RUSSIA ASSAILS U.S. DECISION ON IRAQ CONTRACTS...
Moscow reacted angrily to news that the United States plans to exclude Russia from contracts to rebuild postwar Iraq, Russian news agencies reported on 11 December. "We believe the interests of a political settlement of the situation in Iraq, and the rebuilding of Iraq, are best served by uniting the efforts of the international community and not splitting it," Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told journalists during a visit to Berlin. "As regards the reconstruction of Iraq, I think it's a general desire, and all who are prepared to participate in this should be given every possibility to do that." The U.S. Defense Department announced on 9 December that 63 countries that opposed the Iraq war, including Russia, France, and Germany, will be excluded from competing for $18.6 billion in reconstruction contracts. BW
...AND TALKS OF RETALIATION
In retaliation for the U.S. move, Moscow announced on 10 December that it does not intend to write off Iraq's $8 billion debt to Russia, Interfax reported the same day. "As far as I know the position of the Russian government, we do not intend to write off any debts. Iraq is not a poor country," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said. "Let us recall: When the USSR collapsed, did anyone write off Russia's debts? So why should we write off any debts. There is the Paris Club, and that is where the matter will be discussed -- when this debt can be repaid and whether it can be restructured." Other officials said Russia could also retaliate by switching its oil exports to euro-denominated prices. Dmitrii Rogozin, co-leader of the populist Motherland-Patriotic Union party, which mustered a surprise fourth place in the 7 December parliamentary elections, told "The Moscow Times" on 11 December that the U.S. move was "aggressive," adding that the decision "shows the very primitive vindictiveness of the current U.S. administration." BW
PUTIN SUGGESTS UNIFIED AIR DEFENSE FOR CIS
President Vladimir Putin proposed on 10 December that CIS countries unify their air-defense systems to foster better collective security, RIA-Novosti reported on 10 December. "Air defense is a sphere of our most efficient cooperation," Putin said at a meeting of CIS defense ministers. At present only the six member states of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) have a unified air-defense system. Putin also expressed support for a unified CIS defense complex, saying that since the resources available to individual CIS states are limited, it makes sense to pool financial spending and personnel. He termed military and military-industrial cooperation among CIS member states "an indispensable condition for our countries' socioeconomic development," Interfax reported. BW/LF
YUKOS AFFILIATES FACE NEW CHARGES, RAIDS...
The Interior Ministry has opened a criminal case against top managers of the Menatep-St. Petersburg Bank, a Yukos affiliate, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 December citing law-enforcement officials. The case against Menatep-St. Petersburg involves charges of tax evasion, and follows prosecutors' raids on the bank's Moscow offices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). Meanwhile, prosecutors from Siberia's Tomsk Oblast searched the Yukos offices in Moscow, Interfax reported. Interfax cited witnesses as saying the prosecutors were interested in information about taxes paid by Yukos's Tomsk-based affiliate, Tomskneft. BW
...AS DETAILS EMERGE OF ABORTED MERGER
Roman Abramovich, the main shareholder of oil major Sibneft, said he will return cash and shares to Yukos following the halted merger of the two companies, Russian and international media reported on 10 December. Quoting a source close to Abramovich, the daily newspaper "Vedomosti" reported that Abramovich is ready to give back $3 billion and a controlling 26 percent Yukos stake in return for the 92 percent of Sibneft shares transferred to Yukos as part of the deal. The two sides also agreed Sibneft will not have to pay a $1 billion contractual penalty for calling off the merger, "Vedomosti" reported. News that the merger would be scrapped broke on 9 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). Yukos shares fell 5.82 percent on the MICEX stock index on 10 December following news of the halted merger, Russian media reported the same day. Sibneft shares, meanwhile, gained 4.7 percent. BW
OFFICIALS BELIEVE RECENT ATTACKS LINKED
Russian officials believe the 9 December bombing in downtown Moscow is linked with other recent terrorist attacks in the country, Russian news agencies reported on 10 December. Specifically, the attack near the National Hotel was connected to the 5 December bombing of a commuter train in Yessentuki, said Grigorii Shinakov, who heads an investigations department within the Moscow Prosecutor-General's Office. According to Shinakov, the "handwriting" of the crimes was similar, including the type of explosive device used. "All these crimes were coordinated from a single center," Shinakov said. He added that the body of a female suicide bomber who died in the 9 December explosion has not yet been identified. Police are searching for a second suspect, also female, and her composite picture will be published in the media, Shinakov added. BW
THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN STARTS...
Russia's presidential campaign got under way officially on 11 December with the publication in the government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of a Federation Council ruling from the previous day naming 14 March as the date for the next presidential election. Would-be presidential candidates have until 6 January to register, and the registration procedures now require all potential candidates, other than those put forward by parties or blocs that crossed the 5 percent threshold in the 7 December State Duma election, to gather 2 million signatures supporting their respective candidacies, vesti.ru reported on 11 December. This means that any candidates put forward by Unified Russia, the Communist Party of Russia (KPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), or Motherland will be exempt from gathering the signatures. Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said on 10 December that it is unlikely that more than five candidates will run, given that the new registration requirements mean only "a seriously structured political force can put forward a candidate," Interfax reported on 10 December. JB
...WITH ZHIRINOVSKII THROWING HIS HAT INTO THE RING...
LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii announced on 10 December that he will run for the Russian presidency, lenta.ru reported. He said he hopes to win or at least come in second, adding that he favors increasing the presidential term to seven years and the term for State Duma deputies to six years. Zhirinovskii ran for president in 1991, 1996, and 2000. Speaking about the new Duma, Zhirinovskii said it will be "close to the national spirit, to what Russia requires," and expressed satisfaction that neither the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) nor Yabloko won representation, RIA-Novosti reported. Zhirinovskii said the LDPR, which came in third in the Duma elections, will now have to compete with the KPRF and Motherland, adding that he hopes neither of the two wins parliamentary representation in 2007. He predicted the LDPR will face off with Unified Russia in 2011 and become the "party of the parliamentary majority" by 2014. Zhirinovskii also said, however, that Russia will never have a "ruling party" and should only have a "presidential regime," lenta.ru reported. JB
...AND MOTHERLAND SAYING IT WILL NOT PUT FORWARD A CANDIDATE
Motherland co-leader Dmitrii Rogozin told NTV on 10 December that his bloc will not put forward its own presidential candidate, Prime-TASS reported on 11 December. Rogozin said Motherland will decide which presidential candidate to support by mid-January. Rogozin also told the television channel that Motherland, which came in fourth in the Duma race, plans to be in opposition to Unified Russia, which he described as "the party of power." "We will be an independent faction that will use various alliances -- with the KPRF, with Unified Russia, with the LDPR -- to get laws we have already drafted through [the Duma]," Rogozin said. He also said that Motherland will demand a cabinet reshuffle after the presidential elections. JB
COMMUNIST LEADER'S DAYS MIGHT BE NUMBERED
Opponents of KPRF leader Gennadii Zyuganov within the party might try to remove him as its leader during a congress to be held sometime in the next two weeks, ITAR-TASS reported on 11 December, citing an anonymous KPRF Central Committee member. The source reportedly told the news agency that Zyuganov's opponents believe any of his likely replacements, including Valentin Kuptsov, Gennadii Semigin, and Ivan Melnikov, would be better for the future of the party, which won 24.29 percent of the vote in the 1999 Duma elections but just 12.7 percent in the 7 December contest. Zyuganov's opponents believe his decision to purge the KPRF's ranks led to the party's isolation from other leftist groups and to the decision by Sergei Glazev, who was a member of the party's Duma faction but not the party, to form the Motherland bloc and run separately for the Duma. JB
SPS AND YABLOKO MULL SINGLE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE...
SPS member Konstantin Remchukov said that Russia's democratic forces should back a single candidate for the March presidential election and that SPS's political council, which is scheduled to meet on 15 December, might decide to back Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii's likely presidential bid, Interfax reported on 11 December. "Vremya novostei" reported on 10 December that SPS's Boris Nemtsov and Yabloko's Sergei Ivanenko have been holding talks on creating a united democratic coalition. Meanwhile, Yabloko member Galina Mikhaleva said on 10 December that the party will hold a congress this month to decide whether it will run its own candidate, RIA-Novosti reported. If Yabloko does decide to run a candidate, she added, it will be Yavlinskii. But Grigorii Tomchin, a member of SPS's political council, said the democrats must first determine whether they can unite around any of their former leaders, given the parties' poor showings in the Duma elections, Interfax reported on 11 December. JB
...WHILE OTHERS TALK UP VLADIMIR RYZHKOV
Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologies has called Vladimir Ryzhkov "the optimal candidate" for Russia's democrats, RBK reported on 10 December. Bunin called Ryzhkov, who was three times elected to the Duma in single-mandate districts, "an obvious liberal, although he doesn't belong either to the SPS or Yabloko." Ryzhkov, meanwhile, said on 10 December that he and other liberal-oriented deputies elected to the new Duma from single-mandate districts are trying to form a group under the working name Union of Democratic Forces, Interfax reported. He said deputies belonging to Yabloko and the SPS, who together won six seats, have expressed interest, but he noted that the group would have to find at least 35 members in order to gain official status as a deputies' group. "There have been no talks with the Kremlin about the creation of our group, but such consultations are not ruled out, given that we are convinced everything possible should be done so that the nationalists will have serious opponents in the Duma," Ryzhkov said. JB
KASYANOV SAYS NEW DUMA GIVES IMPETUS TO ECONOMIC REFORM
Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told a cabinet meeting on 11 December that the new Duma will give the government the possibility to carry out economic reforms in a more decisive manner, Interfax reported. Kasyanov said that as a result of the elections, Russia has moved "one step closer to the kind of political system that exists in democratic countries," where the passage of a budget requires just one day in a legislature's lower house and one day in its upper chamber. Meanwhile, international ratings agency Fitch said the victory of pro-Kremlin parties in the Duma elections has made President Putin's position more dominant and thus increased the importance of his commitment to market reform, MFD-InfoTsenter reported on 10 December. However, Fitch said that while market-oriented reforms might be accelerated after the presidential election, it is also unclear how far Putin will use his powers to carry out such reforms, given that unlimited government powers work at cross purposes with the goal of creating a dynamically developing economy. JB
PRESIDENT HAILS SOLZHENITSYN ON 85TH BIRTHDAY
President Putin sent a telegram congratulating former dissident writer and Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn on his 85th birthday, Russian news agencies reported on 11 December. "Your name and your life are inseparably connected with key, dramatic turns in Russian history in the 20th century. You have always firmly upheld your convictions and never made compromises. You were an indisputable moral authority," Putin wrote. BW
FINAL CHECHEN DUMA ELECTION RESULTS ANNOUNCED
The Chechen Central Election Commission confirmed on 10 December that former Chechen representative to the Federation Council Akhmar Zavgaev has been elected to the Duma from the Chechen single-mandate constituency, Interfax reported. Zavgaev received 46.1 percent of the vote, less than originally estimated. Of the remaining six candidates, Chechen Pedagogical Institute Rector Bekhkan Khasbulatov received 13.59 percent, and Moscow-based Chechen businessman Salambek Maigov 13.23 percent. Voter turnout for the single-mandate constituency vote was 85.99 percent, and for the party list vote 87.1 percent. Pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov told ITAR-TASS on 10 December that no decision has yet been made on who should replace Zavgaev as Chechnya's representative on the Federation Council. LF
KARABAKH DENIES CHARGES OF ABETTING DRUG TRAFFICKING, TERRORISM
In a statement released on 10 December, the Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) rejected accusations by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that the Karabakh leadership is not in control of the republic's territory, Noyan Tapan and Armenpress reported. Meeting with visiting UN Deputy Secretary-General Antonio Maria Costa in Baku on 4 December, Aliyev expressed concern that Karabakh and other Azerbaijani territories currently under Armenian control are used for drug cultivation and trafficking (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003). The NKR Foreign Ministry statement affirmed that the republic's authorities "bear full responsibility" for developments of its territory and the surrounding districts of Azerbaijan which are controlled by Armenian forces. The statement further recalls that the NKR leadership has repeatedly invited international organizations to visit the republic to inspect the situation there, but that the Azerbaijani leadership has done all in its power to block such an international inspection mission. The statement also cites a U.S. State Department report on drug trafficking that it claims accuses Azerbaijan of serving as a transit country for drugs. LF
AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT SAYS ARMENIA MUST BE FORCED TO CEDE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES
Addressing the World Summit on Information Society in Geneva on 10 December, President Aliyev argued that the international community should force Armenia to withdraw its troops from the Azerbaijani territories it currently controls, Turan reported on 11 December. Aliyev claimed that the unresolved Karabakh conflict is the primary obstacle to cooperation between the three South Caucasus states. Armenia has repeatedly expressed its willingness to embark on such cooperation, which Baku insists is contingent on resolving the Karabakh conflict. Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian are scheduled to meet on 11 December on the sidelines of the summit to discuss approaches to resolving the conflict. LF
AZERBAIJANI DISTRICT COURT THROWS OUT LIBEL SUIT BY PRESIDENT'S UNCLE
Baku's Yasamal Raion Court on 11 December refused to hear a libel suit brought by Academician Djalal Aliyev, the brother of former President Heidar Aliyev, against two newspapers, "Ekho" and "Zerkalo," that quoted him as having branded Ambassador Peter Eicher, head of the international Election Observation Mission that monitored the 15 October presidential ballot, "a fascist," Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2003). The court ruled that Aliyev failed to produce evidence that the editors of the papers in question committed a criminal offense. Numerous other publications also quoted Aliyev's derogatory comment, which was made during a parliament debate and reportedly aired by several television channels. LF
ACTING GEORGIAN PRESIDENT VISITS BATUMI
Nino Burdjanadze traveled to Batumi on 10 December for talks, which lasted six hours, with Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, Georgian media and Interfax reported. Abashidze told ITAR-TASS the talks took place in "a favorable atmosphere." But Burdjanadze, whom the daily "Alia" on 11 December said has never looked as distressed as upon her return to Tbilisi as after the meeting with Abashidze, said the talks yielded no compromise and that Abashidze continues to insist that the pre-term presidential election scheduled for 4 January should be postponed. Abashidze has said he does not consider National Movement leader Mikhail Saakashvili, the clear favorite in the ballot, a suitable presidential candidate, and that no voting will take place in Adjaria on 4 January. Burdjanadze said on 10 December that she will return to Batumi for further talks, but did not say when. "Novye izvestiya" quoted Russian political scientist Aleksandr Tsipko on 10 December as observing that Abashidze knows very well that there is no point in signing any formal agreement with Burdjanadze as Saakashvili would renege on it after he is elected president. LF
GEORGIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE RECEIVES FORMAL BACKING
At a congress held in Tbilisi on 10 December, the National Movement formally proposed Saakashvili as its candidate for the 4 January presidential election, Georgian media reported. Addressing the congress, Saakashvili said that "neither Moscow nor Abashidze" will be able to prevent the vote. He said his primary task once elected will be to restore Georgia's territorial integrity. On 11 December, National Security Council Secretary Djemal Gakhokidze told journalists that Saakashvili will move into the presidential residence for the duration of the election campaign for reasons of security, Caucasus Press reported. LF
NEW GEORGIAN POLITICAL MOVEMENT LAUNCHED
Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, a Soviet-era dissident who served as spokesperson for the pro-presidential For a New Georgia (AS) election bloc in the run-up to the abortive 2 November parliamentary ballot, unveiled her new political movement, New Force, in Tbilisi on 10 December, Georgian media reported. Sarishvili-Chanturia declined to name other members of the movement lest they be subjected to "political pressure," but said that it does not include any "monsters" or "traitors" from the former presidential bloc. She said the movement stands for freedom of speech, democracy, stability, a balanced foreign policy, and economic independence. She rejected calls by other opposition parties for a boycott or postponement of the 4 January presidential election, saying both presidential and repeat parliamentary ballots should take place within the time frame stipulated by the constitution. LF
GEORGIAN SOCIALISTS' LEADER RESIGNS
Former parliament deputy speaker Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, one of the co-leaders of AS, has resigned as chairman of the Socialist Party of Georgia, according to rustavi2.com on 10 December. Irakli Mindeli, who headed the party's parliament faction, has been elected chairman in his place. LF
BOMB EXPLODES IN ABKHAZ CAPITAL
A bomb exploded in Sukhum during the evening of 10 December near the monument to those killed during the 1992-93 war, but caused no casualties, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. LF
KAZAKH SECURITY SERVICE DENIES INTERNET INTERFERENCE
Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) issued a statement on 8 December denying a charge by independent news website "Navigator" (http://www.navi.kz) that the security service is blocking access to that site and to other sites critical of the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2003), according to "Navigator," which published the KNB statement the following day. The KNB said "Navigator" has been complaining of official interference since May 2002 but has been unable to prove its assertions; nor has it been able to produce a copy of an alleged internal KNB document that branded the site "destructive." The statement added that the KNB considers the "Navigator" charges an attempt to discredit the security service by accusing it of harassing dissidents. BB
KYRGYZ PARLIAMENTARIANS PROHIBIT USE OF FOREIGN MEDIA IN ELECTION CAMPAIGNS
The lower house of the Kyrgyz parliament voted on 8 December to adopt an amendment to the Election Code prohibiting the publication of campaign materials supporting candidates or parties in foreign media that circulates in Kyrgyzstan, akipress.org reported the same day. The chamber has been working its way through a series of government-proposed changes to the country's Election Code since 4 December. The foreign-media clause has been hotly disputed among parliamentarians, some of whom say the restriction will infringe on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. Central Electoral Commission Chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev argued that the restriction is a measure in defense of Kyrgyzstan's sovereignty, and he added that foreign media will be free to report on election campaigns as long as they do not interfere. Lawmakers also voted to drop from the Election Code a requirement that candidates provide information about their assets and their income. An article published on the gazeta.kg website on 10 December noted that some parliamentarians have complained that the changes proposed by the government are not always comprehensible. BB
TAJIKS MOVE INTO KYRGYZSTAN'S SOUTHERNMOST OBLAST
Tajik citizens are illegally moving into and buying land in Kyrgyzstan's Batken Oblast, the poorest in the country, and local authorities fear that frictions may develop between local Kyrgyz and the Tajik newcomers, KyrgyzInfo reported on 10 December. The Batken authorities quoted in the article said Tajik immigration began some 10 years ago, fueled by population pressures and a shortage of land on the Tajik side of the common border. Batken NGOs reported that more than 100 Tajiks have settled in one village and bought land, and other Tajiks have built 26 houses in two other villages. Meanwhile, 1,200 Kyrgyz families are waiting for permission to build homes in the same area, and local officials have banned the sale of land to foreigners and pressured the Tajik immigrants to obtain Kyrgyz citizenship. BB
TAJIK INDEPENDENT WEEKLY RESUMES PUBLICATION
"Ruz-i Nav" will reappear despite a vow to abstain from publishing until President Imomali Rakhmonov explains a presidential publishing house's recent refusal to print the independent weekly, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 10 December, citing Deputy Editor in Chief Fakhriddin Kholbek. Employees of "Ruz-i Nav" appealed to Rakhmonov after the Sharq-i Ozod publishing house refused to publish the 27 November issue without explanation and vowed that the weekly will not resume publication until the decision is explained (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). Kholbek told Asia Plus-Blitz that "Ruz-i Nav" is resuming publication because a response from the president might be a long time in coming, the news agency reported. The director of Sharq-i Ozod, Manzhurkhon Dodokhonov, has again refused to print the independent newspaper, so it is being printed in an independent publishing house. "Ruz-i Nav," which began appearing in August, has gained considerable popularity with a series of articles on official corruption in Tajikistan. BB
ABD REPORT ON TAJIK PRIVATE SECTOR PRESENTED IN DUSHANBE
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) presented a report in Dushanbe on 9 December on Tajikistan's private sector, Asia Plus-Blitz reported the following day. The report was drafted by the ADB's Dushanbe office in accordance with the bank's so-called private-sector development strategy. The report asserts that cumbersome laws on taxation, registration, and licensing are blocking development of the private sector, as well as encouraging bribery and the shadow economy, and calls for a simplification of the tax system and a reduction of tax rates. It also calls for reform of land ownership to permit private farmers to use their land as security for loans, asserting that a lack of access to capital is one of the most serious obstacles to development of the agricultural sector, which remains the most important element of the national economy. BB
POLISH OFFICIALS MEET WITH UZBEK PRESIDENT
Poland's Undersecretary of State for International Affairs Andrzej Majkowski and Undersecretary of State Andrzej Zalucki met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on 9 December to discuss perspectives for bilateral cooperation and to exchange views on current affairs, uzreport.com reported the following day. Trade between Poland and Uzbekistan has doubled in the last year, according to the website. The Polish visitors also met with First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov to discuss cooperation within the framework of various international organizations and joint efforts to combat international terrorism, religious extremism, and the illegal drug trade. The Polish officials discussed with Uzbek Defense Minister Qadyr Gulamov the implementation of a 2002 Polish-Uzbek agreement on military cooperation. BB
UZBEKISTAN SIGNS TRADE AGREEMENT WITH AFGHANISTAN
An intergovernmental agreement on trade and business cooperation and an agreement on rail transport between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan were signed during Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev's two-day trip to Kabul on 8-9 December, Interfax reported on 10 December. According to centrasia.ru on 11 December, the main objective of the visit was to continue the Uzbek-Afghan political dialogue and expand the legal basis for relations between the two countries, particularly in the areas of trade and economic ties. Uzbekistan is particularly interested in the development of a proposed trans-Afghan transit corridor and has offered to assist in constructing a rail line in Afghanistan. The Afghan officials with whom Safaev met, including Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, told him that Afghanistan appreciates Uzbek efforts on behalf of regional security and stability and expressed willingness to cooperate with Uzbekistan in the struggle against international terrorism. During Safaev's stay, an Uzbek embassy building was opened in Kabul. BB
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION RALLIES IN MINSK ON HUMAN RIGHTS DAY
Some 300 people from Belarusian opposition parties and human rights organizations participated in a demonstration under the slogan "We Remember" in downtown Minsk on 10 December, holding pictures of some of Belarus's disappeared persons, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. The pictures included those of politicians Viktar Hanchar and Yury Zakharanka, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and journalist Dzmitry Zavadski. Police arrested Charter-97 activist Natalya Kalyada, who was handing out images of disappeared politicians to passersby. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT APPOINTS NEW DEPUTY PREMIER
President Leonid Kuchma appointed lawmaker Andriy Klyuyev on 10 December as deputy prime minister in charge of the fuel and energy sector to replace recently sacked Vitaliy Hayduk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003), Interfax reported. Klyuyev, 39, who is deputy head of the Donetsk-based Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, served as chairman of the parliamentary Commission for the Fuel and Energy Sector until his current appointment. In 1996-98, he was first deputy head of the Donetsk city administration, and in 1998-2000 was deputy head of the Donetsk Oblast administration. JM
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT FORMS COMMISSION TO CHECK FOREIGN FUNDING OF NGOS
The Verkhovna Rada on 10 December voted 289 to five to set up an ad hoc commission to investigate the legality of "foreign interference in financing election campaigns in Ukraine through nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] that are supported by foreign states' grants," Interfax reported. The Our Ukraine and Socialist Party parliamentary caucuses did not take part in the vote. The commission consists of 13 lawmakers and is headed by Valeriy Mishura from the Communist Party. A draft bill to set up the commission was prepared by Petro Symonenko (Communist Party), Ihor Sharov (Labor Ukraine), Valeriy Pustovoytenko (Popular Democratic Party), Yuliya Tymoshenko (Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc), and Mykola Hapochka (People's Choice). According to a survey by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center, foreign grants account for 58 percent of the budget of nearly 100 nongovernmental "analytical centers" in Ukraine. Major foreign providers of grants to Ukrainian NGOs include the Renaissance Foundation (the Soros Fund in Ukraine), the Freedom House, the Poland-America-Ukraine Cooperation Initiative, the U.S. Aid for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the World Bank, according to Interfax. JM
ESTONIAN PARLIAMENT PASSES FAMILY-BENEFITS BILL
The parliament approved a bill on 10 December intended to raise the country's birth rate by introducing compensation equal to a year's wage for a parent staying at home with a newborn child, BNS reported. The bill, which was passed by a vote of 61 to five, comes into effect on 1 January. The maximum compensation for 2004 was set at three times the average salary in 2002, or 15,700 kroons ($1,225), before taxes. Parents whose income is lower than the minimum wage will be paid the valid minimum wage, while those who have not worked at all will receive a minimum 2,200 kroons per month, slightly less than the minimum wage. Only the mother is entitled to the benefit during the first six months, but parents may subsequently decide who stays at home with the infant. Population Minister Paul-Erik Rummo said he expects the measure to increase the annual number of births in Estonia by at least 400, LETA reported. The five votes against the bill were cast by Mikhail Stalnukhin, the only Center Party deputy who participated in the vote, and four Moderates. SG
RIGA SIGNS LOAN AGREEMENT WITH NIB
Representatives of the Riga City Council and the Nordic Investment Bank (NIB) signed an agreement for a 10-year, 25 million-lat ($46 million) loan in Riga on 10 December, LETA reported. The loan, which the council will begin repaying in two years, will be used to cover short-term liabilities. It will be taken out in euros with an interest rate equal to the one-year Euribor plus 38 basis points. The director of Riga City Council's financial department, Karlis Kavacs, said the management of Riga's short-term liabilities has often been unsystematic and chaotic, with the council sometimes signing agreements with inadequate and unfavorable conditions. He said the city's total short-term liabilities of 51 million lats have been refinanced, with the remaining 26 million lats covered by a loan on similar terms from the Latvian branch of the joint-stock company Nordea Bank Finland. SG
DRAFT TEXT FOR IMPEACHING LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT COMPLETED
A group of parliamentary deputies and lawyers completed the preparation of a draft text of the impeachment of President Rolandas Paksas and delivered it to the various parliamentary factions for discussion on 10 December, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. The 22-page document, which includes accusations, arguments, key facts, evidence, and sources, contains six main charges accusing the president of violating the constitution and his presidential oath. The charges are: Paksas is vulnerable because of his actions and has become a threat to national security; Paksas failed to ensure the protection of classified information; Paksas attempted to influence the decisions of private companies by illegally using his power and that of state institutions; Paksas was unable to reconcile public and private interests; Paksas hindered the smooth functioning of state institutions, discrediting their authority; and Paksas failed to take measures to stop his advisers from abusing their official powers. At a meeting of parliamentary faction leaders, Social Democrat Irena Siauliene ended speculation that the required 85 votes for impeachment have already been lined up when she said that just 20 or so of the 53 deputies in her caucus said they will immediately sign the text. SG
POLISH LIBERAL PARTY TOPS POPULARITY POLL
The Polish Research Group PGB concluded following a 1-2 December poll that the liberal centrist Civic Platform would be supported by 25 percent of voters if parliamentary elections were held now, PAP reported on 10 December. The ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union bloc would receive 16 percent of the vote, Self-Defense 15 percent, Law and Justice 15 percent, the League of Polish Families 13 percent, and the Peasant Party 5 percent. A poll conducted in November by the CBOS polling agency found that support for the Civic Platform increased to 26 percent from 22 percent in October. JM
CZECH UPPER HOUSE APPROVES FOREIGNERS' ACCESS TO JOB MARKET
The Senate approved legislation on 10 December allowing foreign citizens to work in the Czech Republic in the professions for which they are qualified, CTK reported. The legislation is part of the free movement of labor chapter of the EU's acquis communautaire but will not be restricted to EU citizens. Under the approved bill, other foreign nationals with permanent residency in the Czech Republic, as well as those granted political asylum, would benefit from its provisions. The bill must still be signed by President Vaclav Klaus before becoming law. MS
CZECH PREMIER DISCUSSES APPOINTMENT OF EU COMMISSIONER
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla discussed the timing and the process of appointing a Czech commissioner to the European Commission in Brussels on 10 December, CTK reported. Spidla was meeting with European Commission President Romano Prodi and with all the commission's members to discuss the issue. Prodi said he will not finalize the list of new appointees until he ensures that at least three of the 10 are women, but he added that he does not insist that the Czech Republic's representative be among those three. Spidla promised that the name of the Czech Republic's candidate will reach Prodi in time for the list to be completed by February. The commissioners representing the 10 new EU members will serve in the commission for six months. A new European Commission is to be appointed in the second half of 2004, and Prodi's successor would be entitled to keep or replace former commissioners. MS
CZECH SENATE REJECTS BILL INTRODUCING SEXUAL HARASSMENT INTO LABOR CODE
The Senate on 10 December rejected a draft Labor Code that would introduce legislation against sexual harassment in the workplace for the first time in the country, CTK reported. The lower house had already approved the code. Opponents in the Senate said that "sexual harassment" is not defined in the code and is therefore susceptible to misinterpretation. The 200-seat Chamber of Deputies may override the Senate with a majority of 101 deputies. MS
SLOVAK PROSECUTOR-GENERAL SAYS PREMIER'S TESTIMONY POSTED ON INTERNET FROM U.S.
Prosecutor-General Milan Hanzel told TASR on 10 December that Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's classified testimony from 18 August was posted on the Internet from the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). The daily "Sme" reproduced the testimony on 9 December, in which the prime minister spoke of a small group that was allegedly attempting to undermine the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS), the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), and the government. Hanzel said he does not know how the document reached the United States, but he is convinced it must have been leaked from sources linked to the investigation that was launched after Slovak politicians made public references to Dzurinda's allegation. Hanzel also said the chances of finding the culprit are slim, as previous attempts to trace the origin of information posted on the Internet have always failed. MS
SLOVAK PRESIDENT CASTS SYMBOLIC VETO ON LEGISLATION
President Rudolf Schuster on 10 December returned two bills to parliament that he had already vetoed, although legislators overrode both of those vetoes, TASR reported. One bill deals with the introduction of a 19 percent flat tax, the other with the selling of majority stakes in state-owned "strategic" enterprises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November and 1 and 5 December 2003). TASR said the president's second veto is merely symbolic, as a constitutional amendment approved in 1999 stipulates that the government need not resubmit a bill after parliament has overridden a presidential veto. MS
HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCES SPENDING CUTS...
In an effort to halt the weakening of the national currency, the government announced on 10 December that it will cut 35 billion forints ($162 million) from 2003 expenditures and 105 billion forints from next year's budget, Hungarian media reported. Some 60 billion forints will be saved by cutting ministries' expenditures in 2004, another 10 billion forints in savings will come from cuts in home subsidies, and 35 billion in spending for 2004 has been frozen. The forint strengthened to 263 to the euro following the cabinet's announcement. Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told Hungarian television that interest rates on subsidized home loans will increase in accordance with the recent rise in the central bank's base rate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). As a result, the interest on new-home loans will rise from 5 percent to 8 percent, while for loans to buy existing homes will rise from 6 percent to 9.6 percent. The 15 million-forint ($70,000) eligibility ceiling on loans for new flats remains unchanged, while the figure has been reduced from 15 million to 5 million forints for existing homes. MSZ
...PROMPTING OPPOSITION CRITICISM
Former Finance Minister Mihaly Varga of the opposition FIDESZ said his party opposes any changes to state housing subsidies. "The Medgyessy government has quashed people's hopes of acquiring their own homes," Varga told Hungarian radio on 10 December. He went on to say that "the austerity measures were triggered by the immature economic policy pursued by Medgyessy and [Finance Minister Csaba] Laszlo." Democratic Forum Deputy Chairman Laszlo Szoke said Medgyessy promised in spring 2002 to maintain the housing subsidies, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Szoke said the prime minister "either did not know what he was talking about or he lied." MSZ
FORMER K&H BANK CHIEF RELEASED ON BAIL
The Buda Central District Court authorized the release of former K&H Bank chief Tibor Rejto on 10 million-forint ($46,000) bail on 10 December but ruled that until the amount is paid, Rejto will be kept under house arrest, MTI news agency reported. Rejto was detained at the Austrian border on 5 September as a suspect in the embezzlement scandal involving the bank's brokerage arm, K&H Equities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 September 2003). Meanwhile, Budapest police on 10 December detained two Syrians and a Hungarian foreign-currency dealer accused of money laundering, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. The case is reportedly related to the investigation of Lieutenant Colonel Csaba Molnar, the head of the anti-money-laundering unit in the state police department (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). MSZ
UN PRESENTS 'ROAD MAP' FOR KOSOVA
Harri Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), made public the long-awaited program called "Standards for Kosovo" in Prishtina on 10 December, Reuters reported. Representatives of Kosova's more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority hailed the document, but representatives of the Serbian minority boycotted the meeting and rejected the plan, saying it does not go far enough to enable Serbs who fled the province with Serbian forces in 1999 to return. The document lists targets that must be met in key areas such as democracy, the rule of law, the economy, and the Serbs' return before talks can begin on the final status of Kosova, perhaps in mid-2005. All Kosovar political parties agree that independence is the only option and that they want no political links to Belgrade. Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova told Holkeri's meeting that "we give our support to these standards and we shall work and be committed to implementing them." Kosovar leaders have long asked for a clear roadmap for status talks, arguing that delays promote insecurity and impede progress (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 13 November 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 August and 17 October 2003). PM
FORMER SERBIAN POLICEMAN DESCRIBES MASSACRE OF CHILDREN IN KOSOVA
Goran Stoparic, a former member of the Serbian elite police unit known as the Scorpions, told a Belgrade court on 10 December that members of his unit killed at least 14 people, including seven children, in Podujeva on 28 March 1999, "The New York Times" reported. Stoparic testified at the war crimes trial of his former colleague, Sasa Cvjetan, which is the eighth such trial to be conducted by a Serbian court. Some of the ethnic Albanian survivors of the massacre, who now live in the United Kingdom, previously identified Cvjetan as having been among the killers. Stoparic said the unit was withdrawn from Kosova into Serbia the same day as the massacre. The court ordered extra protection for Stoparic, who said that his former commander had threatened him with "drastic" consequences if he testified. "Now I am a Serbian traitor," Stoparic said. "Even if I am killed, it would be worth it because of the children who were killed. I participated in wars for 10 years and never saw anyone kill children," he added. PM
HAGUE TRIBUNAL SENTENCES BOSNIAN SERB FOR WAR CRIMES
On 10 December, the Hague-based war crimes tribunal sentenced former Bosnian Serb Army commander Dragan Obrenovic to 17 years in prison for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which his forces in the Zvornik Brigade helped systematically kill up to 8,000 mainly Muslim males, regional and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 May and 3 December 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 September 2002). Judge Liu Daqun said Obrenovic "took actions which furthered the killing operation. He released seven of his men to 'assist' with the prisoners -- prisoners that he knew would be brought to Zvornik to be shot." In May, Obrenovic pleaded guilty to one count of crimes against humanity, namely persecution on political, racial, and religious grounds. The court then dropped five additional charges against him, including extermination and murder. PM
MACEDONIAN DAILY SAYS MISSING PERSONS ARE DEAD
The Skopje daily "Utrinski vesnik" on 11 December reported that 19 citizens -- seven ethnic Albanians and 12 Macedonians -- who have been missing since the 2001 interethnic conflict are dead. Quoting an unnamed Western diplomat, the newspaper said the government knows who killed them. The government has allegedly kept the results of the investigations, which are described as "delicate," under lock and key to avoid possible unspecified "political repercussions." The Interior Ministry neither confirmed nor denied the report. "Utrinski vesnik" writes that it nevertheless decided to publish the information because it believes it to be "extremely inhumane to hide the truth from the relatives of the missing" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2001, 2 August 2002, and 4 March 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 and 16 November 2001). UB
BELGRADE MINISTER SAYS SERBIAN ELECTION LAWS DISCRIMINATE AGAINST MINORITIES
Serbia and Montenegro's Minister for Human Rights and Minority Rights Rasim Ljajic said in Leskovac on 8 December that the Serbian election law "discriminates" against minorities by requiring their parties to meet the 5 percent electoral threshold and does not guarantee them any seats in the parliament, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. Ljajic is a Bosnian Muslim representing the Together for Tolerance coalition in the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections. Slovenian and Croatian legislation reserves a small number of legislative seats for minorities. PM
U.S. OFFICIALS DISCUSS REDEPLOYMENT OF MILITARY FORCES TO ROMANIA, BULGARIA...
U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith met with officials in the Romanian and Bulgarian capitals on 10 December to discuss the possible relocation of U.S. forces from Western Europe to bases in those countries, RFE/RL and international news agencies reported. "What we are interested in doing as we realign our global posture is -- taking advantage of the opportunity, with a much lighter footprint -- to have the kinds of capabilities around the world that will allow us to react quickly, with easily deployed forces, with lighter forces," Feith told reporters in Bucharest before traveling on to Sofia. Feith said Romania, which is preparing to join NATO, could be among the countries in which the United States might redeploy its troops, but he stressed that "no decisions have been made about locations or specific weapon systems," according to AFP. Feith said the talks were at "the conceptual level," adding that they will continue in early 2004 as Washington considers ways to shift its European forces eastward, according to Reuters. "When we think about our realignment within Europe, we're thinking of Romania obviously," the news agency quoted Feith as saying. Romania and Bulgaria -- where support is high for NATO membership -- have each offered to host U.S. military bases. The news agency described as a "diplomatic roadshow" travels this week by senior U.S. officials through a handful of European capitals to lay out the country's new defense policy. MS/AH
...AS OFFICIALS SAY PUBLIC OPINION WILL BE IMPORTANT
Romanian Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu said public opinion in his country would be taken into account before any final decision was made. "We are talking...about a lengthy process that does not concern only one government or one electoral mandate," Pascu said, according to Romanian radio. AFP quoted Feith as saying upon his arrival in Sofia that "a remarkable degree of harmony...is developing on the part of our friends and allies about the importance of making the kind of changes that we have in mind." Feith also stressed that discussions on the process are "going to take years." MS
ROMANIAN PRESIDENT DENIES DECISION TO RUN ON PSD PARLIAMENTARY TICKET
President Ion Iliescu denied on 10 December that he has agreed to a request by the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) to run on its ticket for a seat in the Senate in elections slated for 2004, Romanian Radio reported. PSD Deputy Chairman Viorel Hrebenciuc made the announcement the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). Iliescu, who was attending an international conference in Geneva, said he has not decided whether to accept the offer, adding, "I don't know; we shall see later." Also on 10 December, Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana denied media speculation that he might be the PSD's presidential candidate in 2004, Mediafax reported. Geoana said he believes Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is "the most competent politician in the PSD" and is best suited to fill that position. Geoana also said he "definitely" intends to run for a seat in parliament on the PSD ticket. MS
ROMANIAN PARLIAMENTARY COMMISSION CLEARS HURDLE OVER ELECTORAL CHANGES
Members of the parliamentary commission tasked with recommending changes to the electoral law ahead of Romania's local, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2004 agreed on 10 December that the support of 12 of the commission's 17 members will be required for a decision to be binding. The commission is also to consult the Romanian Constitutional Court before making its recommendations to the government as to the dates of the parliamentary and the presidential elections. MS
MOLDOVAN OPPOSITION LEADER SAYS STREET PROTESTS AIM AT FORCING VORONIN TO RESIGN...
In an interview with Radio France International cited by Flux on 10 December, Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca said the current crisis in Moldova cannot be overcome until President Vladimir Voronin resigns and new parliamentary elections are held. Rosca said Voronin will not resign unless he is forced to do so "by street pressure" and this is why protest meetings are being held in Chisinau and other towns. Rosca also said a large demonstration will be held in Chisinau on 25 January calling on the president to resign and for new elections. The PPCD chairman said Voronin is responsible for "every single article" of the Russian plan for the federalization of Moldova. Rosca claimed that Voronin had initialed every article in the plan but was forced to withhold signing it due to protests from the "street." MS
...BUT VORONIN STILL OUTDISTANCES ANY POLITICAL COMPETITOR, POLL SHOWS
Although he has lost 10 percentage points in popularity since May, President Voronin is by far the country's most popular politician, Infotag reported on 10 December. According to the Public Opinion Barometer survey carried out by the Institute of Public Policies in November, Voronin is trusted by 30 percent of Moldovans, far more than those trusting Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev, with 2.7 percent; Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean, with 2.3 percent; PPCD Chairman Rosca, with 2 percent; and Our Moldova co-Chairman Dumitru Braghis, with 1.5 percent. If parliamentary elections were to take place now, 64.4 percent of respondents would support the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM), 9.7 percent would support the PPCD, and 8.3 percent would support the Our Moldova alliance. Despite the popularity of Voronin and the PCM, 37.8 percent of the respondents said they were against the Voronin-supported federalization of the country, 25.5 percent said they were uncertain about the proposal, and 21.4 percent were in favor. MS
RUSSIAN AMMUNITION WITHDRAWAL FROM TRANSDNIESTER CONTINUES
A new trainload carrying Russian ammunition departed from Transdniester on 10 December, ITAR-TASS and Infotag reported. The Russian agency said another train is currently being loaded, and five or six more shipments are planned before the end of 2003. According to ITAR-TASS, a total of 40 transports of ammunition and military hardware left the Kolbasna depot this year but some 50 more are needed to complete the withdrawal process, requiring between six and seven months. MS
BULGARIAN PARLIAMENT ADOPTS NEW STRATEGY FOR BULGARTABAC PRIVATIZATION
Lawmakers voted 112-81 with 18 abstentions on 10 December to approve a new strategy for privatizing state tobacco monopoly Bulgartabac, vsekiden.com reported. According to the plan, the holding will be carved up prior to its sale (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September and 3 October 2003). Economy Minister Lidia Shuleva announced that tobacco giants Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have welcomed the new privatization model. The monopoly includes 12 tobacco-processing plants, nine cigarette factories, and factories in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia and Montenegro. UB
BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER LOWERS EXPECTATIONS AHEAD OF EU SUMMIT
Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said in Brussels on 10 December that it is still unclear whether the upcoming European Council meeting will approve Bulgaria's timetable for EU accession, mediapool.bg reported. Sofia is hoping for the conclusion of negotiations in 2004 and membership in 2007. Pasi said some EU members are not fully convinced that Romania and Bulgaria will be ready to join the EU in 2007. The European Council is scheduled for 12-13 December. UB
Serbian voters seem set to oust the remnants of the governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition in general elections on 28 December. Much more is likely to be at stake than a simple rotation of postcommunist parties or coalitions into and out of the government.
On 8 December, no less a figure than Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic announced in Belgrade that his small Liberal Party will include on its election slate a police general indicted by the Hague-based tribunal for war crimes in Kosova, Sreten Lukic. For good measure, Mihajlovic added that he would have included on the list a second indicted war criminal, army General Vladimir Lazarevic, had the latter been in better health. This looks like a case of a small party having identified a promising tactic to attract enough votes to meet the 5 percent electoral threshold.
In fact, at least four slates will include or be led by indicted war criminals. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will head the list of his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). Vojislav Seselj's name will appear atop the slate of his ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS). And former army General Nebojsa Pavkovic will head the list of a small coalition. Milosevic and Seselj are already in The Hague, while Pavkovic, Lukic, and Lazarevic are still in Serbia.
In the recent failed Serbian presidential election, the SRS's Tomislav Nikolic finished first. One recent poll suggests that the Radicals will also take top place on 28 December with 23.1 percent of the vote, even though they seem unlikely to win enough seats to form a government. The once-mighty SPS, with which the SRS was long allied, might barely squeak into the parliament with 6.1 percent.
Following immediately behind the SRS in the poll is former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) with 22.5 percent of the vote. The DSS is anti-Milosevic but right-of-center and nationalist, having fallen out with most of the rest of the DOS not very long after the 5 October 2000 revolt that ousted the dictator. Kostunica has long been a sharp critic of the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. He said on 8 December that he sees no problem in indicted war criminals appearing on the ballot but has difficulties with the manner in which the current government cooperates with the tribunal.
Those parties that most convincingly claim the mantle of 5 October received less than 10 percent of the vote in the poll. The opposition G-17 Plus party of Miroljub Labus is at 9.8 percent, while 9.1 percent goes to the governing Democratic Party of Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic and his predecessor, Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated on 12 March.
What seems in the cards for Serbia is not the kind of alternation in office of more-or-less democratically minded, postcommunist parties that has become typical of Poland, Hungary, and now Croatia, but something more sinister. Serbia seems headed for a change from politicians and parties that at least paid lip service to Western-oriented reforms to others that espouse defiant nationalism, even if the DSS is milder in that respect than the SRS or SPS.
The Radicals and Socialists are, moreover, unrepentant and unreformed parties from the past. The strength of the SRS in particular is disturbing when one recalls that it was a Serbia led and manipulated by canny politicians and intoxicated with nationalism that started -- and lost -- four wars during the 1990s, destroying the former Yugoslavia in the process.
One reason for the continued presence of the SRS and SPS on the political landscape is the fact that the political culture remains locked into blame and denial. Serbs are seen as the eternal victims of international Dark Forces, nationalist Croats, terrorist Albanians, fundamentalist Muslims, or whoever the bogey of the moment may be.
Belgrade human rights lawyer Srdja Popovic, who is a long-time critic of Serbian political culture, wrote recently that the resurgence of the SRS and the appearance of indicted war criminals on party slates show that the era of Djindjic and the DOS was merely an interlude in a transition from Milosevic to noncommunist extreme nationalist leadership.
Serbian political trends still reflect those in Croatia in that the voters are unhappy with a reformist government that failed to deliver on its promises to raise the standard of living. But the situation in Serbia stands in contrast to that in Croatia, where the late President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) is now returning to power only by stressing social and economic issues and after toning down its nationalist rhetoric and purging its ranks of many people linked to the former regime.
In Serbia, however, nationalist rhetoric has become increasingly shrill in the run-up to the 28 December vote. Several leading politicians angrily rejected a recent call by Harri Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), for Serbs to apologize to Kosovars as a step toward reconciliation.
Prime Minister Zivkovic himself suggested that Carla Del Ponte, who heads the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, is actively and deliberately supporting the SRS and SPS by undermining his government. Serbia and Montenegro's Minister for Human Rights and Minority Rights Rasim Ljajic -- a Bosnian Muslim from Sandzak -- also said that the tribunal has hurt the government, adding that spiteful defiance (inat) "is not simply an emotional factor [in Serbia], it's a political factor."
More importantly, all the time and energy devoted by politicians to nationalist issues means there is that much less attention paid to the real concerns of ordinary Serbs: poverty, crime, and corruption. Many observers have wondered whether the politicians tend to avoid tackling burning social and economic issues because they have no answers, or because they profit in one way or another from the current situation.
In any event, Serbian voters will make their choice on 28 December, and the international community will decide how to react to it. That reaction will be closely watched in other parts of former Yugoslavia for any signs that the West is coddling Serbian nationalists or war criminals while talking tough to the Croats, Muslims, or Kosovars.
A resurgence of rightist nationalism in Serbia might also prompt some Western policy makers to reconsider the wisdom of having pressured Serbia and Montenegro in 2002 into a state union that neither the Montenegrin authorities nor an apparent majority of the Serbian public wanted.
Montenegrin parliamentary speaker Ranko Krivokapic told Ljubljana's "Delo" of 5 December: "I am sure that Serbia is turning to the right again. It is again [moving towards] nationalism, territorial expansion, and war. Montenegro is disturbed by that." To say the least.
Some Kosovars stress that time has come for the international community to move toward independence for Kosova based on the principles of self-determination and majority rule. These Kosovars argue that insecurity and fear of a possible return by Serbian forces to the province make all Kosovars nervous and provide fertile ground for extremism.
Other observers add that a clear message from the international community to Serbia that Milosevic definitely lost Kosova in 1999 and that the province's Serbian minority should look to Prishtina rather than Belgrade would help deny Serbian politicians the excuse to waste time and energy on the Kosova "issue." They might then have to concentrate on telling their voters what they propose to do about job creation, health care, living conditions, and education.
U.S. SAYS FURTHER ATTACK LEFT SIX AFGHAN CHILDREN, TWO ADULTS DEAD
A U.S. attack that targeted suspected neo-Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan on 5 December resulted in the death of six Afghan children and two adults, according to a U.S. military spokesman quoted by AP on 10 December. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty said the children died when a wall fell on them during an assault on a complex in eastern Paktiya Province. U.S. warplanes and special forces struck the area in the assault, triggering secondary explosions. "The next day, we discovered the bodies of two adults and six children," Hilferty said. "We had no indication there were noncombatants" in the vicinity, he added. The incident is the second in recent days in which the deaths of children have been blamed on U.S. military operations. Controversy has continued over the deaths of nine children in a similar attack on 6 December in Ghazni Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). "As well as contributing to a sense of fear and insecurity, these incidents make it easier for those who wish to spoil this process to rally support," said UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva. MR
AFGHAN LEADER URGES QUICK AGREEMENT ON CONSTITUTION
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai urged delegates gathering in Kabul for the Constitutional Loya Jirga to approve quickly a new constitution that gives the president broad authority, Reuters reported on 10 December. "In countries where there are no strong institutions, where the remnants of conflict are still there, we need a system with one centrality, not many centers of power," Karzai told reporters in Kabul. Karzai reiterated that he will not run in future elections if the loya jirga frames a constitution that calls for a prime minister as well as a president. Delegates to the assembly will take up debate of a draft constitution on 13 December. The draft presented in early November by the Afghan Constitutional Commission (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 and 13 November 2003) calls for sweeping presidential powers that some say amount to a dictatorial writ. "My wish from loya jirga representatives is that they work for national unity, the national benefit, and establish a consolidated national governing regime and stable conditions in the country," Karzai said. MR
RENEGADE AFGHAN WARLORD APPEALS FOR HOLY WAR
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has aired a videotape message calling on Afghans to wage a holy war, or jihad, against military forces led by the United States, AP reported on 10 December. The 22-minute message, delivered to reporters on a compact disc on 10 December, showed Hekmatyar sitting in front of a gray backdrop and wearing a wool hat and black jacket. He said U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan cannot secure the capital or other areas of the country, which has seen an increase in guerrilla activity in recent weeks. "The resistance has reached a stage where it is not possible to be crushed," Hekmatyar said. "We will agree to talks for solving the crisis if the American forces leave Afghanistan and Afghans are given the opportunity to decide their destiny," he added, denouncing what he described as "the Americans' war against Islam and Muslims." "Do not put your arms to the ground and give up resistance," Hekmatyar said, urging Afghans to attack coalition forces. U.S. officials have accused Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister, of engaging in terrorist attacks by neo-Taliban militants. MR
UZBEKISTAN, AFGHANISTAN SIGN TRADE AGREEMENT
An intergovernmental agreement on trade and business cooperation and an agreement on rail transport between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan were signed during Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev's two-day trip to Kabul on 8-9 December, Interfax reported on 10 December. According to centrasia.ru on 11 December, the main objective of the visit was to continue the Uzbek-Afghan political dialog and expand the legal basis for relations between the two countries, particularly in the areas of trade and economic ties. Uzbekistan is particularly interested in the development of a proposed trans-Afghan transit corridor and has offered to assist in constructing a rail line in Afghanistan. The Afghan officials with whom Safaev met, including Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, told him that Afghanistan appreciates Uzbek efforts on behalf of regional security and stability and expressed willingness to cooperate with Uzbekistan in the struggle against international terrorism. During Safaev's stay, an Uzbek embassy building was opened in Kabul. BB
PAKISTANI NUCLEAR SCIENTISTS DETAINED FOR POSSIBLE CONNECTION WITH IRAN
Two Pakistani nuclear scientists have been detained within the past two weeks, possibly in connection with the transfer of sensitive technology to Iran, AFP and Pakistani media reported on 11 December. Faruq Mohammad and Yasin Chohan, director and laboratory director of the Kahuta Research Laboratories, respectively, are still in detention. An anonymous "senior Foreign Office official" denied that Pakistan has cooperated with any other country in the nuclear field, Islamabad's "The News" reported. Discussing the status of the nuclear scientists, the Pakistani official said people involved with sensitive projects must sometimes undergo dependability and debriefing programs. Pakistani opposition politicians demanded a Senate inquiry into the arrests and accused the government of giving in to U.S. dictates, according to "The News." The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is investigating potential links between the Iranian and Pakistani nuclear programs, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 28 November. Iranian centrifuges utilize the same technology as Pakistan's, which is based on the Urenco company's designs. BS
ALL OF IRANIAN PARLIAMENTARIAN'S ALLEGED ATTACKERS ARRESTED
Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari told reporters after the 10 December cabinet meeting that all those who attacked a parliamentarian in Yazd the previous week have been arrested, IRNA reported. Some 40 people reportedly attacked Isfahan parliamentary representative Mohsen Mirdamadi as he gave a speech at Yazd University on 5 December. Musavi-Lari said a council that included personnel from the judiciary, police, armed forces, and the Yazd Province governor-general's office tracked down and arrested the assailants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). BS
IRANIAN AND EGYPTIAN PRESIDENTS MEET IN GENEVA
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met for one hour on 10 December on the sidelines of an international conference in Geneva, news agencies reported. The Iranian and Egyptian officials are among representatives of 112 countries and 374 organizations who are attending the 9-12 December World Electronic Media Forum, an event of the World Summit on the Information Society (http://www.wemfmedia.org). Ties between Tehran and Cairo have been strained since 1979, when Egypt provided refuge to Iranian monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and a Tehran street was named after the assassin of President Anwar Sadat. Iranian hostility to Egypt's participation in the Camp David accords has only worsened the situation. After the meeting, Mubarak said they discussed Iraq and Palestine, and he described ties with Iran as good and normal. Mubarak also said the meeting took place at Khatami's request. Mubarak said, "We favor establishing an appropriate level of ties and cooperation with Iran, and feel closeness with our Iranian brethren in our hearts," IRNA reported. BS
TEHRAN WELCOMES IRAQI DECISION TO EXPEL MUJAHEDIN KHALQ
Iranian Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi told reporters after the 10 December cabinet meeting that the decision by the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) to expel the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) from the country is "highly acceptable" and "welcome," Reuters reported. Where the members of the MKO, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, will go is not clear. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi added, "Those whose hands are not besmirched with the blood of Iranians can return to the embrace of their nation and will be pardoned," Reuters reported. Karaj parliamentary representative Mir-Taher Musavi, who serves on the National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, on 10 December urged the IGC to turn MKO leaders over to the Iranian government, the Iranian Labor News Agency reported. Musavi also encouraged MKO members to throw themselves on Tehran's mercy. "It may be better if the junior members of the group separate themselves and return to Iran and are forgiven and supported by the government," he recommended. BS
MKO SPOKESMAN CALLS EXPULSION THE WORK OF 'MULLAH REGIME'...
MKO spokesman Sana Barq Zahidi told Al-Jazeera television on 10 December that his group was expelled from Iraq by a mullah regime that wants to dominate the country. "You know that our presence, background, and ties in Iraq are obvious to all Iraqis," Zahidi told the satellite news channel from London. "Iraqis, whether Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Sunnis, or Shi'ites, all know us very well and bear feelings of sincere affection and respect for the MKO," he said. "Because the MKO continues to assist the Iranian resistance inside Iran, this [mullah] regime resorts to these acts and ambitions" to "conceal the internal crises" and to restrict the MKO because it is opposed to "religious oppression and rule in Iraq," he added. KR
...AS AL-RUBAY'I DEFENDS DECISION
Meanwhile, Iraqi Governing Council member Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i defended the expulsion decision, telling Al-Jazeera on 10 December, "This terrorist organization carried out acts of violence, sabotage, destruction, and terrorism against the Iraqi people during the courageous 1991 Intifada [or uprising, against Saddam Hussein]. All those who took part in the Intifada can tell you that there were those who were tortured, killed, and executed by the Mujahedin e-Khalq Organization." Al-Rubay'i denied that the decision to expel the MKO was part of any deal between Baghdad and Iran. "It is an Iraqi decision," he said. "This applies not only to this organization but all terrorist organizations in Iraq, that should leave Iraq." KR
BAGHDAD BANK ROBBERS MAKE OFF WITH 1 BILLION DINARS
Bank robbers held up a Baghdad bank on 9 December, making off with 1 billion dinars (roughly $800,000), Independent Online (http://www.iol.co.za) reported on 10 December. "Thieves managed to get hold of 1 billion dinars on [9 December] from a bank in Al-Kazimiyah because the policemen who are supposed to guard it were not there and left the entrance without protection," Baghdad police chief Ahmad Ibrahim told Iraqi television, the website reported. "We will take sanctions against these policemen and we have some information to help find the robbers and bring them to justice," he said. There were no reported injuries in the incident. KR
U.S. PLANNING IRAQI SPY SERVICE
The U.S. administration has reportedly approved the establishing of an internal Iraqi intelligence service that would spy on groups and individuals inside Iraq who are suspected of launching attacks against coalition and Iraqi targets, washingtonpost.com reported on 11 December. The service will be trained, financed, and equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Jordan, the website reported. Iraqi Interior Minister Nuri Badran will oversee the service in its initial phase. Badran is a member of the opposition group turned political party, the Iraqi National Accord (INA). Badran and INA head Iyad Allawi are reportedly at CIA headquarters outside Washington this week to work with U.S. officials on the new service, which will employ members of Saddam Hussein's former security services. Those agents will be vetted and required to disclose their role under the former regime, as well as pledge allegiance to a free Iraq. Officials say they hope to have the service up and running by February, the website reported. KR
U.S. FORCES CAPTURE SPANISH FORCES' SUSPECTED ATTACKERS
U.S. forces and Iraqi police carried out a series of 18 raids in Al-Latifiyah on 10 December under the codename Operation Panther Squeeze in an effort to kill or capture individuals responsible for the 29 November attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003) on Spanish forces in the town, located some 32 kilometers south of Baghdad, according to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) website (http://www.centcom.mil). Fifteen "primary targets" were reportedly captured in the raids, and 41 "enemy personnel" were detained for questioning. "Those captured included the cell leader Abu Abdullah, an intelligence officer, financier, and a doctor who treated terrorists so they can avoid treatment at local hospitals, and the actual attackers," CENTCOM reported. U.S. forces also confiscated a vehicle that may believe may have been used in the recent assassination of the Al-Latifiyah police chief. KR