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Newsline - March 25, 2002


MOVE TO OUST RUSSIAN STATE DUMA SPEAKER GETS UNDER WAY...
Several top lawmakers have begun an initiative to remove Gennadii Seleznev as speaker of the State Duma, Russian news agencies reported. The move was initiated on 22 March by Vladimir Pekhtin, the head of the pro-Kremlin Unity faction; Farida Gainullina, the deputy head of the Fatherland-All Russia faction; and Boris Nadezhdin, the deputy chair of the liberal Union of Rightist Forces faction, Interfax reported the same day. The first signs that Seleznev's job was in jeopardy surfaced on 20 March when lawmakers, led by pro-Kremlin deputies, voted to strip the speaker of his vote on the State Duma Council, the body that sets the lower house's agenda. BW

...AS SPEAKER DECRIES MOVE AS POLITICAL PLOT
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Spain, Seleznev said on 23 March that a ''political order'' is behind the attempt to dismiss him, RIA-Novosti reported. Seleznev did not specify who was behind the move, but vowed to find out. "This was not an accident, but a thoroughly planned action," Seleznev said. Seleznev, a Communist who served as speaker of the 1995-99 State Duma, was re-elected with the support of the pro-Kremlin Unity faction following the 1999 parliamentary elections. Interfax quoted Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the liberal Yabloko faction, as saying that that move could be a ploy on the part of Unity deputies to win control of key Duma committees now chaired by Communists. The Kremlin has remained publicly neutral on the matter. BW

MILITARY COMPLETES WAR GAMES IN FAR EAST...
The Russian armed forces completed 10 days of military exercises in the Far East regions of the Sakhalin and Kurile islands on 25 March, Russian and international news agencies reported. The exercises saw Russian troops repel a mock foreign invasion of Sakhalin Island. The maneuvers were designed to determine the combat readiness of regional troops, and involved army, air defense, air force, and border guard units. BW

...AND PUTIN WARNS U.S. AGAINST FIGHTING TERROR ON ITS OWN
President Vladimir Putin said on 25 March that no single state can take on the forces of international terrorism alone, Russian and international news agencies reported. "No state, no matter how big its military or economic potential is, can effectively fight alone against a broad network of organizations," he said in a message to an international conference in St. Petersburg on cooperation in the war on terrorism. Putin also said terrorism represents an "unprecedented threat to world society," and called for closer cooperation among security services worldwide. Delegates from the CIA as well as the British, Chinese, German, Japanese, and Polish intelligence services attended the two-day conference. BW

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY DENIES ROLE IN IRANIAN NUKE PLAN...
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has denied that Russia has been helping Iran develop nuclear weapons, Interfax reported on 23 March. Ivanov called the allegations made by CIA director George Tenet, "groundless and against the spirit of current Russian-U.S. relations." Ivanov added that "such statements can only cause regret. Mr. Tenet surely is aware of our contacts with representatives of the U.S. administration. We have always said that if someone has facts, if Mr. Tenet has such information, it must be reported." BW

...AS MOSCOW CONSIDERS RESUMPTION OF NUCLEAR TESTING
Former First Deputy Defense Minster and Russian Security Council Secretary Andrei Kokoshin said Russia might renew nuclear testing at its underground Novaya Zemlya test site, Ekho Moskvy radio reported on 23 March. He said such testing will be Russia's likely response to U.S. missile testing within the framework of its efforts to create a national missile-defense shield. Kokoshin said that while Russian authorities may face protests from environmental organizations, the country's security needs will take precedence over ecological concerns. VY

JUNKIE BUSTED WITH A ROCKET LAUNCHER
Police in St. Petersburg arrested a young heroin addict who was carrying an "Igla" antiaircraft missile launcher, gazeta.ru reported on 25 March. The 26-year-old man, whose name was not released, was detained in the entrance hall of the apartment block where he lives. The man claimed he found the missile launcher, which was operational, at a firing range near the Aleksandrovskaya railway station, and kept it in his dacha. He told police he decided to bring it into the city to show it to his friends. Investigators believe, however, that he wanted to sell the launcher and have launched a criminal case. BW

GOVERNMENT PREPARES TO CUT TAXES FOR SMALL BUSINESSES...
Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced in Moscow on 23 March that his government plans to lower taxes for small businesses in an effort to stimulate entrepreneurship, RIA-Novosti reported on 24 March. According to a draft bill due to be submitted during the Duma's spring session, profit, sales, and property taxes will be combined into a single tax rate of between 5 and 10 percent, Kasyanov said. Furthermore, the government wants to completely cut social taxes for small businesses. VY

...AND OTHERS
Kasyanov has also announced that his government plans to make several additional changes to Russia's tax system, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 March. The federal government intends to increase the share of the profit tax that goes to regional authorities by 1.5 percent. In addition, the government plans to introduce a new tax to replace the road tax, which will be abolished on 1 January 2003. "Its tentative name is transport tax. It will be payable to regional budgets," Kasyanov said. Kasyanov also said excise taxes on tobacco, beer, and gasoline will be raised by 21 percent. BW

PRIME MINISTER SAYS U.S. WILL EASE STEEL RESTRICTIONS...
Interfax reported on 25 March that Premier Kasyanov said Moscow and Washington plan to sign agreements easing restrictions on Russian steel imports to the United States. Kasyanov said the agreements will not completely resolve the problem, but would resolve some differences; in particular, those on steel wire. Kasyanov added that "there is no link between the Russian veterinary authorities' ban on U.S. poultry supply, between the protection of the Russian consumer against poor-quality products, and the decision to limit Russian steel exports to the U.S." BW

...AND PREDICTS POULTRY BAN WILL END
Speaking in Volgograd on 22 March, Premier Kasyanov said the United States might be able to resume poultry exports to Russia in the near future. Kasyanov said suppliers whose product had tested positive for salmonella will be banned, but other companies can possibly begin importing to Russia again ''within 20-30 days maximum." He said the issues were solved during recent consultations between Russia's Agriculture Ministry and U.S. officials. "Solving the problem proved to be very simple,'' Kasyanov said. BW

PRIME MINISTER CALLS FOR INDEPENDENT CENTRAL BANK...
Premier Kasyanov told reporters on 23 March that the Central Bank must remain independent, ITAR-TASS reported. The government "has had and will have a consistent position that the Central Bank must not be controlled by any other body. The government will defend this position in a consistent and strict way," Kasyanov said. The prime minister added, however, that there is a need to "increase control over the Central Bank's operational expenses," but that such measures "must not be used as a means of putting pressure on the Central Bank." BW

...AS CENTRAL BANK CHIEF PREDICTS STABLE RUBLE
Sergei Ignatiev told RTR state television on 24 March that "nothing awful" will happen to the ruble exchange rate this year. "When calculating the federal budget last year, we supposed that the average yearly exchange rate would be 31.5 rubles to the dollar and it would near 33 rubles by the year end. We have no reason to change our estimations," Ignatiev said, adding that annual inflation will be between 12 and 14 percent in 2002. He added that "a mechanism of guarantees for people's deposits in banks" is needed. Legislation providing such guarantees is being drafted and should be approved this year, according to Ignatiev. Russia currently only provides guarantees for deposits in the state-owned Sberbank and Vneshtorgbank. "There are plans to give certain guarantees to [depositors of] commercial banks that comply with the financial stability standards, so that people's confidence in such banks can be built up," he said (see also "End Note"). BW

DMITRII VASILIEV SUSPECTED OF PLUNDERING U.S. FINANCIAL AID
Clouds are looming over former Federal Securities Commission head Dmitrii Vasiliev, who is suspected of involvement in the "Harvard case," in which economists from Harvard University who were invited by Russia to help set up regulations for local securities markets were accused of using USAID funds to support their own personal investment activities, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 23 March. At the center of the scandal that erupted in 1997 were Jonathan Hay, the former project manager of the Harvard Institute of Economic Development related to the university's work on market reforms in Russia; Harvard economics Professor Andrei Shleifer; Hay's wife Elizabeth Hebert, the general director of the Pallada Asset Management investment fund; and Shleifer's wife Nancy Zimmerman. After an investigation began in 1997, Hay and Hebert were barred from involvement in projects dealing with Russia; however, Russian law enforcement officers have been informed by their U.S. colleagues that the high rate of success of Pallada Asset Management had in investing in the Russian market was the result of a bribe the company paid to Vasiliev, the newspaper reported. If those allegations are proved, all participants in the affair should expect a serious criminal indictment, the daily added. VY

RUSSIA NOW WORLD'S NO 1 OIL PRODUCER
According to statistics published by OPEC's Department of Research and Marketing in Vienna, Russia in February surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil producer, "RIA-Novosti" reported on 22 March. In February, Russia produced 7.28 million barrels compared to Saudi Arabia's 7.19 million barrels. The next two largest producers are Norway and Iran. However, the daily commented that Russia has little chance of retaining its lead, as Saudi Arabia can easily double its output, while Russia is already producing its limit. VY

PRIMORSKII KRAI TO SET UP RESCUE SERVICE
The government of Primore has allocated 57 million rubles ($1.83 million) to set up a regional rescue service in case of severe weather and natural disasters, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 March. In 2001, natural disasters killed 15 people in 30 cities in the region, costing some 1.8 billion rubles. Meanwhile, sandstorms swept across Russia's far east the same day as strong winds carried tons of sand and dust from northern China and Mongolia as far as Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, AFP reported. As a result of the storms, officials said yellow sand clouds were visible over the Vladivostok area, and in Kamchatka sand mixed with falling snow, giving it eerie pink and yellow hues. Russian officials said the storms are the result of increased deforestation, soil erosion, and desertification in China. BW

KHABAROVSK PENSIONER KILLS EXTORTIONISTS
A 61-year-old resident of the Far East city of Khabarovsk killed two men who had been stealing his pension, delta.ru reported on 25 March. The pensioner, whose name was not disclosed, killed two 40-year-old men who had regularly visited him on the day he received his pension and robbed him of all his money. When the men appeared on the evening on 21 March, the pensioner left his home, bolted the door, and set the house on fire. The house was burned to the ground and police discovered two charred bodies in the ruins. A criminal case has been opened against the pensioner. BW

RUSSIAN ORTHODOX DELEGATION GOES TO IRAQ
A delegation of Russian Orthodox Church leaders will begin an official visit to Iraq on 25 March, RIA-Novosti reported. The weeklong visit marks the first time an official Russian Orthodox Church delegation has visited Iraq. The delegation plans to deliver a message from Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, meet the Iraqi minister of religious affairs, and also conduct a service in one of Baghdad's two Russian Orthodox churches. BW

BELGOROD ELECTS NEW MAYOR...
Vasilii Potryasaev was elected mayor of the central Russian city of Belgorod on 24 March, ITAR-TASS reported. He will replace Georgii Golikov, who resigned after being named to the Federation Council. According to early results released on 25 March, Potryasaev, who was Golikov's first deputy, garnered about 47 percent of the votes and finished far ahead of all other candidates. BW

...AS KHANTY-MANSII ELECTS NEW DUMA DEPUTY
Vladimir Aseyev won 70 percent of the vote on 24 March in a by-election for a State Duma seat in the Khanty-Mansii Autonomous Okrug, ITAR-TASS reported. "We have processed information from 80 percent of the polling stations. Another two candidates got 1-2 percent of the votes each. Some 25 percent voted against all candidates," local electoral commission deputy head Aleksandr Sukhovershi told ITAR-TASS. Aseyev, 50, will represent the oil-producing area of Surgut and Nizhnevartovsk. He has previously served as deputy head of the Khanty-Mansii regional government. BW

BRITISH CHARGE MAN WITH SPYING FOR RUSSIA...
British police on 22 March arrested an employee of a defense contractor accused of spying for Russia and stealing confidential documents, Russian and international news agencies reported. Ian Parr, 45, an employee of BAE Systems, one of Britain's largest defense contractors, was charged under the Official Secrets Act, AP reported Essex County police as saying. "The Independent" wrote that he was spying for Russia. If convicted he could face 14 years in prison. BAE produces civil and military electronic equipment including radar for fighter jets' digital terrain-navigation systems, helmet-mounted combat displays and sights, target and detection systems, night-bombing equipment, tracking systems, and night-vision goggles. Few details of the case have been made public. "In the case of Parr, there are still many more questions than answers," gazeta.ru wrote on 25 March. BW

...AS RUSSIA DENIES FORMER ENVOY TO JAPAN IS A SPY
The Russian Embassy in Tokyo has denied allegations by Japanese law enforcement officials that former Russian trade envoy Aleksei Shchelkonogov tried to buy U.S. military secrets from a former Japanese air force officer in the late 1990s, RIA-Novosti reported on 23 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2002). The embassy said it suspects the case "has been inspired by those forces that are not interested in concluding a peace treaty between the two countries," the news agency reported. "These forces still live in the epoch of the Cold War and for some reason or another nobody has told them that this war ended long ago," an embassy statement read. BW

TWO INTERIOR MINISTRY OFFICERS ACQUITTED OF FRIENDLY FIRE INCIDENT
Following a two-month trial, a Russian court on 22 March acquitted two Interior Ministry officers charged with the deaths of 22 men in Grozny in March 2000, the "Chicago Tribune" reported. The court pronounced the commander of an OMON special police unit that came under fire from a second OMON column responsible for the bloodshed, of which he was a victim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2002). LF

120 DETAINED IN NEW CHECHEN SWEEPS
Russian troops detained least 120 people during searches on 22-23 March in Grozny and smaller towns or villages in Shali, Vedeno, Gudermes, and Nozhai-Yurt raions, according to AP and Interfax on 23 March. Between 20-23 March, unidentified assailants killed three Chechen village administrators, including Akhmad Bokov from Nozhai-Yurt, who was gunned down together with his bride the day after their wedding. LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH RUSSIAN INTERIOR MINISTER...
Visiting Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov met in Yerevan on 21 March with Armenian President Robert Kocharian to discuss cooperation in the fight against crime, ITAR-TASS reported. Gryzlov also participated on 21 March in a joint session of the collegiums of the two countries' interior ministries that focused on measures to combat international terrorism and drug trafficking and to apprehend internationally wanted criminals. Gryzlov told journalists on 23 March that his Armenian counterpart Hayk Harutiunian has assured him that international drug smugglers do not use Armenia as a transit route, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. LF

...TOURS SOUTH
Kocharian traveled on 22-23 March to the southern province of Syunik where he discussed with the leaders of the Meghri district that borders on Iran progress in implementing a $3.6 million program drafted in 2000 to improve the region's economy and infrastructure, according to Arminfo on 22 March, as cited by Groong (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 June 2000). Meeting with local officials, he warned that future government subsidies to the regions will be proportionate to the amount of taxes they collect. Kocharian also visited several local factories and the Kapan Motor-Rifle Unit. LF

ARMENIAN OFFICIAL STRESSES NEED FOR FAIR ELECTIONS
Deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, who is a close political ally of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, said in Yerevan on 23 March that it is essential that the presidential and parliamentary elections to be held next year are acknowledged to be free and fair, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Orinats Yerkir party Chairman Artur Baghdasarian issued a similar warning one week earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2002). Torosian said his Republican Party of Armenia should join forces with other major parliamentary parties to ensure that the vote is clean. He said they have already formed an ad hoc parliamentary working group that is currently considering four separate proposals for reforming the election law. LF

SUPPORTERS CONFIDENT THAT JAILED KARABAKH GENERAL WILL BE RELEASED
In a statement released in Stepanakert on 22 March, supporters of the former commander of the Karabakh Defense Army, General Samvel Babayan, expressed confidence that he will shortly be released from jail. Babayan was arrested exactly two years earlier on charges of masterminding an attempt to assassinate Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and sentenced in February 2001 to 14 years' imprisonment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2001) Armenian President Kocharian hinted late last year that Babayan might be released before serving out that term, but Karabakh's Prosecutor-General Mavr Ghukasian earlier this month ruled out any pardon for him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November 2001, and 13 March 2002). LF

KARABAKH PRESIDENT SOLICITS INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION
In an interview with AFP in Paris on 23 March, Ghukasian said Armenia and the international community as a whole should formally recognize his republic. Armenia has always said it will recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic once one other state has done so. Ghukasian also said that the international community should be more generous in providing financing in recognition of the enclave's accomplishments in building democracy. He affirmed his desire for a peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict, stressing that, "if the solution proposed by Azerbaijan were realistic we would discuss it, but it is not." Baku insists that Karabakh must remain an integral part of the Azerbaijan Republic. LF

AZERBAIJANI DEMONSTRATORS, POLICE CLASH IN BAKU
Police in Baku detained 21 opposition party activists in the run-up last week to an unsanctioned demonstration planned for 23 March by the 26 parties aligned in the United Opposition Movement, Turan reported. Despite those arrests, the unauthorized protest took place as planned on Fizuli Square, the venue selected by the organizers, rather that at the alternative venue proposed by the municipal authorities. Some 1,500 -2,000 people attended the rally at which speakers called for the resignation of President Heidar Aliev and new elections. Police cordoned off the square and clashed with demonstrators, detaining 35 of them and injuring an unknown number. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT ACCEPTS 'FRIEND OF JOURNALISTS' AWARD...
At a lavish ceremony on 21 March, President Aliev accepted the annual "Friend of Journalists" award for 2001, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2002). Explaining the choice of Aliev as recipient, Aflatun Amashev of the Committee for the Rights of Journalists noted that, although four media outlets were closed down in 2001 and several journalists arrested, at the same time amendments were enacted to the country's media legislation making it among the most liberal in the CIS. He also praised the tax breaks Aliev initiated for the media. LF

...AS HIS SON SAYS HE WILL BE RE-ELECTED NEXT YEAR
President Aliev's son Ilham, who is vice president of the Azerbaijan State Oil Company Socar, told a press conference in Moscow on 22 March that he has no doubts that his father will be re-elected president for a third term in October 2003, ITAR-TASS reported. Ilham Aliev also praised the improvement in Azerbaijani-Russian relations that followed his father's visit to Moscow in January 2002, and solicited Russian participation in the construction of the planned Baku-Ceyhan export pipeline for Azerbaijani oil. Ilham Aliev also claimed that there are international terrorist bases on the Azerbaijani territory currently controlled by Armenian forces, according to ANS TV on 22 March, as cited by Groong. LF

AZERBAIJANI REPRESENTATIVE FOR KARABAKH TALKS NAMED
Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov has been named President Aliev's special representative for talks with Armenia on resolving the Karabakh conflict, Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev told Turan on 22 March. Azimov's first meeting with his Armenian counterpart Tatul Markarian will take place in Prague in May. Guliev also again denied persistent rumors that he and Aliev disagree over the optimum approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict and that he intends to resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2002). LF

DUMA ECHOES RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY CLAIMS THAT GEORGIA IS PREPARING TO ATTACK ABKHAZIA...
The Russian State Duma adopted a statement on 22 March in response to repeated Georgian allegations that Islamic militants have found refuge in Abkhazia, Russian and Georgian news agencies reported. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the Georgian allegations in a strongly worded statement the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2002). The Duma statement accused Georgia of seeking to prepare public opinion for a military intervention in Abkhazia. It advocated talks on the situation in Abkhazia between Duma and Georgian parliament deputies. It also called on the Russian government to provide economic and humanitarian aid to both Abkhazia and the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. LF

...AS GEORGIAN OFFICIALS DENY ANY SUCH INTENTION...
Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kakha Sikharulidze on 22 March affirmed that Georgia "will not carry out a special antiterrorist military operation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Caucasus Press reported. He added that "there is no alternative to a peaceful political settlement of the conflict. Georgia does not want to be blamed for regaining Abkhaz by force." On 25 March, President Eduard Shevardnadze similarly said in the course of his traditional Monday radio broadcast that "Georgia is not preparing for a war in Abkhazia." Interfax on 23 March quoted Georgian Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze as telling journalists in Tbilisi that talks on resolving the Abkhaz conflict peacefully should be continued, as such negotiations "are cheaper" than a new war. LF

...AND ABKHAZ LEADERSHIP UNCONVINCED
The Abkhaz Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 23 March interpreting the resolution adopted by the Georgian parliament on 21 March, which described Abkhazia as a refuge for international terrorists, as evidence that Georgia seeks to prepare the public for the beginning of an armed campaign against Abkhazia under the pretext of an antiterrorist struggle, Caucasus Press reported. The Abkhaz statement charged that it is in fact Tbilisi that sponsors state-level terrorism. It noted that the 21 March Russian Foreign Ministry statement condemned the Georgian authorities for transporting "international terrorist groups" from the Pankisi Gorge to the Kodori Gorge where they launched "a large-scale attack" on the local population, and for their alleged support for Georgian guerrilla detachments operating in the Abkhaz conflict zone. The Abkhaz statement appealed to Russia and the UN to take urgent measures to prevent destabilization. LF

BUSINESSMEN PROPOSE EXTENDING GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S TERM
Meeting in Tbilisi on 22 March, the Taxpayers Union uniting some of Georgia's most successful businessmen advocated extending President Shevardnadze's presidential term, which expires in the spring of 2005, for a further two years, Caucasus Press reported. But four parliament factions indicated their reservations the same day: the Union of Citizens of Georgia, Union of Traditionalists, and Communists said they would not support that proposal, while the Socialists pointed out that it would require amendments to the constitution, which currently allows one person to serve no more than two consecutive presidential terms. Shevardnadze was first elected in November 1995. The Socialists said they would support the proposal only if Shevardnadze succeeds in reviving the Georgian economy and restoring control over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Shevardnadze on 25 March rejected the proposal as "unacceptable," ITAR-TASS reported. LF

NIGHT CLUB TARGETED AFTER STAFF DEFIES KAZAKH PRESIDENTIAL GUARDS
Some 20 armed and masked men forced their way on 21 March into the "Royal" night club in Astana, rounded up all male visitors, handcuffed them and proceeded to beat them, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Special forces blocked all approaches to the building, refusing access to police and ambulances. The club's owner suggested that the attack was in reprisal for an incident three evenings earlier in which three members of the presidential guard ignored a request by Royal staff members to park their car where it did not block the entrance to the complex, provoking a fight that was finally calmed by police intervention. Astana City Police have reportedly refused to accept formal complaints from some 30 of the victims of the 21 March attack. LF

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT DEPUTY REJECTS PRESIDENT'S VERSION OF UNREST...
In a 22 March speech to the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of Kyrgyzstan's parliament), deputy Azimbek Beknazarov accused President Askar Akaev of deliberately misrepresenting the facts by claiming the previous day that the clashes on 17-18 March in Djalalabad Oblast were provoked by "a small group of provocateurs and demagogues," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2002). Beknazarov laid the entire blame for the death of five demonstrators on the Kyrgyz authorities. He told RFE/RL the same day that members of the government commission formed to investigate the circumstances of the clashes between police and demonstrators are trying to falsify the facts. Also on 22 March, parliament deputy Adaham Madumarov argued that the interior minister, prosecutor-general, and national security service director should resign in order to facilitate an objective investigation into the clashes. The following day, First Deputy Prosecutor-General Kurmantai Abdiev told RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau that the Security Council will form a special group to investigate the killings. He said the Interior Ministry should not participate in the investigation because of its direct role in the shootings. LF

...AS OPPOSITION CALLS FOR PRESIDENT TO RESIGN
At a session in Bishkek on 23 March, the four opposition parties aligned in the People's Congress similarly blamed the Kyrgyz authorities for the deaths of demonstrators in Djalalabad and urged President Askar Akaev and the entire government to resign to enable new presidential elections to be held in the fall, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Meanwhile, spontaneous meetings have taken place throughout Kyrgyzstan at which local residents have condemned the clashes in Djalalabad and demanded that those responsible be identified and punished. Also on 23 March, President Akaev chaired a session of the Security Council that failed to discuss the clashes in Djalalabad, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. LF

FRENCH, AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTERS VISIT TAJIKISTAN
Visiting French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov discussed in Dushanbe on 24 March the situation in Afghanistan and the prospects for continued bilateral cooperation in the military and other spheres, ITAR-TASS reported. Rakhmonov met later that day with Afghan Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullo Abdullo, who thanked the Tajik leadership for its support for the international antiterrorism campaign and for its readiness to contribute to post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan. Rakhmonov reaffirmed his support for the interim Afghan government, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 25 March. Also on 24 March, the Tajik Defense Ministry denied media reports that a MiG-21 fighter that made an emergency landing at Kabul airport earlier that day belongs to the Tajik air force, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. The Defense Ministry spokesman said Dushanbe has no such aircraft. LF

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT ACCEPTS TURKMEN INVITATION TO CASPIAN SUMMIT
During a telephone conversation on 23 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted an invitation from his Turkmen counterpart Saparmurat Niyazov to attend a summit of presidents of Caspian littoral states in Ashgabat next month, ITAR-TASS reported. That gathering, originally scheduled for the spring of 2001 but repeatedly postponed, will now take place on 23-24 April, coinciding with the planned visit to Turkmenistan of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, according to caspian.ru on 22 March. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has already confirmed that he will attend the summit, but it is not yet clear whether Azerbaijani President Aliev will do so, according to Turan on 25 March. LF

BELARUSIAN POLICE MAKE ARRESTS ON FREEDOM DAY
According to official data, police officers arrested 59 persons participating in an unauthorized rally in Minsk to observe Freedom Day, which is traditionally organized by the Belarusian opposition to commemorate the anniversary of the creation of the non-Bolshevik Belarusian Democratic Republic on 25 March 1918, Belapan reported. Riot police cordoned Yakub Kolas Square in Minsk where some 1,500 demonstrators gathered to lay flowers at the monument to national poet Yakub Kolas. Some 500 people took part in a similar rally in Hrodna, where police detained 22 participants. JM

BELARUSIAN TRADE UNIONS PROTEST GOVERNMENT PRESSURE
The Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB) issued a statement on 22 March protesting "an anti-unionist campaign in the media" and two decisions made by the authorities last week, Belapan reported. On 20 March, the Constitutional Court upheld the government's ban on the check-off system of collecting trade union dues. On 21 March, the Minsk city authorities banned a protest action planned by the FTUB for 28 March. The FTUB accused the government of "intimidating union activists and pressuring rank-and-file members to make them withdraw from branch unions and form labor organizations under the aegis of the employers." JM

BELARUSIAN PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE LEAVES PRISON
The authorities on 25 March released Andrey Klimau from prison, Belapan reported. Klimau was arrested on 11 February 1998 and sentenced to six years in prison for grand larceny and forgery. Belarusian and international human rights organizations said the verdict was the regime's political revenge on Klimau who, as a lawmaker of the Supreme Soviet, belonged to the most active proponents of impeaching President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1996. Amnesty International declared Klimau a prisoner of conscience. The authorities commuted Klimau's remaining prison term (some 22 months) to corrective labor, giving him the right to live at his permanent residence. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT CONDEMNS U.S. RESOLUTION ON ELECTION...
President Leonid Kuchma has termed as "unprecedented" the 20 March resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives urging the government of Ukraine to ensure a democratic, transparent, and fair parliamentary election on 31 March, Interfax reported on 22 March. "Are we a nation, or are we a football playing field for strategic partners?" Kuchma asked indignantly. The U.S. resolution was also slammed as a "populist" move and "gross interference" in Ukraine's domestic affairs by Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko. "The U.S. has not proven in any region that it wanted democratic elections to be conducted there. It cynically interfered in the Yugoslav election; it tried to interfere in the election in neighboring Belarus," Interfax quoted Symonenko as saying. JM

...PLEDGES TO INTRODUCE ORDER IN CRIMEA...
"We will introduce order in Crimea, let them not frighten us," Kuchma said on 22 March while commenting on the situation in the autonomous republic. The current Crimean Supreme Council failed on 22 March to gather for a session for the third consecutive day, thus missing the last chance to adopt Crimea's 2002 budget. JM

...AND APPOINTS NEW PRESS SECRETARY
President Kuchma has appointed 26-year-old Alyona Hromnitska as his spokeswoman, Ukrainian media reported on 22 March. Since 1999, Hromnitska has worked with the private ICTV Television where she was responsible for reporting on the activities of the presidential administration. JM

OUR UKRAINE LEADER ACCUSES AUTHORITIES OF SPLITTING SOCIETY
Our Ukraine election bloc leader Viktor Yushchenko said on 22 March that the current authorities are working toward splitting society in Ukraine, the Our Ukraine press service reported. According to Yushchenko, the authorities "have paralyzed the election procedures" and are hindering Our Ukraine's campaign and repressing its supporters. Meanwhile, Yuriy Kostenko -- the leader of the Ukrainian Popular Rukh, which is a constituent of the Our Ukraine election bloc -- said the same day that Our Ukraine is counting on 120-140 mandates in the new parliament. JM

NEARLY 1,000 INTERNATIONAL OBSERVERS TO WATCH UKRAINIAN ELECTION
The Central Election Commission (CEC) has registered 944 international observers to monitor the 31 March presidential election, UNIAN reported on 23 March, quoting CEC Chairman Mykhaylo Ryabets. Ryabets added that it is the highest number of international election monitors in Ukraine's 10-year history of independence. JM

DECISION ON UKRAINIAN SS DIVISION VETERANS SPARKS MORE PROTESTS
Leaders of Ukraine's Jewish community have asked the Supreme Court to cancel the decision by the Ivano-Frankivsk City Council to give the status of World War II veterans to former members of the SS Halychyna Division (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 21 March 2002), ITAR-TASS reported on 23 March, quoting All-Ukraine Jewish Congress President Vadym Rabynovych. "This is an outrageous decision and a crime against the Ukrainian and Jewish people," Rabynovych said. Moreover, lawmaker Andriy Derkach has asked Prosecutor-General Mikhail Potebenko to provide a legal assessment of the Ivano-Frankivsk City Council's decision. Derkach said the decision is absolutely illegal. He recalled that the Nuremberg Tribunal outlawed the SS, adding that the ruling is an inseparable part of the modern system of international legal relations. JM

MERGER OF ESTONIAN OIL SHALE AND NARVA POWER PLANTS PROPOSED
Eesti Polevkivi (Estonian Oil Shale Company) managers Mati Jostov and Lembit Kaljuvee have officially appealed to Economy Minister Liina Tonisson to approve the company's merger with Narva Elektrijaamad (Narva Power Plants), ETA reported on 22 March. Tonisson's adviser Heido Vitsur said she has not yet made a decision on the proposal, but noted that the merger would solve the oil shale price issue as it would end the oil-shale company's interest in selling its products at the highest price possible. The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn issued a press release the same day expressing its disappointment with Premier Siim Kallas's rejection of the offer from the U.S. company NRG Energy to resume privatization negotiations regarding Narva Power Plants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2002). The press release stated: "This arrangement would have produced significant benefits for the Estonian public and for communities in northeastern Estonia." SG

LATVIA'S UNION OF SOCIAL DEMOCRATS HOLDS FOUNDING CONGRESS
The founding congress of the Union of Social Democrats was held at the Riga Latvian Society House on 24 March, LETA reported. The new party, which has 958 members, elected parliament deputy Egils Baldzens as its chairman by a vote of 545 to four. Baldzens and four other parliament deputies left the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) in January in protest against the growing cooperation between the LSDSP and the leftist For Human Rights in a United Latvia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 January 2002). The congress elected Antra Line and Arnis Mugurevics as deputy chairmen, and approved the party's program and statutes. SG

BALTIC AND POLISH PRESIDENTS MEET IN VILNIUS
Presidents Arnold Ruutel (Estonia), Vaira Vike-Freiberga (Latvia), Valdas Adamkus (Lithuania), and Aleksander Kwasniewski (Poland) held wide-ranging talks in Vilnius on 22 March, BNS reported. The greatest focus was placed on foreign policy issues, particularly NATO and EU expansion. The presidents decided to hold further meetings between their ambassadors in Washington to better coordinate the support of their respective nationals living in the United States in lobbying for the admission of the Baltic states to NATO at the Prague summit in November. The presidents noted that agricultural issues will pose the greatest problems to their common efforts to join the European Union. They also agreed on the need to modernize the Via Baltica highway and railway travel between Warsaw and Tallinn. Adamkus held separate talks with Ruutel prior to the joint meeting, which was followed by discussions between the Lithuanian president and his Latvian and Polish counterparts. SG

POLISH PRESIDENT SUPPORTS LABOR CODE AMENDMENTS...
Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 24 March that the government-proposed changes to the Labor Code (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2002) are necessary as one of the measures for combating unemployment, especially among young Poles, PAP reported. Kwasniewski appealed to the trade unions, which oppose the amendments, to look at the problem from the viewpoint of millions of unemployed people who require help. JM

...OPPOSES ABOLITION OF SENATE
Earlier the same week, Kwasniewski spoke in favor of maintaining the Senate. The closure of the Senate was one of the provisions of the ruling Democratic Left Alliance's election program last year. "I am for keeping the Senate. Over the past years it has played an important role in eliminating errors, inconsistencies, and at times even foolishness from legal acts and bills," Kwasniewski said, pointing out that most European countries have bicameral parliaments. JM

CZECHS SAY NATO SOOTHED ON FINANCING GRIPEN PURCHASE...
Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik, in an interview with Reuters on 22 March, said the government has alleviated NATO concerns that the $2.5 billion costs for its plan to purchase 24 Gripen jet-fighters could endanger other army reforms, which are perceived by the alliance as a priority. After meeting in Prague with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, Tvrdik said that "large modernization projects" of the army, such as the Gripen purchase, will be financed from the defense budget between 2006-10. He said NATO's concern was triggered by the fact that the ministry's budget for the next four years is already strained. He also said the ministry plans to sell half of the 75 Czech-made subsonic fighters it ordered in 1997 in an effort to save the country's Aero Vodochody aircraft manufacturer. MS

...PLAN PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE ON FINANCING KUWAIT, AFGHANISTAN OPERATIONS
Bohuslav Sobotka, leader of the Social Democratic Party's (CSSD) parliamentary group in the Chamber of Deputies, told CTK on 22 March that the CSSD plans to convoke a special session of the chamber to debate financing the participation of Czech forces in operations in Kuwait and Afghanistan. The cabinet intends to submit a bill on financing both operations, as well as the sending of a field hospital to Afghanistan, through the issuance of government bonds worth 1.7 billion crowns (over $48 million). The opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the Christian Democratic Party (KDU-CSL), and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union, though opposed to the plan, are not expected to vote against it. MS

CZECH SAVINGS BANK VIEWS ALL PARTIES AS EQUAL
The Ceska Sporitelna savings bank announced on 22 March that it will donate 2.5 million crowns ($70,600) to each of the democratic parties competing in the June parliamentary elections, CTK reported. The donation is to be made to the CSSD, the ODS, and the Coalition made up by the KDU-CSL and Freedom Union-Democratic Union. Bank spokeswoman Klara Gajduskova said the bank does not favor any political party, and that the donations will be made to finance electoral costs and to strengthen democratic development, the free-market economy, and EU accession efforts. Meanwhile, dpa reported the same day that Austria's Erste Bank, which has a 52 percent controlling stake in Ceska sporitelna, is offering 23 billion crowns to buy out the other shareholders. MS

CZECH ELECTORAL LAW TO BE AMENDED?
CSSD Chairman Vladimir Spidla and ODS Deputy Chairman Ivan Langer said on Czech television on 24 March that the current electoral law might be slightly amended before the June elections, CTK reported. The need to do so arises from the fact that Czech citizens who reside abroad will be able to vote in the election for the first time, which they said will lead to discrepancies over the closing times of polling stations. Some polling stations in the U.S. would close nine hours later than in the Czech Republic, and the current law does not allow releasing the results before all stations are closed. Spidla said this delay may prompt challenges to the results in court, and added that even at the risk of influencing voters abroad who may know the results ahead of actually voting, he is unwilling to run the risk of having the elections canceled. MS

CZECH LOWER HOUSE EXTENDS DEADLINE FOR RETURN OF 'ARIANIZED' JEWISH-OWNED ART
The Chamber of Deputies on 22 March extended the deadline for submitting claims for artwork confiscated from Jews during the Nazi occupation, CTK and AP reported. Under the current law, the deadline for the original owners to file their claims would have expired at the end of this year. The Czech deputies voted to extend it to the end of 2006. The bill is yet to be approved by the Senate. The same day, the "Chicago Tribune" reported that the Czech government has blocked the restitution of a valuable collection of paintings belonging to Jewish industrialist Emil Freund by declaring the collection part of the national patrimony. The collection was handed by the Czech National Museum to the Jewish Museum in Prague, but cannot be passed to a Freund descendant who lives in Lyons, Illinois. Freund died in a ghetto in Poland in 1941. MS

SLOVAK MINISTERS SAY NATO INTERESTED MAINLY IN ELECTION OUTCOME...
Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said in Brussels on 22 March after a new round of negotiations on Slovakia's NATO accession bid that the Atlantic alliance appreciates the progress Slovakia has made in the country's preparations for membership, but at this point NATO's attention is focused on the outcome of the upcoming September parliamentary elections, CTK reported. Defense Minister Jozef Stank said the same thing. Kukan said the Slovak bid to join NATO will be decided upon after the lineup of the new government is announced in Bratislava. Czech Ambassador to NATO Karel Kovanda told CTK that a return to power of former Premier Vladimir Meciar would prevent Slovakia from joining the alliance. MS

...BUT HZDS STILL AHEAD IN PARTY PREFERENCES
Meanwhile, a public opinion poll conducted by MVK published on 22 March showed that although support for Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) has dropped by nearly 3 percent since February, the HZDS is still leading the field in party preferences, with 26.4 percent support. In second place is Robert Fico's Smer (Direction) with 15 percent, followed by the Hungarian Coalition Party (10.70), the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (9.9), and the ANO Alliance of the New Citizen (8.4). The Slovak National Party would also garner sufficient support to pass the 5 percent electoral hurdle. MS

HUNGARIAN PREMIER CAMPAIGNS ON TRADITIONAL VALUES...
Viktor Orban told a gathering in the Hungarian town of Janoshalma on 23 March that "values that matter to us -- our family, our children, our freedom and human dignity, our faith and our country," have been under serious attack in the past three months, Hungarian media reported. Orban said the most outstanding achievements of the past four years have been the completion of the National Theater, the rebuilding of the Danube bridge at Esztergom, the setting up of Hungarian-language universities in Transylvania, and the implementation of Hungary's Status Law. Later on in the village of Bacsalmas, Orban said a genuine change of regime can only be achieved if the government is given the opportunity to stay in power not only for four, but for eight years or even longer. MSZ

...REVOKES REINSTATED MIEP PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATE
Premier Orban on 22 March revoked the commission of Laszlo Grespik as head of the Budapest Administration Office, Hungarian media reported. Earlier in the day, a labor tribunal had reinstated Grespik to the post after he reached an agreement with the office's legal representative -- his former subordinate -- under which Grespik would have received 10 million forints (some $36,000) in compensation for being sacked in January. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter immediately suspended the lawyer who concluded the deal with Grespik and initiated criminal proceedings against him. Grespik said Orban's revocation of his commission is illegal, as the law forbids the dismissal of parliamentary candidates until the end of the elections. He added that he would turn up for work on Monday morning [25 March]." Grespik sued the Interior Ministry for having suspended him in January after he stated that as a Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) candidate for parliament, he embodies the alliance between MIEP and FIDESZ. MSZ

HUNGARIAN SOCIALISTS NOW READY FOR TV DEBATES
Following the collapse of a series of debates between cabinet ministers and their Socialist challengers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2002), the Socialist Party (MSZP) on 22 March announced that it will accept invitations from television stations to an open debate in front of cameras, Hungarian media reported. Party Executive Chairwoman Ildiko Lendvai told reporters that the MSZP has received offers for televising the debates from Hungarian TV, Nap TV, Duna TV, and Satelit TV. Lendvai said, "There is no need to negotiate the matter with FIDESZ, as the Socialists do not intend to set any conditions." MSZP prime ministerial candidate Peter Medgyessy is also willing to accept invitations from the television companies to debate with Premier Orban before 4 April. FIDESZ representative Tamas Isepy said cabinet members are prepared to hold debates with the Socialist candidates under the existing agreement, which states that the debates must be held at Millennium Park. Any television stations that will broadcast the debates unedited are welcome, he added. MSZ

SERBIAN PREMIER TO END COOPERATION WITH KOSTUNICA
Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic said on 23 March that the Serbian government will not cooperate with Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica because of Kostunica's refusal to sack the head of the military secret service, AP reported. "There will be no more cooperation with Kostunica because we cannot cooperate with someone who protects criminals," said Batic, referring to General Aco Tomic, the head of the military's secret service. The Serbian government wants Tomic fired because of the detentions on 14 March of Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Momcilo Perisic and U.S. diplomat John David Neighbor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2002). Djindjic said in Nis on 23 March that he expects a "reshuffle of the army's leadership" at a meeting of Yugoslavia's Supreme Defense Council, which Kostunica chairs, on 25 March. PB

SERBIA TRANSFERS KOSOVAR ALBANIAN PRISONERS TO UN
The Serbian government agreed on 22 March to transfer 165 ethnic Albanian prisoners to prisons in Kosova administered by the UN, AP reported. The move is considered a key part of Belgrade's cooperation in satisfying the U.S. government if Yugoslavia wants to continue receiving aid from Washington (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2002). Mojca Sivert, who works in Belgrade for the Humanitarian Law Fund, said the transfer "will help [us] all deal with the past." The prisoners are the last of a group of some 2,015 who were taken from Kosova by Yugoslav forces as they retreated from the Serbian province in 1999. Of the prisoners that will be transferred, 82 have been convicted of armed mutiny and treason, while the rest have been found guilty mostly of theft and smuggling. Sivert added that UN officials in Kosova are likely to annul some of the convictions because some of those found guilty "did not have fair trials." The Serbian government said it hopes the UN will transfer several dozen Serbs imprisoned in Kosova to Belgrade. PB

SERBS BITTER ON THIRD ANNIVERSARY OF NATO AIR WAR...
While some 7,000 Serbs commemorated the third anniversary of the beginning of NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia with sadness and anger, ethnic Albanians in Kosovar celebrated the memory, AP reported. The Serbs gathered in central Belgrade carried signs and chanted "NATO are Murderers." The 78-day NATO air campaign was undertaken to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's security forces out of Kosova, where they had forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians to flee to neighboring Albania and Macedonia. Yugoslav President Kostunica said at a church service that "it is impossible to abolish from responsibility the Yugoslav authorities -- which could, and should, have avoided the conflict with [NATO]...but it must not be forgotten who was pulling the trigger from the safe distance of 30,000 feet above ground." PB

...WHILE ALBANIAN KOSOVARS REMEMBER IT FONDLY
Kosova's president, Ibrahim Rugova, said the first day of bombing was "a big and historical day...when Kosova's freedom began, a new dawning for Kosova." He called it a "holy night, when Kosova's sky was lit by the light of hope and renewal." Some 3,000 Serbs are estimated to have died because of the bombing, including civilians, while some 10,000 ethnic Albanians are thought to have been killed by Yugoslav forces. A report issued by the London-based group Landmine Action on 25 March said that unexploded ordinance from NATO's bombing campaign has since killed 58 people and injured another 97. It said unexploded ordinance is a far-greater danger to citizens after a conflict than land mines, and called for a ban on the use and sale of cluster bombs. PB

IMF GIVES MAJOR CREDIT TO YUGOSLAVIA
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed on 22 March to extend a three-year $800 million credit to Yugoslavia, AP reported. The IMF also agreed to allow Belgrade to have the fourth $65 million tranche of a previous standby arrangement. Talks with the IMF began in February. The first funds will be available in May. The money is expected to help Yugoslav authorities deal with a $10 billion foreign debt, a near 30 percent unemployment rate, and annual inflation of some 40 percent. PB

MONTENEGRO'S PARLIAMENT POSTPONES SESSION ON UNION WITH BELGRADE
In Podgorica on 22 March, the Montenegrin parliament cited procedural issues in postponing a crucial debate on a loose union with Belgrade, AP reported. The delay will allow the pro-independence and pro-union sides in the parliament time to strategize before the next session scheduled for 26 March. If the union accord that would create the union of "Serbia and Montenegro" is passed, it is likely that the pro-independence factions in the ruling coalition will withdraw their support for the government, likely leading to new elections. The Montenegrin, Serbian, and Yugoslav parliaments have until June to ratify the EU-brokered union agreement that allows for separate economies, currencies, and customs services, but mandates that Belgrade and Podgorica share defense and foreign policy responsibilities as well as a seat in the UN. PB

KOSOVAR SERB OFFICIAL DISSATISFIED WITH UN RULE IN PROVINCE
Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb member of the Kosovar assembly, said on 24 March that Serbs are dissatisfied thus far with the rule of the UN mission in Kosova, Tanjug reported. Ivanovic told the BBC that "those who have stayed, or about 40 percent of the overall Serbian population, mostly live [closed-in], except in northern [Kosovo]. Everyone else has problems with their physical security and freedom of movement." PB

PAPER, AGENCY SAY AL-QAEDA PLANNED 'DEVASTATING' TERRORIST ATTACK IN BOSNIA...
The Bosnian government held an emergency session late on 21 March in response to the threat of an attack on U.S. targets in Sarajevo, the daily "Dnevni avaz" reported on 23 March, according to dpa. Officials "discussed threats to the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo as well as the safety of embassies of some Western European countries," the daily reported, quoting an anonymous source in the government. The paper suggested that threat reports emerged from a Short Message Service (SMS) message from alleged Al-Qaeda terrorists that was intercepted in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. That report was followed by an AP story the same day asserting that "Al-Qaeda terrorists planned to kill Americans in Sarajevo, in a major attack worked out at a meeting in Bulgaria to identify European targets." AP quoted a "high-ranking Bosnian official" as saying the planned attack was meant to be "similar to New York last September." The U.S. closed its embassy in Sarajevo and other facilities last week in response to what it described as a credible threat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2002). AP quoted U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz in Washington as saying the embassy will remain closed pending a security review and a decision on reopening on 25 March. AH

...WHILE OFFICIALS' REACTIONS RAISE DOUBTS
In the same 23 March report, however, AP quoted unnamed military sources at the Pentagon as saying they have no information about "a specific Al-Qaeda threat in Bosnia." It also cited Bulgaria's Interior Ministry official in charge of police, Boyko Borisov, and the country's chief of police, Vasil Vasilev, as denying any knowledge of a "Bulgarian connection" to the reported threat on state television. None of the media reports provided details of the date or location in Sofia of the alleged meeting. AH

BOSNIAN POLICE ARREST ALLEGED SPY IN WAKE OF RAIDS ON CHARITY
The Interior Ministry said on 22 March that police arrested a man on espionage charges after raids on a charity that the United States suspects of supporting terrorism, Reuters and other agencies reported. Reuters quoted an anonymous senior government official as saying the man was one of four people detained on 21 March. In a statement to media, the ministry said authorities handed the alleged spy over to the courts. It also said the arrest was connected with recent raids on the offices of Bosanska Idealna Futura, which took over the Bosnian operations of the U.S.-based Islamic charity Benevolentia International Foundation last year. The probe in Bosnia is centered on millions of dollars' worth of disbursals that have not been accounted for, the Interior Ministry said. AH

ROMANIAN PREMIER SCRUTINIZES OBJECTIVES OF NATO CANDIDATES SUMMIT
Adrian Nastase said on Romanian radio on 25 March that Bucharest is "for two days the capital of [NATO] integration and above all of the values that NATO represents." Nastase spoke ahead of the opening the same day of the "Spring of New Allies" meeting of presidents and premiers of NATO candidates, also known as the "Vilnius group." The two-day meeting is being attended by leaders of nine candidates for NATO accession (Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Macedonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia), along with Croatia, which also seeks to join NATO. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, as well as leaders of the recently admitted NATO countries, are also attending. Nastase said the meeting will demonstrate that "we can have a common agenda," and that Bucharest will "deliver a message of an extensive and geographically balanced expansion from the Baltic to the Black seas." MS

BOSNIANS CELEBRATE OSCAR FOR NATIVE SON
Director Danis Tanovic was awarded an Oscar for best foreign-language film on 24 March for his motion picture "No Man's Land," a satire of the country's 1992-95 war, Western media reported. Tanovic, who left Bosnia in 1994 and now resides in Paris, made the film about a Serb and a Bosnian trapped in a trench together on a $1 million budget, AP reported. At the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Tanovic called the award "the fulfillment of a child's dream," Reuters added. Meanwhile, the Bosnian presidency issued a statement congratulating the former documentary filmmaker for his "antiwar movie," saying it "represents a message for all of us living here," AP reported. It called the Oscar "the biggest success in the history of our filmmaking." AH

ROMANIAN CENSUS TRIGGERS MUTUAL ACCUSATIONS
Public Administration Minister Octav Cozmanca on 22 March rejected accusations by Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) Chairman Bela Marko that Csango minority members in Moldavia are not allowed to register their nationality and native language as Hungarian, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Cozmanca said the incidents are due to the fact that some members of mixed families declare their mother tongue and nationality as Romanian, while others declare them as Hungarian. In turn, Cozmanca said that according to some reports, the UDMR is unlawfully encouraging members of the Csango and Romany minorities to declare their nationality as Hungarian. Harghita County Prefect Mircea Dusa said the same day that leaflets distributed in Miercurea-Ciuc called on members of the Hungarian ethnic minority to declare not only their nationality and mother tongue, but also citizenship, as Hungarian. MS

TRANSYLVANIAN LEAGUE TRANSFORMS ITSELF INTO POLITICAL PARTY
The Transylvania-Banat League headed by journalist Sabin Gherman transformed itself into a political party on 23 March, electing Gherman as its caretaker chairman, Mediafax reported. Gherman said the new party will be officially registered within two weeks. The league calls for decentralization and for devolution of powers to Romania's "historical provinces," which would become "autonomous regions" electing local parliaments that would function under the principle of subsidiarity. The envisaged provinces are Transylvania, Banat, Oltenia, Muntenia, Dobrogea, Moldavia, and Bukovina. Each local parliament would elect a regional governor and have its own executive. The league denies the structure is aimed at bringing about the disintegration of the national state. MS

ROMANIAN PREMIER OPPOSED TO 'COLLECTIVE GUILT' OVER HOLOCAUST
Premier Nastase on 23 March said he is opposed to the "attempts to generalize guilt for the [Romanian] Holocaust to the Romanian people as a whole," Romanian radio reported. Nastase said responsibility for the atrocities committed during the Romanian Holocaust is confined to Romania's leaders and governments of that era. History, Nastase said, has registered "situations whose gravity was far more extensive" than those in Romania, and "nobody thought of accusing the German, Russian, American, or any other people of that." MS

ROMANIAN UNEMPLOYMENT GROWING
Unemployment in Romania grew in February by nearly one percentage point over the previous month, and now stands at 13.2 percent, Mediafax reported on 22 March. MS

SENIOR PPCD LEADER DISAPPEARS IN CHISINAU...
Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Deputy Chairman Vlad Cubreacov disappeared in Chisinau on the night of 21-22 March, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Cubreacov was last seen by his driver, who dropped him off in the vicinity of his home, but he never reached his domicile and was declared missing by his wife the next day. A special police group has been tasked with investigating his disappearance. PPCD leader Iurie Rosca said on 23 March that Cubreacov's disappearance is part and parcel of the "settling of accounts" orchestrated by "antinational, antidemocratic, and anti-European circles" against the PPCD. In a separate statement on 24 March, the PPCD leadership said an attempt is under way to "neutralize Cubreacov by means characteristic of the most ferocious dictatorships in the world; namely, his physical liquidation." MS

...BEFORE PARLIAMENTARY COMMISSION DISCUSSES LIFTING HIS IMMUNITY
The Judicial and Parliamentary Commission of the parliament on 22 March again postponed debate on the request of Prosecutor-General Vasile Rusu's request that the parliamentary immunity of Cubreacov, Rosca, and PPCD parliamentary group leader Stefan Secareanu be lifted, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The commission considered that Rusu still has to clarify some of the reasons for his request, which would allow for the investigation of the three PPCD leaders while under arrest. Observers do not rule out that Cubreacov's disappearance may be linked to that request, since, as a European Parliament deputy, Cubreacov can only be investigated while under arrest if the European Parliament were to also heed the prosecutor's demand. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT REACTS TO CUBREACOV'S DISAPPEARANCE
In a statement released on 24 March, Vladimir Voronin said Cubreacov's disappearance is an "infringement of democratic norms" and an "open and cynical provocation aimed at destabilizing the social and political situation" in Moldova, Romanian radio reported. He said he has ordered an immediate "mobilization of efforts for the operative investigation" of the circumstances of the disappearance and "to ensure the security of Cubreacov and of his family. Voronin said he wants Interpol to be involved in the investigation and added that he has appealed to the PPCD leadership to cooperate in the investigation. Some 2,000 people gathered on 24 March in front of the presidential residence, protesting against the PPCD leader's disappearance. They later marched on the main boulevard in Chisinau, chanting anticommunist slogans. MS

BULGARIA DENIES KNOWLEDGE OF AL-QAEDA PLOT
Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi denied on 23 March that the Bulgarian government has any knowledge of an alleged Al-Qaeda plot against U.S. facilities in Sarajevo, BTA reported (see Bosnia item above). According to an AP report quoting unnamed official Bosnian sources, members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization met in the Bulgarian capital to plan the attack. Pasi said the Foreign Ministry has not been informed about the case by the Bosnian authorities, BTA reported. "It is not clear how likely it is that the report will be confirmed, I would not be surprised if is refuted," Pasi said on Bulgarian National Television. UB

BULGARIA'S FORMER AGRICULTURAL MINISTER STRIPPED OF IMMUNITY
On 21 March, a parliamentary majority of 156-44 stripped former Agriculture Minister Ventsislav Varbanov (Union of Democratic Forces, SDS) of his parliamentary immunity, BTA reported. The Prosecutor-General's Office requested the measure to allow for Varbanov's prosecution on charges of mismanagement and abuse of office in his capacity as agriculture minister in former Premier Ivan Kostov's cabinet, and as chairman of the governing board of the State Agriculture Fund between 1998 and 2001. Varbanov claimed he is innocent and that he is being set up. SDS Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova called the parliament's decision "a sign of revanchism." UB

BULGARIAN TRADE UNIONS STAGE PROTESTS IN SOFIA
The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (KNSB) staged a protest march in Sofia on 22 March, BTA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2002). According to KNSB sources, some 15,000 doctors, teachers, miners, and railway and communications workers took to the streets of the Bulgarian capital. The police estimated the number of participants at 4,000-5,000. About 120 members of the taxi drivers union joined the demonstrations with their cabs. The protesters demanded among other things that a minimum monthly salary of 120 leva ($54) be established by 1 October 2002. In his speech, KNSB Deputy Chairman Ivan Kolakov addressed the government, saying, "Stop closing down mines, hospitals, schools, and enterprises!" Should the government fail to meet the trade unions' demands for a dialogue over social issues, the protests will continue, Kolakov warned. UB

TUBERCULOSIS CASES ON THE RISE IN BULGARIA
Between 1990 and 1998, the number of tuberculosis cases in Bulgaria doubled, National Consultant on Tuberculosis Milko Milchev announced on 24 March, BTA reported. While there were 25.1 tuberculosis infections among 100,000 inhabitants in 1990, by the end of 1998 the rate was 50 among 100,000. Milchev said there were 3,780 cases of tuberculosis in the country in 2001. The highest-risk groups for contracting tuberculosis include Roma, alcoholics, prisoners, and diabetics. UB

PUTIN'S CENTRAL BANK COUP


The man Jeffrey Sachs once called "the world's worst central banker," Russian Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, resigned on 15 March to the near-universal applause of foreign investors. Yet the international community should think twice before cheering his departure. Gerashchenko's unexpected resignation signals an end to Central Bank independence in Russia. As such, it represents the final act in President Vladimir Putin's successful efforts to concentrate political and economic power in his own hands by removing all institutional centers of opposition to his rule.

As the last director of the Soviet Central Bank and the two-time head of its Russian successor, Gerashchenko is a savvy survivor who excelled at maintaining a relatively independent Central Bank by playing various political and economic forces off against each other. Putin chose to move against the Central Bank now because Gerashchenko finally managed to offend all key factions at once, opening a window of opportunity. Domestic industrialists disliked his "strong ruble" policy, powerful commercial bankers objected to his views on banking consolidation and supervision, while foreign investors and advisers have looked askance at his leadership ever since his role in ending Russia's 1992 attempt at economic shock therapy. Gerashchenko, standing alone and under fire, found himself unusually vulnerable.

Yet the deeper circumstances surrounding Gerashchenko's resignation reveal more serious reasons for concern. On 15 March, Gerashchenko strongly denounced proposed legislation in the State Duma that would subordinate the Central Bank to a redesigned National Banking Council. The 13-member council would include three representatives from the government, three from the presidential administration, six from the legislature, and only one from the Central Bank. Gerashchenko correctly condemned the bill as "unconstitutional," but could not garner enough support to kill it. If passed, as seems likely, this legislation will undermine the Central Bank's independence de jure.

Following his angry speech, Gerashchenko submitted his resignation to Putin. Using a standard Soviet-era formulation, presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin announced that Gerashchenko had resigned for "health reasons." Although reports described the resignation as unexpected, Putin clearly was not surprised. He immediately advised the Duma to accept Gerashchenko's resignation and nominated Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Ignatiev to replace him. Since leaving the Central Bank in the early 1990s, Ignatiev has served in a variety of government posts and, like Putin, is from St. Petersburg. He is politically beholden both to Putin and to Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, and is not a particularly prominent figure. "The Duma overwhelmingly approved Ignatiev's appointment on 20 March, which undermines the Central Bank's independence de facto."

Dislike for Gerashchenko, therefore, should not blind international observers to the more fundamental questions raised by Putin's opportunistic coup attempt at the Central Bank. Reducing the Central Bank's independence would not only violate the Russian Constitution, but flout the norms of the international financial system. Whatever one may think of his other policies, throughout his current term Gerashchenko has acted as a model central banker in tirelessly fighting for Central Bank independence and currency stability in Russia. Central bankers worldwide argue that only such independence can defend democratic states against politically inspired bouts of inflation. While Central Bank independence is not the economic panacea it is often made out to be, in political terms the cavalier way in which Putin has treated this institution belies his stated commitment to a democratic, constitutional order.

Moreover, this move fits a broader and disturbing authoritarian pattern in Putin's policymaking. Putin gained near complete control over the State Duma early on in his term, reducing a once-feisty elected body to a rubber stamp for his policies. He restructured the legislature's upper house, the Federation Council, to ensure that it could not challenge him. He crushed former "oligarchs" Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky not because of their economic rapacity -- other oligarchs remain privileged and close to Putin -- but because they questioned his politics. He created seven "super regions" headed by presidential representatives in order to bring regional governments to heel. He has prosecuted a nasty war in Chechnya. Most recently and publicly, he quashed the remnants of a serious free opposition press in Russia. Gerashchenko and the Central Bank represented the last influential, independent check on presidential power.

Now Putin has made his final bid for control, ousting a central banker long denigrated by the West. True, Gerashchenko's policies have been oft-criticized on many fronts. But does the end justify the means? Gerashchenko's term was already scheduled to end in September, while the institutional consequences of his early removal could last far longer. The answer from the international community should be a resounding 'no.'Juliet Johnson is the Bittson National Fellow, Hoover Institution, and assistant professor of political science, Loyola University, Chicago.

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