CONTROVERSIAL SLAVNEFT AUCTION NETS JUST $1.86 BILLION...
A 74.95 percent state-owned stake in oil major Slavneft was sold in a closed auction on 18 December to Sibneft, which is controlled by oligarch and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich, for $1.86 billion, Russian news agencies reported. The auction lasted just five minutes and a total of seven bidders participated. The government set the minimum starting bid at $1.7 billion. Chinese state oil company CPNC withdrew from the auction following a call by the State Duma to ban it from participating (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). The Slavneft purchase makes Sibneft one of Russia's four largest oil companies, together with Yukos, LUKoil, and Surgutneftegaz. Sibneft announced late on 18 December that the company had made the purchase in a joint bid with TNK, which is owned by the Alfa financial-industrial group. Sibneft shares jumped sharply upon news of the purchase, Reuters reported. VY
...AS CRITICS DENOUNCE AUCTION AS A 'LOTTERY'
Despite previous government pledges that the Slavneft auction would be "unprecedentedly transparent," the process was characterized by a large number of scandals and intrigues, polit.ru, gazeta.ru, and other Russian news agencies noted on 18 December. The results of the auction "attest that...this was not a competition, but a lottery," Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying. He expressed disbelief that the stake was sold for less than $2 billion. The media noted that the list of bidders was changed at the very last minute and that the wealthiest potential purchaser -- China's CNPC -- was practically forced out of the competition. Polit.ru reported that the state-owned oil company Rosneft was also sidelined. Furthermore, LUKoil and Surgutneftegaz both "voluntarily" declined to bid at the last minute. The complete list of the seven entities that did participate was not released to the public, and journalists were not allowed to observe the auction. Audit Chamber official Sergei Ryabukhin told RIA-Novosti on 18 December that his agency estimated the value of the Slavneft stake at at least $3 billion. VY
RUSSIA SIGNS PIPELINE-INTEGRATION ACCORD
A government delegation visiting Zagreb on 16 December signed an accord with Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Belarus about the integration of Russia's Druzhba pipeline with the Adria pipeline, "Izvestiya" and other Russian news agencies reported on 17 December. The Druzhba pipeline goes from Russia through Belarus, Ukraine, and Slovakia, while the Adria transits Hungary and Croatia. Under the accord, the two pipelines will be controlled by a joint entity and will guarantee the annual provision of 15 million tons (90 million barrels) of Russian oil to global markets via the Croatian port of Omisalj. Russia oil majors Yukos, Sibneft, LUKoil, and TNK, which hope the new infrastructure will substantially reduce oil-transport costs, instigated the project. Gazeta.ru noted on 17 December that the system could make it more feasible to ship Russian oil to the United States via oil tankers. VY
2003 BUDGET FLIES THROUGH UPPER CHAMBER
The Federation Council on 18 December approved the 2003 state budget by a vote of 127 to seven with five abstentions, strana.ru and other Russian news agencies reported. The budget was passed by the Duma on 11 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2002). RC
GENERAL TURNS DOWN DEFENSE MINISTER'S OFFER
Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, commander of the North Caucasus Military District and formerly Russia's top military commander in Chechnya, said that he rejected an offer by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov of transfer to the Siberian Military District, lenta.ru reported on 18 December. Troshev confirmed that Ivanov had made the proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2002), but said that he would wait "until the current counterterrorism operation is finished" before accepting a transfer. "This was the task set for me by the supreme commander [President Vladimir Putin] and I do not think that now is a good time, especially on the eve of the referendum [on a new constitution] in Chechnya," Troshev said. Analysts have speculated that Ivanov made the offer to Troshev as part of a move to sideline generals who have made their reputations during the war in Chechnya and who are now widely viewed as an obstacle to peace negotiations. VY
SPS LEADER CALLS FOR PARTIES TO BEHAVE DURING NEXT ELECTION
Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) faction deputy head Irina Khakamada has called for all political parties to adopt an "honor code" and promise not to use "black public relations" in the upcoming elections, RIA-Novosti reported on 17 December. She also suggested adopting legislation that would ban the use of the image of President Putin in political advertising three months before elections. She explained that many parties "play up" their relationship with the president during election campaigns. JAC
PSKOV GOVERNOR TO SEEK THIRD TERM
Pskov Oblast Governor Yevgenii Mikhailov told local students on 16 December that he will run for a third term as governor in 2004 "if the possibility exists," RosBalt reported on 17 December. Mikhailov was first elected to the post in November 1996 and was re-elected in 2000. Mikhailov is among the 69 regional heads who are eligible to seek third terms under a Constitutional Court ruling issued on 9 July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 July 2002). RC
PARTIAL SOLUTION REACHED IN FAR EAST LABOR DISPUTE...
Workers at one of four striking municipal enterprises in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatksii agreed to return to work, although their colleagues at three other firms will continue the strike, which began on 25 November, TVS and ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). The workers are asking for the payment of wage arrears and a halt to reforms of the communal-services and public-utilities sectors that the workers believe will reduce the overall number of jobs, according to ITAR-TASS. State Duma Committee on Questions of Local Self-Government Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin (Yabloko) told "Vremya MN" the main reason for what is happening in Kamchatka is that the federal government is reforming the communal-services and public-utilities sectors without taking into account regional peculiarities. All subsidies are being accounted for according to a single federal standard, resulting in high levels of indebtedness for communal payments in regions with severe climates. JAC
...AS CITY TRANSPORT WORKERS IN SIBERIA THREATEN TO STRIKE
Municipal transportation workers in Krasnoyarsk picketed on 17 December the city administration building demanding the payment of 170 million rubles ($5.48 million) in wage arrears, NTV reported. According to the station, city officials promised to pay workers their October wages immediately and to pay their November wages later this month. City officials also decided to take out a bank loan to pay for electricity and lubricants for the tram and trolleybus fleet. Picketers threatened that if their wages are not paid in full by the end of the year, they will strike during the holiday period. JAC
DUMA DEPUTY LAMENTS KGB-IZATION OF THE GOVERNMENT
State Duma Security Committee Deputy Chairman Yurii Shchekochikhin (Yabloko) told journalists in Samara on 17 December he has the impression that Russia has "returned again to the period at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s," regions.ru reported. "Now in Russia a like-mindedness is observable absolutely everywhere -- ...a constant fear and the strengthening of the position of the first committee for state security," he continued. "For any society, the KGB-ization of the government is an abnormal occurrence," Shchekochikhin added. In terms of the media, he noted that Russia ranks second after Algeria in terms of the number of journalists killed and that any official can now go to court against a newspaper and receive "a completely abnormal sum in compensation" that can close a publication down. He also noted that websites containing false information keep popping up for one day and then disappear. But somehow "all publications manage to comment on this information," he noted. JAC
CHURCH SEEKS RESTORATION OF MILITARY CLERGY
Speaking to journalists following the end of the World Russian People's Congress, Dmitrii Smirnov, head of the Russian Orthodox Church's military liaison office, said the church views the reinstitution of the military priesthood as a top priority, polit.ru reported on 18 December. He said that there are currently 450 priests serving in the Russian armed forces, operating 150 military churches. But he added that both these figures should be dramatically increased. Speaking at the same press conference, Archbishop of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill said the church plans to increase the number of chapels in public places, especially in supermarkets, to protect citizens from "the nightmare of a consumer economy." VY
KILLING THE MESSENGER?
The trial of Stavropol State University Professor Viktor Avksentev on charges of provoking interethnic strife opened on 17 December in Stavropol, ITAR-TASS reported. The prosecutor charged that a monograph edited by Avksentev called "Stavropol: An Ethnographic Portrait" includes expressions impugning non-Slavic ethnic groups, "Vremya MN" reported. For example, a call is made for driving out all migrants and transporting them in train cars. The xenophobic statements were made by local residents, who were participating in a sociological survey commissioned by the krai government, according to "Vremya MN." In an earlier interview, Avksentev told a local newspaper that he and his team were trying to show the real situation in the krai regarding interethnic relations. Polit.ru on 16 December noted that the application of the article of the Criminal Code on inciting ethnic tension is "extremely rarely used." It was not used, for instance, in a recent case in Volgograd when seven, swastika-clad youths beat to death two Roma, and it was not used in the recent trial in Moscow of five men for involvement in the 2001 Tsaritsyno market rampage that left three foreigners dead and about 30 injured, the website noted. JAC/RC
KRASNODAR GOVERNOR WILLING TO SEND MESKHETIANS TO THE U.S.
Leaders of the Meskhetians living in the Krymskii Raion in Krasnodar Krai have been invited to meet with representatives of the krai's migration service to fill out migration cards, Interfax-South reported on 17 December. A migration service official told the agency that after filling out the cards, the Meskhetians could have temporary registration for 90 days. According to a press release of the Novorossiisk Committee for Human Rights, some 13,000 Meskhetians have been refused even temporary registration since 31 October. According to the release, Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev has said his administration would cooperate in transferring the Meskhetians to the United States, where there has been discussion of giving them refugee status. According to Interfax, some 21,000 Meskhetians live in Krasnodar Krai. JAC
YOU SAY 'PERM,' I SAY 'PARM'; LET'S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF
Authorities in the Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug are considering naming the new entity that would result from the joining of the okrug with neighboring Perm Oblast "Parm Oblast," Region-Inform-Perm reported on 17 December, citing "Permskii obozrevatel." Komi-Permyak authorities also reportedly want to make Kudymkar, which is the current capital of Komi-Permyak, the capital of the new entity. Local historian Boris Povarnitsyn told the local newspaper he believes the proposals might be designed to push Perm Oblast authorities to reject the proposed association. Last summer, Perm Oblast Governor Yurii Trutnev declared that the process of merging the two regions had already been started (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2002). JAC
ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY WELCOMES U.S. REVERSAL OF IMMIGRATION RESTRICTIONS
The Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 17 December welcoming the decision by U.S. President George W. Bush's administration to reverse a new measure requiring the registration of Armenian citizens with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Yerkir. The decision followed a flurry of activity by the politically active Armenian-American community, angered at the sudden inclusion on 13 December of Armenia in a list of countries subject to post-11 September 2001 restrictions on their citizens visiting the United States, that led to more than 10,000 notes of protest being directed to the White House. RG
ARMENIAN ENERGY NETWORK SET FOR NEW FOREIGN MANAGEMENT
South Korea's Daewoo Engineering group is preparing to assume full management of the troubled Armenian energy-distribution network, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 17 December. Initially privatized in August when the British-registered Midland Resources group paid $40 million, the energy network is crippled by annual losses of $50 million due to inefficiency and corruption and by some $100 million in debts to state-owned power plants. The incoming Korean managers have already begun preparing new measures to improve payment collections, curb widespread energy theft, and modernize the network's dilapidated, Soviet-era equipment. The introduction of new management responds to demands by the World Bank and will most likely speed the disbursement of $20 million in new World Bank loans crucial to bridging the state's budget deficit. RG
NATO OFFICIAL PRAISES AZERBAIJAN'S COOPERATION
In a speech at Baku State University on 17 December, George Katsirdakis, deputy head of NATO's Defense Partnership and Cooperation Directorate, praised Azerbaijan for its role in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, according to Baku's Lider television, as cited by Groong. Reflecting the region's growing strategic importance, another NATO delegation -- led by Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Joseph Ralston -- met this week with Armenian leaders in Yerevan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2002). RG
RUSSIAN SECURITY FORCES CONFIRM EXPULSION OF AZERBAIJANI GENERAL FOR ESPIONAGE
The head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev, confirmed reports on 16 December that Azerbaijani Major General Vaqif Rasulov has been expelled from Russia and returned to Baku following his arrest for espionage, according to ANS and Arminfo. The Azerbaijani general served as a representative to the Military Cooperation Staff of the CIS and played an important role in brokering negotiations over the Russian lease of the Gabala military radar installation in Azerbaijan. Russian security forces arrested the general after concluding an internal investigation that reportedly uncovered numerous secret military documents in his possession. The general has been banned from the Russian Federation for five years but is not expected to face any charges in Russia or Azerbaijan. RG
NEW PRO-RUSSIAN POLITICAL PARTY FORMED IN GEORGIA
An inaugural party congress was convened on 17 December in Tbilisi to unveil a new Georgian opposition political party called Bear, "The Georgian Times" reported. The Bear party, led by former Georgian paramilitary commander Temur Khachishvili, advocates closer relations with Russia and defends the presence of Russian military bases within Georgia. Khachishvili was the leader of the Mkhedrioni (Horsemen), a notorious militia active in the mid-1990s before being disbanded by the government. The former militia leader was recently released from prison after receiving a presidential pardon this summer. RG
GEORGIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT HEARS APPEAL OF CRIMINAL-DETENTION PROCEDURE
The Georgian Constitutional Court began its consideration of an appeal brought by the Young Lawyers' Association on 17 December, according to the Civil Georgia online news agency. The appeal was lodged on behalf of a group of citizens seeking to eliminate the authorities' practice of detaining suspects for up to 12 hours without access to relatives or legal counsel. The appeal follows a move late last month by Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili seeking parliamentary support to allow even longer detentions. RG
SUSPICIOUS FIRE DESTROYS ARMENIAN CULTURAL CENTER IN SOUTHERN GEORGIA
An early morning fire destroyed the nearly 100-year-old Armenian Cultural Center in Akhalkalak on 15 December, the A-Info news agency reported. Located in the ethnic Armenian southern Georgian region of Djavakheti, the cultural center served as a community library and informal educational facility for local residents. Local Armenian leaders have expressed suspicion over the fire's origins, citing a possible link between the fire and the fact that the center's director, Haig Rustakyan, is the brother of David Rustakyan, the co-chairman of the banned Virk political party. RG
SOUTH OSSETIA VOWS TO FORM NEW PROFESSIONAL ARMY
Eduard Kokoyty, president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, announced plans on 16 December to forge a "new, mobile" 6,000-strong professional army by the end of 2003, according to the Prime news agency. The leadership of the undeclared republic is bracing for a possible resumption of hostilities with the Georgian armed forces, although negotiations between South Ossetia and Georgia have made progress recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). RG
AGA KHAN IN KAZAKHSTAN
President Nursultan Nazarbaev received the Aga Khan on 17 December in the Kazakh capital Astana and awarded him Kazakhstan's State Award for Peace and Progress, worth about $30,000, Kazakh television reported. The Aga Khan said the money would go toward scholarships for Kazakh students at the University of Central Asia, an initiative started up by the Aga Khan Development Network. He also advised Nazarbaev that pluralism should be seen as a source of strength rather than weakness and should inform "the formulation of policies and structures at all levels of government." AA
SLANDER CASE AGAINST KYRGYZ PRIME MINISTER RESUMED
On 17 December a district court in Bishkek resumed hearing the case against Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, who is being sued for libel by Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Movement (KHM) Chairman Tursunbek Akunov, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Akunov is demanding a formal apology and 1 million soms (about $22,000) in damages from the prime minister, who said on television in September that "unrest and blood" followed Akunov wherever he went. The trial originally opened on 13 November but stopped immediately when Tanaev failed to appear in person. The prime minister again was absent on 17 December, although represented by his lawyer. This time the judge denied Akunov's demand that the defendant show up in person. AA
DRUG CRIMES ON THE RISE IN KYRGYZSTAN
Judging by statistics for the first 11 months of 2002, there are no signs that the struggle against drug-related crimes is making inroads, Djalil Ilipaev, deputy narcotics chief at Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry, told Akipress on 17 December. Ilipaev noted increases in the numbers of drug-related crimes and arrests over the last year and said that almost 3 tons of narcotics have been confiscated during the course of the year. He attributed a fall in seizures of opium -- which has a distinctive smell and is difficult to smuggle -- to a growing preference for heroin, of which a record 266 kilograms were seized in 2002. He also said that for the first time LSD is appearing on the Kyrgyz market. AA
TAJIK PRESIDENT SLAMS POOR WINTER PREPARATIONS
At an expanded cabinet meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 17 December, Imomaly Rakhmonov sacked Deputy Prime Minister Faridun Muhiddinov and strongly reprimanded a large number of other officials, including Dushanbe's mayor, for poorly managing fuel and energy issues in preparing for winter, Asia-Plus Blitz reported. As a result of their "carelessness and irresponsibility," Rakhmonov said, the city endured frequent electricity and gas cuts during the first 10 days of December, and heavy snowfall has virtually paralyzed public transportation. The president further complained that a government order to purchase 25,000 tons of fuel oil for the Dushanbe power plant was been carried out. AA
TURKMEN SPECIAL SERVICES RAID UZBEK EMBASSY
About 15 security officials forcibly entered the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat on 16 December and searched the ambassador's residence, claiming to have information that Turkmen nationals involved in the assassination attempt against President Saparmurat Niyazov had taken refuge in the building, RIA-Novosti reported. When they failed to find anyone hiding there, the officers filmed a Turkmen man who had accompanied them into the building and testified on camera that he had been living in the embassy for some time. The incident was described on 17 December in a protest note from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, which called it a gross violation of the norms and principles of international law. The ministry demanded an immediate explanation and immunity for its diplomatic mission in Ashgabat. AA
LATEST MEASURES FOLLOWING ASSASSINATION BID
Turkmen police-academy cadets are being taken out of class and dispatched around the country to beef up the police presence on the streets, the opposition website gundogar.com reported on 17 December. Meanwhile at a closed cabinet session, President Niyazov ordered a law be drafted stipulating special penalties for attempts to stage attacks "threatening the foundations of national sovereignty and the integrity of the state," the website said. Finally, a source inside the National Security Ministry told the website that at least 700 people have either been arrested or are under suspicion of collusion in the assassination attempt. Niyazov has said that the investigation must be wrapped up by 22 December. AA
UZBEKISTAN SIGNS 10-YEAR GAS CONTRACT WITH RUSSIA
Following a meeting between President Islam Karimov and Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller in Tashkent on 17 December, Uzbekistan's oil-and-gas company Uzbekneftegaz signed an agreement to supply natural gas to Russia from 2003-12, ITAR-TASS and uzreport.com reported. Uzbekistan will supply 5 billion cubic meters next year, with that figure rising to 10 billion cubic meters annually by 2005. The document also provides for cooperation on gas-transportation systems and the joint development of Uzbekistan's Shahpahty gas-condensate field. AA
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SIMPLIFIES REGISTRATION PROCESS FOR BUSINESSES...
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 17 December signed a decree intended "to simplify considerably" procedures for the registration of new businesses, Belapan reported, quoting the presidential press service. The decree reportedly allows founders to register new private companies at home addresses and simplifies procedures for liquidating businesses that go bankrupt or have been inoperative for more than six months. JM
...AND TAKES BACK COMPENSATION FOR FROZEN USSR ASSETS
President Lukashenka also signed a decree on 17 December obliging enterprises previously controlled by the state to return to the government compensation that was paid to them for their assets frozen in accounts at Soviet Vneshekonombank as of 1 January 1992, Belapan reported. The decree targets enterprises that were established as a result of privatization and denationalization. These enterprises are now required either to increase the government's stake in them or to return such compensation to the government by 1 July. Belarus assumed liability for assets frozen in Soviet-era accounts at Vneshekonombank under a 1996 accord with Russia. A portion of those assets was returned to enterprises, including privatized companies, between 1997 and 2002. Lukashenka's decree also authorizes the government to claim the frozen assets of formerly state-owned enterprises that have not received compensation. JM
BELARUSIAN LOWER HOUSE PASSES 2003 BUDGET BILL
The Chamber of Representatives on 17 December voted 72 to six in favor of the government's 2003 budget bill, Belapan reported. The bill sets consolidated budget revenues at 11.2 trillion Belarusian rubles ($5.85 billion) and expenditures at 11.6 trillion Belarusian rubles, with a deficit equal to 1.5 percent of GDP. The bill projects economic growth in 2003 of 6 percent. JM
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY MAJORITY REPLACES CENTRAL-BANK GOVERNOR...
The pro-presidential majority in the Verkhovna Rada resorted to an unusual voting procedure on 17 December to replace National Bank of Ukraine Governor Volodymyr Stelmakh with Labor Ukraine-Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs parliamentary caucus leader Serhiy Tyhypko, UNIAN reported. Claiming that the opposition wanted to obstruct the vote, the majority created an ad hoc commission for tabulating the vote comprising its own lawmakers. It then ordered a roll-call vote that took place not in the session hall but in the office of Oleksandr Zadorozhnyy, the permanent presidential representative in parliament. According to that ad hoc commission, 232 deputies supported the replacement of the National Bank governor. JM
...AND REPLACES LEADERSHIP OF LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEES...
In a similar voting procedure, 229 majority deputies reportedly voted in favor of replacing the leadership of parliamentary committees headed by opposition lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 12 June 2002), UNIAN reported. Two hundred and twenty-seven deputies supported a motion to reverse the approval of a 2003 budget bill on its second reading, which took place in November. JM
...AS OPPOSITION ACCUSES MAJORITY OF 'COUP D'ETAT'
The opposition parliamentary caucuses -- Our Ukraine, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc -- said in a joint statement on 17 December that all three votes in the Verkhovna Rada that day were illegal and falsified, UNIAN reported. "[The 17 December votes]...are actual steps toward a coup d'etat through the usurpation of power [and] by way of illegal appointment to the posts envisaged by the constitution [as well as] an attempt to finally destroy parliamentary government," the statement read. The opposition is planning to contest the 17 December vote in court. JM
ESTONIAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS BILL CUTTING WAIT FOR CITIZENSHIP
A bill proposed by four Center Party deputies last December to halve the waiting time between filing a citizenship application and becoming a citizen failed when it received just 47 of the 75 votes cast in parliament on 17 December, BNS reported. Passage required an overall majority of 51 votes in the 101-seat parliament. The bill would have reduced the waiting period from 12 to six months but would not have changed the requirement that a person reside in Estonia for at least five years with a permanent-residency permit to be eligible for citizenship. The bill was supported by deputies from the ruling Center and Reform parties, while deputies from the Pro Patria Union, Moderates, and People's Union voted against or abstained. SG
ESTONIAN RED CROSS TO COLLECT APPLICATIONS FROM VICTIMS OF SOVIET REPRESSION
The cabinet on 17 December supported a decision of the Red Cross to start gathering applications in 2003 for compensation from people who suffered under Soviet repression, BNS reported. The Red Cross had sent a letter to the government, announcing its readiness to engage in collecting applications for compensation and requested legal information for organizing such work. The government said the Red Cross as an apolitical, nongovernmental organization is well-suited to the task, as it has been accepting applications from people who suffered under Nazi repression. SG
LATVIAN-VIETNAMESE RELATIONS SAID TO BE DEVELOPING SUCCESSFULLY
Vietnamese Ambassador to Latvia Nguyen Van Nganh, on an accreditation visit to Riga from his residency in Moscow, held talks with Foreign Ministry Undersecretary of State Andris Teikmanis on 17 December, LETA reported. He said relations between the countries are stable, constructive, and developing successfully -- demonstrating that differing historic and cultural traditions, as well as geographical distances, are no obstacle to good mutual relations. Noting that Latvia's foreign-policy priorities include integration into the EU and NATO, Teikmanis explained: "Our bilateral relations will be a part of [the] Vietnamese-EU dialogue in the near future." In concluding the meeting, Van Nganh extended an invitation from his foreign minister to Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete to pay an official visit to Vietnam. SG
FITCH RAISES LITHUANIA'S CREDIT RATING
Fitch IBCA credit-rating agency announced on 17 December that it is increasing Lithuania's rating for the second time this year, ELTA reported. Lithuania's rating for long-term loans in local currency was raised from BBB+ to A-. The rating for long-term loans in foreign currencies was hiked from BBB- to BBB. Fitch said the increases were a result of the country's consistent structural reforms, government commitment to maintaining a low fiscal deficit, a balanced state budget, and a moderate level of foreign debt. A successful privatization program, restructuring in the energy sector, and an improved business environment should allow the country to post annual GDP growth of 5-6 percent, the agency forecast. SG
POLISH GOVERNMENT APPROVES REPORT ON EU TALKS
Premier Leszek Miller's cabinet on 17 December approved a report on last week's conclusion of EU accession negotiations (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 17 December 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002), PAP reported. The document presents the course and results of talks that led to the closure of 31 negotiation chapters. "On the whole, we consider the outcome of the negotiations to be very good for Poland. All important objectives set out in an 1989 initial negotiation position of the Polish government were achieved," Minister for European Affairs Danuta Huebner noted. She said Poland secured transition periods in 43 areas, including the longest one among all candidates concerning the purchase of farmland by foreigners. She added that Polish farmers will enjoy a competitive position in the EU and that Poland obtained the best possible results with respect to direct subsidies. PAP reported the same day that, according to European Commission estimates, Poland will net some 7 billion euros ($7.2 billion) from the EU budget in the first three years of membership (2004-06). Actual payments from the EU budget will reach 13.55 billion euros, with Poland's dues set at 6.55 billion euros over this period. JM
POLAND TO HELP RUSSIA DESTROY CHEMICAL WEAPONS
Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz and Russian Munitions Agency Director-General Zinovii Pak signed an accord in Warsaw on 17 December whereby Poland will help Russia destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons by allowing the use of Polish technology, PAP reported. The technology utilizes a chemical-decomposition method instead of incineration of toxic materials. According to Krzysztof Paturej, an adviser to the foreign minister, the agreement concerns the destruction of lewisite, a chemical substance that contains arsenic. JM
CZECH LOWER HOUSE APPROVES 2003 BUDGET
The Chamber of Deputies on 17 December approved the government's draft 2003 budget in a tight 101-96 vote, CTK reported. The budget represents a planned 111.3 billion-crown ($3.67 billion) deficit -- the highest in the country's 10-year history. Revenues are forecast at 684 billion crowns and expenditures at 795.3 billion crowns. Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) parliamentary deputy Hana Marvanova, who in September sparked a coalition crisis by killing a government tax package, did not participate in the vote. Two deputies for the opposition Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) were also absent, effectively ensuring passage. MS
CZECH PARTIES PROPOSE SECOND, THIRD CANDIDATES FOR PRESIDENT
The KSCM on 17 December officially submitted to parliament the candidacy of former military prosecutor Miroslav Krizenecky for the presidential election in mid-January, CTK reported. All 41 KSCM deputies supported Krizenecky's candidacy. Then on 18 December, the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the other junior coalition partner, the US-DEU, officially proposed Senate President and former Czech Federal Prime Minister Petr Pithart as a candidate on 18 December, CTK reported. Pithart apparently will receive the support of independent senators as well, "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported the same day, all but assuring his advancement to any eventual second round of voting in the joint legislative session of 15 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). Vaclav Klaus has already been advanced as a candidate by his Civic Democratic Party (ODS). MS
FORMER PRAGUE MAYOR ELECTED CHAIRMAN OF EUROPEAN DEMOCRATS
Former Prague Lord Mayor Jan Kasl on 17 December was elected chairman of the European Democrats, a party he helped create in June, CTK reported. Kasl was backed by 126 of 133 delegates at the party congress. The European Democrats did not run in the June parliamentary elections but finished second in Prague in the November local elections, making it the strongest opposition formation in the City Assembly. Kasl, an ODS member until May, resigned as lord mayor and left that party shortly before the general elections, charging that city councilors and ODS as a whole were unwilling to join him in fighting corruption at City Hall. Kasl told the congress that the European Democrats represent a center-right party established in reaction to plummeting confidence in existing political formations. MS
AUSTRIA SAYS CZECH REPUBLIC HAS ABIDED BY MELK AGREEMENT
The Austrian Foreign Ministry's Eva Nowotny said on 17 December in Vienna that the Czech Republic has abided by the 2001 agreement over the Temelin nuclear-power plant and that the Austrian government cannot see any reason for not ratifying the EU enlargement decision, including the invitation extended to the Czech Republic to join the organization, CTK reported. Nowotny, who heads the ministry's European integration department, said that "the Melk agreement on safety measures and the exchange of information [over the plant] has been completely fulfilled by the Czech side for the time being" and added, "I do not fear that the situation could become different at any time in the future." MS
FORMER CZECH SECRET-POLICE OFFICER RECEIVES SUSPENDED SENTENCE
Oldrich Mezl, head of the communist-era secret police in Prague, was given a suspended, three-year sentence on 17 December, CTK reported the following day, citing the daily "Lidove noviny." Mezl was sentenced for his role in the Asanace Operation aimed at intimidating dissidents into leaving the country. The verdict may be appealed. MS
SLOVAK COALITION PARTNERS FAIL TO MEND RIFT...
The Slovak Coalition Council on 17 December failed to agree on a solution to the conflict between the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the Alliance for New Citizens (ANO) over equal party representation on the board of state-owned utility Slovenske Elektrarne, TASR reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002). While three of the four coalition partners -- ANO, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), and the Hungarian Coalition -- rejected the KDH demand, the latter refused to change its position and continues to demand that coalition-party representatives be nominated to the boards of state companies. The KDH is alleging that ANO is seeking to control the privatization of the utility through political nominees appointed by ANO Economy Minister Robert Nemcsics. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda (SDKU) said after the meeting that the government continues to function and that no party suggested Nemcsics's dismissal. MS
...BUT APPROVE DATE FOR EU REFERENDUM
Slovakia's Coalition Council on 17 December decided that a referendum on EU accession will be held on 16-17 May, TASR and CTK reported. According to the constitution, a referendum may be called after parliament approves the plebiscite and the president calls it. For the referendum to be valid, more than half of all eligible voters must participate. MS
SLOVAK PRESIDENT STICKS TO INTENTION TO SUE BRATISLAVA HOSPITALS
President Rudolf Schuster on 17 December confirmed his intention to sue two Bratislava hospitals over treatment they gave him two years ago, AP and TASR reported. Schuster said the poor treatment he received at the two hospitals in 2000 put his life in danger. He will seek compensation of 450,000 crowns ($11,000) from the Interior Ministry Hospital and the Kramare Hospital, where he was treated for organ failure and a ruptured colon. His health rapidly improved after he was transferred -- in critical condition -- to a clinic in Innsbruck, Austria. "It is not about the money but about moral satisfaction," TASR quoted him as saying. Schuster said that if he wins the legal action, he will donate the money to charity or to other Slovak hospitals. MS
HUNGARY AMENDS CONSTITUTION AHEAD OF EU ACCESSION...
The Hungarian parliament on 17 December unanimously voted to amend the constitution to permit the country to join the European Union in 2004, Hungarian media reported. The government agreed to drop from the final draft three provisions to which the opposition FIDESZ party had objected: on ministerial decrees, on refugees, and on the transfer of powers to international organizations. The amended constitution will stipulate that the EU and Hungary may jointly exercise some constitutional powers, and certain institutions of the EU may exercise particular authority independently. It also specifies that a binding referendum on EU accession be held on 12 April 2003. Without opposition backing, the constitutional amendments would not have received the necessary two-thirds majority. MSZ
...AND APPROVES MEDICAL UNIT FOR AFGHANISTAN
Parliament on 17 December voted in favor of sending a 50-member medical contingent to join the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 12, 13, and 17 December 2002), Hungarian media reported. The unit will consist of armed and equipped professional soldiers and is scheduled to be in Afghanistan for up for six months. The opposition center-right Democratic Forum voted against sending Hungarian soldiers abroad, saying there are already 725 Hungarian soldiers on duty in various parts of the world and costing the country some 22 billion forints ($95 million) a year. In related news, Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs announced that the government will not submit to parliament a draft resolution on allowing foreign armed forces to train personnel in Hungary. He admitted that permission for such activities is in the purview of the government. Government spokesman Zoltan Gal said the cabinet is expected to endorse a U.S. request on training Iraqi opposition personnel at the Taszar military base at its meeting on 18 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 11, and 17 December 2002).
HUNGARIAN PREMIER WINS LAWSUIT AGAINST OPPOSITION DAILY
Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy on 17 December won a lawsuit against the opposition "Magyar Nemzet" daily in the Metropolitan Court, Budapest dailies reported. On 19 June, the daily published a note allegedly signed by Medgyessy that said he headed a Finance Ministry committee in 1976 examining the National Savings Bank and the state insurance company for potential anticommunist "counterrevolutionary movement leaders." Another article published in the same issue of the daily claimed that Medgyessy made reports to the so-called III/III communist-era state-security department at the Interior Ministry. The court ruled that the paper created the false impression that Medgyessy had signed the document and falsely reported that the prime minister had made reports to the state security department. The court ordered the daily to publish a correction on its front page within eight days. MSZ
SOVIET MEMORIAL RETURNS TO DOWNTOWN BUDAPEST
After lengthy discussions between the Russian and Hungarian governments, a Soviet military memorial on 17 December was returned to its original site in downtown Budapest, "Nepszabadsag" reported. The memorial is a tribute to Russian soldiers killed in Budapest during World War II and had been temporarily pulled down to accommodate the ongoing construction of an underground garage beneath the square. The obelisk has been renovated and, according to the agreement reached with Russia, the original inscription was preserved. MSZ
LAWYERS DEBATE SENTENCE FOR FORMER BOSNIAN SERB LEADER
Attorneys are scheduled to discuss a possible sentence for former Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic in her trial for war crimes in The Hague on 18 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 17 December 2002). The previous day, Plavsic told the tribunal that "many thousands of innocent people were the victims of an organized, systematic effort to remove Muslims and Croats from the territory claimed by Serbs." She added that during the 1992-95 war, she believed that "this was a matter of survival and self-defense. In fact, it was more. Our leadership, of which I was a necessary part, led an effort that victimized countless innocent people." Plavsic told the tribunal: "I accept responsibility for my part in this. This responsibility is mine and only mine." PM
YUGOSLAVIA APPROVES THE DAYTON AGREEMENT
The lower house of the Yugoslav parliament ratified the Dayton peace accords for Bosnia on 17 December, almost seven years after the pact ended the Bosnian war, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said recently that ratification is not legally necessary but serves to make a political point. Nationalist opposition parties in parliament opposed the move. PM
SREBRENICA SURVIVORS WARN OF NEW EXODUS
A group of 180 Muslim survivors of Srebrenica have written High Representative Paddy Ashdown to demand better economic and social conditions in that town, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported on 18 December. The signatories warn that many returnees will have to leave unless they acquire some hope for their futures there. Many Serbs in Srebrenica also fear they will have to leave unless more jobs are created. PM
ETHNIC CROAT VETERANS BLOCK ROADS IN BOSNIA
On 18 December, an unspecified number of ethnic Croat veterans of the 1991-95 conflicts continued to block several border crossings from the Muslim-Croat federation into Croatia to demand overdue payments of benefits to invalids and families of soldiers killed in the line of duty, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The protest began several days ago and has been expanded in its scope each day. The federation government wants a thorough review of the rolls of those claiming payments as a precondition for meeting the demands. PM
DISPUTES BETWEEN CROATIA AND SLOVENIA TO BE RESOLVED ONLY WHEN BOTH ARE IN THE EU?
Slovenian Prime Minister-designate Anton Rop said in Ljubljana on 17 December that the majority of problems that have bedeviled Croatian-Slovenian relations for over a decade will probably be solved only after Croatia joins the EU, Hina reported. Rop added that he hopes this will happen "as soon as possible." Slovenia is scheduled to join the EU in 2003, but Croatia has received no timetable from Brussels. The Croatian leadership hopes to be admitted in 2007 at the latest, together with Bulgaria and Romania. PM
CROATIAN GOVERNMENT PUSHES FOR CONSENSUS ON EU MEMBERSHIP
The cabinet of Prime Minister Ivica Racan called on parliamentary parties to reach a consensus on the National Program aimed at securing EU membership for Croatia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 17 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2002). Ivo Sanader, who heads the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), which is the largest opposition party, said he wants assurances that Croatia's admission to the EU will not be linked to that of its "eastern neighbors." In related news, Croatian and EU officials signed a Cards Community Assistance for Reconstruction, Development, and Stabilization agreement for 2002 valued at $60 million. PM
MOVEMENT ON THE SERBIAN POLITICAL SCENE?
Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) formally accepted the recent ruling by the Serbian Supreme Court declaring the 8 December Serbian presidential elections invalid, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 17 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2002). In Moscow, Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said he expects new presidential elections to be held in February. In Belgrade, Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic said he expects a commission will be set up early in 2003 to draft a new Serbian Constitution. PM
SERBIAN-MONTENEGRIN UNION TAKING SHAPE
Representatives of Serbia and Montenegro have agreed on most of the provisions of a new law on implementing the Constitutional Charter of the two republics' new, loose union, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 17 December (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 February 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 12 December 2002). The new union is scheduled to come into effect by 31 January at the latest, by which time official bodies of the current Yugoslavia will cease to function. The final session of the joint Constitutional Commission is scheduled to take place in Podgorica on 24 December. PM
MINORITIES PRESENT DEMANDS IN VOJVODINA
Various ethnic Croatian parties, institutions, and organizations in Serbia have formed the Croatian National Council in Subotica, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 17 December. The council will seek recognition of basic rights for the 120,000 ethnic Croats in Serbia and Montenegro. In related news, the Danube organization of Vojvodina's German minority has demanded the repeal of the 1944 decrees that took away the rights and property of Serbia's formerly sizable German population, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 15 December. PM
REGIONAL COOPERATION IN FORMER YUGOSLAVIA
The heads of the chambers of commerce of the Bosnian town of Tuzla, Osijek in Croatia, and Vojvodina's capital of Novi Sad agreed in Novi Sad recently on a trilateral economic-cooperation package, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 16 December. Imser Imsirovic of Tuzla said the pact will affect almost all of his community's 10,000 firms. He called on Serbian authorities to treat businesses from the federation according to the same terms they treat those from the Republika Srpska. PM
FIVE FORMER KOSOVA GUERRILLAS SENTENCED IN LANDMARK TRIAL
On 17 December, a court in Prishtina sentenced five former fighters of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) to a total of 31 years in prison for abducting and beating four other ethnic Albanians, who are presumed dead, Reuters reported. The incident allegedly took place in western Kosova in June 1999, shortly after the arrival of NATO forces. Among those sentenced in the politically sensitive trial was Daut Haradinaj, the brother of prominent Kosovar politician and former guerrilla leader Ramush Haradinaj. Prosecutors said the case was open-and-shut, while the defendants claimed it was an attempt to discredit the former UCK and them personally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2002). PM
MACEDONIAN GOVERNMENT SCRAPS PRIVATIZATION OF PUBLISHING HOUSE
The government has declared void the privatization of state-run Nova Makedonija publishing house (NIP), "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 18 December. According to government spokesman Saso Colakovski, the privatization is no longer valid because the buyer, the Slovenian consortium Jug-Storitve, did not fulfill its part of the deal. The government named a trustee to manage NIP until a new tender is issued in January. In a press release, Jug-Storitve protested the government's decision and demanded an independent inquiry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August and 3 December 2002 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 December 2002). UB
ROMANIAN EARLY ELECTIONS: ILIESCU 1, NASTASE NIL
Presidential spokeswoman Corina Cretu said on 17 December that President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase agreed at their meeting the same day that organizing early parliamentary elections "is not a current priority" for Romania, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Cretu said the president explained the reasons for his reluctance to agree to the proposal for an early ballot backed by Nastase and the leadership of his Social Democratic Party (PSD). Cretu reiterated that, in the president's opinion, Romania's main priorities are its economic and social problems, the reform of public administration, and combating corruption. She said the reform of the public administration can "start with a significant governmental reshuffle," adding that the possibility of reshuffling the cabinet has not been discussed "in concrete terms" but will be on the agenda of a further consultation between Iliescu and the PSD leadership planned for January 2003. MS
ROMANIAN PREMIER SAYS GOVERNMENTAL RESHUFFLE 'NOT EARLIER THAN FEBRUARY'
Premier Nastase told journalists after the talks with President Iliescu that "early elections have ceased to be a priority" for his cabinet, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Nastase said it makes no sense for him to continue to suggest every second week that early elections be held only to have President Iliescu turn him down. Nastase said he and the president agree that Romania needs political stability to concentrate on the tasks deriving from the need to implement political, economic, and social reforms ahead of NATO membership and admission to the EU in 2007. He also said that he does not expect the governmental reshuffle to take place earlier than February because changes in the government's structure must be approved by parliament. MS
ROMANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER DEPLORES BUDAPEST PROTESTS...
Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana told journalists on 17 December that it is "regrettable" that protest demonstrations were held in Budapest following Hungarian Premier Peter Medgyessy's participation in a reception hosted by Premier Nastase in Budapest to commemorate Romania's National Day, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 4, 12, and 16 December 2002). Geoana said it is "absolutely deplorable" that just days after the EU Copenhagen summit "the shadows of nationalism and extremism" are being cast by the World Federation of Hungarians. "Some people seem to believe that a return to the 19th century is possible, disregarding the fact that we have stepped into the 21st century," he said. "But Romania and Hungary will continue to approach each other along the lines of the French-German model" of reconciliation, he added. MS
...AS WELL AS STRONG PRM PRESENCE IN THE PARLIAMENT
Foreign Minister Geoana also said that his PSD shares Western countries' concern over the Greater Romania Party's (PRM) strong representation in the Romanian legislature, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Geoana said the extremist PRM has become the second-strongest parliamentary party after the 2000 elections and that public-opinion polls show that the formation led by Corneliu Vadim Tudor still enjoys the support of 14-20 percent of the population. He said the PSD hopes a "democratic alternative" will emerge in the center-right of the political spectrum and supersede the PRM's political prominence. However, he added that it is neither the task nor the obligation of the PSD to indicate how a centrist-right party should forge a "credible political offer that would minimize the chances of the extremist forces to ever gain access to power in this country." MS
ROMANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER OUTLINES CONDITIONS FOR CONCLUDING TREATY WITH MOLDOVA
Foreign Minister Geoana said on 17 December said that Romania will insist that the "unique" relationship between the two countries be mentioned in the pending basic treaty with Moldova, Mediafax reported. He said Romania's relations with Moldova are "privileged and unique" and are "incomparable with any other type of relations between two [separate] states." Geoana also said Romania will "never accept" mention of the "Moldovan language" in the treaty. He also said the treaty must mention Moldova's "European vocation," arguing that only within a united Europe will a suitable solution to the historical problems between Romania and Moldova be found. MS
MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT RECEIVED AT THE WHITE HOUSE...
President Vladimir Voronin was received on 17 December at the White House by U.S. President George W. Bush at the start of his four-day visit to the United States. Voronin said that during his visit with Bush he was promised help in solving his country's economic problems and the Transdniester conflict, AP and an RFE/RL correspondent reported. Voronin said Bush "is well aware of the importance of settling this conflict." However, he added, "You must understand that in a meeting with the president of the United States, you do not deal with details of how you are going to settle such a conflict." He added that as a result of the talks, U.S. experts will participate in the elaboration of concrete plans on ways to settle the dispute. Voronin also said that Bush has pledged "to assist us in restructuring the floating debt that is such a heavy burden on our economy right now," AP reported. Bush "appreciates very much how difficult it must be to go in such a short time from one mindset to a different mentality -- [that] of a market economy," Voronin said. MS
...SIGNS JOINT DECLARATION WITH BUSH
In a joint declaration cited by Romanian Radio, Presidents Bush and Voronin said U.S.-Moldovan relations have "positively developed" in the 11 years since Moldova declared its independence. The two agreed on the need for Moldova to safeguard its sovereignty and on the necessity to solve the Transdniester conflict within the framework of the proposal submitted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), according to the report. The declaration also calls on the separatist authorities to stop obstructing the withdrawal of Russian troops and weapons from the region and states that, in the event Tiraspol fails to do so, the sides will "consider other measures" to be taken against Transdniester. Voronin said after the meeting that the Russian troops and weapons will not be withdrawn from the region until a political solution to the conflict is reached. MS
FOURTH RUSSIAN TRAIN CONVOY LEAVES TRANSDNIESTER
A Russian train carrying 77 trucks that belonged to the former 14th Russian Army left the Transdniester on 17 December, Flux reported. Matti Sidoroff, spokesman of the OSCE mission in Moldova, said the train did not carry any weapons or ammunition and that OSCE experts inspected the train's cargo before its departure. The trainload of materiel is the fourth to leave the separatist region since 2001 and the first to do so following the recent OSCE Porto summit. MS
BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER MOVES FOR DEMILITARIZATION OF SECRET SERVICES
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski told a meeting of the parliamentary groups of the ruling National Movement Simeon II and the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms on 17 December that both the National Intelligence Service (NRS) and the National Security Service (NSO) should be demilitarized in the context of Euro-Atlantic integration, mediapool.bg reported. He proposed changing the Defense and Armed Forces Law to allow those services to be headed by civilians. This would enable the government to replace current NRS Director Dimo Gyaurov with his direct predecessor, retired General Brigo Asparuhov, who is now a lawmaker for the opposition Socialist Party (BSP). Asparuhov, 57, is currently barred from entering the service because of his age. However, mediapool.bg quoted diplomatic sources as saying that NATO has indicated it would not agree to Asparuhov's return. Another possible candidate to succeed Gyaurov is Dimitar Yonchev, a BSP member and a former head of the National Security Commission, according to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. UB
NEW BULGARIAN MINISTERS NOMINATED
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski has nominated Valentin Tserovski as regional-development minister, BTA reported on 17 December. Tserovski, a 46-year-old electrical engineer, will take over the position vacated by Kostadin Paskalev, who resigned as regional-development minister on 31 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 11 November 2002). Unlike Paskalev, Tserovski will not become a deputy prime minister. Katya Todorova has been named fourth deputy foreign minister, mediapool.bg reported on 17 December. Todorova previously headed the Foreign Ministry's Directorate for International Law. According to Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, the new position was introduced due to the ministry's increased workload resulting from NATO and EU accession, as well as the country's preparations for taking over the OSCE's chairman-in-office position in 2004. UB
BULGARIAN MINISTER ANNOUNCES DATES FOR KOZLODUY SHUTDOWN, WILL PURSUE NEW NUCLEAR PLANT
Energy Minister Milko Kovachev announced on 17 December that the two oldest blocks of the Kozloduy nuclear-power plant will be shut down between 20-30 December, BTA reported. He said the government must determine the exact dates for the shutdown, adding that the trade unions' proposal to shut down the blocks in March 2003 in order to use up the nuclear fuel is "technologically feasible, but illegal." In related news, Kovachev said on National Radio on 17 December that he will ask the cabinet to decide whether to complete the country's second nuclear-power plant, in Belene. The construction of the Belene plant began in the 1980s but was halted following protests by environmentalists in 1990. According to Kovachev, the new plant could begin operation in 2008. UB
PROMISES FOR RHETORIC: THE VIRTUAL RELATIONSHIP OF RUSSIA AND IRAQ
Through all the storms that have gathered over Baghdad over the years, Russia and Iraq have succeeded in maintaining cordially oil-inflected relations, in no small part thanks to the magic of diplomatic language. The salving balm of principled declarations can wash away much of the grime that adheres to the advancement of real national interests as expressed in the earthbound quantities of money and power. But when nerves fray, the truth will out. Such a moment came on 13 December, when a "source in the Russian government" told RIA-Novosti that, "In and of himself, [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein is not such a sweetheart that he should be defended just because."
The comment came in response to news that Iraq's Oil Ministry terminated its $3.7 billion contract with LUKoil to develop the West Qurna oil field. Energy Intelligence Group's "Eye on Iraq" broke the news in the West on 11 December, citing a copy it obtained of a letter from the Iraqi Oil Ministry to LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov. The letter charged LUKoil with failure to fulfill its contractual obligations and pronounced the contract null and void as of 9 December.
Noting that Iraq has threatened to cancel the contract on several occasions over the past two years, "Eye on Iraq" ascribed the real motivation behind the cancellation to Iraqi suspicions that LUKoil conducted "behind-the-scenes negotiations with U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham on oil activities in a post-Saddam Iraq...during the U.S.-Russia energy summit in Houston last October." Energy Intelligence Group's analysts referred also to an interview that Nikolai Tokarev, general director of the state-owned oil company Zarubezhneft, gave to "Vremya novostei" on 10 December. In that interview, Tokarev claims that Zarubezhneft has been approached by U.S. firms with offers to fund the Iraqi opposition in exchange for the right to continue working in Iraq (presumably post-Saddam Hussein). According to Tokarev, he rejected such schemes as unprincipled and unreliable, since "the Americans have no reason to guarantee us anything." He hints, however, that other Russian companies might be involved in such discussions.
The analytical agency Stratfor was more specific, citing on 12 December "sources within the Russian Energy Ministry [who] have confirmed that LUKoil contacted the [Iraqi National Congress] at Washington's behest." According to Stratfor, "Baghdad apparently learned about the meeting from antiwar elements in Russia -- probably from Russian intelligence services." "The Wall Street Journal" gave further credence to this theory in a 13 December article titled "Possible Retaliation Amid Speculation."
In the Arab world, where all eyes are on Iraq and all thoughts on the possibility of war, the Russian government source's blunt comment about legitimate reasons for defending Saddam Hussein quickly made the rounds. Two Gulf newspapers -- Qatar's "Al-Raya" and the United Arab Emirates' "Al-Ittihad" -- sharpened the phrase in translation, rendering the Russian "prosto tak" (just because) as "min dun muqabil" (without compensation, gratis) to remove any ambiguity about possible motives for defending Saddam Hussein.
Arab observers also seized on Tokarev's insinuations of backroom dealings with the Americans. London-based "Al-Hayat" wrote on 13 December: "Tokarev stated that other Russian companies are conducting active negotiations [with the Americans], although he did not say whether LUKoil is one of them." Others harbored darker suspicions. In a 15 December editorial in Jordan's "Al-Dustur," George Haddad saw hostile Russian reactions to the contract cancellation as tantamount to support for Iraq's enemies. "What is Russia's interest in joining the ranks of these enemies," he wondered, "or is Jewish influence so powerful among Russian decision makers?" A 13 December article in Saudi Arabia's "Al-Watan" even quoted "informed Russian sources" claiming: "Israel is behind the Russian oil lobby's drive to adopt a position hostile to oil from Middle Eastern countries, and especially Saudi Arabia and Iraq...reorienting Russian oil companies toward American and European markets." The article went on to describe the contract cancellation as an "Iraqi slap in the face against Moscow that comes in the wake of recent reports that Washington is exerting pressure to prevent Russian oil companies from cooperating with the Iraqi government."
Russian editorials took a dim view of the Iraqi decision. "Izvestiya" wrote on 13 December: "In choosing to speak with Russia in the language of ultimatums, Hussein has made a fateful error." Surveying the possible damage to Russian-Iraqi relations without particular regrets, the newspaper concluded, "Russia has remembered 'realpolitik.'" "Kommersant" noted on 16 December that while Baghdad was likely reacting to "certain reports of Russian-U.S. contacts over the future of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq," the Iraqis nevertheless hedged their bets, "choosing as a whipping boy a large, but not state-run, company." "Vedomosti" suggested in a 16 December editorial that Moscow should use the opportunity afforded by Baghdad to realign its foreign-policy priorities. Finally, a 16 December analysis by RosBusinessConsulting cited "unofficial channels from Baghdad" and claimed that Iraq is already offering West Qurna to British Petroleum.
Iraqi officials, it should be noted, were careful to make their case as blandly as possible. Al-Jazeera reported on 12 December that, according to LUKoil spokesman Aleksandr Vasilenko, the letter the company received bore the signature of Iraq's deputy oil minister, hardly the top dog in Baghdad. Abbas Khalaf Kunfudh, Iraq's ambassador to Russia, announced on 15 December that Iraq awarded the West Qurna contract "to Russia" in 1997, and he is sure another Russian company will take LUKoil's place. Iraq's official press downplayed the story, burying news of the contract cancellation in the fourth paragraph of a 16 December article in "Al-Thawra" cheerily titled "Oil Minister Says Iraq Approves Two Contracts With Two Russian Companies To Develop Oil Fields."
On 16 December, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov entered the fray with a restrained official statement, telling journalists in the course of a visit to Manila that he had sent a letter to the Iraqi authorities asking them to review the decision, Interfax reported the same day. For his part, LUKoil President Alekperov made it clear to the press in the days following the Iraqi announcement that his company intends to take its case to international arbitration.
The key to the LUKoil tiff, above and beyond the intriguing vagaries of Iraqi decision making, is what it tells us about the real nature of Russian-Iraqi relations. Despite the visibility of Russian oil companies in Iraq -- especially in the oil-for-food program -- and the mutual warmth that Moscow and Baghdad periodically exude, relations between the two countries are best described as a virtual partnership. Iraq dangles the possibility of repaying its debts to Russia (estimated by "The New York Times" at $7.6 billion and by "The Wall Street Journal" at $9.5 billion) and securing Russian companies huge profits from megadeals -- someday. Russia eschews Washington's incendiary rhetoric and urges caution in the international community's dealings with Iraq -- but not so insistently as to spoil its newfound role as a broadly conceived U.S. ally in the war on terror.
The flap over LUKoil lays bare the promises-for-rhetoric program that forms the ethereal core of this virtual partnership. Baghdad extends promises; Moscow proffers pleasantries. Baghdad revokes its promise; Moscow growls about reality. Baghdad hints at another promise; Moscow softens its tone. Only such an absence of substance can transform the cancellation of a contract frozen for years by international sanctions into an event.
WOMEN IN WESTERN AFGHANISTAN SUFFERING
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 17 December released a report entitled "'We Want to Live as Humans': Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan" (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/afghnwmn1202). The HRW report is especially critical of Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan and Reuters quoted report co-author Zama Coursen-Neff as saying: "Ismail Khan has created an atmosphere in which government officials and private individuals believe they have the right to police every aspect of women's and girls' lives: how they dress, how they get around town, what they say." The report describes forced gynecological examinations as chastity checks, as well as bans on walking or riding in automobiles alone with a man or men to whom a woman is not closely related. Women are not allowed to drive cars; nor may they ride bicycles. The report describes other restrictions that curtail women's ability to attend school or to work. HRW also criticized Ismail Khan in a November 2002 report entitled "All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan" (http://hrw.org/reports/2002/afghan3). BS
ANTI-NARCOTICS FORCE CREATED IN AFGHANISTAN'S NANGARHAR PROVINCE...
The Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) announced on 17 December that security forces in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province have decided to establish a 1,000-strong unit that would be tasked with destroying opium crops. The Afghan government has banned opium cultivation and enacted a compensation scheme for farmers who destroy their opium poppies. However, the compensation plan has suffered from many problems, and farmers argue that they are not being provided with economically viable alternatives to opium cultivation (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 January, 15 April, and 20 May 2002). The Office on Drugs and Crime, formerly known as the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention, announced in October that it expects 3,400 tons of opium to be harvested in Afghanistan in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 October 2002). BS
...AND KHOST PROVINCE ELDERS BAN POPPY CULTIVATION
Delegates and elders of the Mangal tribe in the Mosakhel District of eastern Afghanistan's Khost Province have banned the cultivation of opium poppies, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Dari-language service reported on 17 December. The report said that those who violate this decision will be "treated in accordance with tribal customs and traditions," although it did not say what these customs and traditions might be. BS
NATO TO ASSIST ISAF IN AFGHANISTAN
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman Major Gordon Mackenzie told a 17 December briefing that NATO will provide supplies and logistical support to the ISAF, Reuters reported. "We have a lot of individual supply lines at the moment," Mackenzie said. "In order to rationalize this process, NATO is going to play a role in putting all these logistics together." Mackenzie said the details have not yet been finalized, but NATO's support activities are expected to begin at the beginning of 2003. NATO already has provided support to ISAF's German and Dutch contingents in anticipation of their February takeover of the force, according to earlier reports, and some NATO members believe that the Atlantic alliance should assume command of the ISAF (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002). BS
AMERICAN SOLDIERS, AFGHAN INTERPRETER WOUNDED IN KABUL
Two U.S. soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were wounded in a 17 December bomb attack in central Kabul on the automobile they were riding in, Reuters reported. Afghan authorities arrested a male teenager who subsequently confessed to carrying out the attack on behalf of "Muslims in Palestine and Afghanistan," and they arrested another man who fled the scene. BS
IRANIAN PRESIDENT TO DISCUSS AFGHANISTAN DURING PAKISTAN VISIT
The Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) news agency reported on 17 December that President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami is scheduled to arrive in Islamabad on 23 December. During his visit Khatami will meet with President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, and he will speak about his "Dialogue Among Civilizations" at the Institute of Strategic Studies, according to the report. Iran's Ambassador to Pakistan Sirajudin Musavi said the reconstruction of Afghanistan will be a major aspect of Khatami's discussions, Lahore's "The Daily Times" reported on 18 December. Musavi also said a number of agreements will be finalized and signed during the visit. BS
IRANIAN PRESIDENT INTRODUCES BUDGET
Khatami on 18 December submitted to parliament the state budget for the year 1382 (21 March 2003-21 March 2004), IRNA reported. Khatami vowed to reduce government expenditures while encouraging privatization and foreign investment. The proposed budget totals 859.7 trillion rials ($107.5 billion) compared to the previous year's budget of 663,357 billion rials, IRNA reported on 14 December. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh earlier said there would be no tangible differences between the new and previous budgets, with the exception of cost-of-living increases for government employees. However, Management and Planning Organization chief Mohammad Sattarifar said the proposal includes a 50 percent increase in the development budget. A parliamentary committee will review the proposed budget for 35 days and must submit it to the full legislature for approval by 1 February. The budget was supposed to be submitted on 26 November. BS
CLOSED OPINION-POLL HEARING IN IRAN DEALS WITH CLASSIFIED INFORMATION
Public Prosecutor's Office representative Ali Asqar Tashakori announced on 17 December that the third hearing of the trial dealing with the Ayandeh Research Institute was held behind closed doors, Iranian state television reported. Tashakori said the day's hearing dealt with some of the charges against Ayandeh's managing director, Hussein Qazian, concerning the collection and possession of highly classified information (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2002). Tashakori added that two representatives of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security were present during the day's session following a formal request from the ministry. Ayandeh and several other research institutes conducted a poll in coordination with the Washington-based Gallup Organization, and the charges against them stemming from that poll include espionage. Questions have recently been raised as to how the accused came into possession of classified documents. BS
IRAN'S SUPREME LEADER, PRESIDENT DISCUSS SATELLITES AND INTERNET
President Khatami said during the 17 December meeting of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution that "the Internet is a necessary tool, but there is a global concern that those with more power could use instruments such as satellites and the Internet to influence national cultures, and that is a threat to all of humanity," state television reported. "Therefore," Khatami added, "the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution has tried in its approvals to consider the protection of social culture regarding such issues." Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier told the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution that it has an important role to play by "analyzing global cultural issues and assessing the effects of such issues on domestic affairs of the country [and in] finding solutions to the possible harm posed by foreign cultural currents relating to domestic issues," state television reported. BS
IRAN'S LEGISLATURE RATIFIES BILL ON SATELLITE RECEIVERS
During its open session on 17 December, parliament ratified the general points of a bill that would change the current ban on private use of satellite receiving equipment, Iranian state radio reported. If the bill is ratified, the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry must form a committee that includes representatives from the Interior; Intelligence and Security; and Post, Telegraph, and Telephone ministries, as well as from Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. This committee would within three months have to formulate a policy on acceptable security, political, and cultural guidelines for satellite programs. Moreover, private individuals, organizations, and firms that wish to receive satellite-television programs directly must apply for a permit from the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry. BS
TEHRAN POLICE BREAK UP PROSTITUTION RINGS
Tehran deputy police chief Ahmad Ruzbehani on 17 December described the elimination of a gang that tricked young Iranian girls into prostitution and sent them to other countries, IRNA reported. Ruzbehani said the arrest of four women and eight men followed a complaint from a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted and sent to Dubai to work as a prostitute. Meanwhile, Iranian media reported on 17 December that police broke up a prostitution ring in Isfahan, according to IRNA. Iranian media reported this summer on the creation of state-approved "decency houses" in an effort to reduce street prostitution, but the Interior Ministry on 29 July rejected these reports, according to IRNA. BS
IRAN'S LEGISLATURE REVIEWS IRAQ DEVELOPMENTS
Tehran parliamentarian Elahe Kulyai said on 17 December that the legislature's National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee has met with the deputy ministers of foreign affairs and of intelligence and security to discuss recent developments in Iraq, the meetings held last week by Iraqi opposition leaders in Tehran, and the 13-15 December Iraqi opposition meeting in London, ISNA reported. Kulyai said the parliamentarians asked how Tehran is protecting its interests, questioned U.S. motives, and requested predictions of future developments. Kulyai said some criticism was expressed regarding state policy on the Iraqi issue. "The officials gave some answers, some of which were accepted," Kulyai said. "But on the whole, most of the commission members did not believe that Iran's policies in respect to regional developments would safeguard our people's interests." BS
IRANIAN TRADE SHOW TO BE HELD IN BAGHDAD
Kermanshah Province's Foreign Commerce Department chief Asghar Mirzai said on 17 December that the first exclusively Iranian trade show in Baghdad will be held from 26 February to 7 March 2003, IRNA reported. Mirzai said that so far 60 manufacturing units from Tehran, Isfahan, Qom, Mashhad, and Hamedan have indicated their readiness to display their products at the Baghdad exhibition, adding that an objective of the exhibition is to increase bilateral trade and exports. BS
IRAQI OPPOSITION MEETING NAMES MEMBERS OF FOLLOW-UP COMMITTEE...
Iraqi opposition members concluded nearly four days of talks in London on 17 December by naming a "Follow-up and Coordination Committee" comprising leading opposition figures, AFP reported. The committee is scheduled to meet in Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-January, according to Iraqi National Congress (INC) head Ahmad al-Chalabi. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) chief Jalal Talabani told AFP that the committee's main base would be "in the liberated part of Iraq." The names of the committee's members are posted on the INC website (http://www.inc.org.uk). Just three of the 65 committee members are women. AFP reported on 17 December that opposition members later decided to increase the 65-member team to 75. Hamid al-Bayati of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq told AFP this decision was made to placate groups who felt underrepresented. The committee will coordinate among the various opposition groups and represent them internationally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). KR
...AND PARTICIPANTS ARE INTERVIEWED
Al-Sharif Ali Bin al-Hussein of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement said on 17 December that the purpose of the committee is to follow up on the decisions of the London opposition conference and to coordinate plans to "secure a free democratic future in Iraq," Al-Jazeera reported. "It will act as a connecting link between the Iraqi people and opposition and the countries concerned with the Iraqi question," al-Hussein added. Conference participants also said the committee was not designed along ethnic or religious lines, contrary to charges made by some participants and observers. "It was very difficult to satisfy the 400 people or 40 parties and organizations that participated in the conference," Sadiq al-Musawi of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement told Al-Jazeera. "It was difficult to include everybody in the committee. However, we promised them...that this is not the final number." PUK leader Talabani said that "all Iraqi citizens, irrespective of their religion, sect, and ethnic origins, should effectively contribute to the central Iraqi rule," Al-Jazeera reported. KR
INSPECTIONS IN IRAQ CONTINUE TO INCREASE...
In the most extensive inspections thus far, 77 inspectors visited eight sites in Iraq on 17 December, according to a Foreign Ministry statement. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team of 15 inspectors visited the Jabir bin Hayyan Factory, 30 kilometers north of Mosul, to conduct a radiological survey and took "various samples," according to the Foreign Ministry. A second team of two inspectors went to the Al-Radwan State Company, 30 kilometers west of Baghdad, to inspect equipment at the casings manufacturer. They then visited the Al-Ubur State Company, which "specializes in providing maintenance for machines and equipment," according to the ministry's statement. Inspectors inquired about the factory's manufacture of the "Al-Jihad machine," the ministry stated, without elaborating. All three companies belong to the Military Industrialization Organization. KR
...AS UNMOVIC CONTINUES TO EXAMINE MISSILES...
An UNMOVIC team of nine inspectors visited the Al-Rayah Center's Oxidizer Production Plant that Iraq included in its recent declaration to the UN Security Council, the Foreign Ministry stated in its 17 December report. A second group of 11 inspectors visited the Al-Amin Factory in Al-Fallujah, 70 kilometers west of Baghdad. The two teams toured the sites and questioned managers. KR
...AND CONDUCTS BIOCHEMICAL INSPECTIONS
A group of 12 UNMOVIC biological inspectors visited the Ninawa Pharmaceutical Company north of Mosul, where they checked the Iraqi declarations against equipment and videotaped the site, the Foreign Ministry stated. They also requested blueprints of the site and questioned management. Meanwhile, a second team of nine inspectors returned to the Biotechnology Department at Baghdad University in Al-Jadiriyah. Inspectors questioned the head of the department, checked declarations against equipment, toured laboratories, and "requested the titles of postgraduate research studies," according to the ministry. Inspectors also returned to the Genetic Engineering Institute to request the site's "coordinates." In addition, a team of 18 inspectors returned to the Al-Tariq State Company's chlorine factory to verify declarations and checked devices and chemical materials, the Foreign Ministry reported. KR