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Newsline - October 24, 2002


CHECHEN SEPARATISTS TAKE HUNDREDS HOSTAGE IN MOSCOW THEATER...
About 40 armed Chechen fighters stormed a Moscow theater on the evening of 23 October and took as many as 850 people hostage, Russian and Western news agencies reported. During the night, 41 hostages -- mostly women, children, and Muslims -- were released, and officials estimated that about 750-800 people were still being held late in the day on 24 October. The hostage takers have demanded that all Russian military forces be withdrawn from Chechnya within one week and have refused to undertake direct negotiations with the Russian government. Reportedly, they have explosives strapped to themselves and to some hostages and placed throughout the theater. One hostage, who might have been speaking under duress, told RFE/RL by cell phone that "everything in the building is mined." Initial reports on the number of hostage takers were contradictory, but an eyewitness told "Izvestiya" that he saw three jeeps full of armed people pull up to the theater entrance. It is believed that, in addition to the male fighters, there are 15-20 widows of slain Chechen militants also among the hostage takers, RFE/RL reported. Eyewitnesses say the militants have declared they are on a suicide mission. Throughout the day on 24 October, authorities, including Chechnya's State Duma Deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov, attempted without success to negotiate the release of a number of non-Russian citizens who are among the hostages. Reports indicate that among the hostages are seven Germans, four U.S. citizens, four Canadians, two Danes, two Swiss, three French, two Austrians, two Yugoslavs, one Bulgarian, and about a dozen citizens of former Soviet republics, RFE/RL reported. Late on 24 October, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported that a delegation of eight Duma deputies led by Iosif Kobzon (Russian Regions) had failed to secure the release of the non-Russian hostages. VY

...AS PRESIDENT ORDERS NATIONAL SECURITY ALERT
Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev and Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov briefed President Vladimir Putin on the unfolding hostage crisis on 23 October, Russian news agencies reported. Putin created a special crisis-management team headed by FSB Deputy Director Vladimir Pronichev to coordinate the government's response and ordered all FSB and Interior Ministry units to a state of combat alert. The theater building has been surrounded by antiterrorism units and snipers, while nearby schools and residential buildings were evacuated. Moscow hospitals announced that they are prepared to handle as many as several hundred casualties. In addition, Putin ordered heightened security at all government facilities, power stations, railroad stations, metro stations, and other vital sites. Red Square, adjacent to the Kremlin, was closed to the public, and security was enhanced around the State Duma. Extraordinary security measures were taken across the country and especially in the Southern Federal District -- which includes Chechnya -- in Primore, Krasnoyarsk Krai, and Sverdlovsk Oblast. Presidential Press Secretary Aleksei Gromov announced that Putin has canceled a scheduled trip to Germany and Portugal. AP reported on 24 October that Putin has also canceled his trip next week to the Asian Pacific Economic Conference in Los Cabos, Mexico, where he was to have met with U.S. President George W. Bush. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov will attend in his place. VY

SOME POLITICAL FIGURES PREDICT HARSH RESPONSE...
First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska told ORT on 23 October that the hostage taking will exacerbate the conflict in Chechnya. Sliska said she will demand tough measures be taken against Chechen separatists and added, "If they take such a step, we also should take extraordinary measures against them." Deputy Gennadii Raikov, head of the People's Deputy faction in the Duma, said the incident will have a negative impact on Russian public opinion toward Chechens generally and "on the situation of the Chechen diaspora in Russia in particular," ORT reported. Former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, an ethnic Chechen who has promoted a number of peace initiatives in recent years, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the hostage taking will not achieve the hostage takers' aims. "Instead of ending the war, it will only strengthen the positions of hard-liners on both sides," Khasbulatov said. VY

...WHILE OTHERS CRITICIZE THE GOVERNMENT
Liberal Russia co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov, whose party has repeatedly called for negotiations to end the fighting in Chechnya, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the Russian government bears responsibility for the hostage crisis. Yushenkov, a retired army colonel, stressed that Liberal Russia has repeatedly called for the government to declare a state of emergency in Chechnya in order to activate human rights protections codified in the law on emergency situations. "If the government establishes an uncivilized pattern, one cannot expect the other side to behave in a civilized manner," Yushenkov said. Yelena Bonner, human rights activist and widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, blamed the Kremlin for the incident because of its repeated refusals to initiate peace negotiations with the separatist administration. "This act was provoked by Kremlin policy," Bonner told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "All wars end in peace that is the result of peace talks between adversaries." VY

CHECHEN LEADERSHIP'S REACTION AMBIGUOUS...
Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Maskhadov "has always condemned and [still] condemns terrorist acts and actions that endanger the safety and lives of civilians." Akhmadov added, "What is happening in Moscow is without doubt a direct consequence of the cruel war unleashed by the Kremlin leadership" and said the Russian government must bear responsibility for any casualties. On 24 October, chechenpress.com quoted Chechen Vice Premier Akhmed Zakaev as saying he does not yet have "reliable information" about the Moscow hostage taking, but that if it is confirmed that Chechens are responsible for the seizure of the theater, then that action should be regarded as "a gesture of utter desperation" carried out "as a result of the systematic, mass annihilation of the civilian population" of Chechnya. Zakaev too said the ultimate responsibility for the hostage taking lies with "those who unleashed a criminal war against the Chechen people." LF

...AND SKEPTICAL...
The website washprofile.org on 23 October quoted Lema Usmanov, who is Maskhadov's representative in the United States, as saying that in all probability the hostage taking is "a provocation," although he too admitted the possibility that it might have been an act of desperation. Usmanov pointed out that "in Moscow it is impossible for even three Chechens to get together, let alone in camouflage clothes. There are reports of women in veils, yet Chechen women never wear veils. How could several dozen people get to Moscow from Chechnya, several hundred kilometers away?" "We have always declared and continue to declare that Chechens are against any form of terrorism. This is the opinion of our people and our government. It is an element of our culture," Usmanov stressed. "The New York Times" on 24 October quoted unnamed military experts as saying that the Chechens could not have staged such an attack without support from within Moscow. LF

...AND RAISES AWKWARD QUESTIONS
Russian officials are likely to interpret Maskhadov's clear reluctance to condemn the hostage taking outright as confirmation of their repeated claims that not only does he not control all the field commanders under arms in Chechnya, but that some of the most radical of them might have co-opted him (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 29, 4 September 2002). In a recent interview with chechenpress.com, Maskhadov claimed he controls "almost all" the fighters under arms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2002). Observers suggest that the hostage takers are a ruthless and extremely well organized fringe group and are not acting on Maskhadov's orders. One possible motive for the hostage taking might have been to thwart a possible peace settlement that would preserve Chechnya's status as a subject of the Russian Federation. Maskhadov has recently signaled that he would consider that option. LF

GROZNY ADMINISTRATION DOUBTS MOVSAR BARAEV COMMANDS HOSTAGE TAKERS
ITAR-TASS on 24 October quoted unidentified sources within the pro-Moscow Chechen security service as saying they doubt whether reports the hostage takers are led by Movsar Baraev, whose uncle Arbi was killed in an FSB special operation in June 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June 2001), are true. They said Movsar Baraev was wounded in a recent air and artillery attack on his group in Chechnya. Also on 24 October, chechenpress.com cited unidentified Chechen sources as denying media reports that Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov had volunteered to take the place of the hostages. LF

PUTIN PROMISES TO DECENTRALIZE POWER IN RUSSIA...
Speaking at a full session of the State Council on 23 October, President Putin announced that local self-government reform will be implemented in 2005, and therefore work on the reforms must begin immediately so that "everything will be ready," ITAR-TASS reported. According to Putin, the new reforms will lead to a "further -- and I would like to stress -- substantial decentralization of authority in the country." The reforms will be based on legislation that will be introduced to the Duma no later than 1 December, according to Dmitrii Kozak, deputy head of the presidential administration and head of a presidential commission on demarcating spheres of responsibilities among the various levels of government, Interfax reported. Kozak told reporters that the laws have 40 clauses giving local administrations new rights. Kozak said the regions would have more money for handling their problems, but if the debts of a region rise to more than 30 percent of its annual budget, then the governor in question will be enjoined from handling financial policy for one year, ITAR-TASS reported. According to NTV, the new draft legislation will reportedly not only radically redistribute power between the center and the regions, it will also create some new local authorities with their own budgets and direct access to the federal center. JAC

...AS CENTRIST LEGISLATORS SAY REFORMS HAVE THEIR SUPPORT
Vladimir Mokryi (Unity), chairman of the State Duma's Local Self-Government Committee, told ORT the reform is aimed primarily at reorganizing inter-budgetary relations, and revenues and expenditures will be redistributed following a clearer distribution of responsibilities among the municipal, regional, and federal levels of government. On the same day, Vladimir Reznik, deputy head of the Duma's Fatherland-All Russia faction, and Raikov, head of the People's Deputy group, expressed support for the conceptual approach of the bills, Interfax reported. Reznik declared that the reforms are necessary because "today there is no financial basis for local self-government." While also expressing his support, Vladimir Lysenko (Russian Regions), deputy chairman of the Duma's Committee for Federation Affairs and Regional Policy, warned that the draft legislation establishes a two-tiered system for organizing local self-government. "This will not be accepted with understanding by all regions," he said. According to Moscow TV-3, Moscow Oblast Governor Boris Gromov has spoken against the reforms, arguing that they will increase, if not double, the number of bureaucrats. JAC

DUMA PASSES ANOTHER KEY ELEMENT OF LEGAL REFORMS...
Duma deputies approved on 23 October a new version of the Civil Procedure Code in its third and final reading, RIA-Novosti reported. The vote was 302 in favor. The code establishes procedures for settling civil disputes, such as those in the workplace and among family members. According to Legislation Committee Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov (Union of Rightist Forces [SPS]), the existing Civil Procedure Code came into effect at the end of the 1960s and does not take into account the majority of problems that have arisen with the redistribution of property and establishment of new market relations (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 10 July 2002). If signed into law, the code would come into effect in 1 February 2003, according to polit.ru. JAC

...TOUGHENS RESTRICTION ON MEDIA COVERAGE OF TERRORISM...
Also on 23 October, deputies passed in their second reading amendments to the laws on mass media and on the struggle against terrorism, Russian agencies reported. The vote was 259 in favor, with 34 against and two abstentions, according to ITAR-TASS. Under the bill, the mass media would be forbidden to publicize statements by persons hindering antiterrorism operations or any kind of information about counterterrorism operations. According to polit.ru, supporters of the bill say it will discipline the media, while opponents believe it will constitute a new means for authorities to pressure the press. Also approved in the second reading were amendments to the Family Code, which lower the minimum age for marriage to 14 years of age under special circumstances, such as pregnancy, and with the permission of a mayor or head of the relevant local government body. Under the previous version of the bill, young brides-to-be had to appeal to their governors. JAC

...AND MOVES TO GIVE CENTRAL BANK MORE CONTROL OVER COMMERCIAL BANKS
Deputies also approved in its first reading a federal law strengthening the Central Bank's control over commercial banks, ITAR-TASS reported. The vote was 309 in favor, with one against and no abstentions. Under the bill, the bank will have the right to conduct multiple audits of banks and their branches or of banking groups during a given reporting period. Mikhail Zadornov (Yabloko), deputy chairman of the Duma's Budget Committee, said the bill will improve the Central Bank's ability to regulate the sector and improve its oversight capabilities. JAC

NEMTSOV SAYS EXPULSION FROM BELARUS WAS KGB PROVOCATION
SPS leader Boris Nemtsov told ORT on 23 October that his expulsion from Belarus that day was "a large-scale provocation against the Russia-Belarus Union." Nemtsov said that he and fellow SPS leader Duma Deputy Speaker Irina Khakamada were separated from the rest of an SPS delegation at the Minsk airport by Belarusian KGB officers. The KGB officials showed them a folder of documents and a package of U.S. dollars and accused them of bringing "subversive literature and money to the anti-Lukashenka opposition." Nemtsov said he had never seen the file or the money before and charged that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka bears responsibility for the "provocation." Fyodar Kotau, a spokesperson for the KGB, told ORT that Nemtsov had brought $50,000 to Minsk to support opposition leader Anatol Lyabedzka. Last month, a transcript of a telephone conversation between Nemtsov and Lyabedzka was published in the Moscow newspaper "Sovetskaya Rossiya" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 9 September 2002), causing a small political sensation. VY

PRO-BEREZOVSKII FACTION ALLEGEDLY DOMINATES LIBERAL RUSSIA
The leaders of 36 of 68 regional branches of the Liberal Russia party participating in a meeting in Moscow on 23 October reportedly declared their disagreement with a recent decision by the party's political council to expel party co-founder Boris Berezovskii (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 October 2002), Interfax reported. According to the agency, Larisa Pegova, director of the party's St. Petersburg branch, and Andrei Sidelnikov, a member of the political council, said meeting participants called for an extraordinary party congress no later than 5 December "to determine the party's position in the political life of modern Russia." However, party co-Chairman Yushenkov told the agency the party's leadership does not intend to conduct negotiations with the "splinter" faction and asserted that there could not have been more than 15 regional leaders at the Moscow meeting. It was reported earlier that party branches in Bashkortostan and Tyumen Oblast oppose Berezovskii's ouster (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2002). JAC

DUMA DEPUTY FROM TATARSTAN CONTINUES TO RAISE QUESTIONS ABOUT CENSUS
State Duma Deputy from a single-mandate district in Tatarstan Fendes Saifullin (Russian Regions) has filed a parliamentary query with Prime Minister Kasyanov concerning changes made to the questionnaires used in the recent national census, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 23 October. At a press conference in Kazan on 22 October, Saifullin claimed the officially approved questionnaires had a question concerning citizens' native language, as well as whether they know Russian or any other languages. During the census itself, Saifullin said, census takers asked only whether an individual had a fluent command of Russian or any other language. Safiullin claimed the change of census questionnaires was intended to prepare for the administrative and territorial redivision of Russian regions and for the abolition of ethnic republics. An official from the State Statistics Committee, Aleksandr Goncharov, admitted that although the question about a person's native language had been removed from the questionnaire, census takers still asked it, "Vremya i dengi" reported on 23 October. Saifullin raised the issue of which questions census takers were really asking after watching President Putin and his wife complete their census questionnaires on RTR television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 October 2002). JAC

MOSCOW, PETERSBURG BRACE FOR LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS
A new, pro-presidential fraction was created in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly on 23 October, RosBalt reported. Nevskii Dialogue is headed by Deputy Anatolii Krivenchenko and includes five of the body's 50 members. Krivenchenko told the news agency that the faction is talking with other potential members and that its only program is "facilitating the realization of the president's programs." Elections to the Legislative Assembly will be held on 8 December. On 23 October, the State Duma created an oversight committee to monitor St. Petersburg's legislative elections at the request of the Fatherland-All Russia, SPS, and Unity factions, RosBalt reported. The purpose of the commission, which is headed by Deputy Petr Shelishch (Yabloko), is to detect and prevent any election-law violations. The Duma also asked the Central Election Commission (TsIK), the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the Federal Security Service to name officials responsible for coordinating with the new commission. RC

TAIMYR SCHEDULES BY-ELECTION...
Gubernatorial by-elections will be held in Taimyr Autonomous Okrug on 26 January, RosBalt reported on 22 October. The poll is needed to replace Aleksandr Khloponin, who was elected governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai on 22 September. No one has formally declared his or her candidacy for the post yet, but it is likely that Norilsk Mayor Oleg Budargin will run. RC

...AS SCANDAL IN KRASNOYARSK SPUTTERS ON
The dust is still settling after the controversial gubernatorial election in Krasnoyarsk Krai on 22 September, RosBalt reported, citing an article in "Krasnoyarskii rabochii." "We were not attacked for poor implementation of the law, but for using our right to invalidate the election," krai election commission Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Bugrei wrote in a commentary for the paper. Bugrei wrote that commission members were "repeatedly threatened with arrest and imprisonment" and that the TsIK decision to validate the poll ignored the many "indisputable" incidents of "dirty" campaigning. Noting that the local election commission's appeals are still pending in the Supreme Court, Bugrei concluded: "If the [TsIK] decision is upheld, then the TsIK and the courts must take responsibility for the lawlessness of future elections." RC

A GOVERNMENT POST FOR YAVLINSKII?
Yabloko faction leader Grigorii Yavlinskii will soon be named to head the State Construction Committee, Interfax reported on 23 October, citing an unidentified Kremlin source. Rumors that Yavlinskii will be invited into the government have been circulating for several months; in July, there was speculation that he would be named foreign minister. The Kremlin source said that Yavlinskii's appointment is based on "positive assessments of the communal-services reform plan that [Yabloko] specialists prepared" and represents "an acknowledgment that the committee's current leadership [under Chairman Anvar Shamuzafarov] is not coping with its duties." An unidentified source in the SPS told polit.ru that Yavlinskii will be offered a "position in the executive branch that is simultaneously high-ranking and without influence." Another unnamed Kremlin source told Ekho Moskvy on 23 October that the construction-committee rumors are "completely absurd." Yavlinskii has not held an executive-branch post since 1991. RC

MOSCOW IS TIRED OF SEX, VIOLENCE ON TELEVISION...
Municipal authorities in Moscow have appealed to the Duma, the government, and President Putin to restrict the number of television programs that are having a negative influence on young people, lenta.ru reported on 23 October. Education Department Chairwoman Lyubov Kezina declared that contemporary television is "enemy No. 1 for teenagers." The city government sharply criticized the programming on all the national television channels, and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov was quoted as saying, "Television, like our society in general, tends toward extremes." "Our proposals have nothing to do with limiting the activities of journalists," Luzhkov said. "But freedom of speech must be accompanied by an acknowledgment that society cannot be suffused in murder, sadism, and sex." RC

...AND KARELIA WANTS MORE GOOD NEWS
More than 1,000 residents of the Karelian city of Segezha have signed a petition to the State Duma demanding legislators ban violent or pornographic films and programs on television, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 October. The Karelian legislative assembly has expressed support for the demand and added that television news programming should reduce coverage of crimes and disasters and broadcast more news about economic progress in the country instead. The body has formed a working group to draft amendments to the federal mass-media law to be forwarded to the Duma. RC

MOSCOW LAUNCHES PRO-TOLERANCE PROGRAM
The Moscow city government on 22 October approved a program intended to "develop tolerance and prevent extremism" for the period from 2002-04, ntvru.com reported. The 250 million ruble ($8.1 million) program contains more than 180 specific activities designed to promote interethnic and inter-confessional harmony. In addition, Mayor Luzhkov ordered the Social and Interregional Contacts Department to develop a tolerance program for local schools. RC

PROSECUTOR-GENERAL TURNS TABLES ON WALKING TOGETHER
Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, speaking before the Duma on 23 October, said his office will look into the activities of the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together, ntvru.com reported. Ustinov said the inquiry will study whether there have been manifestations of "extremism" in the group's programs. In July, prosecutors filed criminal pornography charges against writer Vladimir Sorokin based on requests from Walking Together for an investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11,12, and 16 July 2002). Furthermore, Ustinov said the government is not yet doing enough to combat extremism. "Society has not yet developed a solid negative attitude toward extremism and does not yet fully recognize its danger," Ustinov said. "The state system does not yet effectively combat extremism." He added that one shortcoming of the state's efforts is its insufficient control over the print media. He said that 1,600 periodicals are published in Russia, but only 60 percent of them regularly send copies to the Media Ministry. RC

JUDGE IN BUDENNOVSK CASE DIES
Stavropol Krai Court Judge Aleksei Prodanov was found dead of a heart attack in his car on the morning of 22 October, lenta.ru and other Russian news agencies reported. A coroner confirmed the cause of death, and a report on RTR television asserted that Prodanov had been washing his car when he died. Prodanov presided over the trial of Chechen fighters who participated in a 1995 hostage-taking incident in Budennovsk. RC

INVESTIGATION OPENED INTO ATTACK ON ARMENIAN JOURNALIST
Armenian police have begun probing the 22 October attack on independent journalist Mark Grigorian, which they describe as an attempted murder, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 23 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2002 and "End Note"). Grigorian told journalists on 23 October that a grenade was thrown at him from behind by a man he saw running away seconds later. He suggested that the attack might have been prompted by investigations he has conducted for a planned article on the third anniversary of the Armenian parliament shootings in which eight senior officials died. Parliament deputies condemned the attack on Grigorian as "terrorism," according to Mediamax on 23 October, as cited by Groong. LF

FORTY FEARED DEAD IN AZERBAIJANI FERRY DISASTER
Up to 40 people are feared dead after a ferry of the Azerbaijani-owned Caspian Steamship Company (CASPAR) en route from Aqtau to Baku sank in stormy seas 130 kilometers northeast of Baku on the morning of 22 October, five hours after sending an SOS, Azerbaijani and Western news agencies reported. The ferry carried a crew of 42 and between eight and 14 passengers. Thirteen people have reportedly been rescued and three bodies recovered. The ferry, which like other CASPAR vessels was reportedly not insured, was carrying 16 railcar loads of Kazakh oil, which leaked and created an oil slick 8 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide, Reuters reported. LF

LUKOIL SELLS STAKE IN AZERBAIJANI OIL CONSORTIUM
LUKoil plans to sell its 10 percent stake in the British Petroleum-led consortium developing the Azeri-Gyuneshli-Chirag Caspian oil fields, AFP reported on 22 October, quoting an unnamed LUKoil official. Visiting Baku the previous day, LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov announced that LUKoil planned to sell its shares in all Azerbaijani Caspian projects of which it is not the operator, Turan reported on 21 October. AFP on 22 October said Japan's Itochu Oil Exploration would acquire LUKoil's stake in the Azeri-Gyuneshli-Chirag project, but Platts the same day quoted an Itochu official as denying this. The official said Itochu has not even begun talks with LUKoil on doing so. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT CALLS ON TWO MINISTERS TO RESIGN
At a government session on 23 October, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze suggested that Construction and Urban Planning Minister Merab Chkhenkeli and State Property Minister Solomon Pavliashvili should step down, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. That proposal followed a discussion of illegal construction in Tbilisi, in particular a 10-story residential block originally intended for top Defense Ministry generals and then transferred to the State Property Ministry to be sold. Shevardnadze also gave Tbilisi Mayor Vano Zodelava three months to impose order on the construction sector. Chkhenkeli protested that building licenses are issued not by his ministry but by local councils. Minister of State Avtandil Ioseliani declined to comment on Shevardnadze's statement. Analysts pointed out that the State Property Ministry is scheduled to be transformed into a holding company next year, while the Construction and Urban Planning Ministry is to be abolished. LF

GEORGIA PREPARES FORMAL APPLICATION FOR NATO MEMBERSHIP...
The program commissioned by President Shevardnadze last month outlining Georgia's preparations for integration into NATO will be completed by the end of next week, Interfax on 23 October quoted Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili as saying. He added that the final decision on whether NATO will make a formal request at the Prague NATO summit in November to be considered for eventual membership will be taken after high-level consultations in the run-up to the 21-22 November summit. Shevardnadze said on 22 October that Georgia will apply for NATO membership if the Baltic and Balkan states are invited to join the alliance. He added, however, that Georgian membership is "a long-term prospect." Asked to comment on Shevardnadze's statement, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson told ITAR-TASS that the alliance would consider an application from Georgia, but noted that the process of bringing an applicant's armed forces into compliance with NATO standards is "long and complicated." LF

...AS GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT DECRIES SHORTFALL IN DEFENSE FUNDING
Georgia spends a smaller percentage of its total GDP on defense than any other country in the world, Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Batiashvili claimed at a committee session on 23 October, Caucasus Press reported. Participants registered a 111 million lari ($51 million) shortfall in funding for the first nine months of the year for the Defense and State Security ministries, Interior Ministry troops, and Frontier Defense Department. The 2003 draft budget envisages a 40 percent increase in funding for the Defense Ministry, from 38 million laris to 53 million laris. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT ADDRESSES WORLD CONGRESS OF KAZAKHS
Addressing the opening session in Turkestan on 23 October of the Second World Congress of Kazakhs, President Nursultan Nazarbaev affirmed that his country will continue to provide support, and maintain cultural ties with, the 5 million Kazakhs who live outside its borders, Interfax reported. He said Kazakhstan welcomes approximately 50,000-60,000 Kazakh immigrants each year, and that number will be increased. Nazarbaev also stressed that it is important that Islam remain Kazakhstan's main religion, as it serves as a unifying factor. LF

OPPOSITION DEPUTY ELECTED HEAD OF KYRGYZ OPPOSITION PARTY
Azimbek Beknazarov, whose arrest in January 2002 sparked mass public protests, was elected chairman of the opposition Asaba party at a congress in Djalalabad Oblast on 22 October, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported the following day. Former Asaba leader Doelet Nusupov now heads the party's coordination council. LF

KYRGYZ SECURITY SERVICE HEAD FACES LIBEL CHARGES
Hearings began on 22 October at a district court in Bishkek in a libel case brought by opposition parliament deputy Tursunbai Bakir Uulu against National Security Service Chairman Kalyk Imankulov, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The newspaper "Aghym" quoted Imankulov in an interview published last month as saying that Bakir Uulu, who in 1999 mediated the release of hostages seized in southern Kyrgyzstan by members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), may have abetted the IMU. Imankulov claims he gave the interview in Russian and his statements were incorrectly translated into Kyrgyz. LF

BELARUSIAN KGB EXPELS RUSSIAN POLITICAL LEADER FROM MINSK...
The Belarusian KGB detained Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Boris Nemtsov on his arrival at a Minsk airport on 23 October and promptly put him on a plane back to Moscow, Belarusian and Russian media reported. Nemtsov, accompanied by State Duma Deputy Speaker Iryna Khakamada (SPS), planned to attend a conference on Belarusian-Russian integration in Minsk. Khakamada, although not detained, chose to return to Moscow with Nemtsov. An unnamed KGB official told Interfax that more than $50,000 and "literature aimed at destabilizing Belarus" were confiscated from Nemtsov. "We received a phone call today in the morning warning that Nemtsov is going to bring a large sum of money in hard currency into the Republic of Belarus to support his allies," KGB spokesman Fyodar Kotau commented. "I think there is no need to name these allies. Everybody remembers the well-known conversation about overthrowing the legitimately elected president of our country by joint efforts," he added. Kotau was apparently referring to the transcript of a telephone conversation between Nemtsov and Belarusian opposition leader Anatol Lyabedzka -- published in Russia and Belarus in September -- in which the two politicians seemed to discuss plans to oust President Alyaksandr Lukashenka with assistance from the Kremlin (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 10 September 2002). JM

...AS FOREIGN MINISTRY EXPLAINS WHY
"The Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Belarus thinks that representatives of the Russian Federation's political circles should visit Belarus with comprehensible goals," Belarusian Television quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Pavel Latushka as saying on 23 October. "Belarus's Foreign Ministry has [already] drawn attention to Boris Nemtsov's repeated inadmissible, insulting statements and actions with regard to the Belarusian state, which is friendly to Russia. Boris Nemtsov's efforts to complicate the development of Belarusian-Russian relations [and] to halt the integration processes [as well as] his categorical disagreement with the policy of the building of a union state are damaging not only Belarusian-Russian relations but also prospects for building the union," Latushka added. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT MULLS POLITICAL CRISIS...
The Verkhovna Rada on 23 October discussed the current political situation in the country, as demanded by the caucuses of Our Ukraine and the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Socialist Party, and Communist Party, UNIAN reported. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko said Ukraine is closer to a "dictatorship and a clannish political-system model" than it has ever been, adding that lawmakers contribute to strengthening this model with their "helplessness and passivity" in the parliament. Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz said the opposition's main goal is to change the current political system into a parliamentary-presidential republic. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko announced that his party will continue organizing street protests against what he called the "social genocide" perpetrated by the current authorities. Lawmakers from the pro-presidential caucuses that form a fragile parliamentary majority appealed to the opposition to stop leveling accusations against the authorities and return to normal legislative work. JM

...AND PREPARES TWO DRAFT RESOLUTIONS
The parliamentary hearing on the political situation in Ukraine has resulted in two draft resolutions on which the Verkhovna Rada is expected to vote on 24 October, UNIAN reported. The resolution proposed by the opposition urges President Leonid Kuchma to step down and, in the event he refuses to do so, calls on lawmakers to launch an impeachment procedure against him and amend the constitution to make Ukraine a parliamentary-presidential republic. The resolution proposed by the nine caucuses that form the pro-Kuchma majority stresses that the subsequent elections of the president and the Verkhovna Rada should be held "according to democratic principles and within the terms determined by the Ukrainian Constitution," according to UNIAN. JM

UKRAINIAN LAWMAKERS DECIDE TO DISCUSS FREEDOM OF SPEECH, CENSORSHIP
The Verkhovna Rada on 24 October decided to hold a hearing on the freedom of speech and censorship in Ukraine on 4 December, UNIAN reported. The motion was supported by 294 of the 428 deputies registered for the session. The parliamentary caucuses of Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not participate in the voting, having announced that they will resume voting only after the parliament passes a resolution prohibiting deputies from voting for absent colleagues. The opposition has formerly charged that majority deputies resort to such tricks to ensure the minimum 226 votes needed to pass bills and most resolutions in the Verkhovna Rada (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 September and 17 October 2002). JM

CHAIRMAN OF ESTONIA'S MODERATES RESIGNS
Former Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves announced his resignation as chairman of the Moderates on 23 October due to the party's poor showing in the recent local elections, BNS reported. "The Moderates are the only strong social democratic party defending working people's interests in Estonia, but I'm regarded as an intellectual with my head in the clouds," he said. Ilves will meet with the party's board on 28 October to discuss his resignation, but he is expected to continue as leader of the party until a congress is held in late November or early December. Ilves said he is not planning to leave the party and plans to run for the parliament in the spring. SG

ESTONIAN OPPOSITION REJECTS PROPOSED BUDGET
The opposition Pro Patria Union and the Moderates, supported by the People's Union, succeeded in defeating the first reading of the proposed 2003 budget submitted by the government by a vote of 46 to 45 on 23 October, ETA reported. The Pro Patria Union, which has proposed an alternative budget, criticized the government for submitting a deficit budget and being unfriendly to children, education, and culture. The government held an extraordinary session by phone after the vote and decided to resubmit the same budget with no amendments. SG

LATVIAN PRESIDENT CALLS EU AND NATO MEMBERSHIP NATIONAL GOALS
Vaira Vike-Freiberga told the 49th Latvian Intelligentsia Conference on integrated civil society in Latvia and the EU on 23 October that membership in the EU and NATO are not only the country's foreign policy goals but national goals that will influence all aspects of people's lives, LETA reported. Membership in NATO will create security that will encourage foreign investors to enter Latvia with greater confidence and provide Latvia's businessmen with more potential foreign partners. She said the EU does not seek to exploit Latvia but wishes to unite Europe and make it "an important player in the international arena." Andrew Rasbash, head of the EU delegation in Latvia, expressed the desire for Latvia to conclude its EU entry talks by the end of the year, but he noted that Riga needs to strengthen the country's public-administration system, business environment, and especially the nongovernmental sector. SG

LITHUANIAN GOVERNMENT SAYS GAZPROM IS POTENTIAL INVESTOR IN STATE-OWNED GAS COMPANY
The cabinet on 23 October formally named Russian gas giant Gazprom as the potential buyer of a 34 percent stake of Lietuvos Dujos (Lithuanian Gas) set aside for sale to a gas provider, ELTA reported. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said the decision does not mean Lithuania has accepted Gazprom's preliminary offer for the shares, unofficially reported to be 80 million litas ($23 million), but rather has cleared the way for further negotiations. Lithuania sold the 34 percent stake for the strategic investor to the consortium of German utilities Ruhrgas and E.ON Energie for 116 million litas in June. Brazauskas admitted the negotiations may take some time and probably will not be completed by the proposed 20 November deadline. SG

POLISH PRESIDENT PLEDGES SUPPORT FOR RESTORATION OF AFGHANISTAN
President Aleksander Kwasniewski met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on 23 October and assured the Afghan leader that Poland supports his efforts "on the difficult path toward rebuilding the state, ensuring its security, and including Afghanistan in international cooperation," PAP reported. Kwasniewski also visited Polish troops deployed in Bagram, near Kabul, who are helping to remove mines in the country. JM

POLISH CENTRAL BANK CUTS INTEREST RATES
The Monetary Policy Council (RPP), which oversees the operation of the Polish National Bank, decided on 23 October to reduce the bank's 28-day intervention rate to 7 percent from 7.5 percent, the Lombard rate to 9 percent from 10 percent, and the discount rate to 7.75 percent from 8.5 percent, Polish media reported. This is the seventh interest-rates cut made by the RPP this year and the 13th since February 2001. "The decision on lowering the interest rates is a step in a good direction. However, it is a shy step. I think that there are conditions in Poland for the RPP to make a deeper [cut]," Premier Leszek Miller commented. JM

CZECH POLICE CHIEF CONSULTS WITH FOREIGN COLLEAGUES ABOUT SECURITY
Czech Police President Jiri Kolar met in Brno with his colleagues from neighboring countries on 22 October to exchange information that will bolster security for the NATO summit in Prague on 21-22 November, CTK reported the same day. "We are interested in exchanging information. We must have a good idea of persons, organizers, or possibly militant hard-core [groups] that could participate in protests against the summit," Kolar said. Czech police have requested help from police in Slovakia, Poland, Austria, and Germany, according to Kolar. BW

ILLNESS CAUSES CZECH PRESIDENT TO CANCEL SCHEDULE
President Vaclav Havel canceled his schedule through 24 October due to inflammation of the respiratory mucous membrane on 23 October, CTK reported the same day, citing presidential spokesman Ladislav Spacek. Havel was undergoing treatment at the presidential residence in Lany, Central Bohemia. "The abolition of the schedule is a preventive measure that is to enable a more effective treatment," Spacek said. BW

AUTO ACCIDENT CAUSES TERROR ALERT IN PRAGUE
An alleged drunk driver touched off false alarms of a possible terrorist attack on 23 October after he crashed his automobile outside the Israeli Embassy in Prague, Czech media reported the same day. The embassy's security personnel called police after an automobile crashed into a concrete flower box outside the building shortly before dawn. Fearing a possible terrorist attack, police arrived on the scene with a bomb squad. The driver faces charges of drunk driving and refusing to cooperate with police. BW

PROSECUTORS SEEK TO KEEP TOP SLOVAK BUSINESSMAN IN CUSTODY...
Prosecutors in Kosice have asked a court to retain Jozef Majsky, one of Slovakia's richest businessmen, and a second defendant identified only as "Patrik P," in pretrial custody following their detention on 21 October, TASR reported on 23 October. Majsky is accused of fraud and supporting criminal groups, TASR reported on 23 October. The Kosice District Court must rule on the request by 26 October. Prosecutors allege that Majsky and Patrik P, along with a third man who is still at large, defrauded Horizont Slovakia, an unlicensed investment fund, of 600 million crowns ($14.05 million). The fund collapsed in February. If convicted, the two face five to 12 years in prison. BW

...AS ANOTHER IMPRISONED BUSINESSMAN SAID HE FEARS FOR HIS LIFE
Vladimir Fruni, who has been accused of fraud over the collapse of the Horizont and BMG Invest investment funds, said he fears for his life, TASR reported in 23 October, citing the newspaper "Novy cas." Fruni, who is in custody awaiting trial, expressed his fears in a letter to Ombudsman Pavol Kandrac. According to "Novy cas," Fruni believes that while he is in prison his life is in danger, since he has information that could discredit several politicians and businessmen. He also complained about prison conditions. Horizont and BMG Invest collapsed in February. BW

REPORT: SLOVAKIA TO GET 14 SEATS IN EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
European Union foreign ministers have agreed to grant Slovakia 14 seats in the European Parliament upon its accession to the union, one more than it is entitled to under the EU's Treaty of Nice, TASR reported on 23 October, citing unidentified sources. The decision was made at a session of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on 22 October, according to the news agency, but no official announcement has been made. According to TASR, Slovakia's extra seat was made possible because Romania and Bulgaria will not join the EU before 2007. Slovakia and nine other countries are on track to join the EU in 2004. Among the prospective new members, the Czech Republic and Hungary will also get an additional seat each, according to the report. BW

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT COMMEMORATES 1956 UPRISING...
Parliament on 23 October staged a special session to honor the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising and the 13th anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Hungary, Hungarian media reported. The opposition FIDESZ party boycotted the session, citing the fact that representatives of 1956 freedom fighters' groups were not allowed to contribute. Parliamentary speaker Katalin Szili in her address emphasized the need for unity, saying anyone who "expropriates" 1956 not only makes a mockery of the anniversary but weakens the principles underlying the republic. Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy called 23 October "a holiday of freedom, democracy, and commitment to the nation." Opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum Chairwoman Ibolya David attended the session and read out a moderately toned message from veterans of the uprising, but only seven of her party's deputies were present to hear it. David quoted Gergely Pongratz, commander of one of the rebelling forces in Budapest in 1956, as saying "the left wing was unable to forgive us for the crimes it committed against us in 1956 and afterward." MSZ

...WHILE FORMER PRIME MINISTER TAKES HIS MESSAGE TO THE STREETS
Former Prime Minister Viktor Orban on 23 October told right-wing groups in Budapest's Erzsebet Square that socialism was the biggest lie of the 20th century, Budapest dailies reported. Orban blamed the West for "leaving Hungary on its own" during the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. Orban said the heroes of 1956 laid down a yardstick for Hungarians, as they fought for justice even at the risk of their own lives. In other news, a crowd of 150-200 people heckled and whistled at Free Democratic politicians as they went to lay wreaths at the grave of Imre Nagy, Hungary's Prime Minister during the 1956 Uprising. Several in the crowd called Free Democrat Imre Mecs "a traitor and a murderer" and repeatedly interrupted his speech. Mecs, who was sentenced to death in 1957 for his part in the 1956 Uprising, countered that the demonstrators should be ashamed of themselves for "humiliating a holy place in the interest of a fallen [FIDESZ] government." MSZ

IBM TO CLOSE HUNGARIAN FACTORY
High-tech giant IBM announced on 22 October that it will close its production plant for hard-disk drives in Szekesfehervar, putting 3,600 people out of work, Hungarian media reported. It marks the largest announcement of job cuts in Hungary by a foreign investor since the economy was opened to foreign investors in 1990. Work at IBM Storage Production will cease on 30 November, and the dismissal of its 2,100 employees will begin in January. Another 1,600 contract employees will also be put out of work. IBM accounts for 2-3 percent of Hungarian exports and is the second largest exporter in Hungary. IBM opted to close its Hungarian factory, its only one in Europe, because most of the company's suppliers and customers are in Asia. Government spokesman Zoltan Gal said IBM is making a considerable effort to find new jobs for its employees and paying more severance pay than Hungarian law requires, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. MSZ

SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER BLAMES YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT FOR IRAQ ARMS-SALES IMBROGLIO...
Zoran Djindjic said on 23 October that the growing scandal over Serbian arms sales to Iraq shows that Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica is "not doing his job" by failing to keep the military under control, AP reported from Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 23 October 2002). Djindjic added, "This is so damaging to our international reputation.... At a time when major nations are rallying to battle terrorism, it is very dangerous to be on the other side." Djindjic also noted that under current circumstances, Serbia will have difficulty even beginning talks aimed at promoting its European integration, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic, a staunch ally of Djindjic, called for the resignations of Yugoslav Prime Minister Dragisa Peric and Defense Minister Velimir Radojevic. "The New York Times" on 24 October quoted an unnamed Yugoslav official as saying, "Regardless of how significant this case is, we have to demonstrate our complete rejection of any cooperation with Iraq at this time. We need American support, so we have to act decisively." PM

...WHILE KOSTUNICA SEEKS TO PLAY DOWN THE PROBLEM...
Speaking in Belgrade on 23 October, Kostunica said that all that took place was "merely some work on repairing aircraft engines of an older generation, not...the sale of modern weaponry, which we don't have, anyway," AP reported. He added, however, that any such ties with Iraq are "hazardous and irresponsible." He stressed that unnamed individuals have used the affair to "attack the federal government, the Yugoslav Army, and me personally," Tanjug reported. Kostunica noted that the Belgrade-based Yugoimport firm is not owned by the army and that the federal government does not control it. Kostunica also pointed out that the Orao company is based in Bosnia, not in Serbia. (During the recent Serbian presidential campaign, he said the Republika Srpska "is dear and close to us, even if it is temporarily separated. But it will always be ours and in our hearts" [see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2002].) In any event, "The New York Times" quoted an unnamed Western diplomat as saying in Belgrade, "If Orao is sending in spare parts, they would be very useful in keeping [the Iraqi] air force flying...after 10 years of sanctions." PM

...AS INVESTIGATIONS PROCEED
The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo said in a statement that, "The U.S. has received clear evidence that [the] Orao aviation firm, in cooperation with the Yugoslav firm Yugoimport, has been refurbishing military aircraft for Iraq," AP reported on 23 October. In Banja Luka, a spokeswoman for the Bosnian Serb government said, "The Orao company has been violating the embargo on export of arms to Iraq. The responsible individuals will have to be punished." In Belgrade, the Yugoimport board of directors agreed the company must respect all Yugoslav regulations and Yugoslavia's international obligations, Tanjug reported. The directors called on the Defense Ministry to carry out an "extraordinary investigation" of the affair. In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the United States has offered "its full support and cooperation" in investigating the matter. He hailed Belgrade's decision to sack two top arms-trade officials and close down Yugoimport's Baghdad office. PM

HAGUE TRIBUNAL CALLS FOR 'ALL MEASURES NECESSARY' TO MAKE YUGOSLAVIA COOPERATE
Claude Jorda, president of the war crimes tribunal based in The Hague, told the UN Security Council in a letter on 23 October that Yugoslav authorities are not cooperating with the tribunal, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 23 October 2002). He noted, "Yugoslavia is not cooperating in tracking down, arresting, and transferring to The Hague certain of the accused. For all these reasons, the prosecutor and I request that you take all the measures necessary in order to force the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to assume fully its international obligations." Tribunal spokesman Jim Landale said, "It's up to the Security Council to determine what [action] is appropriate." In Belgrade, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic denied that his government is not cooperating, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

HAGUE PROSECUTOR AGAIN CALLS FOR CROATIA TO EXTRADITE GENERAL BOBETKO
Speaking in Zagreb on 23 October, Carla Del Ponte, the war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, again called on the Croatian government to extradite former General Janko Bobetko, AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2002). "Justice must be done in [an] equal manner for all our accused," she stressed. Del Ponte added, however, that Croatia's behavior has "not reached [the] stage of non-cooperation" and that she will not formally report Zagreb to the UN Security Council, Reuters reported. PM

CROATIAN POLICE SEIZE MYSTERY ARMS SHIP
Police said on 23 October that they have taken control of a Tonga-registered ship called the "Boka Star" in Rijeka, Reuters reported. It is believed to be carrying illegal arms and explosives, but it is not clear if the matter is linked to the Yugoimport affair, an ongoing U.S.-led hunt for weapons destined for Al-Qaeda, or anything else. The Podgorica daily "Dan" reported that the ship's cargo is indeed linked to the Yugoimport imbroglio. But the harbormaster in the Montenegrin port of Kotor denied any connection with the ship on the grounds that it is not registered in Montenegro, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kotor Bay in Serbo-Croatian is Boka Kotorska. PM

UN POLICE CHIEF LAUDS BOSNIAN POLICE REFORM
Jacques Klein, who heads the UN-led Bosnian police, told the Security Council in New York on 23 October that a police-reform program has been completed ahead of schedule, dpa reported. An EU-led mission will take over from Klein on 31 December. PM

SERBIA TRIES NINE IN BOSNIAN WAR CASE
A Serbian court has begun the trial of nine Serbs -- eight of whom are being tried in absentia -- for the murder of 16 Muslims from the Bosnian village of Sjeverin near the Yugoslav border in 1992, AP reported. PM

FIVE ARRESTED IN MACEDONIAN STUDENT PROTESTS
Several thousand high-school students staged nationwide protests on 23 October against the recent killing of an ethnic Macedonian student in a drive-by shooting in Tetovo, "Utrinski vesnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2002). High School Union President Aleksandar Nikolovski told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters: "There are two reasons for the protest: first, the murder of Vanco Josifovski in Tetovo; and second, the Albanization of education [through] the nomination of a [former member of the] terrorist [National Liberation Army] UCK and the attempts to change the names of high schools in Tetovo, as well as the setting up of busts of Albanian terrorists [in the schools]" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October 2002). At least two ethnic Albanian bystanders were wounded and several Albanian-owned shops in Skopje were looted when the protests escalated, Reuters reported. Police arrested five protesters, dpa noted. A spokesman for the Social Democrats (SDSM) blamed the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) for "misusing minors" and trying to "score points out of ethnic tensions." The protesters' slogans included "Death to the Albanians." UB/PM

MACEDONIAN PRIME MINISTER-DESIGNATE DEFENDS 'GUNS AND ROSES' COALITION
Prime Minister-designate Branko Crvenkovski of the SDSM told the private TV Telma that there is no alternative to forming a coalition with the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 24 October. Crvenkovski tried to dispel mistrust of the BDI among the Macedonian population. "Some 140,000 [ethnic Albanian] voters stand behind the BDI, and the [SDSM-led] coalition will respect their position," Crvenkovski said. "Without the participation in government of the...party that commands the most respect [among the Albanians], we will have much bigger problems," Crvenkovski said. Dpa reported that the coalition has been dubbed "Guns and Roses" in an allusion to the guerrilla pasts of many BDI members and the presence of a rose in the Social Democrats' emblem. UB/PM

ITALIAN PRIME MINISTER PLEDGES SUPPORT FOR ALBANIA
Speaking in Tirana on 23 October, Silvio Berlusconi said, "It is important that the whole Balkan region become part of the European Union, and that would be the main goal toward achieving peaceful coexistence" in the region, AP reported. He promised support for Albania in achieving European integration but did not offer a timetable, which is what most Albanians want. Berlusconi stressed nonetheless that Italy will continue to provide emergency assistance to Albania as the need arises. PM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT VISITS AUSTRIA
In Vienna on 23 October, Romanian President Ion Iliescu and his Austrian counterpart Thomas Klestil discussed measures aimed at boosting bilateral relations, Romanian media reported. Klestil said Austria supports Romania's accession to the European Union in 2007, a target date Iliescu said he is confident Romania can meet, although it "depends on our efforts," according to dpa. While Iliescu noted that Romania has a "big backlog" to clear, "we do not start from zero," AP reported. Iliescu said Romanian authorities expect more participation of Austrian banks and companies in the Romanian privatization process. Iliescu's two-day visit is the first by a Romanian president to Austria since the 1989 regime change in Romania. ZsM

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZES EC PRESIDENT'S REMARKS ON EU EXPANSION
Meeting in Chisinau on 23 October with Finnish Ambassador to Moldova Pekka Harttila and Danish Ambassador to Moldova Erik Bom, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin reaffirmed his country's wish to join the European Union, Flux reported. He criticized European Commission President Romano Prodi's recent statement that EU expansion will stop at the borders of Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 October 2002). Bom said Prodi is not entitled to make such declarations, as the European Council and not the European Commission is to decide which countries to admit to the union. Bom added that Denmark, which currently holds the EU's rotating Presidency, is prepared to offer its full support for Moldova's integration with the EU. ZsM

BULGARIAN, ROMANIAN JUSTICE MINISTERS CALL FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS
Justice Minister Anton Stankov and his visiting Romanian counterpart Rodica Stanoiu agreed on 22 October that the two countries should amend their respective constitutions and legal frameworks for their judiciaries to meet the European Commission's latest requirements for EU candidates, BTA reported. "I categorically state that amendments to the constitution, in its section concerning the judiciary, are inevitable and the sooner they are adopted, the better," Stankov said. According to Stankov, the two countries face similar problems -- establishing the independence of the judiciary, corruption, an insufficient number of judges, inadequate technology, and heavy workloads. UB

PRIVATIZATION AGENCY NAMES WINNER IN BULGARIAN TELECOM TENDER
State Privatization Agency Executive Director Apostol Apostolov announced on 23 October that the Vienna-based Viva Ventures Holding has won the tender for a 65 percent stake in state-owned Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTK), BTA reported. Viva Ventures offered $196 million in its bid and pledged to raise the company's capitalization by $49 million to $392 million. Viva Ventures plans to lay off some 9,000 of BTK's 25,000 employees within three years after the privatization. The Turkish consortium of Koc Holding and Turk Telecom entered a lower bid but pledged to lay off only 4,470 employees. UB

NATO TO OPEN MICROBIOLOGICAL LABORATORIES IN BULGARIA
International Medical Assembly in Bulgaria Chairman Krasimir Metodiev said on 21 October that NATO plans to open three laboratories for the study of dangerous infectious diseases, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. The main laboratory is to be based in the Black Sea port of Varna, with the others in the northern town of Veliko Tarnovo and the southern town of Smolyan. Metodiev said the agreement was reached during a conference at the beginning of October. The opening of the laboratories is not dependant on Bulgaria's admission to NATO, according to the report. UB

ARMENIAN MEDIA UNDER ASSAULT
The 22 October grenade attack on prominent Armenian journalist Mark Grigorian has raised new concerns over stability and security in the country. Grigorian is a well-regarded journalist and the deputy director of the independent Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan. Grigorian was not injured in the attack, which Armenian police have described as an attempted murder. Although the motives for the attack are still unclear, the incident has fueled fears that a new period of instability may be imminent.

Armenia is no stranger to political violence. Since independence in late 1991, it witnessed a series of murders of senior officials in 1993, some of which remain unsolved; the killing (likewise, still unsolved) of Prosecutor-General Genrikh Khachatrian in August 1998; the October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament by armed gunmen that resulted in the deaths of eight senior government officials; and the shooting in September 2001 of former State Revenues Minister Gagik Poghosian.

Grigorian himself suggested in a 23 October interview with RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau that he might have been targeted because of an investigation he was undertaking of the 1999 attack on parliament.

Although the attack on Grigorian does not necessarily herald an outbreak of political violence on the same level as the 1999 parliament shootings, it is the latest element in a troubling trend of intimidation and coercion directed against the Armenian media in recent months. Armenian media have always been vulnerable to pressure due to the combination of an underdeveloped civil society and the ever weakening rule of law. This vulnerability has become increasingly evident in recent months, with several cases of journalists being subjected to physical assaults, death threats, and intimidation.

This trend of media intimidation has been fostered by several disturbing policies implemented by the Armenian government. The most blatantly repressive policy centers on punitive legal measures introduced for "insulting the dignity and honor" of elected officials, a legal framework that imposes strict limitations on media coverage and analyses of local and central government. In one case revealing the sensitivity of the authorities to the 1999 attack on parliament, poet Janik Adamian was arrested last month and tried for authoring a crude poem that implicated President Robert Kocharian in the attack. The case was reminiscent the Stalinist period in that police also arrested Adamian's neighbor for having typed the poem for him on her typewriter.

The opening assault on the media occurred in April 2002 with the closure of A1+, the country's largest independent television station and the only major television outlet critical of the government. The station's broadcast frequency was auctioned in a questionable tender that the presidentially appointed National Commission on Television and Radio awarded to a previously unknown media group with reported links to a member of the presidential administration. In addition, in at least one case in recent months, journalists have been subjected to physical reprisals. In August, the owner and the director of a regional independent television company were attacked by several assailants who the victims alleged were linked to local government officials. Such attacks encourage a retreat to the Soviet practice of self-censorship and, if not halted, might further hinder the effective development of Armenia's infant civil society.

The twin tactics of creeping restrictions on press freedom and outright intimidation have combined to further inhibit Armenian media already weakened by a severe decline in print-media readership as a result of the dwindling purchasing power of the average consumer. A poll conducted in the summer of 2002 revealed that less than 15 percent of the population reads newspapers on a daily basis, and 48 percent do not read newspapers at all. A September 2002 survey (conducted, ironically, by Grigorian) found that a mere 1.5 percent of the Armenian population currently trusts the country's print media, compared with 80 percent five-six years ago.

There is, however, one prominent exception to the fundamental fragility of most Armenian media: the rise of the now dominant private outlets owned by members of the new wealthy elite closely associated with the ruling political elite. The decline of alternative or dissenting media has not only negatively affected the pace of political reform and democratization, a crucial shortcoming for a state in transition. It has also undercut the independent media's effectiveness in the fight against corruption.

Given the current state of the Armenian media, it seems unlikely the attack on Grigorian can galvanize the public support necessary for the media to regain its potential to promote democratization, safeguard civil liberties, and combat corruption. But in the absence of such support, the media could become increasingly compliant and marginalized.

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