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Newsline - February 28, 2003


DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS AL-QAEDA NOT DEFEATED YET...
Speaking to journalists in Baku on 27 February, Sergei Ivanov said the situation in Afghanistan is not yet stable and that the leaders of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are alive and planning new acts of terrorism, Ekho Moskvy reported. Ivanov said there are still terrorist camps in the mountainous areas of the country that are not controlled by government forces and that terrorists in Afghanistan continue to receive funding from their accomplices abroad. He added that Russia will do everything it can to help the Afghan Transitional Administration to combat terrorism, including providing financial assistance. On 26 February, President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that for the first time, Russia will open its territory to allow truck convoys to transport German peacekeepers to Afghanistan. VY

...AS FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS FOR LIMITS ON U.S. PRESENCE IN CENTRAL ASIA
Speaking during an Internet press conference with the "People's Daily" in Beijing on 27 February, Igor Ivanov said that Russia would like the United Nations Security Council to set up a time frame for the presence of U.S. forces in the Central Asian states, RIA-Novosti reported. Ivanov said that Russia views those forces strictly within the framework of the international antiterrorism coalition and that their purpose was to end the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Therefore, he noted, the U.S. presence in those countries should be linked to the mission of the international peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan. VY

ONE-THIRD OF RUSSIANS VIEW STALIN POSITIVELY...
Thirty-six percent of respondents in a national survey conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation on 22 February said that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin did more to benefit Russia than to harm it, lenta.ru reported on 27 February. The foundation surveyed 1,500 adults in cities throughout the federation. Twenty-nine percent of the respondents said Stalin did the country more harm than good, and 34 percent could not say either way. Those who view Stalin positively most often cited his role in the Soviet victory in World War II and the "law and order" he maintained in the country. Those who view him negatively blame him for ruling by means of mass terror, for unleashing genocide against his own citizens, and for failing to prepare the country for the Nazi invasion in 1941. VY

...AS INTEREST IN DICTATOR BOOMS ON 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS DEATH
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Stalin's 5 March 1953 death, the Russian State Archive, the archive of the Federal Protection Service, and that of the Federal Security Service (FSB) have prepared a unique exhibition covering notable events of the Stalin era, RTR reported on 27 February. The exhibition will present for the first time recently declassified documents and medical analyses that purportedly refute the theory that Stalin's entourage might have poisoned him. Other documents concern the so-called Doctors' Plot, an anti-Semitic campaign launched in the last days of the Stalin regime, purportedly at the dictator's personal behest. The exhibition will also present some of Stalin's personal effects, gifts that he received, and letters from Soviet citizens expressing their feelings about his death. The state news agency RIA-Novosti will be selling rare digitized photographs of Stalin via its website (http://www.rian.ru). VY

GOVERNMENT TO BEGIN NEW STAGE OF PRIVATIZATION
Addressing a cabinet meeting on 27 February, First Deputy Property Relations Minister Yurii Medvedev said that the state still controls about 9,000 enterprises that account for about 30 percent of the country's gross domestic product, strana.ru reported. In addition, the state holds stakes in an additional 3,000 publicly traded companies, including several dozen in which the government has 100 percent stakes. In 2003, the government intends to privatize 193 enterprises and sell share packets in 164 publicly traded companies, Medvedev said. The state hopes to receive about 51 billion rubles ($1.65 billion) for these deals, plus 40 billion rubles in dividends and rent payments. Medvedev added, though, that the government does not view privatization as a revenue strategy but as a powerful tool for stimulating economic growth. VY

NUCLEAR-SECURITY CHIEF SLAIN
The head of the Atomic Energy Ministry's International Center for Nuclear Security, Sergei Bugaenko, was found dead in the stairway of his Moscow apartment building on 27 February, Russian news agencies reported on 28 February. According to the police, the 68-year-old Bugaenko apparently surprised burglars breaking into his apartment and was killed by a blow to the head from a blunt object. However, police are also investigating the possibility that Bugaenko's killing is related to his professional activity, polit.ru reported. The International Center for Nuclear Security was created on the basis of a U.S.-Russian bilateral agreement in 1996, and Bugaenko was named its director that year. The center maintains a database of Russian civilian nuclear facilities, carries out research, and coordinates the activities of the Atomic Energy Ministry and the U.S. Department of Energy. VY

MOSCOW POLICE PREPARE FOR CHEMICAL ATTACKS...
All Moscow and federal Interior Ministry troops patrolling the streets and the subway in the capital are now equipped with gas masks and other means of defense against chemical attacks, "Vremya novostei" reported on 27 February. The Emergency Situations Ministry has advised residents of the capital to purchase gas masks. The ministry has also prepared recommendations on how to act in the event of chemical or biological attacks that will soon be posted in public places and distributed to residents. VY

...AS ENVOY RAISES ALARM ABOUT LAX SECURITY IN ULYANOVSK OBLAST
At a conference of law-enforcement officials in Ulyanovsk, presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko said that strategic facilities in the oblast are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, Interfax reported. Kirienko said that mock bombs have been planted at key facilities and that none of them were discovered as quickly as they should have been. In one case, a breach in a facility's barbed-wire perimeter fence was only noticed after 90 minutes. Mock bombs planted at a railway station, downtown market, and a meat factory in the town of Dimitrovgrad went undiscovered, Kirienko said. JAC

GAZPROM FINDS A JOB FOR ANOTHER ST. PETERSBURGER...
Aleksandr Bespalov, chairman of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia's General Council and its Central Executive Committee, has been named head of Gazprom's information-policy department, RosBalt reported on 27 February. This post was vacated when Aleksandr Dybal became head of Gazprom-Media last month. According to compromat.ru, Bespalov was one of President Putin's colleagues at the St. Petersburg regional office of the KGB (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 17 January 2003). If that report is true, then Bespalov is the third former intelligence officer from St. Petersburg to join the national gas concern in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 February 2003). Bespalov has also served as a senator in the Federation Council (Penza) since June 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 June 2002). JAC

...AS HIS PARTY LEADERSHIP ROLE IS CALLED INTO QUESTION
Yurii Solonin, the leader of Unified Russia in St. Petersburg, told RosBalt that there is no legal obstacle to Bespalov combining his job at Gazprom with a leadership position in the party. Solonin noted that Bespalov will likely be stripped of only one of his posts at the party congress to be held on 29 March. "Izvestiya" argued on 27 February that Bespalov's tenure at the helm of Unified Russia has been marked by one failure after another. It also cited unidentified sources within the party who said that "active bargaining" is under way with Bespalov to get him to yield one of his party posts. JAC

IS CHERKESOV HEADED FOR A PROMOTION?
Viktor Cherkesov, presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, reportedly will be transferred to Moscow to take the place of Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 February. According to the report, Matvienko would take Cherkesov's job in St. Petersburg. "Vremya-MN" on 28 February had a slightly different take on the story. According to that newspaper, Matvienko, who wants to return to St. Petersburg for "family" reasons, would take Cherkesov's place, and Cherkesov will be named to head the Federal Antiterrorism Bureau. And if Unified Russia is successful in the December 2003 State Duma elections, Cherkesov would take over Boris Gryzlov's place at the Interior Ministry. Asked to comment on these reports, Cherkesov told RosBalt -- whose editor in chief is Cherkesov's wife, Natalya Chaplina -- that any career changes he makes will be undertaken only according to the will of President Putin. Cherkesov is a former FSB first deputy director. JAC

BASHKIR JUDGE CLAIMS PERSECUTION BY LOCAL AUTHORITIES...
Marat Vakilov, chairman of Bashkortostan's Supreme Court, and his family have allegedly been subjected to harassment after his court's ruling last March that the republic's new constitution runs counter to federal legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 March 2002), REN-TV reported on 27 February. Vakilov told the station that the day after the ruling, Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov called him and told him to resign. Rakhimov also reportedly threatened Vakilov and his relatives. Nonetheless, Vakilov has remained in office. However, he told REN-TV that his son has been expelled from the university and drafted into the army and that a criminal case has been launched against his younger brother, a state-farm director, for allegedly not paying wages to an employee. Vakilov himself has been accused of misappropriating 60,000 rubles ($19,350) and of speaking too much on a court-provided mobile phone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 30 April 2002). JAC

...AS ETHNIC FACTOR PREDICTED TO LOOM LARGE IN UPCOMING ELECTIONS
Independent ethnic-policy expert Ildar Gabdrefikov told an RFE/RL Ufa correspondent on 26 February that ethnic factors will play a significant role in the 16 March elections for Bashkortostan's State Assembly. Gabdrefikov noted that Bashkir is the nationality granted official status in the republic and that this is reflected by local staffing policies. He cited official statistics that show that, although Bashkirs constitute only 22 percent of Bashkortostan's population, they occupy more than 60 percent of the posts in local executive branches and the same percentage in the republican parliament. Gabdrefikov predicted that the role of ethnicity in this year's presidential race will be similar to that seen in the 1998 presidential campaign, when Bashkortostan's Russian, Tatar, and Bashkir communities each promoted their own candidates. JAC

ANOTHER REGIONAL LEADER ASSAULTED BY CAKE
An unidentified member of the radical National Bolshevik Party (NBP) branch in Cheboksary threw a cake at Chavash President Nikolai Fedorov on 25 February, regions.ru reported on 27 February. Fedorov's guards failed to block the attack or capture the cake thrower, who yelled "Hello from the NBP!" Last month, NBP activists carried out a similar assault in Nizhnii Novgorod against Mayor Vadim Bulavinov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2003). In that case, the cake hurler was apprehended, and criminal charges were lodged. However, RosBalt reported on 27 February that Bulavinov has asked the local prosecutor to drop the case. In the Nizhnii Novgorod case, the cake landed in Bulavinov's face, while in Cheboksary the cake only hit Fedorov's arm. JAC

GOVERNMENT TO OFFER COMPENSATION FOR DAMAGES SUFFERED BY CIVILIANS IN CHECHNYA
Speaking at a cabinet meeting on 27 February, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said that in March the government will begin paying compensation to residents of Chechnya whose property was damaged or destroyed during military operations in the republic, RIA-Novosti reported on 27 February. "They are citizens of Russia who have lost their shelter and have become hostages of international terrorism," Kudrin said. "And we should compensate their losses." Kudrin said that President Putin has ordered the compilation as quickly as possible of a list of those entitled to compensation. VY

RUSSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP SAYS CHECHENS INTIMIDATED IN RUN-UP TO REFERENDUM...
The head of the Memorial human rights group, Oleg Orlov, told journalists in Moscow on 27 February that "death squads" have intensified their activities in Chechnya, creating "an atmosphere of fear and terror" in the run-up to the 23 March referendum on a new draft constitution and election laws, Reuters and chechenpress.com reported. Orlov said that while the number of "sweeps" in Chechnya has fallen in recent months, there has been an increase in the number of Chechens snatched from their homes at night. Many of the victims are subsequently found dead, bearing clear signs of torture, Orlov said. He added that only a few such cases are officially documented and even fewer investigated. Orlov said that while most such abductions are carried out by Russian military personnel, some could be the work of Chechen fighters. LF

...AS CHECHNYA'S DUMA DEPUTY SAYS ALL CHECHENS SHOULD BE ABLE TO VOTE
Retired police General Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who is Chechnya's deputy to the Russian State Duma, told a roundtable on Chechnya in Rostov-na-Donu on 27 February that all Chechens currently not resident in Chechnya should have the opportunity to vote in the 23 March referendum, Interfax reported. Aslakhanov argued that the constitution of the Russian Federation guarantees every citizen the right to participate in referendums. Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov said in Grozny on 26 February that no provisions will be made to enable displaced Chechens to vote in camps in Ingushetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003). Aslakhanov also announced on 27 February that he plans to convene a congress of people of Chechnya in Moscow on 15 May, ITAR-TASS reported. Two earlier attempts by Aslakhanov to convene such a gathering, in 2001 and late 2002, were thwarted by the Kadyrov administration (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 9 April 2001 and 12 December 2002). Following the second failure, Aslakhanov had tentatively scheduled the congress for late this month. LF

MORE SUPPORTERS OF ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CHALLENGER ARRESTED
Some 20 members of the campaign staff of opposition People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian were arrested on 27 February, raising to at least 155 the number of people known to have been apprehended for participating in demonstrations in support of Demirchian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. But an Armenian Justice Ministry official told RFE/RL the same day that 69 of the detainees have already been released. The wives of two Demirchian campaign activists who were taken into custody in the town of Armavir on 22 February have been unable to establish the whereabouts of their spouses. Other HZhK officials have gone underground to avoid arrest. LF

DEFEATED ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE APPEALS TO CONSTITUTIONAL COURT
Artashes Geghamian, who placed third in the 19 February ballot after incumbent President Robert Kocharian and Demirchian, appealed on 27 February to the Constitutional Court to declare the 19 February vote invalid due to alleged widespread falsification and to schedule new elections, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The Constitutional Court must issue a ruling within one month. Also on 27 February, proxies for Geghamian said he would under no circumstances back Demirchian in the 5 March runoff. Geghamian aide Hmayak Hovannisian said to do so would be tantamount to "complicity in election-related crimes." LF

AZERBAIJAN, RUSSIA SIGN MILITARY-COOPERATION AGREEMENT
Following talks in Baku on 27 February, visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and his Azerbaijani counterpart Colonel General Safar Abiev signed a cooperation agreement for 2003 between their respective ministries, ITAR-TASS and Turan reported. Ivanov said the agreement paves the way for "large-scale cooperation," including contracts to supply weapons and spare parts and to train military personnel. But he added that Azerbaijan will not supply either Azerbaijan or Armenia with weaponry that would destabilize the military balance in the South Caucasus. Ivanov also announced that the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office has closed its investigation into 1997 allegations that between 1994-96 Russia illegally supplied Armenia with military hardware worth over $1 billion, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April and 16 September 1997). LF

GREEN LIGHT GIVEN FOR AZERBAIJANI GAS-EXPORT PROJECT
An agreement was signed in Baku on 27 February to proceed with the first stage, estimated to be worth $2.3 billion, of gas extraction and export from the offshore Shah-Deniz field, Turan and Interfax reported. The project entails construction of an export pipeline from Baku via Tbilisi to Erzerum. The first gas is to be supplied to Turkey via that pipeline in 2006. LF

CASPIAN WORKING GROUP REGISTERS PROGRESS
A two-day meeting in Baku of the working group charged with drafting a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea concluded on 27 February, Turan reported. Representatives of the five littoral states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- signed a joint statement saying they have coordinated several of the 22 articles of that draft. The next -- ninth -- meeting of the working group has been scheduled for mid-May in Astana. On the sidelines of the meeting, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Halaf Halafov and his Kazakh counterpart Kairat Abuseitov signed a protocol to the bilateral agreement signed in November 2001 on demarcating their respective sectors of the Caspian Sea bed, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2001). The protocol details the precise geographic coordinates of the respective sectors. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S REMARKS ON RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE ELICIT NEGATIVE REACTION
Two political groups have criticized comments made by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze at a government session on 26 February, Caucasus Press reported the following day. Shevardnadze again deplored repeated reprisals and violence against religious minorities. He also reportedly suggested that the Georgian church be more discriminating in accepting candidates for the priesthood and condemn attacks on religious minorities more harshly. One of the most notorious organizers of attacks on religious minorities is a defrocked Georgian priest (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 19 July 2002). The Union of National Forces issued a statement condemning Shevardnadze remarks as unwarranted interference by the state into the affairs of the church, Caucasus Press reported on 27 February. The National Democratic Party similarly branded Shevardnadze's statement a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state, Caucasus Press reported. It also affirmed that the Georgian Orthodox Church has never condoned violence against other creeds. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT FAILS TO RATIFY MILITARY ACCORD WITH U.S.
Following heated discussion, deputies failed on 27 February to ratify a December 2002 military agreement with the United States, Caucasus Press and Russian news agencies reported. The opposition Revival Union and Industrialists factions objected to the provision that U.S. military personnel should be permitted to enter Georgia without visas. The agreement would also allow such personnel to carry personal weapons and grant them diplomatic immunity. LF

UN ENVOY BRIEFS ABKHAZ, GEORGIAN LEADERS ON GENEVA TALKS
Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, met in Sukhum on 27 February with Abkhaz Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, and in Tbilisi with President Shevardnadze, to inform them about the 19-20 February "brainstorming session" in Geneva of representatives of the UN Secretary-General's Friends of Georgia group, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). That session was intended to generate new approaches to resolving the Abkhaz conflict. Tagliavini reportedly said that participants agreed on the need to create three bodies to focus, respectively, on economic problems, the repatriation of displaced persons, and political issues. In 1997, a Coordinating Council for resolving the conflict was established under the UN's aegis. That body has three working groups to address security issues, including maintaining the existing cease-fire, assisting displaced persons, and coping with economic issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 19 November 1997). LF

DID FORMER GEORGIAN INTERIOR MINISTER HELP CHECHEN WARLORD?
Emzar Kvitsiani, who is governor of the Georgian-controlled upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge, alleged in an interview with the newspaper "24 saati" that former Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze helped transport Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev and his men from the Pankisi Gorge to the Kodori Gorge in the summer of 2001 on orders from Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, Caucasus Press reported on 28 February. Many observers questioned at the time how Gelaev's men could have traveled the length of Georgia undetected. Meanwhile, "Akhali taoba" on 26 February and "Alia" on 27 February reported that President Shevardnadze is considering dismissing Targamadze's successor, Koba Narchemashvili, and either reappointing Targamadze as interior minister or naming one of Targamadze's close associates to that post. Shevardnadze's rationale, both papers suggest, is to ensure that the ministry is headed by a man capable of ensuring that Shevardnadze's embattled Union of Citizens of Georgia polls the required number of votes in the parliamentary elections due this fall. LF

UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT VIOLATES GEORGIAN AIRSPACE
An unidentified Su-27 fighter jet overflew the Kodori Gorge at around midday on 27 February, Caucasus Press reported. A joint patrol of the gorge by CIS peacekeepers and UN observers witnessed the incursion. LF

ROW IN KAZAKHSTAN OVER PROPOSED NUCLEAR PLANT
A number of nongovernmental organizations in Kazakhstan are opposing construction of a new nuclear-power plant at Balkhash, the weekly "Panorama" reported on 27 February. Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik told the lower house of the Kazakh parliament on 24 February that the fate of the plant, which he promised would be built in strict accordance with Kazakh laws on nuclear energy, should not be decided by environmental groups such as Greenpeace. The minister also assured deputies that alternative sources of power such as wind energy are being explored. On 26 February, the deputies approved construction of the Balkhash plant, and the NGOs opposed to it issued a call for a national referendum on the plant, adding that the $2 billion that the plant will cost would be better spent on wind-power stations. BB

CHINA PRESSES FOR INCREASED KAZAKH OIL PRODUCTION
The head of Kazakhstan's state oil-and-gas firm, Lyazzat Kiinov, told Interfax on 27 February that China would like to start importing oil from Kazakhstan this year. But when the question of building a pipeline was raised, the Chinese side said that current Kazakh production levels are too low to justify the expense. China would like to import 50 million tons of Kazakh oil annually, but at present Kazakhstan is able to produce only 47 million. According to Kiinov, China is asking to participate in larger projects in Kazakhstan in order to raise financing for a pipeline. The two countries agreed in 1997 that China would fund construction of the pipeline. Kazakhstan would also like to export gas to China, as would Turkmenistan, using a pipeline through Kazakhstan. BB

KYRGYZSTAN BRACES FOR POSSIBLE IRAQ WAR
Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service Chairman Kalyk Imankulov told journalists in Bishkek on 27 February that the country will intensify its security precautions if war starts in Iraq, Interfax reported the following day. Imankulov was quoted as saying that he expects no significant destabilization in the Central Asian region in the event of a war, but he said there could be terrorist attacks. While he expects the international environment to become more tense, he doubts that Kyrgyzstan would become a target for terrorism because of the U.S. military presence in the country. According to Imankulov, antiterrorism forces have already been deployed at Manas Airport. BB

AKAEV CALLS FOR JURY SYSTEM IN KYRGYZSTAN
Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev told a national conference of judges on 27 February that instituting a jury system would increase public confidence in the judicial system, Interfax reported. It could also curb arbitrariness. Akaev was quoted as saying that the new version of Kyrgyzstan's Constitution would authorize juries. In what he said was an effort to end corruption in the court system, Akaev announced that he had signed a decree on 26 February raising judicial salaries by 50 percent. BB

UZBEKISTAN REJECTS KYRGYZ CALL TO REMOVE BORDER MINES
Uzbekistan has officially rejected a request by Kyrgyzstan for maps of Uzbek minefields along the countries' common border and also for the removal of some of the mines, the official Kyrgyz news agency Kabar reported on 28 February. Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Kadyr Yusupov told a press conference in Tashkent the previous day that Uzbekistan insists on its right to defend its borders in the face of international terrorism. Kyrgyzstan formally protested to Uzbekistan on 26 February over the death of a Kyrgyz citizen who was killed by an Uzbek mine. Kabar noted that this was the second protest in two weeks. Earlier Uzbek border guards entered Kyrgyzstan's Batken Oblast and attempted to search a Kyrgyz bus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2003). BB

EBRD GIVES RAILWAY-PRIVATIZATION GRANT TO UZBEKISTAN
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) will grant Uzbekistan 1 million euros ($1.08 million) for restructuring and privatization of its railways sector, uzreport.com reported on 27 February. A Canadian firm will implement the projects. The grant is part of EBRD efforts to aid development of small and medium-sized private businesses in Uzbekistan. BB

INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER APPEARS IN UZBEKISTAN
An independent Uzbek-language newspaper has been launched, centrasia.ru reported on 28 February, citing a local Deutsche Welle correspondent. "Mustaqil gazeta" ("Independent Newspaper") is owned by businessman Mirolim Mirahmedov, who said that he will take seriously President Islam Karimov's call for the press to be aggressive. Mirahmedov particularly mentioned the bureaucracy and corruption as his paper's targets. The paper's first issue includes stories on alleged corruption at the Tashkent Law Institute and an investigation into a Ferghana Valley court case. An independent newspaper was launched in Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s, but was shut down after the appearance of just a few issues. BB

ARE SOME BELARUSIAN LEGISLATORS LOSING THEIR FEAR OF LUKASHENKA?
Members of the Respublika group in the Chamber of Representatives -- Uladzimir Parfyanovich, Valery Fralou, Henadz Dyleuski, Uladzimir Lukashevich, and Uladzimir Reznikau -- organized a roundtable with the participation of opposition politicians and civic and cultural activists in the House of the Government in Minsk on 27 February, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. The discussion focused on the creation of the non-Bolshevik Belarusian Democratic Republic (Belaruskaya Narodnaya Respublika) in 1918 and resulted in a joint statement calling on Belarusians to unite for the preservation of Belarusian independence. "Today, you saw that the parliament has ceased to be manipulated [by the government]. It is possible and necessary to work with us," Dyleuski said in summing up the roundtable, which took place in the lobbies of the legislature since the administration of the building did not allow participants to enter the session hall. Although invited, government representatives did not attend the event. JM

SUPREME COURT LEAVES BELARUSIAN JOURNALIST IN JAIL
The Belarusian Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by journalist Pavel Mazheyka to shorten his sentence for defamation of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 August 2002), Belapan reported on 28 February. Mazheyka has been serving his one-year term in an "open-type, corrective" facility in Zhlobin (Homel Oblast) since 1 September. His colleague, Mikola Markevich, remains in a similar facility in Asipovichy (Mahilyou Oblast). JM

OUR UKRAINE LEADER CALLS ON KUCHMA TO STOP 'POLITICAL TERROR'
Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko on 27 February issued a strongly worded letter to senior political leaders calling on authorities "to carry out their constitutional duty...and put an end to political terror" in the country, the Our Ukraine website (http://www.razom.org.ua/) reported. The appeal was addressed to President Leonid Kuchma, Premier Viktor Yanukovych, and Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, according to the website. "Mysterious killings and unsolved murders of leading politicians and journalists, [as well as] violent attacks to intimidate political opponents, have become characteristic of the regime," the letter reads. Yushchenko cites the beatings of two Our Ukraine regional activists -- Volodymyr Lavryk in Sumy on 21 February and Vasyl Vasyuta in Mukachevo on 25 February -- as the latest incidents in that terror campaign. JM

UKRAINIAN LAWMAKER SAYS RUSSIAN CAPITAL THREATENS NATIONAL SECURITY
The Socialist Party's Valentyna Semenyuk, who is chairwoman of the parliamentary Monitoring Commission for Privatization, told the Verkhovna Rada on 27 February that Russian businesses have jeopardized Ukraine's national security by acquiring "oil refineries, raw-aluminum production, communications, and many other strategic enterprises" during the country's privatization process, Interfax reported. She claimed that the economic effectiveness and technological parameters of these privatized companies have declined, while investments in their modernization and production development have remained low. JM

ACTIVE ADVANCE VOTING FOR ESTONIA'S PARLIAMENT
The Central Election Committee announced on 27 February that early voting for the parliamentary elections slated for 2 March has been greater than in past elections, BNS reported. On 24-26 February, 14.5 percent of eligible voters -- or more than 124,000 citizens -- cast their ballots. Early voting figures in the parliamentary election of 1999 and in local councils last fall were 7.7 and 10.5 percent, respectively. SG

LATVIAN PREMIER URGES REDUCED BUDGET DEFICIT
In an interview on Latvian State Radio on 27 February, Einars Repse said he hopes to keep this year's budget deficit below 2 percent of gross domestic product, LETA reported. He noted that concerns expressed by the Bank of Latvia over a large budget deficit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003) are not unfounded. Repse conceded that the tax-collection mechanism is still bogged down but should be improved. He also signaled room for budget cuts, saying that expenditures have not been optimized. He added that additional funds can be found for such priorities as health care and education. SG

NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL MAKES SHORT VISIT TO LITHUANIA
Lord George Robertson began his fourth trip to Vilnius by meeting with recently inaugurated President Rolandas Paksas on 27 February, ELTA reported. Robertson subsequently congratulated those who had helped make real the dream of the country's membership in NATO, widely expected to be finalized in May 2004. Robertson told the parliament that the list of unfulfilled tasks for Lithuania is short and simple: strengthening anticorruption efforts and continuing military reform. He expressed support for a proposal by parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas that the heads of the so-called Vilnius 10 parliaments meet in Vilnius in May to discuss further cooperation pursuant to NATO membership. In talks with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, Robertson stressed the need for fighting corruption, especially in customs, public procurements, and the health-care system. SG

POLISH COALITION STUMBLES ON HIGHWAY-TOLL BILL
The Sejm on 27 February voted 206 to 194 with two abstentions to reject a government-sponsored bill to introduce special payments for the use of specified Polish highways (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February and 23 August 2002), PAP reported. The bill was rejected because lawmakers from the Peasant Party (PSL), the coalition partner of the ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union bloc (SLD-UP), sided with the opposition. "This vote appears to indicate that we are dealing with a minority government," said Deputy Prime Minister Marek Pol (Labor Union), who devised the bill in a bid to find funds for new highways and the reconstruction of old ones and thus upgrade the country's road system to EU standards. A politician from the ruling coalition told PAP on condition of anonymity that the PSL wants to force the SLD-UP-led cabinet to intervene on the agricultural market to defuse ongoing farmers' protests throughout the country. The abortive vote on the highway-toll bill is reportedly a sign that the SLD-UP bloc opposes the idea of intervening over agricultural purchases. JM

POLISH FARMERS LEAD PIG INTO REGIONAL CORRIDORS OF POWER
Some 100 farmers on 27 February protested the government's agricultural policies in front of the provincial administration office in Wroclaw, in southwestern Poland, and "sentenced" Premier Leszek Miller to "banishment to Siberia" and Deputy Premier Jaroslaw Kalinowski to "flogging" in a mock trial, PAP reported. Some of the farmers subsequently stormed a police cordon and entered the building with a pig in tow, its snout painted red and an inscription on its flanks reading "I am an honorable pig, not a government one." The trespassers reportedly cursed at clerks they met on their way into the governor's office as the animal squealed through the corridors. Police said they want offenders punished for an illegal demonstration and cruelty to animals. JM

CZECH PRESIDENTIAL STALEMATE CONTINUES AFTER ONE ROUND...
The first of three possible rounds in the Czech legislature's third attempt to elect a successor to former President Vaclav Havel produced no winner on 28 February, Czech Television and CTK reported. Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Honorary Chairman and former Czech Premier Vaclav Klaus received 115 votes from the 200-seat lower house and 32 votes from senators, while philosophy Professor Jan Sokol was backed by 81 deputies from the lower house and 47 members of the 81-seat upper house, or Senate. Both candidates advanced to a second round, which was expected to take place later the same day. MS

...BUT ODDS FAVOR KLAUS
In the 28 February secret ballot, Klaus's candidacy appeared to benefit from the support of the opposition Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), whose chairman announced his party's support before the voting. Klaus's own ODS party controls 58 seats in the lower house and 26 Senate seats. The ruling center-left coalition controls 101 seats in the house and 42 senate seats, suggesting that at least 19 of the 100 coalition deputies present voted for Klaus in the first round. The senior ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) controls 70 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 11 Senate seats. Many analysts predicted that some CSSD lawmakers would back Klaus in an attempt to discredit Prime Minister and CSSD Chairman Vladimir Spidla. Klaus's level of support (147 votes) in the first round would secure him election on an eventual third round, where election requires just a majority of deputies and senators present. MS

CZECH LOWER HOUSE REJECTS PENSION FOR FORMER PRESIDENTS...
The Chamber of Deputies on 27 February surprisingly rejected a government-proposed bill that would have granted a special pension to former heads of the Czech state, CTK reported. The bill was supported by just 58 deputies, all of them from the three-party governing coalition that controls 101 seats in the 200-seat chamber. The bill was opposed by deputies representing the opposition ODS and KSCM parties, but also by 12 deputies from the senior coalition CSSD and three from the ruling Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL), according to CTK. Only the junior ruling Freedom Union-Democratic Union was unanimous in its support. The legislation would have taken effect on 1 May, and former President Vaclav Havel would have been its first beneficiary. In the absence of such a law, Havel is being provided with neither a pension nor security since he stepped down on 2 February, although the new bill's rejection means he will likely receive a one-time severance payment of 800,000 crowns ($27,143), the news agency reported. MS

...AND APPROVES COMPREHENSIVE BAN ON TOBACCO ADVERTISING
The lower house on 27 February approved a law banning tobacco advertising in all mass media, as well as on billboards and other public places, AP reported. Tobacco advertising is to be limited to stores selling cigarettes and specialized publications. The bill still must face scrutiny in the Senate. A similar draft law was approved by the Chamber of Deputies in April but was later rejected by the upper house, which deemed it too far-reaching. Unlike the previous draft, the current bill allows tobacco companies to sponsor motor sports until the end of 2006. MS

CZECH MEDIA TYCOON FACES MORE CHARGES
Police on 27 February added three more crimes to the list of charges against commercial television director and recently elected Senator Vladimir Zelezny, CTK reported. The move brings the number of charges against Zelezny to six. The TV Nova director was elected to the Senate as an independent in November, but the upper house stripped him of his parliamentary immunity in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15, 23, 24, and 27 January 2003). MS

CZECH YOUTHS CHARGED WITH RACIST ATTACK ON ROMA
Four young Czechs were charged on 27 February with "attempt to cause serious bodily harm for racist reasons" and with "breach of peace," CTK reported. The four attacked and brutally beat a 17-year-old Roma in Prague in October. If found guilty, they face up to 10 years in jail, but prosecutor Hana Vrbova told the agency that three of the four are under 18 and punishment would therefore automatically be cut in half. MS

CZECH AUTHORITIES MUST APOLOGIZE TO ANARCHIST
A Prague court on 27 February ruled that the Czech state must apologize to anarchist Slavomir Tesarek, who was beaten by police during protest demonstrations during the September 2000 International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meeting in Prague. The court said the there were "no legal grounds" for violence against Tesarek and the Czech Republic must apologize for the action. But the court rejected Tesarek's 50,000-crown ($1,696) compensation claim and ordered him to pay for the court proceedings. He said he will appeal. MS

SLOVAKIA ABOLISHES PRIVATIZATION MINISTRY
Slovak legislators on 27 February formally approved the abolition of that country's Privatization Ministry, TASR reported. The ministry was de facto abolished in October, when the new streamlined cabinet headed by Premier Mikulas Dzurinda was formed. The former ministry's prerogatives are being transferred to the Economic Ministry on 1 March. MS

SLOVAK RAILWAYS FREEZING WAGES TO RECOVER STRIKE COSTS
Slovak Railways (ZSSK) intends to freeze workers' wages in 2003 to recover the costs of a February strike, TASR reported. Unions representing the workers said the measure would infringe on the collective-bargaining agreement, which stipulates wage growth in line with inflation, but the company said negotiations on this aspect of the agreement had not been finalized. In related news, Premier Dzurinda said at a meeting the same day with President Rudolf Schuster and parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky that a threat by the Trade Union Confederation to launch a general strike will not bring about the collapse of his four-party, center-right cabinet. "Slovakia has a stable government and a stable ruling coalition," TASR cited him as saying. MS

SLOVAK PARLIAMENT TO DEBATE CORRUPTION IN POLITICAL SYSTEM
A joint motion was moved on 27 February for a special parliamentary session to debate corruption within the Slovak political system, TASR reported. The motion was submitted by lawmakers from the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia and Smer (Direction) parties, along with the ruling coalition's Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO). This marks the first time ever that a governing party has joined opposition formations in launching a motion in the Slovak legislature. Parliamentary speaker Hrusovsky must now schedule a debate within seven days. MS

SLOVAK, HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS DISCUSS STATUS LAW
Visiting Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs and his Slovak counterpart Eduard Kukan on 27 February discussed ways to overcome tension in relations between the two countries stemming from the Hungarian Status Law, TASR and CTK reported. They agreed to continue discussions after Kovacs sent Bratislava the text of proposed amendments to the law, which was passed by the previous, FIDESZ-led government in 2001. "I did not come with the intention to present here a 13-page text and ask whether you agree, but spoke about our intentions and the purpose of the proposed changes," Kovacs was cited by CTK as saying. Kukan called the talks "a good start," but added that he will not comment further before he sees the proposed amendments. He said Bratislava demands no more than preventing the legislation from having "unacceptable effects" in his country. Slovakia has so far said the law passed, which extends benefits to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, infringes on its sovereignty. Kovacs promised that "certain formulations, words, and sentences that could cause misunderstanding and tension, or produce the feeling that they do not respect sovereignty or European norms, will be removed from the law." He added, however, that "nothing important will be removed" and that the law will make it possible for ethnic Hungarians to both "be loyal citizens of their country and preserve their identity, culture, and language." MS

HUNGARIAN POLICE QUESTION FORMER GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS CHARGED WITH FINANCIAL ABUSES
The Organized Crime Department of the Hungarian police force on 27 February summoned three officials from the former FIDESZ-led government to inform them of charges against them regarding the alleged misuse of several hundred million forints, "Nepszabadsag" reported the next day. According to the daily, the three are Bela Bartfai, former state secretary at the Prime Minister's Office; Maria Berketz, former head of the publicly traded company Millenaris, operator of Budapest's Millennium Park cultural center; and former commissioner for information technology Zoltan Sik. Bartfai is accused of paying a 36 million-forint ($150,000) "golden handshake" to Berketz when the latter stepped down as head of Millenaris in May, after FIDESZ lost the parliamentary elections. Berketz is charged with misusing several hundred million forints. Sik has been charged in connection with the dubious payment of some 800 million forints to four lawyers, including 390 million forints for work that might never have been completed. One of the lawyers concerned, Ferenc Papcsak, is now a FIDESZ deputy, and prosecutors are reportedly considering whether to request that his parliamentary immunity be lifted. MSZ

FORMER HUNGARIAN PREMIER READY TO RETURN TO HEAD OF PARTY
Former Prime Minister Viktor Orban on 28 February announced on the new, right-leaning Hir TV channel that he will once again take up the post of FIDESZ party chairman. Orban made it clear in mid-January that he would agree to head FIDESZ again if the party were transformed into a European-style, Christian democratic people's party that is prepared to admit thousands of right-wing groups as members. Orban said the party's leadership should be significantly trimmed, thus squeezing out six or seven FIDESZ deputy chairmen. "We will be a bit bigger and slower," Orban said, adding that the main duty of the party's leadership in the coming months will be to expand FIDESZ support. MSZ

EC PRESIDENT BOOSTS ACCESSION CAMPAIGN IN HUNGARY...
European Commission President Romano Prodi on 27 February told a conference of Hungarian mayors that he came to Budapest to support a "yes" vote in the country's 12 April referendum on EU membership, Budapest dailies reported. Prodi said that answering questions of concern to the public is the duty of local community leaders. Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told conference participants that the government can provide assistance, but answers to questions must be found locally, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Medgyessy said the EU comprises more than funds and economics, in that it also represents a way of thinking and an ideology. For his part, Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs said the government, as well as local governments and NGOs, must provide straight answers to dispel fears and deny false claims. "Entry to the EU will have no disadvantages, only difficulties," he concluded. MSZ

...AND SAYS FRIENDSHIP WITH U.S. SHOULD BE BASED ON A UNITED EUROPE
Prodi told reporters after his 27 February meeting with Medgyessy that EU enlargement will not be delayed despite heated debates within the EU on Iraq, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Regarding a common foreign policy, he said friendship with the United States must be promoted, but only if it proceeds from the basic idea of a united Europe, the daily reported. MSZ

FIRST NATO TRAIN TRANSITS HUNGARY
Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz on 27 February said a train carrying military hardware to Turkey had passed through Hungary, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. Juhasz also announced that Hungary is not preparing to offer troops, hardware, or military capabilities to the military defense of Turkey in response to a NATO query. NATO has asked all member countries to report before the end of the week on how they might contribute to the defense of Turkey in the event of a military operation against Iraq. Juhasz said Hungary's armed forces have neither AWACS planes nor any defense capabilities to offer for Turkey's defense. He emphasized that Hungary will neither take part in military operations nor allow itself merely to drift into them, stressing that concerns over such a risk are unfounded. Juhasz accused the opposition of "massive scaremongering." MSZ

BOSNIAN MUSLIMS ANGRY OVER SENTENCE FOR FORMER BOSNIAN SERB LEADER...
Many Muslim survivors of the 1992-95 Bosnian war say The Hague-based war crimes tribunal's 11-year sentence for former Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic is too lenient, Reuters reported from Sarajevo on 28 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003). One Muslim former inmate of the Serbian concentration camp at Prijedor told the news agency: "Eleven years for all those lives [lost], for all the sufferings, is only a drop in the ocean, and we, the former camp inmates, cannot be satisfied with that." But another former Prijedor inmate said the important thing in the Plavsic case is that she admitted her guilt, thereby setting a possible precedent for other Serbian leaders to do likewise. PM

...WHILE SERBS HAVE MIXED FEELINGS...
Reuters reported from Pale on 28 February that one elderly Serb there said, "Biljana Plavsic has betrayed the Serbian people because she admitted guilt before The Hague tribunal." Former Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, who was Plavsic's political ally, said: "I am very depressed by this sentence, and think that international justice was unjust to Biljana Plavsic." PM

...AS DO MANY FOREIGNERS
Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service said in a commentary on 27 February that the sentencing of Plavsic marks a big step toward reconciliation in Bosnia by trying and sentencing those key individuals responsible for war crimes. The main reason for the tribunal's existence is arguably that only by bringing individuals to justice can the concept of collective guilt of entire peoples be put to rest. Carl Bildt, who was the international community's high representative in Bosnia in 1996-97, told the BBC that the 11-year sentence for a 72-year-old woman amounts to a life sentence and hence is likely to discourage other indicted individuals from turning themselves in. Bildt added that NATO in 1996 knew the daily whereabouts of former Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic but did not arrest him. Bildt praised Plavsic's role in implementing the Dayton peace agreement over the objections of Serb hard-liners. Plavsic always argued that the main reason for Serbs to support Dayton was that it established the legal basis for the Serbs' own entity, the Republika Srpska. PM

KOSOVAR LEGISLATURE CALLS ON HAGUE TRIBUNAL TO RELEASE PROMINENT DEPUTY
The parliament approved a declaration on 27 February calling on The Hague-based tribunal to release Fatmir Limaj, a Kosovar Albanian legislator awaiting extradition from Slovenia to The Hague, where he is wanted for war crimes, dpa reported. The statement said the tribunal's recent indictments of several former guerrilla fighters is tantamount to "equating resistance and the liberation war in Kosova with the genocidal war against Kosova and its people" carried out by former President Slobodan Milosevic in 1998-99 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003). The parliament also passed a declaration condemning the recent proclamation by Kosovar Serb leaders of a Serbian Union, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February 2003). Some 20 deputies representing the Serbian minority walked out of the legislative session to protest the two declarations. PM

SLOVENIAN PARLIAMENT RULES THAT NATO-MEMBERSHIP REFERENDUM IS LEGALLY BINDING
Deputies voted on 27 February to declare the 23 March referendum on NATO membership legally binding, AP reported. The government originally planned to make the referendum only an advisory vote. A recent poll suggests that 37 percent of voters are in favor of joining NATO, 36 percent are against, and 27 percent are undecided (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 February 2003). All major political parties favor NATO membership, but many citizens feel it would be too expensive and unnecessary in practical terms. PM

BOSNIAN SERBS DISMISS BOSSES AT POWER COMPANY
The government of the Republika Srpska fired all the members of the two supervisory boards of the state-controlled electric company following the discovery of fraud there amounting to at least $90 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February 2003). PM

FOREIGN MINISTER OF SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO VISITS MACEDONIA
As part of preparations for a summit of Southeast European countries scheduled for early April in Belgrade, outgoing Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic arrived in Skopje on 27 February, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Svilanovic met with President Boris Trajkovski, Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, and Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva. Belgrade hopes the summit will help it regain its former regional political primacy, something that is not fully acceptable to its neighbors. Alluding to recent speculation in the Serbian and Macedonia media that the shadowy Albanian National Army (AKSH) is planning a "spring offensive," Svilanovic told a joint press conference with Mitreva: "We fear neither the spring nor the summer." He added that armed groups threatening peace and stability in region are supported by organized crime and not by any neighboring country, which is also the international community's position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 24, 25, and 26 February 2003). UB

IRANIAN OFFICIAL IN ALBANIA
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani met with his Albanian counterpart Luan Hajdaraga in Tirana on 26 February, RTSH state television and the official ATA press agency reported. They exchanged views on expanding cooperation in economics, trade, art, culture, science, and other fields, and Hajdaraga expressed gratitude for the Iranian provision of unspecified electronic equipment to the Albanian Foreign Ministry. Ahani praised Albania's signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU and spoke highly of its role in the Balkans. Hajdaraga visited Tehran in May 2002. BS

U.S. LIKELY TO GRANT ROMANIA STATUS OF 'FUNCTIONING MARKET ECONOMY'
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans said on 27 February in Bucharest that the United States is likely to grant Romania the status of a "functioning market economy" on 10 March, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Evans said the decision would be the result of a long process of examination of the economic reforms undertaken by Romania, and not a prize awarded to Bucharest for its support in the Iraq conflict. Both Evans and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said Romanian support for a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq does not hinge on any special conditions, dpa reported. The agency cited Nastase as saying that "we did not want to use the visit...to extort our friends while in the throes of a delicate situation." The premier also announced the formation of a U.S. investment fund for infrastructure projects in Romania. In addition, he said it was agreed that Bucharest will participate in rebuilding Iraq, and expressed the hope that Washington will help Romania recoup the $1.7 billion debt owed by Iraq since before 1990. Evans also met with President Ion Iliescu. MS

CONSTANTA OFFICIALS SUCCESSFUL IN REMOVING 'MILITARY ZONE' SIGNS
Signs placed in the vicinity of hotels where U.S. troops are temporarily quartered on the Black Sea coast that designate those areas as "military zones" are to be removed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003). The decision came as the result of a visit to Constanta on 27 February by Romanian Air Force chief General Gheorghe Constantin and Colonel Calvin Kelly, commander of the U.S. troops temporarily stationed on the Black Sea coast, in which they both said there is no reason to designate hotels as such, Mediafax reported. Local officials had protested the previous day against the posting of the signs. MS

STANDARD & POOR'S UPGRADES ROMANIA'S RATING
The international Standard & Poor's rating agency on 27 February raised Romania's long-term rating for local-currency debts from BB- to BB and for foreign-currency debts from B+ to BB-, according to Mediafax and a Romanian government press release. The agency said the improved ratings reflect Romania's successful stabilization of its economy, which "shows signs of a robust growth" prompted by "exports and private investments accompanied by a drop in the rate of inflation and of interest rates." The government welcomed the decision, saying it is due to "the substantial progress achieved in implementing economic reforms." MS

ROMANIA TO LAY OFF 18,000 INDUSTRIAL WORKERS
Labor Minister Marian Sarbu said on 27 February that the government has decided to restructure state-owned loss-making industrial mammoths and that as a result, approximately 18,000 people employed in such enterprises will be laid off immediately, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Among the affected enterprises are the Hunedoara-based Sidelurgica steelmaker and the Brasov-based Tractorul and Roman tractor and truck manufacturers. MS

U.S., EU IMPOSE TRAVEL BAN ON TRANSDNIESTER LEADERS
The United States and the European Union agreed on 27 February to impose a travel ban on 17 members of the separatist Transdniester leadership, international media reported. The EU Greek Presidency, which released the joint statement, said the ban will be imposed on those members of the separatist leadership "considered to be primarily responsible for the lack of cooperation in promoting a political settlement of the separatist conflict." Among those included on the list are separatist leader Igor Smirnov, two of his sons, Smirnov's main advisers, and key ministers in the Transdniester cabinet. The joint statement said the "leadership of the secessionist Transdniestrian region has continually demonstrated obstructionism and unwillingness to change the status quo, thereby impeding meaningful negotiations," AFP reported. It also said the conflict "constitutes a serious risk for stability and security in this part of Europe" and must be settled "in full respect of Moldova's territorial integrity," according to Reuters. The United States and the European Union said they support the mediators' efforts to reach a settlement of the conflict, and added that they are offering their services to help in the process. They also called "on other partners to join our common effort and consider the adoption of similar measures," AFP reported. MS

CHISINAU HOSTS NEW ROUND OF NEGOTIATIONS WITH TRANSDNIESTER
A new round of negotiations between Moldova and the Transdniester separatists started in Chisinau on 27 February, RFE/RL's bureau reported. The parleys are being held under the auspices of the three mediators -- the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine -- and were expected to last two days. No agenda for the negotiations has been released, but political observers expect they will focus on the OSCE's plan for Moldova's federalization and on President Vladimir Voronin's recent proposal to elaborate a new constitution jointly with Tiraspol representatives. MS

BRAGHIS ALLIANCE RENOUNCES BOYCOTT OF MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT
The Braghis Alliance on 27 February announced it is returning to parliamentary debates, after the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists satisfied two of its main demands, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Party Chairman Dumitru Braghis said the authorities have agreed to allow his party's representatives to air their views on Moldovan state television and have stopped harassing those who participated in the drive for a referendum to change the current electoral system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 February 2003). The former premier also said parliamentary speaker Evgenia Ostapchuk has assured him that the party's third demand -- that fired participants in the referendum drive be rehired -- will also be met. Popular Party Christian Democratic Chairman (PPCD) Iurie Rosca said in reaction that Braghis has discredited himself as a politician. Rosca said the parties' initiative to jointly boycott the debates came from Braghis, as did the proposal to jointly picket parliament. Rosca said the Braghis Alliance's decision has left the PPCD as the lone representative of the genuine opposition. MS

CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION APPEALS MOLDOVAN COURT DECISION ON PPCD REFERENDUM DRIVE
The Central Election Commission (CEC) on 27 February appealed before the Supreme Court a ruling made on 17 February by the Chisinau Court of Appeals that obliged the CEC to register the referendum drive on joining NATO and the EU launched by the PPCD, Flux reported. The CEC said the drive violates the constitutional stipulation of Moldova's neutrality. PPCD Deputy Chairman Vlad Cubreacov responded that if the Supreme Court heeds the CEC's appeal, his party will appeal to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. MS

BULGARIAN PARLIAMENT OVERRIDES PRESIDENTIAL VETO ON AMENDED PRIVATIZATION ACT
With the votes of the ruling coalition of National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) and the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the parliament overrode on 27 February the presidential veto on the controversial amendments to the Privatization Act, BTA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 24 February 2003). However, Bulgarian media noted that not all of the 125 NDSV and DPS members who voted against the veto participated in the electronic voting procedure. The procedure, which involves the use of credit-card-sized chip-cards, has repeatedly caused controversies in the past, as legislators have used the opportunity to cast votes for absent colleagues, thus producing "phantom majorities." It is expected that President Georgi Parvanov and the opposition parties will challenge the law before the Constitutional Court as soon as it is published in "Darzhaven vestinik," the official state gazette. UB

DEFENSE MINISTER CONFIRMS CONSULTATIONS ON U.S. MILITARY BASES IN BULGARIA
Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov confirmed upon his return to Bulgaria from Washington on 27 February that he held consultations with members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the possibility that U.S. military could move bases from Germany to Bulgaria, mediapool.bg reported. Svinarov said the possibility of handing four or five former Bulgarian military bases over to the U.S. military was discussed, but he added that no concrete plans are being made. He said he expects the question to be decided by the end of this year. UB

FRENCH MINISTER ASSURES BULGARIA OF SUPPORT FOR EU-ACCESSION BID
Visiting French Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard told a news conference on 27 February that France supports Bulgaria's efforts toward EU membership, BTA reported. The pledge came amid strained bilateral relations stemming from French President Jacques Chirac's recent criticism of Central and Eastern EU-candidate countries, and Bulgaria and Romania in particular (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2003). Gaymard urged his Bulgarian counterpart Mehmet Dikme to speed up negotiations on the Agriculture Chapter of the EU's acquis communautaire. Gaymard expressed his optimism that the chapter can be closed by the next round of EU expansion in 2004. UB

YET ANOTHER ELECTION WITHOUT MUCH CHOICE
Belarusians will go to the polls on 2 March to elect 24,012 councilors for oblast, city, raion, and rural councils. There have been virtually no reports on this upcoming event in the Western press. Quite understandably, the local elections in Belarus do not attract as much international attention as presidential or parliamentary ones, since, in this country with an authoritarian president in power and a legislature totally subservient to the executive, the role of local authorities in making essential decisions is insignificant, if not entirely symbolic.

On the other hand, however, local-election campaigns in postcommunist countries are usually sensitive indicators of how far their citizens have progressed on the road toward democracy and to what extent they are able and/or willing to take advantage of new political opportunities opened to them after the collapse of totalitarianism. Judging by the current local-election campaign in Belarus, democracy seems to have almost completely failed to take root in this country.

To begin with, the Central Election Commission (TsVK) reported on 5 February that local commissions registered 25,805 candidates of the 26,567 people who sought registration. This figure means that in some 93 percent of constituencies the election will be held without any alternative, i.e., there will be only one candidate on the ballot. Furthermore, according to the independent weekly "Nasha Niva," the democratic opposition managed to field candidates only in 3 percent of constituencies.

TsVK Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna told a news conference on 5 February that local commissions rejected 762 applications for registration, which is "only" 2.87 percent of all people who sought registration. But on the other hand, this figure is equal to some 42 percent of all "alternative candidates" in constituencies that might offer voters a choice.

It also seems that it was not accidental that the percentages of people denied registration were the largest in Minsk (46 percent of those seeking registration) and oblast centers (26 percent) where opposition parties were most active. Indeed, many democratic-opposition parties complained that, on average, one-third of their activists seeking registration were rejected by the local-election commission for far-fetched reasons. In particular, Belarusian Popular Front Deputy Chairman Yury Khadyka was denied registration for failing to mention 24,000 rubles ($12) in his income declaration.

Despite the seemingly unfair attitude of local-election commissions to the opposition, it should also be stressed that, judging by the opposition's effort to mobilize activists for this year's local election, its current political potential is quite insignificant. Thus, the Liberal Democratic Party managed to propose 329 candidates (184 registered); the Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), 103 (69 registered); the United Civic Party, 130 (54 registered); and the Belarusian National Front Party, 76 (50 registered). These figures graphically testify to the fact that the opposition has almost completely failed to build its structures in raion cities and towns, let alone in rural areas.

Given that local-election commissions reportedly do not include members of opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations, it is easy to forecast -- while knowing the experience of former election campaigns organized in Belarus under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- that even those few opposition candidates who are on the ballot will find it hard to compete with government-favored rivals. The Confederation for Social Change, which unites the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), the Party of Labor, and the Women's Party, has already signaled that the current local-election campaign is undemocratic.

"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 said in a statement. They also pointed to some peculiarities in the Election Code that they say create "all the necessary conditions" for a rigged election. In particular, the code does not provide for the right of election monitors to observe the vote-counting process at polling stations or to receive certified copies of precinct commissions' official count reports. The code also provides for five-day early voting, which critics say leaves room for easy fraud.

There is every reason to fear that the 2 March local elections in Belarus will be yet another exercise in simulated democracy. However, what is most striking in this situation is not the almost perfect state mechanism for "producing desirable election results," but the fact that Belarusian society appears to treat elections without choice as a norm. In theory, Belarusians could protest such simulated-democracy exercises by refusing to go to the polls. According to the Election Code, no less than 50 percent of eligible voters must take part in voting in the first round in order to make the election valid. Since it is the government that actually counts votes, however, even such a protest action might be easily concealed by the authorities.

AFGHAN PRESIDENT'S OPTIMISM MET WITH SKEPTICISM BY U.S. LAWMAKER
President Hamid Karzai told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 26 February that Western press reports that his administration is unable to control "warlords and provincial people" are not accurate, adding that the central "government has much more authority in charge of the country" than is presumed, the "Chicago Tribune" reported on 27 February. Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican, Nebraska) told Karzai that if he "leave[s] an impression that everything is going well and the problems and challenges are minimal but they are all manageable...the next time" he comes to ask for help in maintaining security in Afghanistan, his "credibility will be in question." Hagel said he understands that Karzai is "in a delicate spot," but that he "needs to be clear as to what his needs are," AFP reported on 27 February. Karzai asked the United States not to forget Afghanistan "if Iraq happens,'' adding that it would be "very, very unwise to reduce attention to Afghanistan'' in the event that war breaks out in Iraq, AP reported on 26 February. AT

AFGHAN PRESIDENT SEES THE AFGHAN ARMY AS KEY TO SECURITY, NOT AN EXPANDED ISAF
Karzai said during his testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 26 February that Afghanistan is "moving more and more toward stability and security" and that as a result "we have not really talked for quite some time" about expanding the role of the International Security Assistance Force ISAF, the "Chicago Tribune" reported on 28 February. Karzai said he is "seeking U.S. support for paying the irregulars [nongovernment soldiers]" to ensure they are "not left without payment or without salaries" and will "remain well-behaved," UPI reported on 27 February. Karzai said he would not oppose the expansion of the ISAF, but will not request it, and urged the United States to help establish a strong National Afghan Army, UPI reported. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) said that at "this critical stage the [ISAF] is inadequate to provide security for political reconstruction and distribution to key areas of the country," adding that he would like to see a role for NATO in assuming the leadership of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, the "Chicago Tribune" reported. Karzai had until recently been urging the international community to expand the ISAF's mandate beyond Kabul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003) and Afghanistan's Ambassador to the United States Ishaq Shahryar on 12 February urged the Foreign Relations Committee to support the expansion of the ISAF's role (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2003). AT

AFGHAN WOMEN'S AFFAIRS MINISTER SAYS IMPLEMENTATION OF RIGHTS IS KEY
Afghan Minister of Women's Affairs Habiba Surabi said in an interview with Iranian state radio's Dari service on 27 February that the 1964 Afghan Constitution, on which the future Afghan constitution is to be based, "does not contain any article saying women's rights should be ignored" and expressed her concern that women's rights stipulated in the future document will not be implemented. Surabi also criticized the Afghan legal system, saying it does not "always meet the expectations of women." She added that Afghan culture and traditions play the greatest role in preventing women from gaining their rights. AT

U.S. TO REBUILD 1,000 SCHOOLS IN AFGHANISTAN
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Andrew Natsios announced on 27 February that the organization will provide funding for the rehabilitation of 1,000 schools across Afghanistan over the next three years at an estimated cost of $60 million, according to USAID's press office. The initiative will also provide for the printing of up to 15 million textbooks and the training of 30,000 classroom teachers, the report added. "As President [George W.] Bush has repeated, the American people believe strongly in making continued investments in Afghanistan's future," Natsios said, adding that in "village after village that I visited in Afghanistan, the people told me the hope for the future was their children. And that meant education." Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. AT

RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS AL-QAEDA NOT DEFEATED YET
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists in Baku on 27 February that the situation in Afghanistan is not yet stable and that the leaders of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are alive and planning new acts of terrorism, Ekho Moskvy radio reported. Ivanov said there are still terrorist camps in the mountainous areas of the country that are not controlled by government forces and that terrorists in Afghanistan continue to receive funding from their accomplices abroad. He added that Russia will do everything it can to help the Afghan Transitional Administration to combat terrorism, including providing financial assistance. On 26 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that for the first time, Russia will open its territory to allow truck convoys to transport German peacekeepers to Afghanistan. VY

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS FOR LIMITS ON U.S. PRESENCE IN CENTRAL ASIA
Speaking during an Internet press conference with the "People's Daily" in Beijing on 27 February, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia would like the United Nations Security Council to set up a time frame for the presence of U.S. forces in the Central Asian states, the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti reported. Ivanov said that Russia views those forces strictly within the framework of the international antiterrorism coalition and that their purpose was to end the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Therefore, he noted, the U.S. presence in those countries should be linked to the mission of the international peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan. VY

HIGH VOTER TURNOUT EXPECTED IN RURAL AREAS FOR IRANIAN MUNICIPAL-COUNCIL ELECTIONS...
Some 41 million Iranians are eligible to vote in their country's second-ever municipal-council elections on 28 February, dpa reported. Polling stations are scheduled to stay open until 5 p.m. but could be extended to 8 p.m. An enthusiastic turnout is expected in towns and villages, "The New York Times" reported, because the councils are perceived as being capable of making a difference in people's lives. Voters in these areas are less concerned about politics than they are about the need for roads, schools, and hospitals. BS

...BUT LOWER TURNOUT EXPECTED IN BIG CITIES
Enthusiasm for the councils in big cities like Tehran has waned, "The New York Times" reported, possibly because of the overall failure of councils to empower reformists. A 26 February dpa report had a similar assessment: "The main reason for voter apathy is the inability of the reformers and the president to dent the power of the hardliners who control the judiciary and the senate-like Council of Guardians." The councils spent more time arguing than working, according to dpa, and in Tehran voters were annoyed by the construction of high-rise buildings and real-estate speculation, as well as insufferably jammed streets. Some 1,300 people are vying for 15 council seats in Tehran, Reuters reported on 26 February, and campaign posters feature "clean-shaven technocrats, sports champions, woman in cloak-like veils, dissidents, and a few clerics." The candidates' slogans reportedly focus on everyday problems more than on political issues. BS

IRANIAN CONSERVATIVE DAILY CRITICAL OF COUNCILS AND CAMPAIGNING
An editorial in the conservative "Jomhuri-yi Islami" daily on 26 February said the constitution envisaged completely apolitical municipal councils, but instead there has been "politicization, disputes, disruption, and eventual dissolution." The editorial questioned whether it is right to add even more people to the public purse, while simultaneously increasing political rows and favoritism. "Jomhuri-yi Islami" also criticized what it described as "the shameful election campaign and disgraceful publicity stunts." The daily suggested that candidates are spending lots of money in their campaigns in order to make even more money once they are in office. The daily criticized campaign slogans that do not refer to Islam, the revolution, or the Imam (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini), and it said the slogans are deceitful, deceptive, and alienated from Islamic culture. BS

IMPRISONED JEWS TO BE RELEASED IN IRAN
Louis Joinet, head of the UN human rights delegation that visited Iran from 15-26 February, said his team met in Shiraz with five Jews who were imprisoned in July 2000 on espionage charges, AFP reported on 26 February. "They have been definitively freed, a senior judicial official told us," Joinet said. He added that although this information has not been communicated to the prisoners, he had received assurances that it will be soon. Iranian judiciary spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham on 24 January said that the five Jews have not been amnestied, dpa reported. BS

IRAN'S SUPREME LEADER PRAISES SISTAN VA BALUCHISTAN ECONOMIC POTENTIAL
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a 27 February speech in Iran's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province noted the region's potential to develop and progress and called for the elimination of potential obstacles, IRNA reported. He said some of the Islamic revolution's main objectives are the elimination of deprivation and discrimination. "Bringing about justice with proper distribution of facilities among all people is our main aim and this should be taken into account by national and local officials," he added. BS

SUPREME LEADER REFERS TO REGIONAL INSECURITY IN IRAN
Supreme Leader Khamenei said in his 27 February speech in Chahbahar that Iran's enemies are trying to instigate instability but the assorted security forces and the people themselves will do their utmost to promote tranquility, IRNA reported. Khamenei described the need for continuing and deepening unity between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and he expressed confidence that public faith and the region's clerical leaders would foil enemies' efforts to create rifts. Khamenei met in Zahedan on 26 February with personnel from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, police, and the Basij Resistance Force, according to Iranian state television. He told them the enemies of Islam hate the IRGC, MOIS, army, and police, but such enemies have not been able to stop young Iranians from defending the country and maintaining security. Young people's faith and officials' willingness to serve prevent the "plots hatched by centers of world arrogance" from bearing fruit, he said. BS

HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT TEHRAN-TIRANA DISCUSSIONS TAKE PLACE
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani on 26 February met in Tirana with his Albanian counterpart Luan Hajdaraga, Albania's RTSH state television and the official ATA press agency reported. They exchanged views on expanding cooperation in economics, trade, art, culture, science, and other fields, and Hajdaraga expressed gratitude for the Iran's provision of unspecified electronic equipment to the Albanian Foreign Ministry. Ahani praised Albania's signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU and spoke highly of the country's role in the Balkans. Hajdaraga visited Tehran in May 2002. BS

IRAQ AGREES 'IN PRINCIPLE' TO DESTROY MISSILES
Iraq has agreed "in principle" to comply with UN demands to destroy its stockpile of Al-Sumud 2 missiles, the UN website announced on 27 February (http://www.un.org). The apparent concession was made in a letter from Iraqi presidential adviser Amr Al-Sa'di addressed to UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) Executive Chairman Hans Blix. According to the UN statement, UNMOVIC Deputy Executive Chairman Dimitri Perricos, who arrived to Baghdad on 27 February, will seek further clarification from Iraq on its acceptance and to agree on a destruction process that would be carried out by Iraq under UN supervision. The UN had demanded that destruction begin by 1 March. Reuters quoted "Iraqi sources" on 28 February as saying that the UN demand to destroy the missiles is unjust and "seemed to have political aims," but that it is likely that the destruction will indeed begin on 1 March. The Iraq letter to the UN recommended that, "In order to establish a timetable and other technical and procedural criteria required for implementation, we suggest dispatching a technical team urgently for this purpose," Reuters reported on 29 February. KR

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER SAYS IRAQ IS PLAYING GAMES
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, commenting on the Iraqi decision to destroy its Al-Sumud 2 weapons, told a news conference in Madrid on 28 February that "this is not a time for games," Reuters reported. "The moment I heard earlier in the week that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein was saying he would not destroy the missiles was the moment I knew that later in the week he would announce, just before Dr. Blix reported, that he would indeed destroy these missiles," Blair said. The press conference was held following talks between Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who has joined the United States and Britain in taking a hard line on Iraqi disarmament. KR

UNMOVIC CHIEF REPORTS INSPECTIONS HAVE HAD 'LIMITED RESULTS'
UNMOVIC chief Blix says that UN inspections in Iraq have produced "limited results," the BBC website (http://news.bbc.co.uk) reported, citing a draft copy of the UNMOVIC quarterly report that is due to be presented to the UN Security Council on 1 March. Blix also contends that Iraq did not provide credible evidence on the destruction of missiles it purportedly destroyed in 1991 and did not locate other unaccounted-for, proscribed weapons, the BBC reported. An oral presentation of the UNMOVIC report is expected to be given to the Security Council late next week. KR

IRAQI OPPOSITION TO SEEK TALKS WITH U.S., TURKEY
Kurdistan Democratic Party spokesman Hoshyar Zebari told reporters in Salah Al-Din on 27 February that the Iraqi opposition will seek to hold talks with the United States and Turkey in an attempt to ward off a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq, abcnews.com reported the same day. "We have decided to send a high-level delegation of the Iraqi opposition to seek multilateral talks with the government of the United States and with the government of Turkey on this matter," Zebari said. In a reference to the yet-to-be-released memorandum of understanding reached between the United States and Turkey, Zebari said, "We hope it won't be at the cost of the poor Kurdish people." KR

OPPOSITION CONFERENCE ELECTS EXECUTIVE PANEL
Hamid al-Bayati of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has said that members of the Iraqi opposition meeting in Salah Al-Din have elected a six-member executive panel to serve as an "interim leadership" in post-Hussein Iraq, "The Boston Globe" website (http://www.boston.com/globe) reported on 28 February. According to the report, the members are Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK); Mas'ud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP); Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI; Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC); Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord (INA); and Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and an independent Sunni leader, "The Boston Globe" reported. The United States, which has opposed the formation of an interim Iraqi leadership by the opposition in the past, has not commented. KR

IRAQI LEADER CUTS SALARIES OF OVERWEIGHT WORKERS
President Hussein issued a decree on 26 February stating that any government official or officer of the armed forces whose weight is found to "exceed the allowed limit" during an annual fitness checkup will have his "salary, allocations, as well as bonuses on religious and national holidays halved," AFP reported the same day. This is not the first time Hussein has issued a fat-busting decree. A second decree issued by the Iraqi president on 26 February stated that Ba'ath Party members caught "gambling with the intention of making money" will be jailed for three years, according to AFP. KR

UN REPORTS ON IRAQ'S WEEKLY OIL REVENUES
Iraqi oil revenues totaled $338 million for the week ending 21 February, the UN website (http://www.un.org/apps/news/) reported on 25 February. During that week, Iraq exported a total of 11.9 million barrels of oil, or an average of 1.7 million barrels per day, according to the Office of the Iraq Program (OIP) that oversees the oil-for-food program in Iraq. "There were 11 loadings from the authorized terminals: four from the Iraqi oil platform at Mina Al-Bakr (7.3 million barrels) and seven from the Turkish Mediterranean oil terminal at Ceyhan (4.6 million barrels). These are the only outlets for Iraqi oil exports allowed under OIP," the UN statement reads. In addition, the IOP approved 4,364 (out of 5,814) contracts for humanitarian supplies worth $11 billion, the UN reported. KR

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