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Newsline - April 4, 2003


PUTIN STRESSES NEED TO AVOID CONFLICT WITH U.S...
. President Vladimir Putin on 3 April told journalists that Russia is deliberately avoiding direct involvement in recent international crises and that he will make every effort to avoid Russia's involvement "in any form" in the current crisis in Iraq, Western and Russian media reported. Putin emphasized that the United States is Russia's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $9.2 billion last year. He noted that Russia's economy is heavily dependent on the state of the U.S. economy and the value of the U.S. dollar. About three-quarters of Russia's $55.5 billion hard-currency reserves are held in U.S. dollars, Putin said. Any drop in the value of the dollar would lead to direct losses for Russia. The same is true for private citizens, who also prefer to hold their savings in dollars, Putin noted. Moreover, bilateral political cooperation is also extremely important for Russia. As the world's two leading nuclear powers, the United States and Russia share a special responsibility for maintaining peace and stability around the world, Putin remarked. Both countries must work together to end the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. Putin also repeated Russia's commitment to creating a global international-security system centered on the United Nations, a goal that he said can only be achieved in cooperation with the United States. VY

...AND URGES CALM IN REACTING TO IRAQ WAR
Asked to comment on recent statements by Islamic leaders and, particularly, a 3 April appeal by Telget Tajetdin, the supreme mufti of Russia and the European countries of the CIS, calling for a jihad against the forces of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, President Putin said he understands that people "cannot restrain their emotions," RTR reported. "I understand and partially share the opinions of such people, especially after watching television reports from the combat zone," Putin said. But he cautioned that emotion is a poor basis for decision making and that recent events have shown that Russia's position on Iraq has been correct all along. VY

PROSECUTOR TO LOOK INTO CALL FOR ANTICOALITION JIHAD
Nataliya Vishnyakova, spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, said on 4 April that Tajetdin's Central Spiritual Directorate of Russian Muslims might be closed down if it ignores a warning issued by prosecutors in Ufa against alleged violations of the law on religious extremism, strana.ru reported. On 3 April, Tajetdin called for Russian Muslims to create a fund to purchase weapons and food for Iraqi troops loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Tajetdin also declared a "jihad" against the United States and Great Britain, noting that the last time his organization had issued such a call was in 1941. Troshin said investigators will look into whether the statement violates the law on religious organizations. Meanwhile, Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, condemned Tajetdin's statement, saying he regrets that some Muslim leaders are "searching for war, rather than peace in Iraq," "Izvestiya" reported. "Russian Muslims are entitled to provide moral and material support to their fellow believers in Iraq," said Sergei Nikulin, chief of the Justice Ministry's department for state security and law enforcement, according to strana.ru on 3 April. But he stressed that Russian law provides criminal penalties for buying weapons and sending people to take part in combat operations. VY/SS

FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH U.S., BRITISH COUNTERPARTS
Igor Ivanov met in Brussels on 3 April with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to discuss the crisis in Iraq and "urgent measures to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe" in the context of a recent decision by the UN Security Council to resume the "oil-for-food" program, ORT and RTR reported. Following the talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told journalists that Russia is not bargaining over Iraq and is not discussing the postwar political order in the country with the United States. Russia continues to urge the United States to resolve the Iraq crisis within the framework of the United Nations. Ivanov also met the same day with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw before flying to Paris for further consultations with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. VY

BUSINESS FORUM DID NOT HEAR REPORT ON COSTS OF CHECHEN CONFLICT
Former Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin and former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov declined to participate in the Russian Economic Forum that was held in London from 2-4 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April 2003) after conference organizers refused to allow them to give a joint presentation on the economic aspects of the conflict in Chechnya, lenta.ru reported on 3 April. Rybkin said the two had prepared a detailed report on how much the conflict has cost the Russian budget to date, estimating that the total cost of both wars in the republic has reached about $100 billion. Event organizer Sergei Kolushev was quoted as saying he did "not think it was possible to organize a presentation of the Khasbulatov-Rybkin report." VY

DUMA SPEAKER TO STEP DOWN FOLLOWING ELECTIONS
Gennadii Seleznev announced on 3 April that he will not stay on as Duma speaker after the December Duma elections, Interfax reported. "To be the speaker of the State Duma is a very heavy burden," Seleznev said at a press conference. "And besides, I think I've already done quite a bit for the development of the Russian parliamentary system. I'm not irreplaceable." Seleznev, who will run for re-election as a deputy from St. Petersburg, added, "It's much more interesting to be the leader of a bloc or faction from the Party of Russia's Rebirth." Gazeta.ru noted that Seleznev's new organization has gained little public awareness since he broke with the Communist Part six months ago. Since the party's electoral prospects are dim, according to the website, rumors abound that he might end up as ambassador to China, but his associates deny them. SS

RUSSIAN CELL-PHONE SUBSCRIPTIONS EXCEED 21 MILLION
According to the ACM-Consulting company, the number of cell-phone subscribers in Russia rose from 20 million to 21,115,000 in March, Interfax reported. Mobile TeleSystems is the largest wireless-service provider with 9.5 million customers. The next two largest firms -- Vympelkom and Megafon -- account for another 9.8 million. More than 40 percent of the three firms' subscribers are in Moscow. By the end of the year, cell-phone subscriptions are expected to top 30 million. SS

MORTGAGE AGENCY TAKES SMALL STEPS TO MAKE LOANS MORE ACCESSIBLE
Aleksandr Semenyaka, general director of the state agency handling Russia's fledgling mortgage system, predicted on 3 April that mortgages will make it possible to increase housing construction by 10 million square meters over the next five years, "Vremya-MN" reported on 4 April. The Housing Mortgage Agency announced on 31 March a decrease in the interest rate it charges from 18 percent to 15, and said the rate will continue to decline as the inflation rate eases. The agency has mortgage agreements with 29 Russian regions and issues mortgages denominated in rubles for 10- and 20-year terms. But the regional mortgage agencies' total capital of 1.8 billion rubles ($55 million) is only a fraction of what is required to make mortgage financing commonplace. Among the other problems are that few Russians can afford monthly mortgage payments; banks have almost no long-term funds; the interest rate is still too high for most Russians; and discrepancies in the law regarding borrowers' rights. SS

MOSCOW MAYOR REJECTS SETTLEMENT WITH FAMILIES OF OCTOBER HOSTAGE TAKING
Yurii Luzhkov rejected on 3 April a settlement for damages claimed by the families of victims of the 23-26 October hostage drama at a Moscow theater, RIA-Novosti reported. Igor Trunov, the families' lawyer, said he has received a letter from Luzhkov asserting that the law does not require the city administration to pay compensation for damages it did not inflict. Trunov proposed a general settlement on 27 February in connection with the families' lawsuits against the administration, calling for the Moscow government to pay each family $50,000. The lawyer said the sum was derived from a similar case stemming from the August 2000 sinking of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine. In that instance, the families of the killed seamen were each paid $25,000. However, Trunov argued that the seamen were performing their military duty, while the Moscow theatergoers were civilians and so deserve additional compensation. A Moscow appeals court on 28 April will take up three suits that a lower court rejected, while 58 others still await their first hearing. SS

SPRING ARMY CALL-UP MARRED BY DESERTIONS
Over the first few days of the spring call-up, at least 24 soldiers have deserted from their units, polit.ru reported on 3 April. Nine servicemen left their unit in Birobidzhan last week, but four of them showed up at the military prosecutor's office attached to the garrison and complained of hazing by fellow soldiers and harassment by officers. Three of 14 soldiers who deserted in Novgorod Oblast on 1 April promptly appeared at the garrison military prosecutor's office and also complained of hazing. In the Birobidzhan case, the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers appealed to the other missing soldiers to turn themselves in to the committee or prosecutors. The mothers' group sent a letter to the Defense Ministry demanding that it send a commission to the Birobidzhan garrison to investigate the hazing and harassment allegations. SS

EIGHT KILLED IN CHECHEN BUS BOMBING
Six people died immediately and two more of injuries received when a radio-controlled bomb exploded on the evening of 3 April on a bus in Grozny, Russian media reported. At least nine more people have been hospitalized with serious injuries. Most of the bus passengers were female construction workers. Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov blamed the blast on unnamed forces who are "opposed to peace" in Chechnya and who he said realize that their influence is being undercut by the political processes set in motion by the successful 23 March referendum on a new constitution, Interfax reported. LF

CRITICISM OF PACE WAR-CRIMES TRIBUNAL INITIATIVE CONTINUES
Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said on 3 April that the recommendation adopted the previous day at the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to ask the council's Council of Ministers to propose an international wars-crimes tribunal for Chechnya if human rights violations there continue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April 2003) is "legally pointless and politically harmful," Interfax reported. Yastrzhembskii said the recommendation is not legally binding. State Duma Speaker Seleznev dismissed the recommendation as "political intrigue," claiming that unnamed PACE deputies tried to strike a deal with the Russian delegation, offering to soften their position on Chechnya if the Russian parliamentarians supported a PACE resolution on Iraq. Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii said in Rostov-na-Donu that the PACE proposal carries no legal weight and constitutes interference in the Russian legal system, Interfax reported. LF

HELICOPTER CRASHES IN CHECHNYA ATTRIBUTED TO BAD WEATHER
The two Russian military helicopters that crashed in Chechnya on 20 March hit a mountainside in poor visibility, Interfax reported on 3 April, quoting an unidentified source close to the commission investigating the incidents. That source said the helicopters were not hit by gunfire, nor did mechanical failure play a role in the crash (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 26 March and 3 April 2003). LF

ARMENIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT BEGINS HEARING ELECTION APPEAL
The Constitutional Court began on 3 April reviewing the appeal lodged by People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian against the outcome of the February-March presidential election, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Demirchian is demanding that the official election results issued by the Central Election Commission (CEC) be invalidated because of widespread falsification both during the first round of voting on 19 February and during the 5 March runoff, in which he lost to incumbent President Robert Kocharian. The court ruled, however, that it will examine only the claim relating to the 5 March runoff. Acquiescing to a request by Demirchian's lawyers for additional time to study election-related documents submitted by the CEC and the police, the court adjourned until 5 April. The CEC is represented at the hearing by its deputy chairman, Hamlet Abrahamian, and by Deputy Justice Minister Tigran Mukuchian. Demirchian is represented by Viktor Dallakian, chairman of the Armenian parliament's Commission for State and Legal Issues, according to Noyan Tapan. LF

IMF APPROVES NEW LOAN FOR ARMENIA
In a 2 April statement posted on its website (http://www.imf.org), the IMF announced the release of a fourth tranche, worth approximately $14 million, of a three year Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility Loan approved in May 2001. The loan will be used to shore up Armenia's hard-currency reserves. The statement quoted IMF Deputy Managing Director and Acting Chairman Eduardo Aninat as commending the "strong performance" of the Armenian economy, in particular the reduction in the fiscal deficit, the repayment of domestic expenditure arrears, and continued low inflation. Armenian Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian told journalists in Yerevan on 3 April that the IMF decision "means that we have a credible program and that our economic indicators meet international standards," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Also on 3 April, it was announced that the German government will provide Armenia with 24 million euros ($22.4 million) in long-term loans and a further 2.5 million euros in grants, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. LF

AZERBAIJAN DENIES HOLDING ARMENIAN HOSTAGES, POWS
A spokesman for Azerbaijan's State Committee for Prisoners of War, Hostages, and Persons Missing in Action has stated that Azerbaijan is not holding a single Armenian hostage or prisoner of war, zerkalo.az reported on 4 April. That denial was made in response to a statement by Larisa Alaverdian, who heads an Armenian NGO. Alaverdian said that Azerbaijan currently holds more than 1,000 Armenian servicemen, whose whereabouts are unknown. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT TARGETS CORRUPTION IN INDUSTRIAL CENTER
Heidar Aliev traveled to Sumgait, an industrial center northeast of Baku, on 3 April to address a session of the municipal council, Turan and zerkalo.az reported. Aliev harshly criticized prominent local figures, including Sumgait Mayor Tavakkul Mamedov, who has held that post since at least 1985; Fikret Sadykhov, head of the state-owned concern Azkhimiya, which is responsible for many of the city's industrial enterprises; and Hidir Alovlu, who heads the Sumgait branch of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party. Aliev said that corrupt decisions taken during the privatization process enabled Sadykhov and businessman Tofig Huseinov to appropriate many of the city's businesses. Aliev fired Mamedov, whom he publicly accused of appointing relatives to prominent positions, and named to succeed him First Deputy Minister of Youth Affairs, Sports, and Tourism Vagif Aliev, who, observers say, is close to President Aliev's son, Ilham Aliev. President Aliev called for measures to improve the "moral climate" in Sumgait. A roundtable discussion convened in Sumgait in December by the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) noted that the population was ready to launch mass protests against electricity shortages and similar infrastructure problems, the seriousness of which Mamedov downplayed. LF

AZERBAIJANI OFFICIALS SAY U.S. REPORT ON HUMAN RIGHTS IS BIASED...
The Azerbaijani leadership is not happy with a U.S. State Department report released earlier this week on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, Turan reported on 3 April. The agency quoted Rabiyat Aslanova, deputy chairwoman of the parliamentary commission for human rights, as saying the report shows "political blindness" in ignoring improvements in the human rights sphere. She also said she believes the report was compiled on the basis of erroneous and inaccurate information. The report criticized, among other perceived shortcomings, corruption and inefficiency of the judiciary, human rights abuses committed by security forces, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the torture of suspects by police, the violent dispersal by police of demonstrations, and harassment of journalists and restrictions on media freedom. LF

...WHILE OPPOSITION POLITICIAN SAYS IT IS TOO LENIENT
AMIP Chairman Etibar Mamedov told Turan on 3 April he considers it important that the U.S. State Department report noted "numerous, serious irregularities" during President Aliev's re-election for a second term in October 1998. According to official returns, Mamedov polled second in that ballot with 11.6 percent of the vote, compared with 76.11 percent for Aliev; Mamedov claimed at the time that Aliev received no more than 60 percent of the vote. Mamedov commented that the U.S. report is too lenient compared with the true state of affairs in Azerbaijan. LF

GEORGIAN OFFICIALS CITE CONTRADICTORY FIGURES FOR Q1 BUDGET
Georgia narrowly failed to meet its budget targets for the first quarter of 2003, despite President Eduard Shevardnadze's weekly exhortations to ministers to work around the clock to achieve that aim, Caucasus Press reported on 2 and 3 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003). Deputy Finance Minister Levan Chrdileli said on 3 April the target were met by 98.5 percent, resulting in a shortfall of 2 million laris ($907,250), but parliament Budget Office Chairman Roman Gotsiridze rejected that figure, accusing the government of resorting to fraud to try to prove that target had been met. Gotsiridze said the shortfall amounts to 22 million laris. Finance Minister Mirian Gogiashvili said the same day the shortfall was 4.7 million laris, which he blamed on inefficiency on the part of the Customs Department. But he denied that the head of the department, Aleksandre Aslanikashvili, will be dismissed, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIA'S MINORITIES DEMAND REPRESENTATION IN PARLIAMENT
At a meeting with parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, representatives of Georgia's ethnic minorities asked that each minority be allocated a specific quota of parliament deputies, Caucasus Press reported on 3 April. They also complained about the lack of Georgian-language teachers in schools in districts where the population is predominantly non-Georgian. Agreement was reached on creating a consultative group to address the problems of ethnic minorities in Georgia. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT CALLS FOR LIBERALIZATION
Nursultan Nazarbaev delivered his annual state of the nation address to a joint session of the Kazakh parliament on 4 April. The speech was broadcast live by Khabar Television. Nazarbaev said there are indications the economy is improving: The state budget is projected to reach 1 trillion tenges ($6.5 billion) in 2003, and 38 billion tenges will be spent on investment projects. However, much of the speech was devoted to areas that need improvement. The president called for the criminal laws to be made more humane and said that strong and responsible political parties should be encouraged. Parties should have the exclusive right to nominate candidates and should be able to monitor elections, he said. In addition, the election process needs to be more transparent. Nazarbaev also insisted that the political, economic, and legal conditions have been created to support a thriving independent media. Censorship is nonexistent, he said, noting that 50 new media outlets were registered in 2002. The president called for doubling the number of ethnic Kazakhs moving to Kazakhstan and for pro-family policies in order to increase the population to 20 million by 2015. Otherwise, it will be impossible to carry out the government's economic-development program. In recent years, Kazakhstan has been losing population. BB

KAZAKHSTAN TO REDISTRIBUTE POWER TO LOWEST LEVEL OF GOVERNMENT
Kazakhstan's Economics Minister Kairat Kelimbetov told journalists on 3 April after a session of the National Council that the lowest level of government administration will be given more powers, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The council session was focused on plans for delimiting authority among the four levels of state authority -- national, oblast, raion, and local. The objective, according to Kelimbetov, is a "de-concentration" of government functions, too many of which are now the responsibility of the central authorities. In remarks to the council session, President Nazarbaev complained about the duplication of functions by various levels of government, as well as about the desire of all of them to increase their powers, which he said is stunting the development of society, Khabar Television reported on 3 April. Government functions related to the daily needs of the citizens should be carried out at the level closest to the population, the president said. He was also critical of some ministries for trying to manage all details within their area of responsibility. BB

ARREST OF U.S. EXECUTIVE REVIVING INTEREST IN 'KAZAKHGATE'?
Interest in the so-called Kazakhgate affair appears to be reviving in Kazakhstan in the wake of the 30 March arrest of U.S. businessman James Giffen, respublika.kz reported on 4 April. Giffen, a key figure in the affair, has been charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for having allegedly paid off Kazakh officials in return for preferential treatment in Kazakh oil deals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April 2003). Respublika.kz quoted an AP report on Giffen's arrest, including a reference to the alleged involvement of President Nazarbaev and his family, and commented that now the "seal of silence" is broken. After the affair originally became public in Kazakhstan, the political opposition and independent media sought to find out more about the president's involvement, including his supposed accounts in Swiss banks. The president then retaliated against the independent media. Revival of the affair might well put his recent sympathetic assessments of the independent media to the test. BB

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION LEADER ATTACKS CRITICS OF IRAQ WAR
Topchubek Turgunaliev, head of the Erkindik Party and one of the most prominent members of the opposition, attacked members of the opposition who have criticized the United States for its actions in Iraq and have stirred up anti-U.S. sentiment, Pyramid TV reported on 3 April. Turgunaliev was particularly scathing about opposition groups that exist on overseas grants. He was also quoted as expressing approval for the war in Iraq, describing it as a war of liberation and adding that it is necessary to use all means available to fight dictators. In particular, urgent measures are necessary to overthrow the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, he said, describing them as ranging from a communist dictatorship to a medieval personality cult. BB

BAPTIST CHURCH REPORTED CLOSED IN TURKMENISTAN
A Baptist church in the town of Balkanabat (formerly Nebit-Dag), administrative center of the Balkan Oblast in western Turkmenistan, has been closed by the authorities, who claimed that its members were engaged in religious extremism, the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project reported on 29 March. Local authorities explained that the church was unregistered, and it had not allowed law enforcement authorities to observe its services. Police are reportedly seeking to determine if the Baptists were stirring up religious discord and advocating disobedience to the legitimate authorities. Small religious confessions are unable to register with the authorities under current legislation, and in the past Baptist congregations often had their services disrupted by the police and security services. Individual Baptist activists were harassed, fined, and arrested, but the situation appeared to be improving. Because many ethnic Turkmen have become Baptists, this confession has sometimes been accused by the authorities of promoting religious discord. Some law enforcement officials have pressured Turkmen Baptists to return to Islam. BB

FOREIGN INVESTMENT IN UZBEKISTAN DOWN
Foreign investment in Uzbekistan dropped 22 percent in 2002, Interfax reported on 3 April, quoting Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Agency for Foreign Economic Relations Elyor Ganiev. According to Ganiev, foreign investment in Uzbekistan totaled $833 million in 2001, but only $650 million in 2002. Of the 3,000 firms in Uzbekistan that are utilizing foreign investment, 20 percent are wholly foreign-owned. Most are engaged in manufacturing. Ganiev cited the United States, Great Britain, Germany, South Korea, China, Turkey, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan as Uzbekistan's leading sources of foreign investment. Ganiev said Uzbekistan hopes to receive $860.4 million in foreign investment in 2003. BB

BELARUSIAN GOVERNMENT TO MAINTAIN CONTROL OVER BEER PRODUCTION
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told Belarusian beer producers on 3 April that Belarus is capable of modernizing its breweries without foreign investment, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. "I am not one of those linking the development of our economy exclusively with foreign capital," Lukashenka said. "This is yet another bluff that was planted from outside -- primarily from the West -- and picked up by our bookish liberal reformers." The Belarusian government recently resolved that all investments in the brewing sector should be channeled through a single bank, citing the desire to maintain state control over Belarusian breweries. "There is a [governmental] requirement: All raw materials, [primarily] barley, should be purchased [by Belarusian beer brewers] from Belarusian collective farms," economist Barys Zhaliba told RFE/RL. "But the [Belarusian] raw materials are of low quality, so we have what we have: Russian beer of better quality and of almost the same price is successfully pushing out Belarusian one from the market, and local producers are in decline." JM

BELARUSIAN POLICE DETAIN 10 YOUTHS FOR PRO-U.S. RALLY
Police detained 10 participants after an unauthorized demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Minsk on 3 April in support of the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq, Belapan reported. The rally was organized by the youth opposition group Zubr, with some holding posters reading, "Liberate Iraq," "Down with Tyrants," "America, We are With You," and "Hussein Must Go," and waving Belarusia's post-Soviet, pre-Lukashenka state flag and American flags. Zubr activist Alyaksandr Atroshchankau said the demonstration was intended as a show of "solidarity with the U.S. people in their fight against the tyrant." Police made no arrests after an unsanctioned antiwar demonstration staged outside the embassy three days earlier. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT DEFINES, BANS 'CENSORSHIP'...
The Verkhovna Rada on 3 April voted 252 to one to approve a law defining and banning state censorship in the Ukrainian media, Interfax reported. The law defines censorship as any demand by state or local officials that a journalist or an editor in chief, founder, co-founder, publisher, or distributor of a media organization submit information for approval before publication (except when such a demand is made by the author or other owner of copyright or associated rights to it). The definition also deems as censorship any ban (aside from court bans) or hampering in any way of the publishing or distribution of information by bodies of state power, local government, or their officials. The law also prohibits the creation of any bodies of state power, institutions, or posts to control media information. According to the law, no one may be sued for expressing "statements of evaluation," which are defined as statements containing no factual data: criticism, evaluation of actions, and texts involving hyperbole, allegory, or satire. JM

...FORMS SPECIAL COMMISSION TO LOOK INTO GRAIN MARKET...
The Verkhovna Rada on 3 April set up an ad hoc commission to examine the situation on Ukraine's grain market, UNIAN reported. The commission will be co-chaired by Mykhaylo Melnychuk (Socialist Party) and Vasyl Havrylyuk (People's Power). The Prosecutor-General's Office, following an order from President Leonid Kuchma, is investigating the situation on the grain market -- in particular, a shortage of grain in some regions and a rise in bread prices. In late March, former Deputy Prime Minister for agricultural reform Leonid Kozachenko was arrested on charges of abuse of office and tax evasion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2003). JM

...AND APPOINTS NEW STATE PROPERTY FUND HEAD
Also on 3 April, 260 Ukrainian lawmakers voted to approve Mykhaylo Chechetov as the new head of the State Property Fund of Ukraine, UNIAN reported. In an earlier vote, 238 lawmakers endorsed a motion to dismiss Oleksandr Bondar from that post. Bondar tendered his resignation on 1 March, reportedly under criticism from some cabinet members. First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said on 1 March that the privatization process supervised by the Property Fund under Bondar "has failed to become an instrument for speeding up the economy and meeting fiscal objectives." JM

UKRAINE, HUNGARY SIGN MILITARY ACCORD
Ukrainian Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko and his Hungarian counterpart Ferenc Juhasz signed an agreement on cooperation between their ministries in Kyiv on 3 April, Interfax reported. Juhasz told journalists that representatives discussed the modernization of military equipment, including work by Ukraine on Mi-24 helicopters that are currently in service in the Hungarian armed forces. Juhasz added that Hungary intends to facilitate Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration, particularly within the format of the Visegrad Four (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic). JM

MORE ESTONIAN MINISTERIAL CANDIDATES NAMED
The policy-making council of the People's Union on 3 April endorsed the four ministerial posts assigned to the party under the coalition agreement with Res Publica and the Reform Party, BNS reported. Party Chairman Villu Reiljan was proposed as environment minister, Tiit Tammsaar as agriculture minister, Margus Leivo as interior minister, and Jaan Ounapuu as regional-affairs minister. Res Publica's board selected candidates for four ministers, but the choices must be approved by the party's policy-making council on 6 April. Tartu University Professor Toivo Maimets was nominated as education and science minister, former Tallinn Mayor Tonis Palts as finance minister, former director of the State Audit Office Ken-Marti Vaher as justice minister, and former West-Viru County Governor Marko Pomerants as social-affairs minister. SG

LATVIA, FRANCE SIGN COOPERATION AGREEMENT
Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete and visiting French European Affairs Minister Noelle Lenoir signed an agreement in Riga on 3 April on bilateral cooperation in the spheres of culture, education, science, technology, and institutional development, BNS reported. In earlier talks with Prime Minister Einars Repse, Lenoir discussed problems related to the signing of a Latvian-Russian border agreement, noting that this could become an issue between the European Union and Russia. They also spoke about French proposals regarding the future of the EU, with Repse expressing support for the French proposal to establish the posts of EU foreign minister and EU prosecutor. Lenoir also met with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and parliamentary speaker Ingrida Udre, and participated in a debate on the identity of Europe that was organized by the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. SG

LITHUANIAN PRIME MINISTER GIVES ANNUAL PERFORMANCE REPORT
In the prime minister's annual report to the parliament, Algirdas Brazauskas on 3 April expressed satisfaction with his cabinet's performance in 2002, ELTA reported. He said Lithuania achieved two important strategic goals: The completion of accession negotiations with the EU, and the reception of an invitation to join NATO. He said the economy has continued to perform well -- with GDP growth increasing from 4 percent in 2000, to 6.5 percent in 2001, to 6.7 percent in 2002 -- and noted that the UN Economic Commission has predicted that Lithuania will remain among the fastest-growing economies in the world in 2003. Brazauskas said that in 2002 the business climate continued to improve, the crime rate fell by 8 percent, and pensions were raised by 5 percent. He also said many problems remain, specifically mentioning the high level of corruption, the unequal development of regions in the country, low purchasing power, and high poverty and unemployment rates. SG

POLISH OPPOSITION WELCOMES PROPOSAL OF EARLY ELECTION
All Polish major opposition parties except the Peasant Party (PSL) have supported the prospect of early parliamentary elections, as announced by Premier Leszek Miller on 2 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April 2003), Polish Radio reported on 3 April. PSL leader Jaroslaw Kalinowski instead said the proposal to conduct balloting in June 2004 is an attempt by the government to escape responsibility for the difficult period that Poland will face after joining the European Union. Meanwhile, the Civic Platform, Law and Justice, and Self-Defense were pleased by the idea of early elections. However, Civic Platform leader Maciej Plazynski also pointed to what he deems a negative aspect of Miller's proposal. "My major worry is that this [proposal], in fact, will mean a year of an election campaign with all bad effects -- like not making difficult decisions, putting problems aside, and pleasing voters," Plazynski noted. "It won't be good for Poland because the situation requires something else: taking difficult decisions of political nature." JM

POLISH, CZECH PRESIDENTS URGE TRANS-ATLANTIC COOPERATION
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski met with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus in Warsaw on 3 April and discussed the Iraq war, European Union membership, and regional cooperation, Polish and Czech media reported. Kwasniewski and Klaus told journalists that differing levels of involvement by Poland, which has sent combat troops to Iraq, and the Czech Republic in the Iraq conflict will not affect bilateral ties. Kwasniewski stressed that both countries should direct their efforts at maintaining the unity of trans-Atlantic cooperation. Kwasniewski said of the Visegrad Four, which includes their two countries plus Slovakia and Hungary, "We agree that this form of cooperation should exist, but the group's tasks are changing." He did not elaborate. In an interview with the 3 April issue of "Rzeczpospolita," Klaus said of the Visegrad group that he opposes any "formal meetings of presidents at castles and in palaces." Klaus told Polish Television the same day that he, unlike predecessor Vaclav Havel, would not have signed the letter of eight European statesmen expressing support for U.S. policy vis-a-vis Iraq. JM

CZECH PRESIDENT SAYS HE SEES 'NO ALTERNATE PATH' THAN EU
President Klaus said in Poland on 3 April that he "see[s] no other alternate path that the Czech Republic could take" than EU membership, CTK reported. A self-styled "Euro-realist," Klaus joined Kwasniewski in saying he believes the Czech and Polish publics will approve EU membership in their upcoming referendums. But Klaus added that he will seek a "real information campaign" and not propaganda in the run-up to the Czech plebiscite on accession. A trained economist and avowed opponent of "social experiments," Klaus said, "We will have a bigger chance of influencing the EU as its members, from inside, than as its nonmembers, from outside." AH

CZECH PREMIER DISMISSES BROADCAST COUNCIL...
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla sacked the entire Czech Radio and Television Broadcasting Council on 3 April following parliamentary approval for the move the previous day, CTK reported, citing a government spokesman. Ninety of 170 deputies in the Czech lower house voted on 2 April to dismiss all 13 members of the council, which hands out licenses and otherwise supervises commercial broadcasting. In backing the purge, lawmakers from the ruling tripartite coalition cited long-standing ineffectiveness and a pattern of mistakes. The council came under intense political pressure after an international arbitration court awarded investors from Central European Media Enterprises (CME) $353 million in compensation for the Czech Republic's failure to safeguard that group's investment in broadcaster TV Nova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). That judgment represents roughly 1,000 crowns ($35) per Czech citizen, and critics have accused council members of negligence -- or even complicity -- in that high-profile debacle. Vladimir Zelezny, who ousted CME after the group tried to fire him as the station's director, is now a senator in the Czech upper house, which has lifted his immunity to allow for prosecution on assorted charges in connection with his actions at TV Nova. AH

...BUT MEMBERS QUESTION LEGALITY OF PROCESS
One of the broadcasting council's most outspoken members, Deputy Chairman Petr Stepanek, countered on 3 April by saying the council views the dismissal letter as legally unfounded, CTK reported. He said Premier Spidla "has sent us a letter that is legally irrelevant." "It is not the end of the story; its continuation will be in court," Stepanek said. Council Chairman Martin Muchka was also reported to have cast doubt on the legality of the move, although it was unclear from CTK quotes whether he was questioning the dismissals or simply when they become effective. "Under the law I am not yet dismissed," he said on 3 April, following the delivery of Spidla's letter. "The council must analyze the affair and it will adopt a position on it at its official meeting," Muchka said, adding that he will convoke a council meeting next week. Government spokeswoman Anna Starkova said the dismissals are effective two days after their delivery, which was 3 April. Muchka said it is unclear whether the letter affects the council as a whole or all of its members individually, and he added that there are questions about whom the council could pass its powers to. Muchka previously called the parliamentary vote urging the removals a convenient means of displaying unity within the three-party ruling coalition. "It seems to me that this was a useful demonstration of unity of the governing coalition," Muchka said, according to CTK. AH

CZECH OMBUDSMAN SAYS PUBLIC SERVANTS' ABUSES THWARTING RIGHTS ACTIVISTS
Former Constitutional Court justice and current Ombudsman Otakar Motejl on 3 April accused unidentified government offices of improperly using confidentiality requirements to avoid giving information to groups seeking to defend civil rights, CTK reported. Motejl's allegations emerged from a report on his office's activities submitted the same day to the Chamber of Deputies. He urged lawmakers to amend legislation to prevent such offices from citing confidentiality in denying access to information to the ombudsman. "The argument of confidentiality requirements is very often a useful defense for government agencies in preventing access to their written documentation," Motejl wrote in his report, which the lower house is expected to debate in its current session. The ombudsman's office received over 5,400 petitions in 2002, roughly 600 fewer than in 2001, Motejl said. AH

SLOVAKS INSTALL NEW DIRECTOR OF INTELLIGENCE SERVICE
President Rudolf Schuster on 4 April confirmed the appointment of a former interior minister, Ladislav Pittner, to head the embattled Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS), TASR reported the same day. Schuster said he expects Pittner to direct the service in such a way that "things that happened in the past are not repeated," the news agency reported. Pittner replaces Vladimir Mitro, whose tenure was marked by allegations of abuses and a recent controversial appointment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April 2003). The 69-year-old Pittner has worked closely with Prime Minister Dzurinda before, having resigned as interior minister in 2001 following reports of information leaks concerning ongoing police investigations. AH

SLOVAK DEPUTY PREMIER DISCUSSES STATUS LAW DURING HUNGARY VISIT
Slovak Deputy Prime Minister Pal Csaky met in Budapest on 3 March with Hungarian President Ferenc Madl, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, Education Minister Balint Magyar, and the prime minister's chief aide, Peter Kiss. Hungary's Status Law was among the topics of discussion, "Nepszabadsag" reported the following day. After meeting with Foreign Ministry political State Secretary Andras Barsony, Csaky told reporters that Slovakia is still studying the proposed Hungarian amendment to that controversial legislation. Barsony said the Hungarian government is adopting a "wait-and-see stance" to give neighboring countries and their resident ethnic Hungarian organizations time to hammer out a position on the Status Law, the daily reported. MSZ

HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS U.S. COUNTERPART IN BRUSSELS
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met privately on 3 March with Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs on the sidelines of official EU and NATO talks in Brussels, thanking Hungary for its political support of the campaign in Iraq, according to a "Magyar Hirlap" report quoting Kovacs. Powell also expressed U.S. gratitude for Hungary's having allowed the training of Iraqi volunteers at the Taszar military air base. Kovacs said Hungary is prepared to send humanitarian assistance to Iraq, as well as contribute to the postwar reconstruction of the country's infrastructure and provide assistance for the establishment of a democratic public administration there. After EU accession, Hungary will pay no less attention to maintaining relations with the United States and will continue to consider trans-Atlantic ties the primary guarantee of security for Europe, Kovacs concluded. MSZ

AGRICULTURE CHIEF DANGLES EU CARROT IN FRONT OF HUNGARIAN FARMERS
Hungarian farmers can hope for a 40 percent increase in income after EU accession, Franz Fischler, EU commissioner on agriculture and fishing, told at a 3 April press conference in Budapest. Fischler said that if Hungary is able to establish the appropriate systems and institutions necessary to manage and distribute EU funds, the country's agriculture will be eligible for 850 million euros ($910 million) in subsidies from Brussels between 2004 and 2006, Hungarian television reported. MSZ

FORMER HUNGARIAN PREMIER LOSES LAWSUIT TO JOURNALIST
The Metropolitan Court in Budapest on 3 April ruled that former Prime Minister Viktor Orban infringed on journalist Laszlo Juszt's fundamental rights when he said in a radio interview that Juszt broke the law by publishing certain documents in connection with a surveillance case, the MTI news agency reported. After taking power in 1998, the Orban cabinet charged that, during the previous Socialist-led government, secret information was collected on opposition politicians. In an interview with a Hungarian radio station on 2 June 1999, Orban accused Juszt of committing a serious crime by publishing secret documents on the surveillance case in his periodical, "Kriminalis." Orban was also quoted as having said, "Such people have no right to be in the media." The court ordered Orban to publish an apology in three major Hungarian dailies, the agency reported. MSZ

FORMER SERBIAN MEDIA BOSS ARRESTED
Montenegrin police arrested Dragoljub Milanovic at a private cottage near Bar on 2 April, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The former director of state-run Serbian Radio and Television (RTS) is wanted in Serbia for complicity in the deaths of 16 RTS staffers during the NATO air strikes on Belgrade in 1999. Some of the survivors charged that Milanovic knew that the RTS building was a potential NATO target but did not move the staff to safer quarters in order to use possible deaths for propaganda purposes. A Serbian court recently sentenced him to 10 years in prison, but he never reported to the authorities to serve his sentence. At the time of Milanovic's arrest, Serbian police said in a statement that he has long been linked to the criminal "Zemun clan" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March 2003). The statement added that the Zemun clan helped Milanovic evade arrest and provided him with the cottage in Montenegro as a hideout. Police said they learned of his exact whereabouts during their investigation of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's assassination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). PM

SERBIA EXTENDS NEW VISA RULES TO FORMER YUGOSLAV REPUBLICS
The Serbian authorities announced on 2 April that citizens of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia will join those of 24 other countries in being exempt from Serbian visa requirements through 30 September, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 March 2003). Citizens of the four former Yugoslav republics will have to present only their official identity card and not necessarily a passport upon entering Serbia. PM

KOSOVAR SERBS STAGE PROTEST
Several thousand Serbs marched in Mitrovica on 3 April to protest plans by the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) to transfer some of its powers to elected Kosovar authorities, dpa reported. The protesters want a partition of the province along ethnic lines and a firm link to Belgrade. UNMIK spokesman Simon Haselock said, however, that "transfer [of authority to elected officials] is [at] the heart of our mandate" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 January 2003). PM

MACEDONIAN AUTHORITIES DISMISS 'SPECULATION' ABOUT CENSUS RESULTS
Macedonian authorities and representatives of the international community on 3 April dismissed as "pure speculation" reports in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and the Berlin daily "Tagesspiegel" of 1 April, according to which the results of the October 2002 census might include an unpleasant surprise for the Albanian minority, "Dnevnik" reported. The two German dailies quoted unnamed Western diplomats as saying the census results might show that the Albanians' share of the population has fallen below 20 percent, mainly through emigration. This could lead to political problems, because the August 2001 Ohrid peace agreement and subsequent constitutional and legal amendments grant greater rights only for those minorities that make up more than 20 percent of the population. Ermira Mehmeti of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) quoted party leader Ali Ahmeti as saying, "It is not a question whether there are fewer than 20 percent Albanians, but how many more than 20 percent." UB

CROATIA TO SEND HUMANITARIAN AID TO IRAQ
The Croatian government decided on 3 April to send approximately $3 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraq in the form primarily of tents, blankets, food, and medical equipment, dpa reported. It is not clear when or how the aid will be delivered. The government opposes the war on the grounds that military intervention was not endorsed by a second UN Security Council resolution. Popular opposition to the conflict stands at about 80 percent, according to recent opinion polls (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 25 March 2003). PM

CROATIA WILL NOT SERVE INDICTMENT TO FORMER GENERAL
A Zagreb county court announced on 4 April that it will not serve an indictment for war crimes to retired General Janko Bobetko because of his poor health, Reuters reported from Zagreb (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February and 26 March 2003). The Hague-based war crimes tribunal had asked the Croatian authorities to present the indictment to Bobetko by 4 April. PM

BOSNIAN SERB LEADER CRITICIZES REPORT ON ARMS SALES TO IRAQ
Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic told the parliament on 3 April that a recent report by international experts on illegal Bosnian Serb arms sales to Iraq was poorly argued and politically motivated, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March and 3 April 2003). Cavic called for urgent reforms in the Bosnian Serb military to strengthen civilian control, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

BOSNIAN STUDENTS DEMONSTRATE AGAINST WAR IN IRAQ
Some 4,000 students and their supporters marched in Sarajevo on 3 April to protest the war in Iraq, Voice of America's Bosnian Service reported. Pacifist sentiment runs strong in Bosnia, where memories of the 1992-95 conflict are fresh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February and 24 March 2003). PM

ROMANIAN PREMIER, EUROPEAN COMMISSION PRESIDENT DISCUSS RELATIONS
Meeting with Romanian Premier Adrian Nastase in Brussels on 3 April, European Commission President Romano Prodi said Romania's efforts to combat corruption are an "extremely positive" development, Romanian media reported. Prodi said Romania's support for the United States on the Iraq issue have not harmed Romania's relations with the commission. However, he added that Romania must understand that it can't try to ensure its economic future with the European Union while relying on the United States for security. Nastase said Romania intends to close accession negotiations with the European Commission in 2004. Nastase also met with European Parliament President Patrick Cox. ZsM

ROMANIA INAUGURATES PERMANENT MISSION IN BRUSSELS
Prime Minister Nastase on 3 April inaugurated the building that will house Romania's Permanent Mission to the EU in Brussels, Romanian media reported. The Romanian government invested 7 million euros ($6.5 million) into the building. According to a government press release, Nastase said the investment is a symbol of Romania's EU-accession efforts and an investment in Romania's European future. Also participating at the inauguration, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen said he appreciates the efforts Romania has made to accede to the EU, and said the union will provide significant financial aid to facilitate Romania's accession efforts. He added this will be "the largest budget" ever allocated to a candidate country. The same day, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said Romania is to receive 3 billion euros over the next three years. ZsM

OPPOSITION PARTY FIGHTS ROMANIAN ANTICORRUPTION PACKAGE IN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT
Extremist Greater Romania Party (PRM) parliamentary group leader Lucian Bolcas announced on 3 April that his party has protested at the Constitutional Court the recent adoption of a package of anticorruption bills, Mediafax reported. Bolcas said the government cannot pass a package of bills by assuming responsibility in parliament, as that is a violation of the constitution. Bolcas further argued that the package provides the prime minister with the right to limit citizens' rights by a simple order, while the constitution stipulates that civil rights or freedoms can only be limited in exceptional cases, including in order to ensure national security. Parliament on 31 March rejected a motion of no confidence in the government that stemmed from the cabinet's "assumption of responsibility" for a package of 17 anticorruption bills (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March and 1 April 2003). ZsM

PCM LEADER SAYS INKING BASIC TREATY WITH ROMANIA SHOULD BE MOLDOVA'S TOP PRIORITY
Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) parliamentary group leader Victor Stepaniuc said on 3 April that Moldova "is not ready to accept" Romania's proposal that the two countries sign a bilateral cooperation agreement based on a "partnership for Europe," as recently suggested by Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, Flux reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2002). Stepaniuc said the two countries should instead concentrate on finalizing and signing the basic treaty they have approved, as it contains "contradictory" provisions that need to be "excluded by a compromise." He added that there are several politicians who would like Moldova to lose its national identity during the EU accession process, but he added that he thinks this is "an illusion." ZsM

MOLDOVAN SUPREME COURT RULES ON REGISTERING THE BESSARABIAN CHURCH
The Moldovan Supreme Court of Justice on 2 April overturned its decision 9 December 1997 decision to deny the registration of the Bessarabian Metropolitan Church, Flux reported. Popular Party Christian Democratic Party (PPCD) Deputy Chairman Vlad Cubreacov, who is also the chief legal adviser for the Metropolitan Church, said the ruling is an important development for the Moldovan justice system, as it was the first time the court had overturned one of its rulings. The government registered the church last July on the recommendations of the Council of Europe and on a December 2001 ruling by the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 July 2003). ZsM

BULGARIA PROMOTES ITS POSITION ON IRAQ IN STRASBOURG
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski on 3 April defended his government's pro-U.S. position regarding the war in Iraq before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), BTA reported. "The most important value bringing us all here together at the Council of Europe is that of human life," Saxecoburggotski said. "As a country that is not a permanent member of the Security Council, we have given priority to finding a peaceful solution at all costs. I deeply regret the fact that the diplomatic efforts of the international community to disarm Iraq without a war did not produce the desired results," he said. "Now that the dice have been cast, it is necessary, once armed intervention is over, to make every effort to set up democratic institutions and preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq." UB

SUPREME COURT HEAD GIVES ULTIMATUM TO BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT TO STEP UP SECURITY MEASURES
Supreme Court of Appeals head Ivan Grigorov said on 3 April that, should the government fail to step up security measures for the country's courthouses and to guarantee the normal functioning of the judiciary, he cannot take responsibility for the consequences, mediapool.bg reported. Grigorov's statement came after the Sofia City Court was evacuated on 3 April following its third bomb threat within a week. The courthouses in Veliko Turnovo and Pernik were also closed for 24 hours following bomb threats. On 25 March, a bomb blast shattered the Sofia District Prosecutor's Office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 March 2003). UB

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN CRAFTING THE NEW AFGHAN CONSTITUTION
The Constitutional Drafting Commission (CDC) announced on 16 March that the first draft of the new constitution for Afghanistan is ready. The CDC stated that the new basic law is designed to establish the rule of law and safeguard the national sovereignty of a democratic Afghanistan free of ethnic, racial, and linguistic discrimination. The fact that the nine-member CDC has managed to produce the first draft of the new Afghan constitution on time, is, in itself, an achievement. However, the true test for the CDC's document is the reaction of the Afghan people to it, its approval process, and most importantly, whether the new constitution can become the roadmap for Afghanistan as it moves toward building a viable state.

The longevity of the new constitution depends on its proposed vision of how to guide a shattered and divided state into the future, and whether this vision is widely shared among Afghans. The best way to inform the majority of Afghans of the contents of their new proposed code of law and to generate constructive debate is through the media.

While no constitution can be viewed as perfect, the new draft Afghan constitution should at least take account of the Afghan state's previous experiences with constitutionalism -- and there are many lessons as Afghanistan has promulgated seven constitutions between 1923 and 1993, the last of which was never officially adopted. For the last decade, Afghanistan has had no written constitution.

Of all the constitutions of Afghanistan, only two were opened to public debate: namely the 1964 constitution of King Mohammad Zaher and, to a lesser extent, the 1923 constitution of King Amanullah. Other Afghan documents were drafted without public participation and were adopted by loya jirgas in which neither the selection of the delegates nor their votes necessarily corresponded to the wishes of the majority of the Afghan people.

A brief look at the popular reaction to the 1923 constitution might be useful in the current process. That constitution, Afghanistan's first, was drafted in 1921 with no public debate, two years after Afghanistan gained its full independence from Great Britain. It was adopted two years later by a loya jirga held near Jalalabad.

The process took place during the winter when most of the roads in Afghanistan were closed. Thus very few people could travel to Jalalabad even if they were invited. The constitution, as it was first drafted, contained some liberal and inclusive articles regarding the rights of religious minorities, mandating equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as among the Islamic schools of jurisprudence by not designating any specific school as official. Once the constitution was promulgated, however, the conservative religious establishment voiced its objections and demanded that non-Muslims be differentiated from Muslims and that the Sunni Hanafi school be granted official status. The king called for a national loya jirga, and he personally responded to most of the grievances of the people. Nonetheless, he eventually lost and accepted a much more intolerant document. However, the rebellion against Amanullah did not stop, and he was eventually forced to abdicate and go into exile in 1929.

At the time, Afghanistan had very few media outlets, and the vast majority of the population was illiterate. Even if the king wanted to solicit public views while the constitution was being drafted or at the initial approval stage, it would have been a very difficult task to do so. The lack of public participation in the drafting of Afghanistan's first constitution allowed conservative clerics, in alliance with other religious leaders who were keen to preserve their privileges, to derail the state-building process in the country, effectively plunging it into a civil war.

Memories of what occurred 70 years ago are being raised today in discussions about the new Afghan constitution, and commentators are making the use of the media to do so. Recently, for example, Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, the leader of the predominately Shia Harakat-e Islami-yi Afghanistan, proposed to the CDC that along with the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence, the Shia Ja'fari school be included. If not, then he urged that no mention of schools of jurisprudence be made. The 1964 constitution, which according to the 2001 Bonn Agreement is to form the basis of the new document, recognizes only the Hanafi school as official. Mohseni expressed his view over Iranian radio's Mashhad-based Dari service.

The Herat newspaper "Takhasos" recommended in January that, since the authority of the Afghan Transitional Administration does not extend beyond Kabul and the power of warlords means that the people of Afghanistan are unable to exercise their right to determine the shape of the new Afghan constitution, the 1964 constitution be used as the country's basic law and remain in force until the central government's rule is established throughout the country.

CDC Chairman Nematullah Shahrani has consistently confirmed that the Afghan people will be involved in the discussion of the new constitution, and the draft will be circulated to legal scholars in the provinces. According to Shahrani, discussions will be held with religious scholars, tribal leaders, and jurists, after which an enlarged drafting committe will have a final draft ready by August. That version is to be presented to a special Constitutional Loya Jirga in October. In a meeting with Afghan journalists in late March, Shahrani praised the role of the media in helping the CDC complete the first draft of the constitution, by keeping the members of the committee informed of public sentiments and views.

Clearly, the role of the media is crucial at this juncture as the draft is being reviewed. There are only five months for the Afghan people to learn what sort of constitution they will have and what issues they should be concerned about when they elect their Constitutional Loya Jirga representatives. Moreover, given the current political situation in the country, free and fair elections for Constitutional Loya Jirga representatives might prove a difficult undertaking. The more the people in general know and discuss the draft today, the better the chances of Afghanistan moving forward toward statehood.

The only conceivable way for the people to learn about the draft constitution is through the media. The only media outlet that can reach the majority of the Afghan population -- with nearly 90 percent illiteracy -- is radio. The people of Afghanistan, due to the negligence of their governments and because of the wars against the invading Soviet forces and among domestic factions, have remained one of the least literate people in the world. The same conflicts, however, have made them politically very savvy.

In the last seven decades, Afghanistan has not experienced a single regular and preplanned transfer of power -- other than President Sebghatullah Mujaddedi relinquishing power as part of a United Nations plan in 1992 -- and each new ruler has tried to change the constitution. Today, with foreign assistance, the country has a chance to become a viable state in which the rule of law and respect for international norms, not the rule of violence, would determine the future. The new constitution is not only a symbol, but the core tool in moving Afghanistan toward its new future. As such, it should first and foremost respond to the realities faced by the majority of Afghan society and not to the wishes of a few or ideals being imposed by the outside world. This might be the last chance for Afghans to determine their future through peaceful means, and this bitter reality requires that the Afghan people be involved, consulted, and that their wishes be heard and incorporated into the new constitution.

If it becomes apparent that there is much disagreement, or that a relatively fair process of choosing members of the Constitutional Loya Jirga is not possible, then rather than adopting a potentially divisive constitution, it might be prudent to wait and allow for broader discussion among the population after the central government gets a better grip on security and the domestic political process.

BAGHDAD REGIME'S 'SECURITY' PREVENTS DEFECTIONS
The Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein has ordered special security forces into certain Baghdad neighborhoods where senior army and intelligence officers reside, Kuwait news agency (KUNA) reported on 3 April. The report asserts that security forces are monitoring the movements of the senior officers in an effort to prevent them from fleeing Baghdad or from contacting coalition forces. KUNA reported that a number of senior officers have already been arrested attempting to leave Baghdad for neighboring countries. KR

IRAQI PRESIDENT REPORTEDLY CHAIRS MEETING
Iraq Television carried footage on 3 April of a meeting between President Hussein and his advisers. An announcer reported that Hussein advised his commanders to act as leaders, adding that those who were not able to do so should step aside and allow others to lead. Hussein called on all Iraqis, in particular Ba'ath Party members, to fight, saying, "This is the day to test the principles" of the nation. The Iraqi leader also urged Iraqis to hold the defense lines outside the cities. KR

RIGHTS GROUP ACCUSES IRAQ OF HIDING LAND MINES IN MOSQUE
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a 2 April press release accused Iraq of storing land mines in a mosque and laying them on the mosque grounds. "Iraq has violated international humanitarian law by storing antipersonnel land mines inside a mosque in Kadir Karam in northern Iraq, and placing them around the mosque before abandoning the area on March 27th," the release read. According to HRW, more than 150 mines were dismantled by the British organization Mines Advisory Group on 2 April. HRW also reported that the Iraqi regime has laid land mines in and around Al-Najaf, Kirkuk, around Al-Basrah, and in other areas in southern Iraq. A BBC cameraman was killed on 2 April when he stepped out of his car onto a land mine. In addition, HRW reported that three U.S. marines have been injured by antipersonnel mines in Iraq since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The HRW press release can be viewed at (http://www.hrw.org). KR

COALITION CLAIMS IT CONTINUES TO DISABLE IRAQI COMMAND AND CONTROL
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Deputy Director of Operations Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told a 3 April press conference that coalition forces continue to disable the Iraqi regime's command-and-control structure (http://www.centcom.mil). Referring to the coalition bombings of palaces belonging to President Hussein, Brooks said, "Many of those have been attacked by some of our precision-guided munitions, and our work over the last several weeks [has been] to destroy them, to take them out of the command-and-control architecture, because in many cases they're backup locations for command and control." Brooks later added that coalition forces obtained a "considerable amount of information" in a 2-3 April overnight raid on the Tharthar Presidential Palace northwest of Baghdad. KR

U.S. TO HOST ROUNDTABLE OF IRAQI LEADERS
Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" in a 3 April interview that the United States will host a roundtable to bring together Iraqi dissidents and leaders to plan a postwar administration in Iraq, AFP reported on 4 April. "We want to include in the power structures the emigre community and the anti-Saddam opposition, which have had so much difficulty in abolishing the dictatorship of Hussein," Powell said, adding that leading Iraqi figures from inside Iraq will be invited to participate in order to ensure a representative power structure in the post-Hussein era. Powell said the roundtable will be similar to the one hosted by the United States in Afghanistan, and noted that Washington seeks to turn power over to a new Iraqi government in a timely manner. "As soon as possible, we will try to hand over the responsibilities to the civilian ministers who have been reformed with our support, so that the Iraqi authorities can function without fearing the supporters of Saddam Hussein," Powell said. KR

IRAQ SAYS CITIZENS WILL BE COMPENSATED FOR 'SACRIFICES'
The Iraqi regime is repeating promises to compensate Iraqis for their "sacrifices" in an apparent effort to elicit loyalty. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan announced a decision by President Hussein that Iraq will compensate its citizens for property damage incurred as a result of the current conflict, Iraq Television reported on 3 April. The announcement stated that "special committees" have been set up in various governorates to assess the value of any house sustaining damage during the conflict. Once assessed, the regime promises compensation within 72 hours. Iraq Television also repeated on 3 April an earlier order that "generous financial awards" will be given to the families of "martyrs" and the wounded. KR

IRAQI GENERAL REPORTS ON CONFLICT
Iraqi Military spokesman Staff General Hazim al-Rawi issued a statement on the status of the conflict, Iraq Television reported on 3 April. Al-Rawi repeated earlier Iraqi assertions that the military has not employed all of its units, nor has it called up reservists. "As for beloved and guarded Baghdad, we assure you that its walls are huge and are filled with men, weapons, and chivalry," al-Rawi said, declaring that Iraqi forces will "swallow-up" coalition forces in Baghdad. KR

ARAB NEWS CHANNEL PULLS CORRESPONDENTS FROM IRAQ
Al-Jazeera television has voluntarily withdrawn its correspondents from Iraq, the satellite news channel reported on 2 April. The decision came after the Iraqi Information Ministry expelled one Al-Jazeera correspondent and placed restrictions on a Baghdad-based correspondent. Al-Jazeera said it will "continue to broadcast the live and recorded pictures coming from Al-Jazeera offices in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, and Mosul." KR

IRAQ CLAIMS COALITION STOLE BABY FORMULA
Iraqi Trade Minister Mahdi Salih has reportedly charged coalition forces with destroying food warehouses in Al-Basrah and Al-Nasiriyah, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 3 April. "They also stole baby formula and milk from Al-Nasiriyah warehouses," Salih claimed. The trade minister told Al-Arabiyah that the Iraqi government had already provided citizens with seven months' worth of rations. KR

ISRAEL INCREASES ITS READINESS AS THE BATTLE FOR BAGHDAD BEGINS
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has increased its state of readiness -- especially in respect to intelligence-gathering operations -- in order to be prepared for a possible Iraqi military response as the battle for Baghdad begins, the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" reported on 4 April. The IDF believes that, faced with defeat in Baghdad, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might be pushed to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Sources within the IDF stressed that the possibility of Baghdad using WMD against Israel is "still low," and cautioned that changes in the military situation in Iraq could affect the Iraqi regime's decisions, the report added. The IDF currently does not have evidence that Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles capable of reaching Israel have been positioned in western Iraq. However, the Iraqi regime might still be able to launch missiles against Israel using mobile launchers, the IDF said. AT

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT STRESSES NEED TO AVOID INVOLVEMENT IN IRAQ CRISIS...
President Vladimir Putin on 3 April told journalists that Russia is deliberately avoiding direct involvement in recent international crises and that he will make every effort to avoid Russia's involvement "in any form" in the current crisis in Iraq, Western and Russian media reported. Putin emphasized that the United States is Russia's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $9.2 billion last year. He noted that Russia's economy is heavily dependent on the state of the U.S. economy and the value of the U.S. dollar. About three-quarters of Russia's $55.5 billion hard-currency reserves are held in U.S. dollars, Putin said. Any drop in the value of the dollar would lead to direct losses for Russia. The same is true for private citizens, who also prefer to hold their savings in dollars, Putin noted. Moreover, bilateral political cooperation is also extremely important for Russia. As the world's two leading nuclear powers, the United States and Russia share a special responsibility for maintaining peace and stability around the world, Putin remarked. Both countries must work together to end the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. Putin also repeated Russia's commitment to creating a global international-security system centered on the United Nations, a goal that he said can only be achieved in cooperation with the United States. VY

...AND URGES CALM IN REACTING TO WAR
Asked to comment on recent statements by Islamic leaders and, particularly, a 3 April appeal by Telget Tajetdin, the supreme mufti of Russia and the European countries of the CIS, calling for a jihad against the forces of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, President Putin said he understands that people "cannot restrain their emotions," RTR reported. "I understand and partially share the opinions of such people, especially after watching television reports from the combat zone," Putin said. But he cautioned that emotion is a poor basis for decision making and that recent events have shown that Russia's position on Iraq has been correct all along. VY

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH U.S., BRITISH COUNTERPARTS
Igor Ivanov met in Brussels on 3 April with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to discuss the crisis in Iraq and "urgent measures to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe" in the context of a recent decision by the UN Security Council to resume the "oil-for-food" program, ORT and RTR reported. Following the talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told journalists that Russia is not bargaining over Iraq and is not discussing the postwar political order in the country with the United States. Russia continues to urge the United States to resolve the Iraq crisis within the framework of the United Nations. Ivanov also met the same day with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw before flying to Paris for further consultations with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. VY

IRANIAN PRESIDENT DENOUNCES U.S.-LED WAR ON IRAQ
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, on Iran's Persian Gulf island of Kish on 3 April to inaugurate a new luxury hotel, denounced the war in Iraq as placing "the interests of mankind at risk," according to IRNA. He expressed sadness over the deaths on both sides of the war, but in particular for "the oppressed Iraqi people whose youth are being sacrificed for some people who are sitting in their safe palaces." He called for an international effort to stop the war, which he said was driven by "Zionist lobbies," and warned that it would give "a green light to extremist movements and violence-seekers to [repay] your violence with violence." Apparently reflecting Tehran's wariness of the impending installation of a U.S.-backed government in neighboring Iraq, he demanded that the Iraqi people choose their own, democratic government. According to IRNA, he equated the United States and Britain with terrorists "who would seek to achieve their own objectives and impose their will on others in defiance of the dictates of the human conscience." SF

GRAND AYATOLLAH'S OFFICE DENIES ISSUING FATWA...
The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is a Shia source of emulation based in Najaf, has issued a statement denying that the cleric has issued a fatwa calling on Iraqis not to resist coalition forces, Al-Jazeera television reported on 3 April. Lebanese Hizballah's Al-Manar television also reported on 3 April that it could not confirm "the truth about the aforementioned [fatwa]," citing "parties [contacted] through our own channels." U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) deputy director of operations Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said during a 3 April press briefing in Qatar that al-Sistani has issued a fatwa "instructing the population to remain calm and to not interfere with coalition actions," according to the U.S. State Department's Office of International Information Programs (http://usinfo.state.gov). BS

...AS CONFUSION REIGNS IN NAJAF
Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, a spokesman for the London-based Al-Khoi Foundation, said in a 3 April interview with Al-Jazeera that "our sources say that complete confusion prevails in Najaf.... We have no one who could go to Ayatollah Sistani to ask him for a religious ruling." Al-Ulum added that "what we have heard" is that the ayatollah wants the Iraqi people not to resist coalition forces. If anyone is inclined to believe Iraqi state media, then it too contributed to the confusion. Iraq Television on 3 April reported: "The religious scholars in Al-Najaf al-Ashraf represented by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, Ayatollah Shaykh Bashir al-Najafi, and Ayatollah Shaykh Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, and the religious scholar in Al-Kazimiyah, Ayatollah Seyyed Husayn Seyyed Isma'il al-Sadr, have issued a fatwa in which they appealed to the Islamic nation everywhere to unite and support the Muslim and mujahid Iraq with all their might. They also called upon the Iraqi people to defend their homeland, honor, religion, and holy shrines and expel the infidel invaders from the land of Islam." BS

AFGHANISTAN PASSES LAW ALLOWING PUBLIC DEMONSTRATIONS
The Afghan Transitional Administration has approved a new law granting Afghans the right to hold public assemblies or strikes, a right they have been denied for 30 years, dpa reported on 2 April. Deputy Chief Justice Fazel Ahmad Manawi praised the new law as a societal necessity "to give people the courage to express their lawful and legitimate demands," but he cautioned that the government "should be careful not allow saboteurs such as the Taliban to misuse this law," dpa reported. Kabul University law Professor Faizullah Jalal welcomed the passage of the new law, although he questioned the sincerity of the Transitional Administration, saying the law is "a deception by the authorities to mislead the international community." Afghans gained the right to publicly assemble under the 1964 constitution and lost it after the 1973 republican regime of Mohammad Daud came to power. The first public demonstrations in Afghanistan following the December 2001 establishment of the Transitional Administration took place last November, when students at Kabul University protested against the government's lack of attention to their welfare (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 15 November 2002). Four students were killed in clashes with police during those demonstrations. AT

TALIBAN AND KANDAHAR MILITIA FORCES KILLED IN LATEST FIGHTING
Kandahar Province Governor Gol Agha Sherzai said on 3 April that 20 Taliban fighters and three of his troops were killed in military operations in the Haba Mountains in Kandahar Province, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on 4 April. In separate operations in the nearby Torghar Mountains, U.S. Special Forces and Sharzai's militia fought a group of fighters that was believed to be "associated with the Taliban," according to U.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King. He said U.S. aircraft bombed the area, killing one enemy fighter and securing the area, "Dawn" reported. An Afghan official said some Afghan militia fighting with U.S. forces were also killed in the bombing. The unidentified official gave the total number of enemy fighters killed at five, but he did not provide any specific information regarding casualties sustained by his forces. AT

AFGHAN OFFICIAL GIVES ASSURANCES THAT PUBLIC WILL BE CONSULTED ON DRAFT CONSTITUTION...
Constitutional Drafting Commission (CDC) spokesman Faruk Wardak said "the major difference between [the future Afghan] constitution and those we've had in the past is that this time people will be consulted and their viewpoints will be reflected," AP reported on 3 April. The draft constitution was submitted to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003). Karzai is expected to appoint a 30-member review commission with the task of soliciting public comments on the proposed document before the final version of the constitution is presented to a special Constitutional Loya Jirga in October. According to Deputy Chief Justice Fazel Ahmad Manawi, the new constitution is likely to call for the establishment of an Islamic parliamentary democratic system with a powerful president and a less powerful prime minister, AP reported. The Kabul daily "Mosharekat-e Melli" commented on 30 March that the Afghan people, who thus far are unaware of the provisions of draft constitution, should be consulted before it is adopted. AT

...AS DOUBTS ARE RAISED ABOUT EXTENT OF PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN DEBATE
Any public participation in the approval process of the new constitution will be limited to select Afghans such as religious leaders, tribal elders, and legal experts, and no referendum is planned, AP reported on 3 April. The news agency also quoted an anonymous foreign analyst in Kabul as saying that the one-year time frame (October 2002 to October 2003) allotted by the 2001 Bonn Agreement for the drafting and approval of the new Afghan constitution has proven to be too short "to have a meaningful debate." The analyst added that the Afghan administration is committed to the Bonn Agreement and "there's no way to change it." Manawi, meanwhile, cautioned that Afghanistan has never had difficulties in writing new constitutions, but has always had problems "implementing them" (for more on the future Afghan constitution, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 April 2003). AT

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