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Newsline - March 11, 2003


FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA WILL VETO IRAQ RESOLUTION...
Igor Ivanov on 10 March told journalists before his departure for Tehran that Russia will not support the amended draft UN Security Council resolution on Iraq submitted by the United States, Great Britain, and Spain, RIA-Novosti and other Russian news agencies reported. "If [the resolution] is submitted to the UN Security Council, Russia will vote against it," Ivanov said. He added that the resolution contains "ultimatums" for Baghdad that are unenforceable and contradict the message formulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1441. In Tehran, Ivanov is expected to meet with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi to discuss policy coordination regarding Iraq, details of the possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Iraq through Iran, and the situation in Afghanistan, the BBC reported on 10 March. VY

...AS DUMA SPEAKER MEETS WITH IRAQI PRESIDENT
Gennadii Seleznev met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on 10 March and conveyed to him an oral message from President Vladimir Putin, RTR reported. Seleznev was also harshly critical of the United States. "Iraq will never give up, and [the United States] will break its teeth on it," Seleznev said. He added that the United States has achieved its goal and compelled Hussein to begin to disarm and, therefore, can now withdraw its forces without losing face. Earlier in the day, Seleznev said that "a strike on Iraq would be an assault on all peace-loving people," and that the Russian people are in solidarity with the people of Iraq. VY

PUTIN CONFERS WITH GERMAN, FRENCH LEADERS...
President Putin on 10 March held telephone consultations with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder regarding the developing situation at the United Nations, the proposed new Security Council resolution on Iraq, and the most recent reports by chief international weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammad el-Baradei, RTR and other Russian news agencies reported. The two leaders agreed that those reports "provide no basis for discontinuing the inspections." Later in the day, Putin discussed these matters with French President Jacques Chirac, who also agreed with this conclusion. The two presidents agreed that a majority of the Security Council would vote against the amended draft resolution. Putin was informed that if the resolution comes to a vote in the Security Council, both Chirac and Schroeder will likely attend the session personally. VY

...AS RUSSIA COUNTS THE VOTES AT THE UN
As a seemingly crucial battle looms at the United Nations, Russian diplomats were scurrying to calculate the correlation of forces in the Security Council, ORT reported on 10 March. By Russian calculations, currently the United States, Great Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria firmly support the draft resolution, while Germany, France, Russia, China, and Syria are resolutely opposed. The remaining council members -- Mexico, Pakistan, Angola, Guinea, Cameroon, and Chile -- remain undecided. On 11 March, there were media reports that Pakistan would abstain if there were a vote. Moscow believes that Mexico and Angola will eventually support the U.S. position, while Chile -- which has already said that "the inspectors need more time" -- would likely oppose the resolution. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has been in Africa recently trying to persuade Cameroon and Guinea to vote against the resolution. In order to pass, a Security Council resolution must garner nine votes, including all the votes of the non-abstaining permanent members (the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France). VY

PRESIDENT CONSOLIDATES SECURITY AGENCIES...
In a series of presidential decrees issued on 11 March, President Putin initiated a major reorganization of the country's security agencies, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Putin disbanded the Federal Agency of Governmental Communications and Information (FAPSI) and the Federal Border Guard Service (FSP), incorporating both of these agencies into the Federal Security Service (FSB). Former FAPSI Director Vladimir Matyushin was named chairman of a newly created State Defense Procurements Committee at the Defense Ministry. Former FSP head Colonel General Konstantin Totskii has been named Russia's envoy to NATO. In addition, Putin abolished the Federal Tax Police Service (FSNP) and transferred its functions to the Interior Ministry. Former FSNP head Mikhail Fradkov was named Russia's envoy to the European Union. Putin also appointed former presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Viktor Cherkesov to head a new State Committee on Drug Trafficking. Cherkesov will be replaced by former Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko. VY

...AND SENDS MATVIENKO TO FACE OFF WITH YAKOVLEV?
In reports prepared before the announcement of the presidential decrees reorganizing the security agencies, gzt.ru and NTV on 11 March predicted the appointment of former Deputy Prime Minister Matvienko to replace Cherkesov. NTV speculated that the move might stem from the Kremlin's desire to ensure that St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev does not secure a third term in office. Moving Matvienko -- who briefly considered running against Yakovlev in 2000 -- to St. Petersburg was seen as a means of increasing her visibility as a prelude to her participation in the upcoming gubernatorial poll. VY

U.S., RUSSIA CONFER ON 'DIRTY BOMBS'
U.S. and Russian experts have met in Vienna to discuss ways of preventing terrorist organizations from constructing and detonating "dirty bombs," which are conventional explosive devices that are used to disperse radioactive materials in order to contaminate a wide area, lenta.ru and AP reported on 11 March. The experts are also expected to discuss the security of compact nuclear-power sources on the territory of the former Soviet Union. These sources -- which primarily include aviation beacons that have not been accounted for since the 1990s -- are capable of producing dangerous doses of radiation and potentially could be used by terrorists. VY

SUICIDE RATE HIGH AND RISING
Almost 57,000 people committed suicide in Russia in 2000, and 57,200 did so in 2001, "Izvestiya" reported on 10 March. Those figures are the equivalent of 39.3 per 100,000 of population and 39.7 per 100,000, respectively. Although Russia stands in third place globally after South Africa and Colombia in terms of murder rate, more Russians die each year from suicide than from murder; the 2001 murder rate in Russia was 29.8 per 100,000 of population. The daily noted that the country's suicide rate also jumped following the 1917 revolution and during the peak repression year of 1937 and in 1947, the peak of post-World War II hardships. Correspondingly, it decreased during the "thaw" initiated by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and during Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika." The suicide rate began increasing again in 1988 and had doubled by 1994. Sociologists note that suicide victims are most often either single men between the ages of 20 to 59 who are inclined toward alcoholism or married women over the age of 60 who are in poor health and have low incomes. Alcohol plays a crucial role. Sixty percent of suicide victims are found to have alcohol in their bloodstreams, and 40 percent of those are legally drunk. VY

'STATISTICS CASE' GETS UNDER WAY IN MOSCOW COURT
The Moscow Municipal Court on 11 March began hearing the so-called Statistics Case, NTV and other Russian news agencies reported. The defendants in the case are a group of former state officials who allegedly sold confidential state information to commercial structures. On trial are former State Statistics Committee (Goskomstat) Chairman Yurii Yurkov; his former deputy Valerii Dalin; Boris Saakyan, former head of the Goskomstat computer center, and five other former Labor Ministry and FAPSI officials. All the men were arrested in 1998 by FSB agents and accused of causing the state millions of dollars in damages by leaking economic information. During the investigation, a search of Saakyan's residence reportedly turned up $2.5 million in cash. After the initial hearing on 11 March, continuation of the case was postponed until 21 April. VY

LIBERAL POLITICIAN BLAMES YELTSIN FOR RUSSIA'S DISILLUSIONMENT
Lyudmila Narusova, Federation Council member and widow of former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak, told TV-Tsentr on 8 March that former President Boris Yeltsin bears the main responsibility for the degradation of democratic values in Russia. Yeltsin eroded the hopes and enthusiasm that appeared at the beginning of the country's democratic transition and transformed the state into "a den of oligarchs," Narusova said. Yeltsin's entourage used political power as a means of personal enrichment, which destroyed the public's enthusiasm for democratic ideals. Narusova added that when picking President Putin as his successor, Yeltsin was guided by the fact that given the crisis of public confidence in the government, the war in Chechnya, and the decline of the military, it was crucial to find a person who would be acceptable to the military and the security services. Putin's personal loyalty and honesty were also decisive factors, Narusova said. VY

CONCESSIONS MADE OVER REFERENDUM VOTE IN INGUSHETIA
Those Chechen displaced persons currently living in camps in Ingushetia who cannot travel to the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia to vote in the 23 March referendum will be able to cast their ballots in the displaced-persons camps, Russian presidential envoy for human rights in Chechnya Abdul-Khakim Sultygov said in Moscow on 10 March. He said ballot boxes will be taken to the tents of those too sick to travel or those who are afraid to return to Chechnya to cast their ballots there. Chechen Election Commission head Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov said in January that arrangements would be made to enable residents of displaced-persons camps to vote, but on 25 February Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov said in Grozny that they would not (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January and 26 February 2003). But chechenpress.com cited AFP on 9 March as reporting that Chechens in camps in Ingushetia are being threatened that they will be deprived of humanitarian aid if they refuse to sign a pledge to vote in the referendum. LF

PACE DECIDES AGAINST MONITORING CHECHEN REFERENDUM
Citing security considerations, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has decided against sending observers to Chechnya to monitor the voting in the 23 March referendum on a new draft constitution and election laws, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 March quoting Federation Council Deputy Chairman Mikhail Margelov. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION CONTINUES PICKET OF CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION
Some 100 supporters of defeated presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian picketed the Central Election Commission (CEC) building in Yerevan on 10 March for the second consecutive day to protest irregularities during the 5 March presidential runoff, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Meanwhile, the CEC is continuing to recount the ballots cast in those constituencies where the opposition has alleged violations, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 March. Observers from the OSCE Election Monitoring Mission are present at the recount. Also on 10 March, a spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office said no request has been received to initiate criminal proceedings against CEC Chairman Artak Sahradian, ITAR-TASS reported. Demirchian said on 7 March he would demand that Sahradian be charged with failing to fulfill his official duties (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 March 2003). LF

DEFEATED ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE SIGNALS INTENTION TO CONTEST PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Demirchian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 10 March that his People's Party of Armenia will definitely field candidates in the parliamentary election scheduled for 25 May, but has not yet decided whether to form an electoral bloc with other opposition parties. National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, who placed fourth of the nine candidates in the 19 February first round of the presidential election, pledged his support on 10 March for a broad-based opposition alliance. Immediately after the 5 March runoff some opposition parties, including former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun, argued in favor of boycotting the parliamentary elections to protest the presumed falsification of the presidential ballot. LF

TALKS ON AZERBAIJANI ELECTION LEGISLATION STALLED
A second round of talks between presidential administration official Shahin Aliev, author of the controversial new election law, and opposition jurist Fuad Agaev failed to take place as scheduled on 10 March, zerkalo.az reported the following day. Agaev told the newspaper that Aliev refused to continue the discussion begun on 6 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 March 2003). Aliev argued that Agaev's statement that other opposition parties have empowered him to discuss only the optimum composition of the Central Election Commission and district commissions at all levels constitutes an unacceptable condition for continuing the talks. Aliev said the authorities are prepared to discuss all the objections the opposition previously raised to the draft law (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 and 27 January 2003). LF

LEADER DENIES RUMORED COLLAPSE OF AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION BLOC
Musavat Party head Isa Gambar told journalists in Baku on 10 March that the Democratic Congress, which he heads, is not on the verge of dissolution, zerkalo.az reported on 11 March. "Azadliq" on 7 March quoted Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the radical opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," as arguing that the congress has exhausted its potential and should therefore be dissolved. LF

MORE DETAILS OF GEORGIAN REPATRIATION TO ABKHAZIA DIVULGED...
In his regular Monday radio address on 10 March, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze provided new details of the agreement he reached during talks in Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abkhaz Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia on the return of Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003). Shevardnadze estimated that some 45,000 displaced persons will return to Gali but did not specify within what time frame. Nor is it clear whether rail communication between Sochi and Tbilisi will be resumed as soon as the repatriation process begins or only after it is successfully completed. Shevardnadze also divulged that he and Putin agreed on the creation of a joint Georgian-Abkhaz-Russian police force and administration for Gali, which the Abkhaz side has hitherto rejected. Shevardnadze told journalists later on 10 March that Georgian and Russian working groups will be established within the next 10 days to oversee implementation of the agreements reached in Sochi. LF

...AS ABKHAZ INSIST THEY WILL NOT ACKNOWLEDGE GEORGIAN SOVEREIGNTY
Meanwhile, Abkhaz Prime Minister Gagulia arrived in Moscow on 10 March for talks on unspecified economic issues, Interfax reported. Gagulia repeated that Abkhazia will never agree to become part of a federal Georgian state as Shevardnadze has proposed. Gagulia noted that Georgia rejected that option when Abkhazia first proposed it in 1992. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH SENIOR U.S. MILITARY OFFICIAL
President Shevardnadze met in Tbilisi on 10 March with visiting Pentagon official James McDougal to discuss the Iraq situation and the global antiterrorism campaign, Caucasus Press reported. The possibility of the U.S. military using bases in Georgia during a possible military campaign against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was not discussed, according to U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles. Miles expressed regret at the Georgian parliament's recent failure to ratify a military cooperation agreement with the United States. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). LF

THREE GEORGIAN OPPOSITIONISTS CHARGED OVER ELECTION PROTEST
Three leading members of the opposition National Movement -- Koba Davitashvili, Vano Merabishvili, and Petre Tsiskarishvili -- were summoned on 10 March to the Prosecutor General's Office and charged with violating public order and organizing mass disturbances, Caucasus Press reported. Those charges, which could entail prison sentences of up to three years, stem from a protest in Tbilisi last fall over the Central Election Commission's delay in recounting the ballots cast in local elections in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2002). Davitashvili told journalists on 10 March that the right to organize such protests is guaranteed by the Georgian Constitution. He accused President Shevardnadze of ordering the Prosecutor-General's Office to arrest him. LF

PRO-GOVERNMENT GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT FACTIONS CONDEMN LAW ON MINIMUM WAGE
Four pro-government parliamentary factions -- the Alliance for a New Georgia, the Union of Citizens of Georgia, the Socialists, and the Majoritarians -- convened a discussion on 10 March of the controversial law on a fivefold increase in the minimum wage, effective 1 July, Caucasus Press reported. Government ministers told the gathering that the law would result in macroeconomic destabilization and a rise in unemployment. Finance Minister Mirian Gogiashvili predicted that it would lead to inflation of 12-13 percent. Participants agreed that, instead, the minimum wage and pensions should be increased gradually. Also on 10 March, five opposition parliamentary factions called for the resignation of Rostom Dolidze, chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Procedural Issues, Caucasus Press reported. They claimed that the committee's 7 March decision to conduct a repeat vote on the law on the minimum wage was made in the absence of a quorum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003). LF

U.S. ENERGY ENVOY DISCUSSES KAZAKH ROLE IN BAKU-CEYHAN PIPELINE
Steven Mann, special adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State on Caspian Sea energy issues, met with Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev on 10 March in Astana to discuss Kazakhstan's role in the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and other energy-related issues, khabar.kz reported. Kazakhstan is being actively encouraged to participate in the development of the new oil-export pipeline. According to khabar.kz, the two officials also spoke about the investment climate in Kazakhstan's energy sector for American firms interested in developing newly discovered oil and natural-gas deposits and how to make that climate more attractive. In 2002, disagreements with Kazakh officials led to a temporary suspension of activities by Chevron, one of the major U.S. investors in Kazakh oil extraction, from Kazakhstan, raising questions about future U.S. investment in the oil-rich country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2002). BB

KYRGYZ-UZBEK BORDER TALKS START
A delegation of officials headed by Kyrgyzstan's representative to the Eurasian Economic Community Bazarbai Mambetov traveled to Tashkent on 10 March for talks on the delimitation of the border between the two countries, akipress.org reported on 11 March, citing RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. According to Mambetov, Uzbekistan has said it is prepared to hand over maps of the minefields laid by the Uzbek military along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. The promise was reportedly made during a recent telephone conversation between Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and Uzbek Prime Minister Otkir Sultonov. A Kyrgyz citizen was killed by an Uzbek mine on 23 February, and it was reported shortly thereafter that Uzbek authorities had refused Kyrgyz requests for such maps (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). In addition to border delimitation, the meeting of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz Intergovernmental Commission on Border Delimitation is expected to discuss access between the Kyrgyz exclave of Barak and the rest of the country and a bridge in Karasu Raion that was demolished by the Uzbeks. One group of commission experts is to draft an agreement on building additional border-crossing points. BB

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION POLITICIAN JOINS OMBUDSMAN OFFICE
Omurbek Subanaliev, a member of the opposition Ar-Namys party, has been appointed to head the department of the ombudsman's office that is responsible for relations with the executive authorities and law enforcement agencies, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 9 March. Subanaliev is a close associate of Feliks Kulov -- the head of the Ar-Namys party, a former vice president and a former mayor of Bishkek -- who is serving a prison term on what the opposition considers politically motivated charges of embezzlement and abuse of his official position. According to the report, Subanaliev's appointment is being interpreted in Bishkek as a sign that Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu is attempting to make his office a genuinely independent institution. BB

KULOV DROPPED FROM LIST OF BISHKEK MAYORS
The Bishkek opposition publication "Moya stolitsa-novosti," quoted by centrasia.ru on 11 March, reports that a recently published book titled "Bishkek -- stolitsa Kyrgyzstana" omits the name of prominent opposition politician and former Vice President Kulov from a list of former mayors of the city. Kulov served as mayor of Bishkek from April 1998 to April 1999, and according to "Moya stolitsa-novosti" article, his term in office is fondly remembered by the citizens of the capital. The apparent turning of Kulov into a "non-person" in an official publication is compared to Soviet practices of the 1930s. His imprisonment on what the opposition considers politically motivated charges after he tried to run against President Askar Akaev in the last presidential election is a continuing irritant, among many others, in relations between the government and its opponents. BB

TURKMEN YOUTHS MAY ENTER MILITARY AT 17
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has signed a decree allowing young men to enter military service at the age of 17, centrasia.ru reported on 11 March, citing Deutsche Welle. The normal age of conscription is 18. The Turkmenistan Constitution requires that all able-bodied male citizens serve in the military, and there is no alternative service. Niyazov first proposed lowering the age at which youths could start their national service in 2002, noting that the reduction in the number of years of schooling from 10 to nine meant that young people were left for a year or more with little to do, as they were too young for either work or military service. The Deutsche Welle report notes that international conventions consider persons under 18 to be children and strictly prohibit them from serving in the military. BB

PRESIDENTIAL DECREE EXPECTED TO RESTRICT TURKMEN STUDY ABROAD
A decree on Turkmen citizens studying in foreign institutions of higher education that was issued by President Niyazov on 21 February will severely restrict opportunities to study abroad, according to an article published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and posted by centrasia.ru on 11 March. According to the decree, most students may no longer legally exchange manats, the national currency, for convertible currencies. Only students chosen by the Education Ministry may now convert their manats at the artificially low official rate. The IWPR article suggests the decree might have been a reaction to a demonstration in Moscow against Niyazov's policies in which Turkmen students took part. However, it also accords with the president's educational policies, which seek to limit Turkmen contact with the outside world. According to the article, the majority of Turkmen students who had been studying abroad, particularly in Russia, are now unable to complete their studies. BB

MINSK AUTHORITIES BAN OPPOSITION PROTEST
City officials in Minsk have banned the opposition's "People's March for a Better Life" scheduled for 12 March, Belapan reported on 11 March. The organizers of the march, who include activists of the Charter-97 human rights group, asked authorities to grant a permit for the march and a rally, but the city government has sanctioned only the rally in a remote park. Some organizers told journalists that they will go ahead with the protest despite the ban. The demonstration has been planned to protest economic hardships and demand President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's resignation. JM

LITHUANIA SEEKS 'SPECIAL ROLE' IN EU-BELARUS RELATIONS
Lithuanian Ambassador to Belarus Jonas Paslauskas told Belapan on 10 March that his country could play a special role in the development of relations between the European Union and Belarus, the agency reported. Paslauskas said Lithuania hopes to become an active member of EU and will advocate closer relations with neighboring states, including Belarus. He said Lithuania and Belarus should consider joint cooperation projects in the European context. He added that such projects could relate to environmental protection, combating illegal migration, or the development of the border-protection infrastructure. JM

BERLIN DOESN'T SEE UKRAINE IN EU IN 'FORESEEABLE FUTURE'
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told his Ukrainian counterpart Anatoliy Zlenko in Berlin on 10 March that Ukraine's chances of joining the European Union in the "foreseeable future" are poor, dpa reported. "Oh, I think the question of [Ukraine's] membership is not one which can be operatively posed now or in the foreseeable future," the agency quoted Fischer as saying. Fischer reportedly did not directly criticize the Ukrainian government but underlined that more progress is needed in developing a market economy, the rule of law, and media freedom in Ukraine. Fischer's pronouncement came a day after Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, on a visit to Slovakia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2003), called on the EU "to determine its stance on Ukraine" and expressed his dissatisfaction with the EU's intention to grant Ukraine the "status of EU neighbor," according to Interfax. "We do not understand [the situation] when we are offered the status of an EU neighbor by the EU. We cannot be stripped of this right [to belong to Europe] geographically," Kuchma said. JM

UKRAINIAN MINERS CONTINUE HUNGER STRIKE OVER UNPAID WAGES
Sixteen miners on 10 March continued the sixth day of their underground hunger strike in the Bendyuzka coal mine in Lviv Oblast, the Ukrainian Public Radio (Hromadske Radio) website reported (http://www.radio.org.ua/). The protesting miners are demanding their wages for the past seven months. Meanwhile, Maidan-Inform (http://maidan.org.ua/) reported on 9 March that 47 miners remained for a fourth day underground in the Kreninska coal mine in Luhansk Oblast, also demanding back wages. JM

ESTONIA'S FOUR-PARTY UNION TO DEVELOP COALITION AGREEMENT
The first coalition-formation meeting of Res Publica, the Reform Party, the People's Union, and the Pro Patria Union decided in Tallinn on 10 March to establish a joint working group to draw up the main points of a coalition agreement, BNS reported. Indrek Raudne from Res Publica, Rain Rosimannus from the Reform Party, Tarmo Loodus from Pro Patria, and Janno Reiljan from the People's Union were tasked with presenting the points for the next meeting of the parties' representatives on 12 March. Res Publica Chairman Juhan Parts said no one at the meeting questioned Pro Patria Union's participation in the coalition. "Although income tax is an issue that carries a lot of financial weight, it is still only one point in the government's four-year program," he said. Parts reiterated that talks on the distribution of ministers will begin only after a common program is agreed upon. SG

FOREIGN INVESTORS URGE LATVIA TO CLEAN UP SHADOW ECONOMY, CUSTOMS
Latvia's Foreign Investors Council Chairman Monty Akesson said the council considers Latvia's general development as rather positive, but urges the government to focus more attention on fighting the shadow economy, bringing order to the work done by customs authorities, and reducing excessive tax-violations fines, which can reach 100 or even 200 percent of the unpaid amounts, BNS reported on 10 March. He praised the country's ongoing anticorruption efforts, noting that corruption has been one of the most frequently mentioned problems named by investors in Latvia. Akesson questioned whether Latvian customs officials will be prepared to work under the new requirements that expected membership of the EU will bring in 2004. At its sixth top-level meeting with the government, the council on 6 and 7 March submitted a total of 66 World Bank recommendations to be implemented within a year. Council Honorary Chairman Arvid Grundekjon said Latvia has the potential to become a "fantastic place for investments," and expressed his pleasure that an understanding has been reached with the new government on what is needed to improve the investment environment. SG

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT VISITS LATVIA
Rolandas Paksas paid an official working visit to Riga on 10 March, ELTA and BNS reported. His talks with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga focused on bilateral relations, regional cooperation and Euro-Atlantic integration, as well as the implementation of joint infrastructure projects. Paksas and Prime Minister Einars Repse discussed the maritime border treaty between their countries that Lithuania ratified more than three years ago, but which Latvia's parliament only approved in its first reading in September 1999. Repse agreed to present it to parliament for ratification after the countries form a working group for developing an economic-cooperation agreement. Paksas also met with parliament Chairwoman Ingrid Udre, the Lithuanian Chamber of Commerce in Latvia, and attended a reception at the Lithuanian Embassy in Riga celebrating the reestablishment of Lithuanian independence on 11 March 1990. SG

MINOR POLISH PARTY READY TO BACK GOVERNMENT IN PARLIAMENT
The Peasant Democratic Party (PLD) is ready to back the government in the Sejm and seek parliamentary alliances with the Conservative Peasant Party (SKL) and Polish Peasant Block (PBL), PAP reported on 10 March, quoting PLD leader Roman Jagielinski. The PLD has four, the SKL eight, and the PBL four deputies in the Sejm. Premier Leszek Miller said on Polish Radio earlier the same day that he will seek support for government policies from the Sejm's smaller groups. "We've been receiving signals that some of these [groups] want a more formal alliance with us. The coming days will show if this happens," Miller said. Since the split of the ruling coalition of the Democratic Left Alliance with the Peasant Party earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March), Miller's cabinet is 19 votes shy of a 231-vote majority in the parliament. JM

POLISH PRESIDENT CALLS FOR RESIGNATION OF BROADCAST WATCHDOG
President Aleksander Kwasniewski on 10 March said on private Radio RMF FM that the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) should resign. Kwasniewski's pronouncement follows KRRiT head Juliusz Brown's testimony last week to the parliamentary commission investigating the "Rywingate" bribery allegations, in which Braun said the work on amending a media law last year involved "shady dealings" on the part of some KRRiT members. "I cannot imagine I could be the head of an institution where I am aware of shady dealings going on," Kwasniewski added. The KRRiT held an emergency meeting later the same day to discuss Kwasniewski's statements. According to PAP, two members appointed to the KRRiT by the president -- Danuta Waniek and Waledemar Dubaniowski -- offered their resignations, but the other seven declined to follow suit. Kwasniewski reportedly did not accept the resignations, saying they were not those KRRiT members whom he wanted to step down (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 11 March 2003). JM

CZECH CENTER-LEFT COALITION SURVIVES CONFIDENCE VOTE
The tripartite government of Vladimir Spidla won a vote of confidence from lawmakers on 11 March in a vote the prime minister requested after the 28 February presidential vote exposed divisions among coalition legislators. The motion was approved 101 to 99, according to the televised proceedings. The Social Democratic Party's (CSSD) alliance with the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union controls 101 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies. Social Democratic leader Spidla called the vote to consolidate his position following the recent election of opposition candidate Vaclav Klaus to the presidency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003) and ahead of a CSSD party congress later this month. AH

CZECHS WITHDRAW DIPLOMATS FROM IRAQ
The daily "Lidove noviny" reported on 11 March that the Czech Republic is "secretly" withdrawing its diplomats from Iraq, adding that those officials should be back in Prague by the end of this week. Nonessential personnel and diplomats' families left Baghdad several weeks ago, the paper added, in anticipation of possible military action against Iraq. AH

CZECH MILITARY INTELLIGENCE PURGES COMMUNIST-ERA EMPLOYEES
Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik said the planned reorganization of the country's secret services will result in the departure of more than 100 communist-era officers from the Czech military intelligence service, CTK reported, citing the daily "Pravo" of 10 March. Tvrdik conceded the move will weaken military intelligence in the short term, but he said that in future only "reliable people" will work within the Czech intelligence community. "No one who worked in the military intelligence service before 1989 and was connected with the [former military counterintelligence agency] will work in the new service," Tvrdik said. He noted that NATO is supportive of the effort, but said the system will be weakend for as long as six years as a result, CTK reported. AH

SLOVAKIA PRESENTS NATO CHIEF WITH 'BINDING APPLICATION'
Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda delivered the country's "definite binding application" to NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson in Bratislava on 10 March, international media reported. Robertson told senior Slovak politicians that he does not "see any real complications on the horizon" for any of the seven postcommunist states invited to join NATO in November, provided "they continue with the reform process," according to RFE/RL's Slovak Service. Robertson noted the need for changes in the army, the fight against corruption, and thoroughly checking the reliability of the intelligence services to ensure the secure handling of information, Reuters reported. In an allusion to the recent scandals involving telephone tapping and reports that the Slovak Intelligence service (SIS) might be involved in illegal activities, Robertson stressed, "If there was a problem with the handling of secure information [by a NATO invitee], then that would affect both the credibility of that country and the prospects of ratification," RFE/RL reported. He said that NATO will "ruthlessly pursue our determination to have security vetting structures that work, are politically unbiased and are clear from any intervention or penetration by agencies or influences outside NATO," according to Reuters. Robertson said the ratification process will not be complicated by Bratislava's strongly pro-U.S. stance, according to Reuters. MS/AH

SLOVAK INTELLIGENCE SERVICE DEFENDS APPOINTMENT...
The SIS on 10 March released a statement denying that its director, Vladimir Mitro, appointed former journalist Peter Toth chief of Slovak counterespionage while criminal proceedings were pending against Toth, TASR reported. The statement said the decision to appoint Toth to the post was taken on 26 February and he was appointed on 1 March, while the criminal proceedings were launched on 3 March. Toth is suspected of having authored an anonymous complaint lodged with the Prosecutor-General's Office against Interior Minister Vladimir Palko in connection with allegations that someone was eavesdropping on Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) Chairman Pavol Rusko. Toth has been charged with libel in connection with that complaint (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2003). Also on 10 March, ANO parliamentary group leader Lubomir Lintner signaled an about-face by his party and urged Premier Dzurinda to dismiss SIS head Mitro and propose a successor at the next session of the Coalition Council. MS

...AND FILES DEFAMATION CHARGES AGAINST FORMER PREMIER MECIAR
The SIS announced on 10 March it has filed a criminal complaint against former Premier Vladimir Meciar, TASR reported. The decision follows a televised statement by Meciar on 9 March in which he said the tapping of political adversaries' telephones can be ordered and purchased from the SIS by anyone interested in doing so. Meciar claimed he never ordered such taps but saw transcripts of telephone conversations conducted by Premier Dzurinda. MS

CHILDLESS SLOVAKS SAID TO BE AVOIDING ROMANY ADOPTIONS
The director of the International Adoption Center within the Slovak Labor, Social Affairs, and Family Ministry said on 10 March that Slovak couples show no interest in adopting Romany orphans, CTK reported. "Slovak adoptive parents adopt some 300 children each year, but these are all non-Romany children," Alena Matejova said. Some 3,500 children are housed in 90 Slovak orphanages, CTK reported. Under Slovak law, orphans may only be adopted by foreigners if no interest is shown domestically. Matejova said about 20 prospective parents from Canada and France have expressed an interest in adopting Slovak Roma, and three are already in the care of adoptive parents abroad. MS

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT, MINUS FIDESZ, FILLS PUBLIC-TELEVISION BOARD
Parliament on 10 March officially approved a new eight-member board of trustees for Hungarian Television (MTV) after accepting two additional opposition candidates nominated by the Democratic Forum, Hungarian media reported. The move will cut the opposition FIDESZ party out of the process if it is not challenged. Parliament last week approved a truncated board consisting of representatives of the coalition Socialist Party and the Free Democrats, as well as two Democratic Forum representatives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 March 2003). The strongest opposition party in parliament, FIDESZ, again walked out of the chamber before the voting, calling the whole process unlawful. FIDESZ and the Democratic Forum were unable to agree on the division of trustee seats earmarked for the opposition. As a result of the 10 March vote, the new MTV board will have no FIDESZ representative among its members. Parliament also elected Socialist Laszlo Czegledi as chairman of the MTV board and Huba Kozma of the Democratic Forum as his deputy. MSZ

SWISS GROUP ACQUIRES ADDITIONAL STAKE IN HUNGARIAN DAILY
Swiss publishing group Ringier plans to purchase an additional 17 percent stake in "Nepszabadsag" from the Bertelsmann Group's Gruner und Jahr company, raising its stake in the country's leading political daily to 67.5 percent, "Napi Gazdasag" reported on 11 March. Ringier is also the sole owner of the "Magyar Hirlap" daily, the third most popular political daily, so the acquisition must be approved by the Competition Office, since the revenues of Ringier and its affiliates in Hungary exceed 10 billion forints ($43 million) a year. MSZ

WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL SETS DEADLINE FOR BELGRADE TO HAND OVER DOCUMENTS
The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on 10 March set a two-month deadline for Belgrade authorities to hand over documents requested by prosecutors in the trial of former President Slobodan Milosevic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Those authorities have so far denied prosecutors access to the archives, saying they can ask for specific documents but not search the whole archives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2003). UB

SERBIAN AUTHORITIES CONFIRM PLANS FOR SECURITY BASE IN SOUTHERN SERBIA
A Serbian Army representative has confirmed that the foundations will be laid for a major security base in the Presevo Valley, the "Southeast European Times" reported on 11 March. According to Major General Mladjen Cirkovic, the facility will house some 1,000 police and army officers. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic has played down fears that an increasing police and army presence reflects security concerns in the region, according the paper (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 14, 18, and 20 February 2003). UB

NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL OUTLINES CONDITIONS FOR SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO, BOSNIA
Speaking on the sidelines of his official visit to Slovenia, Lord George Robertson said in Ljubljana on 10 March that preconditions for Serbia and Montenegro's membership of NATO's Partnership for Peace include the full cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, army reform, and the implementation of the Dayton peace agreement, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The key to Bosnia's membership in the program is the establishment of a joint Defense Ministry, Robertson said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003). UB

BOSNIAN SERB AUTHORITIES PLEDGE COOPERATION IN ARMS-TRADING CASE
President Dragan Cavic announced on 10 March that Republika Srpska authorities will provide additional documents concerning illegal arms exports to Iraq by the Orao aircraft manufacturer, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The documentation will be handed over to SFOR Commander Lieutenant General William Ward by the end of this week, he said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2002 and 6 January 2003). UB

FIVE DIE IN BOSNIAN MINE BLAST
Five people died in a land-mine explosion outside the village of Brvnik in northern Bosnia on 10 March, "Dnevni avaz" reported. The Serb villagers reportedly hit the mine while working on their field. UB

MONTENEGRIN PARLIAMENT SCHEDULES NEW PRESIDENTIAL VOTE FOR MAY
Parliamentary speaker and acting President Filip Vujanovic of the governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) announced on 10 March that new Montenegrin presidential elections will take place on 11 May, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Vujanovic won the first two presidential votes on 22 December and 10 February. However, those elections were ruled invalid because turnout failed to meet the 50 percent threshold required by law. Parliament has since lifted that requirement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002 and 10 February 2003). UB

CROATIAN PRIME MINISTER PLEDGES COOPERATION WITH THE HAGUE
Prime Minister Ivica Racan said on 10 March that Croatia is ready to cooperate with other states to arrest indicted war criminal General Ante Gotovina, Hina reported. "Croatia is prepared to cooperate with bodies outside the country that could help us in realizing our obligation to The Hague tribunal to arrest Gotovina," Racan said, adding that the best course for all concerned would for the indictee to hand himself over to the tribunal. Racan dismissed reports that Gotovina has been seen recently in downtown Zagreb as "incorrect and irresponsible" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February and 4 March 2003). UB

CROATIAN PARLIAMENT BALKS AT NEW ELECTION LAW
Parliamentary committees on constitutional issues and legislation agreed on 10 March to hold the parliamentary elections slated for the end of this year under existing legislation, Hina reported. The decision was based on the assumption that a new election law could not be drafted and passed within the deadlines set by the constitution. Lawmakers will nevertheless have to amend the existing law to bring it into line with constitutional provisions regarding the number of parliamentary seats set aside for ethnic minorities. The upper house, or House of Counties, will also be abolished under the new amendments. OSCE observers recommended a number of amendments following Croatian elections in 2000. UB

CROATIAN PRESIDENT PROPOSES REGIONAL MEETING ON REFUGEES
President Stipe Mesic on 10 March met with Peter Semneby, who heads the OSCE's mission to Croatia, to assess options for the return of refugees and displaced persons, Hina reported. Semneby informed Mesic of an OSCE project to promote public awareness of the refugee problem. Mesic reportedly proposed holding a trilateral conference on refugee returns with participants from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia and Montenegro. Semneby welcomed the idea and pledged that the OSCE will help organize such a meeting. UB

ALBANIAN GOVERNMENT READY TO DEPLOY TROOPS IN POSSIBLE IRAQ OPERATION
The government in Tirana decided on 9 March that it will deploy troops if requested by the United States for military support in the event of a possible military operation against Iraq, the "Southeast European Times" reported. The cabinet also signaled its readiness to provide airspace or training facilities for forces of the international antiterrorism coalition. UB

ROMANIA EXPELS FIVE IRAQI DIPLOMATS
Romania on 10 March announced it has expelled five Iraqi diplomats after an investigation determined that their actions were "incompatible" with their diplomatic status, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau and Reuters reported. The Foreign Ministry said in an official statement that Iraqi Ambassador to Romania Saad Hamid Majid was informed on 8 March that the presence of five members of the embassy staff had "become undesirable." The Foreign Ministry therefore asked that they leave Romania. Four of the diplomats and their families did so on 8 March and the fifth was already abroad when the decision was announced. Interior Minister Ioan Rus said on 10 March that a number of Iraqi citizens resident in Romania were detained that day and were to be expelled on 11 March. According to the private Antena 1 television channel, 11 Iraqis were to be deported on 11 March. Government sources cited by Reuters said Bucharest is among 60 capitals asked by the United States to find and expel Iraqi diplomats suspected of conducting intelligence activities. MS

ROMANIAN NBC TEAM TO LEAVE FOR PERSIAN GULF
An anti-nuclear, -biological, -chemical unit (NBC) is to leave for the Persian Gulf "in the next days" in what the Defense Ministry defined as a "reconnaissance mission," Romanian Radio and Mediafax reported on 11 March. The ministry's statement said the team is entirely made up of volunteers and that its mission is "a stage in preparations for participation in managing [possible] postconflict consequences at a time when diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution of the conflict continue." In line with a 12 February parliamentary resolution, Romania said it is prepared to dispatch 278 soldiers, all of them volunteers, to the conflict zone. MS

U.S. GRANTS ROMANIA STATUS AS MARKET-BASED ECONOMY
The U.S. Commerce Department on 10 March announced it has granted Romania the status of a "functional market economy," Romanian Radio reported. The announcement was made during a visit to the United States by Eugen Dijmarescu, head of the government's Foreign Trade Department. The government said the status will contribute to improving the credibility of investments in Romania by U.S. companies. Finance Minister Mihai Tanasescu said Romania will do all in its power to receive the same status from the EU in the union's October 2003 report on the progress of EU-candidate countries. MS

ROMANIAN RULING PARTY BEATS CYNICISM RECORD
Parliamentarians representing the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) on 10 March announced they intend to participate in the "human chain" protest demonstration against the intention to dismiss the College of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (CNSAS), RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003). The proposal to dismiss the college was initiated by PSD Senator Ion Predescu, head of the ad hoc commission that investigated the conflict in the CNSAS. The daily "Romania libera" on 11 March described the announcement as "an epitome of cynicism." In a similar gesture, PSD parliamentary group leader in the Senate Ion Solcanu on 10 March proposed that former National Party Christian Democratic Senator Constantin Ticu Dumitrescu be "co-opted" into the CNSAS College after its reshuffle. Dumitrescu initiated the law on setting up the CNSAS and has repeatedly protested against amendments introduced to his bill that would make access to information more difficult and leave custody of communist-era Securitate files in the hands of the Romanian Intelligence Service. Dumitrescu said in reaction to Solcanu's proposal that he has not been officially or unofficially approached, and will react if and when the proposal is made. MS

ROMANIAN SENATE REJECTS MOTION TO DEBATE 'ABANDONMENT OF PENSIONERS'
The Senate on 10 March rejected a motion moved by opposition parties to debate the situation pensioners face as a result of their "abandonment by the government," Mediafax reported. The initiators of the motion came from all opposition parties -- the Greater Romania Party, the National Liberal Party, and the Democratic Party. The vote was 75 against to 54 in favor, with two abstentions. MS

BISHOP TOEKES ANNOUNCES FORTHCOMING 'HUNGARIAN COMMUNITY SELF-MANAGEMENT' IN ROMANIA
Reformed Bishop Laszlo Toekes on 10 March announced in Cluj the setting up of the "Self-Administration of the Hungarian Community in Romania," Mediafax reported. Toekes said the body will function as "an internal parliament of the Hungarian [minority]" and will be officially set up on 14 March at a gathering in Cluj that he called "the March Forum." Toekes said the new organization will not be directed against the activities of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), being rather "complementary and converging" with those activities. The aim is not to split the UDMR, he said, adding, "We want the same things that the UDMR wants." He also said he does not intend to resign from the UDMR, of which he was honorary chairman until recently. MS

MOLDOVA, ROMANIA HOLD CONSULTATIONS IN CHISINAU
Experts from the Moldovan and Romanian Foreign Ministries held consultations in Chisinau on 10 March, ITAR-TASS reported. The talks were conducted in line with an agreement reached between the two countries' presidents, Vladimir Voronin and Ion Iliescu, at a meeting in Beirut last year in which they agreed resolve differences and renew cooperation at the bilateral level and in international organizations. The experts discussed ways to improve the political dialogue between the two states and of reinvigorating trade and economic cooperation, as well as cooperation within the Balkan Stability Pact. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH COUNCIL OF EUROPE RAPPORTEURS
President Voronin on 10 March met in Chisinau with the two Council of Europe rapporteurs on Moldova, Josette Durrieu and Lauri Vahtre, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Voronin emphasized the importance with which Moldova views its taking over of the chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers in May 2003, and said his country is ready to implement all the recommendations of the council's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). He said the recently passed legislation on Teleradio Moldova will not be promulgated before it is amended to satisfy all PACE recommendations. Voronin also said he intends to personally participate in the debates with the opposition held within the framework of the Permanent Roundtable, which was set up in line with the PACE recommendations of April and September 2002. Durrieu said the Moldovan authorities have implemented most of the PACE recommendations and expressed the hope that all the recommendations will be put into practice before Moldova takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers. MS

BULGARIA PLEDGES SUPPORT FOR DRAFT UN SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION
Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Petkov said after a special cabinet session on 10 March that Bulgaria, which is a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, will back the draft Security Council resolution on Iraq cosponsored by the United States, Britain, and Spain, according to the government's official website. Petkov said the government supports the draft resolution because "the resolution follows on from [Security Council] Resolution 1441 and it represents a form of pressure by the Security Council on the Baghdad regime to respect Resolution 1441." With this statement, the Bulgarian government for the first time clearly stated its support for the draft resolution. However, Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said in Brussels on 10 March that Bulgaria will try to "reach consensus inside the European Union first of all and then consensus in the Security Council itself," AFP reported. "If, in the meantime, there are new proposals that might create this consensus we will certainly support them," he added. UB

BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT CRITICIZES OPPOSITION'S STANCE ON IRAQ
Foreign Minister Pasi reiterated on 10 March that the government's position on Iraq is in line with the 7 February parliamentary decision to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis, mediapool.bg reported. Pasi's statement came in response to the accusation leveled by opposition Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev on 9 March that Pasi is conducting an independent foreign policy that runs counter to the parliamentary decision. Stanishev also criticized Bulgaria's Ambassador to the UN Stefan Tafrov, who has openly supported the draft Security Council resolution on Iraq cosponsored by the United States, Britain, and Spain. Pasi said in defense of Tafrov's statement that a new UN Security Council resolution would be a good way to exert pressure on the regime in Baghdad to disarm. UB

BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS OPPOSITION IS BEHIND PROTESTS AGAINST U.S. MILITARY BASE
Foreign Minister Pasi on 9 March accused the opposition BSP of orchestrating protests against the stationing of U.S. military aircraft at the Sarafovo air base in eastern Bulgaria, mediapool.bg reported. Women from a housing area neighboring the air base staged a peaceful protest on 8 March. Alluding to protests against the destruction of Bulgaria's stock of Soviet-built SS-23 missiles last year, Pasi said, "Those who inspired the protests against the missile destruction should apologize and not organize protests against nonexistent threats." However, Liliya Resel, who organized the protests in Sarafovo, replied that it was up to Pasi to apologize. "In the name of all women from Sarafovo, I declare that [Foreign Minister] Pasi is lying. He has never promised his electorate to turn Sarafovo into a military base. Who would have otherwise voted for him? Solomon Pasi must apologize before all Bulgarians for calling our peaceful protest politically motivated," the daily "Sega" quoted Resel as saying on 11 March. UB

BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT NAMES WINNER IN BULGARTABAC TENDER
The government on 10 March named the consortium Tobacco Capital Partners, which is backed by Deutsche Bank, as the successful bidder for the state-owned Bulgartabac tobacco monopoly, mediapool.bg reported. The government's decision must now be approved by the parliament. The Bulgartabac privatization was stopped by the Supreme Administrative Court last fall after competitors challenged the Privatization Agency's initial decision naming Tobacco Capital Partners the winner of the tender. With its decision, the government for the first time applied new privatization rules outlined in controversial amendments to the Privatization Act. The amendments are currently being reviewed by the Constitutional Court following an appeal by the largest opposition parties, but any decision of the court will not have a retroactive effect (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September and 30 October 2002, and 5 March 2003). UB

THEATER FOR TURKISH MINORITY TO BE REOPENED IN BULGARIA
The Culture Ministry announced on 8 March that the state-run Turkish Theater in the southeast Bulgarian town of Kardzhali will reopen after being closed for nearly 20 years, BTA reported. The theater will stage Turkish- and Bulgarian-language plays. The ministry also plans to reopen a second Turkish-language theater in Ruse in northeastern Bulgaria. Both theaters were closed on the eve of the forceful assimilation campaign carried out by the Communist Party in the mid-1980s. UB

TRANS-AFGHAN PIPELINE: LOOKING TO THE FUTURE WITH LESSONS FROM THE PAST
The death of Afghan Mines and Industry Minister Joma Mohammad Mohammadi in a plane crash in Pakistan on 24 February will not stop the proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline that is planned for the transport of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, an Afghan government official said the day after the minister's death.

Mohammadi was in Pakistan for meetings regarding the proposed pipeline project, which is known both as the trans-Afghan pipeline project and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Natural-Gas Pipeline Project (TAP).

The TAP project is a $3.45 billion undertaking designed to transport natural gas from the Dawlatabad field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then eventually, if the political climate between Islamabad and New Delhi permits, to India. The initial phase of the project, excluding the pipeline's possible extension to India, would involve the construction of a pipeline about 1,700 kilometers in length that can transport up to 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually.

Last May, the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan announced that a partnership to implement the project had been formed and that a steering committee had also been created to coordinate the TAP project. That committee met last June and September and again in February.

The three countries requested in July 2002 that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) develop a feasibility study for the project, which was completed in December. The study highlights five issues that are deemed crucial for the implementation of the TAP project: (1) confirming that a market for gas exists in both Pakistan and India, as well as confirming that potential buyers exist; (2) asserting that the Dawlatabad fields can yield gas for 25-30 years at the rate envisaged by the project; (3) addressing concerns that India and Pakistan might have regarding the possible disruption of gas transit due to a deterioration of security or the political climate between the two; (4) determining that it is technically possible to lay the pipeline; and (5) finally, generating interest among international oil-and-gas companies to take the lead in ensuring that the pipeline is built in a cost-efficient and timely manner.

People familiar with the ADB's work on the TAP project have said that unless India agrees to join in, the project will not be economically viable. Pakistan alone is not a sufficiently large market for Turkmen natural gas, and Afghanistan at present is not a significant consumer of natural gas.

The ADB feasibility report does not, however, address the political and security problems facing the project in Afghanistan. The first concern is whether the central government in Kabul can extend its rule over the entire country and negotiate as the government of Afghanistan with potential interlocutors involved with the TAP project.

The current political arrangement in Kabul is due to give way by June 2004 to a government elected under a new constitution and supported by a nascent national military force. It is not clear what form of political arrangement the new Afghan constitution, currently in the drafting phase, will envisage for the country. Some of the regional leaders, or warlords, whose territories the proposed pipeline would cross are in favor of a loose "federal" system that would allow them to remain virtually independent from Kabul. If the new constitution proposes a centralized state, the test will be the dismantling of the regional armies and finding a solution to ending the prevailing power of the warlords themselves. Otherwise, the warlords will see the pipeline as a way to enrich themselves and thus enhance their power. If such efforts on the part of the warlords fail, they might seek to undermine the entire project by disrupting the flow of gas, which is the second point of concern.

The TAP project is not the first attempt to lay a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. The first entity to do so was the Argentine oil company Bridas, which won exploration rights to Turkmen gas fields in 1992 and thought of transporting the gas to Pakistan and eventually to India. The plan was stalled, however, since Afghanistan was embroiled in a bloody civil war and the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul was at odds with Islamabad.

In 1994, the Taliban, almost out of nowhere, appeared on the Afghan political scene and captured Kandahar. They went on to take control of most of western Afghanistan -- the planned route for the Bridas pipeline -- by 1995. This prompted Islamabad and Ashgabat to agree with Bridas to study the possibility of laying their proposed pipeline without negotiations with, or the consent of, the authorities in Kabul. Bridas presumably was aware that Islamabad had very close relations with the Taliban and that it could negotiate on their behalf. As for the government in Kabul, the calculations must have been that the Taliban would prevail throughout the country, or at least hold on to the western sections of Afghanistan, thus guaranteeing the pipeline plan.

Later that year, a consortium led by the U.S. oil company Unocal and the Saudi Arabian company Delta Oil joined the pipeline scene, winning the favor of the Turkmen president. Bridas, feeling betrayed, went on to negotiate and sign a deal directly with Rabbani, who controlled none of the territory over which the pipeline was to be laid. While engaged in a legal dispute in the United States, the two competing consortiums continued to court various Afghan warlords or would-be warlords, who often signed deals with both companies and benefited from "signing bonuses."

This fiasco, which prolonged the civil war and aided the fragmentation of Afghanistan, also helped the Taliban rise to power, as they were regarded -- both inside and outside the country -- as providers of security. Regardless of exactly who the Taliban were, what policies they promoted at home, or who their supporters were, all that seemed to matter was the security of the pipeline. This situation, however, proved to be illusory, and all involved lost out.

Unocal and its partners eventually withdrew from the pipeline project because of strong pressure from human rights groups, especially women's rights groups, in the United States. Appalled by the Taliban's policies on women and the increasing terrorist activities of Al-Qaeda, whose leader Osama bin Laden was a "special guest" of the Taliban, these groups threatened to organize a boycott of Unocal and brought bad press to the company.

The merits of the new TAP project include its transparency and the fact that it deals only with the governments of the three principal countries. The involvement of the ADB is also a welcome step. While much has changed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the state of affairs in that country remains fragile. Lessons from the 1990s ought to serve as a reminder to all involved that a legitimate and internationally recognized state should precede any plans to construct pipelines.

If the TAP project proceeds as planned -- and if the Afghan state stabilizes -- the opportunities are enormous, not only for Afghanistan itself, but also for Central and South Asia, which can be brought together through economic connectivity and interdependence.

NEW POLITICAL PARTY FORMED IN AFGHANISTAN
A new political party calling itself the National Democratic Front (NDF) was formed in Kabul on 10 March, Radio Afghanistan reported. The NDF will reportedly seek to "participate in the political sphere of Afghanistan as a political party in the future," but will serve as a council for the time being. An unidentified NDF member said the party's aim is to "implement democracy in Afghanistan in its true sense." According to a 7 March report by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), the NDF is the brainchild of "liberal-minded intellectuals [who] have grown worried about the influence of extremists in President Hamid Karzai's transitional government, detecting their hand behind moves to ban cable TV, plus local-level prohibitions on women singing and being taught by men." The United Nations, a number of Western governments, and the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization National Democratic Institute for International Affairs assisted in the formation of the NDF, according to the IWPR. The NDF's platform is the establishment of "equal rights for men and women; separation of military and civilian authority; freedom of speech and religion; a campaign against drugs and terrorism; the creation of a tribunal for trying war crimes; and the building of a civil society." Members of NDF "have already suffered intimidation from extremist organizations," the IWPR report added. Afghanistan does not have legislation on political parties but a committee is discussing the draft of such a law (for analysis of Afghan political parties, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 13 March 2003). AT

AFGHAN DEFENSE MINISTER STATES SUPPORT FOR DIPLOMATIC SOLUTION TO IRAQ CRISIS
Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim said on 10 March upon his return from an official trip to the United States that "diplomacy is the best solution to the Iraq crisis," Iranian state radio's Dari service reported from Kabul. However, Fahim said he did not discuss the Iraq issue with the U.S. officials he met with during his trip, the report added. The report commented that President Hamid Karzai has also stressed that war in Iraq should be prevented. AT

AFGHANISTAN RATIFIES CONVENTION ON WOMEN
Afghanistan on 5 March ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, according to a UN statement obtained by "RFE/RL Newsline." "The convention will enter into force in Afghanistan on 4 April 2003," the statement read. The country's entry into the convention is seen as an illustration of Transitional Administration's intention of safeguarding women's rights and also allows women to use provisions of the convention to protect themselves from discrimination. AT

NEW RADIO OF WOMEN IN BALKH
A radio station staffed by women and intended for a female audience was launched in Mazar-e Sharif on 9 March, Balkh Television reported. The ceremony was presided over by Mohammad Abdu, the head of Balkh Province's Information and Culture department, and a representative of Ampex Corporation of Canada, which provided funding for the station, Balkh Television reported. The new 50-kilowatt FM radio station, named Rabia Balkhi, will broadcast two hours of programs per day, the report added. A similar radio was inaugurated in Kabul on 8 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003). AT

AFGHAN POLICEMAN IMMOLATES SELF
A police officer from Khost Province immolated himself on 7 March, reportedly because of poverty and his inability to provide for his family, the Kabul daily "Arman-e Melli" reported on 10 March. The report did not mention whether the policeman survived. AT

AVALANCHE CLAIMS LIVES IN BADAKHSHAN PROVINCE
Six people and hundreds of livestock were reported killed by avalanches in northeastern Badakhshan Province, Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported on 11 March. Twenty-five homes were reportedly destroyed by heavy snowfall in the area. AT

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ARRIVES IN TEHRAN
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov arrived in Tehran on 10 March and will stay until 12 March before heading for Kabul, ITAR-TASS and IRNA reported. Ivanov is scheduled to meet with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi, President Mohammad Khatami, Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and other officials. One of the subjects of discussion will be the continuing threat to Afghan stability from Taliban and Al-Qaeda supporters, and the two sides' mutual agreement on the need to support the Afghan Transitional Administration. The two sides also will discuss the Iraq crisis and Palestinian issues. Ivanov said at an 11 March news conference that Russia will veto the draft Security Council resolution cosponsored by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain, IRNA reported. "Russia will not succumb to the American pressure and will veto the new UN Security Council resolution," he said. BS

TEHRAN DEFENDS ITS NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher during a 10 March press briefing rejected Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, according to the official State department website (http://www.usinfo.state.gov). Boucher said Iranian nuclear-research activities are being used as a cover for a program that can produce weapons. "I would say there is no economic justification for a state that is so rich in oil and gas, like Iran, to build these hugely expensive nuclear fuel-cycle facilities," Boucher said. "Iran flares off more gas every year than they would ever get from these reactors that they're talking about building," he added. Earlier in the day Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi rejected U.S. allegations regarding its nuclear program, IRNA reported. Assefi said the United States is trying to obstruct Iranian cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and he added that the peaceful use of atomic energy is a legitimate Iranian right in its quest for economic development. BS

RESTRICTIONS ON MONTAZERI CONTINUE IN IRAN
Ahmad Montazeri, son of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, has issued a statement explaining that his father's house arrest has not been lifted completely, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on 10 March. He said recent remarks by Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi were incorrect in announcing the total lifting of the ayatollah's house arrest. The son's statement, ISNA reported, indicated that Montazeri is still prohibited from entering the mosque where he taught, a number of his bank accounts remain frozen, and he is banned from entering his house and office in Mashhad. SF

IRANIAN STUDENTS IN DETENTION
Ten reformist student activists remain in jail on political charges, the Tehran municipality's daily "Hamshahri" reported on 9 March, quoting unnamed student sources. The paper the same day also reported remarks by Deputy Higher Education Minister Gholam-Reza Zarifian, who said there are no student political prisoners. He dismissed charges that students are being exiled for political reasons, but said that there were two recent cases of university students who were feeling "insecure" in the towns where they were studying, and so the authorities helped them to move elsewhere. SF

IRANIAN HUMAN-SHIELD HOPEFULS
A group of Iranian poets and artists has asked Iranian officials for permission to cross into Iraq to act as human shields, IRNA reported on 10 March, citing the new reformist daily "Nasim-i Saba." They intend to leave Iran on 25 March and hope to protect Shia shrines in Karbala from a possible U.S.-led attack. The report did not indicate the response of Iranian officials. Last month Iran, citing security concerns, announced that its border with Iraq would be closed to pilgrims hoping to visit Iraq's Shia sites. SF

TEHRAN-WASHINGTON DEAL ON IRAQ
An anonymous source said Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, who was in Iran to attend a conference of Iraqi Shia opposition groups, has convinced Tehran to cooperate with any possible U.S. campaign against the Iraqi regime, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 9 March. Chalabi did not have a specific message from the White House for his Iranian hosts, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported, but somehow he conveyed guarantees that Iran would not be threatened during or after any war and he also said Iran would receive assistance in establishing camps for Iraqis displaced by any war. What really persuaded the Iranians, however, was a guarantee that the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) would have a role in Iraq's future government, according to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." Iran agreed to help U.S. troops who wander across the border and to allow American search-and-rescue teams to help downed aviators and to recover their aircraft, according to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." BS

SCIRI LEADER: DISUNITY COULD LEAD TO U.S. GOVERNOR FOR IRAQ
SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim said on 8 March that if the Iraqi people and opposition groups fail to select a post-Saddam Hussein ruler for their country, "we would inevitably have a military ruler appointed by America imposed on us in Iraq," "Aftab-i Yazd" daily newspaper reported on 8 March. Al-Hakim said the post-Hussein government should be created on the bases of Islam, democracy, unity and territorial integrity, and respect for human rights. Al-Hakim said in a 7 March interview with Iranian state television that the objective of the Shia opposition conference that had just concluded was to show united opposition to the appointment of an American governor. Another aim was to demonstrate Iraqi Shia unity. Al-Hakim said the opposition groups are suspicious of U.S. objectives and do not believe that the United States cares about the Iraqi people. American objectives in Iraq, according to al-Hakim, are disarmament, controlling Iraqi oil and world energy markets, and elimination of a dictatorship. BS

SCIRI'S BADR CORPS VOWS TO RESIST U.S.
Zayd al-Husseini, commander of the SCIRI's armed wing known as the Badr Corps, promised to resist the appointment by Washington of a military governor for Iraq, London's "Al-Hayah" reported on 10 March. If Washington "insists on installing a military ruler, then the Iraqi people will resist it with all their power, even with war," he said. For the time being, the Badr Corps has suspended its military operations so it can avoid the appearance of cooperating with the United States. Al-Husseini said: "Our principled stand is not to cooperate at all with the U.S. forces. This is our vision of the present and coming stages.... We have our own plan." BS

U.S. UP IN ARMS OVER UNMOVIC ORAL REPORT
U.S. officials have expressed displeasure with UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) head Hans Blix's oral report to the UN Security Council on 7 March because Blix failed to mention the discovery of an undeclared drone in Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fox News on 9 March, "I think he [Blix] could have made more of the [Iraqi] deficiencies...within the cluster document, but I don't write his script." Blix mentioned the drone in a revised 7 March report to the Security Council. "Recent inspections have also revealed the existence of a drone with a wingspan of 7.45 meters that has not been declared by Iraq," Reuters quoted Blix's written report as stating. "Further investigation is required to establish the actual specifications and capabilities of these RPVs [remotely piloted vehicles] and whether Iraq has UAV/RPVs [UAVs are unmanned aerial vehicles] that exceed the 150-kilometer limit," the report added. UAVs and RPVs are not banned items in and of themselves. Rather, the UN holds them to the same criteria as missiles: They may not exceed 150 kilometers in range. Moreover, the council had demanded that Iraq declare all of its drones to inspectors. KR

U.S. SAYS IRAQI FAILURE TO DECLARE UAVS IS VIOLATION
U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte told reporters on 10 March that Iraq violated UN Security Council Resolution 1441 when it failed to declare the UAVs to UN inspectors. "Paragraph 3 of Resolution 1441 states very clearly that Iraq has an obligation to declare various types of vehicles and aircraft and so forth, including unmanned aerial vehicles of all types. The fact that this was not initially declared is another example of Iraq's failure to have told the truth with respect to its holdings when it submitted its declaration on the 7th of December," Negroponte said, according to the U.S. State Department's "Washington File" (http://usinfo.state.gov) the same day. Secretary of State Powell told the UN Security Council on 5 February that the United States observed an Iraqi test flight of a drone that flew 500 kilometers nonstop in a racetrack pattern. However, Blix noted in his report to the Security Council that UN inspectors are still investigating the matter. KR

IRAQ OIL FIELDS REPORTEDLY MINED?
Unidentified U.S. Defense Department officials have said Iraq has placed explosives around oil fields in Kirkuk and in southern Iraq, Reuters reported on 10 March. The officials said intelligence suggests that the movement of explosives is a recent occurrence, leaving another U.S. official to remark, "We certainly have very serious concerns about [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein setting fire to the oil fields," Reuters reported. "A variety of sources lead the [U.S. Defense] Department to believe that the regime has both the capability and the intent to damage or destroy Iraq's oil fields." Recent information revealed that Iraq has received 24 railroad boxcars full of pentolite explosives, a 6 March U.S. Defense Department briefing (http://www.defenselink.mil/news) stated, adding, "While destruction of the fields would not be a militarily significant act, it will produce economic and environmental impacts with lasting effects on the people of Iraq, as well as Iraq's neighbors." Kirkuk has 10 billion barrels of remaining proven oil reserves, and produces 1 million barrels per day, according to the Environmental News Service (http://www.ens-news.com). KR

U.S. HAS PLAN TO PROTECT OIL FIELDS; WHITE HOUSE QUIET
According to the Pentagon, the United States has a plan in place to thwart attempts by the Hussein regime to set Iraqi oil fields alight. "The [U.S. Defense] Department has crafted strategies that will allow U.S. forces to secure and protect the oil fields as rapidly as possible in order to preserve them prior to destruction. U.S. military forces would be responsible for securing and protecting the oil sites, and under appropriate contractual agreements, private-sector companies would extinguish any fires and assess damage to oil facilities," the 6 March press release stated. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters at a daily briefing on 10 March that he could not confirm reports that Iraq has placed explosives at the Kirkuk and southern sites, adding, "I'm not in a position to have evaluated them." Fleischer referred reporters to the Pentagon. KR

BULGARIA PLEDGES SUPPORT FOR DRAFT UN SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION
Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Petkov said after a special cabinet session on 10 March that Bulgaria, which is a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, will back the draft Security Council resolution on Iraq cosponsored by the United States, Britain, and Spain, according to the government's official website. Petkov said the government supports the draft resolution because "the resolution follows on from [Security Council] Resolution 1441 and it represents a form of pressure by the Security Council on the Baghdad regime to respect Resolution 1441." With this statement, the Bulgarian government for the first time clearly stated its support for the draft resolution. However, Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said in Brussels on 10 March that Bulgaria will try to "reach consensus inside the European Union first of all and then consensus in the Security Council itself," AFP reported. "If, in the meantime, there are new proposals that might create this consensus we will certainly support them," he added. UB

ROMANIA EXPELS FIVE IRAQI DIPLOMATS
Romania on 10 March announced it has expelled five Iraqi diplomats after an investigation determined that their actions were "incompatible" with their diplomatic status, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau and Reuters reported. The Foreign Ministry said in an official statement that Iraqi Ambassador to Romania Saad Hamid Majid was informed on 8 March that the presence of five members of the embassy staff had "become undesirable." The Foreign Ministry therefore asked that they leave Romania. Four of the diplomats and their families did so on 8 March and the fifth was already abroad when the decision was announced. Interior Minister Ioan Rus said on 10 March that a number of Iraqi citizens resident in Romania were detained that day and were to be expelled on 11 March. According to the private Antena 1 television channel, 11 Iraqis were to be deported on 11 March. Government sources cited by Reuters said Bucharest is among 60 capitals asked by the United States to find and expel Iraqi diplomats suspected of conducting intelligence activities. MS

THERE'S A HACKER AFOOT
A hacker appears to have broken into the website of the Iraq News Agency (http://www.uruklink.net/iraqnews/). Visitors to the site on 11 March who clicked on the link for the Iraq Satellite Channel Television were taken to an alternate site that features links to the U.S. White House website and to a site called "Muslims for Christ," as well as a link entitled "News from the Free World" that takes viewers to the Fox News Channel site. The main page of the site purports to welcome Iraqi viewers with assurances that "[God's] people in the promised land are coming to rescue you from your despair and anguish." The site encourages Iraqis to "Impeach Saddam Now" and "Vote Saddam Out of Office." KR

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