|Tuesday, 2 March 2021|
RFE/RL Newsline, 03-03-19
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 BUSH, PUTIN CONFER ON IMPENDING IRAQ MILITARY OPERATIONU.S. President George W. Bush spoke by telephone on 18 March with President Vladimir Putin and briefed him on plans to begin a military operation against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Russian and Western media reported. Putin expressed regret that intense diplomatic efforts to find "a mutually acceptable compromise" failed to produce results, and he said that "under any circumstances, the United Nations and the Security Council will continue to play a central role in maintaining global stability." The presidents agreed that "despite differences in approaches to resolving this problem, bilateral contacts must be increased under such circumstances and will assume particular importance," RIA-Novosti quoted a Kremlin press release as saying. The Russian media generally emphasized that, despite Russia's stance against the use of force disarm Hussein, Bush informed Putin, but did not speak with French President Jacques Chirac or German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. VY
 LIBERAL LEADER CALLS FOR IRAQ'S DISARMAMENT...Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii told TV-Tsentr on 18 March that the regime of Iraqi President Hussein poses a real threat to Russian national security and that Hussein must be deprived of any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by any necessary means, including military force. Yavlinskii said that he is not swayed by the fact that the international weapons inspectors have not found evidence of WMD in Iraq. He said that the best indication that Hussein has WMD is the fact that both the United States and the Soviet Union provided him with such weapons throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Yavlinskii said there is no question that Hussein has such weapons; the only question is where he has hidden them. VY
 ...AS MILITARY EXPERTS DISCUSS HOW IT WILL BE DONEDeputy Defense Minister Colonel General Igor Pusanov said on 18 March that the impending U.S.-led military operation against Iraq will begin with massive air and cruise-missile strikes against Iraqi air-defense and command-and-control centers, RTR reported. A second wave will then destroy Iraq's air force and other military infrastructure. Deputy Aleksei Arbatov (Yabloko), who is deputy chairman of the Duma's Defense Committee, told RTR that the United States will use more high-precision weapons during this operation than ever before. "During the 1991 Gulf War, only 5 percent of the weapons used were high precision," Arbatov said. "This time, 80 percent will be." Asked how long the campaign will take, Colonel General Leonid Ivashov said that it is impossible to predict with certainty. All the experts questioned by RTR agreed that the campaign will be largely waged over long distances with relatively little direct contact between the opposing forces. VY
 DUMA DECLINES TO DISCUSS IRAQ SITUATION...The Duma on 19 March rejected a proposal by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the Communist Party (KPRF) to debate the Iraq crisis, newsru.com reported. The proposal garnered only 187 of the required 226 votes. The motion's rejection provoked an angry reaction from Deputy Sergei Reshulskii (Communist), who called upon deputies "to go immediately to U.S. Embassy to protest." LDPR leader and Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii supported Reshulskii's call and said it was repugnant to him to sit in the same chamber with deputies who are so ignorant of Iraq's fate. Following this statement, both factions walked out of the chamber. VY
 ...BUT WANTS TO PROBE VIOLATION OF PENSION LAWThe Duma was expected to devote a special hearing on 19 March to an alleged violation of the law on pensions that provoked mass protests from pensioners over recent months, polit.ru reported on 19 March. Pension Fund Chairman Mikhail Zurabov was expected to report on the situation. During the last indexation, pensioners were granted an increase of 30 rubles ($0.92), causing a wave of complaints directed personally to President Putin. Some analysts believe this incident led to the removal from the government of former Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). "Argumenty i fakty," No. 12, also argued that this was the case. VY
 PROSECUTOR-GENERAL NIXES HANDOVER OF TROPHY ARTNatalya Vishnyakova, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, announced on 18 March that her office has warned Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi not to send the Baldin art collection back to Germany (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003), gazeta.ru and other Russian media reported on 18 March. In a letter to Shvydkoi, the Prosecutor-General's Office said the collection of 364 artworks cannot be returned to Bremen's Kunsthalle museum, which owned the works before World War II, unless that museum can legally establish its ownership rights. The prosecutor's letter also indicates that the prosecutor-general believes the collection has become the property of the Russian state by right of possession. In practical terms, the prosecutor-general's letter means that the collection has little chance of being returned soon, since the Kunsthalle is unlikely to be able to produce the necessary documentation from the prewar period. Even if it does so, Russian law stipulates that the collection can only be returned in exchange for "appropriate compensation," which is unlikely because Russian experts have valued the Baldin collection at $1.5 billion. Shvydkoi, however, told RTR on 19 March that he believes it is a "matter of honor" to return the collection, which he maintains was illegally brought to Russia. VY
 PUTIN GIVES BLESSING TO REGIONAL MERGERPerm Oblast Governor Yurii Trutnev and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug Governor Gennadii Savelev met with President Putin on 18 March to discuss the possible unification of their two regions, Russian media reported. According to RTR, Putin said that if the leaders believe the merger is needed to tackle the regions' economic problems and "to create a better environment for raising living standards, then, of course, I am willing to support [them]." According to ITAR-TASS, Putin noted that the Russian Constitution leaves this question to the competence of the subjects of the Russian Federation. Other legal scholars and legislators believe that it would be necessary to amend the constitution, since it enumerates the subjects of the Russian Federation by name (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 30 January 2003). Trutnev and Savelev said their first step will be the formation of a working group comprising representatives from both regions and from the federal government to consider the unification process in detail. JAC
 PROPOSED MEDIA LEGISLATION ATTRACTS MORE CRITICISMSpeaking to a conference entitled "Media on the Eve of Elections" in Moscow on 17 March, Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov explained the proposed presidential package of amendments to laws regulating media behavior during elections, "Vremya novostei" reported on 18 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 14 February 2003). However, Veshnyakov largely failed to win new support for the legislation, and, according to the daily, the proposals attracted negative comments from Duma deputies. "Everything should be done to prevent the passage of these amendments," said Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin (Yabloko). "Otherwise, the media -- particularly any newspapers and television channels that do not act in accordance with the plans of the authorities -- will not stand a chance." Deputy Gennadii Gudkov (People's Deputy) commented, "We might put the media in a position where they will be unable to offer objective commentary, because this might be viewed as covert campaigning." According to "Vremya-MN," TsIK member Sergei Bolshakov, who also spoke at the conference, argued that the new legislation is designed to combat "black public relations" and not the opposition press. JAC
 BEREZOVSKII TO RUN FOR DUMA SEATParticipating from London in a video conference in Irkutsk on 18 March, self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii announced that he will run for a seat in the State Duma in December elections, Interfax reported. When asked when he will return to Russia, he said that he will return as soon as the prosecutor-general stops inviting him. On 17 March, Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov said in Moscow that his office will seek the extradition of Berezovskii and his former business partner, Badri Patarkatsishvili, in connection with their involvement with AvtoVAZ. Berezovskii was elected to the Duma in 1999, but he gave up the seat soon after gaining it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 July 2000). JAC
 LARGE RUSSIAN CITIES HAVE HOT WATER CUT OFF...About 100,000 residents of Voronezh found themselves on 18 March without heat or hot water, NTV reported. According to the station, this latest cutoff drove some residents to the streets in protest. At the same time, municipal authorities have accused the local power company, Voronezhenergo, of "terrorism." A high temperature of 1 degree Celsius was forecast for Voronezh for 19 March. Also on 18 March, hot-water supplies were turned off to all residents of Ulyanovsk, RosBalt reported on 18 March. JAC
 ...AS PROBLEMS WITH LOCAL POWER SUPPLIES CONTINUE DESPITE ATTENTION FROM MOSCOWAt a news conference on 18 March, Ulyanovsk Oblast Governor Vladimir Shamanov called the decision by city authorities to turn off the supply of hot water "unpopular, but correct." He said that maintaining hot-water supplies could lead to "irreparable technological consequences." According to the oblast administration, gas suppliers have cut the city's supplies of fuel by 30 percent because of unpaid debts. In Ulyanovsk, the high temperature on 18 March was -1 degree Celsius. Last summer, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov rejected a proposal by a Unified Energy Systems official to introduce federal rule in Ulyanovsk because of the continuing problem of unpaid energy debts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 June 2002). In July, President Putin visited Ulyanovsk and reviewed the energy crisis there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2002). JAC
 CHAVASH LAWMAKERS GIVE THEMSELVES AN EXTENSIONLegislators in the Chavash Republic on 18 March voted to extend their terms and that of the republican president from four to five years, RosBalt reported. According to the agency, legislators justified the measure by saying that fewer elections will save money and increase legislators' responsibility. JAC
 ADMIRAL MATROSKIN MISSES BEST OF SHOW"Komsomolskaya pravda" on 18 March reported the results of the International Cat Championship held in Moscow last weekend. A 14-month-old Kurilian bobtail named Admiral Matroskin won the prize for best representative of a Russian breed, but a British shorthair named Tutankhamen won best of show. Admiral Matroskin's owner revealed that around the house the admiral is simply known as "Umka" and prefers to dine on fish with kasha and a cookie. Meat or game he catches himself. (For a photo, see http://www.russicats.ru/kurilian/breed/breed2.htm.) Natalya Dmitreva, editor of "Cat and Dog" magazine, told "The Moscow Times" that the event was unusually well attended, and people stood in line for hours. According to the daily, State Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska officially opened the competition. JAC
 CHECHEN PRESIDENT REJECTS RUSSIA'S OFFER OF AUTONOMYIn a statement posted on kavkazcenter.org on 18 March, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov rejected Russian officials' recent suggestions that the successful adoption of the new Chechen draft constitution could pave the way for a power-sharing agreement between Moscow and Chechnya under which the latter would be granted "broad autonomy," Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003). He argued that Russian attempts to force Chechens "at gunpoint" to acknowledge Russia's hegemony over them are doomed to failure. As in a 27 February address, Maskhadov appealed to voters "to declare openly that there can be no alternative to an independent Chechen state," by which he presumably meant boycotting the 23 March referendum on the new constitution and election legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003). LF
 RUSSIAN, CHECHEN OFFICIALS COMMENT ON PROPOSED AMNESTYChechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov expressed qualified approval on 18 March of the amnesty for Chechen fighters proposed by Chechen religious leaders at a 17 March meeting in Moscow with President Putin, Russian media reported. Kadyrov added, however, that only those fighters not on federal and international wanted lists should qualify for amnesty, but not persons accused of murder, abductions, or acts of terrorism. ITAR-TASS quoted an unnamed senior Kremlin official as describing the proposal as meriting attention. Duma Legislation Committee Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov (Union of Rightist Forces) pointed out that such an amnesty would be a further demonstration of the Russian authorities' "sincere desire to bring the situation in Chechnya back to normal" and thus "an important stabilizing factor," Interfax reported. Krasheninnikov also argued that the amnesty should not extend to "rebel leaders...who are responsible for dozens of deaths" or to the organizers of terrorist attacks. LF
 MOST RUSSIANS SUPPORT PEACE TALKS IN CHECHNYAAbout 70 percent of Russian citizens support the initiation of peace negotiations in Chechnya, polit.ru reported on 18 March, citing a survey by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM). Only 26 percent urge the continuation of military operations there. The poll of 1,600 respondents in 40 Russian regions was released on 3 March. Forty-four percent of respondents believe the 23 March referendum on a new constitution in Chechnya will have no impact on the situation in the republic. Twenty-five percent believe the referendum will make the situation better, 14 percent said the situation will become worse, and 20 percent had no opinion. Asked whether President Putin is doing enough to resolve the Chechnya situation, 44 percent answered affirmatively and the same percentage said "no." VY
TRANSCAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA
 ARMENIAN POLICE HALT OPPOSITION PROTESTPolice and Interior Ministry troops armed with rubber truncheons and backed by water cannons prevented several thousand opposition protesters from approaching the presidential palace in Yerevan on 18 March, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The demonstrators were protesting the 15 March arrest, which they consider politically motivated, of businessman Armen Sargsian on suspicion of having commissioned the 28 December slaying of Armenian National Television and Radio head Tigran Naghdalian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 March 2003). Sargsian's lawyer, Robert Grigorian, told RFE/RL that the charges against Sargsian should be dropped because of a lack of evidence. Sargsian's mother, Greta, who picketed the presidential palace on 17 and 18 March, said her son is innocent and should be released on bail. LF
 U.S.-BASED ARMENIAN ORGANIZATION CALLS ON PRESIDENT TO INVESTIGATE ELECTION FRAUDIn a statement released on 18 March, the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) has appealed to President Robert Kocharian to "fully investigate all alleged violations of the election process and the rule of law" during the recent presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Referring to the OSCE Election Observation Mission's criticisms of the ballot, the AAA statement said that "restoration of the public's trust in the democratic process must now be the highest priority of the Kocharian Administration." In an undated statement posted on Groong on 19 March, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian sought to reassure diaspora Armenians who, he said, have "not yet fully understood Armenia and its growing pains." Oskanian pointed out that international monitors found fault only with the voting process and have not questioned the validity of its outcome. He admitted that the election was not perfect but claimed that what is more important is that "progress has been made." LF
 ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER SAYS HE WILL NOT SEEK RE-ELECTIONArmen Khachatrian told journalists in Yerevan on 18 March that he is "tired" of politics and will not seek re-election in the 25 May parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Khachatrian was elected in 1999 on the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) ticket and was elected speaker in November 1999 following the parliament shootings in which speaker and HZhK founder and chairman Karen Demirchian was killed. Khachatrian quit the HZhK in 2001 after that party became increasingly critical of President Kocharian. He swiftly acquired the reputation of a political lightweight enamored of the travel opportunities and perks his position provides (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 7 April 2000 and 3 January 2003). LF
 AZERBAIJANI PARLIAMENT ENDORSES GOVERNMENT'S REPORTIn accordance with a constitutional law adopted last year, the Azerbaijani government on 18 March reported for the first time to the legislature on its achievements over the past five years, zerkalo.az reported on 19 March. The report was delivered not by Prime Minister Artur Rasi-Zade, whose imminent dismissal has been rumored for several weeks, but by Rasi-Zade's first deputy, Yagub Eyubov. The online publication described the report as lacking depth, critical analysis, and a conceptual approach. Deputies who wished to comment on the report or question individual ministers were allocated no more than five minutes in which to do so. LF
 RUSSIA PRAISES AZERBAIJAN'S STANCE ON IRAQRussian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Nikolai Ryabov told Turan in an exclusive interview distributed on 18 March that Azerbaijan has informed Moscow that it cannot offer any assistance to the United States in any military strike against Iraq unless and until the UN Security Council approves such an action. Ryabov described the Azerbaijani position as "balanced and wise." LF
 ANOTHER CONSORTIUM FAILS TO FIND OIL IN AZERBAIJANTwo wells the Japanese Azerbaijani Operational Consortium drilled in the Ateshgakh Caspian field have failed to yield oil in commercial quantities, Turan reported on 18 March. The consortium, in which Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR has a 50 percent stake with the remaining 50 percent divided among five Japanese oil companies, will not drill a further exploratory well, but will conduct further geophysical studies at Ateshgakh and two other fields before deciding whether to self-liquidate. The contract to develop the three fields, which were said to have estimated recoverable reserves of 75 million to 90 million metric tons, was signed four years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 1998). LF
 GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT CONTINUES TO DEFY PRESIDENTAn emergency session of parliament convened by President Eduard Shevardnadze failed to take place on 18 March for lack of a quorum, nor did the minimum 118 deputies report for the morning session on 19 March, Caucasus Press reported. Opposition deputies are angry at the 7 March ruling by the parliament's procedural-affairs committee that the 3 March vote on a bill raising the minimum wage by 500 percent as of 1 July was invalid. Shevardnadze said on 17 March that he will not veto that law, but has proposed an alternative bill that raises the minimum wage incrementally over two years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 11, 13, and 17 March 2003). If parliament does not convene and vote on that alternative bill by 20 March, however, Shevardnadze is constitutionally obliged to veto the original bill. He accused the opposition on 17 March of seeking to force him to do so in a bid to depict him as indifferent to the need to raise salaries and, by extension, to improve living standards. LF
 ABKHAZ PARLIAMENT RATIFIES APPEAL FOR 'ASSOCIATE MEMBERSHIP' OF RUSSIAN FEDERATIONThe parliament of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia on 18 March ratified an appeal to the Russian government to grant Abkhazia "associate membership" of the Russian Federation, Caucasus Press reported. The leaders of both Abkhazia and the similarly unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia formally requested such status for their respective republics a year ago, and the Russian State Duma responded with a statement reserving the right to consider granting such status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 March 2002). "Associate status" of the Russian Federation would oblige Abkhazia to coordinate with Russia its defense, foreign, and economic policies and formally to adopt the Russian ruble as its currency. Hinting at possible public opposition to such close ties with Russia, parliamentary Defense and National Security Committee Chairman Harri Samanba argued that the Abkhaz leadership should undertake a survey of popular attitudes to joining Russia, Caucasus Press reported on 18 March. In Tbilisi, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili predicted that Moscow will persuade the Abkhaz leadership that its aspirations to associate membership of the Russian Federation are totally unrealistic, Caucasus Press reported. LF
 KAZAKH FOREIGN MINISTRY REGRETS LACK OF UNITY ON IRAQKazakhstan's Foreign Ministry on 18 March distributed a statement expressing regret at the lack of unity in the UN Security Council concerning the situation in Iraq, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "Kazakhstan expresses deep regret and concern over the absence of unity in the UN Security Council about the Iraqi situation," the statement read. "Despite all the hopes of the world community, the main collective body [that] is called upon to play a leading role in issues of maintaining peace so far has not managed to adopt a coordinated decision aimed at the political settlement of the Iraqi situation." The statement went on to say that Kazakhstan, which voluntarily gave up the world's fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, had actively supported international efforts to disarm Iraq, but said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had not provided convincing proof of his country's disarmament. Nonetheless, Kazakhstan insisted on resolving major international problems only through the United Nations. BB
 DRUG TRAFFICKING ON RISE IN KYRGYZSTANKyrgyzstan will set up an agency to combat increasing drug trafficking from Afghanistan, the head of the governmental drug-control commission, Kurmanbek Kubatbekov, announced on 18 March, according to Interfax. Kubatbekov added that law enforcement officials seized about three tons of drugs in 2002, which he claimed was only about 5 percent of the amount smuggled into Kyrgyzstan. Kubatbekov said that the number of addicts in Kyrgyzstan is increasing as well. Five thousand addicts have been officially registered, but Kurmanbek said he is convinced the actual number is 20 times that figure. Kyrgyzstan will approach international donor agencies for help in setting up the new agency. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will provide 3.6 million euros ($3.83 million) to set up a model police station in Kyrgyzstan that will deal with drug trafficking, as well as fighting terrorism and human trafficking, akipress.org reported on 17 March. In the wake of the shootings of demonstrators by police in southern Kyrgyzstan in March 2002, the Kyrgyz government asked for OSCE help in law enforcement reform. BB
 BUSH THANKS UZBEKISTAN'S PRESIDENT FOR SUPPORT AGAINST TERRORISMUzbekistan's presidential press service announced on 18 March that U.S. President George W. Bush sent a letter to President Islam Karimov thanking him and his government for Uzbekistan's contribution to the fight against international terrorism, Interfax, uzreport.com, and uza.uz reported on 19 March. The letter reportedly specifically mentioned Uzbekistan's decision to allow the international antiterrorism coalition to use the military airbase at Khanabad to support its actions in Afghanistan and went on to assert that the world is now facing the challenge of a combination of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and countries sponsoring and encouraging terrorism. Bush's letter also said that success in meeting this challenge depends on the broad involvement of the international community. Uzbek officials have fully supported the United States in its handling of the Iraq crisis. BB
 UN COMMISSION CONCERNED AT USE OF TORTURE IN UZBEKISTANThe session of the UN Commission on Human Rights that began on 17 March is focusing on Central Asia, Deutsche Welle reported on 18 March. One of the problems under examination is the continued use of torture by law enforcement agencies in Uzbekistan. A special report on the subject was drawn up at the end of 2002. That report included an appendix listing "a limited number" of torture cases, but Deutsche Welle reported that the list is 40 pages long. The report notes that a large number of civil-society activists have been harassed, arrested, and mistreated by the authorities, as have Uzbek and Russian journalists. The practice of forced incarceration in mental institutions still exists. Recommendations made in the report include the closure of the notorious prison camp at Jaslyk in the Karakalpakistan desert, where many inmates have died. The report also calls for the authorities to take a stronger line against torture and for Uzbek legislation on torture to be brought into line with international standards. The commission intends to examine the use of torture in Turkmenistan as well. BB
CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE
 BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION CRIES FOUL IN LOCAL ELECTIONSSyarhey Kalyakin, leader of the Belarusian Party of Communists (BPK), described campaigning ahead of the 2 March local elections and subsequent runoffs as the "roughest" ever, incomparable with the 2000 parliamentary or the 2001 presidential polls, Belapan reported on 17 March. BPK won just 130 of the 24,010 local-council seats that were contested. Mikalay Statkevich, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (National Assembly) (BSDP), said that both the first and second rounds of the election were marred by large-scale electoral fraud. The BSDP won 21 seats. The Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (LDPB) had five seats after the first round, the United Civic Party (AHP) 13 seats as a result of both rounds, and the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) 18 seats after both rounds. Both the AHP and BNF condemned the elections as undemocratic. AM
 PROMINENT BELARUSIANS DEMAND RELEASE OF JAILED PROTESTERSOver 70 Belarusian public figures and international human rights groups issued a statement on 18 March demanding the immediate release of four organizers of the recent "People's March for a Better Life" demonstration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 March 2003), Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. "The severe sentences prove that the current authorities will give the Belarusian citizens neither freedom nor democracy, nor normal and decent lives," said the statement, noting that the demonstrators put forward mainly economic demands. "It is evident that the authorities fear mass, well-organized, nonviolent protests. Driven by fear, they went so far as to impose a 15-day jail sentence on Lyudmila Hraznova, who has an underage daughter," the signatories added. AM
 KYIV VOICES 'CONCERN' OVER LOOMING IRAQ WAR...Ukraine views the U.S. ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with "deep concern," a Foreign Ministry spokesman told Interfax on 18 March. Ukraine will oppose a U.S. war against Iraq in the absence of UN approval, the spokesman added. "Ukraine expresses its concern over the failure to reach a consensus [on Iraq] within the framework of the United Nations Security Council," Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said in a statement released the same day. Both announcements came after a meeting of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council to discuss the Iraq crisis, among other issues, and were the first strong indication of Ukrainian opposition to Washington's policy in Persian Gulf. AM
 ...AS PRESIDENT ASKS PARLIAMENT TO APPROVE NBC BATTALION FOR KUWAITKuchma asked the Verkhovna Rada on 18 March to approve of sending Ukraine's anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) battalion to Kuwait (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003), UNIAN reported, quoting presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska. Kuwait requested the battalion's presence, Ukraine and Kuwait subsequently agreed on the dispatch of those troops, and the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council approved the move, the spokeswoman added. AM
 U.S. APPRECIATES UKRAINE'S READINESS TO DEPLOY TROOPS IN PERSIAN GULFU.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Kuchma by telephone on 18 March that he appreciates Ukraine's readiness to deploy the NBC battalion to the Gulf region to help in the event of an Iraqi attack with chemical or nuclear weapons, Reuters reported, quoting the Ukrainian president's press office. "Such a step by Ukraine will help deepen cooperation and put relations on a new level," the president's office quoted Armitage as saying. Relations between Ukraine and the United States deteriorated last year after Washington accused Kuchma of approving the sale of a Kolchuga radar system to Iraq. AM
 PREMIER SAYS ESTONIAN PARTICIPATION POSSIBLE IN POSTWAR MISSIONS IN IRAQPrime Minister Siim Kallas told reporters on 18 March that if necessary, Estonia could offer help in mine-clearing operations and assistance to refugees once a possible war in Iraq is over, BNS reported. He said Estonia could help refugees in the region by sending specialists to countries bordering Iraq. Kallas noted that the situation is complicated by the fact that the new parliament -- which would have to authorize any actions -- has not yet met. Government press bureau Director Daniel Vaarik said an emergency cabinet session will be called to evaluate the risk of terrorist attacks in Estonia if an attack on Iraq is launched. SG
 LATVIA READY TO PARTICIPATE IN OPERATION TO DISARM IRAQAn extraordinary session of the cabinet on 18 March decided to support a possible military operation to disarm Iraq, even if such an operation is not backed by the UN Security Council, LETA reported. Prime Minister Einars Repse said Latvia could dispatch explosives-disposal experts, medics, and other specialists to Iraq. Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis told a press conference that the government's decision was prompted by an unofficial request from the United States. Sending Latvian soldiers to Iraq would require parliamentary approval, and Repse has prepared a bill for parliament to discuss at the 19 March extraordinary session. Parliament Chairwoman Ingrida Udre said she is sure parliament will back the proposal, as its rejection would be an expression of no confidence in the government. SG
 GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER IN LITHUANIAGeorgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze told Lithuania's parliament on 18 March that the invitations the Baltic states have received to join NATO gives Georgia hope that it might also be admitted to the alliance some day, ELTA reported. Burdjanadze met with President Rolandas Paksas and also held talks with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas during which they discussed expanding bilateral relations and the possibility of extending to Georgia the newly established freight-train route between Ukraine and Lithuania. She thanked Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius for Lithuania's support in military matters and called for further cooperation. On 17 March, Burdjanadze held separate meetings with parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas and his deputy Ceslovas Jursenas that primarily focused on Lithuania's experience in obtaining the withdrawal of Russian military bases from its territory and in joining Western international organizations. SG
 LITHUANIA EASES TRANSIT RULES FOR RUSSIAN SCHOOLCHILDREN DURING SPRING BREAKLithuania has agreed to ease the rules of transit for Russian schoolchildren traveling by train between mainland Russia and its Kaliningrad Oblast exclave from 21 to 31 March, BNS reported on 18 March. Children under the age of 16 traveling in organized groups with a teacher will be allowed to transit Lithuania bearing birth certificates, which are normally not accepted as valid travel documents, if the teacher has a list and photographs of the pupils that is stamped and confirmed by a Russian Interior Ministry institution, together with the permissions of their parents. SG
 POLISH PRESIDENT, PREMIER APPROVE 200 TROOPS TO SUPPORT IRAQ OPERATION...President Aleksander Kwasniewski on 17 March authorized the deployment of up to 200 Polish troops to support possible U.S. military operations against Iraq, local media reported. Kwasniewski stressed that he hopes a diplomatic solution can still be found. "If this turns out to be impossible, then we agree with the words of [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, who said that there are moments in history when, in order to maintain peace, it is necessary to fight," Kwasnieski said. Prime Minister Leszek Miller meanwhile said Polish soldiers would perform limited tasks in any conflict. "They will above all have a logistical character and one supporting the actions of the coalition forces, for instance the neutralization of the consequences of the possible use of weapons of mass destruction, decontamination of terrain, and the like," Miller said. Soldiers from the 4th Chemical Regiment in Brodnica will travel to the Gulf region, while servicemen from the elite GROM squad and the Polish navy ship "Xawery Czernicki" are already in the area. AM
 ...WHILE MOST POLES OPPOSE PARTICIPATIONThe OBOP polling agency reported that 69 percent of respondents in a poll conducted in early March were against sending Polish troops to a war in Iraq, PAP reported on 17 March. Twenty-one percent backed Poland's participation in the possible conflict. Half of those polled said Poland is right to back the United States in the Iraq dispute, while 28 percent opposed such support. Most supporters of Poland's participation in the conflict were under 30, the agency noted. AM
 CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER WANTS CABINET TO EXPRESS 'UNDERSTANDING' FOR ACTION IN IRAQ...Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said on 18 March that he will propose that the cabinet approve a resolution on 19 March expressing understanding for the position of the United States and its allies regarding Iraq, CTK reported. He said the government resolution should adopt a clear position that would be "apparent not only to our citizens, but also to our partners." The Czech National Security Council on 17 March decided not to take a position on the issue until hostilities break out. Svoboda's own Christian Democratic Union-People's Party and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union -- both minor coalition partners in the center-left coalition -- likewise called for adopting a clear position in the event of a war in Iraq. MS
 ...WHICH WOULD MEET WITH SUPPORT BY MAIN OPPOSITION PARTYOpposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Deputy Chairman Petr Necas said on 18 March that the government should decide in favor of joining the U.S.-led coalition to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, CTK reported. Necas criticized the National Security Council's decision to delay taking a position and said that, in the wake of Bush's 17 March ultimatum to Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq within 48 hours, Prague must take a clear and consistent position instead of making an "expedient 180-degree turnabout." If the government takes such a stand, he said, it can count on the support of the ODS, which is the largest opposition party in parliament. Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia Chairman Miroslav Grebenicek meanwhile called on the government to abide by opinion polls and consider the feelings of Czech citizens as reflected in antiwar demonstrations. MS
 DEFENSE MINISTER TELLS NBC UNIT THAT CZECHS 'CANNOT STAND ASIDE'Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik on 18 March sent a letter to the Czech NBC unit stationed in Kuwait praising their work and saying he hopes they all return home safely, CTK reported. "We do not want and cannot stand aside at this crucial moment," Tvrdik wrote. "As a peace-loving country, we prefer nonviolent solutions as a means to solve disputes, but there are situations in which no other solution but the use of force is possible." Tvrdik said the Czech Republic has taken a firm and consistent position since the beginning of the Iraq crisis, "stemming from its own experience with dictatorial regimes." Tvrdik added that Czech forces are ready to provide aid to the Iraqi people and to participate in Iraq's postwar reconstruction. The Czech NBC unit in Kuwait operates under a government resolution approved by parliament that conditions participation in a possible war on a UN Security Council resolution, unless Iraq uses weapons of mass destruction against its neighbors or the forces allied against it. MS
 CZECH SOCIAL DEMOCRATS ELECT NEW PARLIAMENTARY GROUP LEADERDeputies of the main ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) in the lower house on 18 March elected Petr Ibl as their new parliamentary-group leader, CTK reported. Ibl received 33 of the 56 votes cast in a secret ballot. He will replace Milan Urban, who recently became the country's new trade and industry minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). Ibl is considered to be close to Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, CSSD's most popular politician. On 19 March, the daily "Lidove noviny" cited Ibl as saying Gross might seek the chairmanship of the CSSD at the party's 28-30 March national conference if other candidates challenge Premier Vladimir Spidla for the party chairmanship. MS
 SRBA CO-DEFENDANT ADMITS PLANNING MURDER OF CZECH JOURNALISTOne of the co-defendants in the trial of former Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Karel Srba on 18 March testified in court that he was involved in arranging the contract for the planned murder of Czech journalist Sabina Slonkova, CTK reported. Michal Novotny said he received a 50,000-crown ($1,685) advance from Srba's acquaintance Eva Tomsovicova to contact Karel Rziepel, who was to carry out the murder. Rziepel reported the plot to police. Tomsovicova also testified on 18 March but denied any involvement in the attempted murder. MS
 CZECH PRESIDENT MEETS SLOVAK COUNTERPART...In his first foreign visit as Czech president, Vaclav Klaus held talks with his Slovak counterpart Rudolf Schuster in Bratislava on 18 March, TASR and CTK reported. The talks focused on bilateral relations, the Iraq situation, and the exodus of Roma seeking to move to the Czech Republic. Regarding the crisis in Iraq, Schuster was quoted by CTK as saying: "Slovakia -- [its] parliament, government, and president -- has a clear position in this respect. We fully support the U.S." Klaus said that while he "understands" President Bush, in making official statements he is bound by limitations imposed by his office and must represent the "official Czech position" as decided by the parliament and the government. Klaus also said he considers the migration of Roma from Slovakia to his country to be "natural" in light of higher Czech living standards and the porous border. Schuster said the problem will be resolved once ongoing Slovak reforms produce the intended effect. Klaus noted that, as Czech prime minister in 1992, he "happened to contribute to Slovakia's independent existence." MS
 ...AND SLOVAK PREMIERPresident Klaus also met on 18 March with Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, discussing bilateral relations and the two countries' future membership of the EU, TASR reported. They also briefly reviewed the current international situation, according to a CTK report. Klaus also met with parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky and deputies from parties represented in the Slovak parliament. Former Premier Vladimir Meciar, with whom Klaus negotiated the so-called Velvet Divorce in 1992, was not among those present at the meeting, at which Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia was represented by deputy parliamentary speaker Viliam Veteska. MS
 SLOVAK PREMIER SAYS PREVIOUS UN RESOLUTIONS PROVIDE MANDATE FOR ATTACK ON IRAQPremier Dzurinda said on 18 March that resolutions previously adopted by the UN Security Council on Iraq provide sufficient grounds for the United States and its allies to launch a military action against that country, TASR and CTK reported. Dzurinda also said he supports President Bush's 17 March ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq within 48 hours. "There are many reasons for the international community to exert sufficient pressure and take measures to bring dictatorial regimes such as that of Saddam Hussein to an end. And there are enough reasons to disarm regimes possessing weapons of mass destruction," Dzurinda said. The premier said the Slovak parliament's resolution on dispatching an NBC unit to the Persian Gulf provides a sufficient mandate for the unit to participate in an eventual war and a second parliamentary resolution would not be necessary. Dzurinda said the center-right coalition he heads will be unified on the issue. MS
 VOTE FOR SLOVAK SUPREME COURT CHAIRMAN SET FOR EARLY MAYSlovakia's Judicial Council on 18 March decided that repeat elections for a Supreme Court chairman recently ordered by the Constitutional Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2003) will be held on 7 May, TASR reported. The council amended the election rules to prevent conflicts of interest in the voting, in line with the Constitutional Court's recommendations. MS
 FORMER HUNGARIAN PREMIER CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT'S POSITION ON IRAQ CRISISFormer Premier and de facto opposition leader Viktor Orban said on 18 March that the government is "on the wrong side" of the Iraq crisis at a time when 92 percent of the population is against a war, "Magyar Hirlap" reported the next day. The government decision to allow U.S. and British aircraft to use Hungarian airspace places the country on the side of war, Orban said, adding that that decision's basis on a resolution "dragged out of the past" is doubtful in legal terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 March 2003). Orban also said the opposition FIDESZ party believes Hungary must not consent to any military operation without UN, NATO, or EU authorization. In other news, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced on 18 March that 30 countries, including Hungary, openly support the U.S. against Iraq, Hungarian radio reported. MSZ
 HUNGARY STEPS UP SECURITY MEASURES AHEAD OF LIKELY MILITARY ACTION AGAINST IRAQThe Hungarian government's National Security Cabinet held an extraordinary meeting on 18 March to assess Hungary's security situation and to discuss the protection of key sites in the event of war with Iraq, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Government spokesman Zoltan Gal subsequently told reporters that Hungary's security is in no way threatened, but that protection will be stepped up at key strategic public institutions and companies, such as Budapest's international airport, the Taszar military air base, facilities of Hungary's MOL oil company, the Paks nuclear-power plant, and Hungary's borders. MSZ
 BUDAPEST COURT ORDERS JOURNALIST TO APOLOGIZE TO FIDESZ DEPUTY CHAIRMANThe Buda Central District Court on 18 March admonished journalist Laszlo Juszt for defamation of character in a lawsuit brought by FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Laszlo Kover over a newspaper article published by the "Nepszava" daily. Juszt wrote in the 28 October article that Kover used pejorative terms against Jews at a formal event. The court ordered Juszt to issue in the same daily an apology and formal statement in which he admits that he damaged Kover's reputation, integrity, and personal dignity, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. MSZ
 SERBIAN PARLIAMENT ELECTS NEW PRIME MINISTERThe Serbian parliament on 18 March approved the nomination of the Democratic Party's Zoran Zivkovic as prime minister and Cedomir Jovanovic as deputy prime minister, Beta reported. Zivkovic thus succeeds Zoran Djindjic, who was killed by one or more snipers on 12 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). In his first address as prime minister, Zivkovic outlined priorities that included the fight against organized crime, the passage of a new Serbian Constitution, and political stability. His government will also work for the new state-union with Montenegro, along with judicial and economic reform, and will continue political and diplomatic efforts to resolve questions over the fate of the Kosova province. Former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), and the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) voted against Zivkovic. They have demanded the formation of a temporary government and early elections. UB
 SERBIAN INTERIOR MINISTER SAYS DJINDJIC'S ASSASSINS HAVE BEEN IDENTIFIEDInterior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic announced on 18 March that two of Djindjic's three alleged assassins have been identified, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Mihajlovic called on the public to identify the third perpetrator with the help of an identikit picture. In related news, Prime Minister Zivkovic said on 18 March that more than 750 people have been detained since the 12 March slaying, which sparked nationwide police sweeps under a state of emergency, Beta reported. UB
 SERBIA CLAMPS DOWN ON PRESS, SHUTS DOWN TV STATIONThe Ministry of Culture and Information on 18 March halted publication of the daily "Nacional" and issued a warning to the daily "Vecernje novosti," citing powers granted under the state of emergency declared immediately after Prime Minister Djindjic's assassination, Beta reported. The same day, the ministry prohibited distribution of the Montenegrin daily "Dan" in Serbia on similar grounds. The ministry ordered the Valjevo-based television station Mars to stop broadcasting on 17 March. Also on 17 March, the ministry halted publication of the weekly "Identitet," which published an article about the planned assassination of Djindjic on 11 March, one day before it occurred, according to Deutsche Welle's "Monitor." The ministry said the publications were shut down due to the presentation of unspecified facts and information regarding the ongoing investigation into the assassination, in addition to the publication of articles critical of the state of emergency. Prime Minister Zivkovic defended the move, saying he thought the government sufficiently explained what a state of emergency means for work in the media, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. UB
 PARLIAMENT OF SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO ELECTS GOVERNMENTThe joint parliament of Serbia and Montenegro on 17 March elected the new state-union's first-ever government, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. The government will be headed by Svetozar Marovic, who is also the union's president. It includes Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic, Defense Minister Boris Tadic, Internal Trade Minister Amir Nukovic, Foreign Economic Relations Minister Branko Lukovac, and Minority and Human Rights Minister Rasim Ljajic. Lawmakers also passed regulations on a temporary budget for the new confederacy. UB
 CROATIAN PRIME MINISTER REGRETS FAILURE OF DIPLOMACY ON IRAQ...Prime Minister Ivica Racan on 18 March said he regrets the increasingly slim prospects for a peaceful solution to the Iraq situation, Hina reported. Racan told journalists that war appears inevitable, adding, "We are sorry about it, but we hope there are still some chances for efforts aimed at avoiding the war." He said he hopes any military operation is as brief as possible with as few civilian victims as possible. Deploring the lack of unity within the UN Security Council and the EU, he said Croatia will comply with its obligations toward the United States but will not join in any military operation. He compared Croatia's decision to partially open its airspace to U.S. aircraft to similar arrangements by Germany or France, which are staunch opponents of any military operation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February and 12 March 2003). UB
 ...AND CANCELS TRIP TO BRITAINPrime Minister Racan has canceled a planned official visit to Britain, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 18 March. Racan was to meet his British counterpart Tony Blair and several cabinet members. UB
 BALKAN STABILITY PACT SUPPORTS OPENING OF BUREAUS IN BOSNIAErhard Busek, who heads the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact, said in Sarajevo on 18 March that he supports a proposal to open two Stability Pact initiatives in Bosnia, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. Busek welcomed the idea of opening a bureau for coordinating the fight against corruption in Sarajevo, as well as launching an office in Brcko to oversee regional cooperation between Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia in the Sava basin. UB
 PRESIDENT SAYS REPUBLIKA SRPSKA CANNOT BE CONSIDERED SUPPORTER OF IRAQRepublika Srpksa President Dragan Cavic told a press conference in Banja Luka on 18 March that a report on aircraft maker Orao recently handed over to SFOR Commander Lieutenant General William Ward confirms that the company illegally exported arms to Iraq and that other Bosnian companies were also involved in the scheme, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Cavic added that Bosnia and the Republika Srpska nevertheless cannot be considered to have systemically supported the regime in Baghdad. Cavic underscored that Bosnian Serb institutions have taken measures to prevent similar weapons sales in the future (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 25 October and 1 November 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). UB
 U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY THANKS MACEDONIA, WARNS EXTREMISTSDefense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told his visiting Macedonian counterpart Vlado Buckovski in Washington on 17 March that the United States appreciates Macedonia's friendship, MIA news agency reported. Lauding military reforms in Macedonia, Rumsfeld said Washington will support Skopje's bid for NATO membership. Rumsfeld also issued a warning to those who would attempt to destabilize Macedonia. "At this time, when the attention of the United States and the international community is focused on the disarmament of Saddam's regime, extremists in Macedonia should not fool themselves into thinking that they can take advantage of that and destabilize the region, because [the United States] is playing a significant role in the Balkans and will not withdraw from the region," he said, as quoted by MIA. UB
 MACEDONIAN ROMA STAGE PROTEST TO FREE LEADERAbout 1,000 members of the Romany community in Macedonia staged a protest outside a prison in the eastern Macedonian town of Stip on 18 March to demand the release of a former lawmaker, "Dnevnik" reported. The demonstrators demanded the release of Union of Roma Chairman Amdi Bajram, who has been in custody in connection with theft charges since January. Bajram is charged with large-scale theft from a local textile factory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2003). UB
 ROMANIAN PREMIER SAYS BUSH ULTIMATUM THE 'ONLY MODALITY TO AVOID WAR'Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said on 18 March that the 17 March ultimatum U.S. President George W. Bush gave to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq within 48 hours constitutes "the only modality to avert a war," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Nastase said a peaceful solution to the conflict has never depended more on Hussein, and that the Iraqi president had "12 years and 17 [UN] resolutions" to "end the systematic defiance of the international community." A meeting in Bucharest of the Supreme Council for National Defense the same day reiterated "Romania's support for the international antiterrorism coalition" and said Romania backs President Bush's ultimatum to Hussein. Also on 18 March, President Ion Iliescu appealed to the population to maintain calm, saying Romania "is not at war with Iraq, and the imminent outbreak of hostilities cannot have a direct impact on us." MS
 BUSH WRITES TO ROMANIAN PRESIDENTIn a letter addressed to President Iliescu, President Bush on 18 March thanked him for the support extended by Romania in the global struggle against international terrorism, Romanian Radio reported. Bush wrote that the United States particularly appreciates "your engagement in backing the coalition's efforts in face of the threats posed by Saddam Hussein." He said "the free world" is facing the "combined threats of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism infiltration, and the sponsoring of terrorists by [some] states," adding that "no nation can vanquish these enemies by itself" and that "success depends on how close international cooperation against them is." MS
 ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT 'ASSUMES RESPONSIBILITY' FOR ANTICORRUPTION LAWSRomania's bicameral parliament on 19 March met in a joint session at which Prime Minister Nastase was to present a package of laws for which the cabinet is "assuming responsibility," Mediafax reported. The opposition Greater Romania Party (PRM), National Liberal Party (PNL), and Democratic Party announced that they will jointly submit a motion of no confidence in the cabinet within the 72 hours stipulated by the constitution for this procedure. They claim the package does little more than "institutionalize corruption." Nastase sarcastically commented on 18 March that he would be "honored" if his cabinet were to fall as a result of its attempts to intensify the fight against corruption, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Nastase also said that such a no-confidence motion proposed by the PNL and the Democrats would be tantamount to "a joke," since the two parties did nothing to fight this social malady when they were in power in 1996-2000. Romanian observers noted that Nastase might be inviting the no-confidence motion to provoke early elections, which polls show his Social Democratic Party is certain to comfortably win. MS
 ROMANIAN PREMIER REACTS TO BRASOV WORKERS' PROTESTS...Premier Nastase, reacting to protests by workers in Brasov against planned layoffs, said on 18 March that the privatization of loss-making state-owned enterprises can no longer be postponed and that the state cannot "infinitely continue subsidizing bankrupt enterprises," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003). He said the workers who are to be laid off will continue to receive their wages as severance pay for a period of 17 months, within which they will have to find other jobs. The PRM the same day expressed its "solidarity" with the Brasov workers' protest, Romanian Radio reported. MS
 ...AND SUPPORTS TICU-DUMITRESCU FOR CNSAS CHAIRMANSHIPAlso on 18 March, Nastase said the appointment of Constantin Ticu-Dumitrescu as chairman of the College of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (CNSAS) would be a matter of "common sense," Mediafax reported. With regard to Dumitrescu's conditions for taking over that position, Nastase said that only parliament is entitled to decide on amending the current legislation on the functioning of the CNSAS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003). MS
 MOLDOVAN OFFICIALS DIVIDED IN REACTIONS OVER BUSH ULTIMATUMVictor Stepaniuc, leader of the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) parliamentary group, told an RFE/RL correspondent in Chisinau on 18 March that the PCM is "side by side with European countries and with their citizens who are protesting against a war in Iraq and struggle for peace." Stepaniuc added that "whatever their reasons, any war games are dangerous." However, a statement released by the Moldovan Foreign Ministry the same day, reiterated the ministry's stand made public last month, according to which "by failing to fully and unconditionally implement UN Security Council Resolution 1441," Baghdad has provoked "a regrettable split in the ranks of the international community and must assume full responsibility for the failure of the option to seek a peaceful solution" to the Iraq crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). Meanwhile, Infotag reported on 18 March that 15 young Moldovans arrived in Baghdad to take part in the "Live Shield" antiwar protest. The Moldovans belong to the "21st Century Youth" organization whose chairman, Oleg Onishenko, said the flight was organized by the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow, which is also providing accommodation and paying for food for the organization's members in Baghdad. MS
 EUROPEAN UNION REITERATES INTEREST IN MOLDOVA'S FUTURE...The European Union on 18 March reiterated its commitment to Moldova's development and integration into Europe, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels reported. Greek European Affairs Minister Tassos Yiannitsis said after talks with Moldova's Premier Vasile Tarlev that the EU's main concern as regards Moldova is to see stability returned to that country. "The EU is following very closely the developments in Moldova," Yiannitsis said, adding that stability "is important for Europe as a whole, [as] we cannot afford to have black holes in Europe." He said the EU will continue working for "a peaceful solution" to the Transdniester conflict, one that must not infringe on Moldova's territorial integrity. The meeting was held within the framework of the Moldova-EU Cooperation Council. Tarlev said he is "slightly worried" that the EU's "new neighbors" debate launched last week by the European Commission could result in "new boundaries." He said Moldova "insists" on being accepted as a future EU member. EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten said it is possible that the EU would grant Moldova "asymmetric" trade concessions to boost economic ties. MS
 ...AS EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT DEPUTY CHAIRMAN VISITS CHISINAUParliamentary speaker Evgenia Ostapciuc on 18 March told visiting European Parliament Deputy Chairman Guido Podesta that the current parliament is implementing democratic and market-oriented reforms, with the purpose of promoting the country's European integration, Flux reported. Ostapciuc said Moldova is grateful for the help extended by European organizations, including the European Parliament, in its effort to improve the legislative process. She added that many of the laws passed by parliament have benefited from European expertise. Ostapciuc proposed that the European Union set up a permanent representation in Chisinau, and Podesta welcomed that proposal. He said the European Parliament is following developments in Moldova with interest and much of its attention is focusing on states that are not candidates for joining the EU at present but will become "immediate neighbors" of the EU in the near future. MS
 MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES FINAL BILL ON LOCAL PUBLIC ADMINISTRATIONParliament on 18 March approved the second and final reading of the new bill on reorganizing local public administration, Infotag reported. The bill stipulates that mayors would continue to be elected by direct vote, rather than by local councils, as the first reading approved by the PCM majority stipulated. The local councils will elect or revoke deputy mayors and municipal secretaries. The bill would abolish the institution of the prefect. In its stead, control over local authorities would be exercised by the government through the State Chancellery. The bill also creates the new post of a "district chairperson" who would represent "the executive power of the district council." The number of councilors in each "raion" is to depend on the size of the population. PCM majority leader Stepaniuc described the bill as "a compromise between the ruling party [and the recommendations of] Council of Europe experts." MS
 ILASCU GROUP FAMILIES TESTIFY BEFORE ECHR JUDGESFour magistrates from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) heard testimonies in Chisinau last week from 43 witnesses in the suit launched by Ilie Ilascu against his and his group's detention at a Tiraspol prison, the Romanian daily "Curierul" reported on 19 March. Ilascu is now a Romanian senator representing the PRM, but three members of his group are still detained in Tiraspol. Among those who testified are members of the detainees' families, Moldovan officials, and Russian Army officers stationed in the Transdniester. Ilascu launched his suit against Russia -- which he claims was behind the detention -- and Moldova, which he says did nothing to liberate him and the three other members of his group. Ilascu was sentenced to death by the separatist authorities in 1993, but was amnestied and released in 2001. The three other members of the group -- Alexandru Lesenco, Andrei Ivantoc, and Tudor Petrov-Popa -- were sentenced to 12-15 years' imprisonment. MS
 BULGARIAN CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT'S INFORMATION POLICY...Conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova on 18 March criticized the government's failure to inform the public about its stand on Iraq, mediapool.bg reported. The party's National Council adopted a declaration in support of the government's position on Iraq, saying: "At the moment, Bulgaria needs unity, clear signals, responsible statesmen, and a perspective for [its] free and democratic future." Mihailova said that the 17 March session of the Consultative Council for National Security summoned by President Georgi Parvanov was belated. "During [this session], we were told by the chief of General Staff that there is no military threat to Bulgaria's national security," but that by that time the Bulgarian population's fears had escalated significantly, Mihailova said. "Who is interested in delaying this clear and unambiguous signal, which should have been given much earlier to avoid psychosis among the population?" UB
 ...AS OPPOSITION SOCIALISTS CONSIDER VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCEOpposition Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev said on 18 March that his party's position is that the 7 October parliamentary decision that granted logistical support to the United States in the event of a military operation against Iraq does not permit direct Bulgarian involvement in such military operations, mediapool.bg reported. Should the government decided to extend its cooperation with the United States without a new parliamentary decision, the BSP will consider this unconstitutional and move a vote of no confidence, Stanishev warned. The BSP demanded that Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski appear in parliament and inform the lawmakers of the government's position, saying it is unacceptable for him to avoid such a move for more than a month. UB
 CONTROVERSIAL BULGARIAN NEWS AGENCY HEAD RESIGNSStoyan Cheshmedzhiev, the controversial general director of the state-owned news agency BTA, resigned on 18 March, mediapool.bg reported. His decision came after journalists of the agency went on strike to demand that the government dismiss Cheshmedzhiev. The governing parties National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had reportedly just voted in favor of his dismissal when Cheshmedzhiev announced his resignation. In his letter, the former director accused the previous Union of Democratic Forces-led government of being responsible for the situation within BTA and the strikes. Parliament on 4 October elected Cheshmedzhiev to head the BTA with votes from the NDSV, the DPS, and the opposition BSP (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). UB
SOUTHWESTERN ASIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
 GERMANS WORRIED ABOUT HEKMATYAR AND OTHER WARLORDS IN EVENT OF IRAQ WAR...Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) intelligence service and the military counterintelligence service (MAD) agree that radical Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is believed to be cooperating closely with Al-Qaeda, poses the "greatest danger to the German soldiers" serving with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, according to ddp news agency on 17 March. The MAD and BND analyses, according to the agency, indicated that "when the world is following the war in Iraq in shock, Hekmatyar -- in cooperation with the warlords -- might use the opportunity to drive" the ISAF out of Afghanistan. One intelligence-service official told ddp that the Taliban "might abduct German officers to demand" the withdrawal of German forces from Afghanistan. The German intelligence services believe that Hekmatyar "wants to take over power in Kabul at the helm of the other warlords -- Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ustad Ata, Abdul Karim Khalili, Islmail Khan, and Pacha Khan Zadran," according to ddp. Hekmatyar, who has declared a jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was designated a terrorist by the United States in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2003). AT
 ...AS GERMAN COMMANDER SAYS ISAF IS BUNDESWEHR'S 'MOST RISKY MISSION'General Norbert van Heyst has said that German participation in the ISAF is "the most risky mission in which the Bundeswehr has ever participated," ddp news agency reported on 17 March. Van Heyst acknowledged that the United States has "promised to evacuate" ISAF soldiers from Afghanistan if the situation becomes dangerous. However, an unidentified Bundeswehr officer in Kabul told ddp that he hopes the United States "will be able" to carry out an evacuation "in case of emergency," adding that in the event of war in Iraq the U.S. military "will be more than busy." If the United States does not help the ISAF, the officer said, the international forces serving in Kabul "will be trapped." AT
 OFFICIAL ACCUSES PAKISTAN OF INTERFERENCE IN AFGHAN AFFAIRSNangarhar Province military commander Hazrat Ali told a group of journalists on 17 March that for some time Pakistan, "taking advantage of the tense situation in Afghanistan," has started "some provocative activities among the Mohmand tribe" that lives in areas of southeastern Afghanistan, Hindukosh news agency reported. Hazrat Ali said Pakistan has constructed roads, extended electric lines, and is paying regular salaries to a "number of influential personalities" of the Mohmand tribe, and described these acts as "interference" in Afghanistan's internal affairs. Hazrat Ali said the Council of Nangarhar has asked Governor Haji Din Mohammad to discuss this issue with President Hamid Karzai, Hindukosh reported. Afghanistan's six neighbors on 22 December signed a pact to respect Afghanistan's sovereignty and to not interfere in its internal affairs. Prior to the pact, most of Afghanistan's neighbors -- particularly Pakistan -- directly interfered in Afghanistan's internal affairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002). AT
 AIHRC OPENS OFFICE IN HERATThe Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) on 19 March opened an office in Herat, the first of seven planned regional offices, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported. The AIHRC was established under the provisions of the 2001 Bonn Agreement and plans to open offices in Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar, Bamyan, Jalalabad, Gardayz, and Fayzabad to address its nationwide mandate, the report added. Human rights groups have criticized Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan for his policies of segregating the sexes, as well as the treatment of prisoners and freedom of the media in the province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2002 and 13 and 16 January 2003). AT
 U.S. CONGRESSMAN WARNS OF POSSIBLE RETURN OF STONING IN AFGHANISTANRepresentative Ed Royce (Republican, California) presented a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives on 18 March condemning "death by stoning as a gross violation of human rights," according to a press release from the representative's office. While focusing on the practice of stoning in Nigeria, he also singled out Afghanistan as a possible area of concern. He noted that Afghan women lived under brutal conditions during Taliban rule and were subject to public stonings, and said: "Afghanistan remains a fragile state. Many parts of Afghanistan are struggling with the questions of how to govern. This resolution is our message that stoning should have no role in today's Afghanistan, or anywhere in today's age." Under the strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic jurisprudence), the punishment of women who are found guilty of adultery is death by stoning. Afghan criminal codes are under review and while there are no indications that the practice of stoning will be revived, there are signs that conservative forces might try to influence the new laws to contain some of the draconian rules that existed under the Taliban. AT
 IRAN REJECTS U.S. 'EMERGENCY' EXTENSIONU.S. President George W. Bush on 13 March submitted a six-month periodic report to Congress on the national emergency regarding Iran that was declared in Executive Order 12957 of 15 March 1995 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030313-9.html). This step originally was taken in reaction to the threat posed to the U.S. national security, foreign policy, and economy by the government of Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, its support for international terrorism, and its efforts to undermine the Middle East peace process. The national emergency will continue for one year because these threats continue, according to President Bush's statement. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 16 March that the extension of the emergency amounts to a "cliche devised for the American internal use," IRNA reported. He dismissed the measure as a reflection of Washington's "irrational" policies and a step that would contribute to America's international isolation. Nor will it have an impact on the Iranian people, according to Assef. "There has always been a civilized government ruling over Iran since centuries ago, and the efforts such as the senators' resolution never work with the Iranian people." BS
 SUPREME LEADER MEDIATES IN EXPEDIENCY COUNCIL DISPUTESupreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 18 March attempted to mediate in a row over the Expediency Council's decision to increase the Guardians Council's budget, IRNA reported. Khamenei met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, judiciary head Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and urged them to exercise solidarity. The outcome of the meeting is unknown. The Expediency Council in an 18 March statement rejected parliamentary protests that it had engaged in direct lawmaking, which is outside its remit, and it added that parliament had forwarded the Guardians Council's budgetary request with an explanatory note, IRNA reported. The Expediency Council went on to explain that the Guardians Council had threatened the entire budget if its request for extra funds was not approved. BS
 IRAN-RUSSIA TRADE TALKSIranian officials expressed hopes for long-term trade cooperation with Russia as the Iran-Russia Joint Economic Commission met in Tehran on 17-18 March, IRNA and Iranian state radio reported. Russian Property Relations Minister Farit Gasizullin headed a 50-member delegation. The Iranian head of the commission, Assadollah Asgaroladi, in an 18 March interview with Iranian state radio listed the main areas of trade with Russia as atomic energy and steel. He said the value of Iran's current imports from Russia stands at around $700 million but that Iran exports far less than that to Russia due to Russia's problematic banking system, transportation problems, and tariffs. Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref said Iran's cooperation with Russia is of a "strategic, long-term nature," ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. He noted the importance of an international north-south transport corridor being planned by Russia, Iran, and India. SF
 WORK ON BUSHEHR TO CONTINUE DESPITE WARRussian Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Andrei Malyshev said on 18 March that Russian specialists will continue their work on the Bushehr nuclear-power plant regardless of possible U.S. military operations against Iraq, ITAR-TASS reported. Malyshev added that Bushehr is 300 kilometers from the Iraqi border and it is well protected by the Iranian military. Presumably the defenses have improved since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, when the Iraqi Air Force bombed and damaged the Bushehr nuclear facility (in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988). Meanwhile, Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh said during a meeting with Russian Property Relations Minister Gasizullin that the Bushehr nuclear-power plant is expected to begin operating at the end of December 2004, Iranian state radio reported on 18 March. BS
 IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TOURS ARAB STATES TO PROTEST WAR...Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Abd al-Aziz Al-Saud al-Faysal on 18 March greeted Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi when he arrived in Jeddah, IRNA reported. Kharrazi is scheduled to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al-Saud and the foreign minister to discuss the looming U.S. attack against Iraq. "What is happening in the region is to safeguard the interests of Israel," Kharrazi said during a meeting with his counterpart. "Unfortunately, the gap between the Islamic countries is so wide and the Iraqi regime is responsible for this by sowing the seed of discord among Islamic states through imposing a war on Iran," he added. Kharrazi visited Sanaa on 17 March, met with President Field Marshal Ali Abdallah Salih and Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi, and expressed Tehran's opposition to a U.S. attack on Iraq, IRNA reported the same day and the Yemeni Saba news agency reported on 18 September. Kharrazi added that the Iraq crisis represents an American effort to divert attention from Palestine, Iranian state radio reported. BS
 ...AS PREDECESSOR HITS PAKISTAN...Former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati arrived in Islamabad on 19 March, IRNA reported. The Iranian state news agency had reported three days earlier that Velayati was to discuss the Iraq crisis with Pakistani officials and to relay a message from President Mohammad Khatami to General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan is currently one of the nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council, and Velayati said on 19 March that "Iran and Pakistan have been consulting and coordinating at different world forums such as the UN, [the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Non-Aligned Movement]." Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said in an 18 March statement that is his country's position is that Iraq must comply with all relevant UN resolutions, its disarmament must be secured peacefully and through credible inspections, and the Security Council must be united in achieving these objectives, Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported.
 ...AND INDONESIAFormer Iranian Foreign Minister Velayati visited Jakarta beforehand and delivered a message from President Khatami to President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Iranian state radio reported. "The attack on Iraq will start a new phase of international disorder and it will threaten world security and weaken the role of the UN as well," Velayati said. Megawati concurred on the need to resolve the Iraq crisis within the framework of the UN. BS
 TEHRAN RECALLS DIPLOMATS FROM BAGHDADThe Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on 19 March that it has recalled its diplomats from Baghdad, ISNA and IRNA reported. Family members have left the country in previous weeks. BS
 U.S. SAYS 30 STATES HAVE JOINED 'COALITION OF THE WILLING'U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on 18 March that 30 states have joined the "coalition of the willing" against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, AP reported the same day. "We now have a coalition of the willing that includes some 30 nations who publicly said they could be included in such a listing," Powell said, "and there are 15 other nations, for one reason or another, who do not wish to be publicly named but will be supporting the coalition." It is unclear whether any Arab states are supporting the U.S. position. There are none, however, on the list read by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher during an 18 March daily briefing (see http://www.state.gov), who listed the coalition states as: Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan. KR
 TURKISH CABINET SENDS U.S. TROOP MOTION TO PARLIAMENTTurkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek told reporters on 19 March that the Turkish parliament is likely to vote on 20 March on a motion permitting overflight rights to U.S. military aircraft, "Anatolia" reported. The motion also includes a provision for sending Turkish soldiers abroad. There is reportedly no provision for the stationing of additional U.S. troops on Turkish soil. Asked how many Turkish soldiers might be sent to northern Iraq, Cicek replied, "Their number will be as much as necessary." KR
 U.K. PARLIAMENT SUPPORTS GOVERNMENT DECISION TO HELP DISARM IRAQI REGIMEThe British Parliament voted to support a decision by Prime Minister Tony Blair to participate in a U.S.-led coalition to disarm the Iraqi regime, BBC News reported on 19 March. Debate on the vote, authorizing the use of "all means necessary" to disarm Hussein, extended late into the evening of 18 March, with 412 members voting in favor and 149 members voting against. "It is now time for all of us in Parliament and in the country to come together and show the support our armed forces deserve," a spokesman for Blair said after the vote. KR
 JORDAN RESTRICTS ENTRY OF IRAQISJordan has limited the entry of Iraqis into the Hashemite Kingdom, permitting only those with residence permits or those traveling to third countries across the Iraqi-Jordanian border, "The Jordan Times" reported on 19 March. An unnamed security official told the Amman-based daily that he received instructions not to allow Iraqi citizens to cross the border, except under those two conditions, adding, "We have seen only foreign diplomats working in Baghdad and Jordanian students from different Iraqi cities crossing the borders these two days." Meanwhile, Jordan is constructing two refugee camps near Al-Ruwayshid, 80 kilometers west of the Jordanian-Iraqi border, to accommodate Iraqi refugees. KR
 IRAQI PARLIAMENT HOLDS EMERGENCY SESSIONThe Iraqi National Assembly met in an emergency session on 19 March to discuss the ultimatum issued by U.S. President George W. Bush that President Hussein and his sons leave Iraq or face a U.S.-led strike, Al-Jazeera reported. National Assembly speaker Sa'dun Hammadi opened the session by stating, "What the U.S. administration is doing, and what its president announced recently, call for consternation and denunciation," adding, "Saddam Hussein is the leader of Iraq. He is the sincere son of the people." Hammadi went on to say that Iraq rejects the U.S. ultimatum, insisting: "We reject and denounce it, and we are all standing together behind our leader, and we're ready to defend our land. The fate of the invaders is the same -- failure and the curse of history," Reuters reported. Assembly Deputy Khalid Abd al-Aziz Salim addressed Bush in a speech to the assembly, saying: "You have not learned from your predecessors. You should step down and let the world live in peace or the consequences will be grave and the whole of America will carry your guilt and expose it to the unexpected." KR
 EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT BLAMES IRAQI REGIMEEgyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a 19 March speech to his country criticized the Iraqi regime for putting the region in peril, Reuters reported. "I hope that the Iraqi government recognizes the dangerous situation it has put itself and us in, and that the international powers recognize the dangerous consequences of any military action on security and stability of the Middle East countries as a whole," Mubarak said. Mubarak said the current crisis is the result of the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the "absence of any true Iraqi effort to deal with the crisis of confidence which came about as a result of this aggression and its effects." Mubarak added that Iraq could have done more over the last 12 years to rebuild the trust of its neighbors and the international community. KR
 IS SAUDI ARABIA ENCOURAGING HUSSEIN EXILE?A Saudi diplomat reportedly said the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is encouraging Iraqi President Hussein to seek exile, Reuters reported on 19 March. "The kingdom, and other parties, are exerting maximum effort to prevent a devastating war, and they have proposed the idea of exile for Saddam and securing a safe haven for him and his family," the source told Reuters. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal was asked if the kingdom would offer asylum to Hussein in an interview published in "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 9 March. Al-Faysal said his country has done "enough" in granting asylum to former Ugandan President Idi Amin and former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and that it would not take in Hussein. Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz presented a speech by Saudi King Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz on 18 March, Saudi Press Agency reported the same day. The speech notes that the kingdom will "in no way whatsoever" participate in a war against Iraq. King Fahd also stressed that his kingdom expects "the war to come to a conclusion once UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which concerns scrapping Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, is implemented." KR
 WILL POLITICAL REFORM LEAD UKRAINE OUT OF CRISIS?By Taras Kuzio
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma submitted draft political reforms to the Verkhovna Rada on 6 March, but those proposals are unlikely to overcome Ukraine's profound political crisis.
The need for change was highlighted by the findings of an opinion poll reported by "Ukrayinska pravda" on 11 March, according to which 45 percent of respondents backed radical change, 38 percent supported revolutionary reform, and 11 percent backed revolutionary changes. Only 6 percent believed changes were unnecessary.
That level of discontent notwithstanding, the authorities are continuing to put on a brave face on things. Looking to next year's presidential elections, presidential administration head Viktor Medvedchuk is convinced that "the authorities firmly believe in their victory in the future political battles."
Such optimism is largely unfounded. Kuchma's popularity is at an all-time low, hovering at 5-8 percent. In contrast, the presidents of Russia, Moldova, and Belarus enjoy popularity ratings of 72, 67, and 27 percent, respectively. A November-December poll by Democratic Initiatives Fund found that 55 percent of Ukrainians distrust Kuchma, while three-quarters would like to see him step down early.
The political crisis has its roots in the delegitimization of Ukraine's ruling class, the former Communist Party of Ukraine elite who became "sovereign communists" in the late Soviet era and "centrists" after Ukraine won its independence. This delegitimization makes it impossible to arrange a transfer of power similar to the one that occurred in Russia in 1999-2000, when Boris Yeltsin passed the torch to Vladimir Putin. In that Kuchma is widely perceived as "an extremely unpopular and incompetent leader," his endorsement would prove "a heavy weight that could drown" any potential presidential candidate, Razumkov Center President Anatoliy Hrytsenko wrote in the weekly "Zerkalo Nedeli" of 8-14 March.
Pro-presidential leaders are unpopular because of the public perception of the elites as corrupt, amoral, and indifferent to the needs of the population. Not surprisingly, therefore, a Razumkov Center poll found that 81.6 percent are opposed to Kuchma standing for a third term, while a similar figure opposes any potential attempt at granting him immunity from prosecution.
The front-runners from the first round of the 1994 presidential elections who went on to the second round were Leonid Kravchuk (37.27 percent) and Kuchma (31.27 percent), while Kuchma (36.49 percent) and Symonenko (22.24 percent) advanced in the 1999 elections. In opinion surveys, pro-presidential figures poll 5-8 percent, making it difficult to see how they could increase this figure to the more than 20 percent needed to win a place in the second round of the 2004 elections.
By contrast, opinion polls since 2000 have consistently indicated that opposition Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko wins ratings of 23-30 percent, with Communist leader Piotr Symonenko in second place with 11-16 percent. Yushchenko is also the only candidate with a consistently higher positive than negative rating.
With such public support, Yushchenko would be virtually guaranteed a place in the second round of 2004 elections, where he might face Symonenko, whom he would presumably defeat (as Kuchma did in 1999). As Hrytsenko concluded, "If this leadership carries on with its policies, it is doomed, and none of its candidates will get as far as the second round." Medvedchuk's claim in an interview in the newspaper "2000" that "the authorities are now stronger than ever before" therefore rings hollow.
But despite the clear need for radical reform, the changes that Kuchma has proposed as a means of defusing the crisis are merely a reworking of those put to a referendum in April 2000, the results of which were not recognized by either the Council of Europe or the OSCE. In 2000, voters were asked to approve or reject four proposals: a reduction in the size of parliament from 450 to 300 deputies; the creation of an upper house comprising regional representatives; the president power to dissolve parliament if no majority is formed within a month or no budget is passed within three months; and abolition of deputies' immunity from prosecution. Kuchma's new proposals include the first three of the 2000 proposals, but not the question of deputies' immunity.
In addition to reintroducing three of the four 2000 referendum questions, Kuchma has added fully proportional elections to the lower house. In 1994 and 1998, 50 percent of parliamentary deputies were elected in single-mandate constituencies, while the other 50 percent won seats under a proportional (party-list) system. In 2002, Kuchma opposed holding fully proportional elections, but changed his mind after the elections were over. Under his most recent proposals, elections to the lower house would be conducted under a proportional system.
Kuchma's proposals for a fully proportional election law were discussed in the Verkhovna Rada in February but failed to win the required number of votes for approval. The draft was backed by the ideologically driven left (Communists, Socialists) and the right (Our Ukraine, Tymoshenko). Most of the pro-presidential and ideologically amorphous "centrist" parties voted against the draft -- the one exception being the Social Democratic Party united (SDPUo), which is the only "centrist" party to have invested resources in developing a nationwide party structure, as a result of which it became the only "centrist" party to surmount the 4 percent threshold in the proportional vote in the 2000 elections.
Under Kuchma's proposals, the upper House of the Regions would include three representatives from each of Ukraine's 24 oblasts, the Crimean autonomous republic, and the two cities (Kyiv, Sevastopol) with all-union status, as well as former presidents. This would allow Kuchma to become a senator for two additional years after he leaves the president's office, tiding him over until the next lower-house elections in 2006.
When similar proposals were discussed in the 1990s, eastern Ukrainian elites rejected the creation of an upper house, saying it would give the less populous and rural western Ukraine an equal standing with the more populous east. As Kuchma opposes introducing elections for regional governors' posts, the appointed upper house would act as a pro-presidential body -- a counterweight to the lower house. (A similar model is in place in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia.)
The 2003 proposals thus reintroduce what Kuchma wished to obtain in the 2000 referendum, when Yushchenko was prime minister and there was a non-left majority comprising the "center" and the center-right. This unity was irrevocably destroyed by the so-called Kuchmagate crisis that began eight months later, in November 2000. After the 2002 elections, Kuchma sought to create a majority purely from the "center" to revive the 2000 reforms and ensure his own immunity from prosecution. One factor in the aim to transform Ukraine from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary-presidential republic is ensuring that if elected, Yushchenko would not inherit the extensive powers that Kuchma now wields.
Kuchma's reforms are to be the subject of Soviet-style public discussion throughout the country. As in the Soviet era, the authorities already claim that telegrams have been received from workers' collectives in support of the proposals. But Ukrainian journalists have pointed out that a free discussion is impossible because the media (especially television) are controlled by the state and oligarchs.
Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.