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Newsline - December 20, 2002


PRESIDENT NO LONGER TAKING REQUESTS...
During his two-hour live television appearance on 19 December, President Vladimir Putin answered 51 questions out of the more than 50,000 that were submitted during the appearance, Interfax reported. How certain questioners got on the air and others didn't was not clear. After last year's program, it was revealed that questions were rehearsed and pre-screened. However, this year, Oleg Dobrodeev, chairman of the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK), directed personnel at regional state-owned television companies not to release any information about preparations for the show (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). The range of subjects was broad -- from why Putin wears his wristwatch on his right hand to how can people be calm after the 23-26 October Moscow hostage crisis. Comparing the content of viewers' questions from one year to the next, Putin commented that people appear more interested in national development than previously. "We also had some personal requests...but in the end we should abandon the practice of top-ranking officials solving personal problems," he noted. "We should give more attention to the causes of people's concerns and work on eliminating [those causes]." A transcript of the entire appearance is available at http://www.kremlin.ru. JAC

...AS PROBLEM FROM LAST YEAR'S CHAT REMAINS UNSOLVED...
There was some follow-up from last year's program when President Putin was asked about recent death of a pensioner in an unheated apartment in the Irkutsk Oblast town of Ust-Kut. Demonstrating that he is very well briefed, Putin responded that he was aware of the pensioner's death and that the problem arose because the construction of two heating plants had not been completed. During last year's call-in program, a boy from Ust-Kut complained to Putin that his school had been closed because of the lack of heat and he was worried about having to repeat a year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2001). That complaint resulted in the resignation of Ust-Kut Mayor Yevgenii Koreiko, but this time Putin suggested the blame should be directed a notch higher. "Not only the local authorities, but also the governor of Irkutsk Oblast, Boris Aleksandrovich Govorin, should certainly have paid particular attention to this matter. How was it permitted for a whole settlement at that latitude to go into winter in such a state?" Putin said. The current mayor has been in office only since March. NTV reported last year that a month after the city's heating problems had been revealed on national television, residents still lacked heat but some had installed wood-burning stoves (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2002). The city has also been afflicted by hunger strikes by local utility workers and medical personnel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 August 2002). In September, the troubled city announced a plan to sell municipal stakes in local enterprises in order to purchase heating fuel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 September 2002). JAC

...AND TEFLON COATING REMAINS INTACT
In an express opinion poll taken in Krasnoyarsk after President Putin's call-in program, pollsters found that the audience "still loves the president as before and hopes change will be for the better," RFE/RL's Krasnoyarsk correspondent reported. Nonetheless, almost half of those polled said they believe their standard of living is declining. JAC

PUTIN AGAIN RULES OUT CHECHEN PEACE TALKS...
Responding to questions about the conflict in Chechnya during his live television appearance, President Putin reiterated his position that it is impossible to negotiate with representatives of Chechen separatists, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. He described the Chechen fighters as "international terrorists and bandits" and argued that the peace negotiations held in 1996 simply "led to the escalation of aggression." He reaffirmed his plan to hold a referendum on a new constitution in the republic in the spring, to be followed by elections. He added that he does not believe a state of emergency should be declared in Chechnya. VY

...AS CHECHEN HEAD PRAISES OUSTED GENERAL
The head of Chechnya's pro-Kremlin administration, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, has said he views positively the possible participation of former North Caucasus Military District commander Colonel General Gennadii Troshev in the upcoming presidential election in Chechnya, RIA-Novosti reported on 20 December. Troshev was dismissed from his post this week following public comments he made concerning his possible transfer to command the Siberian Military District (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). Kadyrov said he has good personal relations with Troshev and added that the general would make "a good candidate." He added, however, that he still plans to participate in the election himself. VY

INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY CELEBRATES ITS SOVIET ORIGINS...
Russia's security and intelligence services on 20 December marked the 85th anniversary of their creation by the founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, Russian news agencies reported. On 20 December 1917, Lenin signed a decree establishing the notorious Soviet secret police, the VChK-KGB. Agents of the VChK came to be called "chekists." Until 1995, the intelligence services marked 20 December as Chekist Day, but that year President Boris Yeltsin renamed the day "Security Organ Officer's Day." At present, the key Russian intelligence agencies are the Foreign-Intelligence Service (SVR), the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Federal Agency of Governmental Communications and Information (FAPSI), the Federal Protection Service (FSO), and the Main Directorate of Special Programs of the Russian President. All of them except the GRU were formerly elements of the Soviet KGB and have preserved the KGB "sword and shield" emblem as their symbols, although they have added the two-headed Russian eagle to them. VY

...AS FOREIGN-INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR OUTLINES PRIORITIES...
SVR Director Sergei Lebedev told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 20 December that the fact that President Putin is a former intelligence officer helps him and his service. Lebedev said his agency is efficient and works in coordination with other elements of the country's intelligence community "even though they are split up [after the dismantling of the KGB]." He said the SVR "takes adequate measures to identify threats connected with NATO's approach to Russia's borders." He also said Russia is concerned by NATO's "declared interest in Central Asia and the Caucasus." He added that his agency has "helpers" abroad who cooperated with it on an ideological or political basis. "There are people abroad who sympathize with Russia and support its striving to form a multipolar world and to secure global and regional balances of power," he said. The SVR has no special units to conduct diversions abroad because the SVR has never been asked to carry out such operations, Lebedev said. He also said that although he personally condemns defectors, the SVR has no "cleaners" who seek out defectors abroad and punish them as the Soviet KGB had. VY

...FSB GOES AFTER SPIES IN THE REGIONS...
FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev has said that he is satisfied with the work of his agency in 2002 and noted that the FSB has managed to prevent serious harm to Russia's national interests, strana.ru reported on 20 December. He noted the FSB's role in denying visas to more than two dozen U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, including the former head of that organization in Primorskii Krai. The head of the FSB's Nizhnii Novgorod directorate, Lieutenant General Vladimir Bulavin, said his officers uncovered 19 foreign intelligence officers looking into defense objects in the region, RIA-Novosti reported on 19 December. He said the prime targets of interest are the Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov and local defense enterprises working on the development of advanced weaponry. VY

...AND PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY ACCUSES RED CROSS OF SPYING
Speaking at a meeting of members of executive branches in the Southern Federal District on 18 December in Rostov-na-Donu, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District General Viktor Kazantsev said it is necessary to take the activities of all "humanitarians" in the North Caucasus under strict control and "redirect foreign charity" from Ingushetia to Chechnya, changing the scheme for distributing humanitarian cargoes, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 19 December. "You know very well who works for the Red Cross -- spies," he said. Kazantsev was formerly the commander of the federal forces in Chechnya before being appointed presidential envoy (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 24 May 2000). Kazantsev also reported that while the number of displaced persons from Chechnya in Ingushetia has fallen from 148,600 last year to 68,700 this year and the situation has stabilized, the problem of displaced persons is far from resolved. He argued that the basic obstacle hindering their return is that they remain afraid for their lives and this fear is reinforced by anti-Russian provocations carried out in Chechnya and Ingushetia. JAC

GORNYI FACILITY DESTROYS FIRST BATCH OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS
The much-delayed chemical-weapons destruction plant in the Saratov Oblast town of Gornyi began operation on 20 December, Russian and Western news agencies reported. In the presence of foreign experts and dignitaries, 840 kilograms of Soviet-era mustard gas was destroyed, dpa reported. Presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District and Chairman of the State Chemical Disarmament Commission Sergei Kirienko was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying "the work is being conducted...with strict observance of ecological norms." On 19 December, "Kommersant-Daily" and other Russian news agencies reported that Gornyi will soon be given the status of closed administrative unit (ZATO) that will be financed from the federal budget. Kirienko told regnum.ru that the step was being taken because the chemical-weapons destruction facility "could be of potential interest to terrorists." The Gornyi facility was built with international funding to assist Russia in meeting the obligations of a 1997 agreement on the destruction of chemical-weapons stockpiles. Analogous facilities are being constructed in the southern Urals and in the northern Russian town of Kambarka. RC

STILL MORE HAZING-RELATED DESERTIONS...
The military prosecutor of the Volga-Urals Military District on 20 December denied media reports that 13 soldiers who deserted their unit outside of Yekaterinburg on 19 December have been arrested, newsru.com and other Russian news agencies reported. The 13 soldiers reportedly left their unit on the evening of 19 December and walked 30 kilometers to Yekaterinburg to complain to local prosecutors of hazing in their unit. According to ITAR-TASS, the soldiers told their commanding officers of their plans before they left their base. According to lenta.ru, a spokesman for the military prosecutor's office said no charges will be filed against the soldiers and an investigative commission has been sent to their unit to look into their charges of abuse. The incident is just the latest in a series of similar desertions in recent months. On 16 December, six soldiers in Moscow Oblast deserted their unit, as did 16 other soldiers from another Moscow Oblast unit earlier in the month. On 8 September, 54 soldiers from a unit stationed in Volgograd also deserted and complained of hazing in their unit. According to the Defense Ministry, 999 soldiers have been disciplined this year for desertion, 200 for self-mutilation, and eight for refusal to perform military service, newsru.com reported. RC

...AS DUMA DEPUTY CALLS FOR BAN ON SOLDIERS' MOTHERS COMMITTEES
The Duma on 20 December voted down a proposal by Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) Deputy Vladimir Semenov demanding that Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and other military officials appear before the legislature to discuss hazing in the armed forces, rusnovosti.ru reported. During discussion of the proposal, Deputy Anatolii Chekhoev (Communist) said that it is time "to stop discrediting the army." "In general, we should end the activity of the committees of soldiers' mothers, because they do nothing but harm the army," Chekhoev said. Asked to comment on Chekhoev's remark, committee spokesperson Svetlana Kuznetsova told rusnovosti.ru, "We defend the law and the observance of normative acts." RC

DUMA GIVES REVISED PRESIDENTIAL-ELECTION LAW SECOND NOD
The Duma on 20 December passed in their second reading amendments to the law on the president that would impose new restrictions on the nomination of candidates for the country's top office, RIA-Novosti and other Russian news agencies reported. The amendments would increase from 1 million to 2 million the number of signatures required to nominate non-party candidates, whereas all political parties that collect enough votes in the preceding Duma elections to gain party-list seats would be allowed to nominate candidates without gathering any signatures. The amendments would also reduce the maximum amount of campaign spending allowed to 150 million rubles ($5 million) and cut the campaign period back from five months to three. They would also require that all candidates who hold public office or work in media organizations take leave during the campaign period. VY

KAZAKH PRESIDENT VISITS KREMLIN...
President Nursultan Nazarbaev held talks with President Putin in Moscow on 19 December, and they discussed closer political and economic collaboration within the framework of multilateral forums such as the CIS Collective Security Treaty and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as questions of bilateral energy cooperation, economic integration, and arms deals, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. They discussed ways to expand bilateral trade, which declined by 12 percent in 2002. Nazarbaev was also in Moscow to inaugurate "2003 -- the Year of Kazakhstan in Russia," a project to boost economic, scientific, educational, and cultural relations between the two countries. AA

...AGREES TO NEGOTIATE RUSSIAN 50-YEAR LEASE ON KAZAKH SPACE CENTER
Also on 19 December, President Nazarbaev told RTR that Kazakhstan is positively inclined to consider a Russian request to extend its lease on the Baikonur Cosmodrome for up to 50 years. Russia, which rents the facility for $115 million per year, currently has a 20-year lease that is due to expire in 2014. Kazakhstan hopes for "larger financing and active involvement in all space studies and launches from the Kazakh spaceport at Baikonur," Nazarbaev said, according to Interfax. At the same time, he noted that a joint Kazakh-Russian commission concluded this year that the detritus falling on Kazakh territory after each launch is harmful to the environment. He and Putin signed a memorandum instructing their governments to start negotiations over the lease extension. On 19 December Nazarbaev toured the Mission Control Center in the Moscow Oblast town of Korolev, where the possibility of training two Kazakhs for a mission to the International Space Station was discussed. AA

RUSSIA, HUNGARY SEEK IMPROVED ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy met in the Kremlin with President Putin on 20 December for wide-ranging talks on bilateral relations, Russian news agencies reported. Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Putin said "the main thing in bilateral relations is economic and trade ties," RTR reported. Putin added that there have been alarming developments, including a slump in bilateral trade at an annual rate of about 6 percent over the last two years. He added, however, that both sides are determined to overcome any obstacles. Medgyessy, the first Hungarian Prime Minister to visit Moscow since 1996, said, "We neglected one another in recent years and now need to turn a new page in our relations." He added that Hungary is ready to sign a number of economic agreements with Russia and to discuss the issue of Russia's $497 million debt to Hungary. VY

FEDERAL INSPECTOR PROTECTS PUTIN BRAND NAME IN FAR EAST
Vladivostok Mayor Yurii Kopylov has clashed with the chief federal inspector for Primorskii Krai, Sergei Sherstyuk, over the former's use of banners in the Far East city proclaiming, "[President] Putin is the strength of Russia" and "With Putin is the future of Russia," "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 19 December. The banners have been gracing city streets for some months and, in Sherstyuk's opinion, they only discredit the president. Kopylov got into trouble with the office of presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District Konstantin Pulikovskii two years ago when banners appeared in the city saying "Pulikovskii -- hands off Primore." Those banners prompted Pulikovskii to challenge Kopylov to a duel (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 21 March 2001). Pulikovskii was battling at the time with then-Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko, an ally of Kopylov. Nazdratenko's successor, Primorskii Krai Governor Sergei Darkin, has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with Kopylov, and "Kommersant-Daily" speculated that Kopylov might be hoping that his status as a "clear supporter of the head of the Russian government will save him from any unpleasantness." Earlier this week, SPS Duma faction leader Irina Khakamada proposed a ban on the use of Putin's image in political advertising three months before elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2002). JAC

ANOTHER LIBERAL RUSSIA PARTY MEMBER IN HOT WATER
A Chelyabinsk prosecutor has charged German Galkin, chairman of Chelyabinsk Oblast's Liberal Russia party branch, with defamation and ordered him not to leave the oblast, regions.ru reported on 19 December 2002, citing Ural-Press-Inform. Galkin said he is suspected of having paid for an article that appeared in the local newspaper "Rabochaya gazeta," No. 2, this summer that was critical of Chelyabinsk Governor Petr Sumin and his inner circle. That edition of the newspaper was confiscated by the oblast's internal affairs administration. The newspaper was founded by the Organization of Russian Taxpayers, whose leader was the late State Duma Deputy Vladimir Golovlev (independent). Golovlev was murdered in Moscow in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 22 August 2002). JAC

REGIONAL LEADER SPEAKS OUT ON PROBLEM OF STREET CHILDREN
In an open letter to President Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev has proposed that mothers who force their children to beg for money on public streets be deprived of their parental rights, "Vremya MN" reported on 19 December. Despite the adoption of a federal program to combat homelessness (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2002), Tuleev wrote that "the streets of our cities are filled as before with neglected and homeless children." "They spend the nights in the sewers, frequently undernourished, living without parental oversight or attention," he continued. Tuleev concluded that it is necessary to "complete a unified system of locating abandoned children and strictly controlling their care and upbringing in closed establishments." JAC

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT ADOPTS SMALL-BUSINESS PLAN
The Armenian government adopted on 19 December a plan to increase state aid to support small and medium-sized businesses, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. A core element of the plan is a measure providing 250 million drams ($430,000) in credit guarantees for small and medium-sized businesses seeking capital investment and financing from commercial banks. The money is to come from a newly created state fund providing targeted support to the growing private sector. Although the measures seek to surmount difficulties businesses face in obtaining loans, the disproportionately high interest rates -- currently averaging about 20 percent -- are seen as the most serious obstacle to expanding the private sector. RG

SHORTCOMINGS IN ARMENIAN HUMAN RIGHTS HIGHLIGHTED
In a report presented at the 19 December close of a three-day seminar in Yerevan, Helsinki Committee of Armenia President Avetik Ishkhanian noted shortcomings in the uniform observance and protection of human rights in Armenia, with the government failing to achieve any significant improvements in recent years, according to Noyan Tapan. Speakers at the seminar organized by several nongovernmental organizations and local human rights groups to examine the state of human rights in Armenia expressed criticism of the lamentable state of the penal system and recommended further reforms to supplement the government's transfer of penal oversight from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. The seminar also addressed the serious -- although improving -- human rights record of the military, as well as the politically charged issue of capital punishment. RG

U.S., ARMENIAN OFFICIALS REVIEW PARLIAMENTARY ASSISTANCE
Armenian Parliamentary Chairman Armen Khachatrian and other officials met with representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on 19 December to review the progress of a U.S. program providing assistance and training to the Armenian parliament, according to Yerkir and Armenpress. The program was initiated in April and aims to strengthen transparency, oversight, and accountability within the legislative branch. RG

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER WELCOMES TURKISH HINT OF NORMALIZED RELATIONS
In a 17 December interview, Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian welcomed the recent statement of Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis suggesting that the new Turkish government will seek to normalize relations with Armenia, according to ARKA. Yakis stated that Turkey plans to reevaluate its relations with Armenia based on its economic interests and echoed some Turkish officials' claims that with the establishment of diplomatic relations with Armenia bilateral trade could reach $300 million within a year. Turkish policy to date has strongly opposed establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia out of consideration for Azerbaijan's position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Turkey has maintained an economic blockade of Armenia for several years. RG

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT CONVENES MEETING ON DOMESTIC ENERGY CRISIS
President Heidar Aliev convened a cabinet meeting on 19 December to discuss the continuing domestic energy crisis, the Azerbaijani State News Agency reported. The president rebuked officials for the mounting shortages of heating fuel and electricity in the capital and in several districts across the country. Officials stated that the energy crisis stems from a temporary shortage of natural gas and pledged to correct technical problems with the country's aging energy-distribution network. The crisis has been exacerbated in recent weeks by the onset of unusually cold weather. RG

AZERBAIJANI DEPUTY PREMIER HOLDS TALKS IN MOSCOW
An Azerbaijani delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov met in Moscow on 19 December with Russian officials in the latest session of a standing intergovernmental commission, ANS television reported. The officials agreed to extend the current contract for the export of Azerbaijani oil by pipeline to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. The Azerbaijani delegation also stressed that the Russian authorities must provide better protection for the sizable Azerbaijani community living in major Russian cities. There has been a significant increase in ethnically motivated attacks on people from the Caucasus in Russia over the past few months. The officials also reviewed plans to advance economic cooperation and trade liberalization within the CIS. RG

AZERBAIJANI VILLAGERS PROTEST POOR LIVING CONDITIONS
A group of villagers in an unspecified Narimanov District town outside of Baku staged a protest over poor living conditions on 18 December, ANS reported. The villagers protested the continued lack of heat and electricity in their town and demanded that the authorities take immediate steps to correct the situation. The majority of the villagers are displaced ethnic Azeris forced from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh nearly a decade ago who are still housed in temporary settlements without public services. Local and regional authorities convened a meeting with the demonstrators and promised to provide emergency supplies of natural gas within a few days. RG

GEORGIAN MILITARY PLEDGES TO ADOPT NATO STANDARDS
Officials of the Georgian Defense Ministry announced on 19 December that the strategic direction of military reform will be based on achieving conformity with NATO standards, the online Civil Georgia news agency reported. The shift in strategy follows the government's renewed emphasis on seeking membership of the NATO alliance and aims to exploit the current U.S. "train-and-equip" program providing military assistance to the Georgian armed forces. RG

PRO-GOVERNMENT DEPUTIES WALK OUT OF GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT
Demonstrating their support for Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, five pro-government parliamentary factions staged a walkout on 19 December after opposition deputies sought to debate the government's reforms of government ministries, according to Prime News. The governmental reform, a personal initiative of the president, seeks to streamline the powers and scopes of the ministries and targets the State Property Ministry and the Construction and Urbanization Ministry for elimination. These two ministries have been long viewed as vehicles for corruption. RG

TRIAL OF FORMER KAZAKH TRANSPORT MINISTER COMMENCES
The trial of former Minister of Transport and Communications Ablay Myrzakhmetov, who is being tried together with nine former senior managers of the state railway company Qazaq Temir Zholy, opened on 19 December at the Supreme Court in Astana, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax reported. The defendants are accused of embezzlement, power abuse, forming a criminal gang, and forging documents. Judge Marklen Qamnazarov said the proceedings will be open, although audio and video recording will be banned. AA

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION PLANS TO KEEP PRESSING PRESIDENT ON CHINA ISSUE
The Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev announced plans to hold a national gathering of government, opposition, and civic-action representatives in Bishkek or the southern town of Osh on 17 March, akipress.org reported on 19 December. The group issued a political work plan that listed as its priority the continued gathering of signatures on a protest document against ceding Kyrgyzstan's Uzengu-Kuush territory to China. Some 20,000 signatures have been collected already, according to the movement's leader, Ismail Isakov. The plan also promises to press Akaev to hold a referendum on the issue and to continue demanding justice from those responsible for the March tragedy in Aksy. AA

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT UPBEAT ON 2003
Addressing a public meeting in Naryn Oblast, President Akaev argued that all the political and socioeconomic foundations necessary for the country to flourish in 2003 have been laid, despite the irresponsible actions of the radical opposition that threaten to destabilize society, Kyrgyz radio and Kabar reported on 19 December. He added that the developments occurring within the framework of the CIS Collective Security Treaty will play a large role in enhancing regional stability and security. Next year, Collective Security Treaty officials are expected formally to approve the long-term deployment of Russian warplanes on Kyrgyz territory. AA

TAJIK BORDER COMMANDER JAILED
On 19 December a military court in Dushanbe sentenced Colonel Bobojon Rajabov, the commanding officer of a military unit of the Tajik Border Protection Committee, to 15 years in prison, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Rajabov was found guilty of abusing his position, forging documents, stealing state property, and engaging in black market and smuggling activities. He was also found in possession of some 13.2 million somonis ($4.5 million). AA

OSCE MEMBERS DEMAND FACT-FINDING MISSION TO TURKMENISTAN
At an OSCE meeting in Vienna on 19 December, a group of member countries, as well as the United States, called for a fact-finding mission to Turkmenistan to investigate reports of torture and mass arrests following last month's assassination attempt against President Saparmurat Niyazov, RFE/RL and Reuters reported. Turkmenistan is a member of the OSCE, which can mandate such a mission if 10 member states request it. The U.S. representative to the OSCE, Douglas Davidson, expressed concern that confessions were reportedly being obtained by torture, while family members of suspects were reportedly being rounded up and some of their property confiscated. Douglas also complained that Turkmen officials have not responded to requests to furnish complete lists of those being held and the charges and evidence against them. The Turkmen government has officially acknowledged 46 arrests in connection with the assassination bid. AA

UZBEKISTAN DENIES INVOLVEMENT IN TURKMEN ASSASSINATION PLOT
Addressing journalists in Tashkent on 19 December, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov dismissed Turkmenistan's accusations that Uzbek authorities were involved in an plot to kill Turkmen President Niyazov that was allegedly masterminded by former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, AP and Interfax reported. On the previous day, Turkmen Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atajanova charged that Shikhmuradov secretly crossed the border into Turkmenistan with Uzbek assistance and that he took refuge in the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat after the 25 November attack on Niyazov failed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). Komilov said these allegations are groundless but added that Shikhmuradov might have maintained numerous contacts in Uzbekistan from his time as foreign minister. Calling the latest developments in relations with Ashgabat "unexpected and unpleasant," Komilov stressed that Tashkent is still insisting on explanations of the Turkmen police's raid on the Uzbek Embassy earlier this week. AA

UZBEK, UKRAINIAN LEADERS DISCUSS GUUAM
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma began a two-day visit to Tashkent on 19 December with a meeting with President Islam Karimov, ITAR-TASS and Interfax-Ukraine reported. The talks focused on the future of the GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) grouping. The two presidents indicated the organization will be redundant if the member states' economic interests are ensured by bilateral means or through the creation of a free-trade zone. The two sides signed a cooperation agreement between their foreign ministries and a document on mutual recognition of registration of medicines. Kuchma was also due to meet ethnic Ukrainians living in Uzbekistan and open an Uzbek-Ukrainian joint venture. AA

OSCE REPORTEDLY RETURNING TO MINSK
The OSCE and Belarus have agreed on opening a new OSCE office in Minsk in January, Belapan reported on 19 December, quoting OSCE spokesman Keith Jinks. Jinks added that the sides are expected to reach an accord soon on resuming "the monitoring of human rights in Belarus" that would be subject to approval by all OSCE members. The OSCE and Belarus are currently negotiating the resumption of OSCE Monitoring and Advisory Group activities in Belarus. Belarus, which expelled all members of the group by gradually denying them visas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 2002), has demanded changes in the group's mandate. JM

BELARUSIAN SOCCER SAID SUBJECT TO 'POLITICAL INTERFERENCE'
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told a Belarusian Soccer Federation (BFF) conference in Minsk on 19 December that he feels "great dissatisfaction" with the quality of Belarusian soccer, Belapan reported. "[Belarusian] soccer will be subject to reconstruction, starting tomorrow," the Belarusian president declared. He also charged that financial assistance from international soccer bodies FIFA and UEFA to the BFF is insufficient. FIFA official Joseph Mifsud and UEFA representative Eric Epple, observers at the conference, told journalists the BFF is subject to "political interference." Their statement followed a decision by Belarusian authorities to bar independent-media reporters from attending the BFF conference while Lukashenka was addressing it. "I have attended various [soccer] conferences, including in Asia and Africa, but this was the first time that I witnessed the participation of a head of state in such a gathering. This means that soccer is really important in the lives of Belarusian people," Mifsud commented. JM

UKRAINE COULD FACE SANCTIONS OVER DIRTY-MONEY EFFORTS
Premier Viktor Yanukovych on 19 December appealed to the Verkhovna Rada to pass an antimoney-laundering bill as required by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) global watchdog, Reuters reported. "Today is the last day to make a decision on FATF. If sanctions are introduced, the country will lose a lot in 2003," Yanukovych pleaded. Under a threat of sanctions from the FATF, the parliament passed an antimoney-laundering bill last month that President Leonid Kuchma has already signed; but the FATF has demanded amendments to toughen the monitoring of financial operations in the country. The parliamentary opposition, however, has obstructed parliamentary work for the past three days to protest a controversial vote on replacing the National Bank governor and parliamentary committee leaders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003). Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn adjourned the session until next week. JM

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION PROPOSES END TO PARLIAMENTARY STANDOFF
Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko on 19 December proposed a compromise to the pro-government majority in order to resolve the current stalemate in the Verkhovna Rada, UNIAN reported. Yushchenko said he was speaking on behalf of all four opposition parliamentary groups: Our Ukraine, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. According to Yushchenko, the opposition is ready to confirm the replacement of National Bank Governor Volodymyr Stelmakh with Serhiy Tyhypko but insists that the majority cancel its decision to reappoint parliamentary committee leaders. The third step to overcoming the blockade of parliamentary activities, Yushchenko added, is setting up a working group to prepare a number of "compromise" draft bills, including on elections, the budget, and taxation. JM

GOVERNMENT STUDY CRITICIZES ESTONIA'S DAIRY SECTOR
A study on the country's dairy sector prepared by the Estonian Agriculture Ministry found that activities have been characterized by inefficient and excessive investment and insufficient attention to specialization, BNS and ETA reported on 19 December. In 1999-2001, 504 million kroons ($30 million) was invested in the dairy industry to raise daily production capacity to 2,500 tons, but dairy companies purchased only about 1,420 tons of milk a day in the first nine months of the year. In its EU membership talks, Estonia initially applied for a milk-production quota of 900,000 tons in 2004 and later said it would be satisfied with 750,000 tons. The EU agreed to a 624,500-ton quota; but if current trends continue, Estonia will not even be able to fulfill that figure. In January-September, the country produced 487,500 tons of milk, which is 8.4 percent less than the 528,600 tons produced in the same period last year. SG

LATVIAN BORDER GUARD DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY AT RUSSIAN BORDER
The Latvian Border Guard Service declared a state of emergency at the Terehova border checkpoint with Russia because of actions by the Russian Customs Service on 19 December, BNS reported. Since midnight on 15 December, Russian customs officials have refused to admit Russian passenger cars with transit numbers unless drivers pay a tax and convoying charges totaling $400-650. The move has resulted in a massive queue of hundreds of trucks and passenger cars at the checkpoint. Complaining that they were not informed of the planned changes and lack the necessary funds, as well as food and drinking water, 106 residents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan presented a letter to the Latvian Border Guard Service asking that it inform the presidents of their republics and Russia of their plight. Foreign Ministry Undersecretary of State Andris Teikmanis told BNS that the Russian Embassy in Riga is still unaware of the legislative changes causing the situation, adding that Latvia will hand a note demanding explanations to the embassy the next day. SG

LITHUANIA, EU SIGN PHARE MEMORANDUMS
Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite and the head of the European Commission's delegation to Lithuania, Michael Graham, signed four financial memorandums in Vilnius on 19 December for 103.7 million euros in PHARE assistance to Lithuania, BNS reported. The greatest share of funds will go toward the decommissioning of the nuclear-power plant at Ignalina and its consequences. PHARE will provide 6.3 million euros to finance the Business Support project, aimed at promoting business development in Lithuania and helping prepare for administering EU structural funds. Some 14.1 million euros will be used to support five projects of economic and social cohesion. All the contracts to implement the projects specified in the memorandums are to be concluded by 30 November 2004 and the work completed by 30 November 2005. SG

JOBLESS PROTESTERS DISRUPT POLISH PARLIAMENT
A group of around 30 unemployed Poles forced their way into the Sejm building and disrupted a parliamentary session for three hours on 19 December, Polish media reported. The demonstrators carried banners reading "We Want Jobs and Bread" and "You Are Blathering While We Are Starving." The protesters read out a petition in which they demanded that public works be introduced in the country on a large scale, a special government and parliamentary committee be set up to tackle unemployment, and one hot meal for every person in need be guaranteed on a daily basis. JM

POLISH CHURCH LEADER VOWS SUPPORT FOR EU ENTRY
During his meeting with Prime Minister Leszek Miller on 19 December, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the primate of Roman Catholic Church in Poland, expressed recognition for the government's "very competent and persistent" negotiations with the European Union, PAP reported. "We are glad that a certain stage has been favorably concluded. Now a further stage opens, one that requires citizens' efforts [and] that the [Roman Catholic] Church wants to join," Glemp told journalists after the meeting. Glemp stressed that the church would like to take part in informing society about the integration. "True, reliable, and honest information is very important for the proper building of Europe's future. The church, for its part, would like to realize this task," he said. JM

POLISH PRESIDENT OPPOSES CHANGES TO ABORTION LAW
President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 19 December that Poland's strict abortion law should remain unchanged, PAP reported. "The law shouldn't be changed and should in no way be tied to the EU referendum," Kwasniewski noted. The president was commenting on Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) Secretary Marek Dyduch's interview with the 19 December issue of "Rzeczpospolita," in which he suggested that Poland's abortion law be liberalized after next spring's EU referendum in line with an SLD election promise. "I'm speaking about this now so that later the church doesn't feel it was tricked into backing the EU only to see us liberalize abortion laws," Dyduch told the newspaper. "Linking abortion laws to the referendum is, delicately speaking, unfortunate and unnecessary," SLD leader and Prime Minister Leszek Miller said later the same day. JM

CZECH SENATE FOLLOWS SUIT IN PRAISING EU NEGOTIATIONS
The upper legislative chamber on 19 December approved a resolution welcoming the recent EU summit's expansion decision and deeming the outcome of membership negotiations a success of the country's post-1989 foreign policy, CTK reported. The Senate thus followed the example set by the Chamber of Deputies one day earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). Forty-nine of 62 senators present supported the resolution, which was proposed by Freedom Union-Democratic Union Senator Jiri Skalicky, who is chairman of the chamber's Committee for European Integration. Just 21 senators backed a rival draft resolution submitted by Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Senator Milan Balaban that criticized the results. Before the vote, Social Democratic Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told the chamber that negotiations were "surprisingly tough" but the Czech Republic will "enter Europe with our heads up." MS

CZECH TELEVISION IS ORDERED TO APOLOGIZE, PAY DAMAGES TO FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER
A Prague court on 19 December ruled that public broadcaster Czech Television must apologize to current UN General Assembly President and former Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and pay 100,000 crowns ($3,300) in damages for having tarnished his reputation, CTK and dpa reported. Kavan's lawyer told CTK that the Prague High Court found no evidence to support a report claiming Kavan avoided paying customs duties on a car imported to the Czech Republic from the U.K. A spokesman for Czech Television said the station might appeal the verdict. MS

SLOVAKS IMPLORED TO SHOW COURAGE IN ANTITERRORIST STRUGGLE
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said on 19 December that Slovakia must have the courage to openly participate in the battle against international terrorism, TASR reported. Dzurinda said the 11 September 2001 attack on the United States and the attack in Bali this year demonstrate that an unprecedented wave of evil has arisen. "The goal of the democratic world is not to give in to this evil," he said. Dzurinda said no decision has been made on Slovakia's participation in a strike against Iraq, but he added that the issue will be seriously considered and will test "whether we are really serious about defending our commonly shared values" with the West "or only pretend to do so." MS

FORMER SLOVAK PREMIER GETS UPPER HAND ON PARTY RIVALS
Former Premier Vladimir Meciar managed to enlist the backing of a majority of district chairmen in his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party at an extraordinary meeting held in Silenica, central Slovakia, on 19 December, TASR and CTK reported. But sharp criticism of Meciar's leadership style emerged at the meeting, reflecting simmering discontent since HZDS finished first in the September elections but was shunned by potential partners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 19 December 2002). Meciar had sought unsuccessfully to prevent the December meeting from taking place (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 October 2002). MS

SLOVAK NATIONALISTS AGREE TO REUNIFICATION
Slovak National Party (SNS) Chairwoman Anna Malikova and Real Slovak National Party (PSNS) Chairman Jan Slota on 19 December agreed during talks held in Zilina to reunite their political formations, TASR reported. Malikova said after the meetings the parties "realized their responsibility for the outcome of the [September] general elections," when both formations failed to win any seats in parliament. Slota was SNS chairman from 1994-99. He and other SNS members were expelled from the SNS in September 2001, and in October that year he set up the PSNS. MS

STANDARD & POOR'S IMPROVES SLOVAKIA'S COUNTRY RATING
Standard & Poor's international rating agency on 19 December raised Slovakia's long-term foreign-currency risk rating from BBB- to BBB, TASR reported. The hike reflects improved fiscal discipline and implementation of EU-backed reforms, the agency said. MS

U.S. WELCOMES HUNGARIAN DECISION ON TRAINING BASE
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack on 19 December welcomed the Hungarian government's decision to allow the United States to use the Taszar military air base to train Iraqi opposition personnel in noncombat functions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002), "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Pentagon spokesman David Lapan said the Iraqi opposition will put together a list of volunteers and their identities will be verified by the United States. The daily reported that CIA agents will also take part in training Iraqi volunteers at the air base. MSZ

U.S. DAILY SAYS MISSILE-DEFENSE SHIELD MIGHT BE DEPLOYED IN HUNGARY
"The Washington Times" reported on 19 December that the United States might seek to deploy interceptor missiles in Great Britain, Hungary, or Poland in the near future, according to "Nepszabadsag" of 20 December. Sources told the U.S. daily that, according to a long-term plan drawn up by the Pentagon, a second missile-defense system will be deployed on the eastern seaboard of the United States or in Europe to fend off potential missile attacks from the Middle East region. As part of the plan, missiles would be deployed in three NATO countries whose "governments have confidentially indicated that they are prepared to cooperate and are ready to provide a base for a missile-defense system," "The Washington Times" wrote. "Nepszabadsag" reported that there is no official Hungarian stance on the issue. However, Hungarian radio quoted Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz as saying that Hungary might have to accept the deployment of missiles if such a request comes from Washington. MSZ

MONTENEGRO FACES UNCERTAIN PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
Montenegrin voters will have a choice of 11 candidates in the presidential elections on 22 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 20 December. The front-runner is Filip Vujanovic of the governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). The two major opposition groups -- the Alliance for Change coalition and the Liberal Alliance -- are boycotting the ballot and have urged their supporters to do likewise. A recent poll suggests that only 46 percent of registered voters plan to vote. A minimum of 50 percent must turn out for the election to be valid. Turnout might also be affected by voter apathy and revulsion over a scandal involving politicians allegedly trafficking in women (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). PM

MONTENEGRO REJECTS SERBIAN BANK DEMAND
Ljubisa Krgovic, who heads the governing body of the Central Bank of Montenegro, told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Podgorica on 20 December that Montenegro rejects the Serbian demand that its national bank be the sole bank authorized to deal with international financial institutions and organizations for the new state of Serbia and Montenegro. In Belgrade, the joint working group on implementing the new Constitutional Charter broke off deliberations when Montenegrin representatives said they need to consult with Podgorica over the Serbian demands. PM

MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT SETS PRIORITIES
In his annual address to the parliament on 19 December, President Boris Trajkovski called for the full implementation of the Ohrid peace agreement, according to his official website (http://www.president.gov.mk/eng/info/govori.asp?id=88). He lauded the country's achievements in further stabilizing the situation after the 2001 interethnic conflict. Trajkovski said the country's priorities are "the full stabilization of the security situation; restoring the rule of law [throughout the country]...and full reintegration of former crisis areas; implementation of the [Ohrid peace agreement]; economic development and prosperity, better living standards, and poverty reduction; drawing closer the EU and NATO;... and the fight against organized crime and corruption." Macedonian media widely reported that former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti entered parliament for the first time after his election as lawmaker for the Democratic Union of Integration (BDI). He previously stayed away from the sessions. UB

EU TELLS CROATIA: DON'T CALL US, WE'LL CALL YOU
Jacques Wunnenburger, who heads the European Commission's mission to Croatia, again told that country not to apply for EU membership yet, dpa reported from Zagreb on 19 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2002). "Although the government intends to apply for the full membership next year, our advice is that Croatia should be cautious, because the EU is not ready for new rounds of enlargement," Wunnenburger said. He also made it clear that Zagreb must resolve problems of cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague before it may apply. Croatia hopes to join the EU with Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. Zagreb fears, however, that the EU wants to force it into some sort of grouping with other former Yugoslav republics, which is anathema to most Croats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2002, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 and 29 November 2002). PM

CROATIAN OIL COMPANY SHOWS BIG PROFIT
The state-owned INA petroleum company will finish 2002 about $100 million in the black, dpa reported, quoting INA's chairman of the board, Tomislav Dragicevic. INA will start modernization of its two refineries in Rijeka in 2003 and of its refinery in Sisak in 2005. It has made promising oil discoveries in Syria. Privatization is scheduled to begin in 2003, with Austria's OMV, Hungary's MOL, and Russia's Rosneft expected to make strong bids. INA hopes to recover its markets in former Yugoslavia and still controls 65 percent of the Bosnian market despite controls introduced in 2002 by Bosnian authorities. INA has just reentered the Slovenian market by signing an agreement with that country's Petrol corporation and is beginning to penetrate the market in Kosova. PM

BOSNIAN MUSLIMS SEEK UN COMPENSATION FOR SREBRENICA
Members of a team of Bosnian lawyers told Reuters in Sarajevo on 19 December that they have filed a compensation request with the UN on behalf of 6,500 survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Muslim males by Bosnian Serb forces, the largest massacre in Europe since the World War II era. "The aim is to help people who have suffered more than enough in the [1992-95 Bosnian] war," lawyer Semir Guzin said. "The aim is that those responsible for the Srebrenica crimes take on their part of responsibility." Many of the victims sought protection from Dutch peacekeepers stationed near Srebrenica as part of UN forces in the UN-declared "safe area." The survivors have also sought compensation from the Netherlands. Prime Minister Wim Kok's government resigned in April following the publication of an official report strongly critical of the Dutch role in failing to prevent the massacre (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 April 2002). PM

ALBANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS KOSOVA AN 'INTERNATIONAL PROBLEM'
Ilir Meta said in Prishtina on 19 December that Albania and Yugoslavia cannot resolve the question of Kosova's status themselves because it is a problem of the broader international community, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 February 2001). PM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT URGES LAWMAKERS TO WAGE ALL-OUT WAR ON CORRUPTION
Addressing a joint session of the parliament's two chambers on 19 December, President Ion Iliescu urged lawmakers to wage an all-out war against endemic corruption, saying failure to do so will endanger Romania's efforts to join the EU in 2007, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Iliescu addressed parliament on the occasion of the 13th anniversary of the 1989 anticommunist uprising. The speech also marked the completion of the first half of his second presidential term. Iliescu said the goals of the 1989 revolution have been achieved and the country has been turned into a genuine democracy based on the rule of law. MS

ROMANIAN LAWMAKERS APPROVE APPEAL ON EU ENLARGEMENT...
Also on 19 December, a joint session of parliament unanimously approved an appeal to the European Parliament and the legislatures of current EU members and those of the 10 countries recently invited to join the organization, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The appeal salutes the recent Copenhagen summit's decision to set 2007 as the target date for Romania to join the EU, to provide it with a road map for accession, and to expand aid to facilitate that process. The appeal calls for a sustained acceleration of the negotiation process and the finalization of negotiations in early 2004. It says this will make it possible for Romanian parliamentarians to participate as observers in European Parliament sessions in 2004. MS

...AND SELLING OF MAJORITY STAKE IN ROMTELECOM TO GREEK INVESTOR
The Chamber of Deputies on 19 December approved the sale of a 54 percent stake in Romtelcom to the Greek OTE group, Mediafax reported. The Senate approved the deal one day earlier. MS

ROMANIA BANS GYMNASTS FOR NUDE PERFORMANCES
The Romanian Gymnastics Federation on 19 December decided to ban three world-famous former gymnasts for posing and performing gymnastics naked for DVDs and photographs published in Japan, Reuters reported. Lavinia Milosovici, 26, who won the floor exercise and vault titles at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games; Claudia Presecan, 23, a gold medallist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics; and Cornelia Ungureanu, 22, a member of the Romanian team that won the World Championship titles in 1997 and 1999, will not be allowed to referee or coach in events sanctioned by the federation for five years. MS

MOLDOVAN OFFICIAL SAYS MOSCOW NEGOTIATIONS SIGNAL DANGERS, REGRESSION
In an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 19 December, Moldova's chief negotiator with the Transdniester Vasile Sturdza said the round of talks concluded one day earlier in Moscow marked a regression and signaled new dangers ahead. Sturdza said the final protocol of the meeting mentions the need to examine not only the OSCE's proposal for Moldova's federalization, but also other past proposals and agreements. He said Tiraspol could use this clause to return to its earlier positions and demand a confederation of equal states instead of a federal state. Sturdza said that a proposal put forward by Ukrainian representative Yevhen Levytskyy suggesting that each side should safeguard its current institutions and attributions until a solution is reached is rife with dangers and in blatant contradiction with the Kyiv summit agreement that relaunched the current negotiation process earlier this year. Sturdza said he does not rule out that Ukraine has turned into "a lobbyist for the interests of the separatist regime," adding that the proposal "could well have been written in Tiraspol itself." MS

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES FIRST READING OF BILL ON COMBATING EXTREMISM
Parliament on 19 December approved the first reading of a bill proposed by President Vladimir Voronin on combating manifestations of extremism, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The bill was supported by the majority Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) and opposed by the opposition Braghis Alliance and Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD). PPCD Deputy Chairman Vlad Cubreacov said the bill aims at curtailing the freedom of expression and penalizing criticism of the authorities. He also said the bill fails to differentiate between "terrorism" and "extremism." Cubreacov said the communist domination of the judiciary makes insignificant the stipulations in the bill that grant the courts the right to decide what entails "extremist activity." MS

PROSECUTOR-GENERAL ASKS MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT TO LIFT OPPOSITION LEADER'S IMMUNITY
Prosecutor-General Vasile Rusu on 19 December asked the legislature to lift PPCD leader Iurie Rosca's parliamentary immunity, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The Prosecutor-General's Office claims Rosca physically assaulted a policeman in Rezina in October. Rosca rejects the allegations and says they are intended to discredit him. MS

MOLDOVAN OPPOSITION FORUM WARNS AGAINST DANGERS TO DEMOCRACY
An opposition forum on which parliamentary and nonparliamentary parties are represented approved on 19 December a statement accusing the ruling PCM of violating basic democratic principles, Infotag reported. The Permanent Roundtable said in the statement that against the background of the approaching local elections, the PCM has enacted measures aimed at influencing the electoral outcomes. According to the forum, those measures include amending the law on local administration and the Electoral Code, and ignoring initiatives on holding a plebiscite on replacing the current proportional system of representation with a mixed system of proportional and constituency representation. The statement accuses the PCM of blocking opposition access to state media and of gradually introducing authoritarian rule aimed at the promotion of a single ideology -- communism. MS

BULGARIAN PARLIAMENT PASSES 2003 BUDGET
With the votes of the ruling coalition of the National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) and the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), parliament on 19 December passed the 2003 budget on second reading, mediapool.bg reported. Former Finance Minister Muravey Radev of the conservative opposition United Democratic Forces (ODS) announced that his coalition will challenge the budget before the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Judicial Council earlier declared the budget unconstitutional, arguing that the Finance Ministry had interfered with the council's budgetary rights. Likewise, Supreme Court of Appeals head Ivan Grigorov has announced that his court will likely challenge the budget before the Constitutional Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 21, and 22 November 2002, and 5 December 2002). UB

NEW BULGARIAN LAW ON RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES DIVIDES RULING COALITION
On 19 December, lawmakers of the government's junior coalition partner DPS and the opposition ODS staged a walkout during the voting of the new Law on Religious Communities, "Sega" reported. The legislators protested a provision in the new law that would exempt the Bulgarian Orthodox Church from registration with a court. It would also define the Orthodox faith as the "traditional religion" in the country. The ethnic Turkish DPS protested the fact that Orthodox Christianity would be given priority over other religions. The ODS legislators objected to the provision under which the part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church headed by Patriarch Maksim would automatically be registered. The ODS believes that Maksim was elected with the support of the Communist Party and the party supports the so-called alternative Holy Synod headed by Bishop Inokenti (see "End Note" in "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 May 2002). The draft law has also been criticized by the chief mufti's office, by various Evangelical churches, and NGOs. UB

There is no End Note today.


SUICIDE BOMBER ATTACKS ISAF BASE NEAR KABUL
An unidentified man on 19 December detonated grenades attached to his body at the entrance to a military base used by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Pol-e Charkhi, east of Kabul, Radio Afghanistan reported. Reports differed on casualties resulting from the attack, which occurred as the perpetrator was speaking to two interpreters while attempting to gain access to the base. The BBC reported on 20 December that the two interpreters died the next day from their injuries and that two French members of the ISAF were injured. Radio Afghanistan reported on 19 December that no ISAF military personnel were injured or killed. The Afghan Islamic Press reported that the attacker threw a grenade into the ISAF base, injuring a foreign soldier, before detonating the other grenades that killed him and injured three interpreters. The Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported that "a large number of people" were injured. According to ISAF spokesman Colonel Samet Oz, early "indications are that this attack was not the carefully planned and executed work of a professional terrorist organization," the BBC reported. None of the reports provided information on the nationality of the attacker. AT

AL-QAEDA BLAMED FOR ATTACK ON U.S. SOLDIERS IN KABUL...
Deputy Interior Minister Helaluddin Helal on 18 December blamed Al-Qaeda for the 17 December bomb attack in central Kabul that injured two U.S. soldiers and their Afghan interpreter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2002), Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 19 December. Helal said the "two arrested people confessed they had been trained and instructed by a foreign network," according to the report. Helal said the two men are Pakistani nationals who have confessed to being sent to Afghanistan "along with a group of Arabs, Chechens, and other Pakistanis." Interior Minister Taj Mohammad Wardak told reporters at a Kabul news conference on 18 December that the identities of the arrestees and any links they might have to terrorist organizations have not been determined (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). AT

...AS IS HIZB-E ISLAMI
A Kabul Police Department official has alleged the 17 December attack was perpetrated by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami party, and that the attackers received training for three months in Khost, the "Kabul Weekly" reported on 19 December. General Khalil told the newspaper that four individuals traveled to Kabul from Khost to carry out the attack and that three of them have been arrested, including one from Khost Province and one from Nangarhar Province. High-ranking Hizb-e Islami official Qotbuddin Helal has denied any links between the party and Al-Qaeda and has indicated that his party wants to join the Afghan Transitional Administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). Hekmatyar has denied any Hizb-e Islami links to Al-Qaeda, but has declared a jihad against the United States because of its presence in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November 2002). One of the arrested men has denied affiliation with any organization "but complained that the Americans had occupied his country," the BBC reported on 20 December. AT

AFGHAN MINISTER SAYS WARLORDS POSE SECURITY THREAT
In an exclusive interview on 20 December, Reconstruction Minister Mir Mohammad Amin Farhang told Radio Free Afghanistan that during the 17-18 December meeting of the Afghanistan Support Group in Oslo (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2002), donor countries agreed to distribute the bulk of their assistance through the Afghan administration and to fund UN agencies only for humanitarian-aid projects. Farhang noted that the lack of security in some areas of Afghanistan has had a direct influence on donor countries' policies, but said his side indicated in Oslo that after 23 years of conflict, security will not come to Afghanistan overnight. Farhang added that the formation of the Afghan National Army and the police force are the first steps toward securing the country. The existence of warlords in some parts of the country requires serious measures, Farhang said, adding that the Afghan administration is working to solve this problem. President Hamid Karzai issued a decree on 16 December banning political leaders from participating in military activities (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 December 2002). Many perceive this action as an attempt to curb the warlords' power. AT

EDITOR SENTENCED FOR PUBLISHING CARTOON OF AFGHAN PRESIDENT
Abdul Gafur, the editor in chief of the Kabul weekly "Farda," has been sentenced to an unspecified prison term for publishing a cartoon of President Karzai, Hindukosh news agency reported on 19 December. Hindukosh expressed regret that Gafur's sentencing came on the heels of seminars on human rights and press freedom that took place in Kabul last week. The report added that Karzai is one of the most prominent advocates of free media. The 2001 Bonn Agreement validated the 1964 Afghan Constitution as the basis for the country's legal framework until new laws and regulations can be adopted. Article 49 of the 1964 constitution affords Afghan citizens the "right of freedom of thought and expression...in speech and writing" and states that "censorship of the press is not allowed." Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan authorities have not announced specific new media laws. AT

IRAN, TAJIKISTAN DISCUSS ANTIDRUG EFFORTS
Iranian Drug Control Headquarters chief Ali Hashemi met with his Tajik counterpart Rustam Nazarav in Dushanbe on 19 December, Tajik news agency Asia-Plus reported. The meeting was based on a counternarcotics agreement signed when President Mohammad Khatami visited Tajikistan in April. The two sides worked on a strategy to stem the flow of illegal drugs from Afghanistan and on ways to combat smuggling and international criminal gangs. They agreed to continue regular exchanges of information. BS

EU PRESIDENCY LINKS TRADE WITH HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAN
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said during an 18 December visit to Washington that Iran must show progress on political and human rights if it wants to enjoy the benefits of trade with the EU, RFE/RL reported. Denmark holds the current European Union Presidency. Moeller said linking trade and rights is the best way to help Iranian reformists. "That's why we say we are not just trading with Iran. It's on a condition that there's progress on political and human rights," Reuters quoted Moeller as saying. The European statements are noteworthy because Tehran insists that any agreement with the EU will have to be made without preconditions (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 October 2002). BS

IRAN REQUESTS INTERPOL'S HELP IN POLLSTERS CASE
The Iranian judiciary has requested that Interpol arrest Ali-Reza Namdar-Haghighi in connection with the current trial relating to the Ayandeh Research Institute, AFP reported on 19 December. According to a statement carried in Iranian newspapers, Haghighi allegedly "infiltrated an Iranian ministry and established contacts with foreign intelligence services and counterrevolutionaries based outside the country." The statement added that Haghighi's job was to abet "the entry of American and foreign intelligence services into Iran." BS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT OPTIMISTIC THAT HE'LL HAVE MORE POWER...
President Khatami on 19 December said he is optimistic that the Guardians Council will approve a bill submitted in September that would increase his powers, IRNA reported. "God willing, the bill on reforming the president's prerogatives and authority will receive final approval, and this will help the president in fulfilling his duties," Khatami said at the inauguration of a conference entitled "Unimplemented Principles of the Constitution." The legislation has already received overwhelming support from parliament, although it awaits final ratification. The 12-member Guardians Council must then approve it on Islamic and constitutional grounds. Gholam-Hussein Elham, who heads the Guardians Council Research Center, has indicated the legislation will not win approval. (For details on the legislation and its progress, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 September and 4 and 11 November 2002.) BS

...BUT PARLIAMENTARIAN NOTES FLAWS IN BILL
Tehran parliamentary representative Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, a leading member of the pro-Khatami 2nd of Khordad Front, said that some aspects of the bill concerning the president's powers must be changed, "Resalat" reported on 19 December. "In my opinion the law on presidential authority has some flaws which must be removed," he said. The appearance of this report in a hard-line newspaper suggests that Mohtashami-Pur's statement was taken out of context. BS

LAWMAKER DESCRIBES IRANIAN PLAN FOR PALESTINE
Representative Mohtashami-Pur also serves as the secretary of the "Support for the Palestinian Intifada Conference," and in the 19 December issue of Tehran's "Resalat" daily he described the Iranian plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. "Iran's plan is that elections should be held in Palestine to choose a government and to determine the share of various religions in that government," he explained. "If such a government decides to form a power-sharing rule, then it can follow the example of Lebanon." Regarding the current Palestinian uprising, Mohtashami-Pur asked, "Why is it that the martyrdom-seeking and defensive actions of the Palestinians are described as terrorism, while the international community closes its eyes to the massacre of innocent Palestinian women and children by the Zionist occupiers?" BS

AL-AQSA MARTYRS BRIGADE SAYS NO AID FROM IRAN
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade commander Abu-Mujahid rejected Israeli accusations that his organization receives aid from Iran and Hizballah in an interview that appeared on the Ynet website that is run by Tel Aviv's "Yediot Aharonot" daily. "There is no such assistance. However, even if there were such assistance, it would be legitimate and derive from the fact that we belong to the same religion and the same nation," Abu Mujahid said. "We, the Iranians, and Hizballah share common roots, which you cannot say about Israel and the United States. If the United States extends massive aid to Israel, we are definitely entitled to aid from Muslim Iran, although -- I repeat -- there is no such aid at all." BS

IRAN, TATARSTAN SIGN COOPERATION MEMORANDUM
A delegation of Iranian officials headed by First Deputy Islamic Culture and Communications Organization Minister Mahmud Mohammadi-Araqi, on 19 December met with Prime Minister Rustam Minnikhanov of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, and then Araqi and Tatarstan Deputy Prime Minister Zilya Valeeva signed a memorandum of cooperation, Kazan's Tatar-Inform news agency reported. Minnikhanov discussed Tatarstan's experience in mechanical oil extraction under significantly irrigated oil layers. They also discussed cultural matters, and Mohammadi-Araqi told his hosts that Tehran is ready to open an Iranian cultural center in the capital of Tatarstan, Kazan. BS

ARMY COMMANDER DENIES IRAN HAS MILITARY NUCLEAR AMBITIONS
Brigadier General Nasser Mohammadifar, commander of the Iranian Army's ground forces, said during a ceremony to post the 38th Independent Armored Brigade at Torbat-i Jam's Mohammad Rasulallah garrison that Iran does not intend to the use the nuclear facility it is building at Bushehr for military purposes, the Iranian Students News Agency reported. "Iran will never pursue the manufacture, purchase, and use of weapons of mass destruction and nonconventional arms," Mohammadifar added. BS

UNMOVIC, IAEA HEADS BRIEF UN SECURITY COUNCIL ON IRAQ
UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix and IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei on 19 December participated in UN Security Council discussions on Iraq's weapons dossier, the UN announced. Secretary-General Kofi Annan attended the informal session, after which Blix observed that "many questions about Iraq's weapons dating from the end of 1998 -- including those on anthrax and munitions -- have not been answered in the Iraqi declaration." El-Baradei was more optimistic, stating that the inspections are "making good progress," although he noted that inspections are "still in their initial phase." Both Blix and el-Baradei requested more information from Iraq on its weapons programs. They will next meet with the Security Council in January to discuss the inspections. SH

U.K. FOREIGN SECRETARY SAYS IRAQ FAILED TO COOPERATE...
Referring to Blix's assertion that Iraq's weapons declaration includes "little new information," U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stated on 19 December that "Iraq has already failed one test," the BBC reported. Straw emphasized that this "failure" does not necessitate war, but that Iraq must now fully cooperate with UN Security Council Resolution 1441. If Iraq fails to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, the result will be military action, Straw said. He added that Iraq's declaration to the UN "is a very serious failure to comply and a clear warning has to go out to Iraq," AFP reported. SH

...AND IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS BRITAIN LIES AND U.S. VIOLATES INTERNATIONAL LAW
Naji Sabri on 19 December responded to U.K. Foreign Secretary Straw's claims that Iraq failed in its declaration to accurately "reflect the complete picture demanded by the United Nations," Iraq News Agency (INA) reported. Sabri accused Straw and the U.S. and British governments of "telling lies and continuing to tell lies until people begin to believe them." The assertion that Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction after the withdrawal of UN inspectors in 1998 has placed the United States and Britain at "an impasse following Iraq's approval of the inspectors' return and agreement to deal with the bad Resolution 1441," according to Sabri. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Annan, Sabri accuses the United States of violating international law and UN resolutions by financing Iraqi opposition groups, Iraq Television reported on 19 December. "The U.S. presidential order flagrantly and clearly aims at interfering in Iraq's domestic affairs.... The Iraqi people have the jurisdiction to decide their own political choices," the foreign minister's letter states. SH

UNMOVIC MISSILE INSPECTORS VISIT MANUFACTURING SITES...
An UNMOVIC team of missile inspectors met with specialists at the Bin-Firnas State Company north of Baghdad on 19 December, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry announced. The team proceeded to inspect the premises of the company, which is affiliated with the Military Industrialization Organization (MIO) and conducts "work on aircraft and remotely piloted vehicles" for the armed forces, according to the UN. Another team visited the Al-Harith State Company, also affiliated with the MIO, and inspected all of the buildings on the site and met with its general manager. A 22-member chemical-inspections team revisited an insecticide factory in Al-Saqlawiyah, taking a sample from a barrel at one of the factory's facilities. A biological-inspections team questioned specialists at the Bin-Al-Bitar Center, a pharmaceutical-research center north of Baghdad, on the center's activities and relations with other research institutions. The team photographed and verified equipment and obtained samples of castor oil, according to the ministry. In addition, a team of 11 inspectors visited MIO property in the Sab Abkar District of Baghdad and "left after ascertaining that it was a guesthouse," the ministry stated. SH

...AS IAEA INSPECTION TEAM SPENDS SECOND NIGHT IN MOSUL
After spending a second night in Mosul, a group of 15 IAEA inspectors conducted a radiological survey of the Al-Kindi State Company's premises on 19 December, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry announced. The company, which is part of the MIO, is located on the outskirts of Mosul. The group returned to Baghdad after inspecting areas of the company that manufacture products for commercial use and taking samples from a water-treatment plant. A second IAEA team of three inspectors toured the facilities of the 7 Nisan Company, an MIO affiliate located southeast of Baghdad. The team inquired about imported machinery at the company and then proceeded to the Al-Rashid State Company, also part of the MIO, in order to inspect "three marked furnaces as well as marked equipment stored in the warehouses," according to the Foreign Ministry. SH

KUWAIT INCREASES PREPAREDNESS WHILE HOPING TO AVOID WAR
Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah announced at a press conference on 19 December that Kuwait has increased its preparedness to "confront any emergencies" in response to threats Iraqi President Saddam Hussein made in a recent speech, Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) reported on 19 December. Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak stated the army has not yet called up reservists, as the Kuwaiti Constitution prohibits participation in a nondefensive war. While expressing the importance of regime change in Iraq, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak said, "We will be careful in dealing with any regime that comes to rule Iraq." He also called for Iraq to abide by UN resolutions in order to avoid war in the region. SH

U.S. WELCOMES HUNGARIAN DECISION ON TRAINING BASE
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack on 19 December welcomed the Hungarian government's decision to allow the United States to use the Taszar military air base to train Iraqi opposition personnel in noncombat functions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002), "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Pentagon spokesman David Lapan said the Iraqi opposition will put together a list of volunteers and their identities will be verified by the United States. The daily reported that CIA agents will also take part in training Iraqi volunteers at the air base. MSZ

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