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Newsline - March 4, 2003


PUTIN REJECTS REGIME CHANGE IN IRAQ
President Vladimir Putin told journalists in Sofia on 2 March that "international law" is the only basis for resolving the Iraq crisis, newsru.com reported on 3 March. Putin said the international community cannot interfere with the domestic affairs of any country in order to change its regime, and that the only legitimate goal the United Nations can pursue in this situation is the disarmament of Iraq. Putin added that leaders who violate laws should be punished by their domestic legal systems "except in very extreme cases." Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov spoke by telephone on 1 March with the foreign ministers of several current nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council -- Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico, Pakistan, and Syria -- to discuss the Iraq situation, ORT reported on 2 March. Ivanov told his counterparts that Russia still believes in a "political/diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis along the lines formulated by the [25 February] joint French-German-Russian statement" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 February 2003). VY

MOSCOW PREPARES TO SEND NAVY TO THE PERSIAN GULF...
Despite earlier denials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003), Moscow will send a naval group to the Persian Gulf, "Izvestiya" reported on 3 March. The Pacific Fleet has finished preparations to send warships including the cruisers "Admiral Pantaleev" and the "Marshal Shaposhnikov" to the Persian Gulf region, where they will rendezvous with a group from the Black Sea Fleet headed by the cruiser "Moskva." According to initial plans, the Pacific Fleet group should have set sail at the end of February, but now an unidentified source at the fleet's command in Vladivostok told the daily that the exact start date for the mission will depend on the situation in the gulf and on the decisions of the country's political leadership. During the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, the Pacific Fleet protected Soviet shipping in the region, and in the 1990s, it helped monitor compliance with UN economic sanctions against Iraq, a fleet spokesman said. VY

...AS GENERAL STAFF PROPOSES SENDING MILITARY OBSERVERS TO MONITOR SITUATION
Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii, first deputy chief of the General Staff, said that Russia has sent a delegation to the UN Security Council in New York to discuss the possibility of sending Russian military observers to monitor the situation in Iraq, ORT and other Russian news agencies reported on 3 March. Baluevskii iterated that Russia will not participate in any military action against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but said that Russian officers could "help monitor the situation around Baghdad." VY

CADRE CHANGES AT GAZPROM LINKED WITH UPCOMING ELECTIONS...
"Kommersant-Vlast," No. 7, argued that President Putin's recent appointment of Sergei Ushakov, a former senior official at the St. Petersburg directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB), is an attempt to shore up the St. Petersburg faction of the management team at the natural-gas monopoly (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 3 March 2003). According to the weekly, Putin is launching the first phase of reform of the gas concern by increasing transparency at the company. At the same time, Putin declared earlier in February that the company has been, is, and will remain a "single entity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). The weekly speculated that this statement was designed to appeal to the company's management, which doesn't welcome the idea of a breakup of the company. The magazine argued that "Putin can't permit himself to disregard the opinion of Gazprom, since there will soon be elections, and Gazprom is the last large state-owned company that can play the role of [cash cow] for the president's campaign." So Putin has tried to kill two rabbits with one stone by securing Gazprom's support in the election and by paving the way for launching gas-sector reforms. JAC

...AS PRO-KREMLIN PARTY HEAD TO GAIN CONTROL OVER COMPANY'S ADVERTISING BUDGET...
Meanwhile, "Gazeta" reported on 28 February that Unified Russia General Council Chairman Aleksandr Bespalov, who was recently named head of Gazprom's information department, will have control there over the company's $100 million advertising budget as well as its media holdings, including NTV (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). Bespalov also has every chance of gaining access to the gas concern's "election budget," which according to the daily, is even larger than that set aside for advertising. JAC

...AND GAS CONCERN WANTS JORDAN OUT SOONER RATHER THAN LATER
Ekho Moskvy reported on 3 March that it has received a letter from its largest shareholder, Gazprom, asking that the radio station terminate the powers of its board of directors, which was elected ahead of schedule last summer. Former Gazprom-Media head Boris Jordan still holds the post of chairman of the radio's board of directors, even though he was dismissed as head of Gazprom-Media and as NTV general director in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 22 January 2003). JAC

INSIDER: RUSSIA MIGHT CHANGE SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT
Addressing a political conference organized by the Eurasia Party in Moscow on 1 March, Fund for Effective Politics head Gleb Pavlovskii said that a "pro-Putin majority" will be elected in December's State Duma elections, strana.ru reported on 4 March. Moreover, Pavlovskii said that majority should be institutionalized into a party that will form a cabinet. If this is done, strana.ru commented, it would mean Russia's transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government. Eurasia leader Aleksandr Dugin told that same conference that his party hopes to create a "new left" bloc of parties that will break the "inertial scenario" under which the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and the Communist Party will be deadlocked in the Duma, strana.ru reported on 3 March. Dugin said he hopes that Eurasia will form a bloc with Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev's Party of Russia's Rebirth and Oleg Shein's Russian Labor Party. He further hopes that leading Communists such as Deputy Sergei Glaziev -- who attended the Eurasia conference -- and Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev will come out in support of the bloc before the December vote. The "new left" bloc would then join forces with Unified Russia to form a majority government. Under this scenario, the problem of finding a successor to President Putin would be solved: Following his second term, Putin could become prime minister. VY

DUMA DEPUTY SAYS BEATING WAS POLITICAL
State Duma Deputy Shein (Russian Regions) was attacked and beaten in Astrakhan on the evening of 27 February, regions.ru reported on 3 March. Shein was elected from a single-mandate district in the oblast. According to Shein, the unidentified assailants used his name repeatedly and did not try to rob him. He told journalists he is certain the beating was connected with his political activities, since he is not engaged in private business and has no personal enemies. He connected the attack with his recent initiative to create a city commission for substantiating the rates charged for electricity and hot water. Shein is not confident that local authorities will investigate the incident thoroughly and intends to send a letter to President Putin, Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Viktor Kazantsev asking them to conduct an independent investigation. JAC

OILMAN PREDICTS RUSSIA TO BOOST PRODUCTION BY ONE-THIRD
Tyumen Oil Company (TNK) President Semen Kukes told journalists in Washington, D.C., on 2 March that Russia could boost its oil production by up to 33 percent over the next five years if it manages to overcome its current dearth of oil-export pipeline capacity and if global oil prices remain above $18 a barrel, polit.ru reported on 3 March. In 2002, Russia produced 378.5 million tons (2.65 billion barrels) of oil. Kukes noted that if the proposed pipeline from western Siberia to Murmansk is ready in 2007 as planned, Russian oil companies will be able to use it to export from 80 million to 120 million tons of oil annually, 80 percent of which would go to North America and the rest to Europe. VY

AVERAGE RUSSIAN SPENDS ONE-FIFTH OF INCOME ON BRIBES
Speaking at the presentation of a new anticorruption bill, the leader of the People's Deputy Duma faction, Gennadii Raikov, said that the average Russia pays 450 rubles ($14.50) in bribes per month, "Argumenty i fakty," No. 9, reported. The average Russian income is less than 2,000 rubles a month. Raikov said that bribery in Russia is worth a total of $30 billion a year. The new bill would include several antibribery measures, including criminalizing both the giving and the taking of bribes as well as "seeking out and establishing bribery relations." The bill would also impose more severe restrictions on the members of civil servants' families, banning them from accepting presents or perks such as free travel abroad. "We feel the very strong resistance of the government to this bill," said Deputy Arkadii Baskaev (People's Deputy), one of the authors of the bill. VY

'NONE OF THE ABOVE' SCORES BIG IN FAR NORTH POLL
An unusually high percentage of votes cast for the option "against all" was registered in the 2 March elections in Komi Republic for the republican parliament and city councils, Russian news agencies reported on 3 March. Only nine members of the city of Syktyvkar's 25-seat city council and 12 members of Vorkuta's 25-member council were elected, ITAR-TASS reported. Elections for the 30-seat republican parliament were more successful, with 24 legislators selected. In six of 30 districts, "against all" attracted at least 20 percent of the vote. New elections will have to be held in those districts at a later date. According to regions.ru, only six of 21 municipalities managed to elect a full roster of new members to their city councils. Commenting on the election results, Komi head Vladimir Torlopov said, "The candidates' chief competitor this time appeared to be 'against all.'" He added, "Voters want to see qualitative steps taken toward improving the socioeconomic situation in the republic." JAC

ANOTHER CATHOLIC ENVOYS GETS THE COLD SHOULDER
A Vatican envoy, Papal Nuncio Antonio Mennini, visiting Tula was not allowed inside a chapel built by local Catholics in the 19th century, TVS reported on 3 March. According to the station, the chapel now houses a forensic laboratory and the Catholic parishioners of Tula have not been able to get the laboratory relocated. Mennini was also unable to visit the house of writer Leo Tolstoy, which "is usually open to all VIPs." Mennini's requests to meet with the oblast's Communist Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev and Tula Mayor Sergei Kazakov were also rejected. JAC

PENSIONER TAKES MATTERS INTO HER OWN HANDS
Residents of four apartment buildings in Ulyanovsk, who had their heat and hot water turned off, sent a telegram to President Putin asking him to take immediate measures to introduce order into the country's heating and electricity sectors, "Simbirskii kurer" reported on 1 March. According to the newspaper, pensioner Rimma Mikhailovna came up with the idea. After composing the telegram, Mikhailovna called the offices of the governor, mayor, and the chief federal inspector, informing them that if the apartment buildings' heat and hot water were not turned on by 6:00 p.m., she would send the telegram to the president. When there was no response, she sent the telegram at the cost of 67 rubles ($2). At 10:00 p.m. that evening, the heat and hot water were switched on. According to the newspaper, the supply of heat and hot water was reportedly resumed at the request of oblast officials. "You see, something happened, because we didn't remain meek, [but] insisted on our rights," Mikhailovna commented. JAC

GUNMEN TARGET CHECHEN ADMINISTRATION HEAD
Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov escaped uninjured on the evening of 1 March when gunmen opened fire on his motorcade in the town of Argun, Russian news agencies reported only after a two-day delay. Three Chechen police officers and four of Kadyrov's bodyguards were reported killed in the attack, together with several of the attackers. Chechen Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kravchenko initially told Interfax that Kadyrov was not traveling in the motorcade, but Kadyrov later confirmed that he asked his driver to halt when the motorcade ran into what he termed an exchange of fire. The "Guardian" on 4 March quoted unnamed Chechen officials as saying that radical field commander Shamil Basaev was behind the assault. If the gunmen's intention was indeed to kill Kadyrov, it would be at least the sixth attempt to assassinate him since he was named as Chechen administration head in June 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2001 and 8 November and 25 June 2002). LF

RUSSIA ANNOUNCES WITHDRAWAL OF 1,000 TROOPS FROM CHECHNYA
Speaking in Grozny on 3 March, Chief of the General Staff General Anatolii Kvashnin said that beginning on 5 March, more than 1,000 Russian servicemen will be withdrawn from Chechnya to their place of permanent deployment, Interfax reported. The total number of troops currently in Chechnya is estimated at 80,000. Kvashnin said most of them are regular army troops, but some are Interior Ministry forces. Kvashnin added that there are no longer any Defense Ministry troops deployed in the lowland region of Chechnya where law and order is being maintained by Interior Ministry forces. LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES ADDRESS SEPARATE CAMPAIGN RALLIES...
On 3 March, the last day of campaigning for the 5 March presidential runoff, tens of thousands of supporters of both incumbent President Robert Kocharian and People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian congregated at rallies in Yerevan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In his first public appearance since casting his ballot in the 19 February first-round vote, Kocharian urged voters to reelect him to a second term with a large enough majority to dispel any suspicions of foul play. He again warned he will deal harshly with any attempt by the opposition to undermine political stability (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). Demirchian announced that he will not boycott the runoff to protest widespread falsification of the vote of 19 February, as some observers had suggested he might, but added that he still does not recognize the official first-round returns as valid. "You must choose between democracy and the junta," Reuters quoted him as telling supporters. LF

...ENGAGE IN TELEVISED DEBATE
Kocharian and Demirchian participated later on 3 March in a two-hour televised debate, the first of its kind during an Armenian presidential poll, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Kocharian cited statistical data demonstrating Armenia's economic achievements during his five-year tenure and sought to belittle Demirchian as lacking in-depth knowledge of economic affairs, foreign policy, and constitutional reform. Kocharian also accused Demirchian of being unable to restrain some of his supporters who, Kocharian claimed, resorted to "insults" and "unconstitutional appeals," according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong. Demirchian, for his part, criticized the arrests of more than 100 of his campaign staffers and accused the state-controlled media of "slander and lies" in their coverage of his campaign. Demirchian dodged specific questions about his socioeconomic platform and criticized corruption and argued that poverty in Armenia can be alleviated only by abolishing the "clan system." He rejected making any concessions to Turkey in order to improve relations with that country and said that the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should be represented at negotiations on resolving the Karabakh conflict, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT UNDERGOES SURGERY IN U.S.
Heidar Aliev underwent surgery on 3 March at the Cleveland Clinic for an inguinal hernia, ITAR-TASS and Turan reported. According to the presidential press service, the operation was successful, and Aliev feels well. Hafiz Pashaev, who is Azerbaijan's ambassador in Washington, was quoted by zerkalo.az as saying Aliev will return to Azerbaijan at the end of this week. LF

COURT HANDS DOWN SUSPENDED SENTENCES TO AZERBAIJANI VILLAGERS
The Sabunchi Raion Court on 3 March sentenced eight residents of the village of Nardaran to suspended prison sentences of between one and three years following their convictions on charges of involvement in mass disturbances and resisting the police, Turan and zerkalo.az reported. Those charges referred to the men's participation in the clashes between villagers and police in June 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 4, and 5 June 2002). Village elder Gadji-aga Nuriev said the men are not happy at having been convicted, but that they will not appeal the sentences as they consider it pointless to do so. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT DISAPPOINTED BY REJECTION OF LAW ON MILITARY COOPERATION WITH U.S.
In his regular Monday radio address, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze criticized on 3 March parliament's failure on 27 February to ratify a defense-cooperation agreement signed with the United States late last year, Caucasus Press and Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). Shevardnadze pointed out that the United States has contributed more over the past decade to strengthening Georgia's defensive potential than any other country. He said he hopes parliament will soon ratify the agreement. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION WARNS PRESIDENT NOT TO VETO LAW ON MINIMUM WAGE
Giorgi Baramidze, who heads the opposition United Democrats faction in the Georgian parliament, warned on 3 March that his party will mobilize thousands of people in protest should President Shevardnadze veto the recently passed law on raising the minimum wage fivefold, Caucasus Press reported. The United Democrats proposed that bill, which increases the minimum wage from 20 laris ($9.20) to 115 laris ($52.90), effective 1 July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003). Also on 3 March, Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze accepted a challenge from United Democrats' leader Zurab Zhvania to hold a public debate on the pros and cons of increasing the minimum wage, Caucasus Press reported. On 4 March, an IMF delegation that has spent the past two weeks in Georgia explicitly warned that raising the minimum wage to 115 laris would "substantially worsen" fiscal pressures, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIA'S MOST COLORFUL POLITICIAN DIES
Djaba Ioseliani, poet, playwright, convicted bank robber, and leader of the notorious former paramilitary formation Mkhedrioni, died in a hospital in Tbilisi on the morning of 4 March, six days after suffering a severe stroke, Caucasus Press reported. He was 76. Together with Georgian National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani, Ioseliani deposed then-President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in early January 1992 and took over running the country. The two men invited Shevardnadze to return to Tbilisi from Moscow in March of that year, setting in motion a struggle for power that ended with Ioseliani's arrest in November 1995, shortly after his election as a parliament deputy. Ioseliani was sentenced in November 1998 to 11 years' imprisonment on charges -- which even legal experts concede were never substantiated -- of involvement in the car-bomb attack on Shevardnadze three months earlier, but released under an amnesty in the spring of 2000 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 25 September 1998 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 November 1998 and 21 April 2000). LF

OPPOSITION IN KAZAKHSTAN WILL REJOIN CONFERENCE IF LEADERS FREED
Opposition leader Petr Svoik, a member of the Political Council of Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan, told a news conference on 3 March that the opposition will resume participation in the Permanent Conference on Democratization and Civil-Society Development if Democratic Choice leaders Mukhtar Ablyazov and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov are released from prison, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported that day. The two -- a former minister and a former regional governor -- were sentenced last year after being convicted of abuse of office and other crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 July and 5 August 2002). The opposition is convinced the charges were politically motivated. According to Interfax, most of the participants in the Permanent Conference meeting on 28 February rejected an opposition proposal that the group adopt an appeal for the release of the two leaders. Svoik commented that the conference has neither status nor power, but it can serve as a means through which the opposition can conduct a dialogue with the authorities. He described the recent meeting of the conference as "rather successful," mentioning particularly the creation of a working group to finalize recommendations for revising the election law and the ongoing discussion of land privatization. BB

IMF PRAISES KYRGYZ POVERTY-REDUCTION PROGRAM, WARNS OF CORRUPTION
An International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission to Kyrgyzstan has praised the country's Poverty-Reduction and Growth-Facility program that has been under way since 2001, Interfax reported on 3 March. But in talks with Legislative Assembly (lower house) speaker Abdygany Erkebaev, IMF mission chief Tapio Saavalainen warned that corruption and low quality of governance could harm the program. So far, Kyrgyzstan has received $30 million from the IMF for the program, and the country is to get a total of $90 million for the entire project. Saavalainen said new tax regulations under which a value-added tax will be levied on agricultural products were a brave step and a pleasant surprise. Erkebaev noted that farmers oppose the proposed changes. BB

TAJIK MILITARY CADETS TO STUDY IN INDIA
Fifty Tajik military cadets will be sent to India in September to study various military disciplines, including engineering and communications, the head of Tajikistan's Defense Ministry's Administration for Foreign Military Cooperation Maruf Hasanov told Asia Plus-Blitz on 3 March. The two countries' defense ministries agreed on the program in 2002. Hasanov noted that 15 Tajik military students left on 28 February to study military subjects and the French language in France. They will also take part in military exercises in France. According to Hasanov, members of a French contingent stationed in Tajikistan are conducting military exercises at a Tajik training ground. BB

OSCE CHAIRMAN MEETS WITH TURKMEN PRESIDENT
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman-in-Office and Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer met with Saparmurat Niyazov for more than two hours on 3 March to discuss, among other topics, the implementation of human rights commitments by Turkmenistan in the wake of an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in November 2002, Interfax, turkmenistan.ru, and "Moskovskiye novosti" reported. At a subsequent press briefing, Scheffer told journalists that he sees no progress in implementing the Moscow Mechanism, but he believes that groundwork has been laid for dialogue. Under the Moscow Mechanism, OSCE participating states can call for expert rapporteurs to make reports on the human rights performance of other countries in the organization. The Moscow Mechanism was invoked in response to charges that suspects in the November attack were tortured and did not receive fair trials. Turkmenistan, however, refused to allow the designated rapporteur, French law professor Emmanuel DeCaux, to visit Turkmenistan. According to the semiofficial turkmenistan.ru account of Scheffer's meeting with Niyazov, Scheffer agreed with Niyazov's assertion that "terrorists should not be outside the law." Human rights activists inside and outside Turkmenistan assert that Niyazov has used the November attack to justify crushing the opposition. BB

UZBEK AND TAJIK PRIME MINISTERS SIGN COOPERATION AGREEMENTS
Otkir Sultonov of Uzbekistan and Oqil Oqilov of Tajikistan met in Tashkent on 3 March to discuss bilateral cooperation and to sign agreements on transit, water, and energy, as well as an agreement on boosting economic cooperation, uzreport.com reported on 4 March. The two countries agreed on the need to increase bilateral trade. A number of cabinet ministers from both countries took part in the discussions. BB

NEWSPAPER CLOSED IN UZBEKISTAN
The newspaper "Milli talim" (National Education), founded at the beginning of 2003 by the Uzbek Ministry of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education, is being closed by the ministry, ITAR-TASS and centrasia.ru reported on 3 and 4 March, respectively. The publication appeared in Uzbek, Russian, and English. Acting Deputy Minister of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education Rustam Qosimov told a news conference on 3 March that the newspaper is being closed because of "grammatical mistakes." Rustam Kasymov, the newspaper's founder, said the ministry lacks the funds to continue publication and told a Tashkent journalist that some articles were signed by persons who had not written them. The paper's editor in chief, Rustam Kasymov, asserted that the authorities fear that honest, independent editors would cast light on the problems of culture and the press in Uzbekistan. BB

NATO COMMANDER SPEAKS ON PLANS TO MOVE U.S. BASES FROM WESTERN TO EASTERN EUROPE
NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General James Jones on 3 March told journalists in Stuttgart, Germany, that intensive talks are under way with NATO member countries about overhauling the U.S. military-base strategy, including the possibility of shifting resources to countries in East-Central Europe, AFP reported. Jones denied media reports that Washington is planning major base closures in Germany, in part in punishment for Germany's strident opposition to a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq. He said that by the end of July he will visit all 19 current NATO member countries as well as the seven countries invited last November to join the organization, and that he hopes to have a plan for transforming the U.S. base system ready by March 2004. Implementation would begin soon afterward, he said. The changes would involve scaling down the massive U.S. military presence in Western Europe established during the Cold War and creating a "lily pad" network of hubs to which forces would rotate according to changing military needs. Jones said the United States needs to "respond more fully to asymmetric challenges," including terrorism by individuals and groups, rather than warfare organized by states. Jones also said he is holding ongoing talks with Russia about how it might view the U.S. plans to set up operations in Eastern Europe, adding, "Russia should play an important role in the development." MS

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION REVEALS PERFORMANCE IN LOCAL ELECTIONS
The Belarusian Party of Communists (PKB) on 3 March claimed it won 120 seats on local councils in the 2 March local elections, in which more than 24,000 seats were contested, Belapan reported. The Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party-National Assembly (BSDP-NH) reportedly gained 11 seats each, and the United Civic Party (AHP) won 5 seats. Nine candidates from the BNF, 22 from the BSDP-NH, and 14 from the AHP advanced to second rounds. The AHP registered 120 candidates for the election, the BNF 111, the PKB 220, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (LDPB) 186. The LDPB has not released any figures on the performance of its candidates. Meanwhile, Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna said the same day that election results were invalid in one town, Machulishchy, where turnout was below 50 percent. In total, 5.2 million people, or 73.3 percent of eligible voters, took part in the elections, Yarmoshyna added. JM

UKRAINIAN MINERS STRIKE OVER WAGES, REFORMS
Miners from about 70 Ukrainian coal mines went on strike on 4 March, demanding an increase in wages and an end to the government-led restructuring of the sector, ITAR-TASS reported. AP estimated the number of miners participating in the strike at around 2,000. The protest was launched by the Ukrainian Independent Trade Union of Miners, which is led by Mykhaylo Volynets. Volynets told journalists that wage arrears in the coal-mining sector total 1.3 billion hryvnyas ($244 million). According to Volynets, the sector's ongoing reforms "may ruin the industry." The government decided in December to reorganize 18 state-owned coal-mining holdings and seven production associations into 21 joint-stock companies with an eye toward their eventual privatization. JM

DID FORMER PROSECUTOR-GENERAL SEEK TO CLOSE GONGADZE CASE?
The Verkhovna Rada on 4 March asked Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun to investigate whether his predecessor, Mykhaylo Potebenko, abused his position and asked the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to close its investigation into the presumed September 2000 death of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, UNIAN reported. The motion follows a Piskun interview in the 28 February issue of the "2000" weekly in which he said Potebenko, while serving as prosecutor-general, sent a letter to former SBU Chairman Leonid Derkach ordering him to halt the investigation into Gongadze's disappearance and presumed death. Piskun claimed he has obtained the letter. Potebenko last month requested that the legislature move a vote of no confidence in Piskun. JM

EU REPORTEDLY TO RECOGNIZE UKRAINE AS MARKET ECONOMY
European Commission official Timo Hammaren hinted that the European Union might recognize Ukraine as a "market economy" later this month, ahead of any such concession by United States, Interfax reported on 3 March. The move presumably would lead to trade benefits for Ukrainian exporters. Hammaren said the requirements of the EU with respect to "market economy" status are different from those of the United States. He said the EU might sign the relevant document by the end of March. "We promised Ukraine [that we would] give our answer in late March," he said, according to Interfax, adding that there are grounds for Kyiv to expect a positive answer. JM

ESTONIAN PARLIAMENT HAS NEW LOOK
Fifty-seven of the 101 deputies elected to parliament on 2 March will be serving their first term, with 27 of the 28 deputies elected on the Res Publica ticket being first-termers, BNS reported on 3 March. Among the parties that failed to break the necessary 5 percent barrier were the Estonian United Russian People's Party (2.24 percent), Estonian Christian People's Party (1.07 percent), the anti-EU-membership Estonian Independence Party (0.55 percent), the Social-Democratic Labor Party (0.42 percent), and the Russian Party in Estonia (0.18 percent). The top vote-getters were the chairmen of the Center and Reform parties, Edgar Savisaar and Siim Kallas, with 12,939 and 10,009 votes, respectively. Of the 11 current ministers who competed, all but Culture Minister Margus Allikmaa and Ethnic Affairs Minister Eldar Efendiyev were elected to parliament. The number of female deputies increased from 18 to 19. Although it is not yet clear whether Res Publica will be invited to form the new government, it has proposed coalition talks with the Reform Party, People's Union, and the Pro Patria Union. SG

LATVIA TO HOLD EARLY PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS ON 12 MARCH
A joint meeting of representatives of the parliament factions and the parliament presidium decided on 3 March that presidential elections will be held on 12 March in an extraordinary parliamentary session, BNS reported. Current President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was elected to a four-year term on 17 June 1999 and has been endorsed for another term by the four parties in the ruling coalition as well as by the opposition People's Union. The ruling coalition maintains that it is vital to renew the presidential mandate as soon as possible in order to allow Vike-Freiberga to continue her successful foreign-policy agenda with full powers as Latvia enters the final stage of its campaign for EU and NATO membership. The opposition National Harmony Party and For Human Rights in a United Latvia factions voted against advancing the date of the elections. SG

VATICAN OFFICIAL VISITS LITHUANIA
Archbishop Jean Louis Tauran, the secretary for the Holy See's relations with other states, arrived in Vilnius on 2 March for a five-day visit. On 3 March he spoke at the conference "Lithuania and the Holy See: the Past, Present, and Future" at Vilnius University, marking the 80th anniversary of Lithuania's diplomatic relations with the Vatican and the 75th anniversary of the first Vilnius-Vatican concordat, ELTA reported. President Rolandas Paksas also addressed the conference and at a later meeting presented Tauran with the Great Cross of Grand Duke Gediminas Order for contributing to the expansion of bilateral relations and supporting Lithuania's foreign-policy goals. Talks with Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis primarily focused on the implementation of bilateral agreements. Tauran was scheduled to meet on 4 March with parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas and acting Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas. SG

POLISH PREMIER VOWS COALITION BREAKUP WON'T DERAIL EU ENTRY
Premier Leszek Miller told journalists on 3 March that the recent collapse of the Democratic Left Alliance's ruling coalition with the Peasant Party (PSL) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003) will not have "any influence on the decision of Poles voiced during an EU referendum," PAP reported. Miller said the government's top priority is securing Poland's EU membership. "Our first task is to enter the European Union on favorable terms and absorb EU aid efficiently," Polish Radio quoted him as saying. The same day, Miller designated Adam Tanski as new agriculture minister and Czeslaw Slezak as new environmental minister to replace the PSL's Jaroslaw Kalinowski and Stanislaw Zelichowski, respectively. Tanski and Slezak, who are reported to have no party affiliation, were promptly appointed by President Aleksander Kwasniewski. The SLD and its remaining partner, the Labor Union, control 212 seats in the 460-member Sejm, leaving them 19 votes short of a majority in the Polish lower house. JM

CORRECTION:
"RFE/RL Newsline" on 3 March 2003 incorrectly reported the number of Sejm seats held by the two remaining ruling parties, the Democratic Left Alliance and the Labor Union. Those two parties control 212 seats, leaving them 19 votes short of a majority.

CZECH CABINET SEEKS CONFIDENCE VOTE AFTER PRESIDENTIAL DEBACLE
The tripartite Czech government on 3 March unanimously decided to ask the lower house of parliament for a renewed vote of confidence, CTK and international news agencies reported. The decision follows the ruling coalition's failure to muster sufficient support for its candidate, Jan Sokol, and the election of Vaclav Klaus as president on 28 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003). The vote must be held within 14 days, and Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said he hopes it will take place at the earliest possible date. CTK reported on 4 March that the vote will take place on 11 March. "The way the presidential vote was carried out raises doubts about whether this government [still] has the confidence of the lower house, and there are important decisions ahead of us," Reuters quoted Spidla as saying. Analysts are divided on the likely outcome of the vote and, according to some political observers, the one-vote majority the cabinet has in the 200-seat house might collapse, particularly if Spidla's adversaries in his own Social Democratic Party (CSSD) decide to bring down his cabinet and engineer his replacement. Pressure on Spidla is mounting within the CSSD as that party gears up for its national congress later this month, with growing signs of a challenge orchestrated by his predecessor, Milos Zeman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003). MS

PRESIDENT-ELECT KLAUS SAYS CONFIDENCE VOTE IS 'CORRECT' STEP
President-elect Klaus said he considers the vote of confidence to be a "correct" course for the government, CTK reported. Klaus said the move is not motivated by fears that the cabinet will be unable to work with him as president, but by the ruling coalition's desire to establish whether it still has a majority after failing to elect any of its own candidates through three presidential votes. Opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Chairman Miroslav Topolanek said the cabinet is facing a "parliamentary crisis" and it is up to the coalition to decide how to resolve it. "We have signaled that we shall not destabilize the present government, and I believe we shall keep our promise. None of us wants early parliamentary elections," Topolanek added, but he declined to predict the outcome of the vote. "They have 101 votes, so they should make the effort." The coalition is led by the CSSD, along with the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU). The leaders of CSSD's two minor partners, Cyril Svoboda (KDU-CSL) and Petr Mares (US-DEU), said they are confident their formations will rally behind the cabinet. MS

CZECH CABINET APPROVES FOREIGN POLICY PRIORITIES...
The cabinet on 3 March approved the priorities of its foreign policy up to 2006, when the current electoral term ends, CTK reported. They include membership in the EU, close relations with NATO, the United States, and neighboring countries, fighting international terrorism and promoting Czech economic interests. MS

...AND POSTPONES IMPLEMENTATION OF LAW ON CIVIL SERVICE
The cabinet also decided to postpone by one year the implementation of a law on the civil service due to a lack of funds, CTK reported on 3 March, citing government spokeswoman Anna Starkova. The law now is to come into effect on 1 January 2005, thus freeing up 8 billion crowns ($272 million) allocated for its implementation in the 2003 budget. MS

DANISH PREMIER IN BRATISLAVA
Visiting Danish Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen on 3 March said in Bratislava that he is confident the Danish parliament will easily ratify the EU enlargement decision, CTK reported. Rasmussen told journalists at a press conference with his Slovak counterpart Mikulas Dzurinda that he does not rule out ratification by the Danish parliament being unanimous. Rasmussen also said it is important for Slovaks to turn out in large numbers for the May referendum on EU accession. He described relations between the two countries as "excellent." Dzurinda thanked the Danish premier for the role his country played in EU enlargement during its EU Presidency, and specifically in the Copenhagen agreement, saying the December EU summit in Denmark "ended very, very well for Slovakia." The two premiers, both signatories of the "group of eight" letter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 and 31 January 2003), said that public appeal has contributed to efforts to bridge gaps between the U.S. and EU positions on the Iraq crisis. They both emphasized, at the same time, that any possible military action against Iraq should have the backing of the UN Security Council. MS

SLOVAK PREMIER SAYS ANO PARTY VIOLATING COALITION AGREEMENT
Prime Minister Dzurinda on 3 March said that by agreeing to join the opposition Smer (Direction) and Movement for a Democratic Slovakia in calling a special parliamentary session to debate corruption and cronyism in Slovak politics, the Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) has violated the coalition agreement, TASR reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 28 February 2003). Dzurinda said he has called a meeting of the Coalition Council for 4 March to discuss the matter. ANO Chairman Pavol Rusko said he believes the coalition agreement has not been violated, since it includes no stipulation that "forbids asking questions." MS

INVESTIGATION TEAM PROBES ALLEGATIONS OF SLOVAK ROMANY STERILIZATIONS
Interior Ministry spokesman Boris Azaltovic told journalists on 3 March that the ministry has set up a special team to investigate allegations that Romany women were subjected to forced sterilization, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 and 31 January and 14 and 21 February 2003). Azaltovic said that in view of the "sensitivity of the issue," the team is being headed by a woman and individual testimonies will be videotaped. He also said experts from the Medical Faculty at Comenius University in Bratislava will check cases of sterilization of Romany women since 1999 to determine whether the measure was medically justifiable and inevitable. MS

COUNCIL OF EUROPE COMMITTEE APPROVES REPORT CRITICAL OF HUNGARIAN STATUS LAW
The Council of Europe's Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee on 3 March approved a report by Dutch rapporteur Erik Jurgens that is critical of the Status Law passed by the Hungarian parliament in 2001, TASR and Romanian radio reported. The report will be forwarded as a draft resolution to the council's Parliamentary Assembly. Jurgens said the law should be amended to comply with existing stipulations in bilateral agreements with neighboring countries, meet the recommendations of the council's Venice Commission, and respond to criticism of its provisions by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. MS

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES TRUNCATED TELEVISION BOARD
A conflict between the two opposition formations led to the approval by the Hungarian parliament on 3 March of a truncated board of trustees for public broadcaster Hungarian Television, (MTV), Hungarian media reported. FIDESZ and the Democratic Forum were unable to agree on the division among parties of the seats on the board earmarked for the opposition, and FIDESZ representatives walked out in protest after parliament rejected a proposal that it vote only on candidates put forward by the ruling coalition and not on those of the Democratic Forum. The legislation stipulates that each parliamentary group should designate an equal number of members to the board. The Democratic Forum insisted that it be allocated two members, like the other three parliamentary factions, and parliament finally approved a board based on a three-party consensus between the Socialists, the Free Democrats, and the Democratic Forum. The Democratic Forum rejected FIDESZ accusations that it concluded a deal with the ruling parties behind its back. MS

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO LEGISLATURE TAKES OVER FROM YUGOSLAV PREDECESSOR
The new joint parliament of Serbia and Montenegro convened for its historic first session on 3 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The new chamber elected Dragoljub Micunovic as its speaker. It replaces the federal Yugoslav parliament, which thus formally ceases to exist. The new parliament is expected to elect a president of the new joint union on 6 March. The only candidate to emerge so far for the position is Svetozar Marovic, deputy chairman of Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). UB

REGION'S INTERIOR MINISTERS MEET IN BELGRADE
Serbia and Montenegro Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic opened a two-day meeting of interior ministers from eight Southeast European countries in Belgrade on 3 March, Tanjug reported. The ministers gathered to discuss the possible liberalization of visa requirements and to explore ways to combat human trafficking. Svilanovic characterized regional cooperation in combating organized crime as one of the most important issues currently facing the Balkans. The meeting is part of a new initiative by Serbia and Montenegro, the so-called Southeast European Cooperation Process, which some observers believe to be part of a Serbian effort to regain lost influence among neighboring countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 24, 25, 26, and 28 February 2003). UB

UNMIK HEAD INVITES SERBIAN LEADERS TO TRILATERAL MEETING ON KOSOVA
Michael Steiner, the head of the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), announced in Prishtina on 3 March that he has invited Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and the Serbian government's coordinator for Kosova, Nebojsa Covic, for trilateral talks with representatives of UNMIK and of Kosova's institutions, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi welcomed the invitation, saying he will head the province's delegation if Djindjic heads the Serbian delegation, according to Tanjug news agency. Covic also reacted positively to the invitation but added that the agenda proposed by Steiner should also include the return of Serbs to Kosova, decentralization, and security. UB

EU ANNOUNCES AID PROGRAM FOR SMALL AND MEDIUM-SIZED ENTERPRISES IN BOSNIA
The European Commission on 3 March unveiled a program to support small and medium-sized enterprises in Bosnia-Herzegovina, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The $3.24 million program is aimed at helping such enterprises create about 2,100 jobs, particularly for returnees. In related news, Paddy Ashdown, the international community's high representative to Bosnia, on 3 March announced an economic-reform package aimed at creating additional jobs, RFE/RL reported. Ashdown set a deadline of 40 days for Bosnian politicians to implement the necessary legal changes. UB

KFOR MEMBER DIES IN ACTION TO CURB STRAYS
A member of the Swedish KFOR contingent died in Prishtina on 3 March during an action to reduce the number of stray cats and dogs in the province, Tanjug reported. The soldier was helping the Kosovar Veterinary Service kill stray animals, the news agency said, but did not provide details. KFOR representatives have warned of the potential threat posed by the more than 100,000 stray animals in the province. UB

CROATIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS ON AUTHORITIES TO ARREST HAGUE INDICTEE...
Foreign Minister Tonino Picula said in Zagreb on 3 March that it remains Croatia's duty to arrest former General Ante Gotovina, who was indicted by The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal, Hina reported. Picula said that if Gotovina is not in Croatia, then others should contribute to resolving the issue, though he did not say how. In response to repeated accusations by the tribunal that Gotovina has been moving freely in Croatia and that the Croatian authorities lack the political will to arrest the former general, Picula said: "It is easy to express that suspicion, but it is difficult to corroborate it. Every piece of evidence that might corroborate this will be considered by Zagreb with the greatest seriousness" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2003). UB

...AS DOES COUNCIL OF EUROPE SECRETARY-GENERAL
Visiting Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer told Picula on 3 March that all countries in the region must fully cooperate with the international war crimes tribunal, Hina reported. Schwimmer added that he is confident of Croatia's efforts for European integration, stressing the importance for regional cooperation. "In this new political architecture of Europe...not every question can be solved on the European level," Schwimmer said. UB

COMMISSION ON MISSING PERSONS TO BE FORMED IN MACEDONIA
The Macedonian Security Council, meeting for the first time since the 15 September parliamentary elections, decided on 28 February to establish a joint parliamentary-governmental commission to investigate the fate of 18 people allegedly kidnapped during the 2001 conflict, RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 and 16 November 2001 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 June and 9 July 2002). However, hard-line Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, who was mentioned as a possible commission member, refused to participate. Boskovski was protesting the fact that former rebel commander Gezim Ostreni, now a lawmaker for the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), was also nominated. "I cannot sit at the same table with the people who forced a war upon Macedonia," Boskovski told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 3 March, adding: "The same day that [U.S. President George W.] Bush and [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein sit at the same table, you will see Boskovski negotiate at this table." UB

NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL MEETS ROMANIAN LEADERS, ADDRESSES PARLIAMENT
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson met on 3 March with President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, and addressed a special session of the Romanian bicameral parliament, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau and international news agencies reported. After his talks with Nastase, Robertson told journalists that Romania should not take the ratification of its NATO invitation for granted. "Keep the reform process going. You have achieved a lot, but the reform process is important for NATO and for the Romanian people," Reuters quoted him as saying. Robertson said Romania must continue to strengthen its military capabilities, to bring its information security in line with NATO standards, and to continue reforms in the public administration and judiciary to rid the country of corruption. In his speech to parliament, Robertson said Romania might contribute forces to the NATO rapid-reaction force that is currently being set up. He also said that once Romania joins NATO, it will have an important role to play in the organization's relations with Russia and Ukraine. MS

BUILDUP OF U.S. FORCES CONTINUES IN ROMANIA
Several thousand U.S. soldiers arrived in Romania at the end of last week from Germany, Mediafax reported on 3 March. The news agency reported that U.S. military experts are examining two Romanian firing rages near Constanta for training purposes. In his 3 March speech to Romanian parliament (see above), NATO Secretary-General Robertson said war against Iraq can still be avoided if Iraqi President Hussein complies with UN Security Council Resolution 1441. Meanwhile, on 4 March a Romanian Foreign Ministry communique announced that the ministry has decided to "temporarily close down" the Romanian Embassy in Baghdad and that all diplomatic personnel left Iraq the day before. MS

ROMANIA WANTS NATO EXPANSION TO CONTINUE
Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said on 3 March that his country hopes NATO expansion will continue and will eventually include other states, among which he mentioned Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro, Mediafax reported. He also said that during his talks with President Iliescu (see above), Lord Robertson inquired about relations between Bucharest and Chisinau, as well as about Romanian-Russian and Romanian-Ukrainian relations. MS

ROMANIAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS OPPOSITION MOTION
The Chamber of Deputies on 3 March rejected a motion submitted by the opposition Democratic Party and National Liberal Party to debate rising heating-fuel costs, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The vote was 182 against and 70 in favor. The Greater Romania Party supported the motion. MS

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT POSTPONES 'ASSUMING RESPONSIBILITY' FOR PACKAGE OF CORRUPTION LAWS
Public Administration Minister Octav Cozmanca said on Romanian Radio on 4 March that the government has postponed for one week "assuming responsibility" in parliament for a package of laws aimed at combating corruption. Cozmanca said the postponement is due to the complexity of the package, which requires detailed examination by the cabinet and consultations with other parliamentary parties and representatives of civil society. The package includes legislation obliging state officials to submit annual declarations on their personal assets, according to Mediafax. Meanwhile, World Bank Director for Central and Southern Europe Andrew Vorking, currently on a visit to Bucharest, said on 3 March that negotiations will start in two weeks for three Programmatic Adjustment Loans (PAL) for Romania, possibly totaling as much as $600 million. The loans would be aimed at reforms of the public-administration system, facilitating anticorruption measures, and improving social assistance. MS

TIRASPOL ASKS RUSSIA TO 'EXPLAIN' U.S.-EU DECISION ON TRAVEL BAN FOR TRANSDNIESTER LEADERS
The Transdniester's Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a "diplomatic note" to the Russian Embassy in Moldova, asking it to provide "explanations" for the joint U.S.-E.U. decision to ban 17 members of Tiraspol's leadership and persons considered close to it from traveling to their countries, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). In the note, the separatists emphasize that the decision "restricts the freedom of Russian citizens, since the 17 persons affected hold the citizenship of the Russian Federation." Separately, the Transdniester Foreign Ministry dispatched a "diplomatic note" to the European Council, demanding that the EU revise its position, which it said was "obviously based on distorted facts and distorted data" on the persons affected by the ban. A spokesman for Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin on 3 March refused to comment on the joint U.S.-E.U. declaration. MS

RUSSIAN-MOLDOVAN UNIVERSITY TO BE SET UP IN CHISINAU
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko said in Chisinau on 3 March after talks with Moldovan officials that the sides have discussed plans to open a joint Russian-Moldovan university in the Moldovan capital, ITAR-TASS and Infotag reported. After signing agreements on cooperation in education and the training of medical staff, Matvienko also said that days of Russian culture will be celebrated in Chisinau in the fall of 2003 and that a Moldovan cultural center will be opened in Moscow. The agreements provide for reciprocal recognition of education documents issued in the two countries and cooperation in the training and retraining of medical specialists. Matvienko was also received by President Voronin, who expressed his satisfaction that the number of Moldovans studying in Russia is growing and saluted the plans to open a joint university. Voronin also said Moldova is interested in learning from Russia's experience in reforming its pension and social-protection systems. MS

MOLDOVAN MAYORS OPPOSE RETURN TO SOVIET-TYPE LOCAL ADMINISTRATION
Nearly 400 town and village mayors meeting in Chisinau on 1 March approved a resolution demanding that President Voronin refuse to promulgate the law reintroducing in Moldova the Soviet-type local administration division into "raions," Infotag reported. A presidential spokesperson said on 3 March that Voronin will make a decision on the matter after talks with a delegation of the Council of Europe's Congress of Regional and Local Authorities, which is expected in Chisinau on 4 March. The congress has already criticized the law that provides for the return to the old administrative system, saying it would negatively impact local autonomy. The law is to go into effect after the May local elections. MS

BRAGHIS ALLIANCE DENIES MOLDOVAN AUTHORITIES SATISFIED ITS DEMANDS
The Braghis Alliance on 3 March denied that the Moldovan authorities have met all its demands for stopping its boycott of parliamentary debates, Infotag reported. On 28 February, parliament speaker Evgenia Ostapciuc said all the demands of the alliance have been met, since a check had shown that none of those who participated in the Braghis Alliance referendum drive for changing the electoral system were dismissed; hence, none could be rehired. At a press conference on 3 March, the alliance introduced to journalists six of its activists who claimed they were dismissed for having participated in the drive. Former Premier Dumitru Braghis, the chairman of the Braghis Alliance, said his formation will now reconsider its position on returning to parliamentary debates and toward the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 28 February 2003). MS

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT WRAPS UP VISIT TO BULGARIA
Russian President Vladimir Putin on 3 March, the third and last day of his official visit to Bulgaria, attended an official ceremony marking the 125th anniversary of Bulgaria's liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878, BTA reported. The ceremony took place on Mount Shipka in central Bulgaria in commemoration of the decisive battle between Russian and Ottoman troops that took place there. Putin was accompanied by President Georgi Parvanov and leading Bulgarian politicians. In his address, Parvanov noted Russia's role in liberating Bulgaria. "We will never forget the scores of thousands of Russian soldiers who died for Bulgaria's freedom," Parvanov said. "Russia did not only liberate us. It helped build the new Bulgarian institutions and the modern, European Bulgarian state." Putin said in his address that "to be worthy of our forefathers, we should strengthen Bulgarian-Russian friendship." He also expressed his conviction that bilateral cooperation will contribute to a unified, prosperous, and independent Europe. Bulgarian media reported that the ceremony was also attended by Prince Dmitrii Romanov, a member of the last Russian royal family and a distant cousin to Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski. UB

BULGARIAN MINISTER EXPECTS DELAY IN EU-ACCESSION NEGOTIATIONS BECAUSE OF IRAQ
European Integration Minister Meglena Kuneva told the private bTV on 2 March that should the EU member states fail to agree on a common position on Iraq, the EU will face a crisis that will also have negative repercussions on future member states, mediapool.bg reported. Asked about the effects of Bulgaria's possible support for the draft UN Security Council resolution backed the United States, Britain, and Spain, Kuneva said she expects the accession talks to slow down temporarily, but to be successful in the end. UB

U.S. REFUELING AIRCRAFT ARRIVE IN BULGARIA
The first two refueling aircraft arrived at the Sarafovo air base near the Black Sea port of Burgas on 3 March, mediapool.bg reported. The aircraft are part of the military buildup for a possible operation against Iraq. UB

ARMENIA BETWEEN APPREHENSION AND HOPE ON EVE OF PRESIDENTIAL RUNOFF
Armenian President Robert Kocharian will face opposition People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian in a presidential runoff on 5 March. According to official returns made public during the evening of 20 February, Kocharian polled 49.8 percent of the vote in the previous day's presidential election, marginally short of the 50 percent plus one of all votes cast needed for a clear first-round victory. Demirchian, who ranked highest among the eight challengers, garnered 28.2 percent.

Supporters of both Demirchian and other defeated opposition candidates attributed the announcement that a second round would be necessary to an attack of "cold feet" on the part of the Armenian leadership. Earlier on 20 February, the joint OSCE and Council of Europe election-observation mission issued a statement criticizing "serious irregularities," including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of voters. Some opposition supporters therefore believe the Armenian leadership opted for a second round rather than risk large-scale manipulation of the vote tallies to ensure a Kocharian victory, which might have incurred even harsher criticism from the international monitors. Reuters on 20 February quoted an unnamed Western diplomat in Yerevan as terming the CEC announcement "amazing" and "a bomb." That unnamed diplomat explained, "This means that Kocharian was afraid to fake the results and give himself an outright victory in the first round."

Since 21 February, the two camps have repeatedly accused one another of acting illegally and of undermining political stability. On 21, 23, and 26 February, Demirchian's supporters, together with those of several other defeated candidates and representatives of other opposition parties, congregated in the tens of thousands in Yerevan to demand that Kocharian acknowledge and condemn the alleged falsification of the 19 February vote and punish those persons whom they believed responsible, including at least two government ministers. Some speakers at those rallies went so far as to utter what could be construed as threats to oust the present authorities. Former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian -- who withdrew his candidacy on 8 February in favor of Demirchian -- and Albert Bazeyan, a second leading member of Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun party, both declared that "we shall resort to all possible means" to ensure that Demirchian is ultimately recognized as the legitimately elected president.

Kocharian responded by accusing the opposition in a televised statement on 22 February of deliberately jeopardizing political stability and warned that the authorities will react "in the severest and most serious manner" to any further attempts to "violate public order." He brushed off reports of such falsifications, saying that the international observers' assessment was the most positive of any Armenian election to date. In addition, the authorities reacted to mass rallies in support of Demirchian by rounding up and sentencing to 15 days' imprisonment dozens of Demirchian's campaign activists.

But both the OSCE observer mission and international human rights watchdogs condemned those arrests, which Demirchian's campaign staff feared were undertaken to prevent his proxies from monitoring the runoff vote. OSCE Chairman-in-Office and Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the activists were jailed for "their involvement in nonviolent campaign activities," while Human Rights Watch suggested the arrests were "a clumsy attempt to disable the opposition" prior to the runoff. In the face of such criticism, several dozen detainees were released early on 1 March.

In addition, the OSCE observer mission has followed up on its initial criticism of irregularities during the voting, seeking clarification from the CEC of reports of ballot-box stuffing, improbably high voter turnout, and major discrepancies between the initial and final tallies at some polling stations.

Opposition parties -- and not just those that have aligned to back Demirchian -- have been greatly encouraged by the international pressure on Armenia's leadership to ensure that the runoff is free, fair, transparent, and democratic. Demirchian, who after the arrests of his campaign staffers was reportedly considering pulling out of the runoff, told supporters in Yerevan on 1 March that he is not only destined to run in the second round, but gthat he is "destined to win." The results of an opinion poll summarized on 25 February by the opposition newspaper "Aravot" seem to substantiate that claim. They showed that 37 percent of respondents said they voted for Demirchian on 19 February, compared with 26 percent who voted for Kocharian. Asked for whom they will vote on 5 March, about 56 percent named Demirchian, and only 27 percent Kocharian.

If those figures reflect voter preferences nationwide, then Demirchian would have more than an even chance of victory on 5 March, provided the ballot were truly free and fair. That, in turn, depends on whether Kocharian and his advisers are willing to risk the opprobrium that repeated ballot-box stuffing and falsification would incur. "Aravot" and a second opposition paper, "Orran," on 28 February both attributed Kocharian's meetings on 27-28 February with local campaign staffs in Yerevan to incipient "panic" among his staff.

Already on 22 February, the opposition paper "Haykakan zhamanak" claimed that scores of government officials had effectively defected to the opposition camp by making clear that they will not resort to vote rigging in anyone's favor during the runoff. Other papers have written of a far-reaching change in popular perceptions. They compare the current dawning realization that it might truly be possible to vote out of power a leader whom many blame for the appalling economic hardship in which they live, and whom they are convinced tolerates mediocrity and blatant corruption among his subordinates, with the euphoria engendered by the first mass demonstrations, exactly 15 years ago, in support of the unification of Armenia and what was then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.

AFGHANISTAN'S KHOST HIGHWAY CLEARED
The Khost-Gardayz highway, which had been blocked by the Zadran tribe since the weekend of 22-23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February and 3 March 2003), was cleared at 8 p.m. local time on 3 March, Radio Free Afghanistan reported the next day. Newly appointed Deputy Defense Minister General Gul Zarak Zadran was dispatched to the region on 2 March, and a meeting was held among tribal leaders to resolve the dispute. The precondition for the meeting was that the road be cleared, which was achieved by the tribal leaders, who then moved on to discussing the specific matter of the dispute. The tribal leaders agreed, according to Radio Free Afghanistan, that in the future they should work to resolve crises through negotiation rather than violence or demonstrations. KM

PACT TO REPATRIATE UP TO 600,000 AFGHANS TO BE SIGNED
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers, in Pakistan after inspecting UN operations in Afghanistan (see RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003), announced on 3 March that a tripartite agreement on the voluntary repatriation of up to 600,000 Afghan refugees from Pakistan will be signed on 18 March, dpa reported. The agreement was reached last October by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the UNHCR. Lubbers told Pakistan's Refugee Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao in Islamabad that some 288,000 Afghan refugees crossed into Pakistan after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, adding to an estimated 3.2 million Afghan refugees who had fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Nearly 1.5 million refugees have already returned to Afghanistan since the U.N. refugee agency began in March to assist the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan claims that some 300,000 Afghan refugees who had returned to their homeland have returned to Pakistan because of difficult conditions in Afghanistan. Lubber expressed his concerns that repatriation could encounter problems in areas of Afghanistan that face insecurity, lawlessness, and economic hardship. TG

INDIA ROLLS OUT RED CARPET FOR AFGHAN PRESIDENT
Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in New Delhi on 4 March for a two-day visit in which he is expected to seek greater Indian participation in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, as well as in training police and military personnel, "The Milli Gazette" reported. Karzai, heading a 20-member delegation that includes eight ministers, is expected to meet with Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, and other top officials, along with top Indian industrialists and businessmen. New Delhi opened a diplomatic liaison office in Kabul soon after the collapse of the Taliban regime and pledged $100 million for reconstruction and development activities in the country. New Delhi has also sent to Kabul several medical teams and about 12 tons of emergency medical supplies. The newspaper highlighted the fact that most members of the new government have close ties with India. Karzai himself was educated in India and his family, like those of many of his ministers, still lives in Delhi. TG

SUPREME LEADER URGES AFGHANISTAN TO RECOGNIZE IRAN'S WATER RIGHTS
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the morning of 2 March visited the Hirmand River, the Chahnimeh Reservoir, the Zehak Dam, and irrigation networks in the Kahak border area in the northeastern part of Sistan va Baluchistan Province, IRNA reported. Accompanying officials briefed Khamenei on steps being taken to alleviate the region's water shortage, and the supreme leader said more must be done to increase the supply of water for irrigation. Later in the day Khamenei gave a speech in Zabol in which he urged Afghanistan to fulfill its commitments on supplying water. "We expect Afghanistan to respect the rights of Iran and the residents of Sistan va Baluchistan Province to Hirmand River water and the issue will be followed up seriously by the Islamic Republic of Iran," Khamenei added. He noted the difficulties the province is facing and promised that they will be resolved soon with the cooperation of officials and local citizens. BS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT WELCOMES RESULTS OF MUNICIPAL-COUNCIL ELECTIONS
President Mohammad Khatami on 3 March welcomed the results of the 28 February municipal-council elections, IRNA reported. Speaking to a seminar on "Challenges and Prospects for Development in Iran," Khatami said the people's choice should be respected. He added that people become disappointed in the governmental system when they see that it does not react to their demands and it cannot fulfill its responsibilities. Khatami said an overly negative perspective is inappropriate: "Though the government may have weaknesses in its performance, great works have been done. But, unfortunately, certain tribunes are misleading the public opinion by offering a gloomy picture of the overall situation." Khatami cautioned against disappointment in democracy, saying the only alternative is dictatorship. BS

UPDATE ON VOTER PARTICIPATION IN IRANIAN ELECTIONS
Nearly 11.7 million voters from 21 out of the country's 28 provinces voted in the 28 February municipal-council elections, IRNA reported on 3 March. Turnout was thus about 28.7 percent, on the basis of the 41.2 million eligible voters described by state officials. More than 566,000 (12.1 percent) of Tehran's 4.68 million-person electorate voted, IRNA reported on 3 March. The highest turnout was in Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad Province, where 79.14 percent of the electorate voted, and the lowest was 29 percent in Qom Province. BS

IRANIAN FOREIGN DEBT IS $23.4 BILLION
Akbar Kimjani, the Central Bank of Iran's (CBI) deputy governor for Economic Affairs, said on 2 March that Iran's foreign debt, excluding interest, stood at $23.4 billion by 20 January, IRNA reported. Kimjani said that under the current five-year development plan, long-term debt repayments should be rescheduled so that they do not exceed 30 percent of the government's hard-currency earnings. He added that the CBI is trying to restructure the debt so that it is predominantly intermediate- and long-term. Oil revenues pay for the short-term debt, Kimjani said, and sensitivity to market fluctuations affects the government's debt-repayment abilities. Kimjani said hard-currency and foreign-exchange reserves could cushion oil-price fluctuations. BS

TOP SECURITY OFFICIAL: NUCLEAR POWER REINFORCES IRANIAN 'AUTHORITY'
Supreme National Security Council secretary and Assembly of Experts member Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said at Tehran's Imam Khomeini Mosque on 3 March that nuclear sites at Natanz in Isfahan will be inaugurated early in the Iranian year, which begins on 21 March 2003, IRNA reported. Rohani said the "gigantic nuclear site of Isfahan" took two years to build and, in IRNA's words, "the use of the nuclear technology would reinforce the authority of Iran's system." Rohani said the Natanz facility will enrich uranium extracted in Yazd Province and that upon the inauguration of the Natanz facility Iran will be self-sufficient in producing the fuel to run its nuclear-power stations. Such self-sufficiency would obviate the need for nuclear fuel from Russia, thereby eliminating a level of control over Iran's ability to divert spent fuel for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. BS

TOP IRANIAN SECURITY OFFICIAL DESCRIBES U.S. REGIONAL OBJECTIVES
Rohani on 3 March described his perception of U.S. objectives in the region, IRNA reported. "America is trying to help its oil giants dominate the oil resources in the Persian Gulf region, make use of Iraq's oil revenues and reconstruct Iraq after imposing a war on the country in a bid to enhance its bargaining power at international level," he said. Rohani said that other goals are the marginalization of the Palestinian issue, weakening Russia and Europe, controlling decision making in Iraq, turning Iraq into an oil superpower that could rival Iran and Saudi Arabia, exporting American products to Iraq, and installing a secular government in Iraq. BS

IRAN OFFERS PLAN FOR IRAQI REFERENDUM
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi during a 4 March Persian Gulf forum in Tehran unveiled a plan calling on the Iraqi opposition to reconcile with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and for a UN-supervised referendum, IRNA reported. Kharrazi was adamant that the Iraqi people make their own choice and "form a broad-based government in which all minorities as well as ethnic and religious groups have a share." Kharrazi described this as the only way to have a peaceful change of government in Baghdad that could preclude a regional war. Kharrazi compared this plan with the Iran's earlier plan for national reconciliation in Tajikistan. He emphasized Iran's concern about Iraq's territorial integrity. BS

GCC MINISTERIAL COUNCIL DISCUSSES U.A.E.'S IRAQ INITIATIVE
The Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) Ministerial Council failed on 3 March to unanimously back an initiative (see RFE/RL "Newsline," 3 March 2003) on Iraq presented by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) that would have called for the Iraqi president to step down, Al-Jazeera television reported. Approval by the council requires unanimous support. In a final statement issued the same day, the council voiced appreciation for the initiative but added that it should be submitted within the framework of the Arab League. "In light of the significance of [U.A.E. President] Shaykh Zayed's proposal on Iraq...and in order to muster support for it, the [GCC Ministerial] Council views that the initiative must be mooted for discussion at the Arab level," the statement reads. The Arab League refused to discuss the initiative during its 1 March emergency summit meeting in Sharm Al-Shaykh on the grounds that it was not issued as a formal proposal. Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. have publicly supported the initiative. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faysal did not openly endorse the initiative but said on 3 March that the U.A.E. "presented those ideas to serve Arabs and to achieve peace, security, and stability for the Iraqi people," "Arab News" reported on 4 March. KR

IRAQI KURDS FORM JOINT LEADERSHIP IN PREPARATION FOR WAR
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) announced in a 2 March statement the formation of a "joint higher leadership" in Iraqi Kurdistan, KDP daily "Brayati" reported on 3 March. "In preparation for any possible major events that require unifying the ranks of our people and their capabilities," the KDP and PUK leaderships have decided "to form a joint higher leadership to lead the struggle in the political, military, and administrative fields, as well as national and international relations," the statement reads. KDP head Mas'ud Barzani and PUK leader Jalal Talabani will cochair the "leadership," which will also include members of the KDP's and PUK's political bureaus. The statement adds, "The unity of the Iraqi Kurdistan forces...will consolidate and strengthen the unity of Iraqi opposition forces" in their struggle for a democratic Iraq. KR

KUWAITI DEFENSE MINISTER ON U.S., KUWAITI TROOPS
Kuwaiti Defense Minister Shaykh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah told Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) on 3 March that the United States has not asked Kuwait to host the 62,000 troops that were destined for Turkey. "No request was presented in this regard," al-Sabah said, adding, "If presented, it will be considered by the competent authorities for taking the appropriate decision." Al-Sabah also said in a 3 March press statement at the Kuwaiti National Assembly that there is no need to call up Kuwaiti Army reserves, since there are presently 100,000 U.S. troops stationed in Kuwait, KUNA reported. KR

IRAQ REPORTS ON U.S., U.K. SORTIES
A spokesman for the Iraqi Air Defense Command reported in a 2 March statement that U.S. and U.K. forces carried out 71 sorties that day, attacking civilian and services installations in Basra, killing six "citizens" and wounding 15 others, Iraq News Agency reported on 3 March (http://www.urulink.net/iraqnews/). In a now-familiar formulation, the spokesman said Iraq's ground defenses "confronted the enemy aircraft" and forced them to leave Iraqi airspace. The statement added that the number of sorties carried out from Kuwait since 17 December 1998 totals 22,281, while the number of sorties from military bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait stands at 50,195. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) stated in a 3 March briefing that coalition aircraft attacked four Iraqi military communications facilities and an air-defense facility after Iraq fired antiaircraft artillery at coalition aircraft earlier that day. "The specific targets were struck because they enhanced Iraq's integrated air-defense network," CENTCOM announced. KR

IRAQI LEADER ADDRESSES PEOPLE ON NEW ISLAMIC YEAR
President Hussein issued a 4 March statement to his people on the occasion of the new Islamic year, Iraq Television reported the same day. "What does the idol [presumably referring to the United States] of this age want? How can we successfully defeat it?" Hussein asked, adding, "The idol of this age thinks he is a substitute for God.... He believes he can say anything and everything." The Iraqi leader further addressed Iraqis and Palestinians by saying, "Harm has been inflicted on you and your property," and called on them to follow a path of "jihad against the mercenaries and aggressors." He added, "If you follow such a path, you will be victorious." KR

FRENCH DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS INSPECTIONS 'MAKING PROGRESS'
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said on 3 March that UN weapons inspectors are making progress, citing Iraq's destruction of the Al-Sumud 2 missiles, AFP reported. Speaking to reporters at an air base in Villacoublay, Alliot-Marie said: "Iraq seems to respond, as we have been urging it to do. This shows that the inspections are working, and I think in this sense that this is rather a good thing for the resolution of the Iraq crisis." KR

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