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Newsline - March 27, 2003


U.S. THREATENS SANCTIONS AGAINST RUSSIAN FIRMS
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told Interfax on 26 March that the United States might impose trade sanctions against Russian companies that Washington alleges supplied military equipment to Iraq in violation of UN-imposed sanctions. However, Vershbow said, Washington hopes that Russia will adopt the measures necessary to prevent the transfer of such equipment in the future. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 26 March warned that serious complications might arise in bilateral relations if Moscow fails to prevent the transfer of high-technology military equipment to Iraq, Western media reported. VY

MILITARY ANALYSTS CRITIQUE COALITION'S IRAQ CAMPAIGN TO DATE...
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow on 26 March that the Russian military has "carefully analyzed the situation in the [Iraqi] combat zone and has concluded that [the coalition campaign] has not proceeded as planned," nns.ru reported. Meanwhile, a panel of five retired senior military commanders -- former Soviet ground forces commander Army General Valentin Varennikov, former Deputy Defense Ministers Colonel General Georgii Kondratev and Colonel General Valerii Manilov, Academy of Military Sciences President General Makhmut Gareev, and Duma Defense Committee Deputy Chairman Colonel General Eduard Vorobev -- analyzed the difficulties faced by the U.S.-led coalition, RIA-Novosti reported on 26 March. The generals concluded, first, that the coalition seriously underestimated the ability and willingness of the Iraqi Army to resist. In addition, coalition planners relied too much their high-precision weaponry and neglected the basic techniques of close combat. Further, the coalition has had to cope with the extremely harsh climate and natural conditions of the desert environment. Finally, the generals pointed to the U.S. and British troops' lack of experience conducting large-scale ground combat operations and to a lack of coordination among members of the anti-Iraq coalition. They particularly noted Turkey's refusal to allow the coalition to open a second front in northern Iraq from its territory. VY

...AS EXPERTS ANALYZE WASHINGTON'S FAILURE TO WIN THE INFORMATION WAR
Participants in a roundtable discussion of the military campaign in Iraq broadcast on ORT on 26 March concluded that the United States so far has failed to win the "information war" against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in part because Iraqi "propagandists" have learned from their mistakes during the 1991 Gulf War. In addition, Iraq has enjoyed both covert and overt media and public support from Germany, France, Russia, and China, noted Major General Aleksandr Sharavin, director of the Moscow Institute of Military and Political Analysis. Moreover, political scientist Aleksandr Tsypko said the official line of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has come under strong partisan criticism from U.S. media outlets that he alleged are sympathetic to the Democratic Party. VY

EURASIA PARTY HEAD ISSUES ANTI-U.S. MANIFESTO...
Aleksandr Dugin, a controversial politician known for his staunchly anti-Western views, published in "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 25 March an essay noting that "nothing is as popular in Russia today as disliking America." Dugin argued that Russian conservatives hate the United States for its perceived liberalism and its "globalist" values. The Russian left hates the United States for being the bulwark of "world capitalism" and market economics. He noted that the left's hostility is not only a holdover from the Soviet era, but a reaction to Russia's botched economic reforms in the 1990s, which were actively supported by the United States. In general, Dugin argued, a majority of Russians hold anti-American sentiments and that is why "anti-Americanism could be a reliable platform for the consolidation of the entire Russian society." Dugin's essay was entitled "Why We Dislike the States," a clear reference to the well-known anti-Semitic pamphlet "Why We Dislike Them," which was published in the 1920s by Russian monarchist Vasilii Shulgin. VY

...AS ANTI-U.S. SENTIMENT EXTENDS TO CONSUMER GOODS
Some Russian businessmen and consumers are boycotting U.S. goods to protest the U.S.-U.K. military action in Iraq, Russian media reported on 26 March. In Nizhnii Novgorod, the owner of five grocery stores has stripped his shops of U.S. goods, including the famous "Bush legs," or chicken legs named after former U.S. President George Bush, "The Moscow Times" reported. In Yekaterinburg, Communist protestors threw chicken legs into a big garbage can and poured Coca-Cola on the ground while chanting anti-U.S. slogans, TVS reported. In Voronezh, some residents have protested not only against U.S. goods, but also against advertisements for them. Local Communist leaders and war veterans in Saratov Oblast and Mordovia also called for a boycott of U.S. goods, regions.ru reported. JAC

IRAQ COULD BECOME AN ELECTION ISSUE
Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Igrunov (Yabloko) said the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq might become an important issue in the campaign for the December Duma elections, strana.ru reported on 26 March. The war has brought the discussion of issues such as Russia's role in the international arena and what kind of "new world order" it should strive for into sharp focus, Igrunov said. During the campaign, he predicted, parties will be divided into a pro-Western minority who would preserve the status quo and the "statists" who would increase Russia's role in international affairs. The latter, he said, will prevail over the former, and this will be beneficial to President Vladimir Putin because his middle-of-the-road stance is attractive to both moderate nationalists and to the electorate that is concerned primarily with social issues. However, the economic fallout of the Iraq war might cause problems for Putin with the left-leaning part of his political support, Igrunov added. VY

NEWSPAPER REPORTS DUMA CANDIDATES ALREADY BUYING SPOTS ON PARTY LISTS
Buying places on the party lists for the December State Duma election "has become commonplace," "Izvestiya" reported on 26 March. The daily noted that one member of the Unity faction, when asked why he hadn't follow his faction's dictates on a recent vote, commented that he "paid good money to sit here and push the button." Experts declined to specify any prices for seats this election season, according to the daily, but obtaining a spot on Unified Russia's party list is considered particularly difficult. An unidentified high-level source told the newspaper that "the Kremlin controls the situation completely -- only it can put in or filter out a candidate." The newspaper also reported that, unofficially, party leaders admit that some 20-30 members of the current Unity and Fatherland-All Russia factions will have to be cut from Unified Russia's list. However, election experts believe that, overall, around two-thirds of current Duma members will be re-elected. JAC

BIG BUSINESS SEEKS MORE OBEDIENT LEGISLATORS
Federation Council Industrial Policy Committee Chairman Valentin Zavadnikov told "Izvestiya" that Russia's business sector will be more involved in this year's election than in the last one. "Big business expected more honest terms for their activities from the authorities," he said. "Big business will undoubtedly try to have a more substantial influence over the legislative process." Zavadnikov is a former deputy head of Unified Energy Systems. He added that people will enter the new Duma who are "not only able to vote obediently, but also have the ability to put forward a definite position." JAC

ELECTION TSAR WINS UNCONTESTED RACE
Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov was re-elected to another term as head of the commission on 26 March, Russian media reported. Veshnyakov was the only candidate considered and was re-elected unanimously, RIA-Novosti reported. Oleg Belyashev was selected as deputy chairman. Most recently, Belyashev served as head of the commission's legal directorate. A few days before the election, Yelena Dubrovina, a former member of the commission, noted that there would not be any opposition to Veshnyakov, and commented that "this violates the principles of democracy, when a collegial organ is ruled by one opinion," polit.ru reported. JAC

STRICT ELECTION LAW LEADS TO LITTLE PRESS COVERAGE IN ONE LOCALITY...
Elections for the Rostov Oblast legislature will be held on 30 March, but little has been written or broadcast about the race by local mass media outlets because of a strict local law on elections, RFE/RL's Rostov correspondent reported on 6 March. The law forbids the "creation of a positive or negative attitude of the electorate toward a candidate." According to the correspondent, there has also been little paid political advertising. On 21 March, the State Duma passed in its first reading a bill amending several laws that would increase restrictions of media coverage of elections (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 27 March 2003). JAC

...AS ELECTIONS IN NAME ONLY ARE BECOMING THE NORM
As of early March, the Rostov Oblast campaign appeared to be following a pattern established by previous local races, with well-known candidates facing little competition, the RFE/RL correspondent reported. For example, in a city election in 2000, the deputy mayor of Rostov-na-Donu competed against a mild-mannered Chechen businessman, and everyone understood how that race would be decided. In 2001, incumbent Governor Vladimir Chub faced a single opponent, an obscure regional official, while the head of the local Communists was not allowed to participate in the race. In this year's race, there are only two candidates in 14 of the 45 districts, and in a number of these districts the "competitor" is a complete unknown. In addition, the oblast election commission declined to register any of 11 would-be candidates from the Communist Party. JAC

RUSSIA TO REESTABLISH DRIFTING ARCTIC RESEARCH STATION
Russia has decided to reestablish its drifting Arctic polar stations, which were discontinued after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ORT reported on 26 March. At the end of April, 12 Russian polar researchers will set up camp on an ice floe at a latitude of about 84 degrees north and will travel with the ice for several months. The expedition, called North Pole 32, will be the successor to 31 similar missions carried out during the Soviet era. However, in contrast to those missions, the latest rendition will be bankrolled by private companies that believe that satellite monitoring cannot fully substitute for on-the-spot research, ORT commented. VY

TAX MINISTER WANTS TO FIRE REGIONAL COUNTERPART
Tax Minister Gennadii Bukaev has asked the head of the Bashkir Administration of the Russian Tax Ministry, Reshit Sattarov, to either resign or be fired, regions.ru reported on 26 March, citing BashInform. Bukaev reportedly suspended Sattarov on 12 March for one month while an unspecified investigation is conducted. According to BashInform, which is sympathetic to the republican government, the republican Tax Ministry always fulfilled its monthly quotas for tax collections, and the volume of taxes contributed to the federal budget has risen from 5 billion rubles ($160 million) to 32 billion rubles over the last four years. "Novye izvestiya" reported in January that Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin appealed to President Putin to help in the government's months-long effort to wrest more taxes from businesses registered in the republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2003). JAC

DEMAND FOR U.S. BRIDEGROOMS SAGGING
Workers at a marriage agency in Sverdlovsk Oblast have noted a decline in the interest of local women in U.S. bridegrooms, Novyi region reported on 26 March. Valentina Polisyuk, proprietor of the International Friendship Society, attributes the decline not to recent U.S. foreign-policy moves, but to a visit by a group of U.S. men to Yekaterinburg last year. According to Polisyuk, many of her clients found the U.S. men to be "boring, cold martians with dead eyes." Another factor is a lack of accessibility. According to Polisyuk, Russian fiancees can get visas to Western and Eastern Europe more easily than to the United States or Australia, where the wait can be anywhere from six to nine months. JAC

DOUBTS CAST ON REPORTED CHECHEN REFERENDUM TURNOUT
Usam Baysaev of the Nazran chapter of the Russian human rights group Memorial told journalists on 25 March that no more than 10 percent of the Chechen population cast their ballots in the 23 March referendum on a new constitution and election laws, chechenpress.com reported on 26 March. He said he saw entire families and settlements boycott the referendum. Meanwhile, former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on 24 March that the high turnout figures claimed by pro-Moscow Chechen officials are the result of ballots cast by at least 120,000 Russian servicemen. The Defense Ministry claims the combined Russian troop presence in Chechnya is approximately 80,000. Interfax on 26 March quoted Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer as saying that it is now up to the Russian authorities to fulfill the promises it made prior to the referendum. Schwimmer offered the assistance of the Council of Europe in drafting a power-sharing treaty between Russia and Chechnya. LF

CHECHEN ADMINISTRATION HEAD CONFIRMS HE WILL RUN FOR PRESIDENCY
In a 26 March interview with Ekho Moskvy, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov again affirmed that if he is still alive in December, he will run for the post of Chechen president, Russian media reported. He also again argued that the power-sharing treaty should include special economic and tax privileges for Chechnya, arguing that "if annual allocations to Chechnya [from the central budget] remain at the current level of 3-4 billion rubles ($95.6 million-$127.5 million), we shall not manage to restore Chechnya in 100 years." Kadyrov said the continued abductions of Chechen civilians by Russian forces constitute "a serious problem," and that he will insist on the withdrawal of "excessive" Russian troops, Interfax reported. In a 21 March interview with "Kommersant-Daily" reported on chechenpress.com, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov affirmed that the Chechen parliament elected in 1997 has extended his presidential powers until such time as it is possible to hold new elections in accordance with the constitution adopted in 1992, and that he therefore remains the legitimate president. LF

FIFTH GROZNY BOMBING SUSPECT ARRESTED
A fifth person has been arrested in connection with the 27 December car-bomb attack on the Chechen government building in Grozny in which more than 70 people died, Interfax reported on 26 March, quoting Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii. Three more people are wanted in connection with the attack, including Chechen radical field commander Shamil Basaev, who last month claimed to have organized it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February and 20 March 2003). LF

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT BEGINS DEBATING CONTROVERSIAL MEDIA BILL
Deputies began debating a new draft media bill on 26 March as some 30 journalists picketed the parliament building to focus attention on the bill's perceived shortcomings, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The bill was amended last year in response to criticism both within Armenia and from international organizations (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 February 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2002). Several controversial provisions were removed, including one that would have created a special government agency empowered to issue and revoke licenses for media outlets. Two of parliament's standing committees have refused to endorse the new draft. Sergo Yeritsian of the Science, Education, Culture, and Youth Affairs Committee argued that it contains inaccuracies and contradicts the law on television and radio and the law on freedom of information, according to Noyan Tapan. LF

ARMENIAN PROSECUTOR SAYS 'NEW CIRCUMSTANCES' SHED LIGHT ON TV CHIEF'S KILLING
The daily "Hayots ashkhar" on 26 March quoted Prosecutor-General Aram Tamazian as saying that "new circumstances" have come to light in the ongoing investigation into the 28 December killing of Public Television and Radio head Tigran Naghdalian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Tamazian declined to elaborate and said he cannot predict how much longer the investigation will last. In an interview with the same paper the previous day, Tamazian promised that the trial of businessman Armen Sargsian, who is accused of commissioning Naghdalian's killing, will be fair and open. Armen Sargsian is the brother of former Prime Ministers Vazgen and Aram Sargsian. Tamazian dismissed Aram Sargsian's claim that his brother's arrest was politically motivated. LF

AZERBAIJAN, IRAN TO EXPAND COOPERATION IN ENERGY SECTOR
Following negotiations in Tehran, officials from Azerbaijan's state-owned energy company Azenergo and Iran's Tavanir have signed an agreement on building a second power line to enable Iran to increase electricity supplies to Azerbaijan's exclave of Nakhichevan, Caucasus Press reported on 26 March. At present, Nakhichevan's energy consumption is 130-150 megawatts, of which 70-80 megawatts is supplied by Iran through the Imishly-Parsabad power line. LF

GEORGIA, RUSSIA AGREE ON MILITARY WAGE PAYMENTS
Georgian National Bank Chairman Irakli Managadze and Russian Deputy Central Bank Chairman Oleg Mozhaiskii signed an agreement in Tbilisi on 24 March under which personnel at the Russian military bases in Akhalkalaki and Batumi will receive their salaries in Georgian laris, rather than Russian rubles beginning next month, Caucasus Press reported. The total sum involved is some 15 million laris ($6.89 million). Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze hailed the agreement on 26 March, expressing the hope that it will contribute to an improvement in bilateral relations. Also on 26 March, Georgian Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze traveled to Akhaltsikhe Raion, which borders on Akhalkalaki, for talks with regional Governor Teimuraz Mosiashvili. The predominantly Armenian population of Akhalkalaki, many of whom are employed at the Russian base, has for years used the ruble as the local currency. LF

BORDER DEPARTMENT DENIES IRAQI REFUGEES HAVE ARRIVED IN GEORGIA
Georgian State Border Department spokesman Shalva Londaridze denied on 26 March that any refugees from Iraq have entered Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. Earlier that day, opposition parliament deputy Djemal Gogitidze (Revival Union) demanded that law enforcement agencies verify unconfirmed reports that several hundred refugees from Iraq had settled in Georgia's Kaspi Raion. Opposition Democrats faction head Giorgi Baramidze commented that refugees are unlikely to head for a country "where there is no electricity or heat," Caucasus Press reported. LF

UN ENVOY BRIEFED ON GEORGIAN-RUSSIAN TALKS
Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin met in Moscow on 26 March with UN Special Envoy for Abkhazia Heidi Tagliavini, whom he briefed on the talks in Sochi earlier this month between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. In a joint statement, Loshchinin and Tagliavini expressed support for the confidence-building measures agreed upon at the Sochi talks, which include the resumption of rail communication between Sochi and Tbilisi, reconstruction of the Inguri hydroelectric-power station, and the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia. The UN will continue its efforts to mediate a political solution to the conflict. LF

KAZAKH COURT CONVICTS TWO IN NEWSPAPER ARSON CASE
Almaty's Medeu Raion Court has sentenced two unemployed men to three years' imprisonment for their role in setting fire to the offices of the independent newspaper "Delovoe obozrenie respublika" in March 2002, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 26 March. Meierbek Uristinbekov and Muhitdin Abdualiev must also pay court costs and compensation to Muratbek Ketebaev, a founder of the consulting firm that published the newspaper. The court asserted that the arsonists were paid to set the fire by "a person resembling Ketebaev." A separate case has been opened against the alleged contractor of the arson attack. The international human rights community and foreign observers of the media scene in Kazakhstan have pointed to the "Delovoe obozrenie respublika" case as evidence of the harassment of the country's independent and opposition media, implying that the authorities might have been involved in the attack. BB

FREEDOM HOUSE FINANCES INDEPENDENT PUBLISHING HOUSE IN KYRGYZSTAN
Freedom House, a private U.S. organization promoting democracy around the world, has allocated $800,000 to Kyrgyzstan to finance the construction of an independent publishing house, khabar.uz reported on 26 March. This project is part of a large civil-society program that is also being funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The lack of an independent publishing house able to print newspapers has enabled the authorities to interfere with opposition publications by refusing them access to the presses and printing supplies of the state publishing house. BB

KYRGYZ ISLAMISTS REPORTED READY TO FIGHT FOR IRAQ
Islamists in southern Kyrgyzstan are paying increased attention to broadcast news from Iraq and are volunteering to fight for Baghdad, akipress.org reported on 26 March. More than 1,000 people -- mostly believed to be adherents of the banned Muslim extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir -- from the Osh and Djalal-Abad oblasts of southern Kyrgyzstan would go to Iraq if they could find a way of doing so. Both regions are overwhelmingly Muslim. The report asserted that on the day that military operations started in Iraq, Hizb ut-Tahrir members in the south began circulating leaflets calling on Muslims to fight against the "infidels." BB

TAJIK PRESIDENT CALLS FOR END TO WAR IN IRAQ
Imomali Rakhmonov, speaking to journalists on 26 March after meetings in Brussels with European Commission President Romano Prodi and NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, called for an immediate end to hostilities in Iraq, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Rakhmonov agreed with Prodi that continued military action in Iraq will result in a humanitarian crisis in the region. Rakhmonov is visiting several European countries and institutions seeking assistance and investment. BB

TAJIK ISLAMIC PARTY LEADER REJECTS JIHAD
Said Abdullo Nuri, head of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, told a press conference in Dushanbe on 26 March that he believes the war in Iraq will harm Tajikistan, but his party does not support calls by religious leaders in some countries for jihad or an economic boycott against the United States and Great Britain, Deutsche Welle reported on 27 March. Nuri said his main concern is that a lengthy war in Iraq will weaken international control of the situation in Afghanistan. If that happens, instability in that country could spill over into Tajikistan, because the extremist forces that have penetrated into Tajik territory in the past are still present in Afghanistan. BB

UN SAYS TAJIKISTAN TOPS CIS IN DRUG SEIZURES
Tajikistan stands in first place among CIS states in terms of the amount of contraband drugs seized and in fourth place globally, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 March, quoting Antonella Deledda, the regional representative of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP). According to Deledda, more than 22 tons of drugs worth a total of $500 million have been seized in Tajikistan in the last three years. Speaking to a conference on drug trafficking in Dushanbe, she praised cooperation among Tajik law enforcement agencies, the Russian border guards who patrol the Tajik-Afghan border, and the authorities in Afghanistan. Deledda promised that her agency will significantly expand its financial assistance to countries that are serious about combating drug trafficking. BB

OSCE ENVOY URGES TAJIKISTAN TO ABOLISH DEATH PENALTY
Former Finnish President Marti Ahtisaari, who is the OSCE chairman-in-office's personal envoy for Central Asia, met in Dushanbe on 22 and 24 March with President Rakhmonov, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 25 March. Ahtisaari told Rakhmonov that the OSCE would welcome the imposition of a moratorium on the death penalty and its ultimate abolition, as well as the ratification by Tajikistan of the UN Convention Against Torture. Ahtisaari also met with the chairman of the upper chamber of parliament, Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev; with Islamic Renaissance Party Chairman Nuri; and with Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov, with whom he reviewed the new mandate of the OSCE office in Dushanbe. That mandate envisages greater emphasis on socioeconomic and ecological problems, according to Asia Plus-Blitz. LF

SEVEN STATES TAKE NEXT HURDLE FOR NATO MEMBERSHIP
Representatives of the 19 NATO member states on 26 March signed accession protocols for the seven states that received invitations for NATO membership at the alliance's Prague summit last November, according to NATO's official website (http://www.nato.int). The Protocols of Accession are amendments to the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO's founding document. The protocols, once ratified by the member states, will permit Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia to become parties to the treaty and members of NATO. In his speech, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson reminded the countries to vigorously pursue reform programs to ensure that they can make a meaningful contribution to the alliance. He concluded: "In a time when we are constantly reminded not to take our security for granted, today's ceremony is a significant and inspiring example that if we stand firm in defense of our values, we can genuinely change history -- for our countries, and for the Euro-Atlantic community that we are building together" (individual country reactions to the signing can be found below). UB

EUROPEAN COMMISSION RALLIES SUPPORT FOR ENLARGEMENT...
The European Commission (EC) on 26 March released a report on the expected enlargement of the EU, stressing that the benefits of enlargement far outweigh its costs, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels reported. The report -- prepared under the supervision of former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok and cosponsored by EC President Romano Prodi -- says EU expansion will benefit both current and future EU members. In presenting the report, Kok called the expansion the "fulfillment of a dream," which will "reunite the continent and make Europe whole and free, [and] at peace with itself." The report rejects predictions that the lifting of employment restrictions by current EU members will result in a massive inflow of immigrants from new member states. It also said enlargement will strengthen the fight against organized crime, help control illegal immigration, help protect the environment, advance higher nuclear safety standards, and improve food standards. MS

...AND SAYS IRAQ CRISIS DEMONSTRATES NEED FOR JOINT EU FOREIGN POLICY
The EC's report also insists on the need to enhance cooperation among EU members by dropping the so-called "national vetoes" in order to help forge joint policies, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels reported. In his presentation of the report, Kok said the Iraq crisis has highlighted the need for the EU to have a common policy and has shown the "urgent need" for Europe to be capable of "speaking with a single voice." EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said that after having held talks in capitals of future member states, he can give assurances that those states "do not want to contribute to divisions." He said the new members will "not allow themselves to be turned into instruments of splitting Europe into two [categories of] 'good' or 'bad' Europeans -- 'pro-American' or 'anti-American.'" Kok also said the enlargement process should continue after the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, and that membership prospects of the countries of the western Balkans need to be "more effectively" explained. MS

EIGHT JAILED FOR UNAUTHORIZED RALLY IN MINSK
A district court in Minsk on 26 March sentenced eight opposition activists to jail terms for their participation in an unauthorized demonstration the previous day to mark the 85th anniversary of the Belarusian Democratic Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003), Belapan reported. Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) leader Vintsuk Vyachorka and BNF activist Uladzimir Kishkurna were jailed for 10 and 15 days, respectively. Yauhen Afnahel, a coordinator of the opposition youth group Zubr, received 15 days, and Zubr activists Tatsyana Yalavaya, Zmitser Barodka, and Ihar Vinnikau got five days each. Youth Front activist Aleh Korban and Zubr activist Leanid Navitski, who were arrested shortly before the 25 March rally took place, were sentenced to five days in jail for "petty hooliganism." JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT TELLS RUSSIA WHAT TO DO ABOUT IRAQ WAR...
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in an interview with journalists from the Russian magazine "Nash sovremennik," on 26 March urged Russia to take a more active stance with regard to the Iraq war, Belarusian Television reported. "[The Iraq war] is a strike against Russia," Lukashenka said. "Therefore, Russia should be in the epicenter of all these events. Russia should conduct...feverish, fulminating diplomatic negotiations. Meetings should be held every day. Russia should seek to unite around herself all those who are still able to counteract this evil and violence." Lukashenka said the Iraq war "is only the beginning," warning that "Russia and all of us" could be burned down in the ensuing conflagration of the clash of civilizations. JM

...AND WHY FAIR INTEGRATION WITH BELARUS IS IMPORTANT
Lukashenka told the "Nash sovremennik" journalists that the Russian leadership is profoundly mistaken if it believes that Belarus has no other option than "crawling into Russia" or "remaining under Russia's foot," Belarusian Television reported. Lukashenka warned that if Russia refuses to integrate with Belarus on equal terms, Belarus might be quickly "picked up" by "you know who." And the Belarusian leader added: "Speaking about the European Union and its enlargement with some post-socialist and post-Soviet countries, the nearest country, from the viewpoint of EU entry, is Belarus. Belarus means order, manageability, transparent economy, the lack of all those criminal elements, etc. This is how the West assesses us. And our army is the most battle-worthy in the entire post-Soviet area. This is also the West's assessment." JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT PLEDGES HUMANITARIAN AID TO IRAQ...
President Leonid Kuchma told journalists in Kyiv on 26 March that Ukraine, "within the limits of its capabilities," will provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq, UNIAN reported. Kuchma also said Kyiv wants to participate in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, but added that he does not know whether Ukraine will be "allowed" to do so. JM

...URGES POLAND TO HELP CONSTRUCT OIL PIPELINE...
President Kuchma said the Odesa-Brody oil pipeline should be extended as soon as possible to the Polish port of Gdansk, UNIAN reported. He added that Poland, which has expressed interest in constructing this pipeline, has not been making any specific steps to this end. JM

...AND WANTS TESTS OF 'SIMPLY NONEXISTENT' MELNYCHENKO TAPES
President Kuchma also said that the secret audio recordings allegedly made in his office by his former bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko should be examined in Ukraine and in accordance with Ukrainian laws, UNIAN reported. At the same time, Kuchma stressed that the Melnychenko tapes are "simply nonexistent," adding that now this topic is of interest only for the "Ukrayinska pravda" website and the politicians who gravitate to it. JM

BALTIC STATES ATTEND SIGNING OF NATO-ACCESSION PROTOCOLS
Foreign Ministers Kristiina Ojuland (Estonia), Sandra Kalniete (Latvia), and Antanas Valionis (Lithuania) attended the signing of NATO's Protocols of Accession in Brussels on 26 March, BNS reported (see top Central and Eastern Europe item above). In her address after the signing, Ojuland called the expected accession of seven newcomers "a historic step for a Europe free, whole, and at peace," and affirmed that Estonia will stand by all its commitments to the alliance. Kalniete stressed that NATO membership will mean that Latvia "will never again have to stand alone" in threatening situations. Calling for the swift ratification of the accession protocols, she said Latvia is ready to be a trustworthy ally and to contribute to peace and stability. Valionis said Lithuania is prepared to contribute to Euro-Atlantic safety through political and military measures. SG

ESTONIAN PRIME MINISTER PLANS TO JOIN PARLIAMENT
Reform Party Chairman Siim Kallas said on 26 March that, if asked, he would not accept a ministerial post in the coalition government headed by Res Publica Chairman Juhan Parts, BNS reported. He explained that the work of a new prime minister would be made more difficult by the presence in his cabinet of his immediate predecessor, as there would be constant comparisons between the new and the old leader, and their different styles of management. "I'll be making my contribution to the success of the new government by doing my job in the parliament," Kallas said. It appears likely that he will be elected chairman of the Reform Party's faction in parliament and will not seek the chairmanship of any standing committee. SG

LATVIAN, RUSSIAN CAPITALS EXPAND COOPERATION IN SOCIAL ASSISTANCE
In Riga on 26 March, Riga City Council Social Issues Committee Chairman Leonids Kurdjumovs and Moscow Social Protection Department Chairman Igor Sirnikov signed a protocol on cooperation in the social-assistance sector, LETA reported. The protocol provides for the exchange of experience in the social protection of residents and the implementation of social-assistance programs for poor families with many children, single pensioners, and other needy people. It also envisages cooperation with nongovernmental organizations to establish nursing homes, children's homes, and summer camps for orphans, as well as holding seminars to instruct specialists and to exchange methodological literature. The two cities have previously signed agreements on cooperation in education, environmental protection, culture, tourism, and sports. SG

LITHUANIAN CUSTOMS DEPARTMENT DIRECTOR RESIGNS
Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite approved the resignation of Valerijonas Valickas as head of the Customs Department on 26 March, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. Valickas had served in the post since early 2000 and also led the department from 1990-92 following the restoration of independence. After meeting with Grybauskaite on 24 March, Valickas offered his resignation as of 31 March. Grybauskaite said they parted in a friendly manner, but had quite different opinions on the role of the Customs Department during its integration into the European Union. A month earlier, Grybauskaite had made far more critical comments about the department, saying its reorganization process was irrational and criticizing its failure to correct deficiencies that had been pointed out by the Finance Ministry and PHARE experts. SG

PREMIER SAYS PARTICIPATION OF POLISH TROOPS IN IRAQ IS JUSTIFIED
Premier Leszek Miller told the Sejm on 26 March that "Poland's participation in a military operation designed to disarm Iraq is justified and proper," PAP reported. "This is a requirement of allied solidarity," Miller added. During a debate that followed, the participation of Polish troops in the Iraq conflict on the U.S. side was criticized mainly by lawmakers from the League of Polish Families and from Self-Defense. The parliament voted 328-71 with 38 abstentions to accept Miller's report. JM

POLISH INFRASTRUCTURE MINISTER SURVIVES TWO NO-CONFIDENCE VOTES
The Sejm on 26 March rejected two no-confidence motions in Deputy Premier and Infrastructure Minister Marek Pol, one of which was submitted jointly by Self-Defense and the League of Polish Families and the other jointly by Civic Platform and Law and Justice, PAP reported. The former motion was supported by 211 lawmakers and the latter by 209 lawmakers; 231 votes were necessary to oust Pol from the cabinet. The opposition parties criticize Pol for his proposal to introduce a special road tax for the construction of new highways and for his recent gas-supply deal with Russia (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 18 March 2003). The same day, it became known that two lawmakers from the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) cheated during the no-confidence votes by voting for their two absent colleagues. The SLD caucus on 27 March expelled the four deputies concerned from its ranks. JM

KAVAN SAYS UN MUST PLAY FOREMOST ROLE IN IRAQ RECONSTRUCTION
UN General Assembly President Jan Kavan, who is a former Czech foreign minister, on 26 March said on the BBC's Czech service that the UN must play the foremost role in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, CTK reported. He said prerogatives in postwar Iraq must be divided between the UN and the occupying powers, and that reconstruction contracts must be negotiated and be placed under strict financial control. Presumably referring to the United States and Britain, Kavan said the UN will not agree to "accept any decision -- not to call it dictate -- by just two countries." Kavan also said the Iraq crisis has demonstrated once again that the UN Security Council must be reformed. He said he will ask UN members whether the reform should be decided by a two-thirds majority of the organization's members, rather than by the hitherto unanimous-decision requirement, which he said has made reform impossible. MS

FORMER CZECH PREMIER REITERATES CALL TO REPLACE SUCCESSOR AT HEAD OF CSSD
Former Prime Minister Milos Zeman said on 26 March that the political decline of the main ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) will not stop unless his successor, Vladimir Spidla, is replaced as CSSD chairman at the party's national conference scheduled for 28-30 March, CTK reported. Zeman, whose candidacy for president Spidla ostensibly refused to endorse, called for Spidla's replacement by CSSD Deputy Chairman and Labor and Social Affairs Minister Zdenek Skromach. Observers say Skromach is unlikely to challenge Spidla unless the premier fails to get the endorsement of a majority of delegates at the national conference. In that scenario, they say, the race could also be joined by CSSD Deputy Chairman and Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, whose popularity in the CSSD is very strong, and by CSSD Deputy Chairwoman Marie Souckova, who is also health minister. Reports in the media said Spidla intends to replace Souckova in the government after the national conference. MS

NEW PRAGUE OFFICE OF SUDETEN GERMANS FACES CRIMINAL CHARGES
The far-right extraparliamentary National Party on 26 March filed criminal charges against the recently inaugurated office representing the organization of ethnic Germans expelled under the Benes Decrees, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003). Party Chairman Pavel Sedlacek told the agency that the charges include treason, undermining the country's security, suppressing rights and freedoms, supporting fascism, and inciting racial and national hatred. The office's director, Petr Baritone, and the chairman of the organization, European Parliament deputy Bernd Posselt, refused to comment on the charges. MS

CZECH JUSTICE MINISTER GIVES GREEN LIGHT TO EXPULSION OF IRA TERRORIST SUSPECT
Justice Minister Pavel Rychetsky on 26 March gave court authorities permission to extradite suspected IRA terrorist Michael Dickson to Germany, CTK and international news agencies reported. Dickson is to face charges in Osnabrueck linked to a 1996 grenade attack on a British military barracks in that German city. He was arrested in Prague last December on an international warrant. Last month, a Prague court determined there was enough evidence to grant Germany's extradition request. Dickson is also wanted by the British authorities in connection with an attack on the British military's Thiepval Barracks in Northern Ireland and the attempted assassination of an IRA informer in 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2003). MS

SLOVAK FOREIGN MINISTER WELCOMES 'HISTORIC DAY' FOR HIS COUNTRY
Following the signing in Brussels of the NATO Protocols of Accession (see top Central and Eastern Europe item above), Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan called the day a "historic one" for his country, TASR and CTK reported. Kukan said Bratislava has received assurances from current NATO member states that there are no obstacles for their parliaments' ratification of the accession treaty. He said he understands NATO's decision to postpone for three months the participation of the future seven new members in all the debates of the organization's committees. Kukan said the cause of the postponement stemmed from concerns regarding the capability of some countries to protect classified information. He said this concern does not apply to Slovakia, but that NATO does not wish to differentiate among the likely new members. According to TASR, the concern applies in particular to Latvia and Bulgaria. Kukan also said that before actual NATO accession in the spring of 2004, Slovakia must intensify the reform of its armed forces and the fight against corruption, and accelerate the integration of the Romany minority. MS

FORMER SLOVAK INTERIOR MINISTER TO BE NEXT SIS DIRECTOR?
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has informed the ruling four-party center-right coalition leaders that he intends to propose former Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner for the post of Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS) director, TASR and CTK reported on 26 March. Pittner is currently chairman of the Confederation of Former Political Prisoners. The post is to become vacant at the end of March, after current SIS Director Vladimir Mitro submitted his resignation in the wake of several phone-tapping scandals and the appointment of Peter Toth as head of the SIS counterintelligence department (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12, and 13 March 2003). Pittner on 26 March told the daily "Narodna obroda" that he intends to accept the post only if the Coalition Council agrees to his ideas on how the SIS should be run. He said all former members of the Czechoslovak communist secret police will have to be dismissed and that the service should become more effective. He also said Toth will have to leave the SIS. MS

SLOVAK FINANCE MINISTRY REVEALS TAX-REFORM PLAN
The Finance Ministry on 26 March announced that it intends to introduce a wide-raging tax reform as of 1 January 2004, TASR reported. The ministry's plan envisages a flat income-tax rate of 20 percent for both companies and individuals. It also plans to abolish taxation on property, donations, and inherited real estate. The ministry said it wants to introduce a 20 percent value-added tax on all sales and to harmonize taxation rules with those of the EU upon joining that organization. MS

FORMER HUNGARIAN PREMIER WARY OF NEW U.S. POLICY...
Former Premier Viktor Orban said on Hungarian Radio on 26 March that with the "unilateral" action by the United States in Iraq, the world has stepped into a new era, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. He said the former "deterrence doctrine" has now been replaced by the concept of preemptive war. It remains to be seen, Orban added, whether this new world order will prove to be safer or less safe for Hungary. MS

...AND SUES JOURNALIST
On 26 March, Orban filed a lawsuit against journalist Laszlo Juszt, "Nepszabadsag" reported. The suit was filed one week after a court ruled against Juszt in a lawsuit brought by FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Laszlo Kover that obliged Juszt to issue an apology for having claimed that the FIDESZ official used pejorative terms in reference to Jews (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). In the same article, published in the daily "Nepszava" in October 2002, Juszt alleged that Orban has also used anti-Semitic language in public. The former premier's lawyers said the allegation has no basis, offends his dignity, and could damage Orban's reputation. Juszt's lawyer said the claim is based on facts and noted that Hungarian courts have yet to admonish anyone for using anti-Semitic language. MS

HUNGARIAN SUPREME COURT REJECTS EU REFERENDUM CHALLENGE
The Supreme Court on 26 March rejected the objections raised by the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) against the 12 April referendum on joining the EU, "Nepszabadsag" reported. MIEP claimed that the National Election Commission has not examined whether voters can provide an unequivocal answer to the referendum's question. The court ruled that the commission established that the question is in line with the constitutional stipulations on plebiscites and with current electoral legislation. MS

HUNGARY, DENMARK SEE EYE-TO-EYE ON STRONG EUROPE
Visiting Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his Hungarian counterpart Peter Medgyessy on 26 March told journalists that both their countries have a vested interest in seeing a strong Europe that is capable of making decisions and shaping the world, Hungarian media reported. Medgyessy stressed that the war in Iraq must not hinder the enlargement of the European Union. Both premiers emphasized the importance of Trans-Atlantic relations. They said that the so-called "letter of eight," which both signed in late January, did not divide Europe but, on the contrary, helped clarify different existing perspectives on the Iraq crisis. Rasmussen was also received by President Ferenc Madl, who thanked him for the efforts made during Denmark's EU Presidency last year toward the organization's expansion. MS

EU ISSUES REPORT CARD FOR WEST BALKAN COUNTRIES
European Commission President Romano Prodi said in Brussels on 26 March that EU enlargement "will only be complete" when Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro join that body, RFE/RL reported. He made his remarks to accompany the release of a report prepared by the commission. The report said there have been improvements in security, reconstruction, and the return of refugees in the five countries. But it also said more work needs to be done in fighting organized crime, poverty, and dependence on foreign aid. European External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said in the report that the EU will offer "all possible support" to help the countries move toward EU membership. But he said, "The key remains the political will of the region's administrations." The study noted that Macedonia needs to decentralize its administration and improve its economy, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported. The report added that the recent assassination of Serbian Prime Minster Zoran Djindjic served to show how delicate the political and economic reform process is there. The study also concluded that Bosnia has yet to show that it can survive as a state on its own. PM

MACEDONIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES EU MILITARY MISSION
On 26 March, the parliament approved the so-called SOFA agreement, which regulates the mandate of the projected EU military mission in Macedonia, Makfax news agency reported. Addressing the parliament, Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva said the 345-strong EU military mission will arrive in Macedonia on 31 March. "The [mission] will remain in Macedonia for six months. Once the mandate of the EU-led mission expires, I am confident that the country will no longer need a presence of foreign military forces," Mitreva added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 12, and 26 March 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 November 2002 and 17 January 2003). UB

ALBANIA AND BULGARIA AGREE ON INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS
On 26 March, Prime Minister Fatos Nano and his visiting Bulgarian counterpart Simeon Saxecoburggotski discussed a number of infrastructure projects, including the so-called pan-European transport Corridor No. 8, which runs from Brindisi (Italy), through Durres and Tirana (Albania), Skopje (Macedonia), and then into Bulgaria through Sofia, Plovdiv, and the Black Sea ports of Burgas and Varna, BTA reported. Nano and Saxecoburggotski also discussed an oil pipeline project between Burgas and the Adriatic port of Vlora. The two sides signed several agreements, including one on free trade. According to the Bulgarian Economy Ministry, bilateral trade in 2002 amounted to about $36 million, an increase of more than 35 percent compared to 2001. UB

CROATIAN POLLS SHOWS SUPPORT FOR WAR CRIMES TRIALS...
Some two-thirds of respondents said in a poll published by the Hina news agency that the government should continue cooperation with The Hague-based war crimes tribunal in close coordination with domestic courts, dpa reported from Zagreb on 27 March. Some 16 percent of respondents called for unconditional cooperation, while 14 percent opposed any form of work with the tribunal. PM

...AS AUTHORITIES GET TOUGH WITH PROTESTERS
The Interior Ministry said on 26 March that it will not tolerate further actions by veterans of the 1991-95 war aimed at blocking roads to protest the recent sentencing of former General Mirko Norac for war crimes, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 25 March 2003). The police will allow peaceful protests, however. Two veterans groups said that they nonetheless plan to block roads on 27 March. Elsewhere, the state prosecutor's office said on 26 March that it will seek a police investigation of recent remarks by war veteran Drazen Pavlovic on the grounds that he threatened several top officials. Pavlovic said that President Stipe Mesic, Prime Minister Ivica Racan, and some other politicians should "have breakfast with Comrade [Zoran] Djindjic as soon as possible because that is the only way to save the Croatian state." Racan said he believes that the state can effectively deal with people from "the criminal underworld and demimonde," "Vjesnik" reported. PM

SERBIA TO BE A BASTION OF SECURITY?
Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said in Belgrade on 26 March that police have arrested most of the members of the mafia gang known as the "Zemun clan," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Service reported. He added that Serbia now has a unique opportunity to uproot organized crime and become one of the safest countries in the region. Zivkovic said members of the now-dissolved elite Red Berets unit of the Interior Ministry who have committed crimes will be dealt with accordingly, while those with clean hands will be integrated into other branches of the security forces, "Danas" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003). He stressed that Serbia now has the worst of the crisis behind it. PM

COUNCIL OF EUROPE TO ADMIT SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO
The Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers agreed in Strasbourg on 26 March to admit Serbia and Montenegro on 3 April as that body's 45th member, Serbian media reported. Membership for Belgrade has been delayed for several years for a variety of reasons, the most recent of which was the slow pace in setting up the legal basis of the new state of Serbia and Montenegro. Speaking in Novi Sad, Dragoljub Micunovic, who is speaker of the new state's parliament, said the decision in Strasbourg marks an important milestone for his country, Deutsche Welle's Serbian Service reported. He said Serbia and Montenegro must now move forward with its plans to join the EU, WTO, and NATO's Partnership for Peace program. PM

SERBIA EASES VISA REQUIREMENTS
Serbia will not require visas for citizens of 24 countries between 1 April and 30 September, "Vesti" reported on 27 March. The countries affected are the United States, Canada, all EU countries, Norway, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Australia, and New Zealand. Tourists from those states will receive a stamp in their passports permitting them to stay for up to 30 days. It is not clear if the visa-free regimen will be extended after September. Montenegro eased its visa requirements several years ago in an effort to boost tourism and demonstrate its independence of Belgrade. The regime of former President Slobodan Milosevic used its visa policy to restrict the presence of journalists and other foreigners in Serbia. PM

ROMANIAN LEADERS REACT TO SIGNING OF NATO-ACCESSION PROTOCOL
Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said in Brussels on 26 March after the signing the NATO Protocols of Accession (see top Central and Eastern Europe item above) that his country has pledged to fully implement a list of tasks that still lie ahead of its actual assumption of NATO membership next year, Romanian Radio reported. Geoana mentioned the struggle against corruption, ensuring the protection of classified information, and the continuation of economic reforms. President Ion Iliescu said in Bucharest that Romania's contribution to NATO will be "not formal, but substantial, as demonstrated by the country's foreign and security policy in the last years." Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said Romania "has now regained its rightful place on the global strategic map" and that this achievement must be a new impetus for the continuation of reforms. Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu said Romania's successful NATO bid is primarily due to its successful military reforms. MS

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT COMMENTS ON POLL SHOWING STRONG OPPOSITION TO IRAQ WAR
President Iliescu on 26 March said the results of a poll released one day earlier and showing strong opposition to the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq are "natural," and illustrate his countrymen's opposition to war in general. Iliescu added, however, that other opinion polls produced a totally different picture and the results of the various polls taken thus far are contradictory. A poll conducted by the Institute for Market and Social Research (IMAS) shows that more than 75 percent of respondents are opposed to military action against Iraq without a UN Security Council resolution approving the action, and that nearly the same proportion of respondents opposes war under any circumstances. Over 70 percent oppose Romania's backing of the U.S.-led military campaign, according to the private television channel Antena 1. MS

FIRST IRAQI REFUGEES ARRIVE IN ROMANIA
The National Office for Refugees received this week two requests for political asylum from Iraqi citizens, Mediafax reported on 26 March, citing an Interior Ministry official. The official said the two were detected on Romanian territory after crossing the border illegally and that they have requested asylum. The official said the two Iraqis will "be granted protection for a limited period of time -- as long as hostilities continue in their country." MS

CONTROVERSIAL ROMANIAN POLITICIAN MAKES RENEWED ATTEMPT TO LAUNCH PARTY
Sabin Gherman, who earlier this year failed to register the Transylvania League as a new political party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2003), on 26 March announced the setting up of a new formation, based largely on the same principles as the Transylvania League, Mediafax reported. The new formation is to be called the Party of Transylvanians. Like the Transylvania League, it strives to divide the country into nine autonomous self-managing regions. The Party of Transylvania also wants the more developed regions to pay a 15 percent "solidarity tax" from their GDP to help the economic growth of less-developed regions. MS

ROMANIAN PEASANT PARTY BESIEGED BY FURTHER CONFLICT
The extraparliamentary National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) on 26 March decided to expel PNTCD Deputy Chairmen Tanase Barde and Bogdan Pitigoi and to suspend from membership for one year PNTCD Secretary-General Constantin Dudu Ionescu, and Deputy Chairmen Remus Opris and Tiberiu Vodislav, Mediafax reported the next day. The decision stems from a letter they signed that criticized PNTCD Chairman and former Premier Victor Ciorbea. The signatories said Ciorbea should step down and allow a person capable of reuniting the conflict-ridden splinter PNTCD parties to reconstruct the formation and return it to parliament in the 2004 elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2003). MS

ROMANIAN JOURNALIST'S BODY IDENTIFIED
The remains of journalist Iosif Costina, who disappeared in June last year, have been identified by Costina's dentist, who was able to recognize dental work he performed on Costina some time before he vanished, Mediafax reported on 26 March. Costina's remains were found last week near a railway track in a village in the vicinity of Timisoara. Some tranquilizers were also found near the body, and media have speculated that they were planted there in an attempt to make it look as though Costina committed suicide. Costina was an active participant in the 1989 Timisoara uprising, was active in attempts to publicly identify former Securitate informers, and was working on a book on the Timisoara underworld. MS

PPCD DEPUTY CHAIRMAN TO RUN FOR CHISINAU MAYOR
Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Deputy Chairman Vlad Cubreacov is to run for the post of Chisinau mayor in the local elections scheduled for 25 May, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. PPCD Chairman Iurie Rosca, who made the announcement on 26 March, said he deplores the fact that the center-right opposition proved unable to agree to run on joint lists. He said the PPCD decided to nominate Cubreacov following the recent announcement by the Braghis Alliance, the Liberal Party, and the Alliance of Independents that they will run jointly and back the candidacy of incumbent Mayor Serafim Urechean (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March 2003). Asked whether the split in the ranks of the center-right would not favor the yet-to-be-nominated candidate of the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) for the post, Rosca predicted that the race will be decided in a runoff in which the PCM candidate will face either Cubreacov or Urechean. MS

MOLDOVAN ELECTION COMMISSION APPROVES LIST OF PARTIES ELIGIBLE TO RUN IN LOCAL ELECTIONS
The Central Election Commission on 26 March announced that all 26 officially registered political parties are eligible to compete in the 25 May local elections, Infotag reported. The agency said political observers assume that not more than 10 lists will compete in the elections, since many formations prefer to run in electoral alliances with other parties. MS

FORMER MOLDOVAN FOREIGN MINISTER APPOINTED AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE
Former Foreign Minister Nicolae Cernomaz was appointed on 26 March Moldova's new ambassador to Ukraine, Flux reported. Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said Ukraine is "a strategic country" for Moldova, and expressed the hope that Cernomaz's experience will soon lead to an improvement in the two countries' political and economic relations. MS

BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TELLS NATO REFORMS WILL CONTINUE
In his address to the extraordinary meeting of the North Atlantic Council on 26 March for the signing of NATO's Protocols of Accession (see top Central and Eastern Europe item above), Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said Bulgaria will continue to pursue its reform efforts, NATO's official website reported. "Although we took the invitation issued to Bulgaria in Prague as an acknowledgement for the progress Bulgaria has achieved so far, we are fully aware that there is still a lot to be done on our way to NATO membership," he said. According to Pasi, the government's major reform projects remain the strengthening of border controls, the protection of classified information, control over the export of arms and dual-use goods, judicial reform, and the fight against corruption. Pasi also pledged to pursue the necessary army reforms and to step up efforts to integrate the Romany minority. UB

SOLANA CALLS ON BULGARIA FOR COORDINATED EFFORTS TO END IRAQI CRISIS
After a meeting with Foreign Minister Pasi, EU Foreign and Security Policy chief Javier Solana said in Brussels on 26 March that it is necessary to coordinate the efforts of the UN Security Council members and EU members and applicant states to end the Iraq crisis, mediapool.bg reported. Solana underscored Bulgaria's role as nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council in giving a new impulse to the peace process in the Middle East (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003). UB

BULGARIA TO STEP UP SECURITY FOR U.S. AIR BASE
Police in the Black Sea port of Burgas announced on 26 March that it will step up security for the nearby Sarafovo air base, which is currently being used by U.S. refueling aircraft, bnn reported. Emerging from a meeting with U.S. military representatives, local police chief Krasimir Petrov cited the latest developments in the war as a reason for the additional measures, but declined to give further details. UB

BULGARIAN LABOR CONFEDERATION PROPOSES STRENGTHENING PRESIDENT'S POSITION
The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (KNSB) on 26 March proposed a number of constitutional changes that would strengthen the president's position in the parliamentary system, the daily "Monitor" reported. According to the KNSB proposal, the amendments should raise the threshold for the parliament to override the presidential veto from an absolute (50 percent-plus-one-vote) to a two-thirds majority. The labor confederation also proposed allowing parliament to move no-confidence votes in individual ministers instead of the entire government, that district mayors be elected, and that individual citizens be allowed to appeal to the Constitutional Court. After a meeting with KNSB representatives, President Georgi Parvanov said the same day that politicians should not allow the war in Iraq to distract them from pressing domestic issues. UB

BULGARIA'S SUPREME JUDICIAL COUNCIL BLAMES POLITICIANS FOR BOMB BLAST
In reaction to the bomb blast that shattered the Sofia District Court on 25 March, the Supreme Judicial Council issued a statement on 26 March in which it blamed politicians' negative attitude toward the judiciary for the incident, bnn reported. The statement recalled that courts throughout the country have repeatedly received telephone threats and that a high-ranking prosecutor was slain in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003). Supreme Court Chairman Ivan Grigorov said the courts lack the funds to step up their security. UB

THE IRAQ WAR AND IRANIAN POLITICS
Just how the conflict in Iraq will affect Iran's political landscape is not yet predictable. At this early stage, the war has hardened the anti-U.S. positions of the conservatives who have lately gained the upper hand over Iran's reformists. But if the U.S.-led forces emerge soon as Iraq's liberators rather than occupiers, Iranians pushing for democratic reforms are likely to be reinvigorated.

So far the war has not enflamed passions in Iran as it has in so much of the rest of the world. Iran has had very few antiwar, anti-U.S. demonstrations -- only 700 people, for example, attended a rally earlier this week in Ahvaz. But while a lack of sympathy for Iraq is to be expected from a nation that suffered so much at its hands, the low level so far of anti-U.S. and anti-U. K. sentiment in Iran may worry regime leaders who depend on an anti-U.S. stance for maintaining their revolutionary aura.

Consequently, official bodies, including the armed forces, are calling for "massive" nationwide participation in antiwar rallies on 28 March. A statement from the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the purpose is to condemn the "massive invasion launched on the defenseless Iraqi nation by the U.S. militarist regime." The Americans, it said, are "ransacking all human, historical and national resources" in Iraq "under the pretext of regime change." Iran's Islamic Propagation Organization went even further, urging condemnation of America's "massacre of Iraqi people" and its "disrespect toward holy sites." That reference to Shia shrines appears to be a baseless attempt to arouse religious passions, as there have been no reports that such shrines have been damaged by the fighting in Iraq.

Regime stalwarts, including conscripts and the legions of low-level government bureaucrats, can be mobilized as usual for the rallies, but few other Iranians will bother. The nation is in the midst of its springtime, two-week Norouz holidays, and it will be hard to draw people away from the pleasures of annual visits to friends and relatives.

Sparse turnouts at rallies might not matter much, though, to the conservatives who are monopolizing power in the Islamic Republic. They can do without the sort of popular support that has been the source of strength for their reformist critics; control of the legal system and coercive organizations is what keeps the theocratic conservatives in power. But they can hammer away at the reformists by characterizing them as pro-American at a time when the Americans, as the conservatives describe them, enflame the region and seek hegemony over it. And by invoking national security concerns posed by war and an American presence along Iran's border, regime conservatives can stifle reformist dissent and press freedoms.

At least that is what reformists fear. A columnist in one of the few remaining reformist newspapers, "Aftab-e Yazd," wrote on 19 March that "some camps" are "trying to exploit the Iraq crisis in order to rid themselves of the domestic challenges they are facing inside the country." A leader of the reformists' Islamic Iran Participation Party, Mustafa Tajzadeh, has tried to turn the security argument on its head, apparently apprehensive that civil liberties could suffer further setbacks in the months ahead. In an interview carried in the Tehran daily "Iran" on 25 March, he argued, not very convincingly, that the danger America's presence in Iraq poses to Iran can only be countered by the "decisive support and extensive participation of the people," which he said "cannot be achieved unless there is democracy at home." He was obviously referring to the reformists' ability--now dwindling -- to rally popular support.

Democracy at home is the biggest threat to the conservatives, who intend to build on recent gains in order to further exclude reformers from the political process. The conservatives were given an unexpected boost in the nationwide local-council elections on 28 February, which the reformists resoundingly lost, particularly in politically crucial Tehran, even though they were freed in those contests from vetting by the conservative Guardians Council. Whether it was the failure of reformists to deliver on promises of reform that was to blame, or the apathy of a public fed up with endless, unproductive political wrangling, the dramatic dwindling of the reformists' legitimacy emboldened the conservative camp. Thus on 16 March the nominally neutral, but clearly pro-conservative Expediency Council settled a budgetary dispute between the parliament and the Guardians Council that bolstered the fortunes of the Guardians.

The Expediency Council's ruling was a clear humiliation for the reformist-dominated parliament, which was unable to turn the reformist bloc's protests and threats to resign into action that was in any way effective. The traditional Norouz holiday for Iranian newspapers, 20 March-5 April, cut off the main vehicle for the reformists to publicize their views. Their nominal leader, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, who walked out in protest from the 16 March Expediency Council meeting, once again demonstrated his ineffectiveness, this time vis-a-vis Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, Khatami's predecessor as president, appeared poised to become the main force in Iranian politics.

Beyond these symbolic power implications, the budget ruling is a more practical setback to Iranian democracy, providing funding that will better enable the Guardians to screen candidates for parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place in less than a year. Just as when the Guardians barred the conservatives' rivals from the 1992 parliamentary elections, the 2004 elections are sure to see few winners from the reformist camp.

Unless, of course, the outcome of the current conflict in Iraq is clearly favorable. A triumph by the coalition forces in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people's welcoming of them as liberators, and a smooth transition to an orderly and democratic country would be an enormous setback to the conservatives and a tremendous boost to the dispirited reformists and democratic forces in Iran. That may very well happen, but the difficulties coalition forces have encountered in Iraq in recent days suggest that it will be some time before Iran's fate becomes clear.

UN SECRETARY-GENERAL PLEADS FOR SWIFT END TO WAR, REGARD FOR CIVILIANS
Kofi Annan told UN Security Council members on 26 March that "all of us must regret that our intense efforts to achieve a peaceful solution through this council did not succeed," the UN News Center (http://www.un.org/news/) reported the same day. Annan said the five permanent Security Council members need to work to overcome their differences and restore the member states' faith in the institution. "We are living through a moment of deep divisions, which, if not healed, can have great consequences for the international system and relations between states," Annan said, according to RFE/RL. Concerning the current conflict in Iraq, Annan added, according to the UN website, "We all want to see this war brought to an end as soon as possible.... But, while it continues, it is essential that everything be done to protect the civilian population, as well as the wounded and the prisoners of war, on both sides, and to bring relief to the victims." The meeting of council members marked the first debate on the Iraq conflict since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on 20 March. KR/AH

IRAQI AMBASSADOR URGES SECURITY COUNCIL TO TAKE ACTION...
Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Muhammad al-Duri, addressed the Security Council on 26 March, urging council members to take action to resolve the current crisis in Iraq. Al-Duri called the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, "a blatant violation of international law and the UN Charter, a defiance of the international community, and a violation of international legitimacy," Al-Jazeera reported the same day. He criticized the Security Council for failing to protect Iraq's borders through its withdrawal of UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) observers from the Iraq-Kuwait border area, and reminded the council that the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had both reported on 7 March that their inspectors "had not found any evidence that contradict[ed] Iraq's declarations or evidence of the presence of banned weapons or activities in Iraq." Finally, al-Duri argued that UN Security Council Resolution 1441 did not authorize the use of force in Iraq. "We [Iraq] hope the international community will be able to find a peaceful solution that would spare the world the consequences of this aggression," al-Duri said. KR

...WHILE CRITICIZING HUMANITARIAN PLANNING
Al-Duri also criticized the UN Security Council on 26 March for "tackling the humanitarian aspect of the aggression instead of tackling the aggression itself," according to Al-Jazeera. He argued that humanitarian discussions distracted council members from addressing the political issue. "Who stopped the oil-for-food program? Who withdrew the observers from Iraq?" al-Duri asked. "How can the council allow itself to be used, I repeat, used, for an issue on which the United States and Britain failed to have a resolution issued; namely, legitimizing aggression?" UN Secretary-General Annan has presented a proposal to the Security Council concerning the restructuring of the oil-for-food program that includes the appointment of Annan as administrator over the program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2003). KR

MOB ABSCONDS WITH KUWAIT RED CRESCENT'S AID...
Three trucks from the Kuwait Red Crescent Society were mobbed in the Iraqi border town of Safwan on 26 March in what a Red Crescent representative later conceded was a disastrous attempt to deliver aid to farms in southern Iraq, international media reported. Coalition troops watched from a distance as young Iraqi men leaped aboard the trailers and distributed the aid in scenes broadcast by international media. The shipment's delivery was accompanied by media crews hastily organized by the Kuwaiti Information Ministry, dpa added. Red Crescent Vice Chairman Hilal al-Sayer stressed the next day that the operation had gone wrong: "That aid didn't get to the farms where the women and children are, our people lost control, and young Iraqi men began emptying the trucks," according to the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk). The trucks were carrying some 45,000 boxes of food, the BBC reported, adding that another shipment was expected on 28 March. AH

...AS U.K. AID AWAITS MINE CLEARANCE
A senior U.K. military official said on 27 March that Britain will delay its first military aid shipment bound for the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr after additional mines were discovered on 26 March in a channel leading to the docks, dpa reported. The discovery is likely to delay the shipment by 24 hours, according to Air Marshal Brian Burridge said from Qatar. The "HMS Galahad," laden with 200 tons of aid, had been due to dock late on 27 March. AH

PRESIDENT SAYS EC WORKING HARD TO DELIVER AID TO IRAQ
European Commission President Romano Prodi on 26 March warned of the plight of Iraqi citizens in the current conflict and said his institution is working round the clock to ensure that humanitarian relief is delivered as soon as possible, dpa reported. Prodi said a 3 million-euro ($3.2 million) aid package approved by the commission last week is already being used by the International Committee of the Red Cross, dpa reported. "The Red Cross has begun distributing food parcels and nonfood items in northern Iraq. We're delivering support for hospitals in Baghdad. ICRC flight operations are ready to begin as soon as security conditions allow," Prodi said. "People are being driven out of their homes amid fierce fighting. Many are left without food, proper clothing and shelter and without access to clean drinking water." The European Commission has pledged 79 million euros in further aid for Iraq pending its approval by member governments and the European Parliament, dpa reported. AH

BAGHDAD PRESENTS OFFICIAL VIEW OF WAR
Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf vehemently disputed both the assertions and actions of coalition forces at a 26 March news conference in Baghdad carried by Abu Dhabi Television. Alternating comments on the military situation with scorn for coalition leaders, al-Sahhaf denied coalition control of the port city of Umm Qasr, Al-Nasiriyah, or the Al-Faw Peninsula. Al-Sahhaf told journalists that Iraq faces aggression from the "donkeys of colonialism" and "colonialist louts." He estimated the number of civilian Iraqis wounded in Al-Nasiriyah at 500, with another nine killed by bombs at a village called Bani Sa'd. In response to a question about the deaths in Baghdad the same day, al-Sahhaf accused U.S.-led forces of "attacking civilian areas" and assured reporters that "they will lose without a doubt." DK

U.S. ALLOWS POSSIBILITY OF ERRANT MISSILE STRIKE IN BAGHDAD
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a press release on 26 March alluding to possible "civilian damage" after explosions wrought havoc in a Baghdad residential neighborhood the same day. Reuters correspondents reported counting 15 "scorched corpses" in the Al-Sha'b neighborhood of Baghdad on 26 March. Iraqi officials laid the blame on a U.S. missile attack. Pentagon briefings presented an ambiguous picture, the BBC reported, with U.S. spokespeople asserting that the cause of the destruction is not clear. The CENTCOM press release does not refer specifically to the Al-Sha'b incident, merely noting "civilian damage possible" in its title. The release explains that U.S. precision-guided weapons targeted Iraqi missile launchers "positioned less than 300 feet from homes" and blamed Iraqi authorities for placing military targets in close proximity to civilian dwellings. The civilian deaths were the top story in the Arab press on 27 March, with London-based pan-Arab daily "Al-Hayat" headlining its edition, "Massacre in Baghdad." DK

'SKY SOLDIERS' BEGIN SECOND FRONT IN NORTHERN IRAQ
Personnel from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, known as the Sky Soldiers, parachuted into northern Iraq on 26 March, international news agencies reported. With the exception of special operations forces, the 173rd is the first airborne unit to enter the conflict. In addition to helping open a second front in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the presence of the 173rd might dissuade Turkey from sending its troops further into northern Iraq and thus risking a conflict with the Kurds. PUK official Ahmad Piri said in the 26 March issue of Milan's "Il Giornale" that once the U.S. troop presence reaches 20,000, the assistance of 30,000 Kurdish combatants will be on offer. "Our men are ready and trained," Piri said. "All they are waiting for before going into action is an official American request." Piri said Ankara has been sidelined by its refusal to let U.S. troops use Turkish territory. "Ankara is no longer in any position to dictate terms," he said. "It has gone too far and made it impossible for the Americans to operate in the north." BS

PUK, ANSAR AL-ISLAM FIGHTING FIERCELY DESPITE OFFER OF AMNESTY
Elements from the Ansar al-Islam terrorist organization unsuccessfully attacked Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) positions near Halabjah in northern Iraq during the night of 26-27 March, IRNA reported on 27 March, leaving behind many casualties. "Fierce clashes" between PUK and Ansar al-Islam forces occurred on 26 March, Egypt's MENA reported. The fighting commenced when Ansar personnel in the village of Anab, near Halabja, opened fire on PUK militias, according to MENA. KurdSat television reported the same day that U.S. and U.K. aircraft continued bombing Ansar al-Islam positions, as well as Iraqi positions in northern Iraq. The PUK-led Kurdistan Regional Government on 26 March issued a general amnesty for members of the Ansar al-Islam, KurdSat television reported. The amnesty statement accused the Ansar al-Islam of treachery and murder against the Kurds, and said the group is subservient to foreigners and in breach of Islamic teachings. It added that the "scheming band of Arab Afghans and Iraqi intelligence officers" ensnared some "misguided Kurds." All the "misguided Kurds," except for those guilty of assassinations and massacres, have been pardoned, according to the statement. BS

IRAQI ARMORED COLUMNS DRAW FIRE, FUEL SPECULATION
Coalition forces grappled with a column of Iraqi armor south of Basra on 26 March even as reports indicated that a far larger Republican Guard force might be moving out of Baghdad to confront "tip-of-the-spear" U.S. deployments outside the Iraqi capital. A British military spokesman at U.S. CENTCOM told reporters on 26 March, "There is an armored column that came out of the southeast of Basra down the Al-Faw Peninsula, and it has been engaged," Reuters reported the same day. The spokesman provided no battle information on the column, which some estimated to be as large as 120 vehicles. Meanwhile, the U.S. 1st Marine Division and 3rd Infantry Division south of Baghdad braced for the possibility that a 1,000-vehicle Republican Guard convoy was headed their way under cover of sandstorms that reduce the effectiveness of coalition air power, AP reported on 26 March. A 27 March report in Britain's "Daily Telegraph" spoke of "two columns, each of 1,000 armored vehicles." Military analysts said the move was either a cunning counteroffensive or a foolhardy shot in the dark. Reuters reported on 26 March that defense analyst Andrew Dorman told Sky TV, "They're either panicking...or they're taking advantage of the conditions [sandstorms] to engage the coalition forces and offset their technological advantage." DK

UNMOVIC CHIEF CAUTIOUS ON DISCOVERY OF CHEMICAL SUITS IN SOUTHERN IRAQ
Hans Blix, executive chairman of UNMOVIC, told the BBC on 26 March that the discovery of chemical suits and masks at a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Nasiriyah by U.S. forces does not prove Iraq has chemical weapons. "I don't think it's evidence of weapons. It certainly raises suspicions that [Iraq] might have expected use of chemical weapons and therefore have required [the suits]. I think we will have to find more solid evidence than this," AFP quoted Blix as telling BBC Television on 27 March. U.S. CENTCOM told reporters on 26 March that U.S. forces found 3,000 Iraqi chemical protective suits at a hospital in Al-Nasiriyah, as well as gas masks, nerve-agent-antidote auto-injectors, a tank, and more than 200 light weapons. KR

CLERICS URGE IRAQIS TO RESIST INVADERS
Iranian state broadcasting's Arabic-language Sahar Television reported on 26 March that the Shia sources of emulation in the Iraqi city of Najaf have signed a statement urging the population to fight British and U.S. forces. This could not be independently verified and under current circumstances seems unlikely; but in fatwas (religious decrees) described by Baghdad's INA on 13 March, Grand Ayatollahs Ali al-Sistani, Muhammad Said al-Tabatabai al-Hakim, Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad, and Bashir Hussein al-Najafi reportedly called on Muslims to engage in jihad against the United States and its allies. These individuals also sent a cable to Saddam Hussein in which they pledged their support, INA reported. BS

TEHRAN DOWNPLAYS REPORTED SHIA UPRISING IN BASRA
The situation in the predominantly Shia southern Iraqi city of Basra remained unclear on the evening of 26 March. Sahar Television reported the same day that the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) denied that an anti-Baghdad uprising was taking place in Basra, as some Western media have reported, citing coalition military sources. SCIRI's Akram al-Hakim said in a 26 March interview with Al-Jazeera television, however, that a localized uprising started on 25 March but did not extend to the rest of Basra. Al-Hakim described the situation in Basra as "on the brink of explosion," but he said the authorities' "severe and suppressive security measures" prevent popular action. Amnesty International in a 26 March press release accused Iraqi forces of deliberately shelling civilians in Basra and placing likely military targets close to civilians. BS

SCIRI UNENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT U.S. HELP
SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim said in the 26 March issue of "Al-Hayah" that the United States has warned the Iraqi opposition and people not to participate in the war and the Iraqi regime has issued orders to suppress any popular uprisings. Al-Hakim urged the Iraqi people not to fight alongside Washington or Baghdad, emphasized that SCIRI's Badr Corps has suspended its military activities in order to avoid serving what he sees as U.S. interests, and warned that the Iraqi people would resist any foreign forces that stayed in Iraq as occupiers. SCIRI's Akram al-Hakim said in a 26 March interview with Al-Jazeera television that SCIRI does not support an invasion or occupation of Iraq, but it and the rest of the opposition is ready to take over afterward. He expressed the belief that allies were against the Iraqi opposition playing a role but Washington might have changed its views. BS

KABUL PAPER 'PUZZLED' BY AFGHANISTAN'S OFFICIAL SUPPORT FOR WAR IN IRAQ
Citing a 19 March announcement by the Afghan Foreign Ministry that Afghanistan supports the use of military force in Iraq because the Iraqi regime failed to comply with UN orders to disarm and dispose of its weapons of mass destruction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003), the English-language "Kabul Weekly" commented on 26 March that: "There is no doubt that the Afghan government took into account the importance of the political, economic and military relationships with the U.S.A., when it made this decision." The paper argued that the "validity" of such a calculation is disputable. It added that the majority of Afghans are opposed to the war in Iraq, but suggests that perhaps Afghan officials cannot "hear the voice of the people." The "most puzzling" point in the Afghan pledge of support, the paper said, is the ability of Afghanistan to actually provide political, military, or economic support to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The paper asked how a country such as Afghanistan can offer such support when it is trying to "rise up from the ashes of war." "Kabul Weekly" also warned that support for war in Iraq could touch the religious sensitivities of Afghans in general and possibly lead to more attacks by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban around the country. The paper concluded that the best course of action for Afghanistan would have been to remain silent or announce its neutrality, because it had "nothing to gain from this announcement." AT

U.S. THREATENS SANCTIONS AGAINST RUSSIAN FIRMS THAT ALLEGEDLY SUPPLIED IRAQ
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told Interfax on 26 March that the United States might impose trade sanctions against Russian companies that Washington alleges supplied military equipment to Iraq in violation of UN-imposed sanctions. However, Vershbow said, Washington hopes that Russia will adopt the measures necessary to prevent the transfer of such equipment in the future. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 26 March warned that serious complications might arise in bilateral relations if Moscow fails to prevent the transfer of high-technology military equipment to Iraq, Western media reported. VY

MILITARY ANALYSTS CRITIQUE COALITION'S IRAQ CAMPAIGN TO DATE...
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow on 26 March that the Russian military has "carefully analyzed the situation in the [Iraqi] combat zone and has concluded that [the coalition campaign] has not proceeded as planned," nns.ru reported. Meanwhile, a panel of five retired senior military commanders -- former Soviet ground forces commander Army General Valentin Varennikov, former Deputy Defense Ministers Colonel General Georgii Kondratev and Colonel General Valerii Manilov, Academy of Military Sciences President General Makhmut Gareev, and Duma Defense Committee Deputy Chairman Colonel General Eduard Vorobev -- analyzed the difficulties faced by the U.S.-led coalition, RIA-Novosti reported on 26 March. The generals concluded, first, that the coalition seriously underestimated the ability and willingness of the Iraqi Army to resist. In addition, coalition planners relied too much their high-precision weaponry and neglected the basic techniques of close combat. Further, the coalition has had to cope with the extremely harsh climate and natural conditions of the desert environment. Finally, the generals pointed to the U.S. and British troops' lack of experience conducting large-scale ground combat operations and to a lack of coordination among members of the anti-Iraq coalition. They particularly noted Turkey's refusal to allow the coalition to open a second front in northern Iraq from its territory. VY

...AS EXPERTS ANALYZE WASHINGTON'S FAILURE TO WIN THE INFORMATION WAR
Participants in a roundtable discussion of the military campaign in Iraq broadcast on ORT on 26 March concluded that the United States so far has failed to win the "information war" against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in part because Iraqi "propagandists" have learned from their mistakes during the 1991 Gulf War. In addition, Iraq has enjoyed both covert and overt media and public support from Germany, France, Russia, and China, noted Major General Aleksandr Sharavin, director of the Moscow Institute of Military and Political Analysis. Moreover, political scientist Aleksandr Tsypko said the official line of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has come under strong partisan criticism from U.S. media outlets that he alleged are sympathetic to the Democratic Party. VY

BORDER DEPARTMENT DENIES IRAQI REFUGEES HAVE ARRIVED IN GEORGIA
Georgian State Border Department spokesman Shalva Londaridze denied on 26 March that any refugees from Iraq have entered Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. Earlier that day, opposition parliament deputy Djemal Gogitidze (Revival Union) demanded that law enforcement agencies verify unconfirmed reports that several hundred refugees from Iraq had settled in Georgia's Kaspi Raion. Opposition Democrats faction head Giorgi Baramidze commented that refugees are unlikely to head for a country "where there is no electricity or heat," Caucasus Press reported. LF

TAJIK PRESIDENT CALLS FOR END TO WAR IN IRAQ
Imomali Rakhmonov, speaking to journalists on 26 March after meetings in Brussels with European Commission President Romano Prodi and NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, called for an immediate end to hostilities in Iraq, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Rakhmonov agreed with Prodi that continued military action in Iraq will result in a humanitarian crisis in the region. Rakhmonov is visiting several European countries and institutions seeking assistance and investment. BB

TAJIK ISLAMIC PARTY LEADER REJECTS JIHAD
Said Abdullo Nuri, head of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, told a press conference in Dushanbe on 26 March that he believes the war in Iraq will harm Tajikistan, but his party does not support calls by religious leaders in some countries for jihad or an economic boycott against the United States and Great Britain, Deutsche Welle reported on 27 March. Nuri said his main concern is that a lengthy war in Iraq will weaken international control of the situation in Afghanistan. If that happens, instability in that country could spill over into Tajikistan, because the extremist forces that have penetrated into Tajik territory in the past are still present in Afghanistan. BB

EUROPEAN COUNCIL SAYS IRAQ CRISIS DEMONSTRATES NEED FOR JOINT EU FOREIGN POLICY
A European Community report on 26 March insists on the need to enhance cooperation among EU members by dropping the so-called national vetoes in order to help forge joint policies, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels reported. In his presentation of the report, Kok said the Iraq crisis has highlighted the need for the EU to have a common policy and has shown the "urgent need" for Europe to be capable of "speaking with a single voice." EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said that after having held talks in capitals of future member states, he can give assurances that those states "do not want to contribute to divisions." He said the new members will "not allow themselves to be turned into instruments of splitting Europe into two [categories of] 'good' or 'bad' Europeans -- 'pro-American' or 'anti-American.'" Kok also said the enlargement process should continue after the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, and that membership prospects of the countries of the western Balkans need to be "more effectively" explained. MS

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT TELLS RUSSIA WHAT TO DO ABOUT IRAQ WAR
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in an interview with journalists from the Russian magazine "Nash sovremennik," on 26 March urged Russia to take a more active stance with regard to the Iraq war, Belarusian Television reported. "[The Iraq war] is a strike against Russia," Lukashenka said. "Therefore, Russia should be in the epicenter of all these events. Russia should conduct...feverish, fulminating diplomatic negotiations. Meetings should be held every day. Russia should seek to unite around herself all those who are still able to counteract this evil and violence." Lukashenka said the Iraq war "is only the beginning," warning that "Russia and all of us" could be burned down in the ensuing conflagration of the clash of civilizations. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT PLEDGES HUMANITARIAN AID TO IRAQ...
President Leonid Kuchma told journalists in Kyiv on 26 March that Ukraine, "within the limits of its capabilities," will provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq, UNIAN reported. Kuchma also said Kyiv wants to participate in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, but added that he does not know whether Ukraine will be "allowed" to do so. JM

PREMIER SAYS PARTICIPATION OF POLISH TROOPS IN IRAQ IS JUSTIFIED
Premier Leszek Miller told the Sejm on 26 March that "Poland's participation in a military operation designed to disarm Iraq is justified and proper," PAP reported. "This is a requirement of allied solidarity," Miller added. During a debate that followed, the participation of Polish troops in the Iraq conflict on the U.S. side was criticized mainly by lawmakers from the League of Polish Families and from Self-Defense. The parliament voted 328-71 with 38 abstentions to accept Miller's report. JM

UN ASSEMBLY PRESIDENT SAYS UN MUST PLAY FOREMOST ROLE IN IRAQ RECONSTRUCTION
UN General Assembly President Jan Kavan, who is a former Czech foreign minister, on 26 March said on the BBC's Czech service that the UN must play the foremost role in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, CTK reported. He said prerogatives in postwar Iraq must be divided between the UN and the occupying powers, and that reconstruction contracts must be negotiated and be placed under strict financial control. Presumably referring to the United States and Britain, Kavan said the UN will not agree to "accept any decision -- not to call it dictate -- by just two countries." Kavan also said the Iraq crisis has demonstrated once again that the UN Security Council must be reformed. He said he will ask UN members whether the reform should be decided by a two-thirds majority of the organization's members, rather than by the hitherto unanimous-decision requirement, which he said has made reform impossible. MS

FORMER HUNGARIAN PREMIER WARY OF NEW U.S. POLICY
Former Premier Viktor Orban said on Hungarian Radio on 26 March that with the "unilateral" action by the United States in Iraq, the world has stepped into a new era, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. He said the former "deterrence doctrine" has now been replaced by the concept of preemptive war. It remains to be seen, Orban added, whether this new world order will prove to be safer or less safe for Hungary. MS

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT COMMENTS ON POLL SHOWING STRONG OPPOSITION TO IRAQ WAR
President Iliescu on 26 March said the results of a poll released one day earlier and showing strong opposition to the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq are "natural," and illustrate his countrymen's opposition to war in general. Iliescu added, however, that other opinion polls produced a totally different picture and the results of the various polls taken thus far are contradictory. A poll conducted by the Institute for Market and Social Research (IMAS) shows that more than 75 percent of respondents are opposed to military action against Iraq without a UN Security Council resolution approving the action, and that nearly the same proportion of respondents opposes war under any circumstances. Over 70 percent oppose Romania's backing of the U.S.-led military campaign, according to the private television channel Antena 1. MS

FIRST IRAQI REFUGEES ARRIVE IN ROMANIA
The National Office for Refugees received this week two requests for political asylum from Iraqi citizens, Mediafax reported on 26 March, citing an Interior Ministry official. The official said the two were detected on Romanian territory after crossing the border illegally and that they have requested asylum. The official said the two Iraqis will "be granted protection for a limited period of time -- as long as hostilities continue in their country." MS

SOLANA CALLS ON BULGARIA FOR COORDINATED EFFORTS TO END IRAQI CRISIS
After a meeting with Foreign Minister Pasi, EU Foreign and Security Policy chief Javier Solana said in Brussels on 26 March that it is necessary to coordinate the efforts of the UN Security Council members and EU members and applicant states to end the Iraq crisis, mediapool.bg reported. Solana underscored Bulgaria's role as nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council in giving a new impulse to the peace process in the Middle East (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003). UB

ETHNIC FIGHTING FLARES UP NEAR AFGHAN-TURKMEN BORDER...
A local Pashtun commander in the Badghis Province of northwestern Afghanistan said heavy fighting erupted on 26 March between the local Pashtun population and the forces of Badghis Governor Gol Mohammad Arefi, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Commander Joma Khan said that in the past year and a half, the local Badghis administration, supported by Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan, has organized the beating and torture of local Pashtuns in Badghis and confiscated their homes, AIP reported. Joma Khan added that when Pashtuns seek to defend themselves, they are labeled Al-Qaeda members or Taliban. He said Ismail Khan has launched a major attack against Pashtuns in the villages of Manghan and Tora Shaykh, near the Turkmenistan border, causing civilian casualties and forcing thousands of people to cross the border into Turkmenistan. He said that, as a representative of those living in areas under attack, he demands that Afghan Transitional Administration President Hamid Karzai dispatch a delegation to investigate the situation. Joma Khan also demanded that Karzai replace the governor of Badghis, saying his loyalties are with Ismail Khan rather than Kabul, AIP reported. AT

...IN FIGHTING THAT RADIO AFGHANISTAN BLAMES ON TALIBAN...
At least eight people were killed in Badghis Province on 26 March when a group of Taliban "are said to have attacked a government frontier checkpoint" causing a firefight, citing Governor Arefi, Radio Afghanistan reported. The report added that the incident has not been confirmed "by independent sources." Radio Afghanistan's report of the fighting in Badghis arguably illustrates one of the difficulties facing the Transitional Administration in Kabul: On one hand, the report calls the forces under the Badghis governor "government personnel"; on the other hand, it reports the incident as if it occurred outside areas controlled by the Transitional Administration. AT

...AS BADGHIS COMMANDER GIVES DISPUTED VERSION OF EVENTS
Mohammad Karim Khadem, a brigade commander in Badghis, said on 26 March that 13 combatants were killed when around 400 gunmen suspected to be Taliban supporters attacked a checkpoint in Tora Shaykh, AP reported. A Pashtun commander from the neighboring Herat Province, Amanullah Khan, said the fighting was ethnically based and that forces loyal to Ismail Khan attacked the village of Atashan in Badghis Province on 25 March, burning homes before advancing to the nearby village of Manghan, AP reported. Khadem said he is unaware of hostilities in Atashan or Manghan. Amanullah Khan and Ismail Khan waged numerous battles before 1 December, when a U.S. aircraft bombed both sides during a conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2002); that incident led to a cease-fire agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2002). The apparent timing of Ismail Khan's military operations in neighboring Badghis Province, if the reports are accurate, suggest he might be trying to deflect international attention away from allegations of rights abuses. AT

AFGHANISTAN TO GET FUNDS FROM WORLD BANK
The World Bank will provide Afghanistan with $208 million by the end of March, Radio Afghanistan reported on 26 March. Some $148 million is earmarked for the salaries of teachers and health workers and for essential government projects, while the remainder will be used for "special development projects." The Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Bank, UN agencies, and the World Bank will administer the funds, the report said. AT

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