|Monday, 1 March 2021|
RFE/RL Newsline, 04-03-01
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 PUTIN MAKES HIS CHOICE FOR NEXT PRIME MINISTER...President Vladimir Putin on 1 March nominated Russia's representative to the European Union, Mikhail Fradkov, to become the next prime minister, Russian and international media reported. Putin, who dismissed the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on 24 February, made the announcement during a meeting with Duma leaders, part of which was broadcast live on ORT. RIA-Novosti on 1 March quoted Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov as saying the Duma will vote on the nomination on 5 March and that the Unified Russia faction -- which controls more than 300 votes in the Duma -- will support Fradkov's nomination. Strana.ru on 1 March quoted First Deputy Duma Speaker Aleksandr Zhykov as saying that "the structure of the new government will be changed markedly" and that its composition will be known within the next few days. RC
 ...AND, AS USUAL, IT'S A SURPRISEAlmost none of Russia's journalists or analysts mentioned Fradkov's name amid the speculation over who would succeed Kasyanov. "Vedomosti" reported on 1 March that President Putin had decided over the weekend to name deputy presidential administration head Dmitrii Kozak to the post, and that acting Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was his second choice. Expert Institute Executive Director Andrei Neshchadin told strana.ru on 1 March that Fradkov is a "fair bureaucrat" with "liberal-conservative" economic views. RC
 WHO IS FRADKOV?Mikhail Fradkov, 53, has served as President Putin's special representative to the European Union with ministerial rank since March 2003, lenta.ru reported on 1 March. From 2001-03, her served as head of the Federal Tax Police, having served as first deputy Security Council secretary since May 2000. From 1999-2000, he served as trade minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Putin. Noting Fradkov's experience with the Security Council and the Tax Police, Putin said during his nomination speech that Fradkov "has good experience combating corruption." Likewise, Duma Speaker Gryzlov said on 1 March that he knows Fradkov to be "a sincere, just, and genuine battler of corruption," newsru.com reported. RC
 PRIVATIZATION OFFICIAL CHARGED IN YUKOS-RELATED CASEIn a move seemingly connected to the state's ongoing criminal probes of the Yukos oil company and several of its subsidiaries and key shareholders, the Prosecutor-General's Office on 27 February charged Federal Property Fund Chairman Vladimir Malin with exceeding his authority in ending legal challenges to the 1994 privatization of a 20-percent stake in the Apatit fertilizer company, Russian media reported. Prosecutors allege that Malin caused "grave damage" to the state when he arranged a deal with oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii's bank Menatep in 2002, according to which the Menatep subsidiary that had acquired the Apatit stake agreed to pay $15.5 million in return for ending local officials' legal challenges to the acquisition. Local officials had charged that the Menatep subsidiary failed to make good on a requirement that it invest $283 million in Apatit in the year following the privatization. Last year, Khodorkovskii and Menatep Group Chairman Platon Lebedev were charged with fraud for their alleged roles in the Apatit privatization. Malin was released after being charged on the condition that he not leave Moscow, Interfax reported on 27 February. JB
 FSB ARRESTS QATARI CITIZENS IN APPARENT TIT-FOR-TAT...The Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested two citizens of Qatar on 28 February, just days after Qatari authorities charged two detained Russian special-services employees with the 13 February murder of former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). "Izvestiya," citing the Qatar News Agency, reported on 29 February that the two detained Qataris are members of Qatar's national judo team who had flown from Minsk to Moscow en route to Belgrade to participate in a qualifying tournament for the 2004 Athens Olympics. The two were arrested at a Moscow airport. Interfax on 28 February cited an "an informed source in Arab diplomatic circles in Moscow" as saying the two men have been charged with "offenses related to the activity of illegal armed groups on the territory of Russia." Qatar's "Al-Sharq" newspaper called the arrests "piracy and kidnapping," while another Qatar daily, "Al-Rayah," accused the Russian government of "acting like mafia," Reuters reported on 29 February. Al-Jazeera television reported on 1 March that the Qatari and Russian authorities will release each other's nationals shortly. JB
 ...AS RUSSIA SENDS LAWYERS FOR JAILED INTELLIGENCE AGENTSA team of Russian lawyers arrived in Doha, Qatar, on 29 February to provide legal aid to the two detained Russian special-services employees accused of assassinating former acting Chechen President Yandarbiev, RIA-Novosti reported. However, Russian Ambassador to Qatar Viktor Kudryavtsev told ITAR-TASS he is having trouble gaining access to the detainees. The Russian Foreign Ministry's special Middle East envoy, Aleksandr Kalugin, reiterated his ministry's insistence that Russia had nothing to do with Yandarbiev's killing, ITAR-TASS reported on 28 February. Echoing other Russian officials, Kalugin told the Saudi newspaper "Al-Riyadh" that he believes Yandarbiev's killing was the result of financial disputes among Chechen groups. Meanwhile, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Qatar, expressed "solidarity" with Qatar and condemned Yandarbiev's killing as "a criminal act that violates religious, moral, and human values," the "Gulf Daily News" reported on 1 March. The GCC statement, however, did not specifically mention Russia, and the GCC's Kuwaiti chairman, Kuwaiti Information Minister Muhammad Abu al-Hasan, said the crisis should not be blown out of proportion, the "Gulf Daily News" reported. JB
 RUSSIA SAYS IT CARRIED OUT TRAINING SPY FLIGHTS IN BALTIC REGIONThe Russian Air Force announced on 28 February that it has carried out some 10 reconnaissance flights in the Baltic region, Interfax reported. The head of the Air Force press service, Colonel Aleksandr Drobyshevskii, told the agency that two A-50 reconnaissance aircraft flew along Russia's borders with the Baltic states on 28 February and that an A-50 and an Su-24 flew reconnaissance missions in the area on 26 and 27 February. Russian Air Force Commander General Vladimir Mikhailov told foreign military attaches in Moscow on 27 February that reconnaissance aircraft had carried out training flights over neutral Baltic Sea waters in response to similar missions allegedly carried out recently by NATO E-3 AWACS surveillance aircraft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 February 2004). Also on 27 February, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis announced that three Russian diplomats were expelled on 20 February for allegedly trying to gather information about the impeachment of Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas "in an improper and illegal way," Russian and Western media reported. JB
 GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS ON RECENT MISSILE TESTSA commission set up to investigate the causes of the unsuccessful launches of sea-based ballistic missiles during recent strategic exercises believes the failure of two 17 February launches from the "Novovoskovsk" nuclear submarine might have resulted either from a fault in the vessel's navigation system or in the RSM-54 missile itself (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004), "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 27 February. The commission, which is headed by Colonel General Aleksandr Rukshin, deputy chief of the armed forces' General Staff and chief of the Main Operations Directorate, suspects the 18 February failure of a test RSM-54 launch from the "Karelia" nuclear sub (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 February 2004) was caused either by a malfunction in the missile's guidance system or incorrect missile targeting. The commission will also probe "the unsatisfactory organization of training and of the conduct of the exercises by the Northern Fleet command," "Kommersant-Daily" reported. The Defense Ministry's newspaper "Krasnaya zvezda" reported on 25 February that a new "hypersonic missile technology" tested during the exercises will allow strategic missiles to act like "a swarm of bees" and overwhelm any potential U.S. "umbrella" antimissile system. JB
 PUTIN WINS RUSSIA'S FIRST CELL-PHONE STRAW POLLThe Russian Foundation for Free Elections held a straw poll on 29 February in which mobile phone users could express their preference in the upcoming presidential election, Russian media reported. President Putin carried the day with the backing of nearly 64 percent of the more than 108,000 mobile-phone users who took part in the straw poll, RIA-Novosti reported. Irina Khakamada finished second with some 18 percent, followed by Sergei Glazev with 5 percent. Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov received 1.8 percent, and the other three candidates -- Ivan Rybkin, Sergei Mironov, and Oleg Malyshkin -- each received less than 1 percent. LB
 GLAZEV SAYS AUTHORITIES ARE HINDERING CAMPAIGNPresidential candidate Glazev on 28 February charged that regional and local authorities are interfering with his attempts to meet with voters and journalists, Interfax reported. He said that an alleged bomb threat was the pretext for disrupting a scheduled press conference in Yekaterinburg. Similarly, he had to conduct a press conference outdoors in Nizhnii Novgorod after the building where the event was scheduled suffered a power cut. Everywhere he goes, Glazev said, he has trouble arranging meetings with voters and has to hold campaign events outside. Glazev also said he suspects he is constantly being followed. He again vowed to stay in the presidential campaign until the end, despite what he described as intimidation designed to force him to drop out of the race. The election will be held on 14 March. LB
 KHAKAMADA ACCUSES MIRONOV OF DEFAMATIONPresidential candidate Khakamada vowed to sue Federation Council Speaker Mironov after a 27 February debate aired nationally on RTR, Russian media reported on 28 February. Given the chance to ask Khakamada a question during the debate, Mironov said: "People who have committed crimes are sponsoring you. Moreover, right now these people are not Russian citizens. If you become president, will you help return them to Russia?" A sharp exchange ensued in which Khakamada accused Mironov of violating the presumption of innocence for criminal defendants and repeatedly called on him to name those he characterized as criminals who are funding her campaign. Khakamada told Interfax that she was not interested in money and would be satisfied if, during another debate, Mironov apologized to her and admitted that his statement was false. Gazeta.ru reported on 27 February that Khakamada will file a defamation lawsuit against Mironov in civil court and will ask the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate a possible criminal charge of slander against Mironov. LB
 TV NETWORKS BALK AT RYBKIN COMMERCIALS...Presidential candidate Rybkin announced on 28 February that Russia's four leading television networks have so far refused to air his campaign videos during free or paid air time, Russian media reported. Faxes from ORT, RTR, NTV, and TV-Tsentr arrived at Rybkin's campaign within 30 minutes of one another on the evening of 27 February, gazeta.ru reported on 28 February, citing Rybkin campaign manager Kseniya Ponomareva. Ponomareva said the faxes contained questions and requests for additional documents. Ponomareva charged that the networks sent the faxes on a Friday evening in order not to have to acknowledge the campaign's official replies until Monday. She characterized some of the questions as "far-fetched." For instance, one network cited Article 49 of the presidential election law and demanded that President Putin provide written permission to use his image in the commercials. But, according to Ponomareva, Article 49 states that no permission is needed in order to include footage of statements made in public and reported by the media. LB
 ...AS COURT THWARTS HIS EFFORTS TO DEBATE FROM LONDONThe Supreme Court on 27 February cited jurisdictional grounds in declining to consider Rybkin's lawsuit against the Central Election Commission (TsIK), Russian media reported. Rybkin was challenging the TsIK's refusal to allow him to participate in televised campaign debates via satellite link from London. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 29 February, Rybkin announced plans to return to Moscow this week, although he didn't say exactly when, gazeta.ru reported. LB
 COMMUNIST YOUTH 'FLASH MOB' STRIKES PUTIN'S FORMER HOMESeveral dozen members of a Communist Party youth organization staged a "flash mob" outside a St. Petersburg apartment building in which President Putin once lived, gazeta.ru reported on 28 February. Wearing Putin masks and t-shirts with phrases such as "Vova, return home" and "We recall our resident!" youth from Moscow and St. Petersburg gathered and shouted a few slogans. Police dispersed the mob after a couple of minutes, according to gazeta.ru. LB
 NEMTSOV WISHES RUSSIA HAD MORE PROTESTANTSFormer Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-leader Boris Nemtsov argued that Protestantism has numerous advantages over Russian Orthodoxy and Islam, regions.ru reported on 28 February, citing sedmitsa.ru. "Protestants are hard-working people.... They lead a healthy way of life, raise their children right, [and] respect the law," Nemtsov said. He also claimed that "the protestant business ethic is much more effective for a state than the Muslim or even Orthodox [ethic]," and that all of Russia's protestants -- a small minority of the population -- vote for the SPS. Although Protestantism could, in Nemtsov's view, improve the quality of life in Russia, he expressed doubt that the protestant ethic could take root there. LB
 STAROVOITOVA MURDER TRIAL TO PROCEED IN OPEN COURTThe St. Petersburg Municipal Court on 27 February denied a request from prosecutors to keep journalists out of the courtroom during the trials of the six men accused of the November 1998 slaying of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, Interfax reported. State prosecutor Viktoriya Shuvalova had argued that witnesses giving evidence in court could be endangered if journalists report their identities. The judges held that the trial should proceed in open court because the case is of compelling public interest. According to Interfax, four witnesses have already testified. Prosecutors are expected to call 60 witnesses, and defense attorneys -- four. LB
 EVENK GOVERNOR BLOCKED FROM MEETING WITH PUTINEvenk Autonomous Okrug Governor Boris Zolotarev announced on 27 February that he was kept out of a meeting that President Putin held at the Krasnoyarsk airport with presidential envoy in the Siberian Federal District Leonid Drachevskii and Taimyr Autonomous Okrug Governor Oleg Budargin, regions.ru reported. Zolotarev said that when he learned of Putin's plans to visit Krasnoyarsk Krai, he tried to gain entrance to events including the airport meeting. However, the krai administration and the protocol department of the presidential administration assured him that other governors would not be included in those events. Taimyr and Evenk Autonomous okrugs are both subjects of the Russian Federation and constituent parts of Krasnoyarsk Krai. LB
 CHECHEN LEADER GIVES GREEN LIGHT FOR REBURIAL OF GEORGIAN EX-PRESIDENTThe Chechen leadership sees no obstacles to the re-interment of former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Tbilisi, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov's press service said on 27 February, Caucasus Press reported. Gamsakhurdia, who died in western Georgia in late December 1993, two months after a failed bid to return to power, was buried in Grozny on 24 February 1994 after a state funeral. Current Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on 26 January, one day after his inauguration, that he would like his predecessor to be reburied in Tbilisi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). LF
 DISPLACED PERSONS CAMPS IN INGUSHETIA TO CLOSEThree tent camps in Ingushetia that collectively house some 25,000 displaced persons from Chechnya are to be closed by the end of March, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 February, quoting a Chechen Interior Ministry official. On 29 February, Igor Yunash, who is first deputy head of the Federal Migration Service of the Russian Interior Ministry, said that the Bart camp will close within days, as there are only 20 families with a total of 67 people still living there. Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Bekhlis Badaeva told ITAR-TASS on 29 February that the Chechen government will cover the costs of the displaced persons' return from Ingushetia and pay them a per diem allowance of 14 rubles ($0.49) per person to cover the cost of renting accommodation in Chechnya, plus 6 rubles per day for food. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 CIS DEFENSE BODY REQUESTS OBSERVER STATUS AT UNIn its capacity as an international regional organization, the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB) has applied to the UN for observer status with that organization, "Voenno-promyshlennyi kurer" reported on 25 February, quoting CIS ODKB press secretary Aleksandr Orlov. The ODKB's members are Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. LF
 SLAIN ARMENIAN OFFICER BURIEDLieutenant Gurgen Markarian, who was killed in his sleep on 19 February, apparently by an Azerbaijani fellow participant in a NATO training program in Budapest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 February 2004), was buried in Yerevan's Yerablur military cemetery on 28 February, Noyan Tapan reported. Among the hundreds who attended the funeral was Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who attributed the killing to intensifying anti-Armenian propaganda in Azerbaijan. Speaking in Vienna on 26 February, Douglas Davidson, who is deputy U.S. representative to the OSCE Permanent Council, appealed to both Armenia and Azerbaijan not to allow the killing to impede efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict, Turan reported. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani online newspaper zerkalo.az reported on 28 February that no fewer than four public committees have been established to defend the rights of the suspected murderer, Ramil Safarov, whom public opinion reportedly regards as "an example for our youth." LF
 ARMENIAN APPEALS COURT UPHOLDS SENTENCE ON THREE PARLIAMENT GUNMENArmenia's Appeals Court rejected on 27 February an appeal by three of the seven men sentenced to prison in December in connection with the 27 October 1999 parliament shootings, Interfax and Noyan Tapan reported. The Review Court rejected a similar appeal last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2003 and 23 January 2004) Two of the three were sentenced to life imprisonment and the third to 14 years. They now plan to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. LF
 AZERBAIJANI OFFICER KILLED ON LINE OF CONTACTAn Azerbaijani junior officer died on 26 February after straying into a minefield along the Line of Contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, Turan reported on 27 February, citing the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. The Defense Ministry of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, however, said in a 27 February statement that the Azerbaijani officer died in an exchange of fire when Karabakh forces repulsed an attempt by a group of saboteurs to infiltrate Armenian-controlled territory, according to AFP on 28 February, as cited by Groong. LF
 AZERBAIJAN CRITICIZES ARMENIA OVER EU RULINGAzerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev told Turan on 27 February that the European Parliament's decision the previous day to drop from a draft resolution on the South Caucasus a demand that Armenian troops be withdrawn from five Azerbaijani districts in return for the resumption of rail traffic from Baku to Yerevan testifies to Armenia's "nonconstructive position and unwillingness to accept any proposals" made by the international community on resolving the Karabakh conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004 and End Note below). Guliev further accused Yerevan of "aggravating the situation" in the South Caucasus and of hindering the region's integration into European structures. LF
 PACE APPEALS TO GEORGIA TO AMEND ELECTION LEGISLATIONA three-person delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) issued a formal statement following talks last week in Tbilisi deploring the Georgian authorities' failure to act on recommendations made by international organizations following the 4 January extraordinary presidential ballot, Caucasus Press reported on 28 February. Noting that "parliamentary democracy cannot function without a viable opposition," the PACE delegates expressed concern at what it termed the Georgian leadership's incomprehensible unwillingness to lower the barrier for parliamentary representation under the proportional system from 7 percent to 4 percent or 5 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20, 24, 26, and 27 February 2004). The PACE delegates also argued that the composition of election commissions remains "undemocratic" and "biased" due to the overrepresentation on those commissions of individuals selected by the authorities. It noted that there is still time to convene an emergency session of the outgoing parliament before the 28 March parliamentary ballot to enact the recommended amendments to the election law. LF
 TBILISI, BATUMI RELEASE DETAINED GEORGIAN STUDENTSTwo students from Batumi who were detained in Tbilisi last week on suspicion of illegal possession of weapons were released on 27 February, Caucasus Press reported. They were then temporarily detained at the Tbilisi airport the same day, having given a pledge not to leave Tbilisi. However, following the intervention of Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, they were permitted to fly home to Batumi, where they were given a heroes' welcome, according to Caucasus Press on 28 February. In what Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze likened to "an exchange of wartime hostages," the Adjar authorities released on 28 February two members of the Georgian student movement Kmara! (Enough!), who were arrested in Batumi on 6 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 January 2004). LF
 GEORGIAN JOURNALISTS DEMAND RESIGNATION OF REINSTATED STATE MEDIA HEADA group of former employees of the Georgian State Television and Radio Corporation told a press conference in Tbilisi on 28 February that they will campaign for the dismissal of Zaza Shengelia, who was reinstated early last month as the corporation's head, the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported. They accused Shengelia of wasting investment funds during his earlier tenure as head of the corporation. Shengelia resigned on 19 November after then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze objected to the overly sympathetic coverage by state television of the ongoing opposition protests against the falsification of the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 November 2003). LF
 COURT DENIES BAIL TO FORMER GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S SON-IN-LAWA Tbilisi district court rejected on 28 February an appeal by Gia Djokhtaberidze, who is married to former President Shevardnadze's daughter, Manana, against a lower court's refusal to release Djokhtaberidze on bail of $1 million, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2004). Djokhtaberidze, who owns a 51 percent stake in Magticom, Georgia's largest cellular-communications company, is accused of withholding 700,000 laris ($337,044) in taxes. On 26 February, Caucasus Press reported that the Prosecutor General's Office has ordered the confiscation of Djokhtaberidze's stake in Magticom. LF
 EURASIAN ECONOMIC COMMUNITY HOLDS SUMMIT IN KAZAKHSTANPrime ministers of the member states in the Eurasian Economic Community (EES) -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan -- gathered in Almaty on 27 February to discuss trade issues, customs policy, World Trade Organization membership, and energy-sector cooperation, khabar.kz reported. Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov said on 27 February that the countries signed documents to "harmonize and coordinate positions on entry into the WTO," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Akhmetov added that the basic position adopted was that of the Russian Federation. Acting Russian Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko told journalists that the process of creating a single economic zone for EES countries should be completed by 2006, khabar.kz reported. Considerable skepticism surrounds the future prospects of the EES, which has had limited success in achieving its aims. Russian political analyst Sergei Markov told strana.ru on 27 February, however, that recent events indicate the organization is now on "firmer ground," with Russia and Kazakhstan acting as the driving forces for greater economic integration. DK
 KAZAKHSTAN, RUSSIA MAP OUT COOPERATION ON PIPELINES...During talks on the sidelines of the EES premiers' meeting in Almaty on 27 February, acting Russian Prime Minister Khristenko assured Kazakh Prime Minister Akhmetov that Russia is ready to offer Kazakhstan access to alternative pipeline routes to export its oil during the period until 2020, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 February. By 2020, it is anticipated that Kazakhstan's oil exports will increase to 160 million tons, compared with 44 million tons in 2003. Kazakhstan is considering both the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and pipelines to China, but President Nursultan Nazarbaev told Russian President Vladimir Putin in Astana on 9 January that Russia remains "export route No. 1" for Kazakh oil, according to ITAR-TASS on 9 January. LF
 ...AND CASPIAN SEA DEVELOPMENTActing Russian Prime Minister Khristenko also said following his talks with Kazakh Prime Minister Akhmetov that Russia and Kazakhstan will begin drilling test wells this summer in the Kurmangazy Caspian Sea oil field, which they are to exploit jointly under an agreement signed in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2002). No production-sharing agreement (PSA) for Kurmangazy has yet been signed, as Kazakhstan's KazMunayGaz is hoping to sell half of its 50 percent stake in the field to France's Total. However, Akhmetov said in Astana on 5 February that a PSA could be drafted during the first six months of this year, Interfax reported. LF
 KAZAKH PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER DENIES SHE IS OUT TO REPLACE HIMDarigha Nazarbaeva told a conference in Astana on 29 February of the Asar Party she founded last fall that rumors she claims are being spread by the opposition that she plans to build up Asar with the aim of eventually ousting her father, President Nazarbaev, are totally misplaced, Interfax reported. She predicted that Nazarbaev, who is 63, will be successfully re-elected president in 2006 and will serve in that capacity until his term ends in 2013. LF
 KAZAKHSTAN VOWS TO CRACK DOWN ON HUMAN TRAFFICKINGGovernment officials and representatives of NGOs and international organizations took part in a 28 February seminar on human trafficking organized by Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry, khabar.kz reported. Participants admitted that they have no data that would give even an approximate idea how serious that problem is in Kazakhstan. Only two criminal cases involving human trafficking in Kazakhstan have ever come to trial. LF
 SOROS FOUNDATION REBUTS 'INACCURACIES' ON UZBEKISTAN SUSPENSIONThe Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute in a 27 February statement on tribune-uz.info, a Soros-funded website, rebutted "certain inaccuracies" in recent reports about the suspension of its activities in Uzbekistan. The statement noted that all international organizations previously accredited through the Uzbek Foreign Ministry must reregister with the Justice Ministry as of 1 March. The foundation submitted the necessary documents to the Justice Ministry on 27 February and "hopes that the registration process will not take long." Beginning 1 March, the foundation will temporarily suspend its activities until the Justice Ministry approves its registration. The foundation confirmed that it has had some problems transferring money to grant recipients since January 2004, but said that payments made through the National Bank have been generally problem-free. The requirement that foreign NGOs reregister with the Justice Ministry has sparked reports that the Uzbek government is attempting to tighten its control over their activities. German NGOs indicated on 25 February that they hope to complete the registration process successfully and have no plans to curtail their activities in Uzbekistan, zamon.info reported on 27 February. DK
 TURKMENISTAN SIGNS UN COOPERATION ACCORDTurkmenistan signed a five-year cooperation accord with the United Nations on 28 February, ITAR-TASS reported. "This is the first document signed by Turkmenistan on a long-term partnership with various UN structures in essential areas of social cooperation such as health care, education and environmental protection," Khaled Philby, head of the UN representative office in Ashgabat, said. The document's signatories were Philby and Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. DK
Central And Eastern Europe
 BELARUS BUYS GAS FOR TWO MORE DAYSThe Russian gas trader Transneft has signed a contract to deliver 120 million cubic meters of gas to Belarus in the first two days of March at a price of $47 per 1,000 cubic meters, Belapan reported on 27 February, quoting Transneft Director Vladimir Kondrachuk. Last month, Belarus contracted to buy 640 million cubic meters of gas from Transneft, which satisfied Belarus's needs through the end of February. Minsk still has no contract with Gazprom on regular gas deliveries in 2004. Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski met with Russian Acting Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko in Almaty on 27 February to discuss the gas-supply issue. Sidorski reportedly said both governments will "intervene" in the ongoing negotiations on gas supplies between Gazprom and Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas transport monopoly. On the other hand, Khristenko said both sides confirmed their previous agreement to set up a 50-50 joint company to operate Belarus's gas-pipeline network, which is currently run by Beltranshaz. JM
 MINSK RESUMES REGULATION OF BREAD, DAIRY PRICESThe Belarusian government has resumed state regulation of prices for bread, milk, kefir, sour cream, and cottage cheese, Belapan reported on 29 February. State regulation of bread prices was cancelled in February 2003, while regulation of dairy prices ended in December 2002. JM
 KYIV REPORTS 9.3 PERCENT GROWTH IN 2003...First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said on 28 February that, according to the most recent calculations, Ukraine's GDP grew by 9.3 percent year-on-year in 2003, which is Ukraine's record high during its independence years, UNIAN reported. Earlier the State Statistics Committee had reported that GDP grew by 8.5 percent in 2003. JM
 ...AND SUCCESSFUL ISSUE OF $600 MILLION EUROBONDSThe press service of First Deputy Prime Minister Azarov said on 27 February that the government has successfully floated $600 million worth of Eurobonds with a seven-year maturity period and 6.875 percent return, Interfax reported. "The government has placed the bonds among respectable investors enjoying the reputation of 'financial engines' on steady markets," the press service added. JM
 FIRST ESTONIAN SOLDIER KILLED IN IRAQAndres Nuiamae, a 21-year-old junior sergeant serving in a peacekeeping operation in Iraq, was killed on 28 February when a buried explosive device exploded as he was conducting a foot patrol near a market in Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb district, BNS reported the next day. None of the other 11 Estonian soldiers on the patrol were injured. President Arnold Ruutel and Prime Minister Juhan Parts extended their condolences to Nuiamae's family on 29 February, with Parts vowing that the Estonian mission in Iraq will continue. Parliament National Defense Committee Chairman Sven Mikser of the opposition Center Party argued the same day that Estonia must continue participating in peacekeeping operations. "This is a tragic event, but we shouldn't change our positions," he said. "Other countries have victims too, and they haven't ended their mission." U.S. Ambassador to Estonia Joseph De Thomas has also extended his condolences to the Estonian government and people. SG
 LATVIA REFUSES VISA TO RUSSIAN STATE DUMA DEPUTY SPEAKERThe Latvian Foreign Ministry announced on 27 February that it will not grant Russian Deputy Duma Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin a visa that would allow him to attend a 6 March congress in defense of Russian-language schools and opposing the country's education reform, BNS reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Rets Plesums said visas were granted to two other Russian officials -- State Duma Property Committee First Deputy Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko and Duma foreign-affairs specialist Aleksandr Kuznetsov, who applied for visas together with Rogozin. Plesums said the ministry supports broad and open dialogue among politicians and good relations with neighboring countries, and welcomed the extension of an offer to State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov to visit Latvia. The ministry explained that previous public statements made by Rogozin "do not indicate willingness to develop a constructive dialogue among politicians." Latvian parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rihards Piks (People's Party) commended the decision, claiming that Rogozin "was not coming over as an official making an official visit. He would have come to instigate people to ethnic hatred." SG
 LITHUANIA DEPORTS THREE RUSSIAN DIPLOMATS FOR ALLEGED ESPIONAGEForeign Minister Antanas Valionis told a press conference on 27 February that three Russian diplomats have been expelled for activities "incompatible with [their] diplomatic status," BNS reported (see Russia item in today's "RFE/RL Newsline," Part I). The three Russian diplomats reportedly left Lithuania on 20 February. "We cannot allow foreigners to unlawfully influence privatization processes in Lithuania or try to receive secret [information]" from parliament regarding the ongoing presidential-impeachment process, Valionis said. The State Security Department issued a statement later that evening stating that the three Russians "applied intelligence measures and methods to make confidential contacts with Lithuanian citizens and officials of various institutions to receive classified information of Lithuania and international organizations -- the EU and NATO -- for monetary reward." Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko characterized the expulsion as an unfriendly action for which "the Russian side reserves the right to take appropriate reciprocal steps." SG
 POLISH ECONOMY MINISTER OFFERS FURTHER AUSTERITY MEASURESA package of bills related to an austerity plan of Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner that were handed down to lawmakers on 27 February provide for a cut of spending by a total of 54.4 billion zlotys ($14 billion) in 2004-07, not the original 49.4 billion zlotys proposed by Hausner in January (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 and 27 January 2004), PAP reported. "If it turns out that the Hausner package provides for measures to reduce the state's lending needs to approximately 3 percent of GDP in the next two years...it should be supported irrespective of the costs," opposition Civic Platform leader Jan Rokita said on 28 February. Rokita said, however, that the Hausner plan seems to be a propagandistic move intended primarily to make Prime Minister Leszek Miller's cabinet look credible on foreign financial markets. JM
 GERMAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS PRAGUE...German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his Czech counterpart Cyril Svoboda said on 27 February after meeting in Prague that their talks focused mainly on the draft European constitution and on finding solutions to current disagreements that will be mutually acceptable to large and small EU members, CTK and international news agencies reported. Fischer said he believes such solutions will be found during Ireland's current presidency of the EU. The two ministers refused to respond to questions about the row that erupted in Czech-German and Czech-Austrian relations last week, when the Czech lower house passed a bill praising late President Eduard Benes' contribution to Czechoslovakia's statehood. Fischer also met during his visit with Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, after which they said the talks concentrated on the future, not on the past, according to CTK. President Vaclav Klaus, speaking on TV Nova on 27 February, said he was angered by the Sudeten Deutsche Landsmannschaft's protest of the bill and has expressed his views in a letter to his Austrian counterpart Thomas Klestil, CTK reported. MS
 ...AND CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER RETURNS TO MIDDLE EASTForeign Minister Svoboda said on 28 February in Beirut after talks with his Lebanese counterpart Jean Obeid that as a new member of the EU, the Czech Republic intends to play an active role in finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, CTK reported. Svoboda said a resolution will not be found unless the conflicting sides manage to reestablish dialogue, end violence and terrorism, and abide by the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Svoboda also met with Lebanese President Emil Lahoud and with Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. On 29 February, he met in Damascus with President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shaara to discuss the situation in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and bilateral economic relations. Also discussed was the pending EU-Syria association agreement, on which Svoboda insisted on the need to include a clause providing for the abolition of weapons of mass destruction. Al-Shaara said Syria would agree to include the clause only if all other countries in the Middle East do so. This is Svoboda's second tour of the region this year. In January, he visited Egypt and the territories under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and last year he visited Israel. MS
 CORRECTION:The 23 February "RFE/RL Newsline" item titled "Former Anticommunist Czech Dissident Dies" should have reported that the Warsaw Pact invasion took place in 1968.
 SLOVAK PRESIDENTIAL CONTENDERS CLASH ON TV...Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan and former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar exchanged accusations and insults in a debate broadcast by TV Markiza on 27 February, CTK reported. Polls indicate the two politicians are leading the field among presidential candidates in the elections slated for 3 April. Kukan denied as an "outrageous lie" accusations by Meciar that he vacationed in November 2002 with businessman Jozef Majsky, who has been detained for more than a year on suspicion of fraud in connection with the collapse of investment funds. Kukan said the occasion in question was a hunting party in the Serbian region of Vojvodina to which Majsky was invited in his former capacity as Slovak honorary consul in Cyprus. MS
 ...AS HUNGARIAN PARTY DECIDES TO BACK SLOVAK CHRISTIAN DEMOCRAT CANDIDATEJunior ruling-coalition member Slovak Hungarian Coalition (SMK) has called on its members to support Frantisek Miklosko, the candidate of coalition partner Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), in the 3 April presidential elections, TASR reported. Following a 28 February meeting of the SMK leadership, party Chairman Bela Bugar said Miklosko shares many of the SMK's own values. Bugar also said the SMK is recommending that its supporters refrain from voting on 3 April in the nonbinding referendum on early elections called by President Rudolf Schuster. Bugar said early elections will not solve the country's current problems, but could serve the interests of parties that utilize populist or nationalist slogans. The KDH made a similar recommendation to its followers on 28 February. MS
 SLOVAK PRESIDENT MEETS WITH ROMANY REPRESENTATIVESIn Kosice on 29 February, President Schuster received representatives of the Romany Parliament organization, CTK reported. Schuster told journalists that he agrees with the demand made the previous day by the Romany Parliament that police and military forces deployed following rioting and looting in Slovakia last week be withdrawn. Schuster also called on Romany Parliament representatives to try to alleviate tension by agreeing to talks with the authorities. He also called on parliament to amend the legislation that cut social benefits, prompting protest demonstrations and looting incidents. Interior Ministry spokesman Boris Azaltovic told TASR on 28 February that security forces will remain deployed in eastern Slovakia as long as risks of renewed unrest remain. Romany Parliament Chairman Ladislav Fizik said on 28 February that members of the organization might block border-crossing points and highways this week. In a statement released on 27 February, the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center said last week's unrest resulted from the Slovak government's failure to solve the serious social problems of the Romany minority and to put an end to anti-Roma discrimination and systematic violations of human rights, CTK reported. MS
 HUNGARIAN PREMIER TO CALL PLEBISCITES ON CONSTITUTIONAL-AMENDMENT PROPOSALS?Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy on 28 February said he is ready to launch a referendum if the four parliamentary parties do not take seriously the proposals he made in his 16 February "state of the nation" speech (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004), Hungarian radio reported. Speaking to the Miskolc County branch of the ruling Socialist Party (MSZP), Medgyessy said parliamentary parties do not oppose him on the issue of reducing the size of the parliament to 250 deputies or on having direct presidential elections. He said his proposals received the Socialists' full support, but warned that he will initiate a referendum if other parties fail to discuss his proposals. According to government spokesman Zoltan Gal, Medgyessy envisages a binding referendum on a smaller parliament and a nonbinding referendum on the direct election of the president, Hungarian radio reported. Coalition member Free Democrats and the opposition FIDESZ and Democratic Forum all rejected the idea of holding a referendum on these issues. MSZ
 TENSIONS CONTINUE TO MOUNT IN RULING HUNGARIAN PARTYPrime Minister Medgyessy on 28 February expressed his dissatisfaction with disputes within the MSZP, telling Culture Minister Istvan Hiller and Sports Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany that "one cannot fix a car while it is moving," "Nepszabadsag" reported. The two ministers last week compared the party to "a car that needs repairs to its chassis and axle." In his address to the MSZP's national council, Medgyessy advised the two ministers to concentrate on "pushing the gas pedal rather than the brake." In reply, Gyurcsany said the party's problem lies not in a lack of discipline in communication matters, but in policy difficulties. Modernization cannot solve the problems of social welfare, Gyurcsany argued. Medgyessy said that "as a nonparty person" he is asking the Socialists to "put their house in order," the daily reported. MSZ
 RIGHTIST HUNGARIAN OPPOSITION LEADER EXTOLS 'WORKING CLASS'Conservative FIDESZ party chairman and former Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on 27 February that it is the task of the "popular party" that FIDESZ strives to become to bring the "working class" closer to public life, Hungarian media reported. Orban spoke on the occasion of the formation of FIDESZ's "workers and employees" party section, introducing the section's leader, Pal Kontur. Orban said the working class has been abandoned by Hungary's political class and that it is time to move beyond traditional divisions into left and right, socialists and conservatives. He also said than when the former [communist] Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party changed its name in October 1989, the wrong word (workers) was deleted from the party's name, just as the working class faced a world of market economy and entrepreneurs. Speaking on Kossuth Radio the same day, Orban said there is a reason why some elderly and middle-aged people look back with nostalgia on the Janos Kadar communist era, when they had a greater sense of social security. MS
 HUNGARIAN INTERIOR MINISTER DISAPPROVES OF SZEKLER-AUTONOMY DRIVE IN ROMANIAInterior Minister Monika Lamperth said during a 28 February visit to Capus, Cluj County, that an "aggressive approach" to the Hungarian minority's aspiration to autonomy cannot produce the desired results, Mediafax reported. Lamperth was referring to the draft law submitted by supporters within the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) of the Szekler National Council (SZNT in Hungarian, CNS in Romanian) initiative (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). The agency quoted Lamperth as saying: "I cannot agree with initiatives likely to bring about a split in the ranks of the UDMR and in the Hungarian [ethnic] community" of Romania, "particularly when it runs the danger of eliminating the UDMR for the decision-making process." A public-opinion poll recently conducted by IMAS showed for the first time that the UDMR might fail to pass the 5 percent electoral threshold in the parliamentary elections slated for November, Romanian media reported on 1 March. The poll showed the UDMR is supported by just 3.8 percent of the electorate. MS
 MACEDONIA'S PEOPLE MOURN THEIR PRESIDENT...Dozens of Macedonian citizens from all ethnic groups paid tribute on 29 February in Skopje to the late President Boris Trajkovski, who was killed in a plane crash in Herzegovina three days earlier, along with eight other passengers and crewmembers, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February 2004). Ali Ahmeti, who represents the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) in the governing coalition, said: "We all want this country to be led by someone who has respect for all of the people of Macedonia. Trajkovski's death is a great loss for all of us." Starting soon after the crash, many citizens spontaneously went to the lawn in front of the president's office to place candles and written messages. It is not clear when the funerals of Trajkovski and the eight other crash victims will be held, since DNA tests to identify the badly burned bodies could take several days. PM
 ...AS AN INVESTIGATION BEGINS...Speaking in the Herzegovinian city of Mostar on 29 February, Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski demanded a quick and thorough investigation of the 26 February plane crash in which President Trajkovski died, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Crvenkovski indicated that he does not want the plane's black box to be examined in Paris. The air-traffic controllers at Mostar airport were French SFOR members. According to Hina, when asked by reporters to comment on the possible responsibility of the French peacekeepers, Crvenkovski replied: "I do not wish to prejudge matters at this stage. It would be irresponsible of me to blame [anyone in particular]." Elsewhere, the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo announced that experts from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will participate in the investigation, MIA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February 2004). UB
 ...AND BOSNIA TAKES STOCKIn Sarajevo, an SFOR spokesman denied Bosnian and Macedonian press reports suggesting that peacekeepers performed badly in connection with the crash that killed President Trajkovski on 26 February, local media reported on 1 March. Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic said he will insist on talks with SFOR's chief commander, General Virgin Packett, to discuss SFOR's handling of the matter, Hina reported. Shortly before the crash, flight controllers told the pilot of the ill-fated plane that he was flying too low, "Oslobodjenje" reported. He was apparently flying at an altitude of just 600 meters, which was considerably lower than what he should have been. Bosnia's civil-aviation authority nonetheless cautioned against prejudging the possible causes of the accident, which also include bad weather, human error, and faulty equipment on the plane. PM
 CONFLICTING VIEWS OF BOSNIA'S NATIONAL HOLIDAYSulejman Tihic of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) replaced Dragan Covic of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) as rotating chairman of the Bosnian Presidency on 28 February for an eight-month term, local media reported. On 1 March, he sent greetings to all Bosnian citizens on the national holiday marking the anniversary of the successful 1992 referendum on independence from former Yugoslavia. But Borislav Paravac, who is the Serbian representative on the Bosnian Presidency, said that Serbs do not consider 1 March a holiday because they would have preferred to stay in the former state, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. PM
 HUNGARIAN OFFICIALS DETAIN AND RELEASE KOSOVAR LEADERHungarian border police detained and released Agim Ceku, the commander of the civilian Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), at Budapest's Ferihegy International Airport on 29 February on the basis of an international arrest warrant issued by the Serbian branch of Interpol, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 October 2003). Ceku was reportedly released after Croatian Embassy officials confirmed that he is a Croatian citizen and is not wanted in Croatia. He is expected to return to Kosova soon. In Prishtina, Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova called Ceku's detention an "unacceptable action." Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi said the incident damaged the atmosphere for the upcoming talks on practical matters between Kosovar and Serbian officials (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October and 19 December 2003 and 13 February 2004). In 2002, a court in Nis convicted Ceku of "genocide" against the Serbian minority in Kosova. He is an ethnic Albanian former Yugoslav army officer who served as a Croatian citizen and general in the Croatian Army during the 1991-95 conflict. PM
 SERBIA'S CROATS FORM A SINGLE POLITICAL PARTYThe Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina (DSHV) and the Croatian People's Alliance (HNS) signed a declaration in Subotica on 29 February to unite under the DSHV name, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The move to close rifts in Vojvodina Croatian political life comes at a time of Serbian nationalist attacks on ethnic minorities and moves in the Serbian parliament to guarantee legislative seats for the ethnic minorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 30 January 2004). PM
 SERBIAN RIGHTS LEADER SAYS TWO TOP INDICTED WAR CRIMINALS ARE SAFE IN SERBIANatasa Kandic, who heads the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center and is widely regarded as Serbia's leading human rights activist, told the Vienna-based weekly "Profil" that indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic are safe in Serbia because there is not sufficient international pressure on the Serbian authorities to bring about the two men's extradition, the private Beta news agency reported on 1 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12, and 27 February 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January and 20 February 2004). She added that it would be a serious blow to international justice if the Hague-based war crimes tribunal concludes its work without having tried Karadzic and Mladic. PM
 ROMANIAN PREMIER IDENTIFIES FUTURE DEPUTIESPrime Minister Adrian Nastase announced on 28 February that after parliament approves the planned reorganization of the cabinet, the government will have three ministers of state, the daily "Evenimentul zilei" reported. Nastase previously said the reorganized cabinet would have two such ministers, having status equivalent to deputy prime ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). The three are Ioan Talpes, current Economy and Trade Minister Dan Ioan Popescu, and Interior and Public Administration Minister Ioan Rus. Talpes, the former head of Foreign Intelligence Service and current presidential counselor for military affairs, will not be in charge of any government portfolio and will be tasked with coordinating in the cabinet European integration, judicial, and defense affairs. Popescu is to oversee aspects of the economy and Rus, administrative and social-affairs issues. Mediafax reported on 27 February that the government-reorganization plan will be submitted to parliament following a delay, as the Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance is challenging the plan before the Constitutional Court. The alliance says the constitution makes no allowance for ministers of state. MS
 ROMANIAN MINERS, GOVERNMENT REACH SETTLEMENTStriking miners in Oltenia and representatives of the government reached an agreement on 27 February stipulating that the miners' wages will be raised by 9 percent and their representatives will be consulted ahead of planned layoffs stemming from the liquidation of the National Lignite Company Oltenia, Mediafax reported. Following the agreement, the miners called off plans to demonstrate in Bucharest this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 26 February 2004). MS
 MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT EXTENDS CONTINGENT'S SERVICE IN IRAQParliament on 27 February prolonged the term of duty of the 42 Moldovan peacekeepers in Iraq without specifying the length of the extension, Flux reported. The contingent left for Iraq last September and was expected to return to Moldova next month. Defense Minister Victor Gaiciuc said their service was extended at the request of the United States. The Moldovan battalion is serving in humanitarian operations, according to its mandate. MS
 MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT SEEKS TO REASSURE RUSSIA OVER TRANSDNIESTER, EU INTEGRATIONIn an interview with the Russian-language "Kishinevskie novosti" of 27 February, President Vladimir Voronin said Russia will retain a key role in the settlement of the Transdniester conflict, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that thanks to Russia's assistance, Chisinau and Tiraspol were "very close to a [final] settlement of the conflict" in November, but that in the end "we failed because the Transdniester conflict cannot be settled without international guarantees." Voronin described Russian-Moldovan relations as "unshakable" and said anyone who attempts to undermine them is doomed to fail. He also said Moldova's efforts to achieve European integration will not come at Russia's expense or disadvantage. A "modernized and European Moldova," he said, will be in a better position to promote a constructive dialogue between Europe and Russia, he stressed. MS
 FORMER BULGARIAN PREMIER ANNOUNCES NEW PARTYFormer Prime Minister Ivan Kostov told a gathering of 2,000 followers in Sofia on 28 February that his new party will be founded by May, BTA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January, 19, 23, 24, and 25 February 2004). In the meantime, a body comprising seven lawmakers of the United Democratic Forces (ODS) and representatives of nonparliamentary organizations will work out the new party's program and rules. In his keynote speech, Kostov read his "Call for a Strong Bulgaria in a United Europe," which lauds his own government (1997-2001) as the first conservative one in Bulgaria, and for facilitating the country's integration with NATO and Europe and overcoming communism. However, Kostov said, many people believe that Bulgaria's democracy is only a facade, behind which communists still control the economy, the state, and the media. "That is why our anticommunism is still necessary...and does not depend on whether the [Bulgarian Socialist Party, the successor to the Communist Party] is reformed or not," Kostov said. His new political project envisions a strong democratic Bulgaria with a competitive economy and European living standards. UB
 NEW PRE-ELECTION COALITION FORMED IN BULGARIAUnited Labor Block (OBT) Chairman Krastyo Petkov, National Movement for Rights and Freedoms (NDPS) Chairman Guner Tahir, and Yane Yanev, who heads the National Association-BZNS, signed an agreement on 29 February to form a pre-election coalition, BTA reported. The three parties have some 40,000 members combined, according to the party leaders. Yanev said the new coalition cannot be characterized as either leftist or rightist, while Petkov said it will be a coalition of a "modern social and economic nationalism." Thus far, only the OBT is represented in parliament, where it is part of the parliamentary group of the Socialist-dominated Coalition for Bulgaria. UB
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 EIGHT AFGHANS AMONG 11 KILLED IN PAKISTAN SHOOTINGEight of the 11 people killed near Wana, in Pakistan's South Waziristan region on 28 February were Afghans, including a 14-year-old boy, the Islamabad daily "The News" reported on 29 February. Six others were injured in the shooting. The incident occurred when Pakistani soldiers opened fire on two vehicles that did not stop at a roadblock, the BBC reported 28 February. Initially, Pakistani military sources said that while some civilians might have been killed, militants initiated the attack. However, an unidentified Pakistani intelligence source called the incident "mistaken fire." Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has called for an immediate inquiry into the incident, and has expressed his deep sorrow to the families of those killed, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on 1 March. Speaking before the Pakistani Senate on 29 February, Minister for Water and Power Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, said that while the Wana incident is regrettable, it should be viewed against the background of Pakistan's national security, Pakistan Television reported. South Waziristan is considered to have served as a sanctuary for the Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives since the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. AT
 AFGHAN SOLIDER KILLED AT CUSTOM HOUSE CLASHOne Afghan soldier was killed and two were injured in a 1 March clash that occurred at the customs house of the southeastern Afghan city of Khost, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. The clash took place between local residents and soldiers belonging to Khost Military Division No. 25. The cause of the fighting is not known, but an unspecified number of local residents have reportedly been arrested. AT
 JUNBISH HANDS OVER WANTED AFGHAN COMMANDERSThe Junbish-e Melli party has handed over four of its commanders to authorities in northern Afghanistan's Balkh Province, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 1 March. Faizullah Zaki, a spokesman for Junbish leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum, confirmed the handover of four commanders and added that the party is committed to finding and handing over four other commanders wanted by the authorities. The eight Junbish commanders have been accused of killing four commanders belonging to the rival Jamiat-e Islami party on 18 February in Balkh Province's Sholgara District (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2004). AT
 AFGHAN FORCES DESTROY DRUGS LABMembers of the First Frontier Brigade in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province have destroyed a laboratory allegedly used to produce heroin, Hindukosh news agency reported on 29 February. The operation against the Khoginani District laboratory netted 80 500-kilogram bags of opium and equipment used to produce heroin. At a 26 February meeting in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar Province, Counternarcotics Directorate head Mirwais Yasini stressed the need to combat the sharp rise in poppy production in eastern Afghan provinces, where two-thirds of the irrigated land has reportedly been cultivated with opium poppies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). AT
 IRANIAN PRESIDENT RETURNS FROM SUMMIT OF DEVELOPING COUNTRIESMohammad Khatami said on 29 February upon his return from the Group of 15 summit in Caracas that the heads of the states participating in the summit of developing countries discussed closer cooperation and taking "a more critical approach" toward developed countries, IRNA reported. The group -- which includes Iran, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil -- stressed closer cooperation and trade exchanges as well as efforts to defend the rights of developing states and "remove a sense of inferiority" vis-a-vis rich countries, IRNA reported. Khatami said on 29 February that Iran plans to build in Venezuela a cement factory and an assembly plant that will build 5,000 tractors a year, according to ISNA. Khatami reportedly refused to meet during the summit with Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner, and will not do so, according to ILNA on 29 February, "until the Argentinian government withdraws its accusation of Iran's involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires." VS
 IRAN INKS DEFENSE-COOPERATION AGREEMENT WITH SYRIAIran and Syria signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation during Iranian Defense Minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani's visit to Damascus and Lebanon over the weekend, IRNA reported on 29 February. The agreement is intended to "develop and consolidate defensive and military ties between the two states, with the aim of strengthening political, economic, and security relations between Tehran and Damascus, and creating peace and stability in the Middle East," IRNA quoted Shamkhani as saying in Tehran on 29 February. Regarding the outcome of his talks in Lebanon, Shamkhani said an Iranian team will inspect the equipment of the Lebanese Army and submit its findings to a committee that will determine how Iran can help modernize and equip the force in a manner that will "strengthen that country's army as a national army." Meanwhile, an Iranian official confirmed on 28 February that Iran and Iraq have freed all prisoners remaining from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, AP reported on 28 February. The last prisoners of war were exchanged in May, AP cited General Abdullah Najafi as saying. VS
 HEALTH MINISTRY SAYS MORE THAN 6,000 IRANIANS HIV-POSITIVEThe Health Ministry has announced that 6,337 people in Iran have contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, ILNA reported on 29 February. Of these, 194 men and 19 women have developed AIDS-related symptoms, the agency added. The ministry's figures showed that most HIV-positive Iranians are men, and that 736 people have already died of AIDS in Iran. The ministry reported that 3,841 people contracted the virus through intravenous drug use, 445 from sexual intercourse, 201 from blood transfusions, and 27 by mother to infant transmission. Experts are unsure how the remaining 1,823 people listed might have contracted the virus, the agency reported. Iran's religious laws forbid sexual relations outside marriage. VS
 IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL AGREES ON TRANSITIONAL ADMINISTRATION LAWThe Iraqi Governing Council agreed on 1 March on a draft Transitional Administration Law that would act as Iraq's interim constitution until a permanent constitution is drafted and put to a national vote, international media reported. "Islam will be the official religion of the state, and it will be a source...of legislation," Governing Council spokesman Hamid Kifa'i told the BBC. "Also, the law will say to respect Islam as the religion of the majority." Meanwhile, Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi, told Al-Arabiyah television that the law also provides for Kurdistan to retain its current status, leaving the question of the region's future autonomy to an elected government. Qanbar also said the new Transitional Administration Law provides for one president and one prime minister, Al-Arabiyah reported. The transitional law will be officially signed on 3 March, Reuters reported. KR
 IRAQI DONORS COMMIT $1 BILLION FOR IRAQI PROJECTSIraqi donors meeting in Abu Dhabi (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 February 2004) agreed on 29 February to fund some $1 billion in reconstruction projects this year, Reuters reported. Iraq had requested that donors contribute $4 billion of the $15 billion in non-U.S. pledges made during the Madrid Donors' Conference in October. Iraqi Planning Minister Mehdi al-Hafiz, who led the Iraqi delegation to the conference, said: "This will be a strong starting point.... We feel grateful to the donors and thank them." World Bank officials told Reuters that donors have already begun distributing the aid money to two Iraqi trust funds. Meanwhile, it was announced that the next round of donor talks will convene in Doha in May, iribnews.com reported on 29 February. The World Bank, the UN, and Iraqi representatives are expected to attend that meeting. KR
 GOVERNING COUNCIL CANCELS DECISION NO. 137...The Iraqi Governing Council voted on 28 February to cancel the controversial Decision 137, which sought to alter the personal status law in Iraq, London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported. The decision, which was ratified in December, sought to replace civil law with Islamic Shari'a law with regard to family issues, potentially setting back women's rights in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004). Iraqi Governing Council members Mahmud Uthman and Nasir Kamil Chadirchi supported fellow council member Raja Habib al-Khaza'i in her request to revisit the decision, while Adnan Pachachi, who chaired the council meeting, put the vote on the agenda. Fifteen members of the council voted to repeal the decision, while five members -- all reportedly Shi'ites -- voted against the repeal. Salim Chalabi -- representing his uncle, Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi -- voted in favor of the repeal, but reportedly left the Governing Council session along with the five Shi'ite groups that opposed the repeal. KR
 ...AS SHI'ITE LEADER SAYS CANCELING IT WAS ARBITRARYHamid al-Bayati, spokesman for Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, told Al-Jazeera television on 28 February that al-Hakim and fellow Shi'ites walked out of the Governing Council session in protest of the "arbitrary way" in which Decision 137 was presented for cancellation. "Discussing Law No. 137 was not on the agenda," he said. Al-Bayati added that Decision No. 137 was designed to protect all sects in Iraq. "This law came to serve all denominations, ethnic groups, and sects because it gives the right for each denomination, ethnic group, sect, and religion to be legally tried according to its ethnicity, religion, sect, and principles in civil-status issues." "However, some parties tried to take advantage of the law to tarnish the reputation of SCIRI, saying it was a law aimed against women and liberties and that it encourages sectarianism," he added. He further contended that had Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer signed the December decision, which was introduced and passed when al-Hakim served as council president, it would have "restored matters to their normal condition" by "giving everyone their rights." KR
 FIRST ESTONIAN SOLDIER KILLED IN IRAQAndres Nuiamae, a 21-year-old junior sergeant serving in a peacekeeping operation in Iraq, was killed on 28 February when a buried explosive device exploded as he was conducting a foot patrol near a market in Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb district, BNS reported the next day. None of the other 11 Estonian soldiers on the patrol were injured. President Arnold Ruutel and Prime Minister Juhan Parts have on 29 February extended their condolences to Nuiamae's family, with Parts vowing that the Estonian mission in Iraq will continue. Parliament National Defense Committee Chairman Sven Mikser of the opposition Center Party argued the same day that Estonia must continue participating in peacekeeping operations. "This is a tragic event, but we shouldn't change our positions," he said. "Other countries have victims too, and they haven't ended their mission." U.S. Ambassador to Estonia Joseph M. De Thomas has also extended his condolences to the Estonian government and people. SG
 EU PARLIAMENT ADOPTS REPORT ON SOUTH CAUCASUSBy Ahto Lobjakas
The European Parliament adopted on 26 February a report on the South Caucasus that urges the EU to strengthen its ties with the region. The report also urges the neighbors of the three South Caucasus countries -- specifically Russia and Turkey -- to play a more constructive role in facilitating reconciliation of the region's so-called "frozen conflicts." However, the report also acknowledges that formidable obstacles exist to a greater rapprochement with the EU.
The 26 February report follows the EU's volte face one month earlier, when on 26 January its members reversed their decision to leave Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan out of the "Wider Europe" initiative unveiled last year. The 26 February report authored by Swedish parliamentarian Per Gahrton welcomes that decision, but demands that the bloc do more. Specifically, it asks the EU to contribute more aid, take steps to establish free trade, improve coordination of its involvement in the region, and extend the powers of its special representative to the South Caucasus. The report also says the EU must bring pressure to bear on Russia and Turkey to help resolve conflicts involving the three countries.
When it comes to foreign policy, however, the European Parliament can only act in an advisory capacity. This was evident in the address to the European Parliament by Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external relations. Reflecting widespread skepticism among EU member states -- with which most decision-making powers in foreign policy rest -- Patten put the onus on Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to begin implementing reforms themselves: "The European Union is closely monitoring developments in all three countries, to see whether there is continued progress toward democracy and continued progress in the economic sphere. We want to see a credible and a sustained commitment to reform, clearly reflected in concrete steps forward -- for example, in fighting corruption."
Many member states are concerned that the inclusion of the three South Caucasus countries will divert attention from other "new neighbors," especially those on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The inclusion of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the "Wider Europe" program at the EU's June summit now appears likely. However, key to their hopes will be whether the decision is accompanied by concrete proposals for aid and integration.
Georgia, thanks to the positive international response generated by its November 2003 so-called Rose Revolution, appears best placed. There is some support among the member states to elevate Georgia to the ranks of those "new neighbors" -- such as Moldova and Ukraine -- which will receive concrete EU "action plans" in June.
Although the European Parliament would like to see greater EU involvement in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus, this appears to be a long way off. Patten indicated the bloc is not prepared to play an active mediating role. He said that, "On the issue of conflict resolution and reconciliation, the European Commission continues to provide its full support to the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and the United Nations in their efforts to resolve the region's frozen conflicts. I was pleased that we were able to discuss some of these matters with the presidency-in-office of the OSCE at the beginning of this week. We stand ready to assist postconflict reconstruction following peace settlements or to assist measures agreed between parties to the conflict, which would reduce tensions and raise confidence between the two sides."
Gahrton, the author of the parliament's report, described the situation in the South Caucasus in an accompanying explanatory note as resembling a "powder keg." He listed internal divisions, a "democratic deficit," poverty and corruption, as well as the so-called "frozen conflicts," to support that point. But he went on to note that the EU "does not appear to view either its security interests in relation to the South Caucasus, or the benefits of deeper economic relations, as important enough to motivate its greater commitment."
The parliament's report repeats earlier calls by deputies to sponsor a comprehensive "stability pact" for the South Caucasus. But Patten said on 26 February that idea is premature.
"The European Parliament takes note of the call for a stability pact for the region. I have to say when the issue was first raised a couple of years ago, there didn't seem to be all that much support for the idea. I'm not yet wholly convinced that the time is ripe yet to return to it. Certainly, it has budgetary consequences, which we'd want to look at in some detail," Patten said.
Other calls which the member states or the European Commission may find hard to respond to include a suggestion that the EU should bring pressure to bear on Russia to play a more constructive role in conflict resolution in the area. The report also notes that stabilization in the Caucasus cannot be brought about without an end to the war in Chechnya, and urges Russia to honor its commitment to pull its troops out of Georgia. Turkey is also asked to establish "good neighborly" relations with Armenia in accordance with its EU candidate status.
Of the three countries, Azerbaijan comes in for the sharpest criticism, with the report expressing concerns over the human rights situation and curbs on media freedom in the country. Gahrton also suggests in his accompanying note that the Armenian side has carried out an "ethnic cleansing" operation around Nagorno-Karabakh, displacing 1 million Azeris. However, on 26 February deputies deleted from the report a request that Armenia withdraw its troops from the five occupied regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the resumption of rail traffic between Baku and Yerevan.
Gahrton also said on 26 February he is worried that the 7 percent vote threshold in Georgia's 28 March elections could leave opposition parties out of parliament, making Georgia "the world's first democratic one-party state."
Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.