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Newsline - April 22, 2002


AUDIT CHAMBER HEAD ASKS WHERE MONEY FROM IMF...
During a question-and-answer session broadcast on Radio Mayak on 21 April, Russian Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin said that his agency has uncovered serious financial violations concerning an IMF loan disbursed to Russia weeks before the Russian ruble devaluation and debt default in 1998. According to Stepashin, some $4 billion disappeared and cannot be recovered. He also said that the Prosecutor-General's Office has launched a criminal investigation into the case, and that its findings might be known before the end of the year. Accusations that the IMF funds had been embezzled first surfaced in Western and Russian media in the wake of the August 1998 devaluation, and were confirmed by a parliamentary investigative commission appointed by then-Chairman Federation Council Yegor Stroev in 1999. However, the commission's report was never made public. VY

...AND SHIP SALES TO CHINA HAS SAILED
Speaking at the 19 April Audit Chamber collegium, Sergei Stepashin said that an investigation has discovered illegalities concerning the sale of two warships to China in 1999-2000 by the Russian shipyard Severnaya Verf, RIA-Novosti and abnews.ru reported on 19 April. According to the investigation, in the privatization of the enterprise in 1997 the ships belonging to the Russian navy were illegally listed as assets of the company without any compensation to the state. Eventually both ships were sold to Chinese navy for $600 million, again without any compensation being paid to the federal budget or the Defense Ministry. VY

BRITISH DIPLOMAT ATTACKED IN MOSCOW...
A British diplomat, David Arkley, was beaten by unknown assailants in downtown Moscow in the early morning hours of 21 April, Interfax reported. Arkley, a third secretary at the British Embassy, told police that three men struck him on the head several times and then fled from the scene in a silver Mercedes. Moscow and cities throughout Russia were on heightened alert over the weekend due to the threat of attacks by skinheads against foreigners on the occasion of Adolph Hitler's birthday on 20 April. Moscow police said the assault does not appear to be related to those threats, AP reported. JAC

...AS HITLER'S BIRTHDAY PASSES LARGELY UNEVENTFULLY
Meanwhile, a crowd of skinheads tried to enter Moscow's Tushinskii market on 21 April, where the majority of traders are Caucasians, RIA-Novosti reported. Police arrested several skinheads and closed the market temporarily. According to the agency, a number of stores and stalls were closed for "analogous reasons." On 20 April, the press service of the Main Directorate of the Interior Ministry in Moscow said it had activated 15,000 of its police to stem any violence associated with Hitler's birthday, and claimed that no incidents were registered, Russian news agencies reported the same day. On 19 April, REN-TV reported that additional police forces would be on duty at all embassies and diplomatic missions until 22 April. JAC/VY

DEPUTY INTERIOR MINISTER CLAIMS FOREIGNERS FINANCE RUSSIAN EXTREMISTS
Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Aleksandr Chekalin said on 18 April that his agency has information that Russian neo-Nazis might be bankrolled from abroad, polit.ru reported. "We have received this information and will check out whether our skinheads really have sponsors and patrons abroad," Chekalin said, adding that the ministry is also closely watching the "antiglobalist movement," as it has discovered that that movement also receives foreign financial backing. Meanwhile, RIA-Novosti reported Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov as saying on 20 April that skinheads benefited financially from a mass-media campaign launched by an unknown group in an effort to push a law through the State Duma for combating extremism. Zyuganov said that the rationale for such crimes and conflicts should be found not in neo-Nazi sentiments but in the fact that Russian "youth have acute feelings of national humiliation and social injustice." VY

RUSSIANS REMAIN POSITIVE ABOUT LENIN
According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion polling agency among 1,500 respondents throughout Russia, nearly two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) believe that Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin played a positive role in Russia's history while only 17 percent of respondents believe otherwise, RBK and RosBalt reported on 20 April. The poll, conducted in the run-up to Lenin's birthday on 22 April, also indicated that those respondents with higher educations and young people were the most negative regarding Lenin, 25 percent and 22 percent, respectively. VY

RUSSIA EXPELS ANOTHER CATHOLIC PRIEST
The Russian Federal Border Service (FPS) has refused entry to Jerzy Mazur, the head of the Catholic diocese in Irkutsk, and annulled his multiple visa, Russian and Western news agencies reported on 21 April. The FPS officers stopped Mazur, who is a Polish citizen, at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport and sent him back to Poland. Before his departure Mazur told RIA-Novosti that his expulsion could be linked to the fact that the Catholic diocese under his supervision bears the name it had when it was Japanese territory -- Karafuto (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2002). Meanwhile, Deputy FPS Director Aleksandr Yeremin denied on Ekho Moskvy radio the same day that the incident was related to recent conflicts between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church. "To prohibit entrance to the country is the right of any state," he said. Earlier this month, Catholic priest Stefano Caprio was also barred entrance to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 11 April 2002). VY

FORMER BRITISH DOUBLE AGENT GOES PUBLIC
Former MI-6 agent George Blake, who following World War II worked for the KGB and was sentenced in 1961 by a British court to 42 years in prison, has arrived at the Federal Security Service's headquarters in Voronezh to lecture local security officers, Russian news agencies reported on 17 April. The 79-year-old Blake, who has lived in Russia since his escape from a British prison to the Soviet Union in 1966, by his own admission has betrayed more than 400 British agents and was promoted to the rank of KGB colonel. The Russian mass media gave no reason for the resurfacing of Blake, who now goes by the Russian name Georgii Ivanovich, but in all probability it is linked to the fact that his British prison term expires this year. VY

PUTIN CALLS ON REGIONAL LEADERS TO DEAL WITH LAND ISSUE...
Addressing the presidium of the State Council on 19 April, Russian President Putin declared that "Russian citizens are still not able to use their legal rights" with regard to land ownership, Interfax reported. He called on the regional leaders to speed up resolution of the problem of regulating transactions involving the buying and selling of land. At the same time, Putin asked members of the presidium "to act with special care and to listen to the farmers and the regions." JAC

...AS STATE COUNCIL CONSIDERS TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL LAND
After the meeting, current presidium member and Astrakhan Oblast Governor Anatolii Guzhvin told reporters that the presidium members basically supported the bill but that members' opinions on the sale of agricultural land were split 50-50 in terms of whether or not to support the government's draft law on the buying and selling of agricultural land. However, this represents progress, since a week ago, the division was 30 percent versus 70 percent. According to Guzhvin, the law has certain flaws, such as its failure to set a limit on the amount of agricultural land than can be owned by one person or entity. But he said that the regions themselves should set such a limit. An unidentified source told RIA-Novosti that discussion in the advisory chamber was "not too sharp, but lively." JAC

CITIZENSHIP, ANTICLONING BILLS RECEIVE FINAL NOD...
The presidential bill on citizenship passed in its third and final reading in the State Duma on 19 April, Russian agencies reported. The vote was 252 in favor, with 152 opposed and two abstentions. Under the bill, to earn Russian citizenship persons must have lived in Russia for five years without interruption after receiving a resident permit, according to Interfax. Candidates also need to have a legal source of income and know the Russian language. Yabloko and the SPS voted against the bill in part because they opposed the Russian-language requirement. Also passed in its third reading was a bill banning cloning of human beings for a period of five years. The vote was 365 in favor, according to Interfax. Under the legislation, the ban may be extended or lifted depending on what scientific knowledge is accumulated, Interfax reported. Deputies also voted on 19 April to approve a bill raising the minimum monthly wage index from 300 rubles ($9.60) to 450 rubles a month, Russian agencies reported. The bill was passed in all three readings the same day. The bill will come into force the day it is signed by President Putin, according to ITAR-TASS. JAC

...AS JUDGES TO GAIN POWER TO OKAY ARRESTS
Also on 19 April, deputies gave their preliminary approval to a bill that amends the new Criminal Procedure Code so that to make an arrest police need the approval of a court and not a prosecutor, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The amendments were prompted by a 14 March Constitutional Court decision requiring that the code be amended so that judges gain this right this year rather than in 2004 as the law originally read, according to the service. JAC

NATIONALITIES MINISTER SPEAKS OUT AGAINST UNITARY RULE
Vladimir Zorin, Russian Minister without portfolio in charge of nationalities questions, told a conference on federalism in Ufa that a state that promotes liberal economic reforms and democratic principles cannot be ruled in a unitary way, RFE/RL's Ufa correspondent reported on 19 April, citing Bashinform. He also encourage ethnic groups to develop their own national and cultural autonomies to satisfy their national and cultural needs since not all ethnic groups can have their own national administrative entities. According to Zorin, some 300 national-cultural autonomies have been established in Russia, 13 of which are Russia-wide, 70 are regional, and more than 180 are local. JAC

SIBERIAN DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM FINALLY GETS PRELIMINARY GO-AHEAD
The government approved on 19 April a concept for the development of Siberia up to 2020, RIA-Novosti reported quoting presidential envoy to the Siberian federal district Leonid Drachevskii. According to Drachevskii, the program itself still needs some several amendments and changes but should be completed by 20 May. Earlier, Drachevskii accused the government of dragging its feet considering the program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 20 March 2002). Drachevskii's office oversaw the drafting of the program. According to Radio Rossii, one result of implementing the program will be that transportation tariffs will be lowered. JAC

TWO BORDER-ACCESS POINTS TO CHINA TO BE CLOSED IN RUSSIAN FAR EAST
An interdepartmental commission in Primorskii Krai on points of border access decided on 19 April to close two of these, a marine access point in the Svetlaya Bay and automobile access point in the village of Turii Rog, Interfax-Eurasia reported. Sergei Mogilevskii, head of the department for control and the development on infrastructure of the Far Eastern Customs Administration, said that the decision was taken because of their lack of long-term development prospects. At the same time, the commission adopted a program for remodeling all automobile-access points in the krai over the next two years. Both the Russian and Chinese government plan to invest in the improvements. JAC

ST. PETERSBURG ACTIVIST DIES
Veniamin Iofe, a well known human-rights activist and historian, has died, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on 21 April. Law enforcement authorities believe Iofe, 64, suffered a heart attack while on the escalator at a city metro station. In 1965, Iofe was sentenced to three years in a labor camp for working on the banned journal, "Kolokol." From 1989, he headed the St. Petersburg branch of the Memorial human rights group. JAC

TWO ARRESTED IN CONNECTION WITH ATTACK ON CHECHEN POLICE
Two residents of Argun were arrested on 19 April on suspicion of planting the land mine that destroyed a bus in Grozny on 18 April in which Chechen policemen were traveling, Musa Kazimagomedov, head of the Chechen OMON special police, told ITAR-TASS. Seventeen Chechen police officers were killed in the blast. Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Beslan Gantemirov, who was instrumental in establishing the Chechen police force two years ago (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 22, 1 June 2000, and No. 49, 22 December 2000), vowed on 20 April to track down and punish those responsible, as did Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. LF

CHECHEN BUSINESSMEN READY TO INVEST $500 MILLION IN RECONSTRUCTION
Malik Saidullaev, chairman of the Moscow-based Chechen State Council, told journalists on 19 April that he could raise $100 million to invest in reconstruction of the infrastructure in Chechnya, and that other Chechen businessmen in Russia and abroad are ready to invest up to $500 million, Russian agencies reported. Saidullaev also said that he considers it possible to expedite the construction of prefabricated housing and thus enable displaced Chechens now in camps in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya by the end of this year. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION CONVENES NEW DEMONSTRATION
Up to 5,000 people participated in a 19 April demonstration in Yerevan convened by 13 opposition parties to protest the closure of the independent A1+ television station, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The station was forced to cease broadcasting on 2 April after losing a tender to retain the frequency on which it broadcast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 3 April 2002). It was the third consecutive Friday protest against perceived measures by the Armenian leadership to muzzle independent broadcasters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 15 April 2002). LF

FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SLAMS LEADERSHIP'S KARABAKH POLICY
Former Armenian Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian, who is chairman of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), accused the present leadership of playing for time in a bid to postpone a settlement of the Karabakh conflict until conditions for doing so become more favorable for Armenia, according to Arminfo on 19 April, as cited by Groong. Arzoumanian argued that the "package" peace plan on which present leadership insists differs only very little from the "phased" approach advocated in 1997 by himself and then-President Levon Ter-Petrossian. He added that further postponement of a settlement will inevitably lead to either an economic crisis in Armenia or the resumption of hostilities by Azerbaijan. Arzoumanian also said the HHSh will participate in next year's presidential and parliamentary elections. LF

ARMENIAN Q1 GROWTH CLARIFIED
Figures released on 20 April by the National Statistics Service show that GDP in Armenia grew by 7.4 percent during the first three months of 2002, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Industrial output rose by 14 percent and construction by almost 12 percent. Ten days earlier, journalists had misinterpreted remarks made by President Robert Kocharian as indicating that GDP had risen by 20 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 April 2002). A presidential spokesman explained on 10 April that Kocharian had referred only to the output of one specific factory. Exports during the first three months of this year soared by 56 percent to $120 million, primarily due to an increase in exports of cut diamonds. LF

IRAN DENIES VIOLATING AZERBAIJANI TERRITORIAL WATERS
In a statement released on 20 April, the Iranian Embassy in Baku rejected as untrue Azerbaijani media reports that an Iranian warship entered Azerbaijan's territorial waters four days earlier, Turan reported. On 21 April, Iranian Ambassador Ahad Gazai protested the publication the previous day in the newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" of maps that designated parts of northern Iran Azerbaijai territory, AP reported. "Yeni Azerbaycan" is published by the eponymous ruling party. Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev met on 21 April with Gazai to reassure him that map does not reflect the Azerbaijani government's position. Aliev also said that his long-delayed official visit to Iran will take place next month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2002). LF

MORE ANTIGOVERNMENT PROTESTS IN AZERBAIJAN
Several hundred female members of the opposition parties aligned in the United Opposition Movement gathered in central Baku on 20 April to demand the resignation of President Aliev and the Azerbaijani government, Interfax reported. Police did not intervene to break up the protest. On 19 April, some 1,000 residents of the outlying village of Nardaran rallied in Baku to demand the resignation of city Mayor Hadjibala Abutalibov on the grounds that he has not fulfilled promises he made earlier this year to improve living conditions in the village, according to the newspaper "Halq cebhisi" on 20 April, as cited by Turan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 8, 28 February 2002). LF

AZERBAIJANI DEFENSE MINISTRY TAKES EMBATTLED JOURNAL TO COURT
A department of the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has brought a libel suit against the journal "Monitor," Turan reported on 19 April. The ministry argues that an article published in "Monitor" on 6 April insults Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev by claiming that he was behind the criminal case brought against former naval Captain Djanmirza Mirzoev, who was sentenced last November to eight years' imprisonment on charges of instigation to murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2001). Mirzoev had for years tried to publicize corruption with the Defense Ministry. "Monitor" was forced to suspend publication in 1998, and the 6 April edition was the first to be published since then. On 12 April, "Monitor" founding Editor Elmar Huseinov told Turan that the Ekspress publishing house has refused to print any further editions of the journal. LF

BANDIT GROUP SENTENCED IN AZERBAIJAN
After a two-week trial, a court in Mingechaur pronounced sentence on 13 April on the 23 members of an armed gang that destroyed a monument and attacked police posts in northern Azerbaijan in August-September 2001, Turan reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 36, 29 October 2001 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2002). The men were found guilty of banditry, homicide, and forming an illegal armed group. Three were sentenced to life imprisonment, six received prison terms of between eight and 15 years' imprisonment, and the remaining 14 were handed sentences of up to eight years. LF

UN CASTS DOUBT ON GEORGIAN CLAIMS OF ABKHAZ TROOP BUILDUP IN KODORI...
In a statement issued on 19 April, the Georgian Foreign Ministry claimed that Abkhazia is concentrating troops and military equipment in Tkvarcheli Raion and in the vicinity of peacekeeping posts in the villages of Merkheuli and Tsebelda in the lower reaches of the Kodori Gorge, Caucasus Press reported. On 18 April, Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze similarly told the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee that Abkhaz and Russian troops were being concentrated in Tsebelda, Merkheuli, and Lata (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 April 2002). But Dieter Boden, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for Abkhazia, said the same day that UN observers have patrolled Tsebelda and the nearby village of Amtkel but found no evidence of Abkhaz troops there. Also on 19 April, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov denied that any additional Russian troops have moved into the area. LF

...AS BOTH SIDES DENY ANY HOSTILE INTENT...
Speaking in Moscow on 19 April, Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Djergenia invited international experts to travel to Abkhazia to determine whether or not the Georgian claims of an Abkhaz troop buildup in Kodori are true, Caucasus Press reported. The following day, Djergenia told journalists that Abkhazia has no intention of resorting to military force in Kodori "in the near future." He also denied Georgian claims that Russia is airlifting arms or military hardware to Abkhazia for use in Kodori. He said Abkhazia has enough ammunition left from the 1992-1993 war. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 19 April following a meeting of the Georgian National Security Council that discussed the Kodori situation that "Georgia is not developing any plans" for a new war in Abkhazia and remains committed to a peaceful solution of the conflict, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. LF

...BUT FAIL TO REACH AGREEMENT ON RESUMING PATROLS
Also on 19 April, Boden chaired a session in Gali Raion of the Coordinating Council for security issues that was originally scheduled for 17 April, Caucasus Press reported. Abkhaz First Deputy Defense Minister Givi Agrba and Georgian Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze reportedly exchanged recriminations, with Agrba claiming that Georgian troops still remain in Kodori. No agreement was reached on whether and on what conditions patrols of the Kodori Gorge by UN observers and Russian peacekeepers will resume. Georgia wants only UN observers to have access to the gorge. LF

GEORGIA LUKEWARM OVER RUSSIAN OFFER TO SPEED UP CLOSURE OF MILITARY BASES
In his traditional Monday radio broadcast, President Shevardnadze said on 22 April that Tbilisi still wants Russia to close its two remaining military bases in Georgia (in Akhalkalaki and Batumi) within three years, Caucasus Press reported. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Kosovan had suggested on 18 April that Moscow might manage to do so within 10 years, rather than 14, which Russian officials earlier claimed was the minimum period required (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 April 2002). Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 19 April that he does not believe the Russian withdrawal will take 10 years, and that negotiations on the optimum timeframe will continue. LF

FORMER GEORGIAN FINANCE MINISTER PARDONED
President Shevardnadze signed a decree on 19 April pardoning Guram Absandze, who served as finance minister under former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Caucasus Press reported. Absandze, who turned 50 the previous day, was serving a seven-year sentence for embezzlement, his role in Gamsakhurdia's abortive 1993 attempt to return to power, and his escape from a Tbilisi prison on October 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August and 14 November 2001, and 31 January 2002). Speaking in Tbilisi on 20 April, Absandze called on Gamsakhurdia's feuding supporters to unite and contest the 2003 parliamentary elections. LF

GEORGIAN CURRENCY LOSES VALUE -- AGAIN
The lari fell on 17 April to 2.24 to the U.S. dollar and has traded at that rate since then, Caucasus Press reported on 22 April. The lari rallied slightly last month after hitting an all-time low of 2.235 to the dollar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2002). LF

KAZAKHSTAN, CROATIA DISCUSS ECONOMIC COOPERATION, OIL EXPORTS
Visiting Croatin President Stipe Mesic and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev discussed in Astana on 19 April the possibility of Kazakhstan's participation in construction of an oil pipeline that would link the Russian Druzhba pipeline with the Adria pipeline, which transports oil from the Adriatic to Croatia and Bulgaria, ITAR-TASS and AP reported. The two presidents also discussed other aspects of economic cooperation, including transportation, food processing, pharmaceuticals, and construction. The two sides signed an intergovernmental agreement on trade and economic partnership. LF

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT CALLS FOR POLICE REFORM
President Askar Akaev issued a decree on 19 April creating a state commission that is to draft within one month proposals for the reform of the Interior Ministry, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Meeting with ministry personnel the same day, Akaev assured them he does not agree with opposition claims that the police bear sole responsibility for the 17-18 March clashes in Djalalabad's Aksy Raion in which police opened fire on angry demonstrators, killing five people. Interior Minister Temirbek Akmataliev, whose dismissal the opposition has called for, was named a member of the commission. LF

LAST AFGHAN FUGITIVES LEAVE TAJIK BORDER
The last of the estimated 12,000 Afghans who took refuge in late 2000 on islands in the Pyandj River that marks the Afghan-Tajik border to escape fighting between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces have set off for their abandoned homes, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 19 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 16 April 2002). They have been supplied by the UNHCR with flour, soap, and materials to build temporary dwellings. LF

BELARUSIAN RIOT POLICE BEAT, ARREST DEMONSTRATORS
Some 1,000 people took part in an unauthorized demonstration in downtown Minsk on 19 April under the slogan "It is impossible to live like that!" Belapan reported. The protesters demanded increases in wages and pensions as well as compensation for lost savings, as promised by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in his electoral program in 1994. When the protesters began marching along Minsk's main thoroughfare, they were attacked by riot police and beaten. According to official reports, police arrested 85 primarily young demonstrators but released 50 youths the following day. The trials of the detained are to begin this week. Well-known opposition figure Valery Shchukin was reportedly beaten unconscious and hospitalized. JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT CANCELS PREFERENCES FOR DOMESTIC PRODUCERS
President Lukashenka signed a decree on 19 April annulling tax and customs preferences for Belarusian enterprises, Belarusian Television reported. The decree followed the Belarusian-Russian integration accords of 12 April (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 16 April 2002), whereby Lukashenka pledged to create equal economic conditions for domestic and Russian producers in Belarus. According to Belarus's Economy Ministry, the canceled preferences account for some $100 annually. JM

PRESIDENT KUCHMA SEES OUR UKRAINE IN PARLIAMENTARY MAJORITY...
Leonid Kuchma met on 19 April with Our Ukraine bloc leader Viktor Yushchenko, UNIAN reported, quoting presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska. "Our Ukraine doubtless belongs to the forces around which a parliamentary majority can be formed," Kuchma said, according to Hromnytska. The Our Ukraine press service told UNIAN that Kuchma and Yushchenko discussed the alliance of democratic forces in the new Verkhovna Rada, but gave no further details. During the meeting with the president, Yushchenko reportedly slammed the behavior of the authorities and some central television channels during the parliamentary election campaign. JM

...MAKES NEW APPOINTMENTS...
President Kuchma has appointed Serhiy Ryzhuk as the new agriculture minister, UNIAN reported. Former Agriculture Minister Ivan Kyrylenko was elected a Verkhovna Rada deputy and preferred the parliament to the government. Kuchma also appointed Oleksandr Zadorozhnyy as the presidential representative in the parliament. Kuchma's former presidential representative, Roman Bezsmertnyy, was elected a parliamentary deputy from the Our Ukraine list. JM

...AND GOES ON MIDEAST TOUR
On 20 April in Damascus, President Kuchma met with his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad. The sides signed a package of intergovernmental agreements on trade and economic cooperation. Damascus is the first stopover on Kuchma's Middle East tour, which also includes Lebanon and Jordan. JM

HRACH REGISTERED AS DEPUTY OF CRIMEAN LEGISLATURE
The Crimean Election Commission on 19 April registered Crimean speaker Leonid Hrach as a deputy of the Crimean Supreme Council, UNIAN reported. Earlier the same day, Ukraine's Supreme Court annulled Hrach's disqualification from the legislative election on the peninsula (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 April 2002). Hrach, who was also elected to the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv, announced that he will give up his mandate in Kyiv and join the autonomous legislature. "The leader who could squeeze me out of Crimea has not yet matured," Hrach noted. He added that he has a "100 percent" chance to be re-elected as the speaker of the Supreme Council in Simferopol. JM

ELECTION INVALIDATED IN CONSTITUENCY OF KUCHMA'S OPPONENT
The Central Election Commission on 19 April invalidated the parliamentary ballot in constituency No. 35 (Dnipropetrovsk Oblast), where Oleksandr Zhyr, the chairman of the temporary parliamentary commission investigating the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, appeared to have a good chance for re-election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 April 2002). JM

ESTONIAN, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS DISCUSS BILATERAL RELATIONS BY TELEPHONE
Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland and her Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov held a telephone conversation on 17 April during which they discussed the current status and perspectives of their countries' relations, ETA reported. Ivanov praised the Estonian Interior Ministry's recent decision to register the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as a positive step in regulating relations. The ministers discussed a possible meeting of their prime ministers when the Council of Baltic Sea States meets on 10 June in St. Petersburg, as well as further preparations for Ivanov's visit to Estonia that will probably take place in the second half of the year. The previous day, President Arnold Ruutel said his planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin should be preceded by a meeting of the countries' foreign ministers, and that the states' intergovernmental committees should also continue their meetings. SG

LATVIAN WELFARE MINISTER PROPOSES RAISING MINIMUM MONTHLY WAGE
Welfare Minister Andrejs Pozarnovs proposed to the government on 19 April that the minimum monthly wage should be increased from the current 60 lats ($95) to 80 lats, LETA reported. The minimum wage was last raised in July 2001, when it represented 34.5 percent of the average wage at that time. Pozarnovs believes that the minimum wage should be set at 50 percent of the average wage and be adjusted every year according to the inflation rate. According to calculations by the Welfare Ministry, in 2003 the higher minimum wage would raise state expenditures by 2.7 million lats, but this would be offset by higher budget revenues of 13.4 million lats. A higher minimum wage would also improve the competitiveness of companies that honestly pay taxes from their employees' full salaries, as opposed to companies that cheat by paying taxes on the minimum wage and paying the rest of employees' salaries under the table. Opposition deputies from leftist parties praised the proposal and Arnis Lapins, the press secretary of Prime Minister Andris Berzins, told LETA the next day that Berzins supports introducing the higher minimum wage next year. SG

RUSSIA TO LIFT SANCTIONS ON SOME LITHUANIAN CARGO-HAULING FIRMS
Russian Customs Committee's officials in Moscow on 19 April handed Lithuanian Customs Department Director Valerijonas Valickas a list of Lithuanian transport firms suspected of violations in Russia, ELTA reported. The previous day, Transport Deputy Minister Valerijus Ponomariovas succeeded in working out a compromise with Russian customs officials by which the recently re-established requirements that all Lithuanian cargo-hauling trucks traveling through Russia have a police escort will not be applicable beginning on 25 April for those companies that are listed as reliable by the Lithuanian Customs Department (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 16 April 2002). Those transport companies that are not on the list will still be required to pay for police escorts. The Russian officials also agreed to broker for lifting the escorts for Lithuanian transporters in Belarus. SG

POLES FORM 'CHAIN FOR PEACE IN MIDDLE EAST'
More than 1,000 people formed a "chain for peace in Middle East" between the Israeli and Palestinian Embassies in Warsaw on 21 April, Polish media reported. "We are here because we want to say 'yes' for peace and 'no' for occupation," PAP quoted Palestinian Authority representative Hafez Nimr as saying. Officials from the Israeli Embassy did not take part in the action, which was organized by Amnesty International Poland. JM

POLISH OFFICIAL REFUSES TO SPEAK WITH 'FANATICAL OPPONENTS' OF EU
Slawomir Wiatr, the government's official responsible for promoting the country's EU bid among the population, told journalists on 20 April that he sees no possibility for talks with "fanatical opponents" of Poland's joining of the EU, PAP reported. Wiatr was referring to Roman Giertych from the fiercely anti-EU League of Polish Families, which recently appointed Giertych as a "public plenipotentiary for matters of European information." Wiatr said Giertych is no threat to Poland's EU bid. "If Mr. Giertych needs confrontation with me, let him hang my picture on the wall and confront that," Wiatr added. JM

CZECH PRESIDENT AGAIN SEEKS TO EASE DISCORD OVER BENES DECREES...
Vaclav Havel on 19 April called on European politicians and public figures to refrain from reviving old animosities over the Benes Decrees, Reuters reported. In an article published in several major European dailies, Havel wrote that, "Unfortunately, reviving old images of the enemy has recently become a fashion in Central Europe." He said the "phenomenon" must not be allowed to "become the inconspicuous beginning of an inauspicious evolution on our continent." On 20 April, the National Conference of the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) called on the Chamber of Deputies to refrain from passing its planned resolution on the decrees. ODA Chairman Michael Zantovsky said despite "all assurances from the EU" that the abolition of the decrees will not be a condition of accession, leaders of the Czech parliamentary parties "continue to devastate" relations with Central European countries, CTK reported. MS

...WHILE PARTIES AGREE ON THE TEXT OF ENVISAGED DECLARATION
Representatives of the five Czech parties represented in the Chamber of Deputies reached an agreement on 19 April over the text of the joint declaration regarding the Benes Decrees, CTK reported on 19 April, quoting Foreign Minister Jan Kavan. The text was not released for publication, and Kavan said the leadership of the parties must first approve it. He said the declaration is aimed at "calming down concerns" by Czech citizens over calls from Austria and Germany for the restitution of property confiscated under the decrees. The declaration is expected to be approved by the chamber on 23 April. MS

CZECH POLITICIANS REJECT VERHEUGEN'S QUESTIONS ABOUT AMNESTIES GRANTED UNDER BENES DECREES
Czech politicians on 20 April rejected queries by Guenter Verheugen, EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, over an amnesty granted by the Benes Decrees to those who killed Germans, CTK reported. In an interview with the Austrian weekly "Profil," Verheugen said there are aspects of the decrees that must be clarified, among them a 1946 amnesty on crimes committed against Sudden Germans before October 1945. Czech historians say the amnesty was intended to prevent the prosecution of those who fought in the resistance against the Nazis between September 1938 and October 1945 -- not for crimes committed against Sudeten Germans. In the interview, Verheugen again rejected linking Czech EU accession with the abolition of the decrees, and said he is appalled at the "vulgarity of the vocabulary" used against him by the Austrian Freedom Party because of this position. MS

SENIOR CZECH POLICE OFFICER DISMISSED FOLLOWING SECURITY CHECK
Vaclav Soustruznik, commander of the military police's Protection Service, has been dismissed after failing to obtain clearance for access to secret security documents, CTK reported on 21 April, citing the weekly "Tyden." Soustruznik was in charge of the security of NATO military officials at the forthcoming November summit of the organization in Prague. He became chief of the service after its establishment in October 2001. The weekly said Soustruznik might have been a former member of the Communist secret police who obtained a false lustration certificate. Soustruznik confirmed that he has been dismissed over security checks, but military police commander Josef Becvar told "Tyden" that the dismissal was not due to these checks, but to his having committed a "serious error and a crime" that are now being investigated. MS

SLOVAKIA GETS ACCESS TO CZECH COUNTERINTELLIGENCE ARCHIVES
The defense ministers of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Jozef Stank and Jaroslav Tvrdik, respectively, signed an agreement in Bratislava on 21 April allowing Slovakia access to the archives of the former Czechoslovak counterintelligence, defense intelligence, and army intelligence files, CTK reported, citing Czech radio. The agreement will enable Slovakia to use the archives for the purpose of security checks of its Defense Ministry staff. Slovakia is to have access only to materials on Slovak citizens. MS

MECIAR RE-ELECTED HZDS CHAIRMAN IN SLOVAKIA...
Former Premier Vladimir Meciar was re-elected as chairman of the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) on 20 April, at the party's National Conference in Nitra, CTK reported. He ran unopposed. The conference re-elected Sergej Kozlik and Rudolf Ziak as HZDS deputy chairmen. Vojtech Tkac replaced Rudolf Kalman (who recently left the HZDS) as HZDS deputy chairman in charge of humanitarian issues. The conference also elected Jozef Tarcak as deputy chairman in charge of civil service issues and Jan Kovarcik as deputy chairman in charge of the media. Meciar reiterated that a victory by the HZDS in the September parliamentary elections would not only not detract from Slovakia's chances to join NATO but would be "a guarantee" of that effort. He refused to say whether he would become premier if the HZDS wins the ballot. MS

...BUT FICO TAKES OVER AS MOST POPULAR SLOVAK POLITICIAN
According to a poll conducted by the Slovak Statistics Office's Institute for the Research of Public Opinion, Smer (Direction) Chairman Robert Fico for the first time has replaced Meciar as the country's most-popular politician, CTK reported. Fico is backed by 21.2 percent, while Meciar has the support of 19.7 percent of those polled. In third place is Hungarian Coalition Party Chairman Bela Bugar (10.3), followed by Premier Mikulas Dzurinda (7.3), and Slovak National Party Chairwoman Anna Malikova, who is backed by 6.8 percent of the respondents. MS

JEWISH CEMETERY VANDALIZED IN SLOVAKIA
Some 135 graveyards in the Orthodox section of Kosice's Jewish cemetery were vandalized on 20 April, and TASR said the incident might have been connected with the 113th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birthday, CTK and Reuters reported. Local officials said this was the worst attack on assets of the Jewish community since World War II, and that a large number of perpetrators was probably involved. MS

HUNGARY'S SOCIALISTS, FREE DEMOCRATS WIN NARROW VICTORY AFTER SECOND-ROUND FIDESZ SURGE
The opposition Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats scored a narrow victory over Viktor Orban's FIDESZ-Democratic Forum governing coalition in the second round of balloting on 21 April, Hungarian media reported. The Socialist Party and the Free Democrats won a parliamentary majority with a combined 198 seats, or 10 more than the FIDESZ-Democratic Forum alliance's 188. With 99 percent of the votes counted, the Socialists won 178 parliamentary seats and the Free Democrats 20. In the closely fought contest, voter turnout was even higher than in the first round, as 73.47 percent of those eligible went to the polls, breaking the record of 71.12 percent set two weeks ago. President Ferenc Madl must call an inaugural session of parliament within 30 days and nominate a prime minister within 30 days after that session. Although the FIDESZ-Forum alliance received the most seats, it fell short of a majority, and will be unable to form a government. Urban areas voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Socialists and Free Democrats, while rural areas and small towns backed the FIDESZ-Forum. The Socialists and the Free Democrats won 28 of Budapest's 32 seats and 40 of the 50 seats in the country's largest cities. MSZ

HUNGARY'S WINNERS CELEBRATE VICTORY...
Speaking live on Hungarian television on the night of 21 April, Socialist prime-ministerial candidate Peter Medgyessy claimed victory for the opposition alliance, saying, "The change of government was the most important question in our campaign," Hungarian media reported. In a conciliatory tone, Medgyessy added, "We are dependent on one another, and the reunion of the country must begin once the government has been formed." Reiterating his desire to be the prime minister of 10 million Hungarians, rather than "two times 5 million," Medgyessy observed that "There are 10 million people who matter in Hungary, regardless of how they voted." He confirmed that the Socialists will begin coalition talks with the Free Democrats on implementing their program. For his part, Free Democrat Chairman Gabor Kuncze told reporters that his party "achieved what it set out to do -- unseat the present government and ensure that liberal values be present in the next government." MSZ

...WHILE ORBAN AND DAVID CONCEDE DEFEAT
Prime Minister Viktor Orban told a gathering of FIDESZ supporters after the returns: "We have won the second round, but we are not entirely happy. A slight majority of Hungarians decided to tilt the balance toward a Socialist world," Hungarian media reported. Orban thanked farmers and smallholders who, he said, nearly overturned the result of the first round, adding that "the power of love and the pooling of forces was not enough." He congratulated the Socialists and personally telephoned Medgyessy. In reference to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, Orban said the future of Hungarians resides in "a nation of 15 million Hungarians, not one of 10 million." He added, "Even in opposition we shall be on the side of the people," and added that "we shall support in the parliament those decisions that benefit them." Democratic Forum Chairwoman Ibolya David congratulated the winning side and promised that her party will support "all initiatives aimed at serving the future." MSZ

PETRITSCH DECREES NEW CONSTITUTIONAL ORDER FOR BOSNIA...
In what some observers have called the biggest single change in Bosnia since the 1995 Dayton agreement, outgoing High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch announced in Sarajevo on 19 April new constitutions for the Croat-Muslim federation and for the Republika Srpska, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The changes make Muslims, Serbs, and Croats politically equal throughout Bosnia and will directly affect the allocation of government jobs. Petritsch took the initiative after the deadline elapsed for the parliaments of both entities to pass such legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 April 2002). He said, "This is not an outright imposition... This is clearly a new approach...a partnership," Reuters reported. He stressed that the new system "fully represents [Bosnia's] multiethnic character and conforms with European values and internationally recognized human rights standards," AP reported. He added that he refuses "to accept obstruction from...nationalist dinosaurs who want to hold Bosnia's citizens hostage." He told "Dnevni avaz" of 22 April that he expects the measures to come into effect by the end of 2002. PM

...AMID PRAISE...
Zlatko Lagumdzija, who is foreign minister in the non-nationalist coalition Bosnian joint government, said in Sarajevo on 19 April that "this is the day when nationalism was defeated," AP reported. On 21 April, the three members of the joint presidency hailed Petritsch's ruling, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In London, Paddy Ashdown, who will succeed Petritsch at the end of May, praised the decision during a conversation with Lagumdzija. The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo also reacted favorably to the ruling. In Banja Luka, former Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said that his League of Independent Social Democrats (SNS) accepts Petritsch's decision. PM

...AND CRITICISM
The three nationalist parties stand to lose the most from Petritsch's ruling and did not hide their displeasure, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Sarajevo and Banja Luka on 20 April. Sulejman Tihic, who is president of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), said that his party accepts the ruling but will work to change it. The party has already prepared a complaint before the Constitutional Court, "Dnevni avaz" reported. The Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) said in a statement that the decision means that Muslims and Serbs will decide the future of the Croats. In his interview with "Dnevni avaz," Petritsch warned the SDA and HDZ not to oppose the ruling, saying that they risk isolation. Dragan Cavic, who is vice president of the Republika Srpska and the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) stressed that Petritsch's ruling is the most difficult political decision reached in Bosnia since Dayton. PM

CROATIAN CONSERVATIVES RE-ELECT LEADER
Delegates to the convention of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) voted in Zagreb on 21 April to re-elect Ivo Sanader chairman, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He defeated challenges by Ivic Pasalic and Maja Freundlich. Sanader had 51.35 percent of the votes to Pasalic's 46.60 percent, "Vjesnik" reported. After the vote, Sanader stressed that he has kept his promises in his two years as party chairman. For his part, Pasalic pledged to work with the leadership of what he called "my party." Sanader has sought to recast the HDZ as a mainstream European conservative party or a party similar to the Republicans in the U.S. without, however, making a clean break with the era of President Franjo Tudjman. Sanader's critics on the right -- like Pasalic -- call him wishy-washy. Other critics charge that he has been too timid in redefining the HDZ and too content to wait for the government to make mistakes rather than offer a fresh alternative. PM

CROATIAN PRIME MINSTER HONORS CONCENTRATION CAMP VICTIMS...
Ivica Racan took part in a ceremony at the Jasenovac concentration camp on 21 April to honor the hundreds who died in an ill-fated break-out attempt by some 600 inmates on 22 April 1945, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Only 96 inmates survived the subsequent roundup by Axis forces. Racan stressed that the crimes committed at Jasenovac must never be repeated again, anywhere, "Jutarnji list" reported. PM

...BUT CROATIAN TELEVISION DOES NOT BROADCAST THE EVENT
After the ceremony at Jasenovac on 21 April, the Croatian Helsinki Committee (HHO) protested the failure of Croatian Television (HTV) to broadcast the ceremony, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The HHO noted approvingly that HTV has regularly covered ceremonies honoring the Croats killed by the communists in 1945 and called for similar attention to be shown to the memory of the Jasenovac victims. Thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma, and opposition Croats died there at the hands of the pro-Axis Ustashe during World War II. PM

MILOSEVIC'S COMMANDER SET TO GO TO THE HAGUE
General Dragoljub Ojdanic, who was former President Slobodan Milosevic's chief of the General Staff during the 199 Kosova crackdown and subsequently defense minister, has confirmed media reports that he is preparing to go voluntarily to The Hague, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 21 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 April 2002). He plans to turn himself in to the Yugoslav authorities on 22 or 23 April. On 20 April, the Yugoslav government extended by two days its deadline for indicted war criminals to surrender voluntarily or risk arrest and extradition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2002). In related news, Tanjug reported on 22 April that former Croatian Serb leader Milan Martic is also preparing to turn himself in. PM

DEL PONTE PLEDGES FIRST INDICTMENTS AGAINST ETHNIC ALBANIANS
Speaking in Prishtina on 19 April, Carla Del Ponte, who is The Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, said that her office is preparing indictments against three unnamed ethnic Albanians for war crimes committed against Serbs in Kosova, AP reported. She added that she expects that the first indictment will be issued before the end of 2002. Michael Steiner, who heads the UN's civilian administration in the province, said, "There is no nationality when it comes to war crimes." PM

MONTENEGRIN PARTIES FACE OFF FOR LOCAL ELECTIONS
The deadline for submitting lists of candidates for the 15 May local elections expired on 20 April, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Only the Liberal Alliance will run alone in all 19 districts. The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) will form a coalition with the Social Democrats (SDP) in 10 of the districts and run separately in the other nine. The Socialist People's Party (SNP) and the Serbian People's Party (SNS) will have joint slates in about seven districts. PM

SLOVENIAN POLICE BREAK UP SMUGGLING RING
Police arrested 26 individuals in Postojna near the Italian border on 19 April, AP reported. The 26 are suspected of smuggling illegal immigrants to Italy from Pakistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Romania, and India, as well as of smuggling drugs. PM

BOSNIA AND MACEDONIA SIGN TRADE AGREEMENT
The foreign trade ministers of Bosnia and Macedonia signed an agreement in Skopje on 21 April to regulate bilateral trade, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. The pact is described as an "asymmetrical agreement," weighted in favor of Bosnia. With the signing of this treaty, Bosnia now has trade agreements with all former Yugoslav republics. PM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT OPTIMISTIC ON NATO, LESS SO ON EU MEMBERSHIP
Ion Iliescu said on Romanian television on 20 April that his country's chances of being invited to join NATO at the defense alliance's November Prague summit are "encouraging," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Iliescu added that the EU's criteria for admitting new members are "more rigorous" than those of NATO, and it will be more difficult to gain membership in the EU. He also said that undue haste in joining the EU could cause the Romanian economy to collapse, since the country would have difficulty competing. MS

BALKAN 'TRILATERAL' HELD IN BUCHAREST
Greek Premier Kostas Simitis and Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov participated on 19 April in a trilateral meeting in Bucharest with their Romanian counterparts, President Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The meetings discussed the Bulgarian and Romanian quests to join NATO and the EU, regional cooperation in the struggle against terrorism and corruption, economic cooperation, the modernization of transport infrastructure, and the current crisis in the Middle East. MS

ROMANIA CLOSES TWO MORE CHAPTERS IN EU ACCESSION TALKS
In talks in Brussels on 19 April, Romania closed two more accession chapters in parleys with the EU, thus bringing the country's total number of closed chapters to 11 out of the 31 chapters of the acquis communautaire, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. In related news, the international rating agency Standard and Poor's on 19 April upgraded Romania's rating risk for long-term credits in hard currency from B to B+ and for credits in local currency from B+ to BB-, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Ratings for short-term credits in both hard currency and local currency remained unchanged at B. Government spokesman Claudiu Lucaciu said the cabinet welcomes the decision, which he said, "is a confirmation of good economic performance." MS

PACE TO DISCUSS SITUATION IN MOLDOVA...
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will discuss on 24 April the way democratic institutions function in Moldova, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported on 19 April. The decision was taken following a report submitted to PACE by Moldova rapporteurs Josette Durrieu and Lauri Vahtre. All three parliamentary formations from Moldova will attend the session. MS

...AS CONFRONTING SIDES FAIL TO REACH AGREEMENT IN CHISINAU
Meanwhile, representatives of the three formations failed on 19 April to reach a compromise on a document aimed at mitigating the current tensions. Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) parliamentary group leader Victor Stepaniuc rejected Popular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca's demand that the Bessarabian Metropolitan Church be registered immediately, saying the registration may take a year. In turn, Rosca rejected the PCM's demand that the protest demonstrations be stopped, saying they will continue "as long as at least some of the reasons that triggered them" remain. However, Braghis Alliance Chairman Dumitru Braghis said the sides are "sincerely attempting now to identify solutions" to the crisis. MS

ECHR AGREES TO URGENT EXAMINATION OF PPCD COMPLAINT
The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) agreed in Strasbourg on 19 April to examine "in urgent procedure" the PPCD's complaint against the Moldovan government's infringements of the European Convention on Human Rights, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The PPCD claims the government has infringed on the convention's articles providing for equality, the right of assembly, and the right of appeal against judicial decisions, in connection with the prohibition of the demonstrations at the Grand National Assembly Square in Chisinau. Vitalie Nagacevschi, who will represent the PPCD at the ECHR debates, said that although the examination is to take place "in urgent procedure," the court may take a long time to rule on the complaint. MS

MOLDOVAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL WITHDRAWS DEMAND TO LIFT PPCD DEPUTIES' IMMUNITY
Prosecutor-General Vasile Rusu on 19 April withdrew his request for lifting the parliamentary immunity of PPCD deputies Viorel Prisacaru, Valentin Chilat, and Eugen Garla, citing "lack of sufficient evidence," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Chilat said in response that the decision is "an attempt by the Communist leadership to present an improved image" at the forthcoming PACE session in Strasbourg. Rosca dubbed Rusu's decision a "perfidious communist game" ahead of the Strasbourg session. MS

RESULTS IN ON BULGARIA'S LOCAL ELECTIONS
The 20 April local elections in four Bulgarian towns produced mixed results, Bulgarian media reported. In the southeastern town of Tsarevo (formerly Michurin), Socialist Party (BSP) candidate Petko Arnaudov won the mayoral election. The future mayor of Omurtag, in northeast Bulgaria, will be the only candidate -- Enver Ahmed of the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). The vote in the Danube port of Ruse as well as in the southwestern town of Blagoevgrad did not produce final results as none of the candidates won the necessary majority. Run-offs will take place on 27 April. In Ruse, former Judge Eleonora Nikolova, who was nominated by the conservative Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), will run against Geno Genov. In Blagoevgrad, Viktor Asijski, who is supported by the BSP and other parties, will run against independent candidate Lazar Prickanov, a former communist regional leader. UB

BULGARIA SENDS DELEGATIONS TO WASHINGTON...
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski on 20 April left for a five-day working visit to the United States, BTA reported. He is accompanied by Justice Minister Anton Stankov, Deputy Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev, and parliamentary Foreign Policy, Defense, and Security Committee Chairman Stanimir Ilchev. Saxecoburggotski is scheduled on 23 April to meet President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The prime minister's visit will focus on Bulgaria's bid for NATO accession. Saxecoburggotski will also meet with IMF Executive Director Horst Koehler, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, and U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Andrew Natsios. UB

...AND BRUSSELS
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi is heading an official delegation to Brussels, BTA reported. Pasi, Deputy Foreign Minister Meglena Kuneva, and Energy Minister Milko Kovachev on 22 April were to discuss Bulgaria's bid for EU accession with EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen. "The progress Bulgaria has made over the last nine months is substantial enough to have a definite date of accession fixed," BTA quoted Pasi as saying on 21 April. Together with Deputy Chief of General Staff Major General Orlin Marinchev and Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov, Pasi will attend the "19+one" meeting of the North Atlantic Council on 23 April. The forum is to discuss NATO's report on Bulgaria's bid for accession. UB

AZERBAIJANI GOVERNMENT ACKNOWLEDGES RIGHTS LIMITATIONS, BUT CLAIMS IMPROVEMENTS ARE BEING MADE
Two major international organizations have joined the U.S. government in charging Azerbaijan with fundamental abuses of human rights.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently expressed concern about Azerbaijan's detainment of political prisoners, its alleged torture of some detainees, and the harassment of critics of the government.

In an even more sweeping condemnation, the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report, released in early March, touched on many of these same issues and also accused Baku of restricting freedom of speech and of the press, denying religious freedom to "nontraditional" faiths, and "continuing to restrict citizens' ability to change their government peacefully."

The government of Azerbaijan admits there may be examples of human rights violations in the country, but says the reports do Azerbaijan an injustice by focusing only on criticism.

"They are not right if they don't want to include into this report some positive elements," said Fuad Ismailov, the head of the human rights department at the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry. "We cannot say that we have only black, [that] we [also] don't have some white. When we see that in reports they mention only some negative elements, negative aspects, we of course cannot agree with it. For us, it is very, very strange."

Ismailov says the establishment of human rights departments at the Azerbaijani Foreign and Justice Ministries show the country is committed to improving its human rights record. He says Baku is eager to cooperate with bodies such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe, both of which have criticized Azerbaijan.

But he says such international bodies must understand the difficulties Azerbaijan faces, with its long history of Soviet domination and unresolved conflict with Armenia. "They should realize that such countries as Azerbaijan, we don't have experience building democratic societies, of living in democratic societies," Ismailov says.

However, Anna Sunder-Plassman of Amnesty International says the Azerbaijani government cannot simply explain abuses away. "I think that human rights organizations do acknowledge that Azerbaijan has many difficulties. There are economic problems and so on. But these problems should never be used as an excuse to violate fundamental human rights," Sunder-Plassman says.

She cites the case of Ilgar Djavadov, a 28-year-old man who died while in police custody in Baku in 2001. Amnesty International has been pushing for an investigation into Djavadov's case and does not accept that Azerbaijan's history is a good reason for not carrying out such a probe.

"His family certainly wants to find out the truth about the death in the police station of their son, and for them it is not understandable how the geopolitical situation of Azerbaijan should prevent the authorities from investigating their son's death," according to Sunder-Plassman.

Since the U.S. State Department issued its human rights report on 4 March, a court in Azerbaijan has ordered the closure of a Baptist church, the Church of Love, at the instigation of the government committee responsible for monitoring religious activity in the country.

During parliamentary by-elections on 12 April, international observers reported witnessing abuses such as ballot-stuffing and police harassment of local observers.

And the government deployed hundreds of riot police in March to prevent a group of opposition parties from holding a demonstration in Baku to demand the resignation of Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev. There were reports of police beating demonstrators and detaining opposition activists in the days before the 23 March protest.

The government says holding the rally in a busy downtown square would have disrupted traffic. It reportedly offered to let the opposition congregate in a smaller square outside the city center instead.

Sunder-Plassman of Amnesty International says that explanation is not sufficient: "Certainly, no excessive force should be applied in any case. Even if it is an unsanctioned demonstration, the police should not resort to excessive violence. The other issue is that the authorities may use the tool of not sanctioning a demonstration in order to restrict the freedom of expression."

But while there have been human rights concerns in the past seven weeks, Aliev also has pardoned or reduced the sentences of 89 prisoners, including many whom the Council of Europe considered to be political prisoners.

Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, says the government often makes such gestures in response to international criticism. But he says the government is more reluctant to listen to domestic organizations making the same observations.

"They are dealing with this problem, but under the strong pressure from outside, not from inside," according to Zeynalov. [Azerbaijani] officials are not ready to accept criticism from inside. They ignored the statements of opposition and local NGOs, but if the same allegations, the same statements, are repeated from Strasbourg [or] from Washington, the government reacts."

Ismailov of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the government is receptive to international criticism, but insists it must be constructive.

"If you have something to say about the situation in Azerbaijan, particularly in the field of human rights and democratization, so please, we are ready to listen to you and we are ready for cooperation -- but for constructive cooperation," Ismailov says. "We cannot accept such an approach that there can be only criticism for the sake of criticism."

Richard Allen Greene is an RFE/RL correspondent.

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