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Newsline - February 20, 2003


GENERAL STAFF SAYS WAR IN IRAQ 'INEVITABLE,' BUT RUSSIA WON'T PARTICIPATE...
Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii, first deputy chief of the General Staff, told a news conference in Moscow on 19 February that a U.S.-led military strike against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is inevitable, ORT and other Russian news agencies reported. He told journalists that the United States was ready for such a strike "already yesterday." Baluevskii said that General Staff analysts believe that the cost of the deployment of forces in anticipation of an attack on Iraq is "insignificant compared with the cost of returning them home without fulfilling the mission for which they were deployed." He added that the Russian military will not take part in any action against Hussein, and Russian forces will not be put on a heightened state of alert. Only those military units monitoring the situation would see increased activity, Baluevskii said. VY

...AS FIRST RUSSIANS EVACUATED FROM IRAQ...
The first Russian citizens to be evacuated from Iraq arrived in Moscow on 19 February, ORT reported. They left Baghdad on commercial flights and the process of evacuating nonessential Russian personnel from Iraq will continue over the next week to 10 days. An unidentified spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Baghdad was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 February as saying no decision has yet been made to evacuate all Russian citizens. However, if such a decision is made, the Emergency Situations Ministry will arrange special flights to evacuate the estimated 700 Russian citizens still in the country. The source added, however, that the embassy only has information about citizens who are registered with it and that there might be other Russian citizens in Iraq on their own. He also said that Russia might undertake the evacuation of British citizens in Iraq, since Russia represents British interests in that country. VY

...AND COMMUNIST LEADER WARNS OF 'THIRD WORLD WAR'
Gennadii Zyuganov, who is heading a delegation of more than 40 State Duma deputies visiting Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2003), said on 19 February that he believes a war in Iraq would unleash a "third world war" and destroy civil society in Europe, where the public opposes war even as their governments support it, Russian news agencies reported. Zyuganov met the same day with President Hussein and told journalists after the meeting that Hussein "is very grateful to Russia for its clear position" on the crisis in the region. VY

ONE-QUARTER OF ALL RUSSIANS LIVE IN POVERTY
Addressing a Labor Ministry session on social security on 19 February, Labor Minister Aleksandr Pochinok said that 34 million Russians, about one-quarter of the population, live below the poverty line, which means they have monthly incomes of less than 1,500 rubles ($48.39), ORT reported. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko attended the session. Pochinok added that public-sector wage arrears have begun to grow again and have reached 30 billion rubles. ORT commented that these figures are "shocking," and noted that the average income of the richest portion of the population exceeds that of the poorest portion by a factor of 14. Moreover, wealth is distributed extremely disproportionately among the regions as well, with monthly incomes in Daghestan averaging 2,000 rubles while those in the Yamal-Nenetsk Autonomous Okrug -- Russia's richest region -- average 15,000 rubles. VY

OLIGARCHS COMPLAIN ABOUT BURGEONING STATE APPARATUS...
President Vladimir Putin met on 19 February with representatives of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), "Vremya novostei" reported the next day. The basic topics of discussion were corruption, administrative reform, and tax policy. Severstal Chairman Aleksei Mordashov delivered a report criticizing the country's "excessive" bureaucracy, "Vedomosti" reported on 20 February. According to Mordashov, one of his partners had to collect 137 signatures on various documents in order to open up a store in the Moscow area. "We are seeing the burgeoning of the state apparatus in the regions and in the [federal] center," Mordashov concluded. According to ITAR-TASS, the last meeting between Putin and RSPP was held on 23 May, at which time Putin said his meetings with the group had become "not only regular, but had assumed a working character." JAC

...AND ABOUT CORRUPTION
At the same meeting, Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii, who is considered the richest person in Russia, told President Putin that the government has failed to root out corruption, Russian news agencies reported. Corruption, Khodorkovskii said, costs Russia up to $30 billion annually, about 10-12 percent of the country's GDP. He pointed out that there are only two applicants for each opening at the prestigious Moscow Gubkin Oil Institute even though the average starting salary for its graduates is about $500 a month, while there are four or five applicants for each slot at the state tax academies, although starting salaries for their graduates range from $150-$200. He also noted that the Atomic Energy Ministry is no longer "the most corrupt department in the country" and suggested that reforms undertaken there might be attempted at other government agencies. In response, Putin said that Yukos has itself been accused of tax evasion in the past and that the company's undeclared oil reserves are also related to the topic of corruption. VY/JAC

SHOOTING RAMPAGE LEAVES FIVE SOLDIERS DEAD
A soldier in a supply unit of the Strategic Rocket Force based near Krasnoyarsk on 19 February shot dead four fellow soldiers before committing suicide, RosBalt and other Russian news agencies reported. RIA-Novosti, citing the Defense Ministry's press office, identified the soldier as Private Sergei Khanov, a conscript from Perm. A delegation from the Military Prosecutor's Office has been sent to look into the incident and an investigation into charges of premeditated murder has been opened. NTV reported that investigators believe that hazing might have played a role in the incident. RC/VY

EXPLOSION DAMAGES ARCHIVES AT LITERATURE INSTITUTE
A fire-extinguisher explosion in the closed archive of the Institute of Russian Literature, or Pushkin House, in St. Petersburg on 17 February has damaged or destroyed numerous manuscripts and historical documents, "Izvestiya" reported on 19 February. According to archivist Tatyana Ivanova, archives related to 19th-century poet Ivan Krylov and 19th-century writer Dmitrii Grigorovich suffered the greatest damage. The institute's Krylov archive is the largest in the world and included 151 documents, including manuscripts of his famous fables and original letters. The institute's director, Nikolai Skatov, told the daily that the fire-extinguishing system should have undergone regular maintenance last fall, but "we could not extend the service contract because we simply did not have the money." Skatov could not say precisely how many documents have been destroyed beyond restoration or how the institute would pay for the restoration of damaged documents. RC

BILL WOULD MANDATE MORE INFORMATIONAL PROGRAMMING ON TELEVISION
Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev has sent to the government a draft bill under which state-controlled national and local television stations would have to devote 20 percent of their broadcast time to "socially significant information," while private television channels would have to devote 10 percent, newsru.com reported on 19 February. Furthermore, the bill would require that not less than 60 percent of all programming be domestically produced. Violators would be stripped of their broadcast licenses. According to RIA-Novosti, the bill will be considered during the Duma's fall session. The bill's author is Deputy Valerii Galchenko (People's Deputy). RC

DUMA SAYS YELTSIN CAN KEEP HIS PENSION
After a two-hour discussion, State Duma deputies rejected on 19 February a proposal by Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin (Communist) to amend the law on guarantees to former presidents of Russia and their families ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2002), ITAR-TASS reported. Ilyukhin argued that former President Boris Yeltsin and his family should be deprived of state benefits because Yeltsin's policies led to the collapse of the country, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. On the same day, deputies approved a bill in its second reading that establishes a procedure for calculating the incomes of low-income families and individuals applying for social assistance, according to the agency. Also approved on 19 February was a bill equalizing the pension hike of all WWII veterans. The bill was rejected earlier by the Federation Council and was revised by a conciliation commission. JAC

MUSLIMS TO COMPILE BLACKLIST
The Muslim community in Vologda has expressed its support for a proposal to create a list of names of public officials who actively oppose the activities of the Muslim community in Russia, islam.ru reported on 18 February. The list would be maintained on an Islamic website. The idea was first suggested by the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Karelia, the website reported. According to a press release from Vologda's mosque, the Vologda Muslim community believes that "the creation of such a database is a very important and timely measure that will enable us to temper the passions of those politicians and public officials who seek to earn political capital by inciting enmity among peoples of different religions or nationalities." According to the website, the Vologda community already has some candidates in mind for the list, including Vologda Oblast First Deputy Governor Ivan Pozdnyakov, who along with others reportedly supports demolition of the city's mosque. Construction of the city's first mosque began in 2000 amid public protests (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 16 February 2000). JAC

PRO-KREMLIN PARTY DENIES INVITING SENIOR DUMA DEPUTY INTO UPPER RANKS
Emergency Situations Minister and Unified Russia party senior official Sergei Shoigu told reporters on 19 February that Dmitrii Rogozin, chairman of the Duma's International Relations Committee, has not been offered a leadership post in the party as some news media reported earlier, TVS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). However, Shoigu did confirm that Rogozin has applied for membership in the party but has not yet been issued a party card. Shoigu also dismissed speculation that Rogozin has been given one of the top three spots on the Unified Russia party list for the December 2003 State Duma elections, ITAR-TASS reported. That list will not be approved until the end of September or the beginning of October, Shoigu stated. JAC

ANOTHER JOB FOUND FOR ST. PETERSBURG CHEKIST
Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller has appointed Sergei Ushakov as the company's deputy chairman for administration, RosBalt reported on 19 February, citing Gazprom's press service. Ushakov will be in charge of administrative and personnel issues. Ushakov is a former deputy director of the Federal Protection Service and previously worked in the Federal Security Service in St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast. He graduated from Leningrad State University in 1974. JAC

LOCAL FAT CAT SEEKS INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION
Weighing in at 23 kilograms, Katy, a cat in the town of Asbest in Sverdlovsk Oblast, and her owners are preparing an application to the Guinness Book of World Records for recognition as the world's fattest cat, newsru.com reported on 18 February. According to the agency, five-year-old Katy is already 2 kilograms heavier than the current record holder from Australia. According to "Komsomolskaya pravda," which first broke Katy's story on 14 February, food became the dominant interest in Katy's life three years ago, and she no longer seeks the attention of members of the opposite sex. For a photo, see http://www.kp.ru/daily/22974/1706/. JAC

CORRECTION:
An "RFE/RL Newsline" item on 3 February titled "Prosecution Asks for 14-Year Sentence for Radical Party Leader" erroneously reported that a court in Saratov Oblast had convicted National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov of organizing an illegal armed formation and other charges. The court is expected to announce its verdict in April.

ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION WILL GO TO SECOND ROUND
None of the nine candidates polled the required 50 percent plus one votes necessary for a first-round win in the 19 February Armenian presidential election, Reuters and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 20 February. Central Election Commission Chairman (CEC) Artak Sahradian announced on National Television on 20 February that incumbent President Robert Kocharian polled 49.8 percent of the vote and that a second round of voting will therefore be necessary between Kocharian and People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian. Demirchian polled 27.7 percent, followed by National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian with 17 percent. The CEC estimated late on 19 February that 61.9 percent of the electorate cast their ballots, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong. The CEC failed to comply with the requirement that it release preliminary returns early on 20 February, claiming heavy snowfalls were hindering the delivery of counted ballots from polling stations to regional election commissions, according to ITAR-TASS on 20 February. LF

INTERNATIONAL OBSERVERS CRITICIZE ARMENIAN VOTE...
In a joint statement released on 20 February before the runoff was announced, election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe said that the 19 February Armenian presidential election "fell short of international standards in several key respects," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The statement said that while the voting process was in general "well-conducted," there were instances of ballot-box stuffing and "serious irregularities" during the vote count. OSCE Observation Mission head Peter Eicher noted a "striking disparity" between voter turnout and official results at some polling stations but declined to comment on whether such irregularities could affect the outcome of the vote. LF

...OPPOSITION PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES ALLEGE MASSIVE VIOLATIONS...
The four main challengers to President Kocharian -- Demirchian, Geghamian, Center for Strategic Initiatives head Aram Karapetian, and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian -- released a joint statement at 5 p.m. Yerevan time on 19 February claiming that the voting was marred by "massive irregularities and violence" that called its legitimacy into question, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. "I have never seen such a disgraceful election in Armenia before," commented Demirchian's campaign manager, Grigol Harutunian, who claimed that Demirchian is the clear winner. Several proxies for opposition candidates reported witnessing ballot-box stuffing; one RFE/RL correspondent reported seeing a thick wad of folded ballot papers in a ballot box in the northern Yerevan district of Arabkir. A cameraman from the private Shant television station who filmed those ballots had his film confiscated by unknown individuals. On 20 February, thousands of Demirchian's supporters congregated outside the CEC building in Yerevan to protest the alleged violations, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

...AND AUTHORITIES CLAIM VOTE WAS FREE AND FAIR
CEC Secretary Anna Alexanian told Armenpress on 19 February that the commission received only four written complaints of violations of election procedures. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who managed Kocharian's campaign, on 19 February dismissed reports of alleged violations, saying that "nothing out of the ordinary is happening," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian's campaign spokesman Vahagn Mkrtchian told a late-night press conference at Kocharian's election headquarters that "we are happy with the course of the elections" and "we consider them really free and fair." LF

MANY ARMENIAN VOTERS FIGHT FOR RIGHT TO CAST BALLOTS
Thousands of people were constrained to apply to local courts on 19 February for authorization to vote after discovering that their names had been omitted from official voter lists, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. As of late afternoon, over 7,000 such authorizations had been issued. ITAR-TASS quoted CEC Chairman Artak Sahradian as admitting that inaccurate voter lists are "a chronic problem." LF

GEORGIA, RUSSIA CONTINUE TO DISAGREE ON CLOSURE OF BASES
No progress was made in Moscow on 19 February during the eighth round of Russian-Georgian talks on the optimum timeframe for the closure of the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia, Caucasus Press and Russian news agencies reported. ITAR-TASS quoted Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Kosovan as describing the talks as "extremely difficult." He said Georgia still insists the bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki be closed within 3 1/2 years, while Russia needs 11 years to do so, given that it cannot afford the 11 billion rubles ($348.9 million) needed to build accommodation in Russia for the military personnel that will be withdrawn from Georgia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 January 2003). Caucasus Press on 20 February quoted Russian Industry and Science Minister Ilya Klebanov, who headed the Russian delegation, as saying that Moscow is already seeking "sponsors" to help finance those facilities and that Georgia is interested in aiding that search. A second major bone of contention, according to Kosovan, is the former Russian military base at Gudauta. Klebanov insisted that all Russian military personnel and hardware have been withdrawn from Gudauta, leaving only 260 servicemen to guard that facility until it is handed over to the Russian peacekeepers deployed in Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian officials believe the number of Russians at Gudauta is far higher and want the base inspected by OSCE experts. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTY SEEKS TO FORM ELECTION ALLIANCE
Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili rejected on 19 February a proposal by the opposition National Movement to align and field a joint list of candidates in the parliamentary elections to be held this fall, Caucasus Press reported. "The Labor Party is not going to help the nationalists get into parliament. We shall participate in the elections independently and win without anyone's assistance," the agency quoted Natelashvili as saying. Speaking in Tbilisi earlier on 19 February, Koba Davitashvili of the New National Movement said the movement is ready to align with all political forces except the Union of Citizens of Georgia, the Batumi-based Revival Union, and the Socialist Party, Caucasus Press reported. A member of the Union of Traditionalists of Georgia parliamentary faction hinted that his party will align with the National Movement within the next two months. But Pikria Chikhradze of the New Rightists said on 19 February that her party will contest the elections independently, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN JUSTICE MINISTER RECEIVES DEATH THREAT
Roland Giligashvili has received a letter from unknown persons who threatened to kill him and his family unless he resigns his post, Caucasus Press reported on 19 February quoting the daily "Akhali taoba." The letter writers informed Giligashvili that he "made a mistake" in ordering a search at a Tbilisi prison last month. Prisoners and security forces clashed during that search, during which weapons and drugs were confiscated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2003). A second Justice Ministry official received a similar warning. Both men said they have no intention of resigning. LF

GEORGIAN DISPLACED PERSONS SUSPEND PROTEST ACTION
The Georgian displaced persons who since early January have been blocking traffic across the bridge over the Inguri River that marks the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 January 2003) agreed to abandon that protest after their representatives met on 19 February with U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles and Georgian State Minister Avtandil Djorbenadze, Caucasus Press reported. Miles hailed the Georgian leadership's recent decision to prolong for a further six months the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). He said that during those six months the United States will seek to expedite a political solution to the Abkhaz conflict that would enable the displaced persons to return to Abkhazia. Speaking in Sukhum on 19 February, Major General Kazi Ashfaq Ahmed, who commands the unarmed UN Observer Mission in Georgia, likewise expressed satisfaction that Georgia has agreed to prolong the CIS peacekeepers' mandate, Caucasus Press reported. LF

FORMER KYRGYZ PREMIER JOINS NEW PARLIAMENT FACTION...
Members of the parliament faction Regions of Kyrgyzstan announced at a press conference in Bishkek on 19 February that former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev has been chosen to cochair the 11-member faction, akipress.org reported. Bakiev explained that he is familiar with the problems facing the regions, having worked as a regional administrator prior to his appointment as premier. The faction was created through the merger of two blocs, Regions of Kyrgyzstan and the Rightist Bloc. Its orientation is described as "centrist." It will not unequivocally support the government, but might do so on occasion. It advocates "common sense and compromise" when adopting major decisions, akipress.org reported. LF

...WHILE REGIONAL GOVERNOR HEADS NEW POLITICAL PARTY
Osh Oblast Governor Naken Kasiev is to head the Elet (Rural Population) political party, Elet Deputy Chairman Tashbolot Baltabaev told journalists on 19 February, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Elet was formally registered in December 2002 and aims to defend the interests of the rural population, many of whom live in extreme poverty. LF

KYRGYZSTAN PROTESTS INCURSION BY UZBEK BORDER GUARDS
Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov has summoned Uzbekistan's Ambassador Alisher Salahitdinov to demand an explanation for an incident on 14 February, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 19 February. Two Uzbek border guards crossed into Kyrgyz territory, stopped a Kyrgyz bus, asked the driver for his identification, and fired into the air when he refused to comply. The guards were subsequently ordered by their superior officers to return to Uzbek territory. Aitmatov reminded Salahitdinov of Kyrgyzstan's earlier proposal to sign a memorandum on confidence-building measures for the area along the two countries' common border, centrasia.ru reported. LF

TURKMEN PRESIDENT'S OEUVRE TRANSLATED INTO KYRGYZ
A translation into Kyrgyz of Saparmurat Niyazov's spiritual treatise "Rukhname" was officially presented at the State History Museum in Bishkek on 19 February, Niyazov's 64th birthday, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. LF

TAJIKISTAN REPORTS LARGEST-EVER DRUG HAUL
Tajik police rounded up a group of alleged drug smugglers in the Aini Raion of northern Tajikistan's Sughd Oblast during the night of 18-19 February and confiscated 345 kilograms of heroin, Russian news agencies and Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 19 February. It was the largest single consignment of heroin ever seized, with an estimated street value of $10 million, according to Tajik Interior Ministry official Major General Tokhirdjin Normatov. LF

UZBEK JOURNALIST JAILED
Uzbekistan's Supreme Court has handed down a seven-year prison sentence to 24-year-old Gairat Mekhliboev for his conviction on charges of inciting religious intolerance, attempting to undermine the state system, and participating in mass unrest, Interfax reported on 19 February. An unnamed court official claimed that Mekhliboev confessed to belonging to the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party and that illicit religious literature was found in his hostel room. Mekhliboev was arrested in Tashkent in July during a protest by market traders. LF

UZBEK GOVERNMENT OUTLINES ECONOMIC PRIORITIES FOR 2003
At its 17 February session, the cabinet of ministers identified key economic priorities for 2003, uza.uz reported on 19 February. They include improving upon the present "half-baked" approach to economic reform and, especially, strengthening the role of the private sector; reviewing management of the agricultural sector and introducing new market-oriented prices for agricultural products; expediting the privatization process; cracking down on unauthorized imports of consumer goods; liberalizing the foreign-currency market; and implementing a strict monetary policy to curb inflation and stabilize the som. LF

BELARUS PUTS FOUR PETROCHEMICAL GIANTS ON SELLING BLOCK IN MOSCOW
The Belarusian Embassy in Moscow on 19 February published the privatization terms for four major Belarusian petrochemical enterprises, Belapan reported. The government is offering a 43.27 percent stake in Palimir (Navapolatsk), 43.19 percent of shares in Naftan (Navapolatsk), 43.08 percent of Azot (Hrodna), and 43.66 percent of Khimvalakno (Hrodna). Auctions will be held in March or April, while the payments by successful bidders are expected over several phases in 2003-05. The starting prices are $311 million, $467 million, $293 million, and $71 million, respectively. JM

OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY INVITES TWO BELARUSIAN DELEGATIONS
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has invited representatives of the Belarusian opposition and the National Assembly to attend its winter session, scheduled in Vienna on 20-21 February, Belapan reported on 19 February. The opposition delegation consists of Anatol Lyabedzka and Yaraslaw Ramanchuk of the United Civic Party, and Syarhey Haydukevich of the Liberal Democratic Party. Haydukevich told the agency he will urge the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to recognize the National Assembly, while Lyabedzka said he will try to dissuade the OSCE body from doing so. The official delegation will reportedly be headed by Uladzimir Kanaplyou, deputy chairman of the Chamber of Representatives (the lower house of the National Assembly). The National Assembly, created following a rigged constitutional referendum in 1996, has so far failed to win recognition by the OSCE. JM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION PARTIES BRAND LOCAL-ELECTION CAMPAIGN 'UNDEMOCRATIC'
The Confederation for Social Changes -- which unites the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), the Party of Labor, and the Women's Party -- has said in a statement that the current local-election campaign is undemocratic, Belapan reported on 19 February. The statement notes that members of democratic, nongovernmental organizations were not included on election commissions, and that 30-40 percent of opposition nominees were denied registration as candidates. "The heads of many local election commissions have been set a clear task of ensuring the election of so-called core candidates, i.e. government-favored candidates, by all means available," the four parties assert. They also name some peculiarities of the Belarusian Election Code that they say create "all necessary conditions" for a rigged election. In particular, the code does not provide for election monitors' right to observe the vote-counting process at polling stations or receive certified copies of precinct commissions' official count reports. The code also provides for five-day early voting, which critics say leaves room for fraud. JM

UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT UPBEAT ON MAINTAINING ECONOMIC GROWTH
First Deputy Premier Mykola Azarov told a cabinet meeting on 19 February that implementation of the government's economic program will allow the economy to grow by 5-6 percent in 2003 and by some 8 percent in 2004, Interfax reported. Ukrainian GDP grew by 4.1 percent in 2002. Azarov also said the cabinet and the parliament will strive to adopt a Tax Code this year that provides for a gradual reduction of the profit tax to 20 percent, value-added tax to 15 percent, and individual income tax to 20 percent. JM

U.S. CONGRESSMAN URGES BETTER TIES WITH UKRAINE
Congressman Curt Weldon (Republican, Pennsylvania), cochairman of the Group for Assistance to Ukraine in the U.S. House of Representatives, met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, and a number of cabinet members in Kyiv in the past few days, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on 19 February. Weldon told Ukrainian journalists that the group he cochairs will work toward increasing U.S. assistance to Ukraine and abolishing the Jackson-Vanik amendment that put curbs on U.S. trade with Ukraine. Weldon also proposed holding a U.S.-Ukrainian conference of missile-defense-system experts in Ukraine in order to map out possible areas of cooperation. JM

ESTONIAN PEACEKEEPING UNIT STARTS MISSION IN KOSOVA
The Estonian Baltic Reconnaissance Squadron BALTSQN-7 peacekeeping unit on 20 February began its six-month mission in Kosova, replacing a Latvian unit that served there since September 2002, BNS reported. The 98-member Estonian unit, led by Lieutenant Tarmo Safronov, is serving as part of a NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) battalion stationed near Mitrovica. The unit underwent pre-mission training by Estonian and Danish instructors in October and completed it with a month of training in Denmark. In addition to the unit, 22 Estonian peacekeepers are also serving with the multipurpose military-police platoon ESTPATROL-7 in Prishtina, Kosova. SG

LATVIAN PRESIDENT COMPLETES VISIT TO WASHINGTON
Vaira Vike-Freiberga ended her four-day visit to Washington, D.C., on 19 February with three meetings, LETA reported the next day. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell thanked her for Latvia's support regarding the Iraq conflict and expressed the hope that the rift within NATO over the issue will not weaken trans-Atlantic relations. Vike-Freiberga discussed the Iraq situation as well as U.S.-Russian relations with John Hamre, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic International Studies. Vike-Freiberga also met with Council of Women World Leaders Secretary-General Laura Liswood, who informed her of a global meeting of female government ministers that is scheduled to take place in Europe later this year. The two women spoke about the role women have in developing political and economic solutions to "sensitive" global issues. SG

POLISH ARMY LEADER VISITS LITHUANIA
Polish armed forces General Staff Chief General Czeslaw Piatas paid an official visit to Lithuania on 19 February, BNS reported. He held meetings with Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius, Army Commander Major General Jonas Kronkaitis, and members of the parliament's National Security and Defense Committee. Linkevicius said the joint Lithuanian-Polish battalion LITPOLBAT, Lithuania's only joint military unit with a NATO member state, "serves as a good example in the context of regional partnership." Piatas said Poland is considering the possibility of renaming Headquarters Multinational Corps Northeast, the joint Polish, German, and Danish corps based in Szczecin, Poland, to the Baltic Corps and inviting Lithuanian soldiers to join. In Piatas's talks with Kronkaitis it was noted that after Lithuania's NATO-accession treaty is ratified, its Regional Air Space Observation and Control Center will be incorporated into NATO structures through the system of the Polish Air Force. SG

POLISH TELEVISION BOSS TESTIFIES IN 'RYWINGATE'...
Polish Television Chairman Robert Kwiatkowski on 19 February told the parliamentary commission investigating the so-called Rywingate scandal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2003) that it was not his idea to send film producer Lew Rywin to "Gazeta Wyborcza" to solicit a bribe, Polish media reported. "Gazeta Wyborcza" Editor in Chief Adam Michnik suggested that Kwiatkowski might have been interested in compromising the daily through a bribery scandal in order to eliminate it as a potential buyer in the possible privatization of Polish Television's second channel. "I never intended to privatize the [Polish Television] Second Program, or indeed the First Program either, and I never undertook activities in that direction," Kwiatkowski told the commission. Meanwhile, the 18 February issue of "Rzeczpospolita" published Kwiatkowski's phone bills, which show that he telephoned Rywin 13 times over a two-week period in July, when Rywin allegedly made his offer to Agora, the publisher of "Gazeta Wyborcza" JM

...AS EX-PREMIER URGES RULING PARTY TO DEAL OPENLY WITH SCANDAL
Mieczyslaw Rakowski, Poland's last communist premier, published an open letter in "Gazeta Wyborcza" on 17 February urging the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) to convene a meeting of its National Council in connection with Rywingate. Rakowski told PAP on 19 February that he initially planned to publish his letter in the "Trybuna" daily, which is linked to the SLD, but "Trybuna" Editor in Chief Marek Baranski refused to print it. Rakowski urged the SLD in his letter to "present [at the convention] the circumstances concerning every aspect of the case [Rywingate] in which its politicians are involved in whatever way." Rakowski told PAP that he wants the SLD "not to give the impression that it is on the defensive" in Rywingate. Rywin allegedly claimed during his contacts with "Gazeta Wyborcza" that a "group of people in power," including Premier Leszek Miller, was behind his offer. JM

POLAND TO BE GIVEN 1,341 JOBS IN EU BUREAUCRACY
The European Commission on 19 February announced that there will be 1,341 jobs earmarked for Poles in EU institutions after the country joins the EU on 1 May 2004, PAP reported. The European Commission currently employs 25,000 clerks, including 17,000 in Brussels. JM

CZECH SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC LAWMAKERS ENDORSE LEADERSHIP'S PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE...
The Social Democratic Party's (CSSD) parliamentary group in the Chamber of Deputies on 19 February rallied behind the CSSD leadership's choice of philosopher and former Education Minister Jan Sokol as the party's candidate in the 28 February presidential vote, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2002). CSSD Deputy Michal Kraus said the vote was unanimous, although it later emerged that seven of the party's 70 deputies did not participate. Sokol can become the party's official candidate if at least 10 deputies or senators submit his nomination to the respective chambers' election commissions. CTK reported that Sokol is assured of support in the Senate by CSSD senators and by the Open Democracy parliamentary group. Representatives from CSSD's junior coalition partners -- the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union -- immediately welcomed the CSSD vote and said they are prepared to endorse Sokol's nomination. The candidacy must be submitted by 25 February, three days ahead of the planned 28 February vote. Sokol is expected to face Civic Democratic Party Honorary Chairman and former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus in what is the legislature's third attempt to elect a successor to former President Vaclav Havel. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla responded to the vote by saying he thinks Sokol would win in a secret ballot, CTK reported. MS

...AS PREMIER FACES INTRAPARTY CHALLENGE BY 'RETIRED' CSSD LEADER
Former Prime Minister and ex-CSSD leader Milos Zeman has launched an overt campaign to topple his successor in both posts, Vladimir Spidla, the daily "Lidove noviny" reported on 20 February. The paper says Zeman, whose presidential bid was torpedoed by Spidla in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2003) despite factional support within the party, is seeking to "weaken Spidla's position before the [party] conference in late March." It quoted Zeman as saying: "If a party is led by mediocre people, it does not make those people grand but, on the contrary, the party becomes mediocre as well." Zeman made room at the head of the party for Spidla during the former's term as prime minister, repeatedly vowing to "retire from politics" once the 1998-2002 electoral term concluded. But the two men and their party backers suffered a public break in the run-up to the June elections that eventually handed Spidla the reins of government. AH

CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER IN PORTUGAL
Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda on 19 February met in Lisbon with his Portuguese counterpart Antonio Martins da Cruz to discuss bilateral relations and the Iraqi crisis, along with the Euro-Atlantic and EU rifts accompanying it, CTK reported. Svoboda said the two countries' positions on these issues are similar and they both advocate unity in the EU and in NATO, stressing that Europe must stand united in supporting the work of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq. A military solution to the crisis, he stressed, should only be a last resort and should follow a decision by the UN Security Council. Martins said it is the task of the international community to exert pressure on Iraq to fulfill the UN resolutions. He also said the Iraqi crisis and the differences of opinion that have emerged between EU candidate countries and some current EU members have changed nothing in the accession timetable, and the year 2004 remains the accession date. MS

NIGERIAN DIPLOMAT SHOT DEAD AT PRAGUE EMBASSY
Fifty-year-old Nigerian consul Michael Lekara Wayid was killed and a receptionist wounded on 19 February by an elderly man who reportedly had sunk considerable amounts of money into dubious oil-industry investments, CTK and local television reported. Police have charged a 72-year-old Czech man, who was detained at the scene and taken to a local military hospital after collapsing, in the shooting, CTK added. A cousin was quoted by TV Nova as saying the pensioner had lost all his savings and accumulated 3 million crowns (roughly $100,000) in debt through investments in "a contract confirmed by [Nigeria's] president" that was purported to relate to the oil industry. Embassy staff said at least one shot rang out shortly after the man entered the consul's office. Nigeria's ambassador, who was not identified, was subsequently being treated by emergency medical personnel for what Czech Television described as a "nervous breakdown" after the late-morning incident, according to CTK. MS/AH

A QUARTER OF A MILLION SLOVAKS SIGN REFERENDUM PETITION
Some 250,000 Slovaks have signed a petition supporting a referendum on the country's planned accession to NATO, CTK reported on 19 February. Eduard Chmelar, head of the Slovak Governance Institute that launched the plebiscite drive on 14 January, told reporters that organizers are confident they will collect the 100,000 additional signatures required by the end of March to force the referendum. Chmelar said he does not rule out delivering the signatures to President Rudolf Schuster's office before 26 March -- the day the treaty on Slovakia's accession to NATO is to be signed. He said that, in that case, the government should await the outcome of the referendum before signing the treaty. According to Chmelar, the referendum could be conducted simultaneously with the plebiscite on EU accession, which has been scheduled for 16-17 May. MS

SLOVAK COURT ORDERS REPEAT OF VOTE FOR SUPREME COURT CHAIRMAN
The Constitutional Court on 19 February heeded an appeal by Sergej Kohut against the re-election in December of Stefan Harabin as Supreme Court chairman, TASR reported. The Constitutional Court ruled that the Judicial Council infringed on the provision ensuring equality by allowing Harabin, who is a member of the council, to participate in the vote, presumably casting a ballot for himself, while disqualifying Kohut, who is also a member of the council, from taking part in the election. Judicial Council Deputy Chairman Jozef Hrabovsky said that, as a result of the ruling, the new elections cannot take place before March, since the statutes of the Judicial Council will have to be changed. President Schuster's spokesman, Jan Fule, said Schuster respects the decision and will postpone the appointment of a new Supreme Court chairman. MS

HUNGARIAN PARTIES FAIL TO AGREE ON NATO TRANSIT SHIPMENTS TO TURKEY
Hungary's parliamentary parties on 19 February failed to reach an agreement on whether parliament should allow a NATO shipment to Turkey to cross Hungary, "Nepszabadsag" reported. The stalemate came after the opposition FIDESZ party insisted that the operative provisions of the necessary resolution specify what equipment is to be transported. FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Zsolt Nemeth explained that his party wants to ensure that the military hardware to be shipped to Turkey will be used solely for defensive purposes and not for attacking Iraq. That can be avoided, he said, if AWACS planes, missile-defense systems, and chemical- and biological-defense gear are listed in the operative provisions of a resolution rather than in its explanatory provisions. Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs countered that it would be impossible to check the shipment in detail. He said another round of cross-party consultations is scheduled for 21 February and, if agreement is reached, a resolution can be passed by parliament on 24 February, the daily reported. MSZ

HUNGARIAN PREMIER CALLS 'GROUP OF EIGHT' LETTER A 'TRAP'
Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy said in an interview with the Paris newspaper "Liberation" that the "group of eight" letter was a trap, "Magyar Hirlap" reported on 20 February. Replying to the newspaper's suggestion that the letter expressing support for the U.S. position on Iraq, signed by himself and seven other European leaders, was a trap, Medgyessy said, "It was a trap that could not be avoided." The circumstances under which the letter came about might raise questions, Medgyessy continued, but he stressed that its undisputable aim was to forge a common EU stance on Iraq. He said he is sure that, in the absence of the letter, the 15 EU member states would not have come to a consensus at their special summit in Brussels on 17 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). MSZ

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT TO DECIDE ON DEFENSE MINISTER'S POLITICAL IMMUNITY
Parliament's Immunity Committee on 19 February forwarded to the plenum a motion to suspend Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz's immunity from prosecution, Budapest dailies reported. The motion failed to win a majority in that committee, as its members were evenly divided. The Buda Central District Court asked speaker Katalin Szili to suspend Juhasz's immunity after former Prime Minister Viktor Orban accused him of defamation of character in November. Orban said Juhasz called him "anti-Semitic and nationalist" during a radio broadcast. MSZ

BOSNIAN COURT SENTENCES FORMER INTERIOR MINISTER
A cantonal court in Sarajevo on 19 February found former Bosnian Interior Minister Alija Delimustafic guilty of having organized and carried out the abduction of a Bosnian national in Munich in October 1996, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. Delimustafic was sentenced to four years in prison. He was held in custody in Bosnia between August 2000 and February 2001 in connection with the case, but disappeared after his release. In January 2002, Serbian authorities arrested him in Belgrade and subsequently sentenced him to three months in prison for forging documents. He was extradited to Bosnia in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January, 27 March, and 20 May 2002). UB

FOREIGN MINISTER OF SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO HOLDS TALKS IN SARAJEVO
Goran Svilanovic, the acting foreign minister of Serbia and Montenegro, visited the Bosnian capital on 19 February, where he met with international community High Representative Paddy Ashdown, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. After the talks, Ashdown and Svilanovic recommended that the Southeast European countries act jointly at the EU summit in Thessaloniki in June, as this would enhance their chances for integration into European structures. Svilanovic also held consultations with Bosnian leaders to discuss regional cooperation and the prospects for bilateral relations. Later the same day, he told a press conference that the recent Bosnian decision to sue Yugoslavia before the International Court of Justice in The Hague should not strain relations between the two countries, even though "it casts a shadow on bilateral cooperation," Tanjug reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 10 February 2003). UB

SERBIAN FINANCE MINISTER SAYS FISCAL INDEPENDENCE OF BOSNIAN ENTITIES MUST BE ENSURED
Serbia's finance minister, Bozidar Djelic, who accompanied Svilanovic, said in Sarajevo on 19 February that the unified tax system as proposed by the international community must not endanger the fiscal independence of Bosnian entities, Tanjug reported. Djelic was reacting to a statement by Bosnian Serb leader Mirko Sarovic, who holds the rotating Bosnian Presidency, suggesting that any move to establish a unified tax system that might undermine the Republika Srpska's fiscal sovereignty would be unconstitutional (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). UB

ETHNIC ALBANIAN PROTESTS ARE RENEWED IN SOUTHERN SERBIA
About 7,000 ethnic Albanians staged a demonstration in the southern Serbian town of Presevo on 19 February to repeat demands for the release of seven people suspected of weapons violations, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. A similar protest took place in Bujanovac on 13 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 14 February 2003). UB

HAGUE PROSECUTOR DEMANDS MACEDONIAN COOPERATION WITH TRIBUNAL
Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal, met with Prosecutor-General Aleksandar Prcevski and government members in Skopje on 19 February, MIA news agency reported. Del Ponte demanded that the government adopt a law on cooperation with the tribunal. Prcevski agreed that such a law would help the Macedonian judiciary act without encountering problems with the tribunal, as has been the case. The governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and its junior coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), have already signaled their readiness to draft such a law, RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters reported. UB

SLOVENIA WELCOMES EUROPEAN COMMISSION DECISION
The European Commission's favorable opinion, adopted on 19 February, to admit 10 new EU member states, including Slovenia, marks the first of three green lights on the path to accession, "Delo" reported on 20 February. The European Parliament and European Council will make their decisions on 9 and 14 April, respectively, ahead of the planned signing of the accession treaty in Athens on 16 April. The European Parliament has advised candidates to undertake steps to pave the way for EU legislation. To this end, Slovenia's National Assembly has been debating the four "European articles" in its constitution dealing with EU accession, the National Assembly's role in international decision-making, extradition, and foreign ownership of property. The European Parliament also set a 1 March deadline for adopting documents to combat corruption and organized crime. The Slovenian documents are prepared and awaiting the foreign minister's signature, "Delo" reported. DR

ROMANIAN RULING PARTY, UDMR EXTEND COOPERATION AGREEMENT
The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) on 19 February extended for one year their agreement to cooperate in parliament and at the local-government level, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Under the agreement's main stipulation, the PSD is to consult with the UDMR on main legislation proposals as well as on government ordinances. In addition, the UDMR is to refrain from supporting in parliament any motion of no confidence in the cabinet. The agreement also stipulates the allocation of greater funds from the central government to Transylvanian counties; the introduction of a local Hungarian-language television broadcast in Targu-Mures and of two new Hungarian-language departments at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj; the drafting by the cabinet of a law on restitution of properties confiscated by the communist regime from national minorities' associations; and other laws in which the Hungarian minority has a particular stake. The agreement was signed by Premier Adrian Nastase and UDMR Chairman Bela Marko. MS

ROMANIA TO STIFFEN MEASURES AGAINST ELECTRONIC-MEDIA INCITEMENT OF RACISM, ANTI-SEMITISM
The Chamber of Deputies' Cultural Commission on 19 February empowered the National Audiovisual Council to withdraw the broadcasting licenses of radio and television stations that "repeatedly incite anti-Semitism, [and] racial, religious, or sexual discrimination" or which "seriously and repeatedly infringe on the innocent-until-proven-guilty" presumption. The commission also decided that licensing might be withdrawn if broadcasts affect national security or incite social disorder, Romanian Radio reported. MS

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT REBUFFS FRENCH PRESIDENT'S CRITICISM
President Georgi Parvanov met with French Ambassador to Bulgaria Jean-Loup Kuhn-Delforge on 19 February, the president's official website (http://www.president.bg) reported. In the meeting, Parvanov said criticism on the part of French President Jacques Chirac and other French officials regarding Bulgaria's stand on the Iraq issue is "unacceptable" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 19 February 2003). Parvanov said Bulgaria must not be forced to choose among its allies, and underscored that its policies toward the European Union and the United States should not be a source of division. He called on France to utilize existing mechanisms for future consultations with Bulgaria. The same day, opposition Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev reiterated his demand that the government find a happy medium on its Iraq policies between France and Germany's stance and that of the United States, mediapool.bg reported. Stanishev said Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski's response to Chirac's statement was an example of "hiding one's head in the sand" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2003). UB

BULGARIAN SECRET-SERVICE CHIEF DISMISSED
Parvanov on 19 February approved Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov's proposal to dismiss Dimo Gyaurov as director of the National Intelligence Service (NRS), BTA reported. Mediapool.bg reported that Gyaurov's dismissal is linked to the demilitarization of the secret services, a process that was to have been finished prior to Bulgaria's reception of an invitation to join NATO last November. However, the government has yet to draft a new law on the secret services (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August and 18 December 2002 and 10 February 2003). The government will most likely appoint Kiril Kirov as acting NRS director, "Standart" reported. UB

BULGARIAN CONSERVATIVES FOUND NEW ORGANIZATION
Members of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) have founded the so-called Citizens' Committee 14 December, whose primary aim is to strengthen civil society, mediapool.bg reported. On 17 February, former SDS Deputy Chairman Edvin Sugarev was elected as the committee's national coordinator (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2002). The new organization, whose name commemorates the 14 December 1989 protests against the country's communist-era constitution, will not be linked to any political party and will be open to all citizens. The only precondition for future members is that they never worked for the communist-era secret services. Sugarev said the committee will initiate a public debate on a new constitution. Some observers believe the founding of the committee is the beginning of a new split within the SDS. UB

JOURNALISTS OF BULGARIAN STATE-OWNED NEWS AGENCY GO ON STRIKE
BTA journalists announced on 19 February that they will go on a symbolic strike on 20 February, mediapool.bg reported. The journalists are demanding the resignation of BTA General Director Stoyan Cheshmedzhiev, whom the Union of Bulgarian Journalists (SBZh) claims is more interested in the agency's real estate than in its journalistic work (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2003). UB

BULGARIAN EMBASSY IN BELGRADE ON ARMS TRANSPORT
The Bulgarian Embassy in Belgrade denied on 19 February that a Bulgarian aircraft was detained by authorities at Belgrade airport on 17 February, BTA reported. The aircraft, which was chartered by a company from Serbia and Montenegro, was carrying about 17 tons of weapons. The aircraft was merely inspected by customs officers during the loading of arms ultimately bound for Kenya, the embassy stated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2003). UB

IS THE U.S. READY TO DEAL WITH KUCHMA?
In its 8-14 February edition, the Kyiv weekly "Zerkalo nedeli" reviewed the draft bill "On Social and Legal Guarantees for the President of Ukraine after the Termination of [Presidential] Powers" that was recently registered with the Verkhovna Rada by lawmaker Serhiy Kivalov, whom the weekly called a "man from the presidential entourage." Kivalov leads the Sea Party of Ukraine and is the rector of the Odesa State Juridical Academy.

The draft bill, which reportedly consists of nine articles, proposes that the state should provide retired presidents with a dacha, car, bodyguards, the right to medical treatment in governmental health-care facilities, and a monthly pension equal to 80 percent of the president's average monthly salary.

Article 7 of the draft, titled "The Right for Tax Amnesty," reportedly reads: "The president of Ukraine has the right to tax amnesty that will result in freeing the taxpayer from financial, administrative, and criminal responsibility for evading the payment of taxes and failing to declare incomes and hard-currency funds [and] movable and immovable property located both in Ukraine and outside its borders. The president of Ukraine...shall submit a declaration to the State Tax Administration of Ukraine with information about funds and objects of tax amnesty that will be taken as a taxation basis for calculating tax obligations for future periods. The information contained in the declaration of incomes subject to amnesty is state property [sic] and may not be made public." This article also stipulates that the tax amnesty does not extend to assets defined as illegal by the 1997 international convention on money laundering and that such an amnesty may be granted to the president only once.

"Zerkalo nedeli" commented that giving immunity to President Kuchma and his capital would not be a bad idea, as it would obviate the need for Kuchma to install a successor who would provide him with such immunity in the future. Thus, the weekly concluded, Ukraine would have a chance of holding a free and democratic presidential election. However, the weekly also quoted the results of a recent poll by the Oleksandr Razumkov Center for Political and Economic Studies, according to which more than 81 percent of respondents are against passing a law that would give Kuchma immunity from criminal prosecution after the conclusion of his presidential tenure.

It is noteworthy that Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, who visited Washington in early February and met with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a number of U.S. congressmen, commented last week that the question of guarantees for Kuchma "cannot be sidestepped," according to the Our Ukraine press service. Yushchenko said the goal of such guarantees would be to "return Ukraine to a path of democratic development."

"Most likely, it is necessary to make a political decision on guarantees for the president in order to prevent the past from obscuring [our] attention to the future," Yushchenko said. "I agree that this topic is becoming more and more urgent. The general background on the eve of the presidential election [in 2004] is certainly comprehensible -- everybody on both sides is tired and waiting for changes."

The weekly "Grani," which is linked to the Socialist Party of Oleksandr Moroz, made more far-reaching conclusions on 17 February, suggesting that the issue of amnesty for Kuchma upon his departure -- not only with regard to his purportedly undeclared capital but also to other issues, including the scandal over Ukraine's alleged sale of a Kolchuga radar system to Iraq and the killing of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze -- might have been raised initially by Washington, which is reportedly interested in drawing Ukraine into an anti-Iraq coalition, especially in view of the current opposition of Germany, France, and Russia to a possible U.S. military action against Baghdad.

To support its conclusions, "Grani" pointed to the recent change of Kuchma's tone with regard to the Iraq problem. The weekly stressed that in a joint statement at a recent meeting, Kuchma and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski both said they are going "to take specific measures to resolve the Iraq crisis." The weekly quoted Kuchma's statement last week about Ukraine's readiness to provide an antichemical-warfare unit for a possible United Nations-sanctioned mission "on the territory of countries neighboring Iraq."

"Grani" also noted that U.S. officials have recently fallen silent on the two issues that not so long ago seemed to be of utmost importance for Washington in its relations with Kyiv: the Kolchuga sale allegations and the investigation into the death of Gongadze. According to the weekly, a new geopolitical expediency has forced Washington to set these issues aside and seek "amnesty" for Kuchma for any unseemly deeds that he might have done or authorized.

It is also strange, "Grani" opined, that the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) withdrew its call for international financial sanctions against Ukraine just two months after it was officially voiced. "Grani" said no serious measures could be taken by international financial institutions within this time to discover whether Ukrainian banks and individuals were actually involved in money-laundering operations, let alone to prevent them. The weekly suggested that the FATF withdrew its recommendation of sanctions against Ukraine under pressure from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which is reportedly seeking to repair relations with Kuchma in the face of the Iraq crisis.

"Grani" concluded its article on amnesty for Kuchma with a half-mocking and half-serious assertion that now, given this new turn in U.S. policies vis-a-vis Kuchma, the Ukrainian president will not need any legislative "amnesties" and guarantees of immunity because he can easily provide for such guarantees himself by arranging his re-election for a third term.

U.S. DESIGNATES HEKMATYAR A TERRORIST
The U.S. State Department issued a statement on 19 February designating Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of the radical Hizb-e Islami, as a terrorist (http://www.state.gov). State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. government possesses information that Hekmatyar "has participated in and supported terrorist acts committed by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban." As such, the United States is designating Hekmatyar a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" and will request that the United Nations include him on its list of "entities and individuals associated with" Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions 1267, 1390, and 1455. Boucher said such a UN ruling "will obligate all member states [of the UN] to impose sanctions" including freezing Hekmatyar's assets. Hekmatyar on 26 December 2002 declared a jihad against U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2002), but he has denied links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2003). AT

U.S. MILITARY VEHICLE HITS MINE IN AFGHANISTAN
A U.S. military vehicle reportedly blew up on 19 February when it hit a mine in the Zormat region of the Paktiya Province, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported the same day. Eyewitnesses said U.S. and Afghan troops arrived after the accident and that a helicopter removed three injured people from the scene, according to the report. Afghanistan remains one for the most heavily mined countries in the world. Afghans are killed and maimed daily by mines mostly laid by Soviet troops in the 1980s and also by various mujahedin factions later during the Afghan civil war. AT

AFGHANISTAN'S KONDUZ PROVINCE HIT BY EXPLOSIONS
Three explosions rocked the northern Afghan city of Konduz on 18 February, causing damage but no casualties, Radio Afghanistan reported the next day. The first explosion took place near the building that houses the offices of the International Organization of Migration; the second near the headquarters of U.S. forces in Konduz Province; and the third in the vicinity of Afghan Army Corps No. 6 headquarters, according to the report. Abdul Majid, the head of security in Balkh Province who previously headed security in Konduz Province, told Radio Afghanistan the explosions were the first in Konduz since the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan was established in December 2001. Abdul Majid added that Konduz Province remains a Taliban stronghold and that members "are trying to disturb security," the radio reported. AT

VIDEO CENTERS BANNED IN KONDUZ PROVINCE
Local authorities of northern Afghanistan's Konduz Province have issued a decree banning the distribution and showing of videotapes, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 19 February. The decree warned video-center owners against resuming their operations, according to the report. Such centers often show Western and Indian movies, many of which contain violence and sexually explicit scenes. On 21 January, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mulla Fazl Hadi Shinwari ordered a ban on cable-television broadcasts in Afghanistan, saying it is "against Islamic laws and values" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2003). It is not clear if the decree by Konduz Province authorities is based on the 21 January Supreme Court ruling or was decided locally. AT

U.S., AFGHANISTAN SIGN AGREEMENTS ON DRUGS AND POLICE
U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Robert Finn and Afghan State Adviser for National Security Affairs Zalmay Rasul signed an agreement on 19 February under which the United States will provide training and equipment to Afghan police force, help develop a judicial system, and implement programs designed to combat the cultivation of opium poppies, Afghanistan Television reported. The U.S. assistance is valued at $60 million, according to the report. Illegal-drug production in Afghanistan increased drastically in 2002 (for analysis of the Afghanistan opium-poppy problem, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 February 2003). AT

FORMER INTELLIGENCE OFFICER ALLEGES IRANIAN AND HIZBALLAH LINKS WITH AL-QAEDA
Hamid Reza Zakeri, a former official in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and the supreme leader's office, said in the 18 February issue of London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the IRGC has had a relationship with groups like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda since the 1980s. He said Lebanese Hizballah official Imad Mughniyah maintains contacts with Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, and that prior to 11 September 2001 Mughniyah relayed a request for assistance from al-Zawahiri to the IRGC. The Iranians declined this request, according to Zakeri. Mughniyah is still in Iran and "he organized the escape of dozens of Al-Qaeda elements to Iran," Zakeri said. Zakeri was interviewed outside Iran at an undisclosed location. An anonymous source in the MOIS denied Zakeri's allegations about Iranian links with Al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported, adding that Zakeri was expelled from the MOIS for "suspicious behavior and connections." An official in the supreme leader's office accused Zakeri of "of spying, being an agent, and scheming against Islam and the revolution in coordination with the Zionists and world arrogance." BS

DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS IRAN'S AIRSPACE OFF-LIMITS TO U.S.
Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani told a Tehran press conference on 19 February that Iran will "never" open its borders or airspace to Americans even if a U.S.-led attack on Iraq has United Nations backing, according to IRNA. Shamkhani said U.S. equipment is not "precise," citing the 1988 shoot down of an Iranian passenger aircraft by a U.S. warship and the recent explosion of the Columbia space shuttle. SF

NO SURVIVORS OF REVOLUTION GUARDS TRANSPORT-AIRCRAFT CRASH
An Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft carrying 284 members of the IRGC and 18 crewmembers crashed at approximately 5 p.m. local time on 19 February in the Shahdad area of Kerman province, according to IRNA and Iranian broadcast media. Air-traffic controllers at Kerman airport said the pilot had reported bad weather and strong winds before contact was lost, IRNA reported. The crash victims served in the IRGC's Imam Ali Battalion in Sistan va Baluchistan Province. BS

MISSING IRANIAN JOURNALIST LOCATED
Journalist Mohsen Sazgara, who on 18 February was detained by unknown officials for unknown reasons and taken to an unknown location, was located on 19 February, ISNA reported. The public-relations department of the Islamic Human Rights Commission announced that Sazgara is in Evin Prison. After making numerous inquiries of different institutions, the Human Rights Commission learned from the Tehran Justice Department verbally about Sazgara's whereabouts. It is still not clear what misdeed he is accused of committing. BS

TWO NEW PUBLICATIONS HIT NEWSSTANDS IN IRAN
Reformist cleric Rasul Montajabnia has launched "Nasim-i Saba" and Mehdi Shamshirian has launched "Farhang-i Ashti," "Iran News" reported on 19 February. The former publication will back favored candidates in the upcoming municipal-council elections. Economic issues dominate "Farhang-i Ashti," reflecting the publisher's effort to avoid closure on political grounds, according to "Iran News." BS

IRANIAN INTELLIGENCE MINISTER REJECTS POLITICAL-CRISIS ALLEGATIONS
Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) head Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi in a 19 February television program reacted to U.S. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet's assertions about political clashes in Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 February 2003). "Those are his wishes. Nothing like that will happen," Yunesi said. "I can tell you for sure that there will be no major political crisis or clashes in the country." Yunesi claimed the United States is behind Iran's political difficulties. "They have launched a psychological war by saying that the country is faced with a serious political crisis and that the division and disunity are on the rise," Yunesi said. "They planned all of them. We have political rivalry but not political clashes," he added. On the same program, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that "national harmony" and the cooperation of political parties will help prevent interference in domestic Iranian affairs. BS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT BACKS KHARRAZI
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on 19 February asserted his support for Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who faces an interpellation motion by parliament over Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri's 9-10 February visit to Iran, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). He called Kharrazi's decision to invite Sabri a "decision made by the state" and chastised the parliamentarians for raising "issues that run counter to our interests at the current sensitive juncture." The parliament on 16 February said the Foreign Ministry has "remained passive toward Baghdad's decisions." SF

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER'S INTERPELLATION TO TAKE PLACE IN CAMERA
An unidentified spokesman for the parliamentary presidium announced on 19 February that the questioning of Foreign Minister Kharrazi will take place behind closed doors, Iranian state radio reported. BS

TEHRAN DENIES REPORTS OF SCIRI TROOPS IN NORTHERN IRAQ
Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 19 February at his weekly meeting with correspondents denied reports that Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) military personnel have entered northern Iraq, ISNA reported. "We have not had any Iranian or non-Iranian troops crossing Iran's borders with Iraq and I would like to deny the veracity of that report," he said. The "Financial Times" on 19 February cited "senior Iranian officials" who said 5,000 armed members of the SCIRI's military wing, the Badr Corps, have entered northern Iraq. Another anonymous "official" said the force is near Darbandikhan, which is approximately 24 kilometers from the Iranian border. BS

NATO APPROVES DEFENSIVE DEPLOYMENT TO TURKEY...
NATO approved the deployment of NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft -- along with missile, chemical, and biological defenses -- to Turkey, according to a 19 February announcement on the Atlantic alliance's website (http://www.nato.int). The statement noted that the decision followed a 16 February agreement by the Defense Planning Committee to undertake planning for three defensive missions to protect Turkey: deployment of the NATO AWACS; the deployment of theater missile defenses; and the possible deployment of allied chemical and biological defenses. The NATO statement added that the plans will be implemented immediately. (For background on the controversy surrounding the NATO decision, see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 14 February 2003). KR

...AS TURKEY HOLDS OUT FOR LARGER U.S. AID PACKAGE
Turkish Justice and Development Party leader Tayyip Erdogan said on 20 February that Turkey will not allow U.S. troops onto its soil without written aid guarantees from the United States, Reuters reported. The Turkish parliament was scheduled to vote on 18 February on whether to allow U.S. troops on Turkish soil, but canceled the vote because the United States had not approved a requested aid package. Washington has offered a package to Turkey that includes $6 billion in grants and another $20 billion in U.S. government-backed loans. Turkey is reportedly holding out for $30 billion in aid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). "There comes a moment when plans must be made, decisions must be made, and [negotiations] cannot stretch on indefinitely," White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters at a 19 February news conference, according to Reuters. He added that the U.S. military is "sufficiently flexible" and could still carry out "any military operations" if Turkey refused to help. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on 19 February that "time is moving," according to the State Department website (http://www.state.gov). "I don't have a deadline I'd like to announce right now. We are waiting to hear back from the Turks," he added. KR

U.S. WORKING ON NEW IRAQ RESOLUTION
Powell said on 19 February that the United States is consulting with its friends and allies on a new UN Security Council resolution on Iraq, according to the State Department website. Powell took questions from reporters following a meeting with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Powell said no date has been set for presentation of the resolution to the UN Security Council. KR

ARAB LEADERS DEBATE NEED FOR SUMMIT
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faysal bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud told "Okaz" newspaper of 19 February that there is no need for an emergency Arab League summit, saying, "If that summit does not emerge with a decision concerning the Iraq crisis agreed upon by all Arab states, then it could make matters worse." Prince Al-Saud's comments reflect Arab disagreement on whether to convene an emergency summit on the issue of Iraq. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak proposed in mid-February that Arab leaders meet ahead of the annual Arab League summit scheduled for late March. The Saudi government has been critical of Arab League member states in recent weeks for what it perceives as a growing lack of credibility on the world stage. A 20 February editorial in "Riyadh Daily" states, "On the Iraqi issue, it appears that the Arabs are totally incompetent to come up with a united stand, which would lead to the world respecting their opinion." Meanwhile, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has agreed after consulting with Egypt to call on Arab states to move the annual summit meeting to 1 March in Cairo, Reuters reported on 20 February. KR

UN INSPECTORS REPORTEDLY WILL REQUEST DESTRUCTION OF IRAQI MISSILES
UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) Executive Chairman Hans Blix will request that Iraq destroy its stockpile of Al-Sumud 2 missiles, but he has not decided if he will require the destruction of the missiles' rocket engines, Reuters reported on 19 February, citing unidentified UN sources. The missiles were deemed "proscribed weapons" by a panel of experts from UN member states earlier this month. Blix told the UN Security Council on 14 February that the missile is capable of exceeding 150 kilometers (the range allowed by the UN) and is thus proscribed under UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). The missile reached distances of 183 kilometers in UN tests. KR

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