terrorists and political leaders and to embark on a dialogue with the latter, Interfax reported on 14 January. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PLANS TO INCREASE PRESSURE ON LEADERSHIPThe leaders of the Armenian opposition parties aligned in the Artarutiun bloc decided at a meeting on 17 February to intensify their campaign to demand the resignation of President Robert Kocharian, but declined to disclose any concrete plans, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Also on 17 February, former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, a leading Artarutiun member, demanded an official reaction to a "Nezavisimaya gazeta" report that Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian traveled to Moscow last week to request permission to use the Russian troops deployed in Armenia should force be needed to crack down on the Armenian opposition. LF
 AZERBAIJAN SEEKS EXTRADITION OF FORMER PARLIAMENT SPEAKERInterior Minister Ramil Usubov told journalists in Baku on 17 February that the Azerbaijani authorities are trying to secure the extradition of former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev, Turan reported. Guliev left Azerbaijan in September 1996 and has since lived in the United States. He is chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and is believed to provide funding for opposition political activities. The Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case against him for alleged massive embezzlement in the early 1990s when he was director of a major oil refinery. Usubov said on 17 February that Guliev's whereabouts are known, but that his extradition is problematic as there is no legal agreement on extradition between the United States and Azerbaijan. LF
 OFFICIAL DENIES AZERBAIJANI INVOLVEMENT IN ASSASSINATION OF FORMER ACTING CHECHEN PRESIDENTAzerbaijani National Security Minister Namik Abbasov rejected on 17 February an allegation by Russian military spokesman in the North Caucasus Colonel Ilya Shabalkin that unnamed Azerbaijanis are implicated in the 13 February car-bomb killing in Qatar of former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). Abbasov said he has been assured by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev that the FSB has not expressed any such suspicion of an Azerbaijani role in Yandarbiev's death. LF
 ECONOMIC COURT ORDERS POWER SUPPLY RESTORED TO AZERBAIJANI PUBLISHING HOUSEAzerbaijan's Economic Court handed down an interim ruling on 17 February that the Baku electricity distributor Barmek must restore the supply of power to the independent publishing house Chap Evi, Turan reported. The power line was severed on 10 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 17 February 2004). LF
 GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW CABINETMeeting in emergency session on 17 February, deputies approved the composition of the new cabinet by a vote of 165 to five, Caucasus Press reported. Its members are Zurab Zhvania (prime minister); Tamar Beruchashvili, Goga Khaindrava, Djambul Bakuradze and Guram Absandze (deputy prime ministers responsible for relations with the EU, conflict resolution, small business and investments, and national reconciliation, respectively); Tedo Djaparidze (foreign affairs); Gela Bezhuashvili (defense); Giorgi Baramidze (internal affairs); Zurab Nogaideli (finance); Irakli Rekhviashvili (economy); Eteri Astemirova (refugee affairs); Zurab Adeishvili (state security); Giorgi Papuashvili (justice); David Shervashidze (agriculture and food); Giga Tsereteli (health); Tamar Sulukhia (infrastructure and development); Nikoloz Gilauri (fuel and energy); Kakha Lomaya (education); Giorgi Gabashvili (culture, protection of monuments, and sport); and Tamar Lebanidze (environment and natural resources). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" commented on 18 February that the cabinet is the youngest in Europe, with an average age of 35; there is not a single holdover from the former government of President Eduard Shevardnadze. LF
 GEORGIAN PREMIER OUTLINES GOVERNMENT PROGRAMAddressing the parliament session on 17 February prior to his confirmation as prime minister, Zhvania listed as his cabinet's priorities in the next five years increasing public-sector wages and pensions, reducing the scale of corruption, and promoting Georgia's integration into European structures, Caucasus Press and Russian news agencies reported. He said the government will remain loyal to democratic principles, will protect Georgia's cultural heritage, work to restore the country's territorial integrity, and increase its defense potential, according to ITAR-TASS. LF
 OSCE PLEDGES FUNDING FOR GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY BALLOTUnder an agreement signed in Tbilisi on 17 February, the OSCE will provide 1 million euros ($1.28 million) toward the cost of the 28 March parliamentary election, Georgian media reported. Then acting Finance Minister Nogaideli said the total estimated cost of the ballot is 7 million laris ($3.45 million), most of which will be provided by foreign donors, although the state budget might contribute up to 3 million laris. LF
 ABKHAZIA PROTESTS GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S STATEMENTThe Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia has released a statement protesting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's comment while visiting Moscow on 11 February that Abkhazia functions as a corridor for drug trafficking, and that the Abkhaz authorities were involved in the 6 February Moscow metro bombing, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 11 February 2004). The statement said Saakashvili's pronouncements were intended to create a negative image of Abkhazia, while Tbilisi's policies are aimed at isolating Abkhazia economically. LF
 CHECHEN REFUGEES IN GEORGIA PROTEST COMPATRIOTS' DISAPPEARANCESRefugees from Chechnya who settled in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge staged a demonstration on 18 February to protest the disappearances of two Chechen men, Beqkhan Mulkoev and Husein Alkhanov, who were acquitted by a Tbilisi court on 6 February of having violated border regulations and entered Georgia illegally, Caucasus Press reported. The men were among a group of 13 Chechens apprehended in the late summer of 2002, five of whom were forcibly repatriated to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 8, 9, and 10 October 2002). The relatives of the two men acquitted fear they have been abducted and taken back to Russia. LF
 ST. PETERSBURG GOVERNOR OPENS BUSINESS FORUM IN KAZAKH CAPITALSt. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko opened a Russian-Kazakh Business Forum in Astana on 17 February by declaring that "we have something to learn from Kazakhstan," Interfax-Kazakhstan and gazeta.kz reported the same day. Matvienko said she was referring in particular to Kazakhstan's successes in the economic and social spheres, and then went on to describe Kazakhstan as one of St Petersburg's most important economic partners. Matvienko described her participation in the business forum as an effort to expand economic ties between St. Petersburg and Kazakhstan because she is convinced there is plenty of room for expansion. Matvienko stopped in Astana on her way to Turkmenistan, where she is expected to take part in the celebration of President Saparmurat Niyazov's birthday and promote trade with that country. BB
 KAZAKH OFFICIALS TO INSPECT TURKISH-BUILT BUILDINGS IN WAKE OF MOSCOW POOL TRAGEDYA press secretary for Kazakhstan's Agency for Extreme Situations, Kairzhan Turezhanov, told Deutsche Welle on 17 February that the collapse of the Turkish-built aqua park in Moscow has prompted Kazakh officials to approve a check of all Turkish-built structures in Almaty and Astana. The agency had already intended to look closely at such structures built in seismic zones, but the tragedy in Moscow motivated the agency to ask the government to agree to begin the inspections as quickly as possible and to expand its scope to include all buildings constructed by Turkish firms in recent years. Turkish construction firms have been prominent in the building boom in Almaty in the last five years, and have been responsible for more than 60 percent of construction projects in Astana since that city became the capital. Many of the Turkish-built structures in Astana are already disintegrating, according to Deutsche Welle. BB
 KAZAKH PRESIDENTIAL PARTY EXPECTS TO CONTROL LOWER HOUSE AFTER 2004 ELECTIONSThe pro-presidential Otan party expects to win at least half the seats in the lower house of the Kazakh parliament in this fall's parliamentary elections to the Mazhilis, acting party Chairman Amangeldy Yermegiyaev told a news conference in Almaty on 17 February, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The large Otan (Fatherland) Party was considered closest to President Nursultan Nazarbaev, at least until the launching of the Asar party by Nazarbaev's daughter Darigha in 2003. Yermegiyaev said no other parties have approached Otan about forming an election bloc, nor has Otan initiated such a proposal with any other party. Meanwhile, the editor in chief of the popular Kazakh weekly "Panorama," Lera Tsoi, has denied presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbaev's assertion that "Panorama," one of Kazakhstan's oldest independents, is actually a media outlet of the centrist Ak Zhol party. Her denial was reported by Interfax-Kazakhstan on 16 February. BB
 KYRGYZ LAWMAKERS WARN DRAFT LAW COULD ENCOURAGE 'TRIBALISM AND CORRUPTION'Legislative Assembly members Zainidin Kurmanov and Oksana Malevanaya told a press conference in Bishkek on 17 February that a draft constitutional law on the government could encourage "tribalism and corruption" if it is adopted as written, KyrgyzInfo reported the same day. The draft was drawn up by a joint commission of the parliament and government and submitted to the lower house. One of its most controversial sections deals with the issue of who appoints the members of the government. The government wants ministers and officials of equivalent rank to be appointed by the president; most parliamentarians want the legislature to be involved in the appointment of the government. Kurmanov and Malevanaya argued that granting such power to the legislature would give groups of deputies undue influence over individual ministers and weaken the role of the prime minister. BB
 UZBEKISTAN WITHDRAWS AGREEMENT ON DELIMITATION OF PART OF BORDER WITH KYRGYZSTANKyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told the Legislative Assembly on 17 February that 654 kilometers of the 1,200-kilometer border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has been completely delimited to the satisfaction of the two governments and the local populations, but that Uzbekistan suddenly revoked its agreement on a 27-kilometer strip that is part of more than 960 kilometers on which agreement was reached in principle, kabar.kg reported the same day. Tanaev apparently did not give a reason for the purported Uzbek change of heart. ITAR-TASS noted the same day that the section of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border that is most in dispute is a 130-kilometer strip in Kyrgyzstan's remote southern Batken Oblast. BB
 TURKMEN AUTHORITIES SPARK FEAR OF RETURN TO PSYCHIATRIC HARASSMENT OF DISSIDENTSAn inhabitant of the town of Balkanabat (formerly Nebit-Dag) was forcibly incarcerated in the local psychiatric hospital on 10 February, Prima-News reported on 16 February, quoting the Russian human rights organization Memorial. The action by Turkmen authorities raised fears that the practice of incarcerating dissidents in mental institutions might be reinstituted in Turkmenistan. This Soviet practice had largely disappeared in the late 1990s. In the Balkanabat case, Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev, who has a long history of friction with the authorities, formally requested permission to stage a demonstration against President Niyazov's policies in Balkanabat's main square during the president's birthday celebrations on 18-19 February. BB
 UZBEKISTAN REQUESTS SPEEDY EXTRADITION OF ALLEGED TERRORIST DETAINED IN MOSCOWThe Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office has requested the speedy extradition to Tashkent of a suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir party leader who was detained in Moscow on 13 February by Russian security services, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 February. Uzbekistan's National Security Service said Yusuf Qosimokhunov, believed to be a CIS leader of the Muslim extremist party, has been indicted in Uzbekistan on a charge of seeking to overthrow the constitutional order, one of the most common charges against real or suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir members. Qosimokhunov has allegedly been living in Moscow for several years using false papers and publishing and distributing extremist literature to the countries of Central Asia. BB
Central And Eastern Europe
 RUSSIAN GAS SUPPLIES TO BELARUS REPORTEDLY HALTEDRussian gas supplies to Belarus stopped on 18 February at 10:00 a.m. Moscow time due to "the lack of a contract between economic entities," ITAR-TASS reported, quoting Vladimir Kondrachuk, general director of Russian gas trader Transnafta. In practical terms, the decision means that the gas flow across Belarus has been reduced by Gazprom by some 20 million cubic meters a day. Belarus's daily gas consumption is reportedly 64 million cubic meters. Last week, Transnafta signed a short-term gas-supply contract with Belarus that expired on 18 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). Gazprom has refused to supply gas to Belarus since the beginning of the year, demanding a higher price for deliveries and favorable terms in the potential purchase of a controlling stake in Belarus's gas-pipeline operator Beltranshaz (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 17 February 2004). Kondrachuk said Transnafta is ready to sign a new gas-supply agreement with Belarus on previous terms, with gas priced at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters. He added that Belarus owes Transnafta $16.7 million for gas deliveries in January and $26 million for those in February. JM
 FORMER BELARUSIAN STATE-BROADCASTING CHIEF FACES CRIMINAL CHARGESThe Belarusian Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case against Yahor Rybakou, who was last week dismissed as chairman of Belarusian State Television and Radio Company, Belapan reported on 17 February. Rybakou is accused of abuse of office, theft, and corruption. Prosecutor Yury Azaronak told the news agency that Rybakou is suspected of taking bribes from the heads of various commercial companies in exchange for better terms in contracts with the Belarusian State Television and Radio Company. Rybakou was taken into custody just hours after his 13 February dismissal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). JM
 UKRAINIAN BROADCASTER DROPS FM RETRANSMISSION OF RADIO LIBERTYBroadcaster Dovira halted the FM retransmission of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service programs on 17 February, saying the programs do not suit Dovira's pop-music, youth-oriented format (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). RFE/RL President Thomas Dine recently called the Dovira move "a deeply disturbing political development and serious setback to freedom of expression in Ukraine." Dovira had been rebroadcasting five hours of RFE/RL programs per day on its nationwide FM network since 1998. The latest RFE/RL audience figures show a 30 percent increase in listenership in Ukraine over the past 12 months, mostly among young listeners in the 15-24 age group. "This isn't just about RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service -- this is about denying Ukrainians the information they need to make sound decisions about the future of their country," Dine said. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service continues to broadcast on shortwave to Ukraine, and its programs are still available on independent FM stations in six cities, including Odesa and Simferopol. JM
 U.S. COURT LAUNCHES TRIAL OF FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIERA court in San Francisco has begun "intensive preparations" for the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister (May 1996-July 1997) Pavlo Lazarenko, who is accused of laundering $114 million through U.S. banks, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) reported on 18 February. Lazarenko is also accused on 30 other counts, including a number of financial machinations for a total sum of $200 million. If found guilty, Lazarenko faces as long as 370 years in prison. Lazarenko, who has been in a San Francisco jail since 1999, was reportedly released on bail of $86 million in June. Lazarenko denies the charges, maintaining that he is a victim of political intrigue within the Ukrainian leadership. JM
 ESTONIAN PREMIER EXPECTS EU CONSTITUTION TO BE SETTLED DURING IRISH PRESIDENCYJuhan Parts and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern discussed EU-related issues in Dublin on 16 February, BNS reported the next day. Parts expressed the hope that the EU's Intergovernmental Conference will reach an agreement on the EU constitution before July, when Ireland's EU Presidency ends. Regarding future EU budgets, he affirmed: "The new financial projection must definitely reflect all the enlargement-related expenses. For Estonia, it is not the formal budget ceiling that matters but that the key tasks be funded." Together with the prime ministers of Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and Spain, Parts had sent a joint letter to Ahern requesting that the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact be applied without discrimination. The pact, signed in 1997, committed the 12 countries using the euro to limit their budget deficits to 3 percent of GDP, a policy to which France and Germany have failed to adhere for two consecutive years. The premiers also agreed that the EU's Partnership and Cooperation Pact with Russia must unconditionally and automatically extend to the acceding EU member states. SG
 NEARLY TWO-THIRDS OF LATVIA'S NONCITIZENS WANT CITIZENSHIPA study carried out by Latvia's Naturalization Board with funding from the Finnish government revealed that slightly more than 64 percent of Latvia's noncitizens want to obtain Latvian citizenship, BNS reported on 17 February. Only 14 percent did not want citizenship, with the remainder unsure or undecided. The study, which involved interviews with 200 specialists and 6,950 noncitizens throughout the country, indicated that factors most frequently preventing people from acquiring citizenship are a belief that citizenship should be given to them automatically and hopes that the naturalization process will be simplified in the future. It also revealed that 90 percent of noncitizens support naturalization and regard it as a positive move. Roughly 45 percent of the children of noncitizens have become citizens, the survey suggested. In early 2003, Latvia had 504,300 noncitizens, representing 22 percent of the country's population. SG
 POLISH PREMIER TO GIVE UP PARTY POSTPolish Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on 17 February that he will quit as leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) at a party convention on 6 March but will stay on as prime minister, Polish media reported. Miller had said the previous day that he would leave it to the SLD to decide whether it wants a new leader (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). Miller explained his decision by saying he would not be able to work efficiently as both premier and SLD leader in the face of increasing challenges connected with Poland's preparations for EU accession, the government's efforts to push an austerity plan through parliament, and the SLD's preparations for elections to the European Parliament in June. The SLD's national board on 17 February reportedly discussed four candidates who might lead the party: Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski, SLD parliamentary caucus head Krzysztof Janik, SLD Deputy Chairman Andrzej Celinski, and former Deputy Economy Minister Jolanta Banach. JM
 EUROPEAN COURT REJECTS COMPLAINT BY POLISH SILESIANSThe European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on 17 February rejected a complaint by individuals seeking to register a Union of People of Silesian Nationality (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 July 2003), PAP reported. Polish authorities who refused to register the union objected both to the name of the organization and to some provisions in the union's charter that characterized Silesians as an ethnic minority. "[The decision] means that an important international institution has not confirmed the claims of nationhood that are nursed by the group of 173,000 people who declared Silesian nationality in the general census [of 2002]," PAP quoted Krzysztof Lecki of the University of Silesia in Katowice as saying. "Does this mean that this nation does not exist? No. There are no final solutions in processes of nation formation." JM
 CZECH PREMIER CALLS FOR COMMON EUROPEAN FOREIGN, DEFENSE POLICY...Addressing the German Social Democratic Party's Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin on 17 February, Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said the EU must have a common foreign and security policy and the Czech Republic is determined to promote such a policy, CTK reported. Spidla said he is aware of the difficulties involved in doing so, but added that the EU will otherwise face a threat of eventual disintegration. He said the EU has become an important factor in world politics but has no force of its own to ensure that military capability would lend credibility to a defense of European positions. Spidla emphasized that a joint European defense should not undermine Euro-Atlantic cooperation. He also said the Czech Republic intends to introduce the euro in 2009 or 2010. According to dpa, that statement represents a postponement in the adoption of the euro, which was previously planned for 2007. MS
 ...AND DERIDES DUTCH SHIFT OVER FREE MOVEMENT OF LABORSpidla said after talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin on 17 February that he finds the Dutch government's recent decision to restrict labor migration from acceding EU members "unjustified," dpa reported. The Netherlands announced during negotiations on the acquis communautaire that it would immediately open its borders to such workers, but last week the Dutch government amended that position to apply only to positions for which Dutch workers cannot be found. Spidla and Czech President Vaclav Klaus both told visiting Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende on 16 February that they disagree with the Dutch position. Before departing for Germany, Spidla told CTK and Czech Television that he does not rule out retaliatory measures against the Netherlands, emphasizing that the Czech side left open such an option during negotiations on accession. CTK cited Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Kohout as saying that imposing such measures should be a last resort, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar said the government must consider whether such measures would serve Czech interests. MS
 SLOVAK BAN ON INTELLIGENCE RECRUITING HITS SNAGCabinet ministers failed to reach a consensus on 17 February over a draft amendment that would ban the Slovak intelligence service from recruiting agents among journalists or from going under cover as journalists, TASR and CTK reported. Senior coalition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) members and the civilian Slovak Information Service (SIS) have expressed opposition to that amendment. The draft legislation was proposed by lawmakers representing the junior coalition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), and the Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO). The proposed amendment is now in the hands of parliament, where it has already passed its first reading. SIS spokesman Vladimir Simko told CTK that the proposed change in the law would prevent journalists from "volunteer[-ing] to help protect the interests of a democratic state." Simko also said that "every intelligence service in the world cooperates with journalists, because their work is close to that of intelligence and they engage in information gathering and processing that can help the country." MS
 SLOVAK POLITICS MAKES STRANGE BEDFELLOWSRobert Fico, chairman of the leftist opposition Smer (Direction) party, said after talks with Free Forum leader Ivan Simko on 17 February that a strategic partnership should not be ruled out despite ideological differences between their parties, TASR reported. Fico said he hinted prior to the 2002 elections that cooperation was possible with the SDKU -- whose disgruntled lawmakers established the Free Forum -- "without [Prime Minister and SDKU Chairman] Mikulas Dzurinda." Now, Fico said, "we have found a SDKU without Dzurinda." Former Defense Minister Simko and six of his supporters left the SDKU in December to form the Free Forum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). Fico said he and Simko share the same opinion on the need to curb corruption and cronyism and to impose controls on those exercising power. MS
 HUNGARIAN PARTIES SHRUG OFF PREMIER'S ELECTORAL PROPOSALSocialist Party Chairman Laszlo Kovacs on 17 February invited the leaders of the country's three other parliamentary parties to meet on 19 February to discuss Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's recent proposal that would lead to a joint list of candidates for June's European Parliament elections drawn up by the governing coalition and the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004), Hungarian media reported. The chairman of the junior ruling Free Democrats, Gabor Kuncze, responded by saying that "we do not intend to obstruct the formation of a Socialist-FIDESZ list, but we shall run on our own," the MTI news agency reported. FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban called Medgyessy's proposal "unusual" and, according to "Nepszabadsag," the FIDESZ parliamentary group decided to reject the proposal. Ibolya David, chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Forum, said her party is in favor of parliamentary democracy, not a "republic of secret pacts," the daily reported. MSZ
 FIDESZ OFFICIAL WINS LAWSUIT AGAINST JOURNALISTFIDESZ Deputy Chairman Laszlo Kover won a libel judgment in the Budapest Metropolitan Court on 17 February after the court agreed that journalist Laszlo Juszt libeled Kover in an October 2002 article in the daily "Nepszava," "Magyar Nemzet" reported the next day. Juszt wrote that Kover made anti-Semitic remarks at a gathering commemorating the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. According to the court's ruling as cited by "Magyar Nemzet," Juszt sullied Kover's reputation, integrity, and dignity. He was ordered to publish an apology in the same daily. The verdict is final. MSZ
 EU CALLS ON CROATIA TO SPEED UP REFORMSEU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana told reporters in Zagreb on 17 February that Croatia must improve its cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal if it expects to make progress in membership negotiations with the EU, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 January 2004). "The sooner you establish a solid, transparent, [and] constructive relationship with the international [Hague-based] tribunal, the better. I will have to tell you very frankly that I will see great difficulties, great difficulties, if that relationship with the tribunal is not clearly established before [negotiations begin]," he said. Solana called on the government to do more and talk less about plans to arrest indicted war criminal and former General Ante Gotovina. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader stressed that his government is working hard to meet all the conditions for EU membership. It has become virtually an article of faith among all mainstream political parties that Croatia needs to join the EU by 2007. PM
 MACEDONIA AGREES ON MILITARY COOPERATION WITH CHINAChinese Defense Minister Cao Ganchuan and his visiting Macedonian counterpart Vlado Buckovski signed an agreement on military cooperation in Beijing on 17 February, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. The agreement also includes a donation of Chinese computer equipment worth some $500,000. Buckovski said the gift is only the first step and that the two armies plan to cooperate in the field of military training. Cao said military cooperation is the basis for economic cooperation, too. He added that China appreciates Macedonia's adherence to the "one China" principle, thus alluding to a brief episode when Macedonia established diplomatic relations with Taiwan from 1999-2001, Xinhua reported. The establishment of diplomatic relations between Skopje and Taipei in 1999 led Beijing in the UN Security Council to block the prolongation of the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission to Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 April 2001 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 4 December 2001). UB
 ROW OVER PROPOSED BOSNIAN DEFENSE MINISTERBosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic said in Sarajevo on 17 February that he called on Borislav Paravac, who is the Serbian member of the Bosnian Presidency, to withdraw the nomination of Branko Stevic for the post of defense minister and propose someone else, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). Terzic argued that Stevic could cause unspecified problems for Bosnia in seeking to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program at the Istanbul summit later in 2004. Paravac demanded that Terzic explain his charges against Stevic. The establishment of a unified military structure under a single command is one of the prerequisites Bosnia must meet to join NATO's program. Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian political leaders recently agreed on a division of top military and intelligence posts among members of their respective communities. PM
 NEW MINISTERS FOR SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO?Velimir Ilic, whose New Serbia party is a member of what is shaping up to be Serbia's new governing coalition, said in Belgrade on 17 February that Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Boris Tadic and Minister for Human Rights and Minority Rights Rasim Ljajic are welcome to keep their posts even though their respective parties do not belong to the coalition, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 17 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). Ilic added that Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic will be replaced by Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO). Tadic said elsewhere that he will quit his cabinet post if his Democratic Party goes into the opposition, as seems likely. PM
 UN REPRESENTATIVE AT ODDS WITH KOSOVAR LEADERSHIP?One day after he boycotted the reopening of the Kosovar parliament building to protest art works depicting only Albanian themes, Harry Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said in Prishtina on 17 February that he doubts that Kosova will be able to meet his eight-point program of standards by 2005 to enable talks on the province's final status to begin, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October and 19 December 2003 and 6 and 13 February 2004). Holkeri also said that Kosova's partner in a dialogue with Belgrade will be Serbia's Coordinating Center, which is still headed by Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic. Kosovar Albanian political parties are unanimous in agreeing that talks on status -- which for them means only independence -- must begin in 2005, and that Covic and his office are "destructive" and unacceptable negotiating partners, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. PM
 ROMANIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES GOVERNMENT-RESTRUCTURING BILL...The Chamber of Deputies on 17 February approved a bill on the government's restructuring that was submitted by the cabinet, Mediafax reported. The Democratic Party opposed the stipulation in the bill providing for the prime minister to have two deputies, arguing that the constitution makes no allowances for deputy prime ministers. The bill was supported by 182 lawmakers, while 23 deputies voted against it. After the vote, the Democrats said they will appeal to the Constitutional Court. MS
 ...RATIFIES TREATY WITH RUSSIABy a vote of 193 in favor, 16 against, and 15 abstentions, the lower house on 17 February ratified the basic treaty between Romania and Russia, Mediafax reported. All 16 votes against the treaty were cast by the Greater Romania Party. The treaty was signed in Moscow on 4 July by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Romanian President Ion Iliescu. MS
 SECOND WOMAN ANNOUNCES ROMANIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDACYOne day after U.S.-Romanian citizen Lia Roberts announced her candidacy for Romania's 2004 presidential elections, Romanian lawyer Gabriela Birla on 17 February announced her second bid for the presidency, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). In the 2000 presidential election Birla took a meager 0.55 percent of the vote. Birla described Roberts, who chairs the Nevada Republican Party, as a "Trojan Horse" candidate running with the blessing of U.S. President George W. Bush, and who would push Romania away from the EU if elected. MS
 CHISINAU, TIRASPOL, SUBMIT PROPOSALS TO OSCE MISSION...Negotiators representing Chisinau and Tiraspol on 17 February submitted their response to the new plan for Moldova's federalization worked out by the three mediators in the conflict -- Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE -- at their 26-27 January Sofia meeting, Infotag reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). The Moldovan response and counterproposals were submitted to William Hill, OSCE mission head in Chisinau, by Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova, while mission member Andrzej Klimcik met in Tiraspol with Valerii Litskay, who holds the separatist government's foreign-affairs portfolio. Sova said the proposals submitted by his government are based on the recommendations of the mediators and on the Russian plan for Moldova's federalization, which is often called the "Kozak memorandum" in reference to Russian first deputy presidential-administration head Dmitrii Kozak. In an interview with the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Sova said the Moldovan side took into account earlier accords and drafts, including the Kozak memorandum. Litskay said in a separate interview with the daily that further progress in the negotiations is impossible without the sides specifying their position on the Kozak memorandum. He stressed that both President Vladimir Voronin and Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov initialed each page of that document, which Moldova at the last minute failed to sign. MS
 ...WHILE MOLDOVAN OPPOSITION LEADER REJECTS NEW FEDERALIZATION PLANPopular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca said on 17 February that the plan worked out by the three mediators last month for Moldova's federalization brings nothing new to the table, Flux reported. Rosca said he is not surprised by the lack of novelty, since the five-party negotiation format is "inefficient, out of date, and incapable of giving impetus to the dead-end talks." Rosca said this was due to the "impasse resulting from Russia being in a position that makes it possible for it to block any decision within the OSCE." He said the new proposals "awkwardly" avoid any mention of the military issues that are the very source of the conflict, and they do not refer to Russia's evacuation of its Transdniestrian bases. Rosca also said that the plan makes no reference to what state language Moldova is to have, or how its current constitution might be revised. According to the PPCD leader, this is due to an attempt to avoid the criticism with which the Kozak memorandum was met. Rosca said he cannot envisage any resolution as long as the United States and the European Union are not actively involved in the negotiations. MS
 GERMAN FACES TRIAL FOR ALLEGEDLY PROVIDING BULGARIA WITH CLASSIFIED INFORMATIONA former official of the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) has formally been charged with espionage for allegedly handing over classified information to a member of the Bulgarian secret service, Hamburg's "Der Spiegel" (http://www.spiegel.de) reported on 17 February. Previous reports indicated that the alleged handover took place between 1999-2003, but Germany's Federal Prosecutor's Department now accuses the BND official of leaking the classified information between 2001-03. The official has admitted to the offense, according to prosecutors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 29 October 2003). UB
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 COALITION SIGNALS CHANGE OF TACTICS IN AFGHANISTAN...U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, who is commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, said on 17 February that those forces have introduced "a fairly significant change" in their strategies to confront militants in Afghanistan, American Forces Press Service (AFPS) reported. Barno attributed the new tactics to changes in enemy operations. In a reference to fighting in the summer of 2003, Barno said the coalition "would encounter hundreds of Taliban in the field and other terrorists in large groups." In such encounters, he continued, the enemy was "destroyed in large numbers. So they have adapted their tactics" by targeting nongovernmental aid organizations. The new coalition plan is "a classic counterinsurgency strategy" in which small units operate continuously out of the troubled areas while maintaining and developing "relations with the tribal elders, with the mullahs, with the local government officials," and working closely with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. AT
 ...AND CLOSE COOPERATION WITH PAKISTANBarno said on 17 February that cooperation between coalition forces and Pakistan has improved, leading to improved security in Afghanistan, AFPS reported. In what Barno described as "a hammer-and-anvil approach," Pakistan hopes to drive militants and terrorists out of its territory and into Afghanistan, where coalition forces and Afghan military units can confront them. According to Barno, Pakistani forces have begun using "innovative" measures to "uncover and disrupt terrorist organizations that may be living and operating" in tribal areas along the Afghan border. "The Pakistani troops are confronting the tribal elders and making them be accountable for the behavior in their area. That's a traditional approach that has not been used till now in that particular part of Pakistan," the Karachi-based daily "Dawn" quoted Barno as saying on 18 February. Those tribal chiefs who do not comply could face "destruction of homes and things of that nature," Barno added. However, Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said on 18 February that there "will be no joint operation by Pakistan and U.S. troops either in Pakistan or Afghanistan," Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported. AT
 AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER PUTS ELECTIONS IN DOUBTAbdullah Abdullah said on 17 February that security in southern regions of Afghanistan must improve if the elections slated for June are to proceed, AP reported. The comments came one day after the Afghan Transitional Administration chairman's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, declared that "elections will take place as planned in June," AP reported on 16 February. "Of course, we need to focus on improving security in some areas in southern Afghanistan more than we have done so far with the help of the international community," Abdullah said, adding that such an "effort is needed to make sure that elections are on time." Ludin also conceded that security is a "concern," but he added, "Our analysis is that it won't be a big obstacle to the elections." AT
 EU DELEGATIONS VISITS KABULThe European Union's ministerial troika of Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, his Dutch counterpart Bernard Bot, and European Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten held talks with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders on 17 February, an Afghan Foreign Ministry press release stated. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told the EU delegation that Afghanistan "stands at a crucial crossroads," adding, "The choice is ours -- the Afghans and the international community -- to accelerate the process of stabilization and reconstruction or take a potentially dangerous course." Patten said the EU pledged more than 1 billion euros ($1.28 billion) over five years at the Tokyo Conference in 2002 but has exceeded its commitment over the past two years. AT
 ANGRY IRANIAN LEGISLATORS BOW OUT, APPEAL TO SUPREME LEADERThe Interior Ministry announced on 18 February that 12 parliamentarians have announced their withdrawals from the 20 February parliamentary contest, IRNA reported. Tehran lawmakers Shamseddin Vahhabi, Fatemeh Rakei, and Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur all bowed out of the race, while Armenian representatives Jorkik Abramian and Levon Davidian also said they will not run. The Interior Ministry added that a total of 888 qualified candidates have withdrawn from the race. Some 100 members of parliament are believed to be behind an unsigned letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei posted on the Majlis website (http://mellat.majlis.ir/) in which they complain about the Guardians Council's vetting of prospective candidates and ask if Khamenei was actually behind the rejections. The letter says the people's most important rights, to vote and stand for office, are being taken away, and it added that greater public participation in elections strengthens society and the country. BS
 IRAN ENCOURAGES MUJAHEDIN TO RETURNIraqi Governing Council member Muhsin Abd-al-Hamid met with an unnamed individual identified only as "the Iranian ambassador to Iraq" (Iran is represented in Iraq by charge d'affaires Hassan Kazemi-Qomi) on 17 February and said Iran is ready to receive members of the armed opposition Mujahedin Khalq Organization after they receive pardons, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Voice of the Mujahedin reported. German Federal Border Police arrested 11 suspected MKO members at Frankfurt's Rhein-Main Airport, IRNA reported on 17 February, citing the daily "Die Tageszeitung." The individuals had arrived from Amman, and the authorities confiscated their passports. The 11 face deportation hearings and, according to the report, another 11 MKO members might have their asylum revoked. The U.S. State Department views the Iraq-based MKO as a foreign terrorist organization and, since President George W. Bush declared "the end of combat operations" in Iraq on 1 May, Washington has been at something of a loss over how to deal with its personnel. Tehran has offered an amnesty to lower-ranking MKO members. BS
 IRANIAN NOBEL LAUREATE SAYS SHE WON'T VOTEIranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Peace, said in a 17 February interview with Radio Farda that she will not vote in the 20 February parliamentary elections. "I believe we should vote for people whom we know fully and whom we trust, and because among the candidates who have been qualified I don't know anybody," Ebadi said. "Even if I was in Tehran, I would not vote, because I don't like to vote for people whom I don't know, whose [political] lines and inclinations I am not familiar with and thus, unintentionally, take some path while I don't know where it would lead to." BS
 TEHRAN HOSTS CONFERENCE ON PERSIAN GULFThe two-day 14th International Conference on the Persian Gulf began in Tehran on 17 February, and the audience heard speeches by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami (read out by a Foreign Ministry official), Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, Iranian news agencies reported. Khatami said the Persian Gulf is passing through one of its most difficult periods because of the "unilateral policies" employed by unnamed "big powers," IRNA reported, and he also called for the foreign forces occupying Iraq to leave the country. Kharrazi said regional powers should promote and define regional security jointly, and he called for greater regional economic cooperation, IRNA reported. He expressed the hope that cooperation and confidence building among regional states might lead to the departure of foreign forces in the Persian Gulf. Kharrazi described the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as, in IRNA's words, "the most obvious example of the failure of U.S. policies in the Middle East." Shamkhani said unilateralism leads to regional instability and that Iran is trying to ensure that "unilateralism is only a transition stage," ISNA reported. Shamkhani also called for greater regional cooperation. BS
 DOUBLE SUICIDE CAR BOMBS HIT COALITION MILITARY BASE IN AL-HILLAHSuicide car bombers using two automobiles struck a coalition military base in Al-Hillah on 18 February, international media reported. "At 7:15 [a.m.] local time near the logistics base there was a terrorist attack using two cars," Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strzelecki, a spokesman for Polish-led troops, told Reuters. "We found the bodies of the two drivers, and two Iraqis standing in the street were killed." Meanwhile, Coalition Provisional Authority spokeswoman Hilary White told Reuters that "we can confirm that more than 11 Iraqis were killed" in the attack, including "men, women, and children." At least eight coalition soldiers were also injured in the attack: six Poles, a Hungarian, and a U.S. soldier. Al-Hillah is located some 100 kilometers south of Baghdad. Soldiers from the Philippines, Romania, and Thailand are also stationed at the coalition base. KR
 AL-SISTANI'S REPRESENTATIVE SAYS BREMER SHOWS U.S. IS 'FEARFUL' OF ISLAMA representative of Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told Beirut's Al-Manar television on 18 February that comments made by U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer this week show that the United States is fearful of Iraq becoming an Islamic state. Bremer suggested to reporters during a visit to a women's center in Karbala on 16 February that he might veto a constitution that is based on Shari'a law. "Our position is clear. It can't be law until I sign it," AP quoted him as saying. Al-Sistani representative Shaykh Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i told Al-Manar that Bremer's statement "reflects the fear of the U.S. administration about the adoption of Islam as [an] important source [for] legislation in Iraq.... This administration knows that the Iraqis are Islamic-oriented and want the application of Islamic Shari'a" law. He added that the United States fears "that this Islamic phenomenon among average Iraqi citizens might extend to Iraqi politics and Iraqi laws." KR
 TALABANI REPORTS BREAKTHROUGH WITH AL-SISTANI ON ELECTIONSIraqi Governing Council member and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Jalal Talabani told Germany's "Spiegel Online" in a 17 February interview that he and Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have reached an agreement on when elections should be held in Iraq. "We came to an agreement," Talabani said. "We both favor electing this country's first democratic government in seven or eight months." Talabani said the agreement came during weekend meetings with the ayatollah, adding that al-Sistani pledged to support Kurdish claims in Iraq. Asked if that meant that al-Sistani would support Kurdish autonomy, Talabani implied that was the case. "Sistani is no Ayatollah Khomeini, he is moderate, he wants no Islamic regime, and he wants no clerics in ministerial posts," Talabani said. "[Al-Sistani] has not founded a party and he assured me that he does not even want to support a party." KR
 COALITION ANNOUNCES NEW REWARD PROGRAMU.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt at a 17 February press conference in Baghdad announced a new reward program for information leading to the "capture of terrorists and noncompliant members of the former regime," the Coalition Provisional Authority announced, according to its website (http://www.cpa-iraq.org). The new, three-tiered program offers a reward of $1 million for the capture of any of the 10 individuals remaining on the coalition's list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the deposed Hussein regime. The second tier offers $200,000 for information leading to the capture of any "members and personnel formerly associated with the [Hussein] regime who had regional responsibilities." The third tier offers a reward of $50,000 for information leading to the capture of individual operatives running local terrorist cells. KR
 U.K. TO GIVE $3.8 MILLION TO REBUILD IRAQI JUSTICE SYSTEMThe British government announced in a 17 February press released that it will provide more than 2 million pounds ($ 3.8 million) to rebuild Iraq's judicial system, according to the 10 Downing Street website (http://www.number-10.gov.uk). The funds will go toward training some 1,000 judges, prosecutors, and lawyers beginning this month. It will also fund "study tours" and partnerships between institutions. "Over the last 30 years Iraq's judicial system was deeply politicized," U.K. International Development Secretary Hilary Benn was quoted as saying. "Corruption, torture, and other abuses by law enforcement agencies were widespread. This assistance will provide much-needed help to the reform process which is so critical to the wider rebuilding of Iraqi society." KR
 BULGARIAN MEDICS' TRIAL ENTERS FINAL STAGEBy Ulrich Buechsenschuetz
A criminal court in Benghazi, Libya, on 16 February again adjourned the last hearing in the trial of six Bulgarian and one Palestinian medical workers charged with deliberately infecting some 400 children at a Libyan hospital with HIV. During the 16 February hearing, which was attended by Western diplomats and representatives of Amnesty International, prosecutors and the lawyers representing the infected children's parents presented their closing remarks.
Despite expert testimony in favor of the Bulgarian medics, the prosecutors demanded that the defendants be sentenced to death, citing the gravity of their offense. The defense lawyers, for their part, reiterated that the charges are unfounded and demanded that the medics be acquitted.
The Bulgarians' five-year trial began on 10 February 1999 with the detention of 23 Bulgarian nurses and doctors, an action Libya subsequently termed as a "precautionary measure." One month later, Libya officially informed the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry that six of the 23 detained Bulgarians -- nurses Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka, Snezhana Dimitrova, and Kristiyana Vulcheva as well as doctor Zdravko Georgiev -- were being charged with deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV.
The remaining detainees endured months and then years of hope followed by despair. In April 1999, one of the nurses reportedly attempted suicide. Another nurse later testified that she was tortured during interrogations, allegations that were backed up by other nurses during a 1 June 200 meeting with a Bulgarian diplomat in which they described being subjected to electrical shocks and beatings with sticks and rubber pipes. The detainees also complained about poor prison conditions. In February 2002, three years after their detention, the medics were placed under house arrest in Tripoli.
When the trial began in February 2000, Libyan prosecutors charged the Bulgarian medics not only with deliberately infecting 393 children with HIV, but also with conspiring to undermine the security of the Libyan state by indiscriminately killing people, and with premeditated murder for injecting the children with the virus. Those charges are punishable by death under Libyan law, according to BTA. In addition, the prosecutors accused the Bulgarians of engaging in illicit sexual relationships, distilling and consuming alcohol, and illegal currency trading.
From the beginning, the Bulgarian government -- then led by Ivan Kostov of the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) -- sought international support for its indicted citizens. It successfully sought the involvement of the United Nations, the League of Arab States, and individual governments, and engaged internationally renowned HIV/AIDS experts Professor Luc Montagnier of the Paris-based Pasteur Institute and the World Health Organization's Professor Luc Perrin.
Although the Bulgarian government tried to be as diplomatic as possible and carefully avoided any direct attacks on the Libyan judiciary, the strategy of garnering international support for the medics proved to be a walk on a tight rope.
The Libyan government, for its part, repeatedly told its Bulgarian counterpart that it has no influence whatsoever on the courts. Then, at the African AIDS summit in Abuja, Nigeria, on 27 April 2001, Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi accused the CIA and Mossad of developing HIV. Ghaddafi further claimed that the medics infected the Libyan children with HIV at the behest of the two intelligence agencies. Ghaddafi predicted that the medics' trial would become an international trial similar to that of the Libyans accused of carrying out the Lockerbie bombing of a U.S. airliner.
However, in February 2002, a Tripoli court dropped the conspiracy charges, although the decision resulted in the trial being transferred to a criminal court in Benghazi, the site of the hospital where the children were allegedly infected. This meant that the case would now be heard in a courtroom filled with the relatives of the infected children, a situation that threatened to affect the impartiality of the judge.
The final stage of the trial began on 4 September 2003, when AIDS experts Montagnier and his Italian colleague Vittorio Colizzi testified that HIV infections had been registered in the Benghazi hospital in 1997, before the Bulgarians began working there. They also stressed that additional infections had been recorded after the arrest of the Bulgarian medics, and cited inadequate precautionary measures at the hospital, such as the multiple use of syringes, as a possible cause of the mass infections. Two Libyan experts, however, testified during the same session that only a deliberate infection could have caused an outbreak to the extent of that in the hospital.
On 29 December, a group of Libyan doctors presented their findings to the court, which contradicted Montagnier's and Colizzi's expert opinions. The Libyans' findings supported the initial charges that the children were deliberately infected. However, on 9 February, Libyan expert Salim al-Agiri admitted that inadequate precautionary measures at the hospital could have led to the infections.
The next, and presumably last, session of the trial is scheduled for 15 March. Until then, both the defense lawyers and the prosecutors are allowed to submit new evidence. If the court accepts the evidence, it is likely that the trial will go to another round. If not, the judges must render a judgment within 30 days.
It is unlikely, however, that the Bulgarian defendants will be released even if the court acquits them. Evgeni Kirilov, a Bulgarian member of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), said on 3 February that he expects any verdict to be appealed regardless.