|Saturday, 27 February 2021|
RFE/RL Newsline, 03-03-18
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 RUSSIAN LEADERS URGE U.S. TO AVOID 'MISTAKE' IN IRAQSpeaking to a 17 March gathering of pro-Moscow Chechen religious leaders in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia considers military action against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to be "a mistake" and continues to pursue a "peaceful resolution" of the crisis, ORT and RTR reported. "Russia has 20 million Muslims and in our position, we should take into consideration their opinion," Putin noted. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the same day that Iraq "poses no threat to global security" and therefore "there are no grounds for the use of force." Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Deputy Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Fatherland-All Russia) said that U.S. President George W. Bush's 17 March ultimatum to Hussein will increase the risks of international terrorism and ecological disaster, RTR reported on 18 March. VY
 ANALYST LOOKS FOR RUSSIA'S INTERESTS IN IRAQ CRISIS...The pressure that the United States is exerting on the Arab world through the Iraq crisis is in Russia's national interests, Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, told TV-Tsentr on 17 March. Makarenko said that the leading Arab oil-producing countries have long been interested in destabilizing Russia and preventing it from competing with them. Therefore, they have supported Islamic extremists in Russia, including Chechen separatists, Makarenko argued. On the other hand, he said, Russia is not interested in siding too closely with the United States during this crisis in order to avoid increasing its own risk of facing terrorist attacks. Russia -- like France and Germany -- has a large Muslim population and is much closer to the Arab world than the United States is. Therefore, any potential wave of international terrorism provoked by a U.S.-led military action against Iraq would more likely hit Russia and Europe than the United States, he said. VY
 ...AND SAYS UN WILL WEATHER THE CRISISIn the same 17 March interview, Boris Makarenko said that despite the damage caused by the Iraq crisis to the prestige of the United Nations, Washington and its allies have chosen the lesser of two evils. Facing the choice of either opposing the will of the Security Council if the draft U.S.-U.K.-Spanish resolution had been rejected or pushing ahead with a military operation without UN authorization, the United States rightly chose the latter, Makarenko said. In doing so, Washington is paving the way for a resolution of the Iraq situation along the lines of what has been done in Afghanistan, he said. He noted that in Afghanistan in 2001, the United States also acted without UN authorization, and that after the Taliban were defeated, the UN was invited to play an appropriate role there. Russian Ambassador to the UN Sergei Lavrov told RTR on 17 March that despite the split in the Security Council over Iraq, the UN will maintain its role as the leading international institution. VY
 RUSSIA TAKES FINAL STEPS ON THE EVE OF WARForeign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko announced on 17 March that Russia's entire diplomatic mission to Baghdad -- except for 25 officers who will remain in Iraq even if war breaks out -- has been evacuated, polit.ru reported. In Moscow, police and security forces have boosted security measures at the diplomatic missions of countries in the anti-Iraq coalition, RTR reported. On 17 March, a delegation of 25 Russian Orthodox and Muslim clerics headed by Telget Tajetdin, the supreme mufti of Russia and the European countries of the CIS, arrived in Baghdad for meetings with Iraq's leadership and "to pray for peace." In Moscow, Iraqi Ambassador to Russia Abbas Khalaf said that about 7,500 Russian citizens -- many of whom are reportedly from Daghestan -- have volunteered to go to Iraq and fight in support of President Hussein, "Izvestiya" reported on 17 March. Khalaf added, however, that Iraq does not need such volunteers and he denounced as "CIA disinformation" reports that groups of Chechen fighters have arrived in Iraq. "Argumenty i fakty," No. 11, pointed out that Russians who go to Iraq as volunteers could be prosecuted and sentenced to three to seven years' imprisonment as mercenaries under the Criminal Code. VY
 DUMA TO SUSPEND CONSIDERATION OF MOSCOW TREATYDuma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dmitrii Rogozin (People's Deputy) announced on 17 March that he will rescind his committee's endorsement of the U.S.-Russian Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which was signed in Moscow in May, Russian media reported. The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate on 10 March. Referring to the looming military operation against Iraq, Rogozin said, "There is a feeling that discussing this issue in such an inappropriate political atmosphere is irrelevant." VY
 TROPHY ART CONTROVERSY FLARES AGAINValentina Matvienko, the newly appointed presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, has called for a public discussion of the question of returning the so-called Baldin Collection to Germany (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003), nns.ru reported on 17 March. Matvienko said that she does not oppose the collection's return, but advocates seeking "appropriate compensation." The collection consists of 364 drawings and paintings by artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Monet, and Van Gogh, and has been valued by Russian experts at from $1 billion to $1.5 billion. Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi has argued that the collection should be returned because it does not fall under the jurisdiction of a law declaring all so-called trophy art confiscated from Germany during and after World War II to be national assets. Shvydkoi has argued that the collection was brought to the Soviet Union from Bremen by a Soviet officer named Viktor Baldin as his private possession. He has also said that the collection's value has been greatly exaggerated and is actually $30 million-$50 million. The Duma has adopted a nonbinding resolution asking President Putin to halt the collection's return to Germany, which is scheduled for 29 March. In response, Putin has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to confirm the legality of the move. Duma Culture and Tourism Committee Chairman Nikolai Gubenko (independent) reported on 18 March that the prosecutor has written to Shvydkoi stating that the collection's transfer, as it is currently proposed, is illegal, according to newsru.com and other media. VY
 LEADING ANALYSTS CLAIM RUSSIA LACKS A RESPONSIBLE ELITE...The National Strategy Council, a nonprofit group of political analysts, published a report on the risks and threats facing Russia in 2003 in "Konservator," No.9. The report draws several conclusions, among them that Russia "is losing its capacity for geo-strategic maneuvering" and that Russia's ruling elite is "in crisis." According to the group, Russia's ruling elite "does not view the country's long-term geopolitical interests or internal stability as among its own categorical imperatives." Russia's ruling elite is divided into factions that have links to the interests of various oligarchs and which are dependent upon these oligarchs. During the rule of former President Boris Yeltsin, there was some agreement among members of the elite on the rules of the game. However, this agreement collapsed, and under President Putin, there has been no new agreement. JAC
 ...AND PREDICT THAT THIS YEAR MIGHT SEE SHAKE-UP AMONG OLIGARCHSAs a result, "oligarchic power struggles will intensify drastically at all levels in 2003." The [December] Duma elections will represent the culmination of that battle...and it could lead to the ruling elite falling apart in its present form." The National Strategy Council was founded in 2002, in part to make up for the lack of conceptual strategic planning in Russia, and produces quarterly reports. Members of the council include analysts Makarenko, Iosif Diskin, Sergei Markov, Sergei Kortunov, Maksim Dianov, Andrei Ryabov, Mark Urnov, Andrei Fedorov, and Valerii Fedorov. JAC
 MORE INTRIGUES IN RUSSIAN TELEVISIONTVS Information Broadcasting Service Director Grigorii Krichevskii will tender his resignation, lenta.ru reported on 17 March, citing TVS Press Secretary Tatyana Blinova. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 18 March, Krichevskii has been accused by his fellow journalists of being in constant contact with "shareholders and [presidential administration head Aleksandr] Voloshin." Seven journalists, including "Kukly" creator Viktor Shenderovich, signed a letter to TVS Editor in Chief Yevgenii Kiselev, declaring that they could no longer work with someone of Krichevskii's "professional and personal qualities." The daily reported that the letter was given to Kiselev three weeks ago, but Kiselev "for unclear reasons" denied that it existed. Russian news agencies also reported on 17 March that the station's financial situation is not favorable, and its creditors could decide to declare the project unsuccessful and close it down. JAC
 RAKHIMOV, UNIFIED RUSSIA FORCES WIN IN BASHKORTOSTANSome 377 candidates competed in 16 March parliamentary elections in Bashkortostan, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported on 17 March. The elections were declared valid in all 120 electoral districts, and an estimated 60 percent of registered voters participated. According to ITAR-TASS, representatives of the local Unified Russia party won 91 of the 120 seats available, while Communist Party candidates failed to win a single seat. Candidates supported by President Murtaza Rakhimov --- including his son, Ural Rakhimov -- ran as Unified Russia candidates, gazeta.ru reported. "Kommersant-Daily" concluded on 17 March that the new parliament will be just as loyal to Rakhimov as the old one. JAC
 FISHERIES HEAD REINSTATES HIMSELFSuspended State Fisheries Chairman Yevgenii Nazdratenko has signed an order reinstating himself (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003), "Vedomosti" reported on 17 March. According to the daily, this is the first such occurrence in the Russian government. Asked to comment on Nazdratenko's action, Aleksei Volin, deputy head of the government apparatus, said, "If Nazdratenko signed an order canceling [an order by] the prime minister, then that means he considers himself the head of the government, which is clear sign of megalomania." According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 18 March, unofficial sources in the White House report that the search for a legal basis to fire Nazdratenko is continuing. The daily speculated that the committee might be abolished under a broader administrative reform and its functions distributed among various ministries. Under this scenario, Nazdratenko would become a deputy minister with responsibility for the fishing industry and would therefore have no reason to return to Primorskii Krai, where he was once governor. However, he would no longer be able to interfere with the distribution of fishing quotas. JAC
 LOCAL OLIGARCHS MIGHT TRY TO UNSEAT NOVGOROD GOVERNOR"Serious opposition" to Novgorod Oblast Governor Mikhail Prusak has appeared for the first time in the 10 years that he has been governor, "Vremya-MN" reported on 15 March. According to the daily, local oligarchs are dissatisfied with Prusak's policies, and they tried to elect their own candidate as mayor of Novgorod in December. However, the candidate supported by Prusak, Nikolai Grazhdankin, won (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 9 December 2002). This fall, Prusak will be up for re-election seeking his third term, and in anticipation of this event, local oligarchs sponsored the recent founding congress of the public-political regional movement People's Will (Volya naroda). The head of the new movement is State Duma Deputy Yevgenii Zelenov (Russian Regions), who also heads the regional branch of Unified Russia. The movement also reportedly includes members of the oblast and city dumas, as well as the chief federal inspector for Novgorod Oblast, Lyubov Andreeva. According to the daily, the local press has also carried reports that YUKOS head Mikhail Khodorkovskii is considering running for governor. JAC
 LOCAL JOURNALIST WELL SCHOOLED IN HARD KNOCKSJournalist Aleksandr Krutov of the Saratov-based daily "Bogatei" was attacked in front of his home on 13 March, VolgaInform reported on 14 March. According to the agency, the newspaper's editorial staff has no doubt the attack was connected with Krutov's professional activities. A similar incident occurred in 1998, but a criminal investigation was never launched in that case. In 1996, Krutov was repeatedly hit over the head with a pipe in response to an article entitled "The Chechen Syndrome in the Volga Region" that appeared in "Moskovskie novosti" (see "OMRI Daily Digest," 26 February 1996). JAC
 DAGHESTAN ELECTS NEW LEGISLATUREDaghestan held elections to a new parliament on 16 March, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 18 March. Deputies were elected in 97 districts, and a runoff will be held in 23 others. Repeat elections will be scheduled in Kizlyar after all but one candidate pulled out at the last minute. In contrast to the previous ballot, in which three police officers were killed and two candidates wounded, no casualties were reported, although there were disturbances at polling stations in Baba-Yurt and Kachaloi, and several persons fired guns into the air at a polling station in Makhachkala, Interfax reported on 16 March. LF
 PUTIN LAUNCHES CHECHEN 'CHARM OFFENSIVE'...In what the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" on 18 March termed a "charm offensive," President Putin urged the Chechen electorate in a televised address on 16 March to approve the new Chechen constitution in the referendum scheduled for 23 March, Russian media reported. Doing so, Putin argued, will provide the basis for a political settlement and the election of "genuinely democratic authorities." Putin acknowledged the "injustice" to which the Chechens were subjected in the past, including the 1944 deportations and the "inter-clan strife" of the past few years. He argued that it is time to "bring about the day when Russian citizens resident in Chechnya do not have to live in fear" of nocturnal searches. Putin also stressed the achievements of the Russian government in restoring the Chechen economy and creating conditions in which children can have a normal education and "find their feet." Meeting on 17 March in Moscow with members of the Chechen clergy, Putin acknowledged that the Russian leadership made "very many mistakes" in its policy toward Chechnya over the past decade, ITAR-TASS reported. He said the 23 March referendum could pave the way for a new accord between Chechnya and Moscow that would grant the former "broad autonomy." LF
 ...WINNING PRAISE FROM PRO-MOSCOW OFFICIALSChechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov on 17 March described Putin's address as "sincere" and "coming from the heart," while Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told journalists that it was precisely what Chechens wanted to hear, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Gudermes Mayor Akhmed Abastov told ITAR-TASS that "we need this referendum as much as we need air or water." Kadyrov also said on 17 March that the signing of the proposed power-sharing treaty between Chechnya and the federal center could take place within six to eight weeks after the referendum and that elections for a new Chechen president will be held concurrently with those to the State Duma in December 2003, ITAR-TASS reported. LF
 DEMOCRATS ARGUE THAT CHECHEN REFERENDUM IS PREMATUREEchoing an article published last month by Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces, the Social Democratic Party of Russia, and the human rights organization Memorial issued a statement on 17 March arguing that while a referendum on a new Chechen constitution must be held at some point, it is premature to do so while hostilities continue, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 14 February 2003). They propose a two-stage approach to resolving the Chechen conflict, in which a formal cease-fire and an end to guerrilla activities and "sweep" operations would precede a peace conference at which all factions would be represented. LF
TRANSCAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA
 ARMENIAN OPPOSITION DENOUNCES ARREST OF FORMER PREMIER'S BROTHEROpposition parties that aligned late last week in the Artarutiun (Justice) bloc to contend the 25 May parliamentary elections issued a statement in Yerevan on 17 March condemning as politically motivated the 15 March arrest of businessman Armen Sargsian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Sargsian is the younger brother of former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, who heads the opposition Hanrapetutiun party. He is suspected of involvement in the 28 December killing of National Television and Radio head Tigran Naghdalian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). Armen Sargsian's mother, Greta Sargsian, likewise said on 17 March that she believes his arrest is part of an attempt by the Armenian leadership to silence the opposition, especially Aram Sargsian. But Armenian National Television reported on 17 March that another suspect testified that Armen Sargsian gave him $50,000 to plan and carry out Naghdalian's killing, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. LF
 ARMENIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION OF ALLEGED ELECTION FRAUDPresident Robert Kocharian established a governmental working group on 17 March tasked with evaluating international observers' claims that serious violations took place during the recent presidential election, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The working group comprises senior officials from the Justice Ministry and the presidential administration and is to present its findings within 10 days. LF
 PARTIES REGISTER TO CONTEST ARMENIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONA total of 18 political parties and six blocs have applied to the Central Election Commission to register to contest the 75 seats in the Armenian parliament to be distributed under the party-list system, according to Armenpress and Arminfo on 17 March, as cited by Groong. The Artarutiun alliance headed by defeated presidential challenger Stepan Demirchian, Aram Sargsian, and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian registered 137 candidates, and the present majority Republican Party of Armenia 120, including Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and eight other ministers. Former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian has registered his own bloc rather than align with the other major opposition parties in Artarutiun. LF
 ARMENIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST SENTENCED FOR PROTESTING ARSON ATTACKArtur Sakunts, who heads the Vandzor branch of the Helsinki Civil Assembly, has been sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment for convening an unsanctioned demonstration to protest an arson attack on his group's office, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 17 March. The office burned out during the night of 13-14 March, apparently after a petrol bomb was thrown through the window. LF
 ARMENIA PREPARES TO EVACUATE CO-ETHNICS FROM IRAQThe Armenian Foreign Ministry is making arrangements, including issuing visas, to enable members of Iraq's Armenian community to travel to Armenia in the event of hostilities in Iraq, Interfax on 17 March quoted Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying on National Television the previous evening. The Armenian diaspora in Iraq is estimated to number several tens of thousands. Oskanian said the families of Armenian diplomats in Baghdad have already been evacuated. He reaffirmed Armenia's belief that the Iraq crisis should be resolved through the UN, adding that the Armenian leadership is in constant consultation with both Moscow and Washington. LF
 AZERBAIJANI JOURNALISTS ESTABLISH NEW PRESS COUNCILSome 400 delegates from more than 170 newspapers and journalists' organizations attended the first congress of Azerbaijani journalists in Baku on 15 March, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 March 2003). Delegates elected a 15-member Press Council that will seek to resolve disputes involving the press in an attempt to put an end to frequent libel suits against opposition newspapers. It will also draft and adopt a code of professional ethics. Azerbaijani presidential administration official Ali Hasanov on 17 March hailed the creation of the council, Turan reported. But some opposition politicians have expressed reservations, suggesting that the Azerbaijani authorities will dictate the council's moves. LF
 THREE AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS SENTENCED FOR ATTENDING DEMONSTRATIONThree members of the Sumgait branch of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (reformist wing) who, despite police harassment, traveled to Baku to attend the 16 March opposition rally and demonstration were sentenced on 17 March to between three and five days administrative arrest, Turan reported on 17 March. Also on 17 March, opposition parties aligned in the Democratic Congress positively assessed the rally as "a serious beginning" to their struggle to ensure that the presidential elections due this fall are free and fair, Turan reported. LF
 GEORGIAN COURT RULES ON CHECHEN EXTRADITIONSA Tbilisi District Court ruled on 13 March that two Chechens can be extradited to Russia in compliance with a ruling by the Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2003). But the court ruled that a third Chechen, who has been granted refugee status in Georgia, should not be extradited. The three Chechens were among eight armed fighters detained last August after crossing the Russian-Chechen border illegally. The remaining five were extradited to Russia last fall. Speaking in Moscow on 17 March, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said he hopes the men will soon be sent back to Russia, where they face charges of involvement in acts of terrorism, ITAR-TASS reported. LF
 KAZAKHSTAN SEIZES AZERBAIJANI FISHING VESSELSKazakh border guards have seized three Azerbaijani boats for allegedly poaching in Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea territorial waters, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 17 March. A Border Service press release was quoted as saying that the Azerbaijani vessels were found to be in possession of more than 1 1/2 tons of sturgeon. According to the report, the Azerbaijanis were escorted to Aktau, the administrative center of the western Kazakhstan Mangystau Oblast, where the Kazakh Customs Control Agency and the regional prosecutor's office opened an investigation. Sturgeon poaching in the Caspian is considered a particularly serious matter by most of the Caspian littoral states because of rapidly shrinking stocks. Some environmentalists in the Caspian region have warned that without strict limits on sturgeon fishing, the species could soon become extinct. BB
 KAZAKHSTAN'S PRESIDENT SIGNS NEW LAW ON DECLARING MARTIAL LAWNursultan Nazarbaev has signed a new law setting out the conditions for a presidential declaration of martial law in the entire republic or any of its parts, centrasia.ru reported on 18 March, quoting an item posted by the Kazakhstan Today news agency that was based on information from the presidential press service. The new legislation reportedly specifies that martial law may be declared in Kazakhstan if the country is invaded by the armed forces of another state; if the country is bombed; if its coasts or seaports are blockaded; if its armed forces, or sea or air transport is attacked; or if foreign military forces use the territory of a third country to attack Kazakhstan or to engage in other actions directed against the country's independence or territorial integrity. The new law confirms the president's right to declare martial law and to limit the civil rights of the citizens while martial law is in force. If martial law is declared, the government would take control of the economy, and military censorship of the mass media would be instituted. Last month, Nazarbaev signed a similar law on declaring a state of emergency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). BB
 KYRGYZSTAN MARKS ANNIVERSARY OF AKSY KILLINGSThe first anniversary of the shooting of demonstrators by police in the southern raion of Aksy was commemorated in Bishkek and other cities on 17 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, akipress.org, and Interfax reported. Five demonstrators were killed on 17-18 March 2002 by law enforcement officers at a demonstration in support of then-imprisoned opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov. A sixth demonstrator died later. The killings traumatized the country and resulted in the resignation of the government. According to reports on the commemoration ceremonies, a gathering of parliamentarians, opposition leaders, and Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu in Bishkek was hampered by city officials who cordoned off the square where the ceremony was to be held. After a prayer at the original site, some 100 people rallied in a city park. The lower house of the Kyrgyz parliament observed a minute of silence to commemorate the Aksy victims. Beknazarov attended a rally in a village in Aksy Raion at which an appeal was adopted calling for the punishment of the officials who ordered the police to use force. President Askar Akaev was invited to the rally, according to opposition sources, but chose not to attend. BB
 JOINT U.S.-KYRGYZ MILITARY EXERCISES HELD NEAR BISHKEKThe second stage of joint U.S.-Kyrgyz military exercises known as "Balanced Knife" was held in a Bishkek suburb on 16 March, Interfax reported the following day. Seventy-two servicemen took part. The U.S. forces are part of a special formation stationed in Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Frank Afrish, commander of a U.S. Air Force contingent stationed in Kyrgyzstan, was quoted as saying the objective of the exercise was to train the Kyrgyz military to fight in mountainous terrain. A South Korean medical team provided first-aid training under combat conditions. Asked about the possibility that the facilities of the antiterrorism coalition at Bishkek's Manas Airport would be used in a military operation against Iraq, Afrish was reported to have said that the forces at Manas are supposed to support ground forces in Afghanistan and have been given no tasks in relation to Iraq. BB
 FURTHER PROGRESS ON UZBEK-KYRGYZ BORDER DELIMITATIONSpeaking to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 17 March, Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry official Bakyt Tunkatarov provided additional details about the agreements reached at the 12-16 March meeting of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz Border Delimitation Commission. The protocol signed at the meeting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003) is being submitted to the respective governments for discussion. If it is accepted, 13 new border posts will be set up on that portion of the border that has already been delimited. The latest meeting of the commission agreed on an additional 22 kilometers of defined border. Prior to that agreement, 690 kilometers -- less than half the total -- of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border had been delimited. The border between the two countries is 1,500 kilometers long. According to the Foreign Ministry official, the road between the Kyrgyz exclave of Barak and the rest of Kyrgyzstan is already open in accord with the protocol. Inhabitants of the exclave pressured Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev either to ensure them unrestricted access to the rest of Kyrgyzstan or to move the village (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). BB
 JOINT SESSION OF TAJIK PARLIAMENT DISCUSSES CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTSThe Tajik parliament has held a joint session of its upper and lower houses to discuss draft amendments to the country's constitution, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 17 March. According to Abdulmajid Dostiev, deputy chairman of the lower house and chairman of the joint coordination commission on constitutional amendments, 246 amendments were proposed to the commission, of which 129 were approved, 33 were partially approved, and 85 were rejected as violating the constitutional foundations of the state. Proposals to amend Tajikistan's constitution have aroused considerable controversy. Politicians from the Islamic Renaissance Party have objected to a proposal to remove from the constitution a reference to religious parties, and the head of the party has said that it is too early to amend the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003). Some observers assert that the proposal to amend the Tajik Constitution stems from President Imomali Rakhmonov's desire for a second consecutive term in office. BB
CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE
 RUNOFFS PRODUCE QUORUM IN ALL LOCAL COUNCILS IN BELARUSCentral Election Commission (TsVK) Secretary Mikalay Lazavik told Belapan on 17 March that each of Belarus's 1,672 local soviets will have a quorum as a result of local-election runoffs in 202 constituencies between 11 and 16 March. A total of 23,469 of 24,010 seats (97.8 percent) in soviets of various levels were filled after runoffs, Lazavik said. AM
 BELARUS SETS NEW GUIDELINES FOR CARRYING CASH ABROADBelarus's State Customs Committee will allow individuals to take up to $3,000 in cash abroad without written permission or written declarations, Belapan reported on 17 March, quoting the committee's spokeswoman. Individuals carrying the equivalent of $3,000-$10,000 in foreign currency abroad will have to declare the amount in writing, and those carrying more than $10,000 will need to produce a permit issued by an authorized bank or documents confirming that they imported the currency to Belarus, according to the decision. The new limits are aimed at bringing Belarus's customs regulations into line with those adopted by Russia in late February and brought into force on 15 March, the spokeswoman said. AM
 UKRAINE PRESENTS 'MOST PROMISING' WEAPONS AT MILITARY EXHIBITIONUkraine has put on view a wide selection of its "most promising" contemporary weapons and military equipment at the 6th International Defense Exhibition that opened in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on 16 March, Interfax reported. An estimated 40 Ukrainian companies from the defense industry are presenting armored vehicles, missiles, radars, aircraft engineering, and shipbuilding products. Ukraine's exhibits include the Kolchuga radar system, produced by the Topaz factory in Donetsk, and the Nozh tank-defense system, among others. AM
 GLOBAL WATCHDOG CALLS ON UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT TO HALT CENSORSHIPNew York-based Human Rights Watch on 17 March urged President Leonid Kuchma's administration to stop its informal censorship of televised news reports, AP reported. In a report released the same day, the group said media outlets that criticize government officials have faced "arbitrary tax inspections, denial and revocation of licenses on technicalities, and crippling libel suits." Journalists and opposition lawmakers have accused Kuchma's administration of sending weekly memos to senior news editors for the past several months, telling them what events to report and how. The chief of the presidential administration's information-policy department, Serhiy Vasilyev, denied the accusations. The office distributes only press releases intended to advise journalists about events in which government officials will participate, Vasilyev said. Human Rights Watch called on the Ukrainian government to invite a UN commission to look into the protection of media freedoms. AM
 ESTONIAN COALITION TALKS FOCUS ON FINANCIAL ISSUESRepresentatives of Res Publica, the Reform Party, and the People's Union continued coalition talks on 17 March, BNS reported. The primary concern addressed was how to maintain a balanced budget while fulfilling campaign promises to lower income taxes and still provide funds for education, health, regional development, social programs. "Nothing's certain until the signing of an agreement, but all parties have the good will to do it," Res Publica board member Tonis Palts said. Reform Party Deputy Chairman Meelis Atonen said the party is not retreating from its pledge to lower the flat income-tax rate from 26 to 20 percent, but will not call for it to be implemented immediately. SG
 ESTONIA'S CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT MORE THAN DOUBLED IN 2002The Bank of Estonia announced on 17 March that the current-account deficit in 2002 was 13.32 billion kroons ($890 million), or 12.5 percent of GDP, BNS reported. The current-account deficit in 2001 was 5.89 billion kroons, or 6.1 percent of GDP. The greater deficit was largely the result of a rise in the foreign-trade deficit from 13.78 billion kroons to 18.52 billion kroons due to a 1.5 percent decline in exports while imports rose by 5.3 percent. The surplus in the balance of services fell by 2.07 billion kroons to 8.09 billion kroons. Finance Ministry officials said the high current-account deficit indicates that Estonia's fast economic growth was largely based on foreign capital. This resulted in a greater foreign loan burden that could increase the costs of future projects. SG
 LATVIAN PRESIDENT BEGINS VISIT TO GERMANYVaira Vike-Freiberga began a four-day working visit to Germany on 17 March, LETA reported. German President Johannes Rau stressed the friendly relations between the two countries and said differences over the Iraq issue should not negatively affect them. He affirmed Germany's support for Latvia's membership of the European Union and NATO, even mentioning Germany's wish to be the first country to ratify Latvia's EU accession agreement. In subsequent talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Vike-Freiberga discussed perspectives for intensifying bilateral economic relations, as well as cooperation in the arts and sciences. They also spoke about the international political situation, stressing the tremendous role NATO plays in Europe's security and stability. SG
 LITHUANIA DECLARES POLITICAL SUPPORT FOR U.S. ACTIONS AGAINST IRAQThe first meeting of the National Defense Council chaired by President Rolandas Paksas on 17 March passed a resolution on the situation in Iraq, BNS reported. It expressed Lithuania's readiness to join in the actions of the international coalition in disarming Iraq. "We favor a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but in case of necessity, we would back the U.S. taking other measures," Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius said. He added that while another UN resolution on Iraq "would be politically preferable," there is no legal necessity for it as UN Security Council Resolution 1441 provided enough basis for other actions. Presidential foreign-policy adviser Alvydas Medalinskas said there are no plans to send "persons from Lithuania to participate in military actions," but the country could provide humanitarian assistance including food, logistics specialists, and medical personnel. SG
 POLISH PREMIER OPPOSES FIRST-PAST-THE-POST ELECTORAL SYSTEMPrime Minister Leszek Miller said on 17 March that the first-past-the-post electoral system proposed by a group of intellectuals could prevent the formation of any coalition in the Sejm, PAP reported. Moreover, Miller said, it would likely require an amendment to the constitution. Representatives of the intelligentsia, along with economic and scientific circles, on 15 March urged the president to make changes to the election law according to the principle of one constituency, one lawmaker. "If we applied an election law in the proposed form,...we would have a parliamentary representation that is not based on joint programs but on the representation of this or that region, this or that district. And I think that this is the main drawback of this solution," Miller told Polish Radio. AM
 POLISH PRESIDENT TO LAUNCH PRO-EU CAMPAIGN IN MAYPresident Aleksander Kwasniewski will launch an EU information campaign at the beginning of May, Dariusz Szymczycha, secretary of state in the president's office, announced on 16 March, according to PAP. "As of May, brochures comprising a letter from President Kwasniewski, information about the consequences of voting for or against [EU accession], and replies to most-frequently-asked questions will reach all Polish homes. The president will be canvassing for the EU, traveling throughout Poland," Szymczycha said. Poland is widely expected to hold its EU referendum in early June. AM
 CZECH REPUBLIC, SLOVAKIA WILL NOT JOIN ANTI-IRAQ OPERATIONCzech Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik said on 17 March that Czech soldiers will not join the U.S.- and U.K.-led coalition without a UN mandate, CTK reported. Tvrdik was speaking ahead of a meeting of the Czech National Security Council after Washington and London said they would not seek a vote in the UN Security Council for a resolution endorsing the use of force against Iraq. The council decided that for the time being the Czech Republic will neither support nor oppose a war on Iraq without such a mandate, dpa reported. The government will continue to support the current deployment in Kuwait of the Czech anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit, which includes some 350 Czech and 70 Slovak soldiers. Tvrdik said after the meeting that Czech troops may act if there is a threat that weapons of mass destruction will be used, but he also stressed that Czechs will not be on the front lines of a possible conflict, according to "Mlada fronta Dnes" of 18 March. A similar statement was made in Bratislava by Slovak Defense Minister Ivan Simko. MS
 CZECH REPUBLIC CLOSES EMBASSY IN BAGHDADForeign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar said on 17 March that the last two diplomats at the Czech Embassy in Baghdad have left the Iraqi capital and are on their way to Prague, CTK reported. Kolar said the embassy has been closed since 16 March and its consular services have been transferred to Damascus, Syria. MS
 RUSSIAN DUMA SPEAKER VISITS CZECH REPUBLICCzech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said after talks with visiting Russian State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev on 17 March that relations between Prague and Moscow have improved significantly over the last three years, CTK and ITAR-TASS reported. Spidla said the talks, which focused on bilateral relations and the Iraq situation, were conducted in a "frank and constructive atmosphere," according to ITAR-TASS. Seleznev also met with other senior Czech officials, including Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and Senate President Petr Pithart. Pithart said Seleznev was highly critical of the U.S. position on Iraq, adding that he informed Seleznev of the conditions for the deployment of Czech troops in the Persian Gulf. ITAR-TASS cited Seleznev as saying military action against Iraq would be "a conspicuous act of aggression, and the aggressor may end up facing The Hague [war crimes] tribunal." MS
 EUROPEAN PARLIAMENTARIANS WELCOME CZECH PRESIDENT'S STATEMENT ON POSTWAR DECREESMembers of the European Parliament on 17 March welcomed a statement by President Vaclav Klaus on 14 March, saying it can be considered a long-awaited Czech political gesture of regret on the wrongs committed during the postwar deportation of ethnic Germans under the Benes Decrees, CTK reported. In a statement marking 46 years since the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Klaus called for reconciliation and said that both Nazi terror and the postwar deportations were unacceptable from today's perspective. Parliamentarian Johannes Swoboda said this is clearly the statement that members of the European Parliament wished to hear, while the chairman of that parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Elmar Brok, said the statement was far-reaching and generous. MS
 FORMER CZECH FOREIGN MINISTRY AIDE'S TRIAL BEGINSFormer Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Karel Srba denied at the beginning of his trial in Ceske Budejovice on 17 March any connection with a failed attempt in 2002 to assassinate journalist Sabina Slonkova, CTK reported. Srba said he has been the target of media attacks alleging that he masterminded the planned killing, in which three other people are charged together with Srba. Srba also said the large sums of money that were found in his flat and in the trunk of his car stemmed from his father, who he said left the family $1 million hidden in a wardrobe, adding that he himself earned several million crowns as a result of his business activities. Srba's defense lawyer, Miroslav Krizenecky, said Srba's friend, Eva Tomsovicova, was apparently behind preparations for the journalist's murder. Krizenecky said Srba was framed and the trial serves the interests of unknown intelligence services. MS
 CZECH PRESIDENT REPORTEDLY TO CONSULT COMMUNISTS OVER KEY POSTSJiri Dolej, deputy chairman of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), on 17 March told the daily "Pravo" that President Klaus did not explicitly promise the KSCM he would appoint members of the party to the Czech National Bank board and the Constitutional Court in exchange for support in the 28 February presidential elections, CTK reported. Dolej said Klaus merely promised "not to omit" the KSCM from consultations ahead of the appointments. MS
 SLOVAK PREMIER RALLIES TO AZORES SUMMIT POSITIONPrime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said on 17 March that his country supports the stand on Iraq taken by the United States, Britain, Spain, and Portugal at the summit held by their leaders on 16 March in the Azores, TASR reported. "I do not want to see a military solution [to the Iraq conflict], but the key is still in the hands of Saddam Hussein," Dzurinda said. He added that "the international community cannot remain a hostage of the threat" represented by the Iraqi president, and that threat "can no longer be tolerated." Dzurinda also said the "Iraqi people must be given a chance to lead a free life, a chance to recover and develop their country, and use Iraq's [economic] potential for their own benefit." MS
 SLOVAKIA STEPS UP SECURITY MEASURES AHEAD OF EXPECTED WAR IN IRAQThe Slovak Interior Ministry on 17 March said its central Emergency Committee has ordered stepped-up precautionary security measures, although Slovakia does not face an immediate threat in the event of the outbreak of military hostilities against Iraq, CTK and TASR reported. Checks on travelers entering the country are to be intensified, with particular attention to freight and truck transports. The ministry said it will also monitor the mood among foreign citizens who are currently in refugee facilities in Slovakia. The Foreign Ministry reiterated its warning against travel to the Middle East. Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Gandel told TASR that some 80 Slovak citizens have declined to return to Slovakia in a special aircraft provided by the ministry for evacuation, and are staying in Kuwait at their own risk. Gandel said Slovakia has completed the "temporary evacuation" of its embassy in Baghdad and, with the exception of two Slovak citizens serving as weapons inspectors, there are no Slovaks in Iraq. On 17 March, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the United Nations would withdraw UN weapons inspectors, humanitarian workers, and peacekeepers on the Iraq-Kuwait border. MS
 CHAIRMAN SAYS SLOVAK OPPOSITION PARTY NOT DISINTEGRATINGMovement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) Chairman and former Premier Vladimir Meciar said in an interview with the daily "Pravda" of 17 March that the HZDS is not disintegrating, CTK reported. Meciar was reacting to the recent split within the HZDS and the formation of the People's Union led by former HZDS Deputy Chairman Vojtech Tkac (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). He said the departure of Tkac and his supporters from the HZDS "is not worth worrying about." Meciar also said he believes tensions in the current four-party, center-right coalition will ultimately lead to early elections. If that were the case, he added, the HZDS might cooperate in a new coalition with either Premier Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, with Smer (Direction), or with the Alliance for a New Citizen. All of those parties declined to cooperate with the HZDS in the wake of the September elections. Meciar added that he wonders whether Smer Chairman Robert Fico might make a better premier than Dzurinda, who Meciar says does not respect his fellow opposition leaders. MS
 CORRECTION:The "RFE/RL Newsline" item "HZDS Outcasts To Set Up New Slovak Party" on 17 March contained a mistranslation of the name of the party established by former HZDS deputies. Tkac's nascent grouping is called the People's Union (Ludova Unia), not the Civic Union.
 HUNGARIAN OPPOSITION CHALLENGES AUTHORIZATION FOR U.S., U.K. USE OF AIRSPACEMembers of opposition parties in parliament on 17 March charged that the government's decision the previous day to authorize the use of Hungarian airspace by U.S. and U.K. military aircraft lacks a legal basis, Hungarian media reported. FIDESZ parliamentary deputy Istvan Simicsko told the daily "Magyar Hirlap" that the parliamentary resolution on which the cabinet based the authorization dates back to 1998 and refers to arms-control activities. The resolution, Simicsko said, cannot be interpreted as authorizing Peter Medgyessy's cabinet to participate in a war in Iraq. Reversing its position of 16 March, the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum joined FIDESZ and described the government's authorization as "shocking." Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs said the 1998 parliamentary resolution authorizes the government to grant foreign states the use of Hungarian airspace to enforce UN resolutions on Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). MS
 HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS FIDESZ 'EXPORTS HATRED'Free Democratic Party Chairman Gabor Kuncze, speaking in parliament on 17 March, called on democratic forces to disassociate themselves from the whistling and heckling that disrupted public officials addressing commemoration ceremonies on 15 March to mark the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution and war of independence, Hungarian media reported. Referring to the incident in Targu-Mures, Romania, where he was hissed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003), Foreign Minister Kovacs said that "thus far FIDESZ has contented itself with the domestic consumption of hatred, but now it can afford to dispatch some of it abroad." He described the incident as running counter to European political culture and good taste. Kovacs also said he does not like the fact that pro-government and pro-opposition forces commemorated the anniversary separately. FIDESZ parliamentary group leader Janos Ader countered that his party was not invited to any state ceremonies. MS
 SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER-DESIGNATE PLEDGES PRO-EUROPE COURSE...Natasa Micic, the speaker of the Serbian parliament and the republic's acting president, on 17 March officially named Zoran Zivkovic prime minister-designate, Tanjug reported. Zivkovic, taking over less than a week after the 12 March assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, vowed to continue the work of his predecessor, Tanjug reported. "Zoran Djindjic tried to establish a democratic Serbia with a strong economy, which would be able to become the leader in the Balkans and a full member of the EU, and his death...will not change our thinking," Zivkovic said, adding that international war crimes indictees Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Vojislav Seselj stand no chance of returning to the political scene. UB
 ...WHILE FORMER YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT RENEWS DEMAND FOR BROAD COALITION GOVERNMENTFormer Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) on 17 March renewed his demand for a so-called concentrated government based on a broad coalition that includes his party, Tanjug reported. Kostunica, who turned from Djindjic ally to opponent in mid-2001 following the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, said such a broad government is the only way to overcome the current situation created by Djindjic's death. Alluding to the organized-crime structures allegedly involved in the slaying of the prime minister, Kostunica said: "If [Djindjic's] government was not able to curb this evil, the future government will not be able to either." UB
 NUMBER OF DETAINEES IN SERBIA RISES...Serbian authorities continue to detain individuals with suspected links to the Zemun clan, an underworld group that the government has implicated in Djindjic's assassination, Tanjug reported on 18 March. The number of detainees has risen to over 400, and Justice Minister Vladan Batic considered moving inmates of Belgrade correction facilities to provincial towns to make space for more detainees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). In the course of the investigation, police on 17 March also detained the prominent singer Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic over alleged connections with the Zemun clan, the BBC's Serbian-language website reported (http://www.bbc.co.uk/serbian/). The singer is also the widow of former paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan." Raznatovic was detained after police searched her residence, where they hoped to find information on the whereabouts of the leaders of the Zemun group. UB
 ...AS SERBIAN RADICALS SEEK COURT HELP IN LIFTING STATE OF EMERGENCYThe Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of hard-line nationalist and war crimes tribunal indictee Vojislav Seselj on 17 March urged the Constitutional Court to lift the state of emergency declared after Djindjic's 12 March assassination, Tanjug reported. The party argues that there is no justification for a state of emergency, as state institutions and regular law-enforcement agencies are sufficient to find Djindjic's assassins. UB
 PRESIDENT OF SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO PLEDGES COOPERATION WITH THE HAGUESvetozar Marovic, the newly elected president of the joint union of Serbia and Montenegro, said on 17 March that his priority will be helping the country return to the European institutions, adding that cooperation with The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal will help the union, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Regarding allegations that former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic is hiding in Serbia, Marovic said that army chief General Branko Krga has assured him that the army acts within the law and is not hiding anyone. UB
 MACEDONIA FORMALLY ASKS EU TO TAKE OVER MILITARY MISSIONPresident Boris Trajkovski in Brussels on 17 March handed over a formal invitation to the European Union to take over NATO's military mission in Macedonia, "Dnevnik" reported. Trajkovski told journalists he hopes the EU's military mission in Macedonia will help strengthen the European-security structure. Trajkovski and EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana also discussed the latest developments concerning Iraq. Commenting on Macedonia's decision to support the U.S. position on Iraq, Solana said every country has the right to determine its own position. Solana added that it is vital that the countries of the Western Balkans help stabilize the situation in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February and 3, 12, and 14 March 2003). UB
 MACEDONIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES DRAFT PASSPORT REGULATIONSCabinet spokesman Saso Colakovski said on 17 March that the government has approved a draft law on passports to regulate the use of the Albanian language, MIA news agency reported. According to the draft legislation, ethnic Albanians will have the right to apply for a passport that includes the Albanian language on its cover (in addition to the standard English and Macedonian). The data inside such passports would be written in Latin script. Problems persist in the usage of the Albanian language in parliamentary work despite an agreement on the issue among coalition partners from the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and the ethnic Albanian Union for Democratic Integration (BDI), "Dnevnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003). UB
 QUADRILATERAL MEETING IN SLOVENIAThe Slovenian port town of Portoroz on 17 March hosted a meeting of the parliamentary speakers of Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary, Hina reported. The agenda of the so-called quadrilateral-group session focused on cooperation in Southeast Europe and the fight against organized crime and illegal migration. After the meeting, the politicians issued a joint statement expressing their hope that, despite the dramatic developments related to Iraqi, a peaceful solution still might be found within the framework of the UN Security Council, and that Iraq might immediately and unconditionally disarm in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1441. UB
 ROMANIAN PREMIER SAYS BUSH ULTIMATUM WILL TRIGGER CRISIS FOR INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONSIn a first Romanian reaction to U.S. President George W. Bush's 17 March ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq within 48 hours, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said on 18 March on Romanian Radio that the American military option has become "evident" and that this option might "place a question mark" over the entire structure of international organizations once the conflict is over. Nastase said priorities in these organizations are also likely to change, and that "unfortunately, the change is also likely to affect ourselves." For example, the premier added, this week's meeting in Brussels of the Council of Europe will "probably change its agenda" and will likely suspend discussion on ways to facilitate Romania's accession to the European Union in 2007. Nastase also said he has discussed the post-ultimatum developments with President Ion Iliescu and that the Supreme Council of National Security is likely to meet later on 18 March to debate decisions that are now warranted. MS
 ROMANIA SENDS MORE NBC SOLDIERS TO PERSIAN GULFA group of 55 soldiers belonging to Romania's anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical unit (NBC) departed on 17 March for the Persian Gulf, where it will join the 15-strong Romanian NBC contingent that is already stationed in the region, Romanian Radio reported. Chief of Staff General Mihail Popescu said the group will neither act under foreign command nor work on the front lines. It will only intervene behind front lines "for decontamination actions" in the event the Iraqis use chemical or biological weapons. Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu -- in an apparent allusion to criticism Romania has received from some EU countries for its pro-U.S. position on the Iraq issue -- said the decision to dispatch the contingent to the Persian Gulf, to open its air space for overflights, and to allow the use of its military infrastructure, "has not met with the same understanding everywhere in the world." Pascu commented that "it is every state's right to regard these [Romanian] decisions as their interests dictate," but at the same time Romania has the right to "make its own decisions in line with its own national interests," Mediafax reported. MS
 ROMANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS 'SOME DICTATORSHIPS DISINTEGRATE IN HOURS'In an article published in the "The Washington Post" on 17 March, President Iliescu wrote: "Some dictatorship decay over decades, some crumble in months. But some dictatorships disintegrate in hours when the people are aware of their right to live in freedom and wish to make their voice heard." This, he said, is what happened during the days of December 1989 in Romania, and the Romanian people "will never forget the legacy" of Nicolae Ceausescu's tyranny and the sacrifices that were necessary to bring about its downfall. This is why, for "Romanians, any attack against freedom in Europe, the United States, and through the world is unacceptable," Iliescu wrote. He emphasized that the Iraqi regime has ignored the UN resolutions calling on it to disarm and that failure to do so "has serious consequences, including the use of force." MS
 ROMANIAN OPPOSITION PARTIES TO INITIATE CENSORSHIP MOTION ON ANTICORRUPTION PACKAGE?The three Romanian opposition parliamentary opposition parties -- the Greater Romania Party (PRM), the National Liberal Party (PNL), and the Democratic Party -- announced on 17 March that they intend to submit a no-confidence vote in the cabinet after it "assumes" responsibility for the package of laws on combating corruption, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The "assumption of responsibility" debate is scheduled for 19 March and the PRM, PNL, and the Democrats cannot separately submit the no-confidence motion, as each party lacks the minimum number of lawmakers to do so. Negotiations are likely to be conducted for the PRM to support a joint PNL-Democratic Party motion, according to the daily "National." The PNL and the Democrats refuse to support a motion proposed by the extremist PRM. MS
 ROMANIAN WORKERS PROTEST AGAINST PLANNED LAYOFFSOver 25,000 workers took part on 17 March in a protest against planned layoffs in Brasov, Romanian Radio reported the next day. They demanded that the government cancel plans to close down loss-making state enterprises in the town, which is to be one of the worst-affected by the government's plan to lay off some 18,000 workers before privatizing the facilities in a bid to make them cost-effective, dpa reported. MS
 DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF MOLDOVA TO RUN INDEPENDENTLY IN LOCAL ELECTIONSDemocratic Party (PDM) Chairman Dumitru Diacov, a former speaker of the Moldovan parliament, on 17 March told journalists that his party will run independently in the local elections scheduled for May, Infotag reported. Diacov said it is more important to ensure that PDM members participate in local-government executive organs following the elections than to win the elections. The PDM previously said it would run in the elections as part of a 10-party center-left alliance. Diacov said coalitions including these parties might be formed after the local elections and could also include the Party of Moldovan Communists. He said the PDM still believes Moldova should have two strong political poles -- a social democratic one comprising center-left forces and a liberal one comprising rightist forces. He said President Vladimir Voronin should become the leader of the center-left alliance after it is set up, adding that this would benefit Moldova's international image, as well as Voronin's own position in Moldovan society. MS
 MOLDOVAN SECURITY SERVICES INTERROGATE RADIO LISTENERSThe Moldovan Information and Security Service (SIS) is interrogating people who listened to and participated in the "Hyde Park" talk show broadcast by Chisinau's Antena C radio station, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Last week, two of the participants told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service that they were summoned by the SIS and questioned about their participation in the talk show. One of them said he was threatened and told to stop criticizing the country's authorities. According to RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau, the SIS continued to question listeners on 17 March. The civic organization Lawyers for Human Rights said the interrogations are illegal. MS
 CORRECTION:The 13 March "RFE/RL Newsline" item titled "EU Backs Moldova's Federalization Plans" should have read "Council of Europe Backs Moldova's Federalization Plans."
 BULGARIAN LEADERSHIP CONTINUES TO DIFFER ON IRAQ ISSUE...President Georgi Parvanov summoned the Consultative Council on National Security on 17 March to discuss the Iraq issue, mediapool.bg reported. At the meeting, the heads of the Bulgarian Army and the police, General Nikola Kolev and General Boyko Borisov, respectively, ruled out that a concrete threat to the country's security might emerge in the event of a military operation against Iraq. After the meeting, Parvanov said if such an operation is begun, Bulgaria should support the United States logistically, but not politically. In his opinion, the Bulgarian parliament's 7 February decision did not give the government a mandate for political support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2003). "In a correct partnership," he added, "We must find ways to say even those things that our partners might not want to hear." However, when asked whether Bulgaria will support the U.S. ultimatum for Iraq to disarm, Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said, "We have to show that we are serious and [that we are] partners who stand by our word." UB
 ...AS DOES BULGARIAN OPPOSITIONIn response to Parvanov's statement that the 7 February parliamentary decision is not politically binding, conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova said on 17 March that Parvanov is attempting to shirk responsibility at a critical moment. "The decisions of the parliament are political decisions made by political forces, and Parvanov's dissociation [from this position], even if he did not say it directly, provokes serious uneasiness and shows that he shirks responsibility." The opposition Socialist Party (BSP), which abstained during the 7 February parliamentary vote, supported former BSP Chairman Parvanov's position, mediapool.bg reported. BSP Deputy Chairman Rumen Ovcharov said after the meeting that "we note that the government is ready to support all decisions with a military character, but so far we did not see that the government has supported any initiative for peace, including those of the other UN Security Council member states." UB
 BULGARIAN CABINET SETS UP SPECIAL COORDINATION BODY ON IRAQIn accordance with a decree by Prime Minister Saxecoburggotski, the government decided on 17 March to set up a special coordination body with the Council of Ministers' Security Council, the government's official website reported. This new body is tasked with collecting and analyzing all available information in connection with developments in Iraq. It will also assess possible threats to national security as well as work out responses to these threats. The new institution, which will be headed by Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, will also include the deputy ministers of defense and of foreign and internal affairs as well as Vice Admiral Petar Petrov, the deputy chief of general staff of the Bulgarian Army. UB
SOUTHWESTERN ASIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
 GERMAN MILITARY OFFICIAL EXPECTS ATTACKS IN KABUL IN EVENT OF IRAQ WAR...Colonel Bernhard Gertz has warned of the possibility that terrorist attacks could be carried out against German soldiers stationed in Kabul in the event of a war in Iraq, the German daily "Bild" reported on 17 March. Gertz said the German Defense Ministry expects "terrorist missiles to hit the German camp" in Kabul. Germany and the Netherlands in February took over joint command of the 4,600 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops stationed in and around Kabul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2003). AT
 ...AS U.S. MILITARY SPOKESMAN SAYS AL-QAEDA MIGHT INCREASE ITS ACTIVITIES IN AFGHANISTANU.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King said on 17 March that in the event of a war in Iraq, "it is possible that Al-Qaeda may react in Afghanistan," Radio Afghanistan reported. King said that such attacks, if they occur, "will have no effect on the international coalition forces" in Afghanistan. AT
 GERMANY SAYS NATO READY TO COMMAND ISAF...German Defense Minister Peter Struck said on 17 March that after speaking with new NATO Supreme Commander General James Jones, he believes the Atlantic alliance is ready to "take over greater responsibility" in respect to the ISAF, ddp news agency reported. The report added that NATO might take over command of the ISAF in the fall, when the current German-Dutch command is scheduled to end. The issue of NATO's involvement in Afghanistan has been the topic of intense discussion since early 2002, and NATO logistical support for the ISAF was formally approved during the alliance's Prague summit last November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 2002). However, some NATO members, particularly France, have remained opposed to the alliance's involvement in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 December 2002). AT
 ...AFTER BELGIUM SAYS OTHERWISEBelgian Defense Minister Andre Flahaut said on 15 March that it is too early to think of a NATO command for the ISAF, partly because NATO is closely associated with the United States, AP reported. Flahaut said he does not "rule out" that NATO command of ISAF "could happen eventually," but not at the present time. Germany has expressed hope that NATO will relieve it of its ISAF command duties in late October, saying the alliance could provide the international security force with more stable leadership. France and Belgium have indicated that NATO's expansion to Afghanistan would make the alliance a tool of U.S. policy in the region. AT
 AFGHAN DAILY DISCUSSES POLICE PROBLEMSThe Kabul daily "Hewad" on 17 March wrote in a commentary that while Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali "has admitted that shortcomings exist in police affairs in abundance and he has expressed his inclination" to bring about change, the hopes of Afghans are that Jalali's "pledges are not the same as the ones made by previous ministers and previous governments" and that his plans be put into action. In the commentary, which responded to a recent Amnesty International report on reforming Afghanistan's police force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003), "Hewad" said police reforms must begin with the "organizational structure" and that plans must then be made to "improve the level of the skills and knowledge" of the police force. The paper also recommended that the "participation of women should expand in the police, just as in public health and education," because if the "investigation, detention, and imprisonment" of female suspects is carried out by males it would not be in accordance with Islamic principles and could "create some problems." AT
 FIRST DRAFT OF FUTURE AFGHAN CONSTITUTION READYThe Constitutional Drafting Commission (CDC) announced on 16 March that a draft of the future Afghan constitution, titled "The New constitution for the New Afghanistan," has been completed, Iranian radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported on 17 March. The CDC said that "establishing the rule of law and ensuring national sovereignty were the main points" contained in the new draft constitution, which will also ensure "social justice" and establish a democratic system for an Afghanistan free of ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic discrimination. CDC Chairman Nematullah Shahrani announced on 11 January that the preliminary draft of the future Afghan constitution would be ready by March 2003 and would subsequently be presented to the citizens of Afghanistan for consideration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2003). AT
 IRAN'S EXPEDIENCY COUNCIL INCREASES GUARDIANS COUNCIL'S BUDGET...Reformist parliamentarians on 17 March urged the Expediency Council to withdraw the approval it gave on 15 March to a huge budget increase for the hard-line Guardians Council, IRNA and other Iranian news agencies reported. Following the Guardians Council's rejection of a 44 billion rials ($5.5 million) budget for it that the government and legislature had approved for the next Iranian calendar year starting 21 March, and the Guardians Council's counterproposal of $20 billion, the budget was sent for arbitration to the Expediency Council, which then approved 100 billion rials ($12.5 million) for the Guardians Council. SF
 ...AND FUELS NEW FACTIONAL FRACASPresident Mohammad Khatami, after arguing unsuccessfully with Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani against the increase, made an unprecedented protest walkout from the 15 March Expediency Council session, accompanied by Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi and parliamentary Plan and Budget Commission Chairman Majid Ansari. More than 150 reformist parliamentarians on 16 March protested the Expediency Council decision in a letter that claimed that the council had usurped the legislative branch's constitutional role in approving the budget rise. They complained that the Guardian Council's budget has risen 437-fold in the past 20 years. Many of the deputies announced they would submit their resignations on 17 March but were unable to do so officially when conservative members boycotted the session so that it could not reach a quorum. Conservative newspapers on 17 March roundly criticized President Khatami's walkout and the protests of the reformist deputies. The Tehran daily "Kayhan" accused them of creating a "fake ruckus." SF
 GUARDIANS COUNCIL DEFENDS ITSELFThe Guardians Council in a 17 March letter to speaker of parliament Mehdi Karrubi denied that the increase in its budget is illegal, IRNA reported on 18 March. The letter referred to a July 2000 meeting of council members with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at which time he called for the council's creation of research centers and for the release of its deliberations on compact disc, and the letter added that Khamenei said the government would allocate the necessary budget to accomplish these objectives. The Guardians Council's letter added that the proposal to increase its budget was submitted to the executive and legislative branches "in due time." BS
 AGHAJARI REFUSES PSYCHOLOGICAL EXAMINATIONZahra Behnudi, the wife of Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization member Hashem Aghajari, said in a 15 March telephone interview with IRNA that her husband would only defend himself in an open court and in the presence of a jury. Behnudi was reacting to a recent Supreme Court decision that five specialists should examine Aghajari's psychological health. "As a university lecturer, a religious intellectual, and a critic, Aghajari believes that such allegations against him are unfair," Behnudi said. She did not explain in what way these qualifications attest to an individual's mental health. Behnudi said that when she last saw her husband, on 6 March, he was physically well. The court has not responded to a request for bail, Behnudi said. BS
 TEHRAN, BAGHDAD EXCHANGE PRISONERSIran released almost 400 Iraqi prisoners of war (POWs) in the afternoon of 17 March, Iranian state radio reported. Iran's POW and Missing in Action Commission head Brigadier General Abdullah Najafi said afterward that Iran would release more than 1,200 Iraqis and in return Iraq would release 350 Iranian prisoners, and the entire process would take three days at the Khosravi border crossing. The Iraq News Agency confirmed on 17 March that 395 Iraqi POWs arrived at the Al-Mundiriyah border post in the Diyala Governorate after undergoing "long isolation and bitter suffering during their imprisonment in Iranian jails and concentration camps, which they faced with patience, bravery, and sacrifice in defense of their dignity, principles, and homeland." Qasr-i Shirin Governor Hussein Khush-Iqbal said none of the Iranians being released are POWs, IRNA reported on 18 March. Included among the released Iranians are religious pilgrims, university students, tour guides, farmers and villagers from the border regions, and Iranian border guards, he said. BS
 IRGC COMMANDER ANNOUNCES READINESS...Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said during a 15 March visit to the western city of Kermanshah that "the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran remain vigilant and they are monitoring all activities on the borders of our country," Iranian state radio reported. Rahim-Safavi gave his perspective on the United States' reasons for attacking Iraq: "Americans want to attack Iraq in pursuit of their strategic aims. They want to change the geographical situation in the Middle East, gain control of Iraq's energy resources, and make the Zionist regime more secure in the Middle East." BS
 ...AND ASSESSES U.S. TROOPSIRGC commander Rahim-Safavi also discussed the mental state of U.S. troops who are massed for a possible attack on Iraq, ISNA reported on 16 March. "The American troops that are ensconced in Kuwait have already lost their morale and, in view of the difficult situation in the region, they are stressed out and fearful," he said. "They are suffering from psychological problems." BS
 IRAQI ISLAMIST COMPLAINS OF EXCLUSIONAbu Bilal al-Adib, a member of the predominantly Shia Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Call) party's political bureau, said on 15 March that the Iraqi opposition perceived after meetings in London (in December) and northern Iraq (in late-February) that the United States "has its own plans and [does] not want the Islamists to be part of its plans," IRNA reported. "At this stage, America is only trying to satisfy the Shia in order to achieve its objectives," he said. Al-Adib is part of the Al-Da'wah branch that is close to the Iranian government, and he previously has denigrated the United States and questioned its motives. Al-Adib also said the Iraqi opposition has not formed its leadership council yet, and so far there are only two Shia on the opposition committee responsible for dealing with the transition period following President Saddam Hussein's overthrow. BS
 U.S. PRESIDENT GIVES IRAQI PRESIDENT 48 HOURS TO LEAVE OR FACE 'MILITARY CONFLICT'U.S. President George W. Bush in a 17 March speech from the White House gave Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay 48 hours to leave Iraq or face a U.S.-led strike to remove the Hussein regime from power, according to a White House transcript of the speech (http://www.whitehouse.gov). Bush said that the Iraqi regime has "aided, trained, and harbored terrorists, including operatives of Al-Qaeda," and that there is a danger that if the Iraqi regime is left in power it might someday provide weapons of mass destruction to these terrorists. "The United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security," Bush said, citing UN Security Council Resolutions 678 (1990) and 687 (1991), which authorize the use of force in Iraq. Bush said a refusal by Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq "will result in military conflict commenced at a time of our choosing." Bush also warned Iraqi military personnel of the consequences of following the regime's orders during a conflict, saying: "Do not destroy oil wells...[and] do not obey any command to use weapons of mass destruction against anyone, including the Iraqi people. War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished." He added that the U.S. military "will give Iraqi military units clear instructions on actions they can take to avoid being attacked and destroyed." KR
 AUSTRALIA COMMITS TROOPS TO AID U.S. EFFORT IN IRAQAustralian Prime Minister John Howard announced on 18 March that his country has committed troops to aid a possible U.S.-led strike against Iraq, Reuters reported. "This decision was taken at a cabinet meeting this morning following a further telephone discussion between myself and President Bush," Howard said. He added that the decision was "in the medium- and longer-term interest of the country." Australia has 2,000 elite SAS troops, jetfighters, and warships already in the Persian Gulf, according to Reuters. The troops would fight under Australian command, Howard noted. Australia has also expelled five Iraqi diplomats and their dependents, the news agency reported. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the expulsion will "contribute to the security of Australia and Australian forces fighting in Iraq." KR
 TURKISH CABINET SCHEDULED TO MEETThe Turkish cabinet will meet on 18 March to discuss possible support for a U.S.-led strike against Iraq, Reuters reported. Diplomatic sources have said the motion to be presented to the Turkish National Assembly might only allow for overflights, and not permit U.S. ground troops, according to Reuters. KR
 ARAB LEAGUE REJECTS IRAQ WARHorsham Yusif, Arab League information adviser to Secretary-General Amr Musa, said on 18 March that the league rejects President Bush's ultimatum ordering Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq, ITAR-TASS reported. "The Arab League regrets the statement made by the U.S. president, and rejects it," Yusif said. Meanwhile, there were conflicting reports in the international media early on 18 March about whether or not Amr Musa was en route to Iraq to meet with Iraqi officials. KR
 KUWAITI MILITARY UNITS TO OCCUPY DMZColonel Yusif al-Mulla, spokesman for the Kuwaiti Defense Ministry, said on 17 March that Kuwaiti security units will occupy the Kuwaiti portion of the Iraq-Kuwait demilitarized zone (DMZ) following the pullout of UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) personnel, KUNA reported the same day. The troop deployment is an effort to protect Kuwait's borders, al-Mulla said. KR
 IRAQI PRESIDENT SAYS IRAQ 'HAD' WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTIONPresident Hussein on 17 March denied that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction (WMD) but alluded to Iraq's possession of such weapons in the past during a meeting with Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib bin Yahya, Iraq Television reported the same day. "Collecting weapons is not our hobby. We had these weapons for purposes of self-defense when we were at war with Iran for eight years," Hussein said, adding, "The Zionist entity [Israel] had threatened us, and it is still threatening us." The Iraqi president went on to say, "I reiterate here that we do not have weapons of mass destruction and that we are cooperating with the inspectors and will continue this cooperation." During the meeting, Hussein also said that 7 1/2 years of inspections in Iraq -- in an apparent reference to UNSCOM inspections, which ended in 1998 -- had not led to the discovery of any banned weapons or activities. KR
 IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS U.S. 'FAILED TO PEDDLE AGGRESSIVE, COLONIALIST RESOLUTION'Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri reacted to a decision by the U.S., Britain, and Spain to withdraw their resolution from the UN Security Council on 17 March saying, "The U.S. administration of evil has utterly failed to peddle its aggressive, colonialist war resolution," Iraq Television reported the same day. "World rejection of the resolution is not only represented by the Security Council's rejection of the colonialist American-British draft resolution of war, but also by the entire international community's rejection of the American colonialist war policy against Iraq," Sabri added that the UN withdrawal from Iraq shows that it "is clearly following the U.S. and British hostile line that violates the international mechanisms, the UN Charter, and the UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq." KR
 IRAQI INFORMATION MINISTER SAYS IRAQI PRESIDENT WILL STAYIraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said President Hussein will not meet a U.S. demand to leave Iraq, Al-Jazeera reported on 17 March. Asked whether Hussein would depart, Al-Sahhaf told Al-Jazeera: "Curse them. I tell you, and this is for the record -- let all the Arab citizens in all parts of the Arab homeland record this -- that the criminal Bush and the despicable [British Prime Minister] Blair will go. Many warmongers will go. Leader Saddam Hussein will continue to be steadfast like a domineering mountain." KR
 UN PULLOUT OF IRAQ COMPLETEUN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has heeded U.S. advice to withdraw UN inspectors, humanitarian workers, and UNIKOM personnel from Iraq, the UN News Center (http://www.un.org/news/) reported on 17 March. UNIKOM began its withdrawal the same day, and weapons inspectors and humanitarian workers based inside Iraq withdrew on 18 March, Reuters reported. The personnel were flown from Baghdad to Cyprus, where the UN has a field office. Commenting on the withdrawal, UNMOVIC/International Atomic Energy Agency spokesman Hiro Ueki said, "It is unfortunate, but we have to leave," adding, "There is a sense of sadness the job we came to complete was not completed." KR
 THE IMPLICATIONS OF ARMENIA'S POSTELECTION CRISISBy Richard Giragosian
The Armenian leadership appears to have been taken by surprise by -- and seems uncertain how to react to -- the political crisis that has resulted from the recent flawed presidential election. That uncertainty stems, in turn, from the widely diverging perceptions of the ballot. The Armenian leadership initially saw it and sought to depict it as a convincing victory by incumbent President Robert Kocharian over a fractured and ineffective opposition. The opposition and international monitors, however, focused the international community's attention on evidence of widespread fraud, voting irregularities, and ballot-box stuffing which, the opposition claims, deprive the president of legitimacy.
In the event, the authorities were forced to face up to the fact that Kocharian failed to garner sufficient votes in the first round of voting to obviate the need for a runoff. Then they were confronted by the opposition's ability to galvanize public discontent into a mass display of antigovernment feeling. Much of the opposition closed ranks around the opposition candidate, Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian's leading challenger, and quickly fielded mass rallies and demonstrations.
The thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in the opposition's rallies were not entirely there to show support for Demirchian's candidacy or political platform, however. They were instead seizing an opportunity to give voice to their rage over the broader issue of social inequality, as well as what many perceive as the arrogance with which the ruling elite exercises power. In that respect, the support shown for Demirchian is simply a public manifestation of a much deeper and potentially more dangerous discontent. But given the lack of any true populist political leader and with a polity operating within parameters defined by personality over policy, it remains unclear whether either the government or the opposition can reposition itself quickly enough to exploit the situation.
But the most disturbing aspect of the crisis is neither the flawed voting process nor the challenge to the official election results, but rather the authorities' overreaction to criticism. With parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 May, the government and opposition are now locked in a high-stakes battle of political wills, the outcome of which will impact upon the course of Armenian democracy.
The first stage of the current tension in Armenia started during the early period of the presidential-election campaign, with the fairly blatant use of state-run media, cabinet ministers, and other state resources in support of the president's re-election bid. Political reporting by both television and the print media was clearly slanted in Kocharian's favor.
Coverage of the candidates was also biased. Media repeatedly showed the incumbent president through the lens of official state ceremony and governance while depicting opposition candidates as unprofessional and, at times, unpatriotic. Participants in and organizers of campaign rallies were also subjected to intimidation and outright violence, and one opposition campaign official was stabbed. The assailant was not, however, brought to trial, as the prosecutor ruled that the politician had provoked the attack himself.
Between the 19 February first-round vote and the runoff, election-related reporting by the state-controlled media improved markedly, with generally more balanced coverage and a first-ever televised debate between the incumbent and his opponent. But both this improved coverage and hopes for a more transparent second round of voting amid beefed-up international scrutiny were soon dashed by the authorities' heavy-handed response to public demonstrations in support of the opposition. Faced with mass demonstrations, the Kocharian government banned rallies and arrested and sentenced to short terms of imprisonment more than 100 opposition activists and supporters.
The next few months threaten to usher in a new period of tension and discord in Armenia, as the political aftermath of the presidential election has deepened the rift between the newly re-elected president and the recalcitrant opposition. This divide has been looming for some time, with a pattern of confrontation emerging over the past year. The divide is, moreover, multidimensional, with the purely political component increasingly overshadowed by serious social and economic disparities.
It is, in fact, the socioeconomic factors that have endowed the political standoff with a new significance and importance, in that they appear to be the only force capable of mobilizing an electorate that in recent years has generally been perceived as politically apathetic. The real challenge for both the government and the opposition is to see which can most effectively leverage these factors into real political power.
There is a also a regional dynamic to the Armenian situation, as the Armenian presidential elections were only the opening round in a series of presidential and parliamentary elections set for the coming two years in neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as Armenia. With Armenia's traditional comparative advantage over the more autocratic Georgian system and the one-man, one-party rule in Azerbaijan, the state of Armenian democracy is crucial to fostering greater regional reform. Perhaps even more importantly, the Western response to the Armenian case sets an important precedent and could act as a possible deterrent for Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The past 11 years of transition in the Transcaucasus have demonstrated the substantial difficulty of effectively implementing the political and economic reforms essential to overcoming the legacy of the Soviet system. The sheer scope of the changes demanded of these fragile states has also been often underestimated in the West. This has also led to some frustration on the part of regional leaders, who have at times reacted with disdain to the imposition of economic reforms and have occasionally lashed out at Western standards of democracy and transparent governance.
Such reactions might help to explain -- but cannot justify -- the Armenian leadership's categorical rejection of international criticism of its presidential elections. This rejection has gone well beyond the acceptable and has raised serious questions over the course of Armenian democracy. Armenia's leadership is now faced with two key challenges: to ensure that the May parliamentary elections meet the standards and expectations of the international community and to address the social discontent that has emerged so quickly and powerfully.