|Monday, 1 March 2021|
RFE/RL Newsline, 04-03-03
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 PRIME MINISTER-DESIGNATE PROMISES TO SLASH GOVERNMENT RANKS...Prime Minister-designate Mikhail Fradkov told reporters on 2 March that the key tasks of his new government will be tax and administrative reforms, Russian media reported. State Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Pekhtin (Unified Russia) was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying that Fradkov told Duma deputies the same day that the number of ministries would be cut from "23 to...14 to 16." According to Pekhtin, there will one first deputy prime minister and one deputy prime minister. Currently, there are five deputy prime ministers. "Izvestiya" reported that Aleksei Kudrin, the current acting deputy prime minister and acting finance minister, will be kept on as deputy prime minister. "Gazeta" predicted on 2 March that acting Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, acting Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, acting Education Minister Vladimir Filippov, and acting Justice Minister Yurii Chaika are all likely to be replaced. JAC
 ...AS HARVARD MAN POISED TO JOIN THE GOVERNMENTPrime Minister-designate Fradkov also announced on 2 March that he wants First Deputy Duma Speaker Aleksandr Zhukov (Unified Russia) to serve as his first deputy prime minister. Zhukov, 47, is perhaps best known for his stewardship of the State Duma's Budget Committee, which he chaired in the second and third dumas. He has served continuously in the Duma since 1993. Originally a member of the Russian Region's group, he joined the Unified Russia party only recently. He was elected to the current Duma from the Unified Russia party list in December. Zhukov, a native Muscovite, studied economics at Moscow State University. In 1991, he spent five months studying at the Harvard University Business School. JAC
 GREF PLEDGES TO CHOP NUMBER OF FOREIGN TRADE MISSIONSActing Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref told an audience in Moscow on 2 March that the number of Russia's foreign-trade missions abroad will be cut by 60 percent, ITAR-TASS reported. Some 29 missions will be retained. Staff specializing in trade and economics at Russia's embassies will perform the work now done by the missions. The agency did not specify the time period during which the reductions will be made. After China, Russian goods face the most barriers to trade in the world, First Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Aleksei Kaulbars told reporters in Moscow on 2 March, RIA-Novosti reported. As a result of discriminatory measures, Russia loses an estimated $2.5 billion a year, Kaulbars said. The countries with the most trade barriers for Russian products are China, EU member countries, India, Ukraine, and Belarus. JAC
 GOVERNMENT TO CONSIDER PROGRAM FOR PRIVATIZATION OF FORESTS THIS MONTHActing Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeev told reporters in Moscow on 2 March that the government will begin discussing a new draft Forestry Code this month, ITAR-TASS reported. The draft proposes introducing private ownership of forests that have been leased for more than 15 years. According to Gordeev, the draft law proposes the idea of gradually introducing private ownership of forest resources. "Gazeta" reported on 3 March that the Economic Development and Trade Ministry suggested the figure of 15 years, while the Natural Resources Ministry favored ownership only after a 50-year lease. The timber industry has lobbied for the sale of such land immediately without preliminary leasing. However, according to the daily, environmentalists believe the draft code is too generous to the timber industry and contains many loopholes for businesses to exploit. JAC
 UNIFIED RUSSIA: LESS THAN MEETS THE EYEParticipating in a 2 March roundtable in Nizhnii Novgorod on the presidential elections, Institute for Regional Problems Director Maksim Dianov said that although the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has managed to establish a dominant faction in the Duma, it did not nominate a candidate for the 14 March presidential election or candidates in any of the 10 gubernatorial elections also scheduled for that day, RosBalt reported. He said the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) have each nominated six candidates; the Party of Pensioners has nominated two; and the remaining candidates are running as independents. JAC
 LEADING GENERAL SAYS CFE TREATY ALL BUT DEADFirst Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii said in an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 3 March that further NATO expansion to the east could deal a fatal blow to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). "It can be said that the accession of seven new members, three of which [Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania] are former members of the Warsaw Pact and four of which [Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia] are not members of the CFE treaty, will be a heavy and most likely fatal blow to the current CFE treaty," Baluevskii said. "Russia has enough arsenals and resources to ensure its security and the security of its national interests. For this reason, we can frankly say that the destruction of the CFE treaty will not be an irreparable loss for Russia. But it will be a considerable loss for OSCE members." RC
 OFFICIAL PREDICTS WTO TALKS TO BE COMPLETED BY YEAR'S ENDMoscow expects to complete its negotiations for accession to the World Trade Organization by the end of this year, Interfax reported on 2 March, citing Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Maksim Medvedev, who heads the Russian negotiating team. Medvedev said the next round of WTO talks with the EU will begin on 22 March, and that EU Trade Commissioner Pascual Lamy and the Russian economic development and trade minister will meet on 26 March. The current acting economic development and trade minister is German Gref, but a new cabinet is expected to be announced within the next few days. Medvedev added that a Russia-EU summit will be held in the second half of May and predicted that Russia's WTO-accession talks with the EU will be completed by then. He also noted that "considerable progress" has been made in talks with the EU aimed at ameliorating the impact on Russia of the EU's impending eastward expansion. RC
 RUSSIA TO PROVIDE ADVANCED ANTIAIRCRAFT UNITS TO BELARUSMoscow will provide an unspecified number of S-300 antiaircraft complexes to Belarus over the next six months, ITAR-TASS reported on 2 March, citing an unidentified Defense Ministry source. The equipment will be provided free of charge and will become part of an integrated CIS antiaircraft-defense system. The announcement comes shortly after Belarus and Russia complained that NATO has been conducting reconnaissance missions from the territory of the Baltic states and Poland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 27 February and 1 March 2004). RC
 GAZPROM PROCEEDING WITH PLANS FOR U.S. EXPORTSGazprom deputy CEO Aleksandr Ryazanov said on 2 March that a specialized company to export liquefied natural gas to the United States will be set up by the end of the year, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. Although the scale of the proposed exports was not disclosed, Ryazanov said Gazprom is discussing the matter with oil giants Shell, BP, and ConocoPhillips. "This is a big and quite costly project, and it will require political support," Ryazanov said. He added that the gas will likely be produced from the Arctic Shtokmanovskii deposit and that a new liquefying plant will be built in Murmansk. RC
 RUSSIAN CITIZEN HELD IN CONNECTION WITH MURDER OF AIR-TRAFFIC CONTROLLERDiplomats and a doctor from the Russian Embassy in Geneva have visited Vitalii Kaloev, a Russian citizen accused of murdering a Danish air-traffic controller in Zurich on 24 February, at a psychiatric hospital outside Zurich, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported on 3 March. Kaloev's wife and two children were among the 71 people -- including 44 schoolchildren from Bashkortostan -- killed in a midair collision over southern Germany on 1 July 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 9 July 2002). The murdered air-traffic controller, identified in the Danish media as 36-year-old Peter Nielsen, was alone in the control tower at the time of the crash and reportedly gave just 44 seconds' warning of the impending collision. Kaloev, who was legally in Switzerland at the time of the murder, was arrested on 25 February and maintains that he is innocent, lenta.ru reported on 3 March. RC
 ST. PETERSBURG POLICE ARREST FLASH MOBBERS TO PROTECT THEMFourteen participants in a 28 February flash mob organized by the Communist Party in St. Petersburg (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004) have been arrested on charges of defiling state symbols, RFE/RL's St. Petersburg bureau reported on 1 March. Some 50 persons, wearing masks of President Putin and carrying signs saying "Putin, Go Home," "Mission Not Accomplished," and "We will recall President Putin" managed to reach the city's downtown Gostinnii dvor shopping mall. The action was designed to show that the 14 March presidential election is a "farce." A lawyer for one of the accused considers the charges absurd, since a mask of the president cannot be considered a state symbol. Two journalists among those arrested said police smashed their cameras and other equipment. On 1 March, a raion-level court freed the detainees, ruling that the arrest order was improperly prepared, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 2 March. Police spokesman Pavel Raevskii acknowledged that the arrest order was not prepared properly, but insisted that the police on the whole had acted correctly. "It frequently happens that preventive measures turn out to be useful," Raevskii said. "If anything had happened to those guys in masks, then the police would have been considered guilty [for not protecting them]." JAC
 ART IMITATES LIFEA musical titled "The Erotic Exploits Of Ivan Rybkin In Kyiv" will open this week in Moscow, based on the presidential candidate's mysterious five-day trip to the Ukrainian capital last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12, 17, and 18 February 2004), dpa and Interfax reported on 2 March. The play, which offers a ribald explanation for Rybkin's disappearance in the midst of the presidential-election campaign, features actors playing Rybkin, Rybkin's wife, self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii, and Rybkin's Ukrainian lover. According to "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 3 March, when asked to comment on the production, Rybkin's campaign manager Ksenia Ponomareva said: "Creative freedom is creative freedom. Let them do what they like." RC
 CHECHEN INTELLECTUALS APPEAL TO PRESIDENT PUTINA group of Chechen intellectuals and professors at Chechnya State University published on 2 March an open letter to President Putin in which they asked him to intervene to put an end to "biased and negative media coverage of developments in Chechnya," Interfax reported. The signatories deplored the fact that the media tend to assume that Chechens are responsible for any crime committed anywhere in Russia. They also asked Putin to set a specific time frame for completing the economic restoration of Chechnya. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN MINISTERS ENCOUNTER HOSTILE RECEPTION IN VILLAGESA government delegation including Agriculture Minister David Lokian and Social Affairs Minister Aghvan Vartanian was greeted with complaints of government neglect from villagers in the central province of Kotayk on 2 March, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The ministers' assurances that the government seriously intends to improve socioeconomic conditions in rural areas were construed as a belated attempt to "prevent a revolution" and to ensure that the present cabinet remains in office. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian issued orders on 1 March for ministers to tour the regions to assure the population of the government's commitment to improving the socioeconomic situation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). LF
 ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY DENIES RUMORS OF RESERVIST CALL-UPDefense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian denied on 2 March rumors that a short-term mobilization of army reservists is imminent, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Some reservists have recently been ordered to report for a one-day training exercise later this month. Shahsuvarian explained that reservists are simply being familiarized with the units in which they would serve should mobilization become necessary. Chief military commissioner General Artur Harutiunian similarly denied that any draft or call-up is under way. Neither officer disclosed how many reservists are affected by the ongoing measures. LF
 EMBATTLED AZERBAIJANI PUBLISHING HOUSE AGAIN SUSPENDS OPERATIONSThe independent Chap Evi publishing house was forced to suspend operations on 2 March for the second time this year after the electricity-distribution company Barmek ignored an Economic Court order to restore the electricity supply to Chap Evi's premises, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 17, and 18 February 2004). Chap Evi formerly printed more than 100 publications, half of which have now found other printers. Chap Evi Director Shahbaz Khudaoglu told journalists in Baku on 3 March that the decision to deprive the premises of electricity was politically motivated. Chap Evi supporters plan protest pickets at Barmek's office on 9 and 10 March. LF
 GEORGIAN PRESIDENT INSPECTS INTERIOR MINISTRY TROOPSMikheil Saakashvili conducted an unscheduled inspection late on 2 March of two units of the Interior Ministry special forces, Georgian media reported the following day. Praising the units' combat readiness, Saakashvili said the armed forces must at all times be ready to be deployed anywhere within the country at one hour's notice. At the same time, he said no concrete military action is being prepared. LF
 FORMER GEORGIAN DEPUTY INTERIOR MINISTER CHARGED IN CAR-IMPORT SCAMFormer Deputy Interior Minister David Todua has been charged with gross violations of customs regulations in connection with the alleged illegal import between 2000-03 of some 15,000 foreign cars, Caucasus Press reported on 3 March. The damage to the state budget from the scam has been estimated at 9 million laris ($4.42 million). Todua resigned on 1 March, having been summoned for questioning by the Prosecutor-General's Office on 26 February. Speaking in Tbilisi on 2 March, Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili appealed to the Georgian government not to penalize persons who unwittingly purchased those cars by demanding that they reimburse the state for customs duties embezzled by corrupt officials, Caucasus Press reported. LF
 FUGITIVE FORMER GEORGIAN SECURITY OFFICIAL BARRED FROM PARLIAMENTARY BALLOTGeorgian Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili registered on 2 March the lists of candidates for the 28 March parliamentary ballot submitted by 14 political parties and five electoral blocs, Caucasus Press reported. The list submitted by the Georgian Communist Party was registered only after the name of former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze was removed. Chiaberashvili said that Giorgadze, who is wanted for questioning in connection with his alleged role in the August 1995 car-bomb attack on then-parliament chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, has not lived in Georgia for the past two years as required in accordance with the Election Code. A senior member of the Samartali (Justice) party, which Giorgadze heads, said on 2 March the party will appeal Chiaberashvili's decision in court, Caucasus Press reported. Giorgadze was similarly barred from contesting either the 2 November parliamentary election or the extraordinary 4 January presidential ballot. LF
 GEORGIAN AUTHORITIES CEDE MAJORITY REPRESENTATION ON ELECTION COMMISSIONSProminent members of President Saakashvili's National Movement (EM) told a press conference in Tbilisi on 2 March that the party will cede to opposition parties two of the nine seats on district-level election commissions to which it is entitled, Georgian media reported. As a result, the EM will have seven of the total 15 seats on such commissions. Maya Nadiradze of the EM said that concession "will put an end to accusations that the EM seeks to rig the election returns." LF
 KAZAKH PRESIDENT ARRIVES IN SAUDI ARABIA...Nursultan Nazarbaev arrived in Saudi Arabia on 2 March for an official state visit, Khabar Television reported. Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, met with Nazarbaev to discuss regional affairs and cooperation, the official Saudi Press Agency reported on 2 March. Also in attendance were, for Saudi Arabia, Defense and Aviation Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abd al-Aziz and Chief of General Intelligence Prince Nawaf Bin Abd al-Aziz, and, for Kazakhstan, Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev. DK
 ...AS ALIYEV WINDS UP KAZAKHSTAN VISIT WITH ENERGY TALKSAzerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ended his two-day official visit to Kazakhstan on 2 March, meeting with Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov to discuss oil- and gas-sector cooperation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Their discussion focused on the prospects for exporting Kazakh crude via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Under pressure from the United States, Kazakh officials have expressed an interest in doing so on numerous occasions over the past four years, signing a memorandum of understanding with Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey three years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2001). Aliyev later told Kazakhstan's Khabar news agency that "Kazakhstan's participation in the BTC project will meet the interests of both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan and bolster regional security on the whole. For our part, we are ready to create all conditions for Kazakh oil to be transported via the BTC pipeline." Kaygeldi Kabyldin, executive director of the Kazakh state hydrocarbons firm Kazmunaygaz, commented in March 2003 that Kazakhstan will not need to use the Baku-Ceyhan route till 2008-09 because the existing transport system is expected to be able to accommodate the volume of oil the country expects to be able to produce up to that time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). DK/LF
 KAZAKHSTAN, AZERBAIJAN SIGN GAS AGREEMENTKazakhstan's KazRosGaz and Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR signed an agreement on 2 March on the sidelines of President Aliyev's visit, under which Kazakhstan will supply 4.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Azerbaijan in 2004 at a price of $52 per 1,000 cubic meters, Turan reported on 3 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004). Azerbaijan's annual gas consumption is some 6 billion cubic meters. LF
 HIZB UT-TAHRIR ARRESTS CONTINUE IN TAJIKISTANArrests of suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir activists are continuing in Tajikistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 2 March. According to law enforcement authorities, one of the top three figures in Hizb ut-Tahrir's network in the Kulob region was recently arrested. The man, whose name was not disclosed, is reportedly a native of the Khatlon Oblast and a resident of Dushanbe. He allegedly traveled frequently to Kulob, where he allegedly controlled a party cell, directing the activities of its members and ensuring their loyalty to party principles. Authorities also arrested a middle-school teacher in Temurmalik Rayon and confiscated an unspecified quantity of "anticonstitutional literature." Three residents of Hamadon Rayon are also being sought. Tajik prosecutors arrested 14 Hizb ut-Tahrir activists on 9 February; other reports have placed the number of activists detained since 9 February as high as 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). Law enforcement sources told Asia Plus-Blitz that four members of the group arrested in mid-February have since been released for lack of evidence. The sources added that three of the original detainees were relatives of officials in the Kulob city government and prosecutor's office. DK
 TURKMEN PRESIDENT DENIES 'DISPUTES' WITH NEIGHBORING STATESSpeaking at a ceremony in Ashgabat on 2 March to inaugurate the new premises of the Military Institute, Saparmurat Niyazov said Turkmenistan has no disputes with its neighbors and that "attempts to set Turkmenistan and neighboring Uzbekistan, Iran, and Afghanistan against each other will end in failure," Interfax reported. In June 2003, Niyazov ordered increased controls at border crossings with Iran and Afghanistan and restrictions on the number of citizens of those countries allowed to enter Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 June 2003). Relations between Ashgabat and Tashkent are strained as a result of disputes over water and what Uzbekistan views as Turkmenistan's discriminatory policies against its large Uzbek minority. LF
 UZBEK OFFICIAL TRIES TO DISPEL NGO TAX FEARSFirst Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov told reporters at a 1 March news conference that claims by foreign NGOs that a 4 February government resolution introduces a 40 percent tax on grant allocations are inaccurate, uzland.uz reported on 1 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). German NGOs have argued that under the decree "40 percent of funds allocated by Germany that could benefit the people of Uzbekistan will simply be appropriated by the state," RIA-Novosti reported. According to Norov, however, the new measures are part of the UN-mandated fight against terrorism, which requires "the creation of domestic systems and procedures for keeping track of cross-border currency transfers." Norov's oblique comment on the specific tax allegation was that the government intends only to tighten accounting controls. He stressed that the same resolution "exempts grant recipients from the payment of bank commissions." DK
Central And Eastern Europe
 BELARUS ENSURES RUSSIAN GAS SUPPLY FOR TWO MORE WEEKSBelarus's gas-pipeline operator Beltranshaz has reached an agreement with the Russian gas trader Transnafta for the purchase of an additional 1 billion cubic meters of gas that will satisfy Belarus's needs for the next two weeks, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 2 March, quoting Gazprom deputy CEO Aleksandr Ryazanov. A previous short-term gas-supply contract between Beltranshaz and Transnafta expires on 3 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004). "The only question is from what resources Transnafta is going to supply this gas, since Transnafta is not a gas-extracting company, it buys gas on the Russian market" Ryazanov commented. He reiterated Gazprom's stance that the Russian monopoly will supply gas to Belarus at Russia's domestic price only after both sides agree on the price of Beltranshaz, in which Gazprom wants a controlling stake (see End Note below). Meanwhile, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 March that a new short-term contract between Beltranshaz and Transnafta provides for the supply of 200 million cubic meters of gas at the price of some $47 per 1,000 cubic meters. JM
 UKRAINIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL DISMISSES CHARGES BY FORMER SPY...Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasilyev told journalists in Kyiv on 2 March that his office will not open a criminal case in connection with documents recently submitted by a former intelligence officer posted at the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin, Ukrainian news agencies reported. General Valeriy Kravchenko claimed last month that the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has been illegally ordering its operatives abroad to spy on Ukrainian opposition lawmakers and cabinet members (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 2 March 2004). Our Ukraine lawmaker Mykola Tomenko met with Kravchenko in Berlin last week and subsequently passed to the Prosecutor-General's Office the SBU instructions that purportedly corroborate Kravchenko's charges. Vasilyev said there were no grounds to open a probe since the documents provide no evidence that the law was broken. At the same time, Vasilyev warned Tomenko against making the content of Kravchenko's documents public, saying the lawmaker could thus face criminal responsibility for revealing state secrets. JM
 ...AS OPPOSITION LAWMAKER PUBLICIZES ALLEGED SECRET DOCUMENTSMykola Tomenko did not heed Vasilyev's warning on 2 March and made the content of Kravchenko's documents known to journalists on 3 March, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported. Tomenko distributed among journalists the alleged texts of four confidential instructions in which the SBU headquarters in Kyiv orders Kravchenko to prevent potentially compromising material from being shown on a German television channel; spy on visiting Ukrainian officials in Germany; gather comprehensive information on a Kyiv conference that was being organized by the EU and Ukrainian opposition; spy on all Ukrainian delegations visiting Germany; and gather "preemptive" information among the Ukrainian diaspora. "Restricted-access information may be disseminated without the authorization of its owner if it is publicly significant, if the right of the public to know this information surpasses the right of its owner to its protection," Tomenko said, citing Ukraine's law on information. JM
 ESTONIAN CITIZENSHIP-QUALIFICATION TESTING MADE MORE ACCESSIBLEThe National Examination and Qualification Center has made it more convenient for noncitizen high-school students to take the examination on the Estonian Constitution and the citizenship law they must pass to acquire citizenship, BNS reported on 2 March. More than 12,000 high-school students resident in Estonia, most of them ethnic Russians, hold no citizenship of any country. Whereas the exam was previously only given at designated locations, the center will now send representatives to any high school where at least 10 students express interest in acquiring citizenship to provide consultation and administer the exam. Andres Aaremaa, a departmental head at the center, said he expects about 2,300 students to take the exam this year. SG
 DISCUSSIONS CONTINUE ON FORMATION OF LATVIAN CABINETPrime Minister-designate Indulis Emsis (Union of Greens and Farmers, or ZZS) has failed to form a coalition that will represent a majority in parliament and he now intends to form a minority coalition with the People's Party and Latvia's First Party (LPP) that would comprise 46 of the 100 parliament deputies, BNS reported on 2 March. The cabinet he now plans to propose to parliament will retain the ZZS's and the LPP's ministers in the previous cabinet, including former Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers, whose ouster led to its collapse. The remaining ministers, who belonged to the New Era and For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, are to be named by the People's Party -- although the LPP has also been offered the Interior Minister post. It also appears likely that parliament Chairwoman Ingrida Udre of the ZZS will not be replaced by a deputy from another party. SG
 RUSSIA TO TAKE RETALIATORY MEASURES AGAINST LITHUANIARussian First Deputy Foreign Minister Eleonora Mitrofanova told reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas in Vilnius on 2 March that Russia "will take adequate retaliatory measures" against Lithuania for its recent expulsion of three Russian diplomats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004), "Lietuvos zinios" reported on 3 March. Mitrofanova said it has not been determined when or how many Lithuanian diplomats will be expelled. The issue was not broached during Mitrofanova's discussions with Brazauskas, which focused on bilateral economic relations; the stalled 2K (Kaliningrad-Klaipeda) railway-transit project; the pending ratification of an agreement on dual taxation and investment-protection agreements by the Russian State Duma; and reaching a bilateral agreement on accident prevention and compensation regarding Russia's plans to pump oil from the D-6 site off the Kaliningrad coast near the Lithuanian-Russian maritime border. SG
 BRUSSELS REASSURES POLAND ON TRADE WITH RUSSIA AFTER EU ENLARGEMENTEU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said in Warsaw on 2 March that on 1 May the EU-Russia trade agreements will be extended to all EU joining countries, including Poland, PAP reported. Lamy was referring to reported fears in Poland that Russia is reluctant to extend its partnership and cooperation pact with the EU to the 10 acceding states unless they meet certain conditions. JM
 POLISH PARLIAMENTARY INVESTIGATORS PUBLISH REPORTS ON 'RYWINGATE'...Tomasz Nalecz, head of the parliamentary commission investigating the so-called Rywingate bribery scandal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004), said in his report publicized by Polish media on 2 March that film producer Lew Rywin was only a "messenger" for a group of influential government officials and media experts. Rywin has been on trial for three months on charges that he solicited a $17.5 million bribe in 2002 from Agora, publisher of the "Gazeta Wyborcza" daily, in return for changes to legislation that would have allowed Agora to buy a television station. Nalecz suggested in his report that the group comprised Robert Kwiatkowski, Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, and Aleksandra Jakubowska. The same individuals were mentioned as possible instigators of Rywin's alleged bribery proposal by Jan Rokita, another member of the parliamentary commission. Rokita also alleged in his report, which was published in full by "Rzeczpospolita" on 2 March, that the ruling Democratic Left Alliance made a secret agreement with Agora in mid-2002 to create a new balance of power on the electronic-media market that would be favorable to Agora. Agora deputy head Helena Luczywo commented that Rokita's allegations are absurd. It is not clear when, if at all, the parliamentary commission will publish a unified report on "Rywingate." JM
 CZECH PREMIER TELLS BELGIAN COUNTERPART LABOR RESTRICTIONS ARE UNJUSTIFIEDPrime Minister Vladimir Spidla told his visiting Belgian counterpart Guy Verhofstadt on 2 March that restrictions Belgium has imposed on free access to its labor market following EU enlargement are unjustified, CTK reported. Spidla lamented that current EU members have followed Germany and Austria's example of imposing transition periods that prevent laborers from acceding states to freely join their labor force. While Germany and Austria have established up to seven-year transition periods, Belgium has imposed a two-year restriction that will require citizens from acceding states to obtain work permits. Spidla said that "neither economic nor social reasons" justify the restrictions and that they stem from the same "prejudice that hit Spain and Portugal in previous expansions." In a lecture delivered the same evening at Prague's Charles University, Verhofstadt acknowledged that similar fears emerged when south European countries joined the EU, and that they proved to be unfounded. MS
 CZECH RULING COALITION FENDS OFF PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE ON EU APPOINTMENTSThe ruling three-party center-left coalition on 2 March voted down in the Chamber of Deputies an attempt by the main opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) to hold a special session to discuss EU appointments, the daily "Hospodarske noviny" reported the next day. Meanwhile, the daily "Pravo" reported on 3 March that Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) Chairman Miroslav Kalousek has rescinded his demand that the KDU-CSL be granted veto rights over all future government appointments and personnel issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). MS
 SLOVAK OPPOSITION PARTIES AGREE ON NO-CONFIDENCE MOTION IN FINANCE MINISTER...Robert Fico, chairman of the Smer (Direction) party, told journalists on 2 March that four opposition parliamentary parties have agreed to support a no-confidence motion in Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Ivan Miklos, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). Apart from Smer, the motion will be supported by the People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, the Communist Party of Slovakia, and the People's Union. Miklos is perceived in the West as the primary force behind Slovakia's economic reforms. Fico accused Miklos of being responsible for "incredible mistakes" that have caused "billions of crowns in damages" to Slovakia, CTK reported. Meanwhile, South Korea's second-largest automaker, Kia Motors Corp., announced on 2 March that it has chosen Slovakia over Poland to construct a manufacturing plant that will have an annual production capacity of 200,000 automobiles and create 2,400 jobs. Kia plans to invest $870 million to build the plant in Zilina, international news agencies reported. MS
 ...WHO SCORES SYMBOLIC VICTORY OVER POLITICAL ADVERSARYA Bratislava court ruled on 2 March that Smer Chairman Fico must publish an apology to Finance Minister Miklos for accusing him of accepting bribes during the privatization of the national gas utility SPP, TASR reported. However, the court rejected Miklos's demand that Fico pay him 600,000 crowns ($18,433) for moral damages. Fico said he is considering an appeal. MS
 HUNGARIAN PLEBISCITES TO BE HELD ALONGSIDE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTIONS?A binding referendum on reducing the size of the parliament from 386 to 250 deputies, and a non-binding referendum on the direct election of the president might be held simultaneously on 13 June with the European Parliament elections, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy said at a 2 March forum in Csepel, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. Medgyessy suggested last week that he would launch the two referendums if parliamentary parties rejected his earlier proposals on the issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February and 1 March 2004). Constitutional experts disagree on the legality and constitutionality of holding a plebiscite the same day as the European Parliament elections. Meanwhile, coalition member Free Democrat deputy Gabor Fodor said in parliament on 2 March that it would be a mistake to disrupt constitutional order by changing to a system of direct presidential elections. The party's chairman, Gabor Kuncze, said such a referendum would be a waste of money, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. The opposition FIDESZ and Democratic Forum have already rejected the idea of holding referendums on these issues. MSZ
 TRANSYLVANIAN BISHOP PROMOTES AUTONOMY VISION IN BUDAPEST"We do not want a revision [of borders], we will be content with territorial autonomy, but this minimal requirement should be unequivocally supported by our [Hungarian] motherland," Hungarian media quoted Reformed Bishop Laszlo Toekes as telling journalists in Budapest on 2 March. National Council of Transylvanian Hungarians Chairman Toekes was accompanied by Szekler National Council head Jozsef Csapo and parliamentary deputies representing the Hungarian Democratic Forum, whose parliamentary group leader Karoly Herenyi backed their demands. Toekes and Csapo said their organizations want to attend as full members the next meeting of the Hungarian Standing Conference, which includes representatives of the Hungarian government and of ethnic Hungarian organizations abroad. Csapo rejected Hungarian Prime Minister Medgyessy's 1 March rejection of the autonomy plans and his citation of Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania Chairman Bela Marko's support for his position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). Csapo noted that Marko was the first Transylvanian Hungarian politician to oppose the plan, but added that no one is obliged to embrace his opinions. MS
 WHO WILL BE MACEDONIA'S NEXT PRESIDENT?Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and former parliamentary speaker Stojan Andov of the opposition Liberal Party (LP) will "probably" run for president to succeed Boris Trajkovski, who was killed in a 26 February plane crash in Herzegovina, "Vreme" reported on 3 March. The prime minister was barred from running against Trajkovski in 1999 because he did not yet meet the minimum age of 40 for presidential candidates. Other possible SDSM candidates include former parliamentary speaker Tito Petkovski; Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva; Finance Minister Nikola Popovski; and Trifun Kostovski, a wealthy businessman. If the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) decides not to support its ally Andov, it will possibly nominate legislator Saso Kedev, "Dnevnik" reported on 2 March. As in 1999, the presidential election will most likely be decided by the votes of the Albanian minority, which makes up about one-quarter of the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February 2004). UB
 FRANCE SAYS TO WAIT BEFORE ASSIGNING BLAME IN MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT'S PLANE CRASHIn response to criticism of French SFOR air-traffic controllers by some Macedonian and Bosnian media, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said on 2 March that it is too early to assign responsibility for the 26 February plane crash in Herzegovina that took the lives of Macedonian President Trajkovski and eight other people, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 2 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February 2004). The spokesman called for an end to speculation before the inquest is finished. In Brussels, a NATO spokesman pledged "whatever support we can" in assisting the investigation in response to a request for help by Macedonian Prime Minister Crvenkovski. In Sarajevo, a SFOR spokesman denied media reports that its airport equipment is not safe. SFOR also rejected media reports that the French air-traffic controllers on duty at the time of the crash have since returned to France, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM
 ALBANIAN LEADER DECLINES TO BACK KOSOVA'S INDEPENDENCEAlbanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano discussed cooperation between his country and Kosova during meetings with top Kosovar leaders in Prishtina on 2 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova said he hopes for Albania's support in securing international recognition for Kosova's independence, but Nano simply referred to the matter as "a complex question." PM
 UN OFFICIAL SAYS SERBIAN COURT HAS NO JURISDICTION OVER KOSOVAHarry Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said in Prishtina on 1 March that the Serbian court in Nis that issued an arrest warrant through Serbian Interpol in 2002 for Agim Ceku, the commander of the civilian Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), had no legal right to do so, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004). Holkeri pointed out that the court is not the Nis district court, but the former Serbian court based in Prishtina that is now operating out of Nis without any international legal basis. He firmly rejected any Serbian attempt to set up "parallel structures" for Kosova outside of those approved by the international community. In Belgrade, outgoing Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic accused Holkeri of undermining the authority of Interpol. Hungarian border guards recently detained Ceku briefly at Budapest's Ferihegy International Airport on the basis of the Serbian Interpol warrant. PM
 CROATIAN LEADER DRAWS A BALANCE ON RELATIONS WITH SERBIACroatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader told Belgrade's Radio B-92 on 2 March that Croatia will support Serbia and Montenegro's bid for membership in the EU, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 January 2004). Sanader added, however, that it will still take time to "heal the wounds" from the 1991-95 conflict. He also noted that there is no alternative for Serbs and Croats than to talk to each other. The prime minister pledged to work for a faster normalization of relations between Belgrade and Zagreb than has been the case. PM
 VOJVODINA LEADERS DRAFT NEW PROGRAM FOR AUTONOMYLeaders of the main Vojvodina-based political parties and NGOs agreed on the Subotica Initiative in that city on 28 February, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. The program aims to promote autonomy for the province in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government, replacing the autonomy abolished by then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1988 in a move to consolidate his power. The Subotica meeting was led by Jozef Kasza of the League of Vojvodina Hungarians and Nenad Canak of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina. No representatives of Belgrade-based parties were invited to the gathering. Kasza described the province as "the road to Europe" for Serbia, adding, "we will not allow any radicalization of Vojvodina." Canak stressed the multiethnic and multicultural character of Vojvodina. Since the victory of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections, a growing number of incidents against Croats and other ethnic minorities have been reported in Vojvodina (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 30 January 2004). PM
 ROMANIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES DEPLOYMENT OF ADDITIONAL TROOPS TO AFGHANISTANParliament on 2 March approved President Ion Iliescu's request that 39 additional Romanian military personnel be deployed to Afghanistan, Mediafax reported. Romania's contingent in Afghanistan currently comprises 405 personnel. The new deployment will include a contingent of 30 specialists in military intelligence and nine demining and medical experts. MS
 GERMANY SAYS ROMANIA MUST INTENSIFY REFORMSGerman Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told his visiting Romanian counterpart Mircea Geoana on 2 March that Bucharest must speed up its reforms if it intends to qualify for EU membership in 2007, international news agencies reported. Fischer said Berlin is ready to "assist Romania in its efforts to meet all the deadlines," dpa reported. AFP quoted Geoana as saying the Romanian cabinet is aware that "there is still progress to be made," particularly in the fight against corruption and in reforming the public-administration system. At the same time, Geoana said Romania fears that the "rules of the game" might be changed for the next group of EU candidates as a result of the "changing political atmosphere" in the EU -- an apparent allusion to difficulties that have arisen in integrating the states set to join the organization on 1 May. MS
 ROMANIA SAYS HUNGARIAN JOURNALIST IS NATIONAL-SECURITY THREATIn a statement released on 2 March, the Romanian border police said Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer was denied entrance to Romania last week because he might have infringed on the country's territorial integrity and "endangered defense, public order, and national security," Mediafax reported. Bayer was stopped at the Bors border crossing on 28 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). The border police said they were carrying out a "request from authorities entitled to make the decision." The police also said that Romanian national-security authorities are aware that Bayer has in the past "repeatedly incited acts against the constitutional order, eulogized revisionist views, and expressed support for secession," and that in his work as a journalist Bayer "is contesting the Romanian right to a national and unitary state." Hungarian media on 3 March cited Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania lawmaker Zsolt Szilagyi as saying in parliament the previous day that if Romania begins expelling European journalists, Europe (i.e., the EU) will in turn expel Romania. MS
 ROMANIAN DEMOCRATIC PARTY FAILS TO REGAIN SENATE STATUSThe upper house's Judicial Committee ruled on 2 March that the Democratic Party cannot regain its status as a parliamentary group and the rights deriving from that status, Mediafax reported. The decision followed the return to the Democrats' ranks of Senator Aurel Pana, who earlier left it to join the Greater Romania Party. The Democratic Party lost its parliamentary-group status after its former chairman and former Prime Minister Petre Roman left the party last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). MS
 NATO PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY DELEGATION VISITS MOLDOVANiki Bettendorf, head of a NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation currently visiting Moldova, said on 2 March in Chisinau that the Atlantic alliance would consider contributing more to efforts to resolve the Transdniester conflict if Moldova officially asks NATO do so, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Bettendorf said the Moldovan Constitution defines the country as a neutral state, and NATO "might consequently involve itself [in the search for a solution] only if Moldova solicits it." The delegation, which is paying a three-day visit to Moldova, will visit Tiraspol on 3 March. MS
 TRANSDNIESTER BORDER GUARDS STOP MOLDOVAN POLICE FROM ENTERING BENDERY-TIGHINAMoldovan police officers working in the Bendery-Tighina police forces were on 2 March prevented from entering the town by Transdniester border guards, Infotag reported. The guards told the officers that new orders issued by their commanders stipulate that Moldovan police entering the town must be registered by the border guards each time they cross the border. The 1992 cease-fire agreement stipulates that Bendery-Tighina, which is mostly controlled by the Transdniester authorities, must have a contingent of Moldovan police. The Moldovan police officers travel from Chisinau for work every day, and this reportedly marks the first time they have been stopped at the border-checking point. MS
 BULGARIA TO JOIN NATO BY THE END OF MARCHDeputy Prime Minister Plamen Panayotov said on 2 March that Bulgaria will officially become a NATO member on 28 or 29 March, when Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski and Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi are expected to officially deposit Bulgaria's documents ratifying the North Atlantic Treaty at the U.S. State Department. Panayotov said parliament will ratify the treaty within the next few weeks. On 2 March, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer informed the Bulgarian government that all NATO members have deposited their ratification documents pertaining to the acceding NATO states. UB
 BULGARIAN PREMIER WARNS OFFICIALS OVER APARTMENTSPrime Minister Saxecoburggotski on 2 March told seven high-ranking government officials that they should resign if they choose not to amend irregularities regarding government apartments they purchased at below-market-value prices, "Sega" reported. The officials, including State Administration Minister Dimitar Kalchev and Tsvetelina Uzunova, who heads the government's press center, must either return their apartments, pay more for them, or resign, Kalchev said after a meeting with Saxecoburggotski. Former Minister Without Portfolio Nezhdet Mollov has already indicated that he will return his apartment. A commission headed by Deputy Justice Minister Meglena Tacheva had investigated the sale of 65 apartments to government officials, seven of which turned out to be illegal. UB
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 EUROPEAN COMMISSION WANTS AFGHAN ELECTIONS POSTPONEDThe European Commission on 2 March warned that it might be necessary to postpone the Afghan elections scheduled for June because of insufficient voter registration, Reuters reported. Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said only one-tenth of an estimated 10.5 million eligible voters have been registered. Udwin said the parliamentary and presidential elections cannot be considered free and fair unless a substantial segment of the population is registered. She said it is more important that the elections be credible than that they stick to the existing timeline, and that a delay might thus be necessary (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). The commission also announced that it is providing an additional 8 million euros ($9.8 million) to fund the Afghan elections. AT
 AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE COMPLAINS OF HARASSMENT...Afghan Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq has said that he and a number of other presidential candidates have been warned against participating in the upcoming elections, the Kabul daily "Erada" reported on 2 March. Mohaqeq did not name which candidates have been threatened or by whom, but added that some people are not abiding by the principles of the new Afghan Constitution and are coercing people into voting for specific candidates. He also that the presence of armed factions in different parts of Afghanistan has seriously harmed the country's efforts to hold elections. The law on political parties passed in September stipulates that political parties must not "have military organizations or affiliations with armed forces" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 September 2003). Mohaqeq has entered the presidential contest as an independent candidate despite the fact that he is the leader of one of the factions of the Hizb-e Wahdat, which has armed wings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). AT
 ...AS TRANSITIONAL ADMINISTRATION DENIES HARASSMENT IS TAKING PLACEJawed Ludin, spokesman for Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, said on 1 March that the new Afghan Constitution allows every eligible person to run in the presidential elections, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 2 March. Ludin said there are no obstacles to other candidates running in the elections. AT
 SUNNI, SHI'ITE AFGHAN-ARMY RECRUITS CLASHSunni and Shi'ite recruits for the Afghan National Army clashed on 2 March in Kabul, Radio Kelid reported. The clash occurred as the Shi'ites were making preparations for the Shi'ite religious holiday of Ashura. An unidentified spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force said one person was killed in the clash. However, Afghan police sources said no one was killed, but 16 people were injured, Kelid reported. The Shi'ites are a minority in Afghanistan. AT
 IRANIAN PRESIDENT CONDEMNS IRAQ BOMBINGSMohammad Khatami has denounced the "diabolical hands" behind the multiple bombings in Baghdad and Karbala on 2 March (see Iraq below), Mehr News Agency reported. "As I have said repeatedly, I condemn terrorism and violence, whatever its name and at any place," Khatami said. "It is clear today that Iraq's occupation has not only failed to restore stability and security to that country," but caused "much damage," the agency quoted him as saying. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi denounced the perpetrators as "not in the least human," but blamed U.S. occupying forces for failing to provide security and urged them to "accept responsibility for the incident." Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad has been instructed to identify Iranian victims and treat the injured, IRNA reported on 2 March. VS
 IRANIAN VICE PRESIDENT BLAMES IRAQ BOMBINGS ON AL-QAEDA, PAKISTANVice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi blamed Pakistan and Al-Qaeda for the 2 March bombings in Iraq, saying the terrorism network considers Shi'ites among its chief ideological enemies alongside the United States, AP reported, citing Abtahi's personal website (http://www.webnevesht.com). The bombings, Abtahi stated, are the fruit of ultraconservative Sunni thinking among Al-Qaeda members that leads them to view Shi'ites as heretics. VS
 SUNNIS, SHI'ITES REPORTEDLY CLASH IN NORTHEAST IRANClashes between Sunnis and Shi'ites broke out on 1 March in the northeastern town of Khaf, Mehr News Agency reported on 2 March. Iranian Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said a traffic accident involving a group of Shi'a and two Sunni motorcyclists led to a fight. A group of Sunnis reportedly later blocked the road on which the Shi'a were traveling and clashes erupted. The Khorasan Province Governorate-General's Security Council brought the situation under control, according to the news agency. However, clashes broke out again on 2 March resulting in injuries to a few people and destruction to some public and private property. KR
 IAEA HEAD ACKNOWLEDGES IMPROVED COOPERATION BY IRANInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei on 2 March noted improved cooperation by Iran in revealing its nuclear activities, and expressed hope that the country will honor its pledges to halt uranium enrichment, Reuters reported. The UN nuclear inspector reportedly expressed hope that Iran will "continue to cooperate, continue to give us all the details," of a program the United States and Israel fear is intended to develop nuclear weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2004). El-Baradei also said the IAEA has asked Pakistan to provide samples of enriched uranium to see if they match traces found at sites in Iran -- thus deriving from equipment imported from Pakistan -- or if they are "undeclared nuclear material," Reuters reported. VS
 DEATH TOLL RISES IN KARBALA, BAGHDAD ATTACKS AS IRAQI LEADERS CALL FOR CALMIraqi leaders have called on citizens to remain calm as the death toll rose following the 2 March multiple bombings in Karbala and Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004), international media reported. Approximately 170 people were killed in the attacks and more than 435 others were wounded, Reuters reported on 3 March. Iraqi Governing Council members held a press conference in Baghdad on 2 March, broadcast live on Al-Jazeera, in which council member Adnan Pachachi read a council statement calling for a three-day mourning period. Terrorists are targeting Iraq's unity and "seeking to foment sectarian sedition by cutting the firm ties among all groups of our people," the statement read. "We say that such crimes will only strengthen our people's insistence on the unity of ranks, as well as their determination to build a new Iraq." The statement called on Iraqis "to be calm and patient and to adhere to national unity in order to foil the plans of Iraq's enemies." Meanwhile, Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of March Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum issued similar calls for unity and called on Arab and Muslim countries to denounce the bombings, Voice of the Mujahedin reported. KR
 AYATOLLAH AL-SISTANI CONDEMNS BOMBINGS, BLAMES COALITION TROOPS...Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a handwritten statement condemning the 2 March bombings in Karbala and Baghdad, najaf.org reported. "No words can condemn those atrocious crimes, which were committed by individuals who were stripped of all values and noble principles," the statement says. "While we hold the occupation troops responsible for what we have observed of procrastination and prevarication in controlling Iraq's borders and stopping infiltrators, and their failure to reinforce the national forces assigned the task of providing security, enable them to recruit capable elements, and secure their requirements of the necessary devices and equipment to perform their tasks, we urge the dear Iraqi people to exercise greater caution and vigilance vis-a-vis the machinations of the enemies and greedy ones," the statement added. KR
 ...AS AL-SISTANI REPRESENTATIVE LAYS BLAME ON UNITED STATES...Ahmad al-Safi, a representative of Ayatollah al-Sistani, told Al-Arabiyah television on 2 March that the United States is responsible for overall security in Iraq and should thus be held accountable for the Karbala and Baghdad bombings. "Frankly, we say that the uncontrolled security situation in Iraq is deliberate," al-Safi said. "Regardless of the direct perpetrator, we accuse these forces and hold them fully responsible." Al-Safi argued that the United States "should have flown some helicopters to protect the city." Shi'a leaders have in the past called for little to no presence of coalition forces in Shi'ite holy areas, preferring to police those areas themselves. Iraqi police and Civil Defense Corps personnel were reportedly out in heavy force in both Karbala and Baghdad when the bombings took place. KR
 ...AND PURPORTED AL-QAEDA LETTER DENIES ROLEA letter purportedly written by the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization has denied any role in the 2 March multiple bombings in Karbala and Baghdad, Reuters reported on 3 March. The letter, sent to the London-based "Al-Quds al-Arabi" newspaper and signed by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades with the name "Al-Qaeda" in parenthesis, blamed the attacks on the United States. "U.S. troops have committed a massacre against the innocent Shi'ite people to set sectarianism ablaze among Iraq's Muslims," the letter said. "We, and with God as our witness, say we are innocent of this act and of anything that will drive the Shi'ites away. Our mujahedin...will not do anything that will harm the Iraqi people." A number of Iraqi Governing Council members blamed suspected Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi for the 2 March attacks. Al-Zarqawi has been linked to Al-Qaeda (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 12 February 2004). The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades have claimed responsibility for a number of recent terrorist attacks, including the car bombings outside two Istanbul synagogues in November, AP reported on 17 November. U.S. officials have cast doubt on these claims, saying there is no proof the group exists or has links to Al-Qaeda, the news agency reported on 22 November. KR
 SCIRI HEAD SAYS BOMB ATTACKS THWARTED IN AL-NAJAFIraqi Governing Council member and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim told Al-Arabiyah television on 3 March that three bomb attacks were thwarted in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf in the previous 24-hour period. He blamed the United States for not providing enough security in Iraq, and for also not allowing Iraqis to "defend themselves properly." Al-Hakim has repeatedly called for a greater role for SCIRI's Badr Brigades (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 February 2004), which the United States ordered to disband following the downfall of the Hussein regime. Voice of the Mujahedin reported on 2 March that local police in Al-Najaf defused a 3-kilogram bomb the night before that was planted some 50 meters from the Imam of the Faithful Shrine -- the starting point for the 2 March al-Husayn processions in the city. Police also intercepted a booby-trapped car as it was preparing to enter Al-Najaf on 1 March, according to the radio station. KR
 SHI'ITE CLERIC'S AIDE SAYS IRAQ FACING CONSPIRACYHasan al-Zarkani, a spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said on 2 March that "Iraq is facing a serious conspiracy from inside and outside," LBC satellite television reported. Al-Zarkani suggested that the United States might be behind the attempts to destabilize Iraq. "The names they [the United States] are using, like [wanted terrorist Abu Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi and others, are only pretexts to cover this big file through which they are trying to undermine Iraq's unity," Al-Zarkani said. "We do not clear Israel or the global policeman -- the United States -- it is using, or the agents who cooperated with them" of involvement in the conspiracy. Asked whether the terrorists are seeking to ignite a civil war in Iraq, al-Zarkani said: "There is a definite intention for this. They want to trigger sectarian feuds and a civil war by all means." KR
 BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT BACKS DOWN IN GAS ROW WITH MOSCOWBy Jan Maksymiuk
Moscow took an unprecedented step last month to discipline Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and remind him that it is high time for him to start behaving in the manner the Kremlin wants him to -- Gazprom on 18 February halted gas supply to Belarus completely, charging that Minsk exhausted contracted gas quotas and began to siphon off Russian gas flowing in transit to third countries. Gazprom has refused to supply gas to Belarus since the beginning of the year, demanding a higher price for deliveries and favorable terms in the potential purchase of a controlling stake in Belarus's gas-pipeline operator Beltranshaz. To these two demands Lukashenka has steadfastly objected, at least until recently.
An accord to set up a Belarusian-Russian joint venture to run Belarus's gas-pipeline network, which is now run by Beltranshaz, was signed in April 2002, in addition to an agreement on the supply of 10 million cubic meters of gas to Belarus at a preferential price of some $30 per 1,000 cubic meters (which is Russia's domestic price for gas supplied to Smolensk Oblast bordering on Belarus). The planned sale of a stake in Beltranshaz to Gazprom collapsed in mid-2003, after Lukashenka valued the company at $5 billion and offered only a 50 percent stake, while Gazprom said it would pay only $600 million for a controlling stake.
Since the beginning of January, Belarus received gas from the formally independent traders Itera and Transnafta under short-term, "emergency" contracts, paying some $47 per 1,000 cubic meters. When a subsequent contract expired on 18 February and Minsk showed no willingness to sign another one, Gazprom turned off the tap.
Lukashenka's first reaction to the gas cutoff was furious. Unlike several previous bitter rows with Moscow, this time the Belarusian president did not look for some "backstage" culprits, but attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin directly. He accused Putin of pursuing economic "terrorism," adding that such a hostile step had not been made against Belarus since the end of World War II. But later the same day, Lukashenka suddenly backed down and agreed to pay a higher price -- $50 per 1,000 cubic meters -- for Russian gas. In what seemed to be his last propagandistic salvo of anti-Putin spitefulness, Lukashenka publicly announced that he will take money from "Chornobyl victims" and "people who rotted in the trenches" to pay the higher gas bills.
An unidentified official from the Russian Foreign Ministry lambasted Lukashenka on the ministry's official website for his "provocative statements" on 19 February, arguing that Belarus's defective socioeconomic development and international isolation were caused by none other than the Belarusian president himself. It was the first time that Moscow officially criticized Lukashenka's policies. Quite understandably, the Russian Foreign Ministry kept totally silent about the fact that it has been primarily the Kremlin's unconditional political support and cheap gas supplies that allowed Lukashenka to pursue such policies for almost 10 years. But now it seems that Moscow has decided to close the period of cheap gas supplies to Belarus for good.
Lukashenka has threatened to renounce unspecified "agreements" with Russia in retaliation to Gazprom's demand of a higher price for gas, but it is rather unlikely that, as some analysts suggest, he might immediately decide on re-establishing a full-scale customs border with his eastern neighbor, thus putting a practical end to the much-publicized Russia-Belarus Union. Even though the idea of a union state with Belarus seems to have lost influential advocates in Russia, Lukashenka has no other reliable political foundation on which he could place his hopes for political survival, especially as many Belarusian observers assert that he is planning to remain in power beyond the end of his second term in 2006.
A day after consenting to pay the higher price for gas, Lukashenka backed down even further and called against "politicizing" the gas dispute with Moscow. He seems to realize that it is Putin who is now dealing the cards in the Russia-Belarus integration game. Therefore, Lukashenka will pay higher gas bills, even if grudgingly, and will most likely try to bargain away Beltranshaz for the highest possible price, including the Kremlin's consent to his staying for a third presidential term.
Judging by his incoherent reactions, Moscow's decision to cut off gas supplies to Belarus took Lukashenka completely by surprise. Indeed, it was an extreme measure to which Russia did not resort even during its row with Ukraine over gas siphoning in 2000-01, when the cost of the Russian gas allegedly stolen by the Ukrainians reached, according to some estimates, hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.
But Ukraine's case for Russia is somewhat different from Belarus's. Even if warily, Kyiv has allowed Russian businesses to penetrate the Ukrainian market and participate in some major Ukrainian privatizations. Lukashenka, on the other hand, is keeping the most attractive privatization assets in Belarus strictly under his control and does not allow the Russians to snatch away a single one of them. Thus, Moscow's harsh measure to force him into submission is understandable, at least at an emotional level. And this measure seems to have worked, even if it is not clear yet whether Lukashenka will finally agree to sell Beltranshaz and at what price.
The current gas conflict between Minsk and Moscow is also a difficult dilemma for the Belarusian opposition. Objectively, Lukashenka is defending the country's economic interests, even if these interests are very closely linked to his political career. On the other hand, there is a general belief among Belarusian opposition leaders that it is impossible to depose Lukashenka without Moscow's blessing and/or nudge. Therefore, the Belarusian opposition seems to be in two minds over what to do now -- to protest Moscow's economic blackmail and thus indirectly take Lukashenka's side or, quite the opposite, to join Moscow in pressing the Belarusian president to adopt a more relaxed privatization policy and thus face Lukashenka's accusations of acting against national interests.
So far, the baffled Belarusian opposition has not issued any statement on the gas dispute and its implications. Ironically, it was the government that mobilized several hundred workers in front of the Russian Embassy in Minsk for an ad hoc anti-Moscow demonstration on 19 February, after Gazprom halted the gas flow. Lukashenka, the main engine of the Russian-Belarusian integration until recently, is now assuming some tasks of its staunch opponents as well.