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Newsline - April 25, 2003


GOVERNMENT SLASHES MILITARY CHIEF'S REFORM-FUNDING REQUEST...
Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on 24 April approved only one-third of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's 138 billion ruble ($4.4 billion) supplemental budget request to fund the addition of 130,000 contract soldiers to the armed forces over the next four years, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2003). The paper said Kasyanov's decision to reduce the request to 30 billion rubles, which came during a closed-door cabinet meeting, reflected his "obvious fondness" for an alternative reform plan submitted by the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), although he has not publicly endorsed that proposal. After the meeting, Ivanov tried to put the best possible face on the Kasyanov's response, asserting: "The government has accepted the Defense Ministry's framework as a basis. That's a fact." SS

...AS DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS WOMEN SHOULD BE ABLE TO VOLUNTEER FOR COMBAT...
Ivanov said on 24 April that he favors allowing women to volunteer for combat units under his ministry's reform plan, RIA-Novosti reported. The change would require new legislation. "Female volunteers should be no different from male [ones]," said Ivanov. His suggestion would add a second new category to the pool of potential volunteers. The government on the same day approved a Defense Ministry proposal to allow citizens of other CIS countries to volunteer for the Russian armed forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 20 March 2003). However, many Russians don't like the plan. An unscientific poll conducted by "Ekho Moskvy" radio found that 52 percent of 2,387 callers oppose the idea of allowing citizens of other CIS countries to serve in the Russian Army. SS

...AND SPS LEADER PLEDGES 'FULL-SCALE BATTLE' FOR SPS PROGRAM
SPS leader Boris Nemtsov, deriding the Defense Ministry's reform program as a "halfway" plan, vowed on 24 April to wage a "full-scale battle" for his party's alternative, RosBalt reported. The SPS plan calls for converting a larger contingent -- 400,000 troops -- of the armed forces to a contract basis over the next three years at a maximum cost of 90 billion rubles ($2.9 billion). It also envisages a pay raise for volunteers to 6,200 rubles a month ($200), or about 15-20 percent above Russia's average wage. However, Nemtsov has failed to garner support for the SPS plan from cabinet ministers, gazeta.ru reported on 24 April, and President Vladimir Putin wants a government-approved program for army reform on his desk by 1 June. "So the battle is more likely behind us than ahead of us," said gazeta.ru. SS

RUSSIA ADJUSTS POSITION ON LIFTING IRAQ SANCTIONS
Moscow has proposed a partial lifting of UN economic sanctions against Iraq, reversing its previous insistence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2003) that doing so be tied to UN certification that the country has no weapons of mass destruction, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 April, citing unidentified "well-informed diplomatic sources" in New York. Under the proposal, which has been submitted to the Security Council, sanctions on the supply of foodstuffs and medicine would be completely lifted and civilian air communication restored immediately. The UN secretary-general would be empowered to carry out any needed humanitarian-assistance programs in Iraq as well, including authorizing the provision of equipment necessary to rebuild the country's infrastructure. The sources added that Moscow wants the secretary-general also to be authorized to make decisions regarding Iraqi oil exports until a legitimate government is formed in Baghdad. The embargo on military supplies would remain in place until UN weapons inspectors certify to the Security Council that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. RC

SUSPECT IN DEPUTY'S KILLING RELEASED
Artem Stefanov, the 20-year-old man who was detained by Moscow police on 23 April in connection with the 17 April slaying of Duma Deputy and Liberal Russia co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2003), was released from custody on 24 April, strana.ru and other Russian media reported. Stefanov has pledged not to leave the city, Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov said. Stefanov's lawyer, well-known human rights advocate Pavel Astakhov, told strana.ru that Stefanov maintains his innocence and that he has "no complaints or pretensions against the investigative organs" in the case. He added that Stefanov's friends have confirmed his alibi to investigators. RC

PUTIN REPORTS INCREASED ARMS SALES IN 2002
President Putin announced on 24 April that Russia's exports under military-technical cooperation programs totaled $4.82 billion last year, $500 million more than expected, RIA-Novosti reported. Speaking at a meeting of the Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation, Putin said much of the revenue came from sales of MiG fighter jets, but gave no figures. Noting that aircraft accounted for 70 percent of last year's exports, he urged that the assortment of exported arms be expanded. Putin also cited a few sore spots. The lack of coordination among federal agencies and Russian companies, Putin said, "negatively affects the country's authority and negatively influences Russia's relations with specific foreign partners." Several Russian exporters failed to fulfill "even half of their own plans," he added. "I'd like to hear about the reasons for this situation." SS

MOSCOW PROPOSES SHARED DATABASE OF EUROPEAN LAWS
Justice Minister Yurii Chaika announced on 24 April that Moscow has submitted a proposal to the Council of Europe to create a "common European legal space," Interfax reported. After meeting with Chaika, President Putin said he will discuss the initiative at the EU-Russia summit in St. Petersburg at the end of May. The proposal calls for the creation of a European database of regulatory laws. European countries are currently unable to compare notes on legal standards, specifically with regard to terrorism, according to Chaika, who said the proposal had gotten a "good" response from the Council of Europe's leadership. SS

RUSSIA COMPLETES FIRST PHASE OF DESTROYING CHEMICAL ARSENALS
Zinovii Pak, the outgoing chief of the Rosboepripasy, the state munitions agency, announced on 24 April that Moscow has fulfilled the first phase of its program to destroy its chemical weapons, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2003). He said that 400 tons of chemical weapons have been destroyed, mostly at a plant in the Saratov Oblast town of Gornyi. The amount destroyed is 1 percent of Russia's stockpile. The entire disarmament program is scheduled to be concluded in 2012. SS

PUTIN NAMES TWO NEW DEPUTY PRIME MINISTERS
President Putin signed a decree on 24 April appointing Boris Aleshin as deputy prime minister for industrial policy and Galina Karelova as deputy prime minister in charge of social policy, Russian media reported. Aleshin, 48, was born in Moscow, where he attended several technical institutes, RIA-Novosti reported He most recently worked as chairman of the State Standards and Measures Committee, and in 2000 he served as first deputy industry and science minister. Karelova, 52, was born in Sverdlovsk Oblast. She has served in the Sverdlovsk Oblast Legislative Assembly, the State Duma, and the Federation Council. Most recently, she has headed the commission for women's affairs at the Federation Council since 1999. According to strana.ru, she also served as first deputy labor minister. Prime Minister Kasyanov now has five deputy prime ministers. According to "Kommersant-Daily," only women were the main contenders for Karelova's position, which was previously held by Valentina Matvienko, who is now presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). JAC

PORNOGRAPHY CHARGES DROPPED AGAINST AVANT-GARDE WRITER...
The Moscow city prosecutor's office has dropped its criminal case against avant-garde writer Vladimir Sorokin on charges of distributing pornography, Russian media reported on 24 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12, and 16 July 2002). The investigation started in July of last year following complaints from the pro-Putin youth group Walking Together that Sorokin's 1999 novel "Goluboye Salo" (Blue Lard) contains pornography. The prosecutor made its decision following the recommendation by a panel of three experts, who decided the novel is not pornographic, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. JAC

...AND PROSECUTORS DECIDE NOT TO APPEAL LIMONOV VERDICT
The Prosecutor-General's Office will not appeal to the Supreme Court the 15 April ruling of a Saratov Oblast court in the case of writer and National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov and five other party activists, strana.ru reported on 25 April, citing Limonov's lawyer Sergei Belyak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 April 2003). The Saratov court convicted Limonov of illegally purchasing weapons and sentenced him to four years' imprisonment, while acquitting him of the more serious charges of plotting terrorist acts, calling for the forcible seizure of power, and forming an illegal armed unit. Belyak said that Limonov and the others have already served more than half of their sentences and will begin seeking early release before the end of this month. Limonov maintains his innocence and will seek to have his conviction overturned "after he is released," Belyak said. Commenting on the sentence for strana.ru on 15 April, writer Viktor Yerofeev said: "Just like in Soviet times, the government has conducted itself pitilessly regarding dissent.... This means that Limonov's positions will not only be publicized, but will become fashionable, an emblem, a banner." Liberal intellectual Valeriya Novodvorskaya told the website, "I consider the entire story -- both the arrest and the fact that the poor guy had to sit for so long in that vile Saratov jail -- extremely inhuman." RC

ST. PETE GOVERNOR INDICATES WILLINGNESS TO RESIGN OFFICE EARLY...
Speaking on the local television program "Governor's Time " on 23 April, Vladimir Yakovlev said that "they need him out in December" and he is "ready to do this even earlier," RosBalt reported on 24 April, without identifying the "they" in Yakovlev's statement. According to RosBalt, Yakovlev said that according to the constitution the election for St. Petersburg's new head shouldn't take place until spring 2004. He also declared that "there is a person whom he will support" to succeed him, and he will make this name public in the near future. The next day, presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District Matvienko said that no one pressured Yakovlev when he decided not to participate in the next gubernatorial election. She added that Yakovlev only made his statement "out of a wish to dampen political speculation." Yakovlev announced that he will not seek a third term earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April 2003). JAC

...AS CITY RESIDENTS SKEPTICAL ABOUT JUBILEE
Meanwhile, in a survey of 1,000 St. Petersburg residents conducted this month by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), 58 percent of respondents said Yakovlev is not eligible for another term, and 43 percent did not approve of the appointment of Matvienko as presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District. Seventeen percent had difficulty answering, while 40 percent approved of that appointment. When asked if they thought the 300th anniversary of the city's founding is a holiday for the entire city, the entire country, or just the political elite, 59 percent chose the third option. One-quarter said the holiday is for the city, and 12 percent for all of Russia. JAC

HAS PUTIN EXPANDED THE POWER OF HIS ENVOYS TO THE REGIONS?
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Kommersant-Daily" -- both of which are controlled by self-exiled businessman Boris Berezovskii -- reported on 24 April that President Putin verbally expanded the powers of his presidential envoys to the seven federal districts at a meeting with them on 23 April to include financial oversight of money flows between the federal center and the regions. However, the newspapers said this new responsibility has not been -- and will not be -- legalized by a decree. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," "the president's orders were not put in the form of documents in order not to distort the power vertical," while "Kommersant-Daily" quoted presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District Matvienko as saying that the "head of the government does not plan to sign a special decree on this account." According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the envoys will also advise the federal government on the expediency of financing particular regional projects. At the meeting, Putin also asked his envoys to report on how regions are implementing new land and legal-reform legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2003). JAC

SENATORS APPROVE HOUSING REFORM DESPITE OBJECTIONS
Federation Council members approved a new law on housing policy on 23 April, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 24 April. The vote was 138 in favor with 22 against. According to the daily, discussion of the bill was heated, and some senators accused the government of imposing additional mandates on local governments without providing revenue sources to pay for them. Ivan Starikov of Kostroma Oblast asked to what degree this law corresponds with the proposed law on local self-government and what kind of tax base is being transferred to the regions. Valerii Kadokhov of North Ossetia charged that again the burden on regions is being increased. According to TVS on 23 April, the bill will allow local officials to evict people who have not paid their rent for six months. JAC

DEPUTY GOVERNOR PICKED UP FOR QUESTIONING IN BEATING CASE
Saratov Oblast Deputy Governor Yurii Moiseev was picked up by police on 23 April on suspicion of beating up a local resident, Vitalii Gladyshev in September 1998, regions.ru reported on 24 April, citing Saratovbizneskonsalting. According to an article in the local newspaper "Reporter," a criminal case was opened after the incident, in which Moiseev allegedly struck Gladyshev in the head with a rubber nightstick, causing a concussion. However, witnesses in the case reportedly received threats and withdrew their statements, causing the case to be closed, according to grani.ru. Gladyshev's family was also reportedly threatened, but then they were offered 40,000 rubles ($1,300) for Gladyshev's medical expenses, "Reporter" reported. Gevorg Dzhlavyan, who is now the oblast's transportation minister, reportedly organized Gladyshev's medical treatment. Because of information provided by "Reporter," the case has now been reopened. According to regions.ru, Moiseev is not only Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov's deputy, but also his nephew. JAC

ARMENIA COMMEMORATES 1915 GENOCIDE
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians converged on 24 April on the memorial in Yerevan to the estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed in Ottoman Turkey in 1915, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. President Robert Kocharian and other senior officials attended a prayer service at the memorial officiated by Catholicos Garegin II. The opposition alliance Artarutiun organized a separate procession of several thousand supporters. In his written address to the country to mark the anniversary, Kocharian reaffirmed the Armenian government's commitment to work for international recognition of the genocide, including by Turkey. But at the same time he stressed his "sincere intention of maintaining normal relations with all neighboring countries." A similar commemoration took place in Stepanakert, capital of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

ODIHR HEAD MEETS WITH AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION
Ambassador Christian Strohal, who is director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, met in Baku on 24 April with Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev and with leaders of opposition parties, and on 25 April with political parties represented in parliament, to discuss a disputed election bill, zerkalo.az and Turan reported on 25 April. Strohal said he considers it inadmissible for a single political force to monopolize election commissions. The current draft law gives members and supporters of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party a majority on election commissions at all levels. Peter Burkhardt, who heads the OSCE's Baku office, said that the Council of Europe has extended its original 17 April deadline for passage of the new election legislation, but did not specify for how long (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2003). LF

AZERBAIJAN'S HEALTH MINISTRY DENIES SARS PATIENT DETAINED AT BAKU AIRPORT
Health Ministry official Nurulla Mamedov rejected on 25 April as "absolutely false" reports that a passenger arriving on 24 April at Baku's Bina Airport from Urumqi was found to be suffering from sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Turan reported. The independent newspaper "Yeni Musavat" reported on 25 April that a passenger arriving from China had been diagnosed as suffering from SARS and that he and his fellow passengers have been hospitalized. The paper also claimed that 19 people suffering from SARS have been intercepted on the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia. LF

ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI DEPUTIES TO GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT ENGAGE IN GENOCIDE POLEMIC
The 24 April Georgian parliament session was suspended after the six ethnic Azerbaijani deputies protested a proposal by an ethnic Armenian deputy to observe a one-minute silence in tribute to the victims of the Armenian genocide, zerkalo.az reported on 25 April. The Azerbaijani deputies likewise rejected an alternative proposal by parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze to observe one minute of silence in honor of all who have died in "ethno-political" conflicts in the South Caucasus, regardless of their nationality. The Azerbaijani deputies accused Burdjanadze and opposition leaders Mikhail Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania of openly pro-Armenian bias, while Irakli Gogava, who heads the Alliance for a New Georgia faction to which the Azerbaijani deputies belong, accused Burdjanadze of seeking to sow enmity between Georgia's Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities. The Azerbaijani deputies were later received by the Turkish ambassador to Tbilisi, who thanked them for their demarche and hinted that the position adopted by the Georgian parliament could negatively affect relations between the two countries. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT VOTES DOWN BILL ON SPECIAL ECONOMIC ZONES
Later on 24 April, deputies rejected in its first reading a disputed bill on establishing special economic zones, Caucasus Press reported. The vote was 74 votes in favor and 84 against. The Georgian government opposes such zones, fearing they could strengthen the economic position of Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze and facilitate money laundering. In an attempt to embarrass the government, several opposition factions are backing Abashidze's Revival Union, which authored the bill (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 16 April 2003). LF

RUSSIAN, UN ENVOYS DISCUSS ABKHAZIA
Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin, who is Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, met in Tbilisi on 24 April with Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili; Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze; and Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. The talks focused on the creation of working groups to implement aspects of the agreement reached in Sochi on 6-7 March by Putin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. That agreement encompasses the return to Abkhazia of Georgian displaced persons, the restoration of rail communication between Sochi and Tbilisi via Abkhazia, and the joint reconstruction by Georgia, Abkhazia, and Russia of the Inguri Hydroelectric Power Plant, which is located in Abkhazia and provides power to Georgia. LF

GEORGIA BRACES FOR POSSIBLE NEW CHECHEN INCURSION
The Georgian Army will hold large-scale maneuvers in the eastern part of the country within the next few days, Interfax quoted armed forces Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General Djoni Pirtskhalaishvili as saying on 24 April. Pirtskhalaishvili said the maneuvers are intended to prevent new tensions in the Pankisi Gorge. Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze said on 16 April that there are no longer any "terrorists or fighters" in the gorge, according to Caucasus Press. But Georgian Minister of State Security Valeri Khaburzania said in Moscow on 24 April that he does not exclude the presence in Pankisi of Achimez Gochiyaev, who is wanted in Russia on suspicion of masterminding the 1999 apartment-building bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk. Pirtskhalaishvili admitted that Chechen fighters might return to Pankisi when mountain passes are clear of snow. The newspaper "Tribuna" on 24 April quoted Georgian State Border Department Chairman Valeri Chkheidze as complaining, as he has done previously, that his department is underfunded, which makes it more difficult for his men to detect and intercept interlopers. LF

EURASIAN MEDIA FORUM OPENS IN KAZAKHSTAN
The Second Eurasian Media Forum opened in Almaty on 24 April, Khabar.kz and RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The forum is being attended by more than 170 journalists and media specialists from 45 countries. In a keynote speech, President Nursultan Nazarbaev called on the mass media to facilitate the development of dialogue among civilizations, cultures, and religions, but added that under the conditions of a weak civil society, the media can be an instrument of disintegration. Dariga Nazarbaeva -- the president's daughter, the head of the forum's organizing committee, and one of the most prominent figures in the Kazakh media scene -- said the forum is intended to emphasize cooperation rather than differences and to seek mutual understanding. European Commission President Romano Prodi sent a video greeting to the forum in which he described Kazakhstan as a very young country with developing democratic institutions. Holding such a gathering in Kazakhstan is itself very important, Prodi said. A group of leading Kazakh opposition journalists have refused to attend the event because they assert that it will give the false impression that Kazakhstan is a media-friendly country. To demonstrate that this impression is far from accurate, Ermurat Bapi, editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "SolDat," pointed to the case of imprisoned journalist Sergei Duvanov, who was convicted of statutory rape after writing articles critical of Nazarbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January and 12 March 2003). Bapi also points to the problems of his own newspaper with the tax authorities after it became almost the only media outlet in the country to report on the latest developments in the "Kazakhgate" bribery scandal, in which the president and his family are alleged to be involved. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Freimut Duve also refused to attend the forum on the grounds that his presence might be used by Kazakhstan's propaganda machine. BB

KYRGYZ LOWER HOUSE APPROVES AMNESTY
Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly approved an amnesty for 786 prison inmates to reduce overcrowding in the country's penal institutions, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 24 April. Assembly Deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, head of the opposition Asaba Party, told the lower house that the prisons are "overflowing," citing the case of a women's facility designed for 100 inmates that now houses 700. According to Beknazarov, the amnesty will cover women over retirement age, disabled persons, first-time offenders, and war veterans, but tuberculosis and AIDS sufferers will be excluded because in the past, convicts suffering from these illnesses tended not to seek treatment when they were released. The amnesty must now be signed by the president. BB

DISSIDENT IN TURKMENISTAN WINS MEDIA-IMPORT CASE
Vyacheslav Mamedov, an environmental and human rights activist in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi (Krasnovodsk), has won a suit against the municipal communications department, in which he sought compensation for the Russian newspapers and magazines that he did not receive in the second half of 2002 because Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov banned the importation of foreign periodicals, centrasia.ru reported on 25 April, citing information from the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial. The Turkmenbashi City Court agreed that Mamedov had suffered significant personal loss and ordered the post office to reimburse him. The city communications department has 10 days to appeal the ruling. Until July 2002, it was possible for people resident in Turkmenistan to subscribe to foreign publications, but few citizens could afford to do so. In order to obtain newspapers and magazines from Russia, the Turkmenbashi city library had to appeal to an international organization to pay for the subscriptions. Turkmenbashi still has a significant Russian-speaking population. BB

UZBEKS IN TURKMENISTAN REGISTERING CHILDREN AS TURKMEN
Ethnic Uzbeks in the northern Turkmen city of Dashoguz are registering their children as ethnic Turkmen to avoid discrimination, centrasia.ru reported on 24 April, citing information collected by Memorial. At the beginning of the month, an official of a Dashoguz city registration office was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for having falsified the nationality of an Uzbek couple on their child's birth certificate at their request. Parliament Deputy Nurtach Velmamedova was sentenced in July 2002 to 10 years' imprisonment for accepting a $1,700 bribe for falsifying the documents of an ethnic Uzbek. Reportedly, ethnic Uzbeks in Dashoguz are encouraging their daughters to marry Turkmen to acquire Turkmen last names. Young Uzbeks are hoping that changing their nationality in their identity documents will enable them to get into institutions of higher education or to get jobs. Nonetheless, government and law enforcement posts are closed to them because of the careful screening of applicants for three generations back. BB

TURKMENISTAN DEPORTS ALLEGED ASSASSINATION PLOTTER TO U.S.
Leonid Komarovsky, a U.S. citizen, was handed over to an official of the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat on 24 April for deportation to the United States, turkmenistan.ru reported. Komarovsky was arrested in December for his alleged role in the supposed plot to assassinate President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2002). The Turkmen Prosecutor-General's Office claimed that Komarovsky abetted the plot by providing information to former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who Niyazov asserts was the mastermind of the plot. Six Turkish citizens who were arrested in connection with the purported assassination attempt have already been deported to Turkey. Four Russian citizens were arrested as well, along with dozens of Turkmen citizens including families of alleged plotters. More than 60 Turkmen have been convicted and sentenced for their purported roles in the affair. BB

RUSSIA BUYING MORE TURKMEN GAS THIS YEAR
Itera head Igor Makarov told journalists after a meeting with President Niyazov on 24 April that his firm and the Turkmen leadership have agreed on the terms for the purchase of additional Turkmen natural gas in the second half of this year, Interfax reported. Itera already has a contract to buy 10 billion cubic meters of gas this year. Makarov was quoted as saying he has also discussed preparations for a project with the Russian firms Zarubezhneft and Rosneft to develop hydrocarbon resources in the Caspian Sea. According to Makarov, several production-sharing agreements are being drawn up and are expected to be signed shortly. BB

UZBEK PRESIDENT TO GIVE UP POST AS HEAD OF GOVERNMENT
On the first day of its current session, Uzbekistan's Olii Majlis (parliament) adopted a number of changes to the country's constitution, including separating the posts of president and head of government, Deutsche Welle and Interfax reported on 24 April. When the next elections are held in two years, the title of "head of government" will pass to the prime minister. Karimov told the legislative body that if now the country is being ruled by the president's office, in future it will be run by a government approved by parliament. The change, he said, will also place more responsibility on the cabinet of ministers. Another constitutional change is the division of the legal system into civil and criminal components. In his speech opening the parliamentary session, Karimov called for reform of the United Nations, including the revision of the composition of the Security Council to make it more efficient. Karimov reaffirmed that Uzbekistan will provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq. He expressed particular concern over the possibility that extremists could gain access to weapons of mass destruction and called for the most serious measures to be taken against regimes and individuals who ignore international law. Karimov has been a prime mover in efforts to create a nuclear-free zone in Central Asia. BB

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SOFTENS BLOW OF ADMINISTRATIVE CONVICTIONS
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree on 23 April stipulating that those sentenced to incarceration under the Correctional Administrative Code, with the exception of military servicemen, should serve their sentences in detention centers nearest to their place of residence until the completion of special "arrest houses," Belapan reported the next day. Arrest is provided for in the Correctional Administrative Code enacted on 1 January 2001, but the country has not yet built corresponding facilities in which to confine such offenders. The government plans to complete the construction of detention houses by the end of 2006 in Mahilyou, Vitsebsk, Mazyr, the town of Hyazhaly in Hrodna Oblast, and in Vetka Raion in Homel Oblast. JM

U.S. EMBASSY DONATES BOOKS TO PRISON LIBRARY FOUNDED BY BELARUSIAN JOURNALIST
The U.S. Embassy in Belarus on 24 April donated more than 60 books, mostly works by modern American writers, to the library of a minimum-security correctional facility in Zhlobin, Homel Oblast, Belapan reported. Two U.S. diplomats handed over the books jointly with journalist Pavel Mazheyka, who spent nearly seven months in that institution after being convicted of slander against President Lukashenka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2003). Mazheyka founded the library, donating a collection of books he received from friends while incarcerated. In March, shortly before Mazheyka's release on parole, the Belarusian Association of Journalists delivered some 800 books to the penitentiary. JM

UKRAINE INSISTS CHORNOBYL SARCOPHAGUS IS SAFE
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko said in Prague on 23 April that there is no "major danger" posed by the concrete encasement of the reactor that exploded at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, Reuters reported. "We have experts who are managing the situation and are in control," Zlenko added. Zlenko was countering remarks made on 22 April by Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev, who said the concrete "sarcophagus" at Chornobyl is collapsing and needs reinforcement. Rumyantsev also said the concrete shield is leaking radiation. Some media have speculated that Rumyantsev's comments were a response to a dossier published on 21 April on the Ukrainian Security Service's website (http://www.sbu.gov.ua). The dossier presents secret correspondence between the KGB of the Ukrainian SSR and Moscow and indicates that Kyiv repeatedly warned Moscow of the dangers at Chornobyl before the 1986 disaster, but the alarms went unheeded. In particular, the documents indicate the Chornobyl plant was the scene of 29 accidents between 1977 and 1981, mostly owing to equipment failures. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HE WANTS DEFAMATION CASES STOPPED...
President Leonid Kuchma said at a news conference in Kyiv on 23 April that he has asked Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun to discontinue the criminal investigations launched recently against a number of regional media outlets for allegedly defaming the president and obstructing his activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 April 2003), UNIAN reported. Kuchma said he did not play any role in launching the cases, adding that he even does not know what media were targeted by the Prosecutor-General's Office. JM

...AND SAYS RETURN OF NBC BATTALION DEPENDS ON KUWAIT
President Kuchma told the same news conference on 23 April that the return of the Ukrainian anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) battalion that was dispatched to Kuwait in late March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003) is dependent on a Kuwaiti government decision, UNIAN reported. Kuchma noted that Kuwait requested a six-month deployment of the unit and now may either request shortening or prolonging its stay. JM

RUSSIA IMPROVES HEATH CARE COMPENSATION FOR EX-SERVICEMEN IN ESTONIA
Head of the Russian Defense Ministry Social Insurance Division Vladimir Vdovin and Estonian Social Affairs Minister Marko Pomerants signed an agreement in Tallinn on 24 April, BNS reported. The two-year agreement, which will go into effect on 1 May, provides that the some 4,100 ethnic Russian ex-Soviet servicemen residing in Estonia will have the same rights to health services as people covered by Estonian health insurance. Russia agreed to pay to the Estonian Public Health Insurance Fund 497 kroons ($34.60) a month for each ex-serviceman. The figure is based on the average monthly sum the fund spends on the treatment of a patient aged 70 to 79. SG

BALTIC PRESIDENTS UNDERSCORE NEED FOR GREATER COOPERATION
Presidents Arnold Ruutel (Estonia), Vaira Vike-Freiberga (Latvia), and Rolandas Paksas (Lithuania) affirmed at their annual meeting in Tartu, Estonia, on 24 April that their countries can achieve more by continuing cooperation after they become members of the EU and NATO, BNS reported. Ruutel said that while the construction of the Via Baltica highway is proceeding successfully, the development of the stretch transiting Poland is experiencing a bottleneck and the issue should be raised at the next meeting of the Baltic and Polish presidents. Paksas invited Latvia and Estonia to be partners in the construction of a new nuclear-power plant at Ignalina, but received responses that more study is needed before a decision can be made. The presidents agreed on the need to work together to achieve the ratification of their NATO-accession treaties by current NATO members. They also agree to cooperate in strengthening security along their eastern borders and in combating international terrorism and crime. SG

LATVIAN CORRUPTION PREVENTION BUREAU REQUESTS SUSPENSION OF SIX POLITICAL PARTIES
The Corruption Prevention Bureau turned to the courts on 24 August, asking that the activities of six political parties be suspended because they violated the law by not submitting detailed financial declarations, LETA reported. The six parties are: the Renaissance of Latvia Party, Future of Latvia Party, Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Union, the For Development of Liepaja party, and the National Harmony Party (TSP). The bureau requested the court suspend operations of these parties for six months and order them to submit more complete financial declarations for 2002 within two weeks. Among these parties the TSP is the only one to be represented in parliament. Its chairman, Janis Jurkans, told BNS that the request is the result of a misunderstanding, as the TSP has nothing to hide. He expressed surprise that the bureau did not call him for explanations before turning to the courts. SG

EU ENLARGEMENT COMMISSIONER VISITING LITHUANIA
Guenter Verheugen began a two-day visit to Lithuania on 24 April with a meeting with Vilnius Archbishop Cardinal Audrys Backis, ELTA reported. He discussed with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas the future of the EU after enlargement, and they agreed that the current system of a rotating EU Presidency should be maintained. Verheugen traveled to the northern city of Siauliai where he told local officials, businessmen, and residents that Lithuania had successfully overcome the two hurdles posed by Kaliningrad transit and the issue of closing the Ignalina nuclear-power plant. In an interview in "Lietuvos zinios" of 25 April, he said Lithuania should not fear domination by the large countries in the EU because 17 of the 25 countries in the expanded EU will be small countries that will be defending each others' rights. SG

POLISH FINANCE MINISTER PROPOSES CORPORATE TAX CUT
Finance Minister Grzegorz Kolodko on 24 April announced that he is in favor of reducing the corporate tax from the current 27 percent to 19 percent, Polish media reported, also noting that Kolodko's move comes as a surprise. Kolodko made the offer conditional on the acceptance of his proposals for public-finance reform (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 15 April 2003), which provide for the abolition of tax exemptions. "Industrial production in the first quarter [of 2003] rose by as much as 4.4 percent.... I feel that it is necessary to try and strengthen these tendencies [by offering a corporate tax cut]," Polish Television quoted Kolodko as saying. JM

POLAND OFFERS $130 MILLION CREDIT TO INDONESIA FOR WEAPONS
Visiting Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri met on 24 April with President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Premier Leszek Miller, with whom she discussed ways to boost bilateral trade, Polish media reported. The Polish government offered a credit of $130 million to Indonesia for the purchase of Polish-made military equipment and armaments for the Indonesian Army and police. "Let us say it out loud -- this is not so much a credit for Indonesia as it is for Polish manufacturers. How many Polish enterprises would not be capable of participating effectively in tenders and would not be capable of manufacturing were this export activity not supported by a credit from the Ministry of Finance?" Deputy Defense Minister Janusz Zemke said on Polish Radio. JM

POLISH AIRLINES TO BUY 10 BRAZILIAN PLANES
LOT Polish Airlines and Brazil's Embraer have signed an agreement on the purchase of 10 70-seat Embraer aircraft by LOT, Polish media reported on 24 April. Six Embraers will be delivered in the first half of 2004 and the remaining four in 2005. The contract is valued at around $200 million. The purchase deal was accompanied by another agreement whereby Emraer pledged to support exports of Polish-made M-18 Dromader and M-28 Skytruck light aircraft, as well as Sokol and SW-4 helicopters in Brazil and on third-party markets. JM

CZECH FIELD-HOSPITAL PERSONNEL ARRIVE IN AL-BASRAH
The first members of a Czech military hospital's staff arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah on 24 April, CTK reported. The agency quoted Dusan Lupuljev, commander of the joint Czech-Slovak military unit in the Persian Gulf, as saying Czech doctors might remain in Iraq for as long as two years to help Iraqis return a local hospital to fully working order. "We want future generations [of Iraqis] to say, 'The Czechs were here then, and they left something behind,'" Lupuljev said. The Defense Ministry's Vladimir Palan told CTK the same day that U.S. Galaxy military transport planes will take over the rest of the field hospital's transport to Iraq on 25 April. The initial deployments utilized An-124 planes under contract with the Ukrainian Volga-Dnepr company. The field hospital is to start functioning in early May. MS

UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS PRAGUE
Visiting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko told journalists after talks with his Czech counterpart Cyril Svoboda in Prague on 24 April that Ukraine shares the Czech Republic's views on Iraq's postwar reconstruction, CTK reported. The two chief diplomats said the role of international organizations in that process must be boosted. They also agreed there is a need for their countries to reach an agreement on ways to cope with the problem of illegal Ukrainian workers in the Czech Republic. Svoboda and Zlenko said they agreed in principle to replacing an expired accord on the mutual employment of nationals with a new agreement, adding that the Czech Labor Ministry is drafting that proposed agreement. The two sides discussed a possible investment-protection treaty and the opening of a Ukrainian consulate in Brno and a Czech consulate in Lvyv. Zlenko also met with Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, with whom he discussed the settlement of Ukraine's several-billion-crown debt to the Czech Republic, and with President Vaclav Klaus. MS

CZECH, DANISH PREMIERS INSIST ON EQUALITY WITHIN EU
Visiting Danish Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his Czech counterpart Spidla told journalists after talks in Prague on 24 April that European integration must be based on equality among large and small EU members, CTK reported. Both men expressed opposition to the proposal by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing that the bloc abolish the current system of a rotating EU Presidency and replace it with an elected president. Rasmussen said such a move might lead to larger states having a greater say in EU affairs than smaller ones. Regardless of the reforms that are agreed by the European Convention, the Danish premier said, the principle of equality must remain sacrosanct. Rasmussen also met with President Klaus and with Senate President Petr Pithart. MS

CZECH COMMUNISTS CALL FOR 'NO' VOTE IN EU REFERENDUM
The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) on 24 April called on voters to reject Czech accession to the EU in the 13-14 June referendum, CTK reported. In a pamphlet distributed to journalists, the KSCM leadership says it does not question eventual Czech membership but believes the country is not sufficiently prepared to join in May 2004. The KSCM also warns that prices for food and services will rise, which will particularly affect the weaker segments of society. The party also says accession in 2004 would endanger the Czech agriculture and food-processing industries and lead to growing unemployment. The KSCM argues that, in many areas, decision-making would be transferred from Prague to Brussels and national sovereignty would practically be abolished. MS

CZECH GREEK CATHOLICS GET SLOVAK BISHOP
Ladislav Hucko, a 55-year-old Slovak, has been appointed bishop of the Greek Catholic Church in the Czech Republic, CTK reported on 24 April, citing papal nuncio Josef Erwin Ender. The news agency said Hucko is expected eventually to replace current Apostolic Exarch Ivan Ljavinec at the head of the Greek Catholic community. Ljavinec is 80. Hucko studied physics and has a Ph.D.-equivalent degree in mining engineering. He was active in underground Catholic movements under the communist regime and took his church vows in secret. He was ordained a Greek Catholic priest in 1996 and has lectured in theological dogma at the Institute of Theology in Kosice since 2000. MS

SLOVAK ROMA REPRESENT SECOND-LARGEST GROUP OF ASYLUM SEEKERS IN CZECH REPUBLIC
The Slovak government's commissioner for Romany affairs, Klara Orgovanova, discussed the rising tide of Slovak Romany applicants for asylum in the Czech Republic with Czech officials in Prague on 24 April, CTK reported. Some 355 Slovak nationals have applied for asylum in 2003, representing the second-largest group of asylum seekers after Ukrainians (432), Czech Interior Ministry spokeswoman Gabriela Bartikova told CTK. In 2002, 843 Slovaks applied for asylum in the Czech Republic. Roman Kristof, of the Czech government's Council for Romany Affairs, said the asylum seekers are just the tip of the iceberg in Slovak Romany migration. He said that, according to some estimates, as many as 20,000 Slovak Roma have moved to the Czech Republic due to cuts in social benefits in Slovakia and widespread usury, which reportedly leads some Roma to go abroad to flee creditors. Orgovanova and Czech Human Rights Commissioner Jan Jarab discussed programs in their countries aimed at coping with the problems faced by their respective Romany communities and stemming migration to Western Europe. MS

SLOVAK PARLIAMENT APPROVES 'THREE STRIKES' LEGISLATION...
Lawmakers approved an amendment to the Penal Code on 24 April introducing the "three strikes" concept of harsh punishment for repeat offenders, TASR reported. Inspired by U.S. legislation, the amendment stipulates that a third conviction for a violent or drug-related crime carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The amendment will also apply to terrorist acts, murder, and other serious crimes. The legislature also banned human cloning, including a sentence of eight-12 years in prison for offenders. If signed into law by President Rudolf Schuster, the amended Penal Code will come into force on 1 September. MS

...WHILE ABORTION AMENDMENT STIRS CONTROVERSY
Parliament on 24 April approved in a 71-28 vote with 11 abstentions the first reading of an amendment that would allow abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy if the fetus is found to have a genetic defect, TASR reported. The amendment was proposed by the junior coalition Alliance for a New Citizen and extends by 12 weeks the currently allowable period in such cases. Lawmakers of the Christian Democratic Movement -- also a junior coalition member -- said submission of the amendment is an infringement of the coalition agreement. MS

AUSTRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS HUNGARY
Visiting Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner and her Hungarian counterpart Laszlo Kovacs told reporters in Budapest on 24 April that their countries are campaigning jointly to maintain the principle of equal rights among EU member states, and it is therefore desirable to retain the system of a rotating presidency. Ferrero-Waldner said Austria flatly rejects talk of a long-term EU president, as the move would strengthen the role of larger members, Hungarian radio reported. Austria, she added, favors the creation of an EU "foreign ministry." Citing the unfavorable situation on the Austrian labor market, Ferrero-Waldner said Hungarian citizens will not be permitted to work without restrictions in Austria upon Hungarian accession in 2004. During her visit to Budapest, Ferrero-Waldner also met with President Ferenc Madl and former Prime Minister Viktor Orban. MSZ

HUNGARIAN EMBASSY IN BAGHDAD RANSACKED
Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tamas Toth told reporters on 24 April that the ministry has learned through unofficial channels that buildings belonging to the Hungarian Embassy in Baghdad have suffered damage as a result of looting, the MTI news agency reported. Toth said Hungary is closely monitoring the situation in Iraq and will decide on returning its diplomats to Baghdad in due time. MSZ

WILL HUNGARIAN SOCIALISTS OPT FOR SYMBOLIC MOVE OF HEADQUARTERS?
Socialist Party Deputy Chairman Istvan Hiller on 24 April proposed that the party leadership decide whether the Socialists should quit their headquarters on Budapest's Koztarsasag Square, "Nepszabadsag" reported. The building was the headquarters of the former Communist Party, while the square was the scene of intense fighting during the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. Speaking after addressing a conference on social democracy, Hiller stressed the importance of symbols, especially the need for unity in the party's message and its symbols. MSZ

HUNGARIAN LABOR MINISTRY TO AID ROMANY RADIO STATION
Labor Minister Sandor Burany said on 24 April that his ministry is offering a contract to Budapest's cash-strapped Romany radio station, "Radio C," in the hope that the station might help Roma find work, "Nepszabadsag" reported the next day. The ministry will extend 4 million forints ($17,000) to the radio station, and expects it to broadcast information concerning employment. Radio C Editor in Chief Gyorgy Kerenyi said he is pleased with the news, but he added that another 60 million forints must be raised if the radio station is to operate. The radio station stopped its broadcasting on 7 April due to a lack of financing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April 2003). MSZ

SERBIAN POLICE CHARGE FORMER PRESIDENT IN MURDER CASE
The Interior Ministry on 24 April charged former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and eight former employees of the security services with involvement in the August 2000 slaying of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 18 April 2003). This marks the most serious charge that Belgrade authorities have filed against Milosevic since his ouster on 5 October 2000. The eight former security men are Radomir Markovic, Milorad Lukovic-Ulemek "Legija," Dusko Maricic "Gumar," Branko Bercek, Leonid Milivojevic, Nenad Sare, Nenad Bujosevic, and Milorad Bracanovic. In related news, police officials said they will soon file joint charges against 40 alleged members of the criminal "Zemun clan" in conjunction with the 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March 2003). PM

BOSNIAN SERB POLICE COME UP EMPTY-HANDED IN SEARCH FOR ALLEGED GANGSTERS
Republika Srpska police failed to find two suspected members of the "Zemun clan" in a search of Banja Luka's Hotel Bosna on 24 April, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. Police launched the raid after receiving information from their Belgrade colleagues that two wanted men were staying in the hotel. Republika Srpska police officials did not tell reporters the names of the two alleged gangsters. PM

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO LEADER CALLS ON WAR CRIMINALS TO SURRENDER
President Svetozar Marovic said in Belgrade on 24 April that anyone on Serbia and Montenegro's territory who has been indicted for war crimes by the Hague-based tribunal should turn themself in, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 22 April 2003). He stressed that cooperation with the tribunal is an important prerequisite for Serbia and Montenegro's eventual participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2003). Marovic added, however, that cooperation with the tribunal is no easy matter. He noted that a high representative of the international community has been in charge of Bosnia since the war ended in 1995, but that former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is still at large. Marovic called on people who allege that former Bosnian Serb commander General Ratko Mladic is living in Serbia and Montenegro under army protection to identify those who are hiding him. PM

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO TO SACK MANY DIPLOMATS
The government agreed on 24 April to replace 16 ambassadors and several other diplomats, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Those sacked received their posts as nominees of the Montenegrin opposition, which supported the former Yugoslav government of President Vojislav Kostunica. The list of those recalled includes ambassadors to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Italy, and Albania. PM

SERBIAN JOURNALISTS WANT TO TALK TO THE GOVERNMENT
The editors in chief of 15 leading Serbian periodicals and electronic media outlets sent a letter to the government on 24 April calling for a meeting to discuss their profession's current working conditions, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Many journalists and editors have expressed anger over treatment by authorities during the recently lifted state of emergency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2003). The government has not responded to the letter, but Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac said he will meet with the editors "with pleasure." PM

MACEDONIAN OPPOSITION LEADER RESIGNS
In a widely expected move, Ljubco Georgievski quit on 24 April as head of the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 February and 4 April 2003). PM

GERMAN MEDIA GROUP REPORTED SET TO BUY UP MAJOR MACEDONIAN NEWSPAPERS
The German WAZ media group is planning to purchase some of Macedonia's major newspapers, the Bulgarian mediapool.bg news agency reported on 23 April. According to the agency, WAZ has signed a provisional agreement on taking over the majority of shares in the dailies "Dnevnik," "Utrinski vesnik," and the tabloid "Vest." WAZ would thereby acquire a dominant position in the Macedonian-language media market because the remaining dailies -- "Nova Makedonija" and "Makedonija denes" -- are constantly fighting for their economic survival. Under the provisional agreement, WAZ would guarantee the dailies' editorial independence. Former Ambassador to Germany and Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim will coordinate the German media group's activities in Macedonia. WAZ also owns the major Bulgarian dailies "Trud" and "24 chasa" as well as the Serbian "Politika." Bodo Hombach, who previously headed the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact, is one of WAZ's four managing directors. UB

CROATIAN CONSERVATIVE COALITION IN THE MAKING?
Leaders of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS), Croatian Party of (Historic) Rights (HSP), and the Democratic Center (DC) met in Zagreb on 25 April for a second day of talks aimed at forming a coalition to unseat the governing coalition in elections due by April 2004 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 April 2003). PM

ROMANIAN PREMIER SPEAKS ON CORRUPTION AGAIN
Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said in an interview with Mediafax on 24 April that corruption can be found in Romania "at all [social] levels. We all know that and we never denied it." However, he added, so much talk on corruption carries the risk "of losing sight of what is essential." Corruption can only be successfully fought by waging a battle for Romania's "normalization and modernization." Those who claim that corruption is at the root of all negative phenomenas are only partially right, according to Nastase. Corruption, he explained, "is both a cause and an effect. It is the effect of poverty, of the drop in productivity after 1989, of societal restructuring, and of mentalities." He added, "We must break this vicious circle and are determined to do so." MS

FORMER ROMANIAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT OVER EU ACCESSION
Former President Emil Constantinescu said on 24 April that the government's failure to successfully promote Romania's candidacy for the EU is illustrated in a declaration approved in Athens on 16 April (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 April 2003), in which, he said, Romania is not mentioned as a candidate to join the union in 2007, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Constantinescu said Romania "risks being betrayed by its own government" and that European Integration Minister Hildegard Puwak and Romania's chief negotiator with the EU Vasile Puscas must be "urgently dismissed." Government spokesman Despina Neagoe responded that Constantinescu is again proving he "understands nothing" of the EU accession process, just as he did not understand it when he was president from 1996-2000. She said Romania has now opened 30 chapters for negotiation, out of which 17 have been provisionally closed. When Constantinescu was president, only nine chapters of the acquis communautaire were opened and six provisionally closed, she said. MS

PPCD APPEALS TO CONSTITUTIONAL COURT AGAINST FEDERAL CONSTITUTION COMMISSION SET UP
The opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) on 24 April asked the Constitutional Court to rule whether the 4 April approval by the parliament of the makeup of the Moldovan delegation to the joint commission that is to elaborate the country's future federal constitution is in line with the provisions of the current constitution, Flux reported. PPCD Chairman Iurie Rosca and his deputies Vlad Cubreacov and Stefan Secareanu said in their appeal that the setting up of the commission is unconstitutional, as it circumvents stipulations on what conditions must be met for the abrogation of the constitution. MS

CZECH CONSTITUTIONAL COURT REFUSES TO EXTRADITE MOLDOVAN
The Czech Republic's Constitutional Court on 24 April quashed rulings by lower courts and decided against extraditing to Moldova a suspected perpetrator of numerous thefts and robberies in that country, CTK reported. The court ruled that Vasile Manoli will not be extradited despite extradition accords, because of the maltreatment of inmates and torture suffered by them in Moldovan prisons. Constitutional Court Judge Eliska Wagnerova said the European Convention on Human Rights and Freedoms takes precedence over the extradition accords. She said the court was aware that this might trigger a wave of appeals by potential extraditees, but "it is our [primary] task to protect human rights." Wagnerova said that, according to information available to the court, Moldovan prison inmates are not granted minimal health care, medicine is lacking, and that prisoners' diet consists primarily of bread, with no meat, fish, or fruit ever available. MS

BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS EU-ACCESSION TALKS HAVE PRIORITY
Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said upon his return from Brussels on 24 April that negotiations with the EU will be the government's key priority over the next two years, BTA reported. Pasi and European Affairs Minister Meglena Kuneva were in Brussels to participate in a meeting of the EU-Bulgaria Joint Parliamentary Committee. At the meeting, Kuneva and Pasi insisted that the chapters of the acquis communautaire related to finance be closed in 2004 on the basis of concrete principles, and not on concrete financial terms. Pasi said these terms cannot be specified before the EU adopts the next financial framework in 2006; that is, after the expected completion of talks with Bulgaria. UB

BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT SETS UP COORDINATION CENTER AGAINST ORGANIZED CRIME...
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski, Finance Minister Milen Velchev, and Prosecutor-General Nikola Filchev agreed at a meeting on 24 April to establish a Coordination Center for Combating Organized Crime, mediapool.bg reported. The center, which will be staffed with officials from the Interior and Finance Ministries and the Prosecutor-General's Office, is to unite the government's efforts to combat organized crime, smuggling, corruption, and money laundering. It will be under the direct authority of the prime minister. UB

...AND COORDINATING BODY FOR POSTWAR RECONSTRUCTION OF IRAQ
The cabinet decided on 24 April to set up an interdepartmental working group, which is to coordinate Bulgaria's participation in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service reported. The working group, which is to facilitate contacts between state institutions and private business sector, will be headed by Deputy Economy Minister Milen Keremedchiev. UB

POSSIBLE SARS CASE REPORTED IN BULGARIA
The Health Ministry announced on 24 April that it has reported a possible case of SARS, which would be the first in Bulgaria, to the World Health Organization (WHO), BTA reported. The patient developed symptoms of having SARS three days after his arrival in Bulgaria on 16 April after a longer stay in Toronto. As there is no possibility of carrying out the necessary tests in Bulgaria, the authorities will rely on the WHO to confirm the diagnosis, "Sega" reported. UB

BULGARIA'S JUDICIAL TURMOIL


With the Bulgarian parliament preparing to debate a new bill on the judicial system submitted by the government this week, the Interior Ministry has reported links among politicians, high-ranking magistrates, and organized-crime structures. General Boyko Borisov, the ministry's chief secretary, announced on 20 April that the report describes the operations of organized-crime structures and their leaders, members, and activities. It is said to contain photographs of politicians and magistrates with figures from the underworld, but the prime minister's spokesman denied this on 24 April. The document, which was submitted to President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski, for the first time presented concrete cases of connections between the mafia and the authorities.

The Bulgarian government, which has made fighting organized crime and corruption a priority since taking office in 2001, has been trying to rally political support for the desperately needed judicial reform. The government's reform strategy entails changes in the constitution and the adoption of several laws to regulate the functions of the prosecutor's office, criminal investigations, and the courts. One of the major changes will limit the constitutional immunity of magistrates and revoke their present life-long mandate.

Bulgaria's unreformed judicial system has become one of the major obstacles to finalizing the country's accession negotiations with the EU and might hinder its NATO-membership ratification process. Judicial inefficiency often leaves organized crime unpunished, undermines the government's efforts to curb corruption, and has negatively affected Bulgaria's economic development. Judicial reform has been stalled for several years because of a lack of political will among the major political parties and because of obstruction on the part of high-ranking magistrates.

Speaking on bTV indpendent television on 20 April, Justice Minister Anton Stankov openly accused the "judicial nomenklatura" of opposing the reforms to preserve its status. He said that judicial reform is most important for the government, because it will create normal conditions for free enterprise and transparent privatization.

In December 2002, Bulgaria's Constitutional Court turned down 44 provisions of the revised law on the judicial system, which had been adopted in July of that year. This decision led to an interlude in EU-accession negotiations about the EU acquis communautaire chapter on justice and home affairs. The government realized that delaying the reforms would further obstruct the progress of Bulgaria's integration with the West and harm the country's prospects of attracting foreign investment. It was therefore decided to accelerate judicial reform, and it is expected the process will be finalized by the end of the year.

Earlier this month, all political parties in parliament agreed to adopt within a year substantial changes in the constitution regarding the justice system. The agreement was reached after the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) -- the major opponent of constitutional amendments in the current parliament -- changed its position. Although the proposed reforms in the status of the prosecutor's office and the investigations branch were postponed for lack of political consensus, a declaration signed by all parliamentary parties on 2 April established a blueprint of provisions to improve coordination between prosecutors, investigators, and the executive branch in the campaign against organized crime.

Recent public-opinion surveys found that more than 60 percent of Bulgarians consider constitutional changes necessary to resolve problems in the judicial system. Popular support is even higher for introducing fixed mandates for high-ranking magistrates, who at present are appointed for life, and for limiting the immunity of judges.

While most Bulgarians still support effective legislative measures, voices promoting a more radical approach to organized crime are also increasingly being heard. A frustrated and vulnerable public is increasingly expressing its desire for a "strong hand" and more drastic actions to crack down on organized crime. Borisov, who is currently the most popular politician in Bulgaria, has advocated the introduction of emergency measures similar to those implemented in Serbia after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Several assassinations in Sofia in recent months have sown fear among the population. The Interior Ministry report on links between politicians and criminals came in the wake of an 18 April assassination attempt on suspected crime figure Ivan Todorov (a.k.a. the Doctor), in which his driver was killed. The compilation of the report, however, began earlier -- after the killings of the former Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolay Kolev and Multigroup boss Iliya Pavlov. According to Borisov, all these murders were ordered and financed by a foreign organized-crime structure that has not been not named publicly.

Bulgarian media reported on 23 April that some of the photographs attached to the Interior Ministry report show Todorov on a yacht in Monaco with the Finance Minister Milen Velchev and Transportation Minister Plamen Petrov, among others. Velchev has said that such evidence was fabricated by criminal circles that oppose the establishment of a tax police and tighter customs controls. Criminal groups suffered financial losses after the government contracted a British company called Crown Agents to oversee the Bulgarian customs service. As finance minister, Velchev initiated both these measures.

About 110 criminal structures are believed to be operating in Bulgaria, and 25-35 percent of the local economy is connected to or controlled by them, according to a report by the National Service for Fighting Organized Crime. The global war on terrorism, including measures to stop the financing of terrorist groups, makes effective crime fighting and the implementation of judicial reform in Bulgaria all the more urgent.Margarita Assenova is a consultant with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

FORMER IRAQI DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER IN COALITION CUSTODY
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced in a 24 April press release that former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is in coalition custody. Aziz had reportedly negotiated his surrender over the last several days, CNN reported on 25 April. Aziz, 67, was the only Christian in the upper echelon of ousted President Saddam Hussein's regime. If he cooperates, Aziz might be able to provide coalition forces with information about Hussein's whereabouts and shed light on accusations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). "He may not know precisely where the WMD [are] hidden, but he probably knows generally about [Iraq's] WMD program," an unidentified U.S. official said, Reuters reported on 25 April. Aziz served as Iraqi foreign minister during the 1991 Gulf War. He was 43rd on CENTCOM's list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis. KR

SECURITY COUNCIL EXTENDS IRAQ'S OIL-FOR-FOOD
The UN Security Council approved a request to extend the oil-for-food program in Iraq as requested by Benon Sevan, executive director of the UN Office of the Iraq Program (OIP), the body that oversees oil-for-food, according to the UN website (http://www.un.org). According to a 28 March resolution, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was given the authority to oversee the operation for 45 days, until 12 May. Sevan told council members on 22 April that 11 of those 45 days were lost due to procedural issues. As a result, only $455 million of an estimated $10 billion in contracts was processed. Sevan said the 11 days would have helped get the process back on track. Council members voted unanimously to extend the program until 3 June. KR

SLAIN IRAQI CLERIC'S SUPPORTERS SEEK LEADER WITH BROAD SUPPORT
The supporters of deceased cleric Muhammad al-Sadr II are reportedly in discussions with Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha'iri, a prominent Iraqi Shi'ite cleric currently based in Qom, Iran, for al-Ha'iri to assume the movement's leadership, according to a 24 April report on the "Al-Mustaqbal" website (http://www.almustaqbal.com.lb). According to the report, Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, son of the murdered leader Muhammad al-Sadr II, had assumed the management of the Al-Hawzah Shi'ite seminary and schools, but is not prepared to assume "the work of a religious authority." Al-Ha'iri, known as "the jurisprudent of the Al-Da'wah," might be a better candidate for the leadership role. "Al-Mustaqbal" noted that al-Ha'iri represents "the point of convergence" between the al-Sadr current, the Al-Da'wah, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). He reportedly also has close relations with the religious authorities in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. KR

IRAQI EXILES MEET IN SPAIN
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar on 25 April opened a meeting that brings together representatives of all Iraqi political organizations, the EFE news agency reported on 24 April. The three-day meeting is being hosted by the Humanism and Democracy Foundation and the Popular Party's Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies (FAES), and will be held at the Spanish International Cooperation Agency's headquarters. The Iraqi participants were expected to include representatives from the Islamic Da'wah Party and the SCIRI, the Iraqi Communist Party, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). EFE reported that more than 100 Iraqis from across Europe and the United States are also participating in the meeting. KR

BAGHDAD 'COUNCIL HEAD' ASSERTS LEGITIMACY...
Muhammad Muhsin al-Zubaydi, who claims to be the appointed head of the Baghdad Administration Executive Council, told Al-Jazeera on 24 April that the legitimacy of his leadership comes from the people of Baghdad. Al-Zubaydi said he is an independent opposition figure who has worked behind the scenes for years and is thus not well-known to the press. He claims to have conducted clandestine activities against the Hussein regime for years under the code names "Wolf" and "Abu Haydar al-Karradi." Al-Zubaydi told Al-Jazeera that his group, which comprises 85 followers, came to Baghdad from northern Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. He said that after entering the capital on 8 April, his group assumed a leadership role by extinguishing fires, burying the dead, and preventing looting. "So we gained legitimacy to run the affairs of our city," he said. "We were able to open hospitals and form a police command in coordination with U.S. troops." KR

...AND ADMITS NO RELATIONSHIP WITH U.S.
Al-Zubaydi also told Al-Jazeera on 24 April that, despite previous statements to the contrary, he was not appointed by U.S. troops. "I do not have a relationship with the United States," he said. Al-Zubaydi said he still intends to increase the wages of government workers and pensioners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2003) and added that pensions have already been increased. Al-Zubaydi also told the satellite channel that his people arrested a "gang" belonging to a "certain party" that attempted to steal a vehicle carrying $260 million. He added that he encouraged the party to return the money to the central bank, adding that he will reveal the name of the party if the money is not returned. He also said the opposition group the Constitutional Monarchy Movement (CMM), headed by Sharif Ali bin al-Husayn, is becoming more popular in Baghdad. "It seems there is a great support for this movement," al-Zubaydi said. "I do not want to be biased in favor of one movement, but this is what I heard from the clergymen and the tribal chiefs who expressed this to us." KR

TEHRAN DISMISSES U.S. CHARGES OF INTERFERENCE IN IRAQ
At a joint press conference with visiting French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on 24 April, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi dismissed as "baseless" U.S. charges that Iranian agents are infiltrating the Iraqi Shi'ite community, IRNA and international news agencies reported. He said it is absurd that the United States would accuse Iran of interference in a country that U.S. forces had just invaded. "Instead of raising accusations," he said, "the United States should adopt cooperation with Iran." SF

TEHRAN DENOUNCES PURPORTED U.S. DEAL WITH MKO
At the same 24 April news conference, Kharrazi also announced Tehran's anger at a rumored cease-fire agreement signed between the United States and the Iraq-based Iranian opposition Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), IRNA reported. The supposed agreement would allow the MKO, for several years identified by the U.S. State Department as an international terrorist organization, to remain armed against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Such an agreement has not been verified by the United States. "If true," Kharrazi said, the agreement "will increase our pessimism and qualm toward America." Separately, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who also met with French Foreign Minister de Villepin, criticized the United States for a "double standard in the international campaign against terrorism." He said that, on the one hand, the United States launches a war on terrorists and, on the other hand, "signs an agreement with the terrorist Mujahedin Khalq Organization, allowing them to remain armed," IRNA reported on 24 April. SF

FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER URGES IRAN TO ACCEPT WIDER NUCLEAR INSPECTIONS
French Foreign Minister de Villepin said in Tehran on 24 April that he sees progress in Iran on the nuclear issue and called on Tehran to "continue confidence-building measures" regarding its nuclear program, AFP reported. De Villepin welcomed public assurances from Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami that the country is not developing nuclear arms and is acquiring nuclear power for peaceful purposes only, but said in a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Kharrazi that Iran should go one step further by signing the additional protocol of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei has urged Iran, which is currently only subject to inspections of sites it has already declared, to sign the protocol allowing unlimited and surprise inspections by international experts of any suspect sites. Khatami's response was not very positive. After meeting with de Villepin, his office said in a statement: "Why do countries possessing such [civilian atomic-energy] technology not respect the principles of the nonproliferation treaty by not helping us in turn to acquire it?" SF

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS ALL JEWS JAILED FOR SPYING ARE NOW FREE
Foreign Minister Kharrazi said during his joint news conference on 24 April with visiting French Foreign Minister de Villepin, who had raised the issue of human rights in Iran, that the five remaining Iranian Jews -- the last of 13 jailed in 2000 on charges of spying for Israel -- have been freed, IRNA reported. Kharrazi did not indicate when their release took place. De Villepin said he welcomed Iran's "marked progress" on human rights, adding that he hopes "this will continue," AFP reported. SF

TWO GOVERNMENT SOLDIERS AND THREE TALIBAN FIGHTERS KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN'S ZABUL PROVINCE...
Two Afghan soldiers and three Taliban fighters were killed on 23 April when about 80 militia members believed to belong to the ousted Taliban regime attacked a district office in Zabul Province, "The New York Times" reported on 25 April. Zabul Governor Hamidullah Tokhi said on 24 April that around 200 armed Taliban fighters attacked the government post in Daychopan in northern Zabul, RFE/RL reported. According to Tokhi, Taliban fighters were believed to have fled to neighboring Oruzgan Province, where earlier this week two government soldiers and three Taliban fighters were killed in a clash, RFE/RL reported. Zabul Province borders Pakistan, from which Afghan officials have indicated the Taliban are attacking Afghan positions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April 2003). AT

...AS THE SAME NUMBERS ARE KILLED IN KHOST PROVINCE
Two Afghan soldiers and three Taliban fighters were reported killed in a clash on 24 April in Shkin, Paktika Province, Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported. An Afghan military source in Khost Province said that the fighting began when Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters fired rockets at forces of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition and their Afghan allies, the report added. There has been no independent confirmation of this incident in Shkin and given the reputation of the Iranian radio, which regularly exaggerates attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan, the alleged attack in Shkin could be the same battle that took place in Daychopan. AT

AFGHAN OFFICIAL SAYS OPINION POLL WILL BE CONDUCTED ON DRAFT CONSTITUTION
Faruk Wardak, the secretary for the Constitutional Drafting Commission (CDC), has said that the draft of the future Afghan constitution, which has been prepared but not yet distributed to the public, will be the subject of a seminar to be held soon by the Constitutional Commission, which is to take over the work of the CDC, Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported on 22 April. According to Wardak, the new commission will inform the Afghan people of the importance of their opinions in the drafting process. Asked why the draft has not been made public (for a preview of the document, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 24 April 2003), Wardak said the current document is a preliminary draft and does not "include the opinions of a broad number of Afghans," and it will only be "defined as complete" after the Constitutional Commission approves it. According to the CDC's schedule (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 10 April 2003), the public will get the chance to debate the new draft from the beginning of May until the end of June. AT

UNIDENTIFIED DISEASE KILLING 80 PERCENT OF NEWBORN LAMBS IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN
UN officials in Afghanistan are investigating an unidentified disease they say is killing more than 80 percent of newborn lambs in northern Afghanistan, RFE/RL reported on 24 April. Etienne Careme, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization spokesperson in Kabul, said the malady could be foot-and-mouth disease, but more testing is needed to establish the cause. The disease was first reported by the authorities early this month in Baghlan Province and has spread to Konduz, Takhar, Samangan, and Balkh provinces -- all in the north. Careme said the disease can spread from sheep to cattle. AT

AFGHAN PAPER WARNS ABOUT ESTABLISHING TIES WITH ISRAEL
The Kabul newspaper "Eslah-e Melli" wrote on 23 April that while Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has denied any intentions on the part of Afghanistan to recognize Israel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 April 2003) -- calling the incident that led to such rumors "a technical mistake" -- Afghanistan should be aware that, as part of the Muslim world, it cannot "get away and separate [itself] from the suffering and pain of a Muslim nation [Palestine]." The commentary added that establishing ties with Israel would be tantamount to "enmity toward the Islamic values" of Afghanistan. The paper asked the Foreign Ministry to "pay attention to this issue" and to be careful not to recognize Israel "by mistake." Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai said on 23 April that his country has no plans to recognize Israel (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 24 April 2003). AT

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