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Newsline - May 22, 2003


BY WIDE MARGIN, DUMA GIVES INITIAL NOD TO CHECHNYA AMNESTY BILL...
The Duma on 21 May passed in its first reading by a vote of 354 to 18 a bill that would grant amnesty to many participants in the fighting in Chechnya, Russian media reported. The bill is strongly supported by President Vladimir Putin. Under the draft, the amnesty will cover any members of Chechen armed formations active on the territory of the former Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic since 1 August 1993 who lay down their arms by 1 August. The amnesty also covers members of the Russian armed forces who might have committed crimes in Chechnya during this period. However, it excludes anyone who committed murder or other grave crimes and people without Russian citizenship. Presidential representative to the Duma Aleksandr Kotenkov estimated that about 1,000 people, 300 of whom are Russian soldiers, would qualify for the amnesty. VY

...OVER LIBERAL FACTION'S OPPOSITION
The liberal Yabloko faction, which has consistently opposed the government's policies in Chechnya, voted against the bill, arguing that any amnesty should be the result of direct negotiations between the warring parties and not a unilateral action by Russia, NTV reported on 21 May. The Duma Legislation Committee intends to schedule the second reading of the bill for 4 or 6 June, ITAR-TASS reported. On 19 May, Minister for Chechen Affairs Stanislav Ilyasov said the Duma is likely to pass the amnesty bill in all three readings this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2003). VY/LF

MOSCOW TO SUPPORT U.S.-BACKED UN RESOLUTION ON IRAQ
After meeting with his French and German counterparts in Paris on 21 May, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told journalists that Russia will back a new UN Security Council resolution on Iraq submitted by the United States, Great Britain, and Spain, RIA-Novosti reported. The council was expected to vote on the resolution on 22 May. Noting that Russia, France, and Germany opposed the use of military force against the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein without a UN mandate, Ivanov said that Moscow welcomes the United States and the other countries of the anti-Hussein coalition back into the UN fold. He said the new UN resolution will have no retroactive authority and will do nothing to justify past U.S.-led actions. Under the draft, the United States and Great Britain will be granted wide-ranging prerogatives in the postwar administration of Iraq. It also extends the UN-sponsored oil-for-food program, in which Russian companies are playing a leading role. The resolution also contains a provision obligating the new Iraqi government to honor the international debts of the Hussein regime. VY

DUMA RATIFIES BORDER TREATIES WITH LITHUANIA...
By a vote of 268 to 138, Duma deputies on 21 May ratified treaties with Lithuania on the delineation of borders between the two countries, including the division of the Baltic Sea shelf, RosBalt and other media reported. The treaties form part of the agreement reached in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2002) by Russia, Lithuania, and the European Union on transit between the Kaliningrad exclave and the rest of Russia in the run-up to Lithuania's entry into the EU. The treaties formally bestow the status of an international border on the administrative border that separated the Russian and Lithuanian republics during the Soviet period. Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov said that the treaties include some exchanges of territory but the overall area of the Russian Federation, Lithuania, and Kaliningrad Oblast remain unchanged. VY

...AS COMMUNIST LEADER URGES THEIR REJECTION
On the eve of the Duma's consideration of the treaties with Lithuania, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov sent a letter to President Putin asking him to block the ratification of the agreements, "Zavtra" reported on 21 May. Zyuganov argued that doing so would block Lithuania's proposed entry into NATO, because NATO accepts only countries that have no disputed international borders. VY

UNITY LEADER ENDORSES IDEA OF PARLIAMENTARY-MAJORITY GOVERNMENT...
Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, a leader of the pro-Kremlin Unity Party, told a conference of Interior Ministry veterans in Moscow on 21 May that he backs President Putin's 16 May initiative to form a government on the basis of a parliamentary majority following the December Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2003), RTR reported. The government apparatus must be under public control and this innovation would represent a crucial step toward this goal, Gryzlov argued. Such a government would work in the interests of the entire country, rather than those of narrow business groups, he added. He also called for cultivating patriotism as part of the process of building a volunteer military. "Some people think it is enough to raise wages for service personnel and there will be a surplus of volunteers to serve," Gryzlov said. "This is not so. Money cannot replace the feeling of patriotism." VY

...AS LEADING LEFTIST SLAMS CURRENT GOVERNMENT
Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev (Communist), a leading figure in the Communist faction and a potential leader of the emerging national-patriotic alliance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2003), said the main goal of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's government is to maintain existing social inequalities, RosBalt reported on 21 May. "The policy is to conserve the system of the distribution of wealth, property, and national income that was created during [the administration of former President Boris Yeltsin]," Glazev said. He added that Kasyanov's government promotes the interests of oligarchic capital and has blocked initiatives to divert excessive profits from the exploitation of natural resources to the state budget. VY

UNITY PROPOSES MILITARY-SERVICE BUY-OFF PLAN...
The Unity Duma faction's presidium on 20 May approved a proposal to allow Russian youth to avoid military service by taking a six-month course of military training instead, "Vedomosti" and "Vremya-MN" reported on 21 May. The course would cost $600, and Duma Deputy Yurii Tsybakin, a co-author of the proposal, claimed it will "destroy the market for bribes" currently paid to defer military service or evade the draft altogether. The Unity faction plans to submit a bill outlining the military-reform plan several months before the December Duma elections. "Vremya-MN" commented that the initiative "smells more like election public relations than concern about [military] reform." LB

...BUT IT HAS LITTLE CHANCE OF APPROVAL...
"Vedomosti" reported on 21 May that the Unity proposal is at odds with the Defense Ministry's own draft military-reform plan, which the government approved in late April. Beginning in 2008, that plan would reduce the required service for draftees from two years to one. Six months would be spent at a training facility and six months in a regular unit. "Vedomosti" noted that President Putin's comments on military reform in his 16 May address to parliament indicated that he favors the government's plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2003). Meanwhile, members of the Communist, Yabloko, and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) factions blasted Unity's military-reform proposal in comments to "Vedomosti." Communist Party Central Committee Deputy Chairman Ivan Melnikov told "Vedomosti" his party will oppose "turning army service into a tax on the poor." LB

...AS SPS LAUNCHES A PETITION DRIVE ON MILITARY REFORM
The SPS on 21 May launched a drive to collect 100,000 signatures in support of its military-reform plan, according to an SPS press release summarized by lenta.ru. From 21 May until 1 June, party activists will ask Russians to sign an appeal to President Putin that also criticizes the Defense Ministry's military-reform plans. The petition asserts that hazing in the military will continue as long as conscription does. It also charges that the 38 billion rubles ($1.27 billion) the Defense Ministry wants to spend on 130,000 new contract soldiers will be stolen, since, according to the SPS, a contract soldier earns at most 100,000 rubles a year. Under the SPS plan, draftees would be required to spend just six months in a military-training facility. Citizens will be able to sign the SPS petition at demonstrations in major cities or on a website set up by the party (http://putinu.sps.ru/). LB

DUMA DECLINES TO SANCTION COMMUNIST DEPUTY
The Duma on 21 May rejected a motion to punish Duma Deputy Vasilii Shandybin (Communist) for shouting, "There will be only thieves, bandits, and bribe-takers in the next Duma" after President Putin's 16 May address to parliament, RIA-Novosti reported. Duma Deputy Aleksandr Fedulov (independent) on 21 May raised the matter of what he called Shandybin's "unworthy" behavior, and Duma Ethics Committee Chairwoman Galina Strelchenko (Unity) suggested taking away Shandybin's right to speak in the chamber for the remainder of the Duma's spring session. However, the majority apparently agreed with Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, who said that voting for such a measure would do the president more harm than good. Shandybin has long been one of the more outspoken members of the Communist Duma faction. He and Fedulov got into a fistfight in the Duma earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 13 February 2003). LB

OFFICIAL DISCUSSES SCALE OF AIDS EPIDEMIC
Far more Russian citizens are infected by the virus that causes AIDS than official figures suggest, Interfax reported on 21 May, citing Vadim Pokrovskii, the head of the Federal Center for Preventing and Combating AIDS. Russia has officially registered some 238,000 cases of HIV infection, but Pokrovskii told journalists that experts believe the real number of HIV-positive people is 500,000-1.5 million. So far, Russia has registered 3,303 deaths from AIDS, but Pokrovskii noted that the number will rise sharply in the coming years because HIV can remain latent for many years before sufferers develop the disease. The vast majority of HIV-positive people in Russia contracted the virus after 1995, Pokrovskii said. LB

ARE NEW JOURNALISM ORGANIZATIONS TOOLS OF THE KREMLIN?
A group of journalists writing on Islam on 21 May announced the creation of a Union of Muslim Journalists, RIA-Novosti reported. The new organization will defend the interests of journalists who profess Islam and who write about it. It also intends to encourage and educate young Muslim journalists. On 14 May, a Club of Russian Orthodox Journalists was founded in Moscow with the goal of consolidating Orthodox journalists and promoting the "spiritual revival of Russia," nns.ru reported on 21 May. Analysts suspect that such organizations could be part of a Kremlin effort to extend its influence over journalists through religious and ethnic organizations in the run-up to national elections this winter and next spring. VY

NEW 'KUKLY'-STYLE PROGRAM TO APPEAR ON ORT
Sharp-tongued television commentator Mikhail Leontev will host a new analytical program on ORT featuring puppets similar to those that starred in the groundbreaking NTV political-satire program "Kukly," gazeta.ru reported on 21 May. The new show will premiere on 25 May. Leontev said the puppets representing well-known political figures will be on screen for about 15 percent of the program, sometimes conversing with him, sometimes with one another. "Kukly" bolstered NTV's reputation as a haven for alternative viewpoints, especially after prosecutors opened a criminal case against the show's producers for allegedly insulting senior officials in the summer of 1995. That case was closed without charges being filed. As the host of ORT's analytical program "Odnako" since 1999, Leontev has generally reserved his harshest criticism for opposition politicians and foreign governments, rather than the president or cabinet members. LB

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT ENVISAGES COALITION CABINET FOLLOWING PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Robert Kocharian told journalists in Yerevan on 21 May that he is confident that political parties supporting him will win a majority of seats in the new parliament to be elected on 25 May, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Mentioning by name the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), and Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State), Kocharian said the choice of prime minister will depend on the opinion of the largest parliamentary faction. The present government is headed by HHK leader Andranik Markarian. The HHD has two cabinet ministers and Orinats Yerkir none. Kocharian rejected as untrue reports in the opposition press that the composition of the new parliament has already been determined. On 20 May, "Haykakan zhamanak" quoted an unnamed government official as saying that it has already been decided that the HHK will win 45 of the 131 parliamentary mandates, Orinats Yerkir 15, and the HHD 12, while the opposition Artarutiun bloc and the National Unity Party will each have 12 mandates. Kocharian also said it will not be a tragedy if voters reject the constitutional amendments to be put to a referendum concurrently with the parliament ballot. LF

AZERBAIJANI PARLIAMENT DISCUSSES REVISED ELECTION-LAW AMENDMENTS...
The Azerbaijani parliamentary commissions on legal policy, state building and human rights, and international relations discussed on 21 May a revised version of the Venice Commission's proposals on the formation of election commissions, zerkalo.az reported on 22 May. Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the original model on 7 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2003). The revised version reduces the overall number of members of the Central Election Commission and precinct election commissions, while preserving unchanged the representation on commissions at all levels of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP). LF

...AS SENIOR AZERBAIJANI OFFICIAL SAYS LEADERSHIP DIVIDED
Zerkalo.az also quoted an unidentified senior Azerbaijani official as saying there are major disagreements within the Azerbaijani leadership over whether to amend the law in line with international experts' recommendations or to pass it in its present form. That official said that against the wishes of President Heidar Aliev, some "extremely influential groupings" are trying to torpedo the Venice Commission amendments in order to pass a version of the law that would facilitate falsification of the outcome of the presidential election due this fall. He also told zerkalo.az that some groupings within the leadership intend to nominate their own candidate for president in the event that the plan for transition, which he claimed all factions have backed until now, either has to be abandoned, or if the author of that plan or the intended beneficiary steps back from it. That formulation is a reference to President Aliev's imputed plan to ensure that his son, Ilham, succeeds him as head of state. The informant identified those groupings as responsible for leaking the information on 20 May that President Aliev will soon withdraw his presidential candidacy, after which YAP will nominate Ilham Aliev as its presidential candidate. LF

BAN ON SALES OF AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PRESS AT METRO STATIONS LIFTED
Baku subway-system head Tagi Akhmedov has lifted the ban imposed earlier this month on the sale of opposition newspapers at metro stations, Turan reported on 21 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2003). LF

U.S. PRESIDENT URGES GEORGIA TO HOLD DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS
In a letter to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze pegged to the 26 May anniversary of the declaration of Georgia's independence, U.S. President George W. Bush listed the U.S.-funded "Train and Equip" program for the Georgian military and the beginning of construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil-export pipelines as evidence of Georgia's importance to Washington, Caucasus Press reported on 22 May. He also thanked Tbilisi for its support of the U.S.-led military action in Iraq. Bush further noted that the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2 November create the opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate regional leadership in the development of democracy. LF

GEORGIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL ASKS FOR PARLIAMENT DEPUTY'S IMMUNITY TO BE REVOKED
The Prosecutor-General's office has asked parliament to lift the immunity from prosecution of former Tax Minister Mikhail Machavariani, whom an investigation has identified as the playing the key role in the 5 May assault on parliament deputy speaker Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, the newspaper "Tribuna" reported on 21 May, according to Caucasus Press (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 15 May 2003). The paper claims that Machavariani could also face charges of misappropriating some $3 million while serving as minister. On 22 May, Machavariani and fellow deputy Giorgi Baramizde, who was also involved in the brawl, told journalists they are ready to forfeit their immunity voluntarily, according to the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2. Baramidze claimed that the Prosecutor-General's Office is acting under pressure from the Georgian government. LF

ABKHAZ SECURITY OFFICIALS SAY AL-QAEDA IN WESTERN GEORGIA...
Abkhazia's First Deputy National Security Minister Nugzar Samsoni denied on 21 May that any Islamic militants have taken refuge on the territory of the unrecognized republic, Caucasus Press reported. He said there are some refugees from Chechnya in Abkhazia, but that the Chechen fighters who fought on the Abkhaz side during the 1992-93 war with Georgia left Abkhazia long ago. Commenting the previous day on a report by the U.S. ABC television network, Georgian State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania had said he does not rule out the presence in Abkhazia of Wahhabi sympathizers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2003). On 22 May, Caucasus Press quoted Abkhaz State Security chief Givi Agrba as saying that ABC was correct in alleging that Al-Qaeda operatives are being trained in Georgia. Agrba said his agency has "reliable information" that there are Al-Qaeda militants in Georgia's Zugdidi Raion, which borders on Abkhazia, and that they are being trained by the Georgian White Legion and Forest Brothers guerrilla groups. LF

...AS GEORGIAN OFFICIAL SAYS NO EVIDENCE CHEMICAL WEAPONS PRODUCED IN PANKISI
Speaking live on the independent television station Rustavi-2, Khaburzania said on 22 May that there is no evidence to corroborate reports that Islamic terrorists ensconced in the Pankisi Gorge engaged in the production of chemical weapons, including ricin, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2003 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 27 January 2003). Khaburzania said no laboratories for the production of toxic substances have been located in Pankisi. LF

ABKHAZ PREMIER MEETS WITH EU REPRESENTATIVE
Raul Khadjimba met in Sukhum on 21 May with Torben Holtze, who is the European Commission delegation to Georgia and Armenia, Caucasus Press reported. Holtze assured Khadjimba that the EU will continue to provide humanitarian aid to Abkhazia as it has done for the past 10 years. But he added that it is also necessary to promote steady economic development in order to create "normal living conditions" for the republic's population, noting in this context Abkhazia's "huge economic potential." Holtze also said the EU will contribute to the cost of modernizing the Inguri Hydroelectric Station (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2003). LF

LAND-CODE DISPUTE IN KAZAKHSTAN CONTINUES...
The Aq Zhol party has issued a statement calling on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to ensure that the government-drafted Land Code be adopted by both houses of parliament in accord with the constitution, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 21 May. When parliamentarians voted their confidence in the government on 19 May, Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmaghambetov declared the code, which had been much amended by the lower house, to be automatically adopted without the amendments and without a vote in the Senate once it was signed by the president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2003). The controversial code introduces private ownership of agricultural land in Kazakhstan. The Aq Zhol statement notes that the Kazakh Constitution stipulates that the Senate must present approved bills to the president for signature and that the Senate cannot present the Land Code because the government withdrew it from parliamentary consideration on 14 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 May 2003). BB

...AS DO CALLS FOR REFERENDUM
A call by some parliamentarians for a national referendum on the Land Code -- in essence a referendum on the introduction of the private ownership of agricultural land --was voted down at a joint session of the parliament on 16 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2003), but a newly formed nongovernmental organization called the Committee on Land Issues is asking why no such referendum has been held, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported on 21 May. The new group includes parliamentarians, other politicians, and activists. According to former Deputy Prime Minister Baltash Tursymbaev, the goal of the group is to protect the Kazakh land. Fears that land privatization would mean that ethnic Kazakhs would lose their land have been raised throughout the discussions of the proposed Land Code. Parliamentarian Asylbek Kozhakhmetov, a leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan coalition and a member of the new NGO, was quoted as saying that the failure to hold a referendum on an issue as serious as private landownership made nonsense of the country's law on referendums. BB

KYRGYZ PRIME MINISTER DENIES SARS DEATHS
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told a news conference in Bishkek on 21 May that there is no truth to media reports that two people in Kyrgyzstan have died of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and that the government is hushing up the deaths, khabar.kz reported the same day. Tanaev said the official who supposedly gave out information about the alleged SARS deaths to the media denies having done so. Tanaev added that such negative publicity could affect Kyrgyzstan's economy, coming as it does at the height of the tourist season. Centrasia.ru, which posted the khabar.kz report on its website, reported that it had received a letter from Bishkek reporting two SARS deaths in Kyrgyzstan and had posted it on 15 May. BB

KYRGYZ HUNGER STRIKERS MEET WITH ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS...
Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu told a news conference on 21 May in Bishkek that he had succeeded in arranging two meetings the previous day between a group of hunger strikers and members of the presidential administration, khabar.kz reported. The hunger strikers, a group of 18 women whose relatives were killed by law enforcement officials during a demonstration in the Aksy Raion of southern Kyrgyzstan in March 2002, came to Bishkek to demand that President Askar Akaev punish the people they believe are responsible for those deaths. They were detained briefly by police on 16 May when they tried to see Akaev and started their hunger strike to press their demand to meet with the president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2003). According to Bakir-uulu, Security Council Secretary Misir Ashyrkulov assured the women that he would pass on their demands to the president, who was reportedly not in Bishkek at the time. BB

...WHO PROMISE INVESTIGATION INTO THEIR DETENTION
The Aksy women were also promised that an investigation into their detention will be launched, khabar.kz reported on 21 May. Ombudsman Bakir-uulu said he asked the women to stop their hunger strike pending the outcome of the investigation. According to the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights, Interior Ministry spokesman Djoldoshbek Busurmankulov said the women were not actually detained, but were taken to a police station to have their identities checked. Communist Party leader Klara Adjybekova, who was detained with the Aksy women, insists they were detained all day and that some were beaten by police. BB

TAJIKISTAN CRIMINALIZES TRAFFICKING IN HUMAN BEINGS
The lower house of Tajikistan's parliament adopted at its session on 21 May a bill that would make trafficking in human beings a criminal offense, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Parliamentarian Sherkhon Salimov, chairman of the lower house's Committee on the Constitution, Legislation, and Human Rights, reportedly set off a lively discussion with his report on the problem of human trafficking in Tajikistan. The new law will add a new article (Article 130) on human trafficking to the Tajik Criminal Code and other articles of the code will be amended. BB

UKRAINIAN FIRM TO BUILD GAS PIPELINE ACROSS TURKMENISTAN'S KARA-BOGAZ INLET
Ukraine will pay off a portion of its debt for Turkmen natural-gas supplies by building a stretch of a pipeline that is to transport Turkmen gas to Europe, the Turkmen State News Agency and turkmenistan.ru reported on 21 May. The project, which envisions building a section of pipeline across the Kara-Bogaz inlet on stilts and which is valued at $16 million, will be carried out by the Ukrainian company Petrohazaziya under an agreement with Turkmenneftegaz, the Turkmen state oil-and-gas firm. The 1-kilometer elevated section of pipeline across Kara-Bogaz will be new, but the project also includes carrying out repairs and modernization to expand the capacity of the Soviet-era pipeline that transported Turkmen gas to Moscow. The Kara-Bogaz section is to be completed next year. BB

ADB GIVES UZBEKISTAN $1 MILLION FOR ENTERPRISE RESTRUCTURING
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a $1 million technical-assistance grant to Uzbekistan to improve corporate governance and restructure local enterprises, uzreport.com reported on 21 May, citing the ABD. The grant is intended to improve the legal and regulatory framework for the corporate sector, begin restructuring of the state-enterprise sector, and improve regulatory oversight. The project also envisages making recommendations on regulatory and institutional reforms, and helping develop mechanisms to involve commercial banks in the financial restructuring of enterprises. ADB Principal Financial Economist for Governance, Finance, and Trade Ying Qian said Uzbekistan has done a great deal to reform state enterprises on the policy level and in private-sector development, but many difficulties remain on the operational level. He noted that the weak legal environment and the underdeveloped support infrastructure -- particularly financial-management systems and capital markets -- contribute to poor corporate governance. BB

BELARUSIAN LAWMAKER CHARGED WITH FINANCIAL SWINDLE
Belarusian prosecutors have launched a criminal case against lawmaker Syarhey Skrabets, Belapan reported on 21 May, quoting Chamber of Representatives deputy speaker Uladzimir Kanaplyou. Skrabets is being charged with "swindling credits out of the state and organizing a criminal group" while manager of the BelBabayeuski trade house, before he was elected to the lower house in 2000. Skrabets claims the case is politically motivated, as he now heads the Respublika caucus, which opposes some of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's policies. Seven people have already been sentenced for involvement in BelBabayeuski activities. "The investigators had no charges against me at that time," Skrabets told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 19 May. "I was a witness in that case, but now I've been made a suspect." Skrabets added that an unpaid loan at issue in the case was taken out by BelBabayeuski after he had left that company for the legislature. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT ENDORSES CIS 'JOINT ECONOMIC SPACE'...
The Verkhovna Rada voted 266-51 on 22 May to back the creation of a "joint economic space" to include Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan, Interfax reported. The presidents of these four countries signed a statement on 23 February declaring that their governments will prepare a draft agreement by September on the creation of such an economic bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said last week that there is a "fundamental disagreement" over how those four countries view the formation of such an economic alliance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2003). JM

...AND URGES UKRAINE'S 'ASSOCIATION' WITH EU
The Ukrainian legislature also appealed to European parliaments, governments, and societies on 22 May to unite efforts to implement the socioeconomic and environmental goals mapped out by the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, Interfax reported. The appeal, endorsed by 371 deputies, also includes an assertion that there are already "objective grounds" for transforming relations between Ukraine and the European Union to "a qualitatively new level -- from partnership to association." JM

ESTONIAN PREMIER VISITS BRUSSELS
Juhan Parts began a two-day visit to Brussels on 21 May with talks with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, BNS reported. Parts expressed satisfaction that NATO members' ratification of NATO-accession protocols is going smoothly, noting that four states -- Canada, Norway, the United States, and Denmark -- have already ratified them. Robertson advised Estonia to establish as soon as possible a fully staffed NATO team to benefit as much as possible from cooperation with alliance members. The meeting with EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen primarily focused on the work of the EU Convention on the Future of Europe. They both expressed support for retaining the system of a rotating EU Presidency. Parts also spoke about Estonia's promotion campaign in the run-up to its 14 September referendum on EU membership. Parts was scheduled to meet on 22 May with European Commission President Romano Prodi, members of the European parliament, and representatives from the European People's Party. SG

VILNIUS 10 PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKERS SUPPORT 'OPEN DOOR' NATO POLICY
The parliamentary speakers of the so-called Vilnius 10 -- the seven states who have received invitations to join NATO along with Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia -- met on 21 May in Trakai, Lithuania's medieval capital, BNS reported. In opening the meeting, Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas said the Vilnius 10 has not yet completed its mission to build a united and indivisible Europe and reiterated his support for future NATO membership of additional countries that meet the alliance's membership requirements. Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze told the meeting that membership of NATO would serve the interests of her country and the alliance. The 10 speakers signed a statement stating their commitment to an "open door" policy and that they "strongly believe that Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia should be invited to join NATO at the earliest opportunity." The statement also called for stronger Euro-Atlantic cooperation. SG

ANGRY LITHUANIAN DAIRY FARMERS BLOCK HIGHWAYS
Lithuanian farmers demanding increased government subsidies blockaded the Via Baltica highway at the Polish and Latvian borders and halted traffic on the main highway between Vilnius and the port city of Klaipeda on 21 May, ELTA reported. The ongoing protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2003) are aimed at increasing agricultural subsidies, including roughly doubling the regulated prices at which dairies purchase milk. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said on 21 May that the government's budget does not allow for meeting the farmers' demands, but he pledged to provide funding to dairies to enable them to purchase milk at last year's prices. After a meeting with protest leaders on 22 May, Brazauskas told parliament he will try to find additional funding to strike a compromise price. Protesting farmers eased, but did not abandon, their blockade following those remarks, which were broadcast live on Lithuanian state radio. SG

NATO TO HELP POLAND RUN STABILIZATION SECTOR IN IRAQ
The NATO Council unanimously agreed on 21 May to provide Poland with support that the country has sought for administering a stabilization sector in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2003), international and Polish media reported. "We are not talking about a NATO presence in Iraq. We are talking, purely and simply, about NATO help to Poland, which is intending to be in Iraq and to fulfill a role in the stabilization force," an RFE/RL correspondent quoted NATO Secretary-General Robertson as saying. Meanwhile, a two-day, behind-closed-doors conference on the formation of a stabilization force in the Polish sector in Iraq began on 22 May in Warsaw, Polish Radio reported. Poland is expected to contribute 1,500-2,200 service personnel to its sector's 6,000-7,000-strong force. The Warsaw conference will determine other countries that could send troops to the sector. JM

CZECH PRESIDENT WANTS TO NOMINATE DEPUTY PREMIER AS CONSTITUTIONAL COURT JUDGE
President Vaclav Klaus announced on 21 May that he intends to nominate Deputy Premier and Justice Minister Pavel Rychetsky to the Constitutional Court, CTK reported. The mandate of eight of the court's 15 judges expires in mid-July, and Klaus has so far nominated two candidates and selected three others, including Rychetsky. Rychetsky said he will "very probably" accept the nomination, adding that turning down the nomination would be an offense to the president. However, he added, before accepting he would like to find out how the Senate, which must approve the nomination, would react to the nomination. If he accepts, Rychetsky must renounce all political office. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said on 21 May that he already has someone in mind who could replace Rychetsky as justice minister. MS

CZECH LOWER HOUSE REJECTS TREATY WITH VATICAN
The Chamber of Deputies on 21 May voted to reject a treaty negotiated last year between the Czech Republic and the Vatican, CTK reported. Negotiations on that document consumed two years; if a new treaty is to be signed, negotiations would have to start anew. MS

CZECH DEPUTY PREMIER TO SUBMIT PLAN TO COMPENSATE WRONGED SUDETEN GERMANS
Deputy Premier Petr Mares (Freedom Union-Democratic Union) intends to submit a plan to the government for the compensation of Sudeten Germans who were not expelled under the 1946 Benes Decrees but suffered persecution after those decrees were issued, CTK and dpa reported on 21 May, citing the daily "Lidove noviny." Under Mares's proposal, payments would be distributed to the 50,000 ethnic Germans who were unjustly persecuted by the communist regime in 1948-1989. The plan calls for the payments to be made through the Czech-German Fund for the Future, which was established in 1997 with about 87 million euros ($101.8 million) from the Czech and German governments. More than half of that money has been disbursed to Czech victims of the Nazi regime, but 30 million euros remains in the fund. Mares said that none of the funds used for the purpose of compensating the ethnic Germans would come from the Czech state budget. MS

CZECH POLICE OFFICERS SUSPECTED OF RACIAL ATTACK ON ROMA
Five officers from the Czech police's riot squad are suspected of racially motivated attacks on Roma, CTK reported on 20 May, citing a Czech Television report. The five are suspected of having forced their way into a house in Popovice, East Bohemia, on 12 May, shouting racial slurs. Reportedly under the influence of alcohol at the time, they are suspected of having beaten up the wife of the homeowner, her 17-year-old son, and her pregnant daughter. MS

SLOVAK FOREIGN MINISTER OPPOSES PRESSURE ON DEPUTY PREMIER
Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan told the BBC on 20 May that he is opposed to opposition demands for Deputy Premier Pal Csaky's resignation or dismissal, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 May 2003). Kukan noted that the result of the EU-accession referendum was positive "and this is what matters. To dismiss someone [in charge of EU accession efforts] after a successful plebiscite is, in my opinion, illogical," he added. Kukan also said Slovakia wants cooperation among the Visegrad Four (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) to continue after EU accession in May 2004. However, he added, this should not be interpreted as a call for voting similarly on all matters. "There may be issues that will be in the common interest of all four states, in which it will be necessary to strive not only for coordination, but also for a common procedure. But there will [also] be cases in which every state has its own [separate] interest," Kukan said. MS

SLOVAK GOVERNMENT REJECTS JUNIOR COALITION PARTY'S ABORTION BILL
The cabinet on 21 May rejected a bill proposed by the junior coalition Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) that would have allowed abortions to be performed up to the 24th week of pregnancy if the fetus was found to be suffering from a genetic defect, TASR reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 29 April and 20 May 2003). Only ANO Culture Minister Rudolf Chmel supported his party's proposal, while ANO's two other cabinet ministers, Economy Minister Robert Nemcsics and Health Minister Rudolf Zajac were not present for the vote. Chmel declined to say whether ANO will withdraw the bill from parliament; but he said it would not be good for coalition stability if the bill, which has already passed its first reading, were approved with opposition support. All of ANO's coalition partners have rejected the proposed amendment. MS

SLOVAK GOVERNMENT TO RAISE TAXES EARLIER THAN PLANNED
ANO Chairman Pavol Rusko said on 21 May that the four-party coalition has agreed to introduce consumer tax hikes in 2003, instead of 2004, as initially planned, TASR reported. Rusko was speaking after an all-night meeting of the Coalition Council. He said the move is necessary in light of shortfalls in tax collection in the first five months of 2003. Rusko said Slovakia must move quickly to cut its deficit below 3 percent of GDP to meet the criteria for adopting the euro. "It would be bad for us to adopt the euro later than neighboring countries. We must meet the Maastricht criteria for euro adoption as quickly as possible, and then we shall decide when it would be realistic to adopt the euro," he said. MS

U.S. TROOPS TO LEAVE HUNGARIAN MILITARY BASE
U.S. troops will soon leave the Taszar air base, while U.S. civilian government employees will arrive there in the near future to take care of unspecified logistical tasks, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 22 May, quoting Keith W. Mines, the U.S. Embassy's second secretary for defense policy. Mines said that although the base is adequate for logistics operations, it is totally unsuitable for training. Istvan Gyenesei, head of the Somogy county council, told the daily that there are two reasons for the reduced significance of the base: The first reason is that NATO will transfer the fulcrum of logistics operations for Bosnian peacekeeping to Balkan territory; the second reason is Hungary's domestic political situation, he said. Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz, however, rejected suggestions that the troops will be withdrawn because of political disputes in Hungary. He said U.S.-Hungarian intergovernmental negotiations will begin in September on further use of the air base. MSZ

SEGREGATION ALLEGED BY HUNGARIAN HOSPITAL PATIENTS
Equal Opportunity Minister Katalin Levai, Health Ministry State Secretary Kinga Goncz, and Minority Rights Ombudsman Jeno Kaltenbach are investigating reports that Romany women have been accommodated in separate wards of hospitals in the northeastern Hungarian towns of Eger and Salgotarjan, "Magyar Hirlap" reported on 22 May. Jozsef Kovacs, director of the Eger hospital, said he is unaware of photographs purportedly showing Romany mothers being housed in separate wards. A number of Romany women have told the Ethnic Minority Rights Office that they had only Romany roommates when they were in hospital to give birth, while others said they were accommodated in "mixed" wards. In other news, government spokesman Zoltan Gal said the cabinet finds reports on sterilization of Romany women deeply shocking, the daily reported. The Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center conducted a study of sterilization claims in March, and several complaints were filed with the Ethnic Minority Rights Office. MSZ

FORMER SLOVENIAN PRESIDENT TESTIFIES IN THE HAGUE...
Two key players in the breakup of Yugoslavia met before the international war crimes tribunal on 21 May when former Slovenian President Milan Kucan testified in the case against his former Yugoslav counterpart Slobodan Milosevic, the BBC reported on its website (http://news.bbc.co.uk). Kucan said Milosevic from 1989 publicly promoted the stance that "should Yugoslavia fall apart,... Serbia would never agree to a situation where parts of the Serb people [sic] living outside the borders of Serbia would be left beyond the Serb republic." In what the BBC described as a setback for the prosecution, Kucan denied any knowledge of Serbian involvement in the 10-day Slovenian war of liberation against the Yugoslav Army in 1991. After Croatian President Stipe Mesic, Kucan was the second president of a former Yugoslav republic to appear as a witness before the tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October 2002). UB

...WHILE MILOSEVIC ACCUSES SLOVENIA OF HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AND WAR CRIMES
During the cross-examination, Milosevic accused Slovenian troops of executing three Yugoslav soldiers and of committing human rights violations, the BBC reported on 21 May. Asked why Slovenia opted for war, Kucan replied that his country exercised its right to self-determination in a legal and legitimate way. Milosevic also charged that Slovenia provided weapons to Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosova, a charge that Kucan denied. After the cross-examination, Kucan said it was an experience he did not want to repeat, Tanjug reported. The prosecution case had been due to finish last week, but the prosecutors were granted an additional 100 days on 20 May to plead their case against Milosevic. UB

BALKAN LEADERS CALL FOR EUROPEAN SUPPORT...
The presidents of Croatia and Macedonia, Stipe Mesic and Boris Trajkovski, along with Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic called on the EU to increase its assistance and to begin preparations for their countries' membership in an open letter on 21 May. The three politicians stressed that they are not appealing for more money but rather for better cooperation to ensure a more efficient disbursement of financial aid at current levels. Mesic, Trajkovski, and Zivkovic also asked the EU to use the June EU summit in Thessaloniki to replace the current reconstruction aid with aid for economic development. UB

...AND EUROPEAN COMMISSION LISTENS
The European Commission on 21 May proposed "enriching" current policies vis-a-vis Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro with elements that would reinforce the ultimate goal of extending EU membership to countries in the region, a press release stated. "The map of the European Union will not be complete until the countries of the Western Balkans are included on it," EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten said. "There is a great deal of work to do: reforming the economies, standards of governance, and democracy of the region remain major challenges -- alongside the constant battle to tackle corruption and organized crime." To achieve these aims, the European Commission proposes adopting measures that have been successful during EU enlargement in Central Europe, including enhanced support for institution building, "twinning" programs, technical assistance, and the possibility for those countries to participate in some EU programs. The Stabilization and Association Program, however, will remain the framework for all these efforts. UB

WILL MACEDONIA APPLY FOR EU MEMBERSHIP IN 2003?
Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva told an audience in Brussels on 20 May that Macedonia might apply for EU membership by the end of 2003, MIA news agency reported. "The Republic of Macedonia will apply for EU membership when the right time for this historic undertaking has arrived. We believe that this may be possible by the end of 2003," Mitreva said. UB

ALBANIAN, MACEDONIAN PREMIERS HOLD TALKS
Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano met with his Macedonian counterpart Branko Crvenkovski in the Macedonian resort town of Ohrid on 21 May, MIA reported. Nano and Crvenkovski told a press conference after the meeting that bilateral relations and cooperation have improved considerably in recent months. "We have also talked about intensifying the economic cooperation and implementing the [bilateral] Free Trade Agreement. At our next meeting in Debar, a new border crossing will be opened, which is very important for the citizens of both countries," Crvenkovski said. Both politicians stressed the importance of the U.S.-Adriatic Charter, which includes Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia, saying it is an important step toward NATO membership of these countries. UB

ROMANIAN CABINET APPROVES BILL ALLOWING BUY OFFS FOR MILITARY SERVICE
The cabinet on 21 May approved a draft law on military service that includes a stipulation that would allow individuals who are at least 28 years old to pay for military-service exemptions, the daily "Curentul" reported. Under the draft law, the terms of military service would be cut from the current 12 months to nine, and from six to four months for university graduates. The legislation also stipulates that alternative service "on behalf of the community" for conscientious objectors would be reduced from the current 24 months to 12. Defense Ministry State Secretary Sorin Encutescu told journalists that compulsory military service will not be abolished before 2007-10, by which time Romania is expected to have a professional military. The draft legislation also stipulates that women would be allowed to serve in the army, but service would be automatically terminated in the event of pregnancy. MS

ROMANIAN CABINET APPROVES DRAFT PENAL CODE
The cabinet on 21 May approved the draft of the new Penal Code, accepting all proposals made by the Romanian Press Club pertaining to the elimination of the current code's "insult" offense, the daily "Ziua" reported the next day. The draft would also eliminate the code's stipulations allowing for the imprisonment of people who fail to pay fines handed down for defamation. Such fines under the draft code run from 2 million-120 million lei ($63-3,825). The draft code would also eliminate the crimes of "offense to authority" and "offense to the nation." MS

CHISINAU MAYORAL CAMPAIGN HEATING UP
Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean's staff on 21 May asked the Central Election Commission to rule that Vlad Cubreacov, the Popular Party Christian Democratic's (PPCD) candidate in the city's 25 May mayoral elections, has infringed on electoral rules by failing to declare sources of his campaign financing, Flux reported. PPCD Chairman Iurie Rosca responded by saying, "The thief is accusing others of stealing." Also on 21 May, George Benderskii, head of the Chisinau Center for Human Rights Protection, alleged that Urechean threatened in a telephone conversation that Benderskii's automobiles could suffer "brake failures" if the center's activities do not stop during the election campaign. The center has led a campaign against the mayoralty's water and sewerage service, whose head, Anatolii Turcanu, recently failed to show up in court for an embezzlement case opened against the company. Turcanu subsequently denied rumors in the media that he had fled the country, but has yet to return to work, ITAR-TASS reported. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev on 21 May asked a forum of bankers to refrain from funding the campaigns of candidates "who sling mud at the government," Infotag reported. MS

BULGARIA, ROMANIA DISCUSS MILITARY COOPERATION
The defense ministers of Bulgaria and Romania, Nikolay Svinarov and Ioan Mircea Pascu, met in the Danube port city of Ruse, northern Bulgaria, on 21 May to discuss the expansion of bilateral military cooperation, BTA reported. Svinarov and Pascu also discussed bilateral cooperation in air-traffic control, military management, troop training and interoperability, as well as the countries' contributions to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq. Pascu handed Svinarov a memorandum proposing to link the two countries' NATO-standard Air Sovereignty Operation Center (ASOC) systems, and to enhance naval interoperability and military training. The two ministers also discussed Bulgaria's and Romania's future role in the pan-European security system, a question that will also be on the agenda of the forthcoming NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on 12-13 June. UB

IMF OFFICIAL SAYS BULGARIA'S SHADOW ECONOMY CANNOT BE THWARTED BY POLICE ALONE
Jerald Schiff, commenting on measures recently adopted by the Finance Ministry in an effort to eliminate Bulgaria's shadow economy, said on 21 May that the use of police methods is not sufficient to combat the problem, BTA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2003). Schiff, a division chief who represents the Bulgarian team at International Monetary Fund (IMF) headquarters, said the government must also encourage firms to legalize their businesses by creating favorable conditions for their work, including the establishment of low tax rates and cutting red tape. Schiff also said a sure way for companies to be forced to legalize their operations is to require them to provide official documents when applying for bank loans. UB

ROMANY CHILDREN TO SUE BULGARIA FOR INADEQUATE EDUCATION
A group of 29 Romany children from Sofia's Fakulteta ghetto announced on 21 May that they will sue the Education Ministry and the Sofia city administration for not providing them with adequate school education and equal opportunities, bnn reported. Margarita Ilieva, the attorney who is representing the group, said the ministry and the city administration have violated the children's rights by setting up segregated schools. Ilieva said that quality of education in schools in Romany neighborhoods is often poor, which prevents the children's social integration. "The immediate goal of this lawsuit is to win public recognition for the fact that the right of the Roma children to full-value education has been violated," Ilieva said. Ilieva added that she is ready to take the case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights if the Bulgarian courts fail to issue an acceptable ruling. UB

HOW MUCH CHANGE DOES PUTIN SEEK?


Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual address to the Federal Assembly on 16 May was in many ways reminiscent of those he delivered in previous years. Some commentators even likened it to Soviet-era reports to plenums of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Neither observation is wholly untrue, although both focus on form and overlook what made this year's address different and important.

Those who expected Putin to repeat statements he made in his two earlier such annual addresses were not disappointed. There was the traditional assessment of achievements and disappointments -- but this is the whole point such addresses. Putin also pointed out that the authorities have moved closer to resolving numerous problems that not long ago were considered intractable.

Among the cited achievements were the adoption of new civil, criminal, labor, and land legislation, all replacing laws inherited from the Soviet Union. Putin also drew attention to the fact that the political, legal, and economic woes of a few years ago no longer threaten the country's stability.

As with Putin's first two annual addresses, considerable attention was devoted to Russia's positive macroeconomic indicators. The gross domestic product has grown by 20 percent over the past three years, the export of machinery is up by 70 percent, fixed investments are up a healthy 30 percent, and real incomes are up 32 percent. Putin also announced the ambitious goal of doubling Russia's GDP by 2010. Putin also proudly pointed out that for the first time in a half century, the country has become a net exporter of agricultural products.

Putin's criticism that Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's cabinet is not implementing administrative reforms quickly enough could have been taken entirely from last year's address. The president iterated that Russia's macroeconomic fundamentals remain fragile in the absence of any "consolidating" of the reform efforts of the past three years. He called on the cabinet to intensify efforts to stimulate the economy. All reforms of the pension, tax, and communal-housing systems must not only continue, but must be speeded up significantly, he said.

Putin also berated the cabinet for its inability to reform the state bureaucracy, identifying this failure as the primary obstacle to achieving strong and sustainable economic growth. He further deplored the fact that in the process of implementing administrative reform, the government is not moving quickly enough to reduce the size of the state bureaucracy.

Putin's comments on military conscription disappointed many. He again expressed support for the goal of gradually shifting to a professional army, but, interestingly, appeared to be satisfied with the pace of the reform of this branch of the armed forces.

Despite its similarities to the previous two addresses, this year's address was appreciably different in a number of ways. It was not merely a catalogue of the achievements and disappointments of the past year or a policy-agenda proposal. It was also an election pitch that summed up Putin's achievements as president thus far. Few actually expect Putin to campaign during his re-election bid early next year -- an election he is widely expected to win. This year's address to the Federal Assembly is his last during this term of office and, as such, might turn out to be his first and last campaign speech.

The address was also a clear attempt to influence the December Duma elections, the outcome of which is more difficult to predict than that of the presidential election in March. The president sought to rise above Russia's political divisions with an eclectic appeal to support both liberal and patriotic values. He strongly asserted his support of private enterprise and making the ruble fully convertible, thus appealing to the parties on the right, while calling for only modest consumer-rate hikes for the so-called natural monopolies, an approach favored by the left.

The real bombshell in Putin's address has attracted curiously little comment. Putin condemned what he termed "intolerable levels" of "economic lobbying" and raised the hypothetical possibility that the next government could be based on a parliamentary majority. On the face of it, a government representing the majority faction in the Duma -- which would likely be Unified Russia -- should make the government more accountable and could reduce the bureaucratic obstructionism that has thwarted the Putin administration's most ambitious policies, including the reform of the bureaucracy itself -- to which Putin promised to give a new political impetus.

On the other hand, if during the Duma elections Putin throws his considerable political weight behind Unified Russia, the most loyal pro-Kremlin party, the entire democratic process will be short-circuited. With the Kremlin having tightened controls over the media, it is unclear whether parties on the right and the Communist Party will be given equal opportunities to present their platforms in the run-ups to the Duma and presidential elections. Others even foresee that switching to a Duma-controlled government at this juncture would only increase "economic lobbying" on the part of the oligarchs and position Putin to become a gray cardinal in Russian politics long after he has left the presidency.

Putin also spoke at length about Chechnya, but here too his approach differed from that of past addresses. Suppression of armed Chechen "terrorism" is the policy with which Putin launched his national political career four years ago and for which he therefore bears enormous personal responsibility -- with the gruesome Moscow theater hostage crisis in October underlining his political vulnerability on this front. Putin implied that the Kremlin is seriously considering a political settlement in the troubled republic. With less than 12 months to go before the presidential election, progress or lack thereof in resolving the Chechen conflict could become a key campaign issue.

Putin's address this year was not much different than in years past, and it was also not much different from what we should have expected, given Putin's public persona. Putin is hard to read, a trait that generally works to his advantage and is probably purposefully cultivated. However, a careful reading of his words sheds light on how this enigmatic president is navigating his county's present and future. Those who expected the address simply to repeat the first two should be pleasantly surprised that a subterranean desire for change still exists in Putin's Russia. However, exactly how much change has now become the most burning question.Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and author of the weekly e-newsletter "Untimely Thoughts" found at http://www.untimely-thoughts.com.

U.S. TROOPS ATTACKED IN CENTRAL IRAQI CITY OF AL-FALLUJAH
U.S. troops came under attack in the Iraqi town of Al-Fallujah on 21 May, international media reported the next day. Initial reports indicated that several explosions were heard late in the evening on 21 May in the center of the town, which is approximately 50 kilometers west of Baghdad and where a U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle was stationed. Iraqi gunmen reportedly fired at least one antitank rocket at a U.S. armored vehicle. Residents told Reuters news agency that U.S. tanks opened fire in the town center, killing two passengers in a pickup truck traveling some 300 meters from the scene. However, other news agencies reported that the pickup had rammed a U.S. tank, causing U.S. soldiers to take defensive action against those in the vehicle. CNN reported on 22 May that at least three rocket-propelled grenades were fired at U.S. troops at the start of the ambush, in which unidentified Iraqi snipers used AK-47s to attack U.S. forces, leading to a two-hour gun battle. One U.S. soldier was wounded in the incident, and five Iraqis were taken into custody, according to CNN. Al-Fallujah is now under curfew, Al-Jazeera reported following the 21 May incident. KR

FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS FRANCE, RUSSIA, GERMANY TO SUPPORT UN RESOLUTION
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that France will support a UN draft resolution to end sanctions on Iraq that was proposed by the United States, United Kingdom, and Spain, Reuters reported on 22 May. The resolution was expected to be put to a vote in the UN Security Council on 22 May. "We can say that the UN is back, and basically it is the real challenge today to ensure that the UN can resume its role because we are convinced that only the UN can provide its legitimacy, its experience, its efficiency on the ground," France Inter Radio quoted Villepin as saying on 22 May. The resolution has been revised twice to accommodate French, German, and Russian calls for a greater UN role in Iraq. Germany currently holds a rotating seat on the Security Council, while France and Russia are permanent, veto-holding members. "There is no question of legitimizing this resolution. It is a matter of dealing with urgency, difficulties, and uncertainties in Iraq today. Faced with these issues, we thought that there was only one solution, namely the unity of the international community," Villepin said. KR

COALITION FORCES STORM BAGHDAD FLEA MARKET
Coalition forces stormed a flea market in the Al-Kazimiyah district of Baghdad to settle a local dispute, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) newspaper "Al-Ta'akhi" reported on 21 May. According to the report, a fight broke out between citizens and Iraqi vendors that escalated into a "light-weapons armed confrontation" that left two people dead and four injured. The intervention was reported as part of an ongoing coalition effort to bring security to the Iraqi capital. KR

ORHA LAUNCHES PROJECTS IN IRAQI KURDISTAN
The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) has launched several projects in the northern Iraqi cities of Irbil, Kirkuk, and Mosul to provide humanitarian assistance and reconstruction and administrative assistance, the KDP newspaper "Khabat" reported on 21 May. Citing an ORHA press statement, the paper reported that projects now being funded in the north by the ORHA include a grant to Salah al-Din University to support English-language teaching at the university, a network for the distribution of drinking water to Mosul, reconstruction of a youth-welfare center, and public security in Mosul. The article also reported that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has signed a contract with the civil administration in Kirkuk to rebuild looted sections of the local fire station and to rebuild a school damaged as a result of the U.S. 173rd Infantry Division's use of the structure during the conflict. USAID has also reportedly allocated $100,000 to strengthen the Mosul Dam. KR

INTERNET CENTER TO RESUME SERVICE IN BAGHDAD
Internet service in Baghdad will be available in at least one area of the Iraqi capital within a week, according to a 20 May report in "Al-Sabah." Citing a source from the State Company for Internet Services, which previously hosted all Iraqi government sites (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 April 2003), the daily reported that an Internet center in the Al-Adl neighborhood of Baghdad will provide e-mail services "at nominal rates" in an effort to assist Iraqis in reestablishing contacts with their friends and families abroad. Internet availability will likely remain limited until Iraq's telephone network is completely restored. KR

WASHINGTON REPEATS, AND TEHRAN DENIES, CHARGES THAT IRAN HARBORS AL-QAEDA
At a joint news conference at the Pentagon on 21 May with Crown Prince Salman bin Hammad Al Khalifah of Bahrain, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld again accused Iran of harboring senior Al-Qaeda terrorists in Iran, saying "they are busy" plotting attacks, international news agencies reported. Senator Sam Brownback (Republican, Kansas) said in Congress the same day that Iran's links with Al-Qaeda means that "you cannot and should not negotiate" with Tehran. Tehran has consistently denied Washington's accusations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi on 20 May said Iran is "very serious" in confronting the Al-Qaeda network and has extradited its operatives to their countries of origin, IRNA reported. Cabinet Spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh on 21 May announced that Iran has so far expelled some 500 Al-Qaeda members, Iranian state radio reported. He said that if any foreign intelligence organization provides information about the presence of any Al-Qaeda elements in Iran, Tehran will expel them. SF

EMBATTLED IRANIAN PROFESSOR TO BE TRANSFERRED TO TEHRAN
A court in the western Iranian city of Hamedan has ruled that dissident university Professor Hashem Aghajari, whose death sentence on charges of apostasy and blasphemy sparked campus unrest throughout Iran last fall, should serve his eight-year prison sentence in Tehran, IRNA reported on 21 May. He has also been granted a one-week prison leave on bail. Aghajari is in jail for an August 2002 speech in which he criticized the role of clerics in government and likened adherence to the Shi'ite principle of emulating religious leaders to the imitative behavior of monkeys. There is no word about Aghajari's other penalties for the offending speech, including 74 lashes and a 10-year ban from teaching. More important, there is no new decision on his death sentence for blasphemy, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered to be reviewed. SF

MONEY LAUNDERING SAID TO ACCOUNT FOR 20 PERCENT OF IRANIAN ECONOMY
At an annual meeting in Tehran on monetary and fiscal policies, Hossein Heshmati Moulai, a member of the financial Research Center of the Central Bank of Iran, said on 21 May that domestic money laundering has risen steadily since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, when it reached 15 percent of Iran's gross domestic product, IRNA reported. He said that underdevelopment of financial institutions, a repeated theme of the conference, allows underground financial activities to flourish. Moulai said that to stop such illegal financial activities the government would have to strengthen the national currency, control inflation, promote the private sector, enact stringent banking regulations, and expand social and job-related insurance. A new government-proposed bill to counter money laundering and to help in the campaign against drug smuggling would require depositors to fill out special forms at Iranian banks in which they would have to specify their source of earning for large sums of money. SF

AFGHAN GOVERNORS, WARLORDS AGREE TO ABIDE BY THE LAW
In an 13-point declaration signed on 20 May by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, 10 provincial governors, one deputy governor, and two military commanders, the provincial authorities agreed to "follow and implement the laws, regulations, and legislative documents of the country and their job descriptions," Radio Afghanistan reported on 20 May (for full text of declaration see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 22 May 2003). The provincial authorities also pledged not to interfere in the affairs of other provinces and to implement internal and external polices established by the central government. The provincial authorities also agreed not to hold military and civilian posts simultaneously. Article 11 of the declaration abolished special titles that some of the regional leaders have adopted for themselves. For example, Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum has dubbed himself the "special envoy of the head of state" and Herat Province Governor Herat Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan has titled himself an "amir." AT

AFGHAN LEADER APPOINTS DOSTUM SPECIAL ADVISER...
In a decree issued on 21 May, Afghan Chairman Karzai appointed Deputy Defense Minister General Dostum "special adviser on security and military affairs," Bakhtar news agency reported. Dostum's job description is to advise and present recommendations to the Afghan Transitional Administration regarding the security of northern Afghanistan's Balkh, Jowzjan, Sar-e Pol, Samangan, and Faryab provinces. Dostum is also tasked with advising Karzai on general security and military affairs. Dostum's proposals, upon Karzai's approval, "should be implemented by the relevant ministries and departments." Dostum is also to assist Karzai and the Defense Ministry in the "downsizing and ultimate dismantling of army corps in the country, with particular reference to Army Corps Nos. 7 and 8." This decree is considered a victory for Dostum and a defeat for Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim and his Jamiyat-e Islami party. Fahim's ally in the north, General Ata Mohammad, who commands Army Corps No. 7, has been engaged in a long battle for the control of northern provinces, which the new decree placed under Dostum's control. AT

...AS HIS NORTHERN RIVAL RESIGNS
Army Corps No. 7 commander General Ata Mohammad has resigned from his post as First Deputy Head of the Leadership Council of the Northern Provinces of Afghanistan, Balkh Television reported on 20 May. It is not known whether the resignation came before or after the 20 May declaration (see above). In his resignation letter, Ata Mohammad told Afghan Chairman Karzai that "the Operational Command of the North, the Council for the Control and Management of the North, and the Leadership Council of the North," which were set up by regional factions, "are not only nonsense in our country but are also destabilizing the situation in the north." Ata Mohammad said he would retain his post as commander of Army Corps No. 7, which was dismantled under the stipulations of the 20 May declaration. The fact that Dostum has been tasked with helping dismantle Army Corps No. 7 will likely place the two rivals in further conflict. In addition, Article 11 of the declaration abolishes the Leadership Council of the Northern Provinces, thus reducing Ata Mohammad's resignation to a symbolic act. AT

AFGHAN COMMANDER DENIES HIS TROOPS FIRED ON U.S. EMBASSY PRIOR TO INCIDENT
Responding to reports that Afghan soldiers fired first on U.S. Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy on 21 May, leading to the shooting incident that resulted in the deaths of some of the Afghan soldiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2003), deputy commander of Kabul Security Command General Khalil said that "Afghan military troops did not fire" at all, Iranian state radio reported on 21 May. General Khalil said three Afghans were killed and one was injured, while some reports indicated that four Afghans were killed and four were injured. He said the U.S. troops involved in the incident "are bound under international law" and "will be treated in accordance" with those laws. General Khalil added that the U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan are "our brothers and they are in coalition with us against terrorism," but he added that the "culprits [responsible for this incident] will be captured and punished very soon." AT

INSECURITY LEADS UN TO HALT MINE-CLEARING OPERATIONS IN AFGHAN PROVINCES
The UN Mine Action Center for Afghanistan suspended activities on 20 May in six provinces following a monthlong string of armed attacks on deminers, AP reported. The order affects cleanup operations in eastern Afghanistan's Paktika, Paktiya, and Khost provinces, and in the southern provinces of Nimruz, Helmand, and Kandahar, according to UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva. He added that equipment will be transferred to areas "where deminers can feel more safe." Earlier this month, the UN withdrew deminers from "insecure" sections along the road between Kabul and Kandahar, and UN workers are now traveling through the aforementioned southern provinces only under armed escort (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 16 May 2003). Gunmen have staged four attacks since 22 April, killing one Afghan deminer and wounding seven others. Authorities blame Taliban operatives and their allies for the resurging violence in the country's southern and eastern regions. TH

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