|Wednesday, 11 December 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 04-04-08
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 LEGISLATURE ADOPTS STRONGLY WORDED RESOLUTION ON IRAQ...Both houses of the Russian parliament on 7 April adopted a statement calling on the executive branch to boost efforts to stabilize the situation in Iraq and to facilitate the handover of sovereignty to "a legitimately elected government," Russian media reported. It called for a settlement to the situation that would be comprehensible to the Iraqi people and accepted by Iraq's neighbors, saying that at present the situation there is "developing according to the worst possible scenario," ITAR-TASS reported. The statement said that if something is not done immediately, the result will be "the most unpredictable and irreversible consequences for the Iraqi state and its peoples, as well as for security throughout the region." It called for the authorities of the U.S.-led international coalition to include all groups -- "including resistance forces that are not linked to terrorist groups" -- in the stabilization process. RC
 ...AS SENIOR OFFICIAL SAYS THE COUNTRY IS A 'HOTBED OF TERRORISM'Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov told reporters in Moscow on 8 April that Iraq has become a "hotbed of terrorism," Russian and Western news agencies reported. "Russia, like many other countries, cannot but be concerned that Iraq has turned into a focal point for the terrorist threat, into a hotbed of terrorism, Fedotov said. He criticized the "unilateral action" of the United States in initiating a military campaign to remove former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and said that the scheduled 30 June handover of sovereignty to Iraqis "must be real power and not just a token transfer of power." Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told ITAR-TASS on 8 April: "Effective action should be taken as soon as possible so that Iraqi will regain its sovereignty. The United Nations should play the key role in this." RC
 WORLD BANK CRITICIZES CONCENTRATION IN RUSSIAN ECONOMY...The World Bank released a report on 7 April on the concentration of economic might in Russia, "Izvestiya" and gazeta.ru reported on 8 April. According to the report, 23 industrial-financial groups control more than one-third of Russian industry and 17 percent of the banking sector. The bank concludes that the government should reduce this level of concentration, arguing that it is hampering economic growth. The report was based on research that developed a database of 2,500 Russian enterprises in 45 economic sectors. The 23 industrial-financial groups named in the report each have annual turnover of at least $400 million and employ at least 19,000 people. The report notes that government-controlled companies still dominate many sectors of the economy and that the state is still the major owner in the country. "When a few major investors control a large percentage of capital flows and the workforce, it is easier for them to lobby their interests and to buy or intimidate state officials," the report notes. RC
 ...AS GOVERNMENT ADVISORY BODY SAYS OIL COMPANIES ONLY PAY ONE-THIRD OF THEIR INCOME TAXES...The Russian government's Economic Expert Group on 7 April released the results of a study that showed that oil companies have seriously underpaid their taxes since the tax system was reformed in 2002, RIA-Novosti reported. "The calculated income tax amounts to $8.50 per ton and companies actually pay $2.70 per ton," group member Viktor Subbotin said at a Moscow conference. However, other taxes and duties were paid more fully Subbotin said, leading the group to conclude that overall the 2002 reform was successful. Subbotin also expressed doubts about recent proposals to increase taxes on "excess" profits in the oil industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 April 2004). He said that during the period under study, such profits amounted to $2.90 to $17.70 per ton, meaning that tax revenues would be insubstantial. "If the government wants to collect more, the emphasis should be shifted to natural gas and aluminum," Subbotin said. RC
 ...AND OIL LOBBYING GROUP ASKS FOR DIFFERENTIATED TAX SCHEMEThe Association of Small and Medium-Sized Oil Producing Companies (AssoNeft), which represents 46 companies, has asked the government to create a differentiated tax policy that would reduce rates for small producers, ITAR-TASS reported on 7 April. The association argues that increasing taxes would lead to further concentration within the sector. "Five to seven majors would remain, but extraction from small fields would stop," association President Yelena Korzun said. Union of Oil and Gas Industrialists President Yurii Shafranik told the news agency that the government should create a cadastre of oil fields and institute a tax scheme based on the production from each field. RC
 WOULD-BE MOSCOW RESTAURANT BOMBER GETS 20-YEAR SENTENCEThe Moscow Municipal Court on 8 April sentenced Zarema Muzhakhoeva, who was convicted on 5 April of terrorism in connection with a foiled attempt to blow up a Moscow restaurant last July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 April 2004), to 20 years in prison, strana.ru and other Russian media reported. Prosecutors expressed satisfaction with the sentence, while Muzhakhoeva's defense lawyers did not indicate that they will appeal, the website reported. Federal Security Service Major Georgii Trofimov was killed as he tried to disarm the explosive that was found in a backpack that Muzhakhoeva had been carrying. RC
 FAR EASTERN DOCTORS ACCUSED OF ILLEGAL ORGAN TRADEProsecutors in the Zheleznodorozhnyi Raion in Khabarovsk suspect that doctors in the Dalmedtsentr Hospital No. 1 have removed organs from dying patients without the permission of their relatives, gazeta.ru reported on 7 April and "Vremya novostei" reported on 8 April. Deputy raion prosecutor Tatyana Lamash told reporters that an investigation has found evidence that doctors were engaged in a private medical practice and had created three commercial enterprises, according to "Vremya novostei." Money was allegedly sent to the accounts of these enterprises for the receipt of kidneys and spleens. The prices allegedly varied according to the condition of the donor, ranging from $2,000 to $40,000. According to gazeta.ru, the investigation was launched following inquiries from the relatives of some of the deceased patients. The Khabarovsk Krai Health Ministry held a press conference on 6 April, at which officials denied that an illegal trade in organs is taking place. Ministry officials promised to take the local prosecutor to court. JAC
 CHUKOTKA OFFICIAL: NO PEOPLE, NO PROBLEMChukotka Autonomous Okrug Deputy Governor Vasilii Maksimov told Ekho Moskvy on 7 April that one of the okrug administration's priorities is to relocate all the residents of Chukotka to other parts of Russia. According to Maksimov, Chukotka was a forward outpost of the government and was developed for defense reasons during the Soviet era. People were sent there to work on military projects. To this day, he said, Chukotka is still not a place that could be called comfortable to live. The indigenous population and some minimal number of service personnel might want to remain, but as many people as possible should be resettled. According to the station, the last census put the okrug's population at 53,000. The okrug's governor is oligarch Roman Abramovich, who was recently named the richest person in the United Kingdom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). JAC
 RUSSIAN INTERNET CELEBRATES 10TH BIRTHDAYThe Russian Internet marked the 10th anniversary of the creation of the .ru domain on 7 April, strana.ru and other Russian media reported. The creation of the domain was seen as a major boost to the development of the Russian-language Internet, and it is now among the world's 30 most active domains, the website reported. It has more than 235,000 registered addresses, while another 27,000 Russian-language sites are registered in the .com zone. The Soviet Union's domain, .su, was registered in 1990. The Economic Development and Trade Ministry has said that the government will spend 10 million rubles ($3.3 million) to create new sites and update old ones in connection with the recent restructuring of the government, strana.ru reported on 4 March. RC
 RUSSIAN TV LOOKS TO EXPAND INTO ISRAELI MARKETORT General Director Konstantin Ernst has confirmed that ORT is conducting negotiations to buy a stake in the Israeli Russian-language television station Israel-Plus, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 7 April. Both sides have signed a protocol of intentions, according to the newspaper's sources. Ernst said that if the negotiations are successful, ORT will send a group of specialists to help the channel "form a quality product and a network for broadcasting." He added that "of course, they will not interfere with information or analytical programs." Israeli law forbids foreign companies from owning more than 10 percent of any local television channel. However, the daily reported that ORT is interested in a much larger share package. JAC
 AGRARIAN PARTY LEADER DECIDES NOT TO LEAVE WITHOUT A FIGHT...Agrarian Party leader and Altai Republic President Mikhail Lapshin has asked Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov to launch a criminal case against party Deputy Chairman Aleksei Chepa, RIA-Novosti reported on 7 April. Lapshin told reporters in Moscow that Chepa is to blame for the party's dire financial situation in the wake of its poor showing in the 7 December State Duma elections. JAC
 ...AND SPEAKS OUT AGAINST MERGER TO ALTAI KRAI WITH ALTAI REPUBLICAt the same 7 April news conference in Moscow, Lapshin expressed opposition to the idea of merging the Altai Republic with Altai Krai, RIA-Novosti reported. "Altai Krai is no wealthier than the republic," Lapshin said. "Joining two [poor] regions will not make anyone richer." He noted that former Altai Krai Governor Aleksandr Surikov has spoken out in favor of unification, "but Surikov did not find support for these attempts from the people of Altai." Surikov on 4 April lost his bid for a third term (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 7 April 2004). JAC
 PARTY OF POWER ATTRACTING 'CAREERISTS'Members of the Moscow branch of the Unified Russia party have suggested establishing a two-year moratorium on new party members assuming leadership posts, RIA-Novosti reported on 7 April. Sergei Zaitsev, a raion-level party secretary, suggested that a people be required to be members of the party for at least one year before being eligible for leadership posts because of the influx of careerists that joined the party after its victory in the 7 December State Duma elections. Anatolii Petrov, the mayor's envoy to the Moscow city Duma, hesitated to characterize the party's newest members as careerists, but supported Zaitsev's suggestion, saying that the Moscow party organization could conduct such an experiment. State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who served as interior minister prior to the December Duma elections and who was therefore barred by law from joining any political party, only became a member of Unified Russia in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004). JAC
 NEW AMBASSADOR TO GERMANY NAMEDPresident Putin has named Vladimir Kotenev as Russia's ambassador to Germany, replacing Sergei Krylov, Interfax reported on 7 April. Kotenev previously served as director of the Foreign Ministry's consular service. On 7 April, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov dismissed First Deputy Health Minister Anatolii Vyalkov in order to transfer him to another position that was not specified, RosBalt and gazeta.ru reported. JAC
 CHECHEN ADMINISTRATION HEAD DENIES REPORTS OF TALKS WITH MASKHADOV...Pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov on 8 April denied media reports that he has been conducting telephone negotiations with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. "Kadyrov did not hold a telephone conversation with Maskhadov," Chechen administration spokesman Abdulbek Vakhaev said, according to the news agency. He added that former Chechen Defense Minister Magomed Khambiev, who surrendered to the authorities on 8 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2004), claims not to have seen Maskhadov for more than a year. On 7 April, Kadyrov said that he would guarantee Maskhadov's safety if he surrendered and would ask President Putin to pardon him. In a statement quoted by the Chechen news agency Kavkaz-Tsentr on 7 April, Maskhadov said that he "cannot guarantee Kadyrov's security" and added, "I cannot ask for him to be shown leniency by a Shari'a court because his crimes have been too great." RC
 ...AS OFFICIALS CALL ON CHECHEN PRESIDENT TO SURRENDERDeputy Prosecutor-General for the Southern Federal District Sergei Fridinskii said on 7 April that a criminal case against Maskhadov was opened three years ago and he must face trial if he surrenders or is captured, Ekho Moskvy reported. Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Vladimir Yakovlev on 7 April also called upon Maskhadov to surrender, saying that "no talks with bandits who are up to their elbows in blood can take place," ITAR-TASS reported. Pro-Kremlin Chechen administration head Kadyrov said on 7 April that Maskhadov will not surrender as long as radical field commander Shamil Basaev, "whom [Maskhadov] has feared like fire since 1997," is alive, "Izvestiya" reported on 8 April. Several senior associates of Maskhadov, including former Chechen Defense Minister Khambiev and former presidential security chief Shaa Turlaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2004), have surrendered in recent weeks. RC
 CORRECTION:An "RFE/RL Newsline" item titled "Leading Human Rights Activist Dies" should have stated that Larisa Bogoraz was sentenced to four years of internal exile for participating in a demonstration against the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN OFFICIALS WITHHOLD PERMISSION FOR OPPOSITION RALLYMunicipal government officials in Yerevan refused on 7 April a request by the opposition Artarutiun alliance to hold a public rally on 9 April, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. In a formal letter to opposition leaders, the chief of staff in the office of Yerevan Mayor Yervand Zakharian stated that the request was denied on the grounds that such a public event would "not be expedient" as it would disrupt "the city's normal life." The letter added that the decision was made after local officials received numerous complaints from Yerevan residents and from local officials claiming that street protests "hamper the collection of local taxes." Opposition leaders vowed to go ahead with their planned demonstration and dismissed the decision as illegal. Opposition National Unity Party leader Artashes Geghamian contended that the authorities were planning a "big provocation" in order to provide security forces with a "pretext" to arrest the opposition, and alleged that police outside Yerevan have already begun impounding buses and vans to prevent opposition supporters from entering the capital for the 9 April rally, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 7 April. RG
 ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER CALLS FOR DIALOGUE BETWEEN GOVERNMENT, OPPOSITIONArtur Baghdasarian in a 7 April statement called for a dialogue between the Armenian leadership and the opposition, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Arminfo reported the same day. The parliament speaker vowed to pursue "political consultations" in an attempt to calm the political crisis. The statement followed a similar call for dialogue by another member of the pro-government coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) party, which warned that the country was poised on "the dangerous threshold of an open confrontation," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Yerkir reported on 5 April. However, Baghdasarian's statement differed from other calls for dialogue by refraining from any outright criticism of the opposition's strategy of public demonstrations and by denouncing the recent series of arrests against opposition supporters by the authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1, 6, and 7 April 2004). RG
 AZERBAIJANI MEDIA REPORTS NEW U.S. NEGOTIATOR ON NAGORNO-KARABAKH TO BE APPOINTEDAzerbaijani media reported on 7 April that the United States is planning to appoint a new representative to the OSCE Minsk Group, which is managing the mediation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, bakutoday.net and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Citing U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish, the reports alleged that Washington intends to name Ambassador Steven Mann, currently the U.S. State Department's special envoy for the Caspian, to the position. Mann would replace Ambassador Rudolf Perina who has held the post since September 2001. The report also quoted Ambassador Harnish as saying that the move will "give new impetus to the stalled Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks." RG
 AZERBAIJANI JOURNALISTS PROTEST AGAINST REOPENING OF TURKISH-ARMENIAN BORDERA delegation of 20 Azerbaijani journalists arrived in Turkey on 6 April to protest any consideration by the Turkish government of reopening that country's border with Armenia, bakutoday.net reported on 7 April. After holding protest demonstrations in the Igdir and Kars districts near the Armenian border, the journalists traveled to Ankara on 7 April to meet with Turkish officials. In response to rumors of a possible warming of relations between Turkey and Armenia, Turkish Ambassador to Azerbaijan Ahmed Unal Cevikez reaffirmed the Turkish government's position that its blockade of Armenia and denial of diplomatic relations will continue until Armenia withdraws from Azerbaijani territory and officially renounces any territorial claims on Turkey, bakutoday.net reported. Turkey has maintained a trade and transport blockade of Armenia since 1992, although the possible normalization of relations was discussed in two meetings between the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers in September and December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September and 8 December 2003). RG
 REGIONAL COMMANDER OF RUSSIAN TROOPS INJURED IN BOMB ATTACK IN TBILISIIn an apparent assassination attempt, the commander of all Russian military forces in the South Caucasus was injured in a bombing in Tbilisi on 6 April, Civil Georgia and Interfax reported on 7 April. Major General Aleksandr Studenikin was reportedly on his way home from the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi when a bomb was detonated by remote control in the late evening. Studenikin was immediately hospitalized but was reportedly in good condition. According to Georgian security officials, the blast occurred as the general was passing through a checkpoint outside of the headquarters. In comments to the media, Georgian National Security Council Vano Merabishvili said that "it was a terrorist act" and defined it as "a provocation" aimed at disrupting relations between Georgia and Russia, Civil Georgia reported on 7 April. In a statement from NATO headquarters in Brussels, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili characterized the incident as a "pure provocation" by "local forces" opposed to any improvement in bilateral relations, ITAR-TASS reported. RG
 ADJAR PARLIAMENT CONFIRMS NEW CHAIRMANThe Adjar parliament confirmed the appointment of Rostom Djaparidze as the new chairman of the Adjar Council of Ministers on 6 April, ITAR-TASS reported. Nominated by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, Djaparidze replaces Revaz Shamelishvili. The 56-year-old Djaparidze is co-chairman of Abashidze's Union for Democratic Revival party and has served as deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament since November 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 1999). RG
 KAZAKH PRESIDENT DISCUSSES PIPELINE WITH CHINESE BANKERPresident Nursultan Nazarbaev met on 7 April with Chen Yuan, governor of the China Development Bank, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the same day. Yuan told the news agency at a briefing that an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China was one of the topics discussed. Yuan said the two countries are taking "an active approach to the project," although he declined to provide additional details. The first leg of the pipeline was finished in 2003; planners hope to complete it by 2005. DK
 KAZAKH MINISTER PRAISES CIS AIR-DEFENSE EXERCISES...Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev praised the smooth operation of the unified CIS air-defense system following command-control exercises on 7 April, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the same day. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan took part in the exercises, which were intended to test the unified system's command-control coordination. Russian Air Force commander Vladimir Mikhailov, who directed the exercises, told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 8 April that "we confirmed that control over the unified CIS air-defense system functions reliably." DK
 ...AND SAYS KAZAKH PEACEKEEPERS TO LEAVE IRAQ BY JUNEDefense Minister Altynbaev said on 7 April that Kazakh peacekeepers in Iraq are staying in camp amid recent unrest and will depart when their term of service expires on 30 May, Khabar Television reported the same day. Noting that the service term will soon expire, Altynbaev added, "That is why we have proposed that we not send another contingent to Iraq after this one." The first group of 27 Kazakh peacekeepers arrived in Iraq in August and were replaced by an equal number in early 2004. According to Interfax, they are under the command of Ukraine's 6th Detached Mechanized Brigade. DK
 OSCE CHIEF SAYS FOREIGN BASES NEEDED IN KYRGYZSTANOrganization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman in Office Solomon Pasi said on 7 April that foreign military bases in Kyrgyzstan are necessary to reduce the threat of terrorism, akipress.org reported the same day. Citing recent events in Uzbekistan, Pasi noted, "Unfortunately, we have not yet managed to defeat terrorism completely." Pasi also met with Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev on 7 April, Kabar news agency reported the same day. The two discussed human rights, democratization, and the OSCE Academy in Bishkek that opened earlier this year. Pasi expressed the hope that upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan will be transparent. DK
 TAJIK PRESIDENT MEETS WITH WORLD BANK REGIONAL DIRECTORPresident Imomali Rakhmonov met on 7 April with Dennis de Tray, World Bank regional director for Central Asia, Asia Plus-Blitz reported the same day. The two discussed bilateral cooperation and pointed to several bright spots in the Tajik economy, including a 10.2 percent increase in real GDP in 2003. Rakhmanov also noted that a survey of Tajikistan's World Bank loan portfolio one week ago assessed the portfolio's conformity with the country's poverty-reduction program. A decision was made to work toward greater coordination between the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Tajik government. DK
 UZBEK PRESIDENT BLAMES TERROR ON FOREIGN INFLUENCESPresident Islam Karimov blamed foreign influences for a recent spate of violence in Uzbekistan and urged the Uzbek people to unite "like a fist," Uzbek radio reported the same day. Referring darkly to "those who are envying Uzbeks," Karimov promised that "these forces will be certainly tracked down." Stressing that the roots of terror in Uzbekistan lead abroad, president continued, "Our children have been and are being led astray by someone through deception, whether it is by Afghanistan or Pakistan or other countries." In an apparent reference to the targeting of policemen in the 28 March-1 April attacks, Karimov also reminded Uzbek citizens that "a police officer is also a human being, a human being just like us." Karimov continued his remarks in Riga, Latvia, where he arrived for a state visit later in the day. "The scenario of what happened [last week] is a precise repetition of the scenario of the 1999 blasts [in Tashkent]," ITAR-TASS quoted him as saying. DK
Central And Eastern Europe
 UN BODY WARNS OF GROWING POVERTY AMONG ACCEDING EU STATESA report released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on 7 April asserts that growing poverty is threatening to engulf some sectors of the population in several EU accession states, AFP reported. The report singles out Roma, single mothers, families with more than three children, and the long-term jobless as being threatened by poverty in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The danger is greatest in Slovakia, according to the UNDP, where nearly 8 percent of the labor force has been out of work for longer than two years. Illiteracy among that country's 500,000-strong Romany community and a lack of access to tertiary education means that Slovakia "continues to lag farther and farther behind the EU" and cannot properly train its workforce, the report claims. The UNDP warns that the level of tertiary education is also inadequate in the Czech Republic, where unemployment is currently above 10 percent. There has been an "alarming" increase in the number of Czech households relying on welfare benefits, and the number of single mothers living in poverty has "increased by almost three times" since the fall of communism, according to the authors. The report also notes that Hungarian authorities have failed to integrate the country's 500,000 Roma into the education system. MS
 RIFT OPENS WITHIN BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONThree opposition groups -- the European Coalition Free Belarus, the Young Belarus bloc, and the Respublika group in the Chamber of Representatives -- have accused a fourth of obstructing efforts to unite democratic efforts in the run-up to this fall's parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 16 March 2004), Belapan reported on 7 April. The accusation was directed at the Popular Coalition Five Plus, whose leaders reportedly ignored consultations with the three other groups scheduled for 5 April. "I think the so-called Coalition Five Plus is seeking to split the democratic movement," Mikalay Statkevich of the European Coalition Free Belarus said. "We are ready to cooperate with all democratic forces," said Belarusian Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin, whose party makes up part of the Popular Coalition Five Plus. "But we have rejected their proposal to create a new political [alliance under a new name] and a new election platform. We have no time to enter into new negotiations." JM
 UKRAINIAN LAWMAKERS SET TO VOTE ON CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS...The Verkhovna Rada on 8 April launched final debate on a hotly contested constitutional-reform bill that, if approved, would shift the center of power in Ukraine from the presidency to the prime minister and parliament (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 6 April and 10 February 2004 and 23 December 2003), Interfax and UNIAN reported. Voting on the bill could come as soon as later the same day. The previous day the legislature decided that lawmakers will vote on the bill in its entirety in a roll-call vote via the electronic voting system. In theory, the pro-government coalition -- along with the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, which supported the bill preliminarily in December and February -- control the 300 votes required for approval. However, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz said on 8 April that his parliamentary caucus (20 deputies) will take its final stance on the bill only following the debate. The 450-seat Verkhovna Rada currently has 449 deputies. The opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc caucuses, which oppose the constitutional reforms, have a combined 119 deputies. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko said on 7 April that he doubts the backers of the bill will be able to muster 300 votes for its approval. JM
 ...AS PROTESTERS GATHER OUTSIDE PARLIAMENTOn 7 April, Our Ukraine called for a protest rally in front of the parliamentary building during final debate and possibly voting on 8 April over a controversial constitutional-reform bill, Interfax and UNIAN reported. The Our Ukraine press service claimed the rally, part of a wider protest "marathon" called "Yes to Well-Being, No to Dictatorship," would attract 4,000 people. Demonstrators, who began gathering before parliament early on 8 April, held placards with slogans protesting the constitutional reforms and demanding wage and pension hikes. JM
 UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT APPROVES LOCAL-ELECTION BILLPresident Leonid Kuchma signed a bill on local elections into law on 8 April, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The bill, which was adopted on 6 April and will come into force on 1 October 2005, mandates a majority system for rural councils and a proportional party-list system for all other councils in Ukrainian local elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 April 2004). According to some reports, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party demanded the adoption of such a bill as one of their conditions for supporting the constitutional-reform bill promoted by pro-presidential forces. Kuchma met with the leaders of parliamentary caucuses on 7 April, urging them to vote for the reforms. "I am absolutely convinced that we are not making any mistake...since we need a system of counterbalances between the legislative and executive branches," Interfax quoted Kuchma as saying. JM
 BALTIC STATES JOIN NATO AIR-DEFENSE SYSTEMThe Baltic states' joint air-surveillance system, Baltnet, was formally integrated into the NATO Integrated Air Defense System in ceremonies at the Regional Air Surveillance Coordination Center in Karmelava, Lithuania, on 7 April, BNS reported. The Baltic and Norwegian air forces' commanders, Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius, and NATO Air Operations Inspector Jon Ragnar Krogstad participated in the ceremonies. Lithuanian Air Force commander Colonel Edvardas Mazeikis noted that the data about the Baltic airspace collected by the radars in Karmelava will be analyzed and then forwarded to the NATO joint operations center in Germany. The same day, Mazeikis and his Norwegian counterpart, Brigadier General Tomas Colin Archer, signed an agreement by which Norway donated a RBS 70 air-defense missile system with radars, and missile-launch-and-control platforms to Lithuania. SG
 ACTING LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT TAKES OFFICEActing President Arturas Paulauskas officially suspended his membership in and leadership of the New Union (Social Democrats) on 7 April to comply with Article 83 of the Lithuanian Constitution requiring the president's political independence, BNS reported. The party's presidium then voted unanimously to appoint Social Security and Labor Minister Vilija Blinkeviciute as the party's temporary head. Although Paulauskas initially said that he intended to remain in his office in the parliament and only go to the presidential office when needed for official events, parliamentary Ethics and Procedure Committee Chairman Algimantas Salamakinas affirmed that the constitution and the law on the office of the president indicate that the president must work at the president's office and nowhere else. Paulauskas will also have to appoint new presidential advisers, as the individuals who assisted him as parliament chairman should remain at the parliament. Acting parliament Chairman Ceslovas Jursenas also suspended his membership in the parliamentary Social Democratic faction and the Foreign Affairs Committee. SG
 POLISH TABLOID HANDS OVER FOREIGN MINISTRY HARD DRIVES TO SECRET SERVICEThe tabloid weekly "NIE" handed over 12 computer hard drives that are allegedly full of classified Foreign Ministry information to the Internal Security Agency (ABW) on 7 April, PAP reported. A "NIE" report earlier this week on the acquisition of the hard drives prompted Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz to offer his resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 April 2004). "NIE" Editor in Chief Jerzy Urban declared that more articles based on knowledge derived from the hard drives will be published by his weekly soon. "We will not publish any secrets that could complicate Poland's international relations," Urban added. Meanwhile, ABW chief Andrzej Barcikowski said on 8 April that his agency has detained one person suspected of removing the hard drives from the ministry and another suspected of offering them for sale to various periodicals. JM
 CZECH PRESIDENT CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT'S EU POLICY PAPER...President Vaclav Klaus told Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla on 7 April that a draft document on the country's EU policies through the year 2013 is "poorly written," ambiguous, and takes a "monochromatic" and "socialist or social-democratic approach" to relations with the union, CTK and dpa reported. Klaus urged Spidla to rework the draft and said he is willing to participate in the elaboration of a better conceptualization of the main Czech aims. He said the draft lacks a "Czech perspective" on the future of European integration and does not set concrete tasks to guide Czech diplomats in their contacts with the EU. Spidla countered that he will invite Klaus to participate in the cabinet meeting at which the text will be debated ahead of the country's 1 May accession to the EU. Spidla called the meeting with Klaus "interesting" and added, "We agreed on some issues and disagreed on others." Klaus has consistently maintained a cautious position vis-a-vis the EU, while Spidla's government has touted itself as "pro-EU" from its inception in mid-2002. MS
 ...AND ENCOURAGES ROMANIAN COUNTERPARTPresident Klaus told visiting Romanian President Ion Iliescu on 7 April that he is convinced Romania will join the EU in the near future, CTK reported. Klaus, who has a long record of criticizing the EU, used the opportunity to lash out at Brussels' penchant for "more and more regulation, control, directives, and bureaucratization, rather than freedom." Asked by a Romanian journalist whether he would describe himself as a "Euro-realist," Klaus said the word is more suitable than "Euro-pessimist" or "Euro-skeptic" and that in any case he would not call himself a "Euro-naive" or a "Euro-optimist." Iliescu said Romania has no other choice than to join the EU or risk isolation in Europe. Iliescu also met with the speakers of both houses of the Czech legislature, Lubomir Zaoralek (Chamber of Deputies) and Petr Pithart (Senate). MS
 SLOVAK PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE BANKS ON WESTERN ACCEPTANCEMovement for Democracy (HZD) Chairman Ivan Gasparovic, who will face former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in a runoff for the Slovak presidency on 17 April, told journalists on 7 April that he is more acceptable to Western countries than his rival, TASR and Reuters reported. Gasparovic, who was widely regarded as Meciar's right-hand man during the latter's three stints as prime minister before quitting Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia in 2002, said he does not feel responsible for Meciar's policies when they were close allies but "deeply apologizes" if those policies hurt anyone. He also said he is "more communicative" and ready to accept the opinions of others than Meciar. MS
 EUROPEAN COMMISSION ADVISES SLOVAKIA TO REDUCE DEFICITThe European Commission recommended on 7 April that Slovakia further cut its budget deficit, tackle structural problems in the labor market, and boost labor productivity, TASR reported. Slovakia and nine other accession countries were included for the first time in the guidelines, which relate to EU member states. The commission noted that Slovakia's 57 percent employment rate is among the lowest in the EU, while its 17 percent jobless rate is among the highest. MS
 U.S. DELEGATION PRAISES HUNGARIAN COOPERATION IN FIGHTING INTERNATIONAL TERRORISMA U.S. Congressional delegation headed by Representative Candice Miller (Republican, Michigan) thanked Hungary on 7 April for its cooperation in the fight against international terrorism, AP reported. "No matter how much money we spend in the United States on our military, we cannot be successful without friends like Hungary, who stick with us when times are bad," Miller told members of the Hungarian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. Committee Chairman Zsolt Nemeth of the opposition FIDESZ urged the delegation to keep in mind that security risks continue to exist in Europe, "especially in the Balkans and in the former Soviet region." The delegation also met with Prime Minster Peter Medgyessy. MS
 SLOVENIAN GOVERNING COALITION TOTTERS...Three ministers quit the Slovenian government on 7 April following the decision of their conservative People's Party to quit the governing coalition, bringing the total of cabinet resignations within the past week to five after two ministers resigned to take up EU-level positions, Reuters reported. The People's Party first broke with its center-left allies over a recent referendum to block the retroactive restoration of residency status to a large number of former Yugoslavs known as "the erased," who lost their residency status in 1992 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 6 April 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 and 27 February 2004). Most of the governing coalition opposed the referendum, but the People's Party joined the conservative opposition in backing the measure, which won about 95 percent of the votes cast. The People's Party then backed an unsuccessful opposition move to unseat Interior Minister Rado Bohinc of the ex-communist United List of Social Democrats, who said he will continue to reregister "erased" former residents retroactively despite the referendum, which many considered a xenophobic and demagogic effort by conservative parties to score points with the voters. PM
 ...AS THE PARTIES PLAY FOR BIG STAKESThe People's Party's decisions to back the referendum, oppose Bohinc, and quit the coalition are closely linked to its preparations for the European Parliament elections and Slovenian general elections due later in the year, Reuters reported from Ljubljana on 7 April. Following the People's Party's departure from the coalition, the opposition Slovenian Democratic Party of Janez Jansa called for early elections, saying that the government cannot function properly after losing one-third of its members within one week. Prime Minister Anton Rop's coalition now controls 49 out of 90 seats in the parliament. He has promised to fill the five cabinet vacancies by the end of April. PM
 HAGUE PROSECUTOR CALLS ON FRANCE TO HELP ARREST INDICTED BOSNIAN WAR CRIMINALSCarla Del Ponte, who is the chief prosecutor of the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, said in Paris on 7 April that "it is scandalous that [former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and former General Ratko Mladic] have not yet been arrested, and it is precisely for that I am here today," dpa reported. "My fear is that SFOR and NATO forces will leave the Balkans [at the end of the year], and I would like to know who will take charge of searching for the 21 people wanted on [the tribunal's] arrest warrants, including Karadzic and Mladic," Del Ponte added. She said she planned to stress these points to French Defense Minister Michel Alliot-Marie later in the day. Alliot-Marie opposes a continuing role for NATO and the United States in Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 April 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March 2004). French SFOR troops control much of the area in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina where Karadzic is widely believed to hide. Many Muslims, Croats, and Albanians consider France and its military to be pro-Serbian. PM
 SERBIAN UNIVERSITIES FACE 70 PERCENT BUDGET CUTSBelgrade University Rector Marija Bogdanovic said on 7 April that she hopes that the government will reverse its recent decision to cut its spending on universities by 70 percent because such cuts will make it impossible for the universities to function, Reuters reported. Particularly hard hit are the faculties of natural sciences and the arts, which require special materials. Some universities will have to shut their doors in April or May because they cannot afford electricity or running water. Public universities are generally free of charge to students. Some private universities have been founded in recent years but are generally too expensive in this impoverished country. Many Serbian reformers say that some of the worst damage done by former President Slobodan Milosevic was to institutions, including the educational system, that were built up painstakingly since the 1830s, when Serbia first won autonomy from Ottoman rule (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 20 February 2004, and "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 12, 19, and 26 July 2001). PM
 MACEDONIANS PROTEST COUNCIL OF EUROPE DECISION ON THEIR COUNTRY'S NAMEMacedonian citizens have sent more than 210,000 postcards to the Council of Europe supporting the use of that country's constitutional name Republic of Macedonia, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 8 April. The postcards reading "Say Macedonia," "Call me by my name!" and "Don't you FYROM me!" were printed by a group of NGOs after the Council of Europe recently decided to refer to the Macedonian language as "Macedonian (Slavic)" and to Macedonian nationals as "persons from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" in official documents. Under Greek pressure, most international institutions such as the UN and the EU have not recognized Macedonia under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, but as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Talks under the auspices of the UN in New York aimed at resolving the long-standing name dispute are deadlocked (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 July 2003 and 23 January and 17 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 June 2003). Greece claims that use of the name Macedonia implies a claim on the northern Greek province of the same name and on the ancient cultural heritage of the entire Macedonian region. UB
 ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT SETS DATE FOR LOCAL ELECTIONSThe government on 7 April decided that elections for mayors, and local and county councilors will be held on 6 June, Mediafax reported. MS
 U.K. RESTORES TOURIST VISAS FOR ROMANIANS, BULGARIANSThe British Embassy in Bucharest announced on 7 April that it will resume issuing visas for Romanian citizens as of the next day, Mediafax reported. According to Reuters, the resumption is also applicable to Bulgarian citizens. The resumption applies to visas for tourists, students, and visiting relatives, but a ban on working permits and business visas would remain. The United Kingdom stopped all applications for visas by citizens of the two states last month, after diplomats and British officials revealed that lax controls had allowed immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania to enter the United Kingdom with forged papers. The Romanian government praised the decision, according to Mediafax, and reiterated its readiness to continue cooperating with the United Kingdom in combating illegal migration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 April 2004). MS
 MOLDOVAN COMMUNISTS REJECT PRESIDENT'S PROPOSAL TO ABOLISH LIBEL PRISON PENALTYThe ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) majority in the parliament's Economy, Industry, Budget, and Finance Committee on 7 April voted against a legislative initiative by President Vladimir Voronin to abolish prison sentences for the offense of libel, Flux reported. The Penal Code currently stipulates that libel is punishable by up to five years of imprisonment. The committee's vote is consultative and the parliament's plenum is to decide on the initiative. Voronin called for abolishing prison sentences for libel after meeting last month with representatives of Chisinau-based journalists. MS
 MOLDOVAN SOCIAL LIBERALS READY TO JOIN OPPOSITION BLOC IF NAME CHANGEDThe leadership of the extraparliamentary Social Liberal Party (PSL) decided on 7 April to empower its representatives to negotiate with the Our Moldova alliance and with the Democratic Party the setting up of an opposition bloc ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections, Flux and Infotag reported. The PSL said it is ready to accept Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean as head of the opposition bloc but conditioned joining the bloc on its running under a name different from Our Moldova. MS
 MOLDOVAN STATE REGISTRY APPROVES STATUTES OF CHISINAU MEDIA OUTLETSThe Moldovan State Registry on 7 April accepted and registered the statutes of the municipal Antena C radio and Euro-TV stations, Flux reported. The statutes had been approved the day before by the Chisinau Municipal Council and their approval by the State Registry clears an important hurdle on the way to having the Audiovisual Coordinating Council (CCA) lift the suspension imposed on the two stations. Meanwhile, the hunger-striking journalists from Antena C and Euro TV said they intend to continue their strike until the CCA lifts its suspension (see RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March and 5, 6, and 7 April 2004). MS
 CHIEF OF GENERAL STAFF REQUESTS THAT BULGARIAN CONTINGENT BE PULLED OUT OF KARBALA...Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev said on 7 April after a meeting of high-level government and military officials with President Georgi Parvanov that he has requested that the Bulgarian contingent in Iraq be pulled out of Karbala, mediapool.bg reported. The city is effectively under the control of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army, which has clashed with Bulgarian forces there this week, AP and Sega reported. "The mandate of the Bulgarian contingent does not extend to involvement in armed conflict," AFP quoted Kolev as saying. Kolev noted that the final decision on the contingent's withdrawal must be made by the command of the Polish-led sector. Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov said it is up to parliament to decide whether the Bulgarian troops should stay in Iraq, mediapool.bg reported. President Georgi Parvanov said the same day that the Bulgarian contingent should remain in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 April 2004). Bnn reported on 8 April that some 120 U.S. troops were deployed to support Polish and Bulgarian troops in that city. UB
 ...AS PARLIAMENTARIANS SEND MIXED SIGNALSParliamentary speaker Ognyan Gerdzhikov said on 7 April that he is not convinced that parliament must convene for an extraordinary session to discuss the Bulgarian contingent's mandate, BTA reported. Krastyo Petkov of the Socialist-dominated opposition Coalition for Bulgaria and two independent lawmakers, Nikola Nikolov and Stela Bankova, have demanded that parliament discuss the situation in an extraordinary session. Gerdzhikov said he will carefully assess the legislators' initiative and discuss the matter with President Parvanov. UB
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 FIGHTING REPORTED IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN...Fighting began in Faryab Province on 6 April when troops loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum reportedly crossed into the province from neighboring Jowzjan Province, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 7 April. Faryab Governor Qazi Enayatullah cited "rumors" that Faryab was under threat of attack for "about 15-20 days," adding, "We have already informed the central government, but unfortunately these rumors since last night [6 April] have actually become a military operation." Enayatullah said his province came under attack because it is loyal to the central government. Dostum, who officially holds the title of special adviser on security and military affairs to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, is the head of his own party, Junbish-e Melli, and commands his own military force in northern Afghanistan. AT
 ...BETWEEN FORMER ALLIES...Mohammad Alam Rasekh, a cabinet-level ministerial adviser in the Afghan Transitional Administration, told Radio Free Afghanistan on 7 April that the fighting in Faryab Province is the result of a personal rivalry between General Dostum and General Mohammad Hashem Habibi, the commander of provincial military forces there. Rasekh claimed the fighting has no broader political implications. Observers from the region indicated that erstwhile allies Generals Dostum and Habibi had a falling out over finances, the report added. Dostum's forces have been involved in a number of clashes with rival commanders since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, prompting Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai to appoint Dostum as an adviser and recall him to Kabul. Dostum ignored those orders, however, and repositioned himself in his stronghold in Jowzjan Province (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May and 5 June 2003). AT
 ...FORCING KABUL TO SEND TROOPS...Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi told Radio Free Afghanistan on 8 April that his ministry is dispatching an Afghan National Army battalion to quell fighting in Faryab Province and assert the central government's presence there. Azimi said a Defense Ministry delegation will travel to Faryab to investigate the circumstances that led to fighting between Generals Dostum and Habibi. Azimi said the Defense Ministry appointed Habibi to command the military forces in Faryab. No coalition forces have been involved in the crisis in Faryab, Azimi added. Troops from the nascent Afghan National Army are already stretched thin, with deployments in the western Herat Province in March to help quell a clash between a military commander and the governor there (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 March and 1 April 204). AT
 ...AS RESIDENTS FLEE FIGHTINGFaryab's chief of security, Homayun 'Ayni, told Radio Free Afghanistan on 8 April that civilians are fleeing western Faryab, although fighting has subsided in the region. The city of Maymana, the provincial capital, is safe, 'Ayni added. One day earlier, on 7 April, when Dostum's militia had reportedly overrun Joma Bazar around 20 kilometers from Maymana, 'Ayni was quoted by Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press as saying, "There is a lot of panic in Maymana. Residents are leaving the city." Echoing statements from Governor Enayatullah (see above), 'Ayni told Radio Free Afghanistan, "We obey the central government, but our friends from Sheberghan [Dostum's headquarters] don't like this [policy] and want us to obey them." A spokesman for Dostum's Junbish-e Melli party told Radio Free Afghanistan on 8 April that he has no information about the situation in Faryab and that his party's militia has neither taken any action there nor will it. AT
 IRANIAN OFFICIAL HINTS AT CABINET RESHUFFLEVice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi told reporters after the 7 April cabinet session that there will be changes in Iran's cabinet after the 27 May inauguration of the new parliament, "Khorasan" daily reported on 8 April. Meanwhile, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said, "I am trying to achieve some things that you will hear about later." A parliamentarian who requested anonymity said the personnel changes are intended to avoid having a cabinet member interpellated by the incoming conservative legislature, and the legislator suggested that the ministers of roads and transport and of education and training would be replaced. Legislator Jafar Golbaz added the interior minister to this mix, "Khorasan" reported, explaining that Khatami would make the changes in order to avoid early conflicts with the new parliament. BS
 IRANIAN SPEAKER CONTINUES CRITICISM OF VETTING BODYParliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said on 7 April that Iran's Expediency Council has decided in favor of parliament in 70-80 percent of the cases in which it has resolved disputes between the legislature and the Guardians Council in recent years, state television reported. However, Karrubi criticized the Guardians Council's method of vetting candidates for the February parliamentary elections in connection with its authority to supervise elections, prescribed in Article 98 of the Iranian Constitution. Referring to the fact that the results for some constituencies have yet to be announced, he said, "We hope the final results of the few remaining constituencies will finish well." In a 6 April speech, Karrubi called for a clear delineation of the Guardians Council's supervisory function, IRNA reported. He said the framers of the constitution, religious scholars, and intellectuals should give their views on the council's performance and state whether it is an approbatory or supervisory body. The Guardians Council must approve legislation passed by the Iranian parliament on religious and constitutional grounds, and the Expediency Council makes the final decision in cases where these two bodies cannot resolve their differences. BS
 IRAN TO BUILD HEAVY-WATER REACTORAnonymous diplomats in Vienna, home of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on 7 April that Iran will begin building a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor in June at Arak, "Khorasan" daily reported the next day, citing AFP. Tehran had announced its intention to build the facility the previous year, and, during IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei's 6 April visit to Tehran, Iranian officials told him that they will break ground in June. This is not considered a deception because Iran previously declared its intention to build the reactor, the sources said, but they added that it does not build confidence under the current circumstances of concern about Iranian intentions. Iran asserts that the radioisotopes would be used for medical research, but the spent fuel rods could be reprocessed to produce weapons grade plutonium, AP reported. BS
 IRAQI OFFICIAL CALLS FOR WITHDRAWAL OF FOREIGN FORCESIraqi Governing Council member Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, who is with the predominantly Shi'a Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah party, said during a 7 April meeting in Tehran with Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani that the presence of occupation forces threatens regional security, IRNA reported. "We insist on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq and the region," al-Ja'fari said. Rafsanjani said he hopes the occupation forces leave soon, and he expressed concern about the clashes in Al-Najaf and Kufa. Al-Ja'fari also met with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who said, "Using military force against civilians cannot be justified under any pretext," IRNA reported. BS
 AIDE TO RADICAL IRAQI CLERIC SAYS U.S. TRYING TO ESCALATE SITUATIONAn aide to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told LBC Satellite television in a 7 April interview that the United States is trying to escalate the situation in Iraq, calling the coalition's behavior "stupid." "The revolution and the confrontations [with coalition forces] are now popular ones. They have to face the entire [Iraqi] people. Iraq -- from its north to the south -- is revolting against them," said Fu'ad al-Tarfi, director of al-Sadr's Al-Najaf office. Asked if al-Sadr would abide by a fatwa issued by Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani calling for an end to the uprising and a peaceful resolution, al-Tarfi responded, "On our part, we are willing to have a peaceful solution, but if they want to escalate matters and engage in confrontations, then we are prepared for that." Asked what the solution should be, he said that occupation forces should offer the solution by withdrawing first. They should also stop making statements about wanting to arrest al-Sadr. "The issue is not the issue of arresting [al-Sadr]. The issue is rejecting the occupation," he said. KR
 UKRAINIAN PEACEKEEPERS PULL OUT OF AL-KUT...Ukrainian peacekeepers stationed in the volatile southern Iraqi city of Al-Kut withdrew from the city on 7 April after a 24-hour standoff with Iraqi militants, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The Ukrainians were guarding a civil administration building, a television and radio station, and a bridge spanning the Tigris River in Al-Kut, Interfax reported on 7 April. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the same day that supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr attacked the peacekeepers' positions in the city, and attempted to infiltrate the grounds of the civil administration building by digging a hole under the fence that surrounds the building and attempting to plant bombs there to blow up the fence. The ministry said that the withdrawal of its peacekeepers came at the request of the United States. "At the request of the Americans, and to preserve the life of our military, the commander of the Ukrainian contingent decided to evacuate the civil administration staff and Ukrainian troops from Kut," ft.com quoted the Ukrainian Defense ministry as saying. According to international media, militants loyal to al-Sadr now control the city. KR
 ...AS COALITION TROOPS BATTLE AL-MAHDI ARMY IN KARBALA...A gun battle erupted between Polish and Bulgarian coalition troops and al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army in the holy city of Karbala in the late hours of 7 April, Reuters reported on 8 April. A Polish military spokesman said that the battle lasted throughout the night. Local health official Mahdi al-Hasnawi said that four Iraqis were killed in the fighting and 16 wounded. Witnesses told Reuters that the Al-Mahdi Army is now in control of the city. The presence of Shi'ite fighters in the holy city poses a problem for coalition forces, who are acutely aware of the sensitivities of fighting on holy ground. Karbala is one of four Shi'ite shrine cities in Iraq. The apparent power struggle for control over the city also comes at a critically sensitive time, when thousands of Shi'ites have converged on Karbala to mark the major religious occasion of Arbain. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a 7 April press briefing broadcast on CNN that it is unclear how many fighters belong to al-Sadr's militia, but said estimates range between 1,000 and 6,000 fighters. KR
 ...AND SUNNI INSURGENTS IN AL-FALLUJAHIntense fighting was also reported in Al-Fallujah on 7 April, where coalition troops bombed the outside wall of a mosque with at least one 500-pound (227-kilogram) missile in order to penetrate the mosque's compound. Witnesses told AP that dozens of Iraqis were killed in the six hours of fighting at the Abd al-Aziz al-Samarra'i Mosque. The U.S. military said that the militants were using the mosque as a military base. "When you start using a religious location for military purposes, it loses its protected status. The Marines called in additional support, dropped two...precision-guided bombs and took out the outer wall of the mosque without seeming to harm...the actual mosque structure itself," U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told CNN on 7 April, Reuters reported. KR
 GUL CRITICIZES U.S. FOR NOT ASSESSING POLITICAL SCENETurkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told Ankara's TRT1 Television in a 7 April interview that the "mass resistance" that Iraq is now facing is the result of a U.S. failure to properly assess the political situation inside the country. "Obviously the greatest error here is the following, we have said this in the past as well: Iraqi territory is a very different one. It is as if Pandora's box has been opened. Therefore, one should act in the full knowledge of the realities there. I believe that there has been some degree of negligence there.... It seems as if the right way is being found by committing the wrongs," Gul said. Asked about the U.S. analysis of Iraq, Gul said, "I believe that the analysis was not done well, because they are faced with a culture that is alien to them." "They also relied too much on some within Iraq who advised them. They relied too much on certain groups within Iraq instead of heeding the recommendations made by their allies," he added. "They turned out to be wrong." KR
 ARMENIAN REGIME, OPPOSITION POISED FOR POTENTIALLY VIOLENT SHOWDOWNBy Emil Danielyan
Political tensions were rapidly mounting in Armenia ahead of what promised to be a decisive showdown between its government and opposition scheduled for 9 April.
The country's two main opposition groups, the Artarutiun alliance and the National Unity Party (AMK), plan to launch a campaign of street protests in the capital Yerevan that they hope will force President Robert Kocharian to step down. The opposition scenario mirrors November's "Rose Revolution" in neighboring Georgia, where huge crowds of disgruntled citizens toppled unpopular President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Like Shevardnadze, Kocharian is accused of clinging to power through vote rigging -- an accusation that is given weight by the findings of international election observers. Yet unlike his former Georgian counterpart, the 49-year-old Armenian leader will not quit without a fight and is already going to great lengths to hold off the challenge. That includes renewed mass arrests of opposition activists and supporters and a transport blockade of Yerevan. The Armenian authorities were also believed to have been behind violent incidents that marred the two most recent opposition gatherings.
In one of them, police stood by and watched as a group of rampaging men beat journalists and smashed cameras that filmed them while they stirred up trouble. The attack was described by the chief of the Yerevan police the next day as a mere "dispute of individuals with opposite views." According to some media reports, the muscular thugs were bodyguards of several wealthy businessmen close to Kocharian.
All of this sets the stage for what could be more serious violence at the upcoming demonstrations. The authorities have made it clear that they are ready to use force to suppress the "unconstitutional" bid for regime change in Armenia. Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian said last week that security forces will step in if riots break out in the streets. However, opposition demonstrations have rarely turned violent in the past, and opposition leaders say only the ruling regime is interested in disorder.
The looming unrest is an echo of the February-March 2003 presidential election in which Kocharian won a second term in office amid numerous reports of serious fraud. A joint monitoring mission from the OSCE and the Council of Europe concluded that the two-round vote failed to meet international democratic standards, while the United States said the Armenian leadership "missed an important opportunity to advance democratization by holding a credible election." While admitting that there were widespread irregularities, the Armenian president and his allies maintain that they were not serious enough to affect the outcome of the vote.
Artarutiun and the AMK are led by Kocharian's main election challengers: Stepan Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian, respectively. They both refuse to recognize the official vote results, insisting that Kocharian's regime is "illegitimate." Demirchian's bloc rallied tens of thousands of supporters in downtown Yerevan in the run-up and the aftermath of the 5 March second round of voting. But those protests fizzled out, as the opposition leader avoided more radical actions.
Demirchian and other Artarutiun leaders began preparing for a fresh push for power following the bloodless Georgian revolt cheered by the West as a triumph of democracy. Their chances of success were boosted by their alliance with Geghamian formalized earlier this week. Geghamian until recently refused to join in the street protests, saying that they are counterproductive. The outspoken AMK leader also had a grudge against Demirchian for his decision not to boycott the 2003 runoff vote with Kocharian.
The two opposition groups began separate series of small rallies across Armenia in February after the Kocharian-controlled parliament rejected their demands for a "referendum of confidence" in the president. The idea was suggested by the Armenian Constitutional Court in April 2003 as a way of defusing postelection tensions. It has been dismissed as "unconstitutional" by the presidential camp.
Precisely how Artarutiun and the AMK intend to effect regime change is unclear. Some of their leaders have said that they will try to surround the presidential palace and the nearby parliament building with tens of thousands of people who will stay there "day and night" until Kocharian quits. However, the authorities will almost certainly block the city's Marshal Baghramian Avenue leading to the two buildings with heavily armed riot police and interior troops. They might also block the main squares in the city center. The situation will become even more explosive if agents provocateurs again throw eggs and firecrackers at rally organizers.
The wholesale imprisonment of dozens of opposition supporters, carried out under Armenia's Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses, is accompanied by a separate criminal investigation into what the authorities say are calls for a "violent overthrow of constitutional order" made by the opposition leaders. The launch of the criminal proceedings last week indicated Kocharian's readiness to arrest the latter.
Police closed all the major roads leading to Yerevan ahead of a rally held by Geghamian on 5 April, in what human rights groups see as a blatant violation of citizens' freedom of movement. The police are expected to do the same on 9 April to keep provincial residents from swelling the opposition crowd. The sheer scale of the extraordinary measures suggests that Kocharian and his most powerful associate, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, take the opposition threats very seriously. The two men faced little sanction from the West following a similar postelection crackdown last year.
The European Union has only urged the Armenian authorities through its Yerevan-based ambassadors to exercise "prudence" in dealing with the opposition, while the United States has so far been silent on the current crisis.
The Armenian opposition, meanwhile, is also trying to impart symbolism to its actions. Many women attending the latest Geghamian rally held white carnations -- an apparent Armenian variant of the red roses that became the symbol of the Georgian revolution. Whether a flower can help to produce a similar outcome in Armenia should become clear in a matter of days.