DEFENSE MINISTER COMMENTS ON MILITARY OPERATION IN IRAQ...
Sergei Ivanov said in an interview posted on the website of "Komsomolskaya pravda" (http://www.kp.ru) on 31 March that the Russian military is carefully tracking the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq bearing in mind its own responsibility to defend the largest country in the world. Ivanov said that the operation is not proceeding "without mishaps and miscalculations," and that Iraq has successfully challenged the coalition both militarily and in terms of propaganda. However, developments do not depend on Iraq, but on U.S. decisions, Ivanov said. For instance, if U.S. planners resorted to carpet bombing, Iraq would be unable to resist for long, Ivanov said. The political cost of such a decision for the United States would be enormous, he added. If, on the other hand, the United States continues to use tactics designed to minimize casualties and avoid major engagements, the operation could be problematic, since "Iraq still has a formidable army that has not yet begun to fight," Ivanov said. He added that coalition commanders do not need to take major cities such as al-Basrah. "The goal is to get [Iraqi President Saddam] Hussein," Ivanov said. Ivanov said it is possible that the Soviet Union supplied Iraq with 200 Grad multiple rocket launchers in the 1980s, but emphasized that Russia has scrupulously observed all international sanctions against Iraq and that Russia's presence in the country "has been minimal" over the last decade. "Purely hypothetically, it can be supposed that some of those weapons, probably, still exist," Ivanov said. "These weapons do not fall under any bans." VY
...AND ON POLITICAL ASPECTS OF THE CRISIS
In the same interview, Defense Minister Ivanov said he does not believe that President Hussein will go into exile. He emphasized that Russia is not overly concerned with Hussein's fate. "Speaking frankly, Saddam is not our friend and brother, and he will never repay his debts to us," Ivanov said, adding that the Kremlin is more concerned about setting a precedent for resolving similar disputes. Ivanov said that the international-security system has been "shaken to its foundations," and expressed doubt that the UN Security Council will be able to resume its previous role in international affairs. He said that Moscow believes the U.S. administration wants to make sure that the Security Council is no longer in a position to determine or even play a key role in international affairs. "We have no need of such a UN," Ivanov added. However, he said that Moscow is bolstering direct ties with U.S. officials and confirmed that he has direct communications lines to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. "They knew our position on Iraq in advance, and our open declarations do not surprise them," Ivanov said. He said he does not believe that U.S. officials have changed their attitude toward Russia noticeably since the crisis began. VY
OFFICIAL DENIES RUSSIA SUPPLIED ANTITANK WEAPONS TO IRAQ
Military strategist Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, who is known for his anti-Western position, has denied U.S. allegations that more than 1,000 Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles were supplied to Iraq via illegal weapons traders from Ukraine and Syria, ORT reported, citing "Newsweek," No. 14. Ivashov, who was responsible for Russian military-technical contacts abroad until 1999, said that during his tenure no Kornets were supplied to Iraq. Kornets were sold to other countries, "but completely legally," Ivashov said. He charged that Western arms producers are disseminating the allegations against Russia in order to hinder Russia's "legitimate arms trading." An unidentified spokesman for the Tula factory that produces the Kornet told ORT that "none of our products are in Iraq; otherwise, coalition losses would be much higher." VY
POLITICAL SCIENTISTS CRITICIZE MOSCOW'S POSITION ON IRAQ
A statement issued by leading Moscow political scientists warns that "the military defeat of the United States that is so badly desired by the majority of Russians" could cost Russia much more than the demise of the regime of Iraqi President Hussein, "Izvestiya" reported on 31 March. The experts support neither the official position articulated by President Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Ministry nor the statements of some politicians celebrating the U.S.-led coalition's reported setbacks. The Kremlin's position -- that the military operation should be halted immediately, that coalition forces should be withdrawn, and that the process of resolving the conflict should be returned to the UN Security Council -- is impractical, said Institute of Applied International Research Director Vladimir Razumovskii. "They will never withdraw because that would mean their withdrawal from global politics," Strategic Research Center Director Andrei Piontkovskii added. Moscow's hope that the process of resolving the crisis will be returned to the UN is also a delusion. The United Nations will never be the same as it was before the crisis, and Moscow should develop a proposal for its profound reformation, the experts argued. They added that Russia should also initiate a summit of the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and Germany with the goal of articulating a unified position on Iraq before the G-8 summit to be held this summer. VY
RUSSIA TO REINTRODUCE SMALLPOX VACCINATIONS
State Health Inspectorate spokesman Yurii Fedorov said on 31 March that Russia intends to reinstate its system of mandatory smallpox vaccinations, nns.ru reported. The Health Ministry plans to phase in vaccinations for high-risk population groups in the near future. Fedorov said the first group to be vaccinated will be medical workers. "Argumenty i fakty," No. 13, reported that the plan is connected with the perceived increase in the threat of bioterrorism. The Soviet smallpox vaccination program was ended in 1980, and currently the only legitimate stocks of the smallpox virus are kept at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, and at a research facility in Novosibirsk. VY
AUTOMAKER WILL DEAL WITH ANY IRAQI REGIME
Aleksei Barantsev, general director of the Gorkii Automobile Plant in Nizhnii Novgorod, said on 31 March that his company will fulfill a contract with Iraq to supply 5,000 cars even if the regime of Iraqi President Hussein is removed, Russian media reported. The $45 million contract was signed as part of the UN's "oil-for-food" program, Barantsev said, and is enforceable under international law. VY
FOREIGN DEBT INCREASED SLIGHTLY IN 2002
Russia's foreign debt rose by $2.7 billion in 2002, RBK reported on 1 April, citing statistics released by the Central Bank. As of 1 January, the country's foreign debt totaled $153.5 billion, of which $55.3 billion is Soviet-era debt, $48.4 billion is post-Soviet debt, and the rest comprises various bonds and obligations. VY
COMMUNISTS ENJOY CONSIDERABLE LEAD OVER PARTY OF POWER...
A poll of public support for political parties conducted in March by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) showed that support for the Communist Party has reached a "record" level of 31 percent, compared with just 21 percent for Unified Russia, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 31 March. The daily noted that this gap will be difficult to close before the December State Duma elections. According to the daily, the rating of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) has improved since January, while that of Yabloko has slipped. In January, Yabloko polled 8 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2003), but the March results suggested the party might have trouble overcoming the 5 percent barrier for entry to the Duma. On 31 March, Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel, who attended Unified Russia's 29 March party congress in Moscow, admitted that victory is not assured for the party, RosBalt reported. "Of course, one can convince oneself that victory in December is in [our] pocket, but this would be a serious mistake," Rossel said. JAC
...AS PARTY LEADER CALLS FOR BOYCOTT OF U.S. GOODS
Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said on 31 March that he supports an international boycott of U.S. products in protest against the U.S.-led military action against the regime of Iraqi President Hussein, Interfax reported. Zyuganov claimed that last weekend about 3 million people took part in protests against the war in 4,000 Russian towns. According to Novyi Region on 31 March, 10 public demonstrations against the war and U.S. policy toward Iraq have been held in Perm alone since the beginning of the year. JAC
MORE DETAILS OF UNIFIED RUSSIA CHANGES EMERGE...
Valerii Bogomolov, chief of personnel at the Federation Council's apparatus, will replace Aleksandr Bespalov as secretary of Unified Russia's General Council, Russian media reported on 31 March. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 31 March, Bespalov's name was not mentioned during the party's 29 March congress, and he did not attend. The newspaper also reported that the General Council -- rather than the High Council -- is the "real organ of power within the party." According to "Vremya novostei" the same day, the General Council will compile the party list for the December Duma elections. However, Politika Foundation head Vyacheslav Nikonov explained to "Kommersant-Daily" on 31 March that although the little-known Bogomolov has been named the secretary of the General Council, the party "as an instrument of victory in the elections will really be managed from within the Kremlin," from which such reputed managerial talents as deputy presidential administration head Vyacheslav Surkov operate. JAC
...AS 'FAMILY' MADE GAINS AT PARTY CONGRESS
"The Moscow Times" on 31 March reported that according to an unidentified source, the so-called Family, or coterie of individuals that rose to prominence around former President Boris Yeltsin, "has gotten the upper hand" in terms of control of Unified Russia, despite the appointment of two high-ranking officials with KGB backgrounds: Bogomolov and former Federation Council representative Yurii Volkov. The daily noted the appointment of Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeev, "a loyal supporter of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov," to the High Council, and cited Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, who said that "Bespalov's resignation upset the balance of power because he is a St. Petersburg man...and under his leadership there was a clear line aimed at weakening [Prime Minister Mikhail] Kasyanov." Both Kasyanov and Surkov are considered members of the Family. Also on 31 January, "Gazeta" carried a commentary by State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov (independent). Noting calls by Unified Russia officials during the congress to form the government from the parliamentary majority, Ryzhkov argued that "the Russian bureaucracy is a dog, [and] Unified Russia is its tail: The tail can [only] dream about forming a government." JAC
UNIFIED RUSSIA WINS WITH STEALTH OPERATION IN SOUTHERN REGION
Observers of the 30 March legislative elections in Rostov Oblast were surprised by the large number of protest votes, RFE/RL's Rostov correspondent reported the next day. The percentage of voters voting against all candidates ranged from 22-28 percent in several districts, particularly in the oblast's smaller cities and in certain neighborhoods of Rostov-na-Donu. Incumbents also did not fare well. Of the 45 deputies seeking re-election, only 20 were successful. The Unified Russia party, however, did well in the race. According to the party's executive committee, Unified Russia did not nominate its own candidates, but it supported 42 candidates -- 39 of whom won. The Communist Party fared poorly, with only one of its 24 candidates winning a seat. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 31 March, representatives of Unified Russia concealed their party membership. Four members of the party's regional branch participated in the race, but only one of them publicly declared this affiliation. Another group that did well in the election was local businessmen. According to "Vremya novostei" on 1 April, 31 of the 45 seats were won by enterprise directors. JAC
PUTIN SIGNS ELECTRICITY REFORM INTO LAW
President Putin signed on 31 March the basic law on electricity, which is part of a package of six bills approved by the State Duma and Federation Council to reform the country's electricity sector, polit.ru reported. The law requires the creation of a joint-stock company to control the electricity network, in which the government can have no less than a 52 percent stake during a transition period. After this period, the government will control 75 percent-plus-one share. According to the website, experts believe the law will reduce the influence of local governments on energy carriers to a minimum. According to Radio Rossii, the law also stipulates the conditions and procedures for turning off heat or electricity supplies to nonpaying customers. Also on 31 March, Dalenergo limited energy supplies to 150 enterprises in Primorskii Krai, whose combined debts exceed 78 million rubles ($2.4 million), RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Meanwhile, some 200 apartment buildings in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii have been without hot water since 17 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003). On 1 April, a high temperature of 2 degrees Celsius was expected there. JAC
AUDIT CHAMBER RATCHETS UP THE PRESSURE ON ST. PETERSBURG GOVERNOR
The Audit Chamber on 31 March accused St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev of "systematically ignoring Audit Chamber decisions," RIA-Novosti reported. According to the chamber's information and public-relations department, the chamber has not yet received an answer to a letter it issued about the alleged misallocation of more than 1 million rubles ($32,000) intended for local road construction. The chamber has been conducting an audit of expenditures of federal funds by municipal authorities for preparations for the city's 300th anniversary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February and 24 March 2003). In April, the Audit Chamber will check whether Yakovlev has taken any measures in response to its earlier findings, and if not, will "take legal steps against the St. Petersburg administration." JAC
LOCAL MUSLIM LEADER KILLED
The leader of the local Muslim community in Tolyatti was killed in his home by a blow to the head, islam.ru reported on 31 March. Abdol-Karim Tajoddinov became the imam-khatib for Tolyatti in 1997 following the construction of a mosque in that city. In October of that year, the chairman of the mosque, Irek Karimov, was the victim of an attack that left him crippled. According to the website, Tajoddinov had to leave the mosque soon after that incident, and he formed a religious group that teaches Arabic and the basics of Islam to local Muslims. Akhmet Makhmetov, director of the press service of the Central Islamic Spiritual Board of Holy Russia for the Volga District, called the "murder of the imam-khatib a dangerous precedent, illustrating serious problems in the social consciousness of the residents of Tolyatti." JAC
MOSCOW COURT ACQUITS AZERBAIJANI BUSINESSMAN
Moscow's Golovinskii Raion court on 31 March acquitted Azerbaijani businessman Fizuli Mamedov (a.k.a. Frank Alcapone) of charges of possession of more than 1 kilogram of heroin, Turan reported. The prosecutor on 17 March had demanded a 14-year prison term, but the court ruled that the prosecution did not furnish evidence that Mamedov had committed any crime. He was arrested in Moscow, where he lives, in June 2001, and has consistently claimed that he is innocent and that the drugs found on his person and in his apartment were planted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2001). LF
OSCE ADVOCATES FURTHER EFFORTS TO PROMOTE POLITICAL SETTLEMENT IN CHECHNYA
Ambassador Christian Strohal, the new director of the OSCE'S Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, told the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna on 27 March that the 23 March referendum on a new Chechen constitution and election legislation must be followed by "a serious effort by all sides to engage in a sustained political process bridging the divide between Moscow and the Chechen people," according to a 28 March statement posted on the OSCE website (http://www.osce.org/news/show_news.php?id=3153). He stressed that the ODIHR is ready to support that process of rapprochement. LF
RUSSIAN OMBUDSMAN CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION OF CHECHEN MASS GRAVES
Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 31 March, Oleg Mironov said that mass graves in Chechnya should be opened in order to identify those buried there, to determine whether they were killed by federal forces or Chechen gunmen, and then to give the victims a dignified burial, Interfax reported. At the same time, Mironov rejected the recent proposal by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Deputy Rudolf Bindig to establish an international tribunal to investigate alleged war crimes committed in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 6 March 2003). Mironov expressed approval of a proposed amnesty for Chechen fighters, but argued that it should also extend to Russian servicemen convicted of minor crimes committed while serving in Chechnya, ITAR-TASS reported. LF
ARMENIAN AUTHORITIES WARN AGAINST FURTHER OPPOSITION PROTESTS
People's Party of Armenia chairman Stepan Demirchian and several other leading members of the opposition Artarutiun bloc were summoned on 31 March to the Prosecutor-General's Office in Yerevan and warned that they risk unspecified legal action if they continue to convene protest demonstrations in Yerevan without obtaining official permission in advance, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Parliament deputy Aramayis Berseghian told RFE/RL that the opposition leaders refused to sign an official statement acknowledging receipt of that warning. Meanwhile, the Armenian Justice Ministry gave the number of persons detained for participating in unauthorized demonstrations between 17-25 March as 132, of whom 69 have been sentenced to short jail terms, and the remainder fined and released. LF
AZERBAIJANI PARLIAMENT DEPUTY CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT'S BACKING OF WAR WITH IRAQ
In his maiden speech to the Milli Mezhlis on 31 March, Gudrat Gasankuliev, who heads a splinter group of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, criticized the Azerbaijani leadership for joining the anti-Iraq coalition in what he termed an attempt to secure the international community's approval of its neglect of domestic political problems, Turan reported. Noting that the constitution requires that the legislature approve any alignment with a military coalition, Gasankuliev demanded that the Foreign Ministry present a formal explanation to the legislature. Gasankuliev, whom many opposition politicians and political observers believe enjoys the covert support of the Azerbaijani leadership, was elected in a by-election last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2003). LF
AZERBAIJANI FOREIGN MINISTER WARNS IRAQI REFUGEES NOT TO SETTLE IN NAGORNO-KARABAKH
Vilayat Guliev has warned ethnic Armenian refugees from Iraq against settling in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), according to zerkalo.az on 1 April. Guliev said that any who do so will one day have to flee the disputed enclave. Noyan Tapan on 31 March quoted the head of the NKR government's Migration and Refugee Affairs Department, Serge Amirkhanian, as saying he has received no notification from Yerevan concerning the possible resettlement in Karabakh of Armenians from Iraq. LF
AZERBAIJAN CALLS FOR INTERNATIONAL INSPECTION OF KARABAKH
Azerbaijani government spokesman Fuad Akhundov has proposed that the international community -- in the first instance, the Council of Europe -- insist on the dispatch to the unrecognized NKR of a team of inspectors comparable to those sent under the UN aegis to Iraq, Interfax reported on 31 March. Akhundov repeated earlier claims by senior Azerbaijani officials that the NKR hosts international terrorist bases and condones the cultivation and trafficking of drugs. He reasoned that the region poses a greater threat to Europe than does Iraq because of its geographic proximity. LF
OSCE AMBASSADORS, HIGH COMMISSIONER VISIT GEORGIA
A group of 22 ambassadors to the OSCE, including German Ambassador Dieter Boden who previously served as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict, has recently visited Tbilisi and Sukhum, Caucasus Press reported on 31 March. During talks in the Abkhaz capital, they advised the Abkhaz leadership to consider as a basis for resolving the conflict with Tbilisi the 2002 document drafted by Boden. The Abkhaz leadership has consistently refused to consider that draft, which is based on the premise that Abkhazia is an integral part of Georgia. Abkhaz Vice President Valerii Arshba told the visiting ambassadors that Georgia is sabotaging the settlement process by refusing to withdraw the troops it deployed last year in the Kodori Gorge. Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia said he sees no reason why the OSCE should become involved in mediating a solution to the Abkhaz conflict, as the UN already plays the leading role in doing so, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 March. The ambassadors also held talks in Tbilisi with President Eduard Shevardnadze, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, and Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze, Caucasus Press reported on 28 and 31 March. On 26 March, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Rolf Ekeus visited Sukhum to discuss with Abkhaz officials arrangements for providing Georgian-language instruction in schools for the children of Georgian displaced persons who return to Abkhazia under the agreement recently reached between Russia, Georgia, and Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. LF
GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTY ACCUSES AUTHORITIES OF OPPRESSION
Members of the opposition Revival Union parliament faction told a press conference in Tbilisi on 29 March that faction members and rank-and-file party members have repeatedly been attacked over the previous three weeks, Caucasus Press reported. The assailants reportedly told their victims they are being targeted because of their membership of the union. Faction leader Djemal Gogitidze said that if the reprisals continue, the faction will begin collecting signatures in a bid to impeach President Shevardnadze and ministers responsible for maintaining law and order. LF
GEORGIAN PENITENTIARY SYSTEM CRIPPLED BY DEBT
Paata Mkheidze, who is the Georgian Justice Ministry official responsible for administering the country's prisons, was quoted by Caucasus Press on 28 March as saying that water supplies to prisons might soon be cut off because of debts for previous supplies amounting to 2.2 million laris ($1.01 million). The prison system's annual budget for 2003 is 9.4 million laris, according to "Mtavari gazeti" on 31 March. Other debts reportedly include 520,000 laris for electricity, 55,000 laris for fuel, and 879,000 laris in unpaid wages to prison personnel. Telephone connections with some prisons have been disconnected because of outstanding bills. LF
ABKHAZ PREMIER ADMITS TO INTERNAL CRISIS
Abkhaz Prime Minister Gagulia has issued a statement acknowledging that "the country is in crisis" and affirming his government's readiness for "active dialogue with all political parties and organizations that are interested in the democratic development of the republic," Caucasus Press reported on 1 April. But Gagulia again rejected calls by Amtsakhara, a public political movement uniting veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia, that his government resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003). On 29 March, Amtsakhara members convened in Sukhum to discuss tactics following talks with ailing Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba, Caucasus Press reported. Amtsakhara co-Chairman Vladimir Nachach-ogly said after the 29 March meeting that the movement is ready for constructive dialogue with the government, and for cooperation with all political parties and movements. He added that Amtsakhara has drafted programs for economic development and constitutional reform. But at the same time, he stressed that the organization's demand for the government's resignation remains in force. LF
KAZAKH PRESIDENT ASSESSES PRESS FREEDOM
Speaking to the first session of the Public Council on the Mass Media on 31 March, Nursultan Nazarbaev warned that freedom of speech does not mean a lack of control, or convey the right to damage reputations, or free the media from their responsibility to society, khabar.kz reported. Listing Kazakhstan's achievements in guaranteeing freedom of speech, Nazarbaev included the recent law on the mass media, the abolition of censorship and of the state monopoly in the media, tax breaks for broadcast and print media, and the distribution of government procurement orders to both state and private media. The president asserted that 80 percent of Kazakhstan's mass media are independent and asked that the media work in partnership with government officials. He expressed the hope that disputes between state and media can be dealt with in a civilized way. The country's independent journalists would likely disagree with much, if not all, of Nazarbaev's assessment, seeing it as justification for restrictive government policies and the harassment of critical journalists. The council was set up in December, and it comprises government officials, representatives of the mass media, and parliamentarians. BB
KAZAKH SECURITY OFFICIALS BREAK UP DRUG RING
Kazakhstan's National Security Committee issued a press release on 31 March reporting that security officers broke up a drug-smuggling ring after 60 kilograms of heroin were found on 27 March in the car of four gang members, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the same day. One of the detainees was a Tajik citizen, and the rest were citizens of Kazakhstan. According to the committee, the gang has been engaged in smuggling large quantities of heroin for a long time. Most of the drugs were reportedly intended for shipment to Russia. BB
KAZAKH BORDER TROOPS CONDUCT ANTITERRORISM EXERCISES
While the Kazakh military conducts large-scale exercises in the western part of the country, border troops launched their own exercise on the eastern border on 31 March, ITAR-TASS and khabar.kz reported, citing information from the National Security Committee's Border Service. The purpose of the exercise is to develop tactics to be used in case of infiltration by "international criminals and extremists." National-security and law enforcement agencies are to collaborate with the border troops during the exercise. BB
KAZAKHSTAN PROHIBITS SMOKING IN PUBLIC PLACES
As of 1 April, smoking in public places is prohibited in Kazakhstan, khabar.kz reported on 31 March. The official news service warned that this is not an April Fool's Day joke. The prohibition applies specifically to schools, universities, hospitals, cinemas, theaters, exhibitions, and taxis. Blowing smoke at government officials is also forbidden. Khabar.kz noted that according to government data, some 25,000 people die in Kazakhstan each year from the effects of smoking. BB
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT CALLS FOR WAR ON CORRUPTION
Askar Akaev told a Security Council session on 31 March that corruption in the country is threatening to undermine the system of government and called for stronger efforts to combat it, akipress.org, Interfax, and ITAR-TASS reported. Akaev cited polls conducted by the UN Development Program that show a widespread belief among citizens that corruption is the main cause of the country's economic problems. He acknowledged that around the country bribes are extorted in governmental, educational, and medical institutions. Akaev called for the adoption of a national strategy on good governance that would increase the responsibility of bureaucrats for the professional and conscientious performance of their duties, adding that Kyrgyzstan's current laws are too lenient. In Akaev's view, the Chinese example of harsh punishments for corrupt officials ought to be adopted in Kyrgyzstan. BB
TURKMENISTAN EXTRADITES TURKISH CITIZENS ALLEGEDLY INVOLVED IN ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Turkmenistan handed over to Turkish officials on 31 March six citizens of Turkey who were allegedly involved in the purported November 2002 assassination attempt against Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, turkmenistan.ru, the Azerbaijani news agency Turan, and Interfax reported. The Turkmen authorities are reportedly negotiating with Russia and the United States deals under which the citizens of those countries would be returned to the homelands and tried there for their alleged roles in the assassination attempt. The Prosecutor-General's Office asserts that 16 foreigners took part in the assassination plot, including five Russians and one U.S. citizen. In its proposal to Turkey, Russia, and the United States to take back their citizens for trial at home, the Turkmen side promised to provide "all necessary evidence for holding the terrorists liable for the crimes committed in Turkmenistan." BB
NEW CHIEF OF STAFF IN UZBEKISTAN
Uzbek President Islam Karimov appointed a new chief of staff on 31 March, uza.uz and uzreport.com reported. He is Lieutenant General Tolqin Djumaev, who will also hold the post of first deputy defense minister. He previously commanded the Southwestern Military District. He replaces Colonel General Tolqin Qosimov. The official announcement merely reported that Qosimov has been dismissed, but did not say why. BB
BELARUS VOWS TO SUPPORT CUBA
Belarus will continue to support Cuba's efforts to preserve its sovereignty and to have the U.S. economic blockade lifted, Belarusian Prime Minister Henadz Navitski told Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque in Minsk on 31 March, Belapan reported. Roque expressed satisfaction with his three-day visit to Belarus. He said Cuba admires the Belarusian people for their "resistance to external pressure." The same day, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka assured Roque that Belarus will find a way to fill a gap in its trade with Cuba. Trade between the two countries totaled $32 million in 2002, with Belarus's exports amounting to $5.3 million. Cuba sells raw sugar to Belarus and imports potash fertilizers, tires, pumps, engines, tractors, trucks, and spare parts. JM
BELARUSIAN, RUSSIAN EXPERTS FINALIZE DRAFT OF UNION CONSTITUTION
Experts from Belarus and Russia on 31 March finalized a draft Constitutional Act of the Russia-Belarus Union, Belapan reported. Under the draft, the governing bodies in the union would be the Supreme State Council, the parliament, the Council of Ministers, and the union court. The draft suggests that the Belarusian and Russian leaders should rotate the chairmanship of the Supreme State Council. The common Belarusian-Russian state would have a flag, an emblem, and other attributes of statehood. The union would also have a single currency. The union governing bodies would be in charge of creating a common economic space -- thus establishing the legal framework for common market, monetary, tax, and price policies; a common transport and energy system; and trade, customs, and tariff policies with regard to third countries and international organizations. The countries would have to unify foreign investment and other laws. The union parliament would be bicameral, comprising the Union Chamber (upper house) and the House of Representatives. JM
KYIV DENIES SELLING ANTITANK MISSILES TO IRAQ...
Foreign Ministry spokesman Markiyan Lubkivskyy on 1 April denied that Ukraine has supplied antitank Kornet missiles to Iraq, UNIAN reported. "Newsweek" reported on 31 March that Iraq has purchased 1,000 laser-guided Kornet missiles. The magazine cited unidentified Pentagon generals as saying that Ukrainian dealers sold about 500 Kornets to Iraq in January. According to Lubkivskyy, the report is "yet another attempt" to undermine Ukraine's international standing. JM
...AND ALLOWING WASHINGTON TO MENTION UKRAINE AMONG 'COALITION OF THE WILLING'
Lubkivskyy also told journalists that the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has never asked the United States to consider Ukraine a member of the "anti-Iraqi coalition," according to UNIAN. He was apparently referring to a statement made on 29 March by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual, who said Kyiv consented to the U.S. request that Ukraine be mentioned during a speech U.S. President George W. Bush gave last week in Tampa, Florida, as a supporter of the U.S.-led military action against Iraq. JM
ESTONIAN PARLIAMENT ELECTS NEW LEADERSHIP
The first session of the newly elected parliament elected Estonian Academy of Sciences Vice President Ene Ergma as its speaker on 31 March, BNS reported. Ergma was chosen by a vote of 66 to three, with 30 invalid ballots. The 58-year-old Res Publica member is an astrophysicist who worked at the Astronomy Council in Moscow in 1972-88 and from 1988 at Tartu University. The parliament also elected Toomas Savi of the Reform Party (57 votes) and Peeter Kreitzberg of the Center Party (27 votes) as parliament deputy chairmen. Peeter Tulviste of the Pro Patria Union received 11 votes and was not elected. President Arnold Ruutel urged the parliament to pass laws that will help end inequalities in regional development, strengthen the vocational education system, increase funding for cultural programs, and increase the availability of social assistance and medical aid. SG
SWEDISH DEFENSE MINISTER VISITS LATVIA
Leni Bjorklund began a two-day visit to Latvia on 31 March with talks with her Latvian counterpart Girts Valdis Kristovskis, LETA reported. She said Latvia's expected membership of NATO will promote security in the Baltic Sea region and that Sweden will continue its active cooperation with Latvia in military operations and security matters even though it does not intend to join NATO soon. Bjorklund and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga discussed bilateral relations, regional cooperation, Europe's collective security, NATO enlargement, and the war in Iraq, BNS reported. They expressed support for the involvement of the United Nations in the reconstruction of Iraq following the current military operation as well as the establishment of a democratic Iraq. Bjorklund also met with Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete. SG
GAZPROM-LED CONSORTIUM SIGNS DEAL ON PURCHASING LITHUANIAN POWER PLANT
A consortium comprising Russia's gas giant Gazprom, the U.S.-based Clement Power Venture, and the local company Dujotekana signed an agreement on 31 March to purchase the Kaunas thermal-power plant from the utility Kauno Energija (Kaunas Energy), ELTA reported. The consortium agreed to pay 116.5 million litas ($36.4 million) for the plant, of which 90 million litas must be paid within five days, and to invest a minimum of 400 million litas in the future. Gazprom purchased 99 percent of the plant's shares, and the other two partners 0.5 percent each. However, by December the shares will be redistributed so that Gazprom will own 51 percent; Clement Power Venture, 25 percent; and Dujotekana, 24 percent. Gazprom will be responsible for supplying natural gas to the plant, Clement Power Venture will deal with the plant's expansion and upgrading, and Dujotekana will oversee operations. The purchase agreement stipulates that rates for Kaunas residents, who receive heating supplies from the plant, will not be increased for five years. SG
POLISH MILITARY LEADERS ARE CRITICAL OF U.S.-LED OPERATION IN IRAQ
Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski on 31 March said the way the operation in Iraq is progressing has been influenced by its timing, which, he said, was poorly chosen, Polish Radio reported. "The way this operation is progressing is not a surprise because in our opinion, of the General Staff and mine as well, the operation started very late or almost too late as far as climatic conditions are concerned," Szmajdzinski said. According to the deputy chief of the General Staff, General Lech Konopka, air raids by the coalition forces in Iraq have not brought expected results. The general emphasized that the coalition's actions were slowed by poor reconnaissance. Szmajdzinski said that 186 Polish troops are currently taking part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. JM
POLISH PRESIDENT SIGNS LAW ON REFERENDUMS
President Aleksander Kwasniewski has signed a law on national referendums under which Poles will take part in a referendum on Poland's EU accession, PAP reported on 31 March. The referendum will most likely be held on 8 June and will last one or two days. The final decision on whether to hold such a referendum will be made by the Sejm. The length of the referendum will be decided by the Sejm or the president with the approval of the Senate. The result of the referendum will be binding if voter turnout exceeds 50 percent. If the majority of voters favor Poland's EU membership, then the president will be able to ratify the EU Accession Treaty. If turnout is lower than 50 percent, the Sejm may pass another resolution on choosing a way to express consent for the ratification of the treaty, the agency added. JM
POLISH OFFICER GETS SUSPENDED SENTENCE FOR DISOBEYING ORDERS
Ryszard Chwastek, a retired army colonel, was sentenced by the Poznan District Military Court on 31 March to one year in prison suspended for two years, PAP reported. The court also ruled that he be demoted to a lower military rank. Chwastek was charged with organizing an unauthorized news conference on 6 August 2002, during which he accused the defense minister and high-ranking army officials of breaking the law and mismanaging reforms in the Polish armed forces (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 13 August 2002). JM
CZECH POLICE, JUDICIARY TARGETED IN U.S. RIGHTS REPORT
The U.S. State Department offered a generally positive assessment of human rights practices in the Czech Republic in its annual report issued on 31 March, but it noted lingering weaknesses in law enforcement and the courts, in addition to persistent problems in combating violence against women, children, and the Romany minority, according to the State Department website (http://www.state.gov). "Occasional police violence and use of excessive force remained a problem," according to the assessment, which alleges that Czech police are slow to act in cases of threats against Roma. "Long delays in trials were a problem, due to structural and procedural deficiencies as well as a lack of resources for the judicial system," it adds. The report also cites violence against women and children -- including domestic violence, rape, and human trafficking -- as continuing problems. "Discrimination and occasional skinhead violence against Roma remained problems," the report adds. The annual review concedes growing access for the handicapped in the Czech Republic, but says that "many buildings and means of public transportation remained inaccessible to those in wheelchairs." AH
CZECH CABINET RENEGES ON CONTROVERSIAL HIGHWAY DEAL
Cabinet ministers on 31 March backed out of a multibillion-dollar contract with an Israeli company to build an 81-kilometer stretch of highway in the eastern part of the country, the daily "Hospodarske noviny" reported the next day. The paper cited the Transportation Ministry as saying the move is likely to lower the price tag on the project from more than $4 billion to about $2.6 billion. The D47 highway will also be ready one year earlier, in 2008 rather than 2009, ministry sources said. The contract with builder Housing & Construction, which reportedly contains penalties for withdrawal, was signed in the absence of a tender by the former government of Milos Zeman in its last hours in power and has been held up by critics as evidence of continued corruption in government. A "Hospodarske noviny" commentary on 1 April pointed out that the cabinet move came just one day after Premier Vladimir Spidla defeated the "Zeman wing" at a Social Democratic Party conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003). AH
CZECH LAWMAKERS APPROVE EU ACCESSION TREATY
The Czech Parliament on 31 March voted to approve the country's accession treaty, paving the way for the prime minister to sign the document at the upcoming EU summit in mid-April, CTK reported. All of the candidate states' leaders are expected to sign their countries onto the roughly 5,000-page treaty, which is identical for all 10 invitees. Czechs are expected to vote in a referendum on EU membership in June, with growing support despite a low level of enthusiasm for the EU in comparison with other postcommunist countries in the region. AH
U.S. RIGHTS REPORT STRESSES SLOVAK CORRUPTION, DISCRIMINATION
The U.S. State Department's annual human-rights-practices report of 31 March highlights "corruption and inefficiency within the judiciary" in Slovakia in 2002, along with police abuses and "considerable societal discrimination" aimed at Roma, according to the text of the report on the State Department website. "The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in some areas," the report says. It points to beatings and abuse by police, "particularly [of] Roma," and notes that security forces continued to commit rights abuses despite some improvement in their performance. The State Department cites as "problems" domestic violence against women and children, and trafficking in women, especially Roma. AH
SLOVAKIA TO MODERNIZE BORDER CONTROLS
Slovakia will receive 48 million euros ($52 million) from the EU to monitor its border with Ukraine and combat illegal immigration, CTK reported on 31 March, citing Interior Minister Vladimir Palko. Slovakia must build a new border-control system equipped with radios and infrared sensors as a condition for accession to the EU, he said. Slovak President Rudolf Schuster visited the border crossing at Vysne Nemecke on 31 March and said he is happy the new controls will be enacted so Slovakia "does not bring shame on ourselves after accession to the European Union." Tibor Mako, head of Slovakia's border police, said some 2,399 illegal immigrants, mostly from Bangladesh and China, were caught trying to cross the Slovak-Ukrainian border in 2002, 450 more than in 2001. In 2000, police caught 6,000 people trying to cross the border illegally. BW
SLOVAKIA'S MAIN ETHNIC HUNGARIAN PARTY RE-ELECTS LEADER
Imrich Bugar, deputy chairman of the Slovak parliament, was re-elected on 29 March to lead the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), CTK reported the same day. Bugar ran unopposed for the leadership of the SMK, which is a member of Slovakia's four-party ruling coalition. Other parties in the government praised Bugar's election. Lubomir Lintner, leader of the Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) party's parliamentary caucus, called it "a good step" and described Bugar as "one of the most stabilizing figures in post-1993 Slovak politics," TASR reported. Milan Hort, leader of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) caucus, praised Bugar as being "one of the guarantees of the ongoing reform process." The SMK's power base lies in the more than 500,000 ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, about 11 percent of the country's population. BW
NO MORE IRAQI TRAINEES EXPECTED AT HUNGARIAN BASE
The United States will soon discontinue its training of Iraqi oppositionists at Hungary's Taszar military air base, the MTI news agency reported on 31 March. The first group of roughly 50 Iraqi volunteers trained at the base is already in Iraq, reportedly helping with the distribution of food-aid shipments. The second group, of 26 people, has now left Hungary; its primary task will be to assist the work of aid organizations. Authorization provided by the Hungarian government allowed for as many as 3,000 Iraqis to be trained at the air base. In the end, only about 100 volunteers were trained in two stages, MTI reported. MSZ
HUNGARIAN SOLDIERS, POLICE, FIREFIGHTERS PROTEST WAGE FREEZE
Unions representing 80,000 soldiers, police, and firefighters on 31 March launched 10 days of demonstrations outside parliament to protest government-imposed wage freezes for the remainder of 2003, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 1 April. The Interest Protection Federation of Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Workers (ERDESZ), which comprises seven separate unions, appealed to Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy and Prime Minister's Office head Peter Kiss, seeking guarantees that members will not face a decline in real wages this year. ERDESZ has set up a transparent mailbox outside the parliament building, where it will collect protest letters from its members. MSZ
SERBIAN POLICE PREPARING TO CAPTURE TOP MURDER SUSPECT...
Unidentified Serbian police told AP in Belgrade on 1 April that they are "closing in" on Milorad Lukovic "Legija," the former leader of the elite Red Berets unit and the prime suspect in organizing the recent murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March 2003). The police added that their recent discovery of a Yugoslav diplomatic passport issued to Lukovic as well as a forged Croatian passport in his name will "speed up" the hunt considerably. The police noted that the assassination "clearly points to a conspiracy led by war criminals and war profiteers,... all from the ranks of [former President Slobodan] Milosevic's regime." Elsewhere, the government pledged to investigate charges that some of the media might have had links to police, security, or criminal elements involved in the killing, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM
...AND SEEK ARREST WARRANT FOR FORMER PRESIDENT'S WIFE
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac said in Belgrade on 31 March that the authorities are seeking an international arrest warrant for Mirjana Markovic, the wife of Milosevic, in connection with the murder in 2000 of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003). He noted that she might have left the country immediately after losing her parliamentary immunity following the dissolution of the former Yugoslav legislature in February. Korac added that Stambolic will soon be reburied with full state honors. PM
KOSOVAR SPOKESMAN SLAMS SERBIAN LEADER
Veton Surroi, who is Kosova's best-known journalist and a political figure in his own right, has called for Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic to resign his position as Belgrade's point man for Kosova, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 31 March. Surroi said a recent statement by Covic against Kosovar independence -- in which the Serbian leader used phrases such as "unavoidable conflict" and "set the Balkans in flames again" -- recalled the language often used by Milosevic, which is anathema to Kosovars. Elsewhere, Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service that Covic's statement was aimed at mobilizing Kosova's Serbian minority to prevent any transfer of functions from the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) to elected Kosovar institutions. Rexhepi stressed that "the time of the Serbian threat" to Kosova is now past, and that the province's final status will be clear by 2005 at the latest. PM
MACEDONIA AND ALBANIA STAGE JOINT EXERCISE
An unspecified number of Macedonian and Albanian troops held a daylong joint exercise near Skopje on 31 March aimed at bringing their forces up to NATO standards, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002). Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski said that "this was the first bilateral exercise of Albanian and Macedonian soldiers." Albania recently took a step toward improving relations by denying entry to a man whom Macedonia claims is a leader of an underground insurgent group. PM
BOSNIAN SERBS SAY THEIR LEADER CANNOT BE FIRED
Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic and Dusan Stojicic, who heads the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on 31 March that High Representative Paddy Ashdown has no authority to sack Mirko Sarovic as the Serbian member of the joint Bosnian Presidency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003). Cavic added that a sacking would "complicate the political situation, not only in the Republika Srpska but in Bosnia" as a whole. Ashdown has not said whether he will fire Sarovic in connection with the latter's alleged role in illegal arms sales to Iraq, but regional media have speculated for several days that Ashdown will indeed sack Sarovic. PM
HAGUE TRIBUNAL SENTENCES TWO PROMINENT ETHNIC CROATS
The war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia sentenced prominent paramilitaries Mladen Naletilic "Tuta" and Vinko Martinovic "Stela" to 20 and 18 years' imprisonment, respectively, for their roles in the persecution, expulsion, and torture of Muslims from Herzegovina in 1993, Reuters reported from The Hague on 31 March. Naletilic was also found guilty of using Muslim prisoners as decoys to draw fire from their own forces away from Bosnian Croat troops. The tribunal found him guilty of a total of eight and Martinovic of nine counts of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and breaches of the Geneva Convention on the conduct and customs of war. PM
NATO LEADER HAILS CROATIA'S PROGRESS
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said in Zagreb on 31 March that "a lot of progress has been made by Croatia in satisfying the standards laid down for membership of NATO, and the armed forces of Croatia are making determined efforts to reach the standards that would allow them to integrate within the NATO armed forces," dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002). He and Croatian President Stipe Mesic discussed the war in Iraq -- which Mesic opposes -- and the security situation in the Balkans following Djindjic's assassination. Robertson noted that "Djindjic's murder will affect the entire region" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 25 March 2003). Robertson added that "although it is not involved in the conflict in Iraq, NATO is searching for ways how to help its member, Turkey. There are divisions in the UN, EU, and NATO about how [Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] should be disarmed. NATO's priority at the moment is to provide defense for Turkey, one of the NATO countries that is next door to Iraq." PM
ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT SURVIVES NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE RELATED TO ANTICORRUPTION LEGISLATION...
A parliamentary vote of no confidence in the government failed on 31 March by a vote of 281 to 163, Romanian media reported. The Greater Romania Party, the National Liberal Party, and the Democratic Party initiated the motion in the wake of the Social Democratic Party-dominated cabinet's "assumption of responsibility" for a package of 17 bills to fight corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19, 20, and 21 March 2003). Extremist Greater Romania Party Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor said the mafia has "paralyzed" the entire state structure and that "the only law that truly functions" is the "law of the jungle." National Liberal Party Deputy Crin Antonescu said the package represents only an image-saving "operation," and that the "first and most important measure for combating corruption is the dismissal of the government." Premier Adrian Nastase replied that opposition parties oppose the measures because they affect some of their members. ZsM
...AS BRITISH AMBASSADOR SAYS CORRUPTION IS A 'MAJOR PROBLEM IN ROMANIA'
British Ambassador to Romania Quinton Quayle said in a press release on 31 March that "corruption is a major problem in Romania that affects negatively the business environment and the public administration's efficiency," Mediafax reported. Quayle added the British government "firmly supports" measures against corruption, which he said discourages foreign investment. He further added that considering Romania's NATO and EU accession prospects, it is essential that Romania not only adopts, but also correctly implements European legislation. Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest said in an interview with Romanian Radio that he hopes the anticorruption measures will be adopted by parliament and implemented quickly. He added that the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest is ready to support the law's immediate implementation. ZsM
TRANSDNIESTER DENIES IT PLANS TO DECLARE STATE OF WAR
Tiraspol authorities have denied making any preparations for declaring a state of war in the Transdniester region, Flux reported, citing a report by the Transdniester's official Olvia press agency. Tiraspol dismissed these accusations as "propagandistic hysteria," arguing the region's Defense Council on 27 March merely discussed regional issues relating to the Iraq crisis. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin on 27 March claimed that Tiraspol authorities intend to announce a general mobilization of military forces and to declare a state of war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 March 2003). Meanwhile, Voronin said in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Moldova Pamela Hyde Smith on 31 March that he sees a real opportunity to continue talks on resolving the Transdniester conflict, Infotag reported. ZsM
RULING COALITION CANCELS BULGARTABAC PRIVATIZATION
At a joint session on 31 March, the governing coalition of National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) and the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) decided to cancel the privatization of the Bulgartabac tobacco monopoly, mediapool.bg reported. The privatization deal was called off because the potential buyer, Tobacco Capital Partners, which is backed by the Deutsche Bank, failed to meet some of the key demands made by the government. No agreement could be reached over the demand that Deutsche Bank should remain the sole owner of Bulgartabac for at least five years. According to Economy Minister Nikolay Vasilev, Tobacco Capital Partners is owned by an offshore company. The prospective buyer also failed to present a $32.6 million bank guarantee. "In the negotiations about Bulgartabac we defended the national interests," bnn quoted Finance Minister Milen Velchev as saying. "It would be good if they had finished successfully; however, it is better to have no agreement rather than an agreement that does not guarantee the national interests." UB
BULGARIAN MINISTER SAYS COURT RULING DOES NOT AFFECT EU-ACCESSION NEGOTIATIONS
European Affairs Minister Meglena Kuneva said on 31 March that she does not expect the country's negotiations with the EU to be affected by the Supreme Administrative Court's 28 March ruling that an agreement between the EU and Bulgaria regarding the closure of two blocks of the Kozloduy nuclear-power plant is invalid, "Standard" reported. Kuneva and Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi have asked legal experts of their ministries to analyze the court ruling. On the basis of this analysis, the cabinet will decide on further action. According to Kuneva, the court ruling is legally binding only in Bulgaria, but does not affect the country's international agreements. The court ruled that the agreement between the EU and Bulgaria under which Bulgaria was to close down blocks No. 3 and No. 4 of the plant prior to the country's EU accession, which is expected for 2007, is invalid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003). UB
BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT SACKS CONTROVERSIAL OFFICIAL
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski announced on 31 March that the government will dismiss Redzhep Molla Ahmed, the deputy administrator of Pazardzhik Oblast who in a 29 March speech demanded that Turkish be introduced as the official language in the Rhodope Mountains and that Christians be expelled from the region, "Sega" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003). Saxecoburggotski said such statements are deplorable in a society that is an example of tolerance. Ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) Chairman Ahmed Dogan indicated that his party will consider expelling Molla Ahmed. UB
IRAQ WAR PRESENTS SOUTH CAUCASUS STATES WITH NEW CONCERNS, ROLES, OPPORTUNITIES
The leaderships of the three South Caucasus states have adopted widely varying positions with regard to the war in Iraq, and those positions have been articulated on different levels. Whereas in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Foreign Ministry has been the primary source of official statements, in Georgia President Eduard Shevardnadze has set the agenda by affirming unconditional support for the United States.
Of the three states, only Armenia does not figure in U.S. President George W. Bush's 49-member "coalition of the willing." The Armenian Foreign Ministry has consistently opposed any military action against Iraq without the endorsement of the UN Security Council, calling instead for Iraq to disarm peacefully and voluntarily in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions. As for the possible impact on Armenia of the Iraq war, President Robert Kocharian, in one of his very few public comments on the issue, predicted that the economic impact for Armenia would be negligible.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry has identified two interrelated concerns. The first is the Armenian minority in Iraq, which is estimated to number between 15,000-20,000 people. The Foreign Ministry has been preparing to grant visas to those Armenians to travel to Armenia. The second is the possibility of a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq which, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on Armenian Public Television on 24 March, could endanger an Armenian-populated village in the region. Any Armenian casualties at the hands of the Turkish military would inevitably revive memories of the 1915 genocide and thus constitute a major obstacle to the normalization of relations to which both countries aspire.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan have both formally denied media reports that the United States has requested the use of one or more military airfields in Armenia for the duration of the war in Iraq.
Azerbaijan figures among the coalition of the willing, even though, as Iraq's ambassador to Baku recently noted, no member of the Azerbaijani leadership has expressed unequivocal support for U.S. military action against Iraq. Asked in late February on the eve of his departure for the United States to outline Baku's position, President Heidar Aliev said it had already been formulated in a Foreign Ministry statement. That statement called on Iraq to disarm voluntarily in compliance with UN resolutions and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 5 February report to the UN Security Council. Aliev also said on 25 February that the United States had not invited Azerbaijan to join the coalition against Iraq, according to Interfax.
In a second statement on 21 March, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry expressed its "deep concern" over developments in Iraq and called on Baghdad "to meet fully the requirements" of UN Security Council resolutions 678, 687, and 1441, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. The statement further expressed support for international efforts to resolve the crisis and urged "strict observance of international law" during military operations. Interfax on 21 March also quoted Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev as saying on 21 March that the United States has asked Azerbaijan for unspecified assistance in connection with the war in Iraq. Abiev said Azerbaijan might make its airspace available, but will not send troops. He said it is too early to say whether Azerbaijani forces might participate in peacekeeping operations in Iraq.
"Turan" on 25 March quoted Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev as saying that Baku is still considering how to respond to the U.S. request to all countries in which Iraq has diplomatic representations to ask its diplomats to leave. In what might be a bid to win the respect of Iran and of moderate Arab states, Guliev highlighted Azerbaijan's concern at the possibility that Muslim shrines in Iraq could be damaged during the hostilities. He suggested that Azerbaijan could send "representatives" to Iraq to protect such holy sites and that oil-industry, medical, and other specialists could participate in postwar reconstruction.
The Azerbaijani leadership's failure to affirm its unconditional support for the U.S.-led military action against Iraq might stem partly from a fear of alienating opposition formations, including the Union of Azerbaijani Forces, that have adopted a clearly pro-Iraqi position and even offered to send volunteers to fight against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The Iraqi ambassador in Baku has politely declined that offer.
Another contributing factor might be a reluctance to risk alienating Arab states and Islamic financial organizations that are considering, but have not yet made a firm commitment to, providing some funding for oil-sector projects, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 24 March. The United States, for its part, might be turning a blind eye to Azerbaijan's equivocation because of the U.S. commitment to the construction of the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil export pipeline for Caspian oil.
Georgia, in contrast to Armenia and Azerbaijan, has expressed wholehearted support for the U.S. military action against Iraq, and has offered to place its military airfields at the disposal of the United States. U.S. specialists have reportedly inspected at least one airfield, and talks were said to be under way late last week at U.S. Joint Command Headquarters in Florida on the technical and logistical issues involved.
But there are indications that Tbilisi's willingness to provide whatever help it can to the United States is not entirely altruistic: Shevardnadze has said that he anticipates that the United States will take on a more prominent role in resolving the Abkhaz conflict once the Iraq war is over. And Georgia would presumably be in a position to claim financial compensation on the lines of that Washington offered Ankara for the use of its territory to launch military operations against Iraq. The Georgian leadership might also be hoping that demonstrating the country's crucial geostrategic position might expedite its bid for NATO membership, which might otherwise be held delayed for years by the inherent weakness of Georgia's chronically underfunded armed forces.
IRAQ CALLS ON U.S., U.K. TO SURRENDER...
Iraq Television broadcast a 31 March press conference in which Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri announced that coalition forces "have no choice but to surrender" to Iraqi forces "if they want to save their lives." Calling on coalition troops to withdraw "today," Sabri said those who choose to continue fighting the Iraqi regime have "no hope for escaping the inferno that [Iraq is] preparing." He added that a continuation of the current military conflict "will flare up feelings of hatred from Arabs, Muslims, and all world nations," presumably toward the United States and its allies in the conflict. Sabri continued to promulgate the regime's propaganda, telling reporters that Iraqi forces have dealt "destructive blows" to coalition forces, spreading "fear and panic" among them. KR
...AND ADDRESSES THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT
Sabri said on 31 March with respect to the Arab League that some member states are working to "stab Iraq in the back," adding that those states "will be penalized harshly by their own people." The foreign minister contended that the Arab "masses and people" expect their governments to support Iraq. Nonetheless, he insisted, the Arab League is calling for an emergency session of the UN General Assembly and continues to seek a new UN Security Council resolution calling on coalition forces to withdraw from Iraq. Sabri once again criticized the UN Security Council for taking up the matter of the oil-for-food program in lieu of what he viewed as more pressing matters. "We hope that the United Nations will exercise its powers and avoid being a rubber stamp for the United States," he said. Iraq is seeking diplomatic support through the Nonaligned Movement and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, in addition to the Arab League and United Nations channels. KR
KRG ISSUES STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF OIL-FOR-FOOD
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) issued a statement on 30 March in support of UN Security Council Resolution 1472, which resumes the oil-for-food program, according to the regional government's website (http://www.krg.org/). The resolution also handed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan responsibility for overseeing the program. The KRG stated that previous attempts to implement oil-for-food faced obstruction by the Iraqi regime and inefficiency on the part of the UN, adding, "It is important that these primary deficiencies be deliberately addressed." The statement also called on the UN to deposit all funds due to the "13 percent account" that was established to meet the humanitarian needs of the three northern Iraqi governorates through the legal export of oil. The KRG had announced on 29 March that the Irbil and Dahuk governorates face a short supply of wheat flour, with less than 17 percent of the rations for the month of March distributed. According to the KRG announcement, the World Food Program (WFP), which administers the UN food-distribution program, informed the KRG that it will not be able to supply the northern governorates with wheat until the situation normalizes and international staff return. KR
IRAQI PRESIDENT AWARDS MEDALS TO COMMANDERS AND FIGHTERS
Iraq Television announced on 31 March that President Saddam Hussein has issued medals and badges of honor to "valiant fighters" in several divisions -- including the 45th Brigade, the Umm Qasr Force, the 11th Division (Al-Nasiriyah Force), and the Al-Faw Force -- for their service in what the regime is calling the "decisive battle" against U.S.-led forces. The announcement also stated that the families of fighters in the 45th Brigade and the 11th Division "shall be informed that we [the regime] will take care of them, and that each family shall immediately receive a sum of 2 million dinars," or about $1,000. KR
IRAQ DENIES PRESIDENT'S FAMILY HAS FLED IRAQ
Iraq Radio read a statement on 1 April from the "Presidency" to the people of Iraq denying that the family of President Hussein has fled Iraq. The president's family is part of the larger family of Iraq, the statement read. "Just as Saddam Hussein has linked his fate to his people,... the fate of the family of Saddam is not separate from the fate of the larger family." KR
CENTCOM BRIEFING HIGHLIGHTS IRAQI ASSISTANCE TO COALITION
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Deputy Director of Operations Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters during a daily briefing on 31 March that coalition forces continue to receive assistance from a variety of Iraqi sources helping to facilitate coalition attacks on Iraqi military targets, according to the military-command website (http://www.centcom.mil). Brooks said local populations, prisoners of war, and existing contacts with Iraqi civilian and military leaders are contributing to coalition activities, adding, "When we go in to do something against a Ba'ath [Party] headquarters, for example, it's based on intelligence and other information that's been provided that can be turned into action." He said information coming out of the city of Al-Basrah has enabled coalition forces to localize their attacks in an effective manner. "A number of military leaders that have been taken under [coalition] control as a result of combat actions or by raids [are] providing useful information in a number of cases that we are then...taking action on," he said. Brooks said the coalition has increased its ability to communicate with the Iraqi population on the ground in Iraq, adding, "We think that the domestic population is not seeing very much of the Iraqi regime at this point in time, and we'll continue our efforts to make sure that's the case." KR
RED CROSS VISITS IRAQI POWS IN SOUTHERN IRAQ
A 15-member team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp in southern Iraq on 31 March that houses some 3,000 Iraqi POWs, Kuwait News Agency reported the same day. Balthasar Staehelin, a representative for the ICRC, told a press conference that the team, which included a doctor and six interpreters, registered approximately 100 POWs, Reuters reported on 31 March. Staehelin said the ICRC is still awaiting Iraqi approval to visit coalition POWs being held by the Iraqi regime. "Two ministers of the Iraqi government have publicly stated they will respect the Geneva Conventions. We hope these visits can take place as rapidly as possible but for the time being, no date has been set," he said. KR
ARAB VOLUNTEERS SAID TO BE HEADED FOR IRAQ
Colonel Munir Maqdah, a Fatah commander in the Ayn al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, was cited in the "The Jerusalem Post" on 30 March as saying that hundreds of Palestinians living in Lebanon have been sent to Iraq to conduct suicide attacks against coalition forces. In an interview that appeared in Beirut's "The Daily Star" on 31 March, Maqdah denied that he sent suicide bombers to Iraq, although he acknowledged that "hundreds" of volunteers went there from Palestinian camps in Lebanon and other Arab countries before Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Maqdah said there was a notice in the camp calling for volunteers before the war began, and he admitted encouraging the Arabs to go to Iraq. "We wish we were all in Iraq fighting the Americans," he said. Some 250 Lebanese volunteers from Baalbek have headed for Iraq to fight U.S. and U.K. forces, Baalbek parliamentary representative Asim Qansu said on 30 March, according to "The Daily Star" the next day. He did not say whether they would fight conventionally or through suicide attacks. BS
U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HEADING TO ANKARA
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters in a 31 March daily briefing that Secretary of State Colin Powell will head to Ankara for talks with Turkish officials sometime during 1-3 April, a period that will also include a visit to Belgium, according to the State Department's website (http://www.state.gov). Boucher said the Turkish talks will focus on the current crisis as well as on postconflict issues in Iraq, and he noted that U.S. envoy to the Iraqi opposition Zalmay Khalilzad is meeting with Turkish officials on Iraq. Boucher referred to the continuation of talks as "a chance at a critical moment" for the two nations to "talk about what is going on in Iraq, talk about the affect on Turkey, [and] talk about many of the things we are doing together with Turkey on the war on terrorism...but also to talk to Turkey as we want to talk to others about the postwar scenarios, about how to reestablish an Iraq that has a representative government whose territorial integrity is maintained and how we can work together to do that." KR
TURKEY WALKING A TIGHTROPE?
Turkish officials have stepped up efforts to highlight Turkey's longstanding friendship with the United States in light of the National Assembly's decision in early March not to allow U.S. troops to launch activities against the Iraqi regime from Turkish soil. In light of public opinion at home, where polls indicate a majority of Turks oppose war in Iraq, the Turkish government appears to be walking an economic and political tightrope. Still, Turks pelted a U.S. military convoy outside Sanliurfa on 30 March, Reuters reported the same day. It was the second such attack in as many days: U.S. soldiers were attacked with eggs and stones in the same area on 29 March while attempting to recover pieces of a Tomahawk cruise missile. KR
IAEA HEAD PLANS TO RETURN TO IRAQ
Mohammad el-Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a statement quoted by Reuters on 31 March that the IAEA's mandate remains valid and he expects UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, the news agency reported the same day. "The IAEA mandate in Iraq is still valid and has not changed, and the IAEA is the sole body with legal authority to verify Iraq's nuclear disarmament," el-Baradei stated. He added that inspections were interrupted only as a result of the military conflict, and said, "We expect to go back with full authority after the cessation of hostilities." KR
JORDANIAN INTELLECTUALS APPEAL TO KING TO TAKE ACTION
"Al-Arab al-Yawm" on 31 March published a letter by 99 Jordanian intellectuals and politicians appealing to King Abdallah II to "promote and support the increasing international efforts by condemning" U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom. The signatories expressed "shock" at the "absence of an effective official Arab position" and stated, "It is the national, ethical, and legal duty of all Arab governments without exception, including the Jordanian government, to clearly announce that the aggression against Iraq is illegitimate." The letter added that such a stance would be in line with the one taken by France, Russia, China, and Germany, among others. KR
SCIRI DEMANDS FUTURE ROLE IN IRAQ
Seyyed Anwar al-Hakim, an associate of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), charged in a 31 March interview with ISNA that the United States does not want to give the Iraqi people a role in overthrowing the country's regime or in shaping any possible post-Saddam government. Al-Hakim said that trying to do so without the involvement of the SCIRI militia, known as the Badr (Brigade) Corps, would be very difficult. Presumably referring to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's characterization of the Badr Corps as an extension of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 March 2003), al-Hakim said: "The Iraqi opposition forces are a symbol of the Iraqi nation and represent the silenced voice of the people. Forces of the Badr are all Iraqis and have always stood with the Iraqi people. We regret to hear of the allegations made against Iran on the composition of the Badr Corps." BS
HIZBALLAH HAS PLANS FOR IRAQ
Haj Mahmud Qamati, deputy chairman of Lebanese Hizballah's Political Council, said in the 30 March issue of Beirut's "Al-Mustaqbal" daily newspaper that his organization only has offered "political and media" support to the "Iraqi resistance" so far, but he added, "We have a relationship with some factions with which we hope to develop a working plan in the future to confront the American plan, now that Iraq has become the staging point for the American plan to dominate the region." Qamati emphasized that his organization is against aggression and is not in favor of the Iraqi regime. He added that Hizballah warned that if the United States were not confronted in Afghanistan, the entire region would have to deal with it later. Qamati praised the religious leaders in the Iraqi city of Najaf who have called for resistance. BS
TEHRAN REPORTEDLY OFFERS TO TURN OVER ANSAR AL-ISLAM PERSONNEL
An anonymous source in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) said in the 31 March "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that Iranian authorities have arrested some 40 Ansar al-Islam members in the previous two days as they fled from battles in the area, and it has offered to turn them over to the PUK. The anonymous source also told the Saudi-owned London daily that members of the Kurdish Islamic Group led by Ali Bapir have escaped into Iran. A U.S. and Kurdish assault on 28 March drove Ansar al-Islam elements from their positions in northeastern Iraq toward Iran. Tehran declared previously that it closed its border to Ansar al-Islam elements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003). BS
LEBANESE CLERIC WARNS OF SECTARIAN STRIFE
Lebanese Shia spiritual leader Shaykh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah said in a 28 March sermon at the Imam Hassan Mosque in southern Beirut that the Iraqi people's resistance against U.S. and U.K. forces does not indicate their support for the regime, Hizballah's Al-Manar television reported. Rather, he said, it indicates their defense of the nation. Fadlallah inaccurately accused the United States of carrying out massacres in several Iraqi cities. He also accused the United States of promoting sectarian strife. "In their political rhetoric, the Americans want to incite strife among the Muslims in Iraq by insinuating that the Shia stand behind the occupation and that the Sunnis are those who are mounting resistance," he said. Fadlallah said the Shia always have opposed occupation and will never be at peace with the occupier. He called for Muslim unity, and said, "Let us have one voice and one position against the occupation." BS
PALESTINIAN RADICALS DEDICATE TERRORIST ACTS TO IRAQ
A member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad injured 30 Israelis in a 30 March suicide bombing meant as "a present" to the Iraqi people, as well as an anti-Israel act, according to a pamphlet carried by the bomber, dpa reported. The pamphlet identified a new suicide-bomber unit named after Ali al-Nu'mani, an Iraqi national who killed four U.S. soldiers in a 29 March suicide bombing (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 March 2003). PIJ's Al-Qods Brigade took credit for the 29 March shooting of an Israeli soldier and the firing of four rockets west of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, and it said the operation took place in the context of a general mobilization in solidarity with the Iraqi people, according to the PIJ website (http://www.qudsway.com). "Iraq is not the only target of this crusade.... The target is the entire nation." BS
ISRAEL VIEWS SYRIAN ACTIONS AS 'VERY GRAVE'
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on 1 April that Israel regards Syrian President Bashar Assad's apparent decision to grant "physical aid to the Iraqis" and his remarks that "no peace agreement can be reached with Israel" as "very grave," the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" reported, citing a Lebanese newspaper report. According to the report, when asked recently whether he views Syria as the next possible target for the United States to attack, Assad replied, "As long as Israel exists, the threat is there. As long as there is an aggression on an Arab country [Iraq] and a war on our borders, the danger is there." "Ha'aretz" asserted that Damascus continues to allow volunteers, many of them Syrians, to enter Iraq from Syria despite U.S. warnings. U.S. Secretary of State Powell said on 30 March that Syria must make a critical choice: Either continue to directly "support...terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein or...embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices, and for the consequences," "Ha'aretz" reported. AT
SCORES OF TALIBAN, INCLUDING HIGH-RANKING OFFICIALS, ARRESTED IN AFGHANISTAN...
Ghazni Province Governor Assadullah Khaled claimed on 31 March that 80 members of the Taliban -- including Sayyed Shahidkhayl Akhond, who served as deputy minister of education under the Taliban regime, and Asadullah Sadozai, former commander of security zone No. 6 -- have been arrested in ongoing sweep operations in Ghazni, Radio Afghanistan reported. Khaled added that the Taliban's and Al-Qaeda's bases in Ghazni have been destroyed, but that elements loyal to the two organizations enter Afghan territory from Waziristan in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Furthermore, he said those elements are financially supported by sympathizers in the Pakistani cities of Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar. Khaled said the arrests were made by Afghan military forces without any involvement by U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces. Khaled said the prisoners are in custody in Ghazni and will not be "handed over to any foreign country," Radio Afghanistan reported. AT
...AS TALIBAN MEMBERS REPORTEDLY KILLED, ARRESTED IN KANDAHAR
Kandahar Province Governor Gol Agha Sherzai said on 31 March that eight members of the Taliban have been killed and 13 were arrested in military operations in Oruzgan Province in the past week, Radio Afghanistan reported. Sherzai rejected a claim made by senior Taliban commander Mulla Dadullah to the BBC on 28 March in which he said the Taliban captured 60 Afghan and two U.S. soldiers in the operation. Governor Sherzai said Mulla Mohammad Zaher and Mulla Mohammad Gol were among the dead and that Mulla Abdul Razaq, the former minister of commerce in the Taliban regime, was among those arrested. Sherzai did not elaborate on the significance of the two dead persons he named, presumably because they were well-known figures in Kandahar. According to Radio Afghanistan, Sherzai personally commanded the military operations in Oruzgan, and only eight U.S. soldiers participated, performing "the duties of communications and wireless operations." AT
PAKISTAN REFUSES TRANSIT RIGHTS FOR INDIAN GOODS DESTINED FOR AFGHANISTAN...
Shoukat Aziz, the finance adviser to Pakistan's prime minister, told Afghan officials on 30 March that Islamabad has refused a request by Afghanistan to allow Indian goods to pass through the Wagah border crossing in Pakistan's Punjab Province, the Indian daily "The Hindu" reported on 1 April. Pakistan has agreed to allow Afghan exports to pass through the same border crossing to India, according to the report. The daily reported that Pakistani officials have indicated that Islamabad might consider allowing Indian-made cookies to be exported to Afghanistan, but not Indian wheat. Pakistan's the "Daily Times" reported on 31 March that Islamabad regretfully accepted Afghanistan's request to send goods to India via Pakistan, but the newspaper did not provide any explanations. Afghanistan's landlocked status makes the country dependent on Pakistan for exports to India as well as for sea shipments, and this dependency was used by Pakistan for political leverage during tensions between Kabul and Islamabad in the 1950s through the 1970s. AT
...AS ISLAMABAD TRIES TO STRENGTHEN TIES WITH KABUL
The Peshawar-based Nawa-e Dost (Melody of the Friend) radio station said in a commentary on 30 March that historically "friendly relations" between Afghanistan and Pakistan "are getting better day by day." As an example, the commentary cited Islamabad's offer to allow Afghanistan to export its goods via Pakistan, which it said "can play a big role in the economic stability and life of the people of Afghanistan." While Pakistan is trying to help Afghanistan, there seems to be apprehension in Islamabad over the strengthening of traditional ties between Kabul and New Delhi. AT
AFGHAN HISTORY RECEIVES A HELPING HAND
In order to save Afghanistan's historic literature, New York University has began a program to digitize all books and pamphlets printed in that country from 1871 to 1930 in what is called the Afghanistan Digital Library project, "The New York Times" reported on 29 March. An Afghan anthropologist and former professor at Northern Illinois University, M. Jamil Hanafi, said that "symbolically," the digital library is the best thing that can be offered to "Afghanistan at this stage of reconstruction." The project's temporary editor, Robert McChesney made an analogy to the United States, saying the situation in Afghanistan is similar to Americans not knowing that "there was a Constitution," the New York daily reported. Most of Afghanistan's surviving historic documents are scattered in private hands or in various libraries around the globe; thus, most Afghans have no access to their own country's history. The project should allow Afghans access to their past and help them plan their future with due respect to their achievements and failures as an emerging nation state. AT