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Newsline - December 2, 2003


YUKOS, SIBNEFT MERGER APPEARS DEAD...
Shareholders of the embattled oil giant Yukos on 1 December rejected a recent proposal by Sibneft shareholders to renegotiate the merger agreement between the two companies and to transfer operational control of the proposed new company to managers nominated by Sibneft, "Finansovye izvestiya" and newsru.com reported on 1 December. Unidentified sources close to Yukos told "Finansovye izvestiya" that Sibneft last week proposed handing over control of YukosSibneft to Sibneft President Yevgenii Shvidler and naming former presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin chairman of the board. Under the proposal, no Yukos representatives would have been included in the YukosSibneft senior management, and that was why the offer was declined. According to press reports, Sibneft's unexpected proposal came in the wake of a reported meeting last week between President Vladimir Putin and Sibneft founder and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). Sibneft press spokesman Aleksei Firsov denied these reports, "Finansovye izvestiya" reported, saying that the merger was suspended for business reasons and has no connection with politics. VY

...AS MINISTER TRIES TO PUT ON A BRAVE FACE
Speaking to journalists during a visit to Kazakhstan on 29 November, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said that he sees "no tragedy in the suspension of the merger between Yukos and Sibneft," "Izvestiya" reported on 30 November. From the macroeconomic point of view, the development will be accepted positively by the markets, Gref said without elaborating. "Izvestiya," however, commented that the legal assault on the country's "most efficient company" will have serious macroeconomic consequences. "Every reasonable investor should now be driven by only one 'business consideration': if this happened to Yukos, it can happen to anyone," the daily concluded. VY

GOVERNMENT SAYS 'ACTIVE REPENTANCE' FROM TAX EVADERS INSUFFICIENT
The media gave little attention to a bill adopted by the Duma on 21 November that would amend the Criminal Code to revoke a provision that eliminated penalties for large-scale tax evasion if evaders agree to pay back taxes in full, TV-Tsentr reported on 29 November. Under the new amendment, some penalties for such evasion will be restored, even if the back taxes are paid. The bill was drafted by the presidential administration and supported by the pro-Kremlin centrist factions in the Duma. Under the old law -- known as "active repentance" -- tax evaders could avoid punishment after they were already caught, meaning that the government had to pay for costly tax-evasion investigations, TV-Tsentr commented. The station also said that government experts believe the old law stimulated corruption in the law enforcement organs by encouraging them to open arbitrary investigations in hopes of extorting possible tax evaders. An unidentified source in the Duma told TV-Tsentr that the new penalties will not apply to jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii and other Yukos managers and shareholders as the amendment contains no retroactive provisions. VY

RUSSIA, NATO TO EXPAND COOPERATION IN 2004
Speaking to journalists in Brussels on 1 December following a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Russia and NATO have agreed to conduct more than 100 joint military activities in 2004, 20 of which will be carried out in Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. Additional activities will be carried out on a bilateral basis with countries such as Germany, France, and Italy, Ivanov said. He added that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has invited Russia to conduct joint U.S.-Russian air and naval exercises in the North Atlantic next year. He said that Russia and NATO will work next year to develop new forms of antiterrorism training and to increase the exchange of intelligence in carrying out antiterrorism operations. "To this end, Russia and NATO are now drafting an agreement on the status of Russian servicemen on the territory of NATO member states and that of NATO troops in Russia," Ivanov said. VY

BUSH, PUTIN DISCUSS YUKOS, GEORGIA, IRAQ
Speaking by telephone with President Putin on 1 December, U.S. President George W. Bush expressed concern over the arrest of former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii and the situation surrounding the company, Western media reported. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that Putin assured Bush that he remains committed to the principle of the rule of law in Russia. The two presidents also discussed the situations in Iraq, Georgia, and the Transdniester region. Russian media reports failed to mention the discussion of Yukos, and instead focused on the talks about Iraq and Bush's gratitude to Moscow for helping to prevent bloodshed in Georgia. VY

RUSSIA, OSCE DISCUSS GEORGIA, TRANSDNIESTER...
Addressing a meeting of the OSCE Council of Foreign Ministers in Maastricht on 1 December, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov criticized Moldova's failure to endorse Moscow's plan to resolve the conflict over the status of the Transdniester region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003), RTR and ORT reported. Ivanov said that Chisinau blocked the Russian initiative because of pressure from countries and international organizations that he failed to identify. Ivanov also welcomed recent statements from acting Georgian President Nino Burdjanadze calling for a clean slate in Russian-Georgian relations. Speaking to journalists following a brief meeting with Burdjanadze on the sidelines of the OSCE meeting, Ivanov noted that Burdjanadze called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia. He said that Russia remains ready for a constructive dialogue with Tbilisi on the entire range of bilateral issues. VY

...AS DEFENSE MINISTER PROPOSES SUSPENDING TALKS ON CLOSURE OF BASES IN GEORGIA
Defense Minister Ivanov said in Brussels on 1 December that further talks with Georgia on the closure of Russia's two remaining military bases in that country are inadvisable at present given the current unstable political situation there, ITAR-TASS reported. Under an agreement reached during the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul, Russia closed its two bases at Vaziani and Gudauta and the two countries have held several rounds of talks about the remaining bases at Akhalkalaki and Batumi. Georgia wants the bases closed within three years, while Moscow has said that it cannot do so in less than 11 years without additional funding from international sources. VY/LF

CONTROVERSIAL WOULD-BE CANDIDATE VOWS TO APPEAL DISQUALIFICATION...
Former Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Factory head Anatoii Bykov said he will appeal to the Supreme Court a Krasnoyarsk Krai Court's 30 November decision to annul his registration as a candidate in the 7 December State Duma elections, Interfax reported on 1 December. Bykov was running as a Communist Party candidate in the Achinsk single-mandate district. His Unified Russia opponent, Alexander Klyukin, accused Bykov of violating application procedures and other election rules. The Krasnoyarsk court found, among other things, that Bykov's Russian passport is invalid. Bykov was sentenced in July to one year in prison for involvement in a 1996 murder, but was immediately amnestied (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 July 2003). JB

...AS DOES RUSSIA'S FIRST AND ONLY VICE PRESIDENT
The Supreme Court on 29 November annulled the registration of Aleksandr Rutskoi, former Russian vice president and ex-Kursk governor, as a candidate in a single-mandate district in Kursk Oblast, ITAR-TASS reported. The court found in favor of one of Rutskoi's rivals, Nikolai Ivanov, first secretary of the Kursk branch of the Communist Party. Ivanov had filed a complaint charging that Rutskoi provided erroneous information about his workplace when applying to register as a candidate. A Kurk Oblast court rejected Ivanov's complaint, which was backed by the oblast prosecutor's office, on 21 November. Rutskoi, who was disqualified from running for re-election as governor of Kursk Oblast in October 2000, said he will appeal the Supreme Court's decision to the Constitutional Court or, perhaps, to international bodies. JB

TWO NOTABLES BUMPED FROM DUMA RACE...
Two nationally known figures have been disqualified from the 7 December Duma contest, Russian media reported. On 28 November, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a complaint filed by the Russian Party of Pensioners-Party of Social Justice asking that former Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov be removed from the Communist Party's party list for allegedly concealing his job as a professor, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 29 November. Skuratov was also refused registration as a candidate for a Duma seat representing a single-mandate district in Buryatia. The Supreme Court also rejected an appeal by Nizhnii Novgorod businessman Andrei Klimentev, who was seeking the reversal of a Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast Court decision nullifying his registration as a candidate in a single-mandate district in Nizhnii Novgorod. Klimentev allegedly submitted signature lists that included forged signatures, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. Klimentev was elected Nizhnii Novgorod mayor in 1998, but was later jailed on corruption charges. He was removed from the Nizhnii Novgorod mayoral race in 2002. JB

...AND PETERSBURG COURT REJECTS BID TO DISQUALIFY DUMA SPEAKER
The St. Petersburg Municipal Court on 1 December rejected a suit filed by Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-leader and State Duma Deputy Speaker Irina Khakamada demanding that State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev be removed from the Duma race in a single-mandate district in St. Petersburg. Khakamada, who is running against Seleznev, accused him of buying voters and misusing his "administrative resources." "I constantly see television clips of Gennadii Seleznev standing in some sort of Petersburg factory...and the factory's managers are numb with servility," Khakamada told reporters, "Gazeta" reported on 2 December. "But if I go to that same factory, all the managers immediately hide, with cries of 'We're all outside of politics.'" Khakamada said she will probably not appeal the court's decision. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, rejected a complaint by the Rus party demanding that the SPS be thrown out of the elections. The party argued that letters recently sent to citizens under the signature of Unified Energy Systems (EES) head and SPS co-leader Anatolii Chubais's signature informing them of electricity-rate reductions violated election law. JB

FINAL POLLS SHOW UNIFIED RUSSIA STRONGER, YABLOKO WEAKER
The ban on publishing the results of opinion polls about the 7 December State Duma elections comes into effect on 2 December, Russian media reported on 1 December. A poll by the Agency for Regional and Political Research (ARPI) at the end of November found 32 percent of those surveyed ready to vote for Unified Russia -- up from 29 percent in the middle of November. The poll found 9 percent of those surveyed support the Communist Party, 7 percent the SPS, 5 percent the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), 4 percent Yabloko, 3 percent the Russian Party of Pensioners-Party of Social Justice bloc, and 2 percent each the Agrarian Party and the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc, Interfax reported on 1 December. The St. Petersburg-based Independent Analytical Center (NATs) predicted that Unified Russia will receive 39 percent of the vote, the Communist Party 18 percent, the LDPR 10.5 percent, Motherland-Patriotic Union 6 percent, the SPS 5 percent, and Yabloko 4.5 percent, Interfax reported. The Public Opinion Foundation is predicting that Yabloko will only win 2.5 percent of the vote, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 1 December. JB

SUPPORT FOR PUTIN'S POLICIES IS WEAK, BUT HE'S STILL POPULAR
A poll conducted at the end of November by VTsIOM-A found that 68 percent of respondents feel that President Putin has failed to keep the promise he made during his presidential campaign nearly four years ago to destroy the Chechen resistance, newsru.com reported on 2 December. Only 24 percent said Putin has been successful in this endeavor, while 8 percent said they are not sure. Likewise, 63 percent said they think Putin has failed to find a political solution to the Chechen conflict. Perhaps more surprisingly, 61 percent said they think he has not been successful in improving the economy or improving citizens' lives over the last year. Respondents were split over whether Putin has imposed order in the country, with 47 percent saying he has and 48 percent saying he has not. They also are uncertain whether he has protected democratic and political rights: 45 percent agreed and 43 percent said no. Still, 72 percent said Putin has strengthened Russia's position in the world, and 78 percent said they trust him. JB

PROSECUTORS READY TO CHARGE PETRPAVLOSVSK-KAMCHATKA MAYOR
Kamchatka Oblast prosecutors are set to charge Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii Mayor Yurii Golenishchev with negligence in connection with a breakdown in heating supplies in the city and the alleged misuse of budgetary funds, ITAR-TASS reported on 2 December. If he is found guilty, Golenishchev could be removed from office, fined, and jailed for up to three months. At the beginning of October, 11 schools and kindergartens were closed for lack of heating, and 200 apartment buildings were without heat, all because of breakdowns in the heating system. The problems were not fixed until the end of October. Golenishchev, who is currently in the hospital, denies he was responsible for the heating system's breakdown and said he will appeal a Kamchatka Oblast Court decision authorizing the filing of criminal charges against him to the Supreme Court. JB

SECURITY OFFICIAL DENIES CHECHEN INVOLVEMENT IN ISTANBUL BOMBINGS
Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev said on 1 December that there is no evidence to substantiate Turkish press reports that some of the perpetrators of the terrorists bombings in Istanbul late last month were Chechens, Interfax reported. Dudaev suggested that such reports are part of a deliberate effort to create a negative image of the Chechen people and to distract attention from the real perpetrators. He added that even though Chechnya has been subjected to "terrorism" on the part of "foreign mercenaries" from Turkey, Chechens do not equate the Turkish people with terrorists. LF

FORMER ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT DEPUTY ARRESTED
Police have detained Ruben Gevorgian, a member of the Yerkrapah union of war veterans who was elected to parliament in 1999, on charges of plotting to murder Gevorg Manukian, the nephew of wealthy businessman Samvel Aleksanian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 1 December. Manukian is currently on trial in connection with a shootout in November 2002 outside Gevorgian's home in western Yerevan in which one man was killed. In June 2003 three men, including one of Gevorgian's nephews, were shot dead in an ambush on the outskirts of Yeveran in what observers believe is an ongoing dispute between Gevorgian and Aleksanian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June 2003). LF

AZERBAIJANI DETAINEES LAUNCH HUNGER STRIKE
Some 40 Azerbaijanis detained for their alleged participation in the clashes in Baku on 15-16 October in the wake of the disputed 15 October presidential election began a hunger strike on 1 December in the Bailov pretrial-detention facility, Reuters and Turan reported. Relatives of some of the detainees have also joined the hunger strike. LF

AZERBAIJANI INTELLIGENTSIA OFFERS TO MEDIATE DIALOGUE BETWEEN AUTHORITIES, OPPOSITION
Amal, an organization that represents the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, released a statement on 1 December calling for a dialogue between the Azerbaijani authorities and the political parties Amal considers the "true" opposition, Turan reported. Those parties are Musavat, the progressive and conservative wings of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. Amal expressed readiness to mediate in such a dialogue. The organization also called on the Azerbaijani authorities to release the approximately 100 persons detained in connection with the post-election unrest, to end reprisals against opposition parties, and to implement all recommendations by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on promoting democratization. LF

ACTING GEORGIAN PRESIDENT SLAMS MOSCOW TALKS WITH REGIONAL LEADERS
Speaking on 1 December at Maastricht at an OSCE foreign ministers' meeting, Nino Burdjanadze said that the talks that began last week in Moscow between senior Russian officials and the leaders of Georgia's autonomous and breakaway republics fuel confrontation and undermine Georgia's territorial integrity, Reuters and Russian media reported. At the same time, she praised Russia's role in expediting the 23 November resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze and affirmed Georgia's readiness to begin a new phase of relations with Moscow. Burdjanadze and Georgian Foreign Minister Tedo Djaparidze met for 40 minutes on the sidelines of the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who dismissed Burdjanadze's concern over the Moscow talks as unfounded, Interfax reported. Burdjanadze also said on 1 December that the international community has pledged 5.3 million euros ($6.4 million) to help fund the extraordinary presidential election on 4 January and the parliamentary ballot, which she said will probably be held a month or two later, Reuters reported. LF

GEORGIAN STATE MINISTER WARNS AGAINST REVANCHIST FORCES
Zurab Zhvania told a press conference in Tbilisi on 1 December that the new Georgian leadership is ready to counter any actions by revanchist forces that "until recently controlled the Georgian economy," adding that there is no evidence linking those forces either with former President Shevardnadze or with Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. State Security Ministry spokesman Nika Laliashvili warned on 1 December that unnamed people in Georgia and abroad are planning to assassinate former and present politicians in order to create "chaos" in Georgia, ITAR-TASS reported. Echoing statements by Burdjanadze last week, Zhvania described the economic situation as "catastrophic," and said Georgia might appeal to the international community for food supplies for prisons and the armed forces, the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported. Zhvania also said the criminal charges against former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, who is wanted for his alleged participation in a 1995 car-bomb attack on Shevardnadze, will not be dropped, ITAR-TASS reported. Giorgadze is one of 13 potential candidates for the 4 January presidential election. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL WANTS IMPROVED RELATIONS WITH ARMENIA...
In an interview with Armenian Public Television on 30 November, National Movement leader Mikhail Saakashvili said that after the 4 January presidential election -- which he is confident of winning -- a new government will be formed comprising young ministers and representatives of Georgia's minorities, Caucasus Press reported. There are an estimated 400,000 Armenians in Georgia. Saakashvili pledged to improve relations with Armenia, which he termed Georgia's main strategic partner. Bilateral relations have been clouded by Georgia's refusal in September to repay a $20 million debt to Armenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 September 2003). Saakashvili said rail tariffs for Armenian goods transiting Georgia will be reduced. He blamed the current high tariffs on favors granted by former President Shevardnadze to the head of Georgian railways. LF

...ADVISES FORMER PRESIDENT TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY
Having said on 23 November that it is a matter of national honor that former President Shevardnadze be allowed to remain in Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2003), Saakashvili said on 2 December that Shevardnadze should leave the country until after the 4 January presidential ballot "because he irritates many people," according to Caucasus Press. LF

KAZAKH OPPOSITION MOVEMENT TO SET UP FULL-FLEDGED PARTY
Asylbek Kozhakhmetov, a leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, told a news conference on 1 December that the DVK political council has decided to transform the movement into a full-fledged political party, gazeta.kz and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kozhakhmetov heads the organizing group for the new party, which he said would be called the People's Party-Democratic Choice Of Kazakhstan. The party's platform will include replacing the current presidential system with a parliamentary one, expanding the number of members of parliament, election of half of the members of parliament according to party lists, and election rather then appointment of local-government organs. The party will also seek revision of the electoral system and the protection of media freedom. The DVK movement was formed in late 2001. It reportedly now has about 32,000 members throughout the country and has tried several times without success to register with the authorities. BB

HEARING ON KAZAKH MEDIA LAW WARNS OF POTENTIAL FOR STATE INTERFERENCE
A public hearing on the draft media law presently being debated in the Kazakh Parliament was held in Almaty on 1 December, at which local lawyers for international media foundations warned that the government version of the draft would give state authorities more opportunity to interfere in radio and television broadcasting than they have at present, Gazeta.kz reported. Iliodor Kalsin, a lawyer for the press-freedom NGO Adil Soz (Free Word), argued that the draft law would authorize certain agencies, rather than the courts, to revoke broadcasting licenses. Another lawyer warned that radio and television stations in small towns would be unable to meet the new law's requirements for broadcasting equipment and would have to close down. The hearing ended with the adoption of recommendations to be distributed to all members of parliament. BB

KAZAKH PRESIDENT SIGNS LAW ON OIL-EXPORT TAX
Nursultan Nazarbaev has signed a law amending tax legislation introducing an export tax on oil, Interfax reported on 1 December, quoting the presidential press service. The Kazakh Parliament adopted the law on 27 November. The sections concerning oil exports will come into force on 1 January 2004. From that date, the taxes are to be paid by all oil exporters except those working under production-sharing agreements and those whose contracts predate the new law. The tax rate will be based on the current market price of oil, up to 33 percent on a price of $40 or more per barrel. Previously oil exports were untaxed, to the annoyance of many parliamentarians who felt the country's oil wealth was almost being given away. BB

HIZB UT-TAHRIR DENIES INVOLVEMENT IN ALLEGED PLAN TO ATTACK AIR BASE IN KYRGYZSTAN
The banned radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir distributed a declaration in Kyrgyzstan on 1 December denying the party's involvement in an alleged planned terrorist act against the international antiterrorism coalition air base at Bishkek's Manas Airport, akipress.org reported the same day. The Kyrgyz National Security Service announced in early November that three persons from Talas Oblast had been arrested in the process of preparing the attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November 2003). One of the detainees allegedly asserted that Hizb ut-Tahrir planned the action. Some members of the Kyrgyz opposition later expressed doubts that an attack as described by the security agency had actually been planned. BB

EUROPE PLANS LARGE EXPENDITURES IN KYRGYZSTAN IN NEXT THREE YEARS
European agencies plan to spend more than 13 million euros ($15.5 million) in Kyrgyzstan's Batken Oblast, the poorest in the country, over the next three years and 900,000 euros in Issyk-Kul Oblast, KyrgyzInfo reported on 2 December. The funding is to be spent on the reduction of poverty and general development programs, with particular emphasis on training officials and the public how to monitor expenditures. Activists of local NGOs involved in development work have commented that European aid money would be better spent on social and economic development in rural areas, although the European Union has already committed 9 million euros to rural development and the World Bank is contributing $15 million, with an additional $15 million earmarked for grants to small towns. BB

TURKMEN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR
Saparmurat Niyazov held an uncharacteristically long meeting with Russian Ambassador to Turkmenistan Andrei Molochkov on 1 December to discuss a range of bilateral issues, with a particular focus on cooperation in the oil-and-gas industry, turkmenistan.ru and Interfax reported. The three-hour talks also dealt with ongoing efforts to define the legal status of the Caspian Sea. A 2 December report in "Vremya novostei" noted that the meeting came soon after a Russian State Duma hearing on 27 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 1 December 2003) censured Turkmenistan for its treatment of Russian citizens living in the country, and a Russian Foreign Ministry official said that communications between the embassy in Ashgabat and the Turkmen Foreign Ministry have been difficult (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). Molochkov later said that his talks with Niyazov were constructive. BB

MISSING BELARUSIAN JOURNALIST DECLARED DEAD
Dzmitry Zavadski, a Belarusian cameraman working for Russia's ORT television network who went missing in July 2000, has been officially declared dead by a district court in Minsk as a result of proceedings initiated by his wife, Svyatlana Zavadskaya, involving property rights, Belapan reported on 1 December. Two kidnappers of Zavadski -- Valery Ihnatovich and Maksim Malik, former members of the Belarusian Interior Ministry's elite police unite -- were sentenced to life in prison in 2002. The official probe into Zavadski's disappearance was suspended in January, but his body has never been found. "I will continue attempts at establishing the truth," Zavadskaya told the agency. In particular, following Russia's 7 December State Duma elections, she intends to petition the Russian legislature to initiate an investigation in that country into the disappearance. The kidnappers were said to have traveled to Russia on the day of the abduction. JM

UKRAINE OPENS BORDER POST ON TUZLA
State Border Service head Mykola Lytvyn and Transport Minister Heorhiy Kyrpa took part in an official ceremony on 2 December to mark the opening of a border post on Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait, Interfax reported. The recent construction of a Russian dam in the area of the island has sparked a Russian-Ukrainian dispute over the island's ownership and the delimitation of the border in the Kerch Strait and Azov Sea (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 29 October 2003). The border post facilities on Tuzla, which were constructed within a month, will accommodate 50 border guards. "This is a very important step in terms of the protection of Ukraine's territorial integrity and inviolability of its borders. The construction of the border post within such a short period testified to the capabilities of our state to rapidly react to challenges of the times," Our Ukraine lawmaker Ihor Ostash, head of the ad hoc parliamentary commission for the Tuzla issue, said in a message to the border guards on Tuzla. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhnyi said on 2 December that Moscow has prepared a draft accord on the status of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait and will soon pass it on to Kyiv for consideration. JM

ESTONIA PROMISES CONTRIBUTION TO NATO RAPID-REACTION FORCE
Defense Minister Margus Hanson told a two-day meeting of defense ministers from NATO member and candidate states in Brussels on 1 December that Estonia is carefully watching developments within the fledgling NATO Response Force in order to make the right choices at the right moment, BNS reported. He reaffirmed his country's commitment to prepare troops for that rapid-reaction force by the fall 2006 deadline. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson stressed the importance of member countries making bigger contributions to the NATO stabilization forces. Participating ministers expressed hope that the new NATO command structure, which should be ready to function by the summer of 2006, will strengthen trans-Atlantic links, economize, and ensure that operations are carried out faster and more effectively. SG

IN AUSTRIA, LATVIAN PRIME MINISTER DISCUSSES RUSSIAN RELATIONS
Latvian Prime Minister Einars Repse held talks with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel in Vienna on 1 December during which he stressed Latvia's desire that the EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia would apply to all new members from the moment they officially join the union, BNS reported. They discussed the failure thus far to ratify the Latvian-Russian border treaty, with Schuessel indicating his understanding of Latvia's position on the matter. The two also talked about the EU Intergovernmental Conference, noting there is a chance its work might be completed before the end of the year. Repse also thanked Schuessel for the support Austria gave Latvia in joining the EU and invited him for a visit to Latvia in the spring, which Schuessel accepted. SG

LITHUANIAN COMMISSION CONCLUDES THAT PRESIDENT'S VULNERABILITY THREATENS SECURITY...
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) affirmed by a 7-1 vote with one abstention on 1 December that President Rolandas Paksas "was, and still is, vulnerable. Taking into account the special status of the president, his responsibility and role in domestic and foreign policy, this poses a threat to Lithuania's national security," "Kauno diena" reported the next day. The commission issued a 10-page report with six conclusions, the first being that the Russian public relations firm Almax, "suspected of having links with Russian secret services, has been and still is influencing the President's Office, seeking to influence and control political processes in Lithuania." Other conclusions mentioned the influence of entrepreneur Yurii Borisov on the president, as well as members of the president's staff with dubious reputations and links to criminal groups. Along with his advisers, the parliamentary ad hoc commission also charged Paksas with leaking confidential information to people who were under investigation. SG

...LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT URGED TO RESIGN
Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas said on 1 December that the findings of the ad hoc commission are clear cut, strict, and unfavorable with regard to the president and the findings furnish sufficient grounds for impeachment, ELTA reported. He urged Paksas to resign immediately and spare the country a long period of uncertainty. Later, Prime Minister and Social Democratic Party Chairman Algirdas Brazauskas said that if he were president, he would resign. Paksas told a meeting with voters in the southern city of Alytus that evening that he had not yet had time to study the commission's report, but vowed that he will not resign. As the Homeland Union, Center and Liberal Union, and New Union (Social Liberals) have expressed their support for impeachment, it will not be difficult to collect the necessary 34 deputies' signatures to begin the process. It is less certain, however, that the required 85 of 137 deputies would vote for impeachment. SG

IN WARSAW, FRENCH PREMIER SAYS CONSENSUS ON EU CONSTITUTION IS POSSIBLE
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visited Warsaw on 1 December, where he met with his Polish counterpart Leszek Miller, President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, and Sejm speaker Marek Borowski, Polish media reported. Raffarin said France is interested in a compromise that would allow all 25 member and future member countries to ratify the EU constitution. "France thinks it is necessary to adhere to the text of [the draft constitution prepared by the European] Convention as closely as possible but that this text can be amended by consensus," Raffarin noted. "We don't want a Europe which could give a minor role to some of its members. Poland is a big country and has a significant place in the EU-25 project." JM

POLISH POLICE ARREST RAILWAY OFFICIALS ON CHARGES OF EU-FUND THEFT
Prosecutors from the Polish Interior Ministry's Central Bureau of Investigation have arrested 32 people, including senior officials of Polish State Railways (PKP), who are suspected of embezzling millions of euros from EU aid funds earmarked for upgrading the rail infrastructure in the country, Reuters reported on 1 December. Police suspect that some firms that won contracts for the modernization of a major east-west railway line took payments for fictitious work certified by PKP supervisors and government inspectors. JM

CZECH EXPERTS MAKE RECOMMENDATION ON SUPERSONIC-JETS PURCHASE
The nine-member commission set up to advise the Czech government on one of the largest defense procurements in its history has recommended that the country buy 14 new Gripen fighters from Sweden, local dailies reported on 2 December. Premier Vladimir Spidla said he is "certain that the [commission's selection] process has been technically and organizationally nearly perfect," but he noted that the government has a free hand in making the final decision, according to the daily "Pravo." Spidla said a decision will be made by 31 December. Interior Minister Stanislav Gross also said the government might be justified in disregarding the commission's "tactical-economic" recommendation in light of geopolitical concerns, according to "Pravo." AH

CZECH REPUBLIC OFFERS 150 SOLDIERS TO NATO'S AFGHAN EFFORT...
The Czech Republic heeded a request by outgoing NATO Secretary-General Robertson and offered on 1 December to send 150 people to join U.S.- and NATO-led efforts in Afghanistan, Czech dailies reported. Some of those troops would assist the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in operating Kabul's airport, while others would join Operation Enduring Freedom, aimed at combating neo-Taliban forces in the country, according to "Pravo." Senior politicians from the opposition Civic Democratic Party and Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia demanded immediately that the government disclose how it expects to finance such an operation. AH

...AS NEW, CZECH-BASED NATO BATTALION IS GIVEN A GREEN LIGHT
Officials from NATO member and invitee states marked the creation of a Czech-based Multinational Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Defense Battalion by granting the force its "Initial Operation Capability" in Brussels on 1 December, the official NATO website (http://www.nato.int) and Czech media reported. A formal launch ceremony is planned for 3 December in Liberec in northern Bohemia, where the unit will be based. "The CBRN battalion is a new capability designed to respond and defend against the use of weapons of mass destruction both inside and beyond NATO's area of responsibility," NATO announced. "As such it is a significant part of NATO's transformation to respond to the new security challenges of the 21st century." There are currently 13 countries participating in the formation of the battalion, which should achieve full operability by 1 July. The Czech Republic is the "first lead nation" of the battalion, with direct command to be rotated and overall command falling under the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). AH

POSTWAR TRANSFEREES DEMAND COMPENSATION FROM SLOVAK GOVERNMENT
Slovak Hungarians who were deported or forced to work in Czech lands after World War II have requested compensation from the Slovak government, Hungarian news agency MTI reported on 1 December, according to CTK. The agency quoted the head of an unspecified association of Hungarian deportees, Miklos Krivanszky, as saying his group "expect[s] the Slovak government to compensate the Hungarians who were deported or sent as forced labor to the Czech lands in 1945-48 and their heirs in the same way as the deportees under the wartime Slovak state in 1939-45." Krivakszky said his group comprises some 1,000 members, adding that efforts to elicit a response from Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda have proven unsuccessful. They will now embark on a letter-writing campaign to Dzurinda, he said. His group reportedly claims that some 12,000 ethnic Hungarian families, or roughly 50,000 people, were deported from the Slovak portion of Czechoslovakia following the war. Many such ethnic Hungarians were transferred from Slovakia for forced labor in western Czechoslovakia after their expulsion from the country was rejected by the Allied powers at Potsdam, CTK reported. AH

HUNGARIAN OPPOSITION POLITICIAN RESIGNS AS DEPUTY HOUSE SPEAKER
Opposition FIDESZ deputy Jozsef Szajer resigned on 1 December as deputy speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, saying that he has much work ahead of him as a top FIDESZ candidate for the European Parliament, Hungarian television reported. Szajer's resignation will be effective on 1 February, and the FIDESZ parliamentary group has nominated Tamas Deutsch, the chairman of the party's Budapest branch, to replace him. MSZ

HUNGARIAN DEMOCRATIC FORUM DEMANDS WITHDRAWAL OF HUNGARIAN CONTINGENT FROM IRAQ
Opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) deputy Gyorgy Gemesi said on 1 December that his party demands that the cabinet pull Hungarian soldiers out of Iraq, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Gemesi said the Hungarian military contingent is taking part in a war "fought for foreign interests" and for vague reasons. He said the situation in Iraq is much worse now than when parliament approved the deployment of the soldiers last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 June 2003). Gemesi said Hungary could become a target of terrorist attacks if it maintains its commitment to the war. Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz responded that even those countries that have suffered casualties have not withdrawn their troops from Iraq. Istvan Simicsko of the opposition FIDESZ party, who is also deputy chairman of parliament's Defense Committee, did not support the MDF proposal. MSZ

HUNGARIAN OPPOSITION LEADER DISTANCES HIMSELF FROM CONTROVERSIAL LAWYER'S ACTIONS
FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban told reporters on 1 December that lawyer Laszlo Grespik's recent questioning of a judge as to whether she is Jewish (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003) is unacceptable to his party, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. Orban said FIDESZ considers it inappropriate for people to be categorized in public life according to their ethnic origin or political affiliation. Peter Gusztos, leader of Free Democrats' youth organization, New Generation, last week urged Orban to comment on Grespik's remarks. Gusztos said Grespik became an important public figure during Orban's premiership, when he was appointed leader of the Budapest Public Administrative Office. The Budapest Chamber of Lawyers has decided to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Grespik, on suspicion of incitement against a community. MSZ

NATO TO REDUCE PRESENCE IN BOSNIA...
NATO defense ministers decided in Brussels on 1 December to cut the number of alliance troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 12,000 to 7,000 by an unspecified date, Reuters reported. It is not clear if or when the EU will launch its planned operation to replace NATO there, or if the United States will maintain a long-term presence in Bosnia, as many Bosnian officials have requested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September 2003). U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Brussels that "the NATO forces and Bosnia and Kosovo had an understanding that we would go in together and out together," RFE/RL reported. "What will take place after NATO's formal role ends [in Bosnia] is open for discussion and would be something that obviously would be a result of consultations with Bosnia and among the NATO countries," he added. Rumsfeld stressed, "our forces are 1.4 million active and some 700,000-plus reserves, and it seems to me that we certainly have the ability to do what we are doing, as well as to continue to participate in an orderly way with the drawn-down in Bosnia." PM

...AS BOSNIA MOVES TOWARD UNIFIED DEFENSE SYSTEM
The Bosnian parliament passed legislation on 1 December aimed at setting up a unified military structure for the entire country, thereby fulfilling an important precondition for joining NATO's Partnership for Peace program, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). High Representative Paddy Ashdown said in a statement that the legislation "made history." Critics charge the changes are largely formal in nature and that separate Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian military structures will continue to exist in practice. PM

MACEDONIAN CENSUS RESULTS ANNOUNCED
On 1 December, the Macedonian state Statistics Agency announced the results of the internationally monitored census that was carried out in October and November 2002, Macedonian media reported. According to the agency, the country's overall population stood at 2,022,547, 64.18 percent of which were ethnic Macedonians, 25.17 percent ethnic Albanians, 3.85 percent ethnic Turks, 2.66 percent Roma, 1.78 percent Serbs, 0.84 percent Bosnian Muslims, 0.48 percent Vlachs, and 1.04 other ethnic groups. The census results were eagerly awaited, especially by the Albanian minority. Under the Ohrid peace accord, which ended the 2001 interethnic conflict, greater rights are granted to those ethnic minorities that make up more than 20 percent of the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 September 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 April 2001 and 11 April 2003). UB

UN ADMINISTRATOR CALLS ON SERBS TO APOLOGIZE TO KOSOVARS
Harri Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), told a conference on tolerance and reconciliation in Belgrade on 1 December that Serbs should accept that Kosova has become an international protectorate, dpa reported. He added that Serbian politicians should stop trying to use Kosova as a "nationalist card" in politics. Holkeri said "last month, Belgrade leaders apologized to the people in Bosnia for all tragedies that they went through. A similar mutual assuming of responsibility for what has happened in Kosovo would greatly reduce tensions in Serbia and Kosovo." Holkeri noted that the continuing problems faced by Serbs and other minorities constitute "the greatest failure in efforts of the international community to make Kosovo a place where all citizens live safely and with dignity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October and 14 November 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 August and 17 October 2003). PM

INDICTED WAR CRIMINALS TO HEAD THREE SERBIAN ELECTORAL SLATES
An unnamed official of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) told Reuters in Belgrade on 1 December that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will most likely head the SPS list of candidates in the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections. The Serbian Radical Party has already decided that Vojislav Seselj will top its slate. Former General Nebojsa Pavkovic will head the list of a small coalition. The Hague-based war crimes tribunal has indicted Milosevic, Seselj, and Pavkovic, and Milosevic and Seselj are already in The Hague. Spokesmen for all three slates have said the election is an opportunity for Serbs to show what they think of the tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 May and 3 October 2003). PM

SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER BLAMES WEST FOR GROWTH OF NATIONALISM
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic told the "Berliner Zeitung" of 1 December that Western countries are partly responsible for the resurgence of Serbian nationalism because of what he called their tough stand on Serbian admission to the EU and NATO's Partnership for Peace program, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 June and 8 August 2003). PM

SERBIAN CROWN PRINCE CALLS FOR ROYAL RESTORATION
Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic said in Belgrade on 1 December that time has come to restore the Serbian constitutional monarchy, international and regional media reported. His statement comes shortly after the Serbian Orthodox Church called for a royal restoration. The British-born prince said previously that he is willing to serve as king if asked, but this is the first time that he has publicly called for a restoration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). Some conservative politicians have endorsed a return to monarchy, but the idea has yet to win widespread popular support. A recent poll puts support for the monarchy at 15 percent, "Vesti" reported. Meanwhile in Podgorica, Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic said it will not be possible to continue a joint state of Serbia and Montenegro if Serbia becomes a monarchy, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

COALITION TALKS IN CROATIA: A SNAG OR A DEAD END?
The Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) pulled out of talks with the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) on 1 December, citing allegedly "considerable differences" between the parties' respective economic policies, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 November, and 1 December 2003). Party leader Zlatko Tomcic said, however, that the HSS is willing to support a minority HDZ government in the parliament. It is not clear whether the HSS has definitively ended negotiations or is using a tactical ploy to extract better terms from the HDZ. PM

SLOVENIA OPENS FIRST SCHENGEN-QUALITY BORDER CROSSING
On 1 December, Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop opened his country's first border-crossing station that meets the EU's Schengen requirements, dpa reported. Slovenia and the EU built the Obrezje crossing jointly at a cost of more than $35 million. Five additional border stations will be built on the Slovenia-Croatian border by 2006. Obrezje will be the EU's largest border crossing with Southeastern Europe (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 29 August 2003). PM

ROMANIA CELEBRATES NATIONAL DAY
Romanians all over the country on 1 December celebrated 85 years since Romania's unification, Romanian media reported. Official celebrations took place in the Transylvanian city of Alba Iulia and in Bucharest, and included military parades. Speaking in Alba Iulia, President Ion Iliescu called on all political forces and all citizens to remember the lessons of the 1918 unification and work together toward democracy, the rule of law, and the country's national interests. Most major opposition-party leaders did not participate in the Alba Iulia celebrations. Reports noted tight security measures around the celebration site in the city. ZsM

PEASANT PARTY APPROVES STRATEGY FOR LOCAL ELECTIONS
The board of the extraparliamentary National Peasant Party-Christian Democratic (PNTCD) on 30 November approved the party's strategy for the local elections due next spring providing for gaining 10 percent of local council seats, Mediafax reported. The strategy excludes any cooperation with the extremist Greater Romania Party and sees no possibility "for now" of cooperating with the National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance, accused of continuously pressing for attracting PNTCD leaders to their side. The board also approved Constantin Ticu Dumitrescu as PNTCD first deputy chairman, and elected Gheorghe Ciuhandu as the board's chairman. ZsM

GAGAUZ-YERI HOLDS SECOND ROUND OF PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Nineteen more members of the Gagauz-Yeri Popular Assembly were elected on 30 November in the runoff to the 16 November elections, Infotag reported. Thirty-three of the 35 members of the assembly have thus been elected. Two constituencies will hold the runoff on 13 December. The Party of Moldovan Communists won 16 seats, the Socialist Party one, and 16 are independent. ZsM

BULGARIA TO JOIN NATO EARLIER?
Speaking on the sidelines of an OSCE ministerial meeting in Maastricht on 1 December, Dutch Foreign Minister and NATO Secretary-General-designate Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it is possible that Bulgaria could join NATO before the upcoming Istanbul summit in June, bnn reported. Scheffer cautioned, however, that the decision will be taken by all NATO members. "It would be good if we become a full NATO member by April, so that we are better prepared for the Istanbul summit, where we could participate in the decision-making process," mediapool.bg quoted Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi as saying. UB

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT WARNS GOVERNMENT OVER JUDICIARY
President Georgi Parvanov on 1 December warned against limiting judicial authority over the administration, as judicial control guarantees the rule of law in the state administration and defends citizens' rights and interests, mediapool.bg reported. Parvanov, who spoke on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the formation of the Supreme Administrative Court, did not specify who is trying to restrict the judicial control, but observers say he was alluding to recent changes in the Privatization Act enacted by the government. Under the amended act, privatization deals may be exempted from judicial control under the pretext that these deals were of importance to national security. The Constitutional Court later ruled these amendments unconstitutional (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 14 March and 1 and 18 April 2003). UB

COULD GEORGIA'S 'VELVET REVOLUTION' BE REPEATED IN UKRAINE?


What is the likelihood that Georgia's "velvet revolution," precipitated by popular outrage at the falsification of the 2 November parliamentary elections, might be repeated in Ukraine? Could analogous events occur in Kyiv if an attempt is made to predetermine the outcome of the presidential ballot scheduled for October 2004?

Ousted Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma became national leaders in the same era (1992-94), and each claimed to have saved his country from "nationalists." Each has also claimed that his removal from power would lead to instability.

Kuchma has successfully used his centrist, oligarchic power base to pit the Communists against the national democrats, alternately siding with one against the other. Kuchma and the centrists have thus positioned themselves as a buffer between the more Russian-speaking eastern part of the country and the Ukrainian-speaking west, claiming that only they are able to prevent a conflict between the two and thereby avoid Ukraine's disintegration.

Georgia and Ukraine have both assiduously courted U.S. and NATO external support vis-a-vis a perceived Russian threat. They were also founding members of the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) regional group, created in 1997, that represented an effort by its members to distance themselves from Russian integration projects under the aegis of the CIS. But Shevardnadze's pro-Western orientation did not deter Washington from tacitly supporting his ouster by a younger generation of leaders untainted by corruption.

There is, however, more that differentiates Georgia from Ukraine. Shevardnadze is arguably more akin to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk than to Kuchma. Like Shevardnadze, Kravchuk was also forced to resign before his term expired in December 1996, and Ukrainian presidential elections were held in June 1994.

Ukraine has also been far more successful than Georgia at coping with regional separatism. Shevardnadze was powerless either to prevent the war that ended with Tbilisi's loss of control over Abkhazia, or to restore control over South Ossetia. He did, however, forge tactical alliances with Aslan Abashidze, the leader of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, in the 2000 presidential ballot and the 2 November parliamentary ballot. Official returns placed Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union in second place after the pro-Shevardnadze For A New Georgia bloc; then, on 10 November, Abashidze expressed support for the embattled Georgian president as the opposition demands for annulling the ballot gained momentum.

In Ukraine, regional policies to thwart separatism were implemented in the Donbas and Crimea, which regional "parties of power" (Regions of Ukraine [Donbas]; and Party of Economic Revival of the Crimea in 1991-95 and People's Democratic Party in 1997 [Crimea]) were allowed to run as their personal fiefdoms. In the Donbas and Crimea, this has led to the stifling of opposition activities and the independent media. The two Donbas oblasts and the city of Sevastopol were the only three regions in which the main opposition party, Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, failed to cross the 4 percent parliamentary threshold in the 2002 elections.

The extent of media freedom and access to the media by the opposition were crucial to Georgia's "velvet revolution." The chairman of Georgian State Television resigned after criticism by Shevardnadze over the broadcaster's airing of the views of both the authorities and the opposition. Georgia's independent-media rating in Freedom House's 2003 "Nations in Transit" assessment is closer to that of Romania than the CIS average, which is where Ukraine is ranked. The greater extent of freedom for independent media thus makes Georgia more akin to Ukraine under Kravchuk than to Ukraine under Kuchma. Kuchma has a poor record of upholding media freedoms. In Ukraine, the state television and two independent channels (1+1, Inter), which broadcast throughout Ukraine, are controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, head of the presidential administration.

Both the outgoing Georgian and Ukrainian presidents have faced obstacles to finding successors able to act as neutral "umpires" over warring clans and interests. Zhiuli Shartava, whom Shevardnadze originally selected as his successor, was executed shortly before the fall of Sukhum in 1993; Zurab Zhvania demonstratively broke with Shevardnadze in 2001. Neither country has been able to create the unified "party of power" which is essential in order to establish an authoritarian regime. After Georgia's "velvet revolution," the demoralized pro-Shevardnadze camp is unlikely to be able to thwart a victory by National Movement leader Mikhail Saakashvili.

Ukraine's ruling elites have been similarly tainted since the Kuchmagate crisis began in November 2000. Front-runner Yushchenko has a difficult choice to make: He can either choose to build bridges with moderates in the presidential camp who seek to gentrify themselves from oligarchs into businessmen, or he can unite with the Socialists and the populist Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc on a more anti-oligarch and anti-Kuchma platform.

Yushchenko's strategic choice is further complicated by the Communists, another factor that differentiates Ukraine from Georgia, where the Communists have been totally eclipsed as a political force. In Ukraine, there is a major division between the Communists and the essentially national-democratic Our Ukraine. The Communists view Kuchma and his oligarchic allies as the lesser of two evils in comparison with Yushchenko. In the event of a second-round runoff between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the Communists are likely to back the latter. The power bases of both Yanukovych and the Communists are in the Donbas.Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European studies and adjunct professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.

UN BEGINS VOTER-REGISTRATION PROCESS FOR AFGHAN CITIZENS
The United Nations began registering Afghan citizens on 30 November for the 2004 national elections called for by the Bonn agreement, "Tehran Times" reported on 2 December. The registration process began in the southern city of Kandahar and was extended to seven other cities on 1 December. Catarina Fabiansson, spokeswoman for the UN election office in Afghanistan, said the speed of the registration process will depend on the availability of donor funds and security but should be completed by early 2004. All Afghans who will be 18 or older by June 2004 are eligible to register. RNM

CZECH REPUBLIC OFFERS 150 SOLDIERS TO NATO'S AFGHAN EFFORT
The Czech Republic heeded a request by outgoing NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson and offered on 1 December to send 150 people to join U.S.- and NATO-led efforts in Afghanistan, Czech dailies reported. Some of those troops would assist the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in operating Kabul's airport, while others would join Operation Enduring Freedom aimed at combating neo-Taliban forces in the country, according to the daily "Pravo." Senior politicians from the opposition Civic Democratic Party and Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia demanded that the government disclose how it expects to finance such an operation. AH

IRANIAN OFFICIAL SAYS MOST AIDS SUFFERERS IN IRAN ARE DRUG USERS
A member of the Iranian Red Crescent society has said that 57 percent of Iranians carrying the HIV virus are drug addicts, IRNA reported on 1 December. Hussein Ali Kaseifar said that some 6,000 Iranians were believed to have been infected with the virus that leads to AIDS by September, IRNA added, without specifying whether that estimate includes only those diagnosed with the virus or all suspected HIV-positive cases. The virus is mainly spreading through contaminated drug needles, he said, though "sexual contact is also a factor." A visiting UN health official, Andrew Ball, has praised Iran's success in sensitizing Iranians to HIV/AIDS, which he said is concentrated among drug addicts, IRNA reported on 1 December. Iran pursues a vigorous family-planning program and promotes condom use among young, married couples. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said on 30 November that the world is neglecting the fight against drugs and AIDS, which are "more destructive than wars," "Jaam-e Jam" reported the next day. VS

IRANIANS URGED TO VOTE IN COMING POLLS
President Khatami has urged Iranians not to shun parliamentary polls set for February, ISNA reported on 1 December. "Nobody's problems will be solved by retiring from social and political arenas, especially the most important ones," he said amid warnings by reformers of voter apathy and anger at the slow pace of democratic reforms. The country faces problems, Khatami said, "but will so much discontent be resolved by sulking and refusing to go to the polls?" he told a group of electoral supervisors. Cabinet spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh has said the government will appoint inspectors to ensure a "healthy" electoral campaign, "Sharq" reported on 1 December. The government will not tolerate any "violations in this respect and the important point is to hold clean elections," Ramezanzadeh said. Iran's police chief also pledged on 30 November to protect electoral gatherings from violence and disruption, "Sharq" reported the next day. Plainclothes vigilantes have reportedly attacked reformist gatherings and speeches. VS

IRANIAN OFFICIAL WANTS SECURITY, SWIFT POWER TRANSFER IN IRAQ
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hasan Rohani told Ahmad Chalabi, a visiting member of the Iraqi Governing Council, that Iran "is very happy" with Iraq's move "toward independence," but he added that Tehran is concerned at continuing insecurity there for its "negative effect on regional security and stability," ISNA reported on 1 December. Rohani said Iran is angry at "the interaction of the occupying power with the Hypocrites terrorist group," presumably a reference to the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, a violent, Iraq-based group opposed to Tehran and which has been disarmed by U.S. forces. Rohani urged a swift transfer of power to Iraqis, with a democratic constitution respecting religion and ethnic groups. "A lengthy transfer of power to the Iraqis may create more problems and [so the transition] must be as short as possible," ISNA quoted him as saying. Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the head of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), said on 30 November that mounting casualties are forcing the United States toward "a forced exit, even flight" from Iraq, "Sharq" reported the next day. "We are hopeful America will face a humiliating defeat in Iraq," he added. VS

SENIOR IRAQI LEADER CHALABI MEETS WITH IRANIAN OFFICIALS
An Iraqi delegation led by Ahmad Chalabi met with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Rohani on 1 December, ISNA reported. Kharrazi said he hopes Washington will soon hand power to a democratic Iraq. "We hope Iraq will be a good neighbor for the Islamic Republic of Iran," the agency quoted him as saying. Kharrazi has also blamed U.S. forces for the death of an Iranian pilgrim in a gun battle with Iraqi insurgents on 30 November, mehrnews.com reported on 1 December. He said Iran will lodge a protest: "America has made the world unsafe with its irresponsible actions, and must end its occupation of Iraq as soon as possible." Chalabi told Rohani in a separate meeting that "America wants to end its presence in Iraq but is trying to create a government it is certain will not be hostile to America in the future," according to ISNA. VS

POLL FINDS IRAQIS WANT DEMOCRACY
A poll conducted by Britain's Oxford Research International in Iraq has found that 90 percent of Iraqis interviewed said they want a democracy in Iraq, BBC reported on 1 December. More than 3,000 Iraqis participated in the survey, which was carried out in October and November. More than 40 percent of respondents said the best thing to happen to them in the past year was the fall of the Hussein regime. The poll also found that only one in 10 Iraqis think most people can be trusted, while nine out of 10 said one should be very careful in dealing with people. Almost half of respondents said they would never discuss politics with others. According to AP, the poll also found that some 57 percent of respondents said they have no confidence in U.S. and British forces in Iraq, and 22 percent said they do not have very much confidence. Asked about U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, 43.5 percent said they have no confidence in him. KR

U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY TELLS NATO ITS TROOPS WOULD BE WELCOME IN IRAQ
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told NATO members on 1 December that the United States would welcome military assistance in Iraq, international media reported. Eighteen of 26 NATO member states already have troops in Iraq. U.S. officials told AP that some European defense ministers have suggested NATO might assume command of a multinational division headed by Poland. NATO currently provides support for Poland's command over south-central Iraq. Also on the agenda of the NATO ministerial meetings held this week in Brussels is the possibility of an increased NATO role in Afghanistan, the establishment of a multinational battalion to be based in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline Part II"), and the phasing out of NATO's eight-year peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. KR

JAPAN POSTPONES DEPLOYMENT OF HUMANITARIAN WORKERS TO IRAQ
Japan has reportedly postponed a deployment to Iraq of teams of dozens of engineers and medical personnel, AP cited an "Asahi" newspaper article as saying on 2 December. The teams were scheduled to depart by the end of the year to Baghdad, Al-Basrah, and Mosul. The decision came following the 29 November killing of two Japanese diplomats at a roadside food stand (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). KR

AL-HAKIM SETS ELECTIONS AT TOP OF GOVERNING COUNCIL'S SCHEDULE
Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of December Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim opened the first council meeting for December with the issue of elections in Iraq, Al-Jazeera reported on 1 December. "It is necessary to choose members of the transitional national council through elections. Elections, however, have various forms. We are still discussing the proper from of elections that can be held," al-Hakim told the satellite channel. KR

FORMER REPUBLICAN GUARD SOLDIERS APPREHENDED IN MOSUL
Iraqi police working alongside U.S. forces apprehended two former Iraqi Republican Guard officers at a cafe in Mosul, LBC satellite television reported on 2 December. An Iraqi police officer who participated in the arrest said one of the former officers apprehended was carrying $40,000 at the time of the arrest. The two men apprehended are suspected of working with Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, sixth on the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the deposed Hussein regime. The United States recently offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the killing or capture of al-Duri (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 20 November 2003). KR

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