|Monday, 1 March 2021|
RFE/RL Newsline, 05-03-23
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 DUMA OFFICIAL SAYS LIBERAL MINISTERS ARE IN FOR A GRILLING IN APRIL...First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) said on 21 March that in early April her faction will again consider the question of a vote of no confidence in the cabinet of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, paying particular attention to the ministers responsible for social and economic policy, RBK and other Russian media reported. "I believe that the first one we will send into retirement will be Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov," Sliska said. "And he might not only lose his office, but he should also answer to law enforcement officials as to how much his mistakes have cost the state." Sliska also said legislators "have serious questions for Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, and Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev." Sliska said that the Duma will review the government's social-benefits reforms on 13 April. Unified Russia, which has more than 300 votes in the Duma, did not vote when the Duma considered a no-confidence motion in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005), but said that it would review the government's performance after two months. VY
 ...AND CHIEF AUDITOR WILL PRESENT HIS REPORT IN APRIL AS WELLAudit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin said on 22 March that the chamber will present the results of its audit of the government's monetization reform to the Duma in April, polit.ru reported. He said that Finance Minister Kudrin and Health and Social Development Minister Zurabov will also present reports. Duma First Deputy Speaker Sliska on 22 March clarified her comments of the previous day, saying that some journalists had taken her statements too literally. "My statement does not mean that there is a Sliska list for retirements," she said, according to RBK. "I only said that we will review the issue." Duma Deputy Boris Reznik (Unified Russia) told "Izvestiya" on 21 March: "[Sliska] never says anything without approval from the top. I believe she was given the OK [to mention the ministers]." VY
 GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL SAYS NO BACKPEDALING ON BENEFITS REFORM...Speaking at a meeting of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP) in Moscow on 22 March, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov said that the government does not plan to change its policies on social benefits, polit.ru reported. Zhukov said he knows that opposition to the monetization reforms generated public disturbances, but said that without these reforms it would be impossible to carry out much-needed reforms in the transportation, education, and health-care sectors. Zhukov also pledged that the government will raise public-sector wages by 50 percent by 2008, and he promised increased expenditures on health care. "Health care is in need of immediate reform, but not with the aim of reducing state expenditures," Zhukov said, according to NTV. "On the contrary, this reform will entail spending money." VY/JAC
 ...AND SAYS STABILIZATION FUND COULD REACH 1 TRILLION RUBLES BY YEAR'S ENDAt the same 22 March conference, Deputy Prime Minister Zhukov said that the so-called stabilization fund could reach 1 trillion rubles ($36.26 billion) by the end of the year, polit.ru reported. Zhukov said this will be possible if world oil prices remain high. Speaking after Zhukov at the conference, Finance Minister Kudrin said the government's policy is to use the stabilization fund only to reduce its foreign debt, as any domestic use of the money could spur inflation, polit.ru and RBK-TV reported. VY
 DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA WILL PROCEED SYSTEMATICALLY ON WITHDRAWAL FROM GEORGIADefense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 22 March that it will cost $250 million to $300 million to withdraw Russian forces from its two remaining bases in Georgia, RIA-Novosti and RTR reported. He said the Finance Ministry will begin financing the withdrawal only after an agreement with Georgia is signed and ratified. The timing of such an agreement must be defined in talks with Georgia, Ivanov said. The next round of the talks began in Moscow on 23 March and will continue until 25 March. Ivanov added that Russia will not repeat the mistakes the Soviet Union made when it withdrew its forces from Germany. "First we will build bases, including a normal infrastructure, and only then will we withdraw [the troops]," Ivanov said. VY
 PR SPECIALIST TO HEAD KREMLIN'S CIS DEPARTMENTPresident Vladimir Putin on 22 March appointed Modest Kolerov as the head of a newly created presidential-administration department for regional and cultural relations with foreign countries, kremlin.org reported, citing the presidential press service. Kolerov, a Unified Russia member who heads the Internet news agency Regnum, will be charged with "preventing velvet revolutions in the former Soviet Union," "Kommersant-Daily" editorialized on 22 March. The daily commented that Regnum often publishes articles about "enemies of Russia who are planning revolutions in neighboring countries and preparing schemes to undermine Russia's sovereignty." National Strategy Institute Vice President Viktor Militarev said on 22 March that Putin made "a good choice," apn.ru reported. "Kolerov is a good, smart man, a Russian patriot, and a person who is well-informed about the situation in the CIS," Militarev said. Kolerov is a professional public-relations specialist who in the past has worked for oligarch Mikhail Potanin and for the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK), stringer.ru reported on 22 March. VY
 PRO-KREMLIN MUSLIMS FORM NEW ORGANIZATIONFederation Council representative from Chechnya Umar Dzhabrailov said on 22 March that a new organization called Russian Islamic Heritage has been created that will represent the Russian Islamic community "in dialogue with the authorities," ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. About 90 delegates from Tatarstan, Daghestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and other federation subjects attended the organization's founding congress, at which Moscow-based Chechen businessman Khusein Dzhabrailov was elected its chairman. The group's executive committee includes Federation Council member Ralif Safin, Russian Islamic Committee head Geidar Jamal, and Sufi cleric Yakub Deniev. The new organization plans to represent Russian Muslims at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), polit.ru reported. Speaking at the founding congress, Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov said that the group will "protect the large Russian Islamic community from the imported viruses of fundamentalism," newsru.com reported. VY
 FORMER NTV JOURNALIST TAKES HIS SHOW ON THE ROADSavik Shuster, the former host of the popular NTV political talk show "Freedom of Speech," which was cancelled last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2004), has accepted an invitation from the Ukrainian channel ICTV to launch a similar program in Kyiv, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 22 March. Shuster was quoted as saying that he is moving to Ukraine because "there is more freedom there than in other CIS countries." He added that his program will be launched in the fall and will be devoted solely to Ukrainian issues. An ICTV spokesman told Interfax on 22 March that the channel extended the invitation to Shuster in order to raise its informational programming to Western journalistic standards. VY
 SOME REGIONS EXPERIENCE DRAMATIC HIKES IN RENTS, UTILITY COSTS...Some experts are predicting a fresh round of protests to accompany reforms of the housing and public-utilities sector, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 22 March. At the end of February, according to data from the Federal Construction, Housing, and Communal Services Agency, rates for communal services jumped by one-third on average. The increases took effect in an extremely uneven fashion, with rates soaring by a factor of 8 1/2 times in just six weeks in the Evenk Autonomous Okrug. On the other hand, in Sverdlovsk Oblast rates decreased by about 5 percent. In Voronezh Oblast, where regional legislative elections took place on 20 March, rates jumped by 60 percent. In Volgograd Oblast, rates jumped by 76 percent. JAC
 ...AS POLITICAL OPPOSITION WATCHES AND WAITSInstitute for Regional Issues Director Maksim Dianov told "Novye izvestiya" that the problem with the government's reforms is that they do not take into account things that have been done in the past. The amended law on local self-government, which took effect on 1 January, is very similar to a law that took effect in Novosibirsk two years earlier, which a court later ruled was unconstitutional. "The same thing is happening with other reforms," he said. He said that the Communist Party has learned from past mistakes in which it tried to organize protests before controversial measures were adopted. Now the party is waiting for the law to be implemented before beginning its work. Dianov said that if the party tries to provoke a massive wave of public dissatisfaction now, it will be successful. "Today, everything is in the hands of the Kremlin," he said. "If the Kremlin manages to reach an agreement with the opposition, then the situation will be stable. But as things stand, the dissatisfaction will quietly grow and sooner or later a social explosion is possible." JAC
 OPPOSITION FIGURES SET UP RUSSIAN 'SOLIDARNOSC'Another coordinating council for the joint actions of opposition political forces and public organizations has been established in Moscow, ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti reported on 21 March. State Duma deputies Sergei Glazev (Motherland), Oleg Shein (Motherland), and Vladimir Ryzhkov (independent) are organizing the new group. Shein told reporters that the organization "will be a progressive Russian analogue to the Polish Solidarnosc," referring to the Polish trade-union organization that coordinated anti-communist activity in that country in the 1980s. Glazev, a former leader of Motherland and presidential candidate, heads the For a Decent Life party. Ryzhkov is co-chairman of the Committee-2008. Also taking part are representatives of the For Human Rights movement, the Movement in Support of the Army, and the Chornobyl Union. Ryzhkov said the organizations taking part in the new council will direct the thrust of their criticism against the benefits reforms, the new Housing Code, and the reforms of the housing and public-utilities sector. He added that all methods, including street protests, will be used: "We are not afraid of the specter of an 'orange revolution,'" Ryzhkov said. JAC
 GOVERNORS' ENEMIES WRITE TO THE KREMLINIvanovo Oblast's Unified Russia branch is collecting signatures on a petition asking President Putin to replace Ivanovo Oblast Governor Vladimir Tikhonov, NTV reported on 22 March. According to the station, the party claims it has gathered more than 50,000 signatures. First Deputy Governor Nikolai Zimin dismissed the action as a "political provocation" aimed at destabilizing the region. Tikhonov is the leader of a leftist splinter group that broke off from the Communist Party last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 July 2004). A similar effort to unseat a sitting governor is underway in Altai Krai, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 14 March. The leaders of 49 of 72 municipal agencies in Altai Krai sent the Kremlin a letter on 18 March asking that the president dismiss krai head Mikhail Yevdokimov, lenta.ru reported. Days earlier, the leaders of 21 political parties and social organizations -- including the Communist Party, Unified Russia, the Union of Rightist Forces, and the Agrarian Party -- sent a similar letter complaining about Yevdokimov. A former television comedian, Yevdokimov was elected on April 2004. JAC
 MORE PUBLICITY GENERATED FOR SOROKIN OPERAThe pro-Putin youth group Walking Together is picketing the Bolshoi Theater to protest plans to debut the opera, "Rosenthal's Children," Ekho Moskvy reported on 22 March. Avant-garde writer Vladimir Sorokin wrote the libretto, and the group tried to have Sorokin prosecuted on charges of distributing pornography for his 1999 book "Goluboye Salo" (Blue Lard) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2004). State Duma deputies on 21 March attended a dress rehearsal for the opera in an effort to ascertain whether the Duma should ban the production (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2005). State Duma Deputy Irina Saveleva (Motherland) told RTR, "I can say right away that it's not pornography, but the text is very bad." Several deputies left the theater before the opera was finished. Interfax reported, though, that the audience applauded energetically and shouted "bravo" and "encore." Film director Nikita Mikhalkov said the applause was a form of protest against the possible banning of the opera rather than a genuine expression of pleasure. JAC
 PACE CONVENES ROUND TABLE ON CHECHNYASome 60 representatives of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration and the federal authorities, together with human rights activists, European parliamentarians, and independent experts, met in Strasbourg on 21 March to discuss the situation in Chechnya, according to the Council of Europe's website (http://www.coe.int), ITAR-TASS and the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 23 March. The pro-Moscow Chechen administration had earlier argued that the discussion should be held in Moscow or Grozny. Although most of the Russian and Chechen participants simply read prepared statements and showed little enthusiasm for a genuine discussion, all 31 speakers affirmed their readiness for a dialogue intended to pave the way for a political solution of the conflict. Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov reaffirmed that commitment to ITAR-TASS on the sidelines of the nine-hour discussion. At the same time, Alkhanov rejected any differentiation between moderate and hard-line elements within the Chechen resistance, affirming that "terrorism can only have one face." Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross, who is PACE rapporteur for Chechnya, said in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 22 March that the PACE had hoped that representatives of slain Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov would also attend the round table. LF
 INTERIOR MINISTRY FAILS TO CONFIRM BID TO KILL CHECHEN PREMIERAides to Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov said on 22 March that two land mines were discovered earlier that day, one at the side of a highway that Abramov was scheduled to drive down while touring construction sites in Grozny and a second on a road onto which his motorcade was diverted after the first mine was discovered, Russian news agencies reported. An anonymous Chechen Interior Ministry source told Interfax, however, that the reports of land mines planted along Abramov's route have not yet been confirmed. Abramov was appointed Chechen prime minister in March 2004; before that he served from early 2001 until early 2003 as Chechen finance minister, and then for one year as head of the Audit Chamber's permanent office in Chechnya. LF
 FIVE REPORTED KILLED IN SHOOT-OUT BETWEEN RUSSIAN TROOPS AND CHECHEN POLICETwo Chechen police officers, one Russian serviceman, and two civilians died on 22 March in a dispute near the village of Berkat-Yurt, Interfax reported, quoting a local administration official. In solidarity with local residents' demands for compensation, Chechen police blocked the highway to prevent the passage of a Russian convoy that had reportedly hit a cow. It is not clear which side opened fire first; neither the Chechen authorities nor the Russian military have confirmed the incident. LF
 LOCAL PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE TARGETED IN DAGHESTANA homemade bomb has exploded near the office in Makhachkala of the Lenin Raion prosecutor's office, Interfax reported on 22 March. The building was damaged but no casualties were reported. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 MORE CLASHES REPORTED BETWEEN ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI FORCESLieutenant General Seyran Ohanian, who is the defense minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, appealed on 21 March to the Azerbaijani government to end "unnecessary provocations," meaning the ongoing sporadic exchanges of fire along the Line of Contact east of the NKR, according to Arminfo as cited by Groong. He reaffirmed the unrecognized republic's commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully. On 22 March, the independent ANS television station reported that one Azerbaijani serviceman was killed on 20 March and two Armenian troops killed and several wounded on 21 March. If confirmed, those deaths would raise to at least six the number of fatalities so far this month. ANS further reported, quoting a correspondent in the vicinity, that Armenian forces in Aghdam opened fire on Azerbaijani positions early on 22 March. . AFP on 20 March quoted Azerbaijani analyst Azad Issazade as noting that "in the 11 years since the 1994 ceasefire agreement was signed, there have been only two or three occasions when tensions were at this level, and each time the situation could have deteriorated into war." LF
 FREED AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONISTS VOW TO RESUME POLITICAL ACTIVITYSix of the seven prominent Azerbaijani oppositionists sentenced last October for their role in the clashes in Baku following the October 2003 presidential election told journalists in Baku on 22 March, one day after being pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev and released from confinement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2005) that they will resume their political activity and plan to participate in the parliamentary elections due in October, Turan reported. The seven were among 38 people jailed in the wake of the 2003 presidential ballot and released earlier this week. Similarly pardoned was former Defense Minister Rahim Kaziev, regarded by the Council of Europe as a political prisoner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June and 26 August 2003). Parliament speaker Murtuz Alesqerov told Interfax on 22 March that as a result of the pardons, there is no longer any reason to accuse Azerbaijan of holding political prisoners. But the opposition paper "Yeni Musavat" on 23 March quoted Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur Malcolm Bruce as saying that there are indeed still political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. LF
 PEACEKEEPERS DEPLOY, WITHDRAW ARMOR IN WESTERN GEORGIAThe Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone dispatched 10 armored personnel carriers on 22 March to the village of Ganmukhuri in western Georgia, where Georgian police detained four inebriated Russian peacekeepers the previous day, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2005). The Russian convoy withdrew after negotiations between the regional governor, Gigi Ugulava, and the commander of the CIS peacekeeping force. The independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 quoted Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili on 22 March as saying Tbilisi has demanded a formal explanation for the unannounced deployment of armored vehicles. Also on 22 March, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili told journalists she considers it premature to demand the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal from the Abkhaz conflict zone, ITAR-TASS reported. LF
 GEORGIAN EDUCATION MINISTER AGAIN RULES OUT CONCESSIONS TO HUNGER STRIKING STUDENTSKakha Lomaya reaffirmed on 22 March that the authorities will not cave in to demands by students of the private Georgian Medical College to be admitted to the state-run Georgian Medical University without sitting the routine entrance examinations, Caucasus Press reported. He reasoned that acceding to the medical students' demands would encourage similar demands by students at other private universities, of which Georgia has some 223. Meanwhile Georgian Medical University Rector Ramaz Khetsuriani was hospitalized on 22 March after suffering a heart attack, one day after Lomaya accused him of corruption and asked President Saakashvili to dismiss him. Five students from a medical college in Kutaisi have traveled to Tbilisi to join the 19 Georgian Medical College students who embarked on a hunger strike last week, Caucasus Press reported on 23 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9, 14, and 21 March 2005). LF
 GEORGIAN PRESIDENT OFFERS TO MEDIATE IN KYRGYZSTANMikheil Saakashvili has written to his Kyrgyz counterpart Askar Akaev expressing his concern at the deteriorating political situation in Kyrgyzstan, Caucasus Press reported on 22 March. Saakashvili assured Akaev of his "friendship and support," and offered to travel to Kyrgyzstan to serve "as negotiator, moderator, or friend, and to take part in constructive discussions with the opposition" in the hope of averting "chaos and unrest." Meanwhile according to an unconfirmed Interfax report of 22 March, a Georgian parliamentary delegation is currently in southern Kyrgyzstan. LF
 KAZAKHSTAN URGES TALKS IN KYRGYZSTANKazakhstan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 22 March urging a peaceful solution to post-election protests in Kyrgyzstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The statement noted that Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev "is observing events in friendly Kyrgyzstan with concern, and has voiced the hope that disturbances in the country's south will end and that the situation will stabilize soon." Toqaev said "the authorities and the opposition should find a common language and come to an agreement on the basis of the country's constitution and without using force." DK
 KYRGYZ PRESIDENT TAKES HARDER LINE ON PROTESTS...In a nationally televised address and in remarks to parliament on 22 March, President Askar Akaev took a harder line on post-election protests that have seen opposition forces gain control of Jalal-Abad and Osh, Kabar and akipress.org reported. In his televised address, the president affirmed his desire to "achieve normalization through negotiations," but said the opposition is too fragmented for talks, Kabar reported. Akaev also said there are no grounds for annulling the results of recent parliamentary elections and that demonstrations cannot serve as the cause for the president's resignation. In his remarks before parliament, Akaev condemned "homegrown revolutionaries" as "individuals who are guided by foreign directives and inflict harm on their own people while receiving funds from abroad," akipress.org reported. Nevertheless, he stated he will not declare a state of emergency or use force to quell protests. In closing, he termed the current situation a "temporary, passing phenomenon," adding, "I am confident we will succeed in quickly localizing it through active joint measures." DK
 ...AS PARLIAMENT HOLDS FIRST SESSION DESPITE OPPOSITION BOYCOTTKyrgyzstan's newly elected unicameral parliament held its first session on 22 March but opposition lawmakers did not attend, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. With the Central Election Commission having determined winners in 69 of 75 races, 58 parliamentarians attended the first session. A statement signed by 22 deputies of the preceding parliament rejected the official decision to open parliament despite opposition allegations of widespread fraud during recent elections. In an address before lawmakers, President Akaev underscored his support for the election results, emphasizing the new legislature's "indisputable legitimacy." DK
 KYRGYZ OPPOSITION SAYS PRESIDENT NOT READY FOR TALKSIshengul Boljurova, deputy chairperson of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, said on 22 March, "We do not see that at the present time President Akaev is ready to conduct talks with the opposition," Interfax reported. She said the authorities have yet to respond to a proposal for talks submitted several days ago by the People's Movement. Meanwhile, opposition forces continued to control the southern cities of Jalal-Abad and Osh on 22 March, agencies reported. And Boljurova told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 22 March that "the people also took control of the regional administration buildings in Batken and Kadamzhay [in Batken Province] today." She added, "In many areas, including Talas [in northern Kyrgyzstan], power is now in the hands of people's congresses." Protestors also continued to occupy government offices in Kochkor, in northern Kyrgyzstan. DK
 UZBEKISTAN EXPRESSES CONCERN AT KYRGYZ SITUATION, BOLSTERS BORDERIn an official statement on 22 March, Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry expressed concern at recent events in Kyrgyzstan, akipress.org reported. The ministry voiced the hope that "the people of Kyrgyzstan...will not give in to inflammatory calls and the possible actions of destructive forces, primarily third forces, which may use the situation to heighten the confrontation within Kyrgyz society, and sow chaos and ethnic strife." The statement stressed that Uzbekistan would like to see "all of the contradictions and problems that have arisen resolved peacefully, with no interference from the outside." At the same time, Uzbekistan has tightened controls over its border with Kyrgyzstan, National Security Service spokesman Olimjon Turakulov told RIA-Novosti. Turakulov noted, however, that border crossings are continuing to operate normally. DK
 MINSK REJECTS OPPOSITION RALLY REQUESTThe Minsk city administration has rejected a request by opposition politician Andrey Klimaw to stage a downtown protest rally on 25 March, Belapan News reported on 22 March. Klimaw says he intended to assemble up to 100,000 people to protest Alyaksandr Lukashenka's intention to run for a third presidential term. Klimaw told Belapan he is not surprised by the refusal, although the explanation baffles him. The city government told him that the location where he intended to hold the rally, Kastrychnitskaya Square, is not designed for events involving more than 1,000 people and that he had not produced a letter guaranteeing that he would pay for cleaning the square afterward. Klimaw said, "A revolution is historically unavoidable in Belarus. March 25 will mark the beginning of the fall of this government," Belapan reported. RK
 PRESS SURVEY SLAMS BELARUSIAN MEDIA FREEDOMThe Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) released its 2004 World Press Freedom Review on 22 March, in which it reported that Belarusian authorities had harassed and intimidated independent media in the run-up to the October 2004 parliamentary elections. The IPI report, as cited by Belapan, rebuked the Belarusian government for persecuting journalists for publishing critical articles on a website run by Charter 97, a human rights organization not recognized by the authorities, and other acts perceived to be aimed at preventing a free press. The IPI report gave numerous examples of how authorities interrupted television broadcasts that focused on the situation in Belarus and how the Belarusian KGB attempted to break into the offices of four NGOs whose members were journalists. The World Press Freedom Review also mentioned that more than 10 publications were suspended in the months preceding the October elections. RK
 UKRAINE CONTINUES ANTICORRUPTION DRIVEHennadiy Moskal, the deputy head of Ukraine's Interior Ministry, the MVS, announced that criminal charges have been filed against 12 former deputy heads of oblast administrations and 58 heads of raion administrations. All of the suspects are accused of bribe taking and "exceeding their authority," Interfax reported on 22 March. Moskal also stated that the head of former President Leonid Kuchma's property office, Ihor Bakay, who is believed to be in hiding, has been indicted on seven criminal charges, among them defrauding the state. The "Ukrayinska Pravda" website on 23 March posted a listing of his allegedly fraudulent dealings, which included transferring ownership of a state-owned multimillion dollar dwelling used by Kuchma as his winter dacha to an offshore company after Viktor Yushchenko won the presidential election. RK
 DEFENSE COUNCIL CHIEF DEFENDS DECISION TO SACK KYIV SECURITY OFFICIALPetro Poroshenko, the head of the National Security and Defense Council, said President Yushchenko had "good reasons" for removing the deputy head of the country's Security Service, the SBU, Oleksander Skybynetsky, Interfax reported on 22 March. Skybynetsky was appointed by Yushchenko to be first deputy of the SBU in February. Poroshenko went on to say that if anyone disagrees with Yushchenko's decision, that person can resign. This remark was made apparently in reference to Oleksander Turchinov, the head of the SBU, who complained he had not been informed of the decision. Poroshenko told Interfax cryptically that "anyone with access to state secrets should be able to analyze the reasons for [Skybynetsky's] removal." RK
 TOP-LEVEL EU DELEGATION TO GO TO CROATIA...German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in Brussels on 23 March that the EU will soon send a high-ranking team to Croatia to determine the extent of that country's cooperation with The Hague-based war crimes tribunal, dpa reported. The delegation will consist of EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, as well as senior, unnamed officials from the European Commission, the United Kingdom, Austria, and Luxembourg, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency. The EU recently decided to postpone the start of membership talks with Croatia, which were originally scheduled for 17 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2005). The delay was due primarily to the insistence of Britain, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries that Croatia hand over indicted former General Ante Gotovina to prove it is fully cooperating with the tribunal. Croatia denies Gotovina is in the country and says it is cooperating fully with the tribunal. Leaders of Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Hungary argued in Brussels on 23 March that talks should be rescheduled soon to prevent opponents of Croatia's EU membership from profiting politically from the imbroglio. PM
 ...AS CROATIA'S PRESIDENT SAYS IT MUST DO MORECroatian President Stipe Mesic told the European edition of "Time" magazine that his country must work harder to convince the EU that it is "doing everything it can" to find Gotovina, the weekly reported in its 21 March issue. The magazine noted that recent polls suggest that fewer than half of all Croats now back joining the EU, down from two-thirds in 2003. Some analysts have suggested that Brussels' decision to delay talks could lead many Croats to regard Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and his government as ineffective. Both Sanader's center-right administration and its center-left predecessor made EU membership their top foreign policy priority. PM
 SERBIAN PREMIER 'CONFIDENT' OF PROGRESS IN EU RELATIONSSerbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in Brussels on 22 March that he is "quite optimistic that in the days to come...we will have significant progress [in the voluntary surrender of war crimes indictees] that will lead us to full cooperation" with The Hague-based tribunal, Reuters reported. Asked by reporters about indicted former generals Nebojsa Pavkovic and Sreten Lukic, Kostunica replied that "we are treating these cases more than seriously" in view of their importance for Belgrade's relations with the tribunal. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Serbia has made "very good progress" recently in cooperating with the tribunal, adding that he wants to see more. In Belgrade, however, Zoran Andjelkovic, who heads former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), warned that his party will end its parliamentary support for Kostunica's minority government if it arrests Pavkovic or Lukic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2005). PM
 SERBIAN NATIONALISTS CALL FOR BOYCOTT OF BROADCASTERMany posters appeared in central Belgrade on 22 March calling for a boycott of the B92 radio and television stations, charging that they support "anti-Serbian activity," including drug abuse, Kosovar independence, homosexuality, and a "multiracial new world order," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The posters demanded "Serbia for the Serbs" and showed the B92 logo with a Star of David imprinted on it. A group calling itself the Serbian Formation claimed responsibility for the posters. Serbian President Boris Tadic, the Foreign Ministry of Serbia and Montenegro, and the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) condemned the posters and demanded an investigation. PM
 SERBIAN PRESIDENT WANTS ARMS COOPERATION WITH BOSNIAN FEDERATIONPrime Minister Ahmet Hadzipasic of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Croat-Muslim Federation led a delegation including 52 business people to Belgrade on 22 March, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. Both Hadzipasic and Serbian President Tadic stressed that the time has come for both sides to muster the political will to conclude a trade agreement. Tadic also called for cooperation in arms production for sales on the world market between former Yugoslav enterprises in Serbia and the federation. The German broadcaster noted, however, that many people in the federation think that it is still too early to consider cooperation with Belgrade in military matters (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 February 2005, and "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 18 November, and 2 and 9 December 2004). PM
 BOSNIAN SERBS LAUNCH CAMPAIGN TO BRING INDICTEES TO JUSTICEThe Bosnian Serb authorities began a campaign on 22 March in Banja Luka and elsewhere in Republika Srpska to convince the public that it is in everyone's interest in Bosnia-Herzegovina that all war crimes indictees go to The Hague to face justice, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The campaign is titled "Them or Us" and includes a video declaring that "either they go to The Hague or we go to hell." The Bosnian Serbs' failure to cooperate with the tribunal is the main stumbling block Bosnia faces in its aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration. Many Bosnian Serbs still regard indictees such as Radovan Karadzic and former General Ratko Mladic as national heroes. PM
 WIDESPREAD SUPPORT IN KOSOVA FOR FORMER PRIME MINISTERThe Kosovar parliament approved the nomination of former student activist Bajram Kosumi as prime minister on 23 March, after which he was formally sworn in, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2005). The previous day, the government agreed to form a committee to provide legal, financial, and unspecified political support to former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who recently resigned and surrendered voluntarily to The Hague-based war crimes tribunal, which had indicted him, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Some 200,000 Kosovars have signed a petition calling on the tribunal to release Haradinaj pending the start of his trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 9, 10, and 21 March 2005). PM
 MACEDONIAN PREMIER DISCUSSES SECOND ROUND OF LOCAL ELECTIONS WITH PARTY LEADERSMacedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski met on 22 March with the leaders of the political parties that have mayoral candidates in the second round of local elections on 27 March, MIA news agency and RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters reported. The talks focused on a draft bill submitted to parliament by the ethnic Albanian opposition coalition of the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), which demands that the first round of local elections be annulled in the districts in western Macedonia with an ethnic Albanian majority. Buckovski said after the meeting that he and several other participants tried to convince PDSH Deputy Chairman Menduh Thaci not to call for a boycott of the second round if the parliament fails to pass the bill. Buckovski also criticized conservative opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) chairman Nikola Gruevski, who boycotted the meeting. A second meeting is scheduled for 23 March. Domestic and international observers noted some irregularities during the first round of the elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, 16, and 22 March 2005, and End Note "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005). UB
 DEFENSE MINISTER: ROMANIAN FORCES TO STAY IN IRAQRomanian troops will remain in Iraq as long as they are needed, Defense Minister Teodor Atanasiu said on 22 March during an official visit to Bulgaria, dpa reported the same day. "The Romanian contingent will remain in Iraq until the moment when Iraqi security forces can assume the tasks now carried out by Romanian soldiers," Atanasiu said in Sofia after meeting his Bulgarian counterpart, Nikolai Svinarov. Romania has 730 troops in Iraq; Bulgaria has 450. Svinarov said Bulgaria tentatively plans to begin pulling its forces out of Iraq in December. BW
 PRESIDENT: MOLDOVAN COMMUNISTS IN NEGOTIATIONS WITH OPPOSITION...The Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) is negotiating with the opposition to elect a new president, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 March. "Negotiations have been slow so far. We are discussing cooperation principles acceptable for our party and other organizations," incumbent president and PCM leader Vladimir Voronin said. In the 6 March elections, the PCM gained 56 seats in the 101-member parliament, enough to form a government but shy of the 61 votes necessary to reelect Voronin. Both the Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD), which gained 34 seats, and the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD), which won 11, said they would boycott any vote for a PCM president. If parliament fails to elect a president in two ballots, it is dissolved and a new general election is held. BW
 ...AS CHRISTIAN DEMOCRATIC LEADER SAYS VORONIN HAS ENOUGH VOTES FOR REELECTIONPPCD leader Iurie Rosca said Voronin appears to have enough opposition votes for reelection, AP Flux reported on 22 March. "Voronin has more than the necessary number of mandates to be able to keep his position of head of state, so that PPCD will have nothing else to watch but to find out how many BMD deputies go to the Communists' camp," Rosca said. "PPCD has no reason to participate in the election for head of state, because it cannot propose its own candidate. We will be present, but we will watch from the side how the others will elect Voronin," he added. BMD leader Serafim Urechean said how his party votes will depend on the candidates. "Participation of BMD deputies in voting for head of state depends on which candidates will be proposed," Urechean said in remarks quoted by AP Flux the same day. "Early elections are a last resort, but other real solutions to overcome the situation exist until then," he added. BW
 MOLDOVAN PROSECUTORS FILE ADDITIONAL CHARGES AGAINST PASATThe Moldovan Prosecutor-General's Office has filed additional charges against former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 March. The new charges stem from what prosecutors call the illegal sale of Uragan rocket systems for a price less than their market value, resulting in a $1.8 million loss in revenue for Moldova's government. "Other violations in armament selling are under investigation within the framework of this case," Moldovan Deputy Prosecutor General Valeriu Gurbulea said. On 18 March, prosecutors filed abuse-of-office charges against Pasat over the 1997 sale of 21 MiG-29 fighter jets to the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2005). "My client is confident that the prosecutors and the court are following a political order of the Moldovan authorities," Pasat's lawyer, Gheorghe Amihalachioaie, said. "His custody is unfounded, his testimony is ignored. So he has refused to testify until he is released." Amihalachioaie has petitioned Moldova's Chamber of Appeals to have Pasat released from pretrial detention. BW
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 AFGHAN LEADER ARRIVES IN PAKISTAN...President Hamid Karzai arrived in Islamabad on 22 March on a two-day official visit to Pakistan, the Associated Press of Pakistan reported. Karzai will be the guest of honor at the Pakistan Day parade on 23 March. Karzai last visited Pakistan in August 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 August 2004). AT
 ...AND HOLDS TALKS WITH HIS COUNTERPARTKarzai held talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on 22 March, Associated Press of Pakistan reported the same day. Musharraf called the relationship between his country and Afghanistan very special and one that is based on historic and cultural links. He said Pakistan has already spent $43.3 million in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan out of a pledged $100 million. Afghanistan and Pakistan "are resolved to combat terrorism until it is completely removed. We will fight terrorism together in a coordinated manner," Musharraf said. According to the Pakistani leader, terrorism has been defeated, but "small pockets" remain. Karzai expressed support for Musharraf's emphasis that the international community should address the problem of terrorism "through a process of socio-economic uplift of Muslim countries." The two leaders discussed issues related to trade relations between their countries and Central Asia. Karzai specifically mentioned the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan natural gas pipeline as a project from which both Kabul and Islamabad would "gain tremendously" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 February 2005). AT
 KARZAI INAUGURATES CONSTRUCTION OF U.S.-SPONSORED UNIVERSITY IN KABULKarzai on 21 March inaugurated the construction of the American University of Afghanistan, AP reported. The private, liberal arts university is scheduled to open in September 2006 for 1,100 undergraduate students. The language of instruction will be English. Unless Afghanistan "has its own doctors, diplomats or engineers, it cannot develop," Karzai said. According to an earlier press release from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency is funding the initial start-up and operating costs and certain construction costs for the university. According to a recent UN report, less than 30 percent of Afghans can read and write (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 March 2005). AT
 AFGHAN MINISTER URGES DISCUSSION OF CENSORSHIPInformation and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin urged Afghan journalists in Kabul on 22 March to raise and discuss their problems of censorship and other issues related to the media and press, Tolu television reported. Rahin and his deputy in charge of publications, Sayyed Hosayn Fazel Sangcharaki, chaired a meeting titled "Open Discussions Among Journalists," in which editors from state-run and independent publications and representatives of the broadcast media in Afghanistan participated. Rahin gave his assurances that the media will be free in Afghanistan. AT
 IRAN DOES NOT WANT 'SECURITY ASSURANCES'Mohammad Saidi, deputy chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in Paris on 22 March that Iran will pursue mastery of the complete nuclear fuel cycle -- from mining uranium to building a heavy-water reactor that can produce plutonium, AFP reported. He dismissed as "irrelevant and worthless," according to Mehr News Agency, a European Union offer of security guarantees, the provision of parts for commercial aircraft, or other incentives for giving up this "right." The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad ElBaradei, said on 21 March that the United States should be engaged in any nuclear negotiations with Iran if the EU is to provide the Islamic Republic with security assurances, AFP reported. Supreme National Security Council official Hussein Musavian said in an interview broadcast by state radio on 22 March that if ElBaradei is referring to security assurances in exchange for abandoning the nuclear fuel cycle, he can forget it. Musavian said, "The fuel cycle is the absolute right of any [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] member. If they wish to propose a concession in order to deprive Iran of this absolute and legal right, this basically is not negotiable." BS
 NUCLEAR TALKS WITH IRAN IN PARIS REQUIRE 'PROGRESS'Musavian said in an interview broadcast by state radio on 22 March that the current nuclear talks in Paris are an opportunity to review the achievements of three working groups (an economic and technical committee, a political and security committee, and a nuclear committee). He said the talks will continue for three more months if there is "tangible progress" -- namely, the committees should "demonstrate that the Europeans have made progress toward fulfilling" their promises to Iran. Moreover, Iran should "build trust" that its nuclear fuel cycle will not be diverted for a weapons program. He said Iran accepts the European demand for guarantees, and now they must provide "the mechanism, the scenario, and the framework" they have in mind. BS
 KYIV SAYS MISSILE EXPORTS TO IRAN WERE UNAUTHORIZEDUkrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko said in Kyiv on 22 March that the alleged export to Iran and China of cruise missiles made in his country did not have governmental approval, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun said during the previous week that his country exported 12 KH-55 (aka AS-15) cruise missiles to Iran (and six to China) in 2001, but a later statement from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office dismissed this as false (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2005). Poroshenko said, "It is not a crime that was committed by Ukraine as a state. It has not been proved that the sale was approved by respective state agencies." Poroshenko added, "I think that all state agencies, all representatives of Ukraine, are demonstrating their openness, their interest in an objective, impartial, and open investigation into any case of arms supplies from Ukraine." BS
 HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS IN KURDISTAN PROVINCE TURN POLITICALNorouz celebrants in Kurdistan Province were arrested on 20 March after the activities turned political, Baztab website reported. About 1,000 people had gathered in the city of Mahabad when some began to display Kurdish flags and pictures of the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, Abdullah Ocalan, while also chanting separatist slogans. Security forces arrested the leaders and dispersed the rest of the crowd. Disturbances in Baneh, Qorveh, and Sanandaj also got out of hand, although Baztab did not report any political activities in these cases. The situation calmed down after some of the rowdier celebrants were arrested. BS
 ...AND VIOLENCE MARS CELEBRATIONS IN OTHER CITIESThe celebration called Chaharshanbeh Suri, which has Zorastrian origins, takes place on the Wednesday before Norouz, and international news agencies reported that the celebrations turned violent in several Iranian cities. During this event, people jump over or through bonfires to purify themselves symbolically, but this year, "The Guardian" reported on 21 March, there were "political undercurrents." A bystander at celebrations in Tehran named Reza, before warning about lurking security forces, said, "This is a way for people to use their national traditions to show their opposition to the regime." "The Guardian" reported that police in Tehran attacked crowds using batons and tear gas, and IRNA reported on 16 March that police did this in more than four locations. ISNA reported that some 50 people were arrested in Tehran. In Isfahan, Reuters reported on 16 March, vigilantes beat up boys and young men who were playing with firecrackers. More than 100 people were detained by vigilantes in Tabriz, Iran Press Service reported on 15 March. BS
 IRAQI AMBASSADOR ABSOLVES IRAN OF TERRORISM ACCUSATIONIraq's ambassador to Tehran, Salah Nur Samarmand, on 22 March said Iran is in no way responsible for a recent rupture in Amman-Baghdad relations, Iranian state radio reported. The previous day, Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani al-Mulqi said Iran was to blame. Iraq and Jordan recalled their envoys after criticism that Jordan should try harder to prevent the infiltration of suicide bombers. "Such statements are not true," Samarmand said. "Iran has nothing to do with this crime and would like to expand its ties with Iraq." Samarmand criticized Jordanian clerics for their failure to condemn the suicide bombing in al-Hillah, he accused Jordan of backing Ba'athist remnants, and he claimed that Jordan backs Saddam Hussein's daughters, "who dispatch terrorists and criminals to Iraq and support them financially." BS
 U.S.-BACKED IRAQI TROOPS RAID SUSPECTED INSURGENT CAMPIraqi police commandos backed by U.S. forces raided a suspected insurgent training camp near Al-Tharthar Lake, northwest of Baghdad, on 22 March, international media reported on 23 March. Seven Iraqi commandos and an unknown number of insurgents were killed in the clash, and six commandos were wounded, U.S. Major Richard Goldenberg told Reuters. No U.S. forces were killed. "An early assessment of the site indicates a facility for training anti-Iraqi forces," Goldenberg said, adding, "Documentation at the facility indicates that some members of the [anti-Iraqi forces] were foreign fighters." An Iraqi source at a Tikrit-based U.S.-Iraqi joint command center told Reuters that 80 insurgents and 11 Iraqi commandos were killed in the battle, which the source said lasted more than 12 hours. Reuters could not independently confirm the figure, reporting that Goldenberg said the battle lasted less than two hours. Al-Arabiyah also reported that 80 insurgents were killed, citing a statement issued by the joint command center. Reuters reported that an Internet statement by the Islamic Party of Tikrit has claimed 11 militants were killed in the fighting. KR
 SOURCES CLAIM AGREEMENT REACHED ON IRAQI GOVERNMENTIraqi and Arab media reported on 22 March that an agreement has been reached on the formation of the transitional government. However, there were conflicting reports as to the details of the agreement. "Al-Mu'tamar" newspaper cited an unnamed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official as saying the new government will include eight Kurdish ministers, 16 Shi'ite ministers, six Arab Sunni ministers, one Christian minister, and one Turkoman minister. Meanwhile, Al-Arabiyah television cited sources from both lists as confirming that Shi'ites will hold 17 ministries; the Kurds, seven ministries; Sunnis, six ministries; and Christians, one ministry. "Al-Da'wah" newspaper cited sources close to the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdistan Coalition lists as saying the Kurds will be given the foreign, communications, public works, water resources, science and technology, and human rights ministries. Arab Sunnis will get the defense, culture, industry, trade, and governate affairs ministries. The United Iraqi Alliance will be given the interior, justice, oil, planning, transport, electricity, education, higher education, and scientific research ministries. There are also conflicting media reports as to when the agreement will be formally announced, with some saying it will come on 24 March, and other outlets claiming 26 March. KR
 UN SAYS IT AGREED TO PAY LEGAL FEES OF FORMER OIL-FOR-FOOD HEAD...UN spokesman Fred Eckhard has confirmed that the world body agreed in October to use revenue from the now defunct oil-for-food program to pay the legal fees of the program's former head, Benon Sevan, who was under investigation on allegations of fraud, washingtonpost.com reported on 23 March. Independent investigator Paul Volcker determined that Sevan violated UN rules and created a conflict of interest when he solicited Iraqi oil on behalf of his friend, who owns a petroleum company, but did not find that Sevan personally benefited from the vouchers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). Newly appointed UN Chief of Staff Mark Malloch Brown said Sevan's legal fees accumulated through 3 February will be paid, ft.com reported on 23 March. Eckhard did not reveal the amount of Sevan's legal claims, but said the UN is questioning some of the expenses, washingtonpost.com reported. Sevan has reportedly not yet been reimbursed for any of the fees. KR
 ...AS INVESTIGATION FINDS POSSIBLE COVER-UPA joint investigation by the Italian financial newspaper "Il Sole 24 Ore" and the "Financial Times" has found that Kojo Annan, son of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, received at least $300,000 from the Swiss company Cotecna -- nearly double the amount previously disclosed -- through obscured payments, ft.com reported on 22 March. The company was awarded an oil-for-food inspection contract worth some $60 million. Cotecna had said that from January 1999 through February 2004, it held a noncompete contract with Kojo Annan for which the latter received $2,500 per month in fees, plus health insurance. The total payment should have amounted to $175,000. The investigation also found that over the years Annan was paid through a number of companies owned by Cotecna's chairman and chief executive officers, in an apparent attempt to cover up the payments. The noncompete contract, which under Swiss law must have a geographic limit and not last more than three years, was violated, ft.com reported. In addition, Cotecna reimbursed Annan's expenses through August 2000, including a five-figure American Express bill. Cotecna claims the payments were delayed reimbursements of the previous years' expenses. Volcker will address the allegations in a report next week. KR
 MARKET PROTESTS SHOW BELARUSIAN REGIME'S WEAK SPOTSBy Jan Maksymiuk
Since the beginning of March, Belarusian market traders have been protesting about a new tax they must pay on goods imported from Russia. The protests have shown the soft underbelly of Lukashenka's regime and are a harbinger of hope for an ineffectual opposition.
On 1 March, small retail traders went on an open-ended strike, protesting a new taxation rule requiring that they pay an 18 percent value-added tax (VAT) on goods imported from Russia. Beginning 1 January, Belarus switched to the country-of-destination principle in VAT collection in trade with Russia. The protesters, operators of stalls and kiosks at outdoor markets throughout Belarus, want the government to abolish VAT for individual entrepreneurs who pay the so-called single tax (a fixed sum of some $150 per month). According to organizers of the strike, some 80,000 vendors have refused to pay VAT on Russian imports.
Three weeks later, the strike is continuing, although on a considerably lesser scale than during its first days. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka took an unprecedented step on 10 March when he visited a market in Minsk and promised vendors that the government will soon address their concerns regarding the VAT payment on commodities imported from Russia. Lukashenka said the government may negotiate only the VAT payment system, not whether or not the tax should be paid. "The transition to the new principle of VAT collection in trade with Russia should be made as painlessly as possible for sole entrepreneurs," he added.
A week later Lukashenka vowed to issue a decree in the near future to improve conditions for the operation of vendors. The decree will reportedly allow market vendors to continue until 1 July to pay VAT on Russian imports without producing documents confirming the amount of their purchases and prices. Lukashenka instructed the government to work out a new mechanism for VAT payment after 1 July. Lukashenka also suggested that local administrations lower rents for outdoor market stalls and kiosks, effectively compensating vendors for losses brought on by VAT payments.
Will these steps by the government mollify the protesting vendors? This will largely depends on what mechanism for VAT payment the government will propose after 1 July. The essential problem seems to be that Belarus has no customs border with Russia. Belarusian vendors, who buy goods at big outdoor markets in Moscow or other Russian cities -- where as a rule nobody wants to give them any purchase documentation -- practically do not have any reliable records confirming what they ship to Belarus. If the government unveils a very rigorous proposal regarding the purchase documentation for Russian exports, the protest may not die out soon.
The behavior of the authorities toward the protesting vendors has already been surprising. When some 3,000 vendors gathered in front of the government building in Minsk on 10 February with a petition signed by some 30,000 against the VAT payment on Russian imports, police did not intervene, even though it was an unauthorized rally. What's more, the rally was addressed by Deputy Prime Minister Anatol Kabyakou -- a situation that nobody can remember having happened in Belarus in the last five or six years. So far, the authorities have been used to ignore opposition rallies if they were sanctioned or use police forces to deal with unauthorized ones. And by the end of February Lukashenka amazed everybody even more by issuing a decree that lowered VAT for foodstuffs and goods for children to 10 percent.
Carrots aside, Lukashenka has also used the stick. The authorities have twice jailed Anatol Shumchanka, a leader of the striking vendors, for calling for unsanctioned protests. Shumchanka was not released after his second jail term but placed in a pre-trial detention center on hooliganism charges for allegedly beating his cellmate. The new charge -- which Shumchanka claims to be a provocation -- may carry punishment of up to two years in prison. Shumchanka, who repeatedly called on vendors to limit themselves to economic demands and not to make the strike political, may now want to reconsider his stance, as it is widely believed that if his colleagues remain silent on his lot, he may indeed get a prison term significantly longer than the two previous jail terms.
Importantly, the vendors' protest has shown the vulnerability of Lukashenka's regime. First, the protest has shown that the regime is really afraid of large-scale social unrest. As long as the regime has to deal with several dozen oppositionists on the street, it routinely sends riot police to respond. But when a protest involves a wider social group, police methods are deemed inadvisable. Apart from some 100,000 market vendors, the problem of VAT payments on Russian imports affects also hundreds of thousands of customers -- essentially Lukashenka's bread-and-butter supporters -- who are too poor to buy foodstuffs or other basics in shops and purchase them at outdoor markets. Police batons won't do much good in such a situation.
Second, the vendors' protest obviously calls into question Lukashenka's boast that Belarus under his leadership is, politically and economically, the happiest and most stable country in the former Soviet area. Therefore, while making some small concessions to the protesters, the government is also trying to avoid creating the impression that it may bend to the protesters' will. For this reason, Lukashenka will never exempt vendors from paying VAT altogether, even though the economic gain for the state from this tax is quite insignificant. According to estimates by independent experts, the state budget can expect hardly much more than $0.5 million per year in VAT on Russian imports by small retail traders.
The vendors' protest should also serve as a fingerpost for the Belarusian political opposition, which has repeatedly failed to mobilize any significant groups of voters for its agenda in recent years. Belarusians have turned out to be largely deaf and blind to such issues as democratic governance, civil society, media freedom, and human rights in their country. But when it comes to economic issues, Belarusians' patience and forbearance seem to have a limit. The opposition might well take note on how to use such outbreaks of economic discontent to its advantage in the run-up to the 2006 presidential election.