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Newsline - February 27, 2003


PUTIN, SCHROEDER PUSH FOR PEACEFUL SOLUTION ON IRAQ...
Meeting with journalists following talks in Moscow with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on 26 February, President Vladimir Putin said that "Russia is not ready to support any United Nations resolution that opens the way for the automatic use of military force against Iraq," ORT reported. Russia, Germany, France, and China continue to believe that a peaceful solution to the conflict can be found, Putin said, and this position -- "at least for now" -- is shared by the majority of the United Nations Security Council. Putin emphasized, though, that finding a peaceful solution depends primarily on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the extent to which Baghdad cooperates with the UN. Putin conceded that U.S. pressure has "made Baghdad more compliant." "Russia continues to stay informed about developments, as [former Prime Minister] Yevgenii Primakov recently met in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is in Beijing, and my chief of staff [Aleksandr Voloshin] is in Washington," Putin said. "I will call U.S. President George Bush to brief him on my talks with Schroeder." VY

...AS GOVERNMENT PREPARES FOR ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF POSSIBLE WAR
Speaking to a conference of investors in Moscow on 26 February, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said the government will create a stabilization fund to help neutralize the impact of any drop in global oil prices as a result of a possible U.S.-led military action against Iraqi President Hussein, RIA-Novosti reported on 27 February. Kudrin predicted that oil prices will continue to rise over the next couple of months and could reach $39-40 a barrel. During this time, a special stabilization fund should be created, he said, to mitigate the consequences of any subsequent drop. Each dollar that oil prices fall means a 0.5 percent decline in Russia's gross domestic product, Kudrin said. If prices reach $18 a barrel, the government would begin drawing from the stabilization fund. To create the fund, the government will raise oil-export taxes and seek other revenue sources, Kudrin said. He did not specify how much the export tax, which currently stands at $25.90 per ton, will be raised. VY

RUSSIA COULD SUPPLY 15 PERCENT OF U.S. OIL NEEDS
Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii said on 26 February that Russia hopes to become one of the leading suppliers to the U.S. oil market, ITAR-TASS reported. Russia could ultimately supply between 1 million and 2 million barrels of oil a day to the United States, about 15 percent of that country's current demand. Khodorkovskii said that currently the main constraint on Russian oil exports is a dearth of export-pipeline capacity. However, that problem is being solved by projects to build a pipeline from western Siberia to Murmansk and another from Angarsk to China's Datsin. The Murmansk project is intended to boost exports to the United States, while the Datsin project is targeted toward China and the Far East. Khodorkovskii said the cost of transporting oil from Murmansk to the east coast of the United States is about $8 a barrel, which is comparable to the cost of transporting Middle East oil to the United States. He added that Russia is capable of extracting 9 million to 10 million barrels of oil per day for the next 30 years. "Argumenty i fakty," No. 8, wrote that before the end of the year, Yukos -- Russia's largest oil company -- and U.S.-based Exxon will sign a multi-billion-dollar strategic partnership similar to the one signed earlier this month between British Petroleum and Russian oil majors Sidanko and Tyumen Oil Company (TNK) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2003). VY

MINISTRY WARNS NATIONALIST NEWSPAPER...
The Media Ministry has issued an official warning to the nationalist weekly newspaper "Zavtra," which is edited by Aleksandr Prokhanov, ITAR-TASS and other Russian news agencies reported on 26 February. The warning accuses the paper of violating legislation against promoting xenophobia and extremism, and of "inflaming ethnic enmity." Deputy Media Minister Valerii Sirozhenko particularly cited an interview that Prokhanov conducted in London with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy Akhmed Zakaev. Zakaev has been accused of terrorism by the Russian government, which is seeking his extradition from Great Britain (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2002). Sirozhenko added that the newspaper must publish the text of the ministry's warning in its next issue. Polit.ru commented that Prokhanov was likely "sooner or later" to be a "target" of the law on preventing extremist activities because of his public support for National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov and his recent friendship with self-exiled magnate Boris Berezovskii. VY/JAC

...AS EDITOR COMMENTS ON RELATIONS WITH TYCOON
Last year, Prokhanov, who is known for his militarism and his nostalgia for the Soviet past, made headlines with his contacts with self-exiled magnate Berezovskii, who has been providing legal assistance to Zakaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 9, and 10 October 2002). Speaking on TV-Tsentr on 11 February, Prokhanov denied accusations of opportunism resulting from his dealings with Berezovskii. Prokhanov noted that in the past the oligarchs joined forces with the government in a united front against the Communist Party. Now, however, their ranks are split and Berezovskii has entered into opposition against the Kremlin. Leftists should take advantage of this development and use Berezovskii's skills in political intrigue and his money, Prokhanov argued. VY

COLONEL ACCUSED OF SPYING FOR U.S.
The Moscow Military District Court on 27 February began closed-door hearings in the case of Colonel Aleksandr Zaporozhnyi, who is charged with espionage for the United States, RIA-Novosti and "Kommersant-Daily" reported. Zaporozhnyi, who worked for an unspecified Russian intelligence agency, was arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2001. The FSB has alleged that over a period of five years, Zaporozhnyi handed over to U.S. agents secret information about Russian intelligence agencies and their activities. VY

YABLOKO WARNS OF THREAT TO PRESS FREEDOM...
The Yabloko party on 25 February issued a statement expressing serious concern about the fate of freedom of the press in Russia, RosBalt and other Russian news agencies reported the same day. According to the statement, the party has noted a pattern of overt actions since 2000 in which law enforcement agencies were used to exert pressure on journalists and the owners of private media outlets. The statement also decried selective changes to media legislation, the use of state-controlled media to discredit political opponents, and the rise of self-censorship practices among owners of private media outlets. Press freedom in Russia is "contracting" rapidly, the statement says, and defending that freedom should be the top priority for the country's democrats. Yabloko's statement was prompted by the recent dispute at "Novye izvestiya" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 26 February 2003). RC

...AS LEADING TELEVISION PERSONALITY SAYS RUSSIAN PRESS FREER THAN U.S. PRESS
Television journalist Vladimir Pozner, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s conducted a series of joint broadcasts with U.S. journalist Phil Donahue, commented that MSNBC's 25 February decision to fire Donahue was politically motivated, ORT reported on 26 February. Pozner rejected the argument that Donahue's show was cancelled because of its low ratings and said that instead the decision was made because of Donahue's vocal opposition to a possible U.S.-led military operation against the regime of Iraqi President Hussein. Today, Russian journalists are much more free to criticize their government than U.S. journalists are to criticize theirs, Pozner said. Pozner was a leading journalist in the Soviet era, and his integrity has been frequently called into question. In 1996, Pozner interviewed former KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov and asked him whether he would send Pozner to a labor camp if the Communists returned to power. "No," replied Kryuchkov, "a journalist with your talent will find a place under any regime." VY

THOUSANDS OF STATE-SECTOR WORKERS PROTEST LOCAL-GOVERNMENT REFORMS
Workers in the educational, cultural, and health-care sectors on 26 February launched a three-day national protest, Russian news agencies reported. According to ITAR-TASS, Moscow is the only city in Russia where the protests were banned, and rallies were expected in some 70 regions. In Primorskii Krai, more than 100,000 workers held meetings at their workplaces. In the Tuva Republic, some 15,000 public-sector workers took to the streets, TVS reported. Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered in Petrozavodsk in Karelia, according to RosBalt. According to TVS, the main reason for holding the protests now is to persuade Duma deputies not to approve government-sponsored legislation that would change the existing wage structure for state-sector workers and make their salaries the responsibility of local governments. In Karelia, trade-union officials reported that not a single municipal organization has yet paid its wages for January. JAC

TOP RUSSIAN MUSLIM OFFICIAL SAYS TRIP TO IRAQ MIGHT BE IN THE WORKS
Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, told reporters in Moscow on 26 February that a delegation of Muslim leaders from Russia might travel to Iraq soon, Interfax reported. He also commented that the Russians who have reportedly volunteered to form a "human shield" in Iraq are not all Muslims. According to the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow, more than 3,500 Russians have received visas to travel to Iraq, and a total of 10,000 Russian citizens have expressed a willingness to go there, regions.ru reported on 26 February. Lenta.ru reported earlier this week that the embassy's claims are a public-relations stunt and that no such visas have been issued. JAC

NUMBER OF HOME PHONE CONNECTIONS RISES SLIGHTLY FROM LAST YEAR'S LEVEL
Just 47 percent of respondents in a national survey conducted by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) reported having a working telephone connection in their homes, newsru.com reported on 26 February. According to the agency, the survey was conducted in January among more than 2,000 Russians. Last January, this figure was 44 percent. According to the survey, 11 percent of respondents report using computers either daily or several times a week. Two percent report using the Internet daily or several times a week. JAC

LENINGRAD LEADERS TO GET EXTRA YEAR IN POWER?
Leningrad Oblast's legislature voted on 25 February to approve in its second reading a law extending the length of the governor's term in that region from four years to five, regions.ru reported the next day. On the same day, the agency reported, citing federalpost.ru, that Leningrad Oblast First Deputy Governor Vladimir Kirillov has won the support of aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska in this September's gubernatorial election. That race is expected to be heavily contested (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 23 January 2003). JAC

GARRI POTTER FOR GOVERNOR
A group of Yekaterinburg-based political consultants has decided to nominate "Garri Ivanovich Potter" as a candidate in the September 2003 gubernatorial elections in Sverdlovsk Oblast, "Novyi region" reported on 26 February. There is reportedly a person in Yekaterinburg who plans to change his name and passport information so that he or she can become the living embodiment of the young wizard in time for the election. The consultants believe that "Potter" could fetch as much as 10 percent of the vote, particularly the youth and protest vote. Potter's support would likely come from among those who generally do not bother to vote or who vote against all candidates. On the same day, the head of the Yekaterinburg police public-safety department, Sergei Mochalin, confirmed that local police have detained a group of political "dirty tricksters," who, in the words of Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel, have come to the Urals to destabilize the region, regions.ru reported. The oblast prosecutor is currently deciding whether to file a criminal case. JAC

FOREIGN MINISTRY SLAMS TBILISI'S FAILURE TO EXTRADITE CHECHENS
In a statement released on 26 February, the Foreign Ministry described as a blow to bilateral relations Georgia's refusal to extradite to Russia three Chechen gunmen apprehended after entering Georgia illegally last August, Interfax reported. The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office approved Moscow's extradition request for the three men last November, but their lawyers challenged the legality of that ruling. A Tbilisi district court suspended consideration of the case indefinitely on 17 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2003). LF

MORE THAN 100 AMENDMENTS PROPOSED TO DRAFT CHECHEN CONSTITUTION
The Constitutional Assembly created last December has received more than 100 proposed changes to the draft Chechen constitution, Chechen deputy administration head Tauz Dzhabrailov told journalists in Grozny on 26 February, Interfax reported. He said the assembly will consider the merits of those proposals "in the near future" and approve a final draft. The referendum is scheduled for 23 March, and Dzhabrailov predicted that at least 76 percent of registered voters will participate. He also disclosed that several members of Chechnya's election commission have resigned after receiving unspecified threats. LF

CHECHEN PARLIAMENT CHAIRMAN CONDEMNS PLANNED REFERENDUM
In a 26 February statement posted the following day by chechenpress.com, Akhyad Idigov, who is chairman of the Chechen parliament elected in 1997, condemned the planned constitutional referendum, which he said will not contribute to resolving the problems of relations between Moscow and Chechnya or to a peaceful solution of the conflict. Idigov noted that Chechnya adopted a constitution in 1992 and that OSCE observers affirmed the legality of the 1997 presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya. Idigov further pointed out that in October 2000, the Chechen parliament extended the authority of the parliament and president until Chechnya is "liberated" from Russian occupation. LF

RUSSIAN DEPUTY PROSECUTOR CASTS DOUBT ON BASAEV'S CLAIMS
Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii said in Rostov-na-Donu on 26 February that Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev's claim to have masterminded the 27 December car-bomb attack on the government building in Grozny will be investigated, but that he personally doubts it is true, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). LF

COUNCIL OF EUROPE WARNS ARMENIA OVER ELECTION IRREGULARITIES...
In a statement released in Strasbourg on 26 February, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) President Peter Schieder expressed serious concern over the shortcomings and irregularities registered by international monitors during the first round of the presidential election on 19 February, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong, and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. Schieder warned that a repetition of such irregularities during the 5 March second round must be avoided "if Armenia wants to live up to its democratic obligations as a member country of the Council of Europe." "We expect a free and fair outcome of the presidential election, one which allows for the results to be accepted by all those concerned, thus helping to consolidate democratic stability in the country," he said. LF

...AS ARMENIAN PRESIDENT SAYS RUNOFF VOTE WILL BE FREE AND FAIR
Incumbent President Robert Kocharian told journalists at a 26 February press conference in Yerevan that the opposition exaggerated the scale of the irregularities during the 19 February vote, adding that some irregularities were committed on behalf of rival candidates, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau, Arminfo, and Mediamax, as cited by Groong. He said that stricter measures will be taken to preclude falsification in the 5 March runoff, which he predicted he will win. Kocharian also condemned the opposition for having "destabilized" the country and said the arrest of up to 100 opposition activists for "illegal activities" was justified. He denied that army troops are being concentrated outside Yerevan in preparation for a crackdown, saying that the police are perfectly capable of maintaining law and order. LF

ARMENIAN POLICE HALT PROTEST MARCH
A protest march by more than 10,000 people in Yerevan on 26 February was halted by barbed wire, water cannons, riot police armed with tear gas, and Interior Ministry troops deployed on the street that leads to the parliament building and the presidential palace, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. No violence was reported, and the protesters turned back after approximately 30 minutes. LF

ARMENIAN JOURNALISTS SHOWN LEADER OF PARLIAMENT GUNMEN
Journalists from RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and from the daily newspapers "Orran" and "Hayots Ashkhar" were allowed into a Yerevan detention prison on 26 February and allowed to see Nairi Hunanian, leader of the five gunmen who in October 1999 shot dead eight leading politicians in the Armenian parliament building, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Hunanian appeared to be in good health. The Justice Ministry issued a statement two weeks ago rejecting as unfounded persistent rumors that Hunanian had committed suicide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2003). LF

AZERBAIJANI SERVICEMAN KILLED IN CEASE-FIRE VIOLATION
One Azerbaijani soldier was shot dead and two Karabakh Armenians were injured during an exchange of fire late on 25 February, according to Arminfo and Mediamax on 26 February, as cited by Groong. Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian said Armenian troops prevented an attempt by an Azerbaijani reconnaissance mission to penetrate Karabakh-Armenian lines. LF

AZERBAIJANI, U.S. PRESIDENTS MEET
Heidar Aliev met for 30 minutes at the White House on 26 February with U.S. President George W. Bush, Turan and ITAR-TASS reported. The two presidents discussed bilateral relations, cooperation in the energy sector, the Iraq crisis, and the Karabakh conflict. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush thanked Aliev for Azerbaijan's support for the international antiterrorism coalition. Aliev also met on 26 February with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. LF

CASPIAN WORKING GROUP MEETS IN AZERBAIJAN
The eighth session of the working group for determining the legal status of the Caspian Sea opened in Baku on 26 February, Interfax and Turan reported. Addressing the session, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhnyi made clear Russia's rejection of last week's announcement by Kazakh Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev that Kazakhstan intends to create a Caspian naval flotilla. But Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister Kairat Abuseitov told Interfax that Kazakhstan needs such a naval force to counter possible terrorist threats. Kalyuzhnyi also reaffirmed Russia's opposition on ecological grounds to laying pipelines across the Caspian Sea bed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 November 2000). LF

GEORGIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL SAYS NO EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT COUP WARNINGS
Nugzar Gabrichidze said in Tbilisi on 26 February that his office has not uncovered any evidence to substantiate claims made earlier this month by prominent opposition politicians that a group of senior Georgian government officials were plotting to replace President Eduard Shevardnadze in a "velvet coup," Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 6 February 2003). Gabrichidze added that several parliamentary deputies questioned about the coup warnings refused to reveal how they learned about the rumors. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT WARNS THAT CRIME IS DETERRING INVESTMENT
During his regular Monday radio address on 24 February and again at a government session on 26 February, President Shevardnadze expressed concern that crime is on the increase, Caucasus Press reported. He singled out theft as the most serious problem and demanded that the Interior Ministry take immediate measures to crack down on crime. "If we do not put an end to it, not a single investor will invest money in the Georgian economy," Shevardnadze predicted. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT DEPUTY SPEAKER SEEKS TO PROMOTE VANISHING KNOWLEDGE OF RUSSIAN
Socialist Party leader Vakhtang Rcheulishvili proposed on 26 February instituting a new program to promote the teaching of Russian, given that many younger people have no knowledge of that language, Interfax reported. Rcheulishvili pointed out that it might prove difficult to sustain dialogue with the leaders of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if a future generation of Georgian politicians has no common language with them. Shevardnadze concurred with Rcheulishvili's arguments and added that in the light of China's intense interest in economic cooperation with Georgia, it would be advantageous to establish similar courses to teach Mandarin, Caucasus Press reported. LF

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT DELEGATION VISITS ABKHAZIA
Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba met in Sukhum on 26 February with four visiting European Parliament deputies and told them that Abkhazia will not agree to any talks with Tbilisi on Abkhazia's status, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. He recalled that 90 percent of the unrecognized republic's population voted in a referendum in 1999 to endorse the constitution adopted in 1994 that describes Abkhazia as an independent republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 October 1999). Shamba also recalled that in 1992 Abkhazia proposed talks with Tbilisi on establishing a federation, but Georgia "preferred to send tanks into Sukhum" and committed widespread human rights violations and genocide during the 1992-93 war. He noted that a document was also drafted in 1997 on establishing a confederation, but Georgia has rejected it. Also on 26 February, ITAR-TASS quoted Shamba as saying that unspecified points contained in the new proposals for resolving the Abkhaz conflict discussed last week by the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group "are of interest" to Abkhazia, while others need further consideration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). LF

KAZAKH LOWER HOUSE RATIFIES EU NUCLEAR-ENERGY ACCORD
The lower house of the Kazakh parliament on 26 February ratified an agreement with the European Union on cooperation in the field of nuclear safety, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The government said the agreement will expand ties with the EU in the sphere of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, will improve safety and compliance with international standards, and give the country access to Western European nuclear technologies. The agreement is also expected to pave the way for European technical assistance in shutting down the reactor at Mangyshlak and in the construction of new nuclear-power plants. The agreement was originally signed on 19 July 1999, and it now awaits ratification by the upper house in Astana. BB

KAZAKHSTAN SEEKS TO REVIVE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
The government of Kazakhstan has decided to merge 24 defense-industry enterprises to create a single holding called Kazoboronprom, Interfax reported on 26 February. The same day, Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmagambetov named Vitalii Mette, the former governor of East Kazakhstan Oblast, to head the new conglomerate. Tasmagambetov commented that the military-industrial complex is badly run down, and he could think of no more qualified candidate than Mette to revitalize it. Mette graduated in 1970 from the Sevastopol Higher Naval Engineering College. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has named the former first deputy governor of East Kazakhstan Oblast, Talgatbek Abaydildin, to succeed Mette as governor, khabar.kz reported on 26 February. LF

KYRGYZSTAN AGAIN ASKS FOR MAPS OF UZBEK MINEFIELDS
Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov met with officials of the Uzbek Embassy in Bishkek on 26 February to repeat his government's request for maps of the Uzbek minefields along the two countries' common border, Interfax and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The meeting follows the death of a Kyrgyz citizen, who was killed when he stepped on a mine along the border of the Batken Oblast of southern Kyrgyzstan on 23 February. Since Uzbekistan started mining its borders in 1999 to prevent incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a number of Kyrgyz and Tajik citizens have been killed. Kyrgyzstan has repeatedly tried to persuade the Uzbek authorities to provide maps of the minefields without success. Aitmatov also asked on 26 February that the Uzbeks remove the mines from certain parts of the border. BB

KYRGYZ COURT REJECTS APPEAL IN LIBEL CASE
Bishkek's Lenin District Court on 26 February rejected an appeal of a lower-court ruling that a libel suit against human rights activist Edil Baysalov, head of the opposition Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, was baseless, RFE/RL Kyrgyz News reported. A Bishkek resident claimed that an article by Baysalov in the prominent opposition newspaper "Moya stolitsa-novosti" in December 2002 insulted him as a Kyrgyz citizen. Baysalov wrote that any journalist has the right to question whether a Kyrgyz national state existed 2,200 years ago. The lower court ruled that the lawsuit was groundless. Such cases are frequently brought by officials who consider themselves personally libeled or by citizens who claim to be offended. The cases usually include large financial demands and are seen by journalists as a means of restricting the independent media. In this case, the offended citizen demanded the equivalent of $1,000 from Baysalov and more than $100,000 from "Moya stolitsa-novosti." BB

TAJIK OPPOSITION LEADER WARNS AGAINST AMENDING CONSTITUTION
In a 26 February broadcast on Iranian radio, Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan head Said Abdullo Nuri said the constitution is based on the 1997 peace accord that ended the Tajik civil war, and for that reason it should not be amended. Nuri said that amending the article on the presidential term of office and removing the term "religious" from the article on political parties would cause friction. In Nuri's view, no attempt should be made to amend the constitution for the next 10 years. A commission to study proposed amendments has been set up by President Imomali Rakhmonov. BB

TAJIKISTAN-RUSSIA TRAIN SERVICE TO RESUME SOON?
Tajik Railways head Amonhoja Hojibekov told Asia Plus-Blitz on 25 February that train service between Dushanbe and Moscow could resume soon, with trains departing Dushanbe twice each week. Hojibekov was reported to have said that he has received confirmation from the Russian Railways Ministry and the Central Asian states that the line crosses. Service has been repeatedly interrupted over the past few years. BB

BELARUSIAN COURT FORBIDS INDEPENDENT PUBLISHER FROM DOING BUSINESS
Judge Uladzimir Dabranau of the Hrodna Oblast Economic Court on 26 February upheld a decision by the court's panel earlier this month to ban Ramuald Ulan, publisher of the independent, twice-weekly "Novaya gazeta Smorgoni" in Smarhon, from engaging in business activities, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Smarhon Raion authorities prevented Ulan from launching two other periodicals in the region and subsequently accused him of violating tax laws, fire-safety rules, and labor regulations, which led to the current ban on his activities. Ulan told Belapan that "Novaya gazeta Smorgoni" will continue to appear, since he has found a new publisher. JM

OSCE EXPERTS ARRIVE IN BELARUS TO OBSERVE LOCAL ELECTIONS
Experts from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) have arrived in Minsk to observe the country's local elections set for 2 March, Belapan reported on 26 February. The same day, they met with Central Electoral Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik, who explained to journalists that ODIHR staff should not be regarded as election observers, since they have not applied for such status. Lazavik added that they intend to gather information on the election process and work out recommendations with respect to electoral regulations in Belarus. Lazavik also said some 1.8 percent of voters went to the polls on 25 February, when polling stations were opened for early voting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). JM

FIRST GROUP OF UKRAINIANS LEAVES IRAQ
A group of 41 Ukrainian specialists working in Iraq under Russian-Iraqi contracts on oil-production projects took a chartered airliner from Baghdad to Moscow on 26 February, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said the evacuation of the next group of Ukrainians from Iraq will depend on developments there. JM

OUR UKRAINE TO PARTICIPATE IN EARLY-MARCH OPPOSITION PROTESTS
The center-right Our Ukraine will take part in a congress of opposition forces in Kyiv on 2 March and in opposition protests slated for 9 March, Interfax reported on 26 February, quoting Our Ukraine lawmaker Taras Stetskiv. Stetskiv added that the form of Our Ukraine's participation in the 9 March protests has not been determined. Meanwhile, Andriy Shkil from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc told journalists the same day that the opposition congress on 2 March will prepare a "Declaration of Unity" that will be made public during the protests a week later. Shkil refuted rumors that the congress will propose a single opposition candidate for president. JM

NEW LAW WILL SIMPLIFY EXPULSION OF ILLEGALS FROM ESTONIA
A new law on immigration and deportation that goes into effect on 1 March simplifies and accelerates the expulsion procedure for individuals staying illegally in Estonia, BNS reported on 26 February. The new law allows police or border guards to expel an illegal within two days of detention without an administrative-court decision. The previous law requires that an expulsion order be issued by an administrative court following a request by officials of the Citizenship and Migration Board. The most common factor in illegal stays in Estonia is foreigners remaining after their visas expire or exceeding the term of visa-free stay, according to BNS. A person expelled from Estonia is automatically banned from entering the country for 10 years. Roughly 700 people have been given 10-year bans since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. SG

BANK OF LATVIA PRESIDENT SAYS PROPOSED BUDGET DEFICIT COULD BE DISASTROUS
Central bank head Ilmars Rimsevics argues in a commentary in the daily "Diena" of 26 February that the proposed deficit -- of 178 million lats, or about 3 percent of gross domestic product -- in the draft 2003 budget is unacceptably large, LETA reported. If that figure is not reduced, he says, the national debt will increase, resulting in higher interest rates, a deteriorating investment climate, and slower economic development. Rimsevics suggests that the budget deficit be slashed by at least 60 million lats ($103 million). He also notes that since the national currency, the lats, is pegged to the SDR (special drawing right), the growing budget deficit cannot be offset by a depreciation of the lats. Rimsevics also cites three other reasons for reducing the budget deficit: spending diverted to service the debt, curtailing the current-account deficit, and greater room for fiscal maneuver for the government amid sluggish global growth. SG

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT URGES PRO-EU VOTE IN INAUGURAL ADDRESS...
In a speech to the parliament after being sworn into office on 26 February, Rolandas Paksas declared that he sees a bright future for Lithuania within the community of European states, ELTA reported. He urged the public to vote "yes" in the EU referendum slated for May. The assurance appeared aimed at countering the perception that Paksas might derail his predecessor's efforts to ensure speedy accession to the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2003). Paksas said that, as a member of NATO, Lithuania will not remain a passive observer but "along with other countries will defend security in Europe and worldwide." He predicted a safe, wealthy, influential, and responsible future for Lithuania, and ended his speech by quoting the words of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." The speech was praised by both the ruling coalition and the opposition. SG

...BEFORE REJECTING CABINET'S RESIGNATION
Shortly after his inauguration on 26 February, President Paksas received a formal offer of resignation from the cabinet of Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, as is required under Lithuanian law. Right-winger Paksas responded by requesting that Brazauskas continue in his duties at the head of his two-party, left-wing coalition. The governing Social Democratic Party and the New Union (Social Liberals) are virtually assured of carrying a majority vote in the legislature. Many observers expect a minor cabinet reshuffle, however, with one or more ministers replaced. Health Minister Romualdas Dobrovolskis is regarded as the most likely victim of any reshuffle. Paksas associates reportedly noted that no member of his right-of-center Liberal Democratic Party will join the Brazauskas cabinet. SG

POLISH, LATVIAN PRESIDENTS SAY THEY WANT IRAQ DEMILITARIZED
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski discussed the Iraq situation and bilateral relations with his Latvian counterpart Vaira Vike-Freiberga in Warsaw on 26 February, PAP reported. Kwasniewski said after the meeting that Poland and Latvia believe Iraq must be demilitarized within an international framework. The two sides signed an accord on mutual protection of confidential information. Kwasniewski announced that the two countries will soon sign cooperation agreements covering science, customs, readmission, and combating crime. Later the same day, Vike-Freiberga opened a Polish-Latvian economic forum in Warsaw. Polish-Latvian trade totaled $320 million in 2002, up $58 million from 2001. JM

PUBLISHER ADMITS DESTRUCTION OF POTENTIAL EVIDENCE IN 'RYWINGATE'
Anna Borys-Karwacka, spokeswoman for Agora, the publisher of "Gazeta Wyborcza," confirmed on 26 February that Agora headquarters' visitor books were destroyed, but she emphasized that the step was taken in accordance with proper procedures, Polish Radio reported. The previous day, prosecutors investigating the "Rywingate" bribery scandal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003) said some documents that could constitute evidence in the case were destroyed; the 26 February issue of "Rzeczpospolita" wrote that the announcement referred to documents from Agora. "We do not regard these as very significant documents. These are materials that are not kept especially thoroughly -- that is, important visitors are often not entered in these books," Borys-Karwacka said. According to "Rzeczpospolita," the destroyed books could confirm when film producer Lew Rywin arrived for and left meetings at the company. JM

WARSAW POSTPONES SIGNING DEAL ON PURCHASE OF U.S. WARPLANES
The signing of an agreement for the supply of 48 F-16 multirole aircraft for the Polish armed forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2003), planned for 28 February, has been postponed, Polish Radio quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Eugeniusz Mleczak as saying on 26 February. Mleczak said the purchase of the fighters requires signatures on three related accords: a main agreement to supply the aircraft, weapons systems, operational resources, and personnel training; a credit agreement under which the deal is to be financed; and an offset agreement. Mleczak added that no text on the offsets that would satisfy the Polish side has been agreed. JM

CZECH DEFENSE MINISTRY 'KNOWS NOTHING' OF PURPORTED PLAN TO MOVE U.S. BASES
Defense Ministry spokesman Vladimir Palan told CTK on 26 February that he "knows nothing" of any alleged U.S. intention transfer some of its forces stationed in neighboring Germany to Poland and the Czech Republic. Citing "well-informed Pentagon sources," the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" wrote on 26 February that negotiations for moving troops from Germany are also under way with Hungary (see item below). Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz on 21 February rejected reports that his country was being considered to host U.S. military bases in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). MS

CZECH COMMUNIST LEADER HINTS AT UNITED OPPOSITION IN PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
Miroslav Grebenicek, chairman of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), told the daily "Pravo" of 27 February that if any president is elected in the 28 February vote in parliament, that person will be Civic Democratic Party (ODS) candidate and former Premier Vaclav Klaus, CTK reported. Klaus will be running against philosophy Professor Jan Sokol, the candidate of the ruling three-party, center-left coalition, who is reportedly a few votes short of securing enough support despite the coalition's majority in both houses of parliament. The KSCM and the ODS command a combined 130 votes in both houses of the legislature, well short of the 141 votes needed to give Klaus the victory. However, observers do not rule out the possibility of several Social Democratic Party (CSSD) lawmakers voting for Klaus to undermine the position of CSSD Chairman and Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla. MS

CZECH TELEVISION COUNCIL FAILS TO ELECT STATION DIRECTOR...
The Television Council, which is appointed by parliament, on 26 February failed to elect a successor to Jiri Balvin, who was fired by the council in November, CTK reported. Two of the six candidates advanced to a second round of voting, but neither journalist Jana Kasalova nor business manager Jiri Franc received the minimum 10 votes needed from the 13 council members present for the vote. Kasalova fell two votes short of that target. Council Deputy Chairwoman Lucie Weissova and council member Milan Knizak announced after the ballot their resignations from that body, while a third member said she is considering resigning. Chairman Jan Mrzena adjourned the meeting until a vacationing council member returns from holiday, CTK reported. MS

...HIGHLIGHTING ITS POLITICAL NATURE
Before the 26 February vote was taken, some council members joined political observers in criticizing Chairman Mrzena for meeting on the eve of the ballot with Prime Minister Spidla and Chamber of Deputies Chairman Lubomir Zaoralek, both from the senior ruling CSSD party, CTK reported. Objecting council members said Mrzena's meeting amounts to political interference. Spidla countered that the meeting had nothing to do with the vote, adding that he was personally unaware the council was due to vote on Balvin's successor the next day. Lower house Deputy Chairman Ivan Langer (Civic Democratic Party) said the council may be dismissed if it fails to elect a new director by the end of this month, since the law stipulates that the council must elect a new director within three months of dismissing a predecessor. Balvin was fired on 27 November. MS

PROFITS AT SKODA AUTO FALL VICTIM TO STRONG CZECH CROWN
Skoda Auto, a subsidiary of Germany's Volkswagen Group, on 26 February said profits fell to 1.8 billion crowns ($62 million) in 2002, a 14 percent year-on-year decline, dpa reported. Board Deputy Chairman Winfried Vahland said the Czech crown's appreciation against the euro and the U.S. dollar cost the company some 4.4 billion crowns. Skoda and other Czech exporters have long urged the government and the central bank to counter the strong crown. Global sales of Skoda cars fell 3.6 percent in 2002, to 445,525 units, while domestic sales dropped by 7 percent. Skoda exports represent nearly 10 percent of the country's total. MS

SLOVAK NBC UNIT LEAVES FOR KUWAIT
The first of 69 soldiers expected to comprise the Slovak anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit left for Kuwait on 26 February, CTK and TASR reported. The unit should be fully operational by 1 March. It will operate jointly with the larger Czech NBC unit that is already stationed there. MS

SLOVAK TRADE UNIONS PROCLAIM 'CRISIS SITUATION'
A Slovak Trade Unions Confederation (KOZ) extraordinary convention on 26 February proclaimed a "crisis situation," TASR reported. Chairman Ivan Saktor said the decision was taken in response to the government's perceived rejection of "social dialogue" and the approval of 22 laws without prior consultation with the unions. He also said KOZ adamantly opposes the planned abolition of a minimum wage. Saktor said the unions are preparing for a general strike. MS

SLOVAK POLICE MAKE SPECTACULAR RAID ON ORGANIZED-CRIME NETWORKS
"The economic, financial, and logistical base of the organized underworld in Bratislava has been totally destroyed," CTK cited Police President Jaroslav Spiska as saying on 26 February. Police raids were also carried out against organized-crime networks in the Nitra, Trnava, and Presov regions of the country. Interior Minister Vladimir Palko told journalists that 35 people, all high-ranking criminal bosses, have been charged with various crimes as a result. More charges are to be expected, he added. Some 730 agents and officers conducted 59 home searches and detained 26 people, two of whom are employees of the tax office. Nine other people are being sought. MS

BUSH THANKS HUNGARIAN PREMIER FOR SUPPORT ON IRAQ
U.S. President George W. Bush on 26 February telephoned Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy and thanked him for his "consistent" attitude in supporting U.S. efforts to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Hungarian and international media reported. Bush especially thanked Medgyessy for the Hungarian parliament's recent resolution on allowing U.S. military equipment to transit Hungary en route to Turkey (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2003) and invited him to visit Washington, Hungarian radio reported. Bush reportedly said Medgyessy's consistency assists efforts by European states to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to comply fully with UN resolutions. MSZ

HUNGARY SAYS NO U.S. 'OFFICIAL REQUEST' ON TRANSFERRING MILITARY BASES FROM GERMANY
Hungarian Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Matyuc on 26 February told AFP that Hungary has received no official request from the United States to transfer any of its military bases from Germany to Hungarian soil. Matyuc, however, declined to say whether there had been unofficial talks on the subject. The agency quoted earlier reports in "Nepszabadsag" according to which the hard-line U.S. position on Iraq has found greater support among the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and, therefore, Washington is "more and more seriously considering" moving its military forces into these countries after the Iraq crisis is resolved (see Czech item above and "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). MSZ

HUNGARIAN NATIONAL BANK GOVERNOR FORESEES INTRODUCING EURO IN 2008
Speaking at a conference organized by the International Center for Economic Growth and the Hungarian Economists Association, Hungarian National Bank Governor Zsigmond Jarai on 26 February put the possible date for introducing the euro in Hungary at 2008, "Vilaggazdasag" reported. Jarai said Hungary's inflation rate is currently too high for the euro-zone, adding that it would also be disadvantageous for the Hungarian economy to maintain the Maastricht deficit ceiling of 3 percent of GDP budget in the years immediately following EU accession, expected in 2004. Other speakers at the conference highlighted the risks of maintaining an independent currency and monetary policy. MSZ

HUNGARIAN CABINET ALLOCATES FUNDS FOR UNDERDEVELOPED AREAS
The Hungarian cabinet, meeting aboard a train from Budapest to Szolnok, decided on 26 February to allocate 24 billion forints ($104 million) for development of Hungary's seven poorest counties, most of them in the eastern part of the country, Budapest dailies reported. The ministers also agreed to expand the so-called Vasarhelyi Plan, which was designed to benefit the Tisza Valley in eastern Hungary. The 170 billon-forint plan will not only guarantee flood control but should fund new job-creation projects. Environment Minister Maria Korodi said the first step in the plan will be to bolster dykes along the Tisza River, while in later phases reservoirs will be developed along the river that are capable of absorbing large quantities of water in the event of major floods, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. MSZ

WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL SENTENCES FORMER BOSNIAN SERB PRESIDENT TO 11 YEARS IN PRISON
Judge Richard May at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague on 27 February sentenced former Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic to a prison sentence of 11 years, including time she has already served, international and regional media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16, 17, and 18 December 2002). May said Plavsic played a role in the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs in Bosnia during the 1992-95 conflict but not as great a role as some others did. He also noted that she took "unprecedented steps" to mitigate the circumstances affecting her case, including promoting peace in the region, turning herself in to the tribunal, and pleading guilty to one charge against her. He noted that the tribunal also took into account the fact that she is 72 years old. The prosecution had asked for a sentence of 15-25 years. Plavsic's attorney has argued that she has shown remorse and should be sentenced to a maximum of eight years in prison. Critics charge that she has not apologized for her actions during the war and that she has been less than enthusiastic about cooperating with the tribunal on other cases. She is, however, the only high-ranking Serbian indictee to have pleaded guilty to at least one of the charges against her. PM

SLOVENIAN COURT APPROVES EXTRADITION OF INDICTED KOSOVAR
On 26 February, the Slovenian Supreme Court approved the extradition of Fatmir Limaj, who is a member of the Kosovar parliament, to The Hague, where the tribunal has indicted him for war crimes, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2003). Meanwhile in Prishtina, some 50,000 people demonstrated against the arrest of former guerrilla fighters on war crimes charges, Reuters reported. This was the largest such protest to date. PM

SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER LIKENS KOSOVA TO IRAQ
Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic told the Frankfurt-based Serbian daily "Vesti" of 27 February that Kosova is a security issue as important for him as Iraq is for U.S. President George W. Bush (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 18, 24, and 25 February 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 January 2003). Djindjic added that he proposes transforming Kosova into a two-part federation on the model of the Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia. He accused the UN of applying double standards when it says the time has not yet come for Serbs to return to Kosova, but that Serbia must cooperate immediately with the war crimes tribunal. Djindjic stressed that he expects the international community to understand Serbia's priorities when it asks Serbia to understand foreigners' priorities. "My country is my world," Djindjic added. PM

KOSOVAR PRIME MINISTER WANTS SERBIAN LEADERS PUNISHED
Speaking in Prishtina on 26 February, Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi demanded that the international community take unspecified legal steps against the Kosovar Serb political leaders who recently signed a declaration setting up a Serbian ministate, or Serbian Union, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). Rexhepi said the declaration amounted to a serious violation of the constitutional order. Elsewhere, Michael Steiner, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), discussed the latest developments with representatives of the Serbian Povratak (Return) coalition. Oliver Ivanovic, one of the Serbian legislators, said the meeting did not produce any concrete results. In Prizren, Adem Demaci, who was known in communist times as the "Kosovar Nelson Mandela," said the declaration really aims to set up an ethnically pure territory, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. And in Belgrade, Serbian political analyst Dusan Janjic said the Serbian Union is a tactical maneuver and not a serious project, "Vesti" reported on 27 February. PM

MONTENEGRO OFFERS SUPPORT TO U.S. OVER IRAQ
Montenegrin Foreign Minister Dragisa Burzan said in Podgorica on 26 February, "If America enters a war with Iraq, we will support it. Our reasons for that are clear and they refer to the war against terrorism and all nondemocratic and dictator systems," Hina reported. Burzan denied media reports that his government's motive in offering support is to win U.S. backing and money. The minister stressed that the policy reflects "the continuation of similar standpoints of Podgorica and Washington" on the matter. PM

OFFICIALS SACKED IN BOSNIAN SERB ENERGY SCANDAL
High Representative Paddy Ashdown fired Svetozar Acimovic as general director of Elektroprivreda Republike Srpske and Bosko Lemez from the company's board of directors on 26 February following revelations that some $90 million was stolen or otherwise disappeared from the company through fraud or mismanagement, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). Ashdown also announced legislation to "ensure that future appointments to public corporations throughout the country are carried out according to a more transparent and accountable procedure," dpa reported from Sarajevo. "I am today enacting a law that establishes a code of practice that sets out a regulatory framework for those public appointments in public bodies," Ashdown added. PM

MACEDONIAN LEADERS DISCUSS LANGUAGE ISSUE
Prime Minister and Social Democratic Union (SDSM) Chairman Branko Crvenkovski met with Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), on 26 February to discuss the usage of the Albanian language in parliament and in passports, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Unnamed representatives of the international community were also present. Differences between the coalition partners persist over whether the Albanian language may be used in parliamentary commissions and by the speaker chairing plenary debates, as well as over whether the Albanian language should be used on the cover of Macedonia's new passports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20, 21, 24, 26, and 27 June and 15 July 2002 and 30 January 2003). UB

U.S. MILITARY TRAINS EXPECTED TO TRANSIT ROMANIA ON WAY TO TURKEY
At least 10 U.S. military trains are expected to transit Romania on their way to Turkey, dpa reported on 26 February. According to the private Antena 1 television channel, the trains will be transporting armored cars and sophisticated military equipment. Antena 1 reported that the trains left from Italy after police dispersed antiwar activists' attempts to stop their departure. It also said the activists contacted Romanian and Bulgarian pacifists, asking them to organize similar local actions. A U.S. Embassy military official was cited by dpa on 26 February as telling journalists in Constanta that he expects the U.S. forces using facilities in the vicinity of the Black Sea port to be in Romania for a long time. The daily "Adevarul" on 27 February said the official, Lieutenant Colonel Ira Queen, made the statement after Constanta officials, among them Mayor Radu Mazare, complained that they had not been consulted or informed before hotels used by U.S. forces were declared closed military zones. The daily cited Queen as saying the U.S. forces' stay will have a positive long-term impact on the Black Sea region, creating jobs in hotel and food-producing industries, and in the development of the Mihail Kogalniceanu airfield. "The U.S. soldiers discovered [the tourist attractions in] Romania and on the Black Sea coast and intend to return for vacation next summer," he said. MS

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZES PREMIER IN INTERVIEW
President Ion Iliescu on 26 February launched an attack on Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, Mediafax and the daily "Jurnalul national" reported. In an interview with the private "Realitatea TV" channel, the president said that when Nastase criticized Iliescu's proposal that individuals earning more than $10,000 a month should be taxed 80 percent of their income (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003), the premier was "conjugating the verb 'to have'" and using a discourse typical of the rich. He called Nastase's criticism "uninspired, out of place, and tempestuous" and said Nastase thus demonstrated once again that he is "conceited and arrogant," a trait Iliescu said does not bode well for Nastase's presidential aspirations. A president, Iliescu added, must be "a super-advocate of the people." Iliescu also said that he does not yet know whether he will return to the ruling Social Democratic Party after his mandate ends in 2004, but has no intention of founding another party. For the time being, he added, "I represent that party's past and it remains to be seen whether I shall also represent its future." MS

ROMANIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COMMISSION ENDS WORK
The ad hoc parliamentary commission that examined possible constitutional amendments ended its work on 26 February, Romanian radio reported. The commission recommended that the basic document include an article that would allow the use of mother tongues in contacts with local administrative bodies and in courts in those localities where a minority has "a significant weight" in the population. The commission did not specify what constitutes a "significant weight." The recommendation is obviously a compromise between the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania's demand that 20 percent be specified as the criterion for national minority representation and the stances of other parliamentary parties represented on the commission. Democratic Party Deputy Chairman Emil Boc abstained, saying his formation does not agree with such an amendment. The Greater Romania Party has boycotted the commission's debate all along, saying the constitution does not need to be amended. The commission's recommendations are to be debated by parliament. MS

BULGARIAN VICE PRESIDENT IN ROMANIA
Bulgarian Vice President Angel Marin on 26 February met in Bucharest with Prime Minister Nastase and with President Iliescu, according to a government press release. They discussed bilateral relations and the Iraq crisis. Nastase told Marin that the relations between the two countries in the last two years were "transformed from geographic vicinity into friendship." Marin said the two countries must be partners in their quest to join the EU and in Euro-Atlantic integration. MS

ROMANIA'S RURAL POPULATION BACKS EU MEMBERSHIP, IS UNINFORMED ON SIGNIFICANCE
A public-opinion poll conducted by Gallup International on behalf of the Open Society Foundation and the permanent representation of the European Commission in Romania shows that the country's rural population supports EU membership but is, in general, either unaware of or worried about its likely consequences, Mediafax and Romanian Radio reported. Nearly 80 percent of those questioned said they are aware of Romania's EU candidacy and 60 percent said they believe joining the union would be "a good thing," with only 6 percent replying that it would be "a bad thing" for the country. But only one-third of respondents believe they would be in a position to set up their own farm after accession. Furthermore, only 35 percent are aware of the existence of the SAPARD EU programs currently available in Romania, and only 47 percent of those aware of them realize that the programs are aimed at aiding the rural population. The survey shows the Romanian peasantry perceives itself not as part of an agricultural market, but as an isolated agricultural community that is struggling to make ends meet, according to one of the pollsters. "The village world is a world of mistrust -- suspicion of people and above all of the government," the pollster concluded. Romania has the highest percentage of people employed in the agricultural sector among all EU candidates. MS

MOLDOVA READYING ITSELF FOR COUNCIL OF EUROPE CHAIRMANSHIP
Foreign Minister Nicolae Dudau on 26 February told journalists that Moldova is intensifying preparations for taking over in May the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers and believes it will efficiently fulfill the task, ITAR-TASS reported. He said this task is a chief priority among his country's foreign-policy objectives in 2003. Dudau also said Moldova will continue its efforts to achieve EU integration and is now drafting its "accession strategy," which will be another important foreign-policy guideline. Dudau added that Moldova will fulfill all its tasks within the Balkan Stability Pact and will sign free-trade agreements with the pact's members. MS

BRAGHIS ALLIANCE TO RETURN TO MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT?
The Braghis Alliance was expected to decide on 27 February whether to renounce its boycott of the parliamentary debates, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported on 26 February. Negotiations were under way for this purpose between the alliance's parliamentary group and the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) majority in the legislature, following the partial concession on the part of the authorities to the alliances' demands (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca said he was "surprised" by the Braghis Alliance's readiness to negotiate separately with the PCM without prior consultations with their opposition colleagues. Rosca said the PCM has not met the demands submitted by his own PPCD and by the Braghis Alliance in early February, when the two opposition parties decided to boycott the debates. He emphasized that the demands include the transformation of Teleradio Moldova into a public company and the conducting of plebiscites on changing the country's electoral system and on joining NATO and the EU. MS

CHISINAU MAYOR REVEALS ELECTORAL PLANS
Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean on 26 February said in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service that he will run for another term in the May local elections. Urechean said his Independents' Alliance is currently negotiating setting up an electoral bloc with the Braghis Alliance and with the National Liberal Party. He said this bloc could be transformed into a political party after the local elections. MS

BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ASCRIBES DIVIDED EUROPEAN POSITION ON IRAQ TO PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS
Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi told CNN on 26 February that the current division in Europe over the Iraq question cannot be explained with political factors, but rather with psychological ones, BTA reported. "If the people in Western Europe had lived under the conditions of communism in Eastern Europe, they would think differently," Pasi said. "The countries of Central and Eastern Europe have lived under communist dictatorship and tyranny for decades. We know how to deal with dictators." Asked about the prolongation of the UN weapons inspections, Pasi said: "We are ready to give the inspectors more time, but as the European Union said on 17 February, not infinitely more time," BTA reported. Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said in a 26 February press release that a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis is most desirable, adding that the controversial issues in trans-Atlantic relations should be ironed out, not capitalized on. UB

BULGARIAN DEFENSE MINISTER REPORTEDLY FAVORS BUSINESSMAN AS NEW DEPUTY
Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov reportedly favors naming businessman Georgi Krumov his new deputy, according to "Standart" on 27 February. Krumov imports automobiles and oil products and represents U.S. companies Lockheed-Martin and Harris Corporation in Bulgaria. He reportedly holds shares in the Bulgarian company Elektronprogres, which is involved in upgrading army communications equipment to NATO standards. The government has dismissed two deputy defense ministers due to their involvement in the illegal export of dual-use goods (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November and 12 December 2002 and 28 January 2003; and "End Note," "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch," 9 January 2003.) UB

LOCAL RADIO STATIONS MUST CLOSE IN BULGARIA
The Communications Regulation Commission (KRS) has decided to annul the licenses of 25 local radio stations throughout Bulgaria, "Sega" reported on 27 February. The decision follows a ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court, according to which the stations' licenses were granted as a result of procedural mistakes. The stations affected by the decision include, among others, Sofia University's "Radio Alma Mater." UB

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT REVAMPS CIS, OBTAINS RUSSIA'S BACKING FOR 2004 ELECTIONS
The presidents of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan arrived in Moscow on 22-23 February for talks with their Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that focused on the planned creation of a free-trade zone. At the informal CIS summit in Kyiv in late January, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said the best way to revitalize the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which he had long criticized as moribund, was to shift from a political focus to an economic one. He added that expediting the creation of a CIS free-trade zone -- which has been discussed since 1994 -- is crucial in that respect.

At their talks in Moscow, the presidents of the four "core" CIS states defined as their ultimate objective a single economic space within the CIS, which the other eight CIS states were invited to join. They also agreed to establish an Organization for Regional Integration, to be based in Kyiv and headed by a Kazakh, that would oversee the creation of that single economic space, in stages, through the establishment of free-trade zones.

Such free-trade zones call for deeper integration than that envisaged within either the CIS Customs Union or its successor, the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), which Kuchma had always ruled out Ukraine joining. Russian Minister for Economic Development and Trade German Gref said the free-trade zone would require synchronization in the customs, currency, legislative, and budgetary spheres.

When Kuchma was elected head of the CIS Heads of State Council at its Kyiv summit last month, he stressed that this would not result in any changes in Ukraine's policy of pursuing integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. On 31 January, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that integration with Russia and within the CIS "is an important guarantee of the successful implementation of Ukraine's policy of European and Euro-Atlantic integration."

This "To Europe with Russia" foreign-policy ideology has been assiduously promoted since 2000 both by Kuchma's oligarchic allies and by Russia itself. Vyacheslav Igrunov, deputy head of the State Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States, said after last weekend's summit, "We [Ukraine and Russia] need to integrate the post-Soviet space so that we can both integrate together to Europe. Integrating to the East, we are [simultaneously] integrating to the West." This assertion was paraphrased by the "Ukrayinska pravda" Internet publication as "To Europe through Vladivostok."

Opposition Ukrainian politicians, however, take issue with both the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and Igrunov's reasoning. Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister and Our Ukraine parliamentary deputy Borys Tarasyuk believes a CIS free-trade zone conflicts with Ukraine's goal of EU membership and the creation of a free-trade zone between Ukraine and the EU. Our Ukraine deputy Yuriy Kostenko added that Kuchma's support for the new initiative showed Ukraine has no foreign-policy concept at all. He added that such moves "discredit Ukraine both in the West and in the East. Nobody understands a country that demonstrates an absence of any kind of [foreign-policy] vector."

Ukraine's deeper integration into the CIS will, Ukrainian critics have pointed out, become a negative influence on the country's democratization process. Democratization throughout the CIS since the late 1990s has been in reverse. Given that most CIS states are superpresidential regimes, will deeper integration in the CIS not negatively affect Kuchma's program of political reform that is aimed at transforming Ukraine into a parliamentary-presidential republic, Kyiv Mohyla Academy Professor Oleksandr Derchachov wondered in "Ukrayinska pravda" on 24 February.

But Ukrainian officials continue to insist that a CIS free-trade zone will not contradict Ukraine's "European choice." Serhiy Pyrozhkov, deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council, believes that if the free-trade zone helped Ukraine and Russia join GATT this would also, in turn, assist their integration into the EU. Russia, however, unlike Ukraine, has never expressed an interest in joining the EU (or NATO).

Gref has, moreover, admitted what Russian and Ukrainian officials, including Kuchma, denied -- namely that, "If these moves are synchronized in the economy, this could encourage needed political changes." Suspicions within Ukraine have been aroused as to the real aims of Russia's concessions in allowing Kuchma to head the CIS and create a CIS free-trade zone. Volodymyr Malynkovych, a liberal Russophone critic of both the national democrats and Kuchma, called the new steps "political speculation." This was because Ukraine would never benefit economically from such a zone, which would, on the contrary, condemn it to be a second- or third-rate country dependent on Russia. Malynkovych believes that political integration would inevitably follow closer economic integration within the CIS. Similar opposition from the Ukrainian liberal spectrum came from a statement by the Yabluko Party headed by Mykhaylo Brodskyy.

The "political speculation" to which Malynkovych referred is an anticipated attempt by Kuchma and Putin to influence the outcome of the October 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections, using the same tactics as Kuchma used in the 1994 and Boris Yeltsin used in the 1996 Russian elections. In 1994, Kuchma appealed to the more numerous East Ukrainian vote to back his calls for tighter economic integration with Russia. Both Kuchma (1994) and Yeltsin (1996) sought to take the pro-CIS integration card away from the Communists.

If Viktor Yushchenko, a favorite for the 2004 elections, opposes the CIS free-trade zone, he could risk losing support in East Ukraine -- where his popularity is already lower than in the west and central regions. In the March 2002 parliamentary elections, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine failed to reach the 4 percent threshold in the two Donbas oblasts, which are home to one-fifth of Ukraine's population. Former Donetsk Governor and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych could potentially gain from a repeat of Kuchma's 1994 tactics if Kuchma backs his candidacy in 2004.

Dr. Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.

AFGHAN WOMEN COMPLAIN ABOUT LACK OF PROGRESS
Latifa Langar, a professor at the social-sciences faculty of Kabul University, was quoted by the English-language "Kabul Weekly" on 26 February as saying "women want the same rights as men; they don't want to oppose [the men]." Langar said the only way to achieve this equality is by improving the education level of both sexes in Afghanistan. Jawayda Ahmadi, a professor at the university's journalism faculty, was more pessimistic, saying, "Afghan men are still treating women according to the old Taliban ways," as most women are confined to their homes. Ahmadi added that some Afghan women have jobs, but still "face inequalities in treatment and salaries." Zohra Motahar of the Women's Affairs Ministry complained in the same article that nongovernmental organizations and other agencies "work in the name of [Afghan] women but they have done nothing so far." Motahar said most foreign workers "want to become famous" and those who work "with honesty and commitment" are often discouraged from taking initiatives. She also complained about her own ministry, saying that it has done little to improve the situation of women outside of Kabul, "Kabul Weekly" reported. AT

AFGHAN MINISTER MEETS WITH U.S. GENERAL
Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq met on 26 February with U.S. Army Lieutenant General Dan McNeill, the commander of the international antiterrorism forces in Afghanistan, to discuss the draft of the new Afghan constitution, Radio Afghanistan reported. The report did not elaborate on Mohaqeq's meeting with General McNeill. The fact that the planning minister is discussing the new constitution could be related to Mohaqeq's role as a leader of a faction within the predominately Shia Hizb-e Wahdat. The Shia might have some concerns about the Sunni-dominated Constitutional Drafting Commission. AT

AFGHANISTAN, AZERBAIJAN SIGN AIR DEAL
Air Transport and Tourism Minister Mohammad Mir-Wais Sadeq said on 26 February that an agreement has been reached with Azerbaijan that would allow Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines to begin flights to Baku and allow Azerbaijan Airlines to commence flights to Kabul, Afghanistan Television reported the same day. An Azerbaijan Airlines passenger plane flew from Baku to Kabul on 15 January, making the airline the first to establish a regular route to Kabul since the fall of the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003). AT

ROCKETS HIT BAGRAM AIR BASE
Thirteen rockets hit Bagram Air Base on 25-26 February but the headquarters of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces did not sustain any damage, Afghanistan Television reported on 26 February. AT

AFGHAN TELEVISION AGAIN RAISES ISSUE OF ALLEGED CIVILIAN DEATHS IN BAGHRAN
Afghanistan Television, in commenting on reports that a number of Afghan civilians were killed during a bombing campaign conducted by coalition forces in Baghran in early February, on 26 February cited reports from "international media" to support those claims. However, the report did not mention that a U.S. military spokesman has denied that any civilians were killed during the campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 February 2003). AT

SHOOTING AT KABUL'S TOP HOTEL LEAVES TWO DEAD
Two Afghans were killed and a British security guard was injured in a 25 February shootout at Kabul's upscale Hotel Intercontinental, Radio Afghanistan reported on 26 February. The British man, who reportedly sustained minor injuries, was guarding a U.S. national and his Afghan wife. The report did not elaborate on the identity of the Afghan victims or a possible motive for the shooting. Intercontinental is frequented by members of the foreign community in Kabul and by Afghans who have returned to their country from the West. "Dawn" reported on 27 February, citing Afghanistan's Bakhtar news agency, that a British man named Colin Perry allegedly killed the two Afghans after having a business argument. A U.S. national who was sitting nearby was also injured, according to "Dawn." AT

RUSSIAN DIPLOMAT URGES TEHRAN TO MODIFY CASPIAN DEMANDS
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and presidential envoy for the Caspian Viktor Kalyuzhnyi on 26 February urged Iran to give up its claim to a 20 percent share of the Caspian Sea's resources, Baku's Lider TV reported. Kalyuzhnyi said Iran's expectation was reasonable before Russia signed agreements with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, but now it is too late. He urged Iran to participate in forming a convention that takes into consideration the preexisting trilateral agreement. Russia also has signed bilateral agreements with its immediate neighbors on the Caspian. BS

CONSERVATIVE CLERICAL ASSOCIATION URGES IRANIANS TO PARTICIPATE IN ELECTIONS
As conservatives affiliated with the Islamic Coalition Association are discouraging voters, the conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mubarez-i Tehran) issued a statement on 25 February in which it urged people to participate in the upcoming municipal-council elections, "Entekhab" daily reported on 26 February. The association urged citizens to vote because councils were established to make policy, solve problems, and serve the people, and it urged voters to elect independent individuals who would not turn the councils into factional arenas. The Militant Clergy Association urged people to elect devout and trustworthy individuals who are loyal to Vilayat-i Faqih (rule of the Supreme Jurisconsult). BS

SUPREME LEADER PROMOTES UNITY IN MEETING WITH MINORITIES
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed the importance of unity when he met with leading members of provincial tribal and ethnic groups of Sistan va Baluchistan on the evening of 25 February, Iranian state radio reported. He also warned that the country's problems are all related to foreigners and their allies in Iran. "Today too, just as during the early days of the revolution, parallel to the obstructionist efforts of the enemies, corrupt elements are trying to create obstacles in the way of the nation," Khamenei said. Before the supreme leader spoke, Khamenei's representative for Sunni affairs, Hojatoleslam Husseini, praised Sunni-Shia unity in the region, IRNA reported. It is noteworthy that the representative for Sunni affairs is a Shia cleric. BS

SPECULATION ABOUT IRANIAN PLANE CRASH CONTINUES
A funeral ceremony was to be held on 27 February at Kerman's main mosque for 275 victims of the 19 February crash of an Ilyushin-76 aircraft, IRNA reported the previous day. According to IRNA, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps had chartered the aircraft and nearly all the victims were IRGC personnel. There have been different accounts on the number of passengers, and the Il-76's flight-data recorder has been recovered and sent to Tehran for evaluation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2003). Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in Kerman on 27 February said, "Evidence at hand points to bad weather conditions as being the main cause of the crash, [but] we are still waiting to hear the experts' report on the issue," IRNA reported. An anonymous "expert" cited five eyewitnesses who said that they saw a flash of lights and sparks resulting from an apparent explosion in the airplane's cockpit, "Tehran Times" reported on 26 February. This expert also said the experienced pilot did not say anything to the control tower about poor vision or impaired flight systems. The expert concluded that the crash was probably caused by terrorism, and that Al-Qaeda's silence on the subject increases the likelihood of this being the case. BS

IRANIAN PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY MEETS WITH HIZBALLAH CHIEF
Iranian parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, a founder of Lebanese Hizballah, secretary of Iran's "Support for the Palestinian Intifada" conference series, and now "President Mohammad Khatami's special envoy," arrived in Beirut on 24 February, according to IRNA. On the evening of 25 February he met with Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to discuss "key regional developments," IRNA reported on 26 February. Mohtashami also met with Lebanese President Emil Lahud, parliament speaker Nabih Berri, and Foreign Minister Mahmud Hammud. BS

LEBANESE COURT: AL-QAEDA FIGHTERS TRAVEL THROUGH IRAN
A Lebanese military tribunal on 25 February called for the death penalty for a Turkish Al-Qaeda member who is allegedly the main coordinator for smuggling combatants into and out of Afghanistan through Iran, Beirut's "The Daily Star" reported on 26 February. Chief Military Investigating Magistrate Riad Talih said Miglit Ziakar (a.k.a. Abu Obeida al-Turki) created "a terrorist organization in Lebanon and abroad to commit crimes against civilians, undermine the state, and carry out terrorist operations." The magistrate added that Ziakar runs his operation from Istanbul "by facilitating the entry of militants from all Arab and Muslim countries to Afghanistan through Iran to fight with the Taliban." BS

TEHRAN ANGRY OVER ARGENTINIAN TERRORISM ALLEGATIONS
Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 26 February that Tehran will "review its relations" with Buenos Aires if its "anti-Iran propaganda campaign" over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in the Argentinian capital persists, IRNA reported. On 25 February the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned Argentinean Charge d'Affaires Ernesto Carlos Alvarez to hear an Iranian protest against these allegations, IRNA reported. Argentinean prosecutors on 21 February issued arrest warrants for Supreme Leader Khamenei; former Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Fallahian-Khuzestani; a former Iranian ambassador to Argentina and other Iranian officials; Lebanese Hizballah official Imad Mughniyah; and Hizballah members from South America's Tri-Border Area, Buenos Aires's "La Nacion" daily reported on 22 February and Buenos Aires's "Clarin" daily reported on 26 February. When this subject came up in July 2002, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi blamed "Zionist circles" and he also said Israel was behind the bombing (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 July and 5 August 2002). BS

KDP LEADER ADDRESSES IRAQI OPPOSITION CONFERENCE...
Mas'ud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), told the opening session of the Iraqi opposition's Coordination and Follow-Up Committee meeting in Salah Al-Din on 26 February that members should not let their personal opinions supersede those of the majority, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported the same day. Barzani said Iraqis look forward to "Iraq changing into an oasis of peace, calm, and prosperity." In a reference to Turkish plans to enter Kurdish areas in an effort to prevent the Kurds from establishing an independent state in northern Iraq, Barzani said, "We urge the international community, particularly the U.S.A., to prevent any regional interference in the affairs of Iraq. We would like to stress that the Iraqi people as a whole reject regional intervention under any pretext whatsoever." U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilizad attended the conference and stressed to reporters on 26 February that the United States would not allow any regional power to occupy Iraq, CNN reported on 27 February. KR

...AS SCIRI HEAD REJECTS 'COLONIAL DOMINATION'
Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), told the gathering of opposition leaders that the members must set a comprehensive agenda, saying, "Our wounded Iraq is in dire need of healing," Kurdistan Satellite Television reported on 26 February. Al-Hakim added that the Iraqi people needed to determine their future "without a colonial mandate," saying, "The most dangerous threat is the threat of foreign domination. We [Iraqis] may be facing another mistake that may be committed by the U.S.A. and European countries." Al-Hakim added that the opposition meeting symbolizes a "testimony" to the rejection of the "reestablishment of direct colonialism under new slogans," which he said would be regarded "as a new war against religion." KR

DIVIDED HOUSE OF COMMONS BACKS MILITARY ACTION IN IRAQ
The British House of Commons held a six-hour debate on the issue of Iraq on 26 February that ended in a vote that supported military action against Iraq but signaled deep divisions on the issue, London's "The Daily Telegraph" reported the next day. An unsuccessful cross-party amendment stating that the need for military action against Iraq is "as yet unproven" won 199 votes, nearly one-third of the Commons. The amendment was defeated by 194 votes. But "The New York Times" noted that antiwar Labour members of Parliament "managed to attract an estimated 120 of the party's 410 members in the House" behind that motion, "laying bare the deep divisions in Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party over his hard-line stance on disarming Iraq." KR

UN WORKERS LEAVING IRAQ
Almost half of the UN staff working in Iraq has left voluntarily in the last month, according to a 22 February report by Reuters. They have been permitted to depart under a UN policy that allows staffers to take time off, leave for training, or move to another mission. "No evacuation order has been issued, but it was decided earlier this month that we would allow staff that may wish to leave to do so," Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN, told Reuters on 21 February. The policy does not apply to UN weapons inspectors or their support staff. KR

SUICIDE BOMBING KILLS FOUR IN NORTHERN IRAQ
Four people were killed in northern Iraq when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a military checkpoint in the town of Halabja, Ankara-based "Anatolia" reported on 26 February. The bomber, the driver of the car in which he was riding, and two men manning the checkpoint were killed, "Anatolia" reported. KR

IRAQI PRESIDENT MEETS GOVERNORS, OFFICIALS...
President Saddam Hussein spoke with governors and senior officials from various governorates in a meeting that was broadcast on Iraq Satellite Television on 26 February. During the meeting, Hussein told his guests that Iraq needs to set an example to the world by proving that U.S. objectives cannot be attained through propaganda. As the governors pledged that they would defend against a U.S.-led strike on Iraq, Hussein said, "The Ba'ath Party plays the role of an organizer. The battle is that of every Iraqi except the Iraqis who say that this is not their battle. We hope that there are no such Iraqis." KR

...AND ADVISES IRAQIS TO DIG TRENCHES
Hussein offered some advice to his guests, saying that every Iraqi family should build a trench in their backyard, adding, "Your family can go to the trench when there is bombardment. If the trench is deep and secured with cover, it can serve as a means of protection if a shell falls on the house, God forbid." He said families would be safe in trenches, "So, why should we sustain casualties?" KR

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