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RFE/RL Newsline, 04-02-19

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: Newsline Directory - Previous Article - Next Article

From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>


CONTENTS

  • [01] ANOTHER MISSILE TEST GOES WRONG
  • [02] PRESIDENT PROMISES A NEW GENERATION OF WEAPONS
  • [03] FLAT TAX MIGHT BE RAISED
  • [04] ST. PETERSBURG POLICE QUESTION SUSPECTS IN KILLING OF TAJIK GIRL
  • [05] MOSCOW MAYOR SAYS CITY RESPONSIBLE FOR WATER-PARK DISASTER
  • [06] DUMA TOUGHENS PUNISHMENT FOR TERRORISTS...
  • [07] ...NIXES EXTENSION OF PRESIDENTIAL TERM...
  • [08] ...AND REJECTS BID TO INCREASE PUNISHMENT FOR DRUNK DRIVING
  • [09] EXHIBIT COMMEMORATING SLAIN LEGISLATORS DISAPPEARS
  • [10] COMMUNIST CANDIDATE MOVES UP IN POLLS
  • [11] DUMA TO CONSIDER LIMITS ON MEDIA COVERAGE OF TERRORIST ACTS...
  • [12] ...AS WELL AS HOST OF OTHER MEDIA BILLS
  • [13] STRONG RUSSIA, STRONG TEETH
  • [14] FORMER CHECHEN LEADER NAMED RUSSIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER
  • [15] CHECHEN PRESIDENT HINTS AT NEW TACTICS
  • [16] RUSSIA DENIES ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SOLICITED SUPPORT
  • [17] AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST ENDS HUNGER STRIKE
  • [18] PRESIDENT SAYS PRIMARY THREATS TO GEORGIA ARE INTERNAL
  • [19] GEORGIAN REGIONAL LEADER SETS CONDITIONS FOR VISIT TO TBILISI...
  • [20] ...DENIES BATUMI BANK ENGAGED IN MONEY LAUNDERING
  • [21] GEORGIAN BORDER PROTECTION OFFICIAL DETAINED OVER BEREZOVSKII CONTRETEMPS...
  • [22] GEORGIAN BORDER GUARDS COMMANDER IMPLICATED IN CORRUPTION
  • [23] RUSSIA, GEORGIA TO LAUNCH JOINT BORDER PATROLS
  • [24] GEORGIAN OPPOSITION REJECTS PRESIDENTIAL CONCESSION ON ELECTION COMMISSION REPRESENTATION
  • [25] ABKHAZ PRESIDENT PROPOSES POSTPONING LOCAL ELECTIONS
  • [26] KAZAKH OPPOSITION JOURNALIST CALLS PRESIDENTIAL DAUGHTER'S PARTY 'A FAMILY PROJECT'
  • [27] KAZAKH PARLIAMENT SUSPECTS STATE AIRLINE WAS DELIBERATELY BANKRUPTED
  • [28] SUSPECTED HIZB UT-TAHRIR ACTIVISTS DETAINED IN NORTHERN TAJIKISTAN
  • [29] ST. PETERSBURG GOVERNOR SIGNS COOPERATION AGREEMENT IN TURKMENISTAN
  • [30] EUROPEAN COMMISSION APPOINTS ASSOCIATE COMMISSIONERS FROM 10 ACCEDING COUNTRIES
  • [31] EUROPARLIAMENTARY PRESIDENT CALLS MIGRATION FEARS OVERBLOWN
  • [32] RUSSIA STOPS GAS FLOW ACROSS BELARUS...
  • [33] ...AS MINSK MOVES TO RESPOND TO CRISIS
  • [34] UKRAINIAN INTELLIGENCE GENERAL SAYS SECRET SERVICES SPYING ON OPPOSITION, GOVERNMENT
  • [35] 10 UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS REACH ACCORD ON CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
  • [36] UKRAINIAN PRO-GOVERNMENT GROUPS FORM 'COALITION OF DEMOCRATIC FORCES'
  • [37] SOME SURPRISES AMONG PROPOSED BALTIC EUROPEAN COMMISSIONERS
  • [38] LATVIAN PRESIDENT TO HOLD ADDITIONAL ROUND OF TALKS BEFORE NAMING PRIME MINISTER
  • [39] IMPEACHMENT COMMISSION ENDORSED ALL ALLEGATIONS AGAINST LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT
  • [40] LITHUANIAN BORDER CHIEF OFFICIALLY FIRED
  • [41] POLISH ARMS TRADER PROTESTS IRAQ TENDER RESULT
  • [42] NEW CHIEF OF POLISH TELEVISION TAKES HELM
  • [43] WILL CZECH REPUBLIC ABANDON VATICAN TREATY?
  • [44] SLOVAK PREMIER PLAYS DOWN DUTCH RESTRICTIONS ON LABOR MIGRATION
  • [45] SLOVAK PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER DEMANDS APOLOGY FROM INTELLIGENCE SERVICE
  • [46] HUNGARY VOWS TO CONTINUE IRAQ MISSION DESPITE CASUALTIES
  • [47] HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT EXPLAINS PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES
  • [48] HUNGARIAN CABINET BEGINS SLASHING BUDGET
  • [49] ARMENIAN ARMY OFFICER SLAIN IN HUNGARY
  • [50] BOSNIAN PRIME MINISTER EXPLAINS REJECTION OF DEFENSE MINISTER
  • [51] BOSNIAN PARLIAMENT ADOPTS DECLARATION ON NATO, EU
  • [52] U.S. DONATES MILITARY EQUIPMENT TO CROATIA
  • [53] U.S. WARNS SERBIAN LEADERS
  • [54] RELATIVES OF KIDNAPPED MACEDONIANS TO SUE ALBANIAN PARTY LEADER
  • [55] ROMANIA, UKRAINE UNABLE TO OVERCOME IMPASSE OVER SERPENTS ISLAND
  • [56] ROMANIAN MINORITIES TO FACE TOUGHER PARLIAMENTARY THRESHOLD
  • [57] MOLDOVA APPOINTS NEW AMBASSADOR TO ROMANIA
  • [58] U.S. BACKS INTERNATIONAL PEACEKEEPING MISSION IN TRANSDNIESTER
  • [59] TIRASPOL DENIES OSCE MISSION ACCESS TO RUSSIAN AMMUNITION DEPOT
  • [60] IS FORMER BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER PLANNING NEW PARTY?
  • [61] FORMER IRAQ CONTINGENT HEAD CITES LACK OF BULGARIAN INTELLIGENCE INFORMATION
  • [62] NEO-TALIBAN SAID TO BE PREPARING FRESH ATTACKS IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN...
  • [63] ...AND SEEKING TO INTIMIDATE WOULD-BE VOTERS
  • [64] NEW AFGHAN COMMISSION TO COMBAT CHILD SMUGGLING
  • [65] JOINT AFGHAN-U.S. LITERACY PROGRAM LAUNCHED
  • [66] MAJOR DERAILMENT AND EXPLOSION KILLS HUNDREDS IN NORTHEAST IRAN
  • [67] IRANIAN BAHAIS RELEASED AFTER 15 YEARS IN JAIL
  • [68] IRANIAN NEWSPAPERS CLOSED FOR PUBLISHING CRITICAL LETTER TO LEADER
  • [69] IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL OPENS DEBATE ON TRANSITIONAL ADMINISTRATION LAW...
  • [70] ...AS MEMBERS COMMENT ON PROGRESS
  • [71] COALITION FORCES REPEL ATTACK ON ABU GHURAYB PRISON
  • [72] U.S. FORCES ARREST SEVEN MILITANTS SUSPECTED OF TIES TO AL-QAEDA
  • [73] WOMEN'S RIGHTS CENTER OPENS IN KARBALA
  • [74] HUNGARY VOWS TO CONTINUE IRAQ MISSION DESPITE CASUALTIES
  • [75] WILL BELARUS ABANDON 'AGREEMENTS' WITH RUSSIA OVER GAS DISPUTE? Volume 8 Number 32 Thursday, 19 February 2004 Russia

  • [01] ANOTHER MISSILE TEST GOES WRONG

    Russia's large-scale war games were again marred by a failed missile test on 18 February. Captain Igor Dygalo, an aide to Russian Navy commander and Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov, told ITAR-TASS that a Sineva missile self-destructed as it veered off course shortly after it was launched from the nuclear submarine "Karelia." However, the state-run television channels did not mention the failed launch, AP reported on 18 February. The previous day, two planned submarine-based ballistic-missile tests were unsuccessful (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). Several missiles were successfully tested on 18 February. A "Topol" (NATO designation "SS-25") mobile ground-based missile was launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russian and hit its target at the Kamchatka Peninsula's Kura test range, while a Molnia-M booster rocket also launched from Plesetsk put a Kosmos military satellite into orbit. An RS-18 "Stiletto" (NATO designation "SS-19") missile was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Interfax reported. A spokesman for the Strategic Missile Troops, Lieutenant Colonel Vadim Koval, said the SS-19 launch "resolved a number of experimental tasks applicable to ground-based strategic missile systems." JB

    [02] PRESIDENT PROMISES A NEW GENERATION OF WEAPONS

    President Vladimir Putin, who was at the Plesetsk cosmodrome on 18 February to observe the military satellite's launch, made no direct reference to the failed missile launches that day and the previous day. But he told a news conference later in the day that there had been "pluses" and "minuses" in the exercises and that conclusions will be drawn from the latter, gazeta.ru reported on 18 February. Still, Putin said that as a result of "experiments" successfully conducted during the exercises, the Strategic Missile Troops will soon deploy a new weapons that "can destroy targets on other continents, moving at hypersonic speed and with great accuracy, and with high maneuverability in both the vertical and horizontal planes," RTR reported. "No country in the world currently has these types of weapons systems," Putin said, adding that they would not be directed at the United States. He also said Russia might at some point start work to build a missile-defense system but that it is "still too early to...invest large sums in this area." JB

    [03] FLAT TAX MIGHT BE RAISED

    Russia's flat 13 percent personal income-tax rate, touted by the Putin administration and its supporters as Europe's lowest, might be raised next year, "Izvestiya" reported on 17 February. The flat tax has not succeeded in bringing salary and other payments out of the shadow economy because the single social tax (ESN) paid by employers remains high, the newspaper added. As a result, the Finance Ministry and Trade and Economic Development Ministry have drafted amendments to the Tax Code that would lower the ESN's top rates from 35.6 percent to 26 percent while making the employee responsible for paying part of the tax along with the employer. At the same time, the individual income-tax rate will be raised to 17 percent, with the additional 4 percent going to individual pension accounts, "Izvestiya" reported. After the flat 13 percent rate was introduced at the beginning of 2001, President Putin said the rate would remain unchanged for many years to come (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2001). JB

    [04] ST. PETERSBURG POLICE QUESTION SUSPECTS IN KILLING OF TAJIK GIRL

    The St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast police are investigating two teenagers in connection with the slaying of 9-year-old Tajik girl Khursheda Sultanova in St. Petersburg on 9 February, Interfax reported on 18 February. An anonymous police source told the news agency that the two suspects are among a group of adolescents aged 15-16 recently detained in St. Petersburg for desecrating tombstones at a Jewish cemetery (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). The police have a "real basis" for investigating the two suspects, the source said. The slain girl's father and her 11-year-old cousin were severely beaten in the incident. Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg City Court on 18 February began cross-examining three people accused of murdering an Azerbaijani citizen in September 2002. The suspects are being tried on charges of murder motivated by ethnic, racial, or religious hatred. One of the suspects denied the murder charge but admitted that he belonged to a "skinhead" group in 2002, Interfax reported. JB

    [05] MOSCOW MAYOR SAYS CITY RESPONSIBLE FOR WATER-PARK DISASTER

    Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov said on 18 February that the Moscow city government is to blame for the collapse of the Transvaal Park indoor water complex's roof, which killed at least 26 people, Interfax reported. "It is unpleasant for me to say it, but the Moscow government definitely must take responsibility for the disaster," Luzhkov told a group of World War II veterans. Luzhkov said investigators are examining several possible theories for the collapse, including an error in the complex's design, the quality of construction materials, and movement of the building's foundation, ITAR-TASS reported. A Moscow city government commission and the State Construction Committee (Gosstroi) will reach a conclusion and their findings will be made public, he said. Meanwhile, Aleksandr Kosovan, who is heading the city government commission involved in the probe, told Ekho Moskvy that tests found the concrete used in building the complex met quality standards. JB

    [06] DUMA TOUGHENS PUNISHMENT FOR TERRORISTS...

    State Duma deputies voted unanimously on 18 February to approve amendments to the Criminal Code in first reading that would increase the punishments for people convicted of terrorist acts, Russian news agencies reported. Under the bill, which was sponsored by Unified Russia, individuals convicted of carrying out particularly severe acts of terrorism would receive life imprisonment. First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska, also of Unified Russia, said she differs from her colleagues and supports allowing the death penalty for such terrorism offenses, ITAR-TASS reported. Earlier, deputy Vladimir Katrenko, deputy chairman of the Unified Russia Duma faction, said it is possible that his faction's presidium will soon raise the idea of introducing the death penalty for terrorism, with the caveat that it could only be imposed after a jury trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). JAC

    [07] ...NIXES EXTENSION OF PRESIDENTIAL TERM...

    A proposed amendment to the constitution increasing the presidential term from four to seven years received only 51 votes of the 300 necessary during the 18 February State Duma session, Interfax and RIA-Novosti reported. The Duma Council, which is dominated by members of Unified Russia party, put the bill on the legislature's agenda early this month. Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies told RosBalt that the legislature took up the issue now, during the run-up to the 14 March presidential election, so Putin can prove to voters that he does not want to become another Josef Stalin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2004). JAC

    [08] ...AND REJECTS BID TO INCREASE PUNISHMENT FOR DRUNK DRIVING

    Also on 18 February, deputies voted to reject a bill in its second reading that would increase from one year to up to two years the time an individual convicted of drunk driving could be deprived of his driver's license, ITAR-TASS reported. Vladislav Reznik, chairman of the Banking Committee, said the bill would give too much discretion to traffic police. The bill passed in its first reading last October. JAC

    [09] EXHIBIT COMMEMORATING SLAIN LEGISLATORS DISAPPEARS

    State Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin has asked for a formal explanation of why parts of an exhibit devoted to slain State Duma Deputies Galina Starovoitova and Sergei Yushenkov have been removed from the Museum of Modern Russian History on orders from the director of the Duma's press service, RosBalt reported. The exhibit devoted to the last 10 years of the State Duma recently opened at the Moscow museum. Pokhmelkin called the act one of "utter blasphemy" to the memory of these people who made such significant contributions to the development of Russian parliamentary democracy. The agency did not provide any comments from Duma's press service. JAC

    [10] COMMUNIST CANDIDATE MOVES UP IN POLLS

    Communist Party presidential candidate and State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov overtook for the first time fellow Deputy Sergei Glazev in a poll ranking the popularity of presidential candidates conducted by VTsIOM-A, lenta.ru reported on 18 February. Five percent of respondents said that they would support Kharitonov, and 4 percent Glazev. As usual, President Putin led the poll with 80 percent support. The poll of 600 respondents was conducted in the middle of February. "Versiya," No. 5, reported that Kharitonov's campaign is operating with very little funding, in part because the Communist Party leadership believes his campaign's only purpose is to serve as a counterweight to the party's internal opposition led by Duma Deputy Gennadii Semigin and former Deputy Sergei Potapov. JAC

    [11] DUMA TO CONSIDER LIMITS ON MEDIA COVERAGE OF TERRORIST ACTS...

    A draft bill banning the showing of victims of terrorists acts on television or electronic media has been sent to the Duma's committees and factions, according to the Duma Information Policy Committee's press service, gazeta.ru reported on 17 February. Fedor Kavchenko, a lawyer who specializes in media law, told "Gazeta" that the ban would be better enforced through journalistic self-regulation. "Moskovskii novosti" editor and former TVS general director Yevgenii Kiselev told Interfax that the proposed ban is "faulty" and "counterproductive." JAC

    [12] ...AS WELL AS HOST OF OTHER MEDIA BILLS

    On 18 February, State Duma Information Policy Committee Deputy Chairman Boris Reznik told RosBalt that the State Duma will soon consider two new laws on print media. One is sponsored by President Putin, while the other is being developed by a Duma subcommittee. According to Reznik, the presidential bill prescribes the rights of owners of print-media outlets, but not of editors and journalists, in the opinion of committee members. In addition, the Duma also will consider a package of laws on the mass media. The first law on public television and radio broadcasting is ready, but has not yet been approved by the Kremlin. There is also a second law on de-monopolization of the press and a third on the provision of economic independence of the media. JAC

    [13] STRONG RUSSIA, STRONG TEETH

    A St. Petersburg-based firm, Prosperiti, is marketing plastic toothpicks bearing the image of President Putin with the saying "Our future -- A Strong Russia" against the background of the flag of the Netherlands, "Gazeta" reported on 18 February. The Russian flag is white, blue, and red and the Dutch flag is red, white, and blue. Also available is a toothpick packet bearing a picture of Putin's black Labrador, Koni, with the saying "Our Koni -- Heroine-Mother." Koni gave birth to eight puppies last year. The presidential administration has denied any involvement with the manufacture of the toothpicks. Dmitrii Krasnyanskii, deputy chairman of St. Petersburg's election commission, said: "This is a nightmare -- the president on toothpicks. This is such a direct violation of the law on elections." JAC

    [14] FORMER CHECHEN LEADER NAMED RUSSIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER

    Doku Zavgaev, who headed the pro-Moscow Chechen government from November 1995 to early 1997, has been appointed a deputy foreign minister, Interfax reported on 18 February, citing Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko. Yakovenko said Zavgaev, who has served for the past seven years as Russia's ambassador to Tanzania, will be responsible primarily for financial and administrative issues. LF

    [15] CHECHEN PRESIDENT HINTS AT NEW TACTICS

    In an interview circulated by chechenpress.com on 16 February, Aslan Maskhadov for the first time hinted that his forces may engage in military activities outside Chechnya. Asked whether he plans to so do, Maskhadov replied: "You are asking me about a military secret. I will respond in this way -- if the official armed forces plan to extend the zone of their operations, then it will remain hot news for all serious news agencies for a long time." Previously Maskhadov repeatedly ruled out any military activities by his men outside Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2003). LF

    Transcaucasia And Central Asia

    [16] RUSSIA DENIES ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SOLICITED SUPPORT

    The Russian Embassy in Yerevan issued a statement on 18 February denying that during his visit to Moscow earlier this month, Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian sought from the Russian government guarantees that in the event of an escalation of the domestic political situation in Armenia, the Russian troops based there would support the incumbent government, Noyan Tapan reported. That allegation appeared in a 13 February interview in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" with former Armenian Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, and was reprinted in the Armenian press (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). The Armenian daily "Hayots ashkhar" on 19 February claimed that the Armenian opposition paid for that interview to be published. Addressing parliament on 18 February, Sarkisian likewise dismissed the allegation as "absurd," Arminfo reported. LF

    [17] AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST ENDS HUNGER STRIKE

    Due to a serious deterioration in his health, Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," has ended the hunger strike he began on 9 February, Turan reported on 19 February. Arifoglu was one of several dozen opposition activists detained for their alleged role in the clashes in Baku on 15-16 October following the disputed presidential ballot who began a hunger strike earlier this month to protest the conditions under which they are detained and demand a timely and fair trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2004). LF

    [18] PRESIDENT SAYS PRIMARY THREATS TO GEORGIA ARE INTERNAL

    Presenting State Security Minister Zurab Adeishvili to ministry staff on 18 February, President Mikheil Saakashvili said the primary threats to Georgia's security are internal, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili specifically called attention to the need to determine which political forces are behind the economic clans that until recently were engaged in a power struggle, and to the danger that Georgia could become a transit corridor for drugs and human trafficking. He also called for greater efforts to prevent the spread of militant Wahhabism among Chechen refugees in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, arguing that the propaganda of Wahhabism in Georgia is "aimed against state structures," Interfax reported. Saakashvili proposed to declassify the remaining Soviet-era KGB files at the ministry's disposal even though doing so could cause "problems" for some people, Interfax reported. But he noted at the same time that some of the former KGB archives were transferred to Moscow in the early 1990s shortly after the collapse of the USSR, and more were sent to Russia during Igor Giorgadze's tenure as state security minister in 1993-95. LF

    [19] GEORGIAN REGIONAL LEADER SETS CONDITIONS FOR VISIT TO TBILISI...

    Embattled Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze said on 18 February that he will travel to Tbilisi on 20 February to meet with President Saakashvili only if the Georgian authorities begin an objective investigation of alleged attempts by the previous Georgian leadership to assassinate Abashidze, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili said earlier on 18 February that Abashidze "can and must" come to Tbilisi, ITAR-TASS reported. Saakashvili said he will not travel to Batumi to meet with Abashidze there if the latter refuses to come to Tbilisi. Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer, who arrived in Tbilisi on 18 February, said it is not for him to pressure Abashidze to comply with Saakashvili's invitation. Schwimmer is to travel to Batumi on 20 February to meet with Abashidze, and Caucasus Press on 17 February quoted the Georgian television station Mze as reporting that Abashidze will accompany Schwimmer when Schwimmer returns to Tbilisi. LF

    [20] ...DENIES BATUMI BANK ENGAGED IN MONEY LAUNDERING

    Abashidze told journalists in Batumi on 18 February that there is no truth to claims by a Turkish construction company that the Batumi Maritime Bank was for years involved in money laundering, Caucasus Press reported on 19 February. An official from the Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office said on 18 February that an investigation will be launched into the bank's activities on the basis of the Turkish allegations. LF

    [21] GEORGIAN BORDER PROTECTION OFFICIAL DETAINED OVER BEREZOVSKII CONTRETEMPS...

    Georgia's Military Prosecutor's Office has arrested Major Irakli Papava, who made the decision last December to remove Russian tycoon Boris Berezovskii's name from Interpol's international "wanted" list and thus enable him to enter Georgia for a brief visit, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported on 18 February. The Russian Foreign Ministry formally protested Tbilisi's failure to detain Berezovskii, who was traveling on a British passport in the name of Platon Elenin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 8 December 2003). Papava was dismissed from the Georgian Border Protection Service in the wake of that scandal. LF

    [22] GEORGIAN BORDER GUARDS COMMANDER IMPLICATED IN CORRUPTION

    The Military Prosecutor's Office has also launched a broader investigation into alleged corruption and malpractice with the State Border Protection Service, Caucasus Press reported on 18 February. On 10 February, the head of the service's personnel department, David Chkheidze, was arrested on charges of fraud and issuing counterfeit documents. Six days later, former Border Troops Chief of Staff Colonel Ramaz Lursmanishvili told a press conference in Tbilisi that the entire service was pervaded by corruption, including Border Service Director Lieutenant General Valeri Chkheidze who, Lursmanishvili claimed, enjoyed the personal protection of former President Eduard Shevardnadze. Lursmanishvili was summoned to the Military Prosecutor's Office for questioning on 18 February, Caucasus Press reported. On 17 February, recently appointed Georgian National Security Council Chairman Vano Merabishvili said the council is satisfied with Valeri Chkheidze's work, Caucasus Press reported. LF

    [23] RUSSIA, GEORGIA TO LAUNCH JOINT BORDER PATROLS

    Georgian State Border Protection Service Director Chkheidze has told the independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 that under an agreement signed in Moscow on 17 February between his agency and Russia's Federal Border Protection Service, Russian and Georgian border guards will jointly patrol Georgia's borders with Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Daghestan beginning in the spring, Caucasus Press reported on 18 February. Chkheidze said such patrols will reduce the grounds for mutual accusations of failing to prevent border violations. He added that cooperation in guarding Russia's borders with the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is also under discussion. LF

    [24] GEORGIAN OPPOSITION REJECTS PRESIDENTIAL CONCESSION ON ELECTION COMMISSION REPRESENTATION

    The Socialist Party rejected on 18 February as "a sop" President Saakashvili's proposal to allocate two additional seats on local election commissions to opposition parties, Georgian media reported. Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili hailed that suggestion, saying it would help ensure that the 28 March parliamentary ballot is democratic. Also on 18 February, Mikheil Machavariani, who is a leading member of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's United Democrats, unveiled the Georgian leadership's proposals for the composition of the CEC. That model provides for the president to nominate three CEC members; the government, six; Abashidze's Union for Democratic Revival, 3; the Industrialists, two; the National Movement, the Christian Democrats, Labor, and the New Rightists, one each; and other opposition parties, two between them. Also on 19 February, visiting Council of Europe Secretary-General Schwimmer suggested to Chiaberashvili that the election law should be amended to lower from 7 percent to 5 percent the barrier for parliamentary representation under the proportional system, Caucasus Press reported. LF

    [25] ABKHAZ PRESIDENT PROPOSES POSTPONING LOCAL ELECTIONS

    Vladislav Ardzinba, who is under pressure from opposition parties to step down as president before his second term expires this fall (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 January 2004), proposed on 18 February postponing the local elections scheduled for 14 March and holding them concurrently with the presidential ballot in October, Caucasus Press reported. Ardzinba said doing so would save on costs. LF

    [26] KAZAKH OPPOSITION JOURNALIST CALLS PRESIDENTIAL DAUGHTER'S PARTY 'A FAMILY PROJECT'

    Kazakh opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov has described Darigha Nazarbaeva's new Asar party as a "family project" to keep the Nazarbaevs in power, adding that he views the party's formation as the most significant event in Kazakh political life in recent months. Duvanov's commentary appeared in the 14 February issue of the opposition weekly "Respublika Assandi Times." Duvanov said Asar's main task at this point is to fill the parliament to be elected later this year with individuals loyal to the president and to overcome the opposition in a fair electoral fight. Duvanov adding that this would result in the development of a legitimate political process in Kazakhstan -- and the opposition would no longer be able to explain its defeats by blaming them on illegal actions by authorities. Asar was registered in December. BB

    [27] KAZAKH PARLIAMENT SUSPECTS STATE AIRLINE WAS DELIBERATELY BANKRUPTED

    The lower house (Mazhilis) of the Kazakh parliament voted in plenary session on 18 February to set up a joint commission with the government to find out why state airline Air Kazakhstan has gone into bankruptcy, khabar.kz reported the same day. The website said parliamentarians believe the bankruptcy was deliberately forced. The Transportation and Communications Ministry has asserted that the insolvency is the result of incompetent management. A ministry spokesman told the Mazhilis on 18 February that the airline made what initially appeared to be large profits by reducing expenditures on repairs, with the result that some of its planes are now unfit to fly. Air Kazakhstan has stopped all international flights and closed a number of offices throughout Kazakhstan, and on 3 February its CEO informed the Transport Ministry that the airline was suspending its regular domestic flights. Air Kazakhstan's main rival, Air Astana, promptly took over the most profitable routes. BB

    [28] SUSPECTED HIZB UT-TAHRIR ACTIVISTS DETAINED IN NORTHERN TAJIKISTAN

    Prosecutors from the Sughd Oblast prosecutor's office rounded up a group of 14 suspected activists of the banned Islamic extremist party Hizb ut-Tahrir at a teahouse in Khujand, the oblast center, on 9 February, the official Tajik news agency khovar.tojikiston.com and RIA-Novosti reported on 19 February. Hizb ut-Tahrir literature was also reported to have been found at the teahouse. Aziz Daburov, a police official responsible for special criminal cases, was quoted as saying that several other Hizb ut-Tahrir activists have been detained since 9 February, including law enforcement officers; RIA-Novosti gave a figure of 22 activists detained. According to the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office, 118 Hizb ut-Tahrir activists have been sentenced to prison terms in Tajikistan, but the number of party sympathizers in the country is estimated at over 3,000. The Sughd Oblast has traditionally served as a hub for the banned party in Tajikistan, but suspected activists have also been arrested this year in the southern Khatlon Oblast. BB

    [29] ST. PETERSBURG GOVERNOR SIGNS COOPERATION AGREEMENT IN TURKMENISTAN

    St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, in Ashgabat to take part in Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's birthday celebrations, signed an agreement with Niyazov on 18 February covering cooperation in economic issues, science and technology and culture, turkmenistan.ru reported the same day. Matvienko said the accord marks the first time that Turkmenistan has signed such an agreement with any part of the Russian Federation. The Turkmen side is reportedly particularly interested in obtaining technical equipment for the oil and gas industry from St. Petersburg. Niyazov, who studied in St. Petersburg, recently donated a large financial contribution to St. Petersburg University and encouraged the establishment there of a center to study Turkmen history and culture. BB

    Central And Eastern Europe

    [30] EUROPEAN COMMISSION APPOINTS ASSOCIATE COMMISSIONERS FROM 10 ACCEDING COUNTRIES

    European Commission President Romano Prodi on 18 February assigned tasks to commissioners representing the 10 states that will join the EU on 1 May, AP and AFP reported. European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said the 10 will not be "trainee commissioners" but rather members who will each work alongside one current commissioner for the first six months of their duties. They will be assigned their own departments once a new commission begins its mandate on 1 November. The assignments for the eight commissioners from acceding postcommunist countries are: Milos Kuzvart of the Czech Republic will work alongside David Byrne, the Irish commissioner for health and consumer protection; Siim Kallas of Estonia will work with Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pedro Solbes of Spain; Peter Balazs of Hungary will work with Regional Policy Commissioner Michel Barnier of France; Latvian Sandra Kalniete will work with the Austrian commissioner in charge of agriculture, rural development, and fisheries, Franz Fischler; Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuanian is teamed with Luxembourg's Education and Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding; Danuta Huebner of Poland will work with French External Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy; Slovakia's Jan Figel will work with Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen of Finland; and Slovenia's Janez Potocnik will work with EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen. MS

    [31] EUROPARLIAMENTARY PRESIDENT CALLS MIGRATION FEARS OVERBLOWN

    The president of the European Parliament, Patrick Cox, said on 18 February that the United Kingdom, France, and Germany should take a "more generous" approach to potential migration from the 10 acceding countries, AFP and Britain's "The Guardian" reported. Speaking ahead of a meeting in Berlin of those three countries' leaders -- Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- Cox said fears of a massive surge of migrants from Eastern Europe after the planned 1 May EU enlargement are exaggerated. He urged the three leaders to "start acting with some sense of generosity" and said their meeting "might be a useful moment to see what message we can give to avoid the shame that we see of trafficking in people, gang-masters, people drowning at sea and suffocating in trucks and dying in the undercarriages of planes." Cox said: "It is a shame how we deal with these issues. The truth is we are failing to give good leadership." MS

    [32] RUSSIA STOPS GAS FLOW ACROSS BELARUS...

    Russia's Gazprom moved to halt gas supplies completely to Belarus and gas transit via Belarus at 6 p.m. Moscow time on 18 February, thus applying further pressure on Minsk in an ongoing dispute over gas prices and the potential purchase of a controlling stake in Belarus's gas-pipeline operator Beltranshaz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004), Russian news agencies reported, quoting a Gazprom statement. Gazprom reportedly said the decision to cut off the gas flow across Belarus was taken after Beltranshaz exhausted contracted gas quotas and began to siphon off Russian gas flowing in transit to "third countries." Gazprom also said Belarus is fully responsible for any interruptions in Gazprom's gas supplies to third countries. According to ITAR-TASS, Minsk responded to Gazprom by saying that Beltranshaz does not bear any responsibility for the transit of Russian gas across Belarus. JM

    [33] ...AS MINSK MOVES TO RESPOND TO CRISIS

    Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has recalled Belarusian Ambassador to Russia Uladzimir Hryhoryeu for consultations relating to the gas-supply crisis, Belapan reported on 19 February, quoting presidential spokeswoman Natallya Pyatkevich. The same day, the Belarusian government issued a statement saying that "such an unprecedented step as the disconnection of gas from people in winter with the temperature nearly 20 degrees below zero has not taken place since the Great Patriotic War [1941-45]." Lukashenka's position was voiced by his press service, which said, "Now our relations with Russia will be poisoned by gas for a long time." Later the same day, however, Lukashenka reportedly agreed to pay a higher price for Russian gas. "We should conclude an agreement on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's terms. If Putin wants us to pay this money [$50 for 1,000 cubic meters], we will collect it," Belapan quoted Lukashenka as saying. JM

    [34] UKRAINIAN INTELLIGENCE GENERAL SAYS SECRET SERVICES SPYING ON OPPOSITION, GOVERNMENT

    General Valeriy Kravchenko told Deutsche Welle in Berlin on 18 February that he possesses "evidence of criminal activities" by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's regime, Ukrainian news agencies and the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) reported. Kravchenko alleged that Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) chief Ihor Smeshko and Main Intelligence Directorate chief Oleh Synyanskyy have been ordering their subordinates abroad to spy on Ukrainian opposition lawmakers and cabinet members "starting from ministers and higher up." Kravchenko claimed that he, as an intelligence officer and adviser to the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin, has also received such an order. He declared that he is ready to hand over the evidence to the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office and the Verkhovna Rada's Human Rights Committee. Later the same day, the SBU called Kravchenko's statement "absurd," Interfax reported. The SBU acknowledged that Kravchenko, born in 1945, is its officer, adding that earlier this month he was ordered to return to Kyiv but refused to obey the order. The SBU suggested that Kravchenko is pursuing "mercantile interests" in publicizing his revelations. JM

    [35] 10 UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS REACH ACCORD ON CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

    Leaders of 10 caucuses in the Verkhovna Rada -- eight pro-government groups, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party -- have signed an accord in which they vow to pool efforts for finalizing planned constitutional reform in the country, UNIAN reported on 18 February, quoting Oleksandr Zadorozhniy, permanent presidential representative in the Verkhovna Rada. Zadorozhniy said the signatories agree on all issues connected with the constitutional reform except the choice of a proportional electoral system. He added that lawmakers will decide on a proportional election bill next week. Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc refused to sign the agreement. "[The accord's importance] should not be exaggerated," Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz commented. "The Socialist Party caucus will act together with all the opposition caucuses in parliament [regarding the proportional election system], completely in line with earlier agreements." JM

    [36] UKRAINIAN PRO-GOVERNMENT GROUPS FORM 'COALITION OF DEMOCRATIC FORCES'

    Leaders of pro-government parties and parliamentary caucuses in the Verkhovna Rada signed an agreement on 18 February establishing a "coalition of democratic forces," Ukrainian news agencies reported. The signatories pledged to implement proposed constitutional reform, guarantee the victory of a coalition candidate in the 2004 presidential election, and create favorable conditions for the stable and effective functioning of the coalition government. The document was signed by Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych and Regions of Ukraine caucus head Raisa Bohatyreva; Agrarian Party leader Ivan Kyrylenko and Agrarian Party caucus head Kateryna Vaschuk; Popular Democratic Party leader Valeriy Pustovoytenko; Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs leader Anatoliy Kinakh, Labor Ukraine Party leader Serhiy Tyhypko, Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs-Labor Ukraine caucus leader Ihor Sharov, Social Democratic Party-united leader Viktor Medvedchuk, and Social Democratic Party-united caucus head Leonid Kravchuk; Democratic Initiatives caucus leader Stepan Havrysh; People's Choice caucus leader Mykola Hapochka; and People's Power caucus leader Bohdan Hubskyy. JM

    [37] SOME SURPRISES AMONG PROPOSED BALTIC EUROPEAN COMMISSIONERS

    The European Commission 18 February announcement outlining the planned posts for the acceding EU states' candidates for the commission held surprises for Lithuania and Latvia, BNS reported (see items above). Lithuanian Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite said she did not expect to be offered to work together with Education and Culture Commissioner Reding, as she believes her background would have been more suited to working with Budget Commissioner Michaele Schreyer. Latvian Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete, who has a degree in art history and had earlier voiced expectations of working with Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, expressed satisfaction with being twinned with Agriculture and Fisheries Commissioner Fischler, as it is one of the most important and complicated commission posts. The appointment of former Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas to work with Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pedro Solbes was an exception in that Kallas had said earlier that was the post for which he considers himself most suited. SG

    [38] LATVIAN PRESIDENT TO HOLD ADDITIONAL ROUND OF TALKS BEFORE NAMING PRIME MINISTER

    Vaira Vike-Freiberga told reporters in Malta on 18 February that she wants to meet again with representatives of all the political parties in parliament before deciding whom to ask to form a new cabinet, BNS reported. It was unclear when the meeting will be held, but she added, "I believe this nomination should come soon enough." After a lengthy meeting with the People's Party the same day, New Era Chairman Einars Repse, who headed the previous government, said he was pleasantly surprised with the constructive talks and voiced regret that such talks did not take place earlier. An earlier round of talks between the two parties ended in a deadlock on 13 February, as New Era rejected the People's Party's suggestion that the ruling coalition should include Latvia's First Party (LPP) and the People's Party did not back New Era's choice of Repse as the sole candidate for prime minister. SG

    [39] IMPEACHMENT COMMISSION ENDORSED ALL ALLEGATIONS AGAINST LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT

    The special commission formed to investigate the possible impeachment of President Rolandas Paksas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2003) on 18 February endorsed all six allegations made against the president, "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 19 February. Commission Deputy Chairman Julius Sabatauskas rejected the claims by the president's lawyers that they were entitled to attend the meeting. The charges are that the president violated the constitution and his presidential oath; failed to ensure the protection of classified information; attempted illegally to influence the activities of private companies; was unable to reconcile public and private interests; hindered the functioning of state institutions, discrediting their authority; and failed to take measures to stop his advisers from abusing their official powers. The commission was expected to present its conclusions to parliament on 19 February and present the formal impeachment charges the next day. SG

    [40] LITHUANIAN BORDER CHIEF OFFICIALLY FIRED

    Interior Minister Virgilijus Bulovas signed an order on 18 February officially dismissing General Algimantas Songaila as chief of the State Border Protection Service (VSAT), BNS reported. Songaila had held the office since August 1998, but his future was placed in doubt after he admitted during questioning by the presidential impeachment commission that he ordered border officials to allow automobiles to leave the country unhindered at the request of controversial businesswoman Renata Smailyte. After being informed about the conclusions of a ministry investigation whose results were not made public, Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas announced in January that Songaila would be dismissed upon his return from sick leave. Songaila declared that dismissal was a too severe a punishment, and he will appeal the decision. SG

    [41] POLISH ARMS TRADER PROTESTS IRAQ TENDER RESULT

    State-run arms trader Bumar has appealed to Washington against the awarding of a major contract to equip the new Iraqi Army to a rival U.S.-led consortium, Polish media reported on 18 February. Iraq's provisional authority said the Nour consortium was chosen because it priced its offer at $327 million, significantly less than the $560 million proposed by Bumar. But Bumar representatives say Nour's price is unrealistic. The lost contract caused a public uproar in Poland after it became known that Nour includes a Polish firm, Ostrowski Arms, which has no license to trade internationally in arms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004). JM

    [42] NEW CHIEF OF POLISH TELEVISION TAKES HELM

    Jan Dworak, who was elected head of the management board of Polish Television last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2004), took office on 18 February, Polish media reported. Dworak chaired the first meeting of a newly elected board, which also includes Stanislaw Wojcik, Piotr Gawel, Marek Holynski, and Ryszard Paclawski. Dworak said one of his first decisions will be to devolve news programs to individual channels from the centralized news agency TAI. The public Polish Television has four channels: TVP1, TVP2, TVP3, and TV Polonia. JM

    [43] WILL CZECH REPUBLIC ABANDON VATICAN TREATY?

    Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda reversed himself on 18 February by announcing that he will not seek parliamentary ratification of a bilateral treaty with the Vatican, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 May and 14 November 2003). The lower house rejected the treaty last year and Svoboda, who represents the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) in the cabinet, initially said he intended to resubmit the treaty to parliament, but apparently changed his mind following consultations with Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla. "The agreement has been signed, we are not withdrawing our signature. But it has not been ratified," Svoboda said. "The process of the ratification can be reopened anytime." President Vaclav Klaus threatened in a letter earlier this week to withhold his signature, saying the treaty is disadvantageous to the Czech Republic and benefits only the Vatican. Klaus threatened to transfer negotiations with the Vatican from the Foreign Ministry to an individual whom he would designate, which is within the powers outlined in the Czech Constitution. MS

    [44] SLOVAK PREMIER PLAYS DOWN DUTCH RESTRICTIONS ON LABOR MIGRATION

    Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda told his visiting Dutch counterpart Jan Peter Balkenende on 18 February that Slovakia "understands" the reasons that led the Netherlands to restrict access to jobs in that country for citizens from the 10 acceding EU states, TASR and CTK reported. The response represented a sharp contrast to the implied threat of retaliatory measures that Balkenende met with one day earlier in the Czech capital (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). Dzurinda said Slovakia is more interested in creating jobs at home and in luring foreign investors. The Netherlands is the second-largest foreign direct investor in Slovakia, and the two men said relations are on an excellent level. Balkenende said he hopes the restrictions imposed by his country will be "temporary" and that the Netherlands hopes to be in a position to lift them after a few years. Some 9,000 Slovaks currently work in the Netherlands, and once the restrictions come into effect, the number will be raised to 22,000, according to CTK. MS

    [45] SLOVAK PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER DEMANDS APOLOGY FROM INTELLIGENCE SERVICE

    Pavol Hrusovsky, the speaker of the Slovak parliament, demanded on 18 February that the Slovak Information Service (SIS) publicly apologize for having insulted members of parliament, TASR reported. Hrusovsky was reacting to a statement by SIS spokesman Vladimir Simko, who recently said on TV Markiza that lawmakers who support a draft bill that would restrict the powers of the SIS to recruit agents among journalists or go undercover among them are acting for demagogic reasons and without proof. Simko reportedly said that such "demagogy is similar to calling for the dissolution of the parliament on the grounds that its members take bribes." A spokesman for Hrusovsky called on SIS Director Ladislav Pittner to "draw the necessary conclusion" and take measures against his subordinate "to avoid any suspicion that employees may ridicule the legislature and its members" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). MS

    [46] HUNGARY VOWS TO CONTINUE IRAQ MISSION DESPITE CASUALTIES

    Reacting to an 18 February incident in which 10 Hungarian soldiers were injured by truck bombs in Iraq, Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz said Hungary remains committed to carrying out its mission in that country, AP reported the same day. At least 13 people were killed and more than 60 injured when two explosive-laden trucks blew up outside a military camp in Al-Hillah, some 100 kilometers south of Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline Part 3," 18 February 2004). The incident marked the first Hungarian casualties since their deployment to Iraq in August. "Instead of making us think about pulling out, [the attack] has given us a strong incentive to continue our job," Juhasz said. Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy stressed that Hungarian troops are in Iraq "for the right reasons," according to reports in the Hungarian media. The opposition FIDESZ party demanded an urgent meeting of the parliamentary Defense Committee following news of the incident. MS

    [47] HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT EXPLAINS PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES

    Government spokesman Zoltan Gal said on 18 February that Prime Minister Medgyessy's recent proposal to reduce the number of lawmakers in parliament from the current 386 to 250 need not be implemented during the 2006 elections and that Medgyessy is amenable to enacting the change in 2010, Hungarian media reported. Gal said the simplest way to reduce parliamentary representation would be to eliminate county lists and leave individual constituencies unaltered. Medgyessy on 18 February asked parliamentary speaker Katalin Szili to convoke multiparty consultations on the proposals that he made during his recent "state of the nation" speech (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). He also discussed his proposal to have the country's head of state elected by popular vote with President Ferenc Madl. The presidential office said after the meeting that Madl displayed understanding for the proposal, but added that changing the current constitutional system requires serious analysis. MS

    [48] HUNGARIAN CABINET BEGINS SLASHING BUDGET

    Two days after Tibor Draskovics was sworn in as Hungary's new finance minister, cabinet members on 18 February approved some of a host of austerity measures aimed at reducing public spending by 150 billion forints ($730 million) in 2004, Hungarian media reported. The Economic Ministry will see a cut in its 2004 budget of 36.3 billion forints, the Defense Ministry 12.3 billion forints, the Cultural Ministry and the Office of European Integration 8.7 billion forints each, and the Education Ministry 8.6 billion forints, "Napi Gazdasag" reported on 19 February. MSZ

    [49] ARMENIAN ARMY OFFICER SLAIN IN HUNGARY

    Lieutenant Gurgen Margarian, an Armenian Army officer participating in an English-language course in Hungary under the auspices of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, was killed early on 19 February by an Azerbaijani fellow participant in that course, Noyan Tapan reported, citing an Armenian Defense Ministry press release. The Azerbaijani reportedly killed the sleeping Margarian with an ax and tried to kill a second Armenian officer, but was prevented from doing so. LF

    Southeastern Europe

    [50] BOSNIAN PRIME MINISTER EXPLAINS REJECTION OF DEFENSE MINISTER

    Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic said on 19 February that he rejected the nomination of Branko Stevic for the post of defense minister because of Stevic's possible involvement in war crimes during the Bosnian civil war, the "Southeast European Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). Stevic was a police chief in Bijeljina when ethnic cleansings were carried out in that area. Terzic said Stevic's nomination could have jeopardized Bosnia's chances to join the NATO Partnership for Peace program. UB

    [51] BOSNIAN PARLIAMENT ADOPTS DECLARATION ON NATO, EU

    The leaders of the political parties represented in the Bosnian lower house on 19 February signed a declaration in support of that country's bid for membership of NATO's Partnership for Peace program and the EU, Fena reported. Parliamentary speaker Nikola Spiric, who initiated the declaration, said after the signing that "it is up to the leaders of the political parties to insure that what they signed today results in laws...that will bring us closer to the European Union." The international community's high representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, welcomed the declaration and congratulated Spiric on his initiative. "This joint platform that brings [Bosnia's] leading governing and opposition parties together for the first time gives hope to the millions of...citizens who have been longing for their political leaders to set aside narrow party-political differences in the interests of the citizens of [Bosnia] as a whole, and a more prosperous future." UB

    [52] U.S. DONATES MILITARY EQUIPMENT TO CROATIA

    The United States has donated military equipment worth some $12 million to the Croatian Defense Ministry, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 18 February. The equipment is intended to help the Croatian military meet NATO standards. Croatia has received some $19 million in military aid from the United States since 2000. UB

    [53] U.S. WARNS SERBIAN LEADERS

    U.S. Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro William Montgomery warned Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and his prospective coalition partners from the G-17 Plus party, the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and the New Serbia party, on 18 February that forming a minority government supported by Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) would worsen the country's position when it came to solving its problems, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Relations between Belgrade and Washington depend on the new government's will to carry out reforms and cooperate with the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal, Montgomery said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). UB

    [54] RELATIVES OF KIDNAPPED MACEDONIANS TO SUE ALBANIAN PARTY LEADER

    Relatives of 12 Macedonians who were kidnapped during the 2001 interethnic conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and Macedonian government forces announced on 19 February their intention to sue Ali Ahmeti, who is the former political leader of the rebels and the chairman of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), "Vest" reported. Their decision came after a meeting under the auspices of President Boris Trajkovski, during which Ahmeti provided no new details about the fates of those who were abducted. The relatives also expressed their disappointment with the state authorities and announced that they will suspend any further contacts with the authorities. In December, "Utrinski vesnik" reported that those missing are dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September and 6 November 2001, 2 August 2002, and 4 March and 11 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 and 16 November 2001). UB

    [55] ROMANIA, UKRAINE UNABLE TO OVERCOME IMPASSE OVER SERPENTS ISLAND

    Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana told journalists on 18 February that Romania and Ukraine have made "little progress" in talks on sharing the oil-rich continental shelf in the Black Sea, AFP and Mediafax reported. Geoana spoke after talks with visiting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko. Geoana said Romania cannot under any circumstances agree to what he called "attempts by Ukraine to change the international judicial status of Serpents Island (Zmiyinyy Ostrov)." Romanian media reported earlier this week that Ukraine is populating the uninhabited island in order to be able to claim an exclusive economic zone around it under international maritime legislation. Hryshchenko, who also met with President Ion Iliescu, said the dispute is ultimately an "economic one" and "therefore one about money." Geoana said the Ukrainian side has brought new proposals that experts in Bucharest will study, but stressed that considering that no agreement has been reached in 21 meetings over the disputed island, it is likely that Bucharest will have to ask the Hague-based International Court of Justice to rule on the matter (see also "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2003). MS

    [56] ROMANIAN MINORITIES TO FACE TOUGHER PARLIAMENTARY THRESHOLD

    The ad hoc parliamentary commission tasked with drafting legislation for the 2004 elections decided on 18 February to raise the electoral threshold for organizations representing national minorities to receive parliamentary representation, Mediafax reported. Such organizations will be required to garner at least 20 percent of the meridian vote to elect a deputy. In 2000, the threshold was 5 percent of that vote. Eighteen national minorities are represented in the parliament elected in 2000. Under the constitution, national minority groups are entitled to have one representative in the lower house, provided they pass a special, lower threshold than that of regular representation. Only one organization may represent a national minority under those special conditions. If two or more organizations compete for the same slot, representation goes to the organization that receives the most votes. The commission also decided that only organizations represented on the National Minorities Council can run under the new conditions. MS

    [57] MOLDOVA APPOINTS NEW AMBASSADOR TO ROMANIA

    Former Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) parliamentary deputy Victor Zlacevschi was appointed on 18 February as Moldova's new Ambassador to Romania, Mediafax and BASA-press reported. The post has been vacant since 1 October 2003, when former Ambassador to Romania Emil Ciobu completed his service. MS

    [58] U.S. BACKS INTERNATIONAL PEACEKEEPING MISSION IN TRANSDNIESTER

    U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Stephen Minikes said on 18 February in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service that the United States is "not of the opinion that Russia should perpetuate" its military presence in Transdniester. Ambassador Minikes said that consensus among OSCE members is being sought for a formula under which a multinational peacekeeping mission with a short-term mandate would be deployed to the separatist region. Russian forces, Minikes said, would be included in the envisaged multinational force. He also said that some people in Russia perceive Western involvement in the former Soviet republics as running against Russian interests and believe Russia should counter any such involvement. The United States, Minikes said, believes it shares many common interests with the Russian Federation and that everyone's interests will be served if a group of "stable, independent and prosperous states" exists in Central Europe. MS

    [59] TIRASPOL DENIES OSCE MISSION ACCESS TO RUSSIAN AMMUNITION DEPOT

    The separatist authorities recently informed the OSCE mission in Moldova that as long as the negotiations between Tiraspol and Moscow regarding the timetable for the evacuation of the Russian arsenal continue, OSCE mission members will be denied access to the Kolbasna arms depot near Tiraspol, BASA-press reported on 18 February, citing OSCE mission spokesman Claus Neukirch. The OSCE monitors the withdrawal of the Russian equipment from the region in line with international agreements. The agency cited Neukirch as saying the mission has complained to Tiraspol and Russian diplomats about the Transdniester authorities' decision and has termed the reasons offered by Tiraspol for the decision as unacceptable. MS

    [60] IS FORMER BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER PLANNING NEW PARTY?

    Former Prime Minister and former Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) Chairman Ivan Kostov on 18 February told approximately 2,000 followers that he will not attend the party's national conference slated for 21 February, vsekiden.com reported. Instead, he called on his followers to gather again on 28 February, saying, "Come and we'll decide together!", which was widely regarded as a call to form a new conservative party. Kostov recently engaged in a struggle for leadership with SDS Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova, who is expected to be re-elected as party chairwoman on 21 February, as she is the only candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2004). UB

    [61] FORMER IRAQ CONTINGENT HEAD CITES LACK OF BULGARIAN INTELLIGENCE INFORMATION

    Lieutenant Colonel Petko Marinov, who led the first Bulgarian contingent stationed in Karbala, Iraq, said in Sofia on 18 February that the command received very little information from the Bulgarian military intelligence service ahead of the 27 December suicide attacks, in which five Bulgarian and two Thai soldiers died, vsekiden.com reported. Marinov said the only intelligence information he received came from U.S. and Polish military intelligence sources, adding that the 500-member Bulgarian contingent had just one intelligence officer, who was tasked with overseeing the servicemen rather than with hiring local informants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003 and 12 February 2004; and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2003). UB

    Southwestern Asia And The Middle East

    [62] NEO-TALIBAN SAID TO BE PREPARING FRESH ATTACKS IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN...

    Mawlawi Mohammad Omar, deputy governor of the southern Afghan province of Zabul, said on 18 February that forces loyal to the ousted Taliban regime have gathered in his province for a possible attack on two districts, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Mohammad Omar estimated that around 400 militants have gathered near Mizan and Ata Ghar districts. In July, Ata Ghar was the scene of heavy fighting between neo-Taliban and pro-government troops, and Mohammad Omar claimed in November that in the Ata Ghar, Naw Bahar, Shinkay, and Shamalzai districts, "either the government does not have control...or [the provinces] are abandoned or they are controlled by people connected with the Taliban" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 July and 10 November 2003). AT

    [63] ...AND SEEKING TO INTIMIDATE WOULD-BE VOTERS

    Leaflets distributed in eastern and southern Afghanistan in the name of the ousted Taliban regime warn residents not to participate in the ongoing voter-registration process, "The New York Times" reported on 19 February. Leaflets recently found by police in southeastern Afghanistan warn people "not to take an election registration card," adding that "if anyone does, his life will be in danger." Rahmuddin, security chief for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kandahar, said, "People want to register for elections, but they are scared." Mullah Dadullah, a senior official under the Taliban regime, has warned that the "people of Afghanistan must not participate in the election.... If they do, they [will] come under Taliban attack," the BBC reported on 18 February. Just 10 percent of Afghan voters have so far been registered, heightening concerns already evident due to security concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). AT

    [64] NEW AFGHAN COMMISSION TO COMBAT CHILD SMUGGLING

    The Afghan Labor and Social Affairs Ministry established a commission on 18 February to prevent the smuggling of children, Afghanistan Television reported. The move was prompted by an order from Afghan Transitional Chairman Hamid Karzai. The commission is tasked with identifying factors in and motives behind the recent increase in child-smuggling cases. Deputy Minister Mohammad Ghaws Bashiri reported that 198 Afghan children have been repatriated since being smuggled to Saudi Arabia, adding that the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry is in the process of returning those children to their families. In October, some 40 Afghan children were returned from Saudi Arabia, and authorities in the northern Afghan province of Takhar in September rescued more than 50 boys who were abducted with the suspected intention of trafficking them to Iran or Pakistan for induction into religious schools or for sale as sex slaves (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September and 17 October 2003). AT

    [65] JOINT AFGHAN-U.S. LITERACY PROGRAM LAUNCHED

    The United States and Afghanistan on 19 February announced the launch of a health-focused literacy program aimed at raising literacy rates and health-care training across the country, a press release from U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced. The Afghan ministries of Women's Affairs, Health, and Education, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development, will work together to implement the "Learning for Life" program. Organizers hope to teach young adults living in 13 provinces to read and write, and instruct them in improving their family's health and hygiene. The U.S. government provided $4.9 million to support the program. Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. AT

    [66] MAJOR DERAILMENT AND EXPLOSION KILLS HUNDREDS IN NORTHEAST IRAN

    An apparent freak accident killed at least 220 and wounded hundreds of others on 18 February when a mild earth tremor is believed to have shaken dozens of rail cars into motion, leading to a tragic chain of events at Khayyam, near Nishapur, IRNA, Iranian state radio, and other local and international media reported. Fifty-one rail cars loaded with cotton, fertilizer, sulphur, and gasoline were reportedly on a siding in Abu Moslem when they slid out of the siding, gradually picked up speed, and eventually derailed at Khayyam, the next station down the line. This set off fires and small explosions, bringing firemen and observers to the scene. While trying to get the fire under control, an explosion erupted that reportedly registered 3.6 magnitude on the scale at the seismologic station in Tehran. The blast shattered windows within a 10-kilometer radius, and the shock was felt 75 kilometers away in Mashhad. Several surrounding villages were severely damaged. Iranian Roads and Transport Minister Mohammad Khorram traveled to Khayyam to inspect the site of the tragedy, and Iranian State Railways announced the suspension of service between Mashhad and Tehran. JLH

    [67] IRANIAN BAHAIS RELEASED AFTER 15 YEARS IN JAIL

    Bihnam Mithaqi and Kayvan Khalajabadi, two believers in the Bahai faith, were released from prison after serving almost 15 years on charges related to their religious beliefs, according to a 17 February press release from the Bahais of the United States' office of public information posted on the Worldwide Faith News website (http://www.wfn.org/2004/02/msg00131.html). Imprisoned on 29 April 1989 for associating with Bahai institutions, the men were initially sentenced to eight years in prison, but their sentences were subsequently reduced to three years and 50 lashes. They appealed again, and in April 1991 were sentenced to death; that sentence was confirmed in February 1996. In February 2001, the judiciary chief reportedly reduced the sentences to 15 years and set a release date of February 2004. According to the press release, Zabiullah Mihrami is the only Bahai who is believed to remain in an Iranian prison for his religious beliefs; he was arrested in September 1995. The "San Francisco Chronicle" reported on 4 December that Iranian Bahais face "unending persecution at the hands of the Shi'ite religious regime." BS

    [68] IRANIAN NEWSPAPERS CLOSED FOR PUBLISHING CRITICAL LETTER TO LEADER

    The Tehran prosecutor's office ordered the closure of "Yas-i No" and "Sharq" daily newspapers late on 18 February, ISNA reported. Journalist Issa Saharkhiz said the dailies were closed because they violated a Supreme National Security Council ban on publishing a critical letter from legislators to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). Saharkhiz said the order was conveyed to local media orally on 17 February. BS

    [69] IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL OPENS DEBATE ON TRANSITIONAL ADMINISTRATION LAW...

    Some Iraqi Governing Council members met on 17 February to discuss three drafts of the Transitional Administration Law, also known as the "fundamental law" due to be ratified by 28 February, London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 18 February. Three drafts were presented: one by council member Adnan Pachachi, who heads the Independent Democrats Movement; a second by the Iraqi Communist Party; and a third drafted jointly by the two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The leaders of the two Kurdish parties did not attend the meeting. Instead, high-level KDP and PUK officials met in Salah Al-Din with U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer and senior U.K. representative in Iraq Sir Jeremy Greenstock, reportedly to discuss "current issues." A representative of the Independent Democrats Movement, Faysal al-Istirbadi, told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that other drafts were submitted for consideration but the drafting committee "chose three plans that we are working to combine so as to come out with a law that is respected." KR

    [70] ...AS MEMBERS COMMENT ON PROGRESS

    Iraqi Governing Council member Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that much progress was made during the 17 February meeting. "We discussed, for example, the Iraqi citizens' political, religious, ethnic, and cultural rights, and agreed on banning and proscribing the revocation of the citizenship of any Iraqi under any conditions, whether they [be] ethnic, religious, or political," al-Rubay'i said. "We considered it one of the Iraqis' rights to hold another citizenship." Asked why the Shi'ites did not put forth their draft for consideration, al-Rubay'i said: "We decided that three drafts were quite enough." Meanwhile, Kurdish council member Mahmud Uthman told the daily that while progress was made, the meeting did not address more controversial issues such as a federal system, religion, the distribution of resources, elections, and the formation of a new leadership. KR

    [71] COALITION FORCES REPEL ATTACK ON ABU GHURAYB PRISON

    Militants launched 33 mortar rounds and five rockets at the Abu Ghurayb Prison in western Baghdad on 18 February before being repelled by coalition forces, international media reported the same day. The attack took place around 6:30 p.m., a U.S. military official said. U.S. forces killed one militant and arrested 55 others at the scene, Reuters reported. The Abu Ghurayb Prison, renamed the Baghdad Central Penitentiary by coalition forces, was refurbished following the U.S.-led war in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 August 2003). The prison was notorious under the Hussein regime because so many of its prisoners were tortured or executed. It now houses coalition detainees. KR

    [72] U.S. FORCES ARREST SEVEN MILITANTS SUSPECTED OF TIES TO AL-QAEDA

    U.S. forces on 18 February arrested 22 militants in Ba'qubah suspected of carrying out armed attacks against coalition forces in Iraq, BBC reported the same day. Seven of those captured are suspected of having links to Al-Qaeda, Reuters reported. Ba'qubah, located some 65 kilometers north of Baghdad, is located within the so-called Sunni Triangle, where the coalition has faced the greatest resistance from insurgents. KR

    [73] WOMEN'S RIGHTS CENTER OPENS IN KARBALA

    U.S. civil administrator Bremer attended on 16 February the opening of the Zainab Al-Hawra'a Center for Women's Rights. Based in Karbala, the center provides assistance to widowed, impoverished, and vulnerable women, according to a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) press release (http://www.cpa-iraq.org). The center includes an Internet cafe, sewing room, library, day-care center, and a restaurant. The center will offer a variety of educational classes on subjects including literacy and computer skills, health care, democracy and advocacy, as well as English-language training. One unidentified Iraqi woman said the opening of the center has changed her life. "I used to be depressed," she said. "Now I am excited when I wake up in the morning." Many of the women attending the opening lost husbands, fathers, and sons at the hands of the former Hussein regime. According to the CPA, so many men were killed by the regime in south-central Iraq, that women comprise 60 percent of the population. The center is named after Zainab al-Hawra'a, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The women's center is the third of its kind to open in the south-central region. KR

    [74] HUNGARY VOWS TO CONTINUE IRAQ MISSION DESPITE CASUALTIES

    Reacting to an 18 February incident in which 10 Hungarian soldiers were injured by truck bombs in Iraq, Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz said Hungary remains committed to carrying out its mission in that country, AP reported the same day. At least 13 people were killed and more than 60 injured when two explosive-laden trucks blew up outside a military camp in Al-Hillah, some 100 kilometers south of Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline Part 3," 18 February 2004). The incident marked the first Hungarian casualties since their deployment to Iraq in August. "Instead of making us think about pulling out, [the attack] has given us a strong incentive to continue our job," Juhasz said. Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy stressed that Hungarian troops are in Iraq "for the right reasons," according to reports in the Hungarian media. The opposition FIDESZ party demanded an urgent meeting of the parliamentary Defense Committee following news of the incident. MS

    End Note

    [75] WILL BELARUS ABANDON 'AGREEMENTS' WITH RUSSIA OVER GAS DISPUTE?

    By Jan Maksymiuk

    Last week, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka threatened to renounce unspecified "agreements" with Russia if the latter persists in demanding a higher price for gas deliveries and a stake in Belarus's Beltranshaz gas pipeline operator for a price Belarus deems too low. The Kremlin has so far not reacted to this threat. However, Gazprom has not concluded any contract on gas deliveries to Belarus in 2004, and Minsk has been supplied with Russian gas in an "emergency mode" by two other traders, Itera and Transnafta. Since Itera and Transnafta deliver gas extracted by Gazprom and via Gazprom's pipeline network, it is Gazprom that actually controls the gas-supply situation in Belarus.

    A short-term gas-supply contract with Transnafta, which was signed by Beltranshaz last week, expired on 17 February, and Minsk is again facing the dilemma of whether to sign short-term supply deals with the two smaller traders, bow to the Gazprom demands, or siphon off Gazprom's gas that goes in transit across Belarus to Europe. At the center of the gas controversy is Gazprom's demand that Minsk -- if it wants to receive gas at Russia's domestic price -- sell a controlling stake in Beltranshaz, whose value is estimated by the Russian company at $600 million. Minsk, on the other hand, says Beltranshaz is worth $5 billion and is reluctant to give control over the national pipeline network operator to the Russians.

    "We are offered some $300 million or $400 million [by Gazprom for pipeline operator Beltranshaz]...for what international auditors value at $5 billion," Lukashenka said, adding that agreeing to such a deal would constitute a "crime." "Speaking straightforwardly, the problem is as such: 'Give us [Beltranshaz] for free, then we will open a gas valve for you,'" Lukashenka said in characterizing the Russian position. "And now they keep on opening and closing it. They are blackmailing [our] country and people, and they are probably blackmailing Western Europe, because [their] gas goes across Belarus to Western Europe."

    Lukashenka added on 13 February that he would demand higher transit fees on natural gas bound for Europe in exchange for a price of $50 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas. Neighboring Ukraine currently pays the same $50 price for Russian gas. But Lukashenka added that Gazprom wants no part of such a deal. Meanwhile, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 17 February that Gazprom agreed to a higher transit fee proposed by Minsk -- $1.05 for the transportation of 1,000 cubic meter of gas along 100 kilometers. Beltranshaz Chairman Pyotr Pyotukh reportedly refused to sign a relevant transit agreement with Gazprom head Aleksei Miller, arguing that both sides should sign this agreement in a package with a contract on Gazprom's gas supplies to Belarus in 2004. Pyotukh reportedly wants Russian gas to be delivered in 2004 for $40 for 1,000 cubic meters.

    The Belarusian president also proposed swapping a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz for a gas deposit on Russia's Yamal Peninsula from which Belarus could extract some 15 billion-20 billion cubic meters of gas per year (20 billion cubic meters is approximately Belarus's annual gas consumption). "Why are Americans and Germans allowed to extract gas there, and we are not?" Lukashenka asked. "And why it is legally permissible in Russia to buy just 20 percent of such a [state-owned] asset, while they demand that we give them all, and moreover free of charge?" he added. "Izvestiya" reported on 17 February that nobody in Gazprom is going to consider this proposal seriously. "The situation is the same if somebody wanted to buy potatoes from us and, displeased with the price, told us: 'Give us your garden and we will grow what we need on our own," an unidentified source in Gazprom told "Izvestiya."

    The current Belarusian-Russian gas dispute seems to indicate that the Kremlin is firmly bent on forcing Lukashenka to accept its own rules of the game in the integration of the two countries. Several years ago, Lukashenka's complaints about Russia's "blackmail" with regard to its younger sister, Belarus, would have surely fell on the sympathetic ears of those Russian politicians who used the Russian-Belarusian integration rhetoric to promote their own political goals. Now, when many of them appear to have espoused "imperial" views, building a union state with Belarus is no longer a desired currency on Russia's political market. Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal of 2002 -- either Belarus becomes incorporated by the Russian Federation or pays its gas and other bills in full -- seems to be the Kremlin's official policy with regard to Belarus.

    For Lukashenka, the resolution of the current gas dispute appears to be of great importance as well. If he gives in and starts paying higher gas bills, he may earn some favor in Moscow -- and the chance that the Kremlin might accept the prolongation of his rule beyond 2006 (when his second term ends) would look much better than it does now. But at the same time, the Belarusian economy, which is being kept afloat thanks to cheap Russian gas, may finally collapse and bury his chances to curry favor among Belarusian voters who would enable him to stay afloat in politics.


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