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Newsline - May 28, 2003


RUSSIA, CHINA SEEK TO DOUBLE TRADE
Speaking to journalists following his 27 May meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said he has proposed that the two countries double their bilateral trade volume over the next four to five years, RTR and RIA-Novosti reported. At present, annual trade between Russia and China is worth about $12 billion, and Putin said that it will soon reach about $20 billion. He noted that he was speaking only about officially registered trade and that gray-market trading is estimated to be worth an additional $10 billion. Putin said that Russia supplied 3 million tons of oil to China last year and is working to increase oil-export volumes. He declined to comment on proposed routes of particular oil-pipeline projects, saying that such matters must be decided by specialists. Putin and Hu signed a joint declaration expressing support for the concept of a "multipolar world" and stressing cooperation and partnership in foreign policies. VY

PUTIN: RUSSIA HELPS EUROPE TO BE 'INDEPENDENT'
Speaking to journalists from St. Petersburg on 27 May in the Kremlin, President Putin made of point of reiterating a statement that he had made in the past, RTR reported. "If Europe wants to be independent and a full-fledged global power center, the shortest route to this goal is good relations with Russia," Putin said. He added that many people in Europe share this opinion and, as a result, European policies toward Russia have improved because Russia has become more transparent and predictable. He said that St. Petersburg plays an important role in this process, serving as a bridge that helps Europe to better understand Russia. VY

SUPREME COURT OVERTURNS ACQUITTALS IN CASE OF MURDERED JOURNALIST
The Military Collegium of the Supreme Court on 27 May overturned the acquittals of six men who were tried in connection with the 1994 killing of "Moskovskii komsomolets" military journalist Dmitrii Kholodov, Russian media reported. The court ordered the Moscow Military District Court to hear the case against the six men again. Kholodov was killed on 17 November 1994 by a booby-trapped briefcase following numerous publications exposing high-level corruption in the Defense Ministry and, in particular, leveling serious accusations against then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. The Prosecutor-General's Office brought murder charges against Colonel Pavel Popovskikh, formerly the head of intelligence for the Airborne Forces, and five other men, but the Moscow Military District Court acquitted them in June 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June 2002). In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the lower court had wrongly thrown out as "unreliable" statements by Popovskikh, who allegedly told investigators that Grachev had repeatedly told him "to settle accounts" with Kholodov and had threatened to disband Popovskikh's unit if those instructions were not obeyed, newsru.com reported on 27 May. The report quoted a spokesman for the Moscow Military District Court as saying that the new hearing would probably be a jury trial. VY

PROSECUTORS SEEK LONG PRISON TERM IN SPY CASE
At a closed session of the Moscow Military District court on 26 May, prosecutors asked for a 16-year prison sentence for Colonel Aleksandr Zaporzhskii, a foreign-intelligence service officer who stands accused of spying for the United States, RIA-Novosti and utro.ru reported. Zaporzhskii was arrested by the Federal Security Service in 2001 and has been held in Lefortovo prison since. According to the prosecutor's statement, Zaporzhskii's alleged espionage caused serious harm to Russia's national security. A spokesman for the court said that a date for announcing a verdict in the case has not yet been set. VY

PRESIDENT NAMES OFFICIAL RESPONSIBLE FOR RUSSIANS ABROAD
President Putin on 25 May appointed Eleanora Mitrofanova as deputy foreign minister responsible for international cultural exchanges and maintaining ties with Russians living abroad, Russian media reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said that Mitrofanova will head a new department within the ministry for liaison with ethnic Russians abroad and a new Russian Center for International Cultural Cooperation (Roszarubezhtsentr). In 1993-95, Mitrofanova served as a State Duma deputy from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Later, she worked as an investigator for the State Audit Chamber. Since 2001, she has served as deputy general director of UNESCO, the main cultural agency of the United Nations. VY

DUMA GIVES INITIAL NOD TO LAW ON COMMERCIAL SECRETS
The Duma on 22 May approved in its first reading a bill on protecting commercial secrets, gazeta.ru and strana.ru reported on 23 May. The vote was 273 to 29. The bill defines the term "commercial secret" and regulates the handling of commercially sensitive information. The bill has been under consideration for more than eight years, held up by a basic conflict between those who seek to protect commercial data and intellectual property and those who insist on increasing the access of law enforcement agencies to commercial and banking information. In 1999, President Boris Yeltsin vetoed a version of the bill that he felt did not adequately resolve this difference. The current bill includes amendments introduced by supporters of both points of view. It grants law enforcement officials access to commercial information, but stipulates harsh penalties for officials convicted of leaking such information and causing material harm to its owners. VY

POLICE SEARCH OFFICE OF LIBERAL RUSSIA SPLINTER FACTION
Investigators from the Prosecutor-General's Office on 27 May searched the Moscow office of the Liberal Russia party splinter faction that continues to support former party co-Chairman Boris Berezovskii and confiscated $300,000 in cash, newsru.com, lenta.ru and other Russian media reported on 28 May. According to an unidentified spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, the search was conducted as part of the investigation into the 17 April slaying of party co-Chairman and State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov. The money is being held until the authorities are able to establish to whom it belongs, the spokesman said. Prosecutors on the same day searched the Moscow offices of LogoVAZ, a company belonging to Berezovskii. Liberal Russia co-Chairman Viktor Pokhmelkin, who together with Yushenkov spearheaded a successful effort to expel Berezovskii from the party, told newsru.com that he and Yushenkov had long ago asked prosecutors to launch a criminal case against the faction of the party that continues to support the self-exiled former oligarch. Berezovskii recently accused Pokhmelkin of deliberately creating the schism in the party at the Kremlin's behest. RC

RUSSIA SEEKS INQUIRY INTO EUROVISION VOTING
State-run ORT television has filed an official request with the organizers of the Eurovision Song Contest seeking information about how the popular voting in the 24 May competition was tabulated, strana.ru and other Russian media reported, citing ORT spokesman Igor Burenkov. The Russian entry in the competition, the controversial duo t.A.T.u., finished third, just three points behind the winner, Turkish entrant Sertab Erener, ITAR-TASS reported. Following the voting, Irish telecom operator Eircom released a statement saying that its tabulation of the voting results from Ireland did not correspond to the official results released by the Irish jury and that by its count t.A.T.u. came in first place in Ireland. As a result, ORT is seeking vote counts for Great Britain, the Netherlands, Malta, Sweden, and Norway directly from the telecom companies that coordinated the voting in those countries. RC

KALMYKIA'S FORMER CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER ARRESTED
Former Interior Minister of the Republic of Kalmykia Timofei Sasykov has been detained by police in Nalchik, ITAR-TASS and strana.ru reported on 28 May. He is accused of abuse of office and has been transferred to a remand facility in Rostov-na-Donu, according to the reports. Sasykov, who was fired as Kalmykia's interior minister on 26 May, was a staunch supporter of Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who was re-elected to a second term on 27 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 2002). During the campaign, opposition candidates harshly criticized Sasykov and lobbied Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov to remove him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 October 2002). RC

PETERSBURG JUBILEE CELEBRATIONS GET UNDER WAY
The celebrations of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary were in full swing on 27 May and featured a massive laser show witnessed by an estimated 1.5 million people, RosBalt, lenta.ru, other Russian media reported on 28 May. According to RosBalt, 65 people -- including 10 children -- were hospitalized from injuries sustained during the show. Also on 27 May in connection with the celebrations, the State Hermitage Museum opened a new main entrance from the city's centerpiece, Palace Square. During the Soviet era, the museum's main visitor entrance was through a small basement door in the rear of the building. "We are taking the main gates of the Hermitage for the second time," said St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev at the opening, referring to the 1917 storming of the tsar's Winter Palace. Visitors to the museum will now pass through a courtyard featuring a classical fountain before entering the 11,000 square meter foyer. Yakovlev also unveiled a controversial Peace Tower in the center of the city's historic Haymarket Square. "Those who don't like the Peace Tower don't have to look at it," Yakovlev said at the 27 May unveiling, according to lenta.ru. RC

CHECHEN PROSECUTOR REJECTS PROPOSED CRIME COMMISSION
Chechen Prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko said on 27 May that he sees no need to create a special commission to investigate crime in Chechnya, ITAR-TASS reported. Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, who is President Putin's special representative for human rights in Chechnya, recently proposed establishing such a commission after the Chechen presidential elections, according to a 28 May statement on chechenpress.com. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION REJECTS 'FALSIFIED' ELECTION RETURNS...
Leaders of the Artarutiun election bloc told journalists in Yerevan on 27 May that they do not recognize the validity of official returns showing that Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) polled the largest number of votes in the parliamentary elections two days earlier, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003). People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian told RFE/RL that "it's...obvious that the bloc's votes were reduced." In an allusion to the presidential poll earlier this year in which he lost in the second round to incumbent President Robert Kocharian, Demirchian added that "this was yet another disappointing and disgraceful election." National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, who similarly lost a disputed presidential runoff in 1996, said, "The elections were thoroughly falsified with the same techniques as in the past." He said he believes Artarutiun should now campaign for the referendum of confidence in Kocharian proposed last month by Constitutional Court Chairman Gagik Harutiunian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 22 April 2003). LF

...AS OFFICIAL WINNER CLAIMS PREMIER'S POST
HHK campaign manager Galust Sahakian told RFE/RL on 27 May that the party wants incumbent Premier Markarian to head the next government. According to official returns made public by the Central Election Commission late on 26 May, the HHK will probably hold 23 of the 75 seats allocated under the proportional representation system and a further 17 in single-mandate constituencies. The HHK can reportedly also count on the backing of a further two dozen ostensibly independent deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies. Sahakian hinted that the HHK would be prepared to cede some government posts to the pro-presidential Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) and Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun if those parties support the HHK in parliament and share responsibility for its policies. LF

ANOTHER INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION CRITICIZES ARMENIAN ELECTION
In a preliminary report released on 27 May, the National Democratic Institute said that despite "improvements in certain areas of the electoral process," the 25 May parliamentary election "failed to cross the threshold for democratic elections," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. "There is an atmosphere of cynicism, frustration and anxiety surrounding Armenia's electoral processes, evidenced by low voter turnout, lack of confidence in the ability of election authorities to act impartially, and the absence of processes to effectively redress electoral disputes," the report concluded. It referred to instances of alleged vote buying, intimidation of candidates and their proxies, pressure on army conscripts to cast their ballots for the HHK, and deliberate miscounting of ballots. LF

AZERBAIJANI PARLIAMENT PASSES ELECTION LAW IN THIRD READING
Deputies passed the controversial election law on 27 May in the third and final reading by a vote of 90 to five, Turan reported. Opposition deputies boycotted the session to protest insulting remarks made on 23 May by a deputy from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) to opposition deputy Ali Kerimli, according to zerkalo.az on 28 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003). Deputies also endorsed a temporary provision under which those paragraphs of the new law that stipulate the composition of election commissions at all levels will come into force only after the 2005 parliamentary elections. Until then, the majority of seats on those commissions will be allocated to the YAP and nominally independent deputies who support the current leadership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 23 May 2003). LF

AZERBAIJAN'S POLICE THREATENED WITH DISMISSAL FOR UNWARRANTED VIOLENCE
Interior Minister Ramil Usubov told an emergency session of ministry staff on 27 May that any police officers who in future resort to unwarranted physical violence against members of the public will be dismissed without warning, Turan reported. Also on 27 May, Nazim Nagiev, who heads the police department in Baku's Sabayil Raion, admitted that his men took some passers-by into custody while forcibly dispersing members of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party who were picketing the parliament building on 27 May to protest Abiev's insulting remarks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003). A total of 37 people were apprehended, of whom 10 were subsequently released. LF

ABKHAZIA MOVES TO STRENGTHEN ITS AIR FORCE
The Abkhaz Air Force has embarked on three days of training exercises, Caucasus Press reported on 27 May citing the unrecognized republic's Defense Ministry. Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba named Colonel Nodar Gerzmava as air force commander last week, according to Caucasus Press of 23 May. In an interview published in "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" in April 2002, then-Abkhaz Defense Minister Vladimir Mikanba claimed the Abkhaz Air Force has more than 100 aircraft, and that its qualified pilots include an unspecified number of ethnic Abkhaz from Turkey and Syria who settled in Abkhazia after the 1992-93 war with Georgia. LF

RUSSIA REPORTEDLY 'CONSIDERING' MILITARY BASES IN SOUTH OSSETIA
The Russian authorities are considering an offer by the leadership of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia to host Russian military bases that Russia has pledged to remove from elsewhere in Georgia, Caucasus Press on 27 May quoted South Ossetian parliament speaker Stanislav Kochiev as telling journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March 2003). LF

PRIME MINISTER CALLS FOR WIDER USE OF KAZAKH LANGUAGE
Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmaghambetov told his cabinet on 27 May that the Kazakh language should be used more extensively within the government, Khabar.kz and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The cabinet meeting was held in order for ministers to report on progress in implementing the law on the use of the state language within their ministries. Tasmaghambetov was quoted as calling for government officials to use Kazakh as much as possible in meetings and on public occasions. He dismissed complaints about a scarcity of Kazakh speakers and other excuses for continuing to conduct business in Russian. The same source asserted that, according to official data, 70 percent of military personnel now have a command of the Kazakh language, compared with only 5 percent in the early 1990s. But Tasmaghambetov complained that the administrations of only four of the country's 14 oblasts use Kazakh exclusively in conducting official business. The rest reportedly do their paperwork in Russian and then translate it into Kazakh. BB

CHIEF EDITOR OF PROMINENT KAZAKH OPPOSITION NEWSPAPER RESIGNS
Yermurat Bapi, editor in chief of "SolDat," one of the most prominent Kazakh opposition newspapers, announced his resignation at a news conference in Almaty on 27 May, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Bapi had told RFE/RL the previous day he intended to step down. He explained on 27 May that he learned that his presence at the newspaper irritated the authorities, adding that he hopes his departure will save the publication. He pledged that editorial policy will remain unchanged. Bapi is facing a tax-evasion charge that the opposition considers to be politically motivated. During the four years he has served as editor in chief of "SolDat," 11 charges of administrative offenses and three criminal cases have been brought against the newspaper. Bapi is also a prominent member of the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, which is headed by former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a political rival of President Nursultan Nazarbaev who now lives abroad. Bapi said he intends to remain a party member. BB

KYRGYZ LOWER HOUSE TELLS PRESIDENT TO IMPROVE CONTROL OVER LAW ENFORCEMENT
After three days of discussion and questioning of government officials about public safety in the country, the Kyrgyz Legislative Assembly (the lower house of parliament) adopted a resolution on 27 May calling on President Askar Akaev to improve the monitoring and supervision of law enforcement, Kabar and akipress.org reported the same day. The issue was reportedly raised in the assembly in response to the 15 May raid on the Djalal-Abad Oblast and city police headquarters, during which the attackers beat policemen and stole weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2003). First Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov, Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov, and other officials were called on to describe the response of government and law-enforcement agencies to the bombings of a Bishkek market in December and an Osh exchange office in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2003), as well as to an overall increase in crime nationwide. The resolution orders the Prosecutor-General's Office, National Security Service, and Interior Ministry to inform the assembly by 23 June as to what measures have been taken to improve the situation. It also asks the president to have the government improve the living and working conditions of law-enforcement personnel. BB

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT CALLS FOR STRONGER MILITARY
Addressing a meeting marking the 11th anniversary of the creation of country's armed forces, President Akaev said the current geopolitical situation requires that Kyrgyzstan speed up the reform of its military establishment in order to create an army capable of defending the country's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and citizens, Interfax reported on 27 May. Law-enforcement and security agencies capable of carrying out military tasks are to be involved in the reform process, and a unified structure will be created to supervise and supply the armed forces. Akaev was quoted as citing the rapid-deployment force as an example of such a structure. That force is made up of special units from the Defense Ministry, National Guard, National Security Service, Border Service, Interior Ministry, and the Environment and Emergencies Ministry. Akaev said security threats from outside the country have diminished, presumably a reference to terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which invaded Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. But he added that the possibility of subversive activities against Kyrgyzstan by international terrorist organizations still exists, and that "there is still a domestic threat fueled by extremist and other destructive forces" that are attempting to create instability. BB

CHIEF OF TURKMEN GENERAL STAFF FIRED
Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has fired Lieutenant General Serdar Chariyarov, the first deputy defense minister and chief of the General Staff as well as commander of the country's air force, according to Interfax on 27 May and turkmenistan.ru on 28 May. Niyazov personally announced Chariyarov's dismissal during the television broadcast of a meeting with security officials. He said Chariyarov has been charged with involvement in the purported opposition plot to overthrow and assassinate Niyazov in November. Niyazov said that if an investigation by the prosecutor-general fails to produce evidence of Chariyarov's complicity in the plot within 25 days, the dismissed officer will be given a new job "because we do not have too many military pilots." According to Interfax, Chariyarov was a civilian pilot who was drafted into the Turkmen Air Force in 1993 and rose through the ranks to command the air force and air-defense system. Defense Minister Redjepbai Arazov said during the same television broadcast that Chariyarov promised the alleged opposition plotters that the army will support them in return for his appointment as defense minister. According to Arazov, the charge against Chariyarov is based on testimony by former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov and businessman Guvanch Djumaev, both of whom are serving life sentences for their purported roles in the coup plot. Arazov also claimed that Chariyarov was involved, together with Shikhmuradov, in the illegal sale of military hardware. BB

OSCE OFFICIAL RAISES EXIT-VISA ISSUE IN TURKMENISTAN
OSCE Special Representative for Central Asia Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, raised the issue of Turkmenistan's restored exit-visa regime during a meeting in Ashgabat with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and Mejlis (parliament) Chairman Ovezgeldi Ataev, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 May. Turkmenistan's requirement that citizens obtain exit visas to leave the country was dropped with great fanfare at the beginning of 2002, earning the country international approval for taking a step toward democratization. Meredov and Ataev reportedly told Ahtisaari that the exit-visa regime was restored in March 2003 in reaction to the alleged attempt to overthrow or assassinate President Niyazov. ITAR-TASS quoted Ahtisaari as replying that such measures require a broad dialogue with the population and the involvement of experts on international law, and as offering OSCE assistance in addressing the problem. BB

UZBEKISTAN REAFFIRMS MEMBERSHIP OF GUUAM...
The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Ukraine, Vilayat Guliev and Anatoliy Zlenko, together with senior diplomats from Moldova and Uzbekistan, attended a meeting in Tbilisi on 24-25 May hosted by Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili to discuss preparations for the planned July summit of GUUAM, of which all five countries are members, Caucasus Press reported on 26 May. Also present was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Lynn Pascoe. Topics discussed included cooperation between GUUAM and the United States, joint efforts to combat terrorism and organized crime, and the need for tighter border controls, according to Interfax. Abdugafur Abdurakhmanov, who is Uzbekistan's ambassador to Azerbaijan and Georgia, told journalists that his country will not quit the organization, Caucasus Press reported on 26 May. Uzbekistan's position vis-a-vis GUUAM has been unclear since Tashkent announced in June 2002 that it was "suspending" its participation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2002). LF

...WHICH DOWNPLAYS ITS DEFENSE FOCUS
The primary topic of discussion at the July GUUAM summit will be creation of a free-trade zone, according to Interfax on 24 May. But some Russian journalists have suggested that GUUAM might devote greater attention to military cooperation in response to the recent upgrading of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization. Menagharishvili told journalists, however, that cooperation within GUUAM is directed at counterterrorism, rather than military activity, according to Interfax. Guliev, for his part, rejected the idea of creating a GUUAM peacekeeping force. LF

WILL ANTI-SEMITISM CHARGES SINK RUSSIAN NEWSPAPER IN BELARUS?
The Belarusian Ministry of Information has reportedly asked state-run press distributor Belsayuzdruk and the Belposhta postal service to stop distributing the Russian newspaper "Russkii vestnik" in Belarus, Belapan reported, quoting a lawyer with the Association of Committees to Support Jews from the Former USSR. In April, four Jewish organizations in Belarus petitioned the Prosecutor-General's Office and the cabinet's Committee on Religious and Nationality Affairs to ban "Russkii vestnik," arguing that the publication foments discord among nationalities and religious denominations and carries "openly anti-Semitic propaganda" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2003). The Belarusian authorities reportedly concurred with the petitioners. JM

UKRAINE, POLAND GET EU MONEY TO WORK ON JOINT PIPELINE PROJECT
Ukraine, Poland, and the European Union signed a declaration on 27 May to work toward extending the Odesa-Brody oil pipeline to the Polish port of Gdansk in order to transport Caspian oil to Europe, Ukrainian and Polish news agencies reported. The European Commission will contribute 3 million euros ($3.6 million) for a feasibility study of the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk pipeline. Polish Deputy Prime Minister Marek Pol told PAP that construction of the Polish section of the pipeline can only be financed on commercial terms. "We have decided to set up a working team including representatives from Poland, Ukraine, and the EU who will coordinate work on the project," he said. A Brody-Plock-Gdansk stretch that is expected to take three to five years to build and to cost some 500 million euros ($589 million) is needed to complete the pipeline. JM

ESTONIA OPTS OUT OF EXPO 2005 IN JAPAN
The Estonian government decided on 27 May that the country will not field an exhibit at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, citing the high price tag, BNS reported. The costs of participation were estimated at between 45.3 million kroons ($3.3 million) and 65.1 million kroons. The previous government of Prime Minister Siim Kallas decided in February not to participate, but Japan's extension of the deadline for responding left the final decision to the current government (see "RFE/RL Baltic States Report," 10 and 28 February 2003). Ninety-six countries, including Latvia and Lithuania, had announced by March that they will participate in the fair. SG

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT GIVES INITIAL BACKING FOR ADDITIONAL TROOPS IN IRAQ
Lawmakers on 27 May approved for discussion a draft resolution authorizing the deployment of further Lithuanian troops for peacekeeping operations in Iraq, BNS reported. The resolution proposes sending up to 130 Lithuanian soldiers in addition to the four military doctors currently in Iraq and 10 cargo specialists in Kuwait. The resolution was proposed by President Rolandas Paksas on 26 May after the State Defense Council expressed its support. Lithuania will apparently accept the invitations of both Denmark and Poland to join their planned operations in Iraq. Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius told the Lithuanian parliament that "the unit that should join the Danish forces might be deployed as early as June," while the others would likely join the Polish forces in August. He said participation in the international mission in Iraq will improve Lithuanian businessmen's chances of winning tenders related to Iraq's reconstruction. The parliament is scheduled to vote on the resolution on 29 May. SG

COURT SAYS POLISH PARLIAMENT MAY RATIFY EU ENTRY, EVEN IF VOTERS STAY AWAY
Poland's Constitutional Tribunal ruled on 27 May that Poland's lower house may ratify the country's EU entry even if the EU referendum on 7-8 June proves invalid due to low voter turnout, Polish media reported. The ruling came in response to a petition from lawmakers in the Sejm who oppose the country's EU membership; they argued that the election law's provision allowing the parliament to override an abortive referendum with a two-thirds vote is unconstitutional. At least 50 percent voter turnout is required to validate a referendum. JM

POLAND, TAJIKISTAN SIGN COOPERATION ACCORDS
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his Tajik counterpart Imomali Rakhmonov discussed international issues, bilateral political and economic cooperation, and the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking, PAP reported following their meeting in Warsaw on 27 May. The two presidents also signed a declaration on developing friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries. Cabinet officials of the two countries signed bilateral agreements on culture, education and science, avoiding double taxation, and cooperation to combat organized crime. Tajik Television reported that trade turnover between Tajikistan and Poland has fallen considerably in recent years, amounting to $3 million in 2002. JM

POLISH PREMIER WANTS SACKINGS OVER GRAIN THEFTS
Premier Leszek Miller has demanded that the entire board of the government's Agricultural Market Agency (ARR) be dismissed after police confirmed media reports that a significant amount of grain disappeared from storehouses supervised by the ARR, Polish Television reported on 27 May. According to an official report, a total of 36,000 tons of grain, or 10 percent of the state grain reserves, are currently missing from several ARR storehouses. "In the three largest investigations alone, there are 50 suspects, apparently not associated with each other," Polish police chief Antoni Kowalczyk said. "But these are indeed organized groups. Here, one person cannot manage to do anything when it comes to irregularities with grain." JM

CZECH PREMIER WARNS AGAINST EUROPEAN DEFENSE INITIATIVE AS 'COUNTERWEIGHT TO U.S.'
Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla warned on 28 May against European common-defense efforts that might "marginalize" the continent and "weaken the U.S. in the long term," RFE/RL reported the same day. Speaking to delegates at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly's spring session in Prague, Spidla said "the trans-Atlantic partnership remains and must remain the fundamental strategic priority for Europe and the U.S." "I can see some tendencies that are the possible beginnings of a development that would see the European Union and its defense initiative as a direct counterweight to the U.S. I think this would be tragic, that it would lead first to the marginalization of Europe in the world and to the weakening of U.S. in the long term," he said, adding: "Europe and the U.S. must keep their ties of alliance, partnership, and friendship. It's not in our or anyone else's interests to build parallel structures or alternatives to what we've already achieved in NATO." AH

CZECH PRESIDENT CALLS PRO-EU CAMPAIGN A 'PROVOCATION'
Vaclav Klaus on 27 May called the government's ad campaign ahead of the Czech referendum on EU membership "a targeted provocation," suggesting that it risks "trivializing" the decision facing Czechs on 13-14 June, local media reported. Klaus, a self-styled "Euro-realist," made the comments during a visit to the central Czech city of Pardubice. He added that the campaign should instead entail a serious discussion of the positive and negative aspects of accession, the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported. The opposition Civic Democratic Party that Klaus founded more than a decade ago has adopted a position of grudging support for EU membership. The daily also quoted coalition politicians critical of the campaign, including Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares -- the Freedom Union-Democratic Union's chairman -- and Senator Jan Ruml. They questioned the government's preparedness for serious questions from the public on substantive issues related to EU membership, "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported. AH

SLOVAK SOLDIERS BEGIN RETURNING HOME FROM IRAQ
Troops and military equipment of the Slovak anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit began returning from Iraq on 27 May, TASR and CTK reported. Ten members of Slovakia's 74-strong NBC deployment were flown to Bratislava airport on a Russian transport plane. The entire unit should return to Slovakia by the end of this week. The unit was deployed in March and is part of a joint Czech-Slovak NBC force that moved to the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah in April, providing humanitarian aid to the local population. A welcoming ceremony for the NBC unit will be staged in Myjava, West Slovakia, on 29 May, in the presence of Slovak Defense Minister Ivan Simko and his Czech counterpart Jaroslav Tvrdik. MS

SLOVAK COALITION SEEKS TO SHUFFLE TAX RATES
Slovakia's four-party, center-right coalition agreed on 27 May to set 2004 income and value-added (VAT) taxes one percentage point below the rate recommended by the Finance Ministry, TASR reported. A new flat income tax and a unified VAT tax would be 19 percent, under the newest scheme. Finance Minister Ivan Miklos responded that the resulting deficit for 2004 might be as high as 3.9 percent of GDP, rather than the envisaged 3.4 percent. The coalition also amended an increase in excise taxes slated for 1 July 2003, exempting wine and reducing the tax on beer from a planned 1,000 crowns ($28.90) per hectoliter to 500 crowns. The reductions are to be offset by increased excise taxes on mineral oils and fuels. MS

FORMER SLOVAK PREMIER IS SOLE CANDIDATE FOR HZDS CHAIRMANSHIP
The opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia's (HZDS) chairman, Vladimir Meciar, will run unopposed for re-election as party leader, TASR reported on 27 May, citing HZDS spokesman Igor Zvach. The HZDS convention is scheduled for Puchov, in the Trencin region, on 14 June. No candidates have been nominated for the deputy chairmen's posts, since the party statutes stipulate that the chairman alone is empowered to designate his deputies. Meciar has led the HZDS since its founding in 1991 and served as premier in three governments. MS

HUNGARIAN PREMIER VOWS TO IMPLEMENT REFORMS
Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told an informal meeting of the Socialist Party's parliamentary group on 27 May that the cabinet has sufficient courage to simultaneously reform the health-care system, the armed forces, the educational system, public administration, and the transport infrastructure, Hungarian media reported. The reforms will entail major changes that will bring about the creation of a modern, European Republic of Hungary, he said. The premier added that in 2004 the cabinet will focus on making the state operate in an economical manner, on improving Hungary's economic competitiveness, and on preparing for EU membership. MS

FIDESZ ALLEGES CORRUPTION AT HUNGARIAN EDUCATION MINISTRY
The leading opposition FIDESZ party has alleged that Education Minister Balint Magyar and members of the ministry's managerial staff have been rewarded by companies that won ministry contracts, "Magyar Hirlap" reported on 28 May. FIDESZ parliamentary deputy Robert Repassy said in parliament the previous day that several ministry officials spent a luxury weekend on Lake Balaton in early May at the invitation of the Elender Kft. company. Elender and MatavCom won a contract to supply schools with computers and link them to the Internet while Magyar was head of the ministry in 1997. The program, called Sulinet, has been ongoing, and bids will soon be invited for its continuation. Magyar countered that it is not unusual for a company to invite clients to functions. FIDESZ also claims that Education Ministry officials visited the United States and Mexico at the expense of the high-tech giant Cisco, which allegedly won a $100,000 state contract in the absence of a proper public tender. MS

HUNGARIAN TELEVISION NETWORK GETS NEW PRESIDENT
The board of trustees of the state television network MTV unanimously appointed Imre Ragats on 27 May to be the new president of the network, Hungarian media reported. Ragats has been acting president for one year. FIDESZ parliamentary deputy Annamaria Szalai told "Magyar Hirlap" that the Socialists, the Free Democrats, and the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) are trying to legitimize an unlawful situation. The main opposition party has no representative on the eight-member board, since all four opposition seats were taken by the MDF (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). Szalai also accused Ragats of allocating huge funds to individuals close to the left wing of the political spectrum, saying that the unchecked squandering of funds has thereby been legitimized. MS

MONTENEGRIN OPPOSITION LAUNCHES PARLIAMENTARY BOYCOTT
Opposition representatives announced in Podgorica on 27 May that their deputies will withdraw from the parliament and conduct their political activities outside that body following a government decision to stop televising legislative sessions, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003). The opposition leaders also said they are breaking off all contacts with state-run radio and television. It is unclear when those opposition decisions will take effect. The governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) said the decisions reveal the opposition's "political helplessness." PM

SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS GOVERNMENT IS UNITED
Zoran Zivkovic told a press conference in Belgrade on 27 May that his government is united in its support of reforms, "Vesti" and RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He added that public polemics between individual cabinet members are counterproductive and play into the hands of those wishing the government ill. Zivkovic stressed that no member of the cabinet has been or is linked to any organized criminals or groups. PM

SERBIAN MINISTRY FILES CHARGES IN VUKOVAR CASE
Justice Minister Vladan Batic said in Belgrade on 27 May that the Interior Ministry has filed criminal charges in Novi Sad against eight individuals allegedly linked to the November 1991 massacre of up to 300 Croats in Ovcara near Vukovar, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May 2003). PM

SERBS JOIN KOSOVA PROTECTION CORPS
Commander Agim Ceku of the civilian Kosova Protection Corps (TMK) said in Prishtina on 26 May that 16 members of ethnic minorities, including eight Serbs, joined the TMK in a special ceremony, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. Most of the eight Serbs are from Gjilan or Kamenica. Ceku added that "the fact that the TMK is of interest to non-Albanians is proof that we are working in the interest of all citizens of Kosova." He charged that the Serbian political leadership in Belgrade has pressured most local Serbs into not joining his organization. Ceku called on local Serbs to ignore Belgrade and "accept the new reality in Kosova" of self-determination and majority rule. The 5,000-strong TMK is seeking to recruit a total of 500 members of ethnic minorities. At present, only 122 of its members are non-Albanians, including 14 Serbs. The TMK is modeled on a French civilian organization. It recruits its members chiefly from the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), and many regard it as the nucleus of the army of a future independent Kosova. Elsewhere, several Kosovar Serbian political leaders criticized the decisions of individual Serbs to join the TMK, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

KOSOVA AUTHORITIES END RESTRICTIONS ON PROTECTION CORPS
Michael Steiner, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), and KFOR commander Lieutenant General Fabio Mini agreed with Ceku on 27 May to lift Steiner's recent ban on TMK participation in training programs abroad, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May 2003). PM

SERBIAN-MACEDONIAN CHURCH DISPUTE ENTERS NEW STAGE
The Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church unanimously declared null and void on 26 May a recent decision by the Serbian Orthodox Church to set up a rival holy synod in the Macedonian town of Ohrid, the Macedonian government's Information Agency (http://www.sinf.gov.mk) reported. The Macedonian synod also condemned the decision of the Serbian Orthodox Church to call on the bishop of the Macedonian town of Kumanovo to resign and to appoint Bishop Jovan of Veles in his place. Jovan was expelled from the Macedonian Orthodox Church in July 2002 after he put his bishopric under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church. After a meeting with Macedonian Orthodox Church head Archbishop Gospodin Gospodin Stefan on 27 May, Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski said the Macedonian Orthodox Church must remain independent, stressing its importance for "the identity of the Macedonian nation" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 July 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2002). The Serbian Orthodox Church has never recognized the self-proclaimed autocephalous status of the Macedonian church, which dates from 1967. UB

GREECE RATIFIES MACEDONIA'S EU AGREEMENT -- TWO YEARS LATER
The Greek parliament voted on 27 May to ratify Macedonia's Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, which was concluded and signed in 2001, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The way is now clear for the parliament to ratify an additional 23, mainly bilateral, agreements with Macedonia. The legislature is expected soon to ratify Croatia's Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. Greece, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, has called on other EU countries to help speed the integration of the western Balkan states into the Brussels-based bloc. Critics charge that Athens has not always been quick to follow its own advice. PM

CROATIA PROMISES ACTION ON REFUGEE RETURNS
Deputy Prime Minister Goran Granic told Reuters on 27 May that the Croatian government will ask parliament to pass a package of measures by the end of June to help speed the return of Serbian refugees who fled Croatia during the 1991-95 conflict. The government plans to spend $126 million by the end of 2003 on housing for returnees. Alternative housing will be offered to returnees who have lost legal claim to their former homes under postcommunist Croatian legislation. Granic stressed that "real changes" will take place as Serbs return to Croatia in search of a better life than they have had in less prosperous Serbia or Bosnia. PM

RUSSIAN TROOPS BEGIN WITHDRAWAL FROM BOSNIA
Russian SFOR troops began to leave Bosnia on 28 May and will complete the process by mid-June, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. Russian officials stressed recently that their 300-strong military contingent has no further security tasks to perform there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 2003). SFOR officials said in Sarajevo that the security situation in Bosnia will not be affected by the Russian withdrawal. PM

ROMANIAN MINISTER EXPLAINS DROP IN RULING PARTY'S POPULARITY
Minister Serban Mihailescu, who is in charge of coordination of the government's secretariat, said on 27 May that the recent drop in the popularity of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) is due to precipitous decision making by the government, Mediafax reported. Mihailescu said several decisions were taken hastily and subsequently required revision. A public-opinion poll carried out by the Institute of Marketing and Polling (IMAS) published the same day in the daily "Adevarul" indicated that the PSD's popularity slipped from nearly 60 percent in December to 43.9 percent in May. The losses of the PSD largely benefit the extremist Greater Romania Party (PRM) and the center-right National Liberal Party (PNL). The PRM now enjoys 19.6 percent support, up from 14.5 percent in March and 16.3 percent in April. IMAS estimates backing for the PNL at 17 percent, up from 14.1 percent in March and 15.8 percent in April. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT ADDRESSES PACE COMMITTEE MEETING IN CHISINAU...
President Vladimir Voronin told a meeting in Chisinau on 27 May of the Standing Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that his country will serve as an example during its chairmanship of the council's Committee of Ministers, Infotag reported. The committee's meeting in Chisinau marks Moldova's assumption of that chairmanship on 15 May. Voronin said taking over the rotating chairmanship is a great honor for Moldova that entails great responsibility. He expressed the hope that the position will advance the goal of European integration, which he said has become a Moldovan priority in both foreign and internal politics. Voronin also reiterated that Moldova is ready to solve the Transdniester conflict by setting up what he called an "asymmetrical federation" in which the separatist region could enjoy a special status. But he also complained that Tiraspol is not displaying a readiness to elaborate the envisaged federal state's constitution jointly with Moldovan representatives. MS

...WHILE OPPOSITION LEADER CALLS MOLDOVA A DICTATORIAL STATE
"Welcome to the last European country with a communist dictatorship" Popular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca told the members of the PACE Standing Committee on 27 May, according to Flux. Rosca complained that none of the obligations assumed by Moldova's Communist rulers on the implementation of the PACE resolution of 26 September 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September 2002) have been fulfilled, and he said the Communist-dominated Moldovan parliament has succeeded in destroying the last vestiges of democratic life. Rosca expressed the hope that PACE will concentrate its attention on Moldovan internal developments during the May-November 2003 tenure of the rotating chairmanship. Moldovan parliamentary speaker Evgenia Ostapciuc, on the other hand, told the committee that her country has fulfilled all the obligations it has pledged to implement. MS

MOLDOVAN JOURNALISM CENTER SLAMS ELECTRONIC MEDIA FOR CAMPAIGN BIAS
Experts for the Moldovan Independent Center for Journalism said on 27 May that coverage of the local-election campaign by state-controlled electronic media has been heavily biased in favor of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM), Infotag reported. The center monitored coverage on 14 television channels and 10 radio stations. A spokesman for the center said the national radio station and Channel One behaved during the campaign as if they were PCM institutions and did not shy away from attacking opposition candidates. Those local elections were held on 25 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003). MS

BULGARIA'S CONSERVATIVES HOPE FOR DEFECTIONS IN NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE...
Vladimir Kisyov, who is deputy chairman of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), said on 27 May that he believes some lawmakers from the governing National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) will support the no-confidence motion put forward by his party, mediapool.bg reported. Kisyov said the ruling coalition of the NDSV and the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) has only a small majority of nine lawmakers and that some of them might vote against the government "for moral reasons." Parliament is expected to discuss the no-confidence motion on 28 May, while the vote should take place either on 29 or 30 May. UB

...WHILE SOCIALIST OPPOSITION ENDORSES MOTION
Bulgaria's opposition Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev announced on 27 May that his party will support the SDS's no-confidence motion, bnn reported. Stanishev said that although his party does not believe the SDS really wants to topple the government, the BSP will support the motion. "The [BSP] does not accept the policies that this government and [Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski] pursue, and believes that replacing one or two ministers could hardly change things for the better," Stanishev said, alluding to recent speculation about an imminent government reshuffle. According to a recent opinion poll by the National Center for Public Opinion Research, the BSP could win a majority if parliamentary elections took place now, garnering as many votes as the NDSV and the SDS together, mediapool.bg reported. UB

RUSSIA SEEKS ALLIES IN BID FOR WTO MEMBERSHIP
Russia has been trying for eight years to gain admission to the WTO, and President Vladimir Putin has pursued this as one of his primary goals. Following the February accession of Armenia to that organization, Moscow was faced with the growing possibility that other fellow CIS states might be admitted before Russia. To cope with this situation, the Kremlin is now seeking to persuade them to coordinate their admission campaigns.

Some of the difficulties Russia faces in its drawn-out negotiation process are part of the normal rites of WTO accession -- the painstaking process of negotiating market access and tariffs with the 146 countries that have already joined. Russia has wrangled for years with a negotiating group of 65 countries over access to its banking, insurance, and telecommunications markets, but such issues fall within the normal zone. More problematic, however, is the European Union's demand that Russia end its practice of subsidizing cheap natural-gas rates at home by charging at least five times more for gas exports to the EU.

The gas problem is crucial, as few issues have such consequences for both Russia and the EU. The EU, which buys one-fourth of its gas from Russia, sees the huge difference in gas prices as a massive subsidy for Russian consumers. But Putin has been loath to allow a major rise in domestic prices because of the social and inflationary fallout it would entail.

The EU has recently proposed a compromise. In an article published on 6 May in "The Moscow Times," Richard Wright, who is head of the European Commission's delegation in Russia, sought to defend the EU against charges made the previous month in the Russian-language business daily "Vedomosti" that it is seeking protection for its own products. Wright insisted that the EU only wants the gas-sector reforms that Russia itself has promised.

Rather than demanding an abrupt jump to EU-level prices, Wright said the EU has suggested the "gradual elimination of distorting state pricing restrictions," allowing Russian gas producers to cover their costs. Russia would be free to raise prices only for industry, exempting household consumers. More price liberalization could come later in a second stage. In the meantime, Wright implied, Russia could be admitted to the WTO.

But that compromise would still have far-reaching effects because higher-priced gas for industrial users would mean higher-priced goods. Russian consumers would soon feel the costs, even if their own gas bills stay the same. Power prices could also be affected because electricity generation relies heavily on gas for fuel. The rate hikes also carry political costs. During May Day celebrations this month, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov slammed the government for its WTO bid, saying it will "benefit resource-based sectors, which effectively means the oligarchs," Interfax reported.

On 20 May, Russia's WTO negotiator Maxim Medvedkov told a Moscow seminar that agreement has been reached on 75-80 percent of tariff issues, the "Financial Times" reported. But outstanding disputes on gas and agriculture will still prevent Russia from joining the organization this year. Although Medvedkov believes Russia might join in 2004, the deadlock over gas prices could mean a much longer delay. Medvedkov made clear in February that "a compromise is not really possible in this area."

The ongoing gas stalemate might be one reason for Russia's new initiative, which relies on co-opting other CIS states seeking admission. In addition, Russia's Duma has just passed a package of trade laws to bring the country into compliance with WTO rules. If the Kremlin follows separate tracks with its CIS partners, the process could create more problems for Russia.

But Russia's new strategy might also be defensive. If Moscow's neighbors succeed in becoming WTO members first, it would risk both embarrassment and the possibility that they could impose their own trade demands, which would compound existing obstacles to Russian membership. Under the WTO's admission procedures, all current members are entitled to seek concessions in bilateral negotiations. A concerted CIS bid would reduce that danger.

So, at a Kremlin meeting on 16 April, Putin proposed to envoys from Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine -- Russia's partners in a proposed unified economic area -- that the four countries coordinate their bids for WTO membership. Kazakhstan and Belarus agreed in principle, apparently hoping there is more bargaining power in numbers. Eleven days later, on 27 April, Putin made a similar appeal to his counterparts in the Eurasian Economic Community, which includes Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan. "We are convinced that if we coordinate our work, we will be able to ensure that our countries will be able to join the WTO on good and optimal terms," "The Moscow Times" quoted Putin as telling them. Tajikistan too has reportedly agreed to Putin's proposal. Kyrgyzstan was admitted to the WTO in 1998.

But Ukraine already appears to be having second thoughts about the effectiveness of Putin's proposed strategy. In an interview with the daily "Holos Ukrainiy," Economics Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovskyy said, "As far as synchronization [of WTO membership bids] is concerned, Russia and ourselves are in different stages in the negotiations. So what are we to do, go backward?" While comparing progress is difficult, Ukraine's Finance Minister Mykola Azarov believes that his country has a good chance of joining in 2004, Interfax reported. Kyiv's hopes are running high, despite a warning from the United States in May that Ukraine remains the world's worst violator of intellectual-property rights.

Ukrainian Economics Ministry State Secretary Valeriy Pyatnytskyy, for his part, complained to the weekly "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnya" that Russia has pressed Ukraine to reveal confidential protocols it signed with the European Union. In remarks quoted by the BBC, Pyatnytskyy said: "Russia tells us that since it is the strongest of the four nations and has the most diversified economy, all we have to do is relax and let it do everything for us. We can't accept that." "If we accepted Russia's terms," he added, "we would bury our hopes for membership in the WTO and signal clearly that we don't need economic sovereignty." Pyatnytskyy blasted Kazakhstan and Belarus for joining the Russian initiative, calling them "completely submissive."

Russia's appeal to its neighbors could be a measure of its problems in winning WTO membership. But by joining with Russia, other CIS countries could risk delaying their own admission for years.

Michael Lelyveld is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Boston.

PURPORTED ARAB 'FEDAYEEN' THREATENING MORE ATTACKS
Al-Arabiyah Television broadcast an interview with purported Arab fedayeen hiding out in Iraq on 27 May. In the video, one masked volunteer reads from the Koran while a picture of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein hangs in the background. "We pledge to God and to all Muslims all over the world to continue resistance until the land of Iraq is purged of U.S. occupation," the volunteer also said. In an apparent reference to reports of recent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003), he added, "The resistance that was waged [on 26 May] in Al-Fallujah and Al-Anbar will continue until all Iraqi land is purged of U.S. occupation." A second volunteer, reportedly a Palestinian refugee from Syria identified as Abd al-Rahman, tells the news channel: "All the Arabs have burned our hearts. They sold Palestine, and they are selling Iraq now.... We will not remain silent. Oh Americans, wait for us." KR

IRAQI GRAND AYATOLLAH ISSUES FATWA BANNING BA'ATH PARTY MURDERS
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a fatwa in Al-Najaf that states that the murder of former senior Ba'ath Party members and regime collaborators is forbidden until Shari'a (religious) courts can be established in Iraq, "Al-Zaman" reported on 26 May. The fatwa says Iraqis should not take matters into their own hands and adds that inflicting punishment is the right of the relatives of the murdered once a crime has been proven in Shari'a courts. It also states that it is not permissible to smear the names of those who were forced through pressure or threats to collaborate with the Hussein regime. KR

FORMER IRAQI REGIME MEMBERS CAPTURED
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced the capture of two members of the former Hussein regime in a 27 May press release on its website (http://www.centcom.mil/). Sayf al-Din al-Mashhadani served as a Ba'ath Party chairman and was commander of the Ba'ath Party Militia in the Al-Muthanna Governorate in southern Iraq. He was 46th on CENTCOM's list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the Hussein regime. Sa'ad Abd al-Majid al-Faysal served as a Ba'ath Party chairman and was commander of the Ba'ath Party Militia in the northern governorate of Salah Al-Din. He was last on the CENTCOM list. KR

U.S. REPORTEDLY WILL NOT DISARM PESHMERGA...
A meeting held earlier this week between Kurdish leaders and U.S. officials determined that Kurdish peshmerga fighters will be exempt from the decision to disarm all Iraqi factions, MENA news agency reported on 28 May. According to a report in the "Oil & Gas Journal" (http://ogj.pennnet.com/home.cfm), all Iraqi factions are required to disarm by 14 June except the peshmerga, who will be allowed to retain their weapons "in certain northern regions." Reuters reported on 26 May that U.S. troops disarmed the Iraqi National Congress-led, 700-strong "Free Iraqi Forces" on 25 May in an effort to impose order. KR

...AS SCIRI LEADER CALLS U.S. DECISION TO DISARM IRAQIS 'WRONG'
The head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, has claimed that SCIRI's 10,000-strong Badr Corps military wing has no weapons, the BBC reported on 28 May, citing Voice of the Mujahedin Radio, an Iran-based station linked to SCIRI. Al-Hakim's statements indicate that his group might resist the U.S. demand to disarm. The ayatollah has also publicly expressed concern at the U.S. decision to disarm Iraqis, Al-Jazeera reported on 27 May. Al-Hakim suggested that citizens should be able to defend themselves against the pervasive lawlessness that exists in Iraq. "Certainly, this is a wrong decision because no coordination has been made with the Iraqi political forces that should participate in realizing security and stability in Iraq. The question of disarmament is a correct idea in principle," al-Hakim told Al-Jazeera. "However, if there is no state, regime, or anybody capable of keeping law and order, one must be given the right to defend oneself." KR

IRAN REPATRIATING IRAQI REFUGEES
Iran has begun repatriating some 200,000 Iraqi refugees under an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a senior Iranian Interior Ministry official told IRNA on 27 May. Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs head Ahmad Hosseini said the repatriation is voluntary and refugees returning to Iraq will be transported by UN-provided buses across the Shalamcheh border crossing to the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah. "According to negotiations held through the UNHCR with the British government, guarantees have been made so that the Geneva Conventions' requirements to safeguard the security of refugees and their access to basic needs are respected," Hosseini said. KR

IRANIAN IRGC OFFICIAL DISMISSES U.S. THREATS...
As a meeting of senior Washington officials to decide on how best to pressure Iran was postponed from 27 May to 29 May, according to Reuters on 27 May. Iranian officials put up a defiant front. The head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC) public-relations office, Masoud Jazayeri, said the Pentagon's purported plans for a military attack on Iran "are as flimsy as were the twin towers," Tehran's Fars News Agency reported on 27 May. Jazayeri asserted that the Iranian people are ready to defend their country, and if the United States should attack, "it will have to pay for all its bestial and wolf-like actions," Fars reported. SF

...AND EXPRESSES CONCERN ABOUT DOMESTIC DISSENT
In the same Fars report on 27 May, Masoud Jazayeri arguably signaled that his real cause of concern is within Iran itself. He referred to people who "are showing the green light to America." He did not identify them, but suggested that such individuals are influential because they "have got to some position thanks to the system's generosity," and they "speak through channels that the system has generously put at their disposal," according to Fars. That would seem to point to the Foreign Ministry, which admits to official channels of contact with Washington. Jazayeri warned the United States not to be deceived by such people, whom he characterized as worthless as "froth" on water. In a possible reference to media reports that the Pentagon is contemplating destabilizing Iran, Jazayeri asserted that the Iranian system "is so efficient now that it can overcome any foreign conspiracy." "It has a "high degree of legitimacy," he said, although he acknowledged that "there might be some who have become alienated." SF

IRANIANS, RUSSIANS DISCUSS DELAYS IN BUSHEHR NUCLEAR PLANT'S CONSTRUCTION
The construction schedule of the Russian-built nuclear-power station in Bushehr is lagging behind by "several months," the Moscow-based "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 27 May. The schedule was the subject of talks in Moscow on 26 May between Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev and an Iranian delegation headed by Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Deputy Chairman Asadollah Saburi. According to "Kommersant-Daily," the delay is because Rumyantsev refuses to deliver fresh nuclear fuel due to Iran's reluctance to sign an agreement with Russia on returning spent nuclear-fuel rods from Bushehr. Deteriorating Iranian-U.S. relations have nothing to do with the extension of the time frame, according to "Kommersant-Daily." The official Iranian news agency IRNA reported simply that the meetings dealt with the "need for the timely meeting of commitments" and the need to avoid elaborating on details "which could be used in other countries' propaganda." SF

NEW COMMANDER FOR U.S.-LED FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN
Major General John Vines replaced Lieutenant General Dan McNeill as commander of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition's forces in Afghanistan in a ceremony held at those forces' headquarters at Bagram Air Base on 27 May, AP reported. Vines said helping Afghanistan "establish itself as a peaceful, prosperous nation" will not be an easy task, but added that the presence of U.S. troops reflects the commitment of the United States to not "look the other way," as it did after the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. Vines said the Al-Qaeda terror network is broken down at the moment but has the potential to regroup. The coalition forces in Afghanistan comprise 11,500 troops, 8,500 of whom are U.S. forces. AT

AFGHAN GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES TO BE PAID THROUGH MONEYCHANGERS
Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai said on 27 May that the salaries of all government personnel will be issued via moneychangers, Radio Afghanistan reported. This is the first time that the Finance Ministry is planning to use independent moneychangers to pay government employees who until now received their salaries through Afghanistan's central bank (Da Afghanistan Bank). Ahmadzai said negotiators with Kabul's main money-changing market, Sarai-ye Shahzada, have concluded that the market is able to transfer the salaries of government personnel in the provinces as well. The report did not elaborate on the reason for the Finance Ministry's decision, but the action arguably undermines Da Afghanistan Bank and the Afghan Transitional Administration's cohesiveness as a governing body. Moreover, private moneychangers would be granted personal information about every government employee as a result of such a step. AT

AFGHAN ADMINISTRATION'S CHAIRMAN MEETS IRANIAN TRADE MINISTER
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai met with visiting Iranian Commerce Minister Mohammad Shari'atmadari on 27 May and thanked him for contributions made by Iran to establishing security in Afghanistan, IRNA reported. Shari'atmadari was in Kabul to open Iran's first industrial and commercial exhibition, which he viewed as part of Iran's efforts to promote stability and security in Afghanistan. Karzai said he will meet with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in mid-June during a planned visit to Tehran. AT

PAKISTANI MINISTER SAYS WORK ON TAP PROJECT WILL BEGIN IN 2004
Pakistani Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Nauriz Shakoor said on 27 May that work on the $3.5 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas-pipeline project will begin in the first quarter of 2004 and will be completed in 2006, the Associated Press of Pakistan News Agency reported. Shakoor said that during the next meeting of the TAP project's steering committee, scheduled for June in Asghabat, host-country agreements prepared by the Asian Development Bank will be finalized. India's participation as a major purchaser of gas is essential to the economic feasibility of the TAP project, and there has been no indication that New Delhi is interested in participating in the proposed pipeline project despite some Pakistani reports to the contrary. The security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan could also hamper the pipeline plans (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003). AT

LOCAL TALIBAN COMMANDER KILLED IN CLASH IN AFGHANISTAN
Hamidullah Tokhi, governor of Zabul Province, said his troops killed a local Taliban commander and another fighter in an attack on a suspected Taliban hideout on 27 May, AP reported on 28 May. The dead Taliban commander was identified as Ghausuddin. Tohki said Ghausuddin was sought in connection with several terrorist acts in the province. AT

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