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Newsline - December 1, 2003

The management of oil major Sibneft announced in Moscow on 28 November that it is indefinitely suspending its merger with embattled oil giant Yukos, Western and Russian media reported. That merger was given final approval by the shareholders of both companies in October. Although the Sibneft statement said the decision was made "in accordance with a mutual agreement reached by shareholders of both companies," Yukos CEO Semen Kukes said he was surprised by the announcement, Interfax and AP reported on 28 November. Yukos share prices fell by 10 percent in the wake of the news, and Sibneft's by 6 percent. The companies announced the merger in April; it would have created the world's fourth-largest oil company with an estimated capitalization of $35 billion and projected daily production of 2.06 million barrels. Analysts speculate that Sibneft founder and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich has decided to try avoid assaults on his company by the authorities similar to those experienced in recent months by Yukos and its chief shareholders, RBK reported on 29 November. VY

Major Yukos shareholder and former company executive Leonid Nevzlin, who was recently granted Israeli citizenship and whose own bank accounts have been the subject of probes by prosecutors, told "Kommersant-Daily" on 29 November that the Kremlin might be behind Sibneft's decision to suspend its merger with Yukos. He said that he recently spoke by telephone with Sibneft President Yevgenii Shvidler, who said that unnamed people from the presidential administration had told him to announce the suspension as soon as possible so that it will have a minimal impact on the 7 December Duma elections. Britain's "Sunday Telegraph" on 30 November reported that Sibneft's decision to halt the merger came in the wake of a meeting last week between Abramovich and President Vladimir Putin, during which the composition of the management team of YukosSibneft was discussed. VY

Speaking to journalists on 29 November, Mikhail Kasyanov denied allegations that the government was involved in Sibneft's decision to suspend its merger with Yukos, RIA-Novosti reported. If the government had been involved, Kasyanov said, "the shareholders probably would have complained, but nobody has said anything to me." "I do not know why the companies suspended their merger," he said. "Maybe they have changed their business strategy, but in any case, it is their private decision." He once again ruled out the idea of nationalizing Yukos. VY

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov held several meetings on 27-29 November with Aslan Abashidze, leader of the Adjar Autonomous Republic; Raul Khadjimba, prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia; and Eduard Kokoyty, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Russian media reported. Ivanov told journalists on 29 November that "one should not see a conspiracy" in the closed-door meetings, ITAR-TASS reported. It is natural, he said, that these leaders would come and express their concern in the wake of the recent developments in Georgia because of the large number of ethnic Russians living in those regions. Prime Minister Kasyanov announced on 29 November that Russia will continue supplying natural gas, electricity, and humanitarian aid to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Adjaria throughout the winter, ORT reported. VY

Presidential foreign affairs adviser Sergei Prikhodko told journalists in St. Petersburg on 29 November that Russia will cooperate with the new Georgian leadership following the presidential election in that country, reported. He said that the president of Georgian will be selected in Georgia, not Moscow, and added that the country's current leadership bears the responsibility for holding legitimate elections that adhere to the Georgian Constitution. VY

Acting Georgian President Nino Burdjanadze on 28 November participated with leading Russian politicians in a televised discussion on ORT of Georgian-Russian relations. Asked by Unified Energy Systems (EES) head and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-Chairman Anatolii Chubais whether she agrees that Russia should play a larger role in Georgian affairs, Burdjanadze said that, in view of the difficult economic situation in Georgia, Russia could help by writing off Georgian debts for energy supplies. Chubais responded that there can be no talk of writing off debts, but he would consider restructuring or rescheduling them. VY

Deputy Duma Speaker and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii, during the same 28 November ORT discussion, accused acting Georgian President Burdjanadze of having an insincere attitude toward Russia. She responded by admitting that she has been critical of Russian intervention in Georgia in the past, but "only when it was destructive, not positive." Asked by former Georgian State Security head Igor Giorgadze whether he can travel to Georgia to participate in the upcoming presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November 2003), Burdjanadze noted that Giorgadze is wanted in Georgia on suspicion of masterminding an August 1995 assassination attempt against then-Georgian parliament speaker Eduard Shevardnadze. If he is cleared of those charges, he may participate in the election, Burdjanadze said. VY

President Putin and Armenian President Robert Kocharian met informally in St. Petersburg on 30 November, Russian media reported. ITAR-TASS reported that the two men discussed economic issues, including Armenia's debt to Russia, and the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict. Interfax quoted Putin as characterizing Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's position on Karabakh as "positive," and deputy presidential chief of staff and presidential foreign affairs adviser Prikhodko as saying that Moscow believes the only way to resolve the conflict is by means of a dialogue between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian analysts told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 29 November they believe Kocharian's previously unannounced visit is connected with developments in neighboring Georgia. LF

In an interview with ORT, RTR, and NTV on 27 November, President Putin praised Unified Russia as "a political force that I have been able to rely on over these last four years and that has consistently supported me." The "balance of political forces" that enabled the Duma to "attain certain results" during that period was achieved "in part thanks to the positions of the centrist parties, above all, Unified Russia," quoted Putin as saying. It is "important and fundamental" to concentrate on the 7 December elections, the president added, because if the new Duma proves able to function, then he and the Duma "will be able to get a lot of work done together." But if the Duma "gets caught up in infighting and the deputies spend their time preening for the television cameras and speaking words that sound sweet but are of no use to voters, then the president will be tied down and unable to act," Putin warned. JB

Speaking at a campaign rally in Perm on 28 November, Unified Russia co-leader and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said he hopes "to live to see the day when we have one big country within the borders of the [former] Soviet Union," RosBalt, ORT, and other Russian media reported. Asked his opinion about proposals to merge Perm Oblast and neighboring Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug, Shoigu said the idea corresponds fully to Unified Russia's ideology. "United -- we are invincible," he said, according to ORT. "If we scatter into different corners, as happened with the Soviet Union, because of the groundless desires of politicians, we will be finished." on 29 November noted that CIS politicians are unlikely to welcome this postion. VY

In a rare interview published by on 28 November, former KGB Chairman Vladimir Kruchkov noted that the idea of restoring the Soviet Union has become fashionable. He said that he trusts President Putin, whom he describes as a "normal person" on whom one can rely. However, he said that Putin inherited the country from former President Boris Yeltsin in such a bad state that he wouldn't have time to solve even the most urgent problems even if he could serve three terms. Kryuchkov added that the restoration of the Soviet Union is the top priority. "If we do not reassemble the Soviet Union, we have no future at all," he said. VY

The Duma passed a number of bills during its final session on 28 November, including the final reading of the 2004 budget, Russian media reported. The budget, which passed by a vote of 245-151, sets expenditures at 2.66 trillion rubles (about $89.24 billion) and projects budget revenues to be 2.74 trillion rubles ($92.02 billion), RBK reported on 28 November. The roughly $2.8 billion budget surplus will go toward a new stabilization fund designed to cushion the economy against falling world oil prices. The Duma also passed a bill establishing the legal, financial, and organizational framework for insuring individual bank deposits. The bill stipulates compensating depositors for losses up to 100,000 rubles. reported on 28 November that the Duma's centrist majority managed to keep two controversial legislative initiatives off the final session's agenda: Liberal Russia leader Viktor Pokhmelkin's bill to end obligatory automobile insurance, and a call by Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc leaders Sergei Glazev and Dmitrii Rogozin to dismiss EES head Chubais. JB

Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov wrote to the Prosecutor-General's Office on 28 November asking it to look into an article published the previous day in "Novaya gazeta," No. 89, Russian media reported on 29 November. Citing "highly competent sources in the presidential administration and the Federal Protection Service," the newspaper wrote that the final results of the 7 December State Duma elections will be 40 percent-43 percent for Unified Russia, 12 percent-15 percent for the Communist Party, 7 percent-9 percent for the LDPR, 5.5 percent-7 percent for the SPS, 5 percent-6 percent for Yabloko, and 5 percent-6 percent for the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc. Veshynakov asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to determine the veracity of the "Novaya gazeta" claims in the "shortest possible period," reported on 28 November. If they turn out to be false, Veshnyakov said prosecutors should determine the newspaper's liability, given the "extreme danger of the influence on voters, especially on the eve of the elections, of false information knowingly aimed at forming a negative public opinion toward the elections and their results." JB

"Novaya gazeta" did not indicate how the Duma elections' results would be predetermined, but noted that its sources were from the presidential administration and Federal Protection Service, which are involved in "providing for the functioning" of GAS Vybory, the information system the TsIK uses to accumulate data from polling stations during national elections. The paper quoted the sources as saying that votes will be "pinched off" mainly from the Communist Party, whose real share of the vote would be 30 percent-35 percent, the SPS with 9 percent-12 percent, and Yabloko with 8 percent-12 percent. According to "Novaya gazeta," the proportion of the vote that a local election commission can "pinch off" will vary. Election commissions in Moscow and St. Petersburg can only add 2 percent-2.5 percent to the totals of favored candidates using various "manipulations," while commissions in Tatarstan, Bashkhortostan, and Chechnya can add up to 30 percent-40 percent to a candidate's tally. The average in the rest of Russia's regions is 12 percent, the paper claimed. JB

"Novaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Dmitrii Muratov told Interfax that the newspaper is ready to back up the claims made in the article "wholly and completely," reported on 28 November. The head of the paper's politics department, Orkhan Dzhemal, however, told Ekho Moskvy the article was satirical and used material frequently discussed in the press. He said the TsIK "acted as if it does not understand jokes" and has launched a "serious attack" against the paper, reported. Whatever the case, in an interview also published in "Novaya gazeta," No. 89, Foundation for Effective Politics head Gleb Pavlovskii explained how vote tallies can be manipulated. "For example, let's say certain districts produce unwelcome results. Those results can be declared invalid, citing some irregularities -- and it's entirely possible that the irregularities actually happened," he said. "But in districts that produce acceptable results, the very same kind of irregularities will be overlooked." Still, "most of the interference by electoral commissions in the election process" happens before the vote counting starts, Pavlovskii said. JB

Moscow Municipal Court judge Olga Kudeshkina on 30 November accused the Prosecutor-General's Office of pressuring Moscow Municipal Court judges in connection with a number of criminal cases, Ekho Moskvy reported. Kudeshkina, who is running for the State Duma, told voters that she was removed from the case of Pavel Zaitsev, the special police investigator who headed a high-profile corruption probe into the Grand and Tri Kita furniture stores and who was subsequently accused of conducting unauthorized searches and detaining suspects without cause. Kudeshkina claimed that Moscow Municipal Court Chairwoman Olga Yegorova repeatedly urged her to convict Zaitsev. On 3 November, the Moscow Municipal Court convicted him of abuse of office and gave him a two-year suspended sentence, "The Moscow Times" reported. Grand and Tri Kita allegedly dodged million of dollars in customs duties, and top officials from the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Interior Ministry, the State Customs Committee, and state arms exporter Rosvooruzhenie are rumored to have been involved in the scheme (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 16 July 2003). JB

An "RFE/RL Newsline" item on 25 November entitled "Results From New Poll Show Communists Well Behind Pro-Kremlin Party" incorrectly identified the company that conducted the survey. It was VTsIOM.

National Accord Party (AMK) Chairman Artashes Geghamian said on 26 November that he will demand that parliament set a date by February 2004 for a national referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Geghamian argued that "we don't see any other way" to bring about a leadership change. The parliament failed last month to vote down a proposal by the opposition Artarutiun bloc to include in its agenda a debate on amending the law on referendums to make such a plebiscite possible, but subsequently decided to postpone that debate indefinitely. The Constitutional Court suggested such a national vote of confidence in April when it rejected Artarutiun's demand that the February-March presidential election results be annulled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 22 April 2003). LF

The Armenian Justice Ministry reregistered former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party on 28 November in accordance with the law on political parties adopted in November 2002, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Some observers had anticipated that Hanrapetutiun might be denied reregistration because of Sargsian's fierce criticism of President Kocharian. Forty-three parties have now been reregistered of the 59 that applied, Noyan Tapan reported on 28 November. The diaspora-based Hnchakan Party, which was denied reregistration last month on the grounds that several tenets of its charter violate Armenian law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2003), will submit a second application, according to Armenpress on 28 November, as cited by Groong. LF

On a two-day visit to Yerevan, Imomali Rakhmonov met on 25-26 November with Armenian President Kocharian and with parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, Interfax and Noyan Tapan reported. At a joint press conference on 26 November, Kocharian stressed that while bilateral political ties are on a high level and the two countries do not have diverging views on any issues, trade and economic relations can and should be expanded, Interfax reported. To that end, an intergovernmental commission will be established. Kocharian assured Rakhmonov that Armenia will do all it can to assist Tajikistan in gaining membership of the World Trade Organization, according to ITAR-TASS on 25 November. LF

Five Azerbaijani parliament deputies representing the progressive wing of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) have written to Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov offering to stand bail for 107 political activists and journalists arrested in the wake of the unrest in Baku following the disputed 15 October presidential election, Turan reported on 27 November. AHCP Chairman Ali Kerimli, one of the five deputies, said the same day that the opposition does not reject "civilized dialogue" with the authorities, but that the latter must first establish "civil relations" with the opposition, Turan reported. On 28 November, opposition representatives established a committee to protect the rights of the detainees. Also on 28 November, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov said the authorities are searching for a further 17 people suspected of participating in the post-election clashes, Interfax reported. LF

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev met in Baku on 28 November with visiting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko to discuss ways to expand bilateral economic cooperation, Turan and Russian media reported. Aliyev expressed the hope that more Russian companies will invest in Azerbaijan. In talks with Azerbaijan State Oil Company head Natik Aliyev (no relation to the president), Khristenko proposed revising the 1996 agreement under which Azerbaijan pledged to export 5 million tons of oil via the Baku-Tikhoretsk-Novorossiisk pipeline beginning in 2002. Aliyev said increasing exports from the present 2.5 million tons annually would not be advantageous due to the high tariffs ($15.67 per metric ton) and the fact that high-quality Azerbaijani crude is degraded by being transported by the same pipeline that is used for inferior-quality Urals crude. Khristenko and Azerbajani First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov signed a memorandum on 28 November on cooperation in space. LF

Meeting late on 27 November after failing to raise a quorum for the morning session, parliament deputies approved the candidacy of former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, whom acting President Nino Burdjanadze proposed as minister of state, Caucasus Press reported. Zhvania resigned as parliament speaker in November 2001 and declared his opposition to then-President Eduard Shevardnadze. Deputies also approved the nomination of former parliament Defense and Security Commission Chairman Giorgi Baramidze as interior minister; of Tedo Djaparidze -- who served from 1999-2002 as ambassador to the United States and since February 2002 as National Security Council secretary -- as foreign minister; and of Zurab Nogaideli as finance minister. Nogaideli held that post from May 2000 until May 2002, when Shevardnadze sacked him after Georgia failed to meet budget targets for four consecutive months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 May 2002). LF

Parliament deputies confirmed on 30 November the appointment of Zurab Chiaberashvili, head of the NGO Fair Elections, as chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Caucasus Press reported. He replaces Nana Devdariani, who was one of several alternative candidates suggested by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to President Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August and 2 September 2003). Devdariani resigned under pressure on 28 November, together with five other CEC members, having incurred criticism for the CEC's imputed role in falsifying the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary election, allegedly at Shevardnadze's behest. Chiaberashvili, whose NGO was instrumental in registering and publicizing election violations, pledged that the 4 January presidential ballot will be absolutely fair, and said he is confident it will prove possible to revise and correct voter lists before that date, ITAR-TASS reported on 30 November. LF

Parliament deputies voted on 28 November to extend for five days, until 2 December, the deadline for candidates to register to contest the 4 January extraordinary presidential ballot, Caucasus Press reported. To date, 13 potential candidates have announced their intention to register, including National Movement leader Mikhail Saakashvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November 2003); former Imereti Governor Temur Shashiahsvili; former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze; lawyer Kartlos Gharibashvili; and Roin Liparteliani, who heads the David Aghmashenebeli Society. Gharibashvili and Liparteliani both ran in the 1995 and 2000 presidential ballots. LF

National Movement leader Saakashvili, who spearheaded the demonstrations in Tbilisi that culminated in President Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November, warned on 26 November and again on 28 November of the danger that members of the armed forces might try to stage a coup, Interfax reported. He expressed concern at the absence from Tbilisi of Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze, who failed to attend a National Security Council session on 28 November, and suggested Tevzadze might be in league with Giorgadze who, according to Saakashvili, might try to return to Tbilisi from either Armenia or Adjaria. Acting President Burdjanadze said on 28 November that she has information that "revanchist forces" are planning a counter-coup, Caucasus Press reported. Newly appointed Interior Minister Baramidze similarly warned on 29 November that armed groups that have no links to the armed forces might try to "destabilize the situation," Interfax reported. LF

Tevzadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 29 November that he has visited military units in Akhaltsikhe, Gori, Batumi, and Sachkhere, and that some army officers are unhappy with social conditions and with the change of leadership in Tbilisi, Caucasus Press reported. He stressed that he is working together with the new leadership, and that "the army is not an instrument to settle internal political scores," Reuters reported. LF

A spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union (KhDK), which was one of the parties that aligned in the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia (AS) election bloc, accused supporters of the new Georgian leadership of attacking the party's offices in unspecified Georgian towns, Caucasus Press reported. KhDK Chairman Vazha Lortkipanidze was quoted by the daily "Akhali taoba" on 26 November as saying that the ouster of Shevardnadze was anything but democratic and that a danger now exists of dictatorship. He said his party joined AS with the aim of neutralizing "odious forces" and promoting democratic constitutional change. LF

The daily "Tribuna" reported on 27 November that members of the student movement "Kmara!" staged reprisals over the previous three days against several journalists and media outlets, Caucasus Press reported. The victims included the Tbilisi office of Adjar Television, which has been closed down; National Television, and the pro-government daily "Sakartvelos Republika." The Kavkazia television channel has also been shut down. LF

Both chambers of parliament endorsed the draft budget for 2004 on 28 November, Interfax reported. The final version sets revenues at 872.2 billion tenges ($5.9 billion) and spending at 964.9 billion tenges. Both figures represent an increase of 13.7 billion tenges over the figures originally proposed. The resulting 92.7-billion-tenge deficit is equal to 1.9 percent of GDP, which in 2004 is predicted to be more than $32 billion, 7 percent more than in 2003. The budget is predicated on an exchange rate of 153.3 tenges to the U.S. dollar and export prices for Kazakh oil of $16.50 per barrel. LF

Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, meeting in Oslo on 28 November with Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, said that Kyrgyzstan is Norway's most important partner among Central Asian states, reported on 29 November. Bondevik added that the next stage of the partnership between the two countries is the further development of trade and economic relations. The leaders also discussed developing ecotourism in Kyrgyzstan, opening an air route between the two countries, possible Norwegian assistance to Kyrgyz women living in rural areas, and additional Norwegian funding for a controversial OSCE police-training project. They also discussed possible Norwegian investment in the Kyrgyz hydropower sector, particularly in the creation of a network of small power plants. The talks ended with the signing of joint statement on further cooperation. BB

The Kyrgyz Justice Ministry has reregistered the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) under the chairmanship of Bolot Tynaliev, despite a recent warning from the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation (IHT) that doing so would be illegal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 November 2003), "Obshchestvennyi reiting" reported on 29 November. The IHT and other international human rights groups have refused to recognize the August election of Tynaliev, who was not even a member of the KCHR at the time, to replace long-time KCHR head Ramazan Dyryldaev, one of Kyrgyzstan's most uncompromising human rights activists. BB

Imomali Rakhmonov met on 28 November in Dushanbe with visiting Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) First Deputy Chairman Colonel-General Vladimir Pronichev, who heads the Russian border service, to discuss cooperation in securing the Tajik-Afghan border and particularly in countering illegal drug trafficking from Afghanistan, Asia Plus-Blitz and Interfax reported. Pronichev also met with Tajik Border Protection Committee Chairman Abdurrakhmon Azimov to discuss the handover of responsibility for several border-crossing points on the Tajik-Afghan border from Russian to Tajik troops. Later, Pronichev told journalists that a working group has been set up to amend the agreement under which Russian border guards are present in Tajikistan, and he expects that control over Tajikistan's borders will gradually be handed over to Tajik guards. BB

The presidential publishing complex "Sharki ozod" refused on 27 November to print latest edition -- No. 17 -- of the independent Dushanbe weekly "Ruzi Nav," Asia Plus-Blitz and Deutsche Welle reported on 28 November. "Ruzi Nav" began appearing in August and has attracted considerable interest because of its coverage of alleged official corruption and illegal actions by the authorities. According to "Ruzi Nav" Editor in Chief Radjab Mirzo, no one at the publishing house could explain the reason for the refusal, beyond saying it was connected with an inspection of the publication by the tax authorities. Under Tajik law, only a court may stop publication of a periodical. BB

Reacting to a meeting of the Turkmen opposition-in-exile that was held in Vienna on 23-24 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November 2003), Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on 28 November called on former high-ranking officials now in exile to return home and face criminal charges, reported on 1 December. Niyazov, who was speaking to a meeting of heads of law enforcement agencies, specifically called on former Deputy Prime Minister Khudaiberdy Orazov, former Turkmen Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov, and former Deputy Minister of Agriculture Saparmurad Yklymov -- all of whom are now leaders of the opposition in exile -- to return, asserting they are false democrats who have sold out their homeland. Niyazov also criticized the countries that gave them asylum, saying they should return the "terrorists and criminals" to Turkmenistan. At the same meeting, Niyazov removed Security Minister Batyr Busakov, appointing in his place border guards chief Annageldy Gummanov. BB

The UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution sponsored by the European Union expressing serious concerns about continuing human rights violations in Turkmenistan, "Vremya novostei" reported on 27 November, noting that the Russian Federation was the only CIS country to vote for the resolution. The vote was reported as 72 countries in favor, 37 opposed, and 53 abstentions. Prior to the vote, Turkmenistan called on delegates not to support the resolution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 November 2003). In April, Russia voted against a similar resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission, but in the interim serious friction has developed between Russia and Turkmenistan over the treatment of Russian citizens in Turkmenistan. BB

The Russian Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee on 27 November held a hearing to assess the situation of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Turkmenistan since that country unilaterally revoked a 1993 Russian-Turkmen agreement on dual citizenship, ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti reported. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksei Fedotov told the parliamentarians that the situation in Turkmenistan has stabilized since the summer, but added that the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat is in a very difficult situation because the Turkmen Foreign Ministry has failed to respond to 200 diplomatic notes it has sent, many dealing with human rights problems. A number of Russian emigrants from Turkmenistan and human rights activists testified at the hearing about reported human rights violations. BB

Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Anatol Tsyutsyunou told the Chamber of Representatives on 28 November that talks the previous two days with Gazprom regarding gas supplies to Belarus in 2004 were "positive," Belapan reported. Tsyutsyunou was referring to meetings between Gazprom head Aleksei Miller, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and Belarusian acting Prime Minister Syarhey Sikorski, in Minsk. Tsyutsyunou said that while the sides have not agreed on the price, it will not exceed $50 for 1,000 cubic meters, which he said is acceptable to Minsk. He added that Gazprom has agreed to supply 20.5 billion cubic meters to Belarus -- which will fully satisfy the country's annual needs for natural gas -- provided the Belarusian government fully pays for all current deliveries. Earlier this year, Gazprom announced it would stop supplying gas to Belarus at a discount price because of Minsk's reluctance to form a joint venture to control Belarusian gas pipelines (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 16 and 23 September 2003). JM

The director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ambassador Christian Strohal, urged Belarusian authorities on 27 November to amend the country's Electoral Code before next year's parliamentary election, Belapan reported. "Measures to increase transparency and confidence in the voting are key. These regard early voting, composition of election commissions, the rights of observers, and the complaints and appeals process," Strohal told Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna. JM

The Verkhovna Rada voted 235-165 on 27 November to adopt a 2004 budget with projected revenues of 60.7 billion hryvnyas ($11.4 billion) and spending of 64.2 billion hryvnyas, representing a deficit of 1.2 percent of GDP, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Opposition deputies from Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc opposed the budget, saying it will severely hit the poorest segments of the population. Some 2,000 miners and 2,000 people supporting the opposition Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc protested the government's policies and demanded Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's resignation in two separate demonstrations in front of the parliamentary building the same day. Our Ukraine lawmaker Petro Poroshenko told journalists that his party will initiate a "revision" of the budget later this month. The same day, the Ukrainian parliament failed to pass a bill for the second time within a week on sending a peacekeeping contingent to Liberia, which President Leonid Kuchma has requested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 November 2003). JM

Polish Deputy Prime Minister Marek Pol and Ukrainian Depty Prime Minister Vitaliy Hayduk signed an agreement in Brussels on 28 November on linking the Polish and Ukrainian oil-transport systems by developing the Odesa-Brody-Plock pipeline for Caspian oil, Polish Radio reported. Caspian oil is to be pumped from Odesa to Brody and subsequently shipped by rail to Plock. The two sides are planning to build a Brody-Plock oil-pipeline link in the future. The document was also signed on behalf of the European Commission by Commissioner Loyola de Palacio. De Palacio commented that the accord will increase Poland's energy security. JM

Ukrainian National Bank head Serhiy Tyhypko said on 28 November that he is ready to run for the post of president in 2004 if "center parties" fail to agree on a single presidential candidate, Interfax reported. Tyhypko made his announcement at a Labor Ukraine party congress in Kyiv, at which he was re-elected party chairman. He said he opposes the idea of indirectly electing the country's president through parliament. JM

The 22nd session of the Baltic Assembly and the ninth session of the Baltic Council of Ministers (BCM) passed a joint communique in Vilnius on 28 November supporting future cooperation among Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania after they join the EU in May, BNS reported. It also included a statement on continuing work toward implementing joint projects in the transport, energy, and other fields in the Baltic Sea region while integrating into the EU's common market. Estonian Prime Minister Juhan Parts, Latvian Prime Minister Einars Repse, and Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas signed revised statutes for the BCM and set out a new mechanism for cooperation with the assembly to keep it in line with needs arising from EU and NATO membership. The assembly on 29 November passed five resolutions, including one insisting that the extraction of oil from the D-6 deposit should not begin before a risk evaluation and an environmental impact study are carried out, and a plan for dealing accidents is coordinated with Lithuania. The assembly also proposed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that it investigate and condemn crimes committed by totalitarian communist regimes. SG

Estonian Prime Minister and Res Publica party Chairman Parts announced after a meeting on 28 November with Reform Party and People's Union Chairmen Siim Kallas and Villu Reiljan that lasted more than three hours that a compromise preserving the current coalition has been achieved, BNS reported. The three chairmen signed an agreement according to which the personal income-tax rate next year will not be reduced to 24 percent but instead will remain at 26 percent, while the monthly tax-exempt income will rise from 1,000 kroons ($76.60) to 1,400 kroons. The income-tax rate should be lowered to 24 percent in 2005, followed by cuts to 22 percent in 2006 and 20 percent in 2007. The monthly tax-exempt income should increase to 1,700 kroons in 2005 and to 2,000 kroons in 2006. The money made available by postponing the tax cut reportedly will be channeled to children, families, education, culture, and the strengthening of local governments. Parts, Kallas, and Reiljan also agreed that a law on family benefits will be adopted in the current form next year, meaning that the maximum payment will be three times the average wage in 2002 -- or 15,700 kroons a month -- minus taxes. SG

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern told his Latvian counterpart Einars Repse in Riga on 27 November that, like other EU representatives, he regrets that a Latvian-Russian border treaty has not yet been signed, BNS reported. He expressed hope that the deal will be finalized in the first half of 2004, when Ireland holds the rotating EU Presidency. Ahern also noted that Ireland will not only oversee the completion of the current wave of EU expansion -- with 10 new members expected to join in May -- but also help prepare other potential EU candidates such as Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and Croatia. During talks the same day with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Ahern offered to share Ireland's experience in joining the EU so that Latvia might avoid some of the mistakes his country had made. The officials also agreed that Latvia's plans to open an embassy in Dublin next year should help improve bilateral relations. SG

Some 5,000 demonstrators gathered in Independence Square in Vilnius on 30 November and called on President Paksas to resign, "Kauno diena" reported on 1 December. The protest, organized by the liberation movement Sajudis, began with a march down Gediminas Prospect from the cathedral to the parliament building. The main speakers at the rally were former Sajudis and Conservatives Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, Liberal and Center Union Chairman and Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas, and Lithuanian Association of Political Prisoners and Exiles Chairman Povilas Jakucionis. The parliamentary ad hoc commission formed to investigate the potential threat to national security posed by presidential office staff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November 2003) was scheduled to present its conclusions on 1 December. Paksas told Reuters on 30 December, "My assessment is very simple. There is a struggle for power under way in Lithuania. I perfectly know the laws and the constitution. I have violated neither the laws, nor the Constitution, nor my oath. Therefore I am calm." SG

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visited Poland on 26-27 November, where he met with his Polish counterpart Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Polish media reported. Ivanov said Russia will try to ease visa regulations for Poles in order to foster cooperation in the humanitarian, scientific, and educational spheres. Cimoszewicz said there has been no "satisfactory" progress in bilateral talks concerning "difficult" historical problems, including the issue of compensation for Poles who were deported to the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period. Commenting on U.S. President George W. Bush's television speech the previous day signaling Washington's intent to relocate U.S. military bases in Europe, Ivanov said such a move should "respect Russia's security interests." Cimoszewicz said Poland has not received any proposals to host U.S. military bases on its territory. JM

The daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" on 28 November described recent vetoes of three key bills to reform public finances as a signal that President Vaclav Klaus has gone "on the offensive" against the center-left, tripartite government. The bills are part of a package of amendments the government has sought in a bid to curb the country's budget deficit and redistribute the fiscal burden. With the most recent veto on 27 November, Klaus last week rejected amendments on tightening welfare procedures and on health insurance, along with his previous veto of an amendment on reclassifying communications and legal and tax services into a higher value-added-tax (VAT) bracket. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said he is "firmly convinced that the government coalition will again support the vetoed legislation." His government has a one-vote majority in the 200-seat lower house, which may override a veto with an absolute majority. AH

Cabinet ministers on 26 November approved a proposal by Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda to recall Czech Ambassador to Kuwait Jana Hybaskova, who played a major role in the country's contribution to the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, local media reported the next day. President Klaus has suggested he will comply with the government request, which came the same day that an article appeared in "Mlada fronta Dnes" in which Hybaskova voiced strong criticism of the Czech decision to withdraw its military field hospital from Al-Basrah, in southern Iraq. That facility was officially closed on 20 November, according to the weekly "Respekt" on 1 December, with the government and parliament citing insufficient funds, a shortage of suitable personnel, and a worsening security situation. "We are giving up in the face of Ba'athist and extremist enemies, who have never attacked us directly, thanks to the laziness of military health care, the security fears of the military, and the lack of general political will to bring matters to their conclusion," Hybaskova, who was the first senior diplomat to enter Iraq following the U.S.-led intervention to topple Hussein, told "Mlada fronta Dnes." AH

The Czech Republic abolished its former command structure on 1 December in favor of a streamlined hierarchy that the country's top brass says will use money and personnel more effectively, CTK and other local media reported. The reforms include the establishment of the Allied-Forces Command and the Support and Training Command, and are part of a sweeping reorganization that should also fully professionalize the Czech military by 2005, CTK reported. AH

Eight members of the U.S. Helsinki Committee blasted a recent probe into allegations of forced sterilizations of Romany women in Slovakia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October 2003) and urged that country to improve its health-care system and bolster legal guarantees to reduce the likelihood of such abuses in the future, according to a 26 November letter cited on the U.S. government's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe website ( "We believe that there were significant deficiencies in the Slovak government's recently concluded investigation into this matter," wrote the signatories, who include committee Chairman Representative Christopher H. Smith (Republican, New Jersey) and co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Republican, Colorado). They alleged "conflicts of interest," threats against human rights activists and possible victims, a failure to determine the extent to which patients were informed, and a lack of access to possible victims' own medical records. "Against this backdrop, [Slovak] Deputy Prime Minister Pal Csaky's assertion that 'illegal sterilizations' have not taken place rings hollow, especially as a closer examination of [the Slovak] government's own reports confirms that some women, including minors, were in fact sterilized without consent." A Csaky spokesman "energetically denied" that the investigation was taken lightly by the Slovak authorities, CTK reported. AH

Slovak Deputy Prime Minister Csaky emerged from a 28 November meeting with OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Rolf Ekeus confident that the latter recognized the results of the recent government investigation that concluded there is no evidence that Romany women were subjected to forced sterilizations in Slovakia, CTK reported, citing Csaky's spokesman. "Commissioner Ekeus praised the Slovak government for its approach to the investigation and accepted the results of the investigation with satisfaction," the spokesman said. The Slovak side considers Ekeus's opinion a validation of its position on the matter, the spokesman added. Csaky has conceded that the country's laws on health care should be amended to avoid similar problems in the future, CTK reported. AH

A district court in western Slovakia remanded parliamentarian Gabriel Karlin to custody on 28 November on suspicion that he took a bribe during a meeting in the local office of his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party, CTK and other media reported. The Nitra court expressed concern that Karlin, 56, might attempt to influence witnesses in the case if allowed to go free, CTK reported. Karlin was carrying a briefcase that contained 500,000 crowns ($14,640) when he was arrested on 25 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November 2003). Legislators -- including from his HZDS party -- voted to lift his immunity from prosecution in an extraordinary session on 27 November. The exchange reportedly took place in the HZDS's regional office in Banska Bystrica, and initial reports suggested that the money might have been intended for the director of that office, Milan Mraz, who is also in custody. Karlin said he has "no idea how [the money] appeared in his briefcase," adding that he left it in his office to go to the toilet and knows nothing about any bribe, according to CTK. Some Slovak commentators have used the Karlin incident to justify plans for law enforcement to use "agents provocateurs" to combat bribery. AH

Rudolf Schuster on 29 November returned to legislators for further debate a draft law that would allow for the sale of majority stakes in natural monopolies -- including energy and gas utilities, CTK reported, citing a presidential spokesman. The bill would put excessive power over such sales in the hands of the government, Schuster spokesman Jan Fuele said. He added that the president objects to the idea of allowing foreign state-owned entities to purchase majority stakes in such companies, CTK reported. The bill was approved by parliament on 11 November. Schuster singled out for criticism the sale of a 49 percent stake in Slovak gas company Slovensky Plynarensky Priemysel (SPP) to Gaz de France and Ruhrgas, which he reportedly said was disadvantageous for the Slovak state. AH

The Monetary Council of the Hungarian National Bank (MNB) increased its base rate from 9.5 percent to 12.5 percent on 28 November, the same day that the national currency had weakened to 270 forints to the euro, Hungarian dailies and the central bank's website ( reported. After the MNB's move, which was supported by Finance Minister Csaba Laszlo, the forint strengthened to 263 to the euro. Governor Zsigmond Jarai told Hungarian radio on 29 November that the central bank took the decision to assure foreign investors that its 2005 inflation target of 4 percent will be met. The rise in Hungary's current-account deficit has caused uncertainty among foreign investors, Jarai explained. He did not rule out the bank reducing its base rate again within a few months. Hungarian Banking Association Chairman Rezso Nyers told the MTI news agency that banks were shocked by the "negative surprise," while the Financial Research Institute's Judit Nemenyi warned that overvaluing the forint would further increase the deficit, not reduce it. MSZ

Hungary's deputy ombudsman for human rights, Albert Takacs, on 27 November called on the Budapest Chamber of Lawyers to conduct an inquiry concerning lawyer Laszlo Grespik, who asked the judge in a recent trial whether she is Jewish, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Grespik, who gained a reputation as a xenophobic chief administrator of Budapest during the previous FIDESZ-led administration, was representing a young skinhead charged with incitement to hatred. Grespik told Hungarian radio that it was his duty as defense counsel to clarify whether the judge presiding in a case involving a neo-Nazi was truly impartial. Supreme Court President Zoltan Lomnici said on 28 November that any form of discrimination on the basis of race, denomination, or gender is unacceptable and he will do his best to protect members of the judiciary, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. In other news, "Magyar Nemzet" reported on 28 November that a bullet was fired through the window of the home of the judge who acquitted Calvinist pastor Lorant Hegedus Jr. of incitement against a community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 November 2003). MSZ

A NATO spokesman told reporters in Prishtina on 28 November that KFOR "knows that a specific threat has been made towards international organizations" in the province, which is governed primarily by the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) as a protectorate, Reuters reported. KFOR and UNMIK said in a joint statement that NATO-led troops have stepped up security measures and that the precautions will remain in effect until "the threat is assessed to have been reduced." Unnamed "diplomatic sources" told the news agency that the "specific threat" was directed against UNMIK. Among the precautions taken were checks of cars with foreign license plates. The statement referred to "terrible recent events, not just in southeastern Europe but elsewhere in the world." Several top Kosovar leaders recently told "RFE/RL Newsline" in Prishtina that an early resolution of the status question is essential for improving the security situation in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October and 14 November 2003). PM

Colonel Blagoja Markovski of the Macedonian government body coordinating the campaign to disarm the civilian population said in Skopje on 29 November that the government has no intention of extending the deadline for the no-questions-asked operation beyond 15 December, MIA news agency reported. Markovski said the government will consider the operation successful and justified if 5,000-6,000 of the estimated 110,000 illegally-held arms are handed in. He criticized what he called a lack of support for the campaign by the political parties and the religious communities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October and 3 and 12 November 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report, 29 August 2003). UB

The lower house of the Bosnian Serb parliament approved eight constitutional amendments on 29 November aimed at transferring formal control over the Republika Srpska's military to the Bosnian Presidency, dpa reported. The amendments are aimed at meeting NATO's criteria for accepting Bosnia as a member of the Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 26 September 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 September 2003). Critics charge that the changes are cosmetic and will not substantially alter the fact that Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian leaders retain effective control of what remain in practice three separate, ethnically based armies. Critics also note that each of the three members of the presidency may block any decision by that body. Supporters of the new legislation argue that it is a necessary first step toward establishing a truly unified military structure. PM

Outgoing NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said in Sarajevo on 27 November that the arrest of indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic "is not NATO's responsibility, but [that] of the local authorities who have been obliged to arrest the fugitives," dpa reported. "This area is not going to be stable until they face justice," Robertson added. Referring to Bosnia's aspirations to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program, Robertson said that "NATO wants this country to fulfill the conditions for the [program] so that they can then be part, a full part of the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. [NATO] takes Bosnia-Herzegovina seriously and expects Bosnia-Herzegovina's leadership to be serious about their ambitions for the future" by enacting long-planned reforms aimed at setting up a unified military command under clear civilian control. PM

On 28 November, Secretary-General Robertson said in Belgrade that Serbia and Montenegro must cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal if it intends to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Belgrade must also withdraw its lawsuit before the International Court of Justice, which is also in The Hague, as a precondition for membership. The lawsuit was filed by the government of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and maintained by his successors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 August 2003). PM

Former Serbian General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who has been indicted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal for his role in Milosevic's 1998-99 crackdown in Kosova, said in Belgrade on 28 November that the 28 December parliamentary elections will be an opportunity for citizens to express their views on the tribunal, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Pavkovic is co-chairman of a minor electoral coalition (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 November and "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 24 November 2003). PM

Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic said in Pozarevac on 28 November that he has rid Serbia of its mafias, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2009, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March, 9 May, and 8 August 2003). Mihajlovic added, however, that he regrets that he failed to convince his colleagues in the government, as well as ordinary citizens, of the seriousness of the threat posed by organized crime to Serbia's young democracy. PM

The Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church agrees that the best course for Serbia is to restore the constitutional monarchy abolished by the communists in 1945, Patriarch Pavle said in a letter to Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic on 29 November, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The British-born prince has said that he is willing to serve if asked. Some conservative politicians have called for the restoration of the monarchy, but the idea failed to capture popular imagination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May 2003). Recent public feuding by rival branches of the Karadjordjevic family has not helped the monarchist cause. PM

Leaders of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) and Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) agreed on 28 November that they are close to a formal coalition agreement, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 November 2003). HDZ Vice President Ivan Suker said he hopes that details of an agreement can be made public by midweek. In related news, Croatian President Stipe Mesic said in Novalja that the recent election campaign marked a step forward for Croatia toward democracy. He argued that the parties fought a campaign based on clear programs and did not concentrate on name-calling. PM

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 27 November named Social Democratic Party (PSD) Deputy Ovidiu Branzan as health minister and Interior and Administration Ministry Secretary of State Alexandru Farcas as European integration minister, Romanian media reported. Minister of Control Ionel Blanculescu and EU chief negotiator Vasile Puscas, respectively, controlled the two posts temporarily following the resignation of Mircea Beuran and Hildegard Puwak, accused of plagiarism and of mishandling EU funds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2003). On the same day, President Ion Iliescu swore Branzan and Farcas into office. ZsM

During a 29 November joint congress of the extraparliamentary Popular Action party and Popular Christian Party (PPC), the two groups merged under the name of Popular Action, Romanian media reported. The new party is to be managed by an executive bureau, with former President Emil Constantinescu maintaining his position as chairman and former PPC Chairman Vasile Lupu as first deputy chairman. According to a political program that Constantinescu presented, Popular Action rejects any alliances with the extremist Greater Romania Party and the ruling PSD, seen as "the political expression of the oligarchy with roots in the past." ZsM

Some 30,000 protesters gathered in downtown Chisinau on 30 November, calling for the resignation of Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and the government and demanding new parliamentary elections, Moldovan media reported. The protesters further urged Voronin not to sign the Russian plan for Moldova's federalization, calling on the OSCE to reject the plan and to force Russia remove its troops from the Transdniester region. Protesters waved NATO and EU flags. The recently established Committee for the Defense of Moldovan Independence and Constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 November 2003) accused Chisinau authorities of trying to block the rally. Police organized blockades in Chisinau and on the main roads to the city, stopping cars and busses for roadside inspections. State TV and radio stations gave no information on the rally. The television station also canceled a live program on 28 November with opposition and ruling-party politicians discussing the Russian plan for Moldova's federalization. ZsM

Speaking on Moldovan TV on 26 November, President Voronin called the opposition protests "immoral and criminal." Referring to the clash between police and protesters earlier the same day, Voronin said the police are determined to handle the situation "by legal means," and those not wanting to do so yet "will be helped." Meanwhile, the Moldovan Information and Security Service announced that the authorities are starting an investigation against opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Deputy Chairman Vlad Cubreacov, charged with participating in the burning of a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported on 30 November. The Moldovan Penal Code sets fines of up to $1,300 or six years in prison for profaning state symbols. Cubreacov denied the charges, arguing he was only near protesters who were burning the Russian flag and was not present at the burning of Putin's portrait. He also said he was surprised authorities investigated him instead of the police officers who he said beat him and other protesters during the previous few days. ZsM

Reacting to the protests in Chisinau, on 29 November Romanian President Iliescu said this is a "significant and crucial moment, as protesters defend the identity of this people, defend the statehood and European orientation of Moldova." He also said the public's reaction to current events is "as it should be." Speaking at a 30 November press conference in the Romanian city of Cluj, Prime Minister Nastase said the conflict is due to the fact that some Moldovans want closer relations with the CIS, while others want European integration, Antena 1 TV reported. Romanian Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Gheorghi Prisacaru said the same day that Romania will not intervene in Moldova's internal affairs, but it cannot be indifferent to the situation in Chisinau, as it is interested in Moldova's "European destiny," Mediafax reported. He added that destiny is conditioned by the functioning of democratic institutions, rule of law, respect for political pluralism and human rights, as well as the resolution of the Transdniester conflict. ZsM

A Sofia court sentenced all five defendants charged in the assassination of former Prime Minister Andrey Lukanov to life imprisonment on 29 November, the "Sofia Morning News" reported. The court found one of the two Ukrainian defendants -- Oleksander Rusov -- guilty of having fatally shot Lukanov outside his home in Sofia on 2 October 1996. Bulgarian businessman Angel Vasilev was found guilty of having masterminded the assassination, while the three other defendants were found guilty as accomplices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2001, 22 October 2002, and 10 March 2003). UB

In a declaration that was read in parliament on 28 November, the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) demanded that the energy chapter of the EU's acquis communautaire be reopened and that new negotiations over the future of the nuclear-power plant in Kozloduy be held, reported. The BSP argued that future EU member states Latvia and Slovakia are allowed to operate unsafe nuclear plants, while Bulgaria must shut down units of the Kozloduy plant that are regarded as safe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 September, and 6 and 19 November 2003). Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi countered that the reopening of the energy chapter would be damaging to Bulgaria's EU accession process. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, said in Naples on 29 November that it is impossible to renegotiate chapters of the acquis that have already been closed. UB

The 23 November ouster of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in a bloodless coup that has been dubbed the "Revolution of Roses" has implications for Central Asia that the region's leaders have only just begun to ponder. All five Central Asian presidents are now sure to step up their vigilance against real or imagined opponents. There might indeed be many disaffected individuals in Central Asia who were inspired by the show of people power in Georgia. But inspiration is not the same as empowerment, and the truth is that the lid is already screwed on so tightly almost everywhere in Central Asia that few oppositionists are in much of a position to take meaningful action.

Four of the Central Asia states will be moving into election cycles in the next couple of years. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will conduct parliamentary elections in 2004. In 2005, there will be a presidential election in Kyrgyzstan and parliamentary elections in Tajikistan. The upcoming ballots could become lightning rods for popular frustration and catalyze anger against local regimes.

Ironically, while would-be revolutionaries might take Georgia as their model, defenders of the status quo can turn to the example of Azerbaijan. Following the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election, also widely believed to have been falsified, security forces did not show the restraint of their Georgian counterparts, violently putting down protests.

Central Asia's presidents must have been unnerved when Shevardnadze, the consummate political survivor, was bested by unarmed crowds whose leader, 35-year-old former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, brandished nothing more intimidating than a red rose. However, amid the congratulations of the international community, they could not condemn it outright. Nor could they embrace it as the just deserts of an unpopular autocrat without virtually admitting that they should be next. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Turkmenistan maintained a stony silence, while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan mostly tried to ignore it.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were marginally bolder and more creative. Authorities there selectively interpreted the causes of Shevardnadze's downfall in self-serving ways, stressing weaknesses of his rule in the very areas where their own records are allegedly stronger. As a consequence, the reactions of Central Asian governments to the revolution presented a skewed picture of events in Georgia, while presenting a favorable image of themselves.

Kazakhstan reacted to the developments in Georgia with cautious approval. In a delicately worded statement released on 24 November by the presidential press office, President Nursultan Nazarbaev apportioned praise so equally between the ousters and ousted that it almost seemed the Georgian revolution was a cooperative enterprise. Nazarbaev expressed satisfaction with "the wise stance of the people of Georgia, which ensured the peaceful outcome of events." At the same time, it was "also due to the sense of civic responsibility of Eduard Shevardnadze, who saved Georgia from bloodshed and disorder." Truly to blame, Nazarbaev implied, were objective, impersonal factors somehow divorced from Shevardnadze's corrupt rule and his alleged rigging of elections, in particular "the country's difficult economic circumstances and a complicated internal political situation [that] led to the confrontation of various groups of the population."

This interpretation of events was quickly established as the party line and Nazarbaev's team. Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev told journalists on 25 November that the situation had resulted from "the difficult economic conditions and the confrontation among various political groups after the failure of the parliamentary elections," ITAR-TASS reported. Toqaev's gloss that confrontation occurred among "political groups" is a clever piece of spin: it downplays a popular uprising on the streets of Tbilisi as a bit of political infighting among party factions.

The particular advantage, from Kazakhstan's point of view, of attributing the coup in Tbilisi to economic woes and disunity among the population is that the regime in Astana scores relatively well on both counts.

In Kyrgyzstan, the economic situation is as bad, if not worse, than Georgia's. In contrast to the Kazakh approach, Kyrgyz official statements have been silent on the economic grounds for popular disaffection in Georgia. Instead, they have shifted attention to the fraudulent elections as the key factor -- and pledged energetic action to ensure that future elections in Kyrgyzstan are free and fair.

Addressing a session of the Public Council for Democratic Security, a recent creation of the executive aimed at safeguarding achievements in the area of democratization in Bishkek on 25 November, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev said he had appealed to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for assistance in upgrading Kyrgyzstan's electoral system before the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections, Kyrgyz radio reported on 25 November. The goal is "to hold them without transgressions, transparently and fairly." Akaev explicitly called upon the council to exert itself to prevent a Tbilisi scenario in Bishkek. "Having watched the situation in the post-Soviet space, in Azerbaijan and Georgia, I see what an important role the Council for Democratic Security can play here," Akaev said. "Why can't we hold elections as peacefully as in the countries of Central Europe? Nobody's fought with one another there, no rallies have been staged. I hope that we'll manage to achieve this."

In Uzbekistan, where stability and order practically amount to a state ideology, the government appeared at a loss to craft an adequate response to Shevardnadze's ouster. The only official commentary from Uzbekistan to date was offered to journalists on 24 November by President Islam Karimov. Describing the takeover of the Georgian parliament misleadingly as "violent actions," Karimov made no further reference to the Georgian opposition and focused exclusively on the role of Shevardnadze, who, in Karimov's version, was the real hero of the piece. "I think his actions were dictated by just one thing -- to preserve stability, to preserve peace, and to shield his people from any possible escalation that could have led to unforeseeable, serious consequences -- not only for the country, but for the region," Karimov said on Uzbek Television. "In this regard, he deserves great respect."

Karimov's characterization of Shevardnadze was strikingly similar to his oft-stated view of himself as a bulwark against chaos and disorder. Just like Nazarbaev's and Akaev's responses, Karimov's reaction said more about his own regime than about Shevardnadze's. Defending his refusal to speak much about Georgia, Karimov said on 24 November: "Events transpiring in every country, including Georgia, are that country's internal affairs. I consider any outside interference, any attempt to control or influence these processes to be invalid. Every country chooses its own model of development to serve its own interests and the interests of the people living in the country," Karimov said, rehearsing arguments he has used frequently to rebuff international criticisms of Uzbekistan.

The official response in Tajikistan was limited to a few remarks by President Imomali Rakhmonov. "Everything that is happening in Georgia is that country's internal affair, but one cannot help worrying," Rakhmonov told ITAR-TASS on 25 November. He added that Shevardnadze is "a courageous and far-sighted politician who did not want to spill blood."

Yet it is certain that the government was closely monitoring developments in Tbilisi. In 1992, similar rallies and calls to replace senior figures heralded the start of Tajikistan's five-year civil war. Moreover, Dushanbe is surely observing developments in Tbilisi with care because, of all the Central Asian countries, Tajikistan is probably the most susceptible to a popular outburst on Georgian lines. Kazakhstan's relative prosperity has taken the edge off popular despair. Uzbekistan's and Turkmenistan's leaderships have proven too ruthless, and their police too efficient, to allow oppositionists to organize. (Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has made no formal acknowledgement of the regime change in Georgia, nor have Turkmen media carried any news about it.) Kyrgyzstan already experienced a period of political destabilization after the shootings in Aksy Raion in 2002 -- which served to demonstrate that the Kyrgyz police, unlike their Georgian counterparts, are willing to fire on the citizenry to maintain the status quo. "It would be a bloodbath here," Reuters quoted a 25-year-old Kyrgyz entrepreneur as saying on 24 November. The Kyrgyz opposition flubbed their chances to seize their advantage while Akaev was off-balance in spring and summer 2002, and he now is stronger than ever.

Rakhmonov is no pushover, either. But in the words of Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda of Tajikistan's opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, quoted by RFE/RL on 24 November: "Currently, the hard life in Tajikistan, the concentration of power that has increased, especially during the last years, and people who wish to change the situation -- all these factors can pave the way for confrontation in the next Tajik elections."

A Turkish engineer who was kidnapped in late October by presumed neo-Taliban elements was released on 30 November, "The New York Times" reported on 1 December. Hasan Onal said his captors believed that he was an American and, "when they found out" that he was Turkish, treated him very well, Ankara Anatolia reported on 30 November. Militants with presumed ties to the former Taliban regime kidnapped Onal and his driver on a road in Ghazni Province and subsequently demanded the release of six formerly senior Taliban prisoners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 November 2003). Afghan authorities claimed that they obtained Onal's release without offering to release any neo-Taliban prisoners, according to "The New York Times." Mullah Rozi, a self-described Taliban and presumably among Onal's kidnappers, said his forces released Onal after two neo-Taliban members were released from a prison in Ghazni, the paper reported. AT

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad on 30 November rejected claims by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai that former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar offered prayers in a mosque in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on 1 December. Ahmad called Karzai's claims "nonsense" and advised Karzai to concentrate on solving the internal problems facing Afghanistan. Ahmad warned that Karzai "should be careful about leveling baseless charges against Pakistan," which he said might "create misunderstandings in the relations between" the neighboring countries, Reuters reported on 30 November. The war of words between Kabul and Islamabad has intensified in recent weeks, with Afghan authorities repeating their charges that Pakistan is aiding neo-Taliban elements or doing too little to stop their activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 November 2003). AT

Neo-Taliban sources claimed on 30 November that they captured Mizan District in Zabul Province after killing eight soldiers loyal to the Afghan Transitional Administration, the Islamabad-based daily "The News" reported on 1 December. Zabul Province has been the scene of several attacks blamed on neo-Taliban elements in recent months, and some of the province's districts have been controlled for short periods of time by such forces. AT

Two U.S. soldiers and one Afghan serviceman working with coalition forces were injured in Konar Province when they were fired upon by unidentified assailants, Radio Afghanistan reported on 30 November. On 7 November, U.S. and Afghan forces launched operation Mountain Resolve to clear antigovernment and anticoalition forces from areas of Konar Province and neighboring Nuristan Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2003). AT

The planned privatization of the state-owned transport company Kamaz has triggered protests by the Afghan Labor Unions' central council (AMKA), according to RFE/RL. AMKA leader Mohammad Qasem Ehsas said on 30 November that 660 workers have already been laid off this year and 600 more might soon follow at the company. "What will be the fate of those workers and their families?" Ehsas asked, adding that the privatization constitutes "grave disregard for workers' rights at a time when the country, including its economy, is [being] rebuilt." The AMKA's official newspaper, "Kar" (Labor), recently reported that the government's Enterprises Evaluation Commission has recommended selling the assets of Jangalak, which is one of Kabul's biggest industrial enterprises, to build high-rise buildings. The umbrella AMKA claims 30,000 members and unites labor unions across the economy and individual members, including blue-collar workers, engineers, and state employees such as teachers. JH

Iran has followed up on pledges to open its disputed nuclear program by reiterating that it will not definitively abandon uranium enrichment, part of the fuel-production cycle it says it needs for future power plants, AP reported on 29 November. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hasan Rohani, who headed talks on Iran's nuclear program with the British, French, and German foreign ministers in October, said the suspension is "voluntary and temporary," AP reported. "There has been and there will be no question of a permanent suspension or halt at all," he added. The United States and Israel suspect Iran aspires to make nuclear bombs and oppose the transfer of nuclear know-how to a state hostile to them both. But Rohani pledged to give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all the necessary information on its program by February, AFP reported on 29 November. Iranian officials have said that Iran's commitments are part of a diplomatic bargain whereby its transparent nuclear program will receive updated technology and know-how within the bounds of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). VS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Rohani has said that his country might punish states that backed U.S. efforts to report Iran to the UN Security Council on charges of violating the NPT, AP reported on 29 November. The IAEA board of governors on 26 November condemned two decades of Iranian secrecy in its nuclear activities but avoided an immediate referral to the Security Council, which may punish future NPT breaches with sanctions. The United States received support from allies Australia, Japan, and Canada for its tough stance, AP added, while European states sought more flexibility. "Iran will not treat countries that stood beside America and others equally," Rohani said. "In big economic projects, Iran will consider this." Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi was more conciliatory. "Certain countries did not act as we would have wished," ISNA cited him as saying on 30 November. "We hope they will make up for this in the near future, to create a suitable atmosphere." VS

President Mohammad Khatami has expressed hope that parliament, government, and the Guardians Council, which must approve legislation, will agree on the fate of two bills to end torture in Iran and define political crimes, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 30 November. Reformers have protested at the vagueness of political charges that have provoked the imprisonment of dissidents and mass closure of newspapers, while a UN resolution in late October condemned Iran for human rights abuses. Khatami told a team he founded last year to examine constitutional violations that he was pleased the judiciary chief has ordered an improvement in solitary-confinement conditions and the presence of attorneys at interrogations, the daily added. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardians Council, on 28 November dismissed recent human rights charges as hostile claims initiated by "agents" inside Iran, "Sharq" reported the next day. "We shall confront our enemies, answer them, and say, 'Mind your own business.' They will not relent, and will mention Middle East peace this time and then terrorism." VS

Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi arrived in Tehran on 30 November for talks with Iranian officials, the Mehr News Agency reported, citing an unnamed Foreign Ministry official. Chalabi, who heads the Iraqi National Congress and is considered close to U.S. officials, was reportedly to meet President Khatami; Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the head of the Expediency Council, a political arbitrating body; and Kamal Kharrazi, the foreign minister, added. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Asefi said on 30 November that the U.S. president's 28 November visit to Baghdad indicated the U.S. failure to ensure security in Iraq, IRNA reported. Foreign Minister Kharrazi in turn deplored "an increase in insecurity and instability in Iraq," his ministry reported on 30 November ( Kharrazi told Jordan's visiting foreign minister, Marwan Muashir, that Iraqis "are not prepared to accept foreign rule" and that the solution to Iraq's problems is "the transfer as fast as possible of Iraqi affairs to its noble people," according to the Foreign Ministry. VS

U.S. forces killed 46 people believed to be anticoalition militants after troops from Taskforce Ironhorse came under two simultaneous attacks on 30 November in the town of Samarra, located about 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, international media reported on 1 December, citing U.S. military officials. U.S. Colonel Frederick Rudesheim told reporters at a press conference broadcast on CNN on 1 December that two currency-exchange convoys accompanied by some 100 U.S. troops were attacked as they attempted to deliver new Iraqi currency to two banks inside the city. Earlier, Reuters reported that 18 Iraqis were wounded in the fighting and eight captured. Five U.S. soldiers and an unidentified civilian traveling with the U.S. troops were also wounded. Iraqi police reported that eight people were killed in the incident, including two elderly Iranian pilgrims, according to CNN. KR

Colonel Rudesheim told reporters on 1 December that there were an estimated 30-40 militants at each bank location, operating in small groups. He said militants had set up ambush points on roads leading into the city and had placed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the main road. Pre-positioned militants fired on the convoys from rooftops and alleyways. The militants were reportedly wearing dark clothing and concealed their faces with scarves, which U.S. military officials identified to be in the style of Fedayeen Saddam fighters. Rudesheim confirmed that four men in a BMW later attacked a third U.S. convoy in Samarra. U.S. soldiers responded to the gunfire, wounding all four of the vehicle's occupants. KR

Seven Spanish intelligence officers were killed when militants used rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to attack their convoy on 29 November, international media reported. One Spanish officer survived the incident, which occurred in the town of Al-Latifiyah, some 32 kilometers south of Baghdad. The anticoalition gunmen reportedly attacked the convoy from moving vehicles and from behind a concrete wall. The Spanish officers were forced off the road, and a 30-minute firefight ensued. Soon after the attack, approximately 100 Iraqis reportedly surrounded the vehicle, kicking the bodies of the dead soldiers and chanting pro-Hussein slogans. According to, Iraqis on the scene said they believed the dead intelligence officers to be CIA or Israeli intelligence agents. KR

When Iraqi police Lieutenant Khazim Razzak Aziz arrived at the scene of the Al-Latifiyah incident, the Iraqis appeared to be preparing to burn alive the eighth and only surviving Spanish officer, Knight-Ridder reported on 30 November. Aziz and five other police officers rescued the unidentified Spanish officer and delivered him to a U.S. military hospital. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said on 30 November that militants in Iraq will not deter Spain. "We will fulfill our commitments with loyalty and serenity," he said. KR

Two Japanese diplomats were killed on 29 November near the Iraqi town of Tikrit, approximately 150 kilometers north of Baghdad, international media reported. The men were killed when they stopped to buy food and drinks at a roadside stand, AP cited U.S. Lieutenant Colonel William MacDonald as saying. The diplomats were traveling without a military escort and were enroute to a reconstruction conference. Their Iraqi driver was also reportedly killed. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi told reporters on 30 November, "There will be no change in Japan's policy on Iraq reconstruction." A Japanese fact-finding mission returned from Iraq on 27 November, having determined that security conditions are good in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah, where Japanese Self-Defense Forces are likely to be stationed early next year. KR

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has reportedly threatened to mobilize Iraqis against the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi Media Network television (IMN) on the grounds that the station is airing programs the Shi'ite group views as indecent and immoral, Al-Jazeera Television reported on 26 November. "If you do not change your programs and submit to our will, we will mobilize the Iraqi street against you. We will resort to another method. We will mobilize the Iraqi street to defend Islam," the satellite news channel quoted SCIRI representative Sadr al-Din al-Qabanji as saying. Al-Jazeera also reported that SCIRI representatives have said they will issue fatwas against IMN if the station's programming is not changed. The report did not provide details about the purportedly offensive programs. KR