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Newsline - December 27, 2002


TWO EXPLOSIONS ROCK GOVERNMENT CENTER IN GROZNY
More than 30 people were reported killed and at least 40 injured when two car bombs devastated the administrative center of Chechnya's pro-Kremlin government in Grozny on 27 December, Russian and Western news agencies reported. According to newsru.com, two trucks loaded with explosives rammed into the building within minutes of one another at about 2:30 p.m. local time. About 250 people were in the building at the time of the blasts, lenta.ru reported, although administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov and Chechen Prime Minister Mikhail Babich were both elsewhere. Russian television reports showed that the top floors of the building, which was one of the only buildings in the Chechen capital to be completely rebuilt after federal forces recaptured the city, were totally destroyed, while windows throughout the building were broken and the square in front of it was littered with debris. ITAR-TASS quoted a Chechen Interior Ministry official as saying that the two drivers of the trucks were killed in the explosions. Rescue workers from the Emergency Situations Ministry continue to work at the scene and a security cordon has been established around the building. RC

RUSSIA, IRAN AGREE ON ACCELERATED NUCLEAR COOPERATION
Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev and his Iranian counterparts have signed in Tehran an accord on accelerated cooperation in the construction of the nuclear-power plant in Bushehr, Russian and Western news agencies reported on 24 and 25 December. The two countries also agreed that Moscow will supply uranium for Iran's nuclear reactors for the next 10 years and that the spent nuclear fuel will be returned to Russia for reprocessing. The return of the fuel to Russia should help ease U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear program, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 December. In addition to political differences about Iran, Russia and the United States are engaged in economic competition over the Iranian energy market, the daily added. The paper claimed that the United States has hinted that if Russia grants U.S. companies a share of the Iranian market, Washington will give Russia a piece of the market for reprocessing nuclear fuel, which is currently dominated by the United States. VY

PRESIDENT SACKS SECOND HIGH-RANKING OFFICER IN CAUCASUS
President Vladimir Putin has fired Colonel General Yevgenii Bolkhovitin, chief of the North Caucasus Directorate of the Federal Border Guard Service (FPS), "Izvestiya" and other Russian news agencies reported on 26 December. Officially, Bolkhovitin was dismissed "as part of a planned rotation of personnel," but "Izvestiya" and gazeta.ru linked the dismissal with Bolkhovitin's failure to stop Chechen fighters from crossing the border with Georgia. One such crossing came this summer, when forces allegedly led by Ruslan Gelaev staged an attack that left more than 20 Russian servicemen and 40 Chechen fighters dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 September 2002). However, other analysts linked Bolkhovitin's dismissal with that of Colonel General Gennadii Troshev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). "Argumenty i fakty", No. 52, reported that Troshev was sacked at the insistence of Kremlin insiders Gleb Pavlovskii and Simon Kordonskii, who reportedly regularly submitted reports to Putin alleging that Troshev and other generals are resisting any policy changes in Chechnya. VY

PUTIN SIGNS 2003 BUDGET...
President Putin signed the 2003 federal budget on 25 December, Interfax reported. The budget projects a surplus of 72 billion rubles ($2.06 billion), based on several assumptions, including GDP of 13.05 trillion rubles, an inflation rate of 10-12 percent, an exchange rate of 33.7 rubles to the U.S. dollar, and world oil prices of $21.50 per barrel. Those assumptions anticipate an improvement in the inflation rate, which is expected to reach 15 percent for 2002, a slight weakening of the ruble, and a decline of nearly 30 percent in oil prices. LB

...AND GRANTS CITIZENSHIP TO VETERAN WHO PHONED IN
Also on 25 December, President Putin signed a decree granting Russian citizenship to army veteran Oleg Orlov and his immediate family, RTR reported. Orlov, a citizen of Tajikistan who was awarded the Hero of Russia medal for his service on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, was one of 51 people selected to ask Putin a question during the president's live call-in show on 19 December. During that show, Putin promised to help Orlov and, when pressed by a journalist, also advocated amending Russia's law on citizenship so that noncitizens wishing to serve in the Russian armed forces would be able to receive Russian citizenship during or shortly after their military service. LB

INTERIOR MINISTRY CONFISCATES MILLIONS OF COUNTERFEIT DOLLARS...
The Interior Ministry's (MVD) Investigations Committee has announced that more than 600 MVD agents together with officers of the Alfa antiterrorism unit participated in an operation to break up a ring of counterfeiters that had a virtual monopoly on the production of fake U.S. dollars within Russia, RTR and other Russian news agencies reported on 26 December. During the operation, tens of millions of counterfeit dollars were seized and more than 30 offices and apartments were searched in Moscow. An unspecified number of people were arrested. MVD spokesmen said the fake dollars were of very high quality and have all the built-in security measures that real dollars have, making them virtually impossible to detect using normal anticounterfeiting equipment. VY

...AS MVD SAYS MOST CONSUMER GOODS IN THE COUNTRY ARE FAKE
Nikolai Bobkov, head of the Interior Ministry's Economic Crimes Directorate, said that 90 percent of the goods for sale on the Russian consumer market are counterfeit, RTR and other Russian news agencies reported on 26 December. Bobkov added that most counterfeit goods are brought to Russia from Southeast Asia, while Russia itself produces counterfeit food products, clothes and shoes, chemicals and medicines, and video and audio products. The main centers of the counterfeit production in Russia are Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Sverdlovsk, Ryazan, and Yaroslavl oblasts. Bobkov said 2002 his agency investigated about 2,000 suspected intellectual-property crimes in 2002. VY

DUMA PASSES BILLS TO REFORM RAILWAYS SYSTEM
The Duma on 24 December approved in their third reading a packet of four draft laws to reform the railways system, Russian news agencies reported. The bills would create a joint stock company called Russian Railroads to manage the railroad system, which is currently managed by the Railways Ministry. The government and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) wanted the new company to take possession of the land underneath the railway system. However, the draft laws that were adopted would transfer to the company only the 200,000 hectares of land underneath railroad tracks. The federal government would retain ownership of 1.1 million hectares of land underneath railroad stations and other "strategically important objects." The Railways Ministry would manage that land and monitor the work of Russian Railroads. LB

DUMA VOTES TO EXTEND TAX BREAKS FOR PRINT MEDIA
The Duma on 25 December approved a bill to extend until 1 January 2005 a discounted VAT rate of 10 percent for the production and distribution of books, newspapers, and periodicals, "Versty" and other Russian news agencies reported the next day. That tax break is scheduled to expire on 1 January 2003, but charging the standard 20 percent VAT on such goods and services would likely mean sharp price increases for books and publications. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 26 December that government representatives have agreed to maintain a lower VAT rate for the media only if advertising-related services were declared ineligible for that discount. However, that compromise would have hurt regional newspapers, which Duma deputies will presumably need on their side during next year's election campaign. Even if the Federation Council approves extending the media's VAT discount, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" predicted a presidential veto is "practically inevitable." LB

WHAT IS DELAYING DUMA CONSIDERATION OF EES REFORMS?
The Duma Council on 23 December delayed for at least one month a vote on the second reading of draft laws to restructure the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES). People's Deputy faction leader Gennadii Raikov linked the delay to a law amending state regulations on heat and electricity tariffs, "Vedomosti" reported on 24 December. Raikov said that if the Federation Council rejects that law on 27 December or if the president refuses to sign the law, the Duma will continue to hold up consideration of the EES reforms. However, Yabloko Deputy Sergei Ivanenko asserted that a "battle within the executive branch" is the real source of the delay. Some Kremlin officials fear the reforms will lead to sharp hikes in electricity tariffs, according to "Vedomosti." LB

HUNGER STRIKE NETS MORE CONCESSIONS FOR AIR-TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS
The Transportation Ministry, the Russian State Air-Travel Corporation, and representatives of trade unions for air-traffic controllers on 25 December signed a deal granting wage increases of nearly 16 percent for all air-traffic controllers and 28.5 percent for specialists working at the busiest airports, Russian news agencies reported. The deal ended a hunger strike launched by air-traffic controllers in Omsk on 22 December, which rapidly spread to 47 of Russia's 120 airports, "Kommersant" reported on 25 December. Labor and Social Affairs Minister Aleksandr Pochinok asserted on 23 December that there are insufficient federal funds to pay for wage hikes for air-traffic controllers, "Izvestiya" reported the next day. According to Ekho Moskvy on 26 December, funds earmarked for modernizing equipment will be used to pay the wage increases. In addition, airlines will have to pay higher fees for air-navigation services. LB

CAMPAIGN WILL BOOST SPENDING ON DUMA IN 2003
The 450 State Duma deputies will spend much more on activities reimbursed by the federal budget in 2003 than they did this year, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 24 December, citing Aleksandr Lotorev, the head of the Duma's apparatus. Lotorev said expenses for Duma deputies' official activities totaled 1.932 billion rubles ($60.4 million) in 2002. Next year that sum is expected to rise to 2.44 billion rubles, in part because of sharply increased spending on travel and communications. Incumbents seeking re-election in December 2003 are likely to step up their contacts with constituents. "Gazeta" on 23 December quoted Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov as saying his party will require each Duma deputy to hold at least 300 meetings with voters over the next year. LB

YABLOKO SLAMS DOOR ON ELECTION ALLIANCE WITH SPS
Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii announced on 23 December that his party cannot cooperate with certain SPS members, including EES head Anatolii Chubais and presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko, Interfax reported. Yavlinskii suggested his party might be willing to cooperate with prominent SPS members such as Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada, but it is very unlikely that they would agree to jettison Chubais and Kirienko. At a meeting on 21 and 22 December, the Yabloko Federal Council approved "a charter of a new democratic coalition." Among other things, the charter states that the public would not have confidence in a democratic association led by people who backed the war in Chechnya, "implemented a criminal privatization program, built state financial pyramids, and enacted defaults for selfish ends," gazeta.ru reported on 24 December. LB

ROSNEFT TO CHALLENGE RESULTS OF SLAVNEFT AUCTION
Oil giant Rosneft will file a lawsuit challenging the recent auction of a 74.95 percent state-owned stake in Slavneft, "Vremya novostei" reported on 26 December, citing Rosneft President Sergei Bogdanchikov. He said a company representing Rosneft's interests was prepared to pay more than $3 billion for the Slavneft stake, which sold for $1.86 billion after only four minutes of bidding (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2002, and "RFE/RL Business Watch," 24 December 2002). That company and another firm associated with Rosneft were illegally barred from participating in the auction, according to Bogdanchikov. Before the sale, the Audit Chamber valued the Slavneft stake at more than $2.5 billion. However, speaking to Ekho Moskvy on 25 December, Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin declined to question the outcome of the auction. The company that submitted the winning bid was created by Sibneft and the Tyumen Oil Company specifically to bid for Slavneft. LB

MEDIA-MOST CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER CONVICTED, AMNESTIED
A Moscow raion court on 24 December convicted former Media-MOST Chief Financial Officer Anton Titov of embezzlement and sentenced him to three years' imprisonment and then immediately amnestied him, TVS reported. The court did not find him guilty of money laundering or using forged documents. Titov spent nearly two years in pretrial detention since his arrest in January 2001. At that time, the struggle between Gazprom, a major Media-MOST creditor, and oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii's allies for control over the media holding was escalating. Titov was the most senior Media-MOST executive who had not moved abroad. Court hearings in Titov's case were repeatedly postponed over the past year. According to the 25 December edition of "Gazeta," Gazprom filed a civil lawsuit against Titov as well but dropped it around the time Gusinskii agreed to sell his remaining shares in Russian media companies to the gas monopoly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 July 2002). LB

CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION TRIES TO DISBAND KRASNOYARSK BODY
Members of the Central Election Commission (TsIK) on 25 December approved an appeal to the Krasnoyarsk Krai Court seeking to disband the Krasnoyarsk Krai Election Commission, Russian media reported. The lawsuit to be filed by the TsIK alleges unlawful actions following the September gubernatorial election. In particular, the krai commission allegedly improperly nullified the result showing Aleksandr Khloponin the victor and flouted court rulings requiring the commission to certify those results. The TsIK has never before sought to dissolve a regional election commission. According to TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, the federal law on basic guarantees of electoral rights grants the TsIK the right to file such lawsuits if election commissions do not implement court rulings, Radio Mayak reported. Meanwhile, the krai commission has complained to the Prosecutor-General's Office that the TsIK has no legal grounds for its lawsuit, NTV reported on 26 December. LB

MORDOVIA PRESIDENT WIELDS POWER OF INCUMBENCY AHEAD OF ELECTION
The prices of bread, gasoline, and phone calls will soon decrease significantly in the Republic of Mordovia, republican authorities announced on 24 December, REN-TV reported. On the same day, officials announced that republican presidential elections have been scheduled for 16 February 2003. Incumbent President Nikolai Merkushkin helped arrange the price reductions. Asked whether the discounts could be construed as an improper use of administrative resources for election-campaign purposes, Mordovia Election Commission Chairman Valentin Tarasov said the actions are not campaign agitation. "How can it be buying [votes], when it's directed toward everyone and not simply toward a specific part of the electorate?" he said. LB

CORRECTION:
An item entitled "...As Some See the Move as Ploy" on 19 December incorrectly stated the year in which Federal Security Service (FSB) General Murat Zyazikov was elected president of Ingushetia. He was elected in April 2002.

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT ADOPTS 2003 BUDGET...
The Armenian parliament voted on 26 December to approve the government's draft 2003 budget, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Mediamax. The draft budget calls for significantly increased public spending, optimistically relying on higher targets for tax collection and greater levels of foreign assistance. The 2003 budget sets expenditures at 334.2 billion drams ($574.3 million) and revenue at 287 billion drams, an increase of roughly 30 percent over 2002. Defense spending has been increased by 20 percent to 46 billion drams, the largest share of government expenditures. The budget also allocates 30.8 billion drams and 25 billion drams for spending on education and social security, respectively. RG

...AND FORMS NEW 'TAX POLICE' TO IMPROVE COLLECTIONS
Moving to justify the draft budget's reliance on improving tax collections in 2003, parliament also adopted on 26 December a set of laws aimed at collecting more revenues and strengthening tax enforcement, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Noyan Tapan reported. A central element of the new plan is the creation of a new "tax police" within the state taxation service that will be empowered to arrest and prosecute tax evaders. The new tax police are to be armed and endowed with the authority to initiate criminal proceedings against businesses suspected of tax evasion, fraud, or corruption. The new force will consolidate investigative and prosecution powers currently divided among several overlapping departmental bodies and ministries. The government has proposed an ambitious 20 percent increase in its 2003 tax-collection target, a goal necessary to balance the budget's increased spending with an effort to reduce the budget deficit to a more manageable 3.3 percent of Armenia's projected 2003 GDP. The government is also continuing its traditional reliance on Western lending to help cover its 47.2 billion-dram ($81.2 million) deficit. RG

FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER APPEALS CITIZENSHIP RULING
Former Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian on 25 December filed an appeal challenging a ruling of the immigration department of the Armenian National Police that certified the beginning of his Armenian citizenship as April 2001, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Noyan Tapan. The U.S.-born Hovannisian contends that he has resided in Armenia for more than 10 years and that his numerous applications for Armenian citizenship were "unlawfully" rejected until April 2001, shortly after he surrendered his U.S. passport (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002). The issue is vital to Hovannisian, as his bid to participate in the February 2003 presidential election rests on his meeting the constitutional requirement stipulating that only individuals who have been Armenian citizens and have "permanently" resided in the country for the previous 10 years are eligible to run. In a related case, President Robert Kocharian was issued an official document certifying his 10 years of Armenian citizenship and residency, although the president was born and lived in Nagorno-Karabakh until he became Armenian prime minister in 1997. RG

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT REAFFIRMS DEATH-PENALTY EXEMPTION
The Armenian parliament voted on 25 December to approve a new Criminal Code that maintains a controversial provision retroactively authorizing capital punishment for those convicted of terrorism or pedophilia, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Noyan Tapan reported. The retroactive application of the death penalty has been an emotionally charged issue, widely seen as a move stemming from the case of the five gunmen on trial for attacking the Armenian parliament and killing several senior officials in October 1999. The move is at odds with the Council of Europe, however, which has consistently demanded that Armenia fully and unconditionally outlaw capital punishment. The Council of Europe has set a June 2003 deadline for Armenian conformity, providing an opportunity for the new Armenian parliament to be elected in May 2003 to revise the law. RG

ARMENIA ANNOUNCES NEW BARTER DEAL WITH TURKMENISTAN
Armenian officials announced on 23 December that a new arrangement has been forged to service the country's remaining $11 million debt to Turkmenistan within two months, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. The new arrangement, modeled on the recent "assets-for-debt" deal concluded with Russia, allows Armenia to settle its Turkmen debt by providing it with a substantial number of domestically manufactured goods, including machines, chemicals, and unspecified products from the military-industrial sector. The settlement of the $11 million in debt to Turkmenistan, primarily from Armenian imports of Turkmen natural gas in the mid-1990s, would lower Armenia's overall foreign debt to $960 million. Countering criticism of the barter arrangements, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian contended that the deals with Russia and Turkmenistan have considerably eased the country's debt burden, with much of the remaining financial obligations tied to lower-interest Western loans that will not come due for several years. RG

LEFT-WING ARMENIAN PARTIES FORGE OPPOSITION ALLIANCE
Leaders of three left-wing opposition parties forged a new electoral alliance on 23 December to back National Unity leader Artashes Geghamian in the February presidential election, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The new alliance, calling itself a "popular-patriotic bloc," comprises Geghamian's National Unity party, the Armenian Communist Party (HKK), and the Socialist Armenia union of five small parties. The alliance advocates closer ties with Russia, calling for Armenia's accession to the Russia-Belarus Union and advocating a Russian-led currency union among the former Soviet republics. A broader coalition of 16 opposition political parties is still attempting to reach a compromise agreement to support a single candidate to face incumbent President Robert Kocharian. RG

AZERBAIJANI ARMY FUND RECEIVES CORPORATE DONATION
Azerbaijani officials announced that the private ANS Group donated 25.6 million manats ($5,120) on 25 December to the recently established state-run fund to help finance the country's armed forces, according to ANS. The donation will reportedly be used to provide the army with arms and ammunition. Despite the creation of a fund to channel private donations to the armed forces, the army remains ill-equipped and subject to frequent wage arrears. RG

AZERBAIJAN WINDS UP ESPIONAGE INVESTIGATION
The Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security announced on 25 December that it has concluded its investigation of two suspects arrested in July on charges of spying for Iran, the Turan news agency reported. The two suspects, Azerbaijani citizen Akif Abdullaev and Iranian citizen Faramarz Behruz-Painazab, were arrested after a surveillance operation by Azerbaijani security forces uncovered evidence of espionage. Ministry of National Security officials alleged that Abdullaev began working for Iranian intelligence in early 2002 and monitored Azerbaijani military deployments in the southern areas of the country near the border with Iran. The investigation reportedly found that Abdullaev regularly supplied Iranian agents with maps of military facilities and information about strategic defensive facilities and the sizes of military units. The incident is expected to damage bilateral relations as it clearly violates a September 2001 agreement between Iranian intelligence and the Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security pledging to refrain from carrying out intelligence operations against one another. RG

PROGRESS REPORTED IN AZERBAIJANI-IRANIAN GAS DEAL
The head of the Azerbaijani state natural-gas company Azeri Gas, Alikhan Malikov, announced on 24 December that a new survey of the proposed Azerbaijan-Iran natural-gas pipeline has been completed, paving the way for the finalization of a formal agreement, according to the Caspian News Agency. The planned pipeline would run from Iran to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan and would cost an estimated $13.8 million. An additional $18.4 million natural-gas line from Iran to Baku would further help to alleviate mounting shortages in domestic gas supplies. The plan is based on an October 2002 bilateral agreement calling for the annual export of 350 million cubic meters of natural gas from Iran to Nakhichevan. RG

AZERBAIJANI-GEORGIAN BORDER COMMISSION MEETS IN BAKU
The fifth session of the Azerbaijani-Georgian demarcation commission convened on 25 December to continue negotiations over the delineation of the 371-kilometer border, according to the Turan news agency. Although the bilateral commission has reached some agreement, the overall border demarcation remains hindered by several disputed sections. RG

GEORGIA PROTESTS RESTORATION OF RUSSIAN-ABKHAZ RAILWAY
Georgian officials lodged a protest with the Russian Foreign Ministry on 26 December over the restoration of a railway link from Russia to Abkhazia, according to RIA-Novosti. The Russian Railways Ministry officially opened a commuter line from the Black Sea port of Sochi to the Abkhaz capital Sukhum the day before, effectively ending Abkhazia's decade of isolation and disrupted trade links imposed by the Georgian government. RG

ETHNIC ARMENIAN PARTY CALLS FOR AUTONOMY WITHIN A FEDERATIVE GEORGIA
The co-chairman of the Virk party, which represents the majority ethnic Armenian population of the Djavakheti region in southern Georgia, called on the government on 26 December to consider granting autonomy to Djavakheti, according to the Prime-News news agency. Virk leader David Rstakian explained that autonomy for Djavakheti, as well as for Adjaria and Abkhazia, within a new federal system, would allow the population to "have more rights, which could only benefit the central Georgian government," and would help to "solve the problem of separatism." Rstakian also criticized the Georgian authorities for denying his party's application for formal registration, adding that the party would clearly surpass the 7 percent minimum of electoral support required for formal certification. The four-year-old Virk party plans to convene a national congress in Djavakheti at the end of January and is expected to renew its application for formal registration. RG

SPECIAL SESSION OF PARLIAMENT CONVENES TO CONSIDER GEORGIAN BUDGET
After a parliamentary walkout halted consideration of the draft 2003 budget and other important pieces of legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2002), parliament was able to convene a special session on 25 December, the online Civil Georgia news agency reported. The extraordinary session continued the next day and began debate of a presidential plan for a governmental reorganization that was presented by State Minister Avtandil Djorbenadze to consolidate the country's 40 ministries and governmental departments. The draft restructuring plan would disband the ministries of Construction and Urbanization and State Property Management, reassigning their functions to the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Ministry of Trade, Economics, and Industry. RG

GEORGIAN SUPREME COURT HALTS EXTRADITION OF CHECHEN DETAINEES
The Georgian Supreme Court issued a ruling on 25 December ordering a Tbilisi district court to reconsider its finding that three Chechen detainees should be extradited to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002), the online Civil Georgia news agency reported. The Supreme Court ruling overturned the lower court's decision that affirmed the prosecutor-general's request to extradite the three Chechens to Russia. According to the ruling, if the district court again rules in favor of extradition, the defendants may appeal to the Supreme Court once more. Human rights advocates actively oppose the extradition, contending that the detainees face danger if returned to Russia. The three detainees, part of a larger group arrested in August after attempting to enter Georgia illegally, appealed for political asylum in a letter to President Eduard Shevardnadze on 18 December. RG

OSCE TO EXPAND MONITORING OF GEORGIAN BORDER
A spokesperson of the OSCE's Mission in Georgia, Volker Jacoby, announced on 24 December that the OSCE will expand its monitoring of Georgia's border areas to include the border with Daghestan and will increase its deployment to a total of 144 unarmed observers, according to the online Civil Georgia news agency. The OSCE has been monitoring the 82-kilometer border between Georgia and Chechnya since December 1999 and extended its deployment in December 2001 to encompass the 58-kilometer Ingush section of the Georgian-Russian border. RG

GEORGIAN, IRANIAN OFFICIALS DISCUSS REGIONAL SECURITY
President Shevardnadze met with visiting Iranian Presidential Envoy for Caspian Region Issues Mehdi Safari on 23 December to discuss regional security, the online Civil Georgia news agency reported. The Iranian official also reviewed plans for increased cooperation in combating arms and drugs trafficking in the region. The discussion is to be followed by a visit to Iran by the Georgian interior and national security ministers in the coming months. RG

KAZAKH PRESIDENT WRAPS UP CHINA TRIP
Ending a four-day state visit to Beijing on 25 December, President Nursultan Nazarbaev told a news conference that the positions of China and Kazakhstan regarding regional security and the fight against terrorism, extremism, and separatism are identical, ITAR-TASS reported. Nazarbaev met with top Chinese officials, including new Central Committee Secretary General Hu Jintao, Premier Zhu Rongji, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. On 23 December, Nazarbaev and Jiang signed a friendship and cooperation treaty pledging joint efforts to combat terrorism and to develop links in the fields of trade, defense, energy, transport, finance, and space research. Nazarbaev said one of his economic priorities is to increase the volume of goods passing annually through the Druzhba railway crossing on the Sino-Kazakh frontier from the current figure of 5 million tons to 12 million tons. He also attended a business forum and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Beijing University. AA

KAZAKH, CHINESE FORCES TO HOLD JOINT MANEUVERS
Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev met with his Chinese counterpart Chi Haotian on 24 December to discuss military-technical cooperation, officer exchanges and training, and confidence- and security-building measures, Xinhua reported. The ministers signed an agreement to forestall dangerous military incidents such as border trespassing or equipment malfunctions, ITAR-TASS added. They also announced that the two countries will hold joint antiterrorism exercises along their border in 2003. In October, service personnel of the Chinese People's Liberation Army joined Kyrgyz troops for similar exercises, representing the first time Chinese troops had ever participated in maneuvers abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 October 2002). Furthermore, the ministers said China and Kazakhstan will train together in the inaugural counterterrorism exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the second half of 2003. AA

BLUEPRINTS DRAWN UP FOR SCO ANTITERRORISM CENTER
In the course of a three-day meeting in Bishkek that ended on 26 December, experts from the six SCO member states drew up a document on the financing and structure of the planned SCO Regional Antiterrorism Center, Kabar and Interfax reported. Kyrgyz Security Council Deputy Secretary Askar Mameev, who chaired the session, said the center will be located in Bishkek and have a staff of 40. China and Russia will each cover around 35 percent of the center's expenses, with the remaining 30 percent divided among Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Its first director will be Kyrgyz, with the directorship rotating every few years. Mameev said the center could open as early as autumn 2003. AA

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT VETOES DRAFT LAW ON MILITARY SERVICE
Speaking on national television on 26 December, President Askar Akaev said he will not sign the law on conscription, which passed the upper chamber of parliament earlier this month despite several controversial amendments, the Kabar news agency reported. The amendments, which have drawn heavy criticism from Defense Minister Colonel General Esen Topev and other senior military officials, reduce the duration of compulsory military service from 18 months to 12 and allow young men to be exempted from serving upon payment of about $530 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002). Akaev said on television that the first of these provisions would hinder the successful transition to a professional army, while the second would mean that "only citizens from the lower strata of society would serve in the army." AA

KYRGYZ-TAJIK BORDER TALKS RESUME
Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Salohiddin Nasriddinov arrived in Bishkek on 23 December to open a five-day meeting of the bilateral government commission on border delimitation, ITAR-TASS and RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The Kyrgyz side is led by Deputy Foreign Minister Omar Sultanov. Negotiations over some 40 disputed areas along the 1,000-kilometer Kyrgyz-Tajik border began originally in 1997 but were suspended as a result of domestic political problems in Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan has completed demarcating its border with China and Kazakhstan, leaving only Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The latest round of border delimitation talks with Uzbekistan collapsed earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2002). AA

OMBUDSMAN PRESSING FOR ELIMINATION OF DEATH PENALTY
Tursun Bakir Uulu, who was sworn in as Kyrgyzstan's first ombudsman earlier this month, announced he will urge President Akaev to abolish the death penalty, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 23 December. If the government stands by its slogans that Kyrgyzstan should be the country of human rights, it should begin translating those words into deeds by eliminating capital punishment, Bakir Uulu said. He also repeated previous complaints that the ombudsman's office is too underfunded to be effective. The budget allocated by the government is about $87,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December), although the OSCE recently made an additional contribution, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service noted on 23 December. AA

UZBEKS PROTEST FOLLOWING SHOOTING INCIDENT ON KYRGYZ BORDER
Kyrgyz border guards on 23 December shot and wounded an Uzbek man near the village of Boz-Adyr in the south of the country when a fight broke out between guards and a motorist who initially refused to stop his car, AP and Interfax reported. Several hours later, some 200 Uzbeks from a nearby village blocked the road and demanded the Kyrgyz authorities remove the post at Boz-Adyr. Both sides have increased their border-guard and police forces since the confrontation occurred, AP said. AA

TURKMEN POLICE REPORTEDLY CAPTURE FUGITIVE FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER...
President Saparmurat Niyazov's spokesman, Serdar Durdyev, told diplomats assembled for a ceremony at the presidential palace in Ashgabat on 26 December that former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov has been captured by police at an undisclosed location in Turkmenistan, RFE/RL and Reuters reported. Shikhmuradov, who is accused of masterminding the 25 November assassination attempt against President Niyazov, allegedly secretly entered Turkmenistan on the eve of the attack and has been in hiding within the country since then, according to Turkmen officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atajanova confirmed the news on television later the same day, saying Shikhmuradov was "detained along with his supporter [businessman Iklym] Iklymov." No further details about the arrests were offered. Iklymov has been accused of co-plotting the assassination bid and was earlier said to be on the run with Shikhmuradov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002). AA

...WHO CLAIMS HE SURRENDERED VOLUNTARILY
Contradicting reports that he had been captured, Shikhmuradov issued a statement dated 24 December on the opposition website gundogar.com, and presumably written while he was still at liberty, in which he said he intended to give himself up to the Turkmen National Security Ministry voluntarily. He said he has secretly been in Turkmenistan since September, organizing a series of mass rallies in Ashgabat and elsewhere that were scheduled to take place in late November. After the assassination attempt, he said he felt obliged to surrender in order to stop the police arresting and torturing innocent people to make them reveal his whereabouts. Shikhmuradov's statement neither confirms nor denies that he was involved in, or had prior knowledge of, the assassination attempt. AA

TRANS-AFGHAN PIPELINE ACCORD SIGNED
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali joined President Niyazov in Ashgabat on 26 December for a two-day summit to discuss the 1,500-kilometer Trans-Afghan Pipeline, which is planned to transport gas from Turkmenistan's Dovletabad-Donmez gas field to Pakistan, RFE/RL and ITAR-TASS reported. The following day, they signed an agreement establishing the legal framework for companies to invest in the project, the terms of duty-free gas transit, and security measures to be taken to protect the pipeline. The project's feasibility studies are scheduled to be approved in June. No foreign investors have committed yet to building the pipeline, whose estimated cost is $3.2 billion. AA

NO TIT FOR TAT FOLLOWING EXPULSION OF UZBEK AMBASSADOR
The Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 24 December denied that it has declared Turkmen Ambassador Soltan Pirmuhamedov persona non grata and added it has no intention of doing so, RIA-Novosti said. Earlier reports indicated that Tashkent was planning to expel Pirmuhamedov in retaliation for the expulsion of Uzbek Ambassador to Turkmenistan Abdurashid Kadyrov last week for his alleged role in the bid to assassinate Turkmen President Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002). Instead the Uzbek authorities indicated they will not sink to tit-for-tat measures, but still have hope of settling the situation diplomatically. Pirmuhamedov assured ITAR-TASS on 26 December that his embassy is functioning normally and that "nothing will cloud...the centuries-old friendship between the Uzbek and Turkmen people." AA

UZBEK MINISTRY SPLIT INTO TWO
President Islam Karimov issued a decree abolishing the Ministry for Macroeconomics and Statistics and created two new entities -- the Ministry of Economics and the State Statistics Committee -- in its place, Uzbek television reported on 25 December. The change will contribute to institutional efficiency and market liberalization, according to the decree. The role of the Ministry of Economics is to coordinate government bodies dealing with macroeconomics with a view toward implementing a "balanced social and economic policy." The role of the State Statistics Committee is to streamline statistical methods and management to meet modern international standards, the decree said. AA

BELARUSIAN PARTIES ALLY 'FOR SOCIAL CHANGES'
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Women's Party Hope on 23 December joined the For Social Changes confederation, Belapan reported. The agreement between the old confederation members -- the Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), the Belarusian Party of Labor, and the Belarusian Party of Communists -- and the newcomers was signed at the National Assembly office in Minsk. According to LDP leader Syarhey Haydukevich, the alliance consists of political parties that have taken part in all election campaigns in recent years and are experienced campaigners. "We defend the interests of entrepreneurs who are also workers. Owing to the government's ill-conceived moves, their financial position has deteriorated considerably in 2002," Haydukevich said. AM

SOPHISTICATED RADAR OPERATING IN SOUTHEASTERN BELARUS
The Volga early-warning radar system has been placed on "test combat-alert duty" in Baranavichy (Brest Oblast), the Russian Space Troops' press office told Belapan on 24 December. According to radar designers, the system is able to track missiles and objects in space 4,800 kilometers away, and identify, follow, and measure targets, scanning a 120-degree azimuthal sector. The radar's status combines trial mode with full service, according to the statement. It is expected to scan airspace to the west and northwest for Russia and other CIS countries. The observation of this area was disrupted in 1999 as a result of the closure of an early-warning radar system in Skrunda, Latvia. AM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT PASSES 2003 BUDGET
The Verkhovna Rada on 26 December voted 348 to 37, with three abstentions, to adopt a deficit budget for 2003, UNIAN and AP reported. The bill sets revenues at 50.02 billion hryvnyas ($9.38 billion) and expenditures at 52 billion hryvnyas, representing nearly a 4 percent deficit. The budget assumes that Ukraine's foreign debt will not exceed $8.59 billion by the end of 2003. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has described the budget as "socially oriented." The Communist Party caucus boycotted the vote, saying the budget's social outlays are insufficient. AM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT ORDERS PROBE INTO AIR CRASH IN IRAN
President Leonid Kuchma has called for an investigation into the crash of a Ukrainian Antonov 140 in Iran on 23 December that killed 44 people on board, most of them engineers and executives from Ukraine's Kharkiv aircraft plant, the "Financial Times" reported on 27 December. The aircraft crashed into a mountainside while approaching Isfahan airport. The Ukrainian aviation specialists were expected to attend the maiden flight of the Iran 140, a version of the Antonov 140, built under license in Iran. AM

RUSSIAN-ORIENTED PARTIES UNITE IN ESTONIA
Three political parties -- the Russian Baltic Party, Unity of Estonia, and the Russian Unity Party -- merged with the Russian Party in Estonia on 21 December, BNS reported on 23 December. Those three parties will set up liquidation committees and wind down all independent activities. A congress of the Russian Party in Estonia meanwhile elected the leader of the Russian Baltic Party, Stanislav Cherepanov, as chairman and the heads of the other three parties as deputy chairmen. The list of deputy chairmen includes: Nikolai Maspanov (Russian Party in Estonia), Igor Pisarev (Unity of Estonia), and Alfrida Liivak (Russian Unity Party). The 35-year-old Cherepanov said the party's policy-making council will draw up goals for the March parliamentary elections and present a list of candidates by the 15 January deadline. Another party of Russian speakers, the Estonian United People's Party, did not participate in the merger. SG

LATVIA'S RULING COALITION OPPOSES REVIVING COMMUNIST PARTY
Leading figures from the four-party ruling coalition made it clear that they will not support the restoration of the Communist Party in Latvia, BNS reported on 23 December. The congress of the Latvian Socialist Party on 21 December, which re-elected former Latvian Communist Party First Secretary Alfreds Rubiks as chairman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002), called for the revival of the party. New Era parliamentary-caucus Chairman Arturs Krisjanis Karins said: "The Communist Party is an antistate organization, and we do not need any such organization." Union of Greens and Farmers faction head Augusts Brigmanis noted that his party opposes such a measure, asserting: "I doubt whether this [party's reemergence] could be possible in modern Latvia." Latvia's First Party (LPP) faction Chairwoman Jevgenija Stalidzane said "I think the Communist Party will find re-birth very hard; I hope it will be very difficult for them." For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, Chairman Janis Straume simply called such a revival "impossible." SG

LITHUANIAN COURT BANS SIMULTANEOUS MEMBERSHIP IN PARLIAMENT AND LOCAL COUNCILS
The country's Constitutional Court decided on 24 December that parliamentary deputies cannot act simultaneously as members of local councils, "Kauno diena" reported on 27 December. The justices ruled that the president, parliamentary deputies, cabinet members, judges, and other individuals to whom the constitution assigns special status cannot be local councilmen, as they would thus enjoy different status from other deputies. The ruling enters into force on 25 February. In local elections on 22 December, 81 parliamentary deputies competed and 67 were victorious. They will now have to decide between those mandates before the first meeting of local councils. Twenty-six deputies in the current parliament also sit on local councils. The court also ruled that the constitutional separation of executive and legislative powers in local communities does not allow a mayor to be a member of the council that elects him. Legislation on elections to local councils thus will have to be amended, as it currently provides for the mayor and other members of the local executive to be selected from among elected members of the local council. SG

POLAND TO SPEND $3.5 BILLION ON U.S. FIGHTERS
Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski on 27 December announced that the government has chosen Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in a tender to supply Poland with jet fighters in order to upgrade the Polish air forces to NATO standards, Polish media reported. The government will purchase 48 F-16s at a cost of approximately $3.5 billion. Sweden's Saab and Britain's BAE Systems (Gripen), along with Dassault of France (Mirage), also competed for the contract. Szmajdzinski said the selection of F-16s is an optimal decision for both the Polish state security and the economy. Szmajdzinski added that he will provide more details about the tender to the Sejm's Defense Committee on 7 January. AM

POLISH GOVERNMENT LAYS OUT FOREIGN-POLICY OBJECTIVES
The government approved a draft of foreign-policy objectives for 2003, Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz told PAP on 23 December. "Our foreign-policy priority in 2003 is to guarantee effective completion of the European project -- preparations for the accession treaty and support for the treaty's ratification processes," Cimoszewicz said. The government drew up a program to promote Poland among current EU countries when ratification comes up for approval before their respective legislatures. According to Cimoszewicz, other objectives of Polish foreign policy include concepts for the EU's eastern policy. "Poland wants to play a role as an advocate for the whole eastern neighborhood of the enlarged European Union," Cimoszewicz added. AM

POLISH PRESIDENT SIGNS 2003 DEFICIT BUDGET
President Aleksander Kwasniewski on 23 December signed the 2003 budget bill, PAP reported. "This is a budget which will not be praised by everyone, but it will be appreciated when it has been implemented," Kwasniewski said. The budget, passed in the Sejm on 18 December, projects revenues of 156 billion zlotys ($40.4 billion) and expenditures of 194 billion zlotys. Gross domestic product is forecast to grow by 3.5 percent, while inflation is projected at 2.3 percent in 2003. AM

CZECH PREMIER CONFIDENT EU MEMBERSHIP WILL BE ADVANTAGEOUS
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla in an interview with the daily "Hospodarske noviny" of 23 December said he is confident EU membership will benefit his country, CTK reported. Spidla said that throughout history, Czechs have fared well when they have Europe behind them and badly when they are isolated. Spidla said "European integration is in fact a new civilization project" and "an original contribution of our continent" aimed at overcoming "narrow nationalism and conflict by the mutual opening of states to one another." The premier added, "I really would not like us to stand alone between the EU and Ukraine." He dismissed claims that small EU members do not enjoy membership benefits, emphasizing that "not even one germ of a movement calling for withdrawal from Europe has appeared in any of the countries that [have] joined the EU." Spidla said he cannot think of any negative aspect membership in the EU will entail, although he realizes that "competition pressure" from other members will have an effect. However, he added, Czechs have faced competition from other Europeans "for 1,000 years, and I cannot see what will be different in that." MS

SLOVAK PRESIDENT SAYS NATO REFERENDUM UNNECESSARY
President Rudolf Schuster on 23 December said he considers a referendum on Slovak accession to NATO unnecessary, TASR and CTK reported. "There will be a referendum on accession to the EU, which is a condition of membership. As for NATO, we have a parliamentary democracy. And who other than the democratically elected deputies should be making the decision, when they represent us?" Schuster said in Kosice, after receiving an honorary doctorate from the Air Force Military Academy there. In an allusion to a demand by the Communist Party of Slovakia that a plebiscite on NATO accession be held, Schuster said those seeking to initiate such a referendum "did not ask for one when we joined the Warsaw Pact" but now want to make use of this democratic right "for their own political goals." MS

FORMER SLOVAK PREMIER INVITES PARTY OPPONENT TO EXIT
Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) Chairman and former Premier Vladimir Meciar said on 23 December that HZDS Deputy Chairman Vojtech Tkac ought to think over whether he wants to remain in the HZDS, TASR reported. "Nobody can be a member of two parties," Meciar said in a reference to Tkac's stated intention of either establishing a separate parliamentary group of reform-minded HZDS members or quitting that formation. Tkac said the same day that he has enough support among HZDS deputies to set up a separate parliamentary group (which would need eight members for official recognition) but would seek such a solution only in "an extreme case." Tkac also said he does not intend to challenge Meciar for the HZDS chairmanship but to bring about the party's democratization, including the replacement of its entire leadership. The matter cannot be put off until the next regular HZDS congress, scheduled to take place in six months, he said. MS

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES 2003 BUDGET
Lawmakers on 23 December approved on the strength of 195 votes in the 386-seat chamber the 2003 budget, AFP reported. Opposition deputies did not cast a vote -- enabling passage, since approval requires a two-thirds majority of those voting. The budget envisages a deficit of 569 billion forints ($2.495 billion), representing 4.5 percent of expected gross domestic product. It thus strives to halve last year's 9 percent deficit. The annual inflation rate is forecast at 5 percent, according to earlier Hungarian media reports. Legislators hiked revenues and expenditures by 7 billion forints each from the figure proposed by the Social Democratic-Free Democrat government. MS

HUNGARIAN 'HOUSE OF TERROR' MUSEUM DIRECTOR ANNOUNCES CLOSURE
Maria Schmidt, director of the controversial House of Terror museum in Budapest, on 25 December announced that the museum next month will close down "for an indefinite period," AFP reported. Schmidt reiterated that recent cuts in the museum's budget were politically motivated. She said that by cutting the museum's budget, the current parliamentary majority "has again passed a decision that is exclusively political and that openly despises the part of society for whom the museum is an important symbol." The museum was opened in February and is designed as a memento to the victims of Nazi and Communist rule in Hungary. Critics said it neglects the former and concentrates its attention almost exclusively on the latter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February and 19 and 23 December 2002). MS

BOMB BLASTS KILL TWO IN MACEDONIA, KOSOVA
A bomb exploded outside a primary school in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo on 25 December, leaving a 66-year-old ethnic Macedonian dead, a six-year-old ethnic Albanian schoolgirl seriously injured, and three other people slightly injured, Makfax reported. The explosive had been placed in a trash container. Representatives of the Macedonian government and the international community condemned the incident. In other news, one man died when a bomb destroyed his car in the town of Pec in Kosova on 25 December, the "Southeast European Times" reported. UB

BOSNIA'S HIGH REPRESENTATIVE ORDERS BANK SALE
High Representative Paddy Ashdown on 23 December ordered the sale of Hercegovacka Banka in the wake of allegations of massive fraud and embezzlement at the institution, dpa reported. The Mostar-based bank has been under international administration since SFOR forces helped secure it for forced administration some 20 months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 18 April 2001). Administrators subsequently confirmed it was being used illegally to fund efforts by deceased President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) to create a nationalist ministate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2001). Forced administrators published a report on the allegations last week that concluded some $107 million was embezzled from the bank. The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting linked former HDZ leader and Bosnian Presidency member Ante Jelavic and other Bosnian Croat politicians to the case. Jelavic, who had called for the establishment of Croat self-rule in Bosnia, was removed from his political office by Ashdown's predecessor in March 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2001). UB

SERBIA, MONTENEGRO REACH AGREEMENT OVER COMMON BANK
Economic experts from Serbia and Montenegro agreed on 26 December that the Serbian National Bank will represent their joint state before international financial institutions, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 26 December. Serbian Minister for Foreign Economic Relations Goran Pitic said ratification of the economists' agreement lies with the political will of those working on the Constitutional Charter of the future state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 23 December 2002). In other news, the Serbian Interior Ministry has filed a criminal complaint against Yugoslav National Bank Governor Mladjan Dinkic, RFE/RL reported on 23 December, without specifying the date of that filing. The ministry reportedly accuses Dinkic of not having handed over to police evidence of crimes committed at the bank. UB

SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER CALLS ON OUTGOING PRESIDENT TO SURRENDER TO THE HAGUE
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic called on outgoing President Milan Milutinovic to surrender to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 23 December. Djindjic said he believes Milutinovic must appear before The Hague tribunal and explain his role in the Balkan conflicts. He added that it is now up to Milutinovic to contact the tribunal's office in Belgrade and discuss his cooperation with prosecutors. Milutinovic's mandate expires on 5 January, and the tribunal's chief prosecutor has repeatedly urged Yugoslav authorities to ensure his surrender (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002). UB

YUGOSLAVIA, CROATIA SIGN FREE-TRADE AGREEMENT
Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus and Croatian Economy Minister Ljubo Jurcic signed a free-trade agreement on 23 December, the "Southeast European Times" reported. Customs fees and duty will be reduced gradually over a five-year period as a result, while truly "free trade" is to begin in 2007. The agreement must still be approved by the Yugoslav and Croatian parliaments. UB

COURT DISMISSES SPY CASE AGAINST FORMER YUGOSLAV MILITARY MAN
A Belgrade military court on 24 December dismissed charges of espionage against former army chief General Momcilo Perisic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The court cited Perisic's immunity as a lawmaker in the Yugoslav parliament as grounds for the decision -- Perisic's immunity was confirmed by his fellow legislators last month, effectively killing the case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2002). Perisic and a U.S. diplomat were arrested by the Yugoslav military-intelligence service in a cafe in March, and the former was subsequently charged with spying for the United States. At the time of his arrest, Perisic was a deputy prime minister in the Serbian government (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 18, 19, and 25 March, 3 July, and 1 October 2002). UB

BELGRADE CHURCH INCIDENT PROMPTS DIPLOMATIC PROTEST
Some 50 nationalist youths tried to prevent Anglicans from entering a Christmas service in Belgrade on 24 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The Anglican Christmas Eve service, which was to take place in the Patriarchy of the Serbian Orthodox Church, was canceled as a result. The incident prompted a protest from British Ambassador to Yugoslavia Charles Crawford, who called it an unexpectedly sad event and an extraordinary insult. Crawford added that he hopes the incident will not be merely forgotten or covered up, according to Belgrade's B92 radio. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Pavle apologized for the incident. UB

ALBANIA SEEKS ITALIAN SUPPORT FOR EU INTEGRATION
Speaking after a meeting with his Italian counterpart Roberto Antonione in Tirana on 23 December, Albanian Foreign Minister Ilir Meta said Italian support for Albania's EU Stabilization and Association process is crucial, the "Southeast European Times" reported. Meta underscored Italian support in light of its term in the EU Presidency in the second half of 2003. Antonione stressed Tirana's role in stabilizing the region, noting that there are sizable Albanian communities in several Balkan countries. UB

ROMANIAN ENTERPRISE OWNERSHIP MOSTLY IN PRIVATE HANDS
Privatization Minister Ovidiu Musatescu said on 23 December that the majority of Romanian enterprises have been privatized, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Musatescu said that, according to yearend figures, 54.84 percent of enterprises are privately owned, while 45.16 percent are still owned by the state. He said all enterprises will be in private hands by the end of 2003. Musatescu said that in 2002 the Privatization Authority he heads sold 259 enterprises, of which 35 belong either to the "large" or to the "very large" category. MS

FORMER ROMANIAN MONARCH CALLS ON ROMANIANS TO BE OPTIMISTIC
In a message to Romanians ahead of the new year, former King Michael I said that for the first time since he was forced to address them from exile following his forced abdication in 1947, he believes there are reasons for optimism for the coming year. Michael said in a press release that the West, "which has looked on us more as an illness than as a part of Europe for over 100 years," has now accepted Romania as "part of the European family, with the same rights and the same obligations." The former monarch said that after receiving an invitation to join NATO, Romania can count on European and U.S. aid in case of need. The next generation will see this as "a natural thing" but "for someone like myself, who had to fight for Romania's rights ad liberties against the most atrocious dictatorships invented in recorded history, the year that ends has seen the fulfillment of many dreams." MS

PRESIDENT VORONIN SAYS PCM WILL NOT RESTORE COMMUNISM IN MOLDOVA...
In an address at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington during his recent visit to the United States, President Vladimir Voronin said the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) does not intend to restore communism in Moldova, Infotag reported on 25 December, citing the government daily "Nezavisimaya Moldova," which published the text of Voronin's speech. Voronin said the PCM does not owe its parliamentary majority to support of its ideology, but to the fact that "people voted for law and order." He said Moldovans "did not vote for us because we would be able to restore Soviet power..., which is impossible in either theory or practice." He pledged that the PCM will "never abandon the road to democracy and reforms" and added that his party "is not struggling against the rich but seeks to defeat poverty." MS

...REJECTS 'TWO ROMANIAN STATES' CONCEPT
In response to questions from journalists, Voronin also said Moldova wants to have good-neighborly relations with Romania, but cannot accept Bucharest's concept of the existence of two Romanian states, which he called "unacceptable," Infotag reported. MS

SMIRNOV SAYS TRANSDNIESTER CONSTITUTION ALLOWS 'MULTIFACETED' NEGOTIATIONS
In a speech delivered on 24 December in which he marked the seventh anniversary of Transdniester's "independence," separatist leader Igor Smirnov said the Transdniester Constitution allows any form of negotiations with Moldova, ranging from talks on "association or confederation to federation on a contractual basis," Infotag reported. Smirnov said this is precisely what differentiates the separatist region from Moldova, whose constitution is based on the principle of a unitary state. MS

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS REFERENDUM PROPOSAL
Parliament on 26 December rejected the proposal submitted by the Braghis Alliance to hold a referendum on changing the Moldovan electoral system, Infotag reported. The proposal was backed only by 11 deputies representing the alliance, which gathered 220,000 signatures in support of the proposal to change the current proportional-representation system into a combined system of proportional and constituency representation. Maria Postoico, chairwoman of the parliament's Judicial and Immunity Committee, said numerous irregularities were discovered in the lists of those backing the proposals. PCM parliamentary group Chairman Victor Stepaniuk said many of those who signed believed they were signing an appeal in support of President Voronin and the PCM. Braghis Alliance Chairman and former Premier Dumitru Braghis said in response that the checks carried by the parliamentary committee were "biased and incorrect" and that the PCM has threatened those who backed the plebiscite drive. MS

MOLDOVAN GOVERNMENT REJECTS DRAFT LAW APPROVED BY COMMUNIST MAJORITY
The government on 25 December rejected a draft law proposed by the PCM parliamentary majority, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The draft would have curtailed the autonomy of universities by transferring the prerogative of appointing university rectors from the university senates to the cabinet. The government said the proposed legislation would have violated the constitutional stipulation of university autonomy, as well as international practice. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT DISMISSES CULTURE MINISTER
The cabinet on 23 December dismissed Culture Minister Ion Pacuraru following a request by President Voronin to do so, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Voronin the same day appointed Deputy Culture Minister Vyacheslav Madan as Pacuraru's successor. Earlier this month, Voronin demanded that the cabinet investigate the reasons for Pacuraru's failure to implement a presidential order to organize a theater festival in commemoration of playwright Ion Luca Caragiale on 5-12 December. Pacuraru said he lacked the necessary funds to do so. MS

BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER CALLS 2002 DIFFICULT AND SUCCESSFUL
In his Christmas address to the nation, Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said on 24 December that 2002 was a difficult but successful year, according to the government's official website (http://www.government.bg/PrimeMinister/Statements/4265.html). Saxecoburggotski congratulated the Bulgarian people on the greatest successes in foreign policy -- the invitation to join NATO and the reception of a target date for EU accession. He called on the people to overcome their pessimism and to be more realistic, saying that the government will continue to create new jobs and to conduct a "rational social policy." Saxecoburggotski also promised to carry on fighting crime and corruption. "The achievements of the Interior Ministry's unremitting fight against crime are significant and the results will be more than convincing for society, if all law-enforcement institutions participate [in this fight]," Saxecoburggotski said in an allusion to the problems within the country's judiciary. UB

BULGARIA'S ETHNIC TURKS COMMEMORATE VICTIMS OF COMMUNIST ASSIMILATION
Hundreds of ethnic Turks commemorated the victims of the communist assimilation policy in the town of Momchilgrad and the village of Mogilyane in southeast Bulgaria on 26 December, novinite.com reported. In 1984 and 1985, the communist authorities forced the country's ethnic Turks to adopt Bulgarian names. On 26 November 1984, three villagers were shot dead by the police during the protests against the assimilation policy in Mogilyane. Protest meetings in Momchilgrad and other towns were forcefully broken up by the authorities, leaving more persons dead. With the assimilation process, the Communist Party planned to create a "unified Bulgarian nation" without ethnic minorities. This policy led to the international isolation of the country, even within the former Soviet Bloc. UB

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZES U.S. AMBASSADOR
President Georgi Parvanov criticized U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria James Pardew for his critical remarks about the involvement of courts in the privatization process, mediapool.bg reported on 21 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). "For the last time I turn to our good partners and friends and their ambassadors and ask them to be more restrained with their comments," Parvanov said. He added that sometimes criticism is warranted, but that the Bulgarians themselves should resolve these problems. He underscored that relations with these countries remain correct and tolerant despite the differences. UB

SOVIET INVASION OF AFGHANISTAN IN PERSPECTIVE
On the night of 27 December 1979, Soviet troops killed maverick communist Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and replaced him with longtime Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal. With this move, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which had been seriously contemplated in Moscow since March, finally materialized.

International reaction initially had more to do with the geopolitical effects of the Soviet invasion than with what it meant to Afghans or for Afghanistan. U.S. President Jimmy Carter called the Soviet action "the most serious threat to world peace" during his administration. He retaliated by putting the SALT II treaty on hold, boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, cutting back U.S. grain sales to the USSR, and imposing other sanctions. The UN General Assembly condemned the invasion by an overwhelming margin of 104 to 18, with 18 abstentions, but failed to mention which country's troops had committed the act. Instead of naming the Soviet Union, the UN called for a withdrawal of "foreign troops." The EU, calling the invasion a serious threat to peace and stability in the region, followed the example of the UN and called for a withdrawal of "foreign forces." Members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference withheld recognition of the Soviet-installed regime in Kabul and called for the unconditional and immediate withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

The initial fear was that Afghanistan would be a stepping-stone for the Soviets in their drive to the warm ports of the Indian Ocean as well as the oil fields of the Persian Gulf region. Beginning with the Carter administration, taking its lead from national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States and its allies were to impose a heavy price for Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. Carter stated, "Aggression unopposed becomes a contagious disease."

While an overwhelming number of countries both directly and indirectly condemned the invasion of Afghanistan, most analysts and policymakers at the time deemed the Soviet action -- which brought hitherto nonaligned Afghanistan into the Moscow orbit -- irreversible. The Afghan resistance, known simply as "rebels" collectively, was viewed as no match for the mighty Soviet Army. Most observers considered the ultimate demise and total collapse of the Afghan resistance inevitable.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had its origins in the bloody April 1978 coup d'etat that brought the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to power. The brutal treatment that ensued against nearly every segment of the Afghan population that rose in opposition to the Marxist ideologies of the new regime -- along with the numerous internal squabbles within the PDPA -- increasingly drew the Soviets into Afghanistan in an advisory role.

Meanwhile, by early 1979, Brzezinski and his allies within the Carter administration had taken control of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan away from the State Department. They worked with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, with help from China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in the form of cash and weapons, to train and organize pockets of the Afghan resistance across the border in Pakistan.

The Soviets, wary of U.S. involvement in the Afghan resistance, still regarded their support of the PDPA regime in Kabul militarily, financially, and ideologically, as the best guarantee of its preservation. However, internal feuds among the Afghan communists and the disenchantment of the Afghan military with the regime increasingly drew Moscow closer to direct involvement.

The turning point for the Soviets -- and the beginning of discussions among high-ranking Soviet officials regarding an invasion -- began after a rebellion on 16 March 1979. Between nine and 40 Soviet advisers and their family members were killed in the western Afghan city of Herat. Ironically, the first call for the introduction of Soviet forces in Afghanistan came not from Moscow but from the leadership of the PDPA, members of which would become the very first victims of the Soviet military action on 27 December.

Twenty-three years after Soviet troops attacked Kabul, they are still claiming victims. The direct loss of life for the Soviets during the decade-long occupation of Afghanistan is still not tallied, at least not for the Afghans. The number of Soviet dead has been estimated at 15,000, while between 1 million and 1.5 million Afghans perished. The Afghan state became a sociopolitical black hole, and internal strife and civil warfare persisted for more than a decade beyond the Soviet withdrawal. Today, it abides delicately in its formative stages of development. Beyond this immediate and direct damage caused by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, there have been significant international repercussions. If the events leading to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States are viewed historically, their origins are inextricably linked to the events of 27 December 1979.

In retrospect, the Politburo should have heeded the advice of then-KGB Chairman Yurii Andropov, who told his colleagues in March 1979 in a reference to possible intervention in Afghanistan (before later changing his mind): "Comrades, I have thought this issue over very thoroughly since yesterday and have concluded that we should consider very, very seriously whether it would make sense to send troops into Afghanistan. The economy is backward, the Islamic religion predominates, and nearly all of the rural population is illiterate. I do not think we can uphold the revolution in Afghanistan with the help of our bayonets" (from "Out of Afghanistan," Cordovez, Harrison, 1995).

Twenty-three years later, Andropov's description of Afghanistan still rings true, while the Soviet Union no longer exists.

CENTRAL ASIAN LEADERS SEAL DEAL ON TRANS-AFGHANISTAN PIPELINE
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Pakistan's Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali signed an agreement on 27 December establishing the legal framework for companies to invest in the Trans-Afghan Pipeline project, terms of duty-free gas transit, and security measures to be taken to protect the pipeline, RFE/RL and ITAR-TASS reported. The leaders met in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on 26 December to work out the final details of the ambitious plan to build a gas pipeline through war-ravaged Afghanistan, AP reported. The long-delayed $3.2 billion natural-gas pipeline would carry gas from energy-rich Turkmenistan to Pakistan. The project promises to give an economic boost to Afghanistan and is expected to create 12,000 jobs there. However, the plan lacks solid financial backing, as investors are leery of doing business in a country where U.S.-led coalition forces are still hunting down remaining members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, according to AP. TG

AID WORKERS TAKE MORE PRECAUTIONS IN AFGHANISTAN FOLLOWING ATTACK
Staff working for the French media-training nongovernmental organization AINA are taking extra safety precautions following a 19 December suicide attack near an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base east of Kabul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2002), IRIN reported on 24 December. "We have restricted our movement by foot and are only going out for essential trips accompanied in cars," said AINA Director Victor Marc. There have been many attacks on the ISAF and the public in Kabul this year, despite the presence of the protection force. However, officers remain adamant that security is stabilizing. News of the 19 December attack came as more than 150 rockets were seized by local authorities in eastern Afghanistan, AP reported. In addition, a total of 168 BM-12 rockets and an antitank mine were found on 22 December. According to local commanders, the weapons were bound for remaining members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. TG

U.S. CLUSTER BOMBS STILL CLAIMING LIVES IN AFGHANISTAN
Cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. military in Afghanistan in its war to oust the Taliban have killed or injured scores of civilians, especially children, both during and after the conflict, according to a report released on 18 December by Human Rights Watch. From October 2001-March 2002, the U.S. military dropped approximately 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 bomblets, according to the 65-page report entitled "Fatally Flawed: Cluster Bombs and Their Use by the United States in Afghanistan." At least 12,400 bomblets failed to explode and continue to pose a threat to the population, the report adds. It confirms that at least 25 civilians died and many more were injured during cluster strikes in or near populated areas, but stresses this is a conservative estimate because some deaths and injuries have gone unreported. At least 127 civilians -- typically shepherds grazing their flocks, farmers plowing their fields, and children gathering wood -- as well as two people clearing mines had been killed or injured by cluster bomblets as of 1 November 2002, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. TG

FIRST AFGHAN FILM CONSIDERED FOR OSCAR
A film by a murdered Afghan-American director is the first film representing Afghanistan to make it on the Oscar's list of foreign films. "Fire Dancer" was premiered in early September of 2002 at Kabul's Ghazi Stadium, infamous for public executions staged there by the Taliban. The late Jawed Wassel fled Afghanistan in 1985 as a refugee and settled in New York City. He wrote and directed "Fire Dancer," which tells the story of a young boy who is sent away from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to New York City, where as an adult he makes his life as an artist. The film took seven years to complete. To preserve the authenticity of the story, Jawed Wassel cast ordinary Afghan immigrants to play in his directorial debut. Wassel was murdered in New York in October 2001, allegedly over a dispute over the profits of the film. After Wassel's death, the film was completed under the guidance of the associate director, Vida Zaher Khadem. Khadem, who described the film as "a poetic and philosophical story, which strikes at the core of what it is to be an Afghan and a refugee." TG

HIZB-E ISLAMI LEADER DECLARES JIHAD TO LIBERATE AFGHANISTAN FROM FOREIGN TROOPS...
Hizb-e Islami party leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has declared a jihad to liberate Afghanistan from foreign troops, namely the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces, the United Arab Emirates-based Arabic daily "Al-Khaleej" reported on 26 December. Hekmatyar made his announcement in Pashto via leaflets distributed by his supporters in Pakistan. The radical Islamist leader said he has formed an alliance with Al-Qaeda and remnants of the Taliban to resist "foreign occupation," with the ultimate goal of setting up an elected Islamic government in Afghanistan. According to intelligence sources, Hekmatyar's forces have recently acquired artillery, machine guns, grenades, and vehicles, and it is believed they are preparing for a series of attacks on U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan and members of the ISAF in Kabul. TG

...AS EDITORIAL TOUTS PAKISTAN'S COMMITMENT TO NONINTERFERENCE
According to an editorial published on 24 December in the independent Urdu daily "Jang," Pakistan has greatly contributed to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and is firmly committed to the tenets of the Kabul Declaration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002). The editorial asserted Pakistan's commitment to noninterference and "brotherly relations" by tracing the history of relations between the two states. It noted that when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 (see End Note below), Pakistan, along with the United States, assisted the Mujahedin in their struggle for liberation. Today there are more than 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, according to the commentary. It claimed that Pakistan has significantly curtailed the narcotics trade on its end, but Afghanistan must implement stricter measures. It suggested that President Karzai must "check the influence of India, Israel, and Russia, which are longstanding foes of Pakistan." In addition, it opined that the United States and its allies must play a more important role on the humanitarian front to help repatriate Afghan refugees, stop external aggression, and engage in reconstruction efforts. TG

AFGHANISTAN SEEKS PAKISTAN'S HELP IN REVIVING MEDIA
The Afghan Transitional Administration on 26 December sought cooperation from Pakistan in different development sectors, Pakistan News Service (PNS) reported. Afghan Information and Culture Minister Seyyed Makhdoom Raheen headed a four-member delegation on a five-day visit to Pakistan to "seek cooperation from our brotherly and friendly country Pakistan for the uplift of the war-ravaged country." Raheen said the interim government must "make efforts" to revive the media industry, especially television and film, in Afghanistan, which were banned under Taliban rule. Pakistan's Information and Media Development Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed welcomed his Afghan counterpart and assured him that Pakistan will provide support. The two countries are scheduled to hold official talks on 27 December to discuss the scope of bilateral cooperation. TG

ANOTHER HEARING IN IRANIAN POLLING-INSTITUTE TRIAL
The trial of hostage-taker Abbas Abdi, a member of the board of directors of the Ayandeh Research Institute that conducted a poll in collaboration with the Washington-based Gallup Organization, began on 25 December, according to the IRNA and other sources. Abdi is accused of "selling information and tampering with the polling," participating in international seminars, and communicating with Barry Rosen, who was held hostage in Iran in 1979 along with 51 other U.S. citizens. Deputy Parliament Speaker Mohammad Reza Khatami, who founded the Islamic Iran Participation Party with Abdi and others, said after the hearing that the only difference between the charges against Abdi and those against Hussein Qazian, who was tried earlier, is that the prosecutor's representative read the charges while "orating it as a pompous political address." Khatami said, "I believe the culprits should all be acquitted." Qazian and Ali-Reza Alavi-Tabar of Ayandeh and Behruz Geranpayeh of the National Institute for Research and Opinion Polls all face charges in connection with this case, but Alavi-Tabar's continuing freedom has led to suggestions that he is cooperating with the prosecution or he is being protected because of his previous relationship with the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. BS

TRADE AND ECONOMIC AGREEMENTS SIGNED AS IRANIAN PRESIDENT VISITS PAKISTAN...
President Mohammad Khatami arrived in Islamabad on 23 December for a three-day visit. Khatami said at a banquet hosted by Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf on the first night that Tehran is encouraging its private sector to do business with neighboring countries and attaining this objective will require both sides' cooperation, IRNA reported. Khatami also noted that Iran and Pakistan are involved in regional groups like the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), and they share security interests. On 24 December, the two sides signed agreements on bilateral cooperation and trade and a memorandum of understanding on economic affairs, Islamabad's PTV reported. An official statement cited by PTV said the agreements focused on gas, electricity, software, and the establishment of fiber links, as well as antismuggling and improved railway links. BS

...AND SPEAKS ABOUT 'DIALOGUE AMONG CIVILIZATIONS'...
President Khatami spoke on 24 December at Pakistan's National Library about his pet subject, the "Dialogue Among Civilizations," PTV reported. Khatami said that this is a subject that can be approached from different perspectives, and he used as an example Pakistan's national poet, Allama Mohammad Iqbal. Khatami warned that those who sacrifice their own identity, culture, and traditions in the face of Western military, political, and economic power will lose their own heritage and also will not gain access to the Western heritage. Khatami warned that a dislike for Western economics and politics could result in not having access to the positive aspects of Western culture. Khatami called for resolving issues through dialog rather than through conflict. BS

...AS IRAN-PAKISTAN JOINT MILITARY EXERCISES PLANNED
Anonymous "official sources" said Pakistan and Iran will stage their largest military exercises early in 2003, according to the 24 December issue of Islamabad's "The News." The Pakistani daily noted that the two countries have cooperated in military affairs before but to date this cooperation has been limited to "minor maritime exercises, some training, and small-arms and ammunition sales." Meanwhile, Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Ali Shamkhani met with Pakistani defense officials and said Iran is ready to exchange technical and training experience with Pakistan, ISNA reported. BS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT TRIES TO AVOID KASHMIR...
Speaking at a 23 December banquet, Pakistan's President Musharraf welcomed Iranian efforts to help resolve the Pakistan-India dispute over Kashmir, IRNA reported the next day. Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali said during a 24 December press conference in Islamabad that he and President Khatami discussed the Kashmir dispute and agreed that it "should be solved through a meaningful and substantial dialogue between India and Pakistan and keeping in view the wishes of the Kashmiri people," Pakistan's TV-1 reported. Khatami gave the impression that he wants to avoid getting Iran involved when he said, "We hope that India and Pakistan would be able to respond to find solutions to their problems on the basis of reasoning and justice," RFE/RL reported on 24 December. BS

...AND INDIAN DAILY WARNS AGAINST IRAN'S INVOLVEMENT IN KASHMIR CONFLICT
An editorial in New Delhi's widely read Hindi "Rashtriya Sahara" daily on 24 December accused Pakistan's President Musharraf of trying to "achieve his objective by going round the world with a begging bowl." The Indian newspaper hinted that any involvement in the Kashmir dispute by Iran would put at risk the natural-gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India. The daily said that the Indian market is as important for Iran as the European one, and it added that Iran is facing competition from the proposed Trans-Afghan Pipeline (see Afghan item above). "If Iran and India maintain a cordial relationship..., business between the two countries will flourish," "Rashtriya Sahara" concluded. BS

TEHRAN DISMISSIVE OF U.S. PRESIDENT'S MESSAGE
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi reacted on 23 December to U.S. President George W. Bush's 20 December message to the Iranian people (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 December 2002) by saying, "The Iranian people have not given Bush the authority to express his opinion as their spokesman," AFP cited IRNA as reporting. "This is a fruitless and interfering act intended to create divisions between the Iranian people and officials," Assefi added. BS

UKRAINIAN AIRCRAFT CRASHES NEAR ISFAHAN
An Antonov-140 twin-engine turboprop aircraft crashed on 23 December near the village of Baqerabad while attempting to make a routine landing at Isfahan's Shahid Beheshti Airport, killing all 46 people onboard -- including Russian and Ukrainian members of the team that designed and built the plane, according to Western and Iranian news sources. A joint Iranian-Ukrainian version of the An-140 called the Iran-140 is being built in Iran, and the victims were traveling to Iran to witness its maiden flight. A second Iran-140 is scheduled to be ready by the end of the month. In what could be an attempt to assuage concerns about the aircraft's safety, the state-run Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran cited an announcement from the Isfahan Airport's control tower that "the aircraft hit a mountain near the city of Ardestan because of carelessness and a mistake by the pilot." President Khatami visited Ukraine in mid-October and at the end of the month Ukraine's Kharkiv state aviation manufacturing company and the Iranian HESA aircraft-manufacturing company signed a memorandum on sales and servicing of the An-140 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 October 2002 and 4 November 2002). BS

IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT DENIES ARMS SENT TO SYRIA
While meeting with an Egyptian-Libyan delegation visiting Baghdad on 26 December, Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan denied Israeli reports that Iraq has sent weapons of mass destruction to Syria, Cairo's Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported. "The U.S. knows well that Baghdad has no weapons of mass destruction, as the UN inspections have proved that the U.S. and British claims are lies and are only meant to contrive justifications for their possible aggression," Ramadan stated. Syria's Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's accusations of Iraq transferring chemical and biological weapons to Syria "groundless." SH

INSPECTORS IN IRAQ MOVE TO 'INVESTIGATIVE PHASE'...
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has announced that inspectors have begun to interview nuclear scientists within Iraq. In an interview with "The Washington Post," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky stated the inspectors "are moving from an information-gathering phase to a more probing, investigative phase," IAEA confirmed in a press release on 24 December. Scientists are being interviewed in order to develop a more comprehensive picture of Iraq's nuclear program through more "investigative efforts." Gwozdecky declined to reveal how many scientists are being interviewed. Under UN Security Council mandate, the IAEA has the authority to take scientists outside of Iraq and interview them but has not yet done so. In an interview with CNN on 23 December, IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei confirmed that the IAEA is "working on the practical arrangements to take people out of Iraq," including the possibility of obtaining asylum for the scientists. The head of the National Monitoring Directorate has stated that the Iraqi government has agreed to release to the UN by 29 December a list of scientists who have been involved in nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile programs. SH

...AS TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY RECEIVES SECOND VISIT
A four-member UNMOVIC combined inspection team met with the president and officials of Baghdad Technical University on 26 December, the Foreign Ministry announced. Inspectors inquired about the university's postgraduate research and toured the Chemical Engineering Department, including its labs, and the Mechanical-Engineering and Control departments. The inspection team questioned university officials on the relationship and interaction between the departments and government ministries. A group of IAEA inspectors previously visited the university on 24 December when they interviewed Dr. Sabah Abd-al-Nur, an assistant professor in the Applied Science Department who is described by the Foreign Ministry as "a technology expert who used to work in the previous nuclear program." The interview was conducted in the presence of a representative from the National Monitoring Directorate. Abd-al-Nur told reporters on 24 December that "[the inspectors] asked to interview me alone. I apologized and I asked to have [the] interview in the presence of one of our Iraqi teams. And the interview went on. It was very objective.... The question was mainly about what has been done, any progress that has been achieved in Iraq after 1998." SH

IRAQ TRIED AND FAILED TO PROCURE URANIUM
Iraq tried unsuccessfully to acquire uranium from Niger in the 1980s, Niger's Prime Minister Hama Amadou said on 24 December in a televised debate. The UN has criticized Iraq for being unable to disprove the U.S. accusation that Iraq attempted to obtain uranium from Niger. Amadou affirmed that although Iraq tried to procure the mineral from Niger "under the aegis of bilateral cooperation," the West African country "has never discussed the sale of uranium [with Iraq]," AFP reported on 25 December. SH

PUK FEARS FOREIGN OCCUPATION
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani and Sanan Ahmet Aga, leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, on 25 December held a joint press conference on Iraq's future, Ankara's Anatolia news agency reported. Talabani stated that the PUK considers Turkish forces "a friendly army," but he stressed that any foreign forces in Iraq should leave the country once the present regime is deposed and a democratic coalition government is formed. "We cannot prevent the entrance of the American troops. If they come to the region to support us...we will welcome them," he said. "However, we are opposed to [the] occupation of Iraq." Talabani commended the improvement of relations between the Turkish government and Iraqi opposition groups as advantageous to both parties. Both leaders agreed on the need to improve Kurdish-Turkmen relations and Aga observed that the proposed federal structure of a post-Saddam Hussein government would allow "Turkmens to be represented in high decision-making mechanisms and representative assemblies." SH

KURDISH CLERGY ISSUE FATWA
Iraqi Kurdish clergy issued a fatwa forbidding support of a U.S. attack on Iraq, Istanbul's pro-Islamic Kanal 7 reported on 24 December. A convention of approximately 600 Kurdish and Turkoman clergy met in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk to discuss a possible U.S. attack on Iraq. Stressing that "it is essential to fight against the United States, which wants to occupy Muslim land," the group declared jihad against the United States and appealed to the Islamic world to support Iraq in the event of a U.S. attack. SH

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